Matthew S. Rotundo is the author of The Prison World Revolt series—Petra, Petra Released, and Petra Rising. His short fiction has appeared in Alembical 3, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future Volume XXV. He is a 1998 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Matt lives in Nebraska.

Wet Work by Matthew S. Rotundo

They call themselves the Unseen.

In every major city in the world, they lurk—scheming, controlling…and feeding.

Emily Gordon knows them all too well. A pillar of the Omaha community, she is the wealthy and respected founder of a local shelter for homeless teenagers. No one knows the source of her fortune, nor what she did before she came to town. But that past resurfaces the night one of her charges is found brutally murdered, and she learns to her horror that the Unseen are involved.

They have set their sights on Omaha. And Emily is the only one who can stop them.

As werewolves, demons, and other dark forces align against her, Emily fights to keep from reverting to the woman she once was. But with the Unseen, it always comes down to wet work. She'll have to risk the new life she has built for herself to have any chance of defeating them.



  • "Fans of Jim Butcher will love this fast-paced supernatural thriller, filled with just the right balance of horror and heart."

    – New York Journal of Books
  • "An awesome read for fans of supernatural mystery!"

    – Amazon Customer
  • "Quite possibly the best book I've read this year."

    – Amazon Customer



Emily Gordon sat among the trees with her eyes closed, trying to remember the words to begin the incantation. She focused her attention inward, pushing aside her doubt and fear, knowing neither would avail her. Time was short, and if her guess was right, she had much still to do before dawn.

Though the night was unseasonably mild for mid-April in Omaha, the coolness of the hard ground seeped through her jeans and sent a chill through her body. The evening breeze whistled through the branches of the surrounding trees of Elmwood Park, just now getting their new buds. The remains of last autumn's leaves stirred and swirled. She smelled earth and a faint whiff of woodsmoke—likely from a nearby house's fireplace.

The area—off the myriad paths winding through the park, away from the streetlights—had been easy enough to find, thanks to the perimeter of yellow police tape that had been wrapped around four tree trunks in a large, crooked rectangle, marking the scene where Marti Leone's body had been found.


No. She had to shut that out. She needed total concentration for the task at hand. No officers stood sentry around the scene, but they would patrol the park much more frequently tonight. She figured she had ten or fifteen minutes, at best, to make this work.

She didn't think she would need to cross the perimeter. It was enough to know that the son of a bitch responsible for Marti's murder had walked these grounds, had dumped the body here. He'd been good, whoever he was.

"Left no trace of himself," Detective Adam Cahill had told her. "Not even a footprint."

Adam worked on the OPD's Special Victims Unit, which was coordinating with Homicide on this case, as it involved a minor. Emily and Adam had developed a working relationship that had over the years morphed into mutual respect and even friendship.

Adam had been the one to call Emily, to let her know that Marti's body had been found.

No. Emily had no time for it. She needed the incantation, and she needed it now.

But God, it had been so long ago—a past life, one that she had thought laid to rest.

She'd done the incantation only a handful of times, but had never forgotten how it had felt to channel that unknown energy. It was burned into a part of her memory she had, through years of diligent practice, sealed off from her conscious thoughts.

The words were in an ancient Unseen tongue, a language developed before humankind began walking upright. They couldn't even be considered words, really. They were more like guttural rumblings, deep in the back of the throat, difficult and even painful to form. Emily took a deep breath and began.

She broke off the first few attempts after only seconds. They were too high-pitched. She had to reach the very lowest registers of her vocal range. On the fourth try, she finally hit the right tone.

The breeze died; the air around her seemed to thicken. It became easier to concentrate. For the moment, she forgot about the cold, hard ground, about sitting in the middle of Elmwood Park next to a murder scene while most of the city slept, about being discovered here, where she had no place being. She focused inward and inward, the nonwords of the ancient spell taking on a palpable weight in her mouth as she spoke them. Her sensory inputs faded.

The incantation, when done properly, would allow her to divine what had happened here. It would be as if the earth and trees could show her what they had seen.

The murder hadn't occurred in the park; Adam had told her that much. Marti's body, naked but not violated, had merely been dumped here, wrapped in plastic. But with any luck, Emily would see who had done the dumping and perhaps pick up a clue as to why it had happened in the first place.

She continued chanting, though she struggled to maintain proper pitch. The language was difficult to control. Once, in another life, she'd been better at it. But even then, she'd never grown particularly skilled. It hadn't been a regular part of the job.

