It sounded like a good idea at the time, which is probably going to be on my tombstone--along with a catty footnote about poor impulse control. But when Horace Bishop called me, practically breathless with delight and greed, telling me he was in Portland so we should get together and have a drink or something, I said okay, even though I probably should've said "I'd sooner wear plaid."
I don't wear plaid. Ever.
I don't wear orange, either--not that there's anything inherently wrong with it. Really, it's more of a coloring thing. I'm a solid winter--blue-black hair and so fair I'm practically translucent; it comes with being undead. Orange always makes me look like I'm having liver problems, so I skip it--just like deep down I suspected I ought to skip that date with Horace, but what was I going to do? He already knew where I lived (roughly), and he already knew my price scale (more or less), and he was practically my agent. Or my pimp.
Anyway, Horace was vibrating--talking so fast I could hardly understand him. And what was he doing on the West Coast? He promised to tell me in person, and since he was flying back to New York from the Seattle-Tacoma airport, it wasn't terribly far out of his way to bounce into town for a conspiratorial adult beverage.
I waited for him at a bar on Capitol Hill. I don't live in that neighborhood anymore, but that's the point. He knows I live in Seattle, but the less specific his knowledge is, the happier I am. The truth is, I kind of trust him. I mean, if I were wounded and bloody and practically dying in New York City and I had no place else to go, I could probably fling myself onto his couch and generally assume that he wouldn't stake me in my sleep. After all, I've earned him a metric assload of money over the years. And money has to mean something, doesn't it?
Yes, I totally laughed a little, just now.
I know good and well he might sell me out for the next best offer that presented itself, but I'd like to think he'd hesitate. Just for a second or two, if for no other reason than the fact that I'm very, very good at my job--and that I'm excessively vindictive. Even if he could reliably replace me, he couldn't assume I wouldn't track him down later and peel his toenails off.
Maybe I'd better give you some context for this contentious relationship, before you start thinking I'm completely unhinged for hanging out with this asshole.
Horace is a director of acquisitions for a prominent NYC auction house that will go unnamed here, for the sake of discretion. Basically, it's his job to scout for expensive objects for museums, private collectors, and other assorted people and institutions with more money than common sense. He deals in everything from paintings to gemstones, archaeological finds to vintage paperwork. And sometimes, his clients want a piece that is not, shall we say, strictly for sale. But for the right price, Horace will find it anyway, and he'll acquire it, and he'll pass it along. Usually, this process requires me--somewhere right in the middle, doing all the dirty work and collecting a hefty finder's fee.
So you can see where I get off calling him my agent. Or pimp.
I'm a thief, though I shine it up with an assortment of euphemisms. I'm in antiquities acquisitions. I'm a collection consultant. I'm in the security analysis business. But the bottom line is that I freelance, and if you have to ask how much I charge, you can't afford me.
Horace can afford me, and he pays up front in cash--or after the job, depending on the circumstances. He's one of the only people on earth who gets away with paying me on delivery. We've built up some trust on that front, at least. It's a sacred deal between us: I always produce, and he always pays. We have yet to let each other down, and I know of few married couples who could say the same. So you see, it's not like we hate each other. It's like . . . our love is very specific. And limited. And confrontational.
Even so, I'll confess to feeling a tiny thrill of novelty at the prospect of setting eyes on him again. It'd been several years since we'd been in the same room, due to nothing more enormous than the physical distance between us--though it also serves to keep both of our asses covered from a plausible deniability standpoint. If something ever happens and he's caught, or (God forbid) I'm caught, there's virtually no physical evidence to tie us to one another.
This imparted a slightly illicit feel to the meeting.
And anyway, hell. He'd be more normal company than I'd been enjoying for the previous few months. If you're familiar with my previous adventure, then you already know some of my story. But in case you aren't, here are the CliffsNotes.
One: I'm a vampire. In the words of the immortal Bauhaus (you see what I did there?) "Undead undead undead." I don't turn into anything cool (or anything uncool either, for that matter), I don't fly, and I don't have a funny accent. I do drink blood, move really fast, look really pale, and have permanently dilated pupils--which makes me look a little like one of those creepy paintings of big-eyed kids from the seventies.
Two: I'm often mistaken for a man. Not because I'm particularly dude-like, but because international intelligence officials find it difficult to believe that a thief as accomplished and sneaky as yours truly could possibly be a woman. Far be it from me to remove any heads from asses on this point.
Three: I live in downtown Seattle, in the old quarter called Pioneer Square. Which is a fancy way of saying I live in the decrepit industrial ghetto, except that's not really fair. It's the kind of place where you can go a couple of blocks in any direction and land in a different neighborhood entirely--a tourist district waning out near Elliott Bay, the old merchant and fishing district on the port end of the coastline, or of course the blocks of decaying warehouses and factories that haven't seen any action since the Depression.
Four: I used to have a warehouse in this same quarter where I stashed all my orphaned goodies, collected over the years. It got raided by the feds. So I abandoned it and bought another one, about six blocks away because I'm a creature of habit. This new base of operations is much nicer than the old one; I renovated it from top to bottom before giving up on my condo (which was also raided--long story, see previous adventure) and moving into one of the top-floor lofts.
Five: The other two top-floor lofts are occupied by other people. On one corner I have Pepper and Domino, last name unimportant since I don't think they've ever told me what it is. Domino is a fourteen-year-old jackass who drives me up a goddamn wall, but his little sister Pepper is about eight years old and as cute as a bunny in a sweater. They're sort of my pet people. This is to say, they squatted at my other warehouse so long, I eventually figured out that I'd inadvertently adopted them. At the other corner of the floor lives Ian Stott, who serves as a buffer between me and the kids. He's a vampire, too, and he's blind. He's also preposterously good looking, and we have a very awkward but not entirely unpleasant relationship. We're friends who make out every now and again. And now he lives with me.
