All Together Dead


Chapter 10



"GO SEE," THE QUEEN TOLD ME.

"What? But all y'all are stronger than I am! And less scared!"

"And we're the ones she's suing," Andre pointed out. "Our smell cannot be in there. Sigebert, you must go see."

Sigebert glided into the darkness.

A door across the landing opened, and Batanya stepped out.

"I smell death," she said. "What's happened?"

"We came calling," I said. "But the door was unlocked already. Something's wrong in there."

"You don't know what?"

"No, Sigebert is exploring," I explained. "We're waiting."

"Let me call my second. I can't leave Kentucky's door unguarded." She turned to call back into the suite, "Clovache!" At least, I guess that was how it was spelled, it was pronounced "Kloh-VOSH."

A kind of Batanya Junior emerged - same armor, but smaller scale; younger, brown-haired, less terrifying...but still plenty formidable.

"Scout the place," Batanya ordered, and without a single question Clovache drew her sword and eased into the apartment like a dangerous dream.

We all waited, holding our breaths - well, I was, anyway. The vamps didn't have breath to hold, and Batanya didn't seem at all agitated. She had moved to a spot where she could watch the open door of Jennifer Cater's place and the closed door of the King of Kentucky. Her sword was drawn.

The queen's face looked almost tense, perhaps even excited; that is, slightly less blank than usual. Sigebert came out and shook his head without a word.

Clovache appeared in the doorway. "All dead," she reported to Batanya.

Batanya waited.

"By decapitation," Clovache elaborated. "The woman was, ah" - Clovache appeared to be counting mentally - "in six pieces."

"This is bad," the queen said at the same moment Andre said, "This is good." They exchanged exasperated glances.

"Any humans?" I asked, trying to keep my voice small because I didn't want their attention, but I did want to know, very badly.

"No, all vampires," Clovache said after she got a go-ahead nod from Batanya. "I saw three. They're flaking off pretty fast."

"Clovache, go in and call that Todd Donati." Clovache went silently into the Kentucky suite and placed a call, which had an electrifying effect. Within five minutes, the area in front of the elevator was crammed with people of all sorts and descriptions and degrees of living.

A man wearing a maroon jacket with Security on the pocket seemed to be in charge, so he must be Todd Donati. He was a policeman who'd retired from the force early because of the big money to be made guarding and aiding the undead. But that didn't mean he liked them. Now he was furious that something had happened so early in the summit, something that would cause him more work than he was able to handle. He had cancer, I heard clearly, though I wasn't able to discern what kind. Donati wanted to work as long as he could to provide for his family after he was gone, and he was resentful of the stress and strain this investigation would cause, the energy it would drain. But he was doggedly determined to do his job.

When Donati's vampire boss, the hotel manager, showed up, I recognized him. Christian Baruch had been on the cover of Fang (the vamp version of People) a few months ago. Baruch was Swiss born. As a human, he'd designed and managed a bunch of fancy hotels in Western Europe. When he'd told a vampire in the same line of business that if he was "brought over" (not only to the vampire life but to America), he could run outstanding and profitable hotels for a syndicate of vampires, he'd been obliged in both ways.

Now Christian Baruch had eternal life (if he avoided pointy wooden objects), and the vampire hotel syndicate was raking in the money. But he wasn't a security guy or a law enforcement expert, and he wasn't the police. Sure, he could decorate the hell out of the hotel and tell the architect how many suites needed a wet bar, but what good would he be in this situation? His human hireling looked at Baruch sourly. Baruch was wearing a suit that looked remarkably wonderful, even to inexperienced eyes like mine. I was sure it had been made for him, and I was sure it had cost a bundle.

I had been pushed back by the crowd until I was pressed against the wall by one of the suite doors - Kentucky's, I realized. It hadn't opened yet. The two Britlingens would have to guard their charge extra carefully with this mob milling around. The hubbub was extraordinary. I was next to a woman in a security uniform; it was just like the excop's, but she didn't have to wear a tie.

"Do you think letting all these people into this space is a good idea?" I asked. I didn't want to be telling the woman her business, but dang. Didn't she ever watch CSI?

Security Woman gave me a dark look. "What are you doing here?" she asked, as if that made some big point.

"I'm here because I was with the group that found the bodies."

"Well, you just need to keep quiet and let us do our work."

She said this in the snottiest tone possible. "What work would that be? You don't seem to be doing anything at all," I said.

Okay, maybe I shouldn't have said that, but she wasn't doing anything. It seemed to me that she should be -

And then she grabbed me and slammed me into the wall and handcuffed me.

I gave a kind of yelp of surprise. "That really wasn't what I meant you to do," I said with some difficulty, since my face was mashed against the door of the suite.

There was a large silence from the crowd behind us. "Chief, I got a woman here causing trouble," said Security Woman.

Maroon looked awful on her, by the way.

"Landry, what are you doing?" said an overly reasonable male voice. It was the kind of voice you use with an irrational child.

"She was telling me what to do," replied Security Woman, but I could tell her voice was deflating even as she spoke.

"What was she telling you to do, Landry?"

"She wondered what all the people were doing here, sir."

"Isn't that a valid question, Landry?"

"Sir?"

"Don't you think we should be clearing out some of these people?"

"Yes, sir, but she said she was here because she was in the party that found the bodies."

"So she shouldn't leave."

"Right. Sir."

"Was she trying to leave?"

"No, sir."

"But you handcuffed her."

"Ah."

"Take the fucking handcuffs off her, Landry."

"Yes, sir." Landry was a flat pancake by now, no air left in her at all.

The handcuffs came off, to my relief, and I was able to turn around. I was so angry I could have decked Landry. But since I would've been right back in the handcuffs, I held off. Sophie-Anne and Andre pushed through the crowd; actually, it just kind of melted in front of them. Vampires and humans alike were glad to get out of the way of the Queen of Louisiana and her bodyguard.

Sophie-Anne glanced at my wrists, saw that they really weren't hurt at all, and correctly diagnosed the fact that my worst injury was to my pride.

