NOTE: Only one more chapter after this one! I look forward to hearing how you like the twist. And I do promise that this will conclude without any cliffhanger. Your reviews and feedback have been a real gift to me. As you may have read, I am starting work on a sequel which will be called The Far Reach. I have left plenty of dangling ends and I will pick up where they leave off. My thanks to Breathesgirl who has been my beta and more. If you like the Bill Compton novel send her some extra love. It’s all her!
There were suddenly so many faces surrounding him; faces welcoming him back; faces registering their approval. There were those who anticipated more good fortune and were making their presence known so that they could remind him that they had been among the first to congratulate him.
And then, in the many acquaintances, Pam’s face was before him. She smiled up at him and bowed. “Master,” she had said: One word that conveyed everything. ‘Tomorrow,’ he thought, ‘I will complete this journey and my progeny will be free.’ The second face, Karin, stood behind her sister. Eric had sensed a dampening of Karin’s spirit. He had heard that Thomas, Isaiah’s second was not likely to return any single vampire’s interest and Eric wondered if his child’s reticence might be tied in some way to that realization. He smiled encouragement at her and she smiled back and nodded.
The last face; the dearest face he wanted to see seemed to be missing. He finished scanning another time, and still finding her missing he sent a warning through the bond. Both his children’s expressions sharpened showing they understood. “Sookie?” he asked. Pam shook her head and Karin did as well. Eric turned his head and saw King Crowe. “Sookie?” he asked again.
‘We left her in our suite with Mr. Cataliades just before the start of the Tribunal,” the king told him. Eric replayed the emotions he had felt from her running through the bond as he waited for the doors to open; the doors that would lead him here. He had felt her panic and pain. He had almost abandoned his place to find her when the feelings changed and he had felt her calm return. He reached out now and felt only a vague sense of disquiet. He thought she must still be with the lawyer; at a minimum she did not seem to be in any distress.
Sandy Seacrest came through the crowd to stand in front of him. A rare smile lit her face. Eric bowed to her. “I am indebted to you,” he said.
“Yes, you are,” Sandy returned. “I look forward to a long and profitable collaboration between our areas, Viking. You can anticipate my demands for favorable trade terms. Of course I would anticipate that you would consider me a preferred partner in any upcoming contracts. There was nothing selfless in anything I did.” Eric knew Sandy well enough to know that while she was serious, there was also an underlying thread of her own unique dry humor embedded in her remarks. The Kansas monarch did not.
“I am happy to hear that Miss Seacrest.” The monarch made an effort to draw closer to Eric. He faced Sandy, edging others back. He made clear that what he had to say he wished to be heard by many. “I am happy because it would not sit well with me to think that someone as educated as yourself; with a reputation for fair dealing would embrace a spouse killer; a queen killer.” Ralph looked directly at Eric. “There may be others here willing to overlook what you did, but I am not among them.”
The king turned his head until he was looking directly at Russell Edgington. “I can only assume that you were ill informed about the Viking to have accepted him as part of your retinue,” he sneered.
Russell found himself leaning forward, but he caught himself. The Mississippi king looked over Kansas’ shoulder. He could see the tall publicist and her reporter’s faces. At Ralph’s words the reporter turned to look at Eric Northman with more interest. ‘This is the true danger,’ the king thought. He had a flash of a headline splashed across a newspaper and a picture of the Viking being labeled as a murderer.
“Ralph,” Russell purred, “I am sorry to say it is you who are ill informed. Eric did not murder Freyda. Her death was tragic but it was an accident.” Russell glared at Kansas bringing his full focus and pushing glamour at the monarch. He knew it would have little effect but he hoped it would startle the king enough to get his attention. Russell saw the king rear back as he felt the tentative pressure. When Ralph locked his eyes on Russell’s, Mississippi deliberately turned his head and nodded in the direction of the humans. “I am sure that you would not wish to misinform members of the press or give them the wrong idea by making wild accusations.”
Ralphs’ eyes narrowed. Russell could see that the monarch now recognized that there was a need for discretion. The king pulled himself back and then straightened a bit, rocking forward on his toes. “I do not have any proof,” Kansas said, making an effort to sound contrite. “Perhaps I spoke hastily.”
Russell smiled and bowed slightly, “Of course it is understandable. Freyda was so young and it seems unfair. The best way to honor her memory is to band together, those of us who knew her best, and share her memory.” Russell made sure that his smile was especially warm. “She should never be forgotten.” Russell swung his look to Eric then. The Viking’s expression was neutral. Without taking his eyes from Eric, Russell continued, “I would appreciate time to speak of this further; to remember Freyda. Might I invite you to come to our suite? There is an hour before the business meetings start. What better time to spend with friends than the present?” Bartlett stepped forward as well. He was smiling but no one was thinking it was friendly. Ralph glanced around him quickly.
“Yes, of course; as long as I won’t miss the meeting this evening on natural gas pipelines. There is talk of expanding transmission to include turbine-generated electricity and my state has a particular interest.” No one was fooled. Ralph was making sure that everyone within hearing knew that he was expected to return. That way he would be missed if the Amun rulers intended to kill him.
Robert of California inclined his head and said, “I would also like to share my memories of Oklahoma.” He bowed to Kansas and then smiled at Russell. Beside him Ralph relaxed.
