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Succubus Blues CHAPTER 17

I woke to the sound of Aubrey purring in my ear.Sensing my consciousness, she moved closer and licked the part of my cheek near my earlobe, her whiskers gently rubbing against my skin.It tickled.

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Squirming slightly, I opened my eyes. To my astonishment, light, color, and shapes came through to me – albeit in a blurred, distorted manner.

“I can see,” I muttered to Aubrey, trying to sit up. Immediately, myriad aches and pains screamed all over my body, making the motion difficult. I lay stretched out on my couch, an old afghan tossed over me.

“Of course you can see,” Jerome’s cold voice informed me. Aubrey fled. “Though it’d serve you right if you couldn’t. What were you thinking, looking at an angel in full form?”

“I wasn’t,” I told him, squinting at his dark-clad shape pacing in front of me. “Thinking, that was.”

“Obviously.”

“Lay off,” came Carter’s laconic voice from somewhere behind me.

Straightening up and peering around, I made out his fuzzy form leaning against a wall. Peter, Cody, and Hugh also stood nearby in the room. It was a regular, dysfunctional family reunion. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“And you were there, and you were there…”

Cody sat down beside me, his features materializing into sharp focus as he leaned in to study my face closer. Gently, he ran a finger along one of my cheekbones, frowning. “What happened?”

I sobered up. “Is it that bad?”

“No,” he lied. “Hugh was worse.” The imp made a nondistinct noise across the room.

“I already know what happened,” snapped Jerome. I didn’t need to see the demon’s face in detail to know he was glaring at me. “What I don’t understand is why it happened. Did you actually try to come up with the most dangerous situation possible? ‘Hmm, let’s see… dark alley, no one around… ‘ That sort of thing?”

“No,” I shot back. “I wasn’t thinking of that. I wasn’t thinking of anything except getting home.” I related the evening’s events to the best of my ability, beginning with the footsteps, ending with Carter.

When I’d finished, Hugh sat down in an armchair across from me, pensive. “Pauses, huh?”

“What?”

“The way you tell what happened… you got hit, pause, then another one, pause, then another one. Right?”

“Yeah, so? I don’t know. Isn’t that how fights work? Punch, draw back, get ready for another? Besides, we’re talking about breaks of, like, a second or so. Not real breathing time.”

“There was nothing like that for me. I had slashing too. It was an onslaught. A stream of blows, continuously. It defied understanding or ability. Definitely supernatural.”

“Well, so was this,” I countered. “Believe me, I couldn’t fight against it. It wasn’t some mortal mugging, if that’s what you’re suggesting.” Hugh simply shrugged.

Silence fell, and I gave the imp a sidelong glance to the best of my limited vision’s ability. “They’re looking meaningfully at each other, aren’t they?”

“Who?”

“Carter and Jerome. I can feel it.” I turned to Carter, suddenly wondering if my trip last night had been for naught. “I don’t suppose you salvaged the shopping bag I had on me?”

Walking over to my kitchen counter, the angel produced a bag and tossed it to me. My depth perception still off, I missed, and the bag bounced off the couch onto the floor. The book slipped out. Jerome snatched it up in an instant and read the title.

“Fuck me, Georgie. Is this why you were out skulking in dark corners? This is what you nearly got killed for? I told you to lay off the vampire hunter investigating – “

“Oh come on,” cried Cody, jumping up in my defense. “None of us believe that anymore. We know there’s an angel doing this – “

“An angel?” I heard heavy amusement and even a scoff in the demon’s words.

“No mortal did that to me,” I agreed hotly. “Or to Hugh. Or to Lucinda. Or to Duane. It was a nephilim.”

“A nephi -what?” asked Hugh, startled.

“Isn’t that a character on Sesame Street?” Peter spoke up for the first time.

Jerome stared silently at me for a moment, then finally demanded, “Who told you about that?” Not waiting for an answer, he turned toward the angel. “You know you’re not supposed to – “

“It wasn’t me,” retorted Carter mildly. “I’m guessing she figured it out on her own. You don’t put enough faith in your own people.”

“I did find out on my own, though I had help.”

I briefly detailed my string of leads, how one had led to another, from Erik to the book at Krystal Starz.

