Author’s Note: This smaller story has taken shape rather quickly. Thank you Breathesgirl and Ms Buffy. This chapter started off a little rougher than usual, and you put up with my punctuation deficiencies so well! Thanks again to Sephrenia. You may notice a nod to the wonderful banner in this chapter. Mostly, thank you to you who are reading this story. I’ve said it before and am ever mindful that a scribbler is only a writer when someone appreciates their work.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Russell Edgington, the King of Mississippi, and Bartlett Crowe, the King of Indiana, were at the Belle Etoile Hotel and Convention Center. The vampire-friendly venue was new, built within the last four years, and was one of a growing number of hotels in U.S. cities owned and run by foreign hoteliers. It was a smaller facility than some, but the size of the rooms and the style of the accommodations appealed to the married monarchs. They expected to see Pamela Ravenscroft and her human business associate tomorrow evening. Pam and her Fangtasia Ltd. team would remain in Indianapolis to work closely with the hotel staff until the Amun Summit concluded. Earlier that evening, the hotel’s Business Concierge had proudly walked them through the main ballroom to display the setup of the stage, complete with thrones. The man then went on to dim the lighting and ‘fly’ in curtains cleverly hidden in the ceiling to dress the stage appropriately for the pledging ceremony. “It will be our first royal wedding,” he gushed.
Russell felt his smile thinning. The papers were full of news about the North Man’s impending marriage. There were stories about the style of ceremony and speculation regarding the history each tradition represented. Bartlett recorded a vampire commentator from some southern state enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame on syndicated television solemnly describing the symbolism of the knife and chalice, making wild guesses as to whom would be providing these items for the ‘wedding of the century.’ There were photos of the Viking, Sookie, and the two of them together. An official wedding portrait had been taken and was currently emblazoned on nearly every human and supernatural gossip magazine cover. Bartlett brought in an armful of the more lurid publications and held them up, one by one. “Will you look at them!” he hooted. “He looks like some pirate with that cheesy facial hair and she looks as if she’s about to bite someone’s head off!”
“I’m happy you’re so amused,” Russell deadpanned. “I can’t escape the feeling that this much media attention is dangerous. I understand we will have a small army of Weres providing security and the hotel was gracious about allowing the metal detectors and scanning machines, but we both know if someone is determined to attack us, there is little we can do to stop them.”
“What has you so worked up?” Bartlett exclaimed. He dropped the magazines and walked over to his mate and draped his arm around Russell’s shoulders. “You’ve seen the numbers. Acceptance of supernaturals is at an all-time high. The Viking and Sookie are considered the top trending couple in America right now.”
Russell looked around the room at the warm, light-colored wood and then at the skyline outside the window, softened by the nearly transparent privacy shade. “There is something,” he said, “something unsettling about all of this. It’s not natural. It plays against everything we know and our history. In spite of how ‘open’ we may appear, there are things about us that remain in shadow, and should. What do you think humans would make of the Ancient Pythoness? What acceptance do you think we would have if the truth about blood slaves ever came out?” The King sighed. “I can’t escape the feeling that we are walking a tightrope and this,” he waved at the magazines, “is an illusion.”
“I can’t believe what a doomsayer you’ve become!” Bart rolled his eyes. He kissed the top of Russell’s head and then stood. “Come on! Staying here croaking about a tomorrow that may never come is not going to help. I know what will cheer you up! Let’s take the Tesla you cheated me out of and go down to the Crackerbox. I’m sure we’ll hear something sublime and the music will be so loud you won’t be able to carp anymore… at least not so I can hear you.”
“I won the car fair and square,” Russell’s lips quirked, “and the Crackerbox is a dump.”
“True,” Bart agreed pleasantly, “which is part of its appeal. Come on, people there will greet you by name, and maybe that lovely bartender is on tonight and you can ogle him to make me jealous,” Bartlett tossed a jacket at Russell, “and you know how I am when I’m jealous.”
Russell began to smile. Bart could be demanding, but it made things interesting. The first time Indiana had demanded that Russell beg, the Mississippi King had laughed. It seemed so out of character, but then Bartlett had gone on to demonstrate several techniques that made it not so funny. Russell felt himself hardening at the memory. “They do seem to hire attractive help,” he said as if it was just occurring to him. “I could take a seat at the bar, I suppose.”
