Read an Excerpt
MEET THE NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSS
Getting Jett Hollinshead down is no easy feat. Her enthusiasm usually has to be measured with the same technology that ranks things like tornados, hurricanes, and the toxicity of Rick and Morty fandom. Standing in Bronko's office, however, she doesn't just look downtrodden at the moment; she looks defeated. Jett watches Bronko as he sits behind his desk, filling out purchase orders by hand, a sight that usually calms and reassures her everything is proceeding normally, but today she knows that isn't true, perhaps never will be again.
"What is it, Jett?" the executive chef finally asks her. "Did Chanel stop makin' suits or something?"
"I wish that was my only issue at the moment," she grumbles.
Bronko grunts. "This must be serious, then. You fittin' to tell me, or are you just planning to stand there and wring your hands all afternoon?"
Jett practically comes apart at the joints. "Oh, Byron, it's a catastrophe! All our events have been cancelled! All of them!"
Bronko's hand finally stops moving. He sighs as if the weight of a large planet has just settled upon his shoulders. Placing his pen atop his decades-old blotter, he reclines against the towering winged back of his throne-like leather chair and regards Jett with a wearied, joyless smile.
"Well, now, that's not altogether unexpected, is it?"
"It's worse than that, Byron; all of our vendors, all of my venue contacts, they're all either walking away from us or no longer returning my calls, texts, or emails. I can't access our corporate accounts. They've all been frozen. Sin du Jour has effectively been rendered off-line."
Bronko nods. "Then we may have ourselves much bigger problems a-comin', don't you think?"
"You think this presages an attack?" Jett asks him.
"I think whatever's comin' has been comin' for a goodly while and we're finally running outta road."
"Then ... is staying here the right thing, Byron? I ... I would never consider abandoning you or the staff —"
"O' course you wouldn't, Jett. You're tougher than a bullwhacker's steak dinner. I know that."
She seems to take genuine solace in those words, nodding along with them. "Thank you. It's just that ..."
"Should we all run, is what you're puttin' out there."
"Jett, darlin', there ain't no runnin' from this. There's nowhere in this world any one of us could hide, maybe not even in any other world. We've done all we can to fortify this place in our favor. This is the best any of us is gonna do."
"Then is it time to call everyone in? What's the word? 'Bunker' and wait for whatever's coming?"
"It may be time to give everyone the choice, or at least let 'em know where we're at."
Jett nods, resolutely, forcing the steel calm over her she's spent her entire life cultivating.
"I'll take care of it, Byron."
"You're a blessin', my dear."
She offers him the most genuine smile she can manage. Jett turns toward the door and immediately stops, nearly leaping from her heels and letting out a yelp.
"You startled the bejesus out of me! Will you kindly announce yourself before just ... poofing like that?"
"Apologies, ma'am," a nasal, dreary voice answers Jett.
Bronko leans over the padded arm of his chair and peers around Jett's lithe figure. The squat, ink-animated form of Droopy Hound is standing in Bronko's office, staring through them both into some unimpressive oblivion only the living cartoon character can see with its dour eyes. Droopy Hound has clad himself in a plain blue guard's uniform, no doubt a mockery of his current station in life. A demon inserted into Sin du Jour by Allensworth as the building's magical security system, Marcus mystically reprogrammed the malevolent spirit to answer only to Bronko and the staff.
"What do you want?" Bronko bluntly asks the apparition.
"You have a visitor, sir," he informs Bronko. "He's waiting in the lobby. I've taken the liberty of magically isolating the entrances and exits available to him as a precaution."
"Who is he?"
Droopy Hound shrugs his perpetually sagging shoulders. "I can only tell you he's human, sir."
Bronko sighs, heavily. "Fine, then."
"Thank you for your service, Mr. ... Hound," Jett offers, diplomatically.
"A deal is a deal, ma'am," the toon replies simply before evaporating with a static-filled dissolve.
"Well, at least our efforts to secure Sin du Jour seem to be working," Jett says.
Bronko stands, grunting as the bones in both of his knees audibly pop.
"I ever tell you about my first joint, the one I opened myself, without backers or venture capitalists and the like?"
Jett shakes her head.
"Li'l roadhouse joint about twenty miles from the border in South Texas." Bronko opens the top right-hand drawer of his desk. "It was a rough crowd, and I mean the staff, not the customers. I hadta take what I could get, for the most part. I wouldn't be surprised if there were more outstanding warrants in that kitchen than high school diplomas."
"I can imagine."
"So, I learned the hard way, whenever you had to fire a body from an employee pool like that, you best stick a paring knife in your apron just in case they took to the news poorly."
Jett's eyes narrow in confusion. "I ... That's a quaint anecdote, Byron, but why that? Why now?"
Bronko reaches inside the drawer. The knife he removes from it isn't meant for peeling fruits and vegetables; it's a hunting blade with a wicked clip point and a handle fashioned from elk bone. He reaches behind his wide body and carefully tucks the blade through his belt at the small of his back, draping the hem of his chef's smock over it to conceal it from sight.
"No idea," he says with a grin.
Jett shakes her head. "Byron ..."
