IT WAS broad daylight when I walked into club Zee, but as soon as I got inside, darkness embraced me.
It was rehearsal time for many of the dancers, and the bar was open. During the day you could go in, have your drinks, and watch some rehearsals—all without an entrance fee. Dancers didn’t wear their flamboyant outfits for rehearsal, though since some of them wore considerably less clothing, one might say it was an even better sight. The single- and two-dancer-wide mini stages sprinkled all through the tall and semidark room were black, and so were the floors. Laser lights glided down the dancers’ bodies at night. During rehearsal they had modest colorful lights moving about now and then. There was something more playful than sensual about the mood during the day, and I liked that better.
I also rarely had the time to stop by during the night, considering my “working hours” as a dreamcatcher. Hunting spaga—our enemies—was a nighttime job, since they attacked people in their sleep to steal away their life force and induce nightmares in the process. Our fierce spirit guide Asibikaashi—the Spider Woman and Spirit Mother we lovingly called Aashi for short—asked we be ready to go out on mission from about ten in the evening to close to sunup. Having a curfew after more than six decades of service might have seemed embarrassing, but since I was a long-lived man that looked barely a day older than forty, I kept my ego in check. Some embarrassments you got used to. Like living with my teammates: Claw, our team leader and the oldest dreamcatcher I knew personally; Drew, the annoying one of our two new team members and the muscle of our team; and Drew’s mate and strangely all-around nice guy, Angelo. We were Team 32, operating in the Queen Anne area of Seattle. Regular people couldn’t know about us, or it would make them likelier targets for the spaga. Hanging around people made them likelier targets too. It was best for everyone for us to keep as much distance as we could. But visiting club Zee was a habit I couldn’t shake. In my mind, I made up for it by casting spider magic–fueled protections on the club and people here. As I knew pretty well after all my years of dreamcatcher service, there was no such thing as a perfect shield or protection against the spaga. The reason they chose sleepers as targets was that they were more vulnerable then, but there was no such thing as impenetrable security regardless of circumstances.
Club Zee was pretty popular during the day, and more so at night. Though at night there was pulsing, throbbing, bang-your-brains-out music, during the day the DJ played a different kind of tune. The soft notes of a rock ballad poured out from the speakers, giving the dancers who were practicing a sort of languorousness to their movements. The slower pace made every muscle of their bodies stand out as they moved.
My gaze sought him out before I could stop it. He was never hard to spot. His russet hair, coupled with the soft glow of the spotlight aimed at him, made the sweat on his body look like honey dripping down the corded sinew. For some inexplicable reason, he whipped his head around as if my stare had poked him in the ribs. His gaze shot to mine over the floor, locating me with laser-like precision despite the light and dark effects in the club. I could see the corner of his lips tilting up slowly. It was a lazy, provocative grin that spoke of satisfaction at the attention I couldn’t stop giving him each time I stopped by. He tilted his chin ever so slightly upward and moved his hips with the kind of smoothness that only a serpent should possess. No creature with bones in their body should be able to wiggle like that. This guy would be the death of me, I was pretty sure.
It took a considerable conscious effort to look at anything but him. A fan of self-discipline, I put in that effort and looked away.
I could sense Ginger’s gaze following me as I moved across the floor. I felt it like sticky, warm fingers constantly rubbing over my skin. No matter how long he’d practice from this point on, I knew his gaze would be aimed at me. His focus was a missile that ignited my awareness and arousal, even from this far away. My loins throbbed almost painfully.
If I were a poet or a bard, I might write poems and songs about all the things that simply laying eyes on him did to me. But though I appreciated poetry and music, Ginger’s effect on me had to be kept a secret—from him, first and foremost. In the little hours of morning, after a mission was done but before sleep would take over, I could lie in my bed and contemplate at leisure the sea of desire for and thoughts of him that I nearly drowned in every day; I could examine how that sea eroded away my will to not have him, and how my longing for him grew deeper and more tormenting with each grain of sand lost. Wave after wave of fantasies tormented me. Dreams of what could be but wouldn’t almost pulled me under. If anything, seeing him helped me keep my head on straight—while I was in his presence, that was. As soon as I was without it, I felt adrift in dark waters, shaken by cruel and relentless storms.
