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.
Thalia pushed her fingernail along the table, lifting another long flake of varnish. “I’ll have to pay for that!” Mr. Cataliades scolded.
“Tell me again,” Thalia answered, pushing against the edges of the hole she’d made in the wooden table surface. “Why are we here?”
“To find the Cranes!” and the attorney lifted the box to his left and dropped it on Thalia’s hand. “We’ll start with the computer files next, but unfiled correspondence is the best place to start our search.”
Thalia had dropped fang, but she knew it was pointless. The attorney couldn’t be intimidated. They’d been in the Delaware State Department offices for hours. The demon knew a man who knew a man and they’d been given a pass that seemed to make them invisible to first the cleaning crew and then the night security watchman. “I’m no researcher,” she growled.
“Apparently you’re not a reader, either.” Mr. Cataliades seemed perfectly content, turning each paper in front of him, scanning then discarding. “You do a fine job scaring information out of people, but there’s no point to your talent if you can’t get your hands on the people you wish to interrogate. To do that, we need to find them.”
“They could be anywhere,” she replied, staring at the box.
“Stating the obvious isn’t getting the job done,” and Mr. Cataliades gave her his superior look and rather pointedly turned another page.
It was enough. Thalia lifted a stack from the box and started looking. There were state filings and official letters confirming taxes paid. She found a list of officers for one of the corporations, but she already knew the names and the sole address was the abandoned house in Rhode Island. It took over an hour to finish the first box and then the next. She was halfway through a manila folder when she found the paper related to overseas holdings.
“There’s an office in Europe,” she announced.
“And a residence in Namibia,” Mr. Cataliades replied. He’d been shuffling through a clipped document, moving forward a few pages and then flipping back again. He held his hand out for the paper Thalia found. “I wouldn’t get too excited about offices,” he murmured, looking over the official words. “Remember the office in New York. They’ll need to establish local addresses anywhere they do business,” and he flipped the paper back to her before pushing the document he’d been reviewing across the table. “This is different. They’ve applied for legal status. There’s a residence and once their citizenship is confirmed, they intend to shift assets there.”
“Africa!” Thalia exclaimed.
Cataliades grinned, “Of course! It makes sense. Where’s the one place in the world vampires are killed on sight?”
“Africa,” Thalia answered. It was well known. African nations had a longstanding appreciation for the supernatural, but it was witches who reigned supreme. They headed all parts of Supernatural life, some even involving themselves in human politics. “I didn’t think the Fae were welcome there, either,” Thalia said as she read the pages listing addresses and promises.
“It depends,” and the demon leaned back lacing his fingers over his belly. “There are some legends that hold the Fae as benevolent, but there are others that have caused the locals to mix their mortar with the local red clay to keep the fairies away.”
“I don’t understand,” Thalia sniffed.
“The red in the clay is iron,” Mr. Cataliades explained.
“I’m guessing since they’re hybrids it won’t bother these fairies,” and Thalia shoved the paper back toward the attorney. “Is this something you can help us with? Getting them out of Africa?”
“Probably not,” the attorney confessed. “Of course, I have brethren who work there. Demons are respected the world over, but my primary contacts remain on this side of the world. I’d have to have evidence to press any claim there. And if the money involved is anywhere near the scale these papers suggest,” and Mr. Cataliades sighed, allowing Thalia to draw her own conclusions.
“I’ll go myself!” Thalia hissed.
Mr. Cataliades wasn’t impressed. “To what end? They’d spot you the minute you stepped off the plane. Anubis won’t fly there. You’d have to fly commercial. Is that something you’re ready to risk? Delays are common. You could find yourself stranded out on the tarmac past dawn.”
“You could go,” Thalia suggested.
“I wouldn’t,” he answered, and when she started to snarl her frustration, he added, “They’d pick me up just as quickly. I’m known, even there. They all know I work for vampires. I assure you, the best I could hope for would be a return ticket home on the next flight.”
