Pride’s Spell

The team at Sin du Jour—New York’s exclusive caterers-to-the-damned—find themselves up against their toughest challenge yet when they’re lured out west to prepare a feast in the most forbidding place in America: Hollywood, where false gods rule supreme.

Meanwhile, back at home, Ritter is attacked at home by the strangest hit-squad the world has ever seen, and the team must pull out all the stops if they’re to prevent themselves from being offered up as the main course in a feast they normally provide…

Pride’s Spell is the third installment in Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series—available June 21st from Tor.com Publishing!

 

 

DOMESTIC SQUABBLES

 

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 DVR’ed 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?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“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.

“No.”

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.”

“Not even!”

“Oh, totally.”

“He’s not even…”

“What?”

“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.

 


STAFF MEETING

 

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.

Bronko enters the room a few minutes later, Jett following excitedly on his heels. She seems even more wired than usual, whereas lately Bronko has seemed unusually removed. He’s been that way since the the royal goblin wedding a month ago. He disappeared inexplicably at the end of that night. They got a memo from him to take an extended weekend, and when they all returned to work Bronko’s entire demeanor and mood had changed. They rarely see him at family meal, the staff lunches and dinners they cook and share together during the long days in the kitchen. He barely leaves his office anymore. No one has yet to force a conversation about it, but there isn’t a single one of them, even and especially Lena and Darren, who hasn’t noticed and been inwardly disturbed by the change.

Sin du Jour’s executive chef is carrying a long, rolled-up ream of glossy paper. He walks to the opposite end of the table and looms there, ignoring the chair.

“I am quite frankly shocked y’all made it in here together and on time, so thanks for that,” he addresses them dryly.

Scattered, affectionate laughter fills the room.

Bronko rubs at his prickly neck. Many of them have also noticed he goes abnormally longer than usual without shaving recently.

“I know you’ve all been busting hump prepping for the TaurusCon gala, but something urgent’s come up and we’re going to need to do a little tap-dancing. I wasted a couple of weeks trying to get us out of it because frankly I think we’ve got enough on our plate, and I probably should’ve told y’all about it sooner, and that’s on me, but we are where we are now and we’re all just gonna have to deal with it.”

He extends his arm over the table and unfurls the paper on his hand, laying it down flat on the tabletop.

It’s a movie poster.

The title is Authority over Unclean Spirits and the one-sheet is dominated by an image of a very pretty actor the makeup department has tried very hard to make unpretty (which seems ludicrous to Lena, among others, considering how many talented ugly people there already are in the world) kneeling in the mud in front of barbed wire, looking to the sky.

“I know this one,” James says. He holds up his smart phone. “I have no time for going to the movies, but I downloaded the Movie Trailers app. It is very good.”

Bronko seems less than interested. “Yeah, from what I gather it’s about a mentally challenged Jew during the Holocaust who’s also gay or some such thing.”

“So their asses just want all the Oscars,” Cindy comments from the back, propping an elbow on Ritter’s shoulder and resting her cheek in her palm.

“Oh, it already has intense Oscar buzz!” Jett informs her brightly, Cindy’s sarcasm completely sailing over her head.

Likewise, the half-dozen expressions aimed at her silently asking, “Who actually talks like that?” go utterly unnoticed by Jett.

“So… what, boss?” Dorsky asks, not getting it. “You don’t want to go see it alone, or what?”

Bronko sighs, looking to Jett, who appears to be about a second away from her head popping off.

Bronko gives her a nod.

“We’re doing the studio’s premiere party!” Jett announces, practically vibrating.

Most of the line groans.

“A movie premiere?” Lena asks, her face slightly scrunched in a mix of confusion and disdain. “That… doesn’t seem like Sin du Jour’s mandate, unless I misunderstood you, Chef.”

“Gotta say I’m with Tarr on this one, boss,” Dorsky adds.

“Just this one?” Rollo asks under his breath, punctuating it with a low chuckle.

Lena looks over at him, a gunshot expression forming on her face that she quickly forces blank.

She can feel Nikki watching her suspiciously and Darren watching her judgingly.

“It seems we’ve developed a sudden rep in La-La Land,” Bronko says. “Word on the goblin prince’s wedding got out the very next damn day, it seems. Everyone in town in the know wants us. This premiere shindig is just the first request to make it past Allensworth. I guess the producers have a lot of stroke with the goblin hierarchy, and that is what we do.”

Dorsky raises an eyebrow. “They all know that the wedding was a Mongolian clusterfuck that nearly killed all the guests and not a theme party, right?”

“Can they tell the difference out there?” Nikki asks so earnestly it’s hard to tell she’s joking.