I didn't plan this family-style arrangement. I didn't even want it, but things just happened this way and then I didn't know what to do, so I ran with it. I fear change. But it turns out that I'm not quite as good at saying no as I've always considered myself to be.
Besides, Ian used to have a ghoul who helped him find his way around--I jokingly referred to him as the "Seeing Eye ghoul"--but then he got killed, and it wasn't really my fault but I still felt responsible. Despite being blind, Ian's a total badass in his own right, as I learned the scary way. But he still needs help buying clothes, writing checks, and locating stuff.
Sometimes I pawn him off on Domino and Pepper. Domino doesn't much mind it--and Christ knows the little shithead needs to learn some responsibility before it's too damn late--but Pepper took to it like a duck to water. She loves feeling useful, and she loves helping Ian go through his clothes, sort his socks, and learn his way along the stinking, damp alleyways that make up most of our neighborhood map.
Then, of course, there's the fabulous number six thing you ought to know about: The only other member of my circle is either a first-rate ex-Navy SEAL named Adrian deJesus or a divine drag queen called Sister Rose, depending on the wardrobe and the wig.
Oh yeah. Thing number seven: I digress. A lot.
So those are the only people I see on a regular basis, and they are fairly new additions to my life, so I'm still getting used to all the socializing.
Horace Bishop, on the other hand, I've known for over a decade.
And believe it or not, he's more ordinary than all those yahoos I just listed above. I think. But like I already confessed, it's been a while since we've had a chance to sit down for a face-to-face.
I checked my watch.
He wasn't late, but also wasn't as early as I would've preferred. This is unfair, I realize. Just because I'm a crazy person who has to be twenty minutes early for everything doesn't mean other people must live by the same standard. But knowing this didn't stop me from glancing down at my watch again, then reaching for my cell phone to make sure that my watch wasn't wrong, because sometimes it is, okay?
But the watch wasn't wrong. Not according to my phone.
The bar was starting to fill up with the usual Cap Hill mix of gays in couples and strays, twenty-something hipsters, and homeless people who hadn't yet been pegged as such and asked to leave. When the lone waitress gave me a look that told me to place an order or get out, I asked for a cup of water I wasn't going to drink and a glass of red wine that I planned to down.
I didn't like the pressing nearness of all the people, and if I'd had any idea the joint would be so very hopping, I would've certainly picked someplace else--even though I'd originally chosen it precisely because I suspected Horace would hate it. Call me antagonistic, but his natural habitat is more "minimalist, with a splash of snobbery" than "Pacific Northwest logger wannabes and their strung-out beards." By "beards," of course, I mean their fake girlfriends. And also their Castro fanboy face-lawns.
But given my druthers (and what precisely does that mean, anyway? I've always wondered) I would've liked something equally lowbrow and gauche, but less densely populated.
Too late to change my mind.
And just when I was thinking the little scumbag was going to be late, purely to torture me--as if I ever did anything to him--the door opened with a digital chime that almost no one else heard over the shouted orders for beer or fruity drinks and the busker somebody'd ill-advisedly brought indoors and given a microphone.
I heard the chime. I craned my neck to look around the ass of the single serving girl, and there he was. All five-foot-six of him, impeccably dressed in a pin-striped Brooks Brothers suit and a pink tie, because yes, he is that secure in his masculinity.
For a long time I thought he was gay. Then gradually, over the years, I realized that he's not attracted to anything on earth except money. And maybe himself.
He saw me and his freshly threaded eyebrows lifted in a chola arch of . . . something. It wasn't surprise, obviously. And it probably wasn't delight, though it might've been amusement, or maybe curiosity. I haven't changed any since last he saw me. For that matter, I haven't changed since 1921.
The waitress slapped a glass of wine on a cocktail napkin directly under my chin, then vanished. I picked it up and lifted it in a half-assed toast in Horace's direction. He gave a weird half bow and a wave back, then grimaced as he realized the crowd he was going to have to wade through in order to join me. He immediately assumed the position of a tightrope walker shimmying above a pit of alligators and began to squeeze his way across the room, doing everything short of removing a hankie from a pocket to cover his mouth and nose--mostly, I suspect, because he didn't have a hankie.
With a laser frown and a flip of his double-jointed wrist, he whipped out the unoccupied chair across from me and said, "Honestly?" as if I'd just told him I'd bought a pair of pasties and planned to take up table dancing.
I smiled at him despite myself and said, "I swear to God, if I'd known about the busker, I would've picked someplace else." Which was perfectly true. I'm petty, but I have my limits.
"So you say," he accused, snapping his fingers and--like magic--summoning the waitress, whom I probably couldn't have flagged down again with a boomerang. He put in an order for a Manhattan, neat, and took a deep breath . . . then appeared to think better of it. He exhaled swiftly and, with a shake that might've been a shudder, he said, "Ray-baby!"
"Don't call me that," I told him, but not with any weight behind it. I don't really mind, usually. I especially don't mind when I can barely hear it. The busker was leaning on the lyrics of "Yellow" like each word was a hook he was pulling out of his eye. "And it's good to see you, you irascible bastard."
"Back at you, princess," he said with a grin, which squinched at the busker's manhandling of the chorus. "But really. Here?"
I shrugged, like this was no big deal. "Well, you said you wanted to talk business, and it really doesn't get much more private than a dump like this, now does it?"
Excerpted from Hellbent by Cherie Priest. Copyright © 2011 by Cherie Priest. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.