New in the #1 New York Times bestselling Sookie Stackhouse series-the basis for HBO's True Blood!
With her knack for being in trouble's way, Sookie witnesses the firebombing of Merlotte's, the bar where she works. Since Sam Merlotte is now known to be two-natured, suspicion falls immediately on the anti-shifters in the area. Sookie suspects otherwise, but her attention is divided when she realizes that her lover Eric Northman and his "child" Pam are plotting to kill the vampire who is now their master. Gradually, Sookie is drawn into the plot-which is much more complicated than she knows...
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May 03, 2011
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Excerpt from Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris
I enjoyed driving to work for the evening shift when it was still light outside. I turned up the radio and sang "Crazy" right along with Gnarls Barkley. I could identify.
Jason passed me driving in the opposite direction, maybe on his way to his girlfriend's house. Michele Schubert was still hanging in the relationship. Since Jason was finally growing up, she might make something permanent with him . . . if she wanted to. Michele's strongest suit was that she wasn't enthralled by Jason's (apparently) powerful bedroom mojo. If she was mooning over him and jealous of his attention, she was keeping it perfectly concealed. My hat was off to her. I waved at my brother, and he smiled back. He looked happy and unconflicted. I envied that from the bottom of my heart. There were big plusses to the way Jason approached life.
The crowd at Merlotte's was thin again. No surprise there; a firebombing is pretty bad publicity. What if Merlotte's couldn't survive? What if Vic's Redneck Roadhouse kept stealing customers? People liked Merlotte's because it was relatively quiet, because it was relaxed, because the food was good (if limited) and the drinks were generous. Sam had always been a popular guy until the wereanimals had made their own announcement. People who had handled the vampires with cautious acceptance seemed to regard twoeys as the straws that had broken the camel's back, so to speak.
I went into the storeroom to grab a clean apron and then into Sam's office to stuff my purse into the deep drawer of his desk. It sure would be nice to have a little locker. I could keep my purse in it, and a change of clothes for nights when minor disasters struck, like spilled beer or a squirt of mustard.
I was taking over from Holly, who would marry Jason's best friend Hoyt in October. This would be Holly's second wedding, Hoyt's first. They'd decided to go all out and have a church ceremony and a reception in the church hall afterward. I knew more about it than I wanted to know. Though the wedding wasn't for months, Holly had already begun obsessing about details. Since her first wedding had been a justice-of-the-peace visit, this was (theoretically) her last chance to live the dream. I could imagine my grandmother's opinion about Holly's white wedding dress, since Holly had a little boy in school--but hey, whatever made the bride happy. White used to symbolize the virgin purity of the wearer. Now it just meant the bride had acquired an expensive and unusable dress to hang in her closet after the big day.
I waved at Holly to attract her attention. She was talking to the new Calgary Baptist preacher, Brother Collins. He came in from time to time but never ordered alcohol. Holly ended her conversation and strode over to tell me what was happening at our tables, which wasn't much. I shuddered when I looked at the scorched mark in the middle of the floor. One less table to serve.
"Hey, Sookie," Holly said, pausing on her way to the back to fetch her purse. "You'll be at the wedding, right?"
"Sure, wouldn't miss it."
"Would you mind serving the punch?"
This was an honor--not as big an honor as being a bridesmaid, but still significant. I'd never expected such a thing. "I'd be glad to," I said, smiling. "Let's talk again closer to time."
Holly looked pleased. "Okay, good. Well, let's hope business picks up here so we still have a job come September."
"Oh, you know we'll be okay," I said, but I was far from convinced that was so.
I stayed up waiting for Dermot and Claude for half an hour after I got home that night, but they didn't show, and I didn't feel like calling them. Their promised talk with me, the talk that was supposed to fill me in on my fairy heritage, would not take place tonight. Though I'd wanted to hear some answers, I found I was just as glad. The day had been too full. I told myself I was pissed off and I tried to listen for the fairies to come in, but I didn't lie awake more than five minutes.
When I emerged the next morning a little after nine, I didn't see any of the usual signs that indicated my houseguests had returned. The hall bathroom looked exactly as it had the day before, there weren't any dishes by the kitchen sink, and none of the lights had been left on. I went out on the enclosed back porch. Nope, no car.
Maybe they'd been too tired to make the drive back to Bon Temps, or maybe they'd both gotten lucky. When Claude had come to live with me, he'd told me that if he made a conquest, he'd spend the night at his house in Monroe with the lucky guy. I'd assumed Dermot would do the same--though come to think of it, I'd never seen Dermot with anyone, man or woman. I'd also assumed that Dermot would choose women over men, simply because he looked like Jason, who was all about the ladies. Assumptions. Dumb.
I fixed myself some eggs and toast and fruit and read a library copy of one of Nora Roberts's books while I ate. I felt more like my former self than I had in weeks. Except for the visit to Hooligans, I'd had a nice time the day before, and the guys weren't trailing in and out of the kitchen, complaining about me being low on whole-wheat bread or hot water (Claude) or offering me flowery pleasantries when all I wanted to do was read (Dermot). Nice to discover that I could still enjoy being alone.
Singing to myself, I showered and made myself up . . . and by that time I had to leave for work again for the early shift. I glanced into the living room, tired of it looking like a junk store. I reminded myself that tomorrow the antiques dealers were supposed to come.
The bar was a little busier than it had been the night before, which made me even more cheerful. A little to my surprise, Kennedy was behind the bar. She looked as polished and perfect as the beauty queen she'd been, though she was wearing designer jeans and a white-and-gray-striped tank. We were quite the well-groomed women today.
"Where's Sam?" I asked. "I thought he would be working."
"He called me this morning, said he was still over in Shreveport," Kennedy said, giving me a sideways look. "I guess Jannalynn's birthday went real well. I need as many hours as I can get, so I was glad to roll out of bed and get my hiney over here."
"How's your mamma and your daddy?" I asked. "Have they visited lately?"
Kennedy smiled bitterly. "They're just rolling along, Sookie. They still wish I was little Miss Beauty Pageant and taught Sunday school, but they did send me a good check when I got out of prison. I'm lucky to have 'em."
Her hands stilled in the middle of drying a glass. "I been wondering," she said, and paused. I waited. I knew what was coming. "I was wondering if it was a member of Casey's family who bombed the bar," she said, very quietly. "When I shot Casey, I was just saving my own life. I didn't think about his family, or my family, or anything but living."
