Thank you to Breathesgirl who continues to beta and push and suggest and make me laugh. You honor me.
Eric could see their destination long before the limousine pulled up to the curb. The spotlights swept the sky. Eric could smell the unique quality to the air that was so distinctly Los Angeles. He leaned back, turning the martini glass full of blood carefully in his fingers. The women who were hired to be his escorts sat on either side of him. One was spooling through her phone. The other was chatting with the television host who sat facing them. She was idly running her hand up and down his leg. When she started to creep closer to his crotch than his knee he captured her hand. She turned to him and he raised his eyebrows before raising her hand to his lips. He settled her hand on her own thigh and stared back out the window.
The trip to Los Angeles had been staged in two entirely separate travel groups. There was the advance group that had flown with Sandy Seacrest. The first contingent included writers, social media consultants and wranglers hired for the occasion. They had set up a ‘command center’ at the hotel across the street from Mistral. This was the group sending out press kits, assembling phone contact lists and both creating and fielding interview and appearance requests. Eric was committed to checking in with them at least twice a night for sessions where he would be placed in a room and subjected to a series of people who would be interviewing him either for television or news articles.
Eric had traveled with the second group. He had been relieved when he realized that he would be in his travel coffin for the actual transport to Los Angeles. It would be a welcome respite from the noise and whirl of activities. He couldn’t imagine having to sit in the confined area of the main cabin with Twy and her posse. He had a moment when he wondered if she had realized the level of his discomfort and purposely timed things to be easy on him. Then he dismissed the idea.
As it was when Eric rose he automatically checked for Sookie. He realized time and distance were taking a toll on the tie between them. He could tell she continued but little else. He opened the coffin and found himself in an upgraded suite. He walked out of his bedroom into a combination seating area/conference room filled with people. Twy seemed to know everyone and Eric had quickly realized that the fewer questions he asked the easier things seemed to go. It ran against his nature to not be in control but if there was anything he had learned in his past years of servitude in Oklahoma it was the virtue of patience. Once he was appropriately dressed and had spent time with the stylist and the stylist’s assistant he retreated back to his bedroom. Karin joined him there, her eyes hard. He found himself smiling at her sound of disgust. She dropped into a chair and immediately went into downtime. Eric could feel her anxiety and he quite agreed. Twy’s contract would be at an end with the conclusion of the Summit and he was ready to return to a slower pace. There would continue to be a publicist but it was assumed that the laws of physics would apply; the motion that had been created with Twy’s efforts would continue for some time to come without the additional time and energy that was being expended all around him at the moment.
Within 20 minutes there was a knock on the door and Chloe stuck her head inside without waiting for an invitation. “We have to get going. You have live televised interviews scheduled across the street and you’ll need some makeup. Then we need to be ready to be in the limo by 11PM if we’re going to arrive at Fangtasia-LA for the carpet walk. Twy asked that you try not to sit any more than required so your suit doesn’t wrinkle,” and Chloe was back out of the room leaving the door ajar.
Karin gave Eric a sour look. “When the contract is over I want to drain them both. You have any problem with that?” Eric raised an eyebrow then shrugged and headed toward the door.
“My guess is they’d be cheaper dead,” he mumbled. He looked up to find Twy looking straight at him. She fixed him with a stink eye that made him wonder if she had vampire hearing.
“Let’s roll, babies,” she said and clapped her hands. Swarms of people headed out into the hallway. There were two brawny looking men at the door who fell in step behind Eric as he exited. Eric glanced at Karin who gave him a ‘don’t ask’ look in return. The elevator was sent to the first floor with the first contingent. Eric waited for the second elevator. He was crowded inside with Karin, Twy, the bodyguards, Chloe and his personal photographer who had been taking pictures pretty much nonstop since Eric emerged from his bedroom.