Nabila and Phoebe stood next to California. Nabila’s expression made clear she expected to be included. “Would you honor us by joining us as well, Nabila? We will arrange a little refreshment,” Bartlett smiled. The Carolina’s queen’s lips twitched up and her chin tilted in agreement. And then Bartlett smiled warmly at the Iowa Queen. “And you too, dear Phoebe. Of course.”
Bartlett turned to Eric. “Shall we, Eric?” he asked.
Eric turned to find Mr. Cataliades at his elbow. The lawyer smiled tightly and said, “I can see that you are busy at the moment. I have some matters to discuss but they can wait until later tonight. I will be in the conference area when the contract ratification talks start.” He bowed and turned to leave.
Eric frowned, scanning the faces that surrounded Mr. Cataliades. Where was Sookie? The Viking’s level of concern started to ratchet as he swept first one group and then another without seeing the one person he needed. He could feel her; she was near and did not seem to be experiencing any alarming emotions. Eric was sure he would know if she was sleeping or unconscious. But she was not here in this room . Eric couldn’t stop himself asking, “Sookie? Is she with you?”
The attorney turned back and then shook his head. “No.” The attorney’s eyes widened. “ I thought she had come down here to join you.”
The monarchs were leaving. Russell looked back, the expression on his face calm but firm. Eric could not delay.
Eric turned to Pam and Karin. “Find her,” he hissed. Then he trained his face into a slight smile and followed the monarchs, looking for all the world like a man among friends.
Pam gestured at Karin to follow her to the area behind the dais. The rest of the crowd was streaming out the entrance doors and it allowed the two women some privacy. “We have to find her,” Pam hissed. “And fast.” Karin nodded and looked away, her face neutral.
Pam looked sharply at her sister. “Ok Karin. What is it?” When Karin made no move to talk Pam pressed. “Eric tells me you left Minnesota without formally taking your leave. You have all but avoided us since we arrived in Nashville. You are worrying me.” Pam’s eyes narrowed. “Is this about Sookie?” she asked.
The change that flashed across Karin’s face gave Pam her answer. Before she could press further, Karin started. “I’ve done something terrible. I don’t think our master will ever forgive me if he finds out.” Karin looked miserable. “You may decide you want to stake me too after I tell you.” Karin looked at Pam, her eyes sad and solemn.
Pam nodded. “There are few things I can think of that would set you forever outside my affection, sister.” Pam’s eyes narrowed and she leaned forward. “Does this great secret impact our master’s safety?”
Karin shook her head. Pam leaned back and visibly relaxed. “No,” Karin told her. “But it does impact his happiness, if that happiness requires Sookie Stackhouse.”
Pam leveled a look at Karin. She squared her shoulders and crossed her arms. “You know that his happiness depends on her.” Pam shook her head. “Truth be told, I’m fond of the fairy. You better tell me what you did,” and Pam settled back on her heels, clearly waiting.
Karin bit her lower lip, then squared her shoulders, straightened herself and began. “I steered her into Kentucky’s bed in Minnesota. I wanted him to claim her so that Eric would give her up.”
Pam hissed, “What were you thinking? Did something happen?” When Karin shook her head, Pam relaxed again. “How did you think that would help Eric? There would have been a fight. Our master may have been hurt or killed. Alliances would have been broken.” Pam found herself truly angry. “Sister, how could you have been so foolish?”
Karin looked away, unable to meet Pam’s eyes. “I told myself I was doing it for Eric’s own good, but you’re right. I wasn’t thinking clearly.” She looked up then at her sister. “I find that I struggle to keep my own anger in check when it comes to the telepath. There is something about them; seeing them together that fills me with anger.”
“Are you jealous?” Pam asked. She had never detected any feelings of lust or desire flowing through the bond.
Karin shook her head, “Not in the way you might think. It is more a desire to protect him from anyone I think might take advantage. I can’t control it and now I find myself making stupid decisions; dangerous decisions. I have considered telling him and begging him to end me.”
Pam found herself rearing back, “Karin! No!” She placed her hand on Karin’s arm. “You must make amends, and making sure that Sookie is safe is a start.” Pam looked intently into her sister’s eyes. “He loves her, Karin. You can feel this. You must accept and support it. She will be our mistress.” Pam squeezed a little. “I can feel your conflict. Please set it aside for now. We need to locate the telepath and then we will see.”
Karin nodded. “Yes, you are right.” She looked around at the empty hall. “I can take the exhibitor’s hall.” Pam nodded.
“Good. I need to touch base with Twy and then I’ll circle around the remaining rooms. It shouldn’t take long. We need to hurry before the next meetings start.”
With a nod the sisters headed for the entrance doors.
Sookie stood beside the column. From here she had a clear view of the Flying Tigers table. She found that she couldn’t stop watching the man she now knew was Sam Merlotte. She found herself cataloguing things. She noticed that his hair was the same; it was still that springy ginger that she remembered. But the face that was beneath the curly hair was so different. The jaw and chin had not changed nor the cheekbones. The eye shape was different now. The nose and the bow of his lip were altered. Sookie realized she could have walked up to him on the street and she would never have recognized him. She felt a coldness come over her as she wondered if this had been his purpose; to be able to stalk her with anonymity.
Sookie wondered if this was how Eric saw his enemies; like a predator assessing them for weakness. She watched Sam’s movement; the way he swung around the table. She noticed how he turned and that he seemed to favor his right side. He was speaking with a vampire and suddenly he threw his head back and laughed. Sookie felt her heart clench then.