Kennedy had never talked about it before, which I could understand completely. "Who would be thinking about anything else but surviving, Kennedy?" I said, quietly but with intensity. I wanted her to feel my absolute sincerity. "No one in her right mind would have done any different. I don't think God would ever want you to let yourself be beaten to death." Though I was not at all sure what God would want. I probably meant, I think it would have been dumb as hell to let yourself be killed.
"I wouldn't have gotten off so light if those other women hadn't come forward," Kennedy said. "His family, I guess they know he really did hit women . . . but I wonder if they still blame me. If maybe they knew I'd be in the bar, and they decided to kill me here."
"Are any of his family two-natured?" I asked.
Kennedy looked shocked. "Oh my gosh, no! They're Baptists!"
I tried not to smile, but I couldn't help it. After a second, Kennedy started laughing at herself. "Seriously," she said, "I don't think so. You think whoever threw that bomb was a Were?"
"Or some other kind of two-natured. Yeah, I think so, but don't tell this around anywhere. Sam's already feeling the backlash enough, as it is."
Kennedy nodded in complete agreement, a customer called me to bring him a bottle of hot sauce, and I had new food for thought.
The server replacing me called in to say her car had a flat tire, and I stayed at Merlotte's two extra hours. Kennedy, who'd be there until closing, gave me a hard time about being indispensible, until I swatted her with a towel. Kennedy perked up quite a bit when Danny came in. He'd obviously gone home after work to shower and shave again, and he looked at Kennedy as if his world were now complete when he climbed onto the barstool. What he said was, "Give me a beer and be quick about it, woman."
"You want me to pour that beer on your head, Danny?"
"Don't make no difference to me how I get it." And they grinned at each other.
Just after dark, my cell phone vibrated in my apron pocket. As soon as I could, I stepped into Sam's office. I'd gotten a text from Eric. "See U later," it said. And that was all. But I had a genuine smile on my face the rest of the evening, and when I drove home I felt happy all over to see Eric sitting on my front porch, whether he'd wrecked my kitchen or not. And he had a new toaster with him, a red bow stuck to the box.
"To what do I owe the honor?" I asked tartly. It didn't do to let Eric know I'd been anticipating his visit. Of course, he probably had an idea that was so, through our blood bond.
"We haven't had any fun lately," he said. He handed over the toaster.
"Between me putting out a fire and you attacking Pam? Yeah, I'd say that was a fair statement. Thanks for the replacement toaster, though I wouldn't classify that as fun. What do you have in mind?"
"Later, of course, I have spectacular sex in mind," he said, standing up and walking over to me. "I've thought of a position we haven't tried yet."
I'm not as flexible as Eric, and the last time we'd tried something real adventurous I'd had a sore hip for three days. But I was willing to experiment. "What do you have in mind before the spectacular sex?" I asked.
"We have to visit a new dance club," he said, but I caught the shade of worry in his voice. "That's what they're calling it, to try to bring in the young people who look pretty. Like you."
"Where is this dance club?" Since I'd been on my feet for hours, this plan was not the most tempting. But it had been a long time since we'd had fun as a couple--in public.
"It's between here and Shreveport," Eric said, and hesitated. "Victor just opened it."
"Oh. Is it smart for you to go there?" I said, dismayed. Eric's program had zero appeal now.
Victor and Eric were engaged in a silent struggle. Victor Madden was the Louisiana proxy for Felipe, king of Nevada, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Felipe was based in Las Vegas, and we wondered (Eric and Pam and I) if he'd given Victor this large bone simply to get the ambitious Victor out of Felipe's richest territory. In my heart of hearts, I wanted Victor to die. Victor had sent his two most trusted minions, Bruno and Corinna, to kill Pam and me, simply in order to weaken Eric, whom Felipe had retained since he was the most productive sheriff in the state.
Pam and I had turned the tables. Bruno and Corinna were piles of dust by the interstate, and no one could prove we'd done it.
Victor had put out the word that he was offering a high bounty for anyone who could give him some information on his minions' whereabouts, but no one had come forward. Only Pam, Eric, and I knew what had happened. Victor could hardly accuse us outright, since that would be admitting that he'd sent them to kill us. Kind of a Mexican standoff.
Next time, Victor might send someone more cautious and careful. Bruno and Corinna had been overconfident.
"It's not smart to go to this club, but we don't have a choice," Eric said. "Victor has ordered me to make an appearance with my wife. He'll think I'm afraid of him if I don't bring you."
I thought this through while I was searching my closet, trying to think of anything I owned that would look good at a trendy dance club. Eric was lying on my bed, his hands behind his head. "There's something in my car, I forgot," he said suddenly, and was a blur going out the door. He was back in seconds, carrying a garment on a hanger enveloped in a clear plastic bag.
"What?" I said. "It's not my birthday."
"Can't a vampire give his lover a present?"
I had to smile back at him. "Well, yes he can," I said. I love presents. The toaster had been reparation. This was a surprise. I carefully removed the plastic bag. The garment on the hanger was a dress. Probably.
"This is--is this the whole thing?" I asked, holding it up. There was a black U-shaped neckband--a large U, both front and back--and the rest was bronze and shiny and pleated, like many broad bronze ribbons sewn together. Well, not so many. The saleswoman had left the price tag on. I tried not to look, failed, and felt my mouth fall open after I'd absorbed it. I could buy six or maybe ten pieces at Wal-Mart, or three at Dillard's, for the price of this dress.
"You will look wonderful," Eric said. He grinned fangily. "Everyone will envy me."
Who wouldn't feel good, hearing that?
I emerged from the bathroom to find that my new buddy Immanuel was back. He'd set up a hair and makeup station on my dressing table. It felt very odd to see yet another man in my bedroom. Immanuel seemed to be in a much happier mood tonight. Even his odd haircut looked perkier. While Eric watched as closely as if he suspected Immanuel of being an assassin, the skinny hairdresser poofed me and curled me and made me up. Since Tara and I had been little girls, I hadn't had such a fun time in front of a mirror. When Immanuel was through, I looked . . . glossy and confident.
"Thank you," I said, wondering where the real Sookie had gone.
"You're welcome," Immanuel said seriously. "You've got great skin. I like working on you."
