Chapter One: A Closet Full of Wire Hangers
"Is this seventy-three Lynn Street?"
The dorky-looking guy froze in the act of pulling a beer out of his kitchen fridge. He straightened up and turned around, very slowly.
I guessed he wasn't a very fast one. I counted to five under my breath.
"This is seventy-three Lynn Street, right?"
He nodded. The audacity he had, to stare at me when he was the one who couldn't even answer a simple question like that, it was amazing.
"Thank god," I said. "I was getting worried there. Wouldn't be the first time I got the wrong address. This one time, I burst in on a nice old lady enjoying a night in. Startled the old dear so much that her false teeth flew right across the room and bit the cat."
He was still gaping at me like a goldfish, so I pulled out one of his kitchen chairs—cheap, white Ikea pine thing, but your average sorcerer's always been a bit stingy—and flumped down with my feet up on the equally nasty table.
"Any chance of a hot coffee? It's freezing out there, and it took me ages to find your house. You really need to give better directions when you bring out the old summoning pentacle."
Finally, it looked like the guy was rallying back. He straightened up, put his beer down, and pointed at me.
"Look, you," he said, "I don't know what kind of joke this is, but it's not funny, so— so—"
It took me a second to realise that he wasn't just stalling for words. He was staring at the tip of my tail, swishing in my lap.
Well, that often shut newbies up for a while, so I forgave him.
"So…? Oh. Wait a second, I see." I relaxed. I knew this game. "You're one of those ones who likes to pretend like they don't know why I'm here. Well, whatever gets you off. You want me to bring out the demonic contract now? We'll just do it quickly, if you like to pretend we're doing the whole barge-in-and-ravish routine."
"What are you?" he demanded. He pulled out one of the other chairs and sat down heavily. "What the fuck is that? Is that a tail?" He was staring so hard that the whites were showing all round his irises. I paused for a second to admire the effect: he reminded me of a blow-up doll and it was slightly delightful. "Jesus! It's—" He broke off mid-sentence like he couldn't bring himself to finish.
"Beautiful?" I supplied. "Magnificent? Awe-inspiring? I'm flattered."
"Moving. Is that— god, is it real?" He swallowed very hard. A little trail of sweat dribbled down the line of his bobbing, and rather prominent, adam's apple.
"Give the lad a prize," I said. "Now, where's that coffee? I understand you summoned me in a bit of a hurry, but I'd really like a hot drink first. You know you don't want me sticking my hands down your pants with cold fingers."
"No," he said, flinching away. "No. Hang on a second. Answer me. What are you? What are you doing here?"
Well, while I expect amateur summoners to be slow, this was a bit much. I was starting to believe he really might not know why I was there.
"What do you mean? You summoned me, didn't you? I'm an incubus. I'm here because you wanted me to be."
He didn't look any more enlightened. To tell the truth, I was getting a bit puzzled too.
"You know," I added, hoping to prod his memory, "a demon. I come from down below. Underneath. Hell. Whatever you like to call it."
"And you're— real?"
"Yes," I said, a tad exasperated. "Now, please, I would really like a coffee. This is just rude. You can't invite guests over and act like you have no idea."
"Could you, uh," he said, butting in before I'd even finished talking, "could you do something… demonic?"
"This has got to be a joke." He rubbed his rather beaky nose nervously with the back of a sleeve. "But, and I can't believe I'm saying this, you look so real, so if you could just— you know? I'd feel a lot more sane if you could just prove you're not a hallucination."
I rocked the chair back so it was balancing on the back two legs, frowning.
"If you have to," I said. "But this is really weird. You're supposed to have summoned me here." I checked my address card once again. Still this house. "Nobody else lives here, do they?"
He shook his head.
"Well, okay then, beer-drinking mortal. I'll show you a little parlour trick for the sake of your sanity and maybe we can just get on with this anyway, okay? I want to get home."
I squinted in concentration. The tabletop burst into flames.
He yelled and clattered off the side of his chair, sweaty ginger hair going all over his face.
"What, you didn't like it?"
"Not my table!" he wailed, scrambling to his feet. He ran to the tap, grabbing a glass like that was going to do any good putting the flames out.
"Oh, calm down. God, are you always this jumpy? Look, it's not burning anything."
He glanced around in a panic, and finally realised that I was telling the truth. Messy stack of papers, dirty lunchtime plate, haphazard stack of folded laundry: they were all completely safe, merrily illuminated in the middle of a nice cold glowing fire. Not being burned even a little bit.
