Insult To Injury
The already quiet crowd fell completely silent, and the fact that Bill turned off the sound system made it that much more dramatic.
Erica rose with Sophie-Anne’s subjects to offer the obligatory bow, and as soon as Erica was upright again, she took her seat to resume writing results, flipping between pages because she was scanning six pets at once.
I started, “Welcome to Fangtasia, your Majesty.”
She was struggling to seem dispassionate as she asked, “Who is your company?”
I knew she meant Martín. The paranoid cunt walked in on what could have been a think tank for a hostile takeover if any of us wanted Louisiana.
“Miss Weiss is currently scanning the minds of your subjects’ pets… Her guards, Gawain Green and Simza Solari… King Martín Montalvo of Pacifico and his associates Ivy Lucian and Hebe Milas.”
I could see her struggling to maintain her facial control. A King and three Knights on one side, and a Queen and three stooges on the other.
“You certainly know how to throw a party.”
I nodded, but before I could explain Martín was a surprise visitor, he blurted, “Ice your cunt, Sophie-Anne. I’ve been in Louisiana for two hours, and I’m due to leave in a few minutes. I wanted to witness Miss Weiss in action so I can prepare my Sheriffs for her stay with me in the summer…” He rose from his seat and buttoned his jacket. “Eric is an excellent host, but it looks like you’ve mastered crashing parties… It’s no wonder you have no friends.”
It was not the time for him to try to make me laugh.
“How did you know she was in Louisiana?”
“Once her contract was signed, she gave me her contact info, fax and phone numbers…” He walked up to her and pressed his finger against the tip of her nose with each syllable, “Three… one… eight.”
“So you’re in my state uninvited? That’s quite a breach of etiquette.”
He pointed towards Bartender Bill and scoffed, “So is the way you sent a hick to do a Knight’s job, darling… That’s reprehensibly discourteous to Miss Weiss, Wallace Milne, and your own Sheriff, who was always too good to be on your payroll anyway. It would serve you right if Miss Weiss takes my advice and tells you to go fuck yourself in your deported ass.”
Andre’s and the Berts’ fangs ran out, but Sophie-Anne looked like she was on the verge of crying. Embarrassing her in front of her subjects, even if there were only a couple of dozen left, was not a good idea.
She huffed, “Always the spoiled brat, Martín…”
He chuckled, “That’s cute… I left my magnificent Maker’s side to build an Empire. You declared yourself the Queen of the rock you were exiled to. I’m not a brat, darling. I’m a pompous prick, and I’ve got glorious balls to back it up. You’ve never operated your own business. You’ve never swung a sword. You’re the figurehead, and the ship can sail without you and your albino minions.”
His glorious balls almost broke me… the albino minions was worse because the Berts looked at each other as though they needed confirmation Martín was referring to them.
When Sophie-Anne only clenched her jaw, Martín began humming a low drone meant to taunt her, and even though I was behind him, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he had locked his grey eyes on hers just to make her squirm.
Without looking up from her papers, Erica offered, “I’m looking forward to working with you, Majesty. It was a pleasure to meet you all. I’ll contact you with a list, Miss Lucian.”
Martín looked back at Ivy and snorted, “She’s trying to diffuse the situation.”
Before Sophie-Anne could respond, Erica left her seat mumbling, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” and took Martín’s hand to lead him towards the door. “Nevermind that you’re both here because you’re proud, nosey bitches, and realistically, you knew your visit would stir shit up…”
Martín turned her, taking her hips as though they were dancing… but… that motherfucker actually let Erica take him away from a confrontation he’d been enjoying.
He chuckled, “I’m not admitting to that,” as Gawain, Ivy and Hebe followed them out.
Erica snorted, “Of course not, but now that you met the telepath and visited with old friends, you don’t really have a reason to stay and test any loyalties, now do you?”
As their voices faded into the parking lot, a circus troop could have paraded through the back door of Fangtasia and I don’t think anyone would have noticed.
All eyes were on the front door… waiting for the reappearance of the little Human who refereed a royal Vampire standoff.
It felt like forever before Erica and Gawain returned, and when they did, Erica breezed through to retake her seat to resume writing results.
She allowed a moment of awkward silence before she started, “Your indignation can only go on so long before I remind you of your reaction to my arrival in Louisiana… Mr. Cataliades, I’m sorry for the delay, but I’m scanning at the moment. I’ll be right with you.”
He gave her a gracious nod and opted to occupy a vacant barstool. It was funny to think that there was another version where he was Hadley’s father-in-law… I actually considered introducing him to Shawn before I invited Sophie-Anne to sit…
As we settled, Erica mumbled, “I’m catching up to what I missed while I was outside. Simza, we have a hot one. The spider-goth girl with the Tudor gent.”
As Simza left, Andre asked, “Hot one?”
Erica showed him her middle finger and waited for Sophie-Anne to repeat the question.
“A ‘hot one’ is a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“The kind of problem I need to deal with directly.”
“You’re not willing to divulge details?”
Erica continued to write and answered, “What could your pets reveal about you, Majesty? No. I’m not willing to divulge private details that don’t concern you.”
Gawain reached over to slide an instruction sheet out of Erica’s folder and handed it to the Queen. After she had time to read it, he offered, “You should consider it a blessing that no one has left after reading that treason negates their privacy.”
She argued, “As my subjects…”
Erica interrupted, “Gawain, please don’t let me forget ‘ice your cunt’. I want to use that later.”
Sophie-Anne didn’t need flashcards to help her realize that Erica Weiss had just told her to ice her cunt without actually saying it. She was gobsmacked enough to stare at the top of Erica’s head until Simza returned with the ‘Tudor gent’.
Erica passed the results to Stuart Hepburn, who was probably one of the most boring Vampires in my Area, and explained, “My recommendations are included. I’ll proceed as you choose.”
He nodded and read Erica’s notes… then again… and again… and he eventually passed them to me with shock written on his face… I assumed he wanted my input.
“Zoya is really Christa. She’s 15, not 17. She ran away from being abused in a group home.