Lena snorts.

“Look, I don’t book the gigs,” Bronko says irritably.

His mood isn’t what takes them aback. It’s his admission of powerlessness. Though they’re all more or less aware Sin du Jour operates at the discretion of Allensworth and the government, it’s unlike Bronko not to maintain an air of total control.

“The fact of the matter is we’re gonna be in the weeds,” he continues. “The movie comes out next month. The movie premiere is next Friday night.”

This time the groans are louder and more contiguous.

“That’s right. It’s short notice and we’re double-booked.”

“Where are they premiering the stupid movie?” Dorsky asks. “Union Square?”

“The premiere isn’t in New York. It’s in Los Angeles.”

Everyone who groaned is suddenly hooting and hollering.

“Oh, now it’s not such a damn inconvenience.”

“Settle your shit,” Dorsky instructs the line, quieting them and badly suppressing his grin.

To Bronko he says: “That depends, boss. Who’s going to LA?”

“Not you,” Bronko says flatly.

Dorsky’s grin disappears.

“I need you here running point on the convention gala. I’ll head up LA. I know the people and the terrain better. The premiere party is a lot more exclusive, so thankfully we can keep the crew tight. I’ll take Tarr and Vargas.”

Everyone on the line who isn’t Lena and Darren is incensed, and vocal about it.

Save James, who clasps Darren’s shoulder and smiles at him in sincere congratulations.

Darren stiffens, forces a grin.

“Nikki, Jett needs you for a lot of what she’s got planned for the party. Dorsky, y’all are doing a straight buffet line with no hors d’oeuvres service and we are; so Pac, Mo, you’re on board with me too.”

“Wicked!” Pacific hollers, high-fiving Mr. Mirabel.

“Oh, come on!” Dorsky yells at the ceiling. “Bong Hits McGee and the World’s Oldest Man here get a free trip to the coast and we’re stuck doing the half-and-half con?”

“Tag, you know ‘half-and-half’ is a pejorative use of an ableist term,” Jett chastises. “Both the minotaur contingent and the centaur contingent find it highly offensive—”

“Oh-my-god-Jett-whatever,” Dorsky groans. “They’re a bunch of dudes with bull heads and horse bodies who have to have their annual love fest during ComicCon so no one will notice or hunt them for sport. It’s bad enough we had to prepare two menus because the centaurs get all uppity about eating horse food.”

“They are not horses, Tag!” Jett insists.

“Did he just say ‘uppity’?” Cindy asks Ritter behind the chefs. “Did I just hear that?”

“The point is,” Dorsky continues quickly, “does seniority count for nothing around here? We get the splooge line at the geeks and freaks carnival and the newbies and the pastry puff get to go surfing?”

Beside him, Rollo whistles approvingly and claps his hands.

“Goddammit, this is a job, not a vacation!” Bronko snaps at them, his irritation shifting to real anger. “Are you my sous-chef, or not?”

Dorsky is caught off guard, but he recovers, putting away his cavalier attitude.

“Yes, Chef,” he says seriously.

“Then act like it. I’m leaving you in charge. You’re executive chef while I’m gone. I want things here to go off without a hitch. Tarr, Vargas, you’ll meet with me tomorrow on menu and pre-prep. We fly out Wednesday. We’ll shop and cook onsite. Nikki, get with Jett before then. Y’all have carte blanche on dessert. Whatever you want to do.”

“Oh, cool!” Nikki says. “Thanks, Chef.”

In the back of the room, Ritter raises his hand.

“Yeah, Ritt?”

“What do you need my team to do?” Ritter asks.

“Oh, right. Dorsky’s good and the premiere party is a mostly human, non-magicked-type menu for the most part. Take the week off. Y’all deserve it.”

“Does that include me?” Ryland asks around his unfiltered cigarette. “I am an honorary member of the department, after all.”

“No, you’re not,” Ritter and Cindy say in perfect unison.

“You’re going to prepare whatever Jett and Cindy need for the goblin portion of the guest list,” Bronko says.

“Typical,” Ryland mutters.

“Ritter, you and yours enjoy the break.”

“Then what did we need to be here for?” Moon whines.

“Boy, you are lucky I sign a paycheck for you, useful as you are most of the time,” Bronko replies shortly.

Moon appears to genuinely think about it, and shrugs.

“Fair enough,” he says, returning to his game.

“Pac, we’ll need a few more servers, but no goddamn Craigslist this time, y’hear?” Bronko instructs him.

“No worry, boss,” Pacific assures him.

“Any questions need addressing right now?” Bronko asks them.