Ginger briefly caught my attention again as I walked toward the bar, where the owner and my friend—Chris—sat drinking his ever-present cup of coffee.
“Hey,” he said and smiled.
“Give the man his regular,” he told the bartender.
I nodded at him too, and he smiled back as he made my gin and tonic. I’d driven here, as always. But Chris or his bartenders didn’t need to know that. The dreamcatcher metabolism was very forgiving of my indulging. It also processed alcohol at such a rate that it took a lot of perseverance in order to get drunk. So I didn’t drink to get wasted. I simply liked the taste of some beverages—the tang of gin and tonic in particular. Just like I cooked and ate because I liked the taste of food.
Our work as dreamcatchers came with more rewards than the actual thrill of the fights. As someone who’d lived this long, I knew I had to enjoy whatever I could to the fullest. And I did enjoy a lot about the world as I knew it today. I particularly loved technology, and how it connected dots on the map of the world that had barely known of one another back when I was a regular person. I considered myself lucky to live in this age of ceaseless wonders. Items that had been fabrications of science fiction—one of the many genres I loved to read—were now part of everyday life.
Like the tablet Chris was looking at, as he was most likely reading something and tapping every now and then. I knew better than to interrupt. Being interrupted was one of the things I hated most when I worked, after all. When he was done, he looked around as if woken up from a trance.
“It’s amazing how blind and deaf we become to the things we get used to,” he commented and sipped some coffee.
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
The bartender gave me a gin and tonic, and I sipped a bit, closing my eyes for a moment at the sheer delight of the prickly bitterness sliding down my throat.
“The numbers for the last couple of weeks don’t look as good as they used to.”
A note of sadness touched Chris’s voice.
I bit the inside of my cheek. Coincidently, a couple of weeks ago my team had discovered that club Zee was among a few spots around Uptown Seattle where ley line intersections were used by the local caster to create spaga and who knew what else. Casters shouldn’t have been able to use ley line magic, but this one seemed very able and more than willing. We’d claimed a big magic spot as dreamcatchers’ sanctuary: the Sands of Time café, where Angelo used to work. It was our working hypothesis that the power hubs were somehow connected, either naturally or by the caster’s doing. It had been a very strong network of magic that we’d now most likely weakened by taking out a spot.
The café had been wildly popular before we’d claimed it. Now it still had a steady stream of regulars, as far as we knew; the coffee and food were just as good, but the flow of customers had ebbed down.
Right about that time, the flow of customers at club Zee had decreased too. I knew. Chris and his bar were my shot of normal. And Ginger… well, he was my shot of masochism, really. There was no way to deny the attraction I felt for the twentysomething mercilessly hot guy. Annoyingly enough, he loved to tease and provoke me—no doubt aware of my leering in his direction despite my best efforts to be inconspicuous.
I felt guilty in a way to hear that Chris’s business was suffering. I recast my daily spider magic protection of the grounds. It was a feeble attempt at making up for the fact that my presence no doubt attracted even more spaga in the area. Whenever guilt hit, I tried to focus on the positive: at least his customers and staff, not to mention Chris himself, hadn’t been attacked because of my presence, as far as I knew. Plus, since we had club Zee on our magic hotspots map, I could technically claim to be doing research and surveillance of the place. It wasn’t at all a matter of my compulsion to see a certain dancer who worked here.
“I’m sure it’s just a weird phase,” I said, staring into my glass. “These things happen when it comes to popular places, right?”
“Yeah. I just got spoiled, you know? I kept wondering what I was doing so right to attract those crowds in every day and night. The difference in numbers isn’t dramatic, but it is there. So now I wonder what I’m doing wrong.”
“Are you doing anything different?”
He shrugged. “The public is a fickle mistress.”
“Aren’t they all?”
“Speaking of fickle,” he muttered, then grinned.
I knew that grin. I took a good swig of gin and tried to brace myself for what would most likely happen next. “He’s not fickle. If anything, he’s annoyingly consistent in his efforts,” I gritted out.
