In an effort to change the subject of guilt-inducing hindsight, Sookie and I discussed various points of our version of events to be sure we hadn’t missed anything our visitors might need to know… but after a few minutes, she whipped her head around to confirm what her ability had already told her… They’d vanished. Shy and Big Apple ‘flickered’ out of our reality and hopefully returned to theirs safely.
As we left the office so we could collect her purse and coat and my shoes, Sookie decided that she hoped they ended up in New York. Shy had everything she needed except for a coat, and she could have made do with layers from Big Apple’s closet… but poor Big Apple would be hard pressed to find a pair of shoes at Shy’s house.
Being barefoot for a while in Louisiana, even in January, wasn’t exactly what I considered roughing it, but Sookie and I decided ‘braid preparedness’ was an excellent excuse for me to keep more than two changes of clothing in my dresser.
If the braid had anything to do with it, we might have thought about presetting ‘braid kits’, instead of specifically planning for my dresser… but kits didn’t occur to us until we’d taken the time to tease one another for the threesome jokes we’d made while we had company.
As we made our way through the house, we devised our plan of attack… Target would be our first stop because she needed a few things for the house on Cross Lake, and then we’d delve into the treasures waiting in her vault… Erica Herveaux’s ‘day job’ was as the personal assistant to an agoraphobic woman who hadn’t left her Cross Lake home in eight years. In the few days since moving into her love nest with her husband, Erica had set the routine of jogging in the morning, and then leaving for Cross Lake. She spent the days organizing items she’d been storing, and returned from ‘work’ with a trunk full of groceries so she could cook for her snookums. Birdie Gleason (not to be confused with her daughters Lark, Robin or Wren) had already delivered a casserole to welcome the Herveauxs to the neighborhood, invited them to begin attending Sunday services, and decided that the Herveauxs needed to have dinner with them once they returned from their cruise.
Target. Cross Lake.
That was the plan.
As Sookie reached for the door so we could leave, I heard the engine of an approaching vehicle.
She froze with her hand on the knob, whispering that the vehicle had made it past the wards, so it wasn’t a threat… and I waited for it to come into her range enough to identify the passengers.
Her face knit together in confusion and she breathed, “Gawain and Wallace? What the fuck?” She opened her bag to remove her phone and as soon as she opened it, she scoffed, “Fuck. Dead… Did you get anything?”
“Do cellphones keep track of missed calls when they’re in pieces?”
She turned her face towards the floor, trying to hide how amused she was by my heavy-handedness, but her mood shifted suddenly…
Judging by the way she looked at me, I’d just felt the shift between Sookie and Erica… It was as though a control panel had just turned off her non-essential functions. An emotional brownout.
The sensation easily explained the differences between the two facades, but I didn’t like it.
“Gawain warned me to brace myself… and he’s feeling really guilty.”
I wasn’t aware that he could feel guilt… It wasn’t as though he was unfeeling, but in my experience, he never put himself in a position to leave something unfinished or unresolved.
This was going to be interesting.
Sookie and I waited in the doorway for Gawain to park his truck…
Wallace Milne was in a hostile territory without an entourage, riding shotgun in a Suburban… Finally laying eyes on him in person told me so much…
Generally speaking, Vampires were usually the embodiment of their Maker’s idea of excellence. Case in point, I was young, attractive, fit, and drunk enough to seem dismissive of my obligations when I crossed my Maker’s path. He’d been in the market for a partner in crime.
Most of us were very attractive according to their Maker’s standards because it would have taken a striking appearance to catch their notice… that, and who wants to look at a grotesque forever?
Pam was an exception to the beauty standard. She was stunning, but that was luck… What had caught my attention was her fire, and that was delivered in the form of a long rant I could only hear about how her fiancé was so dull he could nap through a lightning strike. She’d rather be affianced to a violent man because at least aggression was exciting. She’d rather be beaten to death than die birthing a child she would have needed to coach her husband through conceiving. She was a witty little anarchist who already wanted to escape her life… and her petite frame was shocking because her personality didn’t seem as though it could fit into such a small package.
Wallace Milne though… he was a different exception altogether. Tyson had told me when Pam was still a newborn about some of his children I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet. Of course, ‘he’s the ugliest fuck you’ll ever have the misfortune to lay eyes on, but he’s more brilliant than both of us put together’ was the sum total of what I knew about him until I moved to Louisiana.
Immortally gorgonic Vampires were rare, but they were brought over for better reasons than pretty faces. Bringing someone over because they were brilliant seemed like a much better MO…
Judging by Wallace Milne’s appearance, if his IQ made up for how long he’d been so ugly, he was the embodiment of genius. I couldn’t think of an era or movement that would have considered him attractive.
He seemed content to look over Sookie’s property while he made his way from Gawain’s truck… and when I offered a respectable bow, he returned it and snorted, “Sookie should have told you not to bother with that… I’m the casual type, especially when I need a favor. I tried calling…”
Sookie sighed, “Technical difficulties. Wallace, please come in…” She backed away from the door to give them room to enter the house. “What’s the favor?”
“I want to use Fangtasia to hold a meeting. I tried calling last night too.” He raised an eyebrow at Sookie, implying we’d been otherwise engaged without saying it.
Sookie smirked back at him for a moment before I felt her mood snap from curiosity to hostility… and she punched Milne’s nose so quickly he was bleeding before I reached for her arm.
He cupped his nose and stormed through the house grumbling, “Was I supposed to let it slide?”
Let what slide?
As Gawain and I followed them like a school of fish, Sookie asked, “How many!?”
How many what?
I had to assume that he’d seen photos of Sookie’s house because he hadn’t needed directions to the kitchen sink to rinse his blood from his face and hand.
He dried himself with a rainbow towel and grinned at the mosaic backsplash as he leaned back against the counter. “I love your gay pride kitchen, Sookie…”
She shouted, “WALLACE!”
He chuckled, “Just her and her four children…”
Ohhhhhh fuck. That explained why Sookie punched him.
He wasn’t in a hostile territory without an entourage… he was touring his brand-spanking-new annex.