‘I loved him once,’ she thought. ‘I would have done anything to please him.’ Sookie couldn’t seem to help remembering Sam’s face when he asked her to marry him. She remembered how her heart had seemed to fly and how she couldn’t keep from smiling. She thought of how the light had shone on him through the window of the church when he had looked deep in her eyes and said, ‘I do.’ She remembered sitting in his office and chatting about their day; how he smiled and laughed with the folks at Merlotte’s. Sookie realized that this man; this terrible man had so much of her life tied up in him. He was the holder of memories that once gone would be hers alone.
Sookie wondered if she had the ability to stare in his face and push the dagger home; if she could live with the person she would become.
Karin had known in her gut that she would find the telepath near McMillan/Merlotte’s booth. She recognized Sookie immediately, even from the back. Karin could see that the woman had aligned herself so that Merlotte wouldn’t see her, and so Karin stopped and stepped back. She reached into her pocket for her phone and swiftly texted, ‘I have her. She’s safe.’ The acknowledgement came back almost immediately. Karin settled into her position; watching the woman who watched the shifter.
Karin didn’t need to be a mind reader to understand what was running through Sookie’s mind. The thoughts that were at first fierce and then less so flew across the woman’s face like shadows. Karin knew all too well the conflicting emotions that were involved when you were sent to kill one of your own. Karin had only had to face these kinds of challenges a few times. There had been the vampire who had betrayed his nest mates. Karin had not known him well but there had been history. She had shared blood and sex with him a couple of times before being hired to end him. Then there had been the were in Amsterdam who had been a friend; someone who had shared shopping and books as part of a larger social group that included Karin. Both times Karin had experienced that moment when she doubted her ability to divorce her personal feelings from her professional commitment. Both times she had been able to overcome her reluctance and kill with precision.
Standing in the convention hall, Karin had an epiphany. She realized that one of the reasons she was angry at Sookie was that she was struggling so hard to find the same ambivalence when it came to her maker and the telepath. She realized that if ordered she would not be able to end Sookie and there was something about that that bothered her. It suggested that she may have come to care in a way that would prevent her from putting herself and her master first. She found herself clenching her fists in frustration.
“I don’t know about you, but it’s a toss-up which one I want to end more; the woman or the shifter.” Karin managed not to jump or turn around.
“What’s it to you Horst? Besides, you should be more worried about yourself. Maybe I should give you a new name, like Stake Bait or Dead Man Walking – the Final Chapter.” Karin continued to keep her eyes on Sookie, refusing to give the other vampire the respect of meeting his eyes. She knew that by presenting her back she was telling him he wasn’t worthy of her worry.
Karin could hear Horst sigh behind her. “I do find myself between monarchs,” he said. “I don’t mind telling you that I am at a loss as to my next steps.”
Karin was surprised. She turned to the vampire and said, “Shit, Horst. Are we having a moment here?”
To her surprise, Horst chuckled. “I suppose we are,” he agreed. “I have always admired your work. You are clever and precise in what you do; an artist.” Karin cocked her head to the side.
“Well, I might have to return the favor, asshole,” she told him. “You have always managed to carry out your assignments cleanly; no trace. That’s a rare thing.” Karin turned back then to continue her watch. “So, what do you want?” she asked. Karin didn’t have to see it to know the vampire behind her shrugged.
“Perhaps I just want to spend some of my last hours in conversation with a colleague,” he replied. “Or maybe I am thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Karin found herself curious. “Don’t tell me that you are even thinking about going after Sookie. I’m not her biggest fan at the moment, but she’s important to my maker so I’d have to end you.” Karin turned to give Horst a cold look.
He shook his head. “No. Not her.” He looked past her at towards McMillan/Merlotte. “But that bastard. I’d love to see him breathe his last.”
“The shifter?” Karen asked. “Why him? I thought you were all business butt buddies.”
“Hardly,” Horst told her. “The only reason he still walks is that Merlotte decided blackmailing Felipe would make a good business strategy. I have neutralized his immediate threat, but who knows what he could pull out of his ass, given the time.”
Karen shrugged and turned back. She remembered the videos she had found in Oklahoma and found that the idea of killing Merlotte was gaining appeal. “Not my favorite guy either. So why not do it yourself?”
‘Because right now I’m just a failure. If I word my resignation right and prove that I’ve removed the blackmail threat hanging over his head, Felipe might allow me to continue. I’ll have to leave; probably have to leave the country. But at least I won’t be looking over my shoulder.” Karin nodded. “On the other hand if I’m the one to kill Merlotte, Felipe will have to end me. I’d have directly damaged his income at a time he can’t afford it. If he doesn’t end me it would set a bad example for everyone he does business with. Merlotte is a pain in his ass but he is still a moneymaker.”
Karin spoke without turning around, “On the other hand, if I were to end him it would be unfortunate but not an act of treason.”
“Yes,” Horst agreed. “Who knows why you do things? You could be killing him just because he’s the telepath’s ex-husband and de Castro’s former spy. No one would really question it.”
Karin considered it. It was clear that it would be viewed as a favor by the telepath even if Sookie wouldn’t be able to directly acknowledge it. As she watched she could see Sookie’s face as she, in turn, watched Merlotte. The mix of confusion and loathing was clear. Karin considered that her maker would likely be in support as well. Still, it would cause some noise.
