ONLY TWO HOURS into Mist's first job, things were already going badly. For one, the duct tape had come loose over the recruit's mouth, and he was screaming so loudly that Mist was sure he'd be heard through the walls of the van, even above the roar of Route 21 traffic.
She turned to her companion in the passenger seat. "I thought he was supposed to stay out for at least another hour."
"Do I look like an anesthesiologist? Chloroform's not an exact science."
Mist shook her head at Grimnir. He did not look like any kind of ologist. Decked out in black jeans, quadruple-XL leather coat, and black homburg crammed over his head, he looked like what he was: a thug. Her thug, she reminded herself, still amazed at the idea of having her own devoted thug after having been with NorseCODE for only three months.
In back, the recruit pleaded for mercy. Mist steeled herself against his cries. Too much depended on the work to let a soft heart get in the way.
Grimnir slurped hard on the straw of his Big Gulp and popped open the glove box to retrieve a roll of
tape. "I'll go back and redo him."
"Never mind," Mist said, aiming the van down the off-ramp. "We're almost there."
There was a vast, flat gray area of industrial parks and scrap yards, where a dummy corporation several steps removed from NorseCODE had prepared a warehouse expressly for this particular job.
Mist rolled down her window, letting in a blast of cold air and April snowflakes, and punched a security code in a box mounted on a short metal pole. A moment later, the automatic warehouse doors opened and she drove onto the concrete floor. The doors screeched shut and she killed the engine.
Grimnir got out and walked around to the side of the van. With reasonable care, he lowered the recruit's hog-tied form to the ground and used shears to cut the plastic ties that bound his hands and legs. The recruit had gone quiet, but Mist expected he'd start screaming again now that he was unbound. The warehouse was well insulated and equipped with fans and blowers configured to be as
noisy as possible on the outside, in order to conceal interior sounds.
Tall and trim in workout pants and a New Jersey Nets sweatshirt, the man stood, shoulders hunched, like someone expecting a piano to fall on his head. "I don't know what this is about, but you've got the wrong guy." His voice quavered only a little.
"Your name is Adrian Hoover," Mist said. "You live at 3892 Sunset Court, Passaic, New Jersey. You're twenty-seven years old. You've been an actuary for Atlantic Insurance since graduating with a finance degree from Montclair State. I could also recite your Social Security number, driver's license number, cell phone, anything you'd like. You're definitely not the wrong guy."
Mist's boss, Radgrid, stressed the importance of establishing authority early in the recruitment process.
While Mist spoke, Grimnir removed two shotgun cases from a compartment beneath the van's floorboards.
Hoover's face looked green and clammy under the fluorescent lights. His eyes darted around the warehouse, at the ranks of port-a-johns and the glass-walled side office, its file cabinets full of authentic paperwork provided in the event that agents of some Midgard authority came knocking.
"You are about to undergo a trial," Mist said. "It's your right to understand--or at least be made aware of--the purpose behind it."
Grimnir opened one of the gun cases and withdrew a long sword. He rolled his neck and shoulders to loosen them and took a few practice lunges.
"Trial? But . . . I haven't done anything." There was at least as much outrage as fear in Hoover's voice. Mist took that as a positive sign.
"It's not what you've done, it's who you are. You and your fathers."
"My dad? He owns a dry cleaners'. Is that what this is about? Does he owe you money?"
"My name is Mist," she said, forging ahead. "I'm a Valkyrie, in the service of the All-Father Odin. My job is to help him prepare for Ragnarok, the final _battle between the gods and their enemies. To that end, I'm in the business of recruiting fighters for the Einherjar, the elite regiment of warriors who, when the time comes, will fight at the side of the Aesir, who are essentially gods. In short, if we have any hope of winning, we need the best army of all time. For reasons we can go into later, we have identified you as a promising candidate."
Grimnir's sword swooshed through the air as he continued to warm up.
"Are you guys in some kind of cult?" Hoover said, making an effort not to look at Grimnir. "Religion, I mean? I'll listen to anything you have to say. I'm open-minded."
Mist opened the other gun case and removed another sword. The blade glimmered dully in the flat warehouse lights.
"There are two qualifications for one to earn a place on Odin's mead bench. The fighter must be a blood descendant of Odin. Well, that's a preference more than a hard-and-fast qualification, but, anyway, we have determined that you're of Odin's blood. The second qualification--and this one is essential--is that the fighter die bravely on the field of combat." She presented the sword to him, bowing her head in observance of a formality she didn't really feel.
