"Ah, well. I'm probably not as good a catch as Seventeen-hundred-dollar Man. Your predator has standards."
I shuddered, hating the idea that I actually had a predator. I looked up at Dante and must have looked truly pathetic because a startled look crossed his features.
"Dante, you have to help me. I know we don't have the answers yet...but, well, I'm scared of this thing. I can't bring myself to take a victim because I'm afraid of this monster coming back. I don't even want to go to sleep."
His gray eyes assessed me, and to my astonishment, he almost looked gentle. It completely transformed him. "Ah, succubus. You can sleep tonight. No energy, no visit. I doubt the kiss was enough of a lure."
"But eventually...eventually I'll have to get another fix...and until I'm able to talk to Jerome about all this..."
"Well, I could maybe make you a charm or something. Protection to ward this thing away."
"You can do that?" I tried to keep the skepticism out of my voice but failed. His face turned wry once more.
"If you don't want the help..."
"No! I do. I'm sorry. That was wrong of me. I asked for your help, then backed off."
"Well, as you said, I haven't inspired much faith in you."
"I'll take whatever help I can get," I said honestly.
He stood up and stretched, then walked over to his shelves, studying their contents. "You sure about that? You might not like what I have to do to make this. How badly do you want it?"
I thought about that voice, that creature's need inside my head. "Pretty badly. Provided you don't, like, give me a necklace made out of goat entrails, I think we're good."
His eyes were still on his shelves and jars. Several moments passed while he considered. "I'm going to need some time on this, I'm afraid. It'd be a lot easier if I knew what it was we're dealing with. Without that, I've got to try to make some sort of catch-all charm that may or may not work. The broad spectrum ones are always hard, too."
"So nothing tonight."
He strolled back over to me. "You're fine tonight, remember? Of course, you're welcome to stay here, and I'll stay awake and make sure nothing happens to you."
I couldn't help a smile. "Just like Kayla."
"My boyfriend's niece..." I'd nearly forgotten about our weird conversation. "She said some funny things. But I don't know if it was just kid imaginings or if she maybe has some kind of psychic ability."
"Fine line with kids," he said. "If she has any powers, I'm sure science and discipline will work them out of her. What'd she say?"
"She said that I was 'magic.' And that there were monsters in the air who got into people's dreams." When he didn't respond, I exclaimed, "Do you think she could help with this?"
He shook his head. "No. If she is psychic or gifted or whatever, she's too young and inexperienced to know what she's perceiving to be of any real use."
"But she could be sensing what's following me."
"Sure. If she's a really astute psychic, she'd be sensitive to anomalies in the magical and spiritual worlds."
Interesting. Tiny little Kayla, possibly with the potential for great spiritual powers some day. "What's your advice?"
"Huh?" he asked.
"For someone like her. To develop her abilities and make sure science and discipline don't beat it out of her."
"My advice?" He gave a harsh laugh. "Let them beat it out of her. You'll be doing her a favor."
I sat quietly for a long time, studying my feet. When I finally looked back up at him, I asked, "Why are you so unhappy?"
"Who says I'm unhappy? I make money by doing nothing."
I gestured around. "Everything says you're unhappy. Your attitude. Your arm. The pile of beer bottles over there. The fact that even though you claim I annoy you, you keep helping me and always seem glad to have me around."
"Misery loves company. You aren't exactly all that chipper yourself."
"I'm very happy with my life," I argued.
"Well, then, go back to it, and let me sleep." In a not too subtle signal, he walked over to the door and opened it. "I'll work on your charm and get back to you."
I started to snap back at the abrupt dismissal, but he looked so weary, I couldn't bring myself to do it. Besides, I knew I'd been right. Dante Moriarty was a very unhappy man who used sarcasm and substances to hide it. I wondered what it was that plagued him so much - what it was that had darkened his soul.
"Are you ever going to tell me why Erik hates you so much?" I asked quietly.
Dante pointed at the door. "Good night, succubus. Sweet dreams."
I worked an evening shift that day and had made plans to have lunch with Maddie. She and I had worked several shifts together in the last week or so, but things were getting so crazy at the store that we hardly had a chance to talk anymore.
"Well, aren't we the rebels?" she said when the waiter set two margaritas on the table. We were at the "unholy" place Peter, Cody, and Hugh had tried to lure me out to a few nights ago.
"Nah," I said, licking the edge of my glass. Salt and lime juice were proof of God's existence. And tequila was proof of Satan's. "We don't work for three more hours. We'll be sober by then. Besides, I'm your superior, and I say it's okay." We clinked glasses and drank up.
"I feel like I'm boring," she told me halfway through our meal.
"It is. I don't do anything with my life." She held the glass by its stem, swirling the contents around and around. "Doug goes out every night, either to practice or party or whatever. Me? If I'm not at work, I'm home writing articles or watching reality TV."
"What do you wish you were doing instead?"
"I don't know. There are lots of things I've thought about. Skydiving. Travel. Always kind of wanted to go to South America. But it's hard, you know? Those kinds of things force you to break out of your comfort zone."
"There's no reason you can't do those things. You're smart and capable, and I think you're braver than you give yourself credit for."
She smiled. "Why are you such a cheerleader for me?"
"Because you're awesome." The truth was, I was starting to realize, Maddie reminded me of myself when I'd been mortal. Not entirely comfortable with my body (I'd been insanely tall). Not always so adept socially (my sharp attitude had gotten me in trouble a lot). That version of me was centuries gone, but a kernel of it would always be within me. I gestured the waiter over and shook my glass at him. "Hey, Josh. Can you hook me up?"
Josh the waiter, who looked too young to drink, took the glass with a grin. "You bet. Same thing?"
"Yep. Although...I hate to tell you this, but it was kind of weak."
Josh adopted an offended air. "Was it? I'll yell at the bartender immediately. Maybe I'll make him come over and apologize on bended knee."
"No need," I said magnanimously. "Just have him add an extra shot this time."
He gave a gallant bow and winked. "As you command."
Maddie groaned when he was gone. "See? I could never flirt that way. Certainly not with jailbait like him."
"Sure you can."
She shook her head. "No. I have the worst luck with men."
"How is that possible? You're always saying funny things to me."
"You're not a man. And I'm not afraid of you," she explained.
"You're afraid of Josh the waiter?"
"Well...no, not exactly. But I just get so self-conscious. All flustered and stuff."
I leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "Trade secret. Everyone's self-conscious. Act like you aren't, and you'll be a superstar."
Josh brought me my margarita. I thanked him with more flirting while Maddie looked thoughtful.
When he went to check on another table, she sighed. "Did you know that I've only ever slept with two guys?"
"So, I'm twenty-nine! Isn't that sad?"
I thought about my track record. No point even trying to count. "Just means you have standards."
She grimaced. "You haven't met the guys."
"So find a good one. Plenty of them out there." I had a weird flash of déjà vu to past conversations with Tawny.