I shot him a glance. His expression was appreciative, even slightly predatory, as it followed the skating figure. “Aren’t you an incubus?” I’d been under the impression that they preferred female partners. I certainly hadn’t seen any male patrons hanging about Casanova’s.
Chavez gave a Latin shrug. “Incubus, succubus, it’s all the same.”
I blinked. “Come again?”
“Our kind has no innate sex,
. At the moment, I inhabit a male body, but I have possessed women at times. It is much the same to me.” His eyes gleamed as he leaned closer, trailing a warm finger down my cheek. It was a light touch, but it caused me to shiver. “Pleasure is pleasure, after all.”
With his words came a swift tug of pure lust. It wasn’t as overwhelming as Casanova’s touch, nor did it get the attention of the
as his briefly had. It was a simple invitation, no more, no less—the knowledge that any advance I chose to make would be received with delight and would end in pleasure. It made me furious, but not with him. It drove home the point that, as things stood, I had less control over my love life than a nun. Even if I lost my head and decided to exchange a lifetime of slavery as Pythia for a brief fling, I couldn’t. Literally couldn’t, unless I wanted to risk going crazy. Mircea had seen to that.
“Did I shock you?” He looked more amused than contrite. I could have told him that, after growing up at Tony’s, not much shocked me anymore, but I settled for a shrug. “It wouldn’t be the first time,” he assured me. “My lover is both male and a vampire, so I have developed . . . what is the term? A thick skin?”
“I didn’t think vamps and incubi had much to do with each other.”
“We don’t. I am considered quite perverse,” he said cheerfully.
I smiled in spite of myself. “Can we go?”
Chavez tried to take the duffle, but I held on to it with the excuse that he was carrying the bags of food. If this offended his macho sensibilities, he didn’t let it show. Once we were safely back in the car, I removed the stolen costume from the duffle after wrapping it around the remaining black boxes. I left the Graeae’s empty one in place. I had plans for it.
“Casanova said he’d stick these in the house safe for me, and not charge the girl who, uh, loaned me the clothes.” I passed the bundle to Chavez as he turned over the engine.
“I’ll see to it, although he may be busy for some time.” He slid a flirtatious glance my way. “You left quite an impression,
. I think Dante’s will never be the same.” He casually tossed the bundle in the back seat, and I suppressed a wince as it bounced on the padded leather. I wondered, not for the first time, whether I shouldn’t put the boxes back in the locker and call MAGIC with their location. But with the Senate facing war, I didn’t trust them not to decide that they needed some extra help and turn whatever was inside them loose. Casanova wouldn’t want any more guests like the Graeae running around, so the boxes were probably safe with him. At least until I could figure out what to do with them.
Chavez pulled up to a seedy tattoo parlor where, presumably, Pritkin was getting cleaned up. He took my hand when I started to get out of the car. “I do not know what you are planning,
, but be careful. Mages, they are never to be fully trusted, you understand? And this one especially. When dealing with him, remember: ‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.’ ” I stared in surprise at the quote, and he laughed. “What did you think, that I was merely good looks?”
I stammered out a negative, although he’d gotten it right and we both knew it. “You have my card, yes? Call if you need assistance.” He grinned, teeth startlingly white against his smooth olive skin. “Or anything else. For you, Cassie, my rates are negotiable.”
I laughed, and he drove off, burning rubber. It only occurred to me after he’d gone to wonder how he’d known my name. I’d never actually gotten around to introducing myself. I shrugged it off; Casanova must have told him.
I went inside the store lugging my duffle and the bags of food. It was almost as hot as outside, with a rattling window air conditioner threatening to give its last wheeze at any moment. The desperate sound matched the rest of the decor, which consisted of stained ceiling tiles, dung brown carpet and a battered laminate counter. Only the hundreds of brightly colored tattoo designs adhered to almost every surface gave it life.
The counter separated the front from the back of the shop, which I couldn’t see because a brown curtain cut off my view. There was no attendant in sight, so I rang the bell, frowning at an issue of
that was in full view on the counter. The self-proclaimed guardian of free speech in the supernatural community had its usual screaming headline: DRACULA SIGHTED IN VEGAS—THE SCOURGE OF EUROPE ALIVE! Yeah, he was probably sitting by the pool at Caesar’s, eating Moon Pies with Elvis. I tucked it out of sight under the counter, thankful that no one had yet dug up my name. I had enough problems—I didn’t need the paparazzi, too.