Sookie gasped, “That’s it!?”
He nodded. “Your clinics and vacation were perfectly timed. I would have been a fool to not take the opportunity… Gossip about her behavior spread like wildfire during your clinics, and then all the possible collateral damage was out of the way.”
“You seriously took over Louisiana because she was shitty to your telepath?”
He corrected, “My telepath who is an integral part of an operation to neutralize a major threat to the livelihoods of Vampires south of the Mason Dixon Line, Sookie… I completely contained my tantrum over the blatant poaching she did when you first came home…. Cleaning up the neighborhood, love. It’s not like I needed the headache of finding two sheriffs, but then again, it’s not like Louisiana hasn’t been running itself either… Ask Gawain, I’d almost calmed down from hearing how she behaved towards you when my eyes and ears in Nevada contacted me. The news had already gotten to them that Sophie-Anne was losing her mind. Martín, Francesca and Edgington signed off because their spies had told them the same thing, and you know I ran the plan past my Maker… I doubt we’ll even have a summit over the matter. If I hadn’t stepped in, Louisiana would have been a warzone indefinitely.”
“Wallace Milne, King of Texas and Louisiana?”
He chuckled, “I think it’ll be Texiana on my letterhead… I really love this mosaic, Sookie. I want it in my pool.”
She bit her lip and snickered as she walked towards him for a hug. “You asshole…” She punched both of his sides as she wrapped her arms around him. “You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“What I lack in beauty, my Maker made up for in swordsmanship. So… I’m having a little staff meeting. I could just do it at IHOP, but I think Fangtasia would be more fitting.”
I offered, “My bar is your bar. I’ll call the staff and have them post signs that we’re closed for a private function.”
He gave me a grateful nod. “Most obliged, but perhaps the signs should read that it’s a Vampire-exclusive function. The more subjects in attendance the better. Gossip will save me a lot of the work, and I need witnesses to a few announcements.”
Sookie asked, “So who’s coming?”
“Salome, Gervaise and Cleo were summoned and arrived in the Area last night. Willem’s flight landed just a few minutes ago…” And somewhere in the ether I was sure to have messages from all of them.
Sookie gasped, “Willem? Here? That’s so… superfluous.”
Appointing me had been too, but Sookie was absolutely right.
He nodded. “It would be… He’s taking over New Orleans. He’s familiar with jumping through Human hoops, and I need a businessman down there if I’m going to have any hopes of unfucking Sophie-Anne’s financial knot work. By the way, that cont’s finances weren’t as enviable as everyone thought. Your paycheck nearly cleaned her out. She has shit. Masses and masses of shit. Real estate. Stupid. No diversifying. No stocks or commodities to speak of. One fucking Cat-3 hurricane would financially cripple her…”
Sookie snorted, “Daft twat… So who’s filling Eric’s shoes?”
He chuckled, “As long as you both approve…”
She thumped his ribs and giggled, “I’m just asking. Don’t be a putz.”
“No really… as long as you approve, I’ll charge Cecily with the Area. Not only does she know about you already, but I can trust her to ask questions when she’s out of her element… But, I know you. I know you had someone in mind, if not a list, just in case Eric was at sea…”
While I chuckled at how well he knew her, Sookie blew a raspberry at him. “I was thinking Isabel Beaumont, Stan’s Second. She’s good with people and old enough to be respected by thralls. Living Maker with no interest in politics…”
“And a Human pet who’s tied to Dallas…”
“Really? When did that happen?”
“Last year sometime… You’re right about Beaumont though. I’d leave her in place if something happened to Stan, but the pet has a little girl. I think Isabel would turn the offer down without finding out if Hugo would tag along to spare him from the dilemma… I’m almost sure he’d pack though. I’m not sure how the fuck he spends any time with his child.”
“He’s up Isabel’s ass?”
“Constantly. I want him read while you’re in Dallas. I don’t trust Human lawyers.”
She pulled a disgusted face and groaned, “That’s not a good sign.”
“So… Who was your second choice?”
Sookie rolled her eyes and sighed, “Hush… She’s a little young, but you know she can do it… but if you’re sending Cecily…”
They knew a Vampire named ‘Hush’?
“They’re a package. They’re jugglers. They complement each other… and Northman’s been running Area 5 with the help of his child for ages. Why break what isn’t broken?”
Sookie snorted, “Cecily moms people…”
“Yes, but she’s the teenager type of mom. She expects everyone to clean up after themselves. She doesn’t wipe asses.”
I offered, “That’s what I did for years, so her thralls won’t have to suffer much adjustment… Cecily will have a few who want her to wipe their asses, and a few that time-outs don’t work on, but I’ll gladly point them out to her.”
Sookie nodded. “And Hush will regulate the turds. It’s her specialty.”
Wallace beamed, and then leaned towards Sookie until their noses touched… as she backed away from him, she giggled and slapped his chest. “You are not asking my opinion… stop that…” The clown drove her back until she was nearly in the dining room. “She’s your child… You don’t need me to trust her… stop…”
He argued, “But ultimately, it’s Eric’s decision because he’s the one who will train her, coach her, and live under her umbrella. He might feel better about my first round draft pick if he hears the telepath’s appraisal of Cecily.”
She stopped, still nose to nose with him, and asked, “Are you honoring all contracts?”
“Not all of them. Sophie-Anne had her chambermaid under contract. What a trifling cont. Who options someone to iron their knickers?” He glanced at me and shook his head. “Nevermind. The same cont who insults Knights with job offers instead of welcome wagons… Yes, for the most part. Of course, the staff meeting is being held so everyone can tell me to fuck off and give their notice.”
Sookie snickered, “You’re hoping Gervaise and Cleo will opt out, aren’t you?”
He shrugged. “I can hope, but Sophie-Anne was the only one stupid enough to pay them for nothing. I doubt they’ll abandon the chuck wagon, so I’ll have time for head-hunting to replace them when their contracts run out… Cecily?”
Sookie rolled her eyes and turned to me. “I endorse Cecily as a possible stand-in for your awesomeness. Originally, she wasn’t an option because we weren’t assuming this lunatic would take over.”
