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June 25, 2015

Exclusive Excerpt Owl and the City of Angels by Kristi Charish

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Owl and the City of Angels
Adventures of Owl 2
Kristi Charish
Urban Fantasy
Pocket Star
October 5, 2015

The wild second adventure for unforgettable antiquities thief Owl—a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world—from the pen of rising urban fantasy star Kristi Charish. For fans of Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher, Jennifer Estep, Jenn Bennett, and the like.

Alix Hiboux, better known as Owl, international antiquities thief for hire, is settling into her new contract job for Vegas mogul Mr. Kurosawa, a red dragon with a penchant for ancient, supernatural artifacts. And now he has his sights set on some treasures of the mysterious Syrian City of the Dead that are sitting in a recluse’s private collection.

There’s just one wrinkle. To stop the resurrection of an undead army that could wreak havoc on Los Angeles, Owl must break into a heavily guarded archaeological sight in one of the most volatile regions in the world. A detour through Libya and a run-in with Somali pirates sends the clock ticking hastily toward total paranormal disaster.

Meanwhile, Alexander and the Paris vampires have stopped stalking Owl’s apartment, but they have by no means forgotten their death grudge against her. To top everything off, Owl finds out the hard way that there is nothing heavenly about the City of Angels...





Owl and the City of Angels
Chapter 1
Tomb Raiding Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be
Noon, about two stories underneath Alexandria