No one had ever said that to me, and all I could come up with in response was, "Please leave a card." He fished one out and propped it against a china lady my grandmother had loved. The juxtaposition left me feeling a little sad. I'd come down a long road since her death.
"How's your sister?" I asked, since I was thinking of sad things.
"She had a good day today," Immanuel said. "Thanks for asking." Though he didn't look at Eric while he said this, I saw Eric glance away, his jaw tight. Irritated.
Immanuel departed after packing up all his paraphernalia, and I found a strapless bra and a thong--which I hated, but who wants a pantyline under a dress like that?--and began to assemble myself. Luckily, I had good black heels. I knew strappy sandals would suit the dress better, but the heels would have to do.
Eric had really paid attention as I got dressed. "So smooth," he said, running his hand up my leg.
"Hey, you keep doing that, we won't get to the club, and all this preparation will have gone to waste." Call me pathetic, but I actually did want someone else besides Eric to see the total effect of the new dress and the new hair and the good makeup.
"Not entirely to waste," he said, but he changed into his own party clothes. I braided his hair so it would look neat and tied the end with a black ribbon. Eric looked like a buccaneer out on the town.
We should have been happy, excited about our date, looking forward to dancing together at the club. I couldn't know what Eric was thinking as we walked out to his car, but I knew he wasn't happy with what we were doing and where we were going.
That made two of us.
I decided to ease into a back-and-forth with a little light conversation.
"How are the new vamps working out?" I said.
"They come in when they're supposed to and put in their bar time," he said unenthusiastically. Three vampires who'd ended up in Eric's area after Katrina had asked Eric for permission to stay in Area Five, though they wanted to nest in Minden, not Shreveport itself.
"What's wrong with them?" I said. "You don't seem very excited about the addition to your ranks." I slid into my seat. Eric walked around the car.
"Palomino does well enough," he admitted grudgingly as he got in on the driver's side. "But Rubio is stupid, and Parker is weak."
I didn't know the three well enough to debate that. Palomino, who went by one name, was an attractive young vampire with freaky coloring--her skin was a natural tan tone, while her hair was pale blond. Rubio Hermosa was handsome, but--I had to agree with Eric--he was dim and never had much to say for himself. Parker was as nerdy in death as he had been in life, and though he'd improved the Fangtasia computer systems, he seemed scared of his own shadow.
"You want to talk to me about the argument between you and Pam?" I asked once I'd buckled up. Instead of his Corvette, Eric had brought Fangtasia's Lincoln Town Car. It was incredibly comfortable, and given the way he drove when he was in the Vette, I was always glad when we had an evening out in the Lincoln.
"No," said Eric. He was instantly emanating brooding and worry.
I waited for him to elaborate.
I waited some more.
"All right," I said, trying hard to regain my sense of pleasure in being out on a date with a gorgeous man. "Okeydokey. Have it your way. But I think the sex will be a few degrees less spectacular if I'm worried about you and Pam."
That bit of levity earned me a dark look.
"I know that Pam wants to make another vampire," I said. "I understand there's a time element involved."
"Immanuel shouldn't have talked," Eric said.
"It was nice to have someone actually share information with me, information directly pertaining to people I care about." Did I have to draw a picture?
"Sookie, Victor has said I can't give permission for Pam to make a child." Eric's jaw snapped shut like a steel trap.
Oh. "Kings have control over reproduction, I guess," I said cautiously.
"Yes. Absolute control. But you understand that Pam is giving me hell about this, and so is Victor."
"Victor isn't a king, really, is he? Maybe if you went directly to Felipe?"
"Every time I bypass Victor, he finds a way to punish me."
There was no point in talking about it. Eric was being pulled in two different directions as it was.
So on the way to Victor's club, which Eric said was called Vampire's Kiss, we talked about the visit of the antiques dealers the next day. There were lots of things I would have liked to discuss, but in view of Eric's overwhelmingly difficult position I didn't want to bring up my own problems. Plus, I still had the feeling that I didn't know everything there was to know about Eric's situation.
"Eric," I said, and knew I was speaking too abruptly and with too much intensity. "You don't tell me everything about your business, am I right?"
"You're right," he said, without missing a beat. "But that's for many reasons, Sookie. Most important is that some of it you could only worry about, and the rest of it might put you in danger. Knowledge isn't always power." I pressed my lips together and refused to look at him. Childish, I know, but I didn't completely believe him.
After a moment of silence, he added, "There's also the fact that I'm not used to sharing my daily concerns with a human, and it's hard to break the habit after a thousand years."
Right. And none of those secrets involved my future. Right. Evidently, Eric read my stony self-possession as grudging acceptance, because he decided our tense moment was over.
"But you tell me everything, my lover, don't you?" he asked teasingly.
I glared at him and didn't answer.
That wasn't what Eric had expected. "You don't?" he asked, and I couldn't figure out everything that was in his voice. Disappointment, concern, a touch of anger . . . and a dash of excitement. That was a lot to pack into a couple of words, but I swear it was all there. "That's an unexpected twist," he murmured. "And yet, we say we love each other."
"We say we do." I agreed. "And I do love you, but I'm beginning to see that being in love doesn't mean sharing as much as I thought we would."
He had nothing to say to that.
We passed Vic's Redneck Roadhouse on the way to the new dance club, and even from the interstate I could see that the parking lot was packed. "Crap," I said. "There sits all of Merlotte's business. What do they have that we haven't got?"
"Entertainment. The novelty of being the new place. Waitresses in hot pants and halter tops," Eric began.
"Oh, stop," I said, disgusted. "What with the trouble about Sam being a shapeshifter and all the other stuff, I don't know how much longer Merlotte's can hold out."
There was a surge of pleasure from Eric. "Oh, then you would have no job," he said, with faux sympathy. "You could work for me at Fangtasia."
"No thank you." I said it immediately. "I would hate to see the fangbangers come in night after night, always wanting what they shouldn't have. It's just sad and bad."
Eric glanced over at me, not at all happy with my quick response. "That's how I make my money, Sookie, on the perverse dreams and fantasies of humans. Most of those humans are tourists who visit Fangtasia once or twice and then go back to Minden or Emerson and tell their neighbors about their walk on the wild side. Or they're people from the Air Force base who like to show how tough they are by drinking at a vampire bar."
"I understand that. And I know if fangbangers don't come to Fangtasia, they'll go somewhere else they can hang around with vampires. But I don't think I'd like the ambience on a day to day basis." I was kind of proud of myself for working in "ambience."
