A low, insistent thrum woke her up. For a brief, dizzying moment, she thought she was still on the plane, stuck in a forever limbo somewhere over the Pacific. Until she opened her eyes and discovered she was home. Home on West 23rd St., home in the bliss of her own bed, wrapped in the dark blue twilight of her bed curtains, and Hogni, all thirty pounds of furry cattitude, was purring her awake, as if to say: “Wake up, stupid. You’ve slept long enough.” Which was perfectly reasonable, considering it was 3 PM in the afternoon. Hogni licked her nose, purred a little louder, then jumped out of bed and headed for the living room with an elegant swish of her plumed tail.
Lea sat up in bed. Home. Sometimes, it still spooked her that she lived here now, that all of New York was always right outside her building for the taking, when for so many years she had dreamed about living in New York so long and so fervently she thought it could never be as good as she imagined.
Yet even after three delirious weeks shilling her latest novel and meeting up with friends and fans, she wouldn’t have traded New York for anything at all. And now, after all her heartbreak and all the success she had busted her ass so hard to achieve, she also had Dev to share it with.
He was probably in his studio in Dumbo, blasting George Clinton as he painted his demons and chimaerae. He had an open studio coming up with the other artists in the building, and still had a few finishing touches to add to his new canvasses.
Three o’clock was either way too early or far too late for anything she wanted to do. But not too late for a shower, to get dressed and upgrade her ‘best-selling author at home with jetlag’ self. It had been three weeks.
Walking into her living room an hour later, she was hugely surprised to see Sophia stand at her kitchen island, chopping shallots as if it were the most normal occurrence in the world.
“Good mornin’, hon.” Sophia never moved, her knife dancing on those shallots like a cutlery ballet de corps, with total concentration to the task. “Yeah, I know. It’s mid-afternoon. You’re jet-lagged. You’ll need coffee. It’s in the thermos on the table. So’s a cup and a jug of milk, and it should even still be warm. And I’m cooking tonight, so sit the fuck down and shut up.”
Lea was too surprised to do anything else. “OK.” Coffee. “Did some inter-dimensional disaster happen last night that Dev forgot to tell me about, since you’re here?”
“Well, that’s one way to put it. He didn’t know until very early this morning. None of us did.”
“Knew what, exactly?” Lea sipped her coffee. It was strong, ambrosial and even better for being her own. “I thought all of that was over four years ago. Gawd. It seems like a lifetime ago.”
“I guess you could say that.” Sophia finished the shallots and moved on to cubing beef. “Never mind. It’s time for a family reunion and a few hard questions, so Saint Peter and Fulla are comin’ over later, Freya is rollin’ in from somewhere, too, and as for the rest of it, we’ll see. That’s why I’m cooking. Bœuf en daube.”
“In other words,” Lea put down her coffee cup on the table with an irritated clang against the saucer Sophia had heard before, “shut the fuck up and don’t ask questions until the whole gang is here, did I get that right?”
That made Sophia laugh. “Yupp. So.” She tossed the beef cubes into a freezer bag and coated them with seasoned flour. “How was Australia, anyway? I wanna know everything.”
“Huge. Australian. Warm. And do you know…” Lea laughed as she realized it. Three riotous weeks in Sydney and Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, Auckland and Wellington. Those lovely, wacky Antipodeans who bought and downloaded her books and showed up for signings and readings had feted her and spoiled her rotten and showed her an incredible time in an astonishing part of the world.
“I was gone for three weeks, and I never did get to see a single koala. But the kangaroos were to die for!”
Dev stood at the sink of his studio and wiped paint off his hands with an oil-soaked rag. He was surprised to see it was dark already, surprised the day had flown by without him, just as he flew in the door at a disgusting early hour this morning in a white-hot rage he could neither articulate nor explain. Not at 5 AM, he couldn’t.
