Demons are scary.
No matter what religion or walk of life you come from, this remains pretty constant. Oh sure, they have their absurd moments--especially in the circles I run with--but all in all, people have good reason to fear and avoid hell’s diabolical servants. They’re cruel and merciless, delight in pain and suffering, and torture souls in their free time. They lie. They steal. They cheat on their taxes.
Yet, in spite of all that, I couldn’t help but think I was about to witness the most terrifying demonic act yet.
An awards ceremony. For me.
Horatio, Vice Demon of such-and-such division of Infernal Affairs, stood before me, trying to impart an air of solemnity to the moment and failing miserably. I suspected his sky blue polyester suit and matching paisley bow tie were largely to blame. The sideburns didn’t help either. He probably hadn’t left the inner circles of hell in about six centuries, back around the last time sky blue polyester was in style.
With a too-long clearing of his throat, he glanced back and forth between those gathered, verifying we all paid attention. My supervisor Jerome stood nearby, looking utterly bored, occasionally glancing at his watch. Beside him, Horatio’s impish assistant Kasper grinned from ear to ear. A briefcase sat on the floor near him, and he clutched an assortment of papers. The eager, sucking-up lapdog look on his face indicated a burning desire for promotion.
As for me…well, I was fighting a hard battle to look excited too--and also failing. Which was unacceptable, of course. I’m a succubus. My entire existence relies on making people--men in particular--believe and see what they want to in me. I can switch from simpering virgin to sultry dominatrix in a heartbeat. All it takes is a bit of shape-shifting and a dash of playacting. I’d picked up the former ability when I traded away my human soul; I’d acquired the latter over time. After all, you can’t spend centuries telling every guy, ‘Yeah baby, you were the best I’ve ever had’ and not learn a little something about schmoozing. Myths may paint us as ethereal, demonic creatures of pleasure, but honestly, being a succubus just comes down to a convincing poker face and a good sales pitch.
So, really, this awards thing shouldn’t have been a problem for me. But Horatio wasn’t making it easy to keep a straight face.
“Verily, it gives me great honor to be here today,” he intoned in a nasally, baritone voice.
“Hard work is what makes us great, and we gather here now to recognize one who has shown dedication and given her all to the Greater Evil. Such individuals are what make us strong, what will allow us to win in this immense battle when all tallies are counted at the end of time. Such individuals are worthy of our esteem, and we strive to reward their commitment, letting all know just how important it is to push hard against the odds and fight for our objectives in these difficult times.”
He then added: “Whereas those who do not work hard are cast into the fiery pits of despair, to burn for all eternity and have their limbs torn off by hell hounds.”
I opened my mouth, on the verge of noting how that would be more cost effective than severance pay, but Jerome caught my eye and shook his head.
Meanwhile, Horatio had nudged Kasper, and the imp hastily handed over a gold embossed certificate. “It is therefore with great pleasure that I present unto you this Award of Achievement for Excellently Exceeding and Surpassing Requisite Succubus Quotas in this Most Recent Quarter. Congratulations.”
Horatio shook my hand and handed me the certificate, which had been signed by about fifty different people.
This Certifies that:
LETHA (alias Georgina Kincaid), Succubus in the Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington, United States of America, North America, Earth has hereby Excellently Exceeded and Surpassed Requisite Succubus Quotas in this Most Recent Quarter, demonstrating outstanding performance in seduction, damnation, and corruption of human souls.
Everyone was looking at me when I finished reading, so I supposed they expected some kind of speech or something. Mostly I was wondering if I’d get in trouble for trimming this down to fit an eight by ten frame.
“Um, thanks. This is…cool.”
That seemed to satisfy Horatio. He nodded smartly, then shot a glance to Jerome.
“You must be so proud.”
“Exceptionally,” murmured the archdemon, stifling a yawn.
Horatio turned back to me. “Keep up the good work. You might find yourself in line for promotion to the corporate level.”
As if giving my soul away wasn’t already bad enough. I forced a smile.
“Well. There’s still so much to do here.”
“Excellent attitude. Most excellent. You’ve done well with her.” He gave Jerome a chummy pat on the back, something my boss did not look happy about at all. He didn’t really like friendly pats. Or being touched, period. “Well, if there’s nothing else, I should probably--oh, I nearly forgot.”
Horatio turned to Kasper. The imp handed over something else to his master.
“These are for you. As a token of our appreciation.”
He gave me a gift card for Applebee’s, as well as some Blockbuster free rental coupons. Jerome and I both stared for a moment, dumbstruck.
