Sookie was as silent as a Human could be as we made our way to Western Hills in the SUV the other Sookie loaned to us.
I hadn’t bothered with the laptop I’d just bought since it was unlikely to go with us… Other than the clothing on our backs, Sookie had been given a small purse stuffed with some American cash, a pair of stakes, and copies of her birth certificate, social security card and driver’s license since her identification went up in flames with her house. I still had my wallet and cell phone… it had taken Sookie’s grandmother to suggest that I exchange my Euros for Dollars since the rest of us were preoccupied with other things. She brightly chimed that we might not want to leave a credit trail… and then she hugged us, me for luck as we left.
I spent a split second thinking about how well the house had held up over the years before I reminded myself of the insanity we were in. The house hadn’t held up… it had been maintained… The house we would (hopefully) return to was most likely falling apart.
The sad little wretch shadowed me as we moved through the house… through the kitchen to the den… lifting the sofa anchored to the panel in the floor so that she could start down the stairs… That had been changed. It used to be a billiards table.
She stopped halfway, watching the closure shut behind me. “Is something wrong?”
Her breathing was already shaking. “I… I’m… is that the only way out?”
She gulped. “A little.” After months of the treatment she’d suffered, that wasn’t a surprise.
“That’s the most graceful way in. It’s not as heavy as it looks…” I ushered her down the remaining stairs, and to the door, closing it behind us and turning on the light. My eyes nearly crossed from the lingering mix of sex and blood. The other me had certainly made use of the house. “The doors lock from the inside. The ceiling of the bathroom closet lifts out. A small ladder will take you to a bedroom on the second floor. The opening is covered by a mattress in a nook… And there is a panel in the back of this closet that will take you all the way down to the boat house. Those doors lock from the inside too. You’ll be able to get out if you need to, but you won’t be able to get back in.”
“The other Eric just had a bedroom in a basement.”
“Yet he kept this as a safe house.”
“I’m feeling a little claustrophobic… I didn’t used to be this bad…”
“Try to not think about it. This is only temporary. We aren’t assuming that we’ll be here for long.”
She nodded even though she was trembling. “Um…” She looked absolutely terrified.
“The… the… in case we don’t come back to here… I need… to fake it… I need bites.” Fuck.
“Are you sure it’s necessary? The others have always returned to where they attempted to reset the situation.”
“But… if this time is different…”
“My theory… you’ve already had the other Eric’s blood, you’ll have mine, your bruises are gone, they’ll be able to sense that you’re lying about not leaving your cage. Marking you would just cause pain. It wouldn’t disguise anything. I honestly don’t think showering will help either since we’ll have to lie down together. If we don’t go back collectively, then you’ll be tortured until I can return to help because even if you tell them the truth, they won’t believe it.”
“You just want to… just risk it?”
“I don’t see how it’s a risk. Truthfully, I wouldn’t fall for it. They are arrogant bottom feeders, but they have rallied their few brain cells together. It has occurred to them to blindfold you en route so you can’t identify the house they were keeping you in. The conditions you were kept in are substandard to forced labor and were even frowned upon even before slavery was abolished in America. Your scent and your lack of bruising will give you away.”
She whimpered, “You could… ok.”
“I could what?”
She stared at my feet. “If you bruise me too…”
“Sookie, look at me…” I waited, but I had to repeat myself before she did and by then, she looked like she was close to rattling apart. “Sookie, the bruising wouldn’t hold or be the right color. There are phases of bruising… I know you’re scared, but you’ve made it this long. You’ve gotten through several months without so much as hope. If we return separately, you only have a few hours left. I’ll heal you as soon as I return to you, understand?”
She nodded, closing her eyes and weeping as silently as possible.
I stepped closer to her slowly, lifting my wrist to my mouth before I ran out my fangs, but she still jumped. As soon as her mouth touched my wrist, my skin felt hot, as though I’d found the warmth of a sunbeam… the longer she pulled, the further the sensation spread until I was feeling chilled by the room air. It pained me to stay still until the wound closed, but in the interest of not scaring her I forced myself to be motionless…
That only lasted as long as reopening the wound…
She only offered a puzzled look, asking, “Again?” as she went back to drawing from my wrist obediently.
