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By Matt Wallace, Lee Harris
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Matt Wallace
All rights reserved.
They aren't biting today.
Moon sits in a rust-plagued boat bobbing on candy-bright torpedo pontoons the color of caution tape. His line is dropped in the pearl-gray waters of the lake surrounding them. He's currently humming the theme song from the classic science fiction television series Quantum Leap for the eleventh time.
As the tune runs out of momentum Moon tries switching to the Legend of Zelda theme, but gives up after humming the first bar.
"Are you guys almost done down there?" he asks the impossibly small piece of composite concealed in his right ear. "I'm fuckin' bored."
"Us 'guys' are rigging the final charge now," Cindy's irritated voice answers him over the earpiece.
"Sorry," he says. "Folks. People. Whatever. Nonoffensive gender-neutral pronoun. When did you graduate from Feminist Police Academy, Cindy?"
Ritter's voice, its tone ever even, joins the conversation in Moon's skull: "Wouldn't think you'd need to be told that, Moon."
"How'm I supposed to keep up with every new edition of the politically correct dictionary?"
"I meant more the fact you're someone who narrowly avoids death by rogue magic spell every other week and you're sittin' on your ass questioning the validity of words and their power."
Hara grunts over the four-way communications line.
The three of them are currently floating several dozen yards below the surface of the water. Clad in skintight wet suits and next-generation scuba gear, Ritter, Cindy, and Hara have spent the last hour sinking military-grade depth charges in the unassuming provincial lake.
Cindy, lengths of acrylic plastic chain coiled around the torso of her suit, examines the final mine she's tethered to the lake bed. The nondescript sphere rises higher than the other seven, straining just a few yards from the surface.
"All right, the break is set," Cindy informs them. "My record's a break of six. If this works I'll kick the shit out of that."
"You're an artist," Ritter says.
"Of course, those were incendiary charges," she adds with a touch of regret, ignoring the compliment.
"Frying the thing comes later, Cin. Head on up. Get ready to bring it onto the boat."
Cindy's flipper-footed legs scissor rapidly and fluidly, propelling her up through the murky water.
Ritter and Hara swim to the edges of the blast zone, designated by the buoys with lit bottoms Cindy has arranged for them. They both reach past the lengths of chain wrapped around their own bodies and remove foot-long batons. The push of a button extends each by another two feet, their ends crackling with plasmatic fire.
When Cindy emerges from the depths, Moon is reeling in his sad little fishing line. She pulls herself into the boat with an easy, athletic grace and removes her aspirator, goggles, and hood, dropping them and smoothing her hands over her dark scalp.
"I kinda miss the orange," Moon comments as he watches her shake stray droplets from the natural cloud of her usually cornrowed hair.
"It was auburn and it was a phase," Cindy dryly informs him. "Some kind of Mad TV, Debra Wilson nostalgia. I don't know." And then, annoyed suddenly: "What do you care?"
"I dunno." Moon says, shrugging. "Your hair's different from most of the chicks I know."
Cindy sighs. "If only your stereotypical fascination with black hair was the most offensive thing about you, Moon. If only."
"Hey, you're sure we're safe up here, right?" he asks her.
She begins peeling away the other parts of her diving suit. "I was EOD for four years."
"Yeah, but ... I mean, that was the navy, right?"
Cindy stops and stares at him blankly.
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"I ... nothing. It's just ... you know."
"Look, I wouldn't question you on how precise your bong hits or Elder fucking Scrolls strategy is, all right?"
Over their earpieces, Ritter: "We're in position, Cin. Light it up."
Cindy reaches into a rucksack at the bottom of the boat and removes an iPhone. There's only one icon on its lit screen.
The deepest charge is swaying just above the lake bed, tethered by a scant dozen links of water-resistant chain. Cindy has planted it a few feet from the mouth of a shallow cave created by a pile of jagged rocks that have rested against each other for centuries.
"Ignition in five, four, three, two, one," Cindy counts off, then detonates the bottommost charge.
The sphere at the end of its short leash breaks apart silently, but the shock wave it disperses topples the rocks shaping the dark maw of the cave. Before they separate and glide to the ground, a large green conical shape launches, panicked, from within.
Its frantic, iridescent tail immediately fans too close to another charge tethered several feet above the one that's just destroyed its lair.
Rather than being blown apart, the creature is blasted several yards off its current course by a harmless but powerful sonic wave. Attempting to escape its force only drives the creature into the next mine, detonating it, and then the next, each one corralling it in a predetermined pattern toward the surface.
Ritter and Hara wait on either side of its slalomlike dash, ready to drive it back onto the correct path with their plasma torches should it deviate too far.
They never get the chance.
Cindy's break is perfect.
When the creature trips the final mine Ritter lowers his baton and removes an underwater remote from the belt of his suit.
"Get ready for immersion," he warns Cindy and Moon over their earpieces.
He presses a single button.
The surface of the lake, meanwhile, has remained calm throughout the sonic chaos below.
That all changes as a twelve-foot diameter of water is abruptly sucked down, creating an instant whirlpool.
Moon's wasn't the only fishing line sunk into the water. A giant mechanical crane arm hovers above the boat, attached to a large flatbed truck parked beside the lake.
