I left the Christmas festivities while Sookie was apologizing for taking the Vampire family members away and explaining as delicately as possible why her brothers couldn’t join everyone.
I spent the entire fucking drive to Shreveport anxious about what could go wrong… wondering how many variables Andre had brought with him, and if the first domino towards another Me becoming a King would be tipped over tonight.
When I arrived at Fangtasia, Andre stepped out of the back of a limo and snorted, “Merry Christmas… I thought you were pagan.”
“I was. It doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy an evening with my family.”
“You spoil your child.”
What the fuck did he know?
“I indulge her because she’s never given me a reason not to… Where is this mole that isn’t going to do anything but piss off the woman who the Queen desperately wants to impress?”
“Is this how you intend to go on record as being against the tactic?”
“Only if there isn’t a C-SPAN camera crew available. Andre, this is a horrible idea. I have Erica Weiss.”
“Are you too proud to accept backup when it’s offered?”
I rolled my eyes while I unlocked the back door and led the way inside. “That would depend on who my back up is.”
He sampled the air as we passed my office and growled, “Who died?”
“Long Shadow… Apparently, he bit the wrong Faerie. The blood offense was settled last night.”
“A Faerie was in Fangtasia?”
“Just long enough to cause a commotion and end a Vampire. You know how Faeries are… I’m lucky to have that much to tell his Maker.”
“You’re right about that… Why aren’t we meeting in your office?”
“I thought it might be crowded. The two of us, plus your mystery mole, and whoever Erica Weiss brings with her…”
“You don’t think she’ll be alone?”
“No I don’t. She’s very clever. She’s only in her twenties and she speaks several languages fluently. She’s been working for Vampires as a paid telepath, making millions, for years. She isn’t a fool. This is not going to end well.”
“What do you mean ‘making millions’?”
“Just what I said. The reason I was planning to call the Queen later was so she could brace herself for Erica Weiss’s rates. I saw her next contract last night…”
“How do you justify sitting on that information for any length of time!? Who is it with!?”
“I wasn’t sitting on the information. I was waiting for more. Just last night Erica Weiss turned down a Jaguar. I looked into it by calling a few friends… The contract is with Martín.”
“How did you see it?”
“Because I was doing my job. I was told to woo. I wooed. I took her back to her hotel room. The contract Miss Weiss is taking over the summer… She’s working for Pacifico.”
“The contract states thirty days to be completed by July thirty-first. I assume her contract with Marcos will begin shortly thereafter. Given the nature of the job she’s doing here, I’m sure Martín appreciates her necessity for flexibility.”
“Fuck her flexibility. She’s nothing more than a pain in Louisiana’s ass at the moment.”
“She offered to scan the Queen’s staff… gratis. She’s concerned about the time constraints she’s facing. She’s hoping to have more time, but if a contract in the immediate future isn’t possible, then she’s willing to make concessions.”
“We don’t care if she reads the staff, Northman…”
I sighed when I realized Arianna could walk him through the situation.
“I’m aware of why you need to contract Erica Weiss, but given that she doesn’t know why Louisiana is chomping at the bit to hire her, her offer to provide a multimillion-dollar service for free is a very generous gesture that could be expanded on. She’s not unreasonable. She’s one of the rare cases of a Human whose company I actually enjoy…”
Speaking of company…
The back door opened to the sound of three sets of footsteps.
As Erica walked into the bar, in full red and black leather costume, she sighed, “Sheriff… I’d say it’s a pleasure to see you again, but the High Middle and the Victorian waiting in the limo have me a little anxious…”
That was complete bullshit; her heart rate was faster when we were playing chess.
She unzipped her leather jacket and pointed to the bar as she shrugged off her extra layer. “May I?”
“Be my guest… Miss Weiss, I’d like to introduce you to Andre Cuif. You spoke to him on the phone last night.”
She didn’t bother looking at him, but he didn’t really give her the chance to say anything.
