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The music though his headphones allowed Rick to escape. A particular song would start, and his head started nodding. His foot tapped and if it was a really good track, he’d get up from his desk and dance. He couldn’t explain why he enjoyed dancing so much. He knew his mother liked it, too, and sometimes they’d pause as they prepared dinner, turning the speakers up, and dancing around each other in the kitchen of the house in Chester.
The thought of his mother brought Rick back to the present, and he swallowed. His fangs itched, and he focused on willing the sensation away. The whole fang thing had thrilled Rick at first. He had twin razors that came out of the roof of his mouth, and what kid didn’t dream about that? He spent hours making them click down, and then retract, practicing like some runway model in the bathroom mirror, but shortly after Rick became comfortable with his fangs, he developed an embarrassing side effect. When his fangs ran out, Rick almost always ended up with a boner. Just feeling his fangs slide from their sheaths would trigger it, and, if he wasn’t careful, he would find it made him cum in his pants.
It wasn’t the kind of thing he felt comfortable telling his Mother, and he sure wasn’t going to tell Auntie Lora. It was bad enough he would wake up with a wet spot in the bed some mornings. When that happened, he’d bundle the sheets off and run them through the washing machine himself. Neither Aunt Lora nor his Mother said anything about it, but his Mother had given him a kind of look the last time it happened that told him she’d noticed. Before she agreed to go away on this last business trip, his Mother said it was probably time they had ‘that sex talk’ and Rick thought he’d just about die. He was pale anyway and when he blushed, it was pretty much a whole-body experience. Fortunately, this trip did come up, so she said they would have ‘that talk’ when she got back. As far as Rick was concerned, it could wait for longer.
Of course, Rick knew something about what happened between people. You couldn’t cruise the Internet without getting some sort of idea what sex was about. Lately, he’d noticed that whenever he was around older people, adults, he’d get pictures in his head, snapshots mostly, and some of those were about sex.
All of it made him decide that he probably wasn’t old enough to be figuring this out, so he started practicing control instead. When his fangs itched, he’d practice making them stay in place. When he sipped blood, which he was doing three or four times a day now, he’d make his fangs stay retracted. It was hard, but it kept the other reaction reasonable.
The wet dreams didn’t stop, though, and Rick decided to talk with George about it.
George Hermosa was now Rick’s best friend. They were in most of their classes together at school and George slept over at the B&B as much as he slept in the dorms. Rick liked George’s little brother and sister, too, although Maddie, George’s sister, had a tendency toward flirting. Rick found he liked it. In fact, he liked it too much, and for a kid his age that was a little too creepy to consider, so he started keeping his distance from her.
When George confronted Rick about hurting Maddie’s feelings, Rick told George his secret, that he was part-vampire. He showed George his fangs and George swore not to tell anybody. They came up with a cover story for Maddie, and George was as good as his word. They were tight now, so confiding this new development wasn’t so difficult.
“Shit, happens to me all the time!” George shrugged. “Sometimes I use my hand and help it along. My dad told me it’s perfectly natural for guys our age and that when we get older, it won’t happen as often.”
Hearing that was a relief. Rick was worried that this was just one more thing that was making him different from everyone around him.
Although he wasn’t yet thirteen, Rick was shooting up. His hands were big, and his feet were huge, growing three sizes in less than a year. Pretty much everything hurt all the time. His Mother called it ‘growing pains’ and Rick believed her. He towered over most of the kids in school now, which would have been great, except he was so uncoordinated. He tripped over his own feet and when he ran, which he tried not to, he resembled some big bird, his legs and arms not quite looking like they fit with the rest of him.
“You’ll grow into your body,” Aunt Lora assured him, but that didn’t stop the ribbing he took from some of the kids at school.
Then, there were the other things. There were the stray thoughts he couldn’t stop from popping into his head. He’d figured out they were from other people, and he wondered how his Mom lived like this all the time. There were the fangs, of course, and there was the way he’d begun to hear things and smell things so clearly. He knew who didn’t wash their hands and who needed a shower. He could hear secrets whispered from across the room and when kids shouted, it felt like the sound was stabbing his eardrums.
Even in Chester, a town that had known him all his life, Rick knew he was starting to develop a reputation for being odd. It hurt.
The music track ended and Rick closed his math book. He was reaching down to get his German book when he caught sight of his Aunt Lora standing at the door.
He pulled his headphones off and said, “What’s up?”
“It’s your Aunt Fran,” Lora told him, and she ran the back of her hand across her cheek. Rick smelled what he assumed were her tears. They smelled fresh and salty, and, despite seeing her so upset, Rick felt his fangs itch.
“What’s happened?” Rick thought of his Auntie Fran. He thought of how frail she’d been and he gripped the edge of his desk, afraid of what was coming next. He heard a crack and looked down to see he’d broken the edge of his desk without even trying.
“She’s in the hospital,” Lora told him. She walked over and placing her hand on his shoulder, then glanced down at the strip of wood in Rick’s hand. “It’s all right,” she assured him, and Rick stood up, wrapping his arms around this woman who had known him all his life.
“Is she going to be all right?” he asked.
“They don’t think she’ll die,” Lora whispered against his shoulder, “but she’s had another stroke, Sweetie. She’s on machines right now, and they aren’t sure…” and Lora made a choking noise.
Rick heard it then, ‘aren’t sure she’ll wake up,’ was what Aunt Lora was thinking, and it made Rick’s throat close and his eyes well.
“Does Mom know?” Rick asked.
“Not yet,” Aunt Lora shook her head. “I came up here first. It’s already night in Louisiana, so you know she won’t be checking her safe phone for awhile.”