Still, the last thing he consciously remembered was that fury, hauling out a large prepped canvas and setting it on his easel, and then…nothing but the black hole of creation. Nothing except the lines on the canvas to delineate his chosen motif, the underpainting he always used that made his colors glow with such heat, and the beginnings of…this. He turned to look at the canvas.
It was a creature he had never painted before. Once, there were many of these entities, fed by those black, shadowy corners of imagination women once never dared admit they had, since even to admit they existed carried the ultimate price tag, or else the ultimate and sanctified justification for rape, torture or sadistic murder. But in this anything goes relativistic age, they were very rare indeed, rare even four years ago, when he was fool enough to think they were destroyed along with the rest of Hell’s hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.
He should have known better, should have known his former spouse better than that. Lilith was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. Somehow, without his even suspecting, she had managed to hedge her bets with the one trump card she had left.
On the canvas, spotlit with an eerie, otherworldly glow of paint, an inhumanly perfect man loomed large over an indeterminate lump that would later become a woman. He was all muscled, testosterone definition in that gleaming painted glow, a youngish man at the very apex of sexual appeal, with his long, black hair trailing down over what would become the woman’s skin, a look of rapt concentration on a chiseled Michelangelo face, one powerful hand gripping a would-be arm tight as any claw. Except this was no human.
This was an incubus about to feed. Or rather, the incubus, the child and lover of Lilith’s own making, he could see that now on the canvas, the one he never knew she could actually create until last night. Only now, it could very well be too late.
She had learned so much, she once said before she died, and that was true. She had somehow taught herself to be mother, mistress and lover to this abomination made flesh before she evidently had sent him out into this mad, bad world, taught that creature to be her last laugh and final revenge on humanity. Because it was the only way this creature could cross that line from superstition to concrete reality, and the only way he could have remained hidden for so long.
He washed the oil off his hands and threw the rag into the sink, angry all over again, with the world, with his former wife, with himself most of all. Livid for daring to think he would be safe now, furious for daring to imagine he had earned his right to live as these restless, endlessly curious humans he so identified with, for daring to presume even he, once the Guardian of negatives and nightmares, had earned the right simply to be happy.
De placed his cleaned brushes in their jars, closed the tubes of paint and put them back in the order he liked, and scraped off his palette. He was happy, truly happy for the first time in his life. Early this morning, after having his own personal nightmare confirmed, he realized with a start what he never could have known before. Happiness made you vulnerable, made you fear you could lose the cause and the sum of it to random chance, simple stupidity or just a vindictive ex-wife.
Happiness had in its own insidious way made him human, and that was yet another surprise.
Since he came back to this crazy world four months ago, life had an order and a consistent, quotidian rhythm, a set routine that all boiled down to a kind of joy. No other word quite described it. Three points of focus defined his world now, these 400 square feet of refuge in a famous building in Dumbo, his new bat cave where he came to get lost by painting the monsters out of his memory, the occasional visit to the house in Ditmas Park, and the epicenter of everything, the loft on West 23rd Street, where he lived and breathed, loved and fought and thought with Lea.
She wasn’t what she had been when he found her in a Copenhagen café four years ago, what she described as a ‘post-punk walking midlife crisis with an attitude problem’. Her crisis then was a lack of faith more than anything, faith in herself and her ability to create the future she wanted to manifest with such edgy desperation, but if he taught her nothing else, somewhere in those fevered weeks four years ago, he taught her to believe.
One thing had never changed. She definitely still had the attitude problem. Only now, they both chose to define it as yet another kind of foreplay.
Success had sanded down a few ingrained punk edges and made them smoother, expanded her tastes in the finer things in life and made her appreciate them more.
He remembered when they flew to India on a wild impulse shortly after his return just to get away from New York. Somehow, they ended up in a suite at the Taj Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur surrounded by the outrageous opulence of Moghul maharajahs and the equally outrageous sensory overload that was India itself. He remembered how the rest of the world had disappeared in the five days they spent there under those southern stars, and that moment in the dead of a warm Indian night when the lap of the water and the distant cries of unknown birds was the only music they needed.