She’s completely loyal to you, and appreciates how you care for her and the safety you provide, but her runaway status (TN) could result in a trial and nasty headlines.
If you’re attached: Bring her over to usurp Human involvement and make sure she contacts TN authorities so her case doesn’t continue to drain resources.
If you’re not attached: Lead her to the break room and glamour her to forget you. I’ll call the police and claim she wandered in off the street without ID.”
Statutory rape, harboring a runaway, custodial interference, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and whatever other charges would be added to the hit parade just to make an example of the big bad Vampire. If Christa was discovered, it would be a nightmare.
If I was reading his face correctly, at least he hadn’t known she was practically a child… and honestly, it came down to his attachment Zoya/Christa because I would have given the same advice as Erica.
I offered simply, “I agree with Miss Weiss’s assessments.” Sophie-Anne rolled her eyes as though it was a shock that I didn’t offer any hints.
He sighed, “Bring her over so young or abandon her to a system that allowed her to be abused? Those are my only options?”
Erica asked, “How long were you going to wait?”
He shrugged. “A year or two, just long enough to watch for warning signs.”
So he was attached… At least he was already considering her potential instead of keeping a child as meat. And the apparent ages of the pair wasn’t sickening; they appeared to be high school students.
Erica suggested, “Cuba? American law enforcement won’t be a problem for you. Queen Wyannie might accept your circumstances with my guarantee that you aren’t trafficking or up to anything shady.”
I could actually see the hope in his eyes. “You’d do that?”
Erica nodded, “As long as Sheriff Northman is willing to vouch for your history here. Just say the word. I’ll make the call.”
After I agreed, “He’s never caused any trouble, and he’s been in Area 5 for decades,” Stuart began staring at Erica’s knee, mulling over his dilemma so completely that he missed that four Vampires had to reach past him for their results, and Ginger bumped his shoulder when she delivered a refill for Erica.
Stuart finally nodded. “Okay. Option C… I just… I want her to have the chance to change her mind… If she wants a Human life… Now that I know how old she really is…”
Erica waved her hand to stop him. “Say no more. Keep me in mind for when you think she’s ready. I’ll call Queen Wyannie once I’m done here…” She offered her pen to him and held up her portfolio. “So I can call you with her decision.”
After he scribbled his phone number, he gave her a deeper bow than most of us had given Sophie-Anne when she arrived. For that matter, he’d practically ignored the Queen’s presence altogether.
After a long sip from her fresh drink, Erica explained, “I’m only waiting for one Master to return. Then we’ll take a little break to focus on contracts, but I’ll take care of everyone else as soon as possible… You’ve been amazingly patient. Thank you.”
Sophie-Anne replied, “You’re welcome,” as though Erica was talking to her. “After all, this is what I’m paying you for.”
No it wasn’t.
I already missed Martín. He was an asshole, but no more than I was, and I could depend on him for nothing if not brutal honesty when it mattered. He’d spent as much time with Gawain as I had, so it wasn’t any mystery where he learned that behavior.
Mr. Cataliades had our envelopes waiting for us when Erica handed over the last of the pending results.
She calmly began reading the documents while she sipped from her drink, and I took another walk to my office… this time I went alone.
When I sat at my desk, I found, “Fuck you, you lucky fuck,” scribbled on my desk with a Sharpie… Martín‘s reaction to Erica having my blood was at least worth a chuckle, and since I hadn’t heard any part of Gawain’s conversation with him, I wasn’t concerned about being overheard.
Cataliades had made several additions to make me happy. Instead of extending my amnesty to 150 years, he extended it to 200. The original contract only stated that I would have complete control of hiring my replacement, but the new one gave me a year to do so as long as I assigned a deputy to act in my absence. The Ingram family’s protection was only conditional because Shawn would need to register them all as pets… And there was a check. It wasn’t as though I’d ever rushed to the bank to deposit my income from my position- it was only a fraction of what my investments paid out- but Sophie-Anne’s check was written for ten times what I was normally paid as Sheriff… I thought it was hush-money until I noticed that my paystub said ‘security’ where it usually said ‘administration’.
I chuckled again when it occurred to me that it was less than what Sookie was being paid. The little bookworm in a sundress had come so far.
After reading both copies of my contract twice to be sure the additions weren’t meant to distract me from fuckery, I returned to the bar to see that Erica was writing again… and her clenched jaw made it clear that she wasn’t pleased.
As I took my seat, I asked, “Something wrong?”
Erica snorted, “Other than the fact that I’m retarded and illiterate, everything’s fucking peachy.”
That boded well.
“What was it you said earlier about working together on our contracts?”
“I had extra surprises waiting in my contract. Mr. Cataliades needs to use your computer and printer, or I’m going to walk the fuck out of Louisiana and Sophie-Anne can take her fucking chances with de Castro, Threadgill, and the Fellowship of ignorant rednecks.”
Pam’s eyes were bulging when she left her seat to escort Felix to my office.
I nodded to encourage Pam to move faster. “Of course, Mr. Cataliades, my child will show you the way and help you find anything you might need.” As he followed Pam, I asked Erica, “Care to elaborate?”
“I don’t imagine it matters which one of those assholes had the idea, but someone thought I’d sign it without reading the whole thing. They tried to sneak in that I provide my real identity, and bond with her as part of the contract.”
Those fucking cunts.
I could only hope Sookie’s prediction, that there would be a coup on the horizon, was right… How the fuck anyone could call themselves a Queen when they resort to such base tactics…
I’d never been more embarrassed by my connection to Louisiana. Ever. Of all the infantile stunts…
Her own subjects began glowering at Sophie-Anne. After what Sookie had done for them as a collective, and she was still providing her service in spite of the colossal insult, Erica Weiss was the reigning Queen of Fangtasia.
Bad move, Sophie-Anne.
I suggested, “You were pleased with the earlier version, but I wasn’t… It explains why she was more than accommodating with the adjustments to my contract. She was hoping you’d be happy if I was happy… and simply scan.”