“Shit,” muttered Jerome, after listening to my spiel. “Fucking Nancy Drew.”

“Okay,” said Peter, “compelling chase or no, you still haven’t told us what a nephilopogus is.”

” Nephilim,” I corrected. Hesitantly, I looked at Jerome. “Can I?”

“You’re asking me for permission? How quaint.”

Taking that as acquiescence, I began uncertainly, ” Nephilimare the offspring of angels and humans. Like in that passage in Genesis. Where the angels fell and took human wives? Nephilim are the result. They have certain abilities… I don’t know all of them… strength and power… like Greek heroes…”

“Or like major nuisances,” added Jerome bitterly. “Don’t forget that.”

“How so?” Hugh asked.

I continued when Jerome didn’t. “Well… what I read said they used to cause strife and slaughter among humans.”

“Yeah, but this one’s not going after humans,” pointed out Peter.

Carter shrugged. “They’re unpredictable. They don’t play by anyone’s rules, and honestly, we’re not really sure what this one’s intentions are. It’s playing a game, that’s for sure, what with its attacks on random immortals and that note it sent Georgina.”

“Two notes,” I corrected. “I got another one just before Lucinda died, but I was with Seth all night and didn’t read it until the next day.”

Hugh and the vampires turned to stare at me.

“You were with Seth all night?” asked Cody, astonished.

“Which one’s he again?” Hugh asked.

“The writer,” provided Peter.

The imp regarded me with new interest. “What’d you do ‘all night’ then?”

“Can we not discuss Georgina’s love life right now, fascinating though it may be?” Jerome gave me a speculative look. “Unless, of course, this Seth person is someone of strong moral character and principle whose life energy you plan on stealing soon in support of the greater cause of evil and its goals.

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“Right on the first, not on the rest.”

“Damn it. I need a drink.”

“Help yourself.”

Jerome wandered over to my liquor cabinet and sifted through its contents.

“So how can we spot this nephilim ?” asked Cody, getting us back on track.

I glanced uncertainly at Carter and Jerome. I didn’t know any of the technicalities.

“You can’t,” the angel announced cheerfully.

“They can hide their signature too, then. Like higher immortals. “

He nodded back at me. “Yes, they have the worst characteristics of both their parents. Ample power and pseudo-angelic abilities, mixed with rebelliousness, a love of the physical world, and poor impulse control.”

“How much power?” I wanted to know. “They’re half-human, right? So half the power?”

“That’s the clincher.” Jerome looked much more cheerful with a glass of gin in hand. “It varies wildly, just as each angel has a different level of power. One thing is clear: Nephilim inherit a lot more than half their parent’s power, though they can never exceed it. It’s still plenty – which is why I’ve been trying to knock sense into all of you to stay clear. A nephilim could easily blow one of you out of the water.”

“But not one of you.” Peter spoke the words more as a statement than a question, despite the uncertain note lacing his voice.

Neither angel nor demon responded, and another piece clicked into place for me.

“That’s why you guys are going around with your signatures masked. You’re hiding from it too.”

“We’re merely taking appropriate precautions,” Jerome protested.

“It ran from you,” I reminded Carter. “You must have been stronger than it.”

“Probably,” he agreed. “I was more concerned with you, so I didn’t get a good sense. An angel in full form will freak most beings out – it’ll kill a mortal – so I could have been stronger than it or not. Hard to say.”

I didn’t like that answer, not at all. “What were you doing there anyway?”

The angel’s trademark sarcastic smile appeared. “What do you think? I was following you around.”

I started. “What? Then I was right… that day at Erik’s…”

“Afraid so.”

“My God,” said Peter, amazed. “You really were on to something, Georgina. At least about him stalking you.”

I felt semivindicated, even if Carter obviously didn’t seem to be the culprit anymore. Hugh had been right in accusing me of bias. I had really wanted Carter to be the responsible party for all these attacks, as a sort of payback for all the times he’d mocked me. His timely intervention in the alley only muddled my opinion of him now.