Chris grinned. “I didn’t mean him. I meant you.”
“Hello, lovely,” a cruel and velvety voice whispered very close to my ear.
He was way, way too close to my chair and my general person. I also enjoyed that way, way too much. But I had to at least try to keep up the appearance of not being that interested in him, however obsessed I really was with the man.
So I tried to sigh, going for bored rather than excited. It actually came out more like a groan. “Invading someone’s personal space is generally frowned upon, you know. More so when you’re wearing—” I glanced down at his very skimpy shorts. “—whatever that is.” I frowned as hard as I could.
Other parts of me wanted to go as hard as they could, too, but I forced away the impulse. For one thing, Ginger was way too observant for his own good, and he’d be all the tougher to send away if he caught wind of my damn boner. I figured it would be harder to play the part of the not-interested guy while sporting a boner. And the guy was persistent enough as it was. On top of that, hanging around me like he seemed to want to would really put him in danger, spider magic protections or not. I had to keep him at arm’s length. But there had been no getting through to him, no matter how many times I turned him down. This was one determined and hot-to-the-point-of-torture young man. To my undying shame, I found that even more attractive than his looks and how he moved.
He chuckled, undaunted. “When I actually invade your personal space, trust me, you’ll know. And you’ll remember it very well too. I promise.”
I gulped down some more gin and slowly turned to look into his eyes. No guy wearing too-short shorts should have such sparkling hazel eyes. I lingered, gazing at him for just a second, or maybe ten of them. It was enough for him to put on that cheeky little grin.
“I’m not going to find that out,” I informed him in a pretty sad tone.
“Are you sure about that?” he asked, not even blinking.
“I’m sure,” I lied through my teeth and looked away.
“Maybe you’ll change your mind later on.”
“It’s not about changing my mind.”
“Maybe not today. But perhaps tomorrow it will be about me changing your mind.”
I couldn’t help but grin at him for a second. Then I caught myself and stopped. “I won’t change my mind then either,” I insisted and rolled my eyes. “You should stop hitting on me already. I’m a lost cause.”
“There’s no such thing as a lost cause.”
“If only,” I muttered and stole a quick glance at him.
“Don’t worry. I love a good challenge, and I’m sure you’re worth the effort.”
I had to look at him again then. “I am?”
Fuck, it was hot to hear him use those words. “Thanks, I guess. But you don’t know me well enough to have a pertinent opinion on the matter.”
“I love how articulate you are,” he whispered, and smiled.
It was a dazzling thing, his smile. The palm of my hand tingled and burned with the desire to cup his cheek. I even raised it and almost patted him on the back but stopped myself just in time.
He looked at my arm, his expression telling me he’d not only caught the movement, but maybe also the intent behind it. He seemed disappointed for a second; maybe because I was such a coward about it all, no matter how sweet he chose to be about it.
But he erased the regret from his face and offered me a little smile. “You love a good challenge too. I can feel it on you.”
I gulped. “You have no idea how right you are there.”
“Am I?” he asked and cocked his head to the side, focusing on me even more.
Jesus Christ. I wanted to push him against the bar and attack his mouth with mine. A torrent of dirty and positively delicious ideas lapped at my senses.
“There won’t be anything between us, no matter how right you might be,” I said, hoping to convince both of us.
“Then my trying again won’t make any difference,” he said and batted his eyelashes.
“Have mercy on me here.” I chuckled nervously. “Save me from myself,” I whispered. “I’d like nothing better than to go with the flow. But I can’t. And this kind of interaction between us is killing me.”
“Are we thinking ‘la petite mort,’ as the French call it?”
I guffawed. “Nice one.”
“Thanks. I think you’re loving every minute of this very long prelude, by the way. So am I. Let’s just not make it too long now, okay? Time is a limited commodity, after all. And on that note, I’ve petted your ego enough for today.” He patted me on the arm and leaned in closer. “You know where to find me when you come to your senses and decide to let me pet other parts of you.”
