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Excerpt from

The Serpent Sigil

Chapter One


          She was a vision in white lace and fake pearls and shiny, black, stiletto-heeled boots; the kind of boot that caressed her legs from toe to mid-thigh; the kind of boot and that any man might be excused for wanting to be pinned beneath. With her tumbled cloud of golden curls and those lush, red lips—not to mention the matching nails that looked ready to rake sweet havoc down someone's back—she was the hottest thing he'd seen in maybe three thousand years.

           At least, that's what the demon-in-residence inside my head kept telling me, in between making his sick suggestions for all the things I should be doing with her. Bend her over the hood of one of those cars lining the alley, that was one example. Shove her up against that brick wall over there, that was another. Either way, he made it clear it made no difference to him, just as long as I stopped dicking around and got down to it soon.

           If I preferred, he was even open to the idea of my tossing her over the pommel of my saddle and riding off in search of some secluded, woodland glade where we could both enjoy her at our leisure. But, quickly now, before her kinsmen have a chance to mount up and give chase.

            It was at that point I started laughing. 'Cause, 'scuse me? Saddles? Glades? Oh, yeah, like that was ever gonna happen. Not in this part of the hood, dawg, no way.

            No horse, you freakin' moron, I reminded the demon. And no woods, neither.

            What's that you say? The demon's displeasure at being laughed at was evident in his tone and a smarter man might have heeded the warning. But the way I see it, you gotta take your laughs where you find 'em. Know what I mean? Especially if you're me. 'Cause, trust me, they don't come often or easy. Kinda like most of the women I know.

            No horse, I repeated, still enjoying a chuckle at his expense. In case you failed to notice, buddy, we ain't exactly in the outback here. For the record, we were in an unmarked and—just for the sheer joy of it—un-air conditioned police surveillance van.

            Truth is, I was glad he'd screwed up. Relieved, even. 'Cause when he gets all hot and bothered, so do I. And I sure didn't need that on a stake out. Distraction was good. Although, to be honest, it wasn't the thought of horses or trees that had broken the spell he'd been attempting to weave around my mind. It was his mention of kinsmen that had done it. For the purposes of my job—which included tonight's operation—I was the vision's kinsman. In a manner of speaking.

            And if you miss screwing around with horses so goddamned much, maybe next time your ignorant ass oughta consider possessing a freakin' cowboy, rather than a city cop.

            If you ask me, though, the old bastard got just what he deserved when he saddled himself with me—no pun intended. Damn loser, preying on kids like that—it ought to be illegal. Actually, I suppose it is. Here. But Oakland's hell and gone from Asgard.

            Pain lanced through my head, as the demon punished me for my disrespect. You mock me at your peril, mortal man. I gritted my teeth. Sure, it felt like my brain was being bathed in acid, and I couldn't stop my eyes from tearing up, just a little, but I refused to rub my temples or show any other sign of weakness. Refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing just how much it hurt but, sonofabitch, didn't he ever grow tired of this crap?

            Something you'd do well to bear in mind, the demon purred. Your petty powers of resistance are as nothing compared to my own. Besides, it was you who came to me. And you were quite old enough to know what you were doing when you chose to dedicate your life to me, to become my physical host on this earthly plane, the vessel for my spirit. Oh, and, one more thing. I am not a demon. I. am. your. god.

              Yeah, yeah, I know. I chose. Don't remind me.

            That part was true enough, I suppose; though not exactly the gig I thought I was signing up for. As for the rest...

            But I see I'm getting ahead of myself. My name is CJ Maclaine, Oakland PD, and I'm a thrall. A vassal. Dedicated to the great god Loki, Lord of Mischief, Fire and Chaos. The Trickster. The Sly One. The Shape Changer. The Sky Traveler. The Hero of Ragnarök. The Bringer of Earthquakes. The Wizard of Lies.

            Yeah, that Loki. Sounds like fun, don't it?

           My story is not actually as uncommon as you might imagine. The son of a deadbeat dad and an alcoholic mother, I was consigned to the tender care of The Department of Child Services when my mom was judged unfit. I told the social workers they were making a big mistake. My job was to take care of her—not the other way around. Hell, even at nine I knew what was what. But who's gonna listen to a kid, right?

