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The Sigil Detective Excerpt


Chapter 1

The second thing Riga was sure of was that at least her intuition was still working. She had a rotten feeling about this job.


Behind the high, sleek desk, the security guard stared impassively at his monitor. October sun slanted through the thick, bulletproof windows of the high-tech security hut. Upright, black metal bars, thick and menacing, formed a rampart outside the Odinjörd facility.


The guard’s gaze flicked to Riga. She smoothed her auburn hair, brushed a fleck of something off the sleeve of her suede safari jacket.


“What color are your eyes?” he asked.


“Brownish.”


“They look more browny-purply. Are those contacts?”


“No,” she said. “The purple’s an illusion. Just type brown.”


“But they look browny-purply.”


“Fine. They’re browny-purply.”


“There’s only space for one word.” He typed into the computer. Over his shoulder, the ghost of an elderly security guard whispered something in his ear.


And that was the first thing Riga was sure of: she could still see ghosts. Her chest hardened. Spirits and scrying, that’s what she’d been reduced to.


That’s why she’d come alone, sent her familiar to Macau to “help” Riga’s boyfriend who didn’t need helping.


She needed to think of something better to call Donovan than “boyfriend.” They were too old for it, and “partner” sounded sterile.


The printer hummed.


But thinking of Donovan beat thinking she might be walking into a massive magical disaster. Or thinking about the relief she’d felt when he’d had to go to Macau. If Donovan was there, she could make her mistakes privately here. And she hated herself a little for expecting there would be mistakes.


A sliver of motion near the door caught her eye. A gray mouse crouched, shivering. Casually, Riga stretched and opened the door. The mouse darted outside.


The guard slid the small, rectangular printout into a clear plastic Odinjörd lanyard and handed it to her. “Someone will get you shortly.”


She read the card. “Burple? That’s not a color. That’s not even a word.”


“What do you want me to say? Violet? That’s just dumb. Who has violet eyes?”


She sighed, agreeing. “And my name’s spelled wrong. I’m Riga Hayworth, not Rita Hayworth. Rita was an actress.”


The ghost laughed.


“Close enough,” the guard said.


The thick glass door behind the guard opened. A weedy young man with glasses and a slight stoop smiled awkwardly at her. “Riga?”


“You must be Jeff.”


“Thanks for coming. This way.” He stepped outside.


She followed. The door clanged behind them like a prison gate.


They walked down a flagstone path dappled by the shadows of towering redwoods.


“So, I, uh...” Jeff rubbed his wispy beard. “My mom thought you could find something that’s missing, since you’re a metaphysical detective.”


She glanced toward the wooded area and forced a smile. “Tell me about the case.”


“I guess my mom told you I was a software engineer? I specialize in enterprise-level software.”

She nodded. “Software for companies to…?”


“It doesn’t matter. That’s not what’s missing. What’s missing is a sigil app I created. Someone stole it. My mom said you were good at, um, finding things.”


She used to be. “What’s a sigil app?” A sigil was a drawing magically empowered by its creator. It focused the spellcaster’s intent. Riga had never needed tech or props before. Maybe she’d need to start.


Jeff’s freckled face pinked. “We were talking about what we should do for Halloween—”


“We?”


The trees opened up, and Riga stopped short.


They stood outside a Viking village, complete with a burial mound in the center. Half a dozen sod huts formed a rough circle and faced the grassy mound. Interspersed between and behind them were larger wooden buildings. Two had prow-shaped roofs. One was three-stories tall with curving beams carved into dragon heads.


Riga tried not to gape. She’d known Odinjörd had a Viking-themed logo. She hadn’t expected the tech campus to look like Valhalla.


“Lana, Ryan and I,” Jeff said. “Living here, working for Odinjörd, we wanted to do something thematic. But there’s not exactly a straight line between Vikings and Halloween.”


Carrying laptops, two bearded engineers emerged from the tallest building.


“Ryan did some research,” Jeff said. “He came up with Viking undead. But with all the zombie first-person-shooter games out there, it seemed derivative. Then Ryan found this witchcraft museum in Iceland filled with magical sigils. So we thought, why not an online sigil creator?” He stopped in front of a hut’s arched wooden door and opened it. “This is my place.”


She followed him inside the blond-wood house. Pizza boxes lay stacked atop every flat surface, save the wooden desk. Crumbs and crusts and spatters of red sauce decorated the floor. With its stone fireplace, the room would have been cozy if it didn’t look like a crime scene. “So you, Lana and Ryan built the app.”