“So, let’s say I’d consider doing this for you. What do I get out of it?” Karin asked. Until the words left her mouth she didn’t know she was seriously considering it, or that Horst might have something worth bargaining.
“I will give you a flash drive Merlotte was holding that has videos of him and the telepath,” Horst whispered in her ear.
Karen turned to him, her eyes wide. She thought of those movies. ‘Damn it,’ she thought. ‘Damn Merlotte for keeping a copy.’
“You know!” Horst hissed. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
Karin realized there was no point in her trying to deny it. She had not schooled her face quickly enough. “I know. But why would we care about some dirty movies,” she countered.
“They aren’t just dirty movies, are they?” Horst said. “And if they were to find their way onto the internet they would be damaging.” Horst cocked his head to the side. “Where would she go that people would see the woman and not the porn star? I understand that she is working for Amun; handling delicate negotiations with humans and others. This kind of thing could be more than just embarrassing.” Horst shrugged and smiled. “I had been considering her Hollywood debut as a way to tie Northman to Felipe, but that ship has sailed. In the end it doesn’t matter. If the videos go public your maker will find himself risking death on a regular basis. He is proud and he has claimed her. He will be defending her honor on every street corner from one end of the country to the other.”
“You really are a prick,” Karin told him.
“Of course,” Horst agreed. “And motivated. Do we have a deal?”
Ralph paced back and forth. “And whose word should I believe? This one?” he waved toward Eric Northman. “What has he done to earn my trust? I don’t know him. I did know Freyda. She didn’t deserve to be staked.”
Sandy Seacrest spoke up, “Felipe de Castro ordered it, not Eric Northman. I know because I was there when Felipe and his second discussed Freyda’s betrayal.”
Ralph looked as if he wanted to dispute what the vampire was saying, but then Phoebe walked over and placed her hand on his arm. “Ralph, I can see that Freyda meant something to you. She was quite beautiful.”
Ralph nodded then. “She was always kind. I felt quite at home with her. Her sense of fashion was superb.”
It was Nabila who spoke next. “Yes, she was all of those things. She was also young and easily swayed. She clearly fell in with bad company and it led to her demise. But Ralph,” and Nabila fixed the king with a piercing look, “I don’t believe for one minute that Eric Northman was behind her final death. I believe that blame belongs to the king that ordered the takeover of her kingdom.”
Phoebe squeezed his arm. “You know something of me. We have exchanged information. You know that I have been truthful even when it wasn’t to my benefit. I believe that Eric was a pawn in this; an unwilling consort who found himself faced with hard choices in a greedy vampire’s quest for power.”
Ralph turned to Robert. “You are head of Narayana. Felipe de Castro is of your Clan. What do you say?”
Robert looked up from the goblet of blood in his hand. His expression was bored. “We all know how takeovers are traditionally handled. That business today with Seth was most irregular.” He twirled the glass gently. “Of course, it could be that it becomes a more regular form of transition as humans become more closely tied to our world,” and he looked at Eric.
Bartlett decided it was time to place cards on the table. “Tomorrow we will move to have the annexed states returned to their respective Clans.” Ralph looked surprised but Phoebe nodded. “It will require the agreement or abstention of each of you. I expect that there will be more press coverage than we saw today. In fact, I can guarantee it.”
“I am too old for surprises,” Nabila said coldly. “I appreciate you telling us now.” She had pulled herself up, looking every inch the queen. “Robert? You are most central to the question. How do you intend to land on this?”
Robert tilted the goblet delicately and spoke, his eyes fixed on the blood, “I intend to recuse myself from the question.” Sandy Seacrest felt her eyebrows rise. As if sensing her surprise Robert turned to her and said, “The challenges faced by my fellow king at present suggest that growing too quickly without sufficient infrastructure was a risk he was not prepared to face. I do not condemn his ambition but I must consider the long term strength of my Clan.”
Nabila turned to Iowa. “I don’t expect I need to ask you, Phoebe,” she said.
Phoebe raised her glass in a toast. “Of course I agree. My Clan brings two states back into the fold and we are no longer torn in two.” Eric shifted his eyes toward Ralph. He could see the king considering the queen’s words.
Nabila now looked at Ralph. “I understand your interest in justice for the former queen. But the question that will be placed before you is not justice for someone now gone but whether you will ask for the return of a state to your Clan.” Bartlett smiled as he realized his estimation of Nabila had risen. She had sequenced her asking questions of each of the rulers in a precise way and now had presented a case that Ralph, a sworn representative of Zeus Clan would be duty-bound to support.
Recognition and frustration were in equal parts on the ruler’s face. He made an effort to look disinterested and said, “Of course I will support bringing Oklahoma back to Zeus Clan.”
Nabila nodded. “Then it is decided,” and started for the door.
Ralph started, “But what about the rulers that will be appointed for the new states. Shouldn’t we discuss who will stand among us?”
Nabila turned around and cut off Bartlett who looked ready to speak, “Kings or queens are appointed by the respective Clans for their own, Ralph. Surely Stan has sent you some message in the eventuality that the state would be returned.” She looked down her long nose at him like he was some dim-witted school boy, then she turned and said, “Business meetings start shortly. Coming?”
Russell watched her retreating figure and turned to Bartlett. “We better watch ourselves. That one could end up ruling us all.” Bartlett nodded.