Hoover looked at her, appalled. "A blood descendant of . . . ? I don't even know what you're talking about, and you're going to kill me? You're going to murder me?"
"Murder?" Grimnir scoffed. "Hardly. It'll be a fair fight. And," he added with a wink at Mist, "there's always the possibility you could beat me. Now, take up your sword and prepare to be glorious."
Hoover covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook. "Please, I don't understand any of this. I'm not . . . whatever you think I am. I'm an actuary."
Oh, crap, Mist thought. I can salvage this. I'd better salvage it. Maybe Hoover possessed the potential to become a great warrior, but nothing in his experience had prepared him to be captured during his morning jog, drugged, tossed in the back of a van, bound and gagged, and told he now had to fight a grinning ox with a sword to determine his postmortal fate.
She decided to go off script.
"I know how weird this is," she said, trying to avoid using a kindergarten-teacher voice. "Ragnarok, Odin, all that. I was raised Catholic, so this was all very strange to me too. But what you are one day doesn't have to be what you are the next. I wasn't always a Valkyrie. Just three months ago, I was an MBA student named Kathy Castillo. Then . . . something happened. My world flipped over, everything spilled out of its tidy order. But it's possible to go through that and thrive. Take the sword," she urged. "You don't have to beat Grimnir. You just have to fight him. You'll be rewarded. Trust me."
Hoover sank to his knees, convulsing with sobs. Mist continued to hold his sword out to him, awkward as an unreturned handshake.
She sighed. It cost NorseCODE a fortune in time and treasure to locate suitable Einherjar recruits, and nobody in the organization would be happy to hear they'd wasted their investment on Hoover. Least of all Radgrid.
"Grim, I don't think this one's going to work out."
Grimnir looked down at Hoover as if peering _beneath the hood at a hopelessly broken engine. "Yeah, I think you got that right. Well, stand him up, then. I don't like killing a man when he's on his knees."
Hoover looked up at them, his breaths catching in hiccuping gawps.
"We're letting him go," Mist said.
Grimnir pinched the bridge of his nose. "Kid, it doesn't work that way. We have to finish the job."
"We have finished the job. We're supposed to fill the ranks of Valhalla, not Helheim. He's obviously not fit for Valhalla, so I say we're done with him."
"Like it matters what you say? We work for Radgrid, and there's no way she'd be cool with cutting him loose."
"It matters what I say because I outrank you, and you've sworn an oath to me."
"I've also sworn an oath to Radgrid. And to Odin, for that matter."
"Great, and we can untangle that knot of obligations later, so for now how about we do what's right? Hoover's got no idea where he is now, no way he could find his way back. Let's drive him even farther out to the middle of bumfuck and dump him on the side of the road. We lose nothing that way."
"Yes," Hoover gasped, his eyes gleaming with hope. "Just leave me somewhere. I won't tell anyone about this, I swear. I wouldn't even know what to tell anyone if I wanted to."
Grimnir ignored him. "The test isn't facing death, the test is dying. You've been at this only three months, Mist, so maybe you still don't get how important the work is. But I'm Einherjar myself, and in the end it's gonna be guys like me with our asses on the line against wolves and giants. The system's worked in some form or another for thousands of years. You can't just start fucking with it now."
But Mist did understand how important the work was. Radgrid had impressed that upon her rather convincingly, and Mist lived in the world. It had been winter for three years now. She knew things were falling apart. And Ragnarok would be disaster beyond measure. Worse than the Big One, worse than an F5 tornado, worse than a city-drowning hurricane or a land-swallowing tsunami. Worse than a nuclear holocaust. The thin shield line provided by the gods and the Einherjar was the only thing standing between continued existence and Ragnarok. It was absolutely essential that the Einherjar have enough fighters for the war, and Mist was even willing to kill to see it done. As long as whomever she killed went on to serve in Valhalla. But sending them to Helheim was a different matter.
Grimnir took two steps forward, his boot heels echoing to the rafters of the warehouse. Rain clattered against the opaque skylights. Hoover was crying so hard now that Mist thought he'd vomit. Grimnir watched him with a pitying expression.
"Grimnir, don't--" Mist said.