            Mom died less than a year after they took me away from her. Just like I knew was gonna happen. She never did remember to eat right if I wasn't there to remind her.

           It was my counselor at the home, Doctor James Camden Knox III, who first introduced me to Norse Mythology. The shelves of his office were lined with any number of strange books on all sorts of weird and wonderful subjects, all of them guaranteed to appeal to a kid who'd already gotten himself hooked on the kind of high only a really good fantasy world could give him.

            At the time, I thought it was all pretty cool. But now, geez, I gotta wonder what in the hell the good doc thought he was achieving, letting me fill my mind with all the crap it would hold. Maybe he thought we were bonding, or some such shit. Maybe he thought he could relate to what I was going through. I was your textbook loner, teased and picked on by the other kids. Beaten up on a pretty much regular basis. Books were my only friends. I suspect, now, that he'd probably been the same way himself once.

            But, if that was the case, he should have known I'd be drawn to good, ol' Loki: outcast, rebel, scapegoat for the gods. He should have realized I would find the dedication ritual--with its convenient, step by step instructions on how to give yourself, body and soul, to the deity of your choice. As desperate as he knew I was to belong to someone, to anyone, it shouldn't have taken all his fancy college education to put two and two together and figure out what would happen next.

            Hell, anybody could have guessed things would end up the way they did; with me kneeling on the grimy, two-toned, blue-on-blue tile of the bathroom floor, my nose bloodied, my knuckles skinned, my ego bruised. Enough was enough, I decided in that moment. It was time to arm myself with a little supernatural back-up. As I watched the blood from my nose drip into the Dixie cup I was using in place of a Sumbel horn, I began to recite the words of the blood oath in my head.

            I wasn't thinking about the future, or the bigger picture. I was thinking about the look of dumb surprise I was gonna put on the big, fat face of my nemesis, Kenny Lutz, next time he took a swing at me.

            Hey, gimme a break, aiiight? I'd just turned thirteen the week before. I was a kid. D'you think I knew that, according to the ancients, I'd reached the age of reason? That anything I did or said, from that point onward, could—and definitely would—be used against me? That, if I took this step, there'd be no turning back?

            Hell, no! I had no freakin' clue it was gonna be that big a deal.

            There was no one to help guide me through the steps. No one to caution me that if I messed up, even a little—a single word spoken out of sequence or with the wrong intonation, the blood spilled at not precisely the right moment, I'd be royally screwed for the rest of my natural born life.

            Which is exactly what happened. Thanks again, Doctor Knox. Good job.

            All it took was one moment of childhood inattention. One slight miscalculation, a failure to consider the consequences of my actions and...Bam! Next thing you know, it's all Loki, all the time up in my dome. It's like I got a 24/7, Sensurround-feed Broadcast goin' on. Like streaming video inside my skull. Like, "Live from Asgard, it's every day of your stinkin' life!"

            Man, I was donions. And all 'cause I mispronounced one little word. 'Cause I said vessel when I was s'posed to say vassal.

            Can you believe that shit?

            Stop whining. It's been fifteen years. You should be resigned to your fate by now. Besides, you're missing something important. Look! Out there in the street. She's in trouble.

            She? I glanced up at the monitor only to realize that, oh, holy crap, the old goat was right. The buy must have already gone down and I musta somehow missed seeing it, 'cause right now the vision (AKA Detective Fiona Hogan, vice cop) was wrestling in the alley with a guy so freakin' big I'm thinking maybe both his parents coulda been NFL linebackers. Or, I dunno, Sumo wrestlers, maybe?

            Perhaps they were giants, my sidekick suggested. Yeah, well, I guess he'd be in a position to know 'bout that, now wouldn't he? Seeing as that's what his parents were. But I had no time for that shit. We all have our family skeletons.

            As I jumped from the van and hit the pavement running, I had only one thought, one goal, one objective in mind: that of coming to the aid of my partner and fellow officer. Detective, Hogan.

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