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Envy of Angels
By Matt Wallace, Lee Harris
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Matt Wallace
All rights reserved.
* * *
A hotel room in São Paulo is the third worst place in the world in which to go into cardiac arrest.
The absolute worst place in the world in which to go into cardiac arrest, based solely on distance and the law of averages, is the middle of the Sahara desert.
The second-worst place is any hospital listed on your HMO plan.
Sao Paulo, however, remains a close third, and has for the better part of a half century.
When Ritter walks out of the small bathroom, towel around his waist, Moon is sprawled motionless over the foot of the bed, his eyes wide and catatonic.
Cindy is bent over him, calmly performing chest compressions.
"What the hell?"
"He ate the whole goddamn tray," Cindy informs him.
Ritter looks over at the tray that had been filled with silver spiny insect eggs when he entered the bathroom.
The same tray is now a pile of cracked, empty pods.
He looks back at Cindy. "He was just supposed to try one!"
"I turned my back for, like, three seconds!" she snaps at him.
Ritter rushes over to two large suitcases resting on the floor against the wall. He crouches down and flips open both.
Inside one is a meticulous arrangement of medical supplies, bandages, syringes, and various scrip bottles. Inside the other is an even more meticulously arranged collection of occult objects ranging from skulls to crystal balls to talismans of a dozen religious and tribal origins.
"Is it a physical reaction or a mystical effect?" he asks over his shoulder.
"His heart's failing!"
Ritter nods. He roots through their traveling emergency room and comes up with a shot of adrenaline sealed in plastic and a portable defibrillator.
Returning to the bed, he removes two adhesive strips tethered to the device's control box by wires. Peeling off their yellow lining, Ritter attaches them both to Moon's slight chest.
He watches the power bar, a series of red tabs slowly converting to blue as the defibrillator charges.
It's four red tabs away from full charge when someone begins steadily and forcefully knocking on their hotel room door.
"What the fuck now!" Cindy explodes.
Ritter silently hands her the control box and steps off the bed.
He's less than three feet from the door when it busts its hinges and comes toppling down onto him, flattening Ritter to the cheaply carpeted floor.
He peers over the top of the door to find bulbous, angry eyes staring back at him.
A six-foot praying mantis is perched on the battered-down wooden slab.
And it is pissed.
Cindy drops over the side of the bed, ready to pounce on the gargantuan insect.
"Stay there!" Ritter orders her, and she halts in her tracks instantly. "Don't let Moon fall out!"
The mantis swings its head up to regard Cindy.
He can feel its weight shifting on the other side of the door, bladed limbs preparing to launch it at her.
Ritter presses the flat of his fist against his side of the door, his mind creating a light-speed montage of memories from a summer he spent as a young martial arts student in his basement mastering Bruce Lee's infamous one-inch punch.
His father called it a stupid waste of time.
Neither of them, of course, could have ever predicted the career path that has led Ritter to this particular moment and situation.
His fist punches through the cheap wood and grabs a handful of the creature's thorax.
Its shriek is a chorus of nails being swallowed by a garbage disposal.
Cindy hesitates for one brief moment, then leaps up onto the bed, jumping over Moon and grabbing the defibrillator's control box.
It's one tab away from full charge.
"How the fuck did this thing track us here?" Ritter yells out as he struggles to maintain his grip on the mantis.
Cindy's eyes remain glued to the power bar. "Maternal instinct?"
"These things produce hundreds of clutches a fucking year!"
"Yeah, who knew?"
The mantis swipes at Ritter's head, but he manages to duck back beneath the door just before the insect shreds a two-foot expanse of carpet.
"I don't hear Moon not being dead!" he shouts at her.
"In a second!"
The last tab on the power bar turns blue.
The defibrillator is fully charged.
She jams her thumb against its large orange button.
Moon's pasty, frail body jumps.
His eyes open.
"That was some good shit," he croaks.
Meanwhile, the splintered door ceases to thunder and crash atop Ritter's body.
He realizes that's because the mantis has stopped thrashing atop the door.
The insect's severed, angular head bounces off the carpet a foot from where Ritter is sprawled out.
Hara pulls the door off Ritter with one hand covered in brown syrupy sludge, holding the slab up against its battered frame.
Ritter lifts his head to regard the stoic giant.
"Did you get the salgadinhos?" he asks.
Hara nods, holding up the paper bag filled with the fried doughy snacks in his other hand.
"Oh, sweet," Ritter says, and his head drops back onto the torn-up carpet.
He closes his eyes.
A few feet away he feels more than he hears Cindy's booted feet touching down on the floor.
Ritter opens his eyes to look at her, upside down, sitting on the side of the bed.
She looks pensive.
"What?" he asks expectantly.
She shakes her head.
"What?" he demands.
"I don't want to be the one to say it."
"You never do."
"We have to go find more eggs now."
Ritter sighs, forcing his body to sit up.
At least three of his ribs are cracked.
"How bad does Bronko really need these things, you figure?"
"Bad enough to expense this whole trip without bitching."
He looks over at the head of the mantis.
Ritter reaches out and flicks one of its bulbous eyes.
