So far, Matt Wallace has released five Sin du Jour novellas, and we’ve devoured every one—they’re just as wickedly delicious as you’d expect from a series following the exploits of a New York City catering company with a clientele made of of an entire menagerie of fantasy creatures, from goblin kings to the devil himself. (And you thought your job was stressful.)
The sixth—and penultimate—book in the seven-deadly-sins saga, Gluttony Bay, is out next month from Tor.com Publishing, and we’ve got an exclusive excerpt to share with you today. If it leaves you hungry for more, don’t worry—you don’t have too long to wait until the next course: the book arrives November 7.
The courtyard outside may be covered in snow, but Jett Hollinshead has transformed Sin du Jour’s lobby into a tropical paradise. Living palm trees potted in decorative stands mask most of the white walls, and a wave machine fills the space with the seagull-song and wind-and-wave chorus of the ocean. A rear projector has transformed the ceiling veneer into deep blue sky welcoming a brilliant morning sun through perfectly formed clouds. The rest of the space has been filled with wicker lounge furniture upholstered in nautical colors.
The chefs of Sin du Jour, including Bronko, have all donned Hawaiian floral resort shirts for the occasion. The members of Stocking & Receiving abstained, although Ryland, their resident alchemist, already half-unconscious in a cabana lounge chair, agreed to sloppily adorn a pineapple-encumbered Tommy Bahama creation. The chefs have also taken machetes to several dozen coconuts in aid of the colorful drinks being passed around in their shells.
Jett has finished off the theme by arming Moon’s new roommate; a monstrous incarnation of Cupid recently defected from Hell, who has now traded in its harp for a ukulele.
The cherubic demon expat is surprisingly adept at playing soothing island chords.
Almost the entire Sin du Jour family has gathered to welcome back Pacific and Mr. Mirabel, their intrepid veteran servers and busboys, both of whom were released from government custody the night before. They were scheduled to arrive in New York the following morning, and should be crossing into Long Island City any moment.
Jett was released a week ago from a women’s holding facility in West Virginia. All she’s said of her post-inauguration experience is that her cell desperately needed a coat of mint-green paint.
Of Darren there’s been not a single report. Not even Bronko knows where he is or what’s been done to him since the night he attempted to assassinate Enzo Consoné, now President of the Sceadu.
Darren isn’t the only one from whom there’s been no word, even if he’s the one who the crew is most concerned about. Ritter has been on sabbatical since that same night, and though his sudden exit seems to have Bronko’s unspoken approval, not even his own team has heard from him in weeks. The subject is never raised in mixed company, however—especially around Lena. The very mention of Ritter’s name is still enough to send her steaming from the room on juggernaut autopilot.
White Horse and Little Dove have also been out of touch for longer than Bronko cares to think about. As far as he knows, they’re still somewhere in the Southwest, on whatever personal family business took them away in the first place. He was never clear on the reason but knew enough not to pry.
Bronko has spent all morning frying and mashing up plantains along with fresh garlic, sea salt, and oil in an authentic pilón he brought back from a trip to Puerto Rico. He tasked Lena with turning the finest pork belly into perfectly fried chicharrón, while James, though still operating with only one functioning arm, crews a pot of rich, house-made chicken broth. Both ingredients will finish the perfectly formed spheres Bronko has fashioned from his plantain mixture. Together, they’ve all made enough mofongo (Mr. Mirabel’s favorite native dish) to cater a legal cockfight on Saturday night in San Juan.
Dorsky and the rest of the line are responsible for preparing Pacific’s favorite dishes. Tenryu, the kitchen’s often underutilized (particularly if you believe his constant inaudible grumbling) master sushi chef, has filled taco shells with luscious hamachi, diced jalapeno, and micro-cilantro, and topped each with three equal, symmetrical dollops of crème fraîche.
Dorsky, in his very important role as sous chef and Bronko’s right hand, and Rollo, in his equally important capacity as Dorsky’s loyal toady, drove to the corner store to purchase Funyuns and Oatmeal Cream Pies in bulk.
To Dorsky’s credit, he hasn’t once complained.
In the main kitchen, Lena is cleaning her knives and watching Bronko plate his thirtieth ball of mashed, fried plantains. He places the plate on a prep station lined with the others, where they’ll await finishing with the chicken broth.
“What’s on your mind, Tarr?” he asks without a break in his plating or concentration. “Or what isn’t on your mind, as I imagine it’s a shorter list?”