“Yeah, so…” She looked up at me. “Since we’ve already established that she doesn’t have any friends, I guess it’s okay to mention that she apparently hadn’t heard about my ability to sense the moods of Vampires and Daemons. When you went to your office, their skepticism stayed here instead of following you. They were hoping I wouldn’t find the rotten eggs they left for me. Their moods changed like someone was actively shitting on their laps when they realized I was actually reading every line.”
And Sophie-Anne and Andre both looked like they were sitting in electric chairs.
Gawain showed his fangs and hissed, “Given this grandiose display of stupidity, I want to make it as clear as fucking possible, and with enough witnesses that you consider this a formal warning… If you make any attempt to harm or claim Erica Weiss, You. Will. Regret. It. If you want to be respected as a Queen, little girl, it’s time you start acting like one…”
I don’t imagine anyone was supposed to notice that she was trembling… or that Andre was frozen.
He continued, “Tyson, Maximo, Zhang, Nicholas, Wouter, Clovis, Carretto, Milne, Martín, Marcos, Dmitri, Rhemaxos… The real royalty who aren’t eagerly waiting for Miss Weiss’s services are hopeful for another term with her. If you don’t stop being a paranoid little cunt, you’ll be caged and your precious little state will be annexed by someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing.”
Andre opened his mouth to say something…
But by the time any of us realized Gawain’s arm was moving, Sophie-Anne’s fur and Sookie’s legs had been sprayed with blood from Andre’s shattered jaw… And Sophie-Anne had more of a reaction than Erica did… of course, I was almost sure Gawain intended for Andre to share that punch with his lovely Maker.
While Andre tried to quiet his reaction and cover that his mouth was full of broken teeth, Erica lifted her foot to examine her pump, and then the other… to make sure another pair of shoes hadn’t been ruined.
She sighed coolly, “Other than flirtatious men being more affectionate than etiquette allows, this is the first time I’ve had a problem with ‘royal’ fuckery… Speaking of which… Sophie-Anne, your fiancé sent his second in command to check me out. King Edgington sent his second too, but Miss Pickard was completely professional and courteous. Miss Cater was a… well, you’d get along with the in-laws.”
“I’m not amused.”
Erica snarled, “Go fuck yourself. I’m not here to entertain you.”
Under normal circumstances, say- if Erica had said the same to Martín in Cabo, every table in the room would have been pushed over or thrown out of the way and there would have been an impressive display of fangs in his defense.
But there was nothing from the peanut gallery.
And Sophie-Anne turned her head to scan the bar as she realized exactly how popular she was… In order to live long enough to not become a vampyric fable where the moral of the story concerns survival instinct, it helps to realize it’s a bad idea to betray, fool, or insult someone who could save your ass.
She scoffed, “Your leaflet states that privacy is paramount.”
Erica argued, “It is. Jennifer Cater is to thank for why your marriage negotiations are no longer quiet. She announced, while Fangtasia was bursting with your subjects and their pets, that you and Peter Threadgill were discussing a union. In Human circles, that’s a good reason for a breakup.”
“That’s not exactly how Vampires do things.”
Erica shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. In my experience, political marriages aren’t popular. Bad apples and all. I think American Vampires are the only ones who still practice them, but that could be why the kingdoms here seem to play musical chairs. A few years ago when Iowa and Ohio married, we placed bets on who would end who. My money is on Phoebe Golden getting through the deal alive. She’s a tough broad… We’ll see.”
Sophie-Ann took a hard swallow. “Who is ‘we’?”
“King Milne and a few of his staff members.”
“Does King Milne keep up with gossip?”
Erica snickered, “Wallace is the King of Texas and Gossip.”
“How convenient that he had you for so long.”
Erica snorted, “Implying that he was overindulging on the trivial secrets of his subjects? Not quite, but I’m beginning to think your donors smoke too much weed. You’re paranoid… King Milne is just really vain for such an ugly fuck. He says his surprised face makes him look like a Cabbage Patch Doll and prefers to keep as many of those reactions to himself as possible…” One of the waiting Vampires began laughing, so Erica motioned for her to come forward. “New pets, Camille?”
Camille hadn’t been in Louisiana for long, but she’d come to me from Houston… and if I remembered correctly, she’d been at Fangtasia the night Erica checked in.
She gave a brief nod in the Queen’s direction and corrected, “Business associates. Who needs pets when Sheriff Northman provides drive-thru? You look amazing, darling. Waist-length hair suits you.”
“Thank you… You already know the drill, so I’ll see you in a bit.”
Camille paused for a moment when she turned to leave… as though she considered saying something to Sophie-Anne, but decided against it…
Cue the awkward silence.
There wasn’t any way to be sure if it was beginning to sink in for Sophie-Anne that she’d insulted someone who could have been an incredible ally, but for the next few minutes, she watched Erica write and deliver results. It wasn’t until Camille returned, and thanked Erica for her services with a flip-flop keychain, that Sophie-Anne showed any reaction.
I was sure Sophie-Anne managed to put together a slapdash hypocrisy charge because Erica hadn’t accepted the Jaguar, but she took Camille’s keychain.
Erica breathed, “Am I going to need a tackle box?”
Camille’s dealership… Erica had been thanked with a boat.
Camille nodded. “And a P-coat for now. Hopefully the lakes will make up for the lack of beaches in the Area… I’ll leave it behind the bar, if that’s alright with you, Sheriff Northman.”
I offered, “That’s fine. I’m sure Miss Weiss’s day-guy will move it soon enough.” If her brothers gave Ryan the chance to see it. Something about the looks on their faces told me that boat wouldn’t be idle often.
Erica’s ass had hardly met her seat again after pecking Camille’s cheek. She announced, “Quick poll…”
“Gift certificates to boutiques or spas… Would you consider them to be a suitable welcome wagon sort of thing? Show of hands.”
“How about a car… say… a Jaguar?”
Not a single hand.
“Hypothetically… if an athlete were visiting a large town, let’s say New York because of how many franchises they have, and the athlete were presented with said gifts, what would it say about the athlete’s integrity to accept the Jaguar and subsequently sign with the more generous franchise? To me, it would challenge the integrity of the draft process. It would imply that fairness and loyalty wasn’t a factor to the athlete, that loving the game was second to the almighty dollar, yes?”
