The Sin du Jour procurement team has been tasked with acquiring a substantial cache of rare Welsh gold for a rather important event, but when they stumble upon rivals factions of the smallest warriors they've ever encountered, they'll need to bring out the big guns if they're to survive.
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About the Author
MATT WALLACE is the author of The Next Fix, The Failed Cities, and the novella series, Slingers. He's also penned over one hundred short stories, some of which have won awards and been nominated for others, in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler and unarmed combat and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He now resides in Los Angeles with the love of his life and inspiration for Sin du Jour's resident pastry chef.
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A Sin du Jour Story
By Matt Wallace, Goñi Montes
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Matt Wallace
All rights reserved.
Now — Cardiff Airport, Wales
"And what do you do in America?" the customs agent asks Ritter, staring at the nondescript man's passport.
"I'm a steward. I work for a catering company in New York City."
"Is that like a host, then?"
The customs agent looks up from the official document and stares at him. There's nothing aggressive or short in Ritter's tone, but his passivity, something wholly and comfortably removed, is somehow always more disconcerting for people.
"I'm head of stocking and receiving. You could say I keep the cupboards full," Ritter explains just as passively.
Recognition that's really little more than a scant point of reference widens the custom agent's eyes.
"Ah, I see. And are you here on vacation, then?"
"Right. Well, if you're planning on returning with any of our local fruit and veg or the like you know you'll have to declare it."
"I'm not here for either. No worries."
"All right, then." Ritter's passport is returned. "Welcome to Wales, Mister Thane."
Ritter stashes his passport and picks up his aging rucksack.
* * *
Within two hours of arriving in Wales, Cindy O'Brien is convinced the Welsh language has been conceived solely as a practical joke played on tourists.
"They're making that shit up as they go along," she insists. "There's nothing even vaguely consistent about a single motherfucking word I've heard said or written on a sign so far. And that includes every word spoken in English."
There are five of them in the rented Ford Transit cargo van: Ritter and the three other members of Sin du Jour Catering & Events' stocking and receiving department, and the freelance alchemist who has joined them for this particular assignment.
Ritter is behind the wheel. Moon, diminutive and poorly groomed and perpetually clad in a dirty T-shirt representing some bit of cultural arcana (today it's a Turkish soccer team) is riding shotgun. This was agreed upon by the others less because he called it and more to convince him to stop calling it every time they crossed a new time zone.
Cindy sits behind him, earbuds firmly in place as she attempts to finish the audiobook of Toni Morrison reading her essays that she was unable to finish on the plane due to a constant stream of disruptions around her.
Ryland Phelan, the rumpled-from-head-to-toe Irishman seated next to her both on the plane and in the van now, caused most of those disruptions.
Utterly filling the final row of seats behind them is Hara, the mountainous fourth member of Ritter's team and the eternal stoic.
Ryland drunkenly cranes his neck to focus on Cindy in the loosest possible way. "That presupposes the Welsh are in possession of something recognizable to the civilized world as a sense of humor. I can't imagine a more dangerous assumption."
"Don't even get me started with you again, Jesus of Nazawrecked," she warns him.
"What?" He seems genuinely confused. "What have I done?"
Cindy yanks her earbuds out. "Are you kidding me? Are you so wasted you don't remember being drawn down on by a damn air marshal midflight?"
Ryland's red eyes widen. "Was that who that irate gentleman was? Well, that makes much more sense, then."
After having his beverage service cut off less than two hours after takeoff, Ryland began requesting cups of water and changing them into white wine.
The only reason they weren't all detained upon arrival was because, when confronted, the air marshal couldn't find any hidden supply or alcohol or a corresponding empty vessel.
"Did we have to bring him?" Cindy asks Ritter. "He couldn't have just given you instructions and some of his funky stones?"
"Growing gold from bare rock is a little advanced for me, Cin," Ritter informs her.
Ryland is genuinely offended. "I would expect more than a cheap rebuke such as that from a fellow countryman ... person ... thing. You know."
"I am none of that."
"You may not possess my rustic brogue, but O'Brien speaks of Irish ancestry."
"Black Irish," Moon adds with his typical lack of taste, sensitivity, or actual knowledge.
Cindy thrusts the flat of her palm into the back of his head hard enough that he has to shake off the blow afterward.
"That's not even what black Irish means, you little shit."
"She hit me again," Moon complains to Ritter.
"You deserved it again."
"Children," Cindy curses them under her breath, replacing her earbuds. "All of you. Fucking children."
2011 — Las Vegas, Nevada
The ballroom of The Pirate's Doubloon Hotel and Casino, miles from the Strip.
Home to countless cold-roast-beef-and-string-bean Shriners convention dinners, arts and crafts expos, and wedding receptions bereft of a single tuxedo.