The elevators opened to a lovely lobby. There were faces that Eric recognized but he found himself unable to stop and chat as the entire entourage swept him toward the front doors. Bellmen opened the double doors and Eric found himself on the street surrounded by flashing lights, microphones and screaming girls. He wondered what rock star or film celebrity was in town. Then he realized that they were chanting, “Eric! Eric! Eric!” They were holding up tee shirts with pictures of his face and waving posters at him. He could feel Karin’s surprise and he glanced back at her. Then he saw Twy’s look; she looked like the cat that swallowed the canary and swept her hand as if to say ‘See? This is what you get when you have me.’ Twy jerked her chin at him and he stopped and turned to face the barricades. He took a bit of a breath then smiled his broadest smile and waved. The people behind the barricade seemed to surge forward and he found himself engulfed in a wave of sound. In all his days sitting on the throne at Fangtasia it had never occurred to him that a vampire could be anything but an oddity to humans. He realized now that there were other possibilities; public possibilities.
The group around him swept him across the street and through the doors. He was taken to a card-access floor and walked past people sporting press passes that were queued in the hallway. He was shown to a suite, settled on a couch and given a preliminary list of those who would be seeing him and the order in which they would be called.
Twy was by his side. “Do you need a donor now or will bottled blood do?”
Eric knew he was stressed. He needed to feed but he also needed to have full control of his instincts. He would need time to ensure that there were no unnecessary complications whether from accidentally inflicting pain on the donor or unintentional stains on his clothing. In other words he needed time that was not available. “Bottled. Royalty if they have it. Warm it first. Two bottles now and then keep a glass filled here for me.” Twy jerked her chin toward Chloe who scrambled away.
Eric looked at Twy. She had barely made eye contact with him in the past 72 hours. Even now, the only two in the room, her attention was focused on the phone in her hand. Eric took a deep breath. “I want to thank you. I realize I am paying you and this is your job, but you do it very well. You have delivered everything you promised.”
Twy’s eyes traveled from the phone to his. “Does this mean you want to fuck me?” she asked. Based on her tone of voice she could just as well have asked him whether he preferred light or dark clothing.
Eric smiled automatically. “Why? Is that the kind of bonus you would prefer?”
Her eyes took on a predatory look and Eric had a brief uncomfortable moment. He had not thought that Twy might actually consider his offer. “Don’t panic, Northman,” she said. “I don’t know who this person is that you’re saving yourself for, but you’re not exactly subtle.” Eric felt himself relaxing in spite of himself.
“It would be best if others didn’t have that impression,” he told her.
“Don’t sweat it. I’ve had years of reading people and it took me a while to piece it together. I don’t think anyone else sees it. Just keep smiling at the eye candy I drape around you. Your secret’s safe,” she said.
There was a knock at the door signaling that interviews were about to start. As Twy headed to the door she said, “There is one thing. I can always do with introductions. It looks to me like there’s big money to be made in your, shall we say ‘community?’ Why don’t you recommend me to some of your friends?”
Eric smiled in return. “Yes, I can do that. I can even be enthusiastic about it.”
Twy smiled back. “Don’t go all mushy on me. Hard ass suits you better.”
The round of interviews was grueling. Eric was shuttled back and forth between rooms. He found a rhythm in the questions and soon settled on rote answers. He even started playing his own game betting with Karin on how many questions each person would ask and whether the next person would repeat a particular question that had been asked earlier by another reporter.
Finally it was 10:30 and time to make their way down to the street to catch the limousine that would take them to opening night of Fangtasia-LA. Eric was to be shadowed by a photographer and writer from Vanity Fair magazine for the entire evening. He would also have a commentator from a popular evening entertainment show at his elbow for the first hour to work the red carpet welcoming and doing spot interviews with the evening’s guests.
In the end Felipe had relented. The pre-opening party that was to have been vampire-only and for Summit attendees had been opened to others. With the decision made to allow human companions a host of Hollywood elite had found their way on to the list. In the end vampires proved to be as star struck as any other person and it now looked like the human to vampire ratio was nearly equal.
As the limo pulled up Eric realized he was seeing barricades holding back young people similar to those he had seen at the hotel. The people were yelling and holding up everything from photos to tee shirts to banners, all with his likeness. Karin looked at him and said, “Surreal.” Eric nodded.
