Authors: Charlaine Harris
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This book is dedicated to a few of the women I'm proud to call "friend": Jodi Dabson Bollendorf, Kate Buker, Toni Kelner, Dana Cameron, Joan Hess, Eve Sandstrom, Paula Woldan, and Betty Epley. All of you have meant something different to me, and I feel grateful to know you.
There are a few people I've thanked before and need to thank again: Robin Burcell, former cop and present writer, and FBI Agent George Fong, who were great about answering my questions about security and bomb disposal. I appreciate the input of Sam Saucedo, the former newscaster and now writer, who explained a few things about border politics to me. I also need to thank S. J. Rozan, who was happy to answer my questions about architecture, though the vampire part was a distinct shock. I may have misused the information given me, but it was in a good cause. As always, I owe a great debt to my friend Toni L. P. Kelner, who read my first draft without laughing in my face. And my new continuity person, Debi Murray, gets a tip of the hat; from now on if I make mistakes, I have someone to blame. I owe a lot to the many wonderful readers who visit my website (www.charlaineharris.com) and leave messages of encouragement and interest. Beverly Batillo, my fan club president, has given me a boost many a time when I was down in the dumps.
The Shreveport vampire bar would be opening late tonight. I was running behind, and I'd automatically gone to the front door, the public door, only to be halted by a neatly lettered sign, red Gothic script on white cardboard: WE'LL BE READY TO GREET YOU WITH A BITE TONIGHT, AT EIGHT O'CLOCK. PLEASE EXCUSE OUR DELAYED OPENING. It was signed "The Staff of Fangtasia."
It was the third week in September, so the red neon FANGTASIA sign was already on. The sky was almost pitch-black. I stood with one foot inside my car for a minute, enjoying the mild evening and the faint, dry smell of vampire that lingered around the club. Then I drove around to the back and parked beside several other cars lined up at the employee entrance. I was only five minutes late, but it looked like everyone else had beaten me to the meeting. I rapped on the door. I waited.
I'd raised my hand to knock again when Pam, Eric's second-in-command, opened the door. Pam was based at the bar, but she had other duties in Eric's various business dealings. Though vampires had gone public five years ago and turned their best face to the world, they were still pretty secretive about their moneymaking methods, and sometimes I wondered how much of America the undead actually owned. Eric, the owner of Fangtasia, was a true vampire in the keeping-things-to-himself department. Of course, in his long, long existence he'd had to be.
"Come in, my telepathic friend," Pam said, gesturing dramatically. She was wearing her work outfit: the filmy, trailing black gown that all the tourists who came into the bar seemed to expect from female vampires. (When Pam got to pick her own clothing, she was a pastels-and-twinset kind of woman.) Pam had the palest, straightest blond hair you ever saw; in fact, she was ethereally lovely, with a kind of deadly edge. The deadly edge was what a person shouldn't forget.
"How you doing?" I asked politely.
"I am doing exceptionally well," she said. "Eric is full of happiness."
Eric Northman, the vampire sheriff of Area Five, had made Pam a vampire, and she was both obliged and compelled to do his bidding. That was part of the deal of becoming undead: you were always in sway to your maker. But Pam had told me more than once that Eric was a good boss to have, and that he would let her go her own way if and when she desired to do so. In fact, she'd been living in Minnesota until Eric had purchased Fangtasia and called her to help him run it.
Area Five was most of northwestern Louisiana, which until a month ago had been the economically weaker half of the state. Since Hurricane Katrina, the balance of power in Louisiana had shifted dramatically, especially in the vampire community.
"How is that delicious brother of yours, Sookie? And your shape-shifting boss?" Pam said.
"My delicious brother is making noises about getting married, like everyone else in Bon Temps," I said.
"You sound a bit depressed." Pam cocked her head to one side and regarded me like a sparrow eyeing a worm.
"Well, maybe a tad wee bit," I said.
"You must keep busy," Pam said. "Then you won't have time to mope."
Pam loved "Dear Abby." Lots of vampires scrutinized the column daily. Their solutions to some of the writers' problems would just make you scream. Literally. Pam had already advised me that I could only be imposed on if I permitted it, and that I needed to be more selective in picking my friends. I was getting emotional-health counseling from a vampire.
"I am," I said. "Keeping busy, that is. I'm working, I've still got my roommate from New Orleans, and I'm going to a wedding shower tomorrow. Not for Jason and Crystal. Another couple."