"Oh," he breathed, and reached for his beer.
I shrugged. "Oldest trick in the book. So please, that coffee, if you'd be so kind."
At long last, he nodded and reached for the kettle. "Okay, okay," he said, "I believe you. Please make my table stop burning."
I clicked my fingers and the flames died down.
"So, what'll it be? Head, or straight for the tail?" I chuckled at my own joke. I kill me sometimes. "Seriously though, the contract. Here. Sign on the dotted line, and we'll get on with it."
He put the mug of coffee down in front of me and wordlessly took the contract, scanning through it.
"What's all this tiny print?" he asked suspiciously. "And— oh hell, wait just a second. You really are an incubus?"
"Jesus christ. No, I'm just some sod in leather trousers who decided to take a stroll into your kitchen. Yes, of course I'm an incubus. Like I already said."
I took a slurp of the coffee. Not bad, a bit too milky, but you take what you can get.
"Well, why me? Isn't it supposed to be succubi who come for— someone like me?"
I gave him an arch up-and-down stare.
"For someone like you? No. Pull the other one. Let's just face it: you've got an incubus, and you're gay as my pinkest feather boa, which by the way I can produce if you'd like."
"No, I didn't mean that," he said, although he flushed red neck to hairline, clashing horribly with his orange hair. "I meant, for men. I've read magical creature websites and stuff. There's never been anything about incubi coming for men."
I rolled my eyes. "That's just heteronormativity for you, though, isn't it? Twenty-first century, you know, even Hell is past that. Are you actually complaining? You must be deeply in denial."
He stayed standing for about another twenty seconds, staring at me, then just crumpled right into the chair next to mine. He buried his head in his hands.
"How did you know?" he mumbled. "I've never even told anyone. Nobody should know."
"Oh, hey," I said, a bit flustered, "I didn't mean to upset you." I patted him awkwardly on the back. "It's okay, nobody knows except me and you. I'm a demon of sex and seduction, I have a nose for these things. On the upside, getting back to business, if you can just sign the contract for me then you can have a nice night of fantastic sex and I'll be gone, your little secret safe with me, and you can—"
"Wait," he said slowly, looking up from his hands. His face had gone shrewd, which I didn't like at all. "Wait a second. You need me to sign this contract before you can… seduce me?"
"Well, sure," I shrugged. "You know how it is, one century you're beating your wife with a stick for ogling some pretty boy on the street, the next the two of you are organising threesomes with him on the Internet. Times and morals change. We don't do that whole 'ravishing' thing any more, there'd be too much paperwork involved. Hence the consent form. So if you'd sign, please."
"What will happen if I don't sign it?"
I shifted uncomfortably in the nasty pine seat. "Well, I can't go back until I've finished my job. If you didn't summon me, then someone did. Either way, I have work to do."
He frowned at his beer. "And your, uh, summoners usually sign this?"
"Well, sure. They summon me. On the whole they're fairly up to date with the situation." I narrowed my eyes. "Oh. No. What are you thinking? I don't like that look you're giving me."
A slow smile was spreading across his face. "So you need me to sign this before you can do your job, and can't go home until I've done that?"
"Like I said," I hissed. "Whatever you're about to say, no. Absolutely not. Niet."
"I just thought that maybe you could help me a bit. Since I didn't summon you, I don't see why I should be forced. So, you do something for me, and I'll do this for you."
"I'm a demon! I don't do favours! I'm not supposed to be helpful!"
"Well, I don't see what choice you have," he said mildly, although he was smirking ear to ear. "Hear me out, at least?"
My eyes darted from the contract to the door. He was right, unfortunately, but this was a situation that I wasn't supposed to get into at all. Sorcerers summon us for just the one very specific purpose— why would anyone bother summoning an incubus to do their errands?
"Fine, beer-drinking mortal," I said reluctantly. "Tell me your brilliant plan. Tell me all about how you want me to help you like that's what demons do. Just say the word, because oh, my god, I'm loving this."
"Well," he said, taking a deep breath. "You coming and reminding me that I'm— you know— gay, it sort of... I guess I've thought about it before. Quite a lot. But nobody knows, I've done my best not to think about it, and it's not… it's pretty lonely."
He took a pensive sip of his beer. "It's not great, knowing I could be in the closet and alone all my life. I've always wanted to be open about it, but I don't think I can do it by myself. I don't know anyone who'd support me. So maybe you can help me? Then I'll sign your consent form."