"This is my employee," Sophie-Anne said quietly, apparently addressing Landry but making sure everyone there heard her. "An insult or injury to this woman is an insult or injury to me."

Landry didn't know who the hell Sophie-Anne was, but she could tell power when she saw it, and Andre was just as scary. They were the two most frightening teenagers in the world, I do believe.

"Yes, ma'am, Landry will apologize in writing. Now can you tell me what happened here just now?" Todd Donati asked in a very reasonable voice.

The crowd was silent and waiting. I looked for Batanya and Clovache and saw they were missing. Suddenly Andre said, "You are the chief of security?" in a rather loud voice, and as he did, Sophie-Anne leaned very close to me to say, "Don't mention the Britlingens."

"Yes, sir." The policeman ran a hand over his mustache. "I'm Todd Donati, and this is my boss, Mr. Christian Baruch."

"I am Andre Paul, and this is my queen, Sophie-Anne Leclerq. This young woman is our employee Sookie Stackhouse." Andre waited for the next step.

Christian Baruch ignored me. But he gave Sophie-Anne the look I'd give a roast I was thinking of buying for Sunday dinner. "Your presence is a great honor to my hotel," he murmured in heavily accented English, and I glimpsed the tips of his fangs. He was quite tall, with a large jaw and dark hair. But his small eyes were arctic gray.

Sophie-Anne took the compliment in stride, though her brows drew together for a second. Showing fang wasn't an exactly subtle way of saying, "You shake my world." No one spoke. Well, not for a long, awkward second. Then I said, "Are you all going to call the police, or what?"

"I think we must consider what we have to tell them," Baruch said, his voice smooth, sophisticated, and making fun of rural-southern-human me. "Mr. Donati, will you go see what's in the suite?"

Todd Donati pushed his way through the crowd with no subtlety at all. Sigebert, who'd been guarding the open doorway (for lack of anything better to do), stood aside to let the human enter. The huge bodyguard worked his way over to the queen, looking happier when he was in proximity to his ruler.

While Donati examined whatever was left in the Arkansas suite, Christian Baruch turned to address the crowd. "How many of you came down here after you heard something had happened?"

Maybe fifteen people raised their hands or simply nodded.

"You will please make your way to the Draft of Blood bar on the ground level, where our bartenders will have something special for all of you." The fifteen moved out pretty quickly after that. Baruch knew his thirsty people. Vamps. Whatever.

"How many of you were not here when the bodies were discovered?" Baruch said after the first group had left. Everyone raised a hand except the four of us: me, the queen, Andre, Sigebert.

"Everyone else may feel free to leave," Baruch said as civilly as if he was extending a pleasant invitation. And they did. Landry hesitated and got a look that sent her hurtling down the stairs.

The area around the central elevator seemed spacious now, since it was so much emptier.

Donati came back out. He didn't look deeply disturbed or sick, but he did look less composed.

"There's only bits of them left now. There's stuff all over the floor, though; residue, I guess you'd call it. I think there were three of them. But one of them is in so many pieces, that it might be two of them."

"Who's on the registration?"

Donati referred to a palm-held electronic device. "Jennifer Cater, of Arkansas. This room was rented to the delegation of Arkansas vampires. The remaining Arkansas vampires."

The word remaining possibly got a little extra emphasis. Donati definitely knew the queen's history.

Christian Baruch raised a thick, dark brow. "I do know my own people, Donati."

"Yes, sir."

Sophie-Anne's nose might have wrinkled delicately with distaste. His own people, my ass, that nose said. Baruch was at most four years old, as a vampire.

"Who's been in to see the bodies?" Baruch asked.

"Neither of us," Andre said promptly. "We haven't set foot in the suite."

"Who did?"

"The door was unlocked, and we smelled death. In view of the situation between my queen and the vampires of Arkansas, we thought it was unwise to go inside," Andre said. "We sent Sigebert, the queen's guard."

Andre simply omitted Clovache's exploration of the suite. So Andre and I did have something in common: we could skirt the truth with something that wasn't quite a lie. He'd done a masterful job.

As the questions continued - mostly unanswered or unanswerable - I found myself wondering if the queen would still have to go to trial now that her main accuser was dead. I wondered whom the state of Arkansas belonged to; it was reasonable to assume that the wedding contract had given the queen some rights regarding Peter Threadgill's property, and I knew Sophie-Anne needed every bit of income she could claim, since Katrina. Would she still have those rights to Arkansas, since Andre had killed Peter? I hadn't thought through how much was hanging over the queen's head at this summit.

But after I'd finished asking myself all these questions, I realized that the most immediate issue had yet to be addressed. Who'd killed Jennifer Cater and her companions? (How many Arkansas vamps could be left, after the battle in New Orleans and today's slaughter? Arkansas wasn't that big a state, and it had very few population centers.)

I was recalled to the here and now when Christian Baruch caught my eyes. "You're the human who can read minds," he said so suddenly that I jerked.

"Yes," I said, because I was tired of sirring and ma'aming everyone.

"Did you kill Jennifer Cater?"

I didn't have to fake astonishment. "That's giving me a lot of credit," I said. "Thinking I could have gotten the drop on three vampires. No, I didn't kill her. She came up to me in the lobby this evening, talking trash, but that's the only time I ever even saw her."

He looked a little taken aback, as if he'd expected another answer or maybe a humbler attitude.

The queen took a step to stand beside me, and Andre mirrored her, so that I was bracketed by ancient vampires. What a warm and cozy feeling. But I knew they were reminding the hotelier that I was their special human and not to be harassed.

At that very opportune moment, a vampire flung open the door from the stairs and hurtled toward the death suite. But Baruch was just as swift, and he barred the way so that the new vampire bounced off him and onto the floor. The small vamp was up in a movement so quick my eyes couldn't break it down and was making a desperate effort to get Baruch out of the doorway.

But the newcomer couldn't, and finally he took a step away from the hotelier. If the smaller vampire had been human, he'd have been panting, and as it was his body shook with tremors of delayed action. He had brown hair and a short beard, and he was wearing a suit, a regular old JCPenney one. He looked like an ordinary guy until you saw his wide eyes and realized that he was some kind of lunatic.