Rick nodded. It was one of the hard things about his Mom traveling. She would text him or call him during the day while the vampires were sleeping. She told him how she hid her phone and the importance that he not text or call her during night hours unless it was a real emergency. He figured his Mom probably shut the phone off for hours at a time, just to make sure some random text or sales call didn’t alert the vampires around her that she had it, but he also knew she couldn’t rest not knowing that he had a way to tell her if he was in trouble.
“Are we headed to Boston?” Rick asked.
“Not until the weekend,” Lora leaned back, looking into his face, her arms resting around his waist. “Your Aunt Fran isn’t going anywhere just yet, and I know you have exams this week. There’s nothing to be gained by rushing out there right now.”
“I’m not sure how I’ll do, knowing this,” Rick shook his head. “I mean, are you sure she’s going to be okay?”
Aunt Lora knew that Rick was really asking was if his Aunt Fran would die. “The doctors assured me that barring another stroke, she isn’t going anywhere,” and she squeezed him. “They are monitoring her and she’s in the best place possible.”
Rick had a hard time sleeping that night. He dressed in the morning and drank blood in his room, then ate something downstairs in the kitchen. “I’ll let you know if anything changes,” Aunt Lora told him, pulling him down so she could kiss his forehead. Rick could smell the dried tears on her and figured she’d cried earlier.
“Sure,” he nodded, anxious to get out of the house. At least at school he knew what was needed. He could attend classes, listen to lectures, and smile at all the usual conversations. It was predictable, and at the moment, Rick felt the need for something predictable because with Mom so far away and Aunt Fran sick, the world didn’t seem so safe at the moment.
“What’s wrong?” George asked halfway through the morning.
“What makes you think something’s wrong?” Rick challenged to which George gave him a look that said, ‘I’m not stupid!’
Rick sighed. “Problems.” He went on to tell George about his Aunt Fran. He told George about his Mom’s business trip, too. He’d never told George that his Mom and George’s dad knew each other, or that his Mother had a different name. He figured George’s dad hadn’t said anything either, because George would have said something to let Rick know.
“My Mom’s in Louisiana,” Rick said carefully, and he watched for George’s reaction.
“Really?” George replied. “You know that’s where my family’s from.”
“Here’s the thing,” Rick said, and he looked away, not wanting to meet George’s eyes. “Your Dad works for a vampire King, right?”
“Felipe de Castro,” George confirmed. “How did you know they call them Kings?”
“Because my Mom works for that King, too,” Rick told him. “You can’t say anything, but your Dad knows my Mom. He knew her from a long time ago, from before she came up North.”
“My Mom figured your Mom had to be from down South,” George grinned. “She said your Mom’s accent was too real for a summer girl. You think they knew each other from Area 5?”
“What’s that?” Rick asked.
“Area 5 is the northern part of Louisiana. My Dad likes to tell stories about it. I guess that even though there was a Queen or King in New Orleans, Area 5 kind of ruled itself. There was a Sheriff there called the Viking. Folks pretty much worked for him.”
“Viking?” Rick asked. He could feel a buzzing in his head and his fangs were itching.
“Yeah, like a real Viking, from over a thousand years ago. He was way powerful because he was so old, or something. But Dad said he was a great warrior, too, and people respected him. Dad said the Viking gave him his first shot at leadership.”
“What happened to him?” Rick asked, “The Viking.”
“Dad said there were some changes. I got the impression the King, de Castro, was involved and the Viking got transferred somewhere, or exiled. Something like that. Not killed though. Dad didn’t say it, but it sounded like the King was too scared to challenge him.”
“Do they do that often? Fight, I mean?” Rick asked.
“Vampires? Yeah, pretty often,” George nodded. “Dad had to promise Mom when they got married that he wouldn’t challenge anyone or if he did get in trouble, he had to let her know. They don’t talk about it a lot, but I get the impression that vampires get killed, well, finally killed pretty often.”
“You wouldn’t think that would happen,” Rick thought it over. “I mean, they are immortal and everything.”
“Dad says vampires have short tempers and they take their honor too seriously,” George said it like someone who knew. “So, what do you think your Mother does for the King?” George asked.
Rick glanced at his friend before saying, “She helps out with business meetings, something like that. Not a secretary exactly. She can read people, and the King pays her to do it.”
“Read people?” George was giving Rick a sharp look, “Like with her head?” When Rick didn’t answer, George said, “Shit, Rick! I know who she is!” When Rick still didn’t say anything, George took a deep breath, “Okay. Look, you don’t have to say anything, and I’m not going to tell. If I’m right, though, she’s with my Dad, and you know he’ll take care of her.”
“Thanks, George,” Rick told his friend, “That makes me feel better,” and it did.
When Rick got home that night, it was to the news that Aunt Fran was stable, but there had been no change. She was still unconscious and no one knew when she’d wake up. There was a text from his Mom, telling him the trip was going well and not to worry. She knew about Aunt Fran and told him that she was sure everything would turn out okay. She told him to be brave and that she knew he would. She told him she would see him in Boston on Saturday and that they would stay at Aunt Fran’s house.
Rick ate dinner and headed up to do homework. It was the one night a week that the B&B served dinner, and Aunt Lora and Sarah were busy in the kitchen. There were six guests and another two tables with people from the schools in the dining room. Rick knew they’d need his help later with the dishes but, for now, his job was staying out of the way.
He had been working for a while and he figured he’d get the call from downstairs soon when his phone dinged. It wasn’t unusual for his friends to text him, so he turned the phone over and checked the screen.