Grimnir surged forward. Mist tried to block his thrust with the weapon meant for Hoover, her blade sliding off Grimnir's. She hacked downward, cutting through Grimnir's hat, and when her blade edge bit inches into the back of Grimnir's head, it sounded like pounding wet cardboard with a club. He squealed, his knees giving way, but not before his momentum carried him forward and his sword plunged into Hoover's belly. Grimnir fell on him, and Hoover released two loud, whistling breaths before falling silent.
Mist stared in disbelief at the corpses, their mingling blood gleaming like black oil in the queasy fluorescent glare.
The air grew cold and thick with a stretched cotton haze, and Mist knew what was coming. She'd experienced it three months earlier, when she and her sister, Lilly, had been shot on the way home from the grocery store. Mist never learned who'd shot them and why--thieves after their groceries, senseless drive-by, crazy drunk sniper-homeowner, it could have been anyone for any reason. Ragnarok was coming, and people were falling to all kinds of craziness.
An aching cold rushed through the warehouse, and then the road was revealed. The parade of the dead stretched as far as Mist could see, far beyond the walls of the warehouse. The dead shuffled forward, shoulders bent, eyes cast down, like slaves expecting the bite of the whip. Many of them were old and ill, dried out and hollow, their faces paper-white. Others had died more-violent deaths and shambled on with bullet holes in their bloody clothes. One teenage boy, dressed in the charred remnants of a T-shirt and jeans, trailed his intestines behind him like the train of a bridal gown. The dead were all around, dragging themselves in a queue without end, thousands, tens of thousands of murmuring dead, all walking the road to Helheim. Like Lilly three months ago. Like Mist, if Radgrid hadn't intervened.
If Adrian Hoover had died bravely, Mist's next job would have been to escort him through the seam between worlds and bring him to the warrior paradise of Valhalla in the city of Asgard. There he would eat the finest roast meats, drink the richest ales, enjoy the flesh of willing and comely maidens. Instead, he would now walk the road north and down, to Queen Hel's realm of Helheim.
As one of the Einherjar, Grimnir would take a while to heal, but he'd be okay. Technically, he'd been dead for centuries.
"My stomach hurts," said Hoover. Rather, his spirit body said it, staring mournfully down at his own corpse.
"I'm sorry," Mist said. The words came out slowly, as though she had to carve each one out of stone. "I tried to stop him. He gave me some sword training, but I couldn't stop him."
Hoover's spirit body shuffled forward, toward the slow herd of the dead. "My stomach hurts," he said again. "When will it stop hurting?"
Mist thought of Lilly. The bullet had ripped through her sister's side, under her rib cage, and exited through her belly. She had not died instantly. Neither had Mist.
"Adrian, don't go with them." She grabbed his arm. He felt like thick slush, and she couldn't pull him away. He kept moving along with the other dead. "You don't have to go with them," she said, desperate.
"But I do," he said. "Don't you remember murdering me? I'm not sure why, but I have to go down the road."
She had to do something. She had to save him. Somehow. She'd failed Lilly, but she wouldn't fail Hoover. What if she went with him, followed him to Helheim, claimed custody? Maybe she could bargain with Hel.
But the procession of spirit bodies was already fading to whispers of light, and when she reached out again for Hoover, her hand passed through his shoulder. She walked alongside him for a few more steps, and then he was gone, as were the other dead and the road itself. Mist found herself alone with the two corpses under the buzzing warehouse lights.
VENICE BEACH, CALIFORNIA: chalk-white sky, waves the color of lead, sand like wet cement. Hermod trudged south, his jeans soaked, his socks squirting water like a pair of sponges. Beside him, an Alaskan malamute trotted happily.
"Here I am, miserable," Hermod said, "and look at you, all smiles."
Winston barked in the affirmative and bolted off into white shrouds of fog. Maybe he'd sniffed out a body washed ashore and was closing in for a snack. Hermod grudgingly admired the dog's attitude. When the world was dying, it made sense to cultivate a taste for carrion. Hermod only wished he could do a better job of following Winston's example. His last meal was more than twenty-four hours behind him, and all he could think about were steaming piles of roast boar and warm ale, right from the goat's teat. But it had been several thousand years since he'd enjoyed that kind of home cooking.
Despite the grim weather, Hermod and his dog didn't have the beach to themselves. Figures moved in the fog like ghosts, picking through storm debris for wood to dry. Old men waved metal detectors over heaps of kelp, and whenever one drew close, Hermod would count the man's eyes.
"Hey, mister, you wanna buy a god?"
Hermod froze in the sand. A gray apparition stood several feet away in the swirling salt air. Hermod unslung his duffel bag and yanked hard on the zipper. He plunged his hand inside and wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his sword. Behind him, waves thudded against the shore.