I brushed another chunk of two-thousand-year-old dirt off the horse femur. It was lying in a shallow alcove in the Hall of Caracalla, part of the catacombs that ran underneath Alexandria. I readjusted my baseball cap and cleared the sweat off my forehead before glancing up at the man crouched on the other side of the mummified horse remains. Mike, the dig supervising postdoc I’d been saddled with, was a couple years older than me and suffered the poor posture and starters’ beer gut rampant amongst grad students everywhere. Especially the ones who spend more time than wise hunched over a computer and/or things buried in the ground.
Annnddd Mike was still engrossed with the front end of the skeleton . . .
I swore silently. Great. Just fantastic. Out of all the dig sites on my list, leave it to me to pick the one in the middle of a heat wave with stifling stale air and the overattentive postdoc. I’d been stuck in Egypt for three days now on a job that should have taken hours. If Mike would just leave me alone for fifteen minutes even, I could find my way into the lower levels, grab my Medusa head, and get the hell out before anyone double-checked my paperwork.
“Shit.” I dropped my brush and braced against the wall as the entire burial chamber shook; the catacombs ran under a main artery of the city, and every time a heavier-than-average truck passed overhead, the whole thing trembled. On the bright side, the truck meant it had to almost be lunchtime. Maybe I could convince Mike to take a long break . . .
Artifact or not, three days in this tomb with Mike—the one postdoc in the entire IAA who doesn’t shunt his work on to grad students—and I was well past my breaking point . . .
Come on, Owl, keep in character: you’re Serena, a young, impressionable grad student trying to wrangle a decent dig for her PhD, not an antiquities thief with personal space issues . . .
Mike shifted, leaning further over the horse’s skeleton.
Curious, I glanced up and caught where he was looking—not at the horse skull.
Oh, screw staying in character. Captain would be getting restless, and this job was taking too long anyways.
“I swear to God, you stare down my shirt one more time, I’m going to break your nose with my pickax,” I said.
Mike sat up and feigned shock—or maybe it was shock at getting caught. “What? I swear, I wasn’t—”
I glared. “Mike, I’m tired. My sinuses are filled with enough dust to last a week, and the only thing I want right now is a cold beer, which is now impossible because the beer fridge broke yesterday—meaning I’m stuck with warm beer, only half an excavated horse, and you staring down my shirt.” I derived some satisfaction as the shock on his face faded to a resigned white pallor when he realized I wasn’t buying his protest.
“I refuse to take my frustration out on the skeleton,” I continued. “The horse can’t help that it’s caked in two thousand years’ worth of dirt—and the beer is technically still drinkable. Guess which of the three things pissing me off right now that leaves? I’ll give you a hint, Mike. It’s the one acting like a dick.”
He shifted and wiped the fresh sweat off his face with a dirt-covered palm. He gulped, “I’ll—ah—how about I go grab us water and lunch?”
I glanced back down at my horse femur. “You do that,” I said, and went back to brushing sediment off the bone until Mike’s last footstep was followed by the gate clanging shut behind him.
Finally. I pulled my cell out of my pocket and dialed Nadya. From now on no more sneaking in as a grad student . . . For whatever reason, these days the IAA was upping security just about everywhere. Where normally I’d only worry about the dose of sedative needed to knock out an overly attentive postdoc like Mike, now I had to contend with security checking up on us at random intervals. Understandable, considering the boom in demand for antiquities, but that didn’t mean it didn’t still piss me the hell off . . .
The IAA, or International Archaeology Association, is the organization that governs every single university archaeology department on the planet. They’re also the self-appointed authority responsible for keeping all supernatural elements under wraps, and they aren’t shy about enforcing it. Creative bastards too. They’d not only tanked my career but also driven me half off the grid.
Which was another reason I needed to get a move on.
Come to think of it, if I’d just let postdocs like Mike stare down my shirt while I’d been in grad school, I’d probably have had my PhD and a cushy museum job by now . . .  I’m sure there’s a life lesson to be learned in there somewhere.
Nadya picked up after the second ring. “Alix? What is taking you so long?”
“Not now,” I said, keeping my voice low on the off chance the echo carried. “I’ve got ten, maybe fifteen minutes until Mike gets back. Do we know where the hell the Medusa head is yet? And I don’t mean ‘it’s in the crypt’; I mean exact location down to the room corner if you’ve got it. I really don’t want to have to break in here at night.”
The IAA guards were only half the problem; I was more worried about the vampires. Just because Alexander and the Paris boys hadn’t crawled out of their hole in three months didn’t mean they weren’t skulking around looking for me. This was the third job back-to-back in North Africa. If Alexander had gotten word about the Morocco catacombs and my impromptu pit stop in Algeria, he’d have feelers out in every city along the Barbary Coast and right on through to Istanbul.
There was a pause on the other end. “Alix, we can abort the job and come back in a month—after things cool down,” Nadya said.
I read between the lines. The Morocco catacombs hadn’t been the problem. It’d been the Algerian private collection. Let’s just say helping myself to a couple Pharaonic pieces hadn’t gone well with the owner . . . or the Algerian police.
I shut down that train of thought. Out of principle I couldn’t have bypassed Algeria—even if I’d wanted to, and provided Rynn, Mr. Kurosawa, and Lady Siyu never found out . . .
“Nadya, if you get me the exact location, I can grab the Medusa head and still be out of here before anyone’s the wiser.”
“I couldn’t find the exact location—notes on the Russian archaeology server were spotty—but it should be somewhere under you.”
“Under me? There’s an entire flooded catacomb underneath me.” The underground rooms and chambers spanned three floors, all decorated with images of the Greek Medusa, the protector, mixed in with the Egyptian pantheon. A spiral staircase connected the first two floors, winding its way from the burial dining hall past the carved Medusa heads to the second-level burial chambers, and then on to the flooded third. Since no one had figured out how to reroute the rainwater away from the dig site and drain the last level, the third level had been cemented off decades ago. Considering the state of Egyptian sewers after the recent string of revolutions, opening up excavations down there was a moot point.