"You what?" I stared at him in horror, thrown a mile. I'd been expecting laundry. Riches. Fashion sense that he sadly lacked. "You— you want me to help you come out?"
I could see already that his plan had a flaw. He'd said nothing about how he wanted me to do that. I started to smile. Maybe national television would teach him a lesson.
"And I'll write up a set of rules, too. So you don't embarrass me."
Shit, there went that fantasy. I slumped in the seat and finished the rest of the milky coffee in one big gulp.
"Okay, scrawny human. You give me no choice. I'll have to help you."
"Cool." He smiled at me like everything was okay—the nerve of him—and held out a hand. "I'm Steven, by the way. Nice to meet you."
"Khazimir," I muttered, shaking it. "At your service. Through no fault of my own. You'd better make those rules nice and tight, because I will be thinking of every loophole."
"I trust you," he said, with a grin I really didn't like. "You just sit tight, and let me get a pen and paper. Help yourself to coffee. You can stay here while you're not, um, in Hell."
"You're so kind." I considered setting his table on fire again, except this time to burn.
But I couldn't. He was right.
For the time being, I was completely trapped here, and at his every beck and call. I really couldn't see how it could go down from here.
It was a Friday night and, flicking through the channels on Steven's TV, I realised that there was absolutely nothing worth watching.
What else was new? Oh yeah, I'd been roped into service helping some nerdy sad-act come out the closet.
"How come you live in a nice house like this?" I asked, idly flipping past a rerun of Judge Judy onto Three Men and a Baby. Sweet Lucifer, human TV, I'd take Hell any day. "Pardon me, I'm sure, but it doesn't really seem like your kind of place. There's a definite mismatch in quality between house and furniture here, for one."
I bounced on the beaten-up faux-leather sofa a couple of times to illustrate my point. It squeaked like it was in pain.
"It's my parents' house," Steven mumbled, still engrossed in writing out his bloody list of rules. "Their summer home, anyway. They lent it to me until I could get some money together to rent a place of my own. This stuff's all I could get, I had to leave all my good furniture behind in my old flat in Boston when I came back to England."
"Your parents have taste. What went wrong?" I glanced at him from the corner of my eye to see the reaction. Actually, with those unfashionable oval glasses on Ginger was kind of cute, so long as you liked the sort of guy that looked like he could program anyone's software.
He just frowned a bit at his pad of lined paper. "They don't give me money, is all. I told you, this is all I could afford. They didn't want me in their house and I don't really want to see them all the time either, and nobody was interested in renting this house during the winter, so they let me stay in it."
"Huh." I settled for the ten o'clock news, the choice on TV was really that dire. "Any reason why you don't live in happy harmony together?"
He looked up at me suspiciously. I gave him a sunshiny smile. "Just trying to get a feel for the situation. So I can help you."
"Whatever. I'll only tell you if you promise not to laugh."
"Cross my heart, if I had one," I said solemnly.
"They make me go out clubbing with them," he muttered. "Several times a week. And they always try to set me up with girls."
I snorted. He threw me a poisonous look.
"Can you even imagine?" he went on. "Your middle-aged dad bringing over some embarrassed stranger and making her sit between you and your drunk mother, no way to just politely tell them both you're not interested. Even as if any of the type of girls they pick would go for someone like me anyway." He compounded this statement by taking off his glasses and rubbing them on his shirt front.
"Well, you're not too bad," I mulled, giving him the once-over.
It was true, now I thought about it— once you'd managed to get past the twitchy, geeky, cheap beer-drinking exterior he was actually okay to look at. Given a hair wash, and a wardrobe that didn't swamp his skinny frame—maybe a dye job, and lessons on how to hold his gangly limbs in a way that wasn't reminiscent of a gibbon—he could be almost handsome.
He shrugged and carried on scribbling. After a few minutes (in which I learned all about how local schools had been celebrating Charles Dickens' anniversary birthday) he paused and looked up again.
"Hey, Khazimir," he said, a bit hesitantly, "do you have any way of making yourself look a bit more, you know, human?"
"What, lose the tail?" I picked up the remote control with it and waggled it at him.
"Uh, sure. Maybe the horns as well. And try to wear something other than leather pants, too, although I can lend you something if you haven't got anything else."
"Christ on an upside-down cross, I'm sure I can manage."
I screwed up my eyes in effort and managed to give myself a more human look—sharp suit and dark glasses, hair back in a ponytail, and not even a smidgen of tail. I was quite proud of myself.