“Wow,” I finally said. The runner-up for this award probably got a gift card for Sizzler.
Horatio and Kasper vanished. Jerome and I stood in silence for a few moments.
“You like riblets, Jerome?”
“Droll, very droll, Georgie.” He strolled around my living room, pretending to study my books and artwork. “Nice job with the quota thing. Of course, it’s easy to excel when you’re starting at zero, huh?”
I shrugged and tossed the certificate on my kitchen counter. “Does it really matter? Still gets you the laurels. I figured you’d like that.”
“Of course I do. In fact, I’ve been rather pleasantly surprised at just how well you’ve kept your promise.”
“I always keep my promises.”
“Not all of your promises.”
My silence made him smile. “So what now? Going out to celebrate?”
“You know where I’m going. I’m going to Peter’s. Aren’t you?”
He avoided the question; demons excelled at that. “I thought perhaps other plans had arisen. Plans with a certain mortal. You do seem to be doing that an awful lot lately.”
“It’s none of your business what I do.”
“All of your business is my business.”
Again, I didn’t answer. The demon stepped closer, dark eyes boring into me. For inexplicable reasons, he chose to look like John Cusack while walking the human world. That might seem like it would reduce his power to intimidate, but I swear, it only made things worse.
“How long are you going to keep up this farce, Georgie?” His words were a challenge, trying to draw me out. “You can’t honestly think you have a future with him. Or that you two can stay chaste forever. For Christ’s sake, even if you can keep your hands off him, no human male’s going to stay celibate for long. Especially one with a large fan base.”
“Did you miss the part where I said it’s my business?”
Heat rose to my cheeks. Despite knowing better, I’d recently gotten myself involved with a human. I wasn’t even entirely sure how it had happened since I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid that kind of thing. I guess you could say he sort of snuck up on me. One moment he was simply a warm and comforting presence at my side; the next I realized how intensely he loved me. That love had blindsided me. I hadn’t been able to resist it and had decided to see where it might take me.
As a result, Jerome never failed to remind me of the potential disaster I courted daily in this romance. His opinion wasn’t entirely unfounded. A small part of this was because I didn’t have a good track record with serious relationships. The larger part was that doing much more than hand-holding with a human would inevitably lead to me sucking away some of his life. But hey, all couples have their stumbling blocks, right?
The demon smoothed down the jacket of his perfectly tailored black suit. “Just friendly advice. It makes no difference. I don’t mind if you keep playing house with him--denying him a future, a family, a healthy sex life. Whatever. So long as you keep up the good work, it’s all the same to me.”
“Are you done with the pep talk? I’m late.”
“One more thing. I thought you might like to know I just made some arrangements for a pleasant surprise. One you’ll like.”
“What kind of surprise?” Jerome didn’t really do surprises. Not good ones, at least.
“Wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you, now would it?”
Typical. I scoffed and turned away. “I don’t have time for your games. Either tell me what’s going on or leave.”
“I think I’ll leave. But, before I do, just remember something.” He put his hand on my shoulder and turned me around to face him again. I flinched at his touch and his proximity. The demon and I were not as buddy-buddy as we had once been. “You only have one man who’s a constant in your life, only one man you will always answer to. A hundred years from now, he will be dust in the earth, and I will be the one you keep coming back to.”
It sounded romantic or sexual, but it wasn’t. Not in the least. My tie to Jerome was deeper than that. A binding and loyalty that literally went straight to my soul. A connection I was bound to for all eternity, at least until the powers of hell decided to assign me to a different archdemon.
“Your pimp routine is getting old.”
He stepped back, undisturbed by my rancor. His eyes danced.
“If I’m a pimp, Georgina, what’s that make you?”
There was an ostentatious poof of smoke, and Jerome disappeared before I could reply.
I stood alone in my apartment, turning over his words in my mind. Finally, remembering the time, I headed for the bedroom to change clothes. As I did, I passed Horatio’s certificate. Its gold seal winked up at me. I flipped it over, face down, suddenly feeling queasy. I might be good at what I did, but that didn’t mean I was proud of it.
I ended up only being about fifteen minutes late for my friend Peter’s shindig. He answered his door before I could even knock. Taking in his billowing white hat and Kiss the Cook apron, I said, “I’m sorry. No one told me Iron Chef was being filmed here tonight.”
“You’re late,” he chided, waving a wooden spoon in the air. “So what, you win an award and think you can forget all about propriety now?”
I ignored his disapproval and swept inside. It was the only thing you could do with an obsessive-compulsive vampire.
In the living room, I found our other friends Cody and Hugh sorting large piles of cash.
