All Together Dead

Chapter 16

THE VAMPIRE JODI WAS PRETTY FORMIDABLE. SHE PUT me in mind of Jael, in the Bible. Jael, a determined woman of Israel, put a tent peg through the head of Sisera, an enemy captain, if I was remembering correctly. Sisera had been asleep when Jael did the deed, just as Michael had been when Jodi broke off his fang. Even though Jodi's name made me snicker, I saw in her a steely strength and resolve, and I was immediately on her side. I hoped the panel of judges could see past the vampire Michael's whining about his damn tooth.

This wasn't set up like the previous evening, though the session took place in the same room. The panel of judges, I guess you'd call them, were on the stage and seated at a long table facing the audience. There were three of them, all from different states: two men and a woman. One of the males was Bill, who was looking (as always) calm and collected. I didn't know the other guy, a blond. The female was a tiny, pretty vamp with the straightest back and longest rippling black hair I ever saw. I heard Bill address her as "Dahlia." Her round little face whipped back and forth as she listened to the testimony of first Jodi, then Michael, just as if she was watching a tennis match. Centered on the white tablecloth before the judges was a stake, which I guess was the vampire symbol of justice.

The two complaining vampires were not represented by lawyers. They said their piece, and then the judges got to ask questions before they decided the verdict by a majority vote. It was simple in form, if not in fact.

"You were torturing a human woman?" Dahlia asked Michael.

"Yes," he said without blinking an eye. I glanced around. I was the only human in the audience. No wonder there was a certain simplicity to the proceedings. The vampires weren't trying to dress it up for a warm-blooded audience. They were behaving as they would if they were by themselves. I was sitting by those of my party who'd attended - Rasul, Gervaise, Cleo - and maybe their closeness masked my scent, or maybe one tame human didn't count.

"She'd offended me, and I enjoy sex that way, so I abducted her and had a little fun," Michael said. "Then Jodi goes all ballistic on me and breaks my fang. See?" He opened wide enough to show the judges the fang's stump. (I wondered if he'd gone by the booth that was still set up out in the vendors' area, the one that had such amazing artificial fangs.)

Michael had the face of an angel, and he didn't get that what he'd done was wrong. He had wanted to do it, so he did it. Not all people who've been brought over to be vampires are mentally stable to start with, and some of them are utterly conscienceless after decades, or even centuries, of disposing of humans as they damn well please. And yet, they enjoy the openness of the new order, getting to stride around being themselves, with the right not to be staked. They don't want to pay for that privilege by adhering to the rules of common decency.

I thought breaking off one fang was a very light punishment. I couldn't believe he'd had the gall to bring a case against anyone. Apparently, neither did Jodi, who was on her feet and going for him again. Maybe she meant to snap off his other fang. This was way better than The Peoples' Court or Judge Judy.

The blond judge tackled her. He was much larger than Jodi, and she seemed to accept that she wasn't going to heave him off. I noticed Bill had moved his chair back so he could leap up if further developments required quick action.

The tiny Dahlia said, "Why did you take such exception to Michael's actions, Jodi?"

"The woman was the sister of one of my employees," Jodi said, her voice shaking with anger. "She was under my protection. And stupid Michael will cause all of us to be hunted again if he continues his ways. He can't be corrected. Nothing stops him, not even losing the fang. I warned him three times to stay away, but the young woman spoke back to him when he propositioned her yet again on the street, and his pride was more important than his intelligence or discretion."

"Is this true?" the little vamp asked Michael.

"She insulted me, Dahlia," he said smoothly. "A human publicly insulted me."

"This one's easy," said Dahlia. "Do you both agree?" The blond male restraining Jodi nodded, and so did Bill, who was still perched on the edge of his chair to Dahlia's right.

"Michael, you will bring retribution on us by your unwise actions and your inability to control your impulses," Dahlia said. "You have ignored warnings, and you ignored the fact that the young woman was under the protection of another vampire."

"You can't mean this! Where is your pride?" Michael was yelling and on his feet.

Two men stepped forward out of the shadows at the back of the stage. They were both vampires, of course, and they were both good-sized men. They held Michael, who put up quite a fight. I was a little shocked by the noise and the violence, but in a minute they'd take Michael off to some vampire prison, and the calm proceedings would continue.

To my absolute astonishment, Dahlia nodded to the vamp sitting on Jodi, who got up and assisted her to rise. Jodi, smiling broadly, was across the stage in one leap, like a panther. She grabbed up the stake lying on the judges' table, and with one powerful swing of her lean arm, she buried the stake in Michael's chest.

I was the only one who was shocked, and I clapped both hands over my mouth to keep from squeaking.

Michael looked at her with utter rage, and he even kept struggling, I suppose to free his arms so he could pull the stake out, but in a few seconds it was all over. The two vamps holding the new corpse hauled it off, and Jodi stepped off the stage, still beaming.

"Next case," called Dahlia.

The next was the one about the vampire kid, and there were humans involved in this one. I felt less conspicuous when they came in: the hangdog parents with their vampire representative (was it possible that humans couldn't testify before this court?) and the "mother" with her "child."

