The phone jolted me to consciousness the next morning. Dim, murky light filtered in through my sheer curtains, signifying some freakishly early hour. Around here, however, that amount of light could have indicated anything from sunrise to high noon. After four rings, I finally deigned to answer, accidentally knocking Aubrey out of the bed. She landed with an indignant mhew and stalked off to clean herself.
"No." My response came swift and certain. "I'm not coming in.”
"You don't even know I'm going to ask that.”
"Of course I know. There's no other reason you'd be calling me this early, and I'm not going to do it. It's my day off, Doug.”
Doug, the other assistant manager at my day job, was a pretty nice guy, but he couldn't keep a poker face—or voice— to save his life. His cool demeanor immediately gave way to desperation. "Everyone called in sick today, and now we're strapped. You have to do it.”
"Well, I'm sick too. Believe me, you don't want me there.”
Okay, I wasn't exactly sick, but I was still sporting a residual afterglow from being with Martin. Mortals would not "see" it as Duane had per se, but they would sense it and be drawn to it—men and women alike—without even knowing why. My confinement today would prevent any foolish, lovesick behavior. It was very kind of me, really.
"Liar. You're never sick.”
"Doug, I was already planning on coming back tonight for the signing. If I work a shift today too, I'll be there all day. That's sick and twisted.”
"Welcome to my world, babe. We have no alternative, not if you really care about the fate of the store, not if you truly care about our customers and their happiness ...”
"You're losing me, cowboy.”
"So," he continued, "the question is, are you going to come here willingly, or do I have to walk over there and drag you out of bed myself? Frankly, I wouldn't mind the latter.”
I did a mental eye roll, chiding myself for the billionth time about living two blocks from work. His rambling about the bookstore's suffering had been effective, as he'd known it would. I operated under the mistaken belief that the place couldn't survive without me.
"Well, rather than risk any more of your attempts at witty, sexual banter, I suppose I'll have to come over there. But Doug ..." My voice turned hard.
"Don't put me on the registers or anything.”
I heard hesitation on his end.
"Doug? I'm serious. Not the main registers. I don't want to be around a lot of customers.”
"All right," he said at last. "Not the main registers.”
A half hour later, I stepped outside my door to walk the two blocks to the bookstore. Long clouds hung low, darkening the sky, and a faint chill touched the air, forcing some of my fellow pedestrians to don a coat. I had opted for none, finding my khaki slacks and brown chenille sweater more than sufficient. The clothing, just like the lip gloss and eyeliner I'd carefully applied this morning, were real; I had not shape-shifted into them. I enjoyed the routine nature of applying cosmetics and matching articles of clothing, though Hugh would have claimed I was just being weird again.
Emerald City Books & Café was a sprawling establishment, occupying almost a full block in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood. It sat two stories high, with the café portion dominating a second-floor corner viewing the Space Needle. A cheerful green awning hung over the main door, protecting those customers waiting for the store to open. I walked around them and entered through a side door, using my staff key.
Doug assaulted me before I'd taken two steps inside. "It's about time. We ..." He paused and did a double-take, reexamining me. "Wow. You look . . . really nice today. Did you do something different?”
Only a thirty-four-year-old virgin, I thought.
"You're just imagining things because you're so happy I'm here to fix your staffing problem. What am I doing? Stock?”
"I, er, no." Doug struggled to snap out of his haze, still looking me up and down in a way I found disconcerting. His interest in dating me was no secret, nor was my continual rejection. "Come on, I'll show you.”
"I told you—”
"It's not the main registers," he promised me.
What "it" turned out to be was the espresso counter in our upstairs café. Bookstore staff hardly ever subbed up here, but it wasn't unheard of.
Bruce, the café manager, popped up from where he'd been kneeling behind the counter. I often thought Doug and Bruce could be twins in a mixed-race, alternate-reality sort of way. Both had long, scraggly ponytails, and both wore a good deal of flannel in tribute to the grunge era neither had fully recovered from. They differed mainly in their coloring. Doug was Japanese-American, black-haired with flawless skin; Bruce was Mr. Aryan Nation, all blond hair and blue eyes.
"Hey Doug, Georgina," heralded Bruce. His eyes widened at me. "Whoa, you look great today.”
"Doug! This is just as bad. I told you I didn't want any customers.”
"You told me not the main registers. You didn't say anything about this one.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Bruce interrupted. "Come on, Georgina, I had Alex call in sick today, and Cindy actually quit." Seeing my stony expression, he quickly added, "Our registers are almost identical to yours. It'll be easy.”
"Besides"—Doug raised his voice to a fair imitation of our manager's—" 'assistant managers are supposed to be able to fill in for anybody around here.' “
"Yeah, but the café—”
"—is still part of the store. Look, I've got to go open. Bruce'll show you what you need to know. Don't worry, it'll be fine." He hastily darted off before I could refuse again.
"Coward!" I yelled after him.
"It really won't be that bad," Bruce reiterated, not understanding my dismay. "You just take the money, and I'll make the espresso. Let's practice on you. You want a white chocolate mocha?”
"Yeah," I conceded. Everyone I worked with knew about that particular vice. I usually managed to take down three of them a day. Mochas that was, not coworkers.
Bruce walked me through the necessary steps, showing me how to mark up the cups and find what I needed to push on the register's touch-screen interface. He was right. It wasn't so bad.
"You're a natural," he assured me later, handing over my mocha.
I grunted in response and consumed my caffeine, thinking I could handle anything so long as the mochas kept coming.
Besides, this really couldn't be as bad as the main registers. The café probably did no business this time of day.
I was wrong. Minutes after opening, we had a line of five people.
"Large latte," I repeated back to my first customer, carefully punching in the information.
"Already got it," Bruce told me, starting the beverage before I even had a chance to label the cup. I happily took the woman's money and moved on to my next order.
"A large skinny mocha.”
"Skinny's just another word for nonfat, Georgina.”
I scrawled NF on the cup. No worries. We could do this.
The next customer wandered up and stared at me, momentarily bedazzled. Coming to her senses, she shook her head and blurted out a torrent of orders.
"I need one small drip coffee, one large nonfat vanilla latte, one small double cappuccino, and one large decaf latte.”
Now I felt bedazzled. How had she remembered all those? And honestly, who ordered drip anymore?
On and on the morning went, and despite my misgivings, I soon felt myself perking up and enjoying the experience. I couldn't help it. It was how I worked, how I carried myself through life. I liked trying new things—even something as banal as ringing up espresso. People could be silly, certainly, but I enjoyed working with the public most of the time. It was how I had ended up in customer service.
And once I overcame my sleepiness, my inborn succubus charisma kicked in. I became the star of my own personal stage show, bantering and flirting with ease. When combined with the Martin-induced glamour, I became downright irresistible. While this did result in a number of proffered dates and pickup lines, it also saved me from the repercussions of any mistakes. My customers found no wrong with me.
"That's all right, dear," one older woman assured me upon discovering I'd accidentally ordered her a large cinnamon mocha instead of a nonfat, decaf latte. "I really need to branch out into new drinks anyway.”
I smiled back winningly, hoping she wasn't diabetic.
Later on, a guy came up carrying a copy of Seth Mortensen's The Glasgow Pact. It was the first sign I'd seen of tonight's momentous event.
"Are you going to the signing?" I asked as I rang up his tea. Bleh. Caffeine-free.
He studied me for a pregnant moment, and I braced myself for a pass.
Instead the guy said mildly, "Yeah, I'll be there.”
"Well, make sure you think up good questions for him. Don't ask the same ones everyone else does.”
"What do you mean?”
"Oh, you know, the usual. 'Where do you get your ideas from?' and 'Are Cady and O'Neill ever going to get together?' “
The guy considered this as I made change. He was cute, in a disheveled sort of way. He had brown hair with a reddish-gold gleam to it, said gleam being more noticeable in the shadow of facial hair crossing his lower face. I couldn't quite decide if he'd intentionally grown a beard or just forgotten to shave. Whatever it was, it had grown in more or less evenly and, when combined with the Pink Floyd T-shirt he wore, presented the image of a sort of hippie-lumberjack.
"I don't think the 'usual questions' make them any less meaningful to the one doing the asking," he decided at last, seeming shy about contradicting me. "To a fan, each question is new and unique.”
He stepped aside so I could wait on another customer. I continued the conversation as I took the next order, unwilling to pass up the opportunity to discuss Seth Mortensen intelligently.
"Forget the fans. What about poor Seth Mortensen? He probably wants to impale himself each time he gets one of those.”
" 'Impale' is kind of a strong word, don't you think?”
"Absolutely not. The guy's brilliant. Hearing idiotic questions must bore him to tears.”
A bemused smile played across the man's mouth, and his steady brown eyes weighed me carefully. When he realized he was staring so openly, he glanced away, embarrassed. "No. If he's out touring, he cares about his fans. He doesn't mind the repetitive questions.”
"He's not out touring for altruism. He's out touring because the publicists at his publishing house are making him tour," I countered. "Which is also a waste of time, by the way.”
He dared a look back at me. "Touring is? You don't want to meet him?”
"I—well, yes, of course I do. It's just, that. . . okay. Look, don't get me wrong. I worship the ground this guy walks on. I'm excited to meet him tonight. I'm dying to meet him tonight. If he wanted to carry me off and make me his love slave, I'd do it, so long as I got advance copies of his books. But this touring thing... it takes time. Time that would be better spent writing the next book. I mean, haven't you seen how long his books take to come out?”
"Yeah. I've noticed.”
Just then, a previous customer returned, complaining he'd gotten caramel syrup instead of caramel sauce. Whatever that meant. I offered a few smiles and sweet apologies, and he soon didn't care about the caramel sauce or anything else. By the time he left my register, the Mortensen fan guy was gone too.
When I finally finished my shift around five, Doug came to meet me.
"I heard some interesting things about your performance up here.”
"I hear interesting things about your 'performance' all the time, Doug, but you don't hear me making jokes about it.”
He bandied with me a bit more and finally released me to get ready for the signing, but not before I'd made him humbly acknowledge how much he owed me for my kindness today. Between him and Hugh, I was accruing favors all over the place.
I practically ran the two blocks home, anxious to grab some dinner and figure out what I wanted to wear. My exhilaration was growing. In an hour or so, I'd be meeting my all-time favorite author. Could life get any better? Humming to myself, I took the stairs two at a time and produced my keys with a flourish that only I noticed or appreciated.
As I opened the door, a hand suddenly grabbed me and pulled me roughly inside, into the darkness of my apartment. I yelped in surprise and fear as I was shoved up against the door, slamming it shut. The lights burst on suddenly and unexpectedly, and the faint smell of sulfur wafted through the air. Although the brightness made me wince, I could see well enough to recognize what was going on.
Hell hath no fury like a pissed-off demon.