“No one is beyond us!” Thalia vowed.
“That is true,” the attorney nodded, “but not everything can be done quickly.” He waited for Thalia to acknowledge what he was saying before leaning forward. “And, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Time continues to tick by with this atrocity unanswered. If the Viking doesn’t exact payment soon, and from someone, it will get heads thinking.”
“He looks weak,” Thalia replied.
“His own children,” Cataliades agreed. “What good is a King who can’t protect his own?”
Thalia ground her teeth in frustration. Cataliades watched her, patiently waiting. “Russell!” she said after a bit. “Charles confirmed it. Payments came from the Cranes, but messages were sent to Mississippi as well. Information about dhampirs.”
“Russell Edgington?” and Mr. Cataliades laughed. “I assure you; he wasn’t involved.” When Thalia didn’t look convinced, the attorney added, “Stan Davis keeps a close eye on Russell. If there was a plot to kill Northman or any of his people, Stan would know.”
“What if it wasn’t premeditated?” Thalia asked. “What if it was just an accident?”
The attorney gave her a sharp look, “Four creatures dead doesn’t sound like an accident.”
“But it could have happened that way.” Thalia stared at the papers, then lifted them, dropping them back in the file. “It’s as you say, someone must pay, and soon.”
“Killing monarchs for no reason is risky business!” The demon eyes flashed, red fire burning deep within them.
“And, what about Sookie Stackhouse?” Thalia goaded. “What do you think happens to her if this challenge to the Viking’s authority goes unanswered? They’ve already killed her son’s mate. Karin the Slaughterer, the great assassin, her mate fell! How many of our kind feel the Viking’s Queen doesn’t deserve a crown? Her final death would seem justified to many.” Cataliades was staring at her. “Some might even think that killing her and her spawn would put an end to the bad fortune hanging over the Viking’s head.”
“Superstition!” the attorney exclaimed, but Thalia could see her words had made an impression. She sat perfectly still. The attorney looked at the papers in front of him, then shook his head before saying, “Vampires don’t ever really grow, do they?”
“No,” Thalia replied. “We remain frozen with all our foolish beliefs frozen within us.”
He tried to argue one last time, “Not all! Some of you grow.”
“Eric Northman grows,” Thalia shot back, “and look what that’s earned him.”
There was some furniture in the living room and they all sat there, waiting for Heidi and Hunter to arrive. No one turned on the lights, but they didn’t need to. They’d stashed the car in the garage. It was a risk. The houses in this neighborhood were close and it was possible someone would notice the opening and closing of the large door at the vacant house, but it was more of a risk finding themselves without transportation if the car was towed.
“With you here, Rick, I think Hunter should go home.” Rick was startled. Rasul hadn’t said anything against Hunter in past, but then the vampire explained, “You can read minds as easily as he does. We shouldn’t risk more than one telepath.”
“I only read vampires,” Rick lied.
Rick could tell the minute he said it. No one believed him. “If we aren’t going to trust each other, there’s no point to this,” Rasul snarled. “Grow up! We all know you can read everyone.” He looked to Karin for support, but she avoided his eyes. That didn’t sit well. Rick could see it in the way Rasul’s chin lifted, but he kept his voice friendly. “Face it, if we succeed, you may both need to stay here for a while. That would make you my vassals.”
“I have no interest in staying in Mississippi,” Rick snapped back, but then he stopped talking. He had no real idea where he wanted to be. It wasn’t here and it wasn’t Louisiana. He thought of his daughter’s face. “I just want this all to be done,” he finished.
“That’s how it is.” Karin spoke up, although she still wasn’t making eye contact with any of them. Instead, she watched the sword in her hands as she alternately drew a stone down its length followed by a soft rag. “You plan, and there’s that moment you’re terrified when the time comes, and then you’re left wondering as you stare at the dead that surround you, what’s next?” She took another swipe at her sword. “It was enough, once upon a time. Now, I know what I was missing.” She swiped again, “Russell Edgington stole that from me. He’s going to pay.”