Nobody voices one.

“All right, then.”

Bronko leaves them, his stride fast and labored.

It takes most of them a moment to shake off the bad feeling in the room.

As Lena heads for the door, she finds herself meeting Ritter in the back of the room.

“Congratulations,” he says to her.

Lena genuinely doesn’t understand.

“On what?”

“You’re moving up.”

Lena half-laughs. “Right. By default.”

“Take it however it comes.”

Ritter grins at her, just a little.

Behind him, Cindy performs a physiological miracle by rolling her eyes without her eyes ever moving in their sockets.

Ritter turns to walk out the door of the conference room and finds Dorsky casually blocking his way.

Dorsky is a head taller than him, forcing Ritter to look up.

Despite that, one would be hard-pressed not to choose Ritter as the more intimidating between them.

“You need something, Number Two?” he asks.

Dorsky grins down at him. “Nothing worthy of the Indiana Jones of grocery shopping, I’m sure.”

“Indiana Jones was an imperialist grave-robbing sumbitch,” Cindy chimes in from behind Ritter. “I hate those fucking movies.”

Ritter has no readable expression or tone when he says to Dorsky, “You’re in my way.”

“Am I?” Dorsky asks, still grinning. “I guess I didn’t notice I was in your way until just now.”

“Jesus,” Lena murmurs, mortified.

Then, louder: “If you two want to piss for distance do it in the men’s room.”

She pushes her way past them both and out the door.

Ritter and Dorsky watch her go, the sous-chef with a confused expression and the head of Stocking & Receiving with the subtlest hint of a frown.

“I like her despite myself,” Cindy says quietly.

 


SHARED MISTAKES

 

“So what’re you thinking for this thing?” Lena asks Nikki.

They’re in the small pastry kitchen that is Nikki’s sole domain and one of Lena’s favorite rooms in Sin du Jour. Nikki is carefully laying Saran Wrap over trays of beautifully molded maple rum panna cotta and trays of equally beautifully molded terrines of raw bakery waste.

The former dish is dessert for the centaurs attending the annual TaurusCon gala in Manhattan.

The latter is dessert for the minotaur guests.

She’s carefully labeling the top of each plastic-wrapped tray with Post-it notes.

Confusing one for the other would not only be the worst experience of any non-minotaur’s life, it would probably also kill them.

“Cherries jubilee, maybe,” Nikki answers her. “It’s Hollywood. I figure light something on fire, right?”

“That seems kind of basic for you. I’ll just say it.”

Nikki grins like someone with a secret. “I’ll jazz it up. What are you all doing for dinner service?”

Lena frowns. “It’s all supposed to be low-cal, low-carb, everything with a vegan option.”

“So? I cook vegetarian for my sister all the time. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, get inspired.”

Lena shrugs. “It’s not so much the health thing. Just feels like we’re going all vanilla.”

“Hey, what’s the static between you and Darren all of a sudden?”

“He’s being a judgmental little prick,” Lena says quite matter-of-factly.

“About what?”

“Who I sleep with.”

Nikki’s eyes go wide. She had been sliding clear-wrapped trays into a fridge. She shoves the one she’s holding in hastily and quickly swings the door shut, walking back over to Lena.

“Who are you—” she begins, and then stops herself. “Wait.”

Nikki jogs over to a pantry, grabs a bottle of wine, a cork, two glasses, and jogs back.

She has the cork popped and the glasses filled in less than ten seconds. Nikki shoves one at Lena.

“Who are you sleeping with?” she asks.

It’s an excited question, but coming from Nikki and considering the answer Lena imagines it sounds like a homicide detective interrogating her.

She frowns into her glass, hesitating.

“Look, I haven’t told you this because I got the vibe you and he have history, but I’m also not willing to lie to you about it.”

Nikki stares at her in sudden confusion.

“I’ve been hooking up with Dorsky,” Lena says, sipping her wine and coughing because it goes down the wrong pipe. “Since the lockdown.”

“Oh,” Nikki says immediately.

And then she doesn’t say anything.

Instead she drinks her wine.

Then keeps drinking it.

She keeps drinking it until her glass is empty.

“Oh,” she repeats, breathless.

“So…” Lena struggles. “Have I broken some lady code here? Like, how pissed are you?”

“I’m not.”

“You’re not? Seriously? Because you don’t seem okay, that’s for damn sure.”

“I’m surprised,” Nikki says evenly. “But I can’t rightly be pissed at you or judge you for making mistakes I’ve made myself. That would be like, super unfair.”

Now it’s Lena’s turn to say, “Oh.”

Nikki nods.