A quartet of heavy cables splayed from the tip of the crane arm has been resting beneath the water since before the trio descended its depths.
Now they suddenly draw tight, pulling a large fishing net from the depths of the lake.
The team's quarry, the massive creature of the cave, is caught in its grid.
It's a fish.
It is, however, a very big fish.
The great fish is the size of a toddler. It has the drooping, catfishlike features of a sad old man and fiery, ageless eyes that burn grudgingly at Moon and Cindy through the netting.
"Jesus," Moon says as he watches the net rotate from the crane arm. "That's what goblins eat?"
"Only on very special occasions," Cindy informs him.
A moment later Ritter and Hara emerge from the lake, swimming to the boat's stern.
Ritter, still in the water, removes his aspirator. "Break worked like gangbusters," he shouts up at Cindy.
She tilts her head at Moon triumphantly without saying a word.
In response he makes a jerking motion with his hand above his pelvis.
At which point Cindy leans back and kicks him in the chest, sending him sprawling backward into the bottom of the boat.
"Goddammit, Cindy!" Moon yells through his own doubled-over legs.
The foursome steer the boat back to shore, where Ritter, Cindy, and Hara change out of their diving suits.
Next to their flatbed truck is an old jeep. They load the fish into a customized freshwater tank bolted in the back.
"How the hell are we supposed to clear customs with this thing?" Moon asks.
"We're going to put a wool coat on it and tell them it's your grandpa," Cindy tells him.
Ritter snaps the lid on the tank closed. "Let's go."
Hara doesn't move.
He's the first one to hear the rumbling of the engines.
They all look to the brush surrounding the small lake as a trio of motors breaks through it. Three surplus military vehicles, two jeeps and a half-track, imported from some Eastern Bloc country that no longer exists grind to halt in a uniform row between them and the only road access to the lake.
The men they bear wear the standard paramilitary uniform of camouflaged fatigues decorated with absolutely no insignia of any kind. They belong to one of the half-dozen factions warring for control of the troubled region to which Ritter has brought his team to fish.
The leader of the unit is a scarred-face man in his late twenties so denoted by his swagger and the fact that he's clearly the only adult in the squad. Not a single one of his soldiers is over the age of eighteen, including the lithe, smiling teenager grasping a fifty-caliber machine gun mounted on the half-track and currently pointed at Sin du Jour's stocking and receiving department.
Their captain steps down from one of the jeeps. The rest of the militia unit carry secondhand automatic rifles, while he walks unburdened, with only a pistol holstered at his hip.
He steps away from the pack, his eyes immediately recognizing Ritter as the leader of his own group.
The militia captain smiles.
"White man, white man, come to pluck the fruit of my land," he sing-songs in a thick accent.
"Not white, not a man," Cindy mutters in exasperation.
"Cin," Ritter hisses at her.
To the captain he says, "Is there a problem?"
"You are trespassing," the militia captain informs him.
"This is Benjabi land," Ritter says resolutely. "We negotiated with the tribe for the right to be here."
The captain nods thoughtfully. "This was Benjabi land. Now it is mine. Just like the things you give them."
The self-appointed captain slaps a hand against a crate, one among dozens concealed beneath a tarp in the back of their jeep.
Ritter and the rest crane their heads slightly, all of them recognizing the medical supplies and dry food they gave the Benjabi elders in exchange for their permission to fish the lake.
"Oh, so you guys are just total dicks, huh?"
"Shut up, Moon," Ritter commands.
Atop the half-track, the squad's heavy gunner cycles the fifty-caliber behemoth's action pointedly.
Hara slowly but deliberately moves to step between Moon and the weapon.
Ritter extends an arm to halt him, the rest of his body remaining perfectly still.
"What do you want?" he asks the captain.
Ritter nods. He looks to Cindy briefly, whose hands seem to visibly ache for want of a weapon, then back at the squad's leader.
His smile never falters.
"Kill the little one first," their leader instructs his gunner.
The post-pubescent wrapped around the fifty-caliber machine gun opens fire.
At first it seems as if Moon is screaming in agony while bullets shred the meat of his body, but two things quickly become apparent to everyone gathered beside the lake.
It isn't bullets splattering Moon.
And the screams aren't his.
When the heavy-caliber automatic gunfire ceases the body that falls is that of the militia soldier. He creates a loud and deep metallic clanging sound when he hits the top of the half-track.
Most of his exposed flesh is now battered lead, the seams of it horrifically fused to the parts of him that are still covered by human skin.
Moon, very much alive and unharmed, begins wiping dark gore from himself in thick sheets.
"Dude, this is fucking disgusting! Seriously! Not cool!"
The other soldiers begin murmuring in abject terror. Most of them saw the metal overtake their comrade's flesh like a mystic industrial plague as he fired the fifty-cal. The rest watched as blood and biological waste rather than fire and lead spat from the weapon's barrel.
Many of them are saying prayers.
The others are speaking in their own language of witches and demons.
No one is certain who breaks first, but in the next moment they all drop their weapons and run, abandoning the vehicles altogether.
All but their leader.