This was a longer, sadder case, because the parents' suffering over the loss of their son - who was still walking and talking, but not to them - was nearly palpable. I wasn't the only one who cried, "For shame!" when Cindy Lou revealed the parents were giving her monthly payments for the boy's upkeep. The vampire Kate argued for the parents ferociously, and it was clear she thought Cindy Lou was a trailer-trash vampire and a bad mother, but the three judges - different ones this time, and I didn't know any of them - abided by the written contract the parents had signed and refused to give the boy a new guardian. However, they ruled, the contract had to be equally enforced on the parents' behalf, and the boy was required to spend time with his biological parents as long as they chose to enforce the right.

The head judge, a hawk-faced guy with dark, liquid eyes, called the boy up to stand before them. "You owe these people respect and obedience, and you signed this contract, too," he said. "You may be a minor in human law, but to us, you are as responsible as...Cindy Lou." Boy, it just killed him, having to admit there was a vampire named Cindy Lou. "If you try to terrorize your human parents, or coerce them, or drink their blood, we will amputate your hand. And when it grows back, we'll amputate it again."

The boy could hardly be whiter than he was, and his human mother fainted. But he'd been so cocky, so sure of himself, and so dismissive of his poor parents, I thought the strong warning was necessary. I caught myself nodding.

Oh, yeah, this was fair, to threaten a kid with having his hand amputated.

But if you'd seen this kid, you might have agreed. And Cindy Lou was no prize; whoever had turned her must have been mentally and morally deficient.

I hadn't been needed after all. I was wondering about the rest of the evening when the queen came through the double doors at the end of the room, Sigebert and Andre in close attendance. She was wearing a sapphire blue silk pantsuit with a beautiful diamond necklace and small diamond earrings. She looked classy, absolutely smooth, sleek, and perfect. Andre made a beeline to me.

"I know," he said, "that is, Sophie-Anne tells me that I have done wrong to you. I'm not sorry, because I will do anything for her. Others don't mean anything to me. But I do regret that I have not been able to refrain from causing something that distresses you."

If that was an apology, it was the most half-assed one I'd ever received in my life. It left almost everything to be desired. All I could do was say, "I hear you." It was the most I'd ever get.

By then, Sophie-Anne was standing in front of me. I did my head-bob thing. "I will need you with me during the next few hours," she said, and I said, "Sure." She glanced up and down my clothes, as if wishing I had dressed up a little more, but no one had warned me that a part of the night marked off for Commerce meant fancy clothes were appropriate.

Mr. Cataliades steamed up to me, wearing a beautiful suit and a dark red-and-gold silk tie, and he said, "Good to see you, my dear. Let me brief you on the next item on the schedule."

I spread my hands to show I was ready. "Where's Diantha?" I asked.

"She is working something out with the hotel," Cataliades said. He frowned. "It's most peculiar. There was an extra coffin downstairs, apparently."

"How could that be?" Coffins belonged to somebody. It's not like a vampire was going to be traveling with a spare, like you had to have a dress coffin and an everyday coffin. "Why did they call you?"

"It had one of our tags on it," he said.

"But all of our vamps are accounted for, right?" I felt a tingle of anxiety in my chest. Just then, I saw the usual waiters moving among the crowd, and I saw one spot me and turn away. Then he saw Barry, who'd come in with the King of Texas. The waiter turned away yet again.

I actually started to call to a nearby vampire to hold the guy so I could have a look into his head, and then I realized I was acting as high-handed as the vampires themselves. The waiter vanished, and I hadn't had a close look at him, so I wasn't sure I could even identify him in a crowd of other servers in the same outfit. Mr. Cataliades was talking, but I held up a hand. "Hold it for a sec," I murmured. The waiter's quick turn had reminded me of something, something else that had seemed odd.

"Please pay attention, Miss Stackhouse," the lawyer said, and I had to stow the thread of thought away. "Here's what you need to do. The queen will be negotiating for a few favors she needs to help rebuild her state. Just do what you do best to discover if everyone dealing with her is honorable."

This was not a very specific guideline. "Do my best," I said. "But I think you should go find Diantha, Mr. C. I think there's something really strange and wrong about this extra coffin they're talking about. There was that extra suitcase, too," I said. "I carried it up to the queen's suite."

Mr. Cataliades looked at me blankly. I could see that he considered the small problem of extra items turning up in a hotel to be a small one and below his concern. "Did Eric tell you about the murdered woman?" I asked, and his attention sharpened.

"I haven't seen Master Eric this evening," he said. "I'll be sure to track him down."

"Something's up; I just don't know what," I muttered more or less to myself, and then I turned away to catch up with Sophie-Anne.

Commerce was conducted in a sort of bazaar style. Sophie-Anne positioned herself by the table where Bill was sitting, back at work selling the computer program. Pam was helping him, but she was in her regular clothes, and I was glad the harem costume was getting a rest. I wondered what the procedure was, but I adopted a wait-and-see attitude, and I found out soon enough. The first to approach Sophie-Anne was the big blond vampire who'd served as a judge earlier. "Dear madam," he said, kissing her hand. "I am charmed to see you, as always, and devastated by the destruction of your beautiful city."

"A small portion of my beautiful city," Sophie-Anne said with the sweetest of smiles.

"I am in despair at the thought of the straits you must be in," he continued after a brief pause to register her correction. "You, the ruler of such a profitable and prestigious brought so low. I hope to be able to assist you in my humble fashion."

"And what form would that assistance take?" Sophie-Anne inquired.

After much palaver, it turned out that Mr. Flowery was willing to bring a gazillion board feet of lumber to New Orleans if Sophie-Anne would give him 2 percent of her next five years' revenue. