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By Matt Wallace, Lee Harris
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Matt Wallace
All rights reserved.
SIN DU JOUR GOES HOLLYWOOD
PROLOGUE: BRONKO IN HELL
The lights burn brighter than any layperson can imagine, but Bronko is used to sweating in kitchens far hotter than this studio. Besides, he belongs here just as much as he belongs over the open flame of a commercial stove, plying the trade and practicing the craft he loves more than he's ever loved anything.
The set behind him is a life-sized diorama of a rustic farm kitchen, complete with a window staring out over a painting of a Southwestern desert plain at dusk. He's wearing a chef's smock as jet-black as a shocktrooper's uniform, with silver dollar–sized buttons of polished brass. The logo of his Deadman's Hand gastropub chain, a meat cleaver piercing five playing cards fanned out to reveal the infamous aces-and-eights poker hand that was dealt to "Wild Bill" Hickok before he was shot and killed, is stitched onto the breast.
Bronko stares out past the television cameras and crew at a bandstand filled with a smiling studio audience. They're all shiny, attractive couples in their mid- to late twenties; they're so shiny, in fact, that their hair and skin all look like plastic. Their teeth are also so white and exposed it's almost like a sea of giant pupil-less eyes staring back at him. Each couple wears the same sweater in a kaleidoscope of sickeningly pastel colors.
There's a voice somewhere in the spare corners of his mind shouting at him that these people don't just look like plastic, they are plastic. What's more, if he were possessed of his everyday awareness Bronko might notice he's not looking at a hundred couples, he's looking at fifty exact replicas of one couple. Of course, if he were really aware he'd remember that the show he's about to tape a brand-new episode of was canceled more than fifteen years ago.
Yet somehow on the surface it all seems normal to him, the way the most absurd and surreal events seem perfectly normal in a dream. He ignores the voice and its distracting assertions, going over the recipe for the dish he's demonstrating in his head.
"You ready, Bronko?" a director in a baseball cap secured to his skull by a headset asks him from beyond the perimeter of cameras.
Bronko just nods, forcing that nagging sensation that something is wrong, all wrong with this into a locked box in the back of his mind.
He clears his throat and pastes a show-business smile across his lips.
The director counts down from five and cues him, and a red light lets him know which camera to play to and when.
"Folks, welcome back to the ol' Double-Cross Ranch!" Bronko greets the viewing audience through the camera's lens. "Now, if you're like me, you're a damn handsome man and the only thing you like more than hosting a big throwdown for all your friends on game day is the party snacks you put out for that throwdown. Am I right?"
The laughter of the studio audience is a mechanical chorus that's exaggerated far beyond anything natural or even human.
Again that inner voice insists this is all wrong, and again Bronko ignores it.
He's playing to his public, after all.
Bronko spreads his arms above the countertop in front of him with its custom burners, cutting board, and a diverse assortment of ingredients.
"Now, one of Bronko's ol' party favorites, and one that's always a crowd pleaser on Super Bowl Sunday, brings together two of my favorite things: Chinese take-out and down-home Western cooking."
Again, that clucking, forced laughter from the audience.
"We're going to be making pulled pork egg rolls with a sweet onion and pear barbeque sauce. They're gonna be bite-sized, perfect for grabbing and gulping, and you won't be able to keep 'em on a platter, trust me. Now, you'll notice I don't have my protein prepped and ready to go here. That's because we've got a big treat for y'all today. Ya see —"
Bronko pauses, quite uncustomarily for the polished performer he's become. There's a sudden dread welling up from deep in his guts, bubbling with an acid tinge that feels like it's souring his entire being.
That voice he's been shuttering and ignoring is screaming at him not to say the next words of the script he himself always wrote.
"Ya see," Bronko presses on, insisting to himself this is all as it should be, "today I'm going to show you how to butcher and process from your own whole pig. It's the ultimate party king move. Or queen move, ladies, we are partyin' in the new millennium, after all. Bring it on out, boys!"
Bronko looks offstage, the dread having risen to his chest, where it's formed a vice around his heart.
Two attendants whose entire heads are draped in cloth executioner's hoods wheel out a stainless-steel gurney.
The dread hits Bronko's brain like a high wave and breaks the prison he's constructed for that voice of warning.
It's not a pig that's being borne upon the cold metallic surface of that gurney.
It's him. It is Bronko's own dead body, stripped down and shaved bare, dressed as one would dress a whole pig for butchering. The perfect copy of his form is split right down the middle and has obviously been scraped of its internal organs.
The plastic crowd applauds enthusiastically.
His director gives him a grin and a thumbs-up.
The reality of the situation gnaws painfully on the back of Bronko's consciousness like the most inconvenient truth.
Bronko takes up his largest kitchen knife, a gleaming Kauffman with a Damascus blade the size of a small machete's. Walking on wobbly knees, he moves from around his cooking station to stand above the gurney. He holds the tip poised above the dry slit opened through his doppleganger's chest and stomach.
"Now, I ... uh ... what you wanna do here, folks, is you wanna ..."