"What would you do, then? If Merlotte's closed?"
That was a good question, and one I was going to have to consider seriously. I said, "I'd try to get another waitressing job, maybe at the Crawdad Diner. The tips wouldn't be as good as at a bar, but the aggravation would be less. And maybe I'd try to take some online classes and get some kind of degree. That would be nice, to have more education."
There was a moment's silence. "You didn't mention contacting your great-grandfather," Eric said. "He could make sure you never wanted for anything."
"I'm not sure I could," I said, surprised. "Contact him, that is. I guess Claude would know how. In fact, I'm sure he would. But Niall made it pretty clear he thought staying in touch wouldn't be a good idea." It was my turn to think for a second. "Eric, do you think Claude has an ulterior motive for coming to live with me?"
"Of course he does; Dermot, too," Eric said, without missing a beat. "I only wonder that you need to ask."
Not for the first time, I felt inadequate for the task of coping with my life. I fought a wave of self-pity, of bitterness, while I forced myself to examine Eric's words. I'd suspected as much, of course, and that was why I'd asked Sam if people really changed. Claude had always been the master of selfishness, the duke of disinterest. Why would he change? Oh, sure, he missed being around other fairies, especially now that his sisters were dead. But why would he come live with someone who had as little fairy blood as I did (especially when I'd been indirectly responsible for Claudine's death) unless he had something else on his mind?
Dermot's motivation was just as opaque. It would be easy to assume Dermot's character was like Jason's because they looked so much alike, but I had learned (from bitter experience) what happened when I made assumptions. Dermot had been under a spell for a long time, a spell that had rendered him crazed, but even through the mental haze of the magic worked on him, Dermot had tried to do the right thing. At least, that was what he'd told me, and I had a little evidence that that was true.
I was still brooding over my gullibility when we took an exit ramp in the middle of nowhere. You could see the shine of the lights of Vampire's Kiss, which of course was the point.
"Aren't you afraid that people who would have driven on into Shreveport to go to Fangtasia are just going to pull off when they see this club?" I said.
I'd asked a dumb question, so I gave him some slack for being short with me. Eric must have been brooding over his financial downturn ever since Victor had bought the building. But I wasn't prepared to give Eric any more free passes. We were a couple, and he should either share his life completely with me or let me worry about my own concerns. It wasn't easy, being yoked to Eric. I glanced over at him, realizing how stupid that would sound to one of the Fangtasia fangbangers. Eric was certainly one of the handsomest males I'd ever seen. He was strong, intelligent, and fantastic in bed.
Right now, there lay a frosty silence between that strong, intelligent, lusty man and me, and that silence lasted until we parked. It was hard to find a spot, which made Eric even more pissed off. That wasn't hard to tell.
Since Eric had been summoned, it would have been polite to have reserved him a parking spot by the front door . . . or given him the green light to come in by the back entrance. There was also the unavoidable lesson-in-pictures that Vampire's Kiss was so busy it was hard to find a parking spot.
I struggled to push aside my own worries. I needed to concentrate on the troubles we were about to face. Victor didn't like or trust Eric, and the feeling was mutual. Since Victor had been put in charge of Louisiana, Eric's position as the only holdover from the Sophie-Anne era had become increasingly precarious. I was pretty sure I'd gotten to continue my life unmolested only because Eric had hoodwinked me into marrying him in the eyes of the vampires.
Eric, his mouth pressed into a thin line, came around to open my door. I could tell he was using the maneuver as a way to scan the parking lot for danger. He stood in such a way that his body was between me and the club, and as I swung my legs out of the Town Car he asked, "Who's in the parking lot, lover?"
I stood, slowly and carefully, my eyes closed to concentrate. I put my hand over his where it rested on the door frame. In the warm night, with a light wind gently riffling my hair, I sent my extra sense out. "A couple having sex in a car two rows away," I whispered. "A man throwing up behind the black pickup on the other side of the parking lot. Two couples just pulling in, in an Escalade. One vampire by the door to the club. Another vampire closing fast."
When vamps go on alert, there's no mistaking it. Eric's fangs ran out, his body tensed, and he whirled to look outward.
Pam said, "Master." She stepped out of the shadow of a big SUV. Eric relaxed; and so, gradually, did I. Whatever had made the two fight at my house, it had been put aside for the evening.
"I came ahead as you bid me," she murmured, the night wind picking up her voice and tossing it. Her face looked oddly dark.
"Pam, step into the light," I said.
She did, though certainly she was not obliged to obey me.
The darkness under Pam's white skin was the result of a beating. Vampires don't bruise exactly like we do, and they heal quickly--but when they've been hit hard, you can tell it for a little while. "What happened to you?" Eric asked. His voice was completely empty, which I knew was an awfully bad thing.
"I told the door guards that I needed to come in to make sure Victor knew you were arriving. An excuse to make sure that the interior was secure."
"They prevented you."
A little breeze had sprung up, dancing the night air across the smelly parking lot. The breeze picked up my hair and blew it around my face. Eric had his tied at the nape of his neck, but Pam reached up to hold hers back. Eric had wished Victor dead for months, and I was sorry to say I felt the same. It wasn't only Eric's worry and anger that I was channeling; I myself understood how much better life would be for us if Victor was gone.
I'd come so far from what I'd been. At moments like this I was both sad and relieved that I could think about Victor's death not only without qualms, but with positive zeal. My determination to survive, and to ensure the survival of those I loved, was stronger than the religion I'd always held so dear.
"We have to go in, or they'll send someone after us," Eric said finally, and we walked to the main door in silence. All we needed was a badass theme song playing in the background: something ominous and cool, with a lot of drums, to indicate "The Visiting Vampires and Their Human Sidekick Walk into a Trap." However, the club's music was out of synch with our little drama--"Hips Don't Lie" was not exactly badass music.
We passed a bearded man hosing down the gravel close to the door. I could still spot dark patches of blood. Pam snorted. "Not mine," she muttered.
The vampire on duty at the door was a sturdy brunette wearing a studded leather collar and a leather bustier, with a tutu (I swear to God) and motorcycle boots. Only the frilly skirt looked out of character.