Lena glances over his shoulder at James, alternately tending to his broth and cleaning up his station, as much the worker with one arm as most of the line is with two.
“Is this really the time for a party, Chef?” she asks Bronko quietly.
“It may well be the last reason we have to celebrate something for a long time,” he calmly replies. “In my experience, you take such opportunities as they lay.”
“Not all of us are in a celebrating mood, Chef.”
“All the more reason, then.”
Bronko looks up from his current plating, the hard stare of his dark, weathered eyes silencing her.
“Tarr, we got no reason to assume Vargas is any worse off than Jett or Pacific and Mo, and they’re all fine. We’ll get him back. I promise you. In the meantime, drivin’ yerself and me crazy is what I’d call counterproductive. Savvy?”
Lena takes a deep breath, holds it, and attempts to expel every alternative reply when she exhales.
The clacking of stiletto heels announces Jett’s presence before she rounds the archway into the kitchen, shouting, “They’re here! They’re here! The taxi just pulled up! Quick, everyone to the lobby!”
Jett punctuates her statement by clapping her hands twice, thunderously, and even Lena jumps at the sound.
“Yes, ma’am!” Bronko calls out obediently, throwing a wink at Tarr.
Lena wants to smile, but she just can’t.
Instead, she calls out to James. “The broth will keep, James. Let’s go.”
He nods, in the same silent malaise that’s possessed him since he awoke after being stabbed through the shoulder by the love of his life.
Lena frowns. She’s tried talking to him several times, and all it has elicited are a brief, haunted smile and an empty reassurance he’s all right.
In the lobby, everyone save Ryland, who no longer has the ability, stands at the ready. Bronko, Lena, and James join them. Hara, towering two heads above even Bronko and Dorsky, holds aloft a gleaming welcome home banner Jett had professionally printed. Moon sits beside Cupid, his iPhone playing island accompaniment to the former demon assassin’s ukulele chords.
As they join the crowd, Lena locks eyes with Cindy for a brief moment. Lena again tries to smile, but even if she could make it happen, Cindy’s stiff single nod in reply would eradicate the expression. Things have been tense between them since Lena confronted Ritter and quite literally beat him up over his role in Darren’s corruption by Allensworth. Cindy’s loyalty to Ritter is an absolute, and even if she does acknowledge his fault, it does nothing to warm her toward Lena for driving him away from Sin du Jour and his team.
Pacific enters the lobby like a gentle breeze, as is his way. He’s swimming in an oversized parka, his mop of blond hair tied back into a ponytail, which is unusual for him. He’s even acquired an uncustomary amount of barely visible beard scruff on his cheeks and jaw. It must be a side effect of weeks of prison grooming.
Pacific has not, however, lost a millimeter of that perpetual easy smile.
“’Sup, brahs?” he says.
Any individual words are swallowed in the cacophony of greetings that follows. Bronko is the first to swallow Pacific in a bear hug, while the rest crowd around the duo to welcome the kid back affectionately.
“You look good, boy,” Bronko says after he’s released Pacific and the voices around them have died down.
Lena is the first one to really absorb the fact Pacific appears to have arrived all alone.
“Where’s Mr. Mirabel?” she asks Pacific.
It’s such a stark deviation from his usual self that the briefest of flickers in Pacific’s smile might as well be agonized sobbing.
“Mo. Yeah. Mo, he . . . he’s gone on to that big-ass eternal rave in the sky.”
They all fall silent, with their faces flat and wiped clean of their previous joy.
“Wait, what?” Lena presses.
“He died,” Pacific says, reaching into the pockets of his parka and removing a joint and a Bic lighter. “A few nights ago, in the cell we were sharing. I was with him. No worries, brah.”
Pacific sparks the joint and takes a few probing tokes.
“Oh, no,” Nikki says, clutching her chest. “Not Mr. Mirabel.”
“What did they do?” Lena demands, her words far more accusation than question.
Pacific shakes his head emphatically. “It wasn’t like that, soldier. I swear. They didn’t do anything to us. They fed us on the reg, brought us water whenever we asked. I even smoked out with a couple of the night guards. They were crunchy dudes, mostly.”
“Then what happened, Pac?” Bronko asks, far more gently.
Pacific draws a long bomb off his joint and exhales gratefully towards the sky-camouflaged ceiling. It’s the first and only time Bronko hasn’t stopped him from toking in the office on sight.