She had to know I didn’t really care.
“Who am I to argue with the King?”
Wallace snorted, “My uncle? You’re not much older than me, but my Maker thinks of you as a brother. I’d left the nest by the time you made your way to Britain, but I’ve heard plenty about you since then. I’d take your counsel over my Sheriffs.”
I was less stunned to rise in a room with another Me.
I gave him a nod and offered, “I’m looking forward to working with Cecily.”
He gave me a bitter smile and scoffed, “Fuck Sophie-Anne in her dead ass for not realizing you’re a team-player. Stupid cont… Putting walls up around a butterfly garden if you ask me…” He pushed Sookie’s hair over her shoulders and sighed, “Adorable as you are in this, I’m looking forward to seeing Erica, darling. Am I interrupting monumental plans?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
He chuckled, “Will you forgive me?”
“You’re such a good sport, Sookie.”
“You’re a high-handed ass.”
“You’re pissed because I made my moves in the backfield instead of including you so you could be hurt, my little control freak.”
That was exactly why she was angry, but instead of trying to deny it, she punched him again. “I’m not canceling my plans… I’ll squeeze you in though. You can have Erica for an hour. Eric and I have shit to do…”
While he rinsed his blood out of his beard again, he chuckled, “And rooms to ruin. I’m very lucky you’re willing to squeeze state business in between orgasms, Sookie. You’re the epitome of professionalism…” When he was finished at the sink, he tossed her over his shoulder and charged from the kitchen. “Let’s find Erica something to wear tonight, shall we?”
Leaving Gawain and me in the kitchen…
He nodded towards the back door for me to follow him and he whistled loudly for Atum as soon as the door was closed behind us.
He started, “Did you two talk or are you pretending you don’t need to?”
He snorted, “Thank God. I was beginning to think both of your heads would eventually explode.”
“You say that as though you’re under the misguided belief that the braid can’t complicate anything… Speaking of that though, you just missed company.”
“I think I saw Atum giddy… That Eric never left New York for California. That Sookie waitressed and was still struggling with her ability.”
“I can’t imagine… either scenario… But it’s actually horrifying to picture what havoc you and the boys could wreak in a city like New York. As it was, they practically took over Leige under your tutelage.”
“Their Pam has her own fashion empire.”
He chuckled, “That’s not at all surprising… I’m sure ours will be amused, but I doubt she’d regret the move for a second now that she has her little family.”
“I thought the same thing when Big Apple told me… Mata’utia is Their King of Louisiana though, and Hadley is a favorite pet. I’m sure her flavor has something to do with that… While you were still in your truck, Sookie said you felt guilty. What happened?”
He sighed, “I could have stopped Wallace, talked him out of the coup, but… How long would it be before Sophie-Anne has a visit from the braid? We know she’s been bonded to Hadley in other versions, and one tried to abduct a child. One visit and that crazy cont has all of the Stackhouses on a velvet pillow…”
“Fuck… That’s an excellent point.”
He scoffed, “What? No derision or chiding for being part of a hostile takeover?”
“Honestly, if you’d have brought those concerns to me, we would have needed to flip a coin to decide which one of us would have taken the throne. You’re right. It needed to happen.”
“We could have escaped the titles if you brought Sookie over. She could be the youngest Queen ever.”
I chuckled, “We could have stood in for her until she could control her feedings…”
He gave me an odd look and snorted, “You really did talk to her. Wow. I’m impressed. I was sure she’d chicken out until I lost a bet so she could make me bring it up.”
“Well, you’re a mind reader, not a psychic…”
His jaw dropped. He gasped. He scowled at the house…
I chuckled, “She didn’t tell me. We figured it out at the same time, in London… I imagine it’s more difficult to keep your secret around other telepaths…”
He pouted. Pouting from a Vampire his age was hilarious. Absolutely. Fucking. Hilarious.
“It’s not as though I’ll tell anyone… There are other Gawains who didn’t hesitate to come out of the telepathic closet once the Stackhouses were in the picture though, so I’m curious as to why you’re so much more guarded, but I assumed it’s because of how touted Erica is, at least in part.”
He groaned, “Perhaps it’s because I feel foolish now that I know I could have trusted you with it all along… No one stood for her, Sophie-Anne. Her staff bowed to Wallace as we walked through…”
“We’re changing the subject?”
He nodded and continued, “Andre went down first. Sophie-Anne was too pained to defend herself… The Saxons fought in spite of the loss. They were brilliant fighters.”
“Not surprising. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of Andre or Sophie-Anne lifting a sword. Andre’s specialty was extraction… The Saxons were soldiers when they were alive though.”
“Seems a shame they fell…” He sighed, “Wallace plans to demolish the palace and erect a park in their honor. There’s an abbey not far away that Willem will use as his headquarters… It’s altogether bizarre to see Wallace work. At times, it’s as though Tyson is hiding in that ugly Welshman. They tick the same way… except for the donor pool. Just when I think every gay man in Texas is at Wallace’s ranch, another car arrives.”
I chuckled, “Is there a shortage of pussy in Texas?”
“There could be. I wouldn’t know… I didn’t need to exert myself to find a way to fill my time.”
“It’s good that you enjoy your work… Do you have any idea what Milne meant by ‘putting walls up around a butterfly garden’?”
“Locking down something that will eventually hate a place where they’d otherwise be content. Like house arrest.”
That made sense and was a painfully accurate synopsis of my stay in Louisiana… but then again, boredom was the only thing that ever really kept me from enjoying anywhere I’d lived.
Ironically, the bars of my cage finally crumbled away, and I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.
“Are they printing that on Welsh postcards now?”
He chuckled, “You’re such a twat… It’s probably on postcards for all the states you can finally visit now that you’re a free man.”
“I’m looking forward to California… and if I play my cards right, I might be able to convince Sookie she needs a guard in Memphis.”
He rolled his eyes and groaned, “Play your cards right? The riverboat casino? Har-har… You need to work on your word-play.”