"Sheriff Eric," she said in heavily accented English. "I'm Ana Lyudmila. I welcome you to Vampire's Kiss." She didn't even glance at Pam, much less me. I pretty much expected her to ignore me, but her disregard of Pam was an insult, especially since Pam had already had an encounter with the club personnel. This behavior was the kind of trigger that could send Pam over the edge, which I figured might be the plan. If Pam went ballistic, the new vamps would have a legitimate reason to kill her. The target on Eric's back would assume large proportions.
Naturally, I wouldn't even be a factor in their thinking, because they couldn't imagine what a human could do against their vampire strength and speed. And since I wasn't Superwoman, they might be right. I wasn't sure how many of the vampires knew I wasn't wholly human, or how much they'd care even if they knew I was a fraction fairy. It wasn't like I'd ever exhibited any fairy powers. My value lay in my telepathic talent and my connection to Niall. Since Niall had left this world for the world of the fae, I had expected that value to decrease accordingly. But Niall might chose to return to the human world any moment, and I was Eric's wife by vampire rite. So Niall would side with Eric in an open conflict. At least that was my best bet. With fairies, who knew? It was time to assert myself.
I laid my hand on Pam's shoulder and patted her. It was like patting a rock. I smiled at Ana Lyudmila. "Hi," I said, perky as a cheerleader on uppers. "I'm Sookie. I'm married to Eric, I guess you didn't know that? And this is Pam, Eric's child and his strong right arm. I guess you didn't know that, either? Cause otherwise, not greeting us appropriately is just plain rude." I beamed at her.
Looking as though I were forcing her to swallow a live frog, Ana Lyudmila said, "Welcome, human wife of Eric and revered fighter Pam. I apologize for failing to offer you a suitable greeting."
Pam was staring at Ana Lyudmila as if she were wondering how long it would take to pull Ana's eyelashes out one by one. I bumped Pam's shoulder with my fist, buddy-buddy. "We're cool, Ana Lyudmila," I said. "It's all good here." Pam switched her stare to me, and it was all I could do not to flinch. To add to the tension, Eric was doing a good imitation of a big white rock. I gave him a very laden look.
Ana Lyudmila couldn't have beaten Pam up. She didn't have the juice. Besides, she looked okay, and I was completely sure that if someone had laid a hand on Pam, that vampire would show the aftereffect.
After a second, Eric said, "I think your master is waiting for us." His tone was one of gentle chiding. He made sure his massive self-control was evident.
If Ana Lyudmila could have blushed, I think she would have. "Yes, of course," she said. "Luis! Antonio!" Two young men, dark-headed and brawny, materialized out of the crowd. They were wearing leather shorts and boots. Period. Okay, a different look for Vampire's Kiss workers. I'd assumed Ana Lyudmila was following her own fashion genie, but apparently all the vamps on duty had to wear sort of caveman-sex slave outfits. At least, I assumed that was the look they were going for.
Luis, the taller of the two, said, "Follow us, please," in accented English. His nipples were pierced, which was something I'd never seen before, and naturally I found myself wanting to take a closer look. But in my book, it was basically bad taste to stare at someone's assets, no matter how much on display they were.
Antonio couldn't hide the fact that Pam had made an impression on him, but that wouldn't stop him from killing us if Victor ordered him to do so. We followed the bondage Bobbsey Twins across the crowded dance floor. Those leather shorts were an adventure from behind, let me tell you. And the pictures of Elvis decorating the walls were an education, too. It was often you ran into a bondage/Elvis/whorehouse-themed vampire club.
Pam was admiring the decor, too, but not with her normal sardonic amusement. There seemed to be a lot going on in Pam's head.
"How are your three friends?" she asked Antonio. "The ones who prevented me from entering."
He smiled in a tight sort of way, and I had the feeling the injured vampires hadn't been his favorites. "They're taking blood from donors in the back," he said. "I think Pearl's arm has healed."
As he preceded me through the noisy room, Eric was evaluating the club in a series of casual glances. It was important to him that he seem at ease, as if he were quite sure that his boss meant him no harm. I could tell that through our bond. Since no one cared about me, I was free to look where I wished . . . though I hoped I was doing it with a suitably careless air.
There were at least twenty bloodsuckers in Vampire's Kiss, more than Eric ever had in Fangtasia at one time. There were also a lot of humans. I didn't know what the capacity of the building was, but I was pretty sure it had been exceeded. Eric reached behind him, and I took his cool hand. He tugged me forward, wrapped his left arm around my shoulders, and Pam closed in from the rear. We were at DEFCON Four--Orange Alert, or whatever came right before the blowup. The tension vibrated through Eric like a plucked guitar string.
And then we spotted its source.
Victor was sitting at the back in a kind of corral for VIPs. It was lined with a huge squared red velvet banquette, before which was centered the usual low table. It was littered with little evening purses and half-empty drinks and dollar bills. Victor was definitely the centerpiece of the grouping, his arms around the young man and woman flanking him. The tableau was a poster of what conservative humans feared most: the corrupt vampire seducing the youth of America, inducting them into orgies of bisexuality and bloodsucking. I looked from one breather to the other. Though one was male and one female, they were otherwise startlingly the same. Dipping into their heads, I quickly learned both were using drugs, both were over twenty-one, and both were experienced sexually. I felt a little sad for them, but I knew I couldn't be responsible. Though they had yet to realize it, they were only props for Victor. Their position suited their vanity.
There was another human in the corral, a young woman seated by herself. She was wearing a white dress with a full skirt, and her brown eyes fixed on Pam with desperation. The woman was clearly horrified at the company she was keeping. A minute before I would have bet that Pam couldn't get any more angry or miserable than she'd been, but I would have been wrong.
"Miriam," Pam whispered.
Oh, Jesus Christ, Shepherd of Judea. This was the woman Pam wanted to turn, the woman she wanted to become her child. Miriam had to be the sickest woman I'd ever seen who wasn't in a hospital. But her light brown hair was puffed out in a party style and she'd been made up, though the cosmetics stood out on a face so pale even her lips looked white.
Eric's face didn't show anything, but I could feel him scrambling, struggling to keep his face still and his thoughts clear.
Several points to Victor for an amazing ambush.
Luis and Antonio, having delivered us, positioned themselves at the opening to the VIP corral. I didn't know if they were there to keep us in, or to keep other people out. We were further protected by standup cardboard figures of Elvis, at least life-sized. I wasn't impressed. I'd met the real thing.
