Succubus Blues CHAPTER 3
Of course, I should clarify at this point that Jerome doesn’t look like a demon, at least not in the traditional red skin and horns sense. Maybe he does on another plane of existence, but like Hugh, me, and all the other immortals walking the earth, Jerome wore a human guise now.
One that looked like John Cusack.
Seriously. No joke. The archdemon always claimed he didn’t even know who the actor was, but none of us bought that.
” Ow,” I said irritably. “Let me go.”
Jerome released his grasp, but his dark eyes still glinted dangerously. “You look good,” he said after a moment, seeming surprised by the admission.
I tugged at my sweater, straightening it from where his hand had crumpled it. “You have a funny way of showing your admiration.”
“Really good,” he continued thoughtfully. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you – “
” – shine,” murmured a voice behind the demon. “You shine, Daughter of Lilith, like a star in the night sky, like a diamond glittering on the bleakness of eternity.”
I started in surprise. Jerome cut a sharp glance to the speaker, not liking his monologue interrupted. I also glared, not liking an uninvited angel in my apartment. Carter only smiled at both of us.
“As I was saying,” snapped Jerome, “you look like you’ve been with a good mortal.”
“I did a favor for Hugh.”
“So this isn’t the start of a new and improved habit?”
“Not on the salary you pay me.”
Jerome grunted, but it was all part of a routine between us. He would berate me for not taking my job seriously, I’d give a few witty quips in return, and the status quo would resume. Like I said, I was something of a teacher’s pet.
Looking at him now, however, I could see no more jokes would follow. The charm that had so enthralled my customers today had no effect on these two. Jerome’s face was drawn and serious, as was Carter’s, despite the angel’s usual sardonic half-smile.
Jerome and Carter hung out together regularly, especially when alcohol was involved. This baffled me since they were supposedly locked in some sort of great, cosmic struggle. I’d once asked Jerome if Carter was a fallen angel, which had elicited a good laugh from the demon. When he’d recovered from the hilarity, he’d told me no, Carter hadn’t fallen. If he had, he wouldn’t technically be an angel anymore. I hadn’t really found that answer satisfying and finally decided the two must stay together because there was no one else in this area who could relate to an existence stretching back to the beginning of time and creation. All the rest of us lesser immortals had been human at some point before; greater immortals like Jerome and Carter had not. My centuries were a mere blip on their timeline.
Whatever the reasons for his presence now, I didn’t like Carter. He wasn’t obnoxious like Duane, but he always seemed so smug and supercilious. Maybe it was an angel thing. Carter also had the most bizarre sense of humor I’d ever seen. I could never tell if he was making fun of me or not.
“So what can I do for you boys?” I asked, tossing my purse on the counter. “I’ve got places to be tonight.”
Jerome fixed me with a narrow-eyed look. “I want you to tell me about Duane.”
“What? I already did. He’s an asshole.”
“Is that why you had him killed?”
“I – what?”
I froze where I’d been sifting through cupboard contents and slowly turned around to look back at the duo, half expecting some joke. Both faces were in earnest, watching me.
“Killed? How… how does that work?”
“You tell me, Georgie.”
I blinked, suddenly realizing where this was going. “Are you accusing me of killing Duane? And wait… this is stupid. Duane isn’t dead. He can’t be.”
Jerome began pacing, his voice exaggeratedly civil. “Oh, I assure you, he is quite dead. We found him this morning, just before sunrise.”
“So what? He died of sun exposure?” That was the only way I’d ever heard a vampire could die.
“No. He died because of the stake wedged into his heart.”
“So are you ready to tell me who you got to do it, Georgie?”
“I didn’t get anyone to do it! I can’t even – I don’t even understand what this is about. Duane can’t be dead.”
“You admitted to me last night you two got in a fight.”
“And you threatened him.”
“Yeah, but I was joking…”
“I think he told me you said something about him never coming near you again?”
“I was angry and upset! He was scaring me. This is crazy. Besides, Duane can’t be dead.”
That was the only piece of sanity I could cling to in all of this, so I kept repeating it to them and to myself. Immortals were, by definition, immortal. End of story.
“Don’t you know anything about vampires?” the arch-demon asked curiously.
“Like that they can’t die?”
Amusement flickered in Carter’s gray eyes; Jerome found me less funny.
“I’m asking you one last time, Georgina. Did you or did you not have Duane killed? Just answer the question. Yes or no.”
“No,” I said firmly.
Jerome glanced at Carter. The angel studied me, his lank blond hair falling forward to partially cover his face. I realized then why Carter was along for the ride tonight. Angels can always discern truth from lies. At last, he nodded sharply to Jerome.
“Glad I passed the test,” I muttered.
But they weren’t paying attention to me anymore.
“Well,” observed Jerome grimly, “I guess we know what this means.”
“Well, we don’t know for sure…”
” I do.”