“Did you guys rob a bank?”
“Nope,” said Hugh. “Since Peter’s trying to provide us with a civilized meal tonight, we decided a civilized pastime was required.”
From the kitchen, I could hear Peter muttering to himself about a soufflé. It sort of diminished my image of a bunch of shady characters huddled around a backroom card table. “I think bridge would be more appropriate.”
Hugh looked doubtful. “That’s an old-person’s game, sweetie.”
I had to smile at that. ‘Old’ was kind of a relative term when most of us could boast centuries. I had long suspected that among my circle of lesser immortals--those who were not true angels or demons--I had more years than any of them, never mind my driver’s license optimistic claims to being 28.
“Since when do we even play games?” I wondered aloud. Our last attempt had involved a game of Monopoly with Jerome. Competing with a demon in a struggle for property and ultimate control is kind of futile.
“Since when don’t we play games? Games of life, games of death. Games of love, of hope, of chance, of despair, and of all the myriad wonders in between.”
I rolled my eyes. “Hello, Carter.” I’d known the angel was lurking in the kitchen, just as Peter had felt me coming down the hall. “Where’s your better half tonight? I just saw him. I thought he was coming too.”
Carter strolled in and gave me one of his mocking smiles, gray eyes alight with secrets and mirth. He was dressed in his usual transient ware, ripped jeans and a faded tee shirt. When it came to age, the rest of us couldn’t even compare to him. The others and I had once been mortal; we measured our lives in centuries or millennia. Angels and demons…well, they measured their lives in eternity. “‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’”
Classic Carter answer. I looked to Hugh who was, in a manner of speaking, our boss’s keeper. Or at least a sort of administrative assistant.
“He had to take off for a meeting,” said the imp, stacking twenties. “Some kind of team building thing in L.A.”
I tried to imagine Jerome participating in a ropes course. “What kind of team building do demons do exactly?”
No one had an answer for that. Which was probably just as well.
While the money sorting continued, Peter made me a vodka gimlet. I eyed the bottle of Absolut on his counter.
“What the hell is that?”
“I ran out of Grey Goose. They’re practically the same anyway.”
“I swear, if you weren’t already an abomination before the Lord, I’d accuse you of heresy.”
When all the money was sorted, including my contribution, we sat around the vampires’ kitchen table. Like everyone else in the known world right now, we started playing Texas Hold’ Em. I could play okay but faired far better with mortals than immortals. My charisma and glamour had less effect on this group, which meant I had to think harder about odds and strategy.
Peter scurried around during the game, attempting to play and watch his meal at the same time. It wasn’t easy since he insisted on wearing sunglasses while playing, which then had to be removed while he checked the food. When I commented on how this would be my second fancy dinner in two nights, he nearly had a fit.
“Whatever. Nothing you had last night will even compare to this duck I’ve made. Nothing.”
“I don’t know about that. I went to the Metropolitan Grill.”
Hugh whistled. “Whoa. I wondered where you got the glow from. When a guy takes you to the Met, you can’t really help but put out, huh?”
“The glow’s from a different guy,” I said uncomfortably, not really wanting to be reminded of a tryst I’d had this morning, even if it had been pretty hot. “I went to the Met with Seth.” The memory of last night’s dinner brought a smile to my face, and I suddenly found myself rambling. “You should have seen him. He actually didn’t wear a tee shirt for once, though I’m not sure it made a difference. The shirt he did have on was all wrinkled, and he couldn’t really tie the tie. Plus, when I first got there, he had his laptop out on the table. He’d shoved everything else aside--napkins, wineglasses. It was a mess. The waiters were horrified.”
Four sets of eyes stared at me.
“What?” I demanded. “What’s wrong?”
“You are,” said Hugh. “You’re a glutton for punishment.”
Cody smiled. “Not to mention totally love struck. Listen to yourself.”
“She’s not in love with him,” said Peter. “She’s in love with his books.”
“No I’m--” The words died on my lips, mainly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to argue. I didn’t want them to think I only loved the books, but I wasn’t entirely sure I loved Seth yet either. Our relationship had blossomed with remarkable speed, but sometimes, I worried what I actually loved was the idea of him loving me.
“I can’t believe you guys are still doing the sexless dating thing,” continued Hugh.
My temper flared. I’d already taken this from Jerome; I didn’t need to hear it here too.
“Look, I don’t want to talk about this if you guys are just going to nag me, okay? I’m tired of everyone telling me how crazy it is.”
Peter shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not that crazy. You always hear about these married couples who never have sex anymore. They survive. This would be almost the same thing.”