He saw her in his mind’s eye silhouetted against the moonlight on the lake that night, the candlelight on the table in front of her reflected on her face and in the amber-gold glints of her hair.
“If you could go back in time to that café in Copenhagen, would you have made a different choice, knowing what you do now?” he asked her that night.
For a heartbeat or maybe ten as she hesitated, he knew all the self-doubts humans knew, knew he should never have come back, he was better off not knowing, not caring, not feeling. Infinitely better off for being his usual self, the embodiment of cold, calculated, emotionless evil. He knew.
Until she reached forward, grabbed him by the neck just like she did the first time, and whispered in his ear.
He inhaled sharply as he remembered, and he was back in the present, staring at the canvas in front of him on a paint-splattered easel with a clamped desk lamp attached, the dilapidated purple velvet chaise he sometimes slept upon, the second-hand chairs and tables, the cabinets that held all the paraphernalia of painting, the big bottles of cold-pressed linseed oil, palette knives, walnut and poppy-seed oil, Damar and extra brushes, and on the other side of the window, the lights of Manhattan twinkling in the twilight across the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge looming ominous right outside.
She had been gone three weeks. And he knew exactly what could kill off this tetchy, restless, melancholy mood, precisely what he needed.
As Dev locked up his studio and walked toward the elevator, he thought one thing. “Brace yourself, baby. Because tonight, you’re gonna ride.”
“Can you believe it? So then, the idiot had the nerve to ask me, ‘But what’s wrong with pornified sex? Are you saying it isn’t sex at all?’ I mean… come the fuck on! Young, dumb and full of come was dead on in his case. I dumped that bozo double quick at a Bierhalle in Munich during Oktoberfest. I mean, a girl can handle only so much stupidity at a time, you know? Maybe I should just dump all those younger dudes…”
Lea laughed at Freya’s story as they set the table for dinner that night. Freya was her best friend, sister and a goddess all wrapped into one exquisite exemplar of femininity, just like Fulla, now preoccupied with helping Sophia get everything on the table while Saint Peter was on the sofa fussing over Thafnir and his thunderous purrs, much to the irritation of Hogni, who turned her broad, furry back to all of them and stared out at West 23rd Street below with an irritated twitch of tail.
This was a family reunion she hadn’t expected, which made her appreciate it so much more.
She looked up when she heard a key in the lock, and Dev walked in. As he caught her eye down the length of the hallway, his face lit up with a look she knew very well while he hung up his jacket.
“Baby, I’ve had a day and three quarters, so what I need from you right this instant is…”
Then, he walked all the way into the living room, and in a heartbeat, his face went nearly black with rage as he registered the company.
“GOD FUCKING DAMN IT!” he roared. “Who asked for company tonight of all nights?”
Sophia calmly set a salad bowl on the table, lifted an eyebrow and said, “I did. Sit the fuck down. Shut the fuck up. And eat, whydoncha?”
Dev threw himself into his chair with a scowl. Lea knew enough to stay well away from that mood on that face, and sat across from him on the other side. His scowl grew blacker.
Food and glasses of wine circled the table in silence until finally, even Sophia sat down, sighed and reached for her wine glass.
“OK.” She sipped her wine. “Guys, we’re in deep, deep shit. As in, over our heads deep shit.”
“How so?” Lea asked. She still had no idea what on Earth transpired dire enough to bring in Sophia, and no one was telling.
Dev sat back, ignored his food and picked at the stem of his wine glass as he stared out the window. Even from across the table, Lea sensed the anger that seemed to emanate off his shoulders in noxious, radioactive waves.
“What’s the matter?” laughed Freya as she knocked back the contents of her wine glass. “Something get between you and your hard-on on the way home?”
Fulla, on her other side, rolled her eyes.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” mumbled Saint Peter.