"Is it true?" he asked, his voice low and intent.

"Jennifer Cater and her companions are dead," Christian Baruch said, not without compassion.

The small man howled, literally howled, and the hair on my arms stood up. He sank to his knees, his body swaying back and forth in a transport of grief.

"I take it you are one of her party?" the queen said.

"Yes, yes!"

"Then now I am your queen. I offer you a place at my side."

The howling stopped as if it had been lopped off by a pair of scissors.

"But you had our king killed," the vampire said.

"I was the spouse of your king, and as such, I'm entitled to inherit his state in the event of his death," Sophie-Anne said, her dark eyes looking almost benevolent, almost luminous. "And he is undoubtedly dead."

"That's what the fine print said," Mr. Cataliades murmured in my ear, and I barely suppressed a yelp of astonishment. I'd always thought that what people said about big men moving lightly was total bullshit. Big people move bigly. But Mr. Cataliades walked as lightly as a butterfly, and I had no idea he was nearby until he spoke to me.

"In the queen's wedding contract?" I managed to say.

"Yes," he said. "And Peter's attorney went over it very thoroughly indeed. The same applied in the event of Sophie-Anne's death, too."

"I guess there were a lot of clauses hanging on that?"

"Oh, just a few. The death had to be witnessed."

"Oh, gosh. That's me."

"Yes, indeed it is. The queen wants you in her sight and under her thumb for a very good reason."

"And other conditions?"

"There could be no second-in-command alive to take the state over. In other words, a great catastrophe had to occur."

"And now it has."

"Yes, it seems that it has." Mr. Cataliades appeared quite pleased about that.

My mind was tumbling around like one of those wire bins they draw bingo numbers from at the fair.

"My name is Henrik Feith," the small vamp said. "And there are only five vampires left in Arkansas. I am the only one here in Rhodes, and I am only alive because I went down to complain about the towels in the bathroom."

I had to slap a hand over my own mouth to keep from laughing, which would have been, shall we say, inappropriate. Andre's gaze remained fixed on the man kneeling before us, but somehow his hand wandered over and gave me a pinch. After that it was easy to not laugh. In fact, it was hard not to shriek.

"What was wrong with the towels?" Baruch said, completely sidetracked by this slur on his hotel.

"Jennifer alone used up three," Henrik began explaining, but this fascinating byway was cut short when Sophie-Anne said, "Enough. Henrik, you come with us to my suite. Mr. Baruch, we look forward to receiving updates from you on this situation. Mr. Donati, are you intending to call the Rhodes police?"

It was polite of her to address Donati as though he actually had a say in what was done. Donati said, "No, ma'am, this seems like a vampire matter to me. There's no body to examine now, there's no film since there's no security camera in the suite, and if you'll look up..." We all did, of course, to the corner of the hallway. "You'll notice that someone has very accurately thrown a piece of gum over the lens of the security camera. Or perhaps, if it was a vampire, he jumped up and planted the gum on the lens. Of course I'm going to review the tapes, but as fast as vampires can jump, it may well be impossible to determine who the individual is. At the moment, there aren't any vampires on the homicide squad in the Rhodes police force, so I'm not sure there's anyone we can call. Most human cops won't investigate vampire crime, unless they have a vampire partner to get their backs."

"I can't think of anything more we can do here," Sophie-Anne said, exactly as if she could not care less. "If you don't need us any longer, we'll go to the opening ceremony." She had looked at her watch a few times during this conversation. "Master Henrik, if you are up to it, come with us. If you're not up to it, which of course we would understand, Sigebert will take you up to my suite and you may remain there."

"I would like to go somewhere quiet," Henrik Feith said. He looked like a beaten puppy.

Sophie-Anne nodded to Sigebert, who didn't look happy about getting his marching orders. But he had to obey her, of course, so off he went with the little vampire who was one-fifth of all that was left of the Arkansas undead.

I had so much to think about that my brain went into a stall. Just when I believed nothing more could happen, the elevator dinged and the doors swept open to allow Bill to leap out. He didn't arrive as dramatically as Henrik, but he made a definite entrance. He stopped dead and assessed the situation. Seeing we were all standing there calmly, he gathered his composure around him and said, "I hear there has been trouble?" He addressed this to the air in between us, so anyone could answer him.

I was tired of trying to think of him as Nameless. Hell, it was Bill. I might hate every molecule in his body, but he was undeniably there. I wondered if the Weres really managed to keep the abjured off their radar, and how they dealt with it. I wasn't managing very well.

"There is trouble," the queen said. "Though I don't understand what your presence will achieve."

I'd never seen Bill looking abashed, but he did now. "I apologize, my queen," he said. "If you need me for something, I'll have returned to my booth in the convention hall."

In icy silence, the elevator doors slid shut, blocking out my first lover's face and form. It was possible that Bill was trying to show he cared about me by showing up with such haste when he was supposed to be doing business for the queen elsewhere. If this demonstration was supposed to soften my heart, it failed.

"Is there anything I can be doing to help you in your investigation?" Andre asked Donati, though his words were really aimed at Christian Baruch. "Since the queen is the legal heir of Arkansas, we stand ready to assist."

"I would expect nothing less of such a beautiful queen, one also well-known for her business acumen and tenacity." Baruch bowed to the queen.

Even Andre blinked at the convoluted compliment, and the queen gave Baruch a narrow-eyed look. I kept my gaze fixed on the potted plant, and I kept my face absolutely blank. I was in danger of snickering. This was brownnosing on a scale I'd never encountered.

There really didn't seem to be any more to say, and in subdued silence I got on the elevator with the vampires and Mr. Cataliades, who had remained most remarkably quiet.

Once the doors shut, he said, "My queen, you must marry again immediately."

Let me tell you, Sophie-Anne and Andre had quite a reaction to this bombshell; their eyes widened for all of a second.

"Marry anyone: Kentucky, Florida, I would add even Mississippi, if he were not negotiating with Indiana. But you need an alliance, someone lethal to back you up. Otherwise jackals like this Baruch will circle around, yipping for your attention."

