Succubus Blues CHAPTER 6

Succubus Blues CHAPTER 6

I woke up the next day, determined to go see Erik and get the truth about vampire hunters. Then, as I was brushing my teeth, I remembered yesterday’s other crisis.

Seth Mortensen.

Swearing, I finished up in the bathroom, earning a disapproving look from Aubrey for my profanity. There was no telling how long this tour thing with him might take. I might have to wait until tomorrow to see Erik, and by then, this vampire hunter or whatever could have struck again.

I set out for Emerald City, wearing the most nonattractive outfit I could muster: jeans and a turtleneck, with my hair pulled severely back. Paige, all smiles, approached me as I waited for Seth in the cafe. “You should show him Foster’s and Puget Sound Books while you’re out,” she told me conspiratorially.

Still waking up, I took a sip of the mocha Bruce had just made me and tried to reason out her logic. Foster’s and Puget Sound Books were competitors of ours, though not major ones. “Those places are dives.”

“Exactly.” She grinned at me with her even white teeth. “Show him those, and he’ll be convinced we’re the best place for him to do his writing at.”

I studied her, feeling seriously out of the loop. Or maybe I was just distracted still about the Duane thing. It wasn’t every day one had his immortality revoked.

“Why… would he do his writing here?”

“Because he likes to take his laptop and write in coffee shops.”

“Yeah, but he lives in Chicago.”

Paige shook her head. “Not anymore. Where were you last night? He’s moving here to be closer to his family.”

I recalled Seth mentioning his brother, but I had been too caught up in my own mortification to pay much attention. “When?”

“Now, as far as I know. That’s why this was his last stop on the tour. He’s staying with his brother but plans on finding his own place soon.” She leaned close to me, eyes gleaming predatorily. “Georgina, if we have a famous author hanging out here regularly, it’ll be good for our image.”

Honestly, my immediate concern wasn’t where Seth would be writing. What freaked me out was that he would not be departing for a different time zone anytime soon, a time zone where he could then forget about me and let us both get on with our lives. I could run into him every day now. Literally, if Paige’s wish was realized.

“Won’t that be distracting to his writing if his presence is widely known? Annoying fans and whatnot?”

“We won’t let it become a problem. We’ll make the most of this and respect his privacy. Careful now, here he comes.”

I drank more of my mocha, still marveling at the way Paige’s mind worked. She could think of promotional ideas that never would have entered my head. Warren might have been the one to invest capital in this place, but it had been her marketing genius that made it a success.

“Good morning,” Seth told us, walking up to the table. He wore jeans, a Def Leppard T-shirt, and a brown corduroy jacket. The lay of his hair did not convince me he’d brushed it this morning.

Paige looked at me pointedly, and I sighed. “Let’s go.”

Seth silently followed me outside, that awkward tension building between us like a solid barrier. He did not look at me; I did not look at him. It was only when we stood outside on Queen Anne Avenue and I realized I had no plan for today that conversation had to occur.

“Where to start? Seattle, unlike Gaul, is not divided into just three parts.”

I made the joke more to myself, but Seth suddenly laughed. “Seattle peninsula est,” he observed, playing off my observation.

“Not exactly. Besides, that’s Bede, not Caesar.”

“I know. But I don’t know very much Latin.” He gave me that quirky, bemused smile that seemed to be his trademark expression. “Do you?”

“Enough.” I wondered how he would react if I mentioned my fluency in Latin dialects from various stages of the Roman Empire. My vague answer must have been interpreted as lack of interest because he looked away, and more silence fell. “Is there anything special you wanted to see?”

“Not really.”

Not really. Okay. Well. The sooner we got this started, the sooner it would end and I could see Erik.

“Follow me.”

As we drove off, I sort of hoped we might naturally flow into meaningful conversation, in spite of our bad start yesterday. Yet, as we traveled, it seemed clear Seth had no intention of carrying on any discourse. I recalled his nervousness in front of the crowd yesterday and even with some of the bookstore staff. This guy had serious social phobias, I realized, though he had made a valiant effort in shedding them during our initial flirtations. Then, I had gone and turned on the back-off vibes, undoubtedly scarring him for life and undoing whatever progress he had made. Way to go, Georgina.

Maybe if I could broach some compelling topics, he would muster his earlier confidence and bring back our rapport – in a platonic way, of course. I attempted to recall my profound questions from last night. And once again, they eluded me, so I switched to mundane ones.

“So your brother lives around here?”

“Yup.”

“What part?”

“Lake Forest Park.”

“That’s a nice area. Are you going to look for a place up there?”

“Probably not.”

“Do you have another place in mind then?”

“Not really.”