The message was from his Mother. He felt the jolt of adrenaline as he thumbed across it, opening the message.
‘I love you. You are the best part of me and you make me proud. Never forget. Find your Father.’
‘Where are you?’ Rick’s fingers flew.
He waited. There was no bubble that told him he was getting an answer.
‘Mom’ he texted, and he waited. Nothing.
With a mounting sense of panic, Rick headed down the stairs. His fangs had descended, but, in the moment, he just didn’t care.
“Is everything in place?” Eric had risen from his travel coffin earlier that night to find himself in a safe house in New Orleans. He knew this was one of Maxwell Lee’s houses. It had been discussed in advance as the best location. The house was close to the New Orleans Palace, but still secure. Pam was fond of the tall, black vampire. It was a friendship based on more than their compatibility in business. Maxwell was a cunning and ruthless warrior. He rarely offered or accepted clemency and that suited Pam’s fighting style well.
Eric didn’t entirely share that philosophy. Eric believed that loyalty freely given, particularly on the heels of mercy, could be stronger. Pam argued that under their current circumstances, it didn’t make sense to take the chance. ‘Once someone has switched their fealty, they get too flexible for me,’ she told him. Eric wondered what made a former Victorian lady become so bloodthirsty. In some ways, Pam was more savage than her sister, Karin the Slaughterer, and that said something.
“We are ready, but we are spread thin,” Pam told him, but it was saying what Eric already knew.
“There won’t be much room for finesse,” Maxwell added. “I hope we’re not going to be expected to stop and sort.”
Eric looked hard at Lee. Lee was staring back just as hard, but then he dropped his eyes and Eric saw the tall vampire and Pam exchange a look. Eric set aside his doubts. This was a time for decisiveness.
“So you are asking my permission to clean the slate,” Eric said. He met first Pam’s eyes, then Maxwell’s, and then he nodded once. They all knew what he meant. If there was a vampire or another creature claimed or protected by one of Eric’s followers, that person would be spared. Everyone else would die. It was a messy plan, but in an operation where everything depended on speed, it was the only approach that had a reasonable chance of success.
“Make sure our spies know what’s coming,” Eric said shortly. “And Pamela, you will need to let the heads of the Areas know who the spies are ahead of tomorrow night. If we kill our own, it will make it difficult to recruit others.” In many ways, this was the riskiest part of the operation.
The spies would be warned early. They could stay in place, trusting that they would be spared when the killing started, or they could flee ahead of the trouble. If they fled, there was a chance that Felipe or his people would notice. Eric wouldn’t fault those who ran. To be revealed as a spy was to carry a death sentence if Eric was defeated. Eric found himself reviewing the list of names and making guesses as to who would still be in place come tomorrow night.
“No problem,” Pam grinned.
“This thing is going to be bloody,” Maxwell Lee stated again, interrupting Eric’s thoughts. It was unnecessary, the vampire’s repeating, but Eric recognized that Lee was testing Eric’s resolve. Pam hissed, but Eric waved his hand.
“It’s okay, Pam,” he told her. Turning to Maxwell, Eric took a step forward. He topped the dark, trim vampire by half a head, and he was more heavily muscled, but it wasn’t size or strength that mattered. “I will rule here,” Eric said in his quiet, killing voice. “I will make it known that any who challenge me will suffer the consequences, and tomorrow night those consequences will be stacked in piles for all vampires to see.”
“Of course, Majesty!” Maxwell grinned broadly, “And I am honored to be able to help you deliver that message!”
Both Maxwell and Pam bowed, and walked up the stairs, on their way to work phones. They would spend the remainder of tonight delivering messages and finalizing the time table with their contacts across the states, coordinating the time of attack. It was agreed that Maxwell would return to the Palace before day break. He would have things ready when Pam and Eric arrived through the back streets to the secret doorway.
It gave Eric pause. He had no reason to doubt Maxwell Lee, but what in this life was ever certain? He wished he had a blood tie with the vampire, but he knew that only when he was King could he get that. Were he to ask now, Maxwell would doubtless turn him down, and Eric would do the same in Max’s position. A blood tie would label Max as Eric’s vassal. If Eric was struck down, Max would be beheaded too. Still, trusting those who weren’t of the blood was a risk.
In the case of Pam, Eric didn’t doubt her loyalty for a second. She was his progeny, and although he’d freed her years ago, the connection between them remained strong. He knew she would fight for him out of both love and respect. If he asked, she would meet her final death beside him.
For the others who had pledged to fight, those vampires like Maxwell Lee, Eric suspected their enthusiasm flowed more from their hatred of Felipe de Castro than any particular love for Eric Northman.
In the years since Eric had left Louisiana for Oklahoma, it seemed few to no improvements had been made. New Orleans was still an open city and it attracted vampires from both the New and Old Worlds, but once they arrived, they found little to keep them. There was no ministry to help newcomers start businesses. There were no agencies to assist the newly arrived to find places to live or communities that would welcome them. The lack of services didn’t mean the vampires were ignored, though. They would quickly find they’d been placed on census lists and their tithing bills, ordering their tribute to King Felipe de Castro started soon and arrived regularly.
Eric suspected that if one were to study the flow of vampires who arrived in just New Orleans, optimistic and hopeful, one would find that equal numbers could be found for those vampires who left, poorer and dispirited. It was the only thing that explained why that, in spite of the popularity of New Orleans, the welcome other species extended to vampires here, the population hadn’t grown.