"I hope you have a sister," he says.CHAPTER 2
* * *
Lena watches Darren pour rum into the batter for what should be half a second at most and turns into a full five, which in booze- pouring terms might as well be an eternity, particularly in the case of 101-proof Jamaican kick-ass.
"If you want to get schwasted we can just drink, you know."
"This is the therapeutic part," Darren explains as he begins rapidly stirring the batter into dough.
Lena reaches over and snatches the rum bottle from the spot on the counter where he set it aside.
"Right," she says, taking a drink and immediately making that I've-just-poisoned-my-face face.
He's standing in the kitchen of the apartment they share while she sits at the bar separating it from their living area. It's a modest place ("crack-hole was the word she'd used to describe it when they walked through it for the first time), b"ut they've fixed it up to the best of their abilities and they keep it clean. It's theirs, and they've always been proud of it.
They'd known each other in high school, although they weren't close. But there was a mutual respect and recognition that neither of them really fit in.
After high school and three years of "studying abroad," as Lena refers to it, she decided to go to New York and try to break in as a chef. Darren had spent those intervening years in culinary school and was ready to head east himself. Lena contacted him after reading his post about it on Facebook, and the two quickly found they had all the important things in common.
They never really talked about sharing an apartment. Darren simply told her he'd keep an eye out for her as he vetted places for himself. Three months later they were carting the few boxes of their meager belongings up the three flights of stairs to a two-bedroom unit in Williamsburg. Theirs is a vaguely bohemian Brooklyn neighborhood populated by a large number of very chill Ecuadorians.
Darren begins forming pieces of dough into long, thin twists and arranging them on a baking sheet he's greased with butter.
Lena continues to watch him dubiously, taking more careful sips from the bottle.
One of the characters in Darren's favorite series of novels about chefs makes cheese straws when they're nervous.
Darren has borrowed the habit.
"You're going to have to call them eventually," Lena reminds him.
"I know," Darren says quietly as he slides the baking sheet into the preheated oven and slams the door closed.
"Them" are Darren's parents.
It's a concern with which Lena has no ability to empathize. She has a mother in St. Louis she checks in with a few times a year — more like acquaintances than family. She hasn't spoken to her father, who does not live in St. Louis, since she turned eighteen.
Darren's parents, on the other hand, call him twice a week like clockwork, the both of them on speakerphone. They're relentlessly upbeat and supportive, but sometimes more invested in Darren's daily life than even he is. Sometimes to Lena the calls sound more like he's being interviewed than talking to his family.
"We can keep looking," she offers.
"For what? You want to go back to working the line at Bubba-Gump Shrimp Company? No high-end restaurant in the city is going to put us on. That's what 'blackballed' means, El."
"We could try Jersey."
Darren stops forming the next batch of cheese straws and shoots her a look that asks why she'd insinuate such a nasty and disparaging thing about his lineage.
Lena snorts laughter into the mouth of the bottle before taking her next tentative swig.
Darren's iPhone begins playing Eddie Murphy's immortal pop classic "Party All the Time."
Darren often says the ring tone is the gayest thing about him.
Lena always corrects him by saying it's the second-gayest thing.
Darren picks the phone up off the counter and reads the number.
"Shit," he says. "It's a city area code."
Lena's eyebrows inch up.
No one they know with a New York City area code is still speaking to them.
He puts the call on speaker for them both to hear and answers cordially, "Darren Vargas."
"What's up, Darren? This is Byron Luck. I'm the executive chef of Sin du Jour."
Darren quickly mouths the latter name at Lena, who can only shake her head.
"I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with your restaurant. Is it in Manhattan?"
"We're actually a private catering and event company based in Long Island City. At least until the developers come for us with a big-ass check and a wrecking ball. It's amazing where folks want to live these days."
Darren and Lena both laugh, genuinely.
Whoever the chef is, he has a confident, easy way about him.
Although he also sounds busy and preoccupied in the way executive chefs always are.
"Is ..." — a pause — "... Lena Tarr there? You guys room together, right?"
They trade more confused looks above the phone.
"Um. Yeah. Yes. She's right here, actually. You're on speaker."
"So are you two a couple?"
"No," Darren says quickly. "We're just roommates. We've been friends since high school."
"Cute. Look, I find myself suddenly short-staffed with a massive event coming up. We're actually already prepping for it. I could use both of you on the line tomorrow, if you're available. I'll need you for at least a week, maybe more."
Neither of them can believe the offer he's just made, and it shows on their faces.
"Wow. That's ... crazy."
"If you don't mind my asking, not that I'm not ... or we're not interested — we are — but how did you get our names and my number?"
"Tunney told me about you guys," Luck explains easily, completely unruffled. "He said you're top hands. He said you got a raw deal over at that shiny splooge factory you were fired from. Porto Fiero or Fucko or whatever."
They both grin at his description of their former place of employment, and at the mention of Tunney, the ancient dishwasher with whom they shared their only good times there.
"You worked with Tunney?" Darren asks.
"He worked for me. Once upon a fuckin' time."
"Excuse me," Lena chimes in. "Are you ... Bronko Luck?"
"It's mostly just Byron now," he answers without hesitation, "but yeah, I was. Again, once upon a fuckin' time."
