The crisp paper with its laser printing was a lot different from scrawling script on vellum, but I knew an official transfer letter when I saw one.I’d received dozens in the last millennia, in various forms, pointing me on to new assignments and locations.The last one had come to me while I was in London fifteen years ago.
From there, I’d moved here to Seattle.
And now this one was telling me it was time to move on yet again.
To leave Seattle.
“No,” I breathed, far too soft for Seth to hear. “No.”
I knew this letter was legitimate. It wasn’t a forgery. It wasn’t a joke sent on Hell’s stationery. What I was praying for was that this official transfer order had just been sent to me in error. The letter had no information about my next assignment because, per protocol, employees were usually briefed by their archdemons before a transfer. The letter then came afterward, to make the termination of the old job and start of the new one official.
I’d seen my archdemon less than twelve hours ago. Surely, surely, if this was real, Jerome could have brought himself to at least mention it. The transfer of a succubus would be a big deal for him. He’d have to juggle both the fallout of losing me and gaining someone else. But, no. Jerome hadn’t behaved as though he had a major personnel change coming. He’d said nothing to even hint about it. One would think this would have trumped his bowling league just a little.
I realized I was holding my breath and forced myself to start breathing again. A mistake. Whoever had sent this had clearly made a mistake. Lifting my eyes from the paper, I focused on Seth’s sleeping form. He was sprawled in his usual way, with his limbs all over the bed. Light and shadow played across his face, and I felt tears spring to my eyes as I studied those beloved features.
Leaving Seattle. Leaving Seth.
No, no, no. I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t cry because there was nothing to cry about. This was a mistake. It had to be because there was no way the universe could be this cruel to me. I had already gone through too much. I was happy now. Seth and I had fought our battles to be together. We’d finally achieved our dream. That couldn’t be taken away from me, not now.
Can’t it? A nasty voice in my head pointed out the obvious. You sold your soul. You’re damned. Why should the universe owe you anything? You don’t deserve happiness. You should have this taken away from you.
Jerome. I had to talk to Jerome. He would sort this out.
I folded the letter four times and stuffed it into my purse. Grabbing my cell phone, I headed for the door and shape-shifted on a robe. I managed to slip out of the room without a sound, but my victory was short-lived. I’d hoped to be able to sneak outside, past Ian in the living room, and call Jerome in privacy. Unfortunately, I never made it that far. Both Ian and Margaret were up and awake, forcing me to stop middial.
Margaret stood in the kitchen cooking something on the stove while he sat at the kitchen table. “Mom,” he was saying, “it doesn’t matter what the water-to-coffee ratio is. You can’t make an Americano out of drip. Especially with that Starbucks crap Seth buys.”
“Actually,” I said, slipping the phone regretfully into my robe’s pocket, “I bought that coffee. It’s not that bad. It’s a Seattle institution, you know.”
Ian didn’t look as though he’d hit the shower yet, but at least he was dressed. He regarded me critically. “Starbucks? They might have been okay before they became mainstream, but now they’re just another corporate monstrosity that all the sheep flock to.” He swirled his coffee mug around. “Back in Chicago, I go to this really great hole-in-the-wall cafe that’s run by this guy who used to be a bass player in an indie rock band you’ve probably never heard off. The espresso he serves is so authentic, it’s mind-blowing. Of course, most people have no clue because it’s not the kind of place mainstream people tend to frequent.”
“So,” I said, suspecting one could make a drinking game out of how many times Ian used “mainstream” in a conversation, “I guess that means there’s plenty of Starbucks here for me.”
Margaret nodded briefly toward Seth’s coffeemaker. “Have a cup with us.”
She turned around and continued cooking. The phone was burning in my pocket. I wanted to sprint toward the door and had to force myself to behave normally in front of Seth’s family. I poured myself a cup of delicious corporate coffee and tried not to act like they were keeping me from a phone call that could change the rest of my life. Soon, I told myself. I’d have answers soon. Jerome probably wasn’t even up. I could delay here briefly for the sake of politeness and then get my answers.
“You’re up early,” I said, taking my coffee over to a corner that gave me a good view of both Mortensens. And the door.
“Hardly,” said Margaret. “It’s nearly eight. Ten, where we come from.”
“I suppose so,” I murmured, sipping from my mug. Since signing up for Team North Pole, I hardly ever saw this side of noon anymore. Children didn’t usually hit Santa up for Christmas requests so early, not even the ones at the mall I worked at.
“Are you a writer too?” asked Margaret, flipping over something with a flourish. “Is that why you pull such crazy hours?”
“Er, no. But I do usually work later in the day. I work, um, retail, so I’m on mall hours.”
“The mall,” scoffed Ian.
Margaret turned from the stove and glared at her son. “Don’t act like you never go there. Half your wardrobe’s from Fox Valley.”
Ian actually turned pink. “That’s not true!”
“Didn’t you get your coat at Abernathy & Finch?” she prodded.
“It’s Abercrombie & Fitch! And, no, of course I didn’t.”
Margaret’s expression spoke legions. She took down two plates from the cupboard and stacked them high with pancakes. She delivered one to Ian and the other to me.