Okay, this wasn’t getting us anywhere. Annoyed at how this master of the written word could be so short on spoken ones, I finally decided to cut him out of the conversation altogether. Having him involved was too much work. Instead, I chatted on amiably without him, pointing out the popular spots: Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, the Fremont Troll. I even showed him the shoddier representatives of our competition, per Paige’s instructions. I neglected anything closer to the Space Needle than a brief nod, however. No doubt he’d seen it from Emerald City’s windows and could pay the exorbitant fees to visit it up close if he really needed the tourist experience.

We went to the U District for lunch. He followed without protest or comment to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. Our meal progressed quietly as I took a break from talking, both of us eating noodles and staring out the nearby window to watch the bustle of students and cars.

“This is nice.”

It was the most Seth had spoken in a while, and I nearly jumped at the sound of his voice.

“Yeah. This place doesn’t look like much, but they make a mean pho.”

“No, I meant out there. This area.”

I followed his gesture back to University Way, at first seeing nothing more than disgruntled students hauling backpacks around. Then, expanding my search, I became aware of the other small specialty restaurants, the coffee shops, and the used bookstores. It was an eclectic mix, somewhat tattered around the edges, but it had a lot to offer quirky, intellectual types – even famous, introverted writers.

I looked at Seth, who looked back at me expectantly. It was our first direct eye contact all day.

“Are there places to live around here?”

“Sure. If you want to share a house with a bunch of eighteen-year-olds.” I paused, thinking that option might not be so unappealing for a guy. “If you want something more substantial in this area, it’ll cost you. I guess Cady and O’Neill ensure that’s not really an issue, huh? We can drive around and look, if you want.”

“Maybe. I’d honestly rather go there first.” He pointed across the street, to one of the used bookstores. His eyes flicked back to me uncertainly. “If that’s okay with you.”

“Let’s go.”

I loved used bookstores but always felt a little guilty walking into them. Like I was cheating. After all, I worked around bright, crisp books all the time. I could obtain a reprint of almost anything I wanted, brand new. It seemed wrong to take such visceral pleasure from being around old books, from the smell of aged paper, mildew, and dust. Such collections of knowledge, some quite old, always reminded me of times long past and places I’d seen, triggering a tidal wave of nostalgia. These emotions made me feel both old and young. The books aged while I did not.

A gray tabby cat stretched and blinked at us from her spot on the counter as we entered. I stroked her back and said hello to the old man near her. He glanced up briefly from the books he sorted, smiled at us, and returned to his work. Seth stared around at the towering shelves before us, an expression of bliss on his face, and promptly disappeared into them.

I wandered over to nonfiction, wanting to peruse the cookbooks. I had grown up preparing food without microwaves and food processors and decided it was high time to let my culinary knowledge expand into this century.

Finally settling on a Greek cookbook with lots of colored pictures, I dragged myself away a half hour later and looked for Seth. I found him in the children’s section, kneeling next to a stack of books, completely absorbed.

I crouched down beside him. “What are you looking at?”

He flinched slightly, startled by my proximity, and tore his gaze away from his find to look at me. This close, I could see that his eyes were actually more of a golden-amber brown, his lashes long enough to make any girl jealous.

“Andrew Lang’s fairy books.” He held a paperback entitled The Blue Fairy Book. On top of the stack near him sat another called The Orange Fairy Book, and I could only assume the rest followed color-coded suit. Seth glowed with literary rapture, forgetting his reticence around me. “The 1960s reprints. Not as valuable as, say, editions from the 1800s, but these are the ones my dad had, the ones he used to read to us from. He only had a couple, though; this is the whole set. I’m going to get them and read them to my nieces.”

Flipping through the pages of The Red Fairy Book, I recognized the titles of many familiar stories, some I hadn’t even known were still around. I turned the book over and looked inside the cover but found no price. “How much are they?”

Seth pointed to a small sign near the shelf he’d obtained them from.

“Is that reasonable for these?” I asked.

“It’s a little high, but it’s worth it to me to get them all in one go.”

“No way.” I gathered up part of the books, rising. “We’ll talk him down.”

“Talk him down how?”

My lips turned up in a smile. “With words.”

Seth seemed dubious, but the clerk proved an easy target. Most men would eventually cave before an attractive, charismatic woman – let alone a succubus who still sported a residual life force glow. Besides, I had learned bartering at my mother’s knee. The guy behind the counter didn’t stand a chance. By the time I finished with him, he had happily lowered the price by 25 percent and thrown in my cookbook for free.

Walking back to my car, arms laden with books, Seth kept glancing at me wonderingly. “How did you do that? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Lots of practice.” A vague answer worthy of one of his.

“Thanks. I wish I could repay the favor.”

“Don’t worry – hey, you can actually. Would you mind running an errand with me? It’s to a bookstore, but it’s a scary bookstore.”

“Scary how?”