Rick’s heart squeezed as he remembered sitting on the porch at Hummingbird Lane with Peter and Brigid. “Yes, he will,” he vowed, but just that moment of remembering seemed to drain him, and he leaned forward. “I don’t think Hunter will go home,” he told Rasul.
Karin suddenly stood. “Hunter has to stay with us. If this goes sideways and he’s in Edgington’s Palace, he’ll be a prisoner.”
“I meant he should go back to Louisiana!” Rasul insisted.
Karin laughed. “You’ve never had a mate, have you? Hunter won’t leave Heidi now. They’ve probably exchanged a dozen times since he got to the Palace. Don’t be stupid!”
“Hunter told me he’s doing this for Mom… and Dad,” Rick informed them. “He knows one of you will come out of this in Russell’s place… or at least that’s what he’s counting on. He figures then he and Heidi will be free to leave.”
Rasul smirked, “She’s Stan’s, like me. She has a contract, but not with King Russell. She can’t just walk away.”
“Stan must be doing very well to have so many spies here.” Karin let that hang in the air and it didn’t take long before Rasul’s eyes dropped. “Hunter’s right, though. For a spy there’s a window of opportunity. If your subject dies, you can decline the next contract. You have to return money, but it usually works out, right Rasul?” Rick remembered hearing a rumor that Rasul had been spying somewhere North.
“Or, the King who hired you dies…” Rasul answered. There was a long moment as Rasul and Karin stared at each other, but then Karin shifted and Rick started breathing again.
Rasul heard it first. “They’re here,” he announced and then in a whoosh, was at the back of the house, opening the door. “Who are you?” Rick heard him say.
“I wish I’d met you sooner!” a strange voice answered, and they were all walking into the room.
Just seeing Heidi brought it all back. Rick remembered his desperation as they searched all over Louisiana for his Mother. “We seem to meet under the worst circumstances,” Heidi said as if she’d read his mind. She bowed slightly, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
Hunter hugged him, whispering, “Damn dark in here,” and it was then Rick noticed the vampire they’d brought with them. He was shorter than anyone else and handsome, although now he looked foolish, standing in the kitchen doorway with his mouth hanging open. “Oh,” Hunter said, “This is Bernard. He’s from the Palace.”
“Leif,” Bernard whispered, but then his mouth snapped closed. Rick got the impression of a mask slipping into place, the transformation was so sudden. “But of course, you aren’t! Still, you look an awful lot like a certain sneaky vampire I once knew!”
“This is Rick Northman,” Hunter explained as he made introductions. “Rick, you should know Bernard ran across your Dad in Mississippi a long time ago.”
“Dad?” and Bernard’s bright smile dropped just a millimeter. “Then, Eric Northman is your…”
“He’s my Father,” Rick answered.
“You’re him!” and Bernard’s bright smile was back. “The dhampir, I mean. You’re all Russell talks about.” There was something not quite right about Bernard and Rick was about the peek into the vampire’s head, but suddenly the smaller man was very close. “I have to say you are just as pretty as your Father! I think it’s the mouth,” and Rick found he had no interest in peeking into Bernard’s thoughts at all.
“Well,” and Rick slid away from the hand that was suddenly on his ass. “I’m not my Dad, and that has nothing to do with why we’re here.”
“Oh,” and Bernard winked. “I don’t know. I’m a big believer in fate and I think this was meant to be.” Bernard fluttered his eyelashes and Rick felt his face flush. Red turned to burning when Bernard sniffed, smacked his lips and whispered, “Yummy!”
“Stop teasing him,” Karin snapped at Bernard, then turning to Heidi, said, “I’m assuming there’s a good reason you brought a stranger into this.”
“Bernard has offered to help,” Heidi replied. “He has been in Russell’s court a long time…”
“Long enough to know that I wouldn’t mind a change in ownership,” Bernard added, punctuating his statement by giving Rick another long once-over. “I thought there was more to Hunter’s coming here than Heidi was telling…”
“I didn’t know anything about this until tonight!” Heidi interrupted.