Karin had put off Horst. “I’ll think about it. Setting up something here on such short notice would be tricky.” Horst had smiled then.
“I’ll tell you what, Karin the Slaughterer, as a goodwill gesture I’ll go get the thumb drive from my hiding place. That way there will be no delay in pay for play.”
Karin had hissed, “What makes you think I won’t just end you myself and pick the drive out of your steaming entrails?”
Horst had laughed loudly enough that heads turned, including Sookie’s. “I’ll take my chances.” Then he’d leaned in and said, “I’ll be anxious to see how you manage it,” and he was gone.
Sookie had walked quickly towards Karin. “Horst?” she had asked. Then she had given Karin a narrow glance. “What did he want?”
Karin shrugged. “The usual. Mine is better than yours. My king will whoop your king. Endless posturing.” She found herself unwilling to meet Sookie’s eyes when she asked, “What were you thinking; looking at Merlotte?”
Sookie looked toward her toes. “I think you know,” she said, then raised her eyes. Karin looked directly at the telepath then and nodded.
Karin looked over Sookie’s shoulder to see Merlotte staring at them from his area. She opened her mouth and bared her fangs. Merlotte smirked and flipped up his middle finger in defiance. Karin wondered if he had recognized Sookie. “We should get out of here,” Karin told the telepath and steered her toward the main hallway.
No sooner had they cleared the double doors than Pam found them. She smiled brightly at Sookie when she said, “You really are too much trouble, Sookie Stackhouse. We need to find one of those locator anklets – you know – the ones they use on inmates to keep them in the house.”
Sookie snorted. “Not likely. Besides you’d hate the color. I think it only comes in prison yard gray.”
Pam smirked back, then tossed her hair back. “Well, you know what they say; gray is the new black.” Pam’s attention shifted to something over Sookie’s shoulder.
As if she could feel him, Sookie turned and was immediately enfolded in Eric’s embrace. The minute her arms were around his waist and her cheek was against his chest she felt the tension fall from her. ‘Home,’ she thought. ‘I am home.’
Eric was generating some kind of purring noise from deep within his chest and his head rested on hers. “I missed you älskare,” he whispered into her hair. Pam and Karin felt the wave of emotion wash over them; it was warm and full and spoke of comfort and safety and journey’s end. Karin found that it touched some cold spot within her and made it ache.
Pam brought her hand up and laid it on Sookie’s back, and the wave of emotion seemed to grow. It was like a single song had been joined by a second voice. Sookie smiled and they all three seemed to radiate contentment.
Karin found herself drawn towards them, but she just as quickly pulled back. ‘I get it,’ she thought. ‘I get it now.’ When Eric raised his head and looked at Karin, she bowed slightly.
“Thank you for finding her, Karin,” Eric said. “I know that I can trust you to take care of her.” Although his words were right Karin could feel the underlying question. Her actions, or rather her lack of joining them was puzzling him.
Karin bowed again. “I honor the connection you share, my maker,” she said. Sookie turned in Eric’s embrace to look at her. She was smiling in a dreamy way and Karin saw then the charmed face; a fae face.
Karin felt her own inner turmoil and knew she had made the right decision. It was not right for her to be here. She needed time and distance to make sense of this. And so she smiled as she said the words she had been practicing. “I will be sorry to leave you,” Karin continued. “But the time has come for me to return to my place.”
Eric didn’t respond, but Karin could feel his concern reaching for her. She smiled more broadly and said, “I have enjoyed my time here by your side, but I find that I miss the excitement that was my life. I feel the call to return to it.”
Pam shook her head. “It’s a dangerous game you play, Karin. Any job could be your last. And how do you know you can trust those who hire you? I feel like I have just found you again and now you will be gone.”
Karin nodded. “I must honor who I was meant to be. I am a fighter. I am a killer. You have managed to polish over those parts of you with manners and business. My nature is too close to the surface to remain satisfied.” Then Karin smiled ruefully, “And it’s not like I don’t respond to texts. The world is a smaller place than when we first were made. Planes and cell phones make even the most remote places seem like the other side of town.” She looked down, unwilling to see the hurt in the eyes of Eric and Pam. “I have enjoyed our time together and we will have this time again.”
Eric stepped from Sookie then and opened his arms. Karin stepped within them and although she felt his comfort and her belonging, the feeling she had experienced when he held Sookie was a reminder that there could be so much more.
Behind them, Thomas, Isaiah’s second approached. “The business meetings will start shortly. I have been sent to collect you, Mr. Northman, and you, Miss Ravenscroft.” He bowed and then straightened. As he turned to go he looked at Karin and nodded. Karin nodded in return.
Eric looked from the woman who stood within his arms to his lover. “Sookie,” he said and turned, assuming she would be coming with him. But Sookie stepped back.
“I’d like to wander through the tables, if that’s okay,” she said. Eric looked as though he would protest but Karin spoke up.
“I will escort her if she wishes.” Eric smiled then. He leaned down and kissed Sookie gently. The emotion that flowed from him ran through Karin again like a warm river. ‘It’s love,’ she realized. ‘That is what being in love feels like.’ And just as quickly she found herself thinking, ‘I don’t like it.’
Pam said, “You should stop by and chat with Maxwell. He’s at the Fangtasia table. He would love to see you both.” Then Eric and Pam headed towards the elevator.
“Did you know she planned to leave again,” Eric asked Pam.