Carter gave him a meaningful look, and several seconds of silence passed. I’d always suspected the two were communicating mentally in such moments, something we lesser immortals could not do unassisted.
“So Duane’s really dead?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Jerome, remembering I was there. “Very much so.”
“Who killed him then? Now that we’ve determined it wasn’t me?”
The two glanced at each other and shrugged, neither answering. Negligent parents, both of them. Carter pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit up. Lord, I hated it when they got this way.
Finally Jerome said, “A vampire hunter.”
I stared. “Really? Like that girl on TV?”
“So where are you going tonight?” asked Carter pleasantly.
“To Seth Mortensen’s signing. And don’t change the subject. I want to know about this vampire hunter.”
“Are you going to sleep with him?”
“I – what?” For half a moment, I thought the angel was asking me about the vampire hunter. “You mean Seth Mortensen?”
Carter exhaled smoke. “Sure. I mean, if I were a succubus obsessed with a mortal author, that’s what I’d do. Besides, doesn’t your side always want more celebrities?”
“We’ve already got plenty of celebrities,” Jerome said in an undertone.
Sleep with Seth Mortensen? Good grief. It was the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. It was appalling. If I absorbed his life force, there was no telling how long it’d be until his next book came out.
“No! Of course not.”
“Then what are you going to do to get noticed?”
“Sure. I mean, the guy probably sees tons of fans on a regular basis. Don’t you want to stand out in some way?”
Surprise washed over me. I hadn’t even considered that. Should I have? My jaded nature made it difficult to find pleasure in many things nowadays. Seth Mortensen books were one of my few escapes. Should I acknowledge that and attempt to connect with the novels’ creator? Earlier today, I’d mocked run-of-the-mill fans. Was I about to become one of them?
“Well… I mean, Paige will probably introduce the staff privately to him. I’ll sort of stand out then.”
“Yes, of course.” Carter put out the cigarette in my kitchen sink. “I’m sure he never gets the opportunity to meet bookstore management.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Jerome cut me off.
“Enough.” He gave Carter another of those meaningful looks. “We need to go.”
“I – wait a minute!” Carter had succeeded in derailing me off the topic after all. I couldn’t believe it. “I want to know more about this vampire hunter.”
“All you need to know is that you should be careful, Georgie. Extremely careful. I am not joking about this.”
I swallowed, hearing the iron in the demon’s voice. “But I’m not a vampire.”
“I don’t care. These hunter types sometimes follow vampires around, hoping to find others. You could be implicated by association. Lay low. Avoid being alone. Stay with others – mortal or immortal, it doesn’t matter. Maybe you can follow up on your favor for Hugh and score some more souls for our side while you’re at it.”
I rolled my eyes at that as the two walked to the door.
“I mean it. Be careful. Keep a low profile. Don’t get involved with this.”
“And,” added Carter with a wink, “say hi to Seth Mortensen for me.”
With that, the two left, closing the door gently behind them. A formality really, since either of them could have just teleported out. Or blown my door apart.
I turned to Aubrey. She had watched the proceedings cautiously from the back of my sofa, tail twitching.
“Well,” I told her, reeling. “What am I supposed to make of that?”
Duane was actually dead? I mean, yeah, he was a bastard, and I had been pretty pissed when I threatened him last night, but I’d never actually wanted him to be really dead. And what about this vampire hunter business? Why was I supposed to be careful when –
I had just glanced at my microwave clock. It coolly informed me I needed to return to the bookstore ASAP. Pushing Duane out of my brain, I dashed to my bedroom and stared at myself in the mirror. Aubrey followed more sluggishly.
What to wear? I could just keep my current outfit. The sweater and khakis combination looked both respectable and subdued, though the color scheme blended a bit too well with my light brown hair. It was a librarian sort of outfit. Did I want to look subdued? Maybe. Like I had told Carter, I really didn’t want to do anything that might solicit the romantic interest of my favorite author in the whole world.
Still, I remembered what the angel had said about getting noticed. I didn’t want to be just another face in Seth Mortensen’s crowd. This was the final stop on his latest tour. No doubt he’d seen thousands of fans in the last month, fans who blurred together into a sea of bland faces, making their inane comments. I had advised the guy at the counter to be innovative with his questions, and I intended to behave the same way with my appearance.
Five minutes later, I stood in front of the mirror once more, this time clad in a silk tank top, deep violet and low-cut, paired with a floral chiffon skirt. The skirt almost covered my thighs and swirled when I spun. It would have made a great dancing outfit. Stepping into strappy brown heels, I glanced over at Aubrey for confirmation.
“What do you think? Too sexy?”
She began cleaning her tail.
“It is sexy,” I conceded, “but it’s classy sexy. The hair helps, I think.”