And just like that, he sauntered away. I watched him go, though I knew I shouldn’t have—he was counting on it, surely. The way he was swinging those tight hips said as much. But the skimpy outfit did give a generous view of his very trim ass. I could stop myself from having him. But stopping myself from looking at him was simply beyond my powers.
Chris shook his head. “I really don’t understand why you keep pushing him away. It’s gotten to be like something of a running joke already. Lay the man and let him move on, if you’re not in the keeping mood.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“How goddamn difficult could it be? I mean, okay, the age difference is obvious. But you’re in really good shape from the looks of it. Or is it that you’re afraid you wouldn’t perform to the standard of a young stud like that?”
I smiled at him sweetly. “Screw you.”
“No, thanks. We were talking about you screwing him, though.”
“You have an odd interest in playing matchmaker. Is it an old age thing?”
He slapped my shoulder and drank up his coffee. “I’m no more than a couple years older than you, wiseass. And I have a two-year-old at home. At this point, the whole process of getting laid is becoming a blurry and distant memory. So sue me for wishing that at least someone around me would get some.”
We both laughed a bit, though it was bitter. Guilt sent a pang through my heart. By coming here, I was putting him and his family in danger—his two-year-old baby. Jesus. I drank the rest of my gin. The bartender refilled my glass without being asked.
“I hear security is booming,” Chris said after a while.
“There’s always a market for that.”
“Just like gravedigging.”
“Maybe I should switch to that, huh?”
“Digging graves? Is the club doing that bad?”
“Not yet. But who knows what’s in store for us in the future?”
My phone alerted me that I had a text from Claw. Hopefully it would involve some spaga-killing tonight, because I was suddenly in the mood, big-time.
“Duty calls,” I said as I reached for my wallet.
“Don’t you dare,” Chris muttered. “Your money is no good here.”
“This is why the business isn’t going that well nowadays. You let heavy drinkers like me get their booze for free.”
He waved my comment away. “See you tonight, maybe? If you get off work early or something, I’m sure Ginger would love having you in the audience.”
“Kiss my ass.” I smiled and turned around.
“Not interested,” Chris called after me. “But I know who is,” he added even louder.
I waved as I walked away. When I was heading out, Ginger was headed toward the bar. He turned in my direction and watched me exit the club.
As soon as I was out and the door closed, I missed feeling his gaze on me. I shook my head and walked toward my car at a brisk pace. I really needed something other than Ginger to focus on.
The radio played in the background as I pulled away from Ward Street. The drive to our home at Lee Street and Third Avenue gave me enough time to expel any Ginger-related thoughts from my mind. My team members knew that I was friends with the owner of the club and hung out there sometimes. Aashi knew too and encouraged me to keep in contact with regular human beings. She probably saw something in me that she left unsaid; something that made spending time around people a better idea than avoiding them. But none of them knew about Ginger and my ill-advised infatuation. And I was determined to keep it that way.
Feeling this attracted to someone and denying myself made putting up with the honeymoon stage of the ‘newlyweds’, Drew and Angelo, a very trying ordeal. If I had to stay up one more time during the small hours of the afternoon because their sex life included screaming their heads off at random intervals, I was likely to go on a killing spree inside our home as opposed to outside of it.
When I got home, I caught Claw just entering the webs room—Aashi’s sanctuary and the only place where the Spider Woman could manifest in our home; it was also our departure and return spot when it came to missions, and our armory. It would have seemed like a smaller living room to the untrained eye, unless you took into account the fine spiderwebs that covered the corners, walls, and ceiling. But other than that, it was very like a regular living room, with a sofa, two armchairs, and a table on which were our weapons. We could only enter the room once summoned by Aashi—who wasn’t into social calls that much—so the fact that Claw was going in there didn’t generally mean any good news.
I went in the living room, where I’d left my laptop working on something, and woke up its monitor. I had some maps to look over and sync. The Seattle dreamcatchers’ team leaders had decided we should all use a set of maps and mark attack spots and ley line intersections that we suspected were being used. The initiative had been well received by team leaders all over the US, and now teams from all over the world were inputting their data to these maps. That way, if and when we were located anywhere outside our work area, we’d be in the loop about spaga activity going on. Of course, that meant that someone from every team needed to actually input that data after it had been checked for consistency after missions. I was the tech guy in our team, so I got to it. There wasn’t much to go over and input right now, but it would serve to kill the time until Claw came back.