“He woke up one night hacking worse than usual,” Pacific recalls. “Just coughin’ and coughin’. He couldn’t get any air. We cranked his oxy tank all the way up. Didn’t help. I guess ol’ Mo’s lungs just swelled shut on him, finally. He always said it would happen.”
No one seems to know what to say to that, not even Bronko.
Somewhere in the back of the crowd, Dorsky disappears down the main hall off the lobby.
Pacific reaches inside his parka, digging around for several moments as if the interior were an entire junk closet. His hand finally emerges, holding several sheets of rolling papers upon which words and numbers have been scrawled in pencil by an obviously shaky hand.
Pacific offers them to Bronko.
“Mo wanted his back pay to go to his kids, along with his savings. He wrote down all the pertinents and whatnot and asked me to give them to you, boss. He knew you’d handle that business.”
Bronko accepts the makeshift will and testament gladly, nodding. “O’ course I will. Whatever he wanted.”
“Mr. Mirabel had children?” Nikki asks.
Pacific shrugs. “I guess. He never said much about ’em, or about the past, really. I don’t guess they talked much. I don’t guess Mo was much of a dad back in the day. I think he felt bad about that’s why he never talked about it.”
“He was a good dad to you,” Nikki insists.
Pacific tries to laugh, but it comes out all wrong and he quickly abandons the gesture.
“Nah,” he says. “Mo was my buddy. He was—”
The next word is lost under a wave of convulsions as Pacific, the untouchable Zen soul they’ve witnessed walk through carnage and chaos unscathed time and again, breaks down before them all. The tears roll over his cheeks, impossibly thick streams running down his small face as his head half-disappears into the collar of his parka.
Nikki, the breaking of her heart drawn on her face, rushes forward and practically engulfs Pacific in her embrace. He clings to her and cries into her neck for several moments.
Somewhere in the background, a lone ukulele continues to strum along. Several distressed heads turn in its direction, and Moon quickly slaps at Cupid’s hands to still their playing.
“Sorry,” he says to the party at large, adding quickly, “This is a bummer.”
“He was a cool old man,” Cindy agrees.
Pacific, more composed, tilts his face up from the crook of her neck to regard Bronko.
“Mo told me to tell you thanks, boss,” he says. “He said workin’ here was the best time of his whole life.”
“How could he say that?” Lena asks in genuine disbelief, near tears herself. “After everything that’s happened to us—”
“He was just a li’l old Puerto Rican man from Bed-Stuy,” Pacific reminds her in his unruffled way. “He didn’t have any friends or family. He worked in a cigar store till he couldn’t breathe the air no more. He would’ve died alone in a rat-hole apartment without us, years ago prolly. But here? Here, he got to . . . brah, he blew up the Presidential meat puppet in front of a million people!”
“There weren’t a million people at that inauguration,” Cindy chimes in. “Not even close.”
“Still!” Pacific insists. “Mo got to be in a battle between demon clans from hell. He got to go to Hollywood and party with celebs and he was almost burned alive except three tons of vanilla frosting fell from the ceiling. A fucked-up merman puked all over him in front of dragons made of fire and a bunch of Japanese dudes made of gnomes. He met an angel. He got to meet an actual, real angel. He got to know there was more out there than anyone else ever knows.”
Pacific looks directly into Lena’s eyes, and she feels herself humbled in a way she can’t recall.
“Lena, brah, all the bad stuff that happens here happens out there in the normal world all the time. And worse. Way worse. Mo saw all of that too. He saw enough to know we’re lucky because we get to see the other side, the magic and the shiny stuff, and it’s real.”
“Wonders,” Nikki offers in a quiet voice.
Pacific nods even more emphatically. “Maybe they didn’t make Mo’s life worth it, but they made his goin’ out worth it, and he needed that. More than anything, I think. And he was grateful for it.”
Dorsky returns to the lobby with a bottle of whiskey and a tray filled with enough shot glasses for everyone in the lobby. He sets it down on the reception desk and begins pouring a finger into each glass.
No one says anything, not even Lena. They all silently and instinctively rise and gather around reception. Cindy drags Ryland to his feet and forces him along with her. Lena looks up at Bronko uncertainly, and he nods, motioning her to join the others.
Dorsky hands out shot glasses until everyone is holding his or her own, him included.
Bronko is the first to raise his glass.
“Mauricio Mirabel,” he begins. “Mo to his friends. He was kitchen staff. In my day, we were taught that means family, however fucked-up and dysfunctional that family may be.”