The door opened and his escorts were handed out. When he stood up the crowd started yelling. He found himself smiling and waving again. Pam and Maxwell came out of the club doors and walked toward him. His escorts were taken inside by some of Twy’s army and his reunion with Pam was photographed from every angle. He ignored the flashing lights and hugged her close. Then he pulled back to kiss her forehead. “You are beautiful,” he told her. “I am honored by you.” She beamed up at him. Then Eric bowed to Maxwell. Maxwell bowed in return and caught himself before acknowledging Eric by his title.
Twy and the Vanity Fair team swung into action, arranging Eric with Karin and Pam for ‘family’ photos. Then they had photos with Maxwell in the line-up and then with just Pam and Max. The television show commentator motioned to Eric that they were ready. Eric fixed a smile on his face and walked over toward the lights and cameras.
“You look well,” Pam told Karin. “I’m surprised you haven’t hurt anyone.”
Karin flashed her fangs. “No one is more surprised than me. The Summit is over in three days and so is this freak show. Not that I’m counting.”
Pam put her hand on Karin’s arm and motioned her toward the club. “Your hired help will stand with Eric. He wanted this. Let him have his moment of victory.” Pam flashed a fangy smile and lifted an eyebrow.
“In other words, let him stew?” Karin’s expression softened. “Works for me.” She turned her head to include Maxwell in their conversation. “Come show me your club!”
Eric watched the three walk inside, abandoning him to the whirlwind around him. Twy became ringmaster indicating with a tilt of the head which of the arriving guests were to be corralled and herded toward the television crew and the circus continued.
Most of those brought over to the cameras were human and were recognizable for a variety of reasons. There were musicians and singers; actors and writers. Some were vampire and Eric made a point of introducing them using their businesses or their states to explain their relative importance. Eric was starting to relax and then Felipe de Castro arrived.
Twy had almost allowed the king to walk past but something made her jerk her chin and her minions moved to steer de Castro’s party toward the camera crew. Eric’s eyes had widened as he saw Horst move into a protective stance but then the moment had passed and Felipe had allowed himself to be maneuvered forward into the spotlight. “Northman,” he had almost hissed.
Eric bowed deeply. The commentator had looked puzzled. Eric rose and smiled broadly, “This is Felipe de Castro, the renowned entertainment impresario,” Eric told him. “Mr. de Castro has majority interest in a number of ventures including several casinos in Las Vegas. He is a person of great importance among vampires; a king among us you might say,” and Eric had smiled.
The commentator held his microphone toward Felipe, “Does that mean that you have an interest in the Fangtasia franchise?”
Felipe smiled tightly. “Why yes, I do have an investment in Fangtasia and its partners. With this opening of our newest club I felt it important to come and help celebrate.” The king turned his eyes toward Eric, “After all, living up to obligations and celebrating success is important.”
The commentator smiled, “Sure is! Well, looks like you will have one big success on your hands tonight!”
“I would expect nothing less from the team of Ravenscroft and Lee. They know how I hate failure,” and Felipe turned hard eyes on Eric. Then he turned back to the commentator, pulled his face into a smile and laughed. Behind him Horst laughed too. The overall effect was not friendly; it sounded ominous. The commentator looked startled. He started to look for the next guest but before he could move Felipe spoke again. “I would like to take this opportunity to introduce one of my newest partners.” He signaled and a man Eric had never seen walked forward. “This is Sonny McMillan. He and Horst,” Felipe waved at his second, “are launching a new Mixed Martial Arts franchise. They will be providing an evening of entertainment for the Summit attendees.” Sonny seemed to be holding back but de Castro pulled him forward. The man seemed to glance at Eric nervously but after a moment he stepped forward. Eric could smell that the man was a shifter. He wasn’t surprised based on what he had heard of the fighting franchise so far.
Sonny turned to the camera, smiled broadly and said, “Yup, not only a partner but I take my place in the ring. I promise my audiences some of the most exciting fighting they will ever see. It’s everything you’ve come to expect with the very best of the sport, but with a supernatural twist.”
The commentator leaned forward. “Can you give our audience a hint?”
“We can do better,” Sonny announced. “We can give you and your audience ringside seats at our demo tomorrow night.”