“Now who’s the twat? That was accidental.”
In the distance, Atum offered, “Asshole. I made it clear.”
Speaking of assholes.
“You need to fuck something. You’re being a twat.”
“You sulk for weeks. I’m twat?”
Gawain chuckled, “He has a point.”
I growled, “He does not have a point. I knew Sookie and I needed to talk. She wasn’t available. The timing of her trips and this Dallas job were fucking horrible. It’s not as though I could…”
Atum lifted his fingers to his ear and whistled to sound like a phone ringing…
And Gawain answered his fucking finger-phone, “Hello?” impersonating Sookie.
Atum chuckled, “I am asshole.”
Gawain cooed, “Me too.”
I didn’t know whether to throw a punch or laugh… four thousand years between them and they were mocking me with finger-phones.
I snorted, “Payback is a bitch. Don’t ever let me find out either of you ever experienced a dilemma regarding honesty or anything…”
I knew that would shut Gawain up, but I was only guessing about Atum… Judging by how quickly he hung up on Gawain, that little slip of his earlier had meant something.
“Right, so… Atum, you should probably dress. Erica is needed at Fangtasia by the King of Texiana…”
“Texas and Louisiana. Wallace Milne put Sophie-Anne LeClerq out of her misery before she could make an even bigger ass of herself. He’s having a staff meeting. Erica only promised to stay for an hour. We have plans for later, so you’ll be free to wander the swamp with the sewage-breathing whisker-babies.”
Gawain chuckled, “We finally found pussy Eric doesn’t like.”
Oh goody, back to me.
“They don’t like me either. I’m thinking about buying a Rottweiler to make things interesting.”
Atum snarled, “Not funny,” and pinched my nipple on his way past me to go change.
I actually checked to be sure it was still attached.
The new plan…
Target. Fangtasia. Vault.
I could handle that…
But in the car on the way to Target, it occurred to Sookie that I should change into something more presentable than jeans and a T-shirt.
Target. My house. Fangtasia. Vault.
When her stomach growled, I was sure we would be adding another stop on the itinerary, but she shook her head and vehemently decided she’d find a snack at Target and then order takeout once we were at Cross Lake.
I would have understood if she wanted to stop, but… it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one anxious to crack the safe…
And it was really nice to be on the same page with her again… Incredible really… Our visit with the other version of Us had actually been fun, but I know it would have been miserable if we’d still been suffering from our rift.
And our tactical assault on Target was just more evidence of how well Sookie and I could work together when we weren’t being ‘assholes’.
- A phone to replace my broken one, and a couple to keep in reserve. My first order of business was texting Pam, Shawn and Klaasje to let them know they’d be required to make an appearance at Fangtasia for a while.
- The ‘braid kits’: Several Rubbermaid containers, each to contain seasonal clothing, shoes and a wallet for each of us (and plans to have duplicates of our IDs made), blank CDs so we could burn copies of our files regarding other strands, a small binder with copies of Sookie’s grimoire, and a disposable cellphone to keep on our nightstands, preloaded with relevant phone numbers for the convenience of unexpected guests.
- Provisions for spelunking into the Vault: a pair of shop lamps, a pair of box fans, a package of light bulbs, and a long extension cord (because the house was only wired for electricity once the owner’s daughter wanted to sell it), and an assortment of snacks and drinks for Sookie to keep ‘at work’.
- Toilet paper and nonperishable groceries to keep at my houses for visiting Sookies.
- A Twister game… just for fun.
We were standing on queue at the checkout for longer than we were shopping even though we lost some time debating whether or not to buy travel bottles for massage oil samples. I won, but only because I conceded to small containers of bath salt instead.
In the interest of arriving at Fangtasia on time for the Texiana staff meeting, Sookie refused to leave my garage because ‘naked you and naked me should be as far apart as possible when we have obligations’… She made an excellent point, but naked me couldn’t have much fun with frozen her, so I carried her and her bag to the laundry room, and then forced myself to leave her there to change…
The short ride to Fangtasia was only made more interesting by the long red shearling coat she wore to hide her dress from me… Diamond and platinum jewelry and hair combs, and tall pumps… I couldn’t have been more curious.
One stop light… one finger sliding up her thigh to push her coat out of my way… one peek of black leather before she grabbed my wrist… and she turned my curiosity into a game.
While I drove through Shreveport, she sucked and nibbled my fingers, kneaded my thigh, nuzzled my ear… She shifted gears for me because I would have ruined my transmission before I took my hand from her…
She moved to my side of the car as soon as I parked, looming over me, accusing me of spinning her up… but we were interrupted when Atum opened the passenger door and pulled her away from me… Another point for Sookie’s Arabic studies… she correctly translated the equivalent of ‘cockblock’… ‘Bel-bulīs zobr’.
We’d decided that it didn’t matter if we arrived together because there were plenty of witnesses to the fact that Erica had optioned me from the Queen… We had been concerned that it could be perceived that Erica and I had been part of the coup because gossip about us was the newest, but Milne promised he’d head those rumors off.
When Erica and I stepped onto the floor of Fangtasia, all of the quiet conversation between the bar’s inhabitants stopped as though someone threw a switch.
Wallace had yet to make his grand entrance, but the key players were waiting and making the common subjects twitch… and Bill Compton was standing behind the bar with absolutely nothing to do because True Blood was purely ornamental to ninety-nine percent of my thralls… Ladies and gentlemen, the next item up for auction: An antebellum paperweight.
Erica and I scanned the crowd while she unbuttoned her coat, and we were given nods by nearly everyone… but Cleo whispered to complain that I’d brought a Human… A pair of female Vampires crossed the bar to correct Cleo, lifting her to make up their height difference and pinning her to the wall, and hissing in turn that Erica wasn’t a Human and if Cleo did her job, she would have known that.
I had a surprise waiting for me when the pair released Cleo… Erica’s little black leather dress was going to fuck with me until I could ruin it.
