I grimaced. "Don't turn melodramatic on me now. You aren't that old."
His smile broadened, his expression turning slightly wry. "Neither are you, Miss Kincaid. Indeed, you are as beautiful as the first time I saw you." He gave me a slight bow, bending lower than someone with his back probably should have. "How may I be of service?"
"I need information."
"Of course." He gestured to a small table near the main counter, currently covered with books and an elaborate candle holder. "Sit and have tea with me, and we'll talk. Unless you are in a hurry?"
"No, I have time."
While Erik fetched the tea, I cleared off the table, setting books in neat stacks on the floor. When he returned with the teapot, we made small talk and sipped our drinks for a bit, but my mind really wasn't into it. My restlessness must have come through loud and clear as my fingers danced along the cup's edge and my toe tapped impatiently.
Finally, I broached my topic. "I need to know about vampire hunters."
For most other people, this would have been a weird request, but Erik only nodded expectantly. "What in particular would you like to know?"
"Anything. Their habits, how to recognize them. Whatever you've got."
He leaned back in his chair, holding the cup delicately. "My understanding is that vampire hunters are born, not made. They are 'gifted,' so to speak, with the ability to kill vampires." He proceeded to relate several other details, most of which matched up with what I'd learned from Peter.
Pondering what Cody had said, about the sense of being followed by someone he could not see, I asked, "Do they have any other special abilities that you know of? Can they go invisible?"
"Not that I know of. Some immortal beings can, of course, but not vampire hunters. They're still just mortals, after all, despite their odd talents."
I nodded, being one such creature who could turn invisible, though I rarely used the power. I toyed with the thought that Cody's phantom might have been an invisible immortal, trying to play a trick, but he still should have sensed the telltale signature we all carried. Indeed, he should have sensed a mortal vampire hunter as well. The fact that he had neither seen nor felt anything lent credence to Peter's theory that the stalker had all been in Cody's head.
"Can vampire hunters harm anyone else? Demons... or other immortal creatures?"
"It's very hard to do anything tangible to an immortal," he mused. "Certain denizens of good - powerful priests, for example - can drive off demons, but they can't harm them permanently. Likewise, I've heard of mortals capturing supernatural creatures, but doing much more than that... I'm not saying it's impossible, just that I've never heard of it. To my offhand knowledge, vampire hunters can only harm vampires. Nothing else."
"I value your offhand knowledge more than most confirmed facts."
He eyed me curiously. "But this isn't the answer you were expecting."
"I don't know. It's pretty much what I've already been told. I was just thinking there might be more."
It was entirely possible that Jerome had been telling the truth, that this was merely a case of a rampant vampire hunter and that his warnings to Hugh and me had been simple courtesies to protect us from discomfort. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that Jerome had held back information, nor did I really believe Cody to be the kind of person who imagined things.
I must have looked perplexed because Erik offered, somewhat hesitantly it seemed, "I could look into this more for you, if you'd like. Just because I've never heard of something capable of harming other immortals doesn't mean it's out of the realm of existence."
I nodded. "I'd appreciate that. Thank you."
"It's a privilege to be of assistance to someone like you. And if you like, I could also make other inquiries into vampire hunters in general." He paused again, choosing his words carefully. "Were such a person to be at large, certain signs would show up in the local occult community. Supplies would be bought, questions asked. Such beings do not go unnoticed."
Now I hesitated. Jerome had told us to be careful. I had the feeling he wouldn't appreciate any vigilante work, though speaking with Erik now probably counted as exactly that. Surely it wouldn't matter if I sent out my own feelers. Gathering information was not the same as me personally going out to find this person.
"I'd appreciate that as well. Anything you could find out would be useful." I finished the last of my tea and set the empty cup down. "I should probably leave now."
He rose with me. "Thank you for having tea with me.. Being with a woman like you is generally the sort of thing that only happens in a man's dreams."
I laughed gently at the veiled joke, referencing the old story of succubi visiting men in their sleep. "Your dreams are safe, Erik."
He returned my smile. "Come back in a few days, and I'll tell you what I've learned. We'll have tea again."
Glancing around at the empty store, thinking how no customers had shown up during our visit, I suddenly felt the need to give him some business. "Let me buy some of that tea before I go."
He gave me an indulgent look, his dark brown eyes amused like he knew the game I played.
"I always took you for more of a black tea advocate - or at least an admirer of caffeine."
"Hey, even I like to shake things up once in a while. Besides, it was good... in an herbal, decaffeinated sort of way."
"I'll pass your compliments on to my friend. She makes the blends, and I sell them for her."
"A lady friend, huh?"
"Just a friend, Miss Kincaid."
He walked over to a shelf behind the register where several varieties of tea lay. Approaching the counter to pay, I admired some of the jewelry under its glass. One piece in particular caught my eye, a three-stranded choker of peach-colored, freshwater pearls, occasionally intermixed with copper beads or pieces of sea green glass. An ankh made of copper hung as its centerpiece.
"Is this from another of your local artisans?"
"An old friend in Tacoma made it." Erik reached into the case and took the choker out for me, laying it on the counter. I ran my hands over the fine, smooth pearls, each one slightly irregular in shape. "He mixed some Egyptian influence in with it, I think, but he wanted to sort of invoke the spirit of Aphrodite and the sea, create something the ancient priestesses might have worn."
"They wore nothing so fine," I murmured, turning over the necklace, noting the high price on its tag. I found myself speaking without conscious thought. "And many of the ancient Greek cities did have Egyptian influence. Ankhs appeared on Cyprian coins, as did Aphrodite."
Touching the copper of the ankh reminded me of another necklace, a necklace long since lost under the dust of time. That necklace had been simpler: only a string of beads etched with tiny ankhs. But my husband had brought it to me the morning of our wedding, sneaking up to our house just after dawn in a gesture uncharacteristically bold for him.
I had chastised him for the indiscretion. "What are you doing? You're going to see me this afternoon... and then every day after that!"
"I had to give you these before the wedding." He held up the string of beads. "They were my mother's. I want you to have them, to wear them today."
He leaned forward, placing the beads around my neck. As his fingers brushed my skin, I felt something warm and tingly run through my body. At the tender age of fifteen, I hadn't exactly understood such sensations, though I was eager to explore them. My wiser self today recognized them as the early stirrings of lust, and... well, there had been something else there too. Something else that I still didn't quite comprehend. An electric connection, a feeling that we were bound into something bigger than ourselves. That our being together was inevitable.
"There," he'd said, once the beads were secure and my hair brushed back into place. "Perfect."
He said nothing else after that. He didn't need to. His eyes told me all I needed to know, and I shivered. Until Kyriakos, no man had ever given me a second glance. I was Marthanes ' too-tall daughter after all, the one with the sharp tongue who didn't think before speaking. (Shape-shifting would eventually take care of one of those problems but not the other.) But Kyriakos had always listened to me and watched me like I was someone more, someone tempting and desirable, like the beautiful priestesses of Aphrodite who still carried on their rituals away from the Christian priests.