Eric found himself troubled. He didn’t recognize Sonny McMillan but there was something about him that was nagging at him. Horst, Sonny and Felipe all waved at the camera. Felipe grabbed Eric’s arm and turned him away from the camera. “We’ll be talking soon, Northman.”
Eric nodded and bowed again.
The following night started with another round of interviews and photograph sessions. Once these were finished, Eric found himself dragged alongside the barricade to wave and sign autographs. After a half hour of ‘working the line,’ Twy allowed him to return to the Mistral and head toward the central ballroom which was set up like an exhibitor’s hall. With a small entourage of media personalities in tow, Eric gave a guided tour and provided introductions to many of those manning the tables. As he turned a corner he came face to face with Bill Compton. Bill was sitting at a table signing copies of his book for a line of mostly women. He would smile, say a few words and then sign the book. Eric heard one of the journalists behind him say, “Look, it’s the bestselling author. I didn’t know he’d be here!” Eric turned to find the one who had spoken.
“Oh yes,” another of the journalists volunteered. “His new book was at number five this morning. Really climbing the charts.”
Just then Bill raised his head and stilled when he saw the Viking.
“Eric,” he stated. He had a smile on his face but he didn’t look happy.
“Compton. I didn’t expect to see you here. Long way from Bon Temps.”
Bill’s smile turned a little less strained. “Oh, you haven’t heard. I am in Jackson now. I’m a guest of Russell Edgington.”
Eric’s eyes narrowed. “Jackson?” The question was on the tip of his tongue but he couldn’t bring himself to say it. Then Bill spoke providing him the answer.
“Yes. With Sookie Stackhouse. You remember her?” and Bill’s expression turned almost gloating. “I never thought I’d see her again and now I see her every day. It’s like it was always meant to be.”
Eric could feel jealousy stirring deep within him. It was like a dark and living thing and he could feel it gathering strength. His hands ached to tear Compton to pieces. As he felt his jaw clench he heard one of the journalists say, ‘Sookie Stackhouse? Like S.S.? Like your dedication?”
Bill smiled directly at Eric as he answered. “Just a coincidence.”
Eric smiled in return, his fangs protruding slightly. “Good luck Compton.” He swept forward forgetting the journalists in his wake. Most of them rushed to catch up with the vampire, but one of them turned to a nearby exhibitor.
“Any idea what that was about?”
The vampire smiled at him. “What, you mean Compton and the Viking?” When the journalist nodded the vampire’s fangs descended, clearly pleased to share a bit of gossip. “Norseman doesn’t like Compton talking about his former wife. Vampires are possessive. The relationship between Eric and the Stackhouse woman was notorious. The rumor I heard is that Compton had her first.”
The journalist was puzzled. “Former wife? I thought the former wife was Freyda something.”
The vampire shook his head and said, “No, not the vampire wife. The human wife Northman divorced. Sookie Stackhouse.” The vampire excused himself then and left before he could be asked any more questions.
When the journalist looked around he realized he’d lost sight of the Northman group. He pushed his way to the back of the hall and placed a call to his research team. He asked for any and all information on William Compton, Eric Northman and a human woman named Sookie Stackhouse in or around Jackson or Bon Temps. When he hung up the phone he made his way back to the Compton table and picked up a book. He walked to the back of the line and while he waited to meet the author he started to read.
The business meetings started shortly after midnight. The first night of the Summit was dedicated to more general business usually followed by kingdom audiences. Eric was slated to start his new position chairing the New Ventures Committee and would open with his presentation on natural oil exploration investment opportunities. He had expanded his notes to include options for co-support of renewable energy storage and transmission. The room had been equipped with extra chairs and the wall that was at the open end of the table’s U formation was crowded with a bank of cameras.