"Mississippi's out of the running, thankfully. I don't think I could stand all the men. Once in a while, of course, but not day in, day out, scores of them," Sophie-Anne said.

It was the most natural and unguarded thing I'd ever heard her say. She almost sounded human. Andre reached out and punched the button to stop the elevator between floors. "I wouldn't advise Kentucky," he said. "Anyone who needs Britlingens is in enough trouble of his own."

"Alabama is lovely," Sophie-Anne said. "But she enjoys some things in bed that I object to."

I was tired of being in the elevator and also of being regarded as part of the scenery. "May I ask a question?" I said.

After a moment's silence, Sophie-Anne nodded.

"How come you get to keep your children with you, and you've gone to bed with them, and most vampires aren't able to do that? Isn't it supposed to be a short-term relationship, sire and child?"

"Most vampire children don't stay with their makers after a certain time," Sophie-Anne agreed. "And there are very few cases of children staying with their maker as long as Andre and Sigebert have been with me. That closeness is my gift, my talent. Every vampire has a gift: some can fly, some have special skills with the sword. I can keep my children with me. We can talk to each other, as you and Barry can. We can love each other physically."

"If all that's so, why don't you just name Andre the King of Arkansas and marry him?"

There was a long, total silence. Sophie-Anne's lips parted a couple of times as if she was about to explain to me why that was impossible, but both times she pressed them shut again. Andre stared at me with such intensity that I expected to see two spots on my face begin smoking. Mr. Cataliades just looked shocked, as if a monkey had begun to speak to him in iambic pentameter.

"Yes," said Sophie-Anne finally. "Why don't I do that? Have as king and spouse my dearest friend and lover." In the blink of an eye, she looked positively radiant. "Andre, the only drawback is that you will have to spend some time apart from me when you return to Arkansas to take care of the state's affairs. My oldest child, are you willing?"

Andre's face was transformed with love. "For you, anything," he said.

We had us a Kodak moment going. I actually felt a little choked up.

Andre pressed the button again and down we went.

Though I am not immune to romance - far from it - in my opinion, the queen needed to focus on finding out who'd killed Jennifer Cater and the remaining Arkansas vampires. She needed to be grilling Towel Guy, the surviving vampire - Henrik Whatever. She didn't need to be trailing around meeting and greeting. But Sophie-Anne didn't ask me what I thought, and I'd volunteered enough of my ideas for the day.

The lobby was thronged. Plunged into such a crowd, my brain would normally be going into overload unless I was very careful indeed. But when the majority of the beings with brains were vampires, I got a lobby full of nothing, just a few flutters from the human flunky brains. Watching all the movement and not hearing much was strange, like watching birds' wings beating and yet not hearing the movement. I was definitely working now, so I sharpened up and scanned the individuals who had circulating blood and beating hearts.

One male witch, one female. One lover/blood donor - in other words, a fangbanger, but a high-class one. When I tracked him down visually, I saw a very handsome young man wearing everything designer down to his tighty whities, and proud of it. Standing beside the King of Texas was Barry the Bellboy: he was doing his job as I was doing mine. I tracked a few hotel employees going about their business. People aren't always thinking about interesting stuff like, "Tonight I'm in on a plot to assassinate the hotel manager," or something like that, even if they are. They're thinking stuff like, "The room on eleven needs soap, the room on eight has a heater that won't work, the room service cart on four needs to be moved..."

Then I happened upon a whore. Now, she was interesting. Most of the whores I knew were of the amateur variety, but this woman was a thorough professional. I was curious enough to make eye contact. She was fairly attractive in the face department, but would never have been a candidate for Miss America or even homecoming queen - definitely not the girl next door, unless you lived in a red-light district. Her platinum hair was in a tousled, bedtime hairdo, and she had rather narrow brown eyes, an allover tan, enhanced breasts, big earrings, stiletto heels, bright lipstick, a dress that was mostly red spangles - you couldn't say she didn't advertise. She was accompanying a man who'd been made vamp when he was in his forties. She held on to his arm as if she couldn't walk without help, and I wondered if the stiletto heels were responsible for that, or if she held on because he liked it.

I was so interested in her - she was projecting her sexuality so strongly, she was so very much a prostitute - that I slipped through the crowd to track her more closely. Absorbed in my goal, I didn't think about her noticing me, but she seemed to feel my eyes on her and she looked over her shoulder to watch me approach. The man she was with was talking to another vampire, and she didn't have to kowtow to him just for the moment, so she had time to eye me with sharp suspicion. I stood a few feet away to listen to her, out of sheer ill-bred curiosity.

Freaky girl, not one of us, does she want him? She can have him; I can't stand that thing he does with his tongue, and after he does me he'll want me to do him and that other guy - geez, do I have some spare batteries? Maybe she could go away and stop staring?

"Sure, sorry," I said, ashamed of myself, and plunged back into the crowd. Next I went over the servers hired by the hotel, who were busy circulating through the crowd with trays of glasses filled with blood and a few actual drinks for the humans scattered around. The servers were all preoccupied with dodging the milling crowd, not spilling, sore backs and tender feet, things like that. Barry and I exchanged nods, and I caught a trailing thought that had Quinn's name embedded, so I followed that trail until I found it led to an employee of E(E)E. I knew this because she was wearing the company T-shirt. This gal was a young woman with a very short haircut and very long legs. She was talking to one of the servers, and it was definitely a one-sided conversation. In a crowd that was noticeably dressed up, this woman's jeans and sneakers stood out.

" - and a case of iced soft drinks," she was saying. "A tray of sandwiches, and some chips. Okay? In the ballroom, within an hour." She swung around abruptly and came face-to-face with me. She scanned me up and down and was little impressed.

"You dating one of the vamps, blondie?" she asked. Her voice was harsh to my ears, a northeastern clipped accent.

"No, I'm dating Quinn," I said. "Blondie, yourself." Though at least I was naturally blond. Well, assisted natural. This gal's hair looked like straw...if straw had dark roots.