I tilted the sunglasses down. "Is that better? Suitably human for your delicate tastes?"
He made a face. "Oh, sure, you'd fit right in on the set of a mob porno. Okay, Khazimir, I know you're an incubus and everything, but most guys don't wear bondage heels with their business suit." He squinted. "Are you wearing pantyhose under that?"
"What, like you'd wear these babies on bare feet? Oh, fine." I changed them to more regular shoes and socks. Some people have no poetry in their soul.
"That's a bit better. Thanks."
"Why, anyway? Am I supposed to be taking you somewhere?"
"Well, yes." He put the ballpoint down and started scanning through his writing. "I want you to help me come out to a bunch of people I don't want to face on my own." He sighed. "Mainly I just want you to be there, you know? I don't have anyone to be there with me."
"So you thought a demon was exactly who to ask. Well, your character judgement is just uncanny."
"Also I thought you could pose as my boyfriend."
"Oh, really." That took a second to sink in. "Wait. Hold the fucking phone. Your boyfriend?"
He pushed his glasses up his nose, chewing on his lower lip. On a twenty-something adult guy with an apathy tash, this was more pathetic than cute.
"Well, there's a good chance my parents just won't believe me," he mumbled. "They'll just tell me I'm confused or need to see a therapist or have mommy issues or whatever. I thought if you were pretending to date me, they would have to believe it." He coughed self-consciously. "Here, I finished the list."
I snatched it out of his hand and scanned it through. Oh damn, this scrawny little bastard was surprisingly good. No loopholes at all, he hadn't missed a thing. Not a single accident or overlooked word that I could twist to my advantage. No chance of showing him up or embarrassing him.
"And there's a list of people I want to come out to."
He handed that over too. It was pretty simple: three titles, 'work', 'friends', and 'parents'. Underneath each heading, a list of the people to tell, and the order in which to tell them. The 'friends' list was hilariously short.
There was something else scrawled on the bottom of the page. I squinted to read it.
"Oh. Oh. You have to be shitting me." I read it again just to check. "You want me to find you a date after all this? Who am I, Patti bloody Stanger?"
"Well, yeh," he said, going a bit red-faced. "I thought since you said you have a 'sense for these things'," he made little air quotes around the words, "you could maybe find someone to hook me up with. I'm sure you have a lot of, um, work contacts, don't you? You don't seem like the type to swing both ways."
"Colour me surprised, Firelocks, I didn't think desperate middle-aged sorcerers were your type."
"Sorcerers?" he repeated, like that was the weirdest thing he'd heard all night. "Oh. Oh shit. I don't think this all really sank in yet." He laughed a bit wildly. "Oh god, Hell exists. There… there must be a God. And sorcerers, does magic exist?"
"Wow, which part of this is not completely obvious? I don't know about a God, don't bother me with that kind of theological shit. And yes, magic exists. You could even learn it, if you wanted, though I don't think you'd be very good at it." I tapped my fingers restlessly on the sofa arm. Damn, I wanted another coffee now. Caffeine clears out of a demon's system much too fast.
I shook the pieces of paper he'd given me. "Let's get back to the issue in hand here, which is that you want me to pretend to be your boyfriend, then immediately set you up with a date. This is supposed to work how?"
"Well, I break up with you. Obviously." He seemed a bit distracted, for some reason.
"What part of being an incubus do you think qualifies me as your friendly local love guru? I don't know if you noticed, but I'm a bit of a one-trick pony. I turn up, I shag, I leave. That's my job. How am I supposed to get you a date anyway?"
He gazed blandly at the end credits of the news. "You probably couldn't do worse than me."
I considered him from head to toe. Greasy, shaggy ginger mane. Unfashionable glasses. Oversized tee shirt with what looked like tomato stains down the front. Sweat pants. Okay, he had a point.
"Only if I can fix that godawful hair of yours and get you some new clothes." I was starting to feel rather toyed with. I'd be damned again if I was going to let him have all the victories.
"Sure, if you think it'll help. No heels, though." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I'm going to bed. You're welcome to the spare bedroom. We can get started in the morning."
He had the cheek to clap me on the shoulder as he went past. "G'night, Khazimir. Thanks."
He went out the door and left me sitting there alone with his two pieces of scrawled-on paper and a lot of shitty television. Life didn't get any better than this.
On the other hand, he had invited me to help myself to the coffee. Maybe I'd stay up for a while. In fact, there was nothing about using his stereo to play classic rock on top volume all night to keep him awake, either.
Maybe not so bad after all.