“I am not a genie, Alix—I do not make maps appear out of thin air—and Alexandria was your stupid idea.”
“Hey, not fair—”
“Mr. Kurosawa told you to get either the Moroccan death mask or the Caracalla Medusa head, not both,” Nadya said.
I shut up. It had been my bright idea to hit both jobs . . . and stop in Algiers. And no, it’s not greedy; it’s good game planning and time management. Speaking of time management, I checked my watch. Two minutes had passed since Mike had left. Half an hour was his usual lunch break . . .  Now all I needed was the map. Considering the upped IAA security at the catacombs—and everywhere, for that matter—I hadn’t dared bring one on me. Hard to explain a treasure map stuffed in my backpack at a random spot search . . .
“Nadya, you’ve got my laptop ready?”
Give me a minute.” I heard Nadya fiddling with my laptop, followed by a stream of Russian curses a moment later. “Alix, I can’t make head or tail of the login screen—call the elf and get him to do it for you.”
By “elf,” Nadya meant Carpe Diem, my World Quest buddy . . . and actual elf. The real deal, supernatural version. Yeah, I hadn’t been too happy about finding that little fact out either. I had enough supernaturals to deal with in my life right now, including my boss, Mr. Kurosawa, and my on-again-off-again boyfriend, Rynn. Off again if he ever found out about Algiers . . .
There were a couple good reasons why I didn’t want to call Carpe; near the top of my list was the fact that though he might be my World Quest teammate, deep down at the bottom of his sorcerer’s black heart he was just another goddamn thief. Giving him access to my inventory was more temptation versus trust than I cared to test—I know I’d have a hard time not pilfering his game inventory. There was one other reason though that topped that one. “Because every time I talk to Carpe he starts whining about that stupid book.”
“I thought that was in Egypt,” Nadya said.
“My point exactly—look, it’s easy, log into my World Quest game and pull up my maps inventory. The red one, top-right corner.”
I heard more swearing on the other end as Nadya typed. “Found it. Egypt, no?”
I shifted the phone so I could rummage through my backpack for my GPS. “Yeah. Under that there should be a list of cities. Pull up Alexandria and go to the Caracalla’s tomb. Left corner will have a legend shortcut search. Enter Medusa head.” In fact, there were many Medusa heads in the Caracalla catacomb, but only one that would register as worth stealing in World Quest. I’d had the map in my inventory for a while now but had never really considered going after the World Quest version—not worth the time or effort loot wise. But, if I knew World Quest and the developers’ penchant for historical accuracy bordering on obsession, the location would be dead on.
And no, there is no ethical debate about using my video game to make my day job easier. Consider it an out-of-game exploit.
“I found it,” Nadya said, and gave me the coordinates to plug into my GPS. Hunh, it really was right underneath me, give or take twenty feet.
“You’re by the horse burial, yes?” Nadya said. “There should be another burial chamber directly below you—a circular chamber, about twice the size of the one you’re in now. The map shows the Medusa head on the north side above a sarcophagus.”
Sarcophagus? Out of reflex my heart sped up. I don’t have the best track record with sarcophagi. To be honest, I was more worried about the highway caving in above us than any lingering supernatural residents. The IAA wouldn’t have let Mike down here without a half-decent sweep, and up until a few decades ago the entire catacombs had been flooded. Any supernaturals should be long gone.
Still . . .  “Any red dots on the map?” I asked. Red dots on World Quest maps denoted in-game monsters.
“No—nothing.”
I let out my breath. No red dots, no monsters.
“OK, Medusa head, north side, chamber below me.” I made certain my phone compass still worked underground and checked the time. Twenty-five minutes tops before Mike returned from lunch. I could explain away a five- or ten-minute absence, but I’d have to be fast. If things went as planned, we’d be back on a flight to Vegas by early evening.
Get to work, Owl, and get the hell out. I scribbled on a sticky note—bathroom break—and stuck it by the horse femur, then ducked through a narrow passage to a side burial chamber—one where I’d scouted out loose tiles the day before during one of Mike’s washroom runs.
I kneeled down, pulled some heavier tools from my backpack, and set to work lifting the corner tile. Within a moment I pulled it free and shone my flashlight down. The light reflected off stagnant water and an exposed stone surface. I cracked the first light stick and dropped it down.
As it struck the water and sunk to the bottom, the tiles decorating the floor flared into existence. Greens and blues that hadn’t seen sunlight in almost two thousand years depicted a mosaic of Medusa heads arranged in circles that wound their way in and out of the light stick’s glare.
I gave a low whistle. Not every day you get to see something that untouched.
On a positive note, I gauged the water at only a few feet deep. The exposed stone surface I’d picked up with my flashlight, however, was a more disconcerting matter; a second sarcophagus . . .
Emperor Caracalla, the guy who built the catacomb, was the head of the Roman Pharaonic cult of Alexandria in the second century AD. His lifelong obsession was getting his hands on the Egyptian burial spells that would grant him a Pharaoh’s ticket to the immortal afterlife. As part of his spirit quest, he massacred twenty thousand Alexandrians, slaughtered a perfectly good set of chariot horses—one of which I’d spent the last three days excavating—and assassinated his own brother. A real all-around, outstanding citizen . . . Shame he never did find the right Egyptian burial spells.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what—or who—Caracalla stuck in the second sarcophagus.
I took another breath. The IAA cleared the place, and World Quest had no monsters listed in here . . . and Caracalla at least had the good taste to bury himself with a gold-and-emerald-encrusted Medusa head  . . .
I set a climbing hook into the stone pillar above the hole and secured my rope, doing my best to think about the Medusa head and not the second sarcophagus.
I started lowering myself down the hole, when my phone started to buzz and chime in my pocket. I frowned. I was sure I’d turned the damn ringer off—in fact, I know I had . . .  I glanced at the number. Son of a bitch . . .