"Let's go greet our guest. Hell, maybe somebody here won the damn lottery; wouldn't that be a thing?"
Jett can't help smiling, and this time it's strong and clear and mirthful.
The two of them exit Bronko's office and walk the winding corridors toward the front of the ancient brick building. There's no visible barrier between the corridor and the lobby, but as Bronko and Jett pass through the archway, they can both feel the electric edge of magic raising the tiny hairs on their exposed flesh.
The man waiting for them defines nondescript. Despite being the lobby's only occupant, it's easy to look right past him, almost as if he's a background actor in a scene from a movie, placed there to be ignored. He's perhaps thirty-five, wearing a plain gray suit and tie and carrying a tan valise. His expression is passive but pleasant enough.
"Can I help you?" Bronko asks him.
"Good afternoon to you, Chef Luck, Miss Hollinshead," the man they have definitely never met before greets them amiably. "I'm Sin du Jour's new liaison. My name is Allensworth."
"You're too old and too slow to take me. Also — and this is unrelated — I'm better-looking than you and always have been."
Ritter ignores the giggles Marcus's comments elicit from the children, but his younger brother feeds on the reaction. The two men circle each other atop the interlocking foam mats assembled beneath their bare feet, both of them wearing martial arts gis. Ritter moves slowly and deliberately, stalking Marcus like a predator with his fists balled at his waist, while Marcus bounces jubilantly on his feet, hands raised and fingers practically twitching.
Beyond the mats, an assemblage of thirty children, ranging in age from five to twelve, watch them attentively. They're all regular faces around the makeshift recreational center Hara established in a converted warehouse in Bed-Stuy for the neighborhood kids. Since Hara's funeral, Ritter has spent as much time here as he can to ensure the place stays open.
The kids aren't Ritter and Marcus's only spectators. Cindy is sitting on an empty milk crate off to the side, hunched over her fatigues-clad knees, hiding a steady grin in a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee.
"You see, kids," Ritter says to the children without shifting his focus from Marcus, "all bullies are talkers. They love to talk. They do it for a couple of reasons. One reason is to pump themselves up, to hide the fear they all feel. The other reason they talk is to distract you and intimidate you, get you to doubt yourself. The best thing to do is ignore their words. There's no place for words in a fight. It's their body doing the only talking you want to listen to, the way they move their feet, their shoulders, even their eyes."
"I'm just telling truths over here," Marcus claims, then lunges at his brother.
Ritter slaps away a series of front kicks, and then ducks a flawlessly executed spinning heel kick that sails harmlessly overhead. Marcus tries to recover from the missed strike by immediately leaping forward and driving the heel of his palm into Ritter's face, but Ritter quickly slaps his wrist off-course before delivering the back of the same hand into the side of Marcus's head. It isn't a particularly painful blow, but it is delivered with enough force to knock him off-balance.
Marcus quickly turns away from Ritter and walks across the mat. There's a grin on his face, but it's clear he's at least a little embarrassed by the quick exchange and its results.
"Older and slower are different than old and slow," Ritter says to him.
Marcus nods. "Uh-huh. Hey, have you taught them about the element of surprise yet?"
With that, Marcus lets out a sudden and loud battle cry as he rushes forward, dropping his head and attempting to spear Ritter to the mat like an NFL player. Ritter leans forward and spreads his legs, digging his heels into the mat as Marcus barrels into him just above the waist. The leverage prevents Marcus from taking Ritter down and allows Ritter to encircle Marcus's torso with his arms. Heaving his brother's feet into the air, Ritter flips him over and drops him onto the mat.
Marcus lands hard on his back, oxygen fleeing through his mouth and nostrils like an angry stampede. A wave of oohs and ahs passes over the children watching.
Cindy, on the other hand, laughs into her cup.
"You see what just happened, kids?" Ritter asks them, ignoring his distressed sibling. "Marcus wanted to win. He wanted to beat me. That's what he was trying to do. That's all he cared about. I was just trying to survive. I wasn't thinking about winning. And I never went after him. I let him come to me and I countered his attacks. That's what self-defense is."
Meanwhile, Marcus has turned over and crawled to the far edge of the mat in front of Cindy, slowly taking air back into his lungs.
She sips her coffee and looks down at him with a grin. "Well, that was some sad-ass shit to watch."
"Pretty sexy, huh?" he asks with a grin, looking up at her from the mat cattishly.
Cindy shakes her head. "And I just bet more empty-headed bitches have fallen for that fake-ass Han Solo ish than have turned it down."
"It's working on you, just slowly."
"You ain't there yet, boy."
Marcus drops his head in mock defeat, but when he lifts it again, he's only grinning wider.
"Did I hear 'yet'?" he asks. "Did I?" Cindy offers no further comment.
There's a knock on the front gate, the metal sheet ringing long after the pounding stops.
"All right," Ritter addresses the kids. "Shoes off, on the mat, and we'll do some sparring drills, okay? Get yourselves set up and pick a partner."