“No,” he said, “I designed the app. Ryan got bored with it. Lana was busy with her own projects. And then when things went wrong… My mom couldn’t stop raving about all the help you gave her with those houses.”


And his mother had leaned on Riga to come. It was depressing her biggest clients were realtors looking to de-haunt houses. But it paid the bills. “So you developed an app,” she said. “To create sigils.”


Riga walked to his desk, where a computer glowed. An Odinjörd logo hung on the wall behind it. Clear plastic dispensers filled with pastel candy stood beside the desk.


“Yeah,” he said. “Norse-style sigils, for spell casting.” He motioned toward the window, with its carved, wooden shutters.


“I didn’t think Odinjörd developed games.” Her gaze flicked uneasily to the peaked, beamed ceiling. Silicon Valley was crazy with roof rats. They had to love thatched roofs. And pizza.

“They don’t. I made the app for fun. I mean, magic’s not real…” He trailed off.


Riga nodded. Spells required human focus and intent. That wouldn't happen if the spell was computer generated. The app couldn’t work.


“Do you want anything?” he asked. “Pizza?”


“No, thanks.” She studied the Odinjörd logo, a grizzled, one-eyed Odin. Even in his home, Jeff couldn’t escape the company propaganda. “So what happened next?”


“I didn't realize everything I created here, even on my own time, belonged to the company. I guess I didn’t read the contract very well. But even if I had, why would they want it? Like you said, Odinjörd isn’t a game developer.”


Riga frowned. “But they do want it? Why?”


He shifted on the wooden chair. “It wasn't so much Odinjörd as the DOD.”


Riga blinked, her insides tensing. “The Department of Defense? Is there something special about the programming?”


“Um.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I didn't think so. FYI, the FBI’s here too.”


Her mouth slackened. “For a sigil-making game?”


“A colleague broke into my room and stole my drive with the app.”


She quirked an eyebrow. “No backups?”


“The backups are in the company cloud. But, uh, someone deleted the app file there too.”


“And only your app file?”


He nodded.


So the hard drive theft had likely been related to Jeff’s app. “You said one of your colleagues stole it. You caught him?”


“Not exactly. The bartender found her behind the pub.” He swallowed jerkily. “She was dead. My hard drive was gone.”


Riga froze, her heart jackhammering. “Dead? This is a murder investigation?” She hadn’t investigated a murder since her powers had abandoned her. But the FBI and DOD were here too. She wouldn’t have to investigate the murder. She was just backup to find the stolen app.

Backup only Jeff’s mom believed in.


“Yeah,” he said. “They’re pretty intense.”


Stay calm. You’re backup. Focus on the app. “Why do you think she stole your drive?” she said evenly. “Maybe she came upon the thief and tried to stop him.”


“There are security cameras everywhere on this campus. They caught her on video leaving my hut with the hard drive.”


“But they didn't catch her murder?”


“There's a gap between the cameras, a dead zone behind the pub. That's where she was killed.”


Convenient. “And you don't have any other backups?”


He adjusted his glasses. “We're not allowed. There’s the auto backup in the cloud and the original on my company drive.” He motioned to a computer on his desk. Its screen was squarish. Two lines struck from the top right and bottom left corners of the screen, like an eyepatch.


“There’s a lot of security because of our DOD work.” Jeff rose. “Come on. I'll show you where we found the body.”


“First, show me how the thief got inside.” She stood.


“Um. I didn't lock my hut.” He angled his head toward the plain, arched door. “None of us do. There's no point. Everyone here has security clearance, even the bartender. And you saw the security at the gate.”


“Everyone’s movements are logged in and out? No one who shouldn’t have been was on the campus that night?”


“No. FYI, you can stay tonight. I got a hut for you. Unless you solve the crime today.” He moved toward the door and grabbed a hover board leaning against the nearby wall.

Riga followed, her eyes narrowing. Jeff was in his twenties—a kid. According to his mother, this was his first “real” job. How had he managed to get her into a DOD investigation and get her living quarters? “Are you sure that won’t get you into trouble?”


He stepped onto the hoverboard and glided into the courtyard. “Baldur said you could have one.”


She halted. “Baldur Hastings is involved in this?” The mad genius who’d started Odinjörd? The man setting the computer and the software industry on fire? The Forbes Five Baldur Hastings?

He pivoted the board, traveling in widening circles. “Yeah. When I told him you were a metaphysical detective, he offered a hut.”