Another unanimous show of hands.
“But if the athlete were to sign on with the franchise that was gracious enough to welcome him appropriately, and subsequently break records and fill stadiums, would his integrity be called into question if he were to accept a Jaguar as a bonus? For staying with his team even though another franchise offered a higher salary? Should he stomp on the gifts his fans offer, or should he accept them graciously?”
Sophie-Anne was slowly turning her already apathetic subjects against her.
Erica glanced at Sophie-Anne as she continued, “Part of me wants to feel sorry for you that you wouldn’t know integrity or loyalty if they shat on your lap.”
The ‘Queen’ sighed as though she was humoring a child, “The other part?”
“I spend too much time with Vampires, it seems. I know better than to think you inspire either. Cash flow is why New Orleans’s population is so high, but Baton Rouge and Shreveport Vampires enjoy having Sheriffs they can trust. Monroe and Alexandria are practically ghost towns because Gervaise and Cleo are useless cunts who leave Eric and Salome to pick up their slack… and I knew that before I left Houston. It’s the top destination for Vampires who get burned by New Orleans bullshit.”
“Do you have any further criticisms for me?”
Erica rolled her eyes and breathed, “I don’t suppose I do since it doesn’t seem like you realize I’m justified to be pissed at how you’ve acted since I arrived… My contract is ready anyway. Why continue wasting my breath?”
“How do you know that?”
“Because Miss Ravenscroft and Mr. Cataliades were in very diligent mindsets until just a moment ago…” When the door to my office opened as though the whole situation had been orchestrated, Sophie-Anne actually looked impressed, but Erica snorted, “Too late.”
I was sure she’d do something more impressive eventually, but I was awed as I watched her continue to write scanning results while reading the new version of her contract. Granted, her handwriting was worse than usual, and she eventually passed the contract to Gawain just in case, but given the way Brandon was cringing, I was sure the telepathic noise was just too much for him.
More evidence of how far she’d come.
When Gawain was finished proofreading for fuckery, he grumbled, “You were too good to her,” as he passed it to Erica…
And she tossed the new contracts and her pen onto the Queen’s lap, demanding, “Sign them.”
Sophie-Anne snarled, “Miss Weiss-”
But Erica corrected, “Don’t you mean, ‘stupid little Human cunt’?”
“I never said-”
“But everything you’ve done has implied it. Sign or write a hall pass so I can fulfill my promise to scan pets for your subjects until the 29th. I’ll pack my shit on the 30th and you’ll never have to deal with the ‘stupid little Human cunt’ again.”
Andre’s jaw had barely healed enough to move it when he opened his mouth again… He’d thought to put his hand up to block Gawain’s fist this time, but his hand only softened the blow… Not only was Andre drooling blood, but his hand looked like a gnarled root… and the Berts cringed, but did nothing in Andre’s defense… and they looked slightly amused when Erica mumbled, “Backpfeifengesicht.”
Gawain warned, “You had your turn last night. The next time you open your mouth, your Maker will have to hold your skull together so it heals correctly.”
Sophie-Anne held her hand up as a stop and used her other hand to lift the pen from her lap. “Stop. I’m signing.”
Erica clarified, “You probably need to say that you aren’t signing under duress or coercion. You should specify that you came to me about a contract, that you were pleased with my offer to modify my usual working arrangements to suit your specific needs… You should specify that the reason for the tension and hostility is that you tried to fuck me… Given that I was already in position to work with you, I think this was the political equivalent of surprise anal…”
That wasn’t fair… but at least I wasn’t the only one who chuckled.
Sophie-Anne only offered a slight nod while she signed the contract, so Erica insisted, “Admit to the generalized version of events or I’ll start itemizing the various examples of your lack of professional courtesies.”
Sophie-Anne’s jaw clenched and she cleared her throat quietly. “I’m not under duress. I should have been more cordial.”
Erica sighed as she took the signed contracts back and nodded towards Andre. “You two… I’ll admit that it’s a rare and beautiful thing for a Maker and child to be so close, but you need a break from each other. Andre might be integral to your reign, Sophie-Anne, but your emotions sparked a chain reaction, and I’m willing to bet most of this debacle can be blamed on his pride. He’s treated me like an uppity blood-bag since the first phone call.”
They tried to trick her into bonding, but Erica was still critiquing the situation, pointing out the weakness in the operation… and everything about her, the tone she spoke in to the look on her face, made it seem like a genuinely helpful mention… She might as well have suggested the debacle had been a learning experience.
One of the female Vampires in the peanut gallery tisked and mumbled, “Shame too. Erica and Wyannie got on like best friends. She’s stern, but you saw how she was willing to help Stuart…” and that tipped over the first domino. Quiet conversations began spreading through the small crowd like wildfire, sharing and comparing rumors and gossip, examples of everything from how Erica had proven to be on ‘our side’, to specific events that made how she’d been treated by Louisiana more galling. One of them had heard about the coup attempt in France and how Erica hadn’t left Clovis’s side during the battle even though she’d been injured.
The whispering continued while Mr. Cataliades finalized and notarized everyone’s contracts…
With a freshly stamped copy of her contract in hand, Erica leaned back and started, “I’ll arrange and publicize future clinics on my own. I’ll contact Mr. Cataliades with details so you’re in the know and can spread the word to interested parties. I’ll let you know when I’ll be in New Orleans so I can read the minds of the palace’s staff. Expect it to be during Mardi Gras though; I’ll need a massive spoonful of sugar to help swallow the chore of protecting you from your donor pool…” She nodded towards the front door and huffed, “If this were my home, I would have uninvited someone for the first time in my life.”
Gawain growled, “If this were your home, your wards would have kept them from stepping foot on the property.”
Standard etiquette called for men to rise when a lady stood… I’d noticed a few of the clinic participants (and a range of species at that) motion to do just that as Erica left her seat to flit about the bar. Her brothers had even observed the custom as they were pretending to be strangers.