Of course, there were those who were lucky enough to land jobs working in the palace and businesses of Felipe de Castro. Usually, joining the King’s payroll meant good jobs with above-average pay. It was widely known that those jobs located in Las Vegas met the profile. The King’s jobs in Louisiana did not. The pay was bad and the hours long. Those unlucky enough to be assigned to Arkansas fared even worse.
It was no wonder that even those who took Felipe’s money welcomed an alternative.
It was apparent to Eric that although Felipe held Louisiana and Arkansas, and had for many years, he had no real plan for developing either territory. Pam described it as holding the former kingdoms in a perpetual state of subservience. She told him no single thing illustrated how badly they were treated like the list of losers Felipe had appointed to run the states in his stead.
Since the days of Victor Madden, the role of conservator or regent was passed from one lackluster lackey to the next. According to Maxwell Lee, the latest in that line, Emil, was not the worst, but far from the best. Lazy and prone to gossip, Emil maintained a stable of donors whose profile was likely to get them all in trouble if human authorities were to find out.
Now, Pam, Maxwell, and the others who knew what was coming sounded hopeful, even enthusiastic. It was likely by this time tomorrow; the reign of Felipe de Castro would be behind them. If all went according to plan, the Nevada King’s demise would be swift. Eric would claim only Louisiana and Arkansas.
Eric planned to cut Nevada loose. He had no use for a kingdom so far away. As far as Eric was concerned, crossing Clan lines was a sucker’s bet, and he was hoping that the temptation of an open throne in a far richer kingdom would distract any vampire who considered challenging him before he had a chance to consolidate his position here.
There was every reason to feel hopeful. Those who had worked with Eric or knew him from his days as Sheriff of Area 5 trusted him to make their lives better. Eric had worked hard in those days to make sure the vampires under his care thrived. There were many stories of the Viking’s fighting for those who owed him fealty, and since the coming of Felipe de Castro, those stories had grown. Now, whether it was by personal experience or by reputation, Pamela, Thalia, and Indira assured Eric, his coming would be welcomed as the promise of better times for them all.
Still, the fight was far from won. With the confirmation that de Castro had sent ten of his fighters back to Las Vegas this morning, the odds seemed roughly even. If you were just looking at numbers, those vampires who would support Eric outnumbered those personally pledged to Felipe de Castro by a margin of three to one, but there was a problem. Many of those vampires who were counted for Eric were newcomers and few of those had had any formal battle training. Pam thought it was possible that many had never seen a fight. They were, for the most part, soft-handed shop keepers whose last training came under the tutelage of their last King or their Makers if they had received any at all.
As for Felipe and his retinue, the Nevada King could count several hardened warriors among those who were in Louisiana with him. Angie, de Castro’s Second, was in Shreveport. Eric had to trust that Indira and her supporters in Area 5 would be able to handle her. Karin was already somewhere in Baton Rouge, laying low and doing what she needed to be strong for tomorrow night. Thalia would have gone to ground outside Lafayette by now. Each of them had a few vampires with them, men and women they trusted.
For Eric, he would look to Pam and Maxwell Lee to form the core of his attack force. Once inside the Palace, they would rely on hidden doors to quickly move to the throne room and confront de Castro. If they were lucky, and Pam was right about some of the guards and other vampires in the Palace taking their side, the fight would be quick. Eric had no doubt he was more than a match for any vampire present, and flanked by his daughter and Max, they should form an almost unbeatable battle wedge.
Once the fight in the Palace was over, Eric would look for the code words from the others, letting him know he’d carried the night.
Eric promised that once things were sorted, he would call Russell Edgington back. Russell was Clan Chief of Amun. The conversation whose purpose was to inform Russell that he would attempt the takeover and that he was seeking permission had been encouraging. None of the Amun monarchs were happy with Felipe de Castro in Amun territory, and the fact that he’d left the kingdoms in such poor condition was seen as insult added to injury. Russell told Eric if he was successful, Russell himself would come to officiate at the coronation. “It will be good to have you back, Old Friend,” the Mississippi monarch assured him. “I owe you a debt for marrying me to my Bartlett. I would be pleased to return that ceremony with another.”
Eric wasn’t fooled. If he failed, Russell would forget the conversation ever took place.
Many hours passed as plans were confirmed. Timetables were checked and then checked again. A survey of assets was taken, just to make sure no pocket of de Castro supporters would be left to try and mount a counter coup. Of course, that only counted if your monarch was still alive, and Eric had no intention of allowing Felipe de Castro to survive.
Maxwell came and took his leave, “I’ll be at the Canal door,” he confirmed. “I will be ready.”
As Eric turned back to Pam, he realized he was tense. It was like this for him every time he had gone into battle. There was a rush of adrenaline. He felt as if he was a great war horse, scenting the wind and waiting for the trumpet to call him forward. His sword was sharpened and he had chosen the clothes he would wear.
Now, all that was left was the coming, and the rising to what waited.
“I have taken the liberty of preparing a celebration,” Pam interrupted his thoughts. She gestured toward a hallway and she and Eric walked together to an open bedroom door. There were three women splayed across the king-size bed. Pam had selected well. Two were dark-haired and a third was red. Eric supposed Pam did it purposely as to avoid reminding him of Freyda. The women were glamoured and naked, thin chains and studs decorating their bodies. Eric had to hand it to her, his daughter had a fine eye and each one was tempting.
“Get your clothes off,” Pam pushed against his chest. “If this is our last night, we’re going to feast and fuck like champions!” Pam turned to the glazed-eyed redhead, “Help my Maker with his pants,” she ordered, then turning to Eric, said, “She has absolutely no gag reflex! None!”