We mingled (while Willem eye-fucked Erica) for nearly half an hour before the Shifter contingent arrived… The Packmaster of Cactus Plains led seventeen Louisiana Packmasters (plus their Lieutenants) into the bar. Colonel Flood and Alcide represented Long Tooth.
Asa and Alcide were shoulder to shoulder as they led the group… they were the only Shifters who didn’t seem at all ruffled by being in the company of so many Vampires, and they were the only ones who made eye contact with Erica…
The shifting collective stayed together in a huddle as though they were quarantining themselves… until the same pair who corrected Cleo picked Asa and Alcide out of the crowd and made their way over to greet them… Cecily and Hush winked at Erica while hanging from her ex-boyfriend and husband and schmoozing with Colonel Flood without explaining Cecily was my replacement… And Hush seemed particularly fond of Alcide.
I had just opened my mouth to announce that the bar was open when Erica left my side to place an order… knowing the Shifters wouldn’t ask, even if the bar was manned, Erica asked for a Tahitian Honey Bee to open service…
Bill Compton was still pouring drinks (and he had improved at bartending over the past couple of weeks) when Wallace walked into Fangtasia.
Ugly or not, he had a commanding presence… and I doubted his Maker had anything to do with how quickly his subjects dropped their conversations and bowed to him. Over the years, I’d heard plenty about him, but it hadn’t ever been suggested that he’d ridden Tyson’s coattails. Not once.
He glided through the crowd with an austere set to his face… and everyone was still bowing as he turned around on the platform.
He didn’t hesitate to start, “I’m sure by now you have all heard I annexed Louisiana a few nights ago… You probably also heard that Erica Weiss was acting as an agent of Texas, if not part of the coup. Let me assure you, the rumors are completely true, but have been incorrectly embellished. Erica Weiss’s purpose in Louisiana had nothing to do with clandestine plots to overthrow the standing regent because the plots are part of the embellishments. Miss Weiss is working to help us all in efforts against the socially sanctioned bigotry of the Fellowship of the Sun. She’s part of an ongoing operation in conjunction with Texan packs. When I heard how Louisiana’s former regent reacted to Miss Weiss’s presence in her territory, I took action. This is your first lesson on how I react to being disrespected. Not only did the former regent insult an agent of Texas- by extension, ME– but she did so in public. This was a sanctioned takeover. Pacifico, New York and Mississippi were consulted before I acted. Are there any questions as to the events that inspired Texas’s acquisition of Louisiana?”
There shouldn’t have been, but there would still be a few rumors spread by those who read into why Wallace started his inaugural speech with that.
When he was answered with silence, he continued, “As for existing contracts, most of them are under review, but if the current sheriffs of Louisiana choose to leave the territory out of loyalty towards the old regime, they are free to do so. If they choose to stay, their contracts will be honored as written… to the letter. That means that you’ll keep your income and your head as long as you actually do your jobs instead of fucking off…” I was surprised he hadn’t mentioned anyone by name, but after a pause, he crooned, “Gervaise, Cleo, no one is taking notes for you. Will you remember all of that?”
Both of them were completely appalled that Wallace called them out, but they answered, “Yes Majesty.”
Wallace snorted, “Would you like an intermission before I continue so you can take a little nap?”
“Excellent… Perhaps when we’re finished here, you’ll actually contact your serfs to begin proper registrations like your counterparts have done for decades. You’ll have a week to return them to Cecily… Am I making myself clear or have you already been distracted by the bead at the end of the ceiling fan’s chain?”
If he kept it up, most of his audience was going to break.
“Perfectly clear, Majesty.”
“I should hope so…” He motioned to Willem and Cecily, and as they joined him on the platform, he explained, “I’d like to introduce you all to the new Sheriff of Louisiana Area 1, Willem Tyrrell. He’ll be lording over New Orleans. I’m sure most of you have heard about him… As for Cecily Davies, she’ll be filling Sheriff Northman’s recently vacated position as the Sheriff of Area 5. She’ll also continue to act as my Lieutenant and mediate inter-Area disputes as judicially as ever…” He motioned for me to join them all, and as confused as I was, I stepped forward. “You all know who this is, but some of you need to be reminded of what this is. This is a Knight. A Knight’s authority is only superseded by the King whose territory he chooses to reside in. You’ll find more Knights scattered through the crowd…” As he pointed to Gawain, Atum and Salome, he continued, “Unlike some regents, I respect Knighthood, and consider myself blessed and humbled to have such venerated subjects. The Sheriffs and subjects of Texas and Louisiana answer to them whenever they see fit to issue a command. Is that clear?”
He was answered with cooperative nodding.
“Goody…” He lifted his chin to address the Weres, “As for our Shifter guests, I’d like for you all to take advantage of the fact that I expect complete mutuality from my Sheriffs. Supernaturals as a collective are all ‘in this together’, so a threat to one is a threat to all-”
Cleo gasped, “Weres!?” and even though she’d obviously slipped, the way Wallace looked back at her didn’t bode well.
“Yes. Weres… If you don’t like it, move. I’ll let you know if I lose sleep over the loss… as I was saying… Packmasters, if you choose to take advantage of the service, Asa Forbes is the Lieutenant Ombudsman of the Kingdom. He’ll mediate inter-pack disputes and will work with my Sheriffs to resolve any dispute one of your Weres has with a Vampire. He has my ear. We do everything we can to mediate as equitably as possible.”
One of the Weres in the group mumbled, “At his age?” and another one drawled, “Who care fo’ age, vieux? He back’round what matter.”
Wallace almost smiled at the more practically concerned Were. “Asa Forbes was groomed to follow in his father’s pawprints since he could walk. He’s been Packmaster of Cactus Plains for a decade. His pack currently has 1412 active members. My Sheriffs will respect him as a peer because I take my positive relationship with the packs of my territory very seriously. Packmaster Forbes knows the chain of command. He answers to me and me alone. Consider him deputized…”
There wasn’t any mystery to me as to the reasons behind the apparent shock on the Packmasters’ faces… Sophie-Anne hadn’t ever done more than hire Weres as protection. She didn’t care anymore for inter-species diplomacy than she did for making Vampire allies. At best, Louisiana Weres might have heard the ‘myths’ of reciprocity from Weres who’d been stationed overseas in the military.