Vampire etiquette demanded that a Regent be respected by rising and bowing upon entering and exiting. Martín hadn’t left the customers any time for formalities because he found them as inane as I did, but Sophie-Anne expected gratuitous bowing from her subjects…
No one budged from their positions when Sophie-Anne’s ass left her seat…
And I was almost sure the only reason Erica left her seat when I did (and only because I had to play nice) was to shake Mr. Cataliades’s hand again…
The rest of the bodies in Fangtasia kept their asses planted on their seats and showed their Queen as much respect as Hitler at Temple… a blanket act of insolence in support of the individual who had actually performed an act on their behalf.
If nothing else, their show of anathema was a point in favor of fair business practices.
Erica called after them, “Don’t forget to take your Victorian with you.”
Without turning around, the Queen mumbled, “Keep it,” and Erica left her seat and made several steps before Gawain grabbed her…
He whispered into her ear, “It’s not worth it.”
“How!? How does anyone turn their back on… That’s bullshit.”
“Proving you’re more of a Queen than she is, but if they took him, they would have ended him to save face… He wouldn’t have time to take your advice.”
As slighted as Bill Compton finally had the right to feel, he was actually shocked by Erica’s reaction… but that was because he didn’t realize how much of Sookie he was seeing.
Gawain was still holding her when she turned to face Bill and asked, “What was your incentive to take the job of getting in good with me?”
His eyes shifted to the floor. “The Sheriff’s position.”
Erica growled, “Please tell me you mean that she was going to push for you to replace Sheriff Northman when he steps down.”
As opposed to the idea that Bill had been assigned to woo the telepath in a race to the finish. To the victor goes the spoils… all others get the axe.
He nodded. “As far as I know. I was told his contract included control of the hiring process, but Andre said suggesting me right away would spare Sheriff Northman from head-hunting.”
That was probably the only fair maneuver they made.
I scoffed, “Of course it didn’t occur to them that I’d already have someone in mind… someone who’s older, has experience, and doesn’t have a mad Maker with delusions of grandeur.”
Bill stared at me for a moment before mumbling, “I don’t think she took into account how many friends you or Miss Weiss have… in a general sense, of course.”
Par for the fucking course.
One of the waiting members of the audience announced, “Get back in the chair, girl. Don’t wear yourself out being shocked by what you already know. It’s all evidence of the same crime…”
She rolled her eyes and scoffed, “Roger, you were already going to go last. Keep it up.”
Roger wasn’t one of my thralls. I had no idea how she knew him.
“Shows how much you know. I don’t even have a pet with me. Houston misses its prima ballerina assoluta. Notice Camille didn’t want to miss the show either.”
She shook her head as she tossed herself onto her chair again. “You never took my advice and got cable, did you?”
“I did… The History Channel is hilarious.”
She snickered, “I know, right… Better now that Vampires are out though… Best show I’ve seen in a long time… The Birth of Baseball: From the Streets to an Institution.”
Jason jumped in to agree, “That was a good one. I’d never heard of ‘rounders’.”
Erica specified, “It was narrated by friends of mine. It won an Emmy.”
“Edward and Richard Paige… When you get home tonight, order a copy of the DVD. Give it a good review, but complain about how much they focused on the Yankees… and then sign it with the name of an Atlanta Brave. They’ll know I’m behind it.”
Jason claimed Cy Young, and Shawn immediately claimed Chipper Jones… and Erica was wearing an evil smirk as she handed out the next batch of instructions because those who had already named an Atlanta Brave were helping others chose their pennames.
Erica probably could have cleared Fangtasia in half the time, but given the size of the crowd left (and the desperately needed mood change), the waiting customers shared friendly banter that Erica actually participated in over the course of the next hour. For the most part, they continued the topic of baseball, complaining about the outcome of the previous season and making guesses about the next one.
As clueless as I was about baseball, the more relaxed atmosphere was a remarkable improvement… no more royal posturing, no more contempt wafting from Compton, no more ‘hot ones’ (but I was warned opening nights didn’t usually have many)…
Erica stopped handing out instructions with four Vampires left… Roger from Houston and three of my thralls. None of them had companions with them… and one of them left before the last of Erica’s results had been delivered so she could address them individually. Roger left after exchanging brief ‘nice to see you agains’, leaving two…
The first of them just wanted to deliver an invitation for her to partake in a charity poker tournament as a ringer to encourage more participants. Not only was the game tempting, but the showboat theme made her smile and cross her fingers. Apparently, there wasn’t a single reason she couldn’t attend a charity function in Memphis in March.
The last Vampire, whom I was sure had already had her pets scanned and left, approached Erica and handed over an envelope. She didn’t say anything. She only bowed and left… Clichéd mysteriousness.
Erica kept the envelope with her as she carried her purse to the bar, tipping the waitresses and mixing another batch of drinks for everyone while Bill seemed to do nothing but watch her as he’d done all evening.
She settled on a barstool while her family left their seats to collect their drinks, and she finally opened the envelope as she explained, “There isn’t a single reason for you to stick around, Bill. I’m actually sorry I was so hard on you now.”
His pensive stare went on long enough that it reminded me of the children who’d been nervous to sit on Santa Gus’s lap.
He finally asked, “In light of your advice, about finding a foster, do you have any recommendations?”
At least he was asking instead of adding her to an long list of women who rejected or embarrassed him.
She sighed, “Giving the advice is the easy part. Taking it is tricky. Finding a foster isn’t something you can just run an ad in the paper for. It’s asking a lot of an older Vampire to basically adopt you, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to make efforts towards a few friendships. Even that will help. Everyone’s walked a different path. We’ve all been burned in different ways. We’ve all learned different tricks… I can tell you that at your age, you wouldn’t keep your head above water as a Sheriff because the youngest of those I’ve met are well into their fourth centuries. And Knighthood is something you train for under established Knights for decades before anyone would trust you with serious errands. Seniority isn’t exclusive to Humans.”
I offered, “Dmitri tried to explain that to his Maker years ago… I’m not sure she would have taken him seriously even if he wasn’t struggling to speak between laughing fits. Her presentation skills were lacking.”