Pam had paused, her hand on the doorknob of Eric's office. She considered my statement, her brows drawn together. "I am not remembering what a wedding shower is, though I've heard of it," she said. She brightened. "They'll get married in a bathroom? No, I've heard the term before, surely. A woman wrote to Abby that she hadn't gotten a thank-you note for a large shower gift. They get... presents?"
"You got it," I said. "A shower is a party for someone who's about to get married. Sometimes the shower is for the couple, and they're both there. But usually only the bride is the honoree, and all the other people at the party are women. Everyone brings a gift. The theory is that this way the couple can start life with everything they need. We do the same thing when a couple's expecting a baby. Course, then it's a baby shower."
"Baby shower," Pam repeated. She smiled in a chilly way. lt was enough to put frost on your pumpkin, seeing that up-curve of the lips. "I like the term," she said. She knocked on Eric's office door and then opened it. "Eric," she said, "maybe someday one of the waitresses will get pregnant, and we can go to a baby shower!"
"That would be something to see," said Eric, lifting his golden head from the papers on his desk. The sheriff registered my presence, gave me a hard look, and decided to ignore me. Eric and I had issues.
Despite the fact that the room was full of people waiting for his attention, Eric lay down his pen and stood to stretch his tall and magnificent body, perhaps for my benefit. As usual, Eric was in tight jeans and a Fangtasia T-shirt, black with the white stylized fangs that the bar used as its trademark. "Fangtasia" was written in jazzy red script across the white points in the same style as the neon sign outside. If Eric turned around, the back would read "The Bar with a Bite." Pam had given me one when Fangtasia first got into marketing its own stuff.
Eric made the shirt look good, and I remembered all too well what was underneath it.
I tore my gaze away from Eric's stretch to look around the room. There were lots of other vampires crammed into the smallish space, but till you saw them you didn't know they were there, they were so still and silent. Clancy, the bar manager, had claimed one of the two visitor chairs before the desk. Clancy had just barely survived the previous year's Witch War, but he hadn't come out unscathed. The witches had drained Clancy near to the point of no return. By the time Eric discovered Clancy, tracing his smell to a Shreveport cemetery, Clancy was one Vacutainer short of dead. During his long recovery, the red-haired vamp had grown bitter and snappish. Now he grinned at me, showing some fang. "You can sit in my lap, Sookie," he said, patting his thighs.
I smiled back, but not like my heart was in it. "No, thanks, Clancy," I said politely. Clancy's flirting had always had an edge to it, and now that edge was razor sharp. He was one of those vamps I'd rather not be alone with. Though he ran the bar capably, and he had never laid a finger on me, he still set off warning bells. I can't read vampire minds, which was why I found it refreshing to hang with them, but when I felt that tingle of warning, I did find myself wishing I could just dip into Clancy's head and find out what was going on in there.
Felicia, the newest bartender, was sitting on the couch, along with Indira and Maxwell Lee. It was like the vampire Rainbow Coalition meeting. Felicia was a happy mixture of African and Caucasian, and she was almost six feet tall, so there was more loveliness to appreciate. Maxwell Lee was one of the darkest men I'd ever seen. Little Indira was the daughter of Indian immigrants.
There were four more people in the room (using the term "people" loosely), and each one of them upset me, though in varying degrees.
One of them was someone I didn't acknowledge. I'd taken a page from the Were rule book and treated him like an outlawed member of my pack: I abjured him. I didn't speak his name, I didn't speak to him, I didn't recognize his existence. (Of course, this was my ex, Bill Compton – not that I recognized that he was in the room, brooding away in a corner.)
Leaning against the wall next to him was ancient Thalia, who was possibly even older than Eric. She was as small as Indira and very pale, with tightly waving black hair – and she was extremely rude.
To my amazement, some humans found that a complete turn-on. Thalia actually had a devoted following who seemed thrilled when she used her stilted English to tell them to fuck off. I'd discovered she even had a website, established and maintained by fans. Go figure. Pam had told me that when Eric had agreed to let Thalia live in Shreveport, it was the equivalent of keeping a badly trained pit bull tethered in the yard. Pam had not approved.
These undead citizens all lived in Area Five. To live and work under Eric's protection, they'd all sworn fealty to him. So they were required to devote a certain amount of their time to doing his bidding, even if they didn't work at the bar. There were a few extra vampires in Shreveport these days, since Katrina; just like a lot of humans, they had to go somewhere. Eric hadn't decided what to do about the undead refugees, and they hadn't been invited to the meeting.
Tonight there were two visitors in Fangtasia, one of whom outranked Eric.