I started to hand it back. “Wait. Is this your breakfast? I can’t eat this.”
She fixed with me with a steely gaze and then looked me up and down. It gave me a good view of the quilted teddy bears on her sweatshirt. “Oh? Are you one of those girls who doesn’t eat real food? Is your usual breakfast coffee and grapefruit?” She gave a calculated pause. “Or do you not trust my cooking?”
“What? No!” I hastily put my plate on the table and took a chair across from Ian. “This looks great.”
“Usually I’m vegan,” said Ian, pouring syrup on the pancakes. “But I make exceptions for Mom.”
I really, really should have let it go but couldn’t help saying, “I didn’t think ‘usually’ and ‘vegan’ go together. You either are or you aren’t. If you’re making exceptions some of the time, then I don’t think you get the title. I mean, sometimes I put cream in my coffee and sometimes I don’t. I don’t call myself vegan on black days.”
He sighed in disgust. “I’m vegan ironically.”
I returned to my pancakes. Margaret was back to cooking again, presumably her own breakfast now, but still continued the conversation. “How long have you and Seth been seeing each other?”
“Well . . .” I used chewing as an excuse to formulate my thoughts. “That’s kind of hard to answer. We’ve, um, dated off and on for the last year.”
Ian frowned. “Wasn’t Seth engaged for part of the last year?”
I was on the verge of saying, “He was engaged ironically,” when Seth himself emerged from the bedroom. I was grateful for the distraction from explaining our relationship but not pleased to see Seth up.
“Hey!” I said. “Go back to bed. You need more sleep.”
“Good morning to you too,” he said. He brushed a kiss against his mother’s cheek and the joined us at the table.
“I mean it,” I said. “This is your chance to sleep in.”
“I got all the sleep I need,” he countered, stifling a yawn. “Besides, I promised to make cupcakes for the twins. Their class is having a holiday party today.”
” ‘Holiday,’ ” muttered Margaret. “Whatever happened to Christmas?”
“I can help you,” I told Seth. “Well . . . that is, after I take care of a couple of things.”
“I can make them.” Margaret was already going through the cupboards, seeking ingredients. “I’ve been making cupcakes before any of you were born.”
Seth and I exchanged glances at that.
“Actually,” he said, “I can make them on my own. What would help the most, Mom, is if you could go to Kayla’s school today. She’s got a half day, and Andrea will need babysitting.” He nodded at me. “You work tonight, right? Come help me with the twins. I know they can use more volunteers. Elf costume optional. And you . . .” He turned to Ian and trailed off, at a loss for how Ian could actually be helpful.
Ian straightened up importantly. “I’ll go find an organic bakery and pick up some stuff for the kids who want to eat baked goods that are made with free-range ingredients and don’t contain animal products.”
“What, like free-range flour?” I asked incredulously.
“Ian, they’re seven,” said Seth.
“What’s your point?” asked Ian. “This is my way of helping out.”
Seth sighed. “Fine. Go for it.”
“Cool,” said Ian. He paused eloquently. “Can I borrow some money?”
Margaret soon insisted that Seth have breakfast before attempting anything else, and I took advantage of his becoming the center of attention. I quickly put on casual clothes and made a polite exit, thanking her for breakfast and telling him that I would meet up with him at the twins’ school for cupcake distribution. As soon as I’d cleared the condo, I began dialing the phone again.
Unsurprisingly, I got Jerome’s voice mail. I left him a message and made no attempt to hide my urgency . . . or irritation. That kind of attitude wasn’t going to endear me to him, but I was too pissed off to care. This transfer was a big deal. If there was any chance of its legitimacy, he really should have given me a greater heads-up.
Back at my place, my cats Aubrey and Godiva were happy to see me. Actually, I think they were just happy to see anyone who could feed them. They were lying in front of Roman’s closed bedroom door when I walked in and immediately jumped up. They pranced over to me, snaking around my ankles and bombarding me with piteous meows until I refilled their food dishes. After that, I was old news.
I toyed with the idea of waking up Roman. I really, really wanted to talk out this transfer news with someone, and Seth hadn’t been an option this morning. Roman, unfortunately, shared his father’s “fondness” for mornings, and I wasn’t entirely sure I’d have the most productive conversation if I woke him against his will. So, instead, I took my time showering and getting ready for the day, hoping that Roman would get up on his own. No such luck. When ten rolled around, I left another voice mail message for Jerome and finally gave up on Roman. A new idea had hit me, and I went to go check it out first, setting the mental condition that if Roman wasn’t up when I returned, I’d wake him then.
The Cellar was a favorite bar for immortals, especially Jerome and Carter. It was an old dive of a place down in historic Pioneer Square. The bar didn’t generally do a lot of business this time of day, but angels and demons were hardly the types to care about propriety. Jerome might not be answering his phone, but there was a very good chance he was out and about for a morning drink.
And, as I came down the steps that led into the establishment, I did indeed feel the wash of a greater immortal signature over me. Only, it wasn’t Jerome’s. It wasn’t even demonic. Carter was sitting alone at the bar, nursing a glass of whiskey while the bartender punched in 1970s songs on the jukebox. Carter would’ve sensed me too, so there was no point in trying to sneak off. I sat on a stool beside him.