Erica snorted, “We’ll have to assume that his Maker is guilty of the same thing some suburban moms are: believing their child is the most amazing cunt-fruit in the history of ever just because it’s their cunt-fruit…”
Gawain chuckled, “You should write poetry.”
“Thanks… And I’m going to guess that she doesn’t make friends easily, so she doesn’t have a gauge. She hears that ‘Knight X’ carried out a task, and thinks ‘Bill could have done that’ without considering that it takes years of experience and references to be trusted with said tasks… Bill, at your age, this is the best you’re going to get. You’re so far down the food chain, mixing drinks is a great way to network… but more importantly, you can watch and learn…”
“One might say that could only confuse an individual. I did watch your guard manhandle a King, and punch Andre without repercussions.”
“If nothing else, you learned that Gawain’s a fucking badass. You’d be hard-pressed to find a King that wouldn’t take his advice… On a personal level, it says a lot that your accent hasn’t budged. You don’t just sound southern. You sound antebellum. It hints that you’re resistant to change since you’ve been through Asia and spent years on the west coast. That might help you with Margaret Mitchell fans, but it comes off really cartoonish to anyone who’s well-traveled.”
That was an excellent way to put it.
“I think the polo shirt and loafers make you look like you’re running late to help set up a founder’s day picnic. I’m sure it works for your night-to-night errands, and if you’re comfortable, go for it… But in context with other Vampires, you stand out. Dressing like that to come to Fangtasia is the equivalent of wearing a work uniform on a date. Knowing how to dress for your surroundings is another hallmark of experience you don’t have. It’s all about context. I don’t dress like this to run errands or visit with family.”
“My accent and my wardrobe…”
I couldn’t believe it… but it actually seemed like she was getting through to him.
“Your accent: just tone it down so you don’t sound like a Civil War miniseries. Your wardrobe: less suburbanite, more worldly… and I’m pointing out that three Knights aren’t arguing with me.”
He nodded thoughtfully for a moment before looking at me. “Since it doesn’t seem like I’m needed in New Orleans, might I return tomorrow night?”
I nodded. “Your Maker and her sister’s reputations have made it onto my radar. I won’t be happy if I see either of them in my Area. That being said, if you want to start taking Erica’s advice, you’re free to mix drinks here.”
His shoulders dropped slightly when he nodded, making the motion almost a bow. When he turned to leave, he said, “Until tomorrow evening.”
He was hardly through the door before Erica handed the page from the mysterious envelope to me…
“After leaving Fangtasia, I took my pet for food and had the occasion to encounter an individual of interest. Erring on the side of caution, I wanted to make you are aware of the fact that one of the Queen’s Were employees was dining at Les Deux Poissons and when a waiter recognized him, he stated that he was in the Area on an errand for the Queen. The Tiger known as Quinn may or may not have been assigned to follow you or align himself with you. –Siobhan Grady”
Erica waited for me to offer the note to Gawain before she scoffed quietly, “I imagine I should be flattered… Eric and Bill were ordered to woo me, and I’m going to guess that Asa being one of my references inspired the ‘backup Were’.” With no one left but family and waitresses who were wiping down tables, she’d dropped her accent.
Gawain chuckled, “Have any of you heard of a Tiger named Quinn?”
Marcy snickered, “That would have been funny. I heard he’s hot, but really full of himself.”
Sookie snickered, “Like me?”
Marcy nodded, “Bigger boobs I think. Heard he’s huge. You would’ve eaten him alive.”
“At least she covered her bases… If I’m a shallow slut or I have a thing for bad boys, Eric wins. If I’m into yuppies or want to be a platonic fag hag, Bill wins. And the body-builder-Were wins if I only go for fur. Grrrrrrrrreat.”
Jason asked, “Why’s it gotta be about sex?”
“Because I’m Human, and the best way to control a Human female is by pulling the strings of her man? I don’t know… They did not have their shit together. Ever watch a Zombie movie where everyone’s holed up defensively?”
“Nevermind that they backed themselves into a corner.”
“Right… So they’re okay for now, hoping supplies hold out, waiting to be rescued… then they hear a helicopter… and they put all their energy/resources/efforts into flagging down the helicopter… The Zombies were already circling the mall. I’m the helicopter, so they think. Think of how much more gusto would go into waving that ‘HELP’ sign if they could feel everyone else’s desperation. I’m sure without this she would’ve been another B-minus monarch, a blip on the Vampire radar, but she failed tonight… in public, in front of her subjects, abandoning Bill.”
Jason scoffed, “That shit was just wrong… I mean, he acted like a douche…”
Sookie corrected, “I don’t think that’s an act.”
“Right, but who the fuck leaves a guy behind like that and expects anyone to trust them?”
“Sophie-Anne will…” Sookie left her barstool to retrieve her weed caddy. Even though my waitresses were present, she started rolling joints while Gawain helped.
She shared. Not only did the staff get tipped with a joint, and they acted as though she gave them diamonds, but Sookie made a few for Brandon…
He still hadn’t said anything even though we were alone (because we were speaking at a hushed volume), and it didn’t seem as though he was having a telepathic conversation with his sister either.
It seemed like he was in shock… and it said something that Jason had made a point to stand at the opposite side of the grouping as his brother.
Given that Ginger was already scheduled to receive deliveries during the day, I explained that there would probably be several deliveries for Erica as well and that she should store them in my office for the day… Simza thought I was funny because my office wasn’t that big.
Once the staff was gone, and Sookie deemed the perimeter to be free of everything but one homeless drunk who was having a ‘soupy’ dream about being terrorized by a gaggle of vicious geese, everyone parted ways.
Surprisingly, Simza accompanied Pam even though it seemed as though any lingering problems caused by her disagreement with Sookie were completely settled… I was only curious about it for a moment before Gawain suggested that Brandon enjoy that the twins were sleeping at Shawn’s house because peace, quiet, and weed always helped Sookie after clinics… Gawain wasn’t being excluded from Pam and Simza’s fun; he was taking a pass so he could enjoy the solitude his Christmas gift had to offer.