Andre was the personal bodyguard of Sophie-Anne Leclerq, the Queen of Louisiana. The queen, at present, was an evacuee in Baton Rouge. Andre looked very young, maybe sixteen; his face was baby smooth, his pale hair was thick and heavy. Andre had lived a long existence caring only for Sophie-Anne, his maker and savior. He was not wearing his saber tonight, because he wasn't acting as her bodyguard, but I was sure Andre was armed with something – knife or gun. Andre himself was a lethal weapon, with or without an aid.
Just as Andre was about to speak to me, from beyond his chair a deep voice said, "Hey, Sookie." Our second visitor, Jake Purifoy. I made myself hold still when every impulse I had was telling me to get out of the office. I was being an idiot. If I hadn't run screaming at the sight of Andre, Jake shouldn't make me think of bolting. I forced myself to nod to the nice-looking young man who still looked alive. But I knew my greeting didn't look natural. He filled me with a terrible blend of pity and fear.
Jake, born a Were, had been attacked by a vampire and bled to the point of death. In what had been perhaps a mistaken gesture of mercy, my cousin Hadley (another vampire) had discovered Jake's nearly lifeless body and brought Jake over. This might have been considered a good deed; but as it turned out, no one had really appreciated Hadley's kindness... not even Jake himself. No one had ever heard of a turned Were before: Weres disliked and distrusted vampires, and the feeling was heartily reciprocated. The going was very rough for Jake, who occupied a lonely noman's-land. The queen had given him a place in her service, since no one else had stepped forward.
Jake, blind with bloodlust, had gone after me as his first vampire snack. I had a still-red scar on my arm as a result.
What a wonderful evening this was turning out to be.
"Miss Stackhouse," said Andre, rising from Eric's second guest chair. He bowed. This was a true tribute, and it lifted my spirits a bit.
"Mr. Andre," I said, bowing back. Andre swept his hand to indicate his politely vacated seat, and since that solved my placement problem, I accepted.
Clancy looked chagrined. He should have given me his chair, since he was the lower-ranked vampire. Andre's action had pointed that out as clearly as a blinking neon arrow. I tried hard not to smile.
"How is Her Majesty?" I asked, trying to be just as courteous as Andre had been. It would be stretching it to say I liked Sophie-Anne, but I sure respected her.
"That's part of the reason I am here tonight," he said. "Eric, can we get started now?" A gentle chiding for Eric's time-wasting tactics, I thought. Pam folded to the floor beside my chair, crouched on the balls of her feet.
"Yes, we're all here. Go ahead, Andre. You have the floor," Eric said with a little smile at his own modern terminology. He slumped back down into his chair, extending his long legs to rest his feet on the corner of his desk.
"Your queen is living in the Area Four sheriff's house in Baton Rouge," Andre said to the little assemblage. "Gervaise was very gracious in extending his hospitality."
Pam cocked an eyebrow at me. Gervaise would have lost his head if he hadn't extended his hospitality.
"But staying at Gervaise's place can only be a temporary solution," Andre continued. "We've been down to New Orleans several times since the disaster. Here's a report of our property's condition."
Though none of the vampires moved, I felt their attention had heightened.
"The queen's headquarters lost most of its roof, so there was extensive water damage on the second floor and in the attic area. Furthermore, a large piece of someone else's roof landed inside the building, causing a pileup of debris and some holes in walls – problems like that. While we're drying the inside, the roof is still covered with blue plastic. One reason I came up this way is to find a contractor who will start reroofing immediately. So far, I haven't had any luck, so if any of you have personal influence with some human who does this kind of work, I need your help. On the ground floor, there was a lot of cosmetic damage. Some water came in. We had some looters, too."
"Maybe the queen should remain in Baton Rouge," Clancy said maliciously. "I'm sure Gervaise would be overwhelmed with delight at the prospect of hosting her permanently."
So Clancy was a suicidal idiot.
"A delegation of New Orleans leaders came to visit our queen in Baton Rouge to ask that she return to the city," Andre said, ignoring Clancy completely. "The human leaders think that if the vampires will return to New Orleans, tourism will pick up again." Andre fixed Eric with a cold gaze. "In the meantime, the queen has talked to the four other sheriffs about the financial aspect of restoring the New Orleans buildings."
Eric gave an almost imperceptible inclination of the head. Impossible to say what he felt about being taxed for the queen's repairs.
New Orleans had been the place to go for vampires and those who wanted to be around them ever since Anne Rice had been proven right about their existence. The city was like Disneyland for vamps. But since Katrina, all that had gone to hell, of course, along with so much else. Even Bon Temps was feeling the storm's effect, and had been ever since Katrina had hit land. Our little town was still crowded with people who had fled from the south.