A few seconds later a skinny bald man with a long gray mustache appeared from behind the curtain. Except for the parts hidden by a pair of cutoff jeans, he was covered in tattoos from his scrawny neck to the tops of his flip-flop-clad feet. Even stranger, the inked images moved. The cobra coiled around his neck paused to flicker a tongue in my direction, while a painted lizard crept across his forehead before catching sight of me and scuttling away behind his left ear. The eagle on his chest flapped its outstretched wings lazily, eyeing me out of a single dark eye.
It looked like I’d found the right place.
The painted man took one look at my fascinated expression and laughed. “The shops that do butterflies and flowers are across town, love.” Despite looking like a retired Hells Angel, he had a faint accent. I thought it might be Australian. “And I’ve canceled all my appointments today— rush job came up.”
“I’m not here for a tattoo,” I told him, trying not to watch the athame inked onto his stomach, which every few seconds dripped a spot of red from its tip that ran down his skin into the frayed top of the cut offs. “Pritkin said to meet him here. I brought lunch.” I held up the bags and the man’s expression brightened.
“You’ll be Cassandra Palmer, then,” he said, looking surprised. I nodded, wondering what he’d expected. I decided not to ask how Pritkin had described me. “Well, why didn’t you say so? I’m Archie McAdam, but my friends call me Mac.”
“Cassie,” I said, taking the proffered hand. All around his larger tattoos was a forest of painted leaves and vines that rustled slightly, as if in a slight wind. From the dark areas under the foliage, a pair of narrowed orange eyes watched me malevolently.
Mac held back the curtain and I squeezed around the counter to duck inside. The first thing I saw in the back was Pritkin, lying facedown on a padded bench, his shirt off and his head turned away. Given how much trouble he regularly got in, I’d have expected his back to be a welter of old and new scars, but it wasn’t. Only a fine tracery of whitened ridges marred one shoulder blade, looking almost like claw marks. Otherwise, flawless skin covered better muscles than I’d expected, unblemished except for the pale purple outline of a tattoo that had been stenciled onto his left side. The outline was about half inked in, although no color had been added yet. It was a stylized sword, very finely drawn, almost delicate. I thought that now was an odd time for body art, but it was his hour. He could spend it as he liked.
Mac held up a mirror to show his customer the design, and Pritkin scowled. “I still say it’s too elaborate. A plain sword is all I need.”
“What are you on about?” Mac asked incredulously. “Look at the lines, the artistry. I’ve outdone myself!”
Pritkin snorted, and I somewhat sympathized. It looked like he was in for a long day. The sword’s blade trailed along the whole length of his side, ending on top of his hip. His jeans had been pushed down enough to bare the top of one buttock to the stencil. Most of his back was, like his arms and face, a light gold color, as if he spent a lot of time in the sun but didn’t tan easily. But his lower back and hips shaded into peach and then to cream, although there was no obvious tan line. I found myself wondering whether there was a difference in texture between the areas, and how they would feel under my fingertips, before I abruptly snapped out of it. I looked away, horrified that I’d been checking out
of all people. Obviously, proximity to incubi has some weird side effects.
“Take a break, John,” Mac said heartily. “This pretty young thing brought lunch!”
Pritkin sat up, scowling, and kept his back to us while he zipped up his jeans. He’d either bought new ones or borrowed some of Mac’s, because these were blood free. I grinned at him to cover the awkwardness. “John?”
“It’s a good, honest English name,” he snapped, angry for no reason I could see.
“Sorry,” I held out the bag of food placatingly. “It just doesn’t sound like you.”
“Which part?” Billy Joe asked. He floated over from the back of the room, near where the golem stood propped against the wall, as silent as the statue it wasn’t. “The good, the honest or the English?”
I ignored him and grabbed half a meatball sub before handing the rest of the food to Mac. The smell in the car had reminded me that the only nutrition I’d had all day was a handful of peanuts at Casanova’s. The sandwich did a lot to improve my mood, and after a few bites, I was even able to muster another smile for Pritkin, who was tugging on a green T-shirt. “You forgot I was dropping in?”