Lena appears genuinely stunned.
"I'm sorry, but I thought ..."
"You thought I died."
"Don't worry about it. I did. Briefly. So, are you up for it? The both of you? Tunney told me what you were making. I'll put a cherry on top of that, say twenty percent."
Darren and Lena regard each other, but there's really no discussion to be had, silent or otherwise.
Darren seconds that. "Yes, sir."
"Good. I'll text you the address. I need you here at six. If you're late you're not on my line."
Together: "Yes, Chef."
"That's what I like to hear. See you both at sunrise."
He ends the call.
They're silent for a moment, both processing the abruptness of what's just happened.
Then Darren says, "Who the fuck is Bronko Luck?"
"You don't remember? He had all those gastropubs when we were in school, Dead Man's Hand. And his restaurant here was called the Monkey's Paw. He was, like, famous. Sorta Bobby Flay meets Guy Fieri, only —"
"I wasn't keeping track of shit like that back then, I guess. What did he say about dying? Or what did you say?"
"That's what I remember reading. He was presumed dead. His restaurant closed. The pub chain got sold off and turned into Applebee's or whatever the hell."
"I mean ... it's a catering company."
"In Long Island City," Lena adds.
"In Long Island City. Still, catering —"
"Dude, we got a new job."
"We did. You're right."
Lena suddenly climbs over the table and seizes Darren around the shoulders.
"I don't have to call them!" he practically screeches, spinning her.
When they're done reveling, Darren looks around at the baking fallout all over the counters, and at the hot oven.
"What am I going to do with all this shit now?" he asks.
Lena shrugs. "Landlord?"
Darren shrugs back. "Fuck it. We're employed again."
"Yeah. Hey, what did he say the place is called?"CHAPTER 3
SIN DU JOUR
* * *
The place they're looking for is a three-story rectangle of dusty red brick piled on the corner of an obscure industrial block far from the nearest residential building development (they're becoming a plague, it seems). Circling it in Darren's beat-to-shit Dodge Neon, they missed the building twice before finally spotting the small faded sign bolted above the front entrance.
It's not exactly what they expected from a former celebrity chef. The logo features a decadent piece of chocolate cake with cartoon limbs and a smiling cartoon face. sin du jour catering & events is stenciled around it in a trying-too-hard-to-be-elegant font whose letters are peeling from age.
They regard each other, Darren with trepidation and Lena with pure skepticism, which is usually how their reactions split from each other's.
They're here, however, and they need whatever work is waiting inside this strange edifice. They've both come dressed for battle, toting their knife cases. Lena is already donning the headband she always wears in the kitchen, with its sweat-faded logo against her pixie-cut scalp. Darren opts, when allowed, to tuck his own messy black locks under his lucky Taft High Falcons baseball cap spun backward.
"Maybe it's some kind of new reality show," Darren offers as they approach the front doors. "You know, find young, hot, down-on-their-shitty-luck chefs and bring them to some weird-ass building in the middle of nowhere and surprise them."
"I notice you tossed 'hot' in there."
"I was talking about me."
They both laugh, and it helps ease the tension and allay their fears long enough to walk inside the building.
The lobby of Sin du Jour is the exact opposite of its façade: it's modern, expensively decorated, and meticulously kept. Lena's immediate thought, albeit absently, is that the outside almost seems like camouflage — an odd choice for a business serving such a competitive industry.
They're met with a circular reception desk lacking a receptionist. A broad picture window behind it looks out onto a stone courtyard that must exist in the center of the whole structure.
Lena and Darren idle in the lobby, unsure of what to do next.
It's not as if they can ring a bell for service.
They mill about for a while, each anticipatory moment agonizingly drawn out. Darren conspiratorially peers down the long hallway leading off from the lobby, but chickens out short of actually stepping down it.
He feels Lena judging him with her eyes, so he doesn't look at her.
Thankfully they begin to hear voices growing louder and moving in their direction. They soon realize it is a single voice accompanied by the loud, steady clacking of heels-on-floor.
A tall, lithe woman appears from the deep hallway beyond the empty reception desk. She's wearing a very smart Chanel knock-off suit and what must be three hundred dollars' worth of high-end makeup and grooming products. On her left ear is affixed what must be the tiniest Bluetooth ever conceived by man. She looks more West Coast than East to both Lena and Darren, right down to a perfect tan.
That's when they notice the small fleshy growth that covers most of her left ear.
Darren and Lena both find the floor suddenly fascinating and proceed to study it thusly.
"— I'm not producing a high school prom on Staten Island, Rico," the woman says, continuing her conversation from the hallway. "This is an extremely important diplomatic function, and the onus to remember that is yours. Now get it done."
She taps her Bluetooth without waiting for a reply, and although she was standing in front of them both for the last ten seconds of the call she only now acknowledges their presence.
Excerpted from Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace, Lee Harris. Copyright © 2015 Matt Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Sin Du Jour,
The Forbidden Pantry,
She Talks to Angels,
A Pound of Flesh,
Cock of the Walk,
The Missing Ingredient,
A Mortal Occupation,
About the Author,
Also by Matt Wallace,