Not only did Wallace say he expected reciprocity, but he was serious enough about it to establish a chain of command…
Erica offered quietly, “Majesty, it seems like Colonel Flood of Long Tooth is the only Louisiana Packmaster to enjoy any sort of working relationship with their Sheriff, but in Salome’s defense, she made efforts. Area 2’s Packmasters were leery.”
Wallace volunteered, “I’d like to think we’ll get through adjusting to our blended family soon enough. I came directly from the old world to stake my claim on my territory. Texas Packmasters have always known I respect their place in the order of things… Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave any questions you might have to Packmaster Forbes and Miss Weiss. I have a date on the evening news to announce that Louisiana is under new management, and that Human law enforcement can expect the same cooperation the packs can…”
He kissed Cecily’s cheek… then Erica’s… and then he lifted his chin and waited for Asa’s cooperation…
At least half of the Packmasters chuckled when Asa rolled his eyes and complied.
In the wake of the new King’s brief appearance, everyone just stared at the doorway for a moment after he left with his small entourage. He’d taken Cecily, Willem and Gawain with him, and on the way out, Cecily handed a small parcel to Erica.
Erica stepped onto the platform with Asa and announced, “This is your opportunity to meet with your respective leaders, feel them out, exchange contact information. The King will be making sure that everyone is taking steps to get along. It might take some getting used to, Louisiana, but Wallace Milne is a very hands-on Regent. …”
Asa added, “King Milne’s Sheriffs maintain a storefront open to the public 24/7 to take complaints and reports about Vampires, and occasionally bring attention to other Supernatural occurrences that might otherwise make it onto the news. Off of the top of my head, the Amarillo, Houston and Austin offices are staffed with nursing bitches who can keep their babies and young children with them. It works out well for the mothers and seeing children in the office actually puts the complainant at ease. Sheriffs check in nightly and usually only have a few calls to make so they can calibrate whoever was reported, and once in a while, they need to take a meeting with local law enforcement. Also, 9-1-1 will be given your direct line so you can be dispatched in case of an emergency. The King encourages that setup… and he WILL test your office.”
I growled, “I wish I’d thought of that,” at the same time Salome complained, “I can’t open the doors soon enough.”
Cleo actually whined, “And we’re expected to pay for that out of pocket?”
Erica snorted, “You’re overpaid for the amount of work you do, and you know it. Yes, you pay for it out of pocket. No, you won’t get extra funding. King Milne’s already researched you enough to know that you pay your day-guy more than it would cost to keep a storefront in a strip-mall staffed… The King already wants an excuse to replace you. Don’t lose your head over it. Be a good little girl. Get used to the idea that you’ll actually have to start working for your paycheck instead of leaving Kansu and Northman to pick up your slack.”
Cleo hissed, “Stupid… Human… Cunt…” and when she dropped her fangs, Atum and I tied in a race to reach her… he punched her from one side, and I punched her from the other…
Fuck that we caved in the petulant bitch’s skull, and that she sagged to the floor twitching… We’d practically shattered each other’s fists… and we were left scowling at one another while our hands healed. And Hush pouted at us because we’d beat her by a split second.
Asa announced, “Just in case some of you are slow on the uptake, Erica Weiss is a national treasure. Don’t make the mistake of threatening her. If Sheriff Babbitt had made that mistake while King Milne was here, there would be a much bigger mess.” He said that as though he hadn’t pulled his gun and wasn’t still aiming at Cleo while she was healing.
Erica stepped from the platform to begin working her way through the crowd to the bar, explaining as she moved, “If you ladies and gentlemen will provide your contact information, I’m sure Sheriff Northman won’t mind if I make copies for everyone. It might be helpful if you make a note of the parishes where you have active members, just in case your packs overlap into more than one Area.”
Louisiana’s Packmasters followed her to the bar like lemmings.
Salome and I shared a few embittered looks while Mr. Herveaux lifted his wife to sit on the bar (where Compton had a fresh drink waiting for her) because the assholes who would usually behave as though their respective Sheriff had slighted them personally only asked questions in regards to what information to give to the King… and they were asking Erica as though she was a chief of staff issuing a press release.
Cell numbers? Email addresses? Lieutenants’ contact information? Packmasters of smaller packs who hadn’t been contacted? How soon would they be expected to staff their Sheriff’s office?
It was maddening to see the instantaneous cooperation Wallace had earned… and I was fully prepared to blame his strategic choice of Erica’s attire, but I would have been a fool to discount how impossibly smooth his takeover had been. Whether Wallace Milne intended to build an empire or not, he could very easily annex whatever territories he chose because he understood the importance of timing. Ugly or not, Milne was definitely one of Tyson’s keepers.
While Erica answered the questions of the Weres (and eventually, the Vampires) she was watched carefully by her guards…
I circled around the bar patiently, doing a decent job of not being too obvious about wanting to move on to the next step in my evening, and I’d waited until Milne had been gone for more than an hour…
I knew better than to try to talk to Atum while he was in a crowd and wearing shoes. Every few minutes, his shoes creaked when he knotted his toes inside them. He’d reached his tolerance threshold for his suit and tie.
I continued to watch Erica for a few more minutes before Klaasje joined Bill behind the bar to help him along… At her age she was so far beyond bartending.
I motioned for her to come to me, but she’d stopped in front of me as though she was awaiting a command…
I took her hand and lifted it, encouraging her to spin as though I was appraising her aubergine dress. “You look incredible in purple…” Once she’d made a full turn, I led her to stand next to me and slipped my arm behind her back. “What have you done with yourself for the past couple of weeks?”
She grinned bashfully at the compliment and offered, “It’s been painfully quiet, I’m afraid. Books, crafts, even video games. I’m afraid my dog might report me to the Humane Society if I bathe her again.”
Atum almost smiled at her for missing Jules and Emery so much.
I chuckled, “You should consider taking a pet or two.”
