THE DAY LADDIN GOT RECRUITED
(Eight weeks before Lake Wacka Wacka becomes a problem)
“You want me to put wallpaper on the teahouse wall,” Laddin Holt said. Though he didn’t phrase it as a question, his tone all but screamed, Are you serious?
Bing Wen Hao nodded. The man was producer and lead actor for the Red Wolf: Origin movie. He was also a stickler for detail and Laddin’s boss. “China invented wallpaper. This room would have a textile-type wallpaper.”
“But the wall is only seen when it gets blown up. It’s on screen for ten seconds at most.”
Bing Wen Hao merely looked at him, his face an impassive mask. But Laddin had been working shoulder to shoulder with the guy for two months now. He could read Bing’s opinion in the smallest shift of his chin, and on this point, Bing was being irrationally stubborn.
“It will take me hours,” Laddin said, still hoping to reach some sane part in his boss’s brain. “I have a dozen other things to do today.”
No-go. Bing was overwhelmed with anxiety because some Chinese bigwig was coming this afternoon. And when the boss got anxious, everybody suffered.
“Details matter,” Bing stressed.
Laddin knew that. He was the king of details, which was why he’d gotten the job of assistant director on this indie kung fu movie. It was quite a step up from being the explosives guy on five failed action shows. He was in charge of everything that wasn’t acting or camera placement. That meant the entire set design was his department, and he refused to fail now just because his boss was being irrational.
“Perhaps we could try different lighting—” he suggested, but Bing wasn’t going to let that pass.
“If you cannot do it, perhaps someone else will be able to.”
Laddin ground his teeth. Those words—or versions of it—had plagued him his entire life. His right hand was deformed, with his middle and fourth finger never growing beyond infant size. The docs had never given a good explanation of why. They suspected a growth plate break or a congenital birth defect. Didn’t change that his hand looked deformed. At first he’d hated himself for his handicap. But thanks to his mother, he realized it didn’t limit his ability to do anything he wanted to do. And yet, other people always questioned his capabilities.
“I can have it done by noon,” he snapped. “But you hired me to tell you when something doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t make sense. Not for ten seconds of screen time.”
He waited in silence as Bing stared at him. His boss’s expression was blank, but there was a whole lot of something going on inside his head. It was excruciating, standing there waiting, but patience was one of Laddin’s strengths, and eventually he was rewarded.
“You are correct,” Bing finally said. “Continue with your assigned tasks.”
Score one for the underling with nerves of steel. And then, to show Bing he wasn’t an asshole, Laddin offered a compromise. “I can roll a faint design onto the wall that will make it look like faded wallpaper. Shouldn’t take more than a half hour.”
Bing gave him a nod—his version of “thank you”—and then moved off to do his own work.
Though Laddin was annoyed by the man’s obsessive attention to a detail, he couldn’t fault Bing’s work ethic. The guy lived on the set night and day, working to make this movie as spectacular as possible on a very tiny budget.
And that meant Laddin had to start painting ASAP. He’d just grabbed the roller brush when his morning call from his grandmother came through.
“Hello, Grandmama. I’m still alive.”
“Oh, you poor baby. It still hasn’t happened.”
He chuckled because really, what else could he do? “Most grandmothers would be happy that their only grandchild is still around.”
“You’re not going to die, Laddin. How many times do I have to tell you that?” Her voice settled into her performance tone. Grandmama was a psychic by profession, and sometimes—most times—she needed to put on a show. “The day we realized your hand was different, I had a vision. The great Angel Charoum whispered to me that in your twenty-eighth year, you would transform into something magic—”
“I’m really busy right now. We’re supposed to start filming tomorrow, and everyone’s on edge.” He knew his grandmother hated being interrupted, and usually he’d let her prattle on, but he didn’t have the time today.
“Don’t despair, Laddin. It will happen for you. I know it will. There are still two months left before your birthday. You remember who Charoum is, yes?”
“He’s the Angel of Silence.” Of course he knew. Charoum’s prediction had been the topic of discussion for nearly every day of his twenty-eight years.
“Exactly! And when the Angel of Silence speaks, it’s very important to listen.”
“Yes, Grandmama.” And he had listened his whole life as everyone speculated on what the vision could mean. Most thought he would die, but Grandmama had insisted he’d transform into a magical being.