Her instincts told her that the inward focus had gone about as far as she could expect it to go. She had attained a kind of balance, but it was precarious, teetering. It was now or never.

She finally allowed herself to think of Marti.

Marti Leone. Fifteen years old, one month shy of her sixteenth. Wavy blonde hair, pale skin, large eyes that always seemed on the verge of tears. Petite build. She had liked to wear flowing dresses when she could, but such were in very short supply in her situation.

She had come out to her parents a year ago. Outraged and scandalized, those good Christian souls had thrown her out of the house. When she'd walked into The Bridge Shelter for Homeless Teens for a meal, she'd been emaciated and dehydrated, barely able to walk, filthy, hair matted, wearing only the tattered remains of the clothes she'd had on her back the day she'd been put on the street.

That had been in August. Had she not finally come to The Bridge, she would have been dead of malnutrition long before the Omaha winter would have finished her off.


She'd arrived at The Bridge terrified and traumatized by her ordeal. She hardly ever spoke, and then only in a voice barely above a whisper. But she'd blossomed at The Bridge. An honors student before the disaster struck, she had been far too advanced for the shelter's tutors. The volunteer teacher who oversaw the program had advised Emily of Marti's obvious intellectual gifts and started the girl on college-level coursework. Marti had excelled. That, more than any of the counseling sessions, had been the most effective therapy. She'd remained ever wary of adults, even Emily, but the gay population at the shelter had embraced her and provided her with the support system she'd needed.

Marti would have been a scholarship candidate had she lived.

She hadn't reported for bed check two nights ago. Emily had been immediately concerned. Marti had vanished on previous occasions, but the last time had been months ago. Emily had reported it to the police, of course, and Marti's friends at the shelter had promised to look for her, but the hard truth was that if Marti had for whatever reason decided she didn't want to be found, she probably wouldn't be.

At some point that night, she had run into the wrong person. Whoever it had been crushed her skull with a blunt instrument—a baseball bat, most likely.

But that hadn't been the worst of it. That wasn't why Emily sat at a crime scene in Elmwood Park in the middle of the night.

Since founding The Bridge Shelter for Homeless Teens ten years ago, Emily Gordon had seen more tragic teenage deaths than she cared to count—from exposure, overdoses, gang violence, and more. She had become, if not inured to it, at least able to continue functioning in the face of horrible news that would have debilitated most people.

Her past life might have had something to do with that.

So when she'd received the call from Adam Cahill, informing her that own of her own had been found dead in Elmwood Park, she'd taken it in stride, feeling the familiar cold calm settle over her. She'd been at a local country club, attending a black-tie fundraiser for City Councilman and mayoral candidate Jack Fontana, a longtime friend and ally. As Adam had related the news, Emily had glanced down at the wine-colored, strapless gown she wore, shook her head, and headed for the exit as quietly and unobtrusively as she could.

She'd driven straight to the coroner's office, where Adam had filled her in on the rest.

After bashing in Marti Leone's brains, her killer had slashed her throat and drained all the blood from her body.

"Strange," Adam had said to Emily. "I mean, it's almost clinical. A clean cut, real precise. No ragged edges, no sign of hackwork. The blade had to be sharp—probably a scalpel. Like a doctor would do it…if doctors did this sort of shit."

Emily's breath had slowed as she listened. Something must have shown on her face, because Adam had leaned in close and put a steadying hand on her upper arm. "Jesus, Em, I'm sorry. I forget who I'm talking to sometimes."

Adam was younger than her—the youngest detective on the force, in fact, and the only black man at that rank—and still had a boyish charm about him. Even his thin, soup-strainer mustache seemed like it belonged to a teenager who had neglected to shave for a few days. Emily had smiled, though she was sure it looked wan and unconvincing to him. "I'm all right."

"We've worked together a lot; I think of you like another detective. Sorry."

"I'm fine." But she wasn't. She had gone cold at Adam's recitation of the details. She had been tempted to run for her car in that moment. She'd willed herself to stop jumping to conclusions. "So," she'd said, "something like this…would you call it unprecedented?"

Adam had taken a step back and shrugged. "I'm Special Victims, not Homicide. I don't know if it's unprecedented, exactly, but I've never seen anything like it. It reminds me of some kind of cult killing, like you read about, you know?"

Emily knew. Too well.

Others—like Adam, for instance—might have been able to dismiss it as occult weirdness or random psychosis—but only because they didn't know of the Unseen.

She'd excused herself then, telling Adam she needed to get to the shelter and make some phone calls.