Eric couldn’t help laughing. This was something he understood. It was only right that warriors should make an offering of their one last night of pleasure to the Gods on the eve of battle. Pam and Eric avoided each other, but they freely enjoyed everything the women had. It was a good night, and by the end of it, Eric was sated.
Pam sent the women on their way, texting for a driver to retrieve them. “He’ll take them somewhere to make sure they recover,” Pam smirked. “I really enjoyed the smaller of the brunettes. She may need a transfusion,” and Pam wiped her lip with her thumb.
His daughter was so sassy; Eric couldn’t help sharing in her amusement. “Thank you, Pam,” he told her. “It was a night to remember.”
“I’ll see you at first rising,” Pam grinned, and she grabbed his chest hair to help her rise up on tiptoe and kiss his cheek.
“Rest well, daughter,” Eric replied, swatting her on the butt as she flounced from the room.
Eric flopped back on the large bed surrounded by the smells of sex and sweat. It was pleasant. As dawn approached, though, his thoughts turned, as they so often did, to Sookie Stackhouse. He thought of how she had looked, her eyes half-hooded, as he filled her body in Denver. He wondered where she was tonight, and he thought of her being wrapped in the arms of her human lover.
“Best for both of us,” he whispered, then throwing his arm over his eyes, he waited for dawn to take him.
Sookie walked out of the terminal area toward baggage claim. She wasn’t surprised to see Rubio Hermosa holding up the sign with her name. “How was your flight?” he asked as he executed his perfect bow.
It was hard not to acknowledge Rubio as more than Felipe’s messenger boy. It was on the tip of Sookie’s tongue to share information about George and school. As a parent, she shared the desire to discuss kids. Rubio looked away, signaling. “You have your luggage claim?” he asked. Sookie handed it to him and Rubio handed it to another vampire who was at their side almost instantaneously. Once the vampire left, Rubio turned, and he looked more relaxed.
“We have ten minutes. That vampire is also our driver. He will be with you most evenings. Angie is here. You know her.” Sookie nodded. She knew Felipe de Castro’s Second and didn’t like her much. She remembered the night Angie spent at Eric’s house; that terrible night when Eric was arrested for killing a Were. Angie was dancing on Eric’s coffee table, grinding like a stripper, gouging long scratches into the table’s surface with her stiletto heels.
“You know I can’t read vampires,” Sookie watched for the driver.
“No one expects you to. They are bringing in Area vampires, one by one, with their accountants and, in some cases, bankers or investors. Felipe refuses to believe that Area 5 tithes have dropped because business is down. He thinks there’s still rebellion here and that local vampires are cheating him.”
“I didn’t hear that things were that bad,” Sookie said. She wasn’t any financial whiz, but she did follow the fortunes of northern Louisiana. From what little she’d read, with the discovery of natural gas there were fortunes being made in and around Shreveport.
“Felipe doubtless reads those same reports,” Rubio was also watching, keeping his face neutral. “He fails to realize that without seed money and the support of a King, vampires struggle to get started. Humans are not anxious for us to establish ourselves. Vampires here are poorer while everyone around them gets richer.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Sookie replied, and Rubio met her eyes and nodded once. Sookie looked away, her anxiety level rising. “Where are the Weres in all of this?” Sookie was thinking of the Long Tooth Pack and Alcide Herveaux. He and his Pack were headquartered in Shreveport. When she’d been here before, in the days when Eric Northman was still Sheriff, the business of vampires and Weres seemed to cross quite often.
“They stick to theirs. We stick to ours,” Rubio told her. “King de Castro doesn’t believe in mixing with inferior races.”
“So our boss is stupid on top of everything else,” Sookie said sourly.
“I wouldn’t share that sentiment with Angie, but, yes, I’d agree with you,” and Rubio hid his smile behind his hand.
Sookie turned to Rubio, “Let me tell you quick before our driver returns. George is doing so well! I see him all the time and he is just the most delightful boy. He’s smart and he has a real way about him.”
“He tells me your son takes him rock climbing,” Rubio didn’t look thrilled.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Sookie sighed. “Rick is a very good climber and he is responsible. They have all the right equipment…”
“I don’t mind,” Rubio cut her off. “George is grateful for Rick’s friendship. It has made a difference for him in school. We were worried about George. As the oldest, this adjustment was hardest for him. He’s been in Catholic schools, but he slept at home every night. He had friends. It was not an easy decision. Finding Rick was fortunate.”
“I feel the same way,” Sookie grinned. “Rick’s different,” and then Sookie’s face dropped. “Fact is, he’s getting more different every day. He’s drinking blood now.”
“That can’t be easy,” Rubio’s eyes became wary. “You were never comfortable with that.”
“You mean watching Eric drink from other folks?” Sookie wasn’t sure where the bitter remark came from, but she suspected remembering Angie and that night had spurred it. “Sorry,” she said. “I did struggle with it, more than I knew at the time. Now, it’s different. This is my son. Amy Ludwig said I should think about getting him living among vampires soon.”
“He is becoming more vampire?” Rubio asked.
Sookie nodded, “In lots of ways. Sounds like he’ll be pretty much be one of you when he’s finished.” Sookie couldn’t help the sigh that escaped her, “Who’d have thought? I thought I had issues when I believed he was a shifter’s child. But this? This is a whole new world.”
Rubio looked up and then stepped away. “Our driver has returned with your bag,” he announced unnecessarily. Rubio gestured, “The car is waiting.”
They all stood on the curb and within minutes a black sedan pulled over. A valet jumped out and tossed the key to their driver. Rubio helped Sookie into the backseat and they were pulling away and driving into the city in no time.