He immediately asked, “What does that mean, High Middle and Victorian?”
She rolled her eyes at her glass while she filled it with rum and coke. “Periods. The High Middle Ages were between 1000 and 1300. Like my friend, Simza, one of your companions is approximately 800 years old, making him a High Middle. Queen Victoria ruled the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901. The second Vampire in the limo is Victorian… Before you ask, you and the Sheriff are slightly older, making you Early Middles. And my friend Gawain is an Antiquity…” She sipped her drink and asked, “Sheriff, without seeming impertinent, might I ask why I was called?”
Her accent was perfect, Andre actually looked intimidated by her friends, and the red corset top she was wearing made the business I had to suffer that much more irksome.
And to make matters more infuriating, Andre didn’t seem like he was planning to explain.
I offered, “Miss Weiss, Mr. Cuif has brought an associate to Shreveport to work with you on tailoring your contract with Louisiana.”
Without skipping a beat, she asked, “Have I done something to offend you, Sheriff?”
She gave a confused look. “Then… is it that you’re not much of a businessman?”
I almost laughed.
“As far as I know, that isn’t the case.”
She tilted her head back and groaned quietly before starting, “So… It isn’t just that Andre is borderline retarded, but his Maker is too, yes? This must be what happens when siblings breed… Am I to assume that they spent last night, plotzing and kvetching, reading into why I didn’t accept a gratuitous gift?”
I bit my tongue and answered, “Perhaps,” and I didn’t care how fucking inappropriate my answer was, because I was really proud of myself for keeping a straight face.
She sipped her drink again as though she was waiting for Andre to add to the conversation… but he didn’t offer anything. I couldn’t tell from the look on his face if he was insulted or shocked that she wasn’t intimidated.
She finally asked, “Mr. Queef, you should probably know that Louisiana is living up to its reputation.”
She was trying to make me laugh. Keefe. His last name was pronounced Keefe…. Queef… and she said it to his face.
I definitely wanted a turn as her guard… the entertainment value alone was plenty of bait.
He finally managed, “What reputation is that?”
“One of my former employers suggested Louisiana is the Vampire equivalent of the Special Olympics. If it weren’t for a couple of organized individuals who actually have their shit together, the whole lot of you would be running in circles for anyone who enjoys a schadenfreude enough to buy a ticket.”
Andre snarled, “Which employer was that?”
She shrugged dismissively. “It doesn’t matter. That opinion is pretty popular… I suppose we should discuss a few things before you run home.”
He hissed, “Such as?”
“I don’t accept gifts before I begin a contract. If I did, I’d be paying taxes on cars I’d never have the time to drive and houses I’d never have the chance to vacation in. My employers pay my rate. My friends buy me gifts. You and your Maker are neither. Make peace with your place in this world. It’ll save you a lot of embarrassment.”
Beautifully put, I think.
He growled, “Oh really? You…”
Erica cut him off, “Furthermore, your Maker knows why I’m in Louisiana. If your fuckery continues to be a nuisance, my location can easily be changed. You can take your disposable associate back to New Orleans and leave me to do my job…”
“He’ll negotiate your contract with you…”
Erica droned, “And after we have our sit-down, he’ll follow me, and after I end him, I’ll pack my things and leave the Area. You’ll have forfeited any chance you had of establishing a contract with me… Just like everyone else, you’ll deal with my lawyer in Houston. Faxes and phone calls. If you can’t manage that, then a telepath is the last thing you need.”
“All of your previous employers have done their business with you that way?”
“No. Wallace Milne found me while I was at university. We established my working arrangements on a trial basis. Ailill Tyson and Francesca Carretto negotiated with Milne for my services. All of my subsequent employers have gone through my contacts in Houston though.”
“That hardly seems efficient. What if you have a request or we have questions?”