She didn't like that at all, though I wasn't sure which part of it displeased her most. "He didn't say he had a new woman," she said, and of course she said it in the most insulting way possible.

I felt free to dip into her skull, and I found there a deep affection for Quinn. She didn't think any other women were worthy of him. She thought I was a slow southern girl who hid behind men.

Since this was based on our conversation of less than sixty seconds, I could excuse her for being wrong. I could excuse her for loving Quinn. I couldn't forgive her overwhelming contempt.

"Quinn doesn't have to tell you his personal information," I said. What I really wanted was to ask her where Quinn was now, but that would definitely hand the advantage to her, so I was going to keep that question to myself. "If you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work, and I assume you do, too."

Her dark eyes flashed at me, and she strode off. She was at least four inches taller than me, and very slim. She hadn't bothered with a bra, and she had little plum-like boobs that jiggled in an eye-catching way. This was a gal who'd always want to be on top. I wasn't the only one who watched her cross the room. Barry had jettisoned his fantasy about me for a brand-new one.

I returned to the queen's side because she and Andre were moving into the convention hall from the lobby. The wide double doors were propped open by a really beautiful pair of urns that held huge arrangements of dried grasses.

Barry said, "Have you ever been to a real convention, a normal one?"

"No," I said, trying to keep my scan of the surrounding crowd up. I wondered how Secret Service agents coped. "Well, I went to one with Sam, a bartending supplies convention, but just for a couple of hours."

"Everyone wore a badge, right?"

"If you can call a thing on a lanyard around your neck a badge, yeah."

"That's so workers at the door can be sure you've paid your admittance, and so that unauthorized people won't come in."

"Yeah, so?"

Barry went silent. So, you see anyone with a badge? You see anyone checking?

No one but us. And what do we know? The whore might be an undercover spy for the northeastern vampires. Or something worse, I added more soberly.

They're used to being the strongest and scariest, Barry said. They might fear each other, but they don't seriously fear humans, not when they're together.

I took his point. The Britlingen had already aroused my concern, and now I was even more worried.

Then I looked back at the doors to the hotel. They were guarded, now that it was dark, by armed vampires instead of armed humans. The front desk, too, was staffed with vampires wearing the hotel uniform, and those vampires were scanning each and every person who walked in the doors. This building was not as laxly protected as it might seem. I relaxed and decided to check out the booths in the convention hall.

There was one for prosthetic fangs that you could have implanted; they came in natural ivory, silver, or gold, and the really expensive ones retracted by means of a tiny motor when your tongue pressed a tiny button in your mouth. "Undetectable from the real thing," an elderly man was assuring a vampire with a long beard and braided hair. "And sharp, oh goodness, yes!" I couldn't figure out who would want a pair. A vamp with a broken tooth? A vamp wannabe who wanted to pretend? A human looking for a little role-playing?

The next booth sold CDs of music from various historical eras, like Russian Folk Songs of the Eighteenth Century or Italian Chamber Music, the Early Years. It was doing a brisk business. People always like the music of their prime, even if that prime was centuries past.

The next booth was Bill's, and it had a large sign arching over the temporary "walls" of the enclosure. VAMPIRE IDENTIFICATION, it said simply. TRACK DOWN ANY VAMPIRE, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME. ALL YOU NEED IS A COMPUTER-SMART MINION, said a smaller sign. Bill was talking to a female vamp who was extending her credit card to him, and Pam was popping a CD case into a little bag. Pam caught my eye and winked. She was wearing a campy harem outfit, which I would have supposed she'd refuse to do. But Pam was actually smiling. Maybe she was enjoying the break in her routine. HAPPY BIRTHDAY PRESS PRESENTS: SANGUINARY SOUP FOR THE SOUL was the sign over the next booth, at which sat a bored and lonely vampire with a stack of books in front of her.

The next exhibit took up several spaces and needed no explanation. "You should definitely upgrade," an earnest salesman was telling a black vampire whose hair was braided and tied with a thousand colored strings. She listened intently, eyeing one of the sample miniature coffins open in front of her. "Certainly, wood's biodegradable and it's traditional, but who needs that? Your coffin is your home; that's what my daddy always said."

There were others, including one for Extreme(ly Elegant) Events. That one was a large table with several price brochures and photo albums lying open to tempt the passersby. I was ready to check it out when I noticed that the booth was being "manned" by Miss Snooty Long-Legs. I didn't want to talk to her again, so I sauntered on, though I never lost sight of the queen. One of the human waiters was admiring Sophie-Anne's ass, but I figured that wasn't punishable by death, so I let it go.

By that time the queen and Andre had met with the sheriffs Gervaise and Cleo Babbitt. The broad-faced Gervaise was a small man, perhaps five foot six. He appeared to be about thirty-five, though you could easily add a hundred years to that and be closer to his true age. Gervaise had borne the burden of Sophie-Anne's maintenance and amusement for the past few weeks, and the wear and tear was showing. I'd heard he'd been renowned for his sophisticated clothing and debonair style. The only time I'd seen him before, his light hair had been combed as smooth as glass on his sleek round head. Now it was definitely disheveled. His beautiful suit needed to go to the cleaner, and his wing tips needed polishing. Cleo was a husky woman with broad shoulders and coal black hair, a wide face with a full-lipped mouth. Cleo was modern enough to want to use her last name; she'd been a vampire for only fifty years.

"Where is Eric?" Andre asked the other sheriffs.

Cleo laughed, the kind of deep-throated laugh that made men look. "He got conscripted," she said. "The priest didn't show up, and Eric's taken a course, so he's going to officiate."

Andre smiled. "That'll be something to watch. What's the occasion?"

"It'll be announced in a second," Gervaise said.

I wondered what church would have Eric as a priest. The Church of High Profits? I drifted over to Bill's booth and attracted Pam's attention.

"Eric's a priest?" I murmured

"Church of the Loving Spirit," she told me, bagging three copies of the CD and handing them to a fangbanger sent by his master to pick them up. "He got his certificate from the online course, with Bobby Burnham's help. He can perform marriage services."