“All I’m going to say is I get it. There’s an appeal there. But what I’d add is… that appeal has a very short reach. Especially when you work with him.”

Lena holds up her hands. “I don’t want to marry the dude, Nikki. It’s just… a thing that’s working for me right now.”

Nikki nods. “I understand.”

“So… we’re actually cool? Like, really cool? Not false assurances and private bloodletting followed by passive-aggressive girl war cool?”

“I don’t know what that means,” Nikki says. “So no. I’m not mad. Really. I am worried about you, but that’s because… you know.”

“Yeah. I know. Same here.”

Nikki nods again.

“Is this a bad time?” a young voice asks from the pantry kitchen entrance.

They both look over to find Little Dove standing there, unsure and seeming as though she wants to turn around and run.

Nikki works up her warmest smile. “Hey, Lill. No. You’re always welcome here.”

Relief visibly washes over Little Dove. “Oh, good. You just, you both looked all intense and I didn’t want to be like—“

“It’s cool,” Lena echoes Nikki.

Little Dove slides onto a stool at the station over which they’re drinking their wine.

“I just had to get away from Grandpop for a while,” she says, smoothing her hands back through her long hair. “This is usually the part of the week where I snap a little.”

“It’s Tuesday,” Lena says flatly.

Little Dove nods. “I know.”

“So… bad day?” Nikki asks.

Little Dove takes a long, deep breath. “Well, let’s see. I spent an hour looking for his lost blood pressure medication, only when I called the doctor he told me Grandpop stopped taking those meds a year ago, and he just forgot. Then I had to call all of my sixty-four-year-old grandfather’s bookies and cancel the bets he makes every week behind my back. Then when I told him to stop doing that for the fifty millionth time we fought for another two hours.”

“Jesus,” Lena says.

“Yeah. He’s… he really is a brilliant man, in his way. And he loves me. Again, in his way. But if I wanted to spend my life as a babysitter I’d prefer actual real babies. But we’d never make this kind of money anywhere else.”

Lena and Nikki both nod with genuine empathy at that last statement.

Lena in particular feels the girl’s pain.

She takes up the bottle Nikki opened and pours Little Dove a glass.

“Oh, Lena,” Nikki waves her hands. “I don’t think she’s—” She looks at Little Dove. “How old are you again, Lill?”

“She’s old enough even if she isn’t old enough,” Lena insists.

Little Dove grins at that, taking the glass gratefully.

Lena clinks her own against it.

They drink.

“So what do you want to do, Lill?” Nikki asks.

She shrugs. “I don’t know, really. Do you like baking?”

Nikki smiles. “It’s like therapy they pay me to have.”

“I feel that way about eating what she bakes,” Lena adds.

Little Dove laughs, then a serious expression overtakes it.

“Could you… like, teach me? Maybe?”

Nikki stares at her, genuinely taken aback.

But she couldn’t be happier if the girl had asked Nikki to teach her how to do victory rolls with her hair.

“Absolutely,” she tells Little Dove, sincerely.

“You know, nobody ever asked me what I wanted to do before,” Little Dove says.

She seems at once rueful and appreciative.

“Well, you’re one up on me,” Lena assures her. “Nobody has yet.”

“You figured it out, though,” Nikki reminds her.

Lena laughs, downing the rest of her wine and replacing the glass on the countertop a little too hard.

She stares up at the bright overhead kitchen lights.

“Have I?” she asks no one in particular. “Have I really?”

 


PRE-PRODUCTION

 

“Didn’t we option this one’s spec?” Producer One asks Producer Two, using his Italian-loafered foot to prod the eviscerated writer in question.

There’s a whole pile of them.

Dead writers, that is.

Most of their hearts have been ripped from their chests. Some of them are missing their brains. Several are still clutching screenplays in their arms.

“The only screenwriter whose name I remember is Chayefsky.”

“Because he’s the only writer to ever get the ‘film by’ credit?”

“No, because he skull-fucked that harpy in front of everyone at Nicholson’s party that time.”

“Oh yeah. The party where Nicholson passed out all that great old-school biker acid?”

“Yep.”

“Classic.”

The bodies are stacked high near the door of a windowless conference room. A long-deceased Warner brother is currently devouring the heart of the writer Producer Two can’t remember. He sits eternally at the head of a granite slab conference table surrounded by all the big old-time Hollywood moguls.

They’re not zombies, strictly speaking.

They don’t need to eat human organs to survive.

They just demand them.

In truth no one living knows what they are anymore, but since the 1950s they’ve sat here in their best funereal suits, eyeballs black and flesh necrotic but never rotting off. They don’t move from their chairs. They don’t speak.