“Safety isn’t always happily married to efficiency, Andre. It happens… At your age, are you really going to complain about the delay caused by a middleman with a cell phone? We could make this fun. Who wants to use carrier pigeons? Pony Express? Town crier?”
He scoffed, “You’re too cheeky for your own good.”
“I’ve heard that before, but-”
When her cell phone began ringing, she held her finger up to hold Andre. While she reached for her phone and explained that she needed to answer it, I looked to Gawain and Simza, but they didn’t show any hints the call was planned.
No sooner than Sookie answered the call, Tyson huffed, “I’ve drained every street-corner Santa in Greater London, but there still isn’t a telepath in my stocking, love. When are ya coming back to me? I’m bored.”
Of course he was… And thanks to Andre, I couldn’t even tease Tyson that I had Sookie and four gallons of massage oil to myself.
Erica turned her back to Andre and cooed, “Tyson, it doesn’t help that your taste in stocking stuffers has a job.” Her accent alone was his hint that she couldn’t chat, but the way Andre’s face puckered at the sound of Tyson’s voice, like a child reliving a nightmare, was hilarious.
Tyson crooned, “I don’t have to be happy about it… If you’re working on Christmas, you aren’t happy about it either… Is Louisiana a problem?”
“Sheriff Northman summoned me. The powers that be want to supervise me.”
“Ahhhh. This is what happens when you play with children instead of letting me entertain you. I’ll just remind you that you’re always welcome in England… I was just calling to thank you for my Christmas gift and make sure you received yours.”
She glanced over her shoulder at Gawain and Simza for a moment before saying, “The deco…”
Tyson challenged, “A housewarming.”
“A thank you for going above and beyond…”
She snorted, “If I should be expecting more, you’re going to spoil me.”
“That’s my intention, love. Call me when you get them. I’m sure I’ll need to explain.”
After Tyson ended the call, Sookie stared at her phone for a moment, so Andre asked, “You exchange gifts with Ailill Tyson?”
Erica snorted, “Friends. We’re friends, like I’m friends with several of my former employers.”
“Who aren’t you still friends with?”
“I’m not terribly friendly with Saâd, Samuel or Charles… So since you’ve interrupted my Christmas, is there something in particular you want to know?”
“What could I have interrupted? Do you have friends here?”
“I have friends all over the place, Andre. Do you have any business matters to discuss?”
He actually thought about that, and in the meantime Sookie finished her drink and poured another… And had the time to make herself comfortable on a barstool.
He finally asked, “Why here? Why Area 5 instead of anywhere else in Texas?”
Erica took a deep breath and sighed, “How would you feel if I said I’m under contract for Threadgill?”
As soon as she said the name, Andre’s fangs ran out, and Gawain darted across the room to stand toe to toe with him, pouting his lip and shaking his head as a warning.
Erica snorted, “His brilliant plan is to put me in your state just to make the Queen twitch. He’s bored with the marriage negotiations and wants to push her to act quickly…” She leaned to give him a sassy little wink. “Or… de Castro could have hired me to sniff around the state to learn what I can. Of course collateral benefits for me include double-dipping. He would have already paid my rate, so when Louisiana makes the wire transfer, that’s a huge bonus.”
From behind the Gawain-wall, Andre growled, “You aren’t as funny as you think you are.”
She shrugged dismissively. “And the church is an excellent excuse for me to be here because it’s only a few hours between Dallas and Shreveport. I have six nights per week to play with Sheriff Northman while he’s under orders to entertain me in an effort to learn as much about me as he possibly can. That certainly isn’t a hardship for me.”
“You know too much about our politics.”
“You need to realize Wallace Milne is like a big brother to me. He didn’t send me into this area without warning me about how paranoid the Queen would be about my presence… I know de Castro is a looming threat. I know Threadgill is a destitute little fuck looking for a wife with a deep purse to exploit… And I know that you don’t want me to read minds for you. You want de Castro and Threadgill to see Louisiana on my list of references and assume one, if not several, of the grownup Kings in the Old World recommended her because she’s an island with no real allies and she knows it…” When he shot a dirty look at me over Gawain’s shoulder, Erica shook her head. “Don’t blame him. He didn’t say as much. It was his reaction to my offer to read the Queen’s staff off the books. He knew why you really wanted to hire me. His mind gave him away.”