He can feel sweat pouring from his head now. His heart is pounding like an angry gorilla's fist against the inside of his chest. His pulse is so high he can almost feel every single drop of blood in his body raging through his veins. Bronko concentrates on the tip of the blade, trying not to see what's beyond it, what he's about to cut into.
"You just start ... you just ..."
That's when the corpse that is him draws a deep, sudden, painful breath.
Bronko drops his knife, the first time that's happened since he was an apprentice chef, and backs away from himself on the slab.
The crowd collectively gasps.
In the next moment he's running, like an animal, crashing through the back of the set and stumbling over equipment and hollow-eyed crewmembers.
He spots a red door in the darkness, the only one in sight. It must be the exit, and at worst it's an exit from this horrific place. Bronko bolts toward it, arms and legs pumping and breath coming in ragged pants.
Reaching for the handle, his body collides with the door and forces it open before he's even turned the knob. He bursts through to the other side and throws the door shut behind him. He stumbles a few more frantic strides before halting himself, doubling over and grasping his knees, overtaken by a hacking cough for several moments before he can lift his head and focus his eyes.
He's met by the enthusiastic applause of the same plastic pastel audience he just escaped.
Bronko is back on his old kitchen set. He glances over his shoulder. The door he just crashed through is gone. Looking back, he sees the director waving him frantically toward his prep and cooking station with its painted Southwestern desert background.
The panic that owned him just a moment before becomes an eerie calm that is slowly replaced by icy resolve.
The voice that broke loose and was only a moment ago screaming inside his skull is snuffed again into silence.
Bronko stands tall and sucks in a deep breath, the exhale carrying him back to his mark.
"Welcome to the Double-Cross Ranch, folks," Bronko greets the crowd once more, as if he hadn't just fled the same inhuman audience. "We've got a real treat for y'all today, let me tell you ..."
Darren sits on the secondhand couch of the apartment he and Lena share on the edge of Williamsburg, eating Marshmallow Magic cereal from a chipped ceramic bowl.
He's spent most of the morning binge-watching a season's worth of DVRed episodes of the El Rey Network's Lucha Underground, a surprisingly successful reinvention of traditional Mexican pro-wrestling.
Since he and Lena began working at Sin du Jour less than two months ago, their bank accounts have already made what was once a long uphill trudge into the black, but their free time is almost nonexistent.
Also, he's been nearly eviscerated in a battle between rival demon clans, he helped maim a real-live angel, met God incarnate, and turned into a reptilian lust monster that tried to kill all his coworkers.
Darren doesn't remember much about that last part, but he remembers some ... some ...
As for the rest, he tries to focus on the wondrous, bloodless parts of the overall experience.
He grew up in the Midwest.
He's good at repressing shit.
He's on his third bowl of cereal and fourth episode of Lucha Underground when Tag Dorsky walks out of the hallway leading to Darren's and Lena's bedrooms.
Dorsky is wearing a T-shirt and jeans and looks freshly showered.
It's the first time Darren has seen Sin du Jour's sous-chef out of his kitchen whites. Hell, it's the first time he's seen him outside work.
It is not, however, the first time Darren has heard him outside of work.
Darren could hear both Dorsky and Lena last night through the wall separating their bedrooms.
Darren didn't sleep much.
"Well," Dorsky says, pausing beside the couch. "This is awkward."
"Yeah," Darren agrees.
Dorsky looks over at the TV screen, briefly watching legendary wrestler Vampiro as he gives an impassioned speech into a microphone.
"Do you speak Spanish?" he asks Darren, who shrugs.
"When I was three my dad took me to Mexico to stay with our relatives down there for the summer. When I came back I guess I wouldn't speak anything but Spanish. For like, a whole year. I lost most of it, though. My mom never wanted to learn."
Dorsky nods vacantly. Whether he was actually listening is anyone's guess.
He stares at the TV for another few seconds, and then: "Aw'right. Well. I'll see you on the line. Maybe let's not talk in the kitchen about how we all started our day. Cool?"
Dorsky leaves their apartment.
After he's gone, Darren leans forward and sets his bowl on their living room table.
He's finally lost his appetite.
Fifteen minutes later, Lena staggers out into the living room, still half-asleep.
"Did you make coffee?" she asks.
She heads into their kitchenette. "Stupid question, I guess."
Darren listens to her rattling things around, pulling out her kettle, grinder, filter, and pour-over dripper as she prepares to turn the Kenyan beans they bought at the farmers' market into coffee.
He pretends to watch the show for another few minutes before asking, "So, are you two like, a thing now?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean."
In the kitchenette, Lena shrugs. "No. We're not a 'thing,' whatever that means."
She finishes the precision pour-over she insisted on learning to do better than any barista in their neighborhood, leaning over their small bar and sipping from her mug gratefully.
"Do you think it's a good idea? He's a sous-chef."
Lena frowns into her mug. "Is there anything normal about where we work, Darren? For chrissakes, last month you turned into a lizard and tried to fuck both him and me to death."
"I don't want to talk about that!" Darren snaps. "And whatever anyway, we still have to work there. What's the line going to think?"