I had pulled my long hair up into a romantic sort of bun, leaving wavy locks to frame my face and enhance my eyes. Momentary shape-shifting made them turn greener than usual. Changing my mind, I let them go back to their normal gold-and-green-flecked hazel.
When Aubrey still refused to acknowledge how awesome I looked, I grabbed my snakeskin coat and glared at her. “I don’t care what you think. This outfit was a good call.”
I left the apartment with my copy of The Glasgow Pact and walked back to work, impervious to the drizzle. Another perk of shape-shifting. Fans milled inside the main retail area, eager to see the man whose latest book still dominated the bestseller lists, even after five weeks. I squeezed past the group, making my way toward the stairs that led to the second floor.
“Young adult books are over there by the wall.” Doug’s friendly voice drifted nearby. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
He turned away from the customer he’d been helping, caught sight of me, and promptly dropped the stack of books he’d been holding.
Customers stepped back, politely watching him kneel down to retrieve the books. I recognized the covers immediately. They were paperbacks of Seth Mortensen’s older titles.
“Sacrilege,” I commented. “Letting those touch the ground. You’ll have to burn them now, like a flag.”
Ignoring me, Doug gathered up the books and then ushered me off out of earshot. “Nice of you to go home and change into something more comfortable. Christ, can you even bend over in that?”
“What, do you think I’ll have to tonight?”
“Well, that depends. I mean, Warren’s here after all.”
“Harsh, Doug. Very harsh.”
“You bring it on yourself, Kincaid.” He gave me a reluctant, appreciative glance just before we started climbing the stairs. “You do look pretty good, though.”
“Thanks. I wanted Seth Mortensen to notice me.”
“Believe me, unless he’s gay, he’ll notice you. Probably even then too.”
“I don’t look too slutty, do I?”
“I was going for classy sexy. What do you think?”
“I think I’m done feeding your ego. You already know how you look.”
We crested the top of the stairs. A mass of chairs had been set up, covering most of the cafe’s normal seating area and spreading out into part of the gardening and maps section of books. Paige, the store manager and our superior, busily attempted some sort of wiring acrobatics with the microphone and sound system. I didn’t know what this building had been used for before Emerald City Books moved in, but it was not an ideal venue for acoustics and large groups.
“I’m going to help her,” Doug told me, kindly chivalrous. Paige was three months pregnant. “I’d advise you do something that doesn’t involve leaning more than twenty degrees in any one direction. Oh, and if somebody tries to get you to touch your elbows together behind your back, don’t fall for it.”
I gave him a sharp jab in the ribs, nearly making him lose the books again.
Bruce, still manning the espresso counter, made me my fourth white chocolate mocha of the day, and I wandered over to the geography books to drink it while I waited for things to pick up. Glancing beside me, I recognized the guy I’d discussed Seth Mortensen with earlier. He still held his copy of The Glasgow Pact.
“Hey,” I said.
He jumped at the sound of my voice, having been absorbed in a travel book about Texas.
“Sorry,” I told him. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I – no, you d-didn’t,” he stammered. His eyes assessed me from head to toe in one quick glance, lingering ever so briefly on my hips and breasts but longest on my face. “You changed clothes.” Apparently realizing the myriad implications behind such an admission, he added hastily, “Not that that’s bad. I mean that’s good. Er, well, that is – “
His embarrassment growing, he turned from me and tried to awkwardly replace the Texas book back on the shelf, upside down. I hid my smile. This guy was too adorable. I didn’t run into many shy guys anymore. Modern-day dating seemed to demand men make as great a spectacle of themselves as possible, and unfortunately, women seemed to really go for it. Okay, even I went for it sometimes. But shy guys deserved a break too, and I decided a little harmless flirting with him would be good for his ego while I waited for the signing to start. He probably had terrible luck with women.
“Let me do that,” I offered, leaning across him. My hands touched his as I took the book from him, replacing it carefully on the shelf, front cover out. “There.”
I stepped back as though to admire my handiwork, making sure I stood very close to him, our shoulders nearly touching. “It’s important to keep up appearances with books,” I explained. “Image goes a long way in this business.”
He dared a look over at me, still nervous but steadily recovering his composure. “I go more for content.”
“Really?” I repositioned slightly so that we were touching again, the soft flannel of his shirt brushing my bare skin. “Because I could have sworn a moment ago you were pretty caught up in outside appearance.”
His eyes shifted down again, but I could see a smile curving his lips. “Well. Some things are so striking, they can’t help but draw attention to themselves.”
“And doesn’t that make you curious about what’s inside?”
“Mostly it makes me want to get you some advanced copies.”
Advanced copies? What did he – ?
“Seth? Seth, where – ah, there you are.”
Paige turned down our aisle, Doug following behind. She brightened when she saw me, and I felt my stomach sink out of me and hit the floor with a thud as I put two and two together. No. No. It couldn’t be –
“Ah, Georgina. I see you’ve already met Seth Mortensen.”