I accessed her emotions just long enough to confirm that there was nothing but a mass of fear standing in front of me on unsteady legs. Knowing that she had the potential to eventually have potential wasn’t a good enough reason to almost forget where we were and why…
I had to compel myself to answer her curiosity, stay focused on something else as I had been warned. “If a prisoner of mine were to suddenly be in much better health and smell like they’d left their cage, I’d bind them. They’d be tied down and beaten and then left alone with the intent to let them terrify themselves into more compliant behavior and a confession. You’ve already been healed, and you’ve already had more than enough to help me find you… this is to make you stronger. You’ll have the strength to free yourself from possible bindings… and you’ll be strong enough to fight back. Due to my age, it’s going to sharpen all of your senses and increase your speed as well. I doubt any of them have given you enough to make much difference.”
The way she licked her lips when I pulled my wrist away made my cock twitch… Suddenly I was the one avoiding eye contact. “Thank you.”
I nodded, struggling to think of something other than fucking her. Unfortunately the only thing left to do was lie on the bed and wait for our reality to come back to us.
I laid down first and patted the mattress to invite her over. She was still absorbed enough by the idea of returning to her cage that she tried to remove her coat. I stopped her before she shrugged it off, explaining that there was no point to undressing either.
Her heart was very close to beating out of her chest by the time her head touched the pillow next to mine. Flat on her back and staring at the ceiling, uncomfortably gulping, spilling more tears…
Another hitch… we’d been told to relax.
I tried to make a joke… “This is where the magic happens, yes?”
She whimpered, never taking her eyes from the ceiling.
“You should try to relax.”
“I’m sorry. I’m trying… I’m…”
“Terrified. I know. Do you remember the part of the journal mentioning that Sookie can retreat into Eric’s mind?”
She gasped, looking over to me for only the briefest of moments before she focused on my chin. “It slipped my mind.”
“If you have any idea of how to take advantage of that, you should try. Given the amount of uncertainty we face, I doubt anything else will settle your nerves.”
She sighed, “Um… I know she has to be touching him.”
“That much, I knew. She was obvious about escaping into my mind when we landed at Logan.”
She scanned me, over and over, too timid to decide on her own which part of me to touch… hands, arms, neck, back again… She wasn’t going to make the decision on her own because she had no practice.
I lifted my arm, instructing her to move closer, having her curl against my side. I took the small purse from her and had to go as far as putting her hand atop mine.
Rather than relax, she only seemed to tense more.
“What’s wrong now?”
“You know I can tell that isn’t true.”
“Um… the… the purse.”
“You can have it back. If we return separately, they’d find it… your new credentials would be destroyed. Are you attached to the purse or is it the contents? I’m not sure I want to carry it back from Amsterdam. It hardly matches my shoes.”
Even though she’d started crying again, she snickered at the joke. She’d thought I was keeping her only possession.
“Sookie, we’ll be having a discussion very soon about the differences between belonging to Compton and belonging to me. In the meantime, calm dawn. The sooner we go back, the sooner this can be over.”
She nodded marginally and asked, “What do you… what should I call you?”
“No. Not Master or Sire or Sir. You’ll call me Eric. Are you ready?”
“I… I guess… do you think holding me will keep us together when we go?”
She whimpered and tightened her grip on my hand. “Then break my ribs if you have to. God knows they’ll do worse. K?”
In just a few moments, Sookie was nothing more than a heartbeat at my side. Her fear had either been taken with her into my mind or she simply didn’t feel anything during her escape. Either way, it had done the job of making her relax… If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought she was sleeping… If I fooled myself into forgetting that she’d been criminally objectified, I could almost imagine some of her fire coming back to her like the one who managed to get her hooks into me within minutes.
I caught myself thinking that Sookie, the one available to me could have potential…
That wasn’t an oddity I was willing to exasperate myself with though. Hope wasn’t evidence.
I was beginning to wish I’d thought to ask how long the process took when Sookie started to shiver, vibrating against my side… as though feeding her hadn’t already added to the way the other one had pushed me.
The dropping temperature was the first thing to be noticed… it made sense that it would be cold since it was January and the power hadn’t been on in decades…
I tried to prepare myself for the smell, but I hadn’t had enough time. It boded well that Sookie was still clutched to my side as the stench of mold and mildew surrounded us before I began pushing air through my nose to minimize the odor.