“No, but I think it is the best decision for her. She is different from me; fiercer. Still,” Pam looked up at her maker, a sadness on her face, “I wish she would not return to killing for a living.”
Eric shrugged. “She does well. Her skills are in demand. She has taken something she’s good at and turned it to artistry.” His mouth quirked. “Who knows? It may be that a king has need of an assassin from time to time. I wonder if she would give her maker a discount.”
Pam shook her head. They didn’t notice the redness that rimmed Thomas’ eyes as he watched the floor numbers slide by on their way to the meeting rooms.
Karin walked slightly behind the telepath’s right shoulder. It seemed natural to fall into the position of bodyguard to the human. Karin noticed how Sookie took the turn that would keep her furthest from the Flying Tigers exhibit. They walked the aisle glancing at displays of travel coffins, house shutters and home security systems. There were franchise deals and even a video game company offering a new interactive game that was set to a vampire’s faster reflexes. They rounded a corner to find the Fangtasia display. It took up the better part of a wall. There were large photos of clubs, partial build outs of the seating pattern from the Los Angeles venue and a video that was running footage of various clubs, opening nights and long lines of those hoping for admission. Maxwell noticed them almost immediately and walked forward.
“Miss Stackhouse,“ he smiled. He stopped at the right distance and bowed. Then he looked over at Karin and bowed to her as well. His gaze swept back to Sookie. “I am so pleased to see you again. I don’t know if you remember…”
“I remember you visiting me when I was in the hospital,” Sookie interrupted. “I don’t remember much but I remember looking up to see your face. You were reading a book. Just seeing you there made me feel hopeful.” Sookie’s smile widened, “Thank you.”
Maxwell smiled his brief, thin smile then and bowed once more. “It was my pleasure,” he said as he indicated a table and chairs nearby. Maxwell paused by a table that had a pitcher of water and glasses. He raised his eyebrows and Sookie shook her head. Then the tall vampire settled himself into a chair beside her.
As the two started to speak of Fangtasia and more particularly of the Shreveport bar and Area 5, Karin glanced up to see Horst’s eyes on her from across the area. “Would you excuse me for a minute?” Karin asked.
“Sure,” Sookie said. “Max and I have all kinds of things to gossip about. I’ll be right here.” Karin nodded and rose. Horst jerked his chin toward a hallway that led back into the hotel; probably a service hall and Karin found herself following him. Once there, she checked the distance between herself and the telepath. She was comfortable that unless someone was shooting she would be able to get between the woman and any trouble in time. She positioned herself so she could see both the corner of the display and the clear lane that would be her path if the telepath were to be in danger.
“So, why are you back?” she asked Horst.
“I find that news of my failure has reached Felipe’s ears already. I have a text demanding my return to Las Vegas. It came from Angie.”
“Wow, that must feel awkward,” Karin said. “You must be hearing the ticking of the clock loud and clear now.”
“It does create a sense of drama,” he said and then he laughed. “I find it to be quite freeing; this knowing that I have a new course to explore.”
Karin affected a bored expression as she said, “Have you become a religious vampire? Are you thinking that there is now some glorious afterlife?”
Horst smiled and shook his head. “No. But I could be competition for you. Or,” he waited until Karin glanced at him. He held the drive between his fingers between them. “Or you could do this job and you and I could go into business together.”
“Yeah. Not likely,” Karin told him. “Why would I trust my back to a slimy bastard like you?”
“Because I’m a slimy bastard who is able to ingratiate himself with kings,” Horst told her. “That puts me a step above you in the sales game. Besides,” he winked, “It’s not like I ever did anything particularly heinous to you or yours. Aside from the usual threats. Not like I’m Victor Madden.” Karin looked at him then and to her own surprise found herself thinking about it. What was more surprising, Karin was finding that she almost wanted to smile.
Karin made a point of looking in the direction of the Fangtasia booth. She could see Maxwell’s suit leg from this angle. She figured if he was sitting still then the telepath was still there. “I was thinking I’d take care of the shifter tomorrow. There will be a full tribunal. Pretty much everyone will be there.”
“What if he decides to sit in? Everyone is talking about Northman being up for king. It would be a perfect time to throw a monkey wrench in the proceedings.”
Karin tilted her head, “You think this is about revenge? What do you know?”
Horst smiled, “According to the recordings we pulled from his phone and some paperwork he filed he’s contesting any divorce.” Karin thought back to the discussion she’d had with Merlotte in Los Angeles. He had told her he would make Sookie Stackhouse crawl through slime. Sounded like Merlotte had already started the mud pit.
“What a piece of shit,” Karin said. “What other tidbits of information are you holding back that could impact how this goes together?”
“So,” Horst chuckled. “We have a deal?”
“We’ll see, asshole. At a minimum I’m taking the shifter out. But that doesn’t mean I want to be swapping body fluids with you after.”
“I’m hurt,” Horst leaned toward her. “I’ve been told I’m rather a catch.”
“It doesn’t count if you’re paying them to say it,” Karin snarled. “Now back off.” Horst laughed again. “So, I’ll be moving up the timeline,” Karin said. “It’ll have to be before night ends.” She glanced around. “The room closes in an hour. Maybe as he’s headed out toward his hotel room.” She turned to Horst. “Would it be against the rules for you to arrange transport?” Horst smiled full out, his fangs descending.
“Consider it done,” he told her. Karin reached out her hand, holding it palm up. “Not yet sweet cheeks,” Horst said. “Payment when the body is in the van.”