“Don’t get too cheeky,” Bartlett growled playfully, “You might not like the position you find yourself in!”
“Promises, promises,” Russell laughed.
The guards followed discretely in a plain sedan. The Kings rarely traveled with more than two bodyguards. There just seemed no need. When they went shopping more than two looked awkward. When they went to clubs, there was nowhere for more than two to sit. Generally speaking, Russell and Bartlett weren’t recognized, other than being vampires, and even then, unless someone was really looking they could blend. For all intents and purposes, they looked like any other well-dressed couple out on the town.
The area around the club was busy, but Russell knew of a parking lot that was close. They pulled in and one of their guards handled the tickets and money while the monarchs headed for the club. It was a weeknight and they were recognized as regulars by the folks at the door. Within no time, they were seated at a table pulled out just for them. Their blood was brought in bottles tied up in towels. To a casual bystander, they could have been drinking beers in bulky containers. After an hour or so, Russell glanced at his partner, “This was a good idea.”
“Of course it was. I am a genius,” Bart smiled.
Russell leaned over and Bartlett leaned in, “I love you,” Russell whispered in Bart’s ear.
The Indiana king took his mate’s hand and kissed his lips gently, “I love you more, Rusty,” he whispered back.
The walk back to the car was the kind of stroll that only happens in great weather on city streets. There was something about the background noise of cars and bustle that left you feeling as if you were somehow alone in a bubble with your own thoughts. They held hands and glanced at window displays. One of the guards ran ahead, the other remained trailing behind. Then the guard that had run ahead returned. The minute Russell saw him he knew something was wrong. “What is it?” he asked, squeezing Bart’s hand.
“The vehicles have been vandalized,” he said quickly. The guard behind them pulled out his phone and started making phone calls.
“How?” Bartlett tugged Russell forward, anxious to see the damage.
“Are the police there?” Russell queried as they raced to the lot.
“Not yet,” the guard replied. “I couldn’t find the attendant. I made the call myself.” As if on cue, the sound of sirens were heard.
The Tesla was a wreck. It was impossible to believe that someone hadn’t seen or heard something. The front window was shattered and a cement block was sitting on the passenger’s seat. The interior had been ripped apart and spray-painted. The tires were slashed and the exterior was dented and scratched. On both sides, someone had spray-painted “Killer” and “Vamp.”
As they waited for the police to arrive, Bartlett found himself glancing around at the buildings that surrounded them. All those windows, all those faces, and no one had called the police? “The world seems less friendly,” Bart said out loud.
Russell pulled his mate closer, wrapping a second arm around him. He kissed Bart’s temple nodding against his cheek. In the back of his head a little voice was crying, ‘I told you so.’
Pam sat back and smoothed her perfectly pink sweater set against the slub of her herringbone skirt. While business generally dictated darker colors, Pam enjoyed flouting tradition by pairing classic tailoring with brighter colors. It was Spring, and she’d be damned if she was going to wear blacks or navies. Today everything she wore, right down to her pumps, was in shades of pink, lavender or celadon. The pearls of her necklace were pink, cream, and charcoal with diamond accents in a twist, and she wore her pale hair uplifted in a sophisticated French knot. As she watched Twy put the hotel staff through their paces, she congratulated herself again. The former publicist was made for running an event planning group, but then again, in spite of her abrasive nature, the New Yorker was just good at anything she did. ‘Sometimes too good,’ the vampire thought.
The Business Concierge brought the Head of Hotel Security with him and Twy was grilling him on emergency protocols and screening. Thalia had come for the night. She was expecting the Head of the local Pack who would be the titular Head of the Security Detail for the Summit. In reality, it would be Thalia who would call the shots and everyone knew it. Bartlett and Russell’s Head of Security informed her of the vandalism incident. The local police were writing it off as the work of local hoodlums. They told the Kings there had been a series of incidents in the neighborhood of the jazz bar. Anyone could have known they were vampires, and a car like the Tesla was bound to attract attention. Russell remained unconvinced and the Kings were trailing more guards.