A vinyl banner that was printed at FedEx Kinko's proclaims the event to be "Hot Zones 3rd Annual International Combat Knife-Fighting Tournament" in a discontinued Windows font. About two hundred people are in attendance for the popular so-called "mercenary" magazine's keystone yearly event. The walls are lined with merchandising tables crewed by knife dealers, survivalists handing out pamphlets ranging from useful to paranoid to batshit, and several companies hocking paintball warrior weekends and related "experiences."
Ritter enters the scene just in time for the finals of the tournament that has lasted for two days and drawn competitors from all over the world (and in true "all over the world" fashion, 90 percent of those competitors are Americans, who've been joined by a handful of Scandinavians on holiday, a surly German war fetishist, and a Filipino ex-soldier whose entire village took up a collection to send him to the tournament).
The final two competitors stand shirtless in the ring. Cindy wears a basic black sports bra while her male opponent is allowed to freely flaunt his nonfunctioning nipples. They both have numbers scrawled on their stomachs in thick red marker, and they're armed with knives fashioned from hard nylon that are typically used in training and demonstrations.
They wear no protective gear.
This isn't a safety-oriented crowd.
Their ring is composed of four elongated plastic folding tables arranged in a haphazard square, allowing them just enough room to maneuver. Two referees in Hot Zones T-shirts observe the match from different angles.
Cindy's opponent is a determined-looking Jicarilla Apache who has traveled to the tournament with a small battalion of supporters from the reservation, all of them wearing T-shirts that declare them "Team Perea."
When one of the refs gives them the command, the two finalists begin slashing at each other, dipping forward and leaping back with frantic speed. There's some technique to be seen among the spastic feints and strikes, but actual combat is a messy, disjointed affair. Speed and determination often win out over casual martial-arts training.
Cindy is a pit bull, her knife hand obsessively going for her opponent's throat. Each time the plastic blade connects with flesh the referees separate the two of them and award her a point.
They fight to five points.
Cindy harmlessly slashes Perea's throat five times without positive contact from his blade even once.
When the final point is awarded no one in the crowd seems particularly happy she's won.
Unsurprising, considering she's one of maybe five women in a ballroom of two hundred men.
The top prize is fifteen thousand dollars. Within four hours of accepting her title and check Cindy has gambled half of the money away in the casino. Ritter observes her from a safe distance the whole time. She pounds rum and cokes with alarming rapidity and rarely speaks to anyone around her.
When she anoints herself too buzzed to make rational card-playing decisions, Cindy retreats to a video poker machine far away from the nearest other patron.
That's where Ritter approaches her, taking a seat in front of the machine one removed from her own.
"You want something?" she asks him after a few awkward minutes.
Ritter nods. "I do. I want to hire you."
"What I look like to you, dude?"
That statement briefly takes Cindy aback, and then she looks down at the exposed ink on her arms. An Explosive Ordinance Disposal "crab" badge is tattooed on her right forearm while a navy anchor whose shaft is a lit stick of dynamite opposes it on her left.
"All right," she says, more composed. "So what?"
"So I'm going to talk for sixty seconds, and if you want to hear more I'll be in the McDonald's in back of this shit-hole waiting with two cups of coffee. Fair enough?"
Cindy shrugs. "Whatever."
"You're what, six months out? You're drifting. You're drinking too much. You're gambling too much. You can't remember the name of anyone you've fucked since your discharge because you never really asked their name in the first place."
Cindy starts at that, angrily, but when she searches his expression for some bullshit gender-based judgment she finds none.
She realizes he sounds like he's speaking from experience.
She realizes he's one soldier speaking to another.
"You're still a soldier," he continues. "That's all you want to be. You're not built for civilian life, but that's where you are. You need a mission. But with your service record the only mission anyone is going to give you would be wiring the car of a drug lord or sweeping the caravan of some profiteering corporate fuck overseas. And you don't want that. Because despite why they booted you, you have a conscience."
"Who the fuck are you?" she asks him, on the verge of tears.
"I can offer you a mission you can be proud of. One that's about serving people instead of blowing them to hell and gone. It's straight work. It's well-paid work. And I'll never ask you to do anything that will make you hate yourself."
Ritter stands up. "That was a little more than sixty seconds, but I thought that pitched better. Like I said, I'll be in the McDonald's over there."
Ritter exits the casino. He crosses the hotel lobby to the small food court that operates twenty-four hours. He orders two large coffees from the McDonald's kiosk and occupies a table in the common area.
Cindy joins him before the coffee has cooled.
They drive northwest, to Bontddu, near Barmouth, in Gwynedd.
None of them except Hara have any idea how to pronounce the names, and he doesn't feel the need to comment.
They pass the more famous Clogau mine, which remains active to this day. A few short decades ago there was still as much as five hundred thousand ounces of gold waiting to be unearthed in its bowels, but since the late nineties it's been mined completely dry.
They drive off the beaten path to a far less known, smaller mine that has been abandoned for years since its veins ran dry. It's removed and set against a Tolkien-esque wilderness.
Ritter halts the van and they all get out, Ryland reluctantly and uncoordinatedly. They pull coveralls on over their clothes, fitting the straps of air filtration masks around their necks and attaching devices to their forearms that monitor air-toxicity levels.