The lumps in what would be an abandoned and weathered mattress seemed to be the last thing to change.
I patted Sookie’s hand, hoping to stir her without breaking contact and had no luck.
I opened my eyes, expecting to see what 20 years had done to my house, only to realize how justified Sookie was to be suicidal.
We weren’t in Western Hills anymore.
The only upside was that Sookie wouldn’t have to wait for me to save her from her cage.
Black mold covered the walls in the tiny concrete enclosure. Even though the lumpy, blood stained futon was on the floor, there wasn’t room for me to stand up on it and be completely upright… Sookie had failed to mention that there was a collection of rotten fruit and a pizza box so over taken by mold that it was growing out of the box… There wasn’t as much as a sheet on the pathetic excuse for a bed.
No light. No air. No climate control. Judging by the construction and the lingering odor of rye it had been built during Prohibition as a bootlegging vault and later used as a resting place.
Medieval prisons had more creature comforts.
There was no reason that Sookie shouldn’t have already died of exposure.
I pulled myself away from her slowly, hovering in the hopes that she’d notice me before she let herself be scared of the cage.
I was actually proud of her for being strong enough to survive what she’d been through… and sure that if she didn’t still have some of her tenacity, she’d have succumbed.
Her eyes only met mine for a moment before she scanned our surroundings, shaking her head and muttering, “No, no, no, no, no, no… not here… no, no, no…”
“Shhhh. Calm down. We’re alone. It’s late enough that they’ve already discovered that you’re missing.” I took her hand and helped her to her feet, both of us hunching over because of the low ceiling. I pointed to the door that had been left ajar and the blindfold on the floor nearby. “They panicked. They must be out looking for you.”
She shook her head and whimpered, “What do we do? Just… just go?”
“We get to the hotel. They could have weapons stashed everywhere upstairs… I’m sure they are doing their best to feel you out, find their blood. They’ll have felt you return suddenly, so they would be on their way here now… To be sure, do you feel any minds upstairs?”
Her eyes skimmed over my forehead before she shook her head. “No one.”
“Good. Can we leave now? I’d like to stand up.”
She gulped, fighting back more tears as I took her hand to lead her since she seemed frozen…
As soon as we stepped through the tiny door and stood up, I felt rage… not my own because I wasn’t invested enough to be more than annoyed…
Sookie emerged from her cage, the depraved conditions she’d suffered for months, to see that just on the other side of the door was a large, lavish den. The doors on the other side of the room most likely led to where her jailers rested on clean, plush mattresses dressed in fine linens while she’d been treated like an animal…
Her fury stewed…
Every step we made up the stairs, past a case full of Wedgewood platters and vases, a shadowbox full of antique cameos… pausing at the doorway to the gourmet kitchen to mention that she’d been eating cold fast food for months…
The more hate and anger she felt, the more difficult it was for me to not smile.
Broken wouldn’t have pushed over a Tiffany lamp.
We took the French doors out to the patio on the back end of the house as I explained that we’d wait to leave until they returned so that we’d have more of a lead… I could fly to the hotel faster than they could drive.
As she paced, scowling at the ripples on the pool while her indignation boiled over… The only thing she said was to ask me if I’d think less of her if she peed in it… She almost smiled when I reminded her that they’d never know if she did.
No dread. No remorse… Pure, unadulterated venom.
Not broken. Not completely.
Sookie couldn’t tell between Lorena and Gwen’s minds because they were so close in age… So when Compton returned to the house with only one of them, I began preparing myself for the possible contingencies from there being a wild card in play.
Sookie used a patio chair to lift herself so that she could climb onto my back as I warned her that I wouldn’t be taking my time…
Being frightened by heights was only an afterthought once we were in the air for a few minutes… the biting chill in the air was all she could think about, making it more difficult to give me the few landmarks she’d been allowed to see.