He growled, “Why are you here?”
“Because Wallace Milne needs to do something about the Fellowship. There are already Shifters keeping an eye on the churches in Texas. I’m in Shreveport because Human law enforcement will need to be hindered slightly by state lines. I shouldn’t be in Texas. I chose Shreveport because of proximity to Dallas and because I’ve heard a lot of good things about Sheriff Northman. Our circles of friends overlap. And King Milne sponsored the idea of me being here because he respects Sheriff Northman’s reputation, and there is a handful of dual-citzens of Dallas and Shreveport he can call on if I need more support.”
“If you know why Sophie-Anne wants to hire you…” He paused as though he was going to let her fill in the blanks, but she only raised her eyebrows. “What do you intend to do?”
“I intend to complete my contract with King Milne in peace.”
She was going to make him say it.
“In regard to taking a contract with Louisiana, Miss Weiss. What do you intend to do in regard to a contract with Louisiana?”
“I’ll discuss that with the Queen, sport, but I’m sure something can be arranged.”
“Something?” He sounded just as pathetic as Sophie-Anne had when she repeated the word.
Erica nodded. “Something… I can’t commit to being at Louisiana’s beck and call for any amount of time right now. Texas is my priority, and in the summer, I’ll be working for Pacifico and Greece. I might be able to squeeze Louisiana between my contracts with Greece and Carpathia…”
“But given that we don’t expect you to actually read minds here…”
Erica scoffed, “Jesus, as much as Vampires gossip, if I don’t work for you, then it will get back to de Castro and Threadgill… Fuck it. Call her.”
“The Queen, jackass. If you won’t leave me to finish my holiday without being hassled, then I’ll come to a gentlemen’s agreement with the Queen. I sure as hell can’t work with your head up my ass.”
He narrowed his eyes, but he took his phone from his pocket… and as soon as it was dialed, Gawain snatched the phone from him and tossed it back to Simza, who then passed it to Erica…
The phone was already to Erica’s ear when the Queen answered.
Erica snorted, “Did you really think I’d be stupid enough to allow a mole to sniff me out? My grandmother gave me a quilt for Christmas, but you… you send insults.”
Sophie-Anne began, “I didn’t mean to…”
Erica cut her off, “Cut the shit, Majesty. I know why you really want to hire me. You want to be on my resume because you think it’ll make a difference to de Castro and Threadgill. Your little plan to kiss my ass so I’d work for you has been an epic failure because your style is lacking. You and your child have behaved worse than Human children. At least Northman knows how to act… Has it even occurred to you that by dishing out my normal fee of ten million dollars just to be on my list of references, you’ll just make Louisiana more tempting for de Castro’s greedy ass and Threadgill’s empty hands?”
The silence on the other end of the line screamed ‘oops’… so did the look on Andre’s face.
Erica rolled her eyes as she continued, “I didn’t think so… I’m going to bet it hasn’t occurred to you that you’d probably be better off taking a pass than flaunting your cash flow when greed is the reason you have barbarians at the gate.”
Sophie-Anne offered dryly, “I wasn’t aware of your rate.”
Erica rolled her eyes. “I’m going to make a suggestion, and then I’m going to send your pissant child back to you. While he’s applying to finishing schools, you can consider my offer. Got it?”
“I’m listening.” She was not using her happy tone.