She lowered her chin as though it would hide how bright her smile became. “I might just do that. I hear even if they bicker, it’s more exciting than an empty house… What about you? What have you been up to?”
Before Atum could jump on the chance to offer an example of how I’d been an ‘asshole’, I answered, “I recently entertained friends of ours. Unfortunately, they were only passing through, but they promised to contact you as soon as they returned.”
It hadn’t taken her any time to realize I meant the braid… Her eyes lit up and she breathed, “Did you? How were they?”
“Quite well, I think… I’ll give you all the details, but not tonight. I have plans for the evening. King Milne’s staff meeting was a bit of a detour, but I’d hardly consider it a derailing…”
As though she’d been invited to the conversation, or introduced for that matter, Hush laughed quietly as she approached us, “I’ll pray for her dress then… Hush Robertson, y’all. I’ve been dying for an intro since you walked in, but Erica’s too busy running for president.”
It wasn’t as though I’d missed her, but she’d dropped the obligatory etiquette for her introduction… Her size alone was imposing; full-figured and nearly my height in her pumps. Her accent was from the American south, and given that Sookie had mentioned she was young to be a sheriff, Hush had most likely been a slave.
For a split second I considered asking her so I could giftwrap her for Adele’s conversational enjoyment.
While Hush unbuttoned her blazer, Klaasje greeted, “It’s lovely to meet you. Klaasje Van Baaren.”
Hush moved on to slip her shoes off and offered, “I know. I was hoping to run into you before my date on Thursday night. I wouldn’t want to step on any toes.”
Hush wiggled her eyebrows. “Our circles of friends overlap. I’m attending a function and my escorts want my attendance to be a surprise, buuuut… surprises aren’t popular in our line of work. I wanted to give you a head’s up.”
As Klaasje tensed at my side, I began putting puzzle pieces together… If Hush had been in Houston last week, it was possible that she’d met with the vacationing members of the Stackhouse family… Jules and Emery had been respectably curious about Simza’s life, and had garnered a few details from her… and Thursday night wasn’t a common night for most events or dates… If I was right about Hush’s age and accent…
Jules and Emery had discovered Hush had been a slave and asked her to address the DGD.
I chuckled, “Klaasje’s stylists invited you to model for them, yes?”
Hush pointed at me and giggled, “I should have started with that. Yes…”
I nodded. “They’re very persuasive.”
“They aren’t as bad as Erica though. It took both of them and another friend…”
Arianna, no doubt.
Asa mumbled from his station next to Erica, “I’m staying in town for that, sweetness. I’ll be shopping for a video camera first thing in the morning.”
Klaasje relaxed as she realized what Hush had meant, but I was beginning to wonder what the fuck Asa’s plans to stay in the Area would do to my plans for Sookie.
I was supposed to have Sookie to myself later…. Target. My house. Fangtasia. Cross Lake.
Check. Check. Check. Only one item left.
Cross Lake was the only thing left on my list.
Not entertaining Sookie’s ex.
Hush teased, “Stop flirting with me, Asa Forbes…” He blew a kiss at her as she continued, “I taught a few anthropology courses specific to the period back in the eighties. Telling rednecks about what their ancestors did to their labor force should be fun…”
Compton had overheard the conversation and asked, “As opposed to justifying the idealistic indignation of young black students who wanted validation for their grandparents’ tales of hardship, even though in the eighties they should have realized how far society had come in regards to civil rights.”
He actually made a fair point about the timing of the classes.
Hush licked her lips just before winking at me. She started, “I know that accent… You sound just like my overseer.”
Bill snorted, “If I’m not mistaken, you’re twice my age. I’m almost sure I’m innocent of whatever-”
Hush interrupted, “I wasn’t implying you were my overseer. My overseer’s name was Compton and he was a distant cousin of the family that owned me…”
Uh oh. Bill hadn’t been introduced and he’d only been mentioned by his given name.
Hush continued, “Besides, I actually jumped on the chance to come to the Area because my descendants settled along the river after they were freed. You sound like every white man that crossed my path before I was brought over. What part of Louisiana are you from?”
“I’m from Reynard Parish, actually.”
She tilted her head and asked, “Really? Some of my kin was at the Loudermilk farm, some with the Bellefleur family…” Uh oh. “What was your family’s name?”
Bill looked like he was bracing himself. At least he was smart enough for that. “Compton.”
Her eyes widened. “Nemeh, Jemima, Josiah, Asher…”
Bill looked like he’d taken a knee in his grundle as he choked, “Small world?”
“My father… I didn’t return from the war. I don’t know what became of the slaves he owned when they were freed. I’m not even sure what happened to my own family other than what was added to a family bible.”
Of course he didn’t… none of us did… Klaasje actually offered, “You’re quite lucky to have the bible entries though,” and several Vampires agreed with her.
Hush wasn’t interested in the opportunity to segue to another topic. “Did you really just pass off responsibility to your father as though you wouldn’t have happily inherited my family from his will? How were they treated?”
Bill sighed, “My family wasn’t as lenient as some, but our slaves would have been considered lucky. We had neighbors who treated their few slaves like family. My father complained about them because he was forced to soften his hand to keep the trend. It was more expensive to catch them when they ran off than it was to feed them better and allow our mam to teach the others to read.”
Given her presence, I’m not sure I would have argued slavery with her if she was ‘just’ a Human teacher, but I was prepared to defuse the situation by reminding her that the American south didn’t invent slavery and Africans weren’t the only race to be objectified…
But she started laughing in her throat. “Relax Compton. I’m from North Carolina… When Erica said you were sniffing around, I crawled up every Compton’s ass for centuries…”
Bill tried to hide that he was almost as amused as everyone else. He shook his head and groaned, “North Carolina?”
She nodded. “How did you not catch my accent? You call yourself a southerner? Pshhhhhh.”
I doubt I would mind having her in the Area. She already seemed fun.
I whispered to Klaasje, “Remind me to keep her from spending time with Pam.”
Hush chuckled, “Too late. I already met her… We shopped.”
Pam had mentioned that she’d found a few boutiques in Houston worth revisiting, but she’d failed to mention how.