Carter explained, “After realizing that first note was probably from this nephilim, I thought it’d be prudent to pop in once in a while since our friend here seems to have an especial interest in you. My intention was to catch him or her off-guard, not to help you, though I’m happy to have been able to. Plus, that day at Erik’s…”

He looked over at Jerome. The demon threw his arms in the air. “Sure? Why not? Tell them. Tell them everything. They already know too much.”

“Erik?” I prompted.

“This thing, this nephilim…” Carter paused thoughtfully. “This being knows a surprising amount about us and about the immortal community.”

“Well… it’s like you said, right?” asked Peter. “This nephilim would find one of us and follow him or her around.”

“No. I mean, yes, that’s possible, but evidence indicates this one knows much more than simple surveillance might give it…”

“For Chrissake,” Jerome snapped, “if you’re going to tell them, tell them. Stop speaking in riddles.” The demon turned to us. “He’s saying this nephilim is working with a leak. Someone’s feeding it information about the immortal community here.”

Cody caught the insinuation just as I did. “You think Erik’s doing it.”

“He’s the strongest suspect,” admitted Carter apologetically. “He’s been here for decades, and he has the talent to sense immortals.”

“And to think, he spoke so well of you,” I murmured, feeling aghast. “Well, you’re wrong. It’s not him. Not Erik.”

“Don’t get huffy about it now, Georgie. He’s not our only lead, just the most likely.”

“And I don’t like it any more than you,” the angel added. “But we can’t dismiss any possibilities. We need to neutralize this nephilim threat soon. It’s out of hand; we’ll get outside involvement before long, and that’s always a pain.”

“Then why aren’t you letting us help you?” I cried. “Why all the secrecy?”

“Are you deaf? It’s for your own protection. This thing could blast you to Armageddon!” Jerome downed the rest of his gin in a flurry.

I didn’t buy it. There was more than just our safety at stake here. Jerome still hadn’t come clean. “Yes, but – “

“The committee meeting is over,” he interrupted me icily. “Would the rest of you excuse Georgina and me?”

Oh shit. I looked desperately at my friends, hoping they might stay and defend me, but they all scurried out. Cowards, I thought. None of them would cross Jerome when he spoke like that. Okay, I wouldn’t have either in their shoes.

Carter, I noticed, did not leave. The directive apparently did not apply to him.

“Georgie,” began Jerome carefully, once the others were gone, “you and I seem to be facing off more often than not lately. I don’t like it.”

“It’s not exactly facing off,” I noted, squirming uneasily, recalling his display of power at the hospital and threat to “stash” me somewhere. “We’re just having differences of opinion lately.”

“Differences that can get you killed.”

“Jerome, this can’t possibly just be about – “

“No more.”

A wall of power slammed into me, throwing me back against the couch. It was like one of those carnival rides where people stand along the sides of a round room that spins faster and faster until inertia pins everyone’s limbs to the walls. Moving became agony. Even breathing was a struggle. I felt like Atlas, bearing the brunt of the world’s weight.

Jerome’s voice boomed inside my head, and some brave part of me cursed his parlor tricks, even as the rest of me recoiled.

I need you to listen to me for once without constantly interrupting. You cannot keep poking around here. Doing so calls attention to yourself, and you already have a lot more of it on you from this nephilim than I would like. I neither need nor want a new succubus. I’ve grown accustomed to you, Georgina. I do not want to lose you. I am more lenient with you than I should be, however. You get away with things no other archdemon would allow. I haven’t minded indulging you thus far, but things can change – especially if you continue to be insubordinate. I can have you transferred somewhere else, away from this cozy delusion of a human life you’ve established. Or I can call Lilithin and report your behavior to her directly. I’m sure she’d he happy to do a little retraining with you.

My heart stopped at the mention of the Succubus Queen. I had met her only once, when I first joined the ranks. That encounter, rather like seeing Carter in all his angelic glory, was not an experience I wanted to repeat anytime soon.

Do you understand?

“Y-yes.”

Are you sure?

The pressure increased, and it was all I could do to manage a weak nod. The psychic cage abruptly dropped, and I slumped forward, taking in deep breaths. I could still feel where his power had touched me, rather like a tactile version of the afterimage one sees with a camera flash.

“I’m glad you understand, and I’m sure you’ll also understand if I don’t entirely believe you. It’s part of the nature of our side.”