“Of course, I believe you!” Bernard answered in a tone that said he didn’t. “I thought this was a Romeo and Juliet story, but I figured out there was more to it.” He blew a quick kiss at Rick before turning toward Karin. “I don’t approve of senseless killing and all that blood in Louisiana was a terrible waste of handsome humans. I know the people here and no one can tell me that Russell Edgington wasn’t up to his Buster Browns in every bit of it! Spa trip up north? Without me? How convenient!”
“Russell Edgington and certain members of his Court were out of town at the time of the killings,” Heidi explained. “They said it was a spur of the moment spa trip. Some new place recommended by friends.”
“And he comes back so blasé, as though killings on his border are no big thing! And so close to the famous dhampir?” and Bernard simpered at Rick. “He’s obsessed with you, you know? But, seeing you, I quite understand!”
“How much does he know?” Rasul demanded, staring at Bernard.
“All of it!” Bernard answered. “And I’m in! You need help, transportation, all kinds of help. I have access to schedules. People know me, they’ll look the other way. I bring play toys with me everywhere. I can be the edge you need to succeed!”
“For which you’d want?” Rasul had struck a pose that Rick thought looked a lot like his Father, chest thrown out and arms crossed.
“The vampire who would be King,” Bernard guessed accurately, then glancing at Heidi, he became all business. “I want a place in the new order, of course. Nothing too strenuous. No fighting.”
“Why are you really doing this?” Karin pressed. “I can always have this one pull it out of your head,” and she gestured toward Rick.
“I have other things I’d like him to pull,” Bernard laughed, “but I have every reason to want Russell Edgington dead.” He turned to Heidi. “You didn’t meet Talbot. He was already finally dead by the time you came.” Rick could see red rimming the small vampire’s eyes.
Rasul nodded, filling in more blanks for Rick. “Talbot was Russell’s mate, but they fell out. These relationships between vampires, they rarely stand the test of time.”
Rick thought of his parents, but he pushed that away to ask, “Well, if he wasn’t getting along with Russell, why didn’t this Talbot just leave?”
“Talbot?” and Bernard was suddenly too close again. “Well, because they were bonded, silly boy! It was an old tie, made centuries ago, and they hadn’t renewed it in decades, but there it was. They’d fight, then make up, then fight again. They didn’t treat each other well, but bonding is bonding.”
“And so, you and Talbot?” Rasul guessed.
“He was the most amazing man,” Bernard confirmed. “Gifted. Smart.”
“How long were you lovers?” Karin asked.
“Ten years,” Bernard answered, sighing. “I know what you’re thinking. Not long, but long enough. He was so much fun! He made every night special.”
“So, if they’d come to an accommodation, why did Russell kill him?” Karin had her sword out. Rasul had also moved closer and Rick realized he was watching a trial.
“Because Talbot could do a special kind of glamour,” Bernard answered. “It was tricky. You couldn’t sense it, and even if you thought you’d unraveled it, some part of it remained, hidden deep. It made the best spies.” Now a tear did fall. “Russell was so greedy! He knew about Talbot’s gift but he only wanted it used for his own gain! He had Talbot create little gifts in all kinds of creatures, humans, Weres… even vampires, and he sent them out to do his work and make his money! But, let Talbot make one or two to keep an eye on who Russell was fucking and what schemes he was hatching? He killed him!” and Bernard sat down, wiping at his face. “He killed him just because Talbot wanted to use his own gift for himself! I hate him! I hate him and now he’s finally going to get his!”
“I wondered what happened to Talbot,” Karin sighed.
Rasul nodded before glancing at Rick, “We all knew of him. It raised questions when he disappeared.”
“I’m sorry,” Heidi told Bernard. “That’s why you were so anxious to help me.”