Five minutes later, we were on our way to see my old friend Erik Lancaster. Erik had been ensconced in the Seattle area long before me, and he was a well-known figure to almost every immortal entity around. Versed in mythology and supernatural lore, he regularly proved to be an excellent resource for all things paranormal. If he had noticed that some of his best patrons never aged, he wisely refrained from pointing that out.

The only annoying thing about seeing Erik was that it required a visit to Krystal Starz – a stunning example of New Age spirituality gone wrong. I didn’t doubt the place might have had good intentions back when it opened in the 1980s, but the bookstore now touted a barrage of colorful, highly commercial merchandise more weighted in price than any sort of mystical value. Erik, by my estimation, was the only employee with legitimate concern and knowledge of esoteric matters. The best of his coworkers were simply apathetic; the worst were zealots and scam artists.

Pulling up into the store’s parking lot, I immediately felt surprise at the number of cars there. This many people at Emerald City would have constituted a signing, but that sort of event seemed odd in the middle of the workday.

A heavy wave of incense poured over us as we entered, and Seth appeared just as surprised as me by all the people and stimuli. “I might be a minute,” I told him. “Feel free to look around. Not that there’s much here worth seeing.”

He melted away, and I turned my attention to a bright-eyed young man standing near the door and directing the crowd around. “Are you here for the Gathering?”

“Urn, no,” I told him. “I’m looking for Erik.”

“Erik who?”

“Lancaster? Older guy? African-American? He works here.”

The young lackey shook his head. “There’s no Erik here. Not as long as I’ve been working here.” He spoke like he’d founded the store.

“How long has that been?”

“Two months.”

I rolled my eyes. A veritable veteran. “Is there a manager around here I can talk to?”

“Well, Helena’s here, but she’s going to be – ah, there she is.” He gestured to the far side of the store where the woman in question appeared as though summoned.

Ah yes, Helena. She and I had tangled before. Pale-haired, her neck bestrewn with crystals and other arcane symbols, she stood in a doorway marked meeting room. A teal shawl covered her slim shoulders, and like always, I wondered how old she was. She looked to be in her lower to mid-thirties, but something about her demeanor always made me think she was older. Maybe she’d had a lot of plastic surgery. It would be fitting, really, considering the rest of her trumped-up, artificial persona.

“Everyone? Everyone?” She spoke in this obviously faked, high-pitched voice, meant to sound like a whisper, albeit one that could reach loud volumes. So mostly it came out raspy, like she had a cold. “It’s time to start.”

The masses – thirty or so, I’d say – moved toward the meeting room, and I followed, blending into the crowd. Some of the people around me looked like Helena: theme-dressed, in either all-black or too-vibrant shades, with a plethora of pentagrams, crystals, and ohms in attendance. Others looked like average people, dressed much like me in my work clothes, trailing along in excited curiosity.

With a frozen, fake smile plastered across her face, Helena beckoned us into the room murmuring, “Welcome, welcome. Feel the energy.” When I passed by her, the smile faltered. “I know you.”

“Yes.”

The smile diminished further. “You’re that woman who works at that big bookstore – that big, commercial bookstore.” A few people stopped and listened to our exchange, no doubt the reason she refrained from pointing out the last time I was in here, I had called her a hypocrite pushing marked-up crap merchandise.

Compared to certain national chains, I hardly considered Emerald City commercial. Still, I shrugged in acknowledgment. “Yeah, what can I say, we’re part of the problem in corporate America. However, we do sell all the books and tarot cards that you do, often at a discount if you’re a member of Emerald City’s Frequent Readers Program.” I mentioned this last part loudly. Extra advertising never hurt.

Helena’s weakening smile disappeared altogether, as did some of her raspy voice. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“I’m looking for Erik.”

“Erik doesn’t work here anymore.”

“Where’d he go?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”

“Why? Are you afraid I’ll take my business elsewhere? Believe me, you were never in danger of having it.”

She raised delicate fingers to her forehead and studied me seriously, eyes nearly going crossed. “I sense a lot of darkness in your aura. Black and red.” Her voice rose, drawing in the attention of her acolytes. “You would benefit greatly from some clearing work. A smoky or rutilated quartz might also help. We have excellent specimens of both for sale here. Either would lighten up your aura.”

I couldn’t resist a smirk. I believed in auras, knew they were perfectly real. I also knew, however, that my aura looked nothing at all like a mortal one, nor would someone like Helena even be able to see it. Indeed, a true human adept, capable of perceiving such things, would notice that in standing with a group of humans, I would be the only person without a discernible aura. It would be invisible to all, save someone like Jerome or Carter, though some particularly skilled mortal might be able to feel its strength and be understandably cautious. Erik was one such mortal, which was why he always treated me with so much respect. Helena was not.

“Wow,” I crooned. “I can’t believe you were able to deduce all that without your aura camera.” Krystal Starz proudly touted a camera that would photograph your aura for $9.95. “Do I owe you something now?”