“Well, genius, either you explain it or I do, but since you caught it first, I say you should.” Sophia picked up her knife and fork and glared at Dev.
Who glared right at Saint Peter, before he snarled “I fucking told you to keep it quiet, and did you, asshole? No, you just brought in the whole goddamn cavalry on me! I told you – tell Sophia, but no one else needs to know, and blabbermouth you…”
Sophia stared him down. “Enough crap attitude from you, sunshine. Saint Peter sent for me. I came. He explained. It was my idea to round up the gang, not his. Thought it might be…” she stared at the spinach leaf on her fork before she popped it into her mouth, chewed and swallowed. “A good thing we’re all on the same page, ya know?”
“What page?” Lea interjected. “I’m not even in the same library as the rest of you!”
“Hon…” Sophia had another sip of wine. “You’re not on the same continent as the rest of us yet. OK. Now. Please. Behave yourselves already. Dev, someone you know needs an explanation. I suggest you give her one.”
A look bounced around the table. No one dared argue with Sophia when she pulled her matriarch trump card.
Dev stared into his wine glass, as if the answers were hidden in the depths. “Last night, when you were asleep, I had…I guess you could call it a nightmare. Except I don’t dream like you do so I don’t have nightmares, either. I woke up with a…” he drank down the wine in his glass. “Premonition, let’s call it. A premonition that something is way, way out of whack, something very, very wrong. Evil. Evil as anything Lilith ever was, if not worse. Except it’s not supposed to be there at all. We got everything, Samael and I, four years ago, so I thought and he did, too. What we didn’t get was destroyed the night Hell imploded, Lilith was killed, and we left.”
Lea buried her face in her hands and sighed. “And?” Why now? Why her? Why?
Never any answer to that question.
“So I went to Saint Peter at 4 AM this morning,” Dev went on, and Saint Peter chimed in.
“Woke me up when I was actually asleep, ya know? Well, cut to the fuckin’ chase already. We went downstairs. There’s one something out here in the real world left over from Hell, something from the wrong side of the fence for fuck’s sake, and genius here…” he elbowed Dev in his side, “says it’s an incubus. Fuck me, man, I thought those died out with the witch trials, for Chrissakes. Unless your name was Dion Fortune, but look where that got her.”
Despite the delicious aroma of the food wafting up from her plate, Lea instantly lost her appetite, and she hadn’t eaten a thing since somewhere over the Pacific.
“An incubus. Cute. Not.”
“No.” Dev’s most ominous baritone boomed through the loft. “Because this incubus was smart enough to find a human to latch on to, and that would keep him hidden from us if we went looking. Well, so far as I could tell, he’s managed to blend in for four years and no one’s the wiser. Except that’s not all.”
“No.” Sophia said. “You see, hon, if he can hide himself that well, he also knows a few things most of them never did. The Incubi may have been smokin’ hot guys to look at and impossibly great lays, but most of ‘em were dim as dirt. Not this one. He might have figured out how to breed. In which case, we’re as screwed as I thought and that’s why I came.”
“Breed?” Lea shook her head. “Give me a break here, guys. I’m jet-lagged. So far as I know, the Incubi were originally a very handy excuse for sexual abuse and misconduct you needed to explain away to an inquisitor, or did I get that wrong? The Succubi collected sperm they passed on to the Incubi, who then impregnated hapless, susceptible, superstitious females who didn’t have to tell the truth that Daddy did it all. Right?” She was so exasperated she picked her knife and fork and began to inhale the contents on her plate. Oh, fuck. Right when she was perfectly happy for a big change, right when everything was going well and she had even worked hard enough for Cyd to lay off her case, right when she thought she deserved a vacation, this happened.
She understood Dev’s toxic mood so much better now. Then again, she usually did.
Freya leaned over the table on her elbows and looked her right in the eye as she reached for the pepper mill. “Were the Succubi a figment of your imagination?”