"I'm way past caring what testosterone goobers on the line think of me. No matter what I do, who I screw or don't screw; it's always going to be the same. So, to hell with them. I thought you'd have learned that by now, at least. After everything that happened at Porto Fiero after ..."
Lena trails off, sighing, realizing she's about to go too far and letting the past invocation die on her lips.
It's also obvious Darren wants to talk about the incident at the Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant that got them fired and blackballed in the city less than he wants to talk about his time as a sex lizard.
"I just ... I thought you hated him."
"My opinion of him is not much improved now," Lena mutters.
"Then what? I mean, if he didn't respect you before do you think he will now?"
"Who gives a shit?" Lena explodes. "Maybe I don't respect him. Maybe I don't even like him. Maybe I just like fucking him. Is that okay? Am I allowed to like sex? If we're both cool with the terms, what difference does it make? Do you deeply respect everyone you've fucked?"
"That's not the point," Darren says stiffly.
"No, the point is neither of us should give the other shit about their romantic choices."
"This isn't about me! You always do this!"
"Why don't you just hook up with that James kid and get off my back already?"
Darren blinks. "James? What ... why would you ..."
"You've been giving each other doe eyes since we started working there."
"He's not even ..."
"He's ... whatever ... African. Or from Senegal, I mean."
Lena stares dumbfounded at him. "What the hell does that mean?"
Darren actually shudders. "No! I don't mean ... that! I don't ... I just mean ... he's all whatever, religious. Like they are. I guess. I don't know."
Lena rubs her forehead as if there's a deep ache between her temples.
"Darren ... you were baptized Roman Catholic."
"I know that. Look. James isn't even ... he's not ..."
"Jesus. Gay, Darren. The word is gay. You're gay. You're a gay dude. You're allowed to say it."
"Don't fucking tell me what I am!"
"I've been telling you what you are since we were sixteen and if I didn't you wouldn't be able to admit it to yourself!"
"Yeah, you're so damn smart. If you're so smart why are you screwing your boss who's also a colossal asshole who you hate?"
Lena slams her coffee mug down on the bar top.
"I think a far more rational question would be, 'Why am I working at a fucking catering company in Long Island City where you either get turned into monsters or mauled by them at every single damn event?' Oh, wait! I know! Because you wouldn't leave when we had the chance and I had to stay to watch your ass! Like always!"
She storms across the living room and down the hall to her bedroom.
"I didn't see you not cashing that fat paycheck last week!" he yells after her.
Her response is a slammed door.
"Bitch," Darren mutters to himself, and immediately feels bad for saying it.
Rare is the occasion the majority of Sin du Jour's employees find themselves in the same room at the same time.
"I forgot we even had a conference room," Dorsky remarks.
The other chefs laugh, spearheaded by Rollo, ever Dorsky's Eastern Bloc sidekick in the kitchen. Darren joins in because he finally seems to have been accepted by the rest of the line.
Nikki doesn't laugh because it's not funny.
Lena doesn't laugh because it's not funny and she's pissed off at Darren. She makes it a point to stare at him, calling out his courtesy laugh with her eyes.
The kitchen staff is seated around the hand-carved mahogany table in the middle of the room. Dorsky sits at one end of the table, Rollo to his right, Chevet and Tenryu to his left like some sort of pseudo–lion pride arrangement.
Darren sits next to James, who he isn't trying to ignore but can't seem to bring himself to acknowledge.
Lena and Nikki are slightly removed from the others, Nikki quietly explaining some esoteric vintage hairstyling technique Lena will never understand, let alone attempt to implement.
The Stocking & Receiving Department fills chairs lining the wall in the back of the room. Hara has to sit on two seats pushed together, and even then they seem inadequate. Beside him Ritter and Cindy are trading fluid, half-speed hand strikes they take turns throwing and blocking, practicing some form of martial arts. Moon is sunk into the corner playing a Nintendo 3DS.
Ryland, the company's resident alchemist, is crashed out on a sofa sitting alongside the conference table. He's on his eighteenth cigarette of the day and seventh glass of white wine.
Pacific and Mr. Mirabel huddle against the wall on the other side of the table, sharing the earbuds jacked into Pacific's digital music player.
They're all waiting on Bronko and Jett. The only ones absent are Boosha, in official exile in her apothecary after inadvertently turning the staff into sex monsters, and White Horse and his granddaughter/assistant/chaperone, Little Dove.
Excerpted from Pride's Spell 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
PROLOGUE: BRONKO IN HELL,
THE BEST TACO TRUCK IN LA,
WEARY STRANGERS IN A SAVAGE LAND,
PROLOGUE, TAKE TWO: BRONKO IN HELL,
UP TO THE HOUSETOP THE COURSERS THEY FLEW,
PROLOGUE, TAKE THREE: BRONKO IN HELL,
BOFFO BOX OFFICE HEAVEN,
BELOW THE LINE,
THE BREAK OF DAWN,
PRIVILEGES OF THE DAMNED,
THE GUEST OF HONOR,
CANIS EX MACHINA,
EPILOGUE: "A" FOR EFFORT,
About the Author,
Also by Matt Wallace,