A waiter somehow outmaneuvered all the guests around the queen and approached her with a tray full of wineglasses brimming with blood. In the blink of an eye Andre was between the waiter and the queen, and in the blink of another eye, the waiter swiveled and walked in another direction.

I tried to look in the waiter's mind but found it perfectly blank. Andre had grabbed control of the guy's will and sent him on his way. I hoped the waiter was okay. I followed his progress to a humble door set in a corner until I was sure that he was going back to the kitchen. Okay, incident averted.

There was a ripple in the currents of the display hall, and I turned to see what was happening. The King of Mississippi and the King of Indiana had come in together hand in hand, which seemed to be a public signal that they'd concluded their marriage negotiations. Russell Edgington was a slight, attractive vampire who liked other men - exclusively and extensively. He could be good company, and he was a good fighter, too. I liked him. I was a little anxious about seeing Russell, since a few months before I'd left a body in his pool. I tried to look on the bright side. The body was a vampire's, so it should have disintegrated before the pool covering had been removed in the spring.

Russell and Indiana stopped in front of Bill's booth. Indiana, incidentally, was a big bull-like guy with brown curly hair and a face I thought of as no-nonsense.

I drifted closer, because this could be trouble.

"Bill, you look good," Russell said. "My staff tells me you had a hard time at my place. You seem to have recovered nicely. I'm not sure how you got free, but I'm glad." If Russell was pausing for a reaction, he didn't get one. Bill's face was just as impassive as if Russell had been commenting on the weather, not Bill's torture. "Lorena was your sire, so I couldn't interfere," Russell said, his voice just as calm as Bill's face. "And here you are, selling your own little computer thing that Lorena was trying so hard to get from you. As the Bard said, 'All's well that ends well.'"

Russell had been too verbose, which was the only indication that the king was anxious about Bill's reaction. And sure enough, Bill's voice was like cold silk running over glass. But all he said was, "Think nothing of it, Russell. Congratulations are in order, I understand."

Russell smiled up at his groom.

"Yes, Mississippi and I are tying the knot," the King of Indiana said. He had a deep voice. He would look at home beating up some welsher in an alley or sitting in a bar with sawdust on the floor. But Russell did everything but blush.

Maybe this was a love match.

Then Russell spotted me. "Bart, you have to meet this young woman," he said immediately. I about had a panic attack, but there was no way out of the situation without simply turning tail and running. Russell pulled his intended over to me by their linked hands. "This young woman was staked while she was in Jackson. Some of those Fellowship thugs were in a bar, and one of them stabbed her."

Bart looked almost startled. "You survived, obviously," he said. "But how?"

"Mr. Edgington here got me some help," I said. "In fact, he saved my life."

Russell tried to look modest, and he almost succeeded. The vampire was trying to look good in front of his intended, such a human reaction that I could scarcely believe it.

"However, I believe you took something with you when you left," Russell said severely, shaking a finger at me.

I tried to glean something from his face that would tell me which way to jump with my answer. I'd taken a blanket, sure enough, and some loose clothes the young men in Russell's harem had left lying around. And I'd taken Bill, who'd been a prisoner in one of the outbuildings. Probably Russell was referring to Bill, huh?

"Yessir, but I left something behind in return," I said, since I couldn't stand this verbal cat and mouse. All right, already! I'd rescued Bill and killed the vampire Lorena, though that had been more or less by accident. And I'd dumped her evil ass in the pool.

"I did think there was some sludge at the bottom when we got the pool ready for the summer," Russell said, and his bitter chocolate eyes examined me thoughtfully. "What an enterprising young woman you are, Miss..."

"Stackhouse. Sookie Stackhouse."

"Yes, I remember now. Weren't you at Club Dead with Alcide Herveaux? He's a Were, honey," Russell said to Bart.

"Yessir," I said, wishing he hadn't remembered that little detail.

"Didn't I hear Herveaux's father was campaigning for packleader in Shreveport?"

"That's right. But he...ah, he didn't get it."

"So that was the day Papa Herveaux died?"

"It was," I said. Bart was listening intently, his hand running up and down Russell's coat sleeve all the while. It was a lusty little gesture.

Quinn appeared at my side just then and put his arm around me, and Russell's eyes widened. "Gentlemen," Quinn said to Indiana and Mississippi, "I believe we have your wedding ready and waiting."

The two kings smiled at each other. "No cold feet?" Bart asked Russell.

"Not if you keep them warm," Russell said with a smile that would have melted an iceberg. "Besides, our lawyers would kill us if we reneged on those contracts."

They both nodded at Quinn, who loped to the dais at one end of the exhibit hall. He stood at the highest level and stretched out his arms. There was a microphone up there, and his deep voice boomed out over the crowd. "Your attention, ladies and gentlemen, kings and commoners, vampires and humans! You are all requested and invited to attend the union of Russell Edgington, King of Mississippi, and Bartlett Crowe, King of Indiana, in the Ritual Room. The ceremony will begin in ten minutes. The Ritual Room is through the double doors in the east wall of the hall." Quinn pointed regally at the double doors.

I'd had time to appreciate his outfit while he spoke. He was wearing full trousers that gathered at the waist and the ankle. They were deep scarlet. He had cinched the trousers with a wide gold belt like a prizefighter's, and he was wearing black leather boots with the trouser legs tucked in. He wasn't wearing a shirt. He looked like a genie who'd just popped out of a really big bottle.

"This is your new man?" Russell said. "Quinn?"

I nodded, and he looked impressed.

"I know you got things on your mind right now," I said impulsively. "I know you're about to get married. But I just want to say I hope that we're even-steven, right? You're not mad at me, or holding a grudge at me, or anything?"

Bart was accepting the congratulations of assorted vampires, and Russell glanced his way. Then he did me the courtesy of concentrating on me, though I knew he had to turn away and enjoy his evening in a very short time, which was only right.

"I hold no grudge against you," he said. "Fortunately, I have a sense of humor, and fortunately, I didn't like Lorena worth a damn. I lent her the room in the stable because I'd known her for a century or two, but she always was a bitch."

"Then let me ask you, since you're not mad at me," I said. "Why does everyone seem so in awe of Quinn?"