“What the hell do you want?”
“You missed game time,” came Carpe’s voice, closer to feminine than masculine on the sliding gray scale of male vocal texture.
Goddamn it—he must have been monitoring my or Nadya’s phone. “I’m working—” I started.
“You’re in Egypt,” he said, his voice thick with accusation.
I closed my eyes; I didn’t have time for this. “Carpe, I don’t know how many times I have to tell you, I’m not getting your goddamn book!”
“You’re doing this out of spite because I didn’t tell you I was an elf.”
Ha. Far from it. In fact, I wished to hell he’d never told me. “No, I’m not refusing out of spite, I’m refusing on grounds of self-preservation.”
“It’s a quick trip past the pyramids, you could be back in a day—”
“I don’t care! I’m more interested in my neck—specifically that at the end of the day it’s still attached to both my head and body.”
“Alix, it’s a matter of life and death—”
Knowing Carpe, I doubted that very much. I started to lower myself through the hole. If I lost reception, all the better. “No, if you keep this up, I’m going to take out hits on you in World Quest—then it will be a matter of life and death.”
I heard the rumble overhead before I felt the chamber shake around me. I swore.
“Owl? What’s that noise?” Carpe said, his voice wary.
“Got to go,” I said, and shoved the phone back in my pocket. I grabbed the edge of the floor with my free hand and held on to the rope with the other. I wasn’t risking my neck going against a real mummy just for Carpe’s stupid spell book . . .
As the growl of the truck above faded into the distance, the chamber didn’t stop shaking. I felt the hook holding my rope give.
Shit. I threw my weight against the edge of the hole as the rope slipped through my fingers and disappeared into the shadows of the pool below. With a last look down at the pool I started to pull myself up. That had been way too close —
A snap echoed through the chamber as the stone tile I was holding onto cracked.
My legs were still suspended over the crypt. I held my breath and carefully pulled myself up. I could still climb out and get the hell out of this mess… I kept thinking that even as the tile snapped cleaned through.
“Son of a—” The rest of that sentence was distorted in the echoes off the shallow water as I fell.
Pain shot up my side as the ornate lid of the stone sarcophagus broke my fall, knocking the wind out of me. I lay there for a moment, my ears ringing as I mentally checked that everything was working and still where it was supposed to be.
Well, look at the bright side: at least the sarcophagus stopped me from plunging into the stagnant water. It smelled so much worse down here . . .
Back still smarting, I pushed myself up to seated. By the weight, I knew my flashlight was still tucked inside my jacket, so I fished that out first and turned on the high beam to quickly survey the burial chamber and get my bearings. The entire room was roughly sixteen by sixteen feet, maybe bigger, and consisted of rounded, arched walls and a vaulted ceiling. All four walls were decorated with carved and painted Medusa heads, a common protection symbol Pharaonic Romans buried themselves and their goods with. For some strange reason, out of all the Greek and Roman gods out there, the Pharaonic Romans had focused on Medusa as a protector. Thank God Gorgons were isolated to the northern side of the Mediterranean—something about a deep-seated fear of water. They don’t actually turn you into stone, in case you were wondering. That’s a myth. They cover their victims with ash and a glue like substance that cauterizes flesh on impact before solidifying—think Pompeii.
Still intact above the waterline were paintings of the usual Egyptian pantheon suspects: Horus, Isis, Anubis, Osiris. The entire chamber was overly elaborate for the time period and depth, even for an emperor.
As my flashlight illuminated the north wall directly across from me, I picked out the second sarcophagus sitting in a raised alcove, Latin words carved into the wall above it, and underscored with hieroglyphs.
Caracalla.
Pass go and collect two hundred dollars.
Next, I checked the hole in the ceiling I was partially responsible for. There was no way I’d reach it standing on the sarcophagus—too high. Climbing was out—the walls arched inwards towards the ceiling. I was trapped until Mike and the rest of the dig team came looking for me.
Well, at least with the collapsed floor I wouldn’t have to explain what the hell I was doing down here.
I spotted my backpack a few feet away from where I’d landed on the sarcophagus. Flashlight in mouth, I made my way towards it. Get bag, get Medusa head, figure way out . . .
Unfortunately the sarcophagus had different plans. Years of dampness had covered the domed lid with a slick slime. A hand’s reach away from my backpack, my knees shot out from under me. “Oh you’ve got to be kidding—damn it!” I said as I slid off and landed in knee-deep, stale water.
Soaked and smelling worse than I had any right to, I pushed myself up and noticed a hole in the side of the sarcophagus—a small one, but a crack nonetheless. I swallowed. Sarcophagi and tombs in general don’t bother me—they come with the territory; it’s when they’re broken open in a sealed-in room that I start to worry.
OK, Owl—here goes the hard part . . . I edged my flashlight beam through the crack to see if there were any remains left inside . . .
I yelled as two rats shot out. The first dove headfirst into the water, but the second leapt off the stone lid and landed on my head. I shouted again and tried to pull the rat off, but it held onto my hair for dear life. I shook my head in an attempt to dislodge it, but that only gave it the bright idea to dive down my cargo jacket. I batted my body until the rat fell into the water, squeaking once before swimming off after its friend. I shook my head; I’d seen a lot of rats on dig sites, but I’d never had one try to use me as a hiding spot. I chalked it up to rat cabin fever and turned my attention back on the sarcophagus.
Empty.
My calves steadied in the water. Empty was good.
I checked the submerged floor for uneven breaks or outright holes before wading through the knee-deep warm water towards Caracalla’s sarcophagus. Halfway there the stale water deepened past my waist. The floor must have shifted over the past few thousand years. From the blue-white light cast by my submerged light stick, I got a better look at the green-and-blue Medusa-decorated floor, which was even more impressive up close. Days like this, what I wouldn’t give for a few hours and a decent camera . . .
I also noticed there wasn’t a passageway out in sight, with the exception of the one in the ceiling directly above me.