“So, as I was saying,” Rubio said, “You will be expected to read each of those in the team that accompanies each vampire. They have been instructed to bring every person who can speak to their financial condition. The interviews and audits are expected to be in depth, so there will be no more than two vampires interviewed each evening.”
This was the conversation they probably would have had at the airport if there weren’t other things to share. Sookie thought about what Rubio was telling her. “It sounds more like an inquisition,” she commented.
“The findings are important,” Rubio shrugged. “You will be expected to take notes and there will be a hired reporter there to transcribe all conversations. Ted is already at the hotel. His plane arrived earlier.” Rubio checked his watch. “Your flight took a little longer than we expected. I will assist you in checking in and we will wait. The first interview starts in an hour. Fortunately, the place we’ve arranged is only a short distance from the hotel.”
“How long do you think this will take?” Sookie asked.
“Hours,” Rubio was looking out the window. “The King expects us to be thorough, and Angie will be there to make sure nothing is missed.”
“Well, I’m going to need to get something to eat,” Sookie snapped. “And it can’t be Burger King or anything like that because I’ll be sick.” Sookie saw the driver’s sharp look in the rearview mirror, and the lift of his lip. “I’ll ask for a menu when I’m checking in and I can order it right away to take with me,” she said quickly, almost in apology. There was a tension that Sookie couldn’t miss and she figured it would be best not to be too much trouble to anyone. ‘I can’t wait to get home,’ she thought.
As soon as she got into her room, she hung up her clothes, washed her face, and changed into a skirt, hose, and some short heels. It always paid to look professional, and she knew Angie would report to Felipe on his team’s performance. Angie like to focus on details, like appearances and who smelled like what. It was her way, and it was meant to shake confidence.
Sookie pulled her emergency phone from her carry-on. She turned it on and checked messages. She texted first Lora, and then Rick. Rick texted her back and she smiled as they made a couple quick exchanges. He let her know George’s team won at soccer and that George had scored two of the goals. He also let her know that German sucked.
For the first time, her son was struggling a little with a subject. He was only making ‘B’s in German and it annoyed him. Sookie knew Rick’s recall was uncanny and she wondered if perfect memory, a vampire trait, was something he’d develop. The issue wasn’t remembering, though. Rick’s issue was his accent. He had a hard time placing emphasis in the right place and getting his tongue around the consonants. His teacher advised him to use his language labs, but Rick thought he knew better and his stubbornness was costing him.
Sookie texted, ‘Listen to the tapes!’ to which her cheeky son responded with a sick and then a flaming poop emoji. “Suit yourself!” Sookie said out loud, turning off the phone and hiding it in the special pocket she had sewn in her purse.
Dinner was waiting for Sookie at the front desk and so was the driver. “Where’s Rubio?” she asked.
“He went home to his family,” the driver told her, but the way he said it was not kind. Rubio was married to a human and Sookie could tell that was the issue. As they drove, Sookie pulled out her turkey wrap and took a few bites. There was a cup of coffee and a plastic bowl of fruit salad, but, as Rubio had warned, they were pulling over before Sookie had time to try either.
The driver was at Sookie’s door before she reached for the handle. Sookie levered her way out, grabbed her purse, and the bag with her food. She juggled the coffee cup a little and wished the driver would offer to help, but she knew he wouldn’t. As they walked into the towering, dark warehouse space, Angie stepped into a pool of light, “Oh, at last. You’re here.” Angie was dressed all in black leather, the tight fit of her slacks emphasizing how thin she was. Sookie felt like an old, frumpy housefrau beside her, but she figured that was the point.
Sookie walked toward the place where three tables were set up in a roughly U-shape. Ted was already there, picking his nails. His belly was hanging over a tight waistband and Sookie figured he had to be uncomfortable. The accountant nodded to her, and Sookie put on her brightest smile, “Well, hey Ted! It’s really nice to see you again.” Of course, it wasn’t really nice to see Ted, but if they were going to have to spend the next week working together, it didn’t pay to be mean. Sookie was introduced to Wendy, the transcriber who would only be with them tonight. Tomorrow her agency would send someone else.
The first vampire was already seated at a table. He was surrounded by accordion files and papers and there was pale man and a darker woman seated beside him. The woman was a clear broadcaster and she was thinking this was the last time she would ever do business with a vampire. She’d make sure her bank never loaned money to any of them again. The man wasn’t so clear, but Sookie could feel his fear without trying.
It was a long and grueling interview. Sookie hadn’t seen Ted in action before. At first she was impressed by how smart he was but as the evening wore on, she decided the streak of mean Ted used pretty well killed off any admiration she felt. After several hours, the first vampire left and the second vampire was ushered in.
Sookie insisted on taking a break. She finished her meal, even though her coffee was cold. She also asked for a bathroom. It was discovered the only working bathroom in the building was filthy and there was a dead mouse in the corner. “Just go against the building,” Angie sneered.
“Well, you can just take me back to the hotel, then,” Sookie snarled back. “Your boss wants a good job done and I’m not going to be able to concentrate if I can’t get the basic amenities! I need a clean bathroom and I need a jacket. It’s freezing in here. I’m not a vampire!”
“As we are all well aware,” Angie said in her superior way.
“Well, if you can do better than me, you just be my guest!” and Sookie started heading for the door.
“What she said,” Ted said from behind her, and Sookie turned to see the accountant standing up and starting to grab his jacket.
“Me, too,” said Wendy, and Angie was clearly struggling with what was shaping into a full-scale mutiny.