“Is this… is this the part where you stash me somewhere?”

He chuckled softly. Menacingly. “No. Not yet at least. Frankly, I think you just need a little supervision to stay out of trouble. I’m also not entirely convinced you and the nephilim merely have a passing relationship.”

A retort was on my lips, but I bit it off, my skin still burning.

“I’d have one of your friends do it, but I don’t doubt you could wrap any of them around your smallest finger. No, you need babysitting by someone who won’t bend, who won’t fall for your tricks.”

“Tricks? Who then?” For a minute, I half thought he referred to himself until I noticed Carter’s smug smile. Oh man. “You can’t be serious.”

“It’ll ensure you toe the line, Georgie. What’s more, it will keep you alive.”

“You’re practically our best lead at the moment,” Carter explained. “This nephilim has some interest in you, even though that interest seems to have shifted a bit from note-passing to assault.”

“Carter will be ready if it tries to finish what he interrupted. He can also shield your apartment from prying eyes.”

“But it’ll sense him when we go out – ” I tried weakly.

“No more than you can now,” Carter reminded me. “And I’ll be invisible. A ghost at your side. An angel on your shoulder, if you will. You won’t even know I’m around.”

“Jerome, please, you can’t do this – “

“I can, and I will. Unless, like I said, you want me to have a chat with Lilith ?”

Damn him. The threat of Lilith was stronger than any potential stashing, and he knew it.

“Good. If there’s no further discussion then, I’ll take my leave and let you two get situated.” Jerome glanced between us, dark eyes resting on me a moment. “Oh, by the way. Do check yourself out in a mirror at some point.”

I scowled, thinking of Cody’s scrutiny of my injuries. “Thanks for reminding me.”

“What I’m reminding you of is that you’re a succubus. Those bruises are a manifestation of believing you’re human. You are not. You have to feel them, but you don’t have to wear them.”

With that, the demon vanished in an eye blink, leaving a faint smell of brimstone in his wake that I suspected was pure showmanship.

“So, do I get the couch?” Carter asked me cheerfully.

“Go to hell.” I left the room to go check out my reflection.

“Hardly a nice way to treat your new roommate.”

“I didn’t ask for your – “

I stopped halfway down the hallway. I’d spent the last couple of weeks suspecting Carter of murder and other terrible things; I’d spent the last half-century hating him as a person. Yet he’d just saved my life, and I hadn’t uttered one word of thanks.

I turned toward him, dreading what I now had to say.

“I’m sorry.”

He wore a look similar to the one Jerome had had when I asked his permission earlier. “Really? For just now?”

“For not thanking you earlier. For saving me out there. I mean, I’m not happy about you shacking up here, but I am grateful for what you did then. And I’m sorry, too, if I haven’t exactly been… nice to you.”

The angel’s expression was unreadable. “Glad to have helped.”

Not knowing what else to say, I turned and kept walking.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked.

I paused again. “Look at the damage and then go to bed. I’m tired. And I hurt.”

“Aw, no slumber party games or popcorn? No makeovers?”

“Don’t take this personally, but you could use a makeover. You look like a refugee. Why…” I swallowed and rephrased my words as I studied him. “When I saw you out there, on the street, you were… you were so beautiful. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” My voice came out as a whisper.

Carter’s face turned grave. “Jerome’s the same way, you know. In his true form. Just as beautiful. Angels and demons come from the same stock. He chooses that John Cusack wannabe shape by choice.”

“Why? Why does he do that? And why do you choose to look like a junkie or a bum?”

The edges of the angel’s lips turned slightly upward. “Why does a woman who claims she wants to avoid the attention of nice men choose a form that makes everyone around her do a double take and stare?”

I swallowed again, lost in the far reaches of his eyes, but not in the same way I had been lost in Roman’s or Seth’s eyes. It was more like the angel could see all the way through me, through all of my facades, down to my soul or what remained of it.

With great effort, I broke that scrutiny, turning back toward my bedroom.

“No one is punished forever,” he told me gently.

“Yeah? That’s not what I hear. Good night.”

I went into my bedroom, closing my door behind me. Just before it clicked, I heard Carter call, “So, who’s making breakfast?”

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