Most of the line laughs, even if it’s fleeting.
“I ain’t gonna pretend I knew Mo like you did, Pac,” Bronko continues, “but I know one thing about the man for sure. He had no fear left. I saw that every gig we worked. Mo lived with death every day. It was part of him. And he knew it. And knowing that meant he was free to live life. I mean really live it. In the end, to my mind, that’s the only real freedom there is. And I see a grace in that. There was grace in Mo.”
Bronko looks to Pacific, nodding slightly.
Pacific raises his shot glass. “To Mo! Party eternal, brah!”
The rest of them toast Mr. Mirabel heartily, knocking back their fiery drinks.
In the aftermath, letting the whiskey sting their throats, everyone seems to turn inward, reflecting on mortality through their own lens.
Bronko is the first to break the silence. “Well, now, I guess what we have on our hands here is a wake. Anybody else for eatin’ and drinkin’ their feelings?”
There are no dissenters, and the smell of mofongo wafting from the main kitchen is still undeniably intoxicating.
“Tarr, you up for service?” Bronko asks Lena.
She nods, slamming her glass down on the reception desk.
“Take the opportunities as they lay, right?”
“You bet, Chef,” Bronko assures her.
And despite the black news, despite the specter of death hanging over the affair, it will be one of the last truly good times for the Sin du Jour crew as the makeshift family they are, feasting and laughing and crying and talking together.
It will also be the last time they all see each other alive.
FAR FROM HOME
Anywhere else in the country, a man with the lower body of a goat performing the Brazilian martial art of capoeira would undoubtedly draw the wrong kind of attention to the hidden world of the supernatural.
That’s why such fights are held in New Jersey. Everything is legal in New Jersey.
A boxing ring has been erected on the dance floor of the Schuetzen Park Ballroom in North Bergen. It’s a dimly lit, private affair (although the only invitation required is that you know the event is happening). The crowd is an even mix of humans and nonhumans. Being not far from the dry green expanse of the Pine Barrens, a lot of the audience is wee folk, mostly Scottish and Irish imports from the days of buckle hats and leaky sailboats.
Dozens of Alven water fairies encased in bubbles float above the crowd, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the action. There’s a group of Chinese businessmen who are actually composed of several hundred Gnomi interlinked together and wearing pieces of each visitor’s veneer. They all come to bet on the fights, some with hard currency, some betting magic in exchange for hard currency, or vice versa.
The Sceadu frown on such events but generally ignore them as long as the right people (or non-people) receive the appropriate consideration.
It’s past eleven p.m. when the referee steps to the middle of the ring to begin the next battle. He’s a goblin who was a big television star in the 1970s, until he ran afoul of the Goblin King. His punishment was the most severe in the goblin world; he was cursed to age like a normal human. Forty years later, you can scarcely see the devastatingly beautiful creature that once existed beneath several layers of wrinkles and fat and grey.
The referee calls the next two combatants to the center of the ring. Ritter is stripped to the waist, his feet bare and his hands and fists wrapped in athletic tape. It’s his third fight of the night, and his dark hair is pasted to his scalp with sweat. There’s a small cut across the bridge of his nose, but he’s otherwise unscathed.
His opponent is a satyr with a bronze, rippling torso and long dark curls. They match the color of his woolly legs, both of which end in polished, amber hooves.
“You both know the rules,” the referee reminds them. “There ain’t none. You fight till one of you can’t get up or gives up. We clear?”
Both opponents nod silently.
“All right, get to it!” the aged goblin instructs them.
Ritter immediately begins moving his feet in time with the satyr’s ginga, the constant, repetitive dancelike movements that are the basis of capoeira. From the ginga a skilled mestre can launch spinning kicks with utterly devastating momentum behind them. Not to mention hooves are a great deal harder than human feet.
Ritter tosses out a few quick, retracting jabs experimentally. Timing an opponent who is in constant motion like this one can be extremely difficult. He decides to wait and counterstrike.
Sweeping one of his hind legs far back, the satyr springs forward and launches the first of three lightning-fast spin kicks. Ritter ducks the first, then the second, popping up and quickly meeting the third with a windmill kick of his own. Their legs meet in midair. The satyr’s goat-like limb is more powerful, and the impact hurts Ritter like hell, but it succeeds in stopping his opponent’s momentum and momentarily throws the half-man off-balance.