"You really don't know, and you've got the tiger by his tail?" Russell looked happily intrigued. "I don't have time to tell you the whole story, because I want to be with my husband-to-be, but I'll tell you what, Miss Sookie, your man has made a lot of people a lot of money."

"Thanks," I said, a bit bewildered, "and best wishes to you and, ah, Mr. Crowe. I hope you'll be very happy together." Since shaking hands was not a vampire custom, I bowed and tried to sort of back away quickly while we were still on such good terms with each other.

Rasul popped up at my elbow. He smiled when I jumped. Those vamps. Gotta love their sense of humor.

I'd only seen Rasul in SWAT gear, and he'd looked good in that. Tonight he was wearing another uniform, but it was also pretty military looking, in a kind of Cossack way. He wore a long-sleeved tunic and tailored pants in a deep plum with black trim and bright brass buttons. Rasul was deeply brown, quite naturally, and had the large, dark liquid eyes and black hair of someone from the Middle East.

"I knew you were supposed to be here, so it's nice to run into you," I said.

"She sent Carla and me ahead of time," he said lightly in his exotic accent. "You are looking lovelier than ever, Sookie. How are you enjoying the summit?"

I ignored his pleasantries. "What's with the uniform?"

"If you mean, whose uniform is it, it's the new house uniform of our queen," he said. "We wear this instead of the armor when we're not out on the streets. Nice, huh?"

"Oh, you're stylin'," I said, and he laughed.

"Are you going to the ceremony?" he said.

"Yeah, sure. I've never seen a vampire wedding. Listen, Rasul, I'm sorry about Chester and Melanie." They'd been on guard duty with Rasul in New Orleans.

For a second, all the humor left the vampire's face. "Yes," he said after a moment of stiff silence. "Instead of my comrades, now I have the Formerly Furred." Jake Purifoy was approaching us, and he was wearing the same uniform as Rasul. He looked lonely. He hadn't been a vampire long enough to maintain the calm face that seemed to be second nature to the undead.

"Hi, Jake," I said.

"Hi, Sookie," he said, sounding forlorn and hopeful.

Rasul bowed to both of us and set off in another direction. I was stuck with Jake. This was too much like grade school for my taste. Jake was the kid who'd come to school wearing the wrong clothes and packing a weird lunch. Being a combo vamp-Were had ruined his chances with either crowd. It was like trying to be a Goth jock.

"Have you had a chance to talk to Quinn yet?" I asked for lack of anything better to say. Jake had been Quinn's employee before his change had effectively put him out of a job.

"I said hello in passing," Jake said. "It's just not fair."

"What?"

"That he should be accepted no matter what he's done, and I should be ostracized."

I knew what ostracized meant, because it had been on my Word of the Day calendar. But my brain was just snagging on that word because the bigger meaning of Jake's comment was affecting my equilibrium. "No matter what he's done?" I asked. "What would that mean?"

"Well, of course, you know about Quinn," Jake said, and I thought I might jump on his back and beat him around the head with something heavy.

"The wedding begins!" came Quinn's magnified voice, and the crowd began streaming into the double doors he'd indicated earlier. Jake and I streamed right along with them. Quinn's bouncy-boobed assistant was standing just inside the doors, passing out little net bags of potpourri. Some were tied with blue and gold ribbon, some with blue and red.

"Why the different colors?" the whore asked Quinn's assistant. I appreciated her asking, because it meant I didn't have to.

"Red and blue from the Mississippi flag, blue and gold from the Indiana," the woman said with an automatic smile. She still had it pasted on her face when she handed me a red-and-blue tied bag, though it faded in an almost comical way when she realized who I was.

Jake and I worked our way to a good spot a bit to the right of center. The stage was bare except for a few props, and there were no chairs. They weren't expecting this to take very long, apparently. "Answer me," I hissed. "About Quinn."

"After the wedding," he said, trying not to smile. It had been a few months since Jake had had the upper hand on anyone, and he couldn't hide the fact that he was enjoying it. He glanced behind us, and his eyes widened. I looked in that direction to see that the opposite end of the room was set up as a buffet, though the main feature of the buffet was not food but blood. To my disgust, there were about twenty men and women standing in a line beside the synthetic blood fountain, and they all had name tags that read simply, "Willing Donor." I about gagged. Could that be legal? But they were all free and unrestrained and could walk out if they chose, and most of them looked pretty eager to begin their donation. I did a quick scan of their brains. Yep, willing.

I turned to the platform, only eighteen inches high, which Mississippi and Indiana had just mounted. They'd put on elaborate costumes, which I remembered seeing before in a photo album at the shop of a photographer who specialized in recording supernatural rituals. At least these were easy to put on. Russell was wearing a sort of heavy brocade, open-fronted robe that fit over his regular clothes. It was a splendid garment of gleaming gold cloth worked in a pattern of blue and scarlet. Bart, King of Indiana, was wearing a similar robe in a copper brown color, embroidered with a design in green and gold.

"Their formal robes," Rasul murmured. Once again, he'd drifted to my side without me noticing. I jumped and saw a little smile twitch the corners of his generous mouth. To my left, Jake sidled a little closer to me, as if he were trying to hide from Rasul by concealing himself behind my body.

But I was more interested in this ceremony than I was in vampire one-upmanship. A giant ankh was the prop at the center of the group onstage. Off to one side, there was a table bearing two thick sheaves of paper with two plumed pens arranged between them. A female vampire was standing behind the table, and she was wearing a business suit with a knee-length skirt. Mr. Cataliades stood behind her, looking benevolent, his hands clasping each other across his belly.

Standing on the opposite side of the stage from the table, Quinn, my honey (whose background I was determined to learn pretty shortly), was still in his Aladdin's genie outfit. He waited until the crowd's murmur died to nothing and then he made a great gesture to stage right. A figure came up the steps and onto the platform. He was wearing a cloak of black velvet, and it was hooded. The hood was drawn well forward. The ankh symbol was embroidered in gold on the shoulders of the cloak. The figure took its position between Mississippi and Indiana, its back to the ankh, and raised its arms.