"What did you say?"
"I said, do you want to buy a dog?" came a reedy voice. "Isn't he just the sweetest? Oh, silly, don't lick my face!"
The figure came forward. It was a girl, draped in blankets. Dirty blond dreadlocks framed a grime-streaked face. She cradled a small ball of white and gray fluff. It squirmed and tried to get at her chin with a pink and black speckled tongue.
"Thanks," Hermod said. "I've already got a dog."
"Not like this one, you don't. This one's gonna grow up big. Real big."
Hermod took a closer look. The dog's fur was a mixture of snow and smoke. Its ears tapered to points. Its paws were as large as the girl's fists.
"That's a wolf pup," Hermod said.
The girl squealed, "Oh, cold tongue! Not in my ear!"
"Where'd you get a wolf pup?"
"I know someone who knows a woman," the girl said, placing her hand gently around the pup's muzzle. "And she knows a woman who raises them. I'll trade for your jacket if you want him."
The waves broke like distant cannon fire, and an old song scratched at the back of Hermod's memory. Something about a woman who raised wolves. But was it a woman? Maybe it was a witch or a giant. He'd never had much of a head for music, and there were so many songs and chants and poems and incantations crowding his collected years that he could hardly hear an old bit of skaldic verse without it devolving into "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B."
There lives a woman, there lives a woman who raises the wolves . . .
The wolf pup squirmed in the girl's arms, and she struggled to maintain her grip. "Hey, what's with you, fuzzy bean?" Losing her hold, she dropped it onto the sand, and it scampered off on its big clumsy paws. "Where are you going?" she cried, taking off after it. "I wasn't really going to trade you! Come back!"
Hermod stared after them for a few moments, until Winston trotted out of the murk to his side. Red sticky bits of gull feathers stuck to the malamute's jaw.
"Let's get off the beach," Hermod said to the dog. "You're giving me the creeps."
YOU EVER get an earworm?" Hermod started on his eighth beer, very much feeling the previous seven. His alcohol intolerance had always been a point of embarrassment back home, where his brothers and cousins could put down barrel after barrel of ale. They might vomit it all back up before sunrise, but the point was, they could down barrels of it first.
"An earworm? What's that, some kind of parasite?"
For the past hour he'd been enjoying relative comfort at the bar of the Venice Sidewalk Cafe, conveniently located mere yards from the beach. An open restaurant on the boardwalk was a rare find, most of the food stands and cafes having shuttered themselves against weather and vandalism. His companion was a woman in her early forties with hair the color of a highly polished trombone; he remembered she was named Roxie, or Trixie, or Linda. He liked her because she had a cute button nose and was willing to buy him more beers than he could handle (which appeared to be four), and he was hoping she'd take enough of a shine to him to invite him home, or at least buy him a second plate of chili fries.
"It's like a song you can't get out of your head," he said. "It just plays over and over and over 'til you want to jam a spoon in your ear and scoop your brains out."
Roxie or Trixie or Linda nodded. "Yeah, I get those. One time it was the first movement of Stravinsky's Symphony in C, for, like, two days. Thought I was gonna go bugfuck."
Hermod took a sip of his thin yellow beer. "So, you live near here?"
"I have to say, though, I still adore Stravinsky," she said, ignoring his question. "Those orchestral textures of his--nothing else like them. It's just that nobody likes a skipping record. When you know what's coming next, and then it does, again and again and again, it's painful."
Hermod drew his finger across the rim of the plate, picking up chili residue, and licked it. "Painful."
"What's your earworm?"
"There lives a woman," he sang tunelessly. "There lives a woman who raises the wolves. You recognize it?"
She sipped her own beer. It was only her second. "Not the way you're singing it." She gave his arm a playful punch, then rubbed his shoulder, as if to make the boo-boo go away. "You're not as skinny as you look," she said, giving him an appreciative reappraisal.
"I'm not as anything as I look."
"Ooh, Mr. Mysterious. Where did you say you were from?"
"Originally? Just on the other side of the bridge."
"Okay. And which bridge would that be?"
"The rainbow one."
The woman giggled. "You're so weird."
"It's just the beer. That, and this stupid song going through my head."
The woman flagged the bartender and held up two fingers. "My daddy always said the worst hell is inside a man's head."
Excerpted from Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout. Copyright © 2009 by Greg Van Eekhout. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.