Ritter rushes forward while the satyr’s back is exposed to him, but he’s made the very human mistake of forgetting what he’s fighting. The satyr recovers before Ritter can close the distance, and rather than waste time turning around, the creature leans forward and places both hands against the canvas mat, mule-kicking Ritter square in the chest with both hooves.
Pain sizzles both atop and beneath Ritter’s skin, and the impact sends him careening backward into the ropes of the ring. He bounces off of them and charges forward at his opponent, who has already returned to the familiar motions of his ginga. Ritter feints quickly to the satyr’s right and then leaps into the air, both feet leaving the canvas as he delivers a spinning aerial kick to the left side of the satyr’s head.
Both Ritter’s feet and his opponent’s body touch down on the canvas at the same time. The referee quickly leans over the satyr’s inert form, checking for signs of consciousness. With no signs of movement, the goblin waves his arms, signaling an end to the bout and declaring Ritter the winner.
The reaction of the crowd is mixed and largely based upon whether or not the patron had their money on Ritter. But there are many cheers; it’s his third dominant performance of the night, and this crowd knows talent when they see it.
Ritter climbs down from the ring, his breathing shallow and the receding adrenaline rush leaving his blood cool. A group of perhaps a dozen small, round, mud-covered boggans all holding winning tickets cheer him from their plastic-covered seats. They’re swilling brown bottles of Corona Familiar that look absolutely gargantuan in their stubby little arms. Ritter gives them a polite nod and holds up his still-taped hand.
A properly grease-covered taco cart has been wheeled into the ballroom for concessions. Ritter makes his way over to the white-mustached old man and what looks to be his dark-haired granddaughter crewing the cart in their stained aprons.
“Cazadores, por favor,” he requests.
The young woman, with a more-than-enthusiastic smile, serves him a shot of the tequila in a small plastic cup like the kind found atop liquid cold medicine bottles.
Ritter quickly knocks back the shot, grateful for the slow burn. He hands the plastic cup back to the girl.
She pours him another shot and Ritter makes it disappear just as quickly.
“Gracias,” he says in an alcohol-constricted voice.
“You want something to eat, my friend?” the old man asks. “You don’ wan’ make yourself sick.”
Ritter nods. “I’ll have two, with carne asada.”
He reaches into the pockets of his jeans for the sweaty wad of bills there.
“The shots are on me.” A voice he’d recognize amidst the clamor of even the most raucous crowd.
Cindy is holding a Styrofoam cup in one hand and several betting tickets sorted among a shock of cash in the other. She walks up to Ritter with a big grin on her face, draining the remaining contents of the cup before tossing it. She peels off several bills and folds the rest, tucking them into the pocket of the fatigue jacket she’s wearing.
“How’d you make out?” Ritter asks as Cindy pays the young woman for his order.
“Well, now, it went against all my instincts and all empirical evidence to bet on the white boy, but it did pay off.”
The old man hands Ritter two corn-tortilla tacos on a paper plate, the fresh flank steak steaming under a bed of freshly chopped cilantro and onions. Ritter gratefully accepts the plate, dressing both tacos with salsa verde from a small plastic tub before picking up the first one and stuffing half of it into his mouth.
“Bronko has a gig for us,” she tells him.
Ritter takes his time chewing and swallowing, his expression never changing. “You can handle it.”
“See, now, nah, I can’t. I’m not any kind of wizard.”
“Neither am I.”
“You’re as close as we got, and we need you.”
“I can’t go back yet.”
“Until when? You’re forgiven? Until you’ve done enough penance? Is that what this is? The last time you did this shit was when you found out your old man kicked, and I figured, hey, he’s working through some grief sprinkled with daddy issues, but this here—”
“What do you want from me, Cin? Seriously?”
“You didn’t know what Allensworth had planned for the kid, all right? Gun to your brother’s head, you made a damn decision. Who would’ve done different? Point ’em out to me.”
“I didn’t want to know. That’s the truth. I couldn’t undo what I did, so I closed my eyes and hoped it would all turn out ice cream and unicorn farts.”
“And? Nobody died and you’re not perfect. Now what? The rest of us are moving on here, Ritt.”
“She’ll get over it!” Cindy insists. “Or she won’t. Either way, she’s not the only one there, man. We here, you’re team. We all here because you came and got us and brought us here. That’s on you, and you don’t get to cut and run.”
Ritter hurriedly finishes the last of his tacos and crumples up the paper plate, dunking it in a nearby commercial trash bin.