Victor greeted us with a wonderful smile, white and toothy, as brilliant as a game show host's. "Eric, how good to see you in my new enterprise! Do you like the decor?" He made his hand flow to indicate the whole crowded club. Though Victor was not a tall man, he was clearly the king of the castle, and he was devouring every minute of it. He leaned forward to pick up his drink from the low table.
Even the glass was dramatic--dark, smoky, fluted. It fit in with the "decor" that made Victor so proud. I would have called it (if I ever got a chance to describe it to someone else, which at this point seemed pretty unlikely) early bordello: lots of dark wood, flocked wallpaper, leather, and red velvet. It looked heavy and florid to me; possibly I was prejudiced. The people gyrating on the dance floor seemed to be enjoying Vampire's Kiss no matter how it was decorated. The band was a vampire band, so they were great. They'd play a current song, then they'd do a more bluesy rock number. Since the band members could have played with Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie, they'd had several decades to practice.
"I'm amazed," Eric said in a completely uninflected voice.
"Pardon my bad manners! Please have a seat," Victor said. "My companions are . . . Your name, sweetness?" he asked the girl.
"I'm Mindy Simpson," she said with a coquettish smile. "This is my husband, Mark Simpson."
Eric acknowledged them with a flick of the eye. Pam and I hadn't even entered into the conversational game yet, so we didn't have to respond.
Victor didn't introduce the pale young woman. He was clearly saving the best for last.
"I see you have your dear wife with you," Victor said as we newcomers moved to sit on the long banquette to Victor's right. It wasn't as comfortable as I'd hoped it would be, and the depth of seat didn't agree with the length of my legs. The life-size cutout of Elvis to my right was wearing the famous white jumpsuit. Classy.
"Yeah, I'm here," I said dismally.
"And your famous second, Pam Ravenscroft," Victor continued, as if he were identifying us for a hidden microphone.
I squeezed Eric's hand. He couldn't read my mind, which (just at this moment) I felt was a pity. There was a lot going on here we didn't know about. In vampire eyes, as Eric's human wife I pretty much ranked as his number one designated concubine. The "wife" title gave me status and protection, theoretically rendering me untouchable by other vampires and their servants. I wasn't exactly proud of being a second-class citizen, but once I'd understood why Eric had tricked me into the relationship, I'd gradually reconciled myself to the title. Now it was time to offer Eric a little support in return.
"How long has Vampire's Kiss been open?" I beamed at the loathsome Victor. I've had years of experience in looking happy when I wasn't, and I was the queen of chitchat.
"You didn't see all my advance publicity? Only three weeks, but so far it's been quite the success," Victor said, his eyes barely brushing me. He was not interested in me as a person, not at all. He wasn't even interested in me sexually. Believe me, I know the signs. He was far more interested in me as a creature whose death would wound Eric. In other words, my absence would be more effective than my presence.
Since he was deigning to talk to me, I thought I'd take advantage of it.
"Do you spend a lot of time here? I'm surprised they don't need you in New Orleans more often." Snap! I waited for his answer, smiling steadily.
"Sophie-Anne saw fit to remain permanently based in New Orleans, but I see my rule as more of a floating government," Victor said genially. "I like to keep a firm hand on all that goes on in Louisiana, especially since I find I am simply a regent, holding the state for Felipe, my dear king." His grin became positively ferocious.
"My felicitations on becoming regent," Eric said, as nothing could be more desirable.
There was a lot of pretending going on in this building. So many undercurrents; you could drown in them, and we just might.
"You're very welcome," Victor said savagely. "Yes, Felipe has decreed I should style myself 'regent.' It's so unusual for a king to have amassed as many territories as Felipe has, and he's taken his time deciding what to do. He has decided to keep all the titles for himself."
"And will you be regent of Arkansas, too?" Pam asked. At the sound of Pam's voice, Miriam Earnest began to cry. She was managing to be as quiet about it as a woman can be, but no weeping is silent. Pam did not look in Miriam's direction.
"No," Victor said, biting out the word. "Red Rita has been given that honor."
I didn't have any idea of who Red Rita might be, but both Eric and Pam seemed impressed. "She's a great fighter," Eric told me. "A strong vampire. She's a good choice to rebuild Arkansas."
Great, maybe we could go live there.
Though I couldn't read vampire minds, I didn't have to. All you had to do was watch Victor's face to understand that Victor had wanted--yearned for--the title of king, that he had hoped to rule both of Felipe's new territories. His disappointment had made him angry, and he was focusing that anger on Eric, the biggest target within his reach. Provoking Eric and intruding on his territory would not be enough for Victor.
And that was why Miriam was sitting in the club tonight. I tried to get inside her head. When I carefully felt around the edges, I met with a sort of white fog. She was drugged, though I didn't know what sort of drug she'd taken or whether she'd been willing or coerced.
"Yes, of course," Victor said, and I pulled myself back into the here and now with a jerk. While I'd zoned out in Miriam's head, the vampires had stayed on the topic of Red Rita. "While she's settling in next door, I thought it would be appropriate to build up the area of Louisiana that abuts her territory. I opened the human place, and this one." Victor was practically purring.
"You own Vic's Redneck Roadhouse," I said numbly. Of course! I should have known. Was Victor compiling reasons for me to want him dead? Naturally, economics should have nothing to do with life and death, but all too often the two were definitely linked.
"Yes," Victor said, grinning at me. He was just as merry as a department store Santa. "You've been by?" He replaced his glass on the table.
"Nope, too busy," I said.
"But I heard business at Merlotte's has fallen off?" Victor tried a look of faux concern on for size, discarded it. "If you need a job, Sookie, I'll put in a good word with my manager at the Redneck Roadhouse . . . unless you'd prefer to work here? Wouldn't that be fun!"
I had to take a deep breath. There was a long moment's silence. For that moment, everything hung in the balance.
With an amazing control, Eric spackled his rage away behind a wall, at least temporarily. He said, "Sookie is well suited where she works now, Victor. If she were not, she would come to live with me and perhaps work at Fangtasia. She is a modern American woman and used to supporting herself." Eric said this as if he were proud of my independence, though I knew that wasn't the case. He really couldn't understand why I persisted in keeping my job. "While I'm discussing my female associates, Pam tells me that you disciplined her. It's not customary to discipline a sheriff's second. Surely that should be left for her master to do." Eric allowed his voice to have a slight edge.