Caracalla had been sealed in. Couldn’t blame whoever made that call. With the exception of an IAA fiber optics camera, I was probably the first evidence of humanity to set foot in this chamber in almost two thousand years. Two thirds of the way across, my flashlight beam caught gold, and a glint reflected off the lid.
Bingo.
The water shallowed out as I approached the platform. The sarcophagus was raised high enough off the floor that I’d have to climb on top to reach the Medusa head. The left corner of the stone pedestal was cracked where it met the water, but otherwise it looked sturdy enough.
It was by chance that I caught the submerged tiles switch from pictures depicting Medusa heads to a Roman numeral five inches from my foot. I checked the rest of the floor between me and the pedestal; laid out in a four-by-eight grid was a series of Roman numerals, each one different.
Shit. A Roman numeral code? But how many numbers, and what was the sequence? More importantly, what happened if I screwed it up?
Time to call Nadya.
“Alix, what the hell happened? The entire city shook.”
Leave it to Nadya to bypass all pleasantries . . . “Just a minor cave-in—I’m fine, in fact it might have bought me some time.”
“Where are you?”
“Let’s just say the good news is I don’t have to explain to anyone what the hell I’m doing down in Caracalla’s tomb since the floor collapsed underneath me. You should see the artwork—”
“Alix, just the Medusa head!”
“All right, all right.” I transferred the phone to my shoulder to get a better look at the layout with my flashlight. “Listen, off the top of your head, have you ever heard of a Roman numeral booby trap associated with Caracalla’s tomb?”
“I don’t see anything on this map, but the Romans were fond of math problems. Is there an equation nearby?”
I scanned the area, but nothing stood out. I also didn’t see any major levers or plates—nothing that would indicate poison darts or giant rocks.
Oh hell, I was never good at math anyways . . . I tossed my bag onto the sarcophagus. “Never mind, Nadya—I’ve got it.” I shoved my phone, which was still on, in my pocket, backed up to the edge of the shallows, took a running start, and leapt right before my foot touched the first Roman numeral.
I landed halfway on, halfway off the sarcophagus. I was ready for the slime this time and dragged myself up before I slid back into the water.
I pulled my phone back out of my pocket and balanced it between my ear and shoulder. “OK, I’m on the sarcophagus—”
I heard Nadya swear. She was not a fan of my run-and-jump method of avoiding traps. “Just be careful with the head piece. It’s high carat.”
The purer the gold, the easier to dent. That noted, I started to work on the surrounding rock with my chisel. I winced as the chisel hitting rock echoed around the room.
“Alix, quietly! I can hear you banging over the phone.”
“I can’t do it any quieter,” I said as I hit it again. The sarcophagus stone chipped as I struck it, and I cringed at the damage. Normally I’d use something more elegant, like acid or some other solvent, but I was short on time.
“Come on, you stupid decoration—get out of the damn stone,” I said, and wedged my chisel further into the groove. The gold Medusa head lifted a quarter of an inch.
Two or three more strikes and I’d be able to work it out . . .
Something larger than a rat scraped against the stone wall, and I got a whiff of something astringent and rotten at the same time.
A chill ran down my spine. I spun in the direction the noise had originated in, careful to watch my footing on the sarcophagus.
Nothing moved as my flashlight illuminated the shadows, and the noise didn’t repeat. I chalked it up to my own personal brand of paranoia.
Still, I picked up the pace on the Medusa head. A minute later it popped free. I switched the phone to my mouth so I could use my chin to hold the head while I fetched the duct tape out of my bag. Trust me, duct-taping an artifact to your stomach sounds a little gutter trash as far as thieves go, but I’m a hell of a lot less likely to lose it that way than if it’s stuffed in my bag or pocket—especially if I have to run.
Which, if things went as planned this time, wouldn’t happen . . .
Oh God, I hope to hell I don’t have to run this time. I had enough of that in Algiers . . .
“Alix, do you have it?” Nadya’s voice came over the phone.
“Uh—ye-ah—” I finished securing the Medusa head to my stomach and retrieved the phone from my mouth. “Yeah, got it—” I scanned the ceiling and wall on this corner of the chamber, looking for a way out I might have missed. Nothing . . . Shit. “Look, I’ve got to find a way out of here—I’ll call you back as soon as I’m out of the dig site,” I said, then hung up the phone and stuffed it in my front cargo pocket before she could argue.
Maybe I could figure out a way to get back out that hole in the ceiling . . .
I grabbed my bag and, after one last pat on the duct tape, leapt off the sarcophagus past the Roman numerals. I swayed as I hit the water and overcompensated, stumbling forward to avoid falling back on the grid . . .
Something solid brushed up against my leg.
I swore, more from surprise than anything else—I hate running into things in the dark. I aimed my flashlight to remove the dark factor.
The front half of a fresh rat corpse brushed up against my khakis. Son of a— Out of reflex, I scrambled back.
I felt the tile sink under my foot.
“Oh shit.” I stood perfectly still as the room grumbled, the sound of stone grating on stone. Now what the hell had I just triggered? No holes in the wall, no trapdoors underneath me . . . I glanced up and caught the stone slab sliding open above.
I dove out of the way before the first cannonball-shaped stone hit the water in front of me, making a loud clicking noise as it struck the tile floors beneath. I let out an involuntary yelp as the second cannonball hit my shoulder. I heard more slabs begin to slide open above.
So much for keeping my head dry. I took a deep breath and dove under the surface towards the broken sarcophagus on the other side of the room. The stones pelted the water around me, but soon I was in the deeper section and out of range.
As soon as I reached the shallow end I stood up and pushed wet hair out of my face before glancing back at the stone trap . . . Damn, that had been awful easy. On the one hand, I should be thanking my luck; on the other hand, as a general rule, my luck sucks in situations like this.
I heard another scrape along the far wall and aimed my flashlight, hoping to catch whatever had made the noise. I had a sinking suspicion it was whatever had bitten the dead rat in two. Like before, whatever it was clung to the shadowed recesses my flashlight couldn’t penetrate.