“Ten million is my usual rate, and I’m not budging on that. There’s a little thing called supply and demand… and you want me too bad. For the next few months, I’ll give you two nights per week on a flexible schedule so it won’t interfere with my other obligations. I’ll meet with your Sheriffs and their thralls and conduct clinics to scan pets. You’ll be on my list of references, but it won’t matter because in addition to my usual services, I’ll agree to refuse any contract offer from Arkansas or Nevada, and notify you whenever something related to your state crosses my path for a decade. Maybe in that amount of time, you can learn to play nicely enough to make an ally or two of your own so you don’t have to play dress-up in someone else’s closet…”
“That’s a very generous offer…”
“I’m not done. If you want to get Threadgill and de Castro to back the fuck off, it might behoove you to stop flaunting your cash flow. You aren’t going to blink over my fee, but since you have a couple of pickpockets on your heels, you need to make it look like hiring me hurt you.”
The set up.
“What do you suggest? I have several properties I could…”
“A house? Really? No. Why would either one of them give a rat’s ass about you losing a house? Would they even notice? How about your Sheriff?”
Simza actually looked like she’d been hit.
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard ‘if Northman wasn’t a sheriff…’ or ‘Northman would make an excellent guard…’ Losing a Sheriff as part of the deal, will make…”
I interrupted, “Do I have any say in the matter?”
She shook her head. “Not after last night…”
Erica continued, “Sophie-Anne, I know you called Josef as soon as you heard I was going to be in Shreveport. I know he was watching my interactions with the Sheriff and reporting back to you. If you have subjects watching your own Sheriff, do you think I’ll spend a month in Pacifico without de Castro catching on?”
“If you’re threatening…”
“I’m not threatening, you silly cow. I’m putting it out there that while I’m in California, having Northman as my guard will raise enough eyebrows to open the door for you to circulate your own anti-campaign. He’s famous as a Knight. Everyone knows he’s here. Replacing him with a nobody will do a lot of the work for you. While I make my rounds in Louisiana, Northman will be part of the parade. Any spies de Castro and Threadgill have here will notice he’s suddenly part of my entourage.”
“He didn’t sound happy about the suggestion.”
“Oh, he’s not, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. I think we might be able to come to an agreement. He won’t have any trouble, but you and your child will need an acting coach to pull it off. It’s a fine line, and as far as my experience, you’re the weak link in any part of a façade. You should look frugal instead of destitute enough to be an easy target, or lush enough to be a fat harvest.”
“If you can negotiate for his part…” She’d hardly waited long enough for Erica to finish directing…
It was almost like taking candy from a baby.
I interrupted, “You’re so very welcome, Majesty. As long as I’ve been your Sheriff, you’re trading me. ME! To… A FUCKING HUMAN!”
Andre actually jumped when I threw a table, but Erica rolled her eyes. “Nice mess, your majesty. I think you might need that Jag after all.”
I crossed the bar to slap Andre’s phone from her hand and loom over her. “Because a car will make up for the intolerable clusterfuck of liquidating my houses and businesses…!”
Simza sandwiched herself between me and Sookie because she didn’t know it was all an act. The poor thing’s warning look was weak because she was torn.
Erica scoffed, “Settle down, Sheriff. We aren’t talking about an overnight transition, or even an exile…”
Andre offered, “Of course not… You know an offer from me is as good as an offer from the Queen… You’re worried about your child, yes?”
“Of course I’m worried about her. She has a child of her own. He has roots here. We all do. I wouldn’t have renewed my contract otherwise.”
He blurted, “Asylum! You won’t have to leave. You can continue to use Area 5 as your headquarters. You and your family will be free to come and go as you see fit… Miss Weiss can’t need a guard constantly. I’m sure she rests from time to time.”
Given that Gawain, Simza and I were all between Sookie and Andre, he couldn’t see the little smirk that pulled at the corner of Erica’s mouth.
She sighed, “Maybe they’ll let you have a hand in refilling your position-”
Andre agreed, “Complete control if that’s what he wants. The new Sheriff will be ordered to stay away from you to prevent any posturing as well.”
As I stepped back, I growled, “I’ll think about it,” and Simza couldn’t have looked more relieved.