He walks off the mat and over to the front entrance. When Ritter pulls the heavy aluminum door aside, no one is waiting for him beyond it. All he finds is a metal shopping cart loaded down with electronic equipment. He sifts through it briefly, looking for a note or some other documentation, finding none. He examines the alley outside the warehouse, but there isn't a single soul in sight.
"What's all that?" Cindy asks as Ritter wheels the shopping cart inside.
He shrugs. "Anonymous donation would be my best guess."
"Dude, that's all really high-end shit."
Cindy smacks him on the arm. "What did I just say about watching your mouth and being among little people, boy?"
"I'm just saying, this is all the latest gaming gear. Every console on the market, looks like. And all this audio equipment is top-shelf."
"Wait," Cindy says, her expression darkening. "This is Moon's. All this crap belongs to him. I recognize it from his garbage masher of an apartment."
"I thought he preferred video games to human sexual contact," Ritter muses.
Cindy shakes her head. "Sad little turd thinks he can buy us with some secondhand PlayStations."
"That's not a bad price," Marcus comments. "Even aftermarket, this stuff is worth —"
"I don't give a single damn!" Cindy insists. "He lied to us. Hara got fragged because he lied to us. You don't screw your team like that. Boy never gave a damn about being part of this thing."
"It's a very un-Moon-like gesture," Ritter points out.
Cindy stares at him, incredulous. "Don't tell me you fallin' for this shit."
"I'm just stating a fact," Ritter says with his usual stony neutrality.
"Is that PlayStation 4?" one of the kids shouts from across the warehouse. "And Xbox One?"
In the next moment, there are fifty kids clamoring over the new video gaming equipment as if a celebrity has stopped by the warehouse.
"I guess we're hooking this stuff up?" Marcus asks them both.
"Dammit, Moon," Cindy mutters to herself.
Ritter says no more, but as they begin unloading the shopping cart and untangling the jungle of wires accompanying the many electronic pieces, there is an undeniable grin tugging at the right corner of his mouth.
RESTRUCTURING IS ANOTHER WORD FOR COLLAPSE
"You're not Allensworth," Bronko says. "If'n he was going to change his face, I imagine he'd go with something more ostentatious-like."
"Byron!" Jett chastises him.
"That's quite all right, Miss Hollinshead," the man who introduced himself as Allensworth assures her. "I've been apprised of your jovial personality, Chef Luck, and I'm sure I'll come to enjoy it immensely."
"When's the part where you explain why you have the same name —"
"Think of the name as an operational title, if it helps you," their self-proclaimed new liaison offers. "I am replacing the man you knew as Allensworth in the role he filled."
"So ... what happened to the previous owner of your operational title?" Bronko asks, summoning his best acting chops, playing the role of man who didn't watch the former Allensworth take an eight-inch chef's knife through his kidney.
"That's still being determined," the new Allensworth says. "I'm afraid my predecessor's behavior had become rather erratic as of late. Obviously, oversight in our department always does prove ... challenging. ... However, I fear his autonomy got the best of him. You needn't concern yourselves with the matter any further. As I said, I'll be taking up his duties henceforth."
Bronko and Jett exchange a quick, tight glance, the kind of thing conspirators probably shouldn't do.
If their new Allensworth takes note, it's a deeply internal process.
"Well, then ... good to know you, Allensworth," Bronko says.
The nondescript man smiles without his eyes joining in on the expression. "Likewise, Chef."
"Excuse me," Jett interjects. "Can you tell us why our corporate accounts have been frozen and all of our upcoming events have been cancelled?"
"It's standard procedure, Miss Hollinshead. All of the projects overseen by my predecessor are now under review. That includes this edifice and its operations. Those operations have to be suspended during that period of review. We apologize for any inconvenience this causes. I assure you it will be a noninvasive and hopefully brief inconvenience before everything returns to its usual day-to-day."
"Some advance warnin' would've been nice," Bronko tells him.
"Byron, don't pester the poor man," Jett says, but her eyes are warning Bronko not to press their luck. "He's obviously under a lot of pressure. Taking on a new high-level position is never easy."
"That's quite all right, Miss Hollinshead. Again, I apologize for the disruption. We are attempting to right the ship, as it were, as soon as possible. In the interim, I'd advise you all to return to your homes and wait for things to settle. As soon as we've performed our due diligence, you will hopefully be able to return to work."
"So, y'all have no clue where Allensworth is?" Bronko asks. "The other one, I mean. The last one, or however you want to call it."
"As I said, you needn't trouble yourself with any matters involving my predecessor. It's being handled."
"All right, then."
The new Allensworth offers them another joyless smile. "All right, then. It's a pleasure finally meeting both of you. I hope you'll enjoy your impromptu time off. I promise I'll be in touch."
"It was a pleasure meeting you too, Mr. Allensworth," Jett says, slipping into her best professional demeanor.
"Charmed," Bronko adds stiffly.
They watch Allensworth leave, neither Bronko nor Jett moving or even so much as breathing audibly for almost a full thirty seconds after the doors close behind their new liaison.
"How can they not know?" Jett whispers frantically. "How can they not know what happened at Gluttony Bay?"
Excerpted from "Taste of Wrath"
Copyright © 2018 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.