In truth, she'd gone home, gotten out of her evening gown, and taken a long shower. Her cell phone chirped and rang repeatedly—numerous notifications, texts, and even some calls coming in. She'd ignored them and silenced the device.

While showering, she'd tried to talk sense to herself. She'd gotten some hard news, and she wasn't thinking clearly. She had no real reason to think what she was thinking, no real reason to suspect the Unseen were somehow involved. It made no sense, anyway. There were no Unseen in Omaha. It was one of the reasons she had come here in the first place. The primary reason, actually. It was as far as she could get from both New York and California.

She'd remained in the shower until the hot water had run out. As she'd gotten out and toweled herself off, her mind still turning to dark, unspeakable possibilities, she'd realized that she could not simply rationalize it all away. Marti's murder was more than likely the work of some lone psychopath, but if there was even a chance that larger forces were involved, she had to know. Besides, even if the lone psycho theory proved true, the bastard might decide to target another of her kids at some point.

So she'd spent another hour sitting in the dark in her living room, trying to figure out what to do about it. And that was when, as long-suppressed memories tumbled unbidden and unwelcome through her head, she'd recalled the divination incantation.

Without a second thought, she'd dressed and headed for Elmwood Park, where the killer had dumped Marti after taking her blood.

Here. Right here. Not more than twenty-four hours ago. A woman who'd been out walking her dog had discovered the body.

"Marti," Emily whispered. Eyes still closed, she put out a hand, reaching for the nearest tree. Its bark was rough and gnarled.

Images flashed past her mind's eye, gone too quickly for her to identify. Random. Half-seen glimpses of daylight, of what may have been laughing children, of birds, rabbits, squirrels.

Her control was slipping, the balance tipping. She chanted the incantation again, grasping for the center within her. "Marti," she said again. "Marti Leone." She allowed the girl's memory to fill her.

Another flash, this one a night scene. Shadows upon shadows. Some strange shape moving, nearing.

It was gone.

Emily grunted the incantation yet again. Her throat would hurt badly later, she knew from past experience, but she set that aside.

She saw that strange shape in the darkness again, in a series of rapid images. She took a moment to realize that she was seeing it from a multitude of angles. And a moment later, she understood what she saw—a human figure carrying a large, unwieldy burden.

It faded again, to be replaced by a barrage of other images. They came at her too fast to control—disconcerting, disorienting. She had no time to register one before the next. She could only watch, helpless.

In many of them, she thought she saw that figure, sometimes carrying the burden, sometimes not. She never saw the face, could not even glimpse the clothing he/she/it wore. Other flashes made no sense to her at all—mostly black, unfocused, the faintest hint of a shape or a glint of light off to one side.

And then, out of all the myriad visions the incantation presented, she spotted one single, recognizable object. She seized on it, grabbed for it before it could fade away.

Doing so ruined the balance, shattered the spell. It shut off as if a switch had been thrown, and Emily was fully back in Elmwood Park, at a crime scene, and she had no business being there.

Breathing hard, she opened her eyes. She was no longer sitting, but standing inside the perimeter of yellow tape, in the very center of it. At her feet, even in the faint backwash of light from the streetlamps over the nearby path, she could see that the grass had been flattened, as if something heavy had lain here.

But she still had that last image in her mind, the one she'd grabbed for: a hand holding a key attached to a large, diamond-shaped fob. Bright red, bearing a clear legend in yellow letters: Dodge Tower Inn. And beneath that, a number: 125.

Dodge Tower Inn. She knew the place—or knew of it, anyway. A dive near downtown, rumored to be a favorite locale for drug deals.

The killer, having disposed of his burden, had dug in his pocket for his car keys, and come up with his motel room key instead. Or so Emily hoped. It was all she had to go on.

Footsteps approached from the direction of the path.

Emily retreated into the deeper shadows, getting on the right side of the police tape and ducking behind a tree.

The footfalls neared, then stopped. She flattened against the tree, stilling her breath. Her hammering heart seemed so loud that for an irrational moment she feared the newcomer would hear it.

She caught sight of a bobbing flashlight beam, probing the woods. It lingered for a few moments in one spot, then another, then swept the entire crime scene again. The beam snapped off with a click, and the footfalls resumed, heading down the path.

Emily forced herself to wait a full minute, counting out the seconds, before releasing the pent-up air in her lungs. She risked peeking, and glimpsed the retreating back of a uniformed man.

She waited another full minute before breaking cover. She had parked on the street, in the direction the cop had taken. She would have to loop the long way around. Impatience and anxiety built in her as she hurried, holding the last image from her vision in her mind.