There was no such thing as a Holiday Inn Express the last time I was in the States…
Since Sookie wasn’t familiar with Shreveport before she was taken and her blindfold was only taken off once they were in the parking lot, we were at a disadvantage. It was in a shopping area, on a street that was all ‘new’ construction… And the only obvious business nearby was a Kia dealership. By then I gave up telling her how much a landscape could change in 20 years… Kia hadn’t come to the States yet when I’d left…
When I mentioned we were the ‘blind leading the blind’, she actually corrected me jokingly. We were the blond leading the blond… None of us had thought to research the hotel before we reset.
The only thing we had to go on was that she’d remembered hearing the clerk use the hospital as a landmark… ‘From 49, take Kouns. If you see the hospital, you went too far.’
She’d remembered frequent and close sirens… it was another torture method. They could feel how desperate she was, knowing help was just out of her reach.
Sookie slowly put her feet down, one at a time, apologizing for her damaged equilibrium before she offered, “She’s inside. She’s distracted, so she doesn’t seem to have noticed that I’m here.”
“She must have left the other two to search for you. If I were her, I’d be calling underlings to have them begin looking. Bon Temps will most likely see a lot of traffic tonight.”
“I haven’t been there in months.”
“But since you weren’t given the opportunity to make friends in Shreveport, you would consider going back for help…” While Sookie rubbed her hands together to warm them, I opened her purse to remove one of the stakes and slid it into my back pocket. “I need an estimate as to her location… Is she alone?”
She nodded. “Two minds in the lobby. The clerk and Gwen or Lorena… I’m pretty sure it’s Gwen because she’s in her usual spot. She takes a table in the middle of the dining area. The rest of us sit out of the way by the wall. Straight through the front doors, veer left to the lounge… hold on…” She seemed to be concentrating more deeply for a moment. “Mary, the clerk, is thinking that if they’re so worried about me they should’ve been nicer so I wouldn’t run off… and hopes I’m alright… she’s not really thinking about anything but work… I was hoping to get something useful. Sorry.”
I nodded as I calculated. “Stay close, but don’t hold me for any reason. I might need to move suddenly.”
She followed so closely that we could be sharing clothes as we walked through the lobby.
The tiny table held a cup of coffee and an open laptop… the chair held a purse that could double as carryon luggage… Gwen Roth was pacing, using her cell to ask, “What do you mean, she was there then she wasn’t? She’s pathetic. After last night, how did she get up those stairs?”
The voice on the other end of the call whined, “I don’t know. Bill said the door was locked when he went for her. This is the last straw. When we find that little bitch, I’ll turn her myself. Damn the consequences. Maybe she’ll yield once she sees what can be done to a Vampire.”
“That’s an option of course. I still think she’d be more pliable if you fools listened to me. If you treated her better, she would have a response to punishment. If you turn her now, she’ll end you.” Gwen was clearly the brains of the operation.
“She’s too valuable to just…”
“Gwen.” She jumped at the sound of my voice…
She tried to cover that she’d let someone surprise her, but hiding her reaction to seeing Sookie too wasn’t possible.
“Call off the search so we can have a little chat.”
She unsteadily corrected, “Sheriff Roth… What are you doing here, Northman? Where did you find Sookie?” She was ‘one of those’… someone who was only just smart enough to think to give clues to someone over the phone, but not intelligent enough to realize how obvious she was.
“I’m here to let you know about the change in ownership. Sookie is Mine now. I’m here to negotiate compensation.”
“She’s not for sale. She belongs to an underling, William Compton.”
“Do you think Sophie-Ann would condone Sookie’s abuse?” If it hadn’t been for the journal I never would’ve known the Queen had been whored and shackled by her Maker. It gave her a bit of a soft spot and explained why she was so dependent on Andre since torture wasn’t something she could do. Being dealt aces was never a bad thing.
“The Queen cares not for Humans…”
“The Queen most certainly cares for Sookie’s cousin Hadley… Did you think no one would find out? Lorena, bring your emasculated little stooge to the hotel. We need to talk.”
Lorena shouted, “How did that little skank manage to be…?”
Gwen cut her off. “Just bring Bill.”
As soon as she hung up, I chuckled, “Funny that you automatically knew who I meant… Would you like to make a plea to the Queen or do you prefer to be ended quickly?”
“The Queen WOULD NOT…”
“Bill Compton was sent to find a relative of the Queen’s blabbering child. He lied to enslave Sookie and exploit her ability. You served his plan rather than expose him. A precedent should be set so the other Sheriffs don’t think treason is acceptable.”