The sooner I got out of here the better. I crawled back up on top of the cracked sarcophagus. The hole was only nine feet away, but high enough that I couldn’t reach the edge. I angled my flashlight along the wall, searching for foot- and handholds, but I only found a carved depiction of Anubis, which wasn’t recessed enough for me to get my toes in, or pronounced enough to hold my weight. I turned the flashlight as I heard the scraping noise for a third time, swearing I caught movement just outside my light stick’s range . . .
I heard a door slam shut a few floors above me, followed by hurried footsteps. “Hey, Serena?” Mike called.
Five minutes early, but under the circumstances . . .
I shone the light back through the hole and waved the beam around for good measure. “Down here, Mike.”
His face appeared over the hole.
“The floor gave way when the building shook,” I yelled up. More or less the truth. “I need you to throw a rope or something down,” I added, keeping the far side of the room in the corner of my eye.
“Just wait there, I’ll go get help,” Mike said, and disappeared from view.
The thing in the corner moved again, and this time I caught a glimpse of what looked like an arm. Yeah, not a chance in hell—
“No!” I yelled, maybe a little too desperately. When Mike’s perplexed face returned, I added, “I don’t think the room is stable—do you have your rope up there?”
“Found it,” he said.
I hoped that either Mike didn’t notice the climbing hook, or, if he did, I could talk myself out of it. “Tie it to something sturdy and lower it down.”
I heard Mike moving in the cramped space above me.
The “thing” hiding in the corner grunted, and this time I was ready—I managed to hit it in the face with my flashlight beam.
An embalmed head, showing too much decay to be recognizable, looked up at me with empty eye sockets. What had to be the mummified remains of Caracalla snarled at me, displaying a rotting mess of sharpened black teeth.
“Make it faster, Mike,” I yelled. Leave it to me to find the one IAA dig site with a mummy still in it . . . What the hell was the IAA doing nowadays? They were supposed to clear supernaturals out before hapless researchers like Serena and Mike showed up.
Caracalla said something . . . or I think he tried to say something; its vocal cords weren’t exactly in the best shape. I mean it when I say the Romans messed up the Egyptian incantations. On top of that, I might be a genius at translating written languages—I can read and write ten, three of them dead—but I can’t speak one of them to save my life.
Caracalla’s mouth twisted up into something reminiscent of a smile, and he began to wade through the water towards me.
I scrambled as far back as I could until the carved Anubis idol dug into my back.
“Mike, I mean it, get me the hell out of here—now,” I screamed. There had to be something around here to throw . . .
Caracalla reached the end of the shallows and stretched one of his black arms towards me before submerging under the water.
Son of a bitch, they could swim? Mummies weren’t supposed to swim . . .
“Almost there,” Mike said as the end of my rope slipped over the edge.
I searched the water for Caracalla as I waited for the rope . . .
Crack.
Above me, a fracture line appeared in the floor near the hole. Mike swore.
“Mike, out of the way—”  Son of a bitch— I jumped back into the knee-deep water as a slab of stone, followed by a screaming Mike, crashed into the sarcophagus. The rope followed him down last, sliding off the slippery stone surface and disappearing underneath the water.
Damn it. I headed over to where Mike sat in the water. “Mike, are you OK?” I said, shaking his arm, hoping nothing had broken.
He shook his head. “Fine—yeah . . .” His voice trailed off, and his eyes widened as he stretched out his hand, still shaking from the fall, and screamed.
I glanced over my shoulder. Caracalla stood a few feet away. This close it really resembled a walking corpse rather than an Egyptian mummy. If it’d been a proper mummy, maybe I could have reasoned with it, but this? Not exactly the top of the supernatural food chain . . . though somehow fitting, considering how big an asshole he’d been.
Mike regained his voice. “Oh my God, it’s a mummy—a real mummy—” In a surprising show of agility, he jumped out of the water and wedged himself up against the sarcophagus—behind me.
“Hey!” I grabbed his jacket and pulled him back out so he was standing beside me. “Not cool, Mike,” I said, and slapped him hard on his injured shoulder. I didn’t care if this was his first supernatural; hiding behind coworkers was not cool.
Mike ran his fingers through his hair as he attempted to regain something resembling composure. If anything, I was impressed with how well he kept his balance on the narrow ledge, reminding me of a beer-gutted, facial-hair-wearing ballerina.
Don’t ask me why that visual came to mind; it’s amazing what adrenaline does.
“The handbook . . . the handbook says something about this,” Mike said.
I rolled my eyes. The IAA student handbook was next to useless when it came to supernaturals. One chapter on ghosts and a few phrases in ancient languages—most of which seemed to loosely translate to “please don’t eat me.”
I’m paraphrasing, but you get the picture.
“We’re supposed to try and reason with him until the IAA gets here,” Mike continued, turning panicked eyes on me. “Quick, Serena, offer him something.”
I glared. “It’s living in a pit full of water, eating rats. I don’t think there’s anything we can offer him that we’d be willing to part with.” Though a small part of me was wondering whether I’d be willing to part with Mike. It was a very small part, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it was there.
I have to give Mike credit; he didn’t give up. “Greetings, Emperor Caracalla,” he said, clearing his throat.
Oh, this was going to be good . . .
From the growl Caracalla let out, my guess was he thought about the same. I kept searching for something I could use as a weapon.
“There are some nice people on their way to get you out,” Mike continued, shaking in fear.
The mummy growled again, flashing his black teeth.
Mike stepped back into the sarcophagus. “They’ll feed you all the rats you want—promise!”
Oh, for crying out loud. “Grow a backbone, Mike.”
Mike whirled on me. “I’m trying to negotiate,” he said.
“You’re making an idiot out of yourself. Now help me find something to skewer it with before that sorry excuse for a mummy decides we look better than the rats.”
Mike snapped out of his fear-induced panic and focused on me.
“That’s more like it—hey!” I said, as his eyes went wide with excitement and he gripped my arm with both clammy hands. He wrapped his arms around my waist and neck in a reverse bear hug, placing me directly between him and Caracalla.