"What in the hell was that?" Cindy asked, marveling at the view of their backs as the militia squad flees.
Ritter holds up a glittering gemstone the size of a peach.
"Direct transmutation charm I've been working on with Ryland," he explains. "Swaps the metal in the shells with the flesh of the poor fuck firing the weapon."
"You could've warned me!" Moon shrieks at him.
"Yeah," Ritter says dryly. "I could've."
He tosses the gemstone to Moon.
Moon doesn't even try to catch it.
Ritter walks toward the baffled squad leader. The man's eyes are wide, and a war between confusion and fear is being fought in each blown pupil.
He goes for the pistol holstered on his belt.
As the man's hand closes around the grip of the pistol Ritter's left leg becomes a sudden blur, its shin breaking that hand in four places.
Ritter's opposite leg goes airborne almost before his left leg touches back down. It travels in a perfect, lightning-fast crescent, driving its foot and most of its ankle into the side of the squad leader's face and skull.
He never makes a sound, not even when his body hits the grass-speckled dirt.
Ritter crouches down and removes his pistol, disassembling it quickly and expertly.
As he does, he flicks his chin at the stolen cargo on the back of the militia's jeep. "Let's get all of this shit back to the tribe and then get out of here."
"Can I at least rinse myself off first, for chrissakes?" Moon whines.
Ritter shrugs. "Do what you feel."
"Tell you the truth the smell is kind of a wash for you," Cindy informs him.
"Fuck you all."
Even Hara laughs at that.CHAPTER 2
Lena holds her right hand an inch above the surface of the large French omelet pan. The fire beneath it is stoked to capacity.
She waits until the rising heat threatens to blister her flesh.
That's the only way she trusts that it's ready.
Her small mise en place is militarily arranged beside the modest stovetop she shares with Darren. From it she drops a pad of butter into the scorching pan and quickly spreads it around, coating the entire surface. In a bowl with a pair of chopsticks protruding from the top she's whipped two eggs with a healthy pinch of salt and a tiny pinch of smoked paprika.
Taking up the bowl, she pours the creamy-golden liquid into the pan before the butter has a chance to blacken.
The sizzle that follows is one life's most satisfying sounds, according to Lena.
When the egg mixture hits the brown-buttered surface it cooks solid almost immediately, appearing to float on top of the metal as it shivers and ripples. Lena grips the handle and tips the pan on its axis, forcing the still-cooking eggs to fold against the curve of the vessel.
She rolls the slightly runny egg skirt onto a plate and sprinkles fresh parsley, sage, and dill over it.
She waits, and by now she knows exactly how long it'll take before he's fallen back to sleep after waking momentarily.
"Darren!" she yells again. "Food's up!"
Thirty seconds later Darren emerges from the entrance to the single stubby hallway of their apartment. One leg of the boxers in which he sleeps is rolled up to his hip, and the gold cross and Our Lady of Guadalupe medal he always wears are resting on his right shoulder. His slipper-covered feet (his mother sends him a new pair every single Christmas) shuffle disjointedly along as he scratches at his matted black hair.
He crumples himself onto a stool at the bar that serves as the divider between their living room and kitchen. She's already poured them each a glass of orange juice into which she's submerged three cherries.
She does that.
Lena adds a fork to the plate she's composed and sets it in front of him.
"Julia Child morning," he mumbles as he observes the omelet.
"All we had was eggs," she explains.
Darren picks up his fork, separating a large piece of solidified egg with the edge of a prong. He skewers the bite, lifts it an inch from his lips, then sets the loaded fork back down on the plate, untouched, with a sigh.
He rubs his sleep-crusted eyes until they're five deeper shades of red.
"It was a dream, right?" he asks her.
He sounds groggy, but there's also a distinctly hopeful, almost pleading note behind the question.
Lena knows precisely what he's referring to.
His frown tells her he knows very well that she knows.
"You know it wasn't a dream," she says impatiently. "Stop acting like a goddamn five-year-old."
The insult rolls right off him, barely noticed. If anyone else said such a thing to him it would probably wreck Darren for a week, but he knows Lena's judgment never equals rejection, at least where he's concerned.
"An angel," Darren says, still mystified. "A real angel."
Another memory hits him, and his eyes go wide.
"And the dog!" he practically yells. "That dog, he was actually G —"
Excerpted from Lustlocked by Matt Wallace, Lee Harris. Copyright © 2016 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.
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Table of Contents
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF GOD'S CREATURES,
A HINT OF STARDUST,
GRANDDAD WAS A MEDICINE MAN,
INTRODUCTIONS WITH ALL LIMBS ATTACHED,
THE ROYAL GOBLIN WEDDING,
BRICK DOORS, BRICK WINDOWS,
NOTHIN' BUT A HOUND DOG,
SATURDAY MORNING CARTOONS,
I CAME TO MAKE A BANG, YEAH,
THE OBSTINANCE OF ANCESTORS,
99 PROBLEMS AND A BRICK IS ONE,
CONTROL OF THE SITUATION,
AIN'T NO CUPCAKE,
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE AFTERMATH PARTY,
EPILOGUE: GENTLE REMINDERS,
About the Author,
Also by Matt Wallace,