"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 p**n 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?"
"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."
I turned and saw Roman sitting over in a corner of the small lobby. He looked striking in a deep green turtleneck, his dark hair brushed away from his face. He smiled at me when I caught his eye, and I walked over to sit near him.
"Jesus, you really are a stalker."
"Well, well. Aren't you presumptuous. I only came for my coat."
"Ah." I blushed, feeling foolish. "How long have you been waiting?"
"Not too long. I actually tried the bookstore first, thinking that might be a little less stalker- ish."
"It's my day off." I looked down at the riotously colored blossoms in my arms. "Thanks for the flowers. You didn't need to bring them to get your coat back."
Roman shrugged, those blue-green eyes wreaking havoc with me. "True, but I figured they might induce you to go out for a drink tonight."
So he did have another motive. "Not this again - "
"Hey, if you'd wanted to avoid 'this,' you shouldn't have lured me in last night. Now it's too late. You might as well avoid the long, drawn-out pain and get it over with quickly. Sort of like taking off a Band-Aid. Or cutting off a limb."
"Wow. Who says there's no romance left in the world?" In spite of my sarcasm, I found Roman's easy repartee a refreshing change from the halting atmosphere with Seth.
"So, what? Does that mean you finally concede, general? Truly, you've fought a worthy battle in eluding me thus far."