“I can’t go back,” he repeats after several long moments of silent thought. “But I’ll back you up.”
“How?” Cindy asks impatiently.
Ritter grins, just a little, and although it’s an almost entirely rueful expression, it still does Cindy’s heart good to see it.
“I happen to have a proxy available,” he says.
Lena hasn’t slept in her bedroom since returning home after the night of the two inaugurations. Without Darren, their apartment feels too much an empty, alien place to her. She almost wishes James would’ve stayed in Darren’s room, and though she’s neither asked nor offered, Lena supposes it’s too hard for him, as well. She’s had Nikki over several nights, and it helped, but Lena feels like she’s exhausted that favor, even if her friend would never tell her so.
Lena has even found herself looking up Dorsky’s contact in her phone half a dozen times, but even at three a.m., she’s realized reopening that door is more trouble than it’s worth.
Instead, she’s nested in their living room, practically erecting a pillow and blanket fort around the secondhand couch they bought together with their first paychecks as line cooks in the city. Not that any of the comforts help; she can barely sleep, netting perhaps two solid hours on a good night. Every noise in the dark has her reaching for the retractable aluminum baton she keeps under the couch. Every dream waiting behind her eyelids is a nightmare.
If it weren’t for binge-watching shows on Amazon Prime, she’s not sure what the state of her sanity would be.
Lena stands in their kitchen after midnight, cracking fresh eggs into two ramekins, each lined with a strip of bacon. She’s preheated their small oven. She doesn’t whip or otherwise beat the eggs; merely sprinkles the top with dill, smoked paprika, and a pinch of pepper Jack cheese. After baking for ten minutes, she’ll have two perfect bacon-wrapped eggs with golden, oozing yolks ready to be pierced.
Lena has just put the ramekins in the oven when she hears knocking at the front door.
It’s not forceful or urgent. The knocking is entirely neighborly, except Lena isn’t friendly with any of her neighbors and it’s the middle of the night.
She hesitates and then reaches for a scaling knife from the gleaming set in a block on the countertop. She carefully tucks the blade inside the waistband of her pajama pants and covers the handle with the hem of the Old Navy tank top she’s wearing.
Padding silently to the door in her bare feet, Lena stares through the peephole, and her breath immediately catches in her throat.
Lena backs away from the door, mind racing.
“Miss Tarr,” his weary voice addresses her through the door, “you’ve once again greatly overestimated the thickness of this portal. I can hear every step you take on the other side. Please do open up.”
Lena sighs, looking down to double-check that the scaling knife she’s secreted isn’t visible. Satisfied, she steps forward and snaps the deadbolt, opening the door.
He’s wearing the same black Adidas jogging suit he wore when delivering Darren’s and her employment contracts for Sin du Jour, what seems like a lifetime ago.
His Rottweiler, Bruno, heels obediently by Allensworth’s side.
“What do you want here?” she asks bluntly.
He laughs that mirthless, imitation laugh of his and shakes his head.
“I do, however, enjoy your forthrightness, Miss Tarr.”
Lena doesn’t say anything, simply waits.
“Inviting us in would be out of the question, I suppose,” Allensworth says, glancing over her shoulder at the apartment beyond.
“You suppose right.”
“Very well. Understandable. You’ve been through quite an ordeal as of late.”
Lena feels equal amounts of disgust and rage twisting into one pulsing knot in her gut. She has the deepest urge to quite literally slam the door in his smug, perpetually lying face.
Her next words drip like blood from her lips.
“Why . . . are . . . you . . . here?”
“I have news about Mr. Vargas.”
That very benign sentence manages to break through the veil of red draped over Lena’s world.
Allensworth nods. “I’ve secured his release and I’d be quite happy to take you to him now if you’d like.”
Lena begins to take a step forward, not even thinking, the very notion of seeing Darren again, alive and safe, overriding even her most taciturn sense of logic.
“Why didn’t you just bring him home?” she asks. “Why do I need to go to him?”
“I can do that, certainly. I’m on my way to sign him out now. I simply thought you’d want to come along, his being your very best of friends. That’s all.”
In that moment, Lena can’t decide which enrages her more, the fact he’s lying about Darren or that he really thinks she’s a big enough moron to buy such an obvious lie.
“I don’t believe a goddamn motherfucking word you say,” Lena informs him. “I know you did that to him, whatever it was. I know you’re making some kind of big power play. I know you think we’re disposable. But you’re a just a wannabe dictator. And that’s dictator with a little dick.”