“And I’ll email Felipe and tell him how you treated us,” Sookie added.
Angie signaled the driver, “There’s a restaurant down the street,” she told him. “Take them there. Buy them coffee.” She turned to Sookie, “There are blankets in the trunk of the car. You can bring them in with you.” The vampire checked her watch before saying to the driver, “Thirty minutes. No more!”
The driver was good at his job and in less than thirty minutes, they were all back in the warehouse, blankets draped over their laps, and walking through the exhibits brought by the second vampire. Sookie listened carefully to the thoughts of those humans and, in this case, one Were, he brought with him. What she heard would be confirmed over the next night, and the night following that. These vampires told tales of woe. They were discriminated against and set up for failure. They turned to Pamela Ravenscroft as their Sheriff for help, and she did what she could, but what these vampires needed was the influence a King could provide with national bank managers and block grants. Pam was able to get them help with the local Chamber of Commerce, but it wasn’t enough.
“I don’t know what more Felipe thinks these folks are making out here,” Sookie sighed to Ted as they walked toward the car.
“Doesn’t matter,” Ted shrugged. “We do our job, we turn in our report. In the meantime, we take advantage of what the city has to offer, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s Fangtasia!” The accountant turned to the driver, “You know where it is? We want to stop there on the way back to the hotel.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Sookie told him. “For one thing, I think I’m still banned.”
“Banned? Really?” and Ted looked a little too happy. “I knew you were a swinger! What did you do? Get caught in the Ladies Room? Get a little too free with the merchandise? Were you a Fangbanger?”
“No,” Sookie said shortly. “Nothing like that.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Angie purred from behind them. “Felipe lifted that ban a long time ago. You can go to Fangtasia as much as you like, Miss Stackhouse,” and then she laughed in a way that made Sookie want to grab some wood and stake her on the spot.
Sookie found herself ushered through the front door of the club. As members of Felipe de Castro’s personal retinue, they weren’t expected to pay the cover charges. The vampire at the door bowed briefly and Sookie could feel the eyes of those waiting in line cutting her down. Once they were inside, she couldn’t stop glancing toward the booth in the corner, the one that had been Eric’s booth. There was a mostly human party sitting there tonight, and Sookie was almost relieved.
There was music playing. Ted steered them to a high-top table, and Sookie carefully positioned herself on the stool. It seemed everywhere she looked, there were memories. “I’m surprised to see you here,” a voice said at her elbow, and Sookie almost fell off her stool as she turned rapidly to see Indira standing next to her.
“I’m here on King’s business,” she stammered.
“Hi,” Ted interrupted and bowed his head. He was using his swinger smile and Sookie almost choked.
“Hi, yourself,” Indira’s voice was dismissive, then she looked at Sookie again, “Why are you here?”
“I know,” Sookie nodded. “I told folks there was a ban, but Angie…”
“The King’s Second, Angie?” Indira clarified.
“Yes, that Angie,” Sookie nodded, “She said the ban was lifted, so here I am.”
“Pam is in New Orleans, reporting to Felipe,” Indira was looking happier. “She’ll be sorry she missed you. She speaks of you.”
“Really?” Sookie couldn’t help but be touched, then, not sure, she added, “Good things, right?”
“Yes,” Indira smiled, “We all miss you.” A waitress came by, and Indira said, “Gin and tonic, yes?”
“That would be great,” Sookie agreed, but when the drink arrived, she could barely sip it past the lump in her throat.
It was the next evening when Sookie heard about the assassination attempt on Stan Davis. Angie wasn’t at the warehouse when they arrived, but their driver told them about what he’d read on one of the blog sites that specialized in vampire news. Sookie was tempted to call Mr. Cataliades, but the more the driver described things, the less worried Sookie became. It was a disgruntled employee according to the news and, knowing Stan, Sookie wasn’t surprised.
“He’s kind of an asshat,” she told Ted as they got ready to sit down for their first interview. “He likes to look like a computer nerd, but he’s as smart as they come.”
“Vampires can be pretty tricky,” Ted nodded. “It’s what makes them so successful.”
“Except for these guys,” and Sookie jerked her chin at the group awaiting their instructions to take seats.
“Yeah,” Ted agreed, “That’s for sure!”
That night as Sookie got ready for bed, she texted Lora and Rick. It was late, and she wasn’t surprised when she didn’t hear back. She was an hour behind them, and as late as it was for her, it was even later in Chester.
On a whim, she texted Fran. The witch seemed to be awake late at night a lot, and it wasn’t unusual to receive texts or emails from her at odd hours. Sookie texted about where she was and how about an hour ago she’d almost felt like Fran was in the room with her. She couldn’t describe it, but she wanted her friend to know how much she missed her. Fran didn’t text back. That night, Sookie went to bed thinking about Boston and how much she missed the witch.
The next day, Sookie woke relatively early. It was mid-afternoon and she decided to take a walk around Shreveport. She hadn’t spent a lot of time here when she lived in Bon Temps, but it wasn’t unfamiliar either. There were stores she recognized and others that had been something else before she left. As she walked the streets, she found herself wondering how things were doing in Bon Temps. She thought about Jason, whom she hadn’t spoken with in close to ten years. She thought about Tara and she wondered if Sam Merlotte married the Were who came after she left. She thought about her house, sitting on Hummingbird Lane, empty, but with a lock that still would turn to her key and she wondered, briefly, about the identity of who owned it now. Sookie was pretty sure it was her Fae relatives, but she didn’t really know.