"You weren't here," Victor protested smoothly. "And she showed my doormen great disrespect by insisting she should come inside before you did for a security check, as if we would permit anything in our club to threaten our most powerful sheriff."
"Did you have business you wanted to discuss?" Eric said. "Not that it isn't wonderful seeing what you've done here. However . . ." He let his voice trail off, as if he were simply too polite to say, "I have better fish to fry."
"Of course, thanks for reminding me," Victor said. He leaned forward to pick up the smoky gray stemmed glass, refilled by a server so that it was brimming with dark red liquid. "I'm sorry, I haven't offered you a drink yet. Some blood for you, Eric, Pam?"
Pam had taken advantage of their conversation to glance at Miriam, who looked as though she were going to keel over any second . . . and maybe not get up again. She pulled her eyes away from the young woman and concentrated on Victor. She shook her head mutely.
"Thank you for the offer, Victor," Eric began, "but . . ."
"I know you'll raise a glass with me. The law prevents me from offering you a drink from Mindy or Mark since they're not registered donors, and I'm all about being law-abiding." He smiled at Mindy and Mark, who grinned back. Idiots. "Sookie, what will you have?"
Eric and Pam were obliged to accept the offer of synthetic blood, but because I was only a human I was allowed to insist I wasn't thirsty. If he'd offered me country fried steak and fried green tomatoes, I would've said I wasn't hungry.
Luis beckoned to one of the servers, and the man vanished to reappear with some TrueBlood. The bottles were on a large tray, along with the dark fancy stemware matching Victor's. "I'm sure the bottles don't appeal to your aesthetic sense," Victor said. "They offend me."
Like all the servers, the man who brought the drinks was human, a handsome guy in a leather loincloth (even smaller than Luis's leather shorts) and high boots. A sort of rosette pinned to his loincloth read "Colton." His eyes were a startling gray. When he placed the tray on the table and unloaded it, he was thinking about someone named Chic, or Chico . . . and when he met my eyes directly, he thought, Fairy blood on the glasses. Don't let your vamps drink.
I looked at him for a long moment. He knew about me. Now I knew something about him. He'd heard about my ability, common knowledge in the supernatural community, and he'd believed in it.
Colton cast his eyes down.
Eric twisted the cap to unseal the bottle, lifted it to pour the contents into the glass.
NO, I said to him. We couldn't communicate telepathically, but I sent a wave of negativity, and I prayed he'd pick up on it.
"I have nothing against American packaging, as you do," Eric said smoothly, raising the bottle directly to his lips. Pam followed suit.
A flicker of vexation crossed Victor's face so quickly I might have imagined it if I hadn't been watching him so intently. The gray-eyed server backed away.
"Have you seen your great-grandfather recently, Sookie?" Victor said, as if he were saying, "Gotcha!"
There was no point pretending ignorance about my fairy connection.
"Not in the past couple of weeks," I said cautiously.
"But you have two of your kind living in your house."
This was not classified information, and I was pretty sure Eric's new vampire Heidi had told Victor. Heidi really didn't have a choice, which was the downside to having living human relatives whom you still loved. "Yes, my cousin and my great-uncle are staying with me for a while." I was proud that I managed to sound almost bored.
"I wondered if you might be able to give me some insight about the state of fairy politics," Victor said smoothly. Mindy Simpson, tired of conversations that didn't include her, began pouting. She was unwise.
"Not me. I stay away from politics," I told Victor.
"Truly? Even after your ordeal?"
"Yep, even after my ordeal," I said flatly. I really, really wanted to talk about my abduction and mutilation. Great party conversation. "I'm just not a political animal."
"But an animal," Victor said smoothly.
There was a moment's frozen silence. However, I was determined that if Eric died trying to kill this vampire, it wasn't going to be for an insult to me.
"That's me," I said, returning his smile with interest. "Hot-blooded, breathing. I could even lactate. The whole mammal package."
Victor's eyes narrowed. Maybe I'd gone too far.
"Did we have anything further to discuss, Regent?" Pam asked, rightly guessing Eric was too angry to speak. "I'll be glad to stay as late as you want, or as long as my words please you, but I am due to work at Fangtasia tonight, and my master Eric has a meeting to attend. And apparently my friend Miriam is the worse for the wear tonight, and I'll take her home with me to sleep it off."
Victor looked at the pallid woman as if he were only just now noticing her. "Oh, do you know her?" he asked negligently. "Yes, I believe someone mentioned that. Eric, is this the woman you told me Pam wanted to bring over? I'm so sorry I had to say no, since by my reckoning she may not have too long to live."
Pam didn't move. She didn't even twitch.
"You may go," Victor said, overdoing the offhanded air. "Since I've given you the news about my regency, and you've seen my beautiful club. Oh, I'm thinking of opening a tattoo establishment, and maybe a lawyer's office, though my man for that post has to study modern law. He received his law degree in Paris in the eighteen hundreds." Victor's indulgent smile faded completely. "You know that as regent, I have the right to open a business in anyone's sheriffdom? All the money from the new clubs will come directly to me. I hope your revenues don't suffer too much, Eric."
"Not at all," Eric said. (I didn't think that actually had any meaning.) "We're all a part of your turf, Master." If his voice had been laundry, it would have flapped in the wind, it was so dry and empty.
We rose, more or less as one, and dipped our heads to Victor. He waved a dismissive hand at us and bent to kiss Mindy Simpson. Mark huddled closer on the vampire's other side to nuzzle Victor's shoulder. Pam went over to Miriam Earnest and bent over the girl to put her arm around her and help her to rise. Once on her feet and supported by Pam, Miriam focused on making it out the door. Her mind might be clouded, but her eyes were screaming.
We left the club in grim silence (at least as far as our own conversation went; the music just never let up), escorted by Luis and Antonio. The brothers bypassed sturdy Ana Lyudmila to follow us out into the parking lot, which surprised me.
When we had filed through the first row of cars, Eric turned to face them. Not coincidentally, the bulk of an Escalade blocked the view between Ana Lyudmila and our little party. "Do you two have something to say to me?" he asked very softly. As if she suddenly understood she was out of Vampire's Kiss, Miriam gasped and began crying, and Pam took her in her arms.
"It wasn't our idea, sheriff," said Antonio, the shorter of the two. His oiled abs gleamed under the parking lot lights.