"The ceremony begins," Quinn said. "Let all be silent and witness this joining."

When someone tells a vampire to be quiet, you can be sure the silence is absolute. Vampires don't have to fidget, sigh, sneeze, cough, or blow their nose like people do. I felt noisy just breathing.

The cloaked figure's hood fell back. I sighed. Eric. His wheat-colored hair looked beautiful against the black of the cloak, and his face was solemn and commanding, which was what you want in an officiant.

"We are here to witness the joining of two kings," he said, and every word carried to the corners of the room. "Russell and Bart have agreed, both verbally and by written covenant, to ally their states for a hundred years. For a hundred years, they may not marry any other. They may not form an alliance with any other, unless that alliance is mutually agreed and witnessed. Each must pay the other a conjugal visit at least once a year. The welfare of Russell's kingdom shall come second only to his own in Bart's sight, and the welfare of Bart's kingdom shall come second only to his own in Russell's sight. Russell Edgington, King of Mississippi, do you agree to this covenant?"

"Yes, I do," Russell said clearly. He held out his hand to Bart.

"Bartlett Crowe, King of Indiana, do you agree to this covenant?"

"I do," Bart said, and took Russell's hand. Awwww.

Then Quinn stepped forward and knelt, holding a goblet under the joined hands, and Eric whipped out a knife and cut the two wrists with two movements too quick to separate.

Oh, ick. As the two kings bled into the chalice, I chided myself. I might have known that a vampire ceremony would include a blood exchange.

Sure enough, when the wounds closed, Russell took a sip from the chalice, and then handed it to Bart, who drained it dry. Then they kissed, Bart holding the smaller man tenderly. And then they kissed some more. Evidently the mingled blood was a real turn-on.

I caught Jake's eye. Get a room, he mouthed, and I looked down to hide my smile.

Finally, the two kings moved on to the next step, a ceremonious signing of the contract they'd agreed upon. The business-suit woman turned out to be a vampire lawyer from Illinois, since a lawyer from another state had to draw up the contract. Mr. Cataliades had been a neutral lawyer, too, and he signed the documents after the kings and the vampire lawyer.

Eric stood in his black-and-gold glory while all this was done, and once the pens were back on their elaborate stands, he said, "The marriage is sacred for one hundred years!" and a cheer went up. Vampires aren't big on cheering, either, so it was mostly the humans and the other supes in the crowd who did the hurrahing, but the vampires all made an appreciative murmur - not as good, but the best they could do, I guess.

I sure wanted to find out more about how Eric had qualified as a priest, or whatever they called the officiant, but first I was going to make Jake tell me about Quinn. He was trying to wriggle away in the crowd, but I caught up with him pretty quick. He wasn't a good enough vampire yet to get away from me.

"Spill," I said, and he tried to act like he didn't know what I was talking about, but he saw from my face I wasn't buying it.

So, while the crowd eddied around us, trying not to speed toward the open bar, I waited for Quinn's story.

"I can't believe he hasn't told you this himself," Jake said, and I was tempted to slap him upside the head.

I glared at him to let him know I was waiting.

"Okay, okay," he said. "I heard all this when I was still a Were. Quinn is like a rock star in the shifter world, you know. He's one of the last weretigers, and he's one of the most ferocious."

I nodded. So far, that paralleled my knowledge of Quinn.

"Quinn's mom was captured one full moon when she changed. A bunch of hunters were out camping, set up a trap because they wanted a bear for their illegal dogfights. Something new to bet on, you know? A pack of dogs versus a bear. This was somewhere in Colorado, and snow was on the ground. His mom was out on her own, and somehow she fell into the trap, didn't sense it."

"Where was his dad?"

"He had died when Quinn was little. Quinn was about fifteen when this happened."

I had a feeling worse was coming, and I was right.

"He changed, of course, the same night, soon as he found she was missing. He tracked them to the camp. His mom had turned back into a woman under the stress of the capture, and one of them was raping her." Jake took a deep breath. "Quinn killed them all."

I looked down at the floor. I couldn't think of anything to say.

"The campsite had to be cleaned up. There wasn't a pack around to step in - course, tigers don't hang in packs - and his mother was hurt bad and in shock, so Quinn went to the local vampire nest. They agreed to do the job, if he'd be indebted to them for three years." Jake shrugged. "He agreed."

"What exactly did he agree to do?" I asked.

"To fight in the pits for them. For three years or until he died, whichever came first."

I began to feel cold fingers moving up my spine, and this time it wasn't creepy Andre...it was just fear. "The pits?" I said, but if he hadn't had vampire hearing, he wouldn't have been able to make my words out.

"There's a lot of bets placed on pit fighting," Jake said. "It's like the dogfights the hunters wanted the bear for. Humans aren't the only ones who like to watch animals kill each other. Some vamps love it. So do some other supes."

My lips curled in disgust. I felt almost nauseated.

Jake was looking at me, troubled by my reaction, but also giving me time to understand the sad story was not at an end. "Obviously Quinn survived his three years," Jake said. "He's one of the few who've lived that long." He looked at me sideways. "He kept winning and winning. He was one of the most savage fighters anyone's ever seen. He fought bears, lions, you name it."

"Aren't they all really rare?" I asked.

"Yeah, they are, but I guess even rare Were creatures need money," Jake said with a toss of his head. "And you can make big bucks pit fighting, when you've earned enough to bet on yourself."

"Why did he stop?" I asked. I regretted more than I could say that I had been curious about Quinn. I should have waited until he volunteered all this. He would have, I hoped. Jake caught a human servant walking by and snagged a glass of synthetic blood off the tray. He drained it in one gulp.

"His three years ended, and he had to take care of his sister."

"Sister?"

"Yeah, his mom got pregnant that night, and the result was the dyed blonde who gave us the potpourri bags at the door. Frannie gets into trouble from time to time, and Quinn's mother can't handle her, so she sends her to stay with Quinn for a while. Frannie turned up here last night."

I'd had as much as I could stomach. I turned in one quick movement and walked away from Jake. And to his credit, he didn't try to stop me.

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