They just eat.

All day.

Every day.

The major studios in town take turns supplying them daily with fresh writers, their overwhelming preference. No one in Hollywood knows what will happen if they stop feeding the moguls. But no one wants to find out. On the whole it’s become little more than a fad religion for the elite, not unlike Scientology, albeit far more secretive and exclusive. Feeding the moguls and paying them homage and seeking blessings for your film is the ultimate status symbol in the most private and powerful quarters of the industry.

Producer One and Producer Two wait patiently by the door as the head of a studio currently scoring big adapting dystopian novels for “young adults” (code around town for books written by middle-aged authors who’ve failed at every other genre writing for adults, all of whom have nothing but contempt for teenagers) into big-budget movies makes an offering to the moguls for the success of his newest franchise.

He places the brain of the author upon whose dystopian YA books the franchise will be based.

Producer One recalls reading that the third book has yet to be written.

He idly muses whether the lack of a brain will make a difference in the quality of the writing.

“Did you hear that shit about the ACLU coming to town to ‘investigate’ the industry’s hiring practices?” Producer One asks while they wait.

“No,” Producer Two says. “What about them?”

“They’re ‘gendered’ or whatever the bleeding-heart word is. Apparently less than ten percent of all writers and directors are women.”

“We can’t get it any lower than that,” Producer Two complains. “A few are bound to slip they now and then. It’s not a foolproof system.”

“No, they’re saying it should be more.”

“Oh.” It still takes a moment for the realization to fully sink in. “Oh! Fuck them.”

“I know, right? It’s exhausting enough spending all day pretending to care about gays and minorities, now I have to fire some idiot I know we can control with some bitch who won’t listen to us?”

He’s quiet a moment, then: “ACLU. Investigation. My bleached asshole. Who do they think they are, Philip Marlowe? What’re they gonna do, send me a sternly worded email? Write an op-ed in LA Magazine? Fuck ’em.”

Producer Two flicks her chin at the conference table. “Makes you long for their day,” she says.

Producer One frowns. “These fossils?” he says in the most hushed of voices. “Please. We’re answering to a higher power now.”

“No joke,” she agrees.

They both duck as necrotic Irving Thalberg, the original “Boy Wonder” Hollywood mogul, angrily hurls the brain offered by the studio head across the room. It hits the wall behind them with a sickening “splat.”

Producer One shakes his head as the studio boss scurries past, disappearing through the doors leading out of the conference room in shame and fear.

“Never bring them book authors.”

“Let alone a ‘sci-fi’ author,” Producer Two says, flabbergasted. “What was he thinking?”

“Fuck him. We’re up.”

A ghoulish attendant beckons them both to the vacant end of the conference table.

The producers approach it with what they hope looks like reverence.

Producer Two raises her arms ceremonially. “Our film is Authority over Unclean Spirits.

Producer One holds aloft a small ornate box as an offering.

“The ashes of a thousand film and television bloggers!” he announces grandly.

A murmured wave of interest and approval passes around the table of undead moguls.

Producer One places the box on the tabletop.

Producer Two hands him a decades-old, out-of-circulation thousand-dollar bill rolled into a tight cylinder.

He places it gingerly atop the box and slides it down the long length of the table.

Jack Warner stops it with a slap of his gray-black, craggy hand. He pinches the G-note awkwardly between two dead fingertips and gruffly flips open the lid of the box.

The mogul snorts half a gram of the mixed ashes inside through the rolled-up bill and then his left nostril. His black pool eyes roll back in his rotted head, which tilts into the plush leather of his chair’s headrest as euphoria rushes through his decaying form.

The producers smile at each other.

“Jackpot,” Producer One silently mouths.

A few minutes later they’re trekking down the stairs of the famous landmark studio water tower inside which the mogul’s conference room temple is hidden.

“So we’re all set for the premiere party, yes?” Producer One asks. “We’ve got a helluva lot more riding on it than on that bullshit back in there.”

“We’re locked and loaded,” she assures him. “Their party planner used to be hot shit out here years back, I guess. Before a half-dozen guests died at one of her events. She couldn’t get arrested after that. Anyway, she’s frothing at the mouth to do an industry party again. I couldn’t shut her up.”

“Sweet. That should make things easier.”

“Did you ever eat at any of Luck’s restaurants back in the day?” Producer Two asks.

“Nope. Met him a couple times when he was out here, saw that show he had. His food any good?”

“Oh, epic. I’m stoked we’re not killing them all till after dinner.”

Excerpted from Pride’s Spell © Matt Wallace, 2016
This excerpt originally appeared on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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