Karin nodded and then stepped back into the exhibitor’s hall to return to Sookie. She found that she had an extra spring in her step.
Sookie looked up as Karin approached. “Where have you been?” she asked.
Karin shrugged. “Had to check on something. All good.” She smiled at Max who smiled back. “You ready to walk around some more?”
Sookie smiled up brightly. “Actually, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather hang out here for a while. Maxwell said he wouldn’t mind the company.”
Karin nodded. This was working out well. “Make sure you text Eric and let him know. I’ll do the same.” Karin watched as Sookie took out her cell phone. Karin’s fingers moved swiftly over the keys, ‘Sookie with Maxwell @ Fangtasia. ‘
Maxwell shrugged. “No problem. She’s welcome to stay here as long as she’d like.”
“I’ll swing back in about 20 minutes. We can go get you something to eat.”
“Sure,” Sookie told her.
‘Good,’ Karin thought. ‘Gives me some time to scope out exits and blind spots.’ With a nod Karin started to walk briskly around the circle that led back towards the Flying Tigers exhibit.
Sookie watched Karin leave. As the vampire disappeared around the corner her smile dimmed. Maxwell was telling her about their plans for a new venue in London. He was telling her how excited Pam was to have her own club in the heart of her birthplace. Sookie nodded and made agreeing noises. Sookie thought about Karin’s announcement. She couldn’t escape the idea that Karin was leaving because of her. The telepath felt tears begin to threaten and she felt weak and foolish.
“Max?” Sookie tried to make sure her voice sounded light, “I have to find a ladies room. I’ll just be a minute.”
Max stood up. “Do you need an escort?” he asked.
“Oh good grief, no! I can see the door right over there. I don’t care what Eric Northman says; I don’t need a babysitter!” Sookie shook her head and flashed a wide grin at Maxwell, then walked over to the short hallway that led to the restroom. Maxwell watched her until she cleared the last of the tables. A woman walked up behind him and asked a question. Maxwell turned and started to answer her. He glanced back towards the restrooms and could see the door closing.
One minute I was pushing open the restroom door. ‘Just get a minute alone. Throw some cold water on your face and get a grip,’ I was telling myself. Things are rushing so quickly. I can’t stop thinking about Karin and what her leaving will mean to Eric. ‘Why can’t things with us just be quiet and happy?’ my mind asks and I can feel myself moving towards sadness again. But I can’t be sad because if I get weepy he’ll feel it and want to do something about it.
I love him. I know this is part of the deal; his feeling me, but it is so invasive. It requires that I monitor myself all the time. If I laugh he knows it. If I feel anxious he knows it. If I want to cry for no good reason he knows it. I wonder what period hormones will feel like to him; or the way my eyes spill over when I watch chick flick movies. I realize as I put my hand to the door that I will have Eric in my head 24/7 and no place for me to hide.
I don’t see him. I don’t realize that he’s there until I feel the clamp of his hand on my arm and his voice in my ear saying, “Did you like the flowers, Sookie? I didn’t get your thank you card.”
The blood is roaring in my ears; I feel blank. I should be panicking; I should be hyperventilating. But I’m not. Somehow I’ve been waiting. I’ve been anticipating this moment even though I didn’t know it. It seemed inevitable.
He pulls me into the service hallway fast and shoves me around the corner. There are double doors beside me that must open to some back area of the hotel. The larger corridor beside me heads back to the exhibitor’s hall. And I am face to face with this man that is Sam, but isn’t.
“I see you decided to pack the pounds back on, Cher,’ he says right in my face. I want to say something back but I can’t. I feel cold and I can feel moisture on my forehead. I am here, but I’m also a hundred miles away watching myself and this man.
He leans in and kisses me then. His eyes are mocking. “Are those little noises for me?” he asks. I didn’t know I was making noises. “Well I bet I can get you to make more noises, Sookie,” and I know he can. I know it with a twist in my gut. I can’t see the couch but I know it’s here somewhere. I’ll be on my knees soon and he will have my hair in his fist.
He bites my neck hard. He may have broken the skin. “Been letting dead things touch you again, haven’t you, Cher? You think I didn’t see you parading yourself with Northman? Well baby, you’ll be paying for that.” He says it in his sex voice; like a low growl as he ghosts his lips along my jaw. “Now, now. No need to cry,” he says. “The time for crying was before when you decided to open your legs to another man; a fucking corpse. You should have been crying when you thought about cheating on your husband.”
His hand is on my breast and he’s stroking me through my shirt. He is leaning against me, his weight pressing me to the wall. I can see the wall across from us. It’s concrete block and painted white. I can see the slight dimples that are its texture through the paint. If I just focus on it hard enough I won’t feel what is going to happen. If I find my other place; the place that is above and away from here it won’t matter. I’ll survive.
He licks my cheek. “So sweet,” he says. He pulls my chin to bring me to face him and I cut my eyes so that I can see the wall. He hand is between my legs and he is squeezing hard. His other arm has come up and he has it across my neck. He is pushing and I can’t breathe. My eyes feel like they are going to pop out of my skull. My lungs are burning. I can see bursts of lights and the wall is fading from white to dark.
And I’m falling; falling away.
Karin felt the buzz on her phone and checked the text. It was from Pam. ‘Sookie ok?’
Horst peeked over her shoulder. “They check up on her often?”