I opted to be distracted when one of the Packmasters asked Erica what could be done about the Fellowship from Louisiana… In spite of his thick Cajun accent, he sounded as though he was volunteering to join the cause.
Erica started, “Eyes and ears are more than welcome to join in. I don’t suggest you condone infiltrating to any of your guys if they aren’t extremely well-tempered. Feel free to coordinate your efforts with Packmaster Forbes. Your men can report anything interesting to him… I can tell you that the churches out in Minden and Ruston are legitimate threats as whole entities. They’re led by reverends with hate in their family trees. One of the preachers brags about having his daddy’s Clan hood in his closet. They preach racial cleansing and extermination. They are absolutely the assholes who will reignite when Weres come out. Be careful.”
Flood asked, “Shreveport though? You say Ruston and Minden like Shreveport isn’t a problem.”
Erica shrugged. “I’ll know more once I attend a service or two, but I don’t think Shreveport is a problem collectively. The local reverend and his wife aren’t haters. Lenard Gleason discourages violence and encourages education. Let’s face it, a Vampire can fuck over a Human a hundred ways and they’d never know. Bothersome as it can be to some folks, he educates his parishioners about the shit they can get away with. Gleason doesn’t even propagandize. His volunteers tuck flyers under windshield wipers that point out the symptoms of being fed from and glamoured. They help ‘recovering’ Fangbangers get over their weaknesses, but they recruit via emergency room referrals instead of kidnapping. They push for blood donations to be made directly to hospitals under the mistaken assumption that Vampires wouldn’t have access to it.”
Flood snorted, “Harmless?”
Erica nodded as she finished her drink. “Newlin recruited Gleason because he already had a large congregation of the target demographic: tighty-righties with cash and influence. Gleason struggled to draft a sermon because Newlin issues assignments, but Gleason didn’t like the extreme implications of the syllabus he was given. His wife is about as sweet as she can be. She’s already named several Herveaux babies for us and volunteered to babysit. She’s actually a lot more liberal than her husband and her primary concern when it comes to Vampires is an amplified version of maternal instinct. I don’t guess any of you have any teenage daughters and think they’re complete angels… they couldn’t possibly be anything but innocent prey to the closest hard on…”
She was growled at by the collective of Weres and Shawn.
Erica snickered as she slid from the bar, “Bad news guys…”
One of them warned, “Don’t do it.”
“Girls like to cum too.”
Several women, Vampire and Were alike, agreed, “Amen.”
One of the Weres argued, “Aren’t you supposed to be making friends, chickie?”
It was actually amusing to watch her reel them in like she was… I hadn’t been witness to her dealing with Weres professionally. I was seeing another facet of Erica… Vampires responded to her black and white judicious façade. Daemons were given amiable small-talk and professionalism. Weres and Shifters were presented with what seemed to be an amalgam of Sookie and Erica; the down-to-earth tomboy who knew what the fuck she was talking about without putting on airs of superiority.
And it all made sense… as each group saw her work, they all would have arrogantly assumed the other behaviors were put on for the sake of diplomacy.
Erica chuckled, “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to work… So… for what it’s worth, I can tell you Cecily and Hush don’t put up with any fuckery. If you have beef with a Vampire, they’ll take care of it. Sheriff Kansu’s reputation is exemplary. She came to Louisiana via Antilles after helping the new Queen establish order there. The lack of camaraderie with local Shifters was unpleasantly unfamiliar…”
One of the Weres asked, “Gervaise?” and he finally looked up from his conversation with one of his minions.
Erica offered, “He’s a fucking tool, but that’s going to work in your favor because he’s just going to bide his time and go through the motions. Area 4 will be covered by Cecily and Hush…”
Hush added, “And don’t worry about Cleo. King Milne already picked a replacement for her…”
Given that Cleo had just lifted herself from the floor after Atum and I had punched her, she didn’t have it in her to be indignant about the news.
Hush continued, “You boys might want to lock up your daughters now… Carlyle is a ladies man…”
Carlyle? He either fucked up or lost a bet… or both.
“He’s been in New York, so he’ll probably be expecting tension because they have problems with Weres there…”
One of the Packmasters snorted, “Animal control?”
Alcide corrected, “Stupid greedy fucks won’t stop killing each other long enough to realize there’s a Queen with a decent head on her shoulders. La Luna Nostra. They even call themselves families instead of packs. It’s all one big kill montage from The Godfather.”
The questioning Were grunted, “Damn,” so Hush offered, “Carlyle knows Erica though. He’s seen her work. He’ll trust her opinion of y’all like King Milne does… Massa Compton?” Atum actually chuckled.
Bill cringed and groaned, “What can I do for you, Hush?”
Hush giggled, “Do you think you can handle setting up the Alexandria office for Sheriff Carlyle?”
Oooooh, a prize for being a good sport?
While everyone seemed to be intrigued by Bill’s job offer, Erica slipped into the back hallway followed by Alcide and Asa.
“Acquiring the facility, establishing utilities, and working with the local Packmasters to schedule the staff?”
“And publicizing the service to local law enforcement and media, yes.”
He stared back at her for a moment before nodding. “I think I can manage that, yes.”
He would have been a fool to ignore the opportunity… Like I would have been a fool to miss my chance to sneak through the back door with Sookie while I had the chance.
I whispered to Klaasje that I was going to escape while I could, and that she could do the same, and made my exit.
I found Sookie at the back door with her husband and her ex-boyfriend.
Alcide chuckled, “Appointment my ass.”
She shrugged. “Don’t wait up. I’ll be ‘home’ for the routine though. I’ll make a big breakfast if you fill the fridge.”
Alcide nodded. “Done. See ya in the morning.”
She stretched up to kiss their cheeks and warned, “Don’t get into any trouble, you two,” and given the way Asa’s nostrils flared, I wondered if it was the first time he’d caught my scent on her.
But it didn’t matter…
She bumped the back door open with her ass and demanded, “Let’s get the fuck out of here before we get sucked back in.”
It wasn’t even midnight yet…