That evening, the atmosphere in the warehouse was tense. It wasn’t the interviews, although the news was no better with these vampires than it had been with the ones from the nights before. No, the issue was Angie and the driver. They seemed angry about something, and their hostility rubbed off on everyone.
Sookie was happy to get back to the hotel. She stripped off her clothes and started running a bath. She turned on her phone and saw first Lora’s text, and then Rick’s.
Lora’s message told her about Fran. Her friend was in the hospital. A stroke, the message said. Sookie didn’t think about the time. She pushed the buttons and called Lora. Once Lora assured her that Fran was stable, if still unconscious, Sookie called Rick. He was shaken, she could tell. They talked about how strong Fran was and Sookie told him a dozen times she was sorry to be so far away. She got him to tell her a little about school, and she told him how proud she was of him. “I love you, Kiddo,” she said, “I love you!” until he told her to cut it out.
Sookie sat on the edge of the bed, all thoughts of the bath forgotten. She looked at the phone she was holding between her hands and thought about her tall, growing son.
“Our lives would have been different if I’d stayed here,” she said out loud. She thought about Bon Temps and she thought about Rick, and what was likely to come as he changed. They would need to leave Chester, but where would be the safe place for him? Some part of her wanted him to be with Eric, though she didn’t see how that could happen. Eric was in Oklahoma with Freyda. She couldn’t trust him to do the right thing if it meant violating some vampire rule.
She remembered that night Freyda had come to her house on Hummingbird Lane. It had been raining, and the Oklahoma Queen had run through the night, determined to see the woman who all the fuss was about. Sookie remembered how angry Freyda became. Sookie rescinded the Queen’s invitation, and that saved Sookie’s life. ‘I wonder if Rick can rescind invitations?’ Sookie wondered and she had a sick feeling that her son would become too vampire to have that defense in his tool box.
The only place she could think to bring him was here, to Louisiana, but this wasn’t exactly welcoming or even familiar ground anymore. It was helpful that Indira was friendly and it sounded like Pam might still be her friend, but Sookie knew it wasn’t really what Rick needed or what she wanted. She would become like one of those vampires she spoke with; a vassal of Felipe de Castro, owing money with nothing to show for it. It was a depressing thought.
It was the fourth night, and Sookie was surprised to see Rubio Hermosa at the warehouse. Angie was, too, and she asked in a not nice way why the vampire was there. “I promised Ms Stackhouse I would take her to dinner,” he replied, and his voice purred around the words.
“Cheating on your human with another human?” Angie laughed cruelly.
“I would prefer you didn’t tell,” Rubio said and he sounded serious. It was the first Sookie had heard of it, but she figured he was trying to be tricky, so she smiled and shrugged like she and Rubio had some big secret, which, apparently, they did.
“Well, I can’t have you distracting her until her work here is done,” Angie was not pleasant. “I have your number. I will call you when we are finished. You can do what you wish with her then.” Rubio offered to stay out of the way, but Angie snarled and sent him on his way. “You are trouble, Miss Stackhouse,” she said meanly, “and I’m sure the King will be interested.”
It was odd, but Sookie figured that whatever Rubio had to tell her was important. She worried that it might be bad news from home and Sookie found herself glancing toward the door as the evening began.
They were a couple hours into the first interview when there was a loud noise outside. Angie got up and stalked to the door to investigate, the driver close behind her. Ted shrugged, and he and Sookie turned back to questioning. The transcriber tonight was an older woman, Fern. Her gray hair was crispy curled and the faint smell of cigarettes floated from her sweater.
The vampire tonight was running a dry cleaner and doing reasonably well, though not making a lot of money. He brought his accountant and a Were who was his business partner. The vampire stopped speaking and turned to the door. He stood up suddenly and said, “Is there another door?”
Sookie found herself focusing on the sounds outside, and she realized she was hearing fighting. There was the clang of steel, and suddenly she was in a hospital room staring at a blocked door, knowing there were fairies on their way to kill her. Sookie’s fingers felt numb as she grabbed her purse and pulled her phone from its place in the lining. She pushed the power button and prayed that trouble stayed outside until the screen was ready.
The Were howled and ran toward the back wall where it was dark, “The windows are boarded!” he yelled. The vampire ran toward him and they were working on pulling boards away. Their human was gibbering and Fern kept wheezing, “Oh my God, Oh my God!” The phone was ready and Sookie texted her son. She told him she loved him. She told him he made her proud. She instructed him to find his Father. ‘I trust you, Eric,’ she thought, and it made her laugh at herself to think it took facing death to realize the truth. She did trust Eric and always had.
Two vampires rushed in through the main door. They carried swords and they were both bloody. Fern made an ‘eep’ noise and just as quickly, her gray-haired head was rolling across the floor.
“You!” one of the vampires pointed at the vampire Ted and Sookie had been interviewing, “Get out!” and they pointed at the door. The vampire herded both his accountant and the Were with him toward the exit, leaving Sookie and Ted sitting rooted to their seats.
Sookie didn’t recognize either of the vampires stalking toward them. “We work for Felipe de Castro,” Ted proclaimed.
“Exactly,” one of the vampires hissed, and Sookie found her arm in a grip that was sure to leave bruises. She was forced to her knees beside Ted. She found she couldn’t look away as the sword rushed past her face, lifting Ted’s head from his shoulders as easily as slicing the top from a watermelon. Ted’s look of surprise was in place as his head rolled past her.
Sookie closed her eyes. “Rick,” she whispered, and then “Eric,” but instead of the feel of a blade, she felt the bang of an impact to the side of her head. The last thing she remembered was falling forward toward the floor.