She sniffed. “I don’t need a camera to see others’ auras. I am a Master. Besides, the spirits who have assembled for this Gathering tell me plenty about you.”

My smile increased. “What do they say?” I’d had little dealings with spirits or other ethereal beings in my long life, but I would know if any were present.

She closed her eyes, hands to her forehead again, lines of thought creasing her face. The onlookers watched in wonder.

“They tell me that much troubles you. That the indecision and monotony in your life force you to lash out, and so long as you choose the path of darkness and distrust, you will never find peace or light.” Her blue eyes opened, caught up in her own otherworldly ecstasy. “They want you to join us. Sit in our circle, feel their healing energy. The spirits will help you to a better life.”

“Like they helped you out of the porn industry?”

She froze, paling, and I almost felt bad for a moment. Adepts like Erik weren’t the only ones with reputations in the immortal community. A crackpot like Helena was well known too. Someone who had apparently been a fan of hers back in the day had recognized her from a movie and passed on this bit of dirt to the rest of us.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she finally said, face struggling for control in front of her minions.

“My mistake. You reminded me of someone called Moana Licka. You sort of rub crystals the way she used to rub… well, you get the idea.”

“You are mistaken,” Helena said, voice on the verge of cracking. “Erik no longer works here. Please leave.”

Another retort rose to my lips, but then, beyond her, I caught sight of Seth. He had wandered up to the edge of the crowd, observing the spectacle with the others. Seeing him, I suddenly felt foolish, the thrill of humiliating Helena turning cheap and shallow. Embarrassed, I still managed to hold my head high as I withheld my remarks and walked away from her. Seth fell into step beside me.

“Let me guess,” I said dryly. “Some people write the stories, and some people live them.”

“I think you can’t help but make a sensation wherever you go.”

I assumed he was being sarcastic. Then, I glanced over and saw his frank expression, neither censuring nor snide. His earnestness was so unexpected that I stumbled slightly, paying more attention to him than where I was going. Having a much-deserved reputation for gracefulness, I recovered almost immediately. Seth, however, instinctually held out a hand to catch me.

As he did, I suddenly had a flash of… of something. Like that moment of connection back in the map aisle. Or the surge of fulfillment I got when I read his books. It was brief, fleeting, like maybe it hadn’t happened at all. He seemed as surprised as I felt and released my arm tentatively, almost hesitantly. A moment later, a voice behind me broke the spell entirely.

“Excuse me?” Turning, I saw a slim teenage girl with cropped red hair and piercings up and down her ears. “You were looking for Erik, right?”

“Yeah…”

“I can tell you where he’s at. He left about five months ago to start his own store. It’s in Lake City… I forget the name. There’s a light there, with a grocery store and a big Mexican restaurant…”

I nodded. “I know that area. I’ll find it. Thanks.” I eyed her curiously. “Do you work here?”

“Yeah. Erik was always pretty cool to me, so I’d rather see him get business than this place. I’d have gone with him, but he doesn’t really need any other help, so I’m stuck with Nutso in there.” She jerked her thumb back in Helena’s direction.

The girl had a serious, practical demeanor different from most of this place’s employees. I recalled now that I’d seen her helping customers when I’d come in. “Why do you work here if you don’t like it?”

“I don’t know. I like books, and I need money.”

I dug through my purse, searching for one of my rarely used business cards. “Here. You want a new job, come talk to me sometime.”

She took the card and read it, surprise filling her features. “Thanks… I think.”

“Thanks for the info about Erik.”

Pausing, I considered further, and dug out another card. “If you’ve got a friend – anyone else who works here and is like you – give this to them too.”

“Is that legal?” asked Seth later.

” Dunno. But we’re short-staffed at Emerald City.”

I figured a specialty store like Erik’s must be closed by now, so instead I turned toward Lake Forest Park to return Seth to his brother’s house. I confess, relief flooded me. Being with one’s hero was tiring, not to mention every interaction between us swung between wildly opposing poles. I’d probably be safer limiting our relationship to me simply reading his books.

I dropped him off at a cute, suburban home, its front yard littered with children’s playthings. I saw no sign of the children themselves, much to my disappointment. Seth gathered up his haul of books, gave me another scattered smile as he voiced his thanks, and disappeared into the house. I was almost back to Queen Anne when I realized I’d forgotten to ask him for my copy of The Glasgow Pact.

Annoyed, I entered my building and immediately heard the front desk attendant solicit me. “Miss Kincaid?”

I walked over to him, and he handed me a vase of flowers teeming with shades of purple and dark pink. “These came for you today.”

I accepted the vase with delight, inhaling the mingled scents of roses, irises, and stargazer lilies. They had no card. Typical. “Who brought them?”

He gestured beyond me. “That man over there.”