While everyone else stayed on the highway towards Bon Temps, I followed Sookie’s Jeep as Gawain drove because she’d had several drinks… Even though they’d been spaced out, I was still wondering why she wasn’t stumbling in her heels.
He didn’t say anything when we reached our destination… He silently let himself into the house and I wouldn’t have known what he was doing upstairs if I hadn’t heard a shower start…
And Sookie carried her weed caddy directly to the kitchen… After a plate loaded with dinner leftovers was in the microwave, she whispered, “He’s decompressing,” and lit a joint.
“And this is how you decompress?”
“When I’m lucky. I mean, I need to eat because I’ve had way too much to drink, but pot’s the best remedy for a long night that I found so far.”
“Better than oil or salt?”
“They don’t do so much for my mind. My body relaxes, but my brain still spins. That might have been part of the problem with your chess game last night.”
“I’m willing to blame that… Rather than interrupting Gawain while he tries to relax, I don’t think the situation with the Queen is over. You embarrassed her in front of her subjects. Once the rumors spread, she’ll be lucky to have any attendance at court. She’ll blame you instead of her own actions.”
“Which is why I intend to hammer out my community service hours as soon as I’m back from the cruise and slip into the woodwork again.”
“Good… While you’re gone I’ll contact the other Sheriffs to let them know to begin researching hotels.”
“And printers… They’ll need to print tickets for their thralls so the only audience is Vampires. I can’t risk being seen with Vampires by the church. Three church members were posing as pets in your Area tonight, and one was undergoing passive reformation attempts by a devout roommate who asked a lot of questions.”
“What did you recommend in those cases?”
“Glamour… Liberal brain bleaching with the addition of the mantra ‘Vampires are like ice cream’ to tag them.”
I chuckled, “Ice cream?”
“Harmless right? Unless you’re a dumbass and go at it fast and hard. Anything’s better than a brain-freeze while you have one.”
“How are you tagging them if they’re all glamoured with the same mantra?”
“We’re just trying to suss out who their handlers are. It’s the organizers that need surveillance. It’ll be obvious that they were glamoured when they forget who they were keeping tabs on, but killing them wouldn’t help the cause, so we might as well get some use out of them. Eventually, some of our ears will hear someone complain about the mantras. Louisiana spies are getting the ice cream mantra, and Texas is getting ‘remember the Alamo’. Anywhere else, a serious minority right now, gets the chorus of the Pied Piper song. Remember that one?”
“I think so… If you’re staying here, other than personal trips, how will you…”
I stopped when she smirked. “You know I’m not the only telepath on the planet, right?”
Yes… but that was incredibly fresh news since I was sure the telepaths she was talking about hadn’t been over for dinner.
“Am I only hearing about this because of the pot?”
She giggled, “No. This is kind of the first time it’s come up between us. It’s still hush-hush though. They’re safely working under Wallace. They’ve got a lot of practice ahead of them to do what I do, but it’s not like I was surprised to hear about another Me who tried to push her ability back. Even if I wasn’t already doing that until you came along, they were too.”
“Are you sure you aren’t related to them?”
“No. Who the fuck knows with Fairies? And we’re back to the bullshit they pull.”
She’d only smoked half of her joint before the microwave beeped, so she extinguished it and set it aside…
I sat across from her when she settled with her meal and offered, “I’m still trying to figure out why, as insulated as they are, they’d leave hybrid ancestors to suffer whatever abilities they inherit without guidance.”
“Like leaving a newborn Vampire at their grave, right?”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
She winked at me, and nodded towards the second floor…
She had answers and she was making me wait until Gawain had retired for the evening.
She left me to try to think of something else to say, a subject change that never came to me, while I watched her eat.
Other than confirming that she’d called Wyannie and Stuart on her way home, which only took her a couple of minutes to explain, I was at a loss.
She left me sitting there, wondering about what the fuck she knew, how she could have made the discovery, how long she’d known…
Even if I was sure she would have already told me if the answers had any impact on me, I was still endlessly curious, and I was sure I wasn’t the only Vampire who would be… The Fae were so secretive that their typically abrasive dispositions were probably why they could maintain so much secrecy.
Sookie giggled as she climbed the stairs to shed her costume… and while she was upstairs, I heard the front door open and close behind Gawain… Knowing he was telepathic excused how withdrawn he was after hundreds of minds… but I had to wonder why Sookie wasn’t just as stricken after her evening. For that matter, I had to wonder why she’d want to continue at the same pace.
She’d taken a quick shower to rinse away the ambient traces of Fangtasia and changed into her little map bikini, returning to me hugging her salt bottle and a couple of towels. She handed them to me so she could take a couple of bottled waters, the remainder of her joint, and what looked like frozen cookie from the freezer…
She gasped at the cold air when we stepped outside and giggled, “Gawain took off in nothing but a towel. No eunuch jokes if the walk to his sanitarium didn’t go smoothly.”
It wasn’t cold enough for that… but the idea was still funny.
“I can only promise to behave as long as his gait isn’t affected… and he doesn’t complain about the maddening itch caused by regeneration.”
In spite of how much I wanted the precious details Sookie was withholding, I was distracted from that by watching her climb into the hot tub… She acted as though she was being chased into the water until she was submerged to her neck except for the hand holding her snack.
She nibbled her snack and watched me upend the bottle of salt…
“I understand Brandon’s reaction, but why aren’t you as affected as Gawain?”
She huffed, “Same reason actually… Their shields aren’t as abstract as mine. It’s kind of all-or-nothing for them. Of course, Brandon’s will get more flexible with practice… Ummmm… water…”
“Solid, liquid and gas forms… Shields are like ice, but getting in and reading minds is like a gas creeping in… Where I’m at with my ability, I’m a spider dancing on the surface tension of a puddle… Gawain usually goes full-shield during clinics, but he was in and out of Brandon’s head to check in and offer little items of interest.”
Once I was undressed, I slid into the hot tub with her and asked, “Was your family as impressed with you tonight as I was?”