Twy hired a security consultant to develop a checklist of sorts and she was using it to tick off each of the precautions. Even Thalia looked impressed. They were stuck on the need to have coffins run through scanning machinery. Twy was describing this as standard practice when repatriating bodies from war-torn countries to avoid bringing back more than the loved one. The hotel Security Chief was getting huffy, disputing the complications involved in locating that kind of bulky equipment in a hotel receiving area. Thalia fixed him with a beady eye and said, “Don’t you have a parking garage below the building?” The Chief stopped mid-sentence, thought about it, and agreed.
The Packmaster walked in and a protracted conversation started over who would be in the control room, how many would be on patrol, and who would ultimately call the shots. Pam stood and signaled Twy to follow her. This was a turf conversation that could be settled between Thalia, the hotel, and the Weres and Pam was perfectly confident that Thalia would win.
The women walked back toward the lobby, the sounds of growling and what could have been a squeak fading behind them. “Are you sure about this Compton reception?” Pam asked.
Twy didn’t falter, her long legs scissoring across the distance to the ballroom that would be used for the exhibitors. “Absolutely! It will be opening night. It will be the only Summit event open to the public. Security will be air-tight. All the tickets were sold ahead of time and we gave out another fifty vouchers through radio stations and contests. A Hot commodity, by the way. I saw two on Ebay and the bid was over $1,000 apiece. Everyone knows Eric and Sookie will be there. The stars of “Viking Bond” will be in attendance and we will show the first peek of the trailer for the film. You may have noticed the last book in the series is in the top three on the New York Times Bestseller List again this week. Vampire sex is hot right now!”
Pam shrugged, “I wish I had been there when you told Eric,” she mused.
“Why would I have told him?” Twy said, “Both of them promised me two events in exchange for limited photographs at the pledging and no media at the ball the night before the pledging. Plus they get last say on what wedding photographs are released. So there is the book reception and the pledging itself. Those fulfill the bargain.” Pam stopped walking. She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or ask Twy to start checking her life insurance. She decided that since she was hanging the success of her business on this woman, it was time for some professional coaching.
“Twy,” Pam growled lightly, “I realize that bullying may get you where you wish to be, but I would suggest, as your employer, that sandbagging my Maker is a move that will eventually get you killed. Are you seriously considering springing this little surprise on both Eric and his little stake-maker on the eve of their wedding?”
Twy did take a minute to look as if she was thinking through her employer’s words, her eyebrows scrunched together, and her lips formed a tight little purse on her face. When she gave it enough time to look respectful, she told Pam, “If I tell them now, they will do nothing but bitch about it. If I tell them twenty-four hours before they arrive, they will be stuck in transit for several hours and that will give them time to absorb the reality of the situation.”
Pam found herself struggling not to smile, “Well, you have me there,” she finally managed to say. “It sounds like a plan.”
“Besides,” Twy continued with a shrug and a wave of her manicured hand, “If they scanned the media sources as I suggested, they would have seen their names, the contests, and the advance on the movie trailer. They haven’t said a word, so maybe next time they’ll take my suggestions more seriously.” Pam didn’t miss the small, self-satisfied smile the publicist indulged in as she turned, saying, “Well, let’s take a last walk-through of where we have located exhibitors. If there are any you feel will end up in a fight, we should move them around now.”
“She was a brilliant hire,” Max told Pam over the phone. “She is right in her approach to giving the happy couple the news, which is not to say that she isn’t going to find herself on the wrong side of someone soon. However, I suspect that our vampire clientele will have the same reaction to our employee as we do. Twy is driven and single-mindedly opportunistic. As a race, we do admire that.”
Pam grinned, “Well, when you put it that way, she does look attractive, doesn’t she?” The vampire reached back, pulling the clip from her hair allowing it to fall over her shoulders. “How’s Karin?”
“Her arm is almost completely healed,” Max told her. “The fingers have emerged. No nails yet, but there is still time. She should be restored enough to stand for the pledging. Thierry and Jane returned from Texas. Thomas is proving all your instincts are correct. I’m afraid the days of rolling on the ground and putting dents in the walls are over. He will settle in as Second very well.”