For the first time since laying eyes on the enigmatic figure, Lena sees Allensworth frown.
It’s like watching the sun burn through a matte painting of false sky.
“Miss Tarr, it brings me far more pleasure than it should as an individual of my station to inform you that while you have been a stubborn pain in my ass from the day Byron hired you and your simpering little roommate, I am finally taking steps to excise that pain.”
“So, I’m fired?”
Allensworth smiles, grandly and genuinely, revealing perfect ivory veneers and a hint of perhaps the pinkest gums Lena has ever seen not in a Hollywood starlet’s mouth.
“My dear, sweet girl . . . beneath that ex-military swagger and Internet-feminist mouth, you really are just cloyingly stupid, aren’t you?”
The strange arms that seize Lena’s head and neck from behind are less like human limbs and more like winter tree logs wearing cashmere suit sleeves. Her throat is squeezed into the crook of a massive elbow while an equally massive hand presses the back of her head farther into the chokehold. Lena smells heavy musk and feels the wide body of a portly man pressing against her back. Her bare feet are no longer touching the floor.
Lena instinctively reaches up and claws at the man’s arms and leather-gloved hands, but he’s impossibly strong and it’s as if his body is cemented in that position. She knows how to counter a rear naked chokehold, was taught countless times while grappling on a practice mat back in boot. There’s no leverage she can gain, however, and no force she can exert to pry herself or her attacker’s arms free.
Lena can feel her eyes bulging, bloodshot, out of their sockets. Her neck is already numb and her head full of cotton. Spittle runs over her lips unchecked. She can’t breathe. Allensworth and Bruno are blurry shapes in her narrowing field of vision, but neither of them moves from where they’re resting at the threshold of her door.
Lena knows in seconds, she’ll lose consciousness. She forces her hands to abandon their futile ministrations, dropping them to her waist. She gropes at the band of her pajama bottoms until her fingers brush cool plastic. Her right hand closes around the grip of the scaling knife and pulls it free. Meanwhile, her other hand reaches up and grips the expensive material of the suit sleeve constricted around her neck.
Unable to look down, Lena uses the hold to guide her trajectory as she jams the blade of the scaling knife into her attacker’s arm, once, then twice, then over and over again in rapid succession. At first, he rocks her body from side to side, attempting to maintain his grip on her, but eventually a guttural scream fills her ear and the arm disappears from around her neck.
Lena drops to the floor, gasping for air until she finds herself hacking on it, feeling as though she might vomit. Ignoring the sensation, she commands her weakened, oxygen-deprived body to its knees, standing and turning to face her attacker.
The large man has backpedals several feet, clutching his punctured arm. His jet-black Armani suit is impeccably tailored, as is the matching executioner’s hood draped over his face, obscuring his head and neck completely save for two eyeholes. The irises beneath burn gold with flecks of crimson.
Lena extends the scaling knife and widens her stance. There’s blood on the blade, on her hands and arms. There’s blood on her chest and staining her tank top. She tries to ignore the macabre, triggering sight and coppery smell of it all.
The executioner rushes forward with a growl. With one swipe of his uninjured arm, he slaps the knife out of Lena’s hand. Before she can react, that same arm reverses its trajectory and she’s backhanded across the cheek and jaw with shocking power. Her legs seem to flee from beneath her and she crashes into the floor as if launched by a catapult, the entire left side of her face numb and stinging at the same time.
She feels his heavy footsteps advancing on her more than she hears or seems them in that moment. Shaking her head and blinking rapidly, Lena pushes away from the floor with her arms, bringing one knee under her for support. The other knee she draws close to her body, loading it like a spring. Lena focuses through her brain-addled haze and zeroes in on the executioner’s right leg.
With all the power and momentum she can summon, Lena drives the heel of her left foot directly into the front of the man’s knee. He might be large and thick through his limbs, but none of that padding is protecting his kneecap. The vulnerable area emits a sickening pop as the executioner’s leg bends just slightly backward at an awkward angle. His advance halts, and he seems almost confused.
Then the report reaches the man’s brain, and he begins to scream and scream.
Lena gets her feet back under her, still crouching low. In the midst of his agonized throes, the executioner reaches inside his suit jacket with his still-bleeding arm. Lena sees his hand emerge, coiled around the grips of a large semiautomatic pistol. Her eyes widening, she dives for his right leg, tackling him by his folded knee. The now one-legged giant topples, crying out even louder in pain and rage.