For the past ten months, his mother and grandmother had called every day to make sure he still breathed. Laddin just wanted it to be over. Death, rebirth, or becoming a crazed leprechaun—it didn’t matter to him so long as something happened, because at this point, he was pretty sure he’d spent his entire life anticipating an event that his grandmama had imagined to add excitement to her only grandson’s birth. And if it created endless speculation about his twenty-eighth year, then so much the better for her.
Him, not so much.
He was about to invent an excuse to get off the phone, but then it vibrated in his hand. A quick look had him rolling his eyes, but he knew he had to answer it. “I’m sorry, Grandmama. Mom’s calling. I have to tell her I’m still breathing.”
“Of course, Laddin. Don’t worry. It’ll happen soon.”
“I’m sure it will,” he lied. Then he clicked over to his mother. “Hi, Mom. I’m still alive.”
Seven long hours later, most of the day’s to-do list was finished, the Chinese bigwig was here and wasting everyone’s time, and Laddin was taking a much-needed break, sitting in his work area and going through the special effects for tomorrow’s scenes.
Suddenly a deep voice said, “Aladdin Holt?”
“Don’t touch anything,” he grumbled. It was what he always said when someone walked into his work area. He didn’t look up until he was done with the C-4, but when he finally did, he wished he hadn’t.
Two guys stood in his work area. One wore stripper pants; the other had on some sort of Doctor Strange outfit. “You want the set next door. They’re doing that Game of Thrones wannabe thing.”
Doctor Strange grinned. “We know. Where do you think we got these outfits?”
The stripper—whose torso was movie-worthy—shook his head. “He’s joking. They had way better stuff than this crap. Still, these getups allowed us to fit in while we found you.”
Well, that changed their category in Laddin’s mind from “thieves” to “groupies.” They were both beautiful enough to be actors, but neither of them had the charm. Which meant they were hangers-on who looked for odd jobs so they could participate in the movie magic.
Laddin pulled a business card out of his pocket and handed it over. “Here’s my email address. Send me your résumés and I’ll look them over.” It wouldn’t help them, though. He’d never work with a guy who wore stripper pants, and Doctor Strange was already poking into things on the electrical bench. “I asked you not to touch anything.”
The guy raised his hands and wiggled them in the air. “Not touching. Just sniffing.” Then he gestured at the Quit Slackin’ and Make It Happen poster taped to the back of Laddin’s door. “It’s like a Successories warehouse exploded in here. Tell us, Mr. Holt, do you find moviemaking a little lacking in magic these days? If so, we’ve got a deal for you!”
There was a dryness to his tone that set Laddin’s hackles on edge. What did this asshole care if he found expecting to die hard to take? “You need to leave here now,” he said, his patience exhausted. He advanced. He was small compared to the guy in stripper pants, but he was fast, and he had some frustration to work out.
Fortunately Stripper Pants held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Ignore Wiz. He’s an ass. My name’s Nero, and we’re here to offer you a job. It’s rewarding work, saving the world. That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. You’d be doing good for a lot of innocent people.”
God, could they get any more annoying? Every asshole in Hollywood thought their movie idea would change the world. “I’ve already got a job, and even if I didn’t, this”—he flicked his fingers at the guy’s clothes—“doesn’t impress me.”
Wiz grinned. “Didn’t think it would. But how about we try this?” The guy whipped out a three-ring binder and started chanting cheesy fantasy crap.
Laddin had absolutely no time for this nonsense. He grabbed stripper boy’s arm and yanked him around into a choke hold.
Or he tried to. Normally people underestimated his strength, given that he was a small guy among the tall, dark, and handsome actors in Hollywood. But when he got a hold of a guy’s arm, he held on with a death grip that usually took everyone by surprise.
Not this time. Sure, he managed a quick grab, but Nero was more than a match for him. The guy probably spent all his time in the gym, because Laddin’s best wrestling moves did nothing. Hell, the guy didn’t even bend. Which left Laddin standing there, holding on to the big guy’s wrist and thinking, WTF?
Then Wiz finished whatever the hell he was saying with a grand flourish, and both men froze as if waiting for something to happen.
Laddin waited too. It was force of habit. Grandmama often said things with a flourish, and it was only polite to wait for the dramatic results. But he didn’t have any patience left today.
“I’m calling security,” he said as he pulled the walkie-talkie off his hip.
Nero grabbed his hand and held him firm, but turned to look at Wiz. “What the hell happened?”
Wiz was frowning as he looked down at his binder in confusion. “I don’t know. I said it right.”