Drew and Angelo walked into the living room hand in hand.
I rolled my eyes. “Do you guys pee in unison too?”
Drew snorted. “Why? Want to watch?”
Angelo gripped his hand tighter. He was way too sweet and understanding in general, which only served to make me feel worse. But I was too envious of what they had to be able to stop teasing them.
“Claw called a meeting, right?” the too-sweet Angelo asked, looking around.
I nodded. “I just saw him going into the webs room, so it might take a minute before we get started.”
Drew jumped over the back of an armchair, then slouched back in it. “Busy with more maps?”
“Yeah. There have been fewer spaga attacks in our area since we claimed the café as dreamcatcher sanctuary. I think it’s safe to say we’re right in assuming the caster uses the ley lines intersections somehow.”
Angelo leaned against the back of Drew’s armchair. “Well, at least there were fewer attacks. That’s got to be a good thing, right?”
“It doesn’t look like the number of attacks per week has increased in other Seattle areas either, so I guess it is a good thing all around for now, at least,” I replied.
Drew sighed. “Let’s not forget the new breed of spaga, though. Fewer attacks could mean she’s working on making stronger attackers for the future. I’m not sure that’s actually a good thing.”
The spaga we were used to were one of three kinds: ghouls, the lowest level, who had little initiative or thinking power and were the most numerous; sentients, who were smarter ghouls; and the caster, who was human and used life force to create the ghouls and sentients that would serve them in gathering more life force. Recently, though, we’d encountered a newer sort of spaga: they acted like sentients but had the ability to mass drain and teleport over what we guessed were limited distances. Since they could only be killed by ancestors-blessed weapons, which generally meant hand-to-hand combat, having a teleporting target made things hairy to say the least.
Angelo’s weapon was a caduceus—a staff that could root those pesky spaga to the spot, cutting off their ability to teleport for a while. But he powered the caduceus with his own and Drew’s life force, so it wasn’t an ideal weapon. Lucky for us, we’d only run into that kind of spaga during the night of the great attacks all over Seattle when Angelo had joined us. Since then we’d gone out on missions and ran mostly into ghouls and the rarer old-school sentient. But we knew that the caster we were up against could create those enhanced monstrosities. The fact that she didn’t employ them that often was good; but it was in no way a sign that she wouldn’t whip up more of those teleporting bastards in the future.
Claw walked out of the webs room and stepped into the living room. “Hey, guys.”
I waved, and the honeymooners said hello.
“Have anything more on that Nathan Gallagher guy?” Claw asked.
We’d gotten a look at this guy’s license plate when Drew got a gut feeling and followed him on a chase around town, from one ley lines hotspot to the next. That’s how we’d gotten a glimpse of the blonde woman who we were sure was the caster we were dealing with.
“I’ve got a list of places where his name shows up, aside the registration for that car and his driving license. He’s something of a silent partner to a few businesses. I noticed there were attacks concentrated around some of those.”
Drew hummed. “He’s not the caster; we know that. But he is connected to her, somehow. The way they behaved with one another when we saw them in Denny Park spelled out as much. Plus, there is the similarity.”
“You can’t be thinking they’re related because they’re both blonds,” I scoffed. “Ever heard of hair dye?”
“They had similar features,” Drew replied without blinking.
Claw shrugged. “Maybe they did. To be honest, I wasn’t looking at their faces as much as evaluating their energy and magic.”
“Because you can,” Drew deadpanned. “Since my skill is strength, I had time to kill when we were hanging out there. I could look at their faces and physique. I’m telling you they looked like relatives.”
“It couldn’t hurt to check that guy’s family tree,” I said. “More research, more fun.”
Drew batted his eyelashes. “If anyone but you had said that, I would’ve been sure it was irony. But I know you do mean it.”
