Demons are scary.
No matter what religion or walk of life you come from, this remains pretty constant. Oh sure, they have their absurd moments - especially in the circles I run with - but all in all, people have good reason to fear and avoid hell's diabolical servants. They're cruel and merciless, delight in pain and suffering, and torture souls in their free time. They lie. They steal. They cheat on their taxes.
Yet, in spite of all that, I couldn't help but think I was about to witness the most terrifying demonic act yet.
An awards ceremony. For me.
Horatio, vice demon of such-and-such division of Infernal Affairs, stood before me, trying to impart an air of solemnity to the moment and failing miserably. I suspected his sky blue polyester suit and matching paisley bow tie were largely to blame. The sideburns didn't help either. He probably hadn't left the inner circles of hell in about six centuries, back around the last time sky blue polyester was in style.
With a too-long clearing of his throat, he glanced back and forth between those gathered, verifying we were all paying attention. My supervisor Jerome stood nearby, looking utterly bored, occasionally glancing at his watch. Beside him, Horatio's impish assistant Kasper grinned from ear to ear. A briefcase sat on the floor near him, and he clutched an assortment of papers. The eager, suck-up, lapdog look on his face indicated a burning desire for promotion.
As for me...well, I was fighting a hard battle to look excited too - and failing. Which was unacceptable, of course. I'm a succubus. My entire existence relies on making people - men in particular - believe and see what they want to in me. I can switch from simpering virgin to sultry dominatrix in a heartbeat. All it takes is a bit of shape-shifting and a dash of playacting. I'd picked up the former ability when I traded away my human soul; I'd acquired the latter over time. After all, you can't spend centuries telling every guy, "Yeah baby, you were the best I've ever had" and not learn a little something about schmoozing. Myths may paint us as ethereal, demonic creatures of pleasure, but honestly, being a succubus just comes down to a convincing poker face and a good sales pitch.
So, really, this awards thing shouldn't have been a problem for me. But Horatio wasn't making it easy to keep a straight face.
"Verily, it gives me great honor to be here today," he intoned in a nasal, baritone voice.
"Hard work is what makes us great, and we gather here now to recognize one who has. shown dedication and given her all to the Greater Evil. Such individuals are what make us strong, what will allow us to win in this immense battle when all tallies are counted at the end of time. Such individuals are worthy of our esteem, and we strive to reward their commitment, letting all know just how important it is to push hard against the odds and fight for our objectives in these difficult times. "
He then added: "Whereas those who do not work hard are cast into the fiery pits of despair, to burn for all eternity and be ripped asunder by the hounds of hell."
I opened my mouth, on the verge of noting how that would be more cost effective than severance pay, but Jerome caught my eye and shook his head.
Meanwhile, Horatio had nudged Kasper, and the imp hastily handed over a gold embossed certificate. "It is therefore with great pleasure that I present unto you this Award of Achievement for Excellently Exceeding and Surpassing Requisite Succubus Quotas in this Most Recent Quarter. Congratulations."
Horatio shook my hand and handed me the certificate, which had been signed by about fifty different people.
This Certifies that:
LETHA (alias Georgina Kincaid), Succubus in the Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington, United States of America, North America, Earth, has hereby Excellently Exceeded and Surpassed Requisite Succubus Quotas in this Most Recent Quarter, demonstrating outstanding performance in seduction, damnation, and corruption of human souls.
Everyone looked at me when I finished reading, so I supposed they expected some kind of speech or something. Mostly I was wondering if I'd get in trouble for trimming this down to fit an eight-by-ten frame.
"Urn, thanks. This is...cool."
That seemed to satisfy Horatio. He nodded smartly, then shot a glance to Jerome.
"You must be so proud."
"Exceptionally," murmured the archdemon, stifling a yawn.
Horatio turned back to me. "Keep up the good work. You might find yourself in line for promotion to the corporate level."
As if giving my soul away wasn't already bad enough. I forced a smile.
"Well. There's still so much to do here."
"Excellent attitude. Most excellent. You've done well with her." He gave Jerome a chummy pat on the back, something my boss did not look happy about at all. He didn't really like friendly pats. Or being touched, period. "Well, if there's nothing more, I should probably - oh, I nearly forgot."
Horatio turned to Kasper. The imp handed over something else to his master.
"These are for you. As a token of our appreciation."
He gave me a gift card for Applebee's, as well as some Blockbuster free-rental coupons. Jerome and I both stared for a moment, dumbstruck.
"Wow," I finally said. The runner-up for this award probably got a gift card for Sizzler. Never doubt that second place really is the first loser.
Horatio and Kasper vanished. Jerome and I stood in silence for a few moments.
"You like riblets, Jerome?"
"Droll, very droll,Georgie." He strolled around my living room, pretending to study my books and artwork. "Nice job with the quota thing. Of course, it's easy to excel when you're starting at zero, huh?"
I shrugged and tossed the certificate on my kitchen counter. "Does it really matter? Still gets you the laurels. I figured you'd like that."
"Of course I do. In fact, I've been rather pleasantly surprised at just how well you've kept your promise."
"I always keep my promises."
"Not all of your promises."
My silence made him smile. "So what now? Going out to celebrate?"
"You know where I'm going. I'm going to Peter's. Aren't you?"
He avoided the question; demons excelled at that. "I thought perhaps other plans had arisen. Plans with a certain mortal. You do seem to be doing that an awful lot lately. "
"It's none of your business what I do."
"All of your business is my business."
Again, I didn't answer. The demon stepped closer, dark eyes boring into me. For inexplicable reasons, he chose to look like John Cusack while walking the human world. That might seem like it would reduce his power to intimidate, but I swear, it only made things worse.
"How long are you going to keep up this farce, Georgie?" His words were a challenge, trying to draw me out. "You can't honestly think you have a future with him. Or that you two can stay chaste forever. For Christ's sake, even if you can keep your hands off him, no human male's going to stay celibate for long. Especially one with a large fan base."
"Did you miss the part where I said it's my business?"
Heat rose to my cheeks. Despite knowing better, I'd recently gotten myself involved with a human. I wasn't even entirely sure how it had happened since I've always gone out of my way to avoid that kind of thing. I guess you could say he sort of snuck up on me. One moment he was simply a warm and comforting presence at my side; the next I realized how intensely he loved me. That love had blindsided me. I hadn't been able to resist it and had decided to see where it might take me.
As a result, Jerome never failed to remind me of the potential disaster I courted daily in this romance. His opinion wasn't entirely unfounded. A small part of this was because I didn't have a good track record with serious relationships. The larger part was that doing much more than hand-holding with a human would inevitably lead to me sucking away some of his life. But hey, all couples have their stumbling blocks, right?
The demon smoothed down the jacket of his perfectly tailored black suit. "Just friendly advice. It makes no difference. I don't mind if you keep playing house with him - denying him a future, a family, a healthy sex life. Whatever. So long as you keep up the good work, it's all the same to me."
"Are you done with the pep talk? I'm late."
"One more thing. I thought you might like to know I just made some arrangements for a pleasant surprise. One you'll like."
"What kind of surprise?" Jerome didn't really do surprises. Not good ones, at least.