“Damn it!” Nero growled. “Call Gelpack!”
“I am!” Wiz said as he started texting one-handed.
Laddin had had enough. He broke the grip on his wrist and pulled up the walkie-talkie. He had one hand on the button, then suddenly stopped, his eyes widening in shock.
Goo oozed around and under the door to his work area. It moved fast and with purpose. Laddin had spent his entire career on a Hollywood set, but this was something he’d never, ever, seen before. Hell, it was worthy of The Shining. He gasped and shrank back, the gesture bumping him into Nero, who took the opportunity to grab the walkie-talkie with one hand and restrain Laddin with the other.
“Don’t worry. He’s with us,” Nero said as the goo formed into the vague shape of a human.
“What is it?” Laddin gasped, but no one answered. They were too busy talking to each other.
“Why didn’t it work?” Nero demanded.
“I said it exactly right,” Wiz said, his tone defensive.
“Unless it’s him?” Nero said, looking back at Laddin.
“You think it’s the wrong spell?” Wiz asked.
There was an edge of controlled panic to both their voices, as if they were worried but used to working things out on the fly. And all the while, Laddin just stared at the goo as it turned to look at him. It didn’t even have eyes but the vague impression of orb indents, and yet Laddin would swear it was staring straight at him.
“What are your feelings at this moment?” the gel-like thing warbled.
Nero groaned. “Not now.”
“I cannot understand his emotions. I will fix the spell if he explains.”
“Later—” Nero grumbled, but the gel thing paid him no heed. It advanced on Laddin with steps like a man’s, though it appeared more like a mold that had been filled with water—fluid, liquid. If he’d seen it on the big screen, he’d have called it cheesy. But in real life, it made the hair on the back of his head stand up in terror.
And then the truth hit him full force.
Today was the day. He either died or transformed into…. “Magic,” he breathed, seeing his grandmother’s prophesy play out before him. Then he laughed, though the sound had a hysterical edge to it. “It’s today!”
“Um, yeah, this is magic,” Nero said, confusion in his tone. “Well, the spell was. He’s—”
Laddin shrugged. Either one worked for him. “I’m not going to die,” he said as he started taking deep, relieved breaths. His grandmother’s prophesy was coming true, and it didn’t involve him coming to a painful end. Relief sent waves of giddiness through him.
“Not intentionally. It could still happen by accident,” Wiz muttered. Then he peered at Laddin. “Are you okay? Maybe the spell did do something. Maybe—”
“The spell was ineffective,” the transparent creature said. “You did not say it with clear intent.”
“The hell I didn’t!” Wiz huffed. “I intend for this guy to become a werewolf. I intend to get it over with so we can move on to the next guy. I intend to get myself a really stiff drink after this is all—”
Laddin’s head snapped up. “A werewolf? Really?” The idea was exciting in a terrifying kind of way.
Nero twisted him around. “You believe in weres?”
Behind him, Wiz snorted. “This is Hollywood. People here believe everything.”
“We do not!” Laddin snapped, the reaction automatic. It was his grandmama who believed everything. And had taught it to him.
The gel thing addressed him. “I do not understand your emotions. Most people are frightened.” He raised his hand and extended it toward Laddin, who immediately choked on his giddiness. Except it wasn’t giddiness anymore. The sight of that clear ooze coming close to his face was terrifying, and he squeaked in alarm.
“That is better,” the thing said. “The spell should work now. His pattern has settled into fear.” The head spun toward Wiz. Not the body, not the shoulders, just the head—Exorcist-style. “Fear will make it stronger, to be sure.”
Nero blew out a heavy breath. “We were trying to do this nicely. Without trauma!”
“That was never going to happen,” Wiz grumbled.
“Shut up and do the spell again. With intent this time!”
Wiz started speaking, his words a mesmerizing mix of nonsense and real words. Laddin focused on it rather than the gel-like horror before him. Nothing here was odd, he told himself. In fact, he’d been waiting his entire life for this very moment. He felt his shoulders relax and his breath steady.
“He is not frightened enough,” the alien said. “His mind appears to be unusually accepting. Are you sure this is the right man?”
“Yes!” Nero snapped. “It’s Hollywood, for God’s sake. Who knows what people here think is true? For all we know, you’re not his first alien.”
“That is most unusual,” the thing said, and there was interest in his warbled voice. “I should like to probe this further.”
