Snake Agent: A Detective Inspector Chen Novel

PROLOGUE

Hell

Hanging by his heels and twisting slowly in the draught that slipped beneath the crimson door, Detective Inspector Chen tried desperately to attract the demon's attention. Yet despite his whispered pleas, the demon's eyes remained tightly shut, and his wet, black lips moved faintly, as if in prayer. Hearing the alchemist's heels retreating down the passage, Chen tried again. "Tso! Listen to me!"

The demon's only response was to squeeze his eyes even more firmly closed. Chen sighed. Tso had never liked to confront uncomfortable realities, and had gone to some lengths to avoid them, but now he, too, was dangling by his heels from a hook in the ceiling and—thought Chen, bitterly—the truth of what the demon had done must finally be faced.

"Tso, I know you've probably had a bang on the head, but I'm quite well aware you're still conscious. We have to find a way of getting down," Chen insisted.

"No use," the demon whined, without opening his eyes. "There's no way out of here."

"Nonsense," Chen said, more firmly than he felt. The blood was rushing to his head and making him dizzy: the metal walls of the chamber seemed to tilt and spin. Reflected within them, his face was no more than a blurred, unhappy moon. He tried not to think about Inari, but it was hard to keep anxiety at bay. Stop fretting about your wife, he told himself. The badger will look after Inari; all you have to do is worry about getting down and getting out of here. To the demon he said, "The alchemist will be back in a little while, and then we'll really have problems. Now, listen. My rosary's on the table to your right—can you see it? I want you to try and reach it."

The demon's eyes opened at last, dazzling and sudden. Chen stared, blinking, into the hot-coal heart of the demon's gaze.

"Reach your rosary?" Tso said, nonplussed. "How? My hands are tied."

"You'll have to swing over and see if you can grab it with your tongue."

"But my tongue will get burned!"

"When that nightmare of an alchemist comes back you'll have a damned sight more to worry about than a sore tongue," Chen said with barely restrained patience. The demon's mouth opened and Tso emitted a long, hissing breath that stank of offal. Chen was unable to repress a shudder.

"Oh, very well!" the demon complained. "I'll try."

He began to swing, dangling like some monstrous piece of bait from the hook in the ceiling. Chen watched, holding his breath, as the demon came within a couple of feet of the table. The long, black tongue shot out and flickered over the surface, missing the rosary. Tso tried again, anchoring himself to the table-leg with his tongue. The barbed, sensitive tip probed over the surface of the table, flicked the rosary, and recoiled.

"Hurts!" the demon said, indistinctly.

"I'm truly sorry. But if we don't get out of here. . ."

Tso tried again, and this time flicked the rosary off the table with all the neatness of a toad catching flies.

"Well done!" Chen enthused. The demon hissed with pain as the rosary seared the end of his tongue, but the barbs held it securely. Swinging back, Tso flicked the rosary in the direction of Chen, who lunged for it with his teeth and missed. The rosary, detaching itself from Tso's tongue, wrapped around an ornately carved pineapple that decorated the edge of the alchemist's desk, where it hung, dangling tantalizingly out of reach just as the alchemist stepped back through the lacquered door, ceremonial machete in hand.

PART ONE

One

Singapore Three, Earth

One Week Earlier

Detective Inspector Chen brushed