I ignored him and added “look into Gallagher’s family tree” to my ever-growing to-do list.
“Let’s move this into the dining room,” Claw said and led the way.
I took my laptop with me and followed him. The honeymooners were behind me. Once we got there and sat at the table, I mentally cast the spider magic shield the ancestors had taught me how to use upon initiation as dreamcatcher, and recast the protection around the table so what we did and discussed here would stay private, except for Aashi and the ancestors should they desire to look or listen in on us. Once it was done, I nodded at Claw to signal we were a go.
“Aashi tells me the ancestors are suggesting we find other ways than claiming dreamcatchers’ sanctuary at the hotspots. They don’t like us claiming ground as our own unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
The ancestors were our ultimate higher power and had to be obeyed without exception. Even Aashi, a very old and powerful entity, obeyed them. As her warriors, we would follow their will. But at times like these, it was a bit frustrating. We’d found an effective way to take back the ley lines intersections that the caster had claimed as her own to use as she pleased; now we were being told to find some other way instead.
“How exactly are we supposed to break her hold on those spots?” asked Drew, probably thinking along the same lines I was.
Claw leaned forward. “There has to be some way. If there isn’t, then we can report back that we found none other than the safe haven method.”
“How would we seek this new method out?” I asked.
Drew’s gaze slid in my direction. “Direct surveillance of a place we know is a hotspot, for instance? Maybe someone with magic skills can pick up on something if they look into it.”
“Drew can’t do that. His strength is direct combat, right?” Angelo asked patting his lover’s hand as if in apology for highlighting his weakness.
“Angelo is too new to go out on recon on his own,” I added, and smiled benignly in his direction. “And his weapon makes him unique when it comes to fighting off those teleporting spaga bastards. There’s no way we’ll risk sending him out alone. Sending him and Drew together might be too conspicuous.”
Claw cleared his throat. “We’ve decided that one of the significant hotspots right now is club Zee. Nathan Gallagher went there right after he visited the Sands of Time. When I was in the area, I felt a lot of ley line energy.”
I knew what was coming before he said it. I just knew it in the bottom of my heart. But I kept staring at him blankly, determined not to volunteer or make it easier for him. He knew I didn’t really like to work outside of our home base unless I was out on mission at night. He knew my favorite thing was doing research. And he knew I went to club Zee on a regular basis. Volunteering would make it look suspicious, maybe. Or maybe not volunteering made it look suspicious. I couldn’t decide what I was supposed to say to not give them any strange ideas about my reasons for going there so often.
“I can’t spend a lot of time doing recon,” Claw went on. “Not with the team leaders’ meetings happening as often as they do nowadays.” He looked at me. “You’re the second-strongest magic user in our team, and Aashi trusts us to look into this. You’re a regular at the club too. Your being there wouldn’t seem suspicious to anyone who’s been hanging around the club lately.”
“True,” I replied simply.
“Our caster lady could have monitors of some kind,” Drew intervened. “The fact that you’ve been going there since before the whole café thing makes it look a lot less conspicuous that you’d keep going than it would look for either of us starting to go to the club. Bummer. I wish I could go and see what has you so hooked.”
“And this caster lady did see Claw and Drew in Denny Park,” Angelo added in a soft tone.
I blinked, recognizing the validity of their arguments. I still didn’t want to volunteer. I tried to tell myself the reason wasn’t fear of involving Chris and Ginger even more than I already had, or the fact that I was afraid of hanging around Ginger more than I had up until now. “I only pop in and out of there, though. The kind of surveillance we’re talking about here would mean spending considerably more time there.”
“Aashi entrusts this mission to you,” Claw said in that tone he used when he delivered serious orders.
Crap. “Then I am honored and will do my best,” I replied, showing no emotion at all.
I cared a lot about my duty as a dreamcatcher. I’d been one for a long time now—since before colored TV, in fact. I wanted to do anything I could in the fight against the spaga. I was no coward.
But my heart fluttered in a weird way and my palms grew sweaty. For an endless moment, all I could think about was Ginger in those goddamn too-short shorts. I was so, so screwed—and not in the good way.