The entrance to the abandoned mine isn't simply boarded up, it has been blasted shut. Behind the dusty, rotted wood planks is a wall of tightly packed-in boulders of varying shape and size.
Hara helps Cindy unload a portable drill press attached to an eight-foot-high jack from the back of the Transit. The drill's bit is diamond a half-inch thick. As they wheel it up to the entrance Ritter and Moon use crowbars to pry away the boards zigzagging the collapsed rock face.
"If I can be of any service at this point in the proceedings you'll inform me immediately, yeah?" Ryland calls from where he's reclining against the open back of the van.
"I really dislike him," Cindy casually informs Ritter.
"He dislikes himself more, I promise you."
Cindy cranks the press several feet up the jack and begins drilling a hole through one of the boulders packed in the entranceway. She repositions the press seven more times and drills seven more holes at various points and heights in the obstruction.
Once that's done, she removes and uncaps several airtight containers from one of the main rucksacks in the van. She pulls out thin lines of high- tensile cord, the ends of which are weighted with thin cylinders. Attached to the lines at three-foot intervals are what look like compressed wads of tissue paper drenched in bright pink liquid.
Cindy carefully and meticulously begins feeding each line through a hole she's drilled in the rock.
"Is the van out of your blast path?" Ritter asks her.
She never takes her eyes off her work or halts her hands. "Yeah, we're good. It shouldn't push the debris past a twenty-foot diameter. It should mostly just collapse."
"I'm hearing should a lot," Moon comments from the sidelines.
No one says anything, but Hara stares down at him with a rare showing of emotion, that emotion being highly annoyed.
Moon shuts up.
"All right, we're ready to go hot," Cindy announces. "Everybody behind the van."
They all obey, joining Ryland who already has two cigarette butts crushed into the ground at his feet.
Cindy reaches inside her coveralls and removes an iPhone.
"Moon, if you ask me if I have an app for this I'll perforate your chest cavity with my middle and forefinger," she warns him in a neutral tone.
"You're still pissed about the black-Irish thing, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am," Cindy says, and taps the iPhone's screen.
The blast itself isn't loud, but the sound of the rocks breaking apart is particularly grating on their ears. Debris no bigger than pebbles sprawls down the hill, none of it touching the van.
What's left is a pile of rubble that rises to about half the height of the entranceway.
The darkness beyond is now visible.
"Artful as always, Cin," Ritter tells her.
For the first time since arriving in Wales, she smiles.
Hara is able to clear away most of the rubble with a shovel before the rest of them have even retrieved theirs. Instead, Ritter passes out the rest of the gear and large digital torches to each of them.
"It smells like a Welshman's arse," Ryland complains.
"I look forward to that chapter in your memoirs," Cindy says.
"Let's go, Ryland," Ritter bids him. "You're on."
Removing the current lit cigarette from his mouth and flicking it away with a sigh, Ryland enters the mine ahead of them.
"Why gold?" he demands as they trek through the main shaft. "Why must they eat gold?"
"Matters of goblin digestion don't concern me," Ritter says. "This is the job."
"Why Welsh gold, then?"
"Because it's the rarest in the world and it's a royal goblin wedding. They want the best."
"Overcompensating gombeens," Ryland mutters.
He reaches inside his coveralls and removes a large gemstone.
Even in the almost total darkness it gleams bloodred.
Ryland begins holding it up against the walls of the shaft as they tread along.
"So you're really going to grow new gold here?" Moon asks him.
"Even though there's none left in this pit?"
"Traces enough remain."
"And it'll be real? The gold?"
"As real as the odor now assaulting us."
"I don't get it. If you can literally fucking grow gold, why the hell are you working at Sin du Jour?"
"Alchemic karma," Ryland says as if that's all the explanation required.
"What the hell is that?"
"If I attempted to profit personally the gold would turn to shite. Literally."
"That sounds made-up."
"If it wasn't a very real thing do you imagine I'd currently be dwelling in a disused recreational vehicle behind a catering firm in Long Island City?"
Moon thinks about that.
"Yeah. Fair enough."
Someone snickers in the dark.
It might even be Hara.
The gem in Ryland's hand begins pulsing.
"What the devil —"
"What's up?" Ritter asks. "You find a vein?"
"No, that's not what this means."
"Then what does it mean?" Cindy asks with alarm.
Ryland turns to the anterior wall, squinting into the darkness.
There isn't a single break in the rock, yet somehow a golf ball–sized sphere of rusted metal emerges from the wall of the chamber, flies across the space, and cracks him in the left temple.
Dozens upon dozens of spheres begin firing through the wall, brutally pelting them. Ritter, Moon, and Cindy break for the side walls, trying to clear the strike path.
In the next moment Hara is there over Ryland, his back to the sphere- spewing rock, scooping up the drunken alchemist as easily as a father picking up his toddler.
Excerpted from Small Wars by Matt Wallace, Goñi Montes. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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