She took a small step backward and tugged down the hem of her belted jacket. Most people wanted to toss her out when they learned her profession. “That’s… generous.”


“Baldur thinks out of the box, you know? And the FBI isn't getting anywhere. You sure you don't want anything to eat? Pizza?”


“I'm fine.”


“Then this way.”


She followed him into the campus’s Viking village.


Since moving to Lake Tahoe, she hadn’t missed the Silicon Valley crowds or the expense. But she’d missed its smells—the sagebrush, the faint tang of Bay air. And though the massive 101 freeway was only a mile away, she couldn't hear any traffic. Baldur’s Viking fantasyland was a world apart.


Two men in dark glasses and dull business suits emerged from a nearby doorway and followed them. She pretended not to notice, but her shoulders tightened.


Jeff nodded toward the largest wooden building, shaped like an upside-down Viking longboat. “That's the communal work space. The pub's over there.” He pointed toward a three-story wooden building with angular turrets. A man in red monk’s robes sat on a wooden bench beside the front door. “It was modeled after the remains of the Viking temple.”


“That’s where the body was found?”


He glided toward the pub. “I’ll show you.”


Jeff led her behind the three-story building and stepped off the hoverboard. He pointed to a grassy spot surrounded by yellow police tape. “There.”


She studied the pub’s high wooden wall and shuttered windows. Two security cameras extended from the corners of the building. “Okay, she was killed in a blind spot. But her killer must have walked past some camera to get here and leave.”


“If he did, they couldn't find him,” Jeff said. “Either the killer knew where all Odinjörd’s security cameras aimed, or he messed with the videos.”


She tilted her head. “With all the tech geniuses on this campus, no one can figure out if videos were tampered with?”


“There aren't that many of us—only the six of us engineers plus Baldur. Then there are the service employees—pub workers, cleaners, restaurant workers, that sort of thing. They’re all gone after ten o’clock.”


Riga squinted at the pub’s steep roof. “This entire campus is for six engineers?”


“Plus Baldur. This isn't Odinjörd’s main campus. This campus is for his special projects, and for people who do better working alone.”


“People like you.” She eyed him. To have been brought into Odinjörd’s inner sanctum, Jeff had to have some serious tech chops. “Can I ask what your real project is?”


“No.” He flushed. “Sorry. Security.”


“And you live here full time.”


“I can leave,” he said. “There just isn't a lot of reason to. Everything we want is here.”


“So there's you, staff, four other engineers, and Baldur.”


“Five engineers.”


“They've replaced the murdered engineer—what was her name?”


His face fell. “Sarah.”


“And they've replaced her already?”


“The Norse campus is highly competitive.”


Riga wrinkled her brow. “So competitive you had time to create a sigil app for fun?” She jerked her head toward their two black-suited followers. “Does the DOD know exactly what they're so hot to get back?”


“I think so. One of their engineers tested the app.”


“And?”


“It worked.”


Riga turned to stare. “What do you mean the app worked?”


“That's the thing.” He toed a gopher hole in the long grass. “It, um, works.”


It wasn’t possible, but she humored him. “How, exactly, does it work?”


“You type in what you want to happen, and then you push a button, and it creates a sigil.”

“That's it?”


“Well, the sigil iterates. You know, like those old fractal graphics that used to be used for screen savers.”


Riga went cold. “You mean the sigil is constantly evolving? Through time?”


He nodded. “And different shapes correspond to different notes, like in the music of the spheres.”


She groaned. He had combined several of the elements of a powerful sigil, a hyper sigil. But it still couldn’t work. Not without intent.


He shuffled his feet. “And then what you want, um, happens.”


That wasn't possible. The spellcaster didn't put any personal energy into the sigil. It couldn't work. But a tiny part of her heart leapt. What if it was possible? What if he’d created something truly new?


“How do you know it works?” she asked.


“I tried it.” He swallowed. “It works. I tested it.”


“Tested it how?”


“I wished for pizza. Five minutes later, I was notified I'd won a year's supply.”

Pizza? That explained… Her gaze traveled to the boxes and crusts. “It could be… a coincidence.” But Riga didn’t believe in them.


“I'd never entered the contest.”


There had to be something else going on. “What did the DOD engineer wish for?”


“I didn't ask.” He shuddered. “I don't want to know.”


Want more Riga? You can pre-order the book now and start reading as soon as it launches on July 31st!

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