After a moment, Erica offered, “Officially, the balance on your contract will be deducted from my usual cash payment. You’ll travel with me for the next year or so to make a good showing. If the job is so miserable…”
I hissed, “Stop talking,” and threw another table as I stormed to my office and locked myself in.
It was the only thing I could think of… If I spent another minute in the room with Andre while he was hook, line, and sinker, I would have ruined the production. As it was, I was already smiling when I entered the hallway…
I didn’t have to wait long. Andre wanted to leave before I had the chance to change my mind (or kill him), and Erica wanted to return to the Christmas party I’d interrupted by calling her.
Erica told Andre that she’d wait for him and his minions to be out of her range before she’d leave because, once again, she wasn’t stupid enough to allow herself to be trailed…
The stillness that followed his exit was madness… I knew we were waiting for Andre to realize she wouldn’t be followed, but waiting for my opportunity to celebrate the small stride towards freedom was aggravating.
I listened as Sookie made herself another drink, and as Simza complained that Long Shadow had ruined one of her favorite Erica costumes because she’d noticed it in the bin… And I listened to Andre while Gawain lingered by the door to eavesdrop…
Andre sat in the limo just a few feet away from my office, and explained how furious I was and how calculating and impertinent Erica Weiss seemed. He strongly suggested they make it worth my while to accept a transfer in contract. If nothing else, gift wrapping me to make Erica happy was in their best interest thanks to her friendship with Tyson.
He waited outside long enough to make me sure he was trying to call Erica’s bluff, but after half an hour, he finally ordered Bert to drive. At least he was smart enough to not give away the identity of the ‘Victorian’. He’d ordered him to remain silent when he returned to the car and demanded Bert’s phone because his hadn’t survived its flight across the bar.
When our holding pattern was finally over, Sookie whistled for me and called, “You can’t pout forever, Sheriff.”
I snorted, “Didn’t I tell you to stop talking?” as I left my office.
Even though the car had left the lot, I didn’t want to take anything for granted.
She took the pins from her hair and snickered, “What happened to not getting your hopes up?”
“That was before they played themselves into the scenario that was too much of a longshot to ignore the multitude of variables… Was Tyson’s call planned?”
She shook her head. “Happy accident…”
Gawain offered, “You might owe him a blow job for that. That was a very profound moment according to his call with Sophie-Anne.”
“What did Andre have to say once he was outside?”
“That giving Eric’s contract to you is in their best interest, especially now that he’s pissed they considered it, and they really don’t want to piss off anyone Tyson sends gifts to… What has he been sending you?”
“He’s behaving… He usually sends little stuff to Sandwich Island even though he knows my itinerary…”
Gawain sang, “Except for when he brings things to you in person.”
Oh? When did that happen?
She snorted, “Oh hush… Y’all ready to head out?”
I nodded. “I can’t think of a reason not to adjourn to the tub…”
“Oh! So tonight it’s okay to talk naked.”
She snickered and patted my side as she walked past me. “Pam’s meeting us at my place. You told her about my closet and there’s gossip, so she was more than willing to collect our Christmas treasures and bring them over… I’ll call Wallace en route.”
Gawain volunteered, “I’ll ride with Eric. I left my bag at his house…”
I asked, “Is that where I can find Clarissa?”
When she’d used my office to mask that she smelled of me, she could have hidden my gift right under my nose. I wouldn’t put it past her.
She waited to answer me until I was locking Fangtasia behind us.
“You know where you found your clothes?”
“Did you sit down to put your shoes on?”
She snickered, “You were sitting on Clarissa. The ottoman has storage.”
I could have been annoyed that I’d been so close to it, but as it was, I was having too much fun…
A family gathering, a glimpse of freedom on the horizon, and my immediate future included test-driving the bath salt and a book I’d wanted to get my covetous hands on for more than a century.
Leave it to Sookie to put me in the Christmas spirit.