“I have Jane until after the Summit,” Pam told her partner, “and then she’s on her way. Ludwig is expanding that dump she has in Shreveport. She thinks that with all the money coming into the area from the shale oil development, this kind of expansion will go unnoticed. There’s just too much building taking place for anyone to question one more structure.”
“Are you seeing any unusual activity?” Max asked. Max rarely asked casual questions and it grabbed Pam’s attention.
“What kind of unusual activity?” Pam asked.
“Emil told me last night that there has been a great deal of chatter in the City against vampires specifically, and supernaturals in general. Humans, mostly from the outside, are speaking out. We are being accused of all kinds of things. According to the ‘huddled masses’ I heard on the radio this evening, we are directing the government from the shadows and consuming the blood of the unborn to sustain our demonic ways.”
“Sounds like a crank,” Pam huffed.
“There seems to be a growing number of them,” Max responded.
“When are you traveling up here?” Pam asked, deciding to store away Max’s concerns to discuss with Thalia.
“I’ll be traveling with Thierry and Jane two days before the official kick-off. Karin and Thomas will arrive with Devrah.”
“The housekeeper?” Pam asked.
“Sookie specifically invited her,” Max answered. “They have become close, I suppose. Oh, and Twy’s assistant…”
“Sonder…” Pam supplied.
“Yes, Sonder. She will be traveling with them as well. Rubio will be coming to New Orleans to hold down the fort while we’re away.”
“And the couple themselves?” Pam asked.
“Picking up her brother and Indira, and then flying out of Shreveport,” Max grinned. “From what I gather there is some sort of ritual they are performing at the brother’s house ahead of the human ceremony they are planning to hold later.”
Pam snorted, “I have already had a chat with the sister-in-law. The bachelorette party will be a repeat at Hooligans.”
Max frowned, “Isn’t there a tradition of a stag party as well? Should we be doing something comparable for the King? I wouldn’t want him to look like he is less…”
Pam snort-laughed, “The breather’s brother told me he has that well in hand.”
“The breather’s brother? The same one you call a mouth-breather?” Max sounded tentative.
“Yup, Jason Stackhouse,” Pam laughed. “I can’t wait to find out what down-home goodness he has planned for my Maker!”
Max made a noise, “I think I’ll be busy with the Pack that night,” his voice sounded strained. Pam couldn’t tell if Maxwell Lee was amused or afraid.
Thalia was standing at the window, gazing at the skyline of the city. “There is no apparent connection, but so many troubles in so many places?” Thalia didn’t believe in coincidence, but no matter how she looked at it, the unrest that was showing up across the kingdoms didn’t seem connected.
“I agree. I can’t stop thinking this is somehow tied to New York,” Pam growled.
“Misha is a self-serving bastard, but I think you give him too much credit,” Thalia frowned. “He is a braggart and a liar. He claims to have ties to Russian royalty and the North Man’s Maker. I remember before he was made, and there is no evidence he is tied to either. He was a street urchin who was vicious enough to survive and thrive. He has no backing. I have never heard the Pythoness refer to him. He’s a sideshow,” Thalia shrugged.
“I hope you’re right,” Pam was less certain. “Still, there is something about all of this that sticks with me. Those spies we caught? They were nothing special. Newly-turned and stupid, they turned on their King in an embarrassingly short amount of time. Still, they made it to our kingdom. Isaiah and Maude said they are seeing the same thing. Why? Why send newly-turned vampires to bumble around? To what purpose?”
Thalia shrugged, “Other than to keep us busy ending stupid vampires? They did not seem to have any particular mission.”
Pam nodded. One of the early theories was that these were advance scouts sent to set up smuggling trails, but with what they knew now, that seemed unlikely. They were still being picked up, the registered vampires in the kingdoms now working better together to identify those who were new or seemed to be tardy in registering to their Areas. When questioned, the new vampires had no better explanation of their purpose than they had been told to get ‘there,’ wherever ‘there’ was.
“No,” Thalia continued, “I’m more inclined to believe there is another cult like the Fellowship of The Sun forming. I don’t believe that humans would all behave alike if there was no one person directing them.”