Luis said, "We're loyal to Felipe, our true king, but Victor is not easy to serve. It was a bad night for us when we were dispatched to Louisiana to serve him. Now that Bruno and Corinna have disappeared, he hasn't found anyone to take their places. No strong lieutenant. He's traveling constantly, trying to keep his eye on every corner of Louisiana." Luis shook his head. "We're badly overextended. He needs to settle in New Orleans, building back up the vampire structure there. We don't need to be trailing around in leather scarcely covering our asses, draining the income from your club. Halving the available income is not good economics, and the startup costs were steep."
"If you're trying to lure me into betraying my new master, you've picked the wrong vampire," Eric said, and I tried not to let my mouth hang open. I'd thought it was Christmas in June when Luis and Antonio revealed their discontent, but obviously I hadn't been thinking deviously enough . . . again.
Pam said, "Leather shorts are attractive compared to the black synthetics I have to wear." She was holding up Miriam, but she didn't look at her or refer to her, as if she wanted everyone else to forget the girl was there.
Her costume complaint was not out of character, but it was irrelevant. Pam had always been nothing if not on task. Antonio gave her a look of disillusioned disgust. "You were supposed to be so fierce," he muttered. He looked at Eric. "And you were supposed to be so bold." He and Luis turned and strode back into the club.
After that, Pam and Eric began to move with speed, as if we had a deadline to get off the property.
Pam simply picked up Miriam and hurried to Eric's car. He opened the back door, and she got her girlfriend in and slid in after her. Seeing that haste was the order of the night, I climbed into the front passenger seat and buckled up in silence. I looked back to see that Miriam had passed out the minute she realized she was safe.
As the car left the parking lot, Pam began sniggering and Eric grinned broadly. I was too startled to ask them what was funny.
"Victor just can't restrain himself," Pam said. "Making the show of my poor Miriam."
"And then the priceless offer from the leather twins!"
"Did you see Antonio's face?" Pam demanded. "Honestly, I haven't had so much fun since I flashed my fangs at that old woman who complained about the color I painted my house!"
"That'll give them something to think about," Eric said. He glanced over at me, his fangs glistening. "That was a good moment. I can't believe he thought we'd fall for that."
"What if Antonio and Luis were sincere?" I asked. "What if Victor had taken Miriam's blood, or brought her over himself?" I twisted in my seat to look back at Pam.
She was looking at me almost with pity, as if I were a hopeless romantic. "He couldn't," she said. "He had her in a public place, she has lots of human relatives, and he has to know I'd kill him if he did that."
"Not if you were dead first," I said. Eric and Pam didn't seem to have my own respect for Victor's lethal tactics. They seemed almost insanely cocky. "And why are you both so sure that Antonio and Luis were making all that up just to see how you'd react?"
"If they meant what they said, they'll approach us again," Eric said bluntly. "They have no other recourse, if they've tried Felipe and he's turned them down. I suspect he has. Tell me, lover, what was the problem with the drinks?"
"The problem was that he'd rubbed the inside of the glasses with fairy blood," I said. "The human server, the guy with the gray eyes, gave me the tip-off."
And the smiles vanished as if they'd been turned off with a switch. I had a moment of unpleasant satisfaction.
Pure fairy blood is intoxicating to vampires. There's no telling what Pam or Eric would have done if they'd drunk from those glasses. And they'd have gulped it down as quickly as they could because the smell is just as entrancing as the actual substance.
As poisoning attempts went, this one was subtle.
"I don't think that amount could have caused us to behave in an uncontrollable way," Pam said. But she didn't sound so confident.
Eric raised his blond eyebrows. "It was a cautious experiment," he said thoughtfully. "We might have attacked anyone in the club, or we might have gone for Sookie, since she has that interesting streak of fairy. We would have made public fools of ourselves, in any case. We might have been arrested. It was an excellent thing that you stopped us, Sookie."
"I have my uses," I said, suppressing the jolt of fear that the idea of Eric and Pam going fairy-struck on me evinced.
"And you're Eric's wife," Pam observed quietly.
Eric glared at her in the rearview mirror.
The silence that fell was so thick I wished I'd had a knife. This Pam-and-Eric secret quarrel was both upsetting and frustrating. And that was the understatement of the year.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" I asked, frightened of the answer. But anything was better than not knowing.
"Eric got a letter--" Pam began, and before I could register that he'd moved, Eric had whipped around, reached over the seat, and seized her throat. Since he was still driving, I squawked in terror.
"Eyes ahead, Eric! Not with the fighting again," I said. "Look, just go on and tell me!"
With his right hand, Eric was still holding Pam in a grip that would have choked her if she'd been a breather. He was steering with his left hand, and we coasted to a stop on the side of the road. I couldn't see any oncoming traffic, and no lights behind us, either. I didn't know if the isolation made me feel good or bad. Eric looked back at his child, and his eyes were so bright they were practically throwing sparks. He said, "Pam, don't speak. That's an order. Sookie, leave this be."
I could have said several things. I could have said, "I'm not your vassal, and I'll say what I want to say," or I could have said, "Fuck you, let me out," and called my brother to come get me.
But I sat in silence.
I am ashamed to say that at that moment I was scared of Eric, this desperate and determined vampire who was attacking his best friend because he didn't want me to know . . . something. Through the tie I felt with him, I got a confused bundle of negative emotions; fear, anger, grim resolve, frustration.
"Take me home," I said. In an eerie echo, the limp Miriam whispered, "Take me home. . . ."
After a long moment, Eric let go of Pam, who collapsed in the backseat like a sack of rice. She hunched over Miriam protectively. In a frozen silence, Eric took me back to my house. There was no further mention of the sex we'd been scheduled to have after this "fun" evening. At that point, I would rather have had sex with Luis and Antonio. Or Pam. I said good-bye to Pam and Miriam, got out, and walked into my house without a backward glance.
I guess Eric and Pam and Miriam drove back to Shreveport together, and I guess at some point he permitted Pam to speak again, but I don't know.
I couldn't sleep after I'd washed my face and hung up the pretty dress. I hoped I'd get to wear it on a happier evening, some time in the future. I'd looked too good to be this miserable. I wondered if Eric would have handled the evening with such sangfroid if it had been me Victor had captured and drugged and put out there on that banquette for the entire world to gape at.
And there was another thing troubling me. Here's what I would have asked Eric if he hadn't been playing dictator. I would have said, "Where did Victor get the fairy blood?"
That's what I would have asked.