“What the hell?!” I pried at Mike’s arm wrapped around my throat, but it didn’t budge. Stronger than he looked when terrified . . .
“Here! Emperor Caracalla. Let me go, and you can have her—”
“Are you out of your mind? Since when the hell is toss your dig mate to the mummy in the manual?”
“Extreme measures. I’m making it up as we go along right now,” Mike told me. Louder and to the mummy he said, “Wave once if you are amenable to my terms, great Caracalla.”
Oh, you got to be fucking kidding me.
I could have sworn Caracalla laughed . . . then again, it was hard to tell. It could just as easily have been growling.
Time to stop playing Serena, the grad student. “Hey Mike, remember what I said about breaking your nose for looking down my shirt?”
“Shhh! Quiet. I read that Caracalla liked his women meek and docile.” To the mummy he added, “She’s a little rough around the edges, but not too bad once you clean the dirt off.”
I shook my head and readied my foot. “Just wanted to let you know trying to trade me to a mummy deserved a hell of a lot worse than a broken nose, that’s all.”
Mike howled as my foot connected hard with his precious bits. He let go and doubled over, eyes wide in shock.
“And you also get a broken nose.” I grabbed Mike’s head—already conveniently doubled over—and connected his nose with my knee. Mike’s eyes glassed over for a brief moment before he sunk to the floor and passed out against the sarcophagus. I turned back to Caracalla, still approaching through the water. As tempting as it was to offer the mummy Mike, I wasn’t willing to cross that line. It was just safer for everyone involved, especially me, if Mike was left out of the negotiations from this point on.
Now, left with only the mummy to deal with, I had a chance to better scan the room for options. By some unknown miracle, Mike’s rope had fallen near the sarcophagus in the shallows. I hopped down from the pedestal lip and felt under the surface for the rope, never letting the mummy out of my sight as he paced the edge of my side of the shallows. “You stay on your side, I’ll stay on my side . . .” I said, more of a hope than a threat.
Caracalla glanced up toward the hole in the ceiling before spreading what was left of his lips in macabre mimicry of a smile.
Great, just fantastic. The mummy had the wherewithal to figure out there was a new exit.
My fingers brushed against the nylon rope. I wrapped it around my wrist and searched my bag for my grappling hook. In general, I stay the hell away from grappling hooks. You’re more likely to eviscerate yourself or fall to your death than orchestrate a timely escape. Having said that, I was desperate.
I tied the rope end off fast and reeled the hook back for a throw. It bounced harmlessly off the ledge and fell back down in an arc. Right idea, wrong execution . . .
I shoulder-checked Caracalla in time to see him reach into the water. I got a good look at what he retrieved: a jagged, broken bone—femur was a good guess . . .
And human.
“Hello—anyone?” I yelled, hoping someone else had come back down to see what had happened to me and Mike. “Need some help down here, like right now.” But all that came back was the echo of my own voice warped by the water in the tomb—that, and another truck running overhead.
The mummy made a grating, laughing noise that reminded me of a monster on a bad amusement park ride.
Come on, you stupid rope, come on. I threw it again and was rewarded with a catch.
Caracalla dove under the water.
Son of a bitch. Why the hell hadn’t I ever read anything about swimming mummies? I might be able to shimmy up the rope, but not before I could pull Mike out. Maybe I should just leave him for Caracalla . . . but I dismissed that thought and repeated my newest mantra: I am better than Mr. Kurosawa and also the IAA.
I shone the flashlight over the surface but didn’t spot Caracalla. Damn it, what the hell was I supposed to do with a swimming mummy?
I retrieved my phone and made the call I’d gone out of my way to avoid making since setting foot in Egypt.
I called Rynn.
To give him credit, he picked up on the first ring.
“Alix.”
No detectable anger, no accusations . . . this was good. “Hey Rynn, listen, I’m in a bit of a jam—what do you know about Egyptian mummies from the Roman era? The ones who look more like rotting corpses.”
There was a brief pause. “What the hell are you doing in Egypt?”
“Yeah, about that—I decided since I was already on the continent, I might as well hit both the Moroccan and Egyptian jobs. Last-minute decision, and I didn’t have time to call.” I winced at the white lie. I’d had the time to call, just not for the argument that would have followed.
“We agreed you’d tell me what jobs you were doing.” Rynn tried to hide his frustration, but I’d gotten a lot better at picking up on it lately.
“And I’m telling you now—” I started.
“Before something tried to kill you!”
“Well, we also said you weren’t supposed to become Mr. Kurosawa’s new security.”
“I told you that’s temporary—”
“Well, so is Egypt!”
Rynn sighed. “Roman mummies don’t do well with bright light. UV is best. Has to do with degeneration of the retina.”
OK, that was useful. I patted my jacket until I found my UV flashlight. Never leave home without. I aimed and shone it on the surface. “He’s under the water—how do I find him?”
“Just keep the flashlight on the water. He shouldn’t resurface.”
I switched the setting to flood, illuminating the whole room. “Rynn, I know you hate the whole thieving thing, but man, if you saw half the stuff in here . . .”
“Keep me on the phone until you’re out of whatever hole you’ve crawled into.” Rynn kept his voice professional. He usually did on business, but there was genuine concern under the irritation.
I was guessing Rynn also needed me on the phone to get a signal on my whereabouts—considering the circumstances, I didn’t think that was half as bad an idea as I normally would. “All right, what do you want to talk about?” I said, and began tying the loose end of the rope around Mike, making sure it would hold.
“I think the fact you’re in Egypt is a good start.”
“There’s not much to tell. I saw an opportunity to get both pieces on Mr. Kurosawa’s list, so I took it.”
“We agreed to do it my way—”
I tested the rope one last time to make sure it would hold me as I climbed up. “Yeah, but your way means I end up aborting the job halfway through because it’s too dangerous.”
“No fucking offense, Alix, but considering the circumstances, I’m the only one in this conversation with a point. And this is the second time you’ve done this.”
My first instinct was to tell him this conversation would end as soon as he quit Mr. Kurosawa’s security job, but my thought process was interrupted as bony, clawlike fingers reached through the water and dug into my khakis.
Shit.