“Then you don’t think that the power of social media can create mobs?” Pam asked. She and Twy had had this conversation not so long ago. Twy was convinced that if there was one thing the Capture Wall Street movement had demonstrated, it was that social media had arrived as a ‘third person’ in any political movement, that a centralized authority was no longer necessary.
Thalia sneered, “What you describe is chaos, movement with no meaning. Humans might be motivated for a short period of time, attracted by the novelty, but it would not keep them showing up night after night. They think they have something to gain, and for that, someone has to be feeding them.”
Pam shrugged. She pulled out her phone and googled ‘Silent Witness Movement.’ The whole first page contained news stories from different locations featuring stories and images of the protestors. The cities became less specific mid-way down the second page. ‘Maybe Thalia is right,’ she thought. “If this is another Fellowship of The Sun we should be able to trace its source,” she said out loud.
“Perhaps we can use your publicist to hire an interrogator for us,” Thalia suggested.
“We can’t pluck one of these people off the street,” Pam disagreed. “The risks are too great.”
“I’m not talking about a conventional interrogation,” Thalia growled. “After all, isn’t that what those new reporters do? Dig out information?”
Bill Compton looked at the clothes carefully folded on the spare bed. There were just the right number of pants, shirts, socks, and boxer briefs. All were color-coordinated and folded precisely, the edges crisply creased. The two suitcases were sitting on the floor, aligned perfectly, side by side. When he had received the summons to attend the Summit, Bill’s first inclination had been to decline. The editor he had come to hate anticipated his reaction and launched into all the reasons he couldn’t say no. There was the contract that compelled him to attend certain types of promotional events. There was the consulting fee he took for his assistance with the film. Of course, that was when he thought the movie would memorialize his deep and abiding affection for his telepath, not the travesty it had been twisted into. At his insistence, Bill was given an advance showing of the movie trailer. It was as bad as he feared. The character of Troy, his character, was portrayed by a big Hollywood name. The actor was handsome and the part was being acted seriously, but he was still the villain, and that didn’t sit well. The actor playing Eric was not as well known, but he was all sincere, soulful looks and flexing muscles. Bill hated him.
What almost made it bearable was the actress who was chosen to play Shanna. Aside from being blond and big-breasted, she didn’t resemble Sookie. She came across as slightly stupid and altogether helpless, relying on the muscles for brains ‘hero’ to save her from scrape after scrape. The Sookie he knew would have taken a stake in hand and saved herself.
Bill walked out of the bedroom, and then into his special room, Sookie’s room. He turned on the light and looked around the walls at the photographs. The images now covered the ceiling as well. He started cutting out his favorite expressions and superimposing them on older pictures of the two of them together. She seemed to have a happier look these days, but how could she not with the shifter out of her life? Of course, she was not truly happy, stuck with Eric the way she was. Bill knew she had been traveling extensively, and he understood her desire to distance herself using the cover of work. He appreciated her subtlety and guile in constructing her cover story. No one seemed to suspect the level of her despair, but Bill knew. He knew her secret heart as no one else.
The newest photographs had only recently arrived. They were taken from inside the Palace. Sookie looked tired, the rings under her eyes apparent. She was rising early most mornings and seemed to work with the housekeeper often. “You are so smart, sweetheart,” he said to the image, “that way you will be too tired to have to stay up too late. I am sure he takes advantage of you anyway, but how can he take pleasure if you are dropping with exhaustion? You are a genius!” and he stroked the curve of her cheek.
In only a few more days, they would be together again. It would be dangerous for them, being so close and having to maintain their cover story. Bill knew that there was a pledging planned. He heard that Sookie’s Great Grandfather had sold her to the Viking, and Eric, ever one to take advantage of an opportunity, had accepted.
Bill thought about his latest book. It was almost finished. In it, the hero was an undercover policeman. He met a beautiful woman who was attached to a mob boss. In the story, the cop had to work hard and smart to devise a way to free his lady love from her enslavement. Bill had almost worked out the final twist. “I know I can figure this out. I can save you,” he said gently to the smiling image on the wall.