“Daughter of Lilith,” he said, waving the bartender back. “Didn’t expect to see you out and about so early.”
“I’ve had kind of a weird morning,” I told him. “Coffee, please.” The bartender nodded and poured me a mug from a pot that had probably been sitting there since yesterday. I grimaced, recalling the espresso shops I’d passed on the way here. Of course, Ian would probably love this stuff for its “authenticity.”
“Do you have any idea where Jerome’s at?” I asked, once Carter and I were in relative privacy again.
“Probably in bed.” Carter’s gray gaze was focused on the glass as he spoke, carefully studying the play of light off of the amber liquid.
“I don’t suppose you’d take me there?” I asked. Carter had teleported me once before in a crisis, but otherwise, I had no clue where my boss hung his boots.
Carter gave me a small smile. “I may be immortal, but there are still some things I fear. Showing up at Jerome’s this early in the morning with you in tow is one of them. What’s so important? Did you come up with a name for the bowling team?”
I held out the memo I’d received. Even before he looked at it closely, Carter’s smile fell. I didn’t doubt that the paper had some type of Hellish residue that my senses couldn’t pick up. When he didn’t take the note, I simply set it down in front of him to read.
“A transfer, huh?” His tone was odd, almost like he wasn’t surprised.
“Allegedly. But I have to assume there’s some kind of mistake. Jerome is supposed to meet with me first, you know? And you saw him last night. There was no indication that anything weird was going. Well. Weirder than usual.” I tapped the paper angrily. “Someone in HR messed up and sent this on accident.”
“You think so?” asked Carter sadly.
“Well, I certainly don’t think Hell’s infallible. And I don’t see any reason why I would be transferred.” Carter didn’t answer, and I studied him carefully. “Why? Do you know of some reason?”
Carter still didn’t reply right away and instead downed his drink. “I know Hell well enough to know they don’t need a reason.”
A strange feeling settled over me. “But you do know of one, don’t you? You aren’t that shocked by this.”
“Hell doesn’t really surprise me anymore either.”
“Damn it, Carter!” I exclaimed. “You’re not answering my questions. You’re doing that stupid half-truth thing angels do.”
“We can’t lie, Georgina. But we can’t always tell you everything either. There are rules in the universe that even we can’t break. Can I have another?” he called to the bartender. “A double this time.”
The bartender strolled over, arching an eyebrow at Carter’s request. “Kind of early for that, don’t you think?”
“It’s turning into one of those days,” said Carter.
The bartender nodded sagely and liberally refilled the glass before leaving us alone again.
“Carter,” I hissed. “What do you know? Is this transfer real? Do you know why I got it?”
Carter pretended to be intrigued by the light sparkling on his whiskey again. But when he suddenly turned the full force of his gaze on me, I gasped. It was this thing he did sometimes, like he was peering into my soul. Only, there was more to it this time. It was as though for a brief moment, his eyes held all the sadness in the world.
“I don’t know if it was a mistake,” he said. “Maybe it is. Your people certainly get their wires crossed often enough. If it’s legitimate . . . if it is, then no, I’m not surprised. I can think of a million reasons, some better than others, for why they would want to move you out of Seattle. None of which I can tell you,” he added sharply, seeing me start to interrogate him. “Like I said, there are rules to this game, and I have to obey them.”
“It’s not a game!” I exclaimed. “It’s my life.”
A rueful smile played over the angel’s lips. “Same difference, as far as Hell’s concerned.”
Within me, I began to feel an echo of that terrible sadness I’d briefly seen in his eyes. “What do I do?” I asked quietly.
That seemed to catch Carter off guard. I demanded answers from him all the time, clues to figuring out the many puzzles that seemed to follow me around. I was pretty sure, however, that this was the first time I’d simply asked for such open-ended life advice.
“Let me guess,” I said, seeing him gape. “You can’t tell me.”
His expression softened. “Not in specifics, no. First, you need to find out if this was an error. If it was, then that’ll make everyone’s life easier.”
“I need Jerome for that,” I said. “Maybe Hugh or Mei would know.”
“Maybe,” said Carter, though it didn’t sound like he believed it. “Eventually, Jerome will pick up his phone. Then you’ll know.”
“And if it is real?” I asked. “Then what?”
“Then, you may have to start packing.”
“That’s it? That’s all I can do?” Even as I said the words, I knew they were true. You couldn’t refuse something like this. I’d had dozens of transfers to prove it.
“Yes,” said Carter. “We both know you don’t have a choice there. The question is, how are you going to let this affect your future?”
I frowned, starting to get lost in angel logic. “What do you mean?”
He hesitated, as though reconsidering what he was about to say. At last, he rushed forward with it, leaning close to me. “Here’s what I can tell you. If this is real, then there’s a reason for it, absolutely. Not some random re-org. And if there’s a reason, it’s because you’ve been doing something Hell doesn’t want you to do. So, the question becomes, Georgina, are you going to keep doing whatever it is they don’t want you to do?”