“Got to go. Work is rearing its half-rotting head,” I said, and tossed my pack and phone onto the sarcophagus before Caracalla pulled me under.




Read my Series 101 with Kristi to know more about Owl and her adventures



Kristi is the author of a forthcoming urban fantasy series OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS (Jan 13th, 2015, Simon and Schuster Canada/Pocket Books), about a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world. She writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. The second installment, OWL AND THE CITY OF ANGELS, is scheduled for release Jan 2016.

Kristi is also a scientist with a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. Her specialties are genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology, all of which she draws upon in her writing. She is represented by Carolyn Forde at Westwood Creative Artists.


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8 comments:

  1. This series sounds awesome. I got the first book for Kindle a while back and hope to be getting to it in the near future.

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    1. I hope they do the promo again for book 2. This was on $1.99 preorder a while back.

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  2. Oh yes, I really enjoyed book 1 and I confess that I'm curious about this one too!

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  3. Ohh book 2! I am still curious about book 1

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    1. Oh shoot, you don't do ebooks, right? I ask because it's (still) on sale... I think...

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  4. I have seen this series around quite a lot, Braine, and I have to admit I'm intrigued by it. Thanks for sharing a little more about it :)
    I hope you've had a fantastic week! Enjoy your weekend and happy reading.

    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

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  5. This is a new series and author to me. Glad to see you sharing about it. :) Thank you!

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