“I wasn’t sure you would be,” he said curtly.
I decided I could either waste time getting into an argument over the value of my word or I could eat the rest of my sub. I chose the latter. A glance around showed that the back room was no more interesting than the front, and wasn’t going to provide much in the way of entertainment. Its bare brick walls contained a metal thing that looked sort of like a washing machine but probably wasn’t, a mini fridge, a cot piled high with old books, an overflowing wastebasket and the tattoo table and equipment.
I swallowed the last bite and wiped tomato sauce off my chin. “Tick tock. You have fifty minutes left. If you want to spend them eating or getting tattooed, go right ahead. But when your time is up, I’m outta here.”
“To go where?” Pritkin demanded, peering at his sandwich as if he thought I might have slipped something nasty inside. “If you have the ridiculous notion of surviving a trip into Faerie on your own, allow me to point out one small fact. Your power won’t work there, or will be very unpredictable if it does. For that reason, Pythias have made it a habit to leave the Fey strictly alone. You can go against tradition, but with your power unreliable and your ward blocked, you won’t last a day.”
He sat on the cot and began dissecting his sandwich while I mulled things over. Mac was perched on a stool by the table, munching his way through the other half of my sub and staying quiet. Billy floated over and tipped his hat back with a hazy-looking finger. “He’s got a point,” he commented.
“Gee, thanks so much.”
Billy hoisted his insubstantial backside up onto the edge of the table and looked at me seriously. That was an expression he used so rarely that it got my attention. “I don’t like the guy any more than you do, Cass, but if you’re determined to do this thing, a war mage could be a real asset. Think about it. We got to get into Faerie, which ain’t exactly easy anytime and will be ’specially hard with all the security from the war. Then we got to avoid the Fey, who don’t like trespassers, while we look for the fat man and that seer chick. And, assuming we manage all that, we have to deal with them at the end of it. And if the Fey are hiding ’em, that ain’t gonna be fun. We could use some help.”
“We haven’t had an offer yet,” I reminded him. Mac seemed surprised by my apparently random comments, but Pritkin ignored them. I suppose he’d learned that, wherever I was, Billy wasn’t far behind.
“If he didn’t intend to help, he could have stepped aside and let the mages have you back at the casino.”
“I could have managed on my own,” I said shortly. Even to my ears it sounded sulky, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true. I didn’t need Pritkin, or anybody else, to come riding to the rescue.
“Yeah, but I thought you were trying to avoid using the power.”
This conversation was starting to irritate me. “Are you just going to sit there and eat, or what?” I asked Pritkin crossly.
He glanced up, a look of distaste on his features. I wasn’t sure whether it was for me or the sandwich, so I let it pass. “We worked together before when we had a common cause. We have one again. I am proposing that we join forces long enough to deal with our mutual dilemma.”
“You have a grudge against Tony? Since when?” That was awfully convenient.
“The Circle has issued a warrant for him, but that isn’t my interest.”
I crumpled up my sandwich paper and tossed it at the trash. I missed. “Then what is?”
Pritkin took a drink from one of the Cokes Mac had passed around, and grimaced. “I want you to help me recover the sybil called Myra,” he informed me.
“What?” I stared at him. It was disconcerting and more than a little suspicious that the first name on my list also topped Pritkin’s.
“None of our locating charms have turned up anything. Therefore it is a fair guess that she is hiding in Faerie, where our magic doesn’t work. In return for your help, I promise not to take you before the Circle, and to assist you in dealing with your former master.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I don’t even know where to start. First, you aren’t taking me anywhere, and second, why should I help you bring back my rival? So your Circle can kill me and reinstate her? For some reason, that doesn’t appeal.”
“The Circle has no plans to put her in your place,” he said grimly. “As for the other, do not overestimate your abilities, or underestimate mine. If I wanted to capture you, I would. Even if I refrain, eventually someone else will. The Circle will never stop chasing you, and they have to get lucky only once. You, on the other hand, have to elude all of their traps, with little knowledge of the magical world to aid you. Only with my help can you hope to avoid the fate the Circle has planned for you—and for her.”