* * *

Dodge Tower Inn was a two-story structure, built in a T-shape. Black and red graffiti tagged the crumbling brick of its foundation. The cracked marquee indicated vacancies. The parking lot was brightly lit and mostly empty. A tall dumpster in the corner stood open to the night, reeking.

Traffic past the motel was sporadic at this late hour, punctuated by the occasional bass thump of a car stereo. Once again, Emily parked on the street and walked to the parking lot, remaining on the unlit fringes. She had no fear of running into potential muggers or rapists, certain she could handle them if they came along, but she should avoid being seen. It wasn't likely that anyone in this part of town would recognize her; she didn't figure the sort of clientele this place would attract to be very interested in community organizing or the upcoming election. Still, no sense in taking stupid chances.

She found Room 125 toward the back of the motel, near the reeking dumpster. A silver BMW was parked in front of the door, bearing an out of state plate. The curtained window was dark.

Emily slipped behind the dumpster for a closer look at the car. The smell here was strong enough to gag, but she knew it well enough to disregard it. Certainly she had gone through her share of garbage during her own time living on the streets, so many years ago.

Squinting, she could just make out the design on the license plate—Illinois.

A BMW, parked at a dump like this. The owner was either supremely stupid or supremely arrogant. Her unease, already strong, deepened even further.

It didn't mean anything. She had no way of knowing whether the person in that room was the killer. More than likely the murdering bastard had checked out of the motel last night and put as much distance between him and Omaha as he could.

Unless Emily was right. Unless the Unseen were somehow involved.

And here was an upscale vehicle from out of town, from Chicago, probably. Big-city money—that fit the profile for a Stalker. Although why a Stalker would be operating in Omaha was beyond her.

A light came on in the window for Room 125.

Emily swallowed hard and checked her watch. It was 12:45 a.m. She hunkered down next to the dumpster and waited.

Five minutes passed. Ten. She discerned silhouettes moving beyond the curtain.

The door opened.

A woman stepped out, dressed in a skintight top, black miniskirt, and heels. The outfit accentuated some rolls in her midsection, but it showed off the merchandise, which of course was the point.

In the doorway stood a man, shirtless and lanky, but with good muscle tone. The light coming from the room hid his face in shadow. He said something to the woman that Emily couldn't make out. The woman blew him a kiss and walked away, staggering a little as she went. Her heels clicked on the pavement.

The man lingered in the doorway, watching her go. Something about his manner struck a chord in Emily. Her anxiety segued to outright alarm, though she didn't know why.

The sex worker turned a corner and was gone. The man chuckled and went back inside, closing the door behind him.

Old instincts took over. Emily forgot about her doubt and fear. She looked over the motel and the parking lot one last time to ensure she could cross to Room 125 without being observed. All the other windows on this side of the building were dark, the parking lot was empty but for her, and even the street had gone momentarily quiet.

She moved.

Cat-quick, she reached the door, knocked, and stood aside.

A muffled voice called out: "That you, darlin'? You forget something?"

Oh, God, that voice. Emily hadn't heard it in over ten years, but she recognized it all the same. The Cajun accent was unmistakable. Emily tensed.

The door opened again. "I didn't see nuthin' in—" The man caught sight of her and froze.

Emily saw what she expected to see—the tousled dark hair, the half-smile, the goatee. Paulie Thibodeaux, in the flesh. She smelled whiskey on his breath.

"Gibbons? Eleanor Gibbons?"

She struck him in the gut, hard, driving him back into the room. In a single swift motion, she stepped in, too, and let the door fall shut behind her.

Paulie gasped for breath, eyes gone wide. But his gaze took a half second too long to track—the booze impairing him. Before he could think to defend himself, Emily reached out with both hands, seized his head, and wrenched it hard to the right. His neck snapped. Paulie Thibodeaux dropped to the floor, unmoving.

Emily stood over the body, breathing hard, watching for any hint of movement. It had been a long time since she'd killed. She couldn't be certain that she still had the knack. Paulie's eyes, wide open and glassy, stared past her.

After a few minutes, she knelt and felt at Paulie's neck for a pulse. Finding none, she nodded. "Don't call me Eleanor," she whispered. "Not anymore. Eleanor's gone. Like you, Paulie." And she closed his staring eyes.

She stood, glanced around. In her mind, she began assembling a list of next steps. It had been a while since she'd killed, but some things one never forgot how to do. She still had a very long night ahead of her.