Eric realized the media blitz was damaging his relationship with his Narayana peers. Some found themselves intrigued by the instant celebrity but most were offended. Everything about the exposure felt invasive and dangerous to the vampires. Eric had been on the receiving end of a number of comments that let him know that he was losing support for his initiatives. He was starting to realize that the protection that being in the public eye provided came at a high price. While officially Mistral was happy with the extra publicity and had shown their appreciation by upgrading the amenities offered him, the king and owner of the hotel, Robert of California, had announced that he would not be attending this Summit and had authorized his representatives to conduct business in his name. It wasn’t a surprise based on Robert’s reputation for privacy but it did put a damper on the Summit as an opportunity for the entire Clan to come together. Karin let Eric know that the undercurrent of commentary was that attendees were blaming Eric.
The meeting started well. Eric stood up and walked through his slides. He felt that the argument he made for capital investment was persuasive. However, as he read the body language of those at the table he could see that there would be few willing to join him. The applause he received was polite but little more.
He gritted his teeth into a smile and called on the next presenter. During the next hour there were pitches for a new all-night dry cleaning franchise and a new manufacturer of travel coffins. Both garnered some attention. Then Felipe de Castro swept into the room. Horst, Sonny and Red Rita were at his shoulders. Sandy Seacrest was the last to walk in. Eric could tell by the set of her shoulders that all was not well.
Felipe himself stepped forward and described their new entertainment offering. They were calling it Flying Tigers and described it as an all comers fight venue that combined the strategy of mixed martial arts with the natural advantages of supernatural abilities. There would be division by weight. There would be match-ups based on abilities and species, however, combatants could earn more points in the standings by taking on other species to prove themselves as the top of the food chain.
Of course there would be rules about extreme damage and mortal combat would not be sanctioned. To be declared the franchise champion a fighter would need to win against Sonny McMillan. “And Sonny will prove his ability to all of you tonight with an exhibition match we are hosting. We are handing out passes and directions at our table on the floor. Those with Summit badges are guaranteed admittance. Others will be on a first come first served basis.” Felipe smiled, nodded toward Eric and motioned to his group that they were leaving.
As the king walked forward Eric saw Twy intercept him. He could hear her congratulating de Castro on his remarks and mention his performance at Fangtasia–LA the previous night. Felipe gave her a cold look, turned on his heel and left. Horst flashed his fangs at her. Eric saw the look that settled on Twy’s face. “Wouldn’t want to be the king,” Eric thought.
Felipe stood at the windows staring across the street at the next building. While the accommodations were pleasant he missed the sweeping vistas one got on higher floors. This new trend toward squat buildings smacked of cowardice. It rankled him.
Behind him Sandy Seacrest was droning on and on. She was angry about being cut out of the decision to form and fund Flying Tigers. She was quoting from one of her interminable reports predicting her usual doom and gloom. ‘Horst was right,’ he thought. ‘She really is most tiresome.’
He turned and cut her off. “So let me see if I have this right. I made a mistake. Even though I have new businesses opening up all over the country and my casinos are filled with people I am losing money. You are smarter than me and I should only listen to you. Did I miss anything?”
He could tell that his remarks made an impression. Sandy actually stepped back. There was a look of shock on her face and she quickly bowed low. ‘About time,’ he thought. ‘If you ever brought me good news I wouldn’t dread seeing you so much.’ She started apologizing, her words stuttering. Felipe felt an odd mix of disgust and power. He realized he liked seeing her grovel. He turned his head to see Horst’s reaction. As expected his second was grinning, his fangs descended. Horst had been right about this too. When confronted she folded like a coward.
“Get up, Sandy. Go sit down.” Sandy moved quickly to do as he asked. She seated herself toward the back of the room. She kept her eyes lowered. Felipe turned next to Red Rita. “And you,” he snarled. “You have likewise given me nothing but a litany of failures. I give you two states and you manage to bungle everything.” Red Rita likewise bowed. Unlike Sandy Rita looked like she wanted to bolt toward the door. Horst had suggested that a show of savagery would motivate the right behavior. Felipe had decided to indulge him. Felipe nodded toward Horst and in an instant Rita was dead; staked where she stood.
Felipe turned back toward the windows. He could see Horst gesturing in the window’s reflection. Two vampire guards moved into the room and started shuffling things around in order to clean up the mess. “Northman and my sheriffs are due shortly. It would be better if there were some traces left.” He turned to meet Horst’s eyes again. “And make sure that Northman leaves his television leeches outside.”