“I would have helped when it was just a love story, but when I realized Russell Edgington would meet his final death? Like I said, I believe in fate.” He glanced around. “I have a car and I know when Russell and his cronies are going to Club Dead tomorrow night. Like I said, I won’t fight. Believe me, I’m a disaster with a knife, but I can get you in.” He glanced at Rick. “You’d be best. Young, pretty, exactly my flavor.”
“Russell knows him,” Karin snapped. “He’s met Rick.”
“It wouldn’t take much to disguise him,” Bernard grinned. “A little eye liner and an earring, some clothing. It’s amazing what the right packaging can do.”
Rick was opening his mouth to protest, but Rasul cut him off. “We need to get our swords inside. Any ideas?”
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” Bernard answered. “There used to be a barrier that would have made it impossible, but that disappeared when Russell started fighting with witches. They pulled their protection, and now all Club Dead’s got protecting it is goblin fog. Doesn’t ban a thing! Just keeps the place from being too apparent to humans.”
“So, what are you thinking? We carry them in?” Heidi asked.
Bernard glanced at Rasul. “We’ll need some subterfuge. You still need to get past the goblin.”
“Still have pool tables?” Karin asked.
“Yes,” Bernard shrugged, “A couple in the back where the stage used to be.”
“Pool cue box,” Rasul nodded. He glanced at Hunter, “Start looking. We’ll need two boxes.” He tossed Hunter his burner phone.
“That’s one, maybe two swords inside,” Karin sniffed. “We need at least three. What about you, Heidi? You’re going to fight with us?”
“Of course,” Heidi nodded. “I can smuggle mine in strapped to my leg.”
“It would be better if we could get one stashed on premises,” and Karin glanced at Bernard.
“Don’t look at me!” the small vampire protested. “See this face? It only has so much guile, and carrying sharp objects is beyond my bandwidth,” but then he grinned at Rick. “Although, I don’t mind being poked if the poker looks like you,” and Rick felt Bernard’s hand start sliding up his leg.
“If Karin helps, I’m thinking I can manage to bring my sword in,” Rick said, stepping away from Bernard’s grasp. He stared at the vampire beside him, “You seem like you are good at distraction, Bernard. You’d be able to help me sneak it in, right?”
“What’s it worth to you?” Bernard snapped back, but withered quickly under Karin’s stare. “Yes, of course. I’m sure I can come up with something.”
“Is getting you in going to be a problem?” Heidi asked Karin.
Karin continued to stare at Bernard. “No, no problem. So, tell me, Bernard, what’s the clientele these days? Last time I was in the Club it was mostly Weres.”
“That hasn’t changed,” and Bernard walked into the room, taking the largest chair for himself. “The music changed a couple years ago. Mostly popular music now and less jazz. Weres like to be able to sing along.”
“Explains the pool tables,” Rasul sneered.
“If we can trigger a mass shifting, it could provide good cover,” Karin said.
Heidi was nodding, “Shouldn’t be hard. We kill one, get blood into the air. If we can create confusion…”
“What’s the moon phase?” Rasul asked.
“Near full,” Hunter told them, gesturing toward the window. “I found a place on the other side of town that sells billiard supplies. They list cue boxes. Rick and I can swing by once they’re open.” He glanced at Rasul, “It explains why we’re buying two. We can say we’re buying each other buddy presents.”
“Don’t make me jealous!” Bernard purred before adding, “When we get back to the Palace, I’ll find a suitable outfit for Rick. He’s about Talbot’s size.”
“Nothing too form-fitting,” Karin cautioned. “He’s got to get that sword inside.”
“Why not bring both of us into Club Dead?” Rick asked, gesturing toward Hunter. “You know, book ends?”
“Oh, I like the way you think!” Bernard laughed, “But alas, no. He,” and he gestured toward Hunter, “needs to stay with his lady fair. Everyone knows I’m a one-man boy and seeing me with more than one companion would draw too much attention.”