“It’s all about Sookie,” she sighed. Her fingers moved over the keys. ‘She’s with Max. Something up?’
The message came back, ‘E is worried. Says something.’
Karin shook her head. “Time to check up on the main squeeze.”
“Boy, she sure has him trained, doesn’t she?” Horst laughed. “I can’t see it. Sex is great. A warm bed is fine. But long term commitment? Where’s the upside?”
“Spoken like a true asshole,” Karin muttered and moved quickly back towards the Fangtasia display. Max met her as she was coming around the corner. ‘Not good,’ she thought. “Where is she, Max?”
“She headed to that ladies room,” he pointed at the door. “She didn’t come out and she’s not in there. I texted Pam.” Max’s eyes moved over Karin’s shoulder, “Regent,” he said and bowed.
‘Shit,’ Karin thought. ‘Now I’ve got this cluster and Horst trailing me. Awesome.’ “Exactly where did you see her last?” Karin asked.
“She was right at the door. I glanced away and when I looked back the door was closing. I assumed she’d walked in.”
Karin nodded and ran to the door. She stopped and swiveled her head left and right. She saw the hallway just to her left and moved in that direction. She could hear the breathy noises as soon as she walked forward.
Merlotte had Sookie pinned against the wall. He was using his forearm to cut off her airway. She looked pretty well out of it; her hands were dangling uselessly at her sides. He must have been focused on hurting her because he didn’t even turn his head until Karin grabbed him, turning him until his back was against the wall. She brought her arm up and used the heel of her hand to strike him just where his ribs ended and his abdominal wall began. She could feel the xiphoid shift and the ribs break and move upwards, their broken edges finding lungs and heart.
Merlotte’s eyes registered recognition, then fear and then dulled all in a minute. He exhaled as his eyes moved to a point over her shoulder. “Janna,” he sighed and he was gone.
“Nice work,” Horst said behind her. “And great placement. We can use this entrance to move him to the garage.”
Karin turned, her irritation surfacing. “What are you? The kill critic?”
Horst chuckled, “No blood, no mess.”
“Yet,” Karin growled. “Go out there and get two of those industrial garbage bags out of the garbage barrels. They usually stow an extra…”
“In the bottom of the barrel. Not my first time to the rodeo.” Horst turned toward Sookie who was gasping against the wall. “What do you want me to do with her?”
Karin realized she had been so intent on the kill that she’d forgotten the telepath. “Help her up and turn her over to Maxwell Lee. Have him text Pam. That should buy us some time to clean up this mess.” Karin walked over to push open the double doors. There was a rack there with janitorial supplies and a barrel. “Oh look! The clean-up fairies heard our wish. Get her out there.”
“Don’t start without me,” Horst quipped as he lifted Sookie into his arms and headed down the corridor.
Karin grabbed the trash bags and started pulling Merlotte into the bag. The key was to get him wrapped up before his body relaxed enough to void. Once that happened it required extra time to clean up; time they wouldn’t have. ‘We?,’ she thought with a start. ‘Since when is there a We?’
Horst was back within minutes. He helped pull the bag up and then produced a roll of duct tape. “What the fuck?” Karin couldn’t help herself saying. “What are you? You travel with that?”
“Always prepared,” he laughed. “Not really. It was on the booth and I grabbed it on the way back.” Horst snatched the second bag from the floor and opened it. Karin lifted Merlotte’s shoulders and they both pulled the bag over him. Horst wrapped duct tape and then stepped back as Karin ran through the double doors to get the wheeled barrel. The corpse hit the ground with a thump. “Oops,” Horst said. “That’s going to leave a bruise.”
“Come on, funny guy. Help me get him in the barrel.”
Karin pushed and Horst picked up a clipboard as they passed the rack. “I’ll be the inspector and you can be the French maid,” he smiled.
“Sure. Parlez vous kiss my ass?” Karin asked. Horst moved ahead of her and pushed open the second set of doors. He looked both ways and then nodded to her. As he turned right she asked, “Do you know where you’re going?”
Horst smiled back at her. “Straight to hell. But we can hit the loading dock along the way. I was down here yesterday. I moved my rental car to a space quite close.”
“What did you get? An SUV?”
“Kind of. Love this model because there isn’t much lifting between the ground and the back. Easier to find at airports. Pick up is my number two choice. I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t think I’ll be submitting this bill for reimbursement.”
“Yeah, I’d think that Felipe will be reimbursing you with wood this time around.”
Horst slammed shut the cargo door as Karin ran the barrel back to the loading dock. By the time she returned Horst had the vehicle running. Karin hopped in. “Where to?”
“A hardware store and then the nearest graveyard. Have google maps?”
Later as Karin propped the shovels against the caretaker’s shed she realized that she was more at ease with herself than she’d been in a long time.
Horst walked toward her, wiping his hands on a handkerchief. He picked up his suit jacket. “I’m reminded of a line from a movie.” He reached out his hand and dropped the zip drive into Karin’s. “You know Louis, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
“Movie?” she asked.
“Casablanca. I studied it for a ball I attended in Oklahoma.” When Karin’s expression didn’t change Horst shrugged. “I liked it. Maybe we’ll see it some time.”
Karin pulled her phone out. She looked at Horst and then started pulling up the internet. “What are you doing?” he asked.
Karin smiled at him, “Arranging our letters of transit,” she told him.