She rolled her eyes and scoffed, “You’ve seen me work before…”
“I’ve seen you work formal gatherings. I’ve never witnessed one of your clinics. You might be reading as many minds while you hobnob, but it’s more obvious during clinics.”
She shrugged as though it was common for anyone but her to read multiple minds at a time. “They were… Jason might as well have been taking notes; ammunition in case Aunt Linda relapses. It was really sweet. I think Shawn was taking notes too, but he would have been afraid to miss anything. I’m sure Hadley caught on to how much fun he was having.”
“What about Brandon?”
“Brandon… is hopeful. He’s cool with his lot. He likes being a mechanic, but the boys have already started talking about ‘going pro’, like Ari does. He’s been in my head. He knows he can’t help them like I can. Even if he doesn’t set out like me, he knows I’m years ahead of him. He loves his boys enough to want them to have as much control as me, but proud enough to not want to turn such a big part of who they are over to me.”
“He doesn’t necessarily want to be you when he grows up, but he doesn’t want to be excluded from guiding his sons either… I can understand that.”
“And he wants the dirt too. In their heads, the boys think I’m a rock star… and I kind of am for now… but I wouldn’t want them to go into it thinking it’s all glory either. They need to know about the other side of the coin. It’s not all glamorous gifts and private jets… And… Brandon and I are concerned that since they have less Faerie in them, they might not have the potential for range and control that the preceding generation does.”
“All fair points… Does this bring us to the topic of Faerie offspring neglect?”
“It would if I didn’t want to talk about something else first.”
I watched her lick the sides of her snack to catch the melting cream to keep it from dripping into the hot tub.
“The salt is already working. Stop licking things before I completely forget what we were talking about.”
“Things Men Never Say for $600, Alex.”
I chuckled, “You’ve already proven you have an abnormal effect on Vampires, Sookie. I watched a Vampire with a head as dense as concrete take advice from you tonight. And I feel like I should mention the bowing. Even before the Queen interrupted your show, my thralls were bowing. More than nodding.”
“My reputation precedes me. The early birds were already squawking when we got there, doing my advertising for me.”
She took the last bite of her snack and left her bench to come straddle me.
“I plan to talk.”
I quickly reached up and unhooked her top. “And I’m expected to listen? When you’re straddling me topless?”
“It’s not my fault. You’re more naked than I am.”
“What the fuck did you just eat? I can’t count how many times I’ve made fun of Shawn for kissing Hadley just to taste what she’s eaten… that smells…”
She giggled, “It’s a perk. We taste sweet, so some stuff tastes alright… well, not repellant like it would on a Human. Shawn thought it was just because he was so young… Klaasje discovered cinnamon and chocolate because she got here just in time for abuelita season…”
“And I’m the last to know? Is it just sweets? I actually liked the mead on your breath last night, but I enjoyed that while I was alive.”
“I think it depends on the Vampire. Shawn’s partial to fruit, Klaasje fell in love with cheesecake tonight… All I had was some caramel ice cream between a couple of stroopwafels. Cream, caramel and basic waffle cookie…”
“I’m not really listening anymore. You lost me shortly after ‘perk’.”
When I leaned closer to settle my curiosity, she used my hair to hold me off. “Tyson didn’t complain about Kheer.”
While she was on my lap?
I groaned, “Why?”
“You know what. Why mention him? Now?”
“Because you have issues.”
It wasn’t as though reminding me that she’d fucked someone on my short list of Vampires I wouldn’t challenge would help whatever supposed issues I had.
“And it’s necessary for me to actually verbalize that I prefer to avoid the topic of the King who’s actively pursuing you while my cock is pinned between us.”
She raised an eyebrow and sighed, “Apparently.”
“Good. Is that settled?”
“Not really. You’re confusing the fuck out of me. I’m not a fan of being confused.”
That was fucking rich.
“You? How am I confusing you?”
“Well, last night you might as well have said you don’t have a problem with a casual thing, and that you don’t care if I’m with Tyson too… but ever since then…”
“Wait. When the fuck did I say I share?”
“I asked if you had a problem sharing a fuck-buddy with Tyson. You said I should know better.”
“I think you used the term douche-bag.”
She nodded. “Good. You do remember… And every time Tyson’s come up since you found out we fucked, your mind did a silent scream.”
Did she have to keep saying it?
“He’s sending you rings, Sookie…”
“Darius gave me a ring tonight. You were impressed.”
Darius handled more cocks than a chicken farmer.
“That ring was just a thank you gift. Darius doesn’t have the power to leverage either of us to do anything.”
She gasped, “Tyson didn’t leverage me to fuck him.”
“I’m not suggesting he did, but if he wants you enough…”
“Tyson is an opportunist. When he heard his guards chattering about Kelly and Miles leaving London to replace Asa…”
“You jumped in bed with him.”
“Like I jumped in bed with you?”
“Like you usually jump in bed with Sim, or Mee, or Bronya, or Tilda, or…”
“That’s different. Tyson has been flirting with you since you met him in London. Simza, Mee, Bronya and Tilda are…”
“On your recall list.”
“We don’t flirt. We just fuck. It’s casual, and heavily relies on availability. If Tyson is leaving his Kingdom-”
She covered my mouth… I could have easily continued, but… the way she was looking at me…
It was maddening.
She finally said, “When you said the braid was fucking with you, you didn’t mean that your head was just swimming with variables…” I opened my mouth, to at least agree with that, she shook her head. “Stop… You meant the braid was fucking with you on a local level… You’re getting possessive.”
I mumbled, “Am I allowed to answer?”
She sighed, “You already did,” and left my lap to return to her side of the hot tub.
“What? If you know I’m becoming possessive of you, why withdraw?”
She pulled her feet up to the bench, resting her chin on her knees. “This is… humbling, I guess… I conned a Queen out of her Sheriff tonight, but… thanks to a few housewives, I’m still just pet material, huh?”
The braid wasn’t fucking with me like that…
She was already leaving the hot tub when it occurred to me that her aunt and grandmother’s ideals probably fostered that suspicion…
And that Tyson admitted that he’d grow bored if she were always available…