“That’s right. His plan. Not mine…”
“You intend to use Compton as your patsy? He gets the blame entirely and you assume that you walk away having lost nothing?”
“Precisely. It was nice while it lasted. Compton is replaceable… How did you get into my house without our knowledge?” Not ‘how did you find it?’ Not ‘how did you know we had her?’ It was nice to see that my reputation hadn’t been forgotten.
“I caught a ride on a Faerie.”
“I’m not amused.”
“Good. I’m not here for your entertainment. Do you want to call the Queen or do you want me to do it after.”
She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrow, clearly daring me. She’d only just opened her mouth to reply by the time I reached her… she was dripping from the handful of hair I’d grabbed before Sookie was done gasping.
“One down, two to go… That went well, I think.”
Sookie breathed, “Fast is the word I’d use… that was… kind of anticlimactic.”
“I’ll try to make a better show of the next murder…”
She shook her head defensively. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I was just kinda thinking it would be a big thing, like a fight. Not that… I’m grateful. Really.”
I dropped what was left of Gwen’s scalp and took her phone from the floor. “I know what you meant. Gwen was hired to replace me because she excelled at being opportunistic. She’d have taken the first distraction to do the same to me. Vampires don’t usually end in drawn out brawls.”
She nodded as I sat at Gwen’s computer. “Oh… well, yeah… that makes sense.”
“I will make the next visit worth the price of admission though. Have a seat…” I slid Gwen’s phone over to offer it to Sookie. “See if there are any restaurants open in the area. It’s been a few hours since you’ve had anything but Vampire blood.”
“I’m sure there’s something along the way.”
“Restaurants that serve food on plates rather than in paper wrappers don’t tend to have large neon signs. Look for a department store like Macy’s or Nordstrom so that we can get a couple days worth of clothes too.”
She nodded, her hand trembled as she took the cell phone from the table. “Do you… you don’t like cabbage, right?”
“I’m not eating.”
“I know, but… it would affect me and I mean… you’d have to sit there.”
“No. I don’t like the smell of cabbage. It does affect the taste of blood when consumed in large quantities. I can tolerate the smell long enough for you to eat… I don’t intend to feed from you…”
“But you said…”
“I said when it suits me. Tonight, it doesn’t suit me.” As malnourished as she was, she’d most likely taste awful. For the time being, that was what I was going to tell myself so I could give her some time to recover… no matter how tempting my taste of the other Sookie had been.
She sniffled, crying quietly while she searched and I dug into the hard drive of Gwen’s laptop, searching for information and evidence…
She was too overwhelmed for me to try guessing why she was sniveling that time, so I asked, “Something I did?” The differences between the Sookies were too stark, too confusing… one would stare into my eyes and tell me to fuck myself while the other was afraid to make eye contact and finish a question. Just because I knew why Sookie was so compliant, didn’t mean that I knew how the fuck to deal with it. I just knew I preferred being told to go fuck myself to being in the company of someone scared to blink.
She bit her lip and shook her head without looking up from the phone.
“You don’t seem sure.”
“Because I’m not… I… I’ll stop. I’m sorry.”
“For now, stop apologizing. I’ll let you know when you’ve done something you need to make an apology for.”
She nodded and said, “Yes sir… Sorry.”
“You’re calling me Eric, remember?”
She tensed. “I’m sorry. I forgot.” Another apology for nothing. I wanted to ask why she was more relaxed when she thought I was the other Eric, but as fragile as she seemed, I was almost afraid of her reaction.
I was staring at the file named ‘Sookie’. It was buried within a string of files that reminded me of Matryoshka dolls, making me sure that Gwen didn’t want it to be found… making me wonder why the files full of wills and sentences, profits and payments, official confidential business… they’d all been sitting in the documents file with no concern for security. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to open it yet.
It could have been her family tree.
It could have been information about her.
It could have been documents tracking what she’d heard and how much it was worth.
It could have been a training journal.
I’m not sure how long I let the cursor hover over the folder, internally debating for and against the time and place…
The deciding factor…
Sookie gasped and whispered, “Eric, they’re here.”