Laddin had no idea if it was intentional or not, but the word probe exploded in his mind and tightened areas of his body into hard knots of terror.
“Much better,” the alien said as he turned toward Wiz. “You may finish now.”
Wiz did. His voice rose with an impressive crescendo while his free hand danced in the air. Then there was a boom. Not an audible boom but a vibration that affected Laddin more than the biggest car explosion he’d ever pulled off.
His muscles quivered and his bones rattled with the power of it. His throat closed off and his shoulders hunched. But inside, he was still caught up in Grandmama’s prediction. Finally, the batty old woman had been proven right, and that made him happy. She may have plagued his childhood with one wacky idea after another, but in this, she was 100 percent right.
“Do not be so calm,” the alien warbled. “Otherwise you will die.”
The line was so stupid that it actually made Laddin loosen up even more. His cells were bathed in an electric current that was almost fun as it coursed through his body in erratic and uncertain patterns. But before he could fully relax, a sound filled the room—a guttural roar like that of a beast. It was harsh and terrified, but the fury in the roar spiked Laddin’s adrenaline. That was the sound of a creature about to attack. And from the depth of the noise, he knew it wasn’t a small animal.
In fact, it sounded like a very pissed-off wolf.
The others must have had the same thought. Wiz and Nero stared at each other in shock. The alien, however, seemed to settle more firmly into its form as he warbled.
“Much better. You will survive now.” Then he looked at the other men. “The other one will die without help.”
“What other one?” Nero demanded. Then he waved off an answer, pointing hard at Wiz. “You watch this one. Gelpack, you’re with me. At least you can get a leg ripped off without dying.”
The alien oozed toward the door. “It is hard to stabilize a werewolf while being dismembered, but I will try.”
Laddin turned to help. After all, this was his set, his workplace. But his body moved strangely. His head was tilted too far forward, and his vision was different—more side to side, less in front. His balance was off because his hands were taking weight.
He looked down and saw fur and paws, and when he gasped, his tongue was too long and his nose… mamma mia, the scents! He could smell everything! He started spinning, stumbling as he tried to maneuver. His backside was wiggling, and he kept trying to stand up to see better, but he was a wolf. He couldn’t stand like a man.
He was a wolf! The joy of that flooded his body, and he yipped in excitement. There was so much to explore. Not just his body, but everything in his office was new. Dust bunnies and spilled soda, cracker crumbs and gunpowder. He couldn’t decide what to smell first.
“Settle down!” Wiz exclaimed as he knelt down with his arms wide. “You’re going to break something! And in here, who knows what you’ll set off.”
That sank in. His office was filled with explosive charges and delicate electronics for special effects. He’d spent hours organizing things in the most logical and safe manner. The last thing he wanted was to mess that up. So he stilled, though not quite frozen. His backside was wiggling back and forth. It took him a moment to realize that it was his tail whipping around behind him. And with that knowledge came the need to see, so he twisted around to could look. But then his ass turned as well, and he was spinning like a top.
Wiz groaned. “They always have to see their tail. Hold still! I’ll grab it so you can see it. I’ve never seen a happier wolf in my life.”
There was a sharp tug on his butt, hard enough to make him yip in surprise, and then he lunged forward to bite. It wasn’t a conscious movement. Hell, nothing he did right now was conscious. It was all instinct. The more he thought about moving anything, the less he was able to do it. But he lunged and nearly took a hunk out of Wiz’s hand.
Fortunately the guy was fast. One second his hand was right there, the next it was gripping Laddin’s muzzle tight.
“There’ll be none of that!” he snapped. “But now that I’ve got you….”
Something sharp stabbed him hard in the neck. A hypodermic needle, he realized as Wiz abruptly stood holding the thing high. Laddin growled in annoyance, but Wiz just shook his head.
“You’re a new pup. We need to get you into a safe environment. Then you can chase your tail all you want.”
Lethargy was growing fast. It was becoming harder and harder to stay standing, and damn it, his head was dropping too. He whined, high-pitched and mournful, but that was all the sound he got out before he flopped onto the floor. He could see his paws spread out before him, but he couldn’t move them. And pretty soon his head lolled to the side. He tried to keep his eyes open. If nothing else, there was so much to see from this angle. And the smells….
Too late. He was going under.
But the good news still echoed through his heart, and his last conscious thoughts were joyous.
Grandmama had been right! He’d transformed into something magic! And being a werewolf was fun, fun, fun!