“I need you inside so you can read the crowd and keep me informed,” Karin said, cutting off any further protests from Rick. “Heidi, I need you near the door. If Hunter can help, fine, otherwise, send him outside when the trouble starts.” She glanced at Hunter, “You have a gun?”
“I can get him one,” Heidi answered.
“Don’t shoot vampires,” Karin told Hunter, “It only pisses us off, but if you’re charged by a Were, shoot low. It’ll stop them.”
“I’ll handle Betty Jo,” Rasul said.
“And I have Russell,” Karin agreed.
“I get the killing blow,” Rasul told her. “I need to make my claim clear.”
“I’m okay with that,” Karin replied. “I don’t want it. If you need to deliver the death blow to feel you’ve claimed the kingdom, fine, as long as I get to make him suffer.”
“And what about me?” Rick asked. Truth be told, he didn’t really want to kill anybody, but he was there for revenge and the idea of sitting on the sidelines didn’t feel right.
“You don’t really want to cross that line,” Hunter told him. “Once you go there, you can’t go back.”
Rick thought of the Fae he’d killed in Liverpool. Was it really less than a year ago? “Too late,” he said, and then to Karin, “I deserve to get something out of this, too.”
“I’ll make sure you get your sword wet,” she promised.
“Say you’re visiting,” Bernard told Rasul. “You’ve been around a long time. Depending on who Russell brings, it’s likely you’ll be recognized.”
“I know how to keep myself scarce,” Rasul shrugged.
“Then, all that remains is supplies,” and Karin sat down on the couch.
They spent the next few hours talking through what they had and what they’d need. Rick and Hunter were tasked with shopping for two sets of clothing, one for Karin and one for Rasul. Karin’s description of the items she wanted were particular. She’d brought in a suitcase from the car and was shaking out wigs. Heidi brought in a cooler and they packed the refrigerator with blood bags.
Rick’s stomach picked that time to growl. Bernard laughed and Rick had to fight not to hit him. “Come on, Cuz,” and Hunter stood. “Let’s leave these folks to swap stories and find ourselves some food.”
Bernard’s car was parked several blocks away. They barely spoke and it wasn’t until they were driving toward the strip mall that Hunter said, “You sure about this?”
“No,” Rick admitted, “but I’m going to do it anyway.”
“Bet you never thought you’d find yourself here,” Hunter sniffed. “Come a long way from some sleepy Yankee town up north.”
It made Rick sad, thinking of his childhood. He’d known about witches, but vampires and Weres and glamour were the stuff of fairy tales. “I wish I could give that childhood to Diana,” he said.
Hunter parked in front of a chicken and waffles joint. “Really?” and he grinned. “Look at you! If you’d known from the beginning what you were, you wouldn’t be so twisted up now, is what I’m thinking. You deserved truth and people who understood you, not trying to fit in someplace you never could.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Rick protested. “I mean, aside from the fangs and all, I was pretty much accepted in Chester.” He stared ahead, “I was happy.”
“You will be again,” Hunter assured him. “You’ll come through this, and you’ll find your new normal. You know what made you happy as a kid and you’ll give that to Diana,” and Hunter shoulder-bumped him. “And, I’ll help. I’ll be there for her like Aunt Sookie was there for me. Diana won’t ever have to wonder why she’s so strange or feel guilty for not fitting in.”
“There’s no reason to think Diana isn’t normal,” Rick protested. “I mean, she doesn’t have fangs or anything…”
“Yet,” Hunter interrupted. “Look, Rick, don’t fall into that trap. You’re who you are, and Brigid was part Fae. Accept that your daughter it going to be special. Watch for the signs and do me a favor? Celebrate them, each and every one! Let her feel like each thing that makes her your daughter is something wonderful. Never make her feel…”
“Like a freak.” Rick didn’t even have to try. The words were screaming in Hunter’s head. “I promise,” he told his cousin.
“We’re going to survive this thing,” Hunter told him, and Rick found himself hoping he did.