“Not with our girl.” Hugh shook his head. “Look at her. Who wouldn’t want to have sex with her?”
They all looked again, making me squirm.
“Hey,” I protested, feeling the need to clear up a point. “That’s not the problem. He wants to, okay? He’s just not going to. There’s a difference.”
“Sorry,” said Hugh. “I’m just not buying it. He can’t be with you in the clothes you wear and not crack. Even if he could, no guy could handle his woman seeing as much action as you do.”
It was a well-worn point in my mind, the same Jerome had made, the one that worried me more than our ability to stay hands-free around each other. One of my greatest nightmares involved having a conversation akin to: Sorry, Seth. I can’t go out tonight. I have to go work this married guy I met, so I can get him to sleep with me, thus leading him farther and farther down the road to damnation while I suck away part of his life. Maybe when I’m done, you and I can catch a late movie.
“I don’t want talk about this,” I repeated. “We’re doing just fine. End of story.”
Silence fell, save for the sound of cards and money hitting the table. Glancing around, I saw Carter watching me levelly. Only he had stayed out of the Seth bashing. This didn’t surprise me. The angel usually just listened until he could interject some sarcastic or esoteric quip. This used to infuriate me, but recent events had changed my attitude toward him. I still didn’t fully understand him or know if I could trust him, but I had come to respect him.
Troubled by the scrutiny, I glanced back down and discovered I finally had a respectable hand after several rounds of shit. Three of a kind. Not the greatest but passable. I raised high, wanting to get the others out before more cards came into play and made my hand less passable.
My strategy worked on the vampires. The next card fell. Seven of spades. Hugh scowled and folded when I raised again. I waited for Carter to drop out as well, but instead, he re-raised further.
I hesitated only a moment before calling. As the last card was about to play, I puzzled over what the angel might have and whether I could beat it. A pair? Two pair? Ah. The last card came out. Another spade. There was now a strong possibility he had a flush. That would beat me. Still hoping I could bluff him out, I raised even more. He reraised me again, more than doubling my initial bet.
That was a lot of money to add, especially considering what I’d already put in. Centuries of investments kept me pretty comfortable, but that didn’t mean I had to be stupid. What did he have? It had to be the flush. Balking, I folded.
With a pleased grin, he swept in the massive pot. When he tossed his hand over to the discard pile, the cards’ edges caught, making them flip over. Two of diamonds. Eight of clubs.
“You…you bluffed!” I cried. “You had nothing!”
Carter wordlessly lit a cigarette.
I looked to the others for confirmation. “He can’t do that.”
“Hell, I’ve been doing it for half this game,” said Hugh, borrowing Carter’s lighter. “Not that it’s done me any good.”
“Yeah…but…he’s, you know. An angel. They can’t lie.”
“He didn’t lie. He bluffed.”
Cody considered, twisting a piece of his blond hair around one finger. “Yeah, but bluffing is still dishonest.”
“It’s implied lying,” said Peter.
Hugh stared at him. “‘Implied lying?’ What the fuck does that mean?”
I watched Carter stack his money and made a face at him. You’d think an angel who hung around with employees of evil would be a good influence, but at times, he seemed worse than we were. “Enjoy your thirty pieces of silver, Judas.”
He gave me a mock hat tip while the others argued on.
Suddenly, like a row of dominoes, conversation slowly dropped. Carter felt it first, of course, but he merely arched an eyebrow, as indifferent as ever. Then came the vampires with their heightened reflexes and sensitivity. They exchanged glances and looked toward the door. Finally, seconds later, Hugh and I sensed it as well.
“What is that?” Cody frowned, staring across the room. “It’s sort of like Georgina but not.”
Hugh followed the young vampire’s gaze, face mildly speculative. “Incubus.”
I had already known that, of course. The signatures we all carried differed by creature. Vampires felt different from imps just as imps felt different from succubi. If one knew an immortal well enough, one could also pick up on an individual’s unique twinges. I was the only succubus who inspired sensations of silk and tuberose perfume. In a room full of vampires, I would have been able to quickly determine if Cody or Peter were present.
Likewise, I immediately knew there was an incubus approaching Peter’s door, and I knew exactly which incubus it was. I would have known his signature anywhere, even after all this time. The fleeting sensation of velvet on the skin. A whispered scent of rum, almond, and cinnamon.
Not even realizing I’d gotten up, I flung the door open, staring with delight at the same fox-faced features and mischievous eyes I’d last seen over a century ago.
“Hello, ma fleur,” he said.