This wasn’t Freya in girlfriend mode any longer. This was the Norse Goddess of dark and highly arcane magic in a voice that demanded an answer. Now.
Four years on, Lea had only a dim memory left of what she endured at the hands of the Succubi, but that much, she remembered.
“No.” She reached for her wine. There wasn’t enough Zinfandel in the state of California for her right now.
“So what makes you think,” Fulla went on sweetly, “that it’s any different this time?”
“I don’t know what to think! An incubus. A smart one. OK. What I want to know is how? If nothing feeds into him any more, and there’s no need for absolutes any longer then how the fuck…”
Right when she said it, she made the mistake of looking at Dev, who looked positively haunted. Oh, Gawd, no.
“Did you ever wonder, hon,” Sophia passed the wine bottle around the table. It came back empty. There was another one on standby on the kitchen island. “About why Lilith never attacked you, that last night in Hell?”
“As I recall,” Lea dropped her cutlery onto her plate with another irritated clang, “She couldn’t. You made sure of that. Or else it was that Daddy-o Samael didn’t want her to win.”
“True.” Sophia had a gleam in her eyes Lea couldn’t read. “Well, think, You’re really good at that. It could just possibly be…” her voice trailed off as she focused her attention on her plate.
Dev’s brown eyes across the table broadcast everything she wished she never knew. “That somehow, Lilith had managed to transfer her own powers to this…incubus, as a last laugh, is that it? Before she sent him out, before Hell was destroyed, before anyone even knew he existed? Am I missing something?” She killed the wine in her glass and got up to get the other bottle.
“Damn, girlfriend,” Freya lifted her wine glass in approval, “you’re good.”
“Bullshit.” Lea was so upset, she began to clear the table. “I’ve just been around all of you for w-a-y too long. So. An incubus. Who was given all of Lilith’s powers before she died. The only one left. If my memory serves me right, the Incubi are supposed to feed off sexual energy, is that right? How hard can he be to find? Wouldn’t he stick out like a sore thumb?”
Pots and pans and dirty bowls were thrown pell-mell into the dishwasher.
“That’s my job”, Saint Peter growled. Lea noticed that as they were busy discussing the shitstorm they were in, Saint Peter had quietly and effectively eaten nearly everything on the table. “Dunno yet, Got a few leads, but I’m waiting to hear back from a few people. So.” He shrugged and spooned the rest of the boeuf en daube onto his plate. “That’s where I’m at.”
“Great!” Lea slammed the dishwasher shut with a satisfying bang. “One super-powered incubus we can’t find is on the rampage somewhere trying to feed and breed in a world that doesn’t need him. Meanwhile, I’m guessing that lovely concrete container in what was once the dimension of Hell is filling up as we speak, and we’re all stuck here wondering what to do about it. Damn it! Why not just hunt that miserable son of a bitch down, destroy him and call it a day?” She skulled her glass of wine and immediately poured another.
“Well…” drawled Sophia with her usual calm, “it gets worse, kinda.”
“Worse?” Lea braced herself against the kitchen counter that separated the dining area from the kitchen. “How is that possible?”
But instead of Sophia answering, Dev spoke up. “Because I can’t destroy him any longer. I gave all that up when I came back.” He sounded at least as haunted as he looked.
“There are two entities in this room who can,” said Sophia. “I’m one.”
“I’m the other,” Freya mumbled into her wine glass. “But we’re going to need a little outside help, especially if he’s managed to breed.”
“First, we’ve gotta find him.” Saint Peter sat back with a happy, sated sigh. Not a scrap of food was left on the table. “And when we do…”
“We’ve got to lay a trap,” Dev murmured. He looked up at Lea, and there were entire Dostoyevsky novels inside that look.
“And that…” Sophia’s voice trailed off in the room, “is where you come in, hon.”
Lea drained her third glass of wine. There wasn’t enough Zinfandel on three continents to deal with this family reunion.
(With special thanks and undying gratitude to Maria, who told me much I needed to know…)