Lena quickly scrambles up his prone body, both hands reaching to secure the pistol on which he’s managed to keep his grip. She wraps one hand around the barrel to secure the weapon’s slide, her other hand working to pry the executioner’s fingers loose. He’s still stronger than her, maintaining his grip like a vice, at least until Lena jams her fingers into the puncture wounds of his arms and begins digging.
The executioner howls anew, and his hand unclenches just enough for Lena to pull the pistol from him. She quickly rolls away before he can reach for her, rising up to one knee several feet from where he lays.
The executioner sits up. Without thinking, Lena extends the pistol and pulls the trigger once. She doesn’t even hear the shot that follows, only sees the man’s hood burst like an overstuffed bag of feed. It’s like pressing a deactivation button on an automaton; the man sits there on her floor, arms slack at his sides, head slumped towards his chest.
The bare threads of the hole left by the bullet in his executioner’s hood are smoking.
Eventually, the man tips over onto his side, and when he hits the floor, it’s like a spell has been broken. Lena blinks and leaps to her feet, turning toward her front door in panic.
Allensworth hasn’t moved a muscle. He’s still standing at her door in his absurd jogging suit, holding Bruno’s leash patiently. The Rottweiler remains calmly heeled at his master’s side, his tongue hanging out placidly.
Not even Allensworth’s expression has changed.
Lena presses her palms together around the pistol’s combat grips, sighting the bridge of Allensworth’s nose through the weapon’s crosshairs. Her finger tests the resistance of the trigger, finds it almost aching to be squeezed.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t blow your fucking head off right now,” she says in a ragged voice.
There’s blood in the corner of her mouth and the entire left side of her face is swollen and purple. Her body feels newborn in its pain and uncertainty. She feels like a completely different person in that moment, and it both frightens and compels her.
Allensworth sighs. “I can’t think of a thing. But you aren’t going to kill me, Miss Tarr.”
“Ask your friend on my floor here about that.”
“Oh, he wasn’t a friend. He was barely a person. More like lunchmeat that received a massive upgrade. But I take your point. Also, it smells delightful in here. Is that bacon and eggs?”
Very slowly, and with his eyes never leaving hers, Allensworth crouches down and reaches for Bruno’s collar.
The sights of Lena’s pistol follow him the whole way.
He holds up one hand in a placating gesture while his other, still moving very slowly and meticulously, disconnects the end of the leash from the Rottweiler’s collar.
Allensworth stands, lowering his hands and clasping them in front of him around Bruno’s leash.
“If you don’t think I’ll shoot you, you better believe I’ll cap your fucking dog,” Lena assures him.
He nods. “Oh, I’m quite certain of that. But I’m afraid it’s of little consequence. Bruno, verwandeln!”
The last word is spoken with a fury and a passion that seem completely alien on Allensworth’s lips.
Bruno, meanwhile, leaps to all fours, his teeth bared in a growl as his entire body begins to shake, almost vibrating.
Lena shifts the pistol’s sights from Allensworth to the canine and pulls the trigger.
The round strikes Bruno in the chest.
The Rottweiler doesn’t seem to notice.
That’s when she realizes Bruno has begun to grow. His fur and skin are stretching and forming new musculature right before her eyes. He rears back on two legs and she watches as all four of his limbs expand and begin to reform into those of a biped. His snout and skull both double in size as well.
Allensworth carefully steps away from the door.
Lena fires two more times, both rounds hitting the creature center mass, neither shot having any more effect than the last. In fact, as Bruno continues to evolve, the slugs are pushed back through the holes they’ve torn in its body. Lena actually sees and hears the smashed bits of metal hit her floor.
She didn’t think it possible after almost a year of working at Sin du Jour, but in that moment, she’s more unnerved than she’s ever been in her life.
When he apparently finishes, Bruno is well over six feet tall and must weigh four hundred pounds of thoroughly ripped muscle, claws, and fangs. If there were a Mr. Universe contest for canines, Bruno would’ve already been embroiled in a steroid scandal. He growls an entire baritone chorus of Rottweilers at her from the doorway.
Lena empties the pistol’s entire magazine into the hellhound’s body to no avail. She drops the spent weapon with a scream of frustration and anger and fear. It’s too much, all of it, and it’s crashing down atop her like a toxic wave.
When the beast finally leaps for her, Lena can’t even command her legs to run.