Just as the last of the bags were being taken out through the connecting room there was a knock on the door. Horst opened it and Felipe turned and watched with pleasure as he saw each of those sworn to lead his areas register the scent of recent death. ‘Good, let them wonder. Let them consider who might be next.’ Felipe’s eyes wandered to Eric Northman. He was certain the Viking was biding his time, waiting for the chance to take a stab at his king. ‘A reputation is only as good as the next act,’ the king considered.
Horst gestured to the vassals of Nevada to take a seat on the chairs and sofas. There would be some of the gathering left standing. That was by design. Eric caught Pam’s eye and nodded as she found a seat. Then he moved to stand near Sandy Seacrest. He caught her eye and raised his eyebrows. ‘Rita,’ she mouthed.
Eric turned and made a point of keeping his head slightly lowered. It would appear his king was in a killing mood.
Felipe rocked back on his heels. “It is good to see all my loyal subjects here so anxious to do the work of their king.” He took the time to look in the eyes of each of them. He looked down and purposely toed a piece of clothing that was missed; Rita’s clothing. “It is good because we all know the penalty that is faced by those who are not properly loyal; those whose motivation is weak.” He walked over to the Viking and looked directly at him. “Rita was weak. She was my regent and she failed me. Her motivation was not strong. And she has paid the price.”
Felipe allowed the tension to grow before turning and walking back toward the window. “A regent is a position of great trust. It presents great rewards because it carries great risk.” He looked at Eric again. “Wouldn’t you agree, Northman?”
There was no doubt he had the Viking’s attention. Pam Ravenscroft was seated to his right and he heard her hiss. He swung his head and heard Northman call out, “Pam!” He saw her drop her head adopting a more subservient posture.
Felipe allowed a smile to play across his lips. “That is why I have chosen one who has proven his loyalty again and again to be the new regent of Arkansas and Louisiana. Horst has been my loyal right hand. He has given me counsel and stood beside me. It is only right that he should be my regent.” Horst stepped forward and bowed his head low to his king. Felipe laid his hand on Horst’s shoulder. “You have proven yourself in every way. I expect that you will pay close attention to my holdings.”
“I am honored, majesty,” Horst said. When he straightened he turned expectantly. Pam rose with the other sheriffs to pledge support to Horst. When it was her turn to kneel Felipe stepped forward.
“Ah Pam! You have proven yourself such a wonderful asset. Your work in expanding Fangtasia has been outstanding. The opening of your club here has been the talk of the Summit.” Then de Castro looked thoughtful and tapped his chin. “Of course, I expect that all this promotion has been at the expense of your sheriff’s duties.”
Horst smiled at his king. “I will make a thorough accounting of Area 5 my first priority, majesty,” Horst said.
De Castro grinned. “Of course, of course! But I can’t escape the idea that our Ms. Ravenscroft is meant for bigger things, Horst. Perhaps a more strategic role? A role that can enhance our standing with other states?”
Horst smiled. “Perhaps a marriage? I understand that Alabama has indicated some interest in a consort. It would be a worthy match and could bring several strategic advantages.”
Felipe could see the anger playing out across Pam’s face. ‘Make a move,’ he thought. ‘Come at me and I will end you. That will be sufficient punishment for Northman.’ But somehow she managed to bow more deeply and keep her eyes and emotions in check. “Brilliant idea, Horst. Perhaps you should attend the Amun Summit. Alabama will be there. You can start inquiries.”
Horst smiled. He flicked his fingers indicating that Pam should rise.
Felipe looked around. “I expect you all to attend this evening’s performance of Flying Tigers. I expect you to be enthusiastic. We are looking for additional investors. Work the room.” Then he turned and looked specifically at Eric. “I also have a matter coming before the magister during tomorrow’s Assizes session. I have filed a motion to have Sookie Stackhouse declared a stolen asset to the kingdom and am suing for her return. I expect each of you to attend and to work your contacts to garner support from the floor. “Felipe walked over to stand directly in front of Eric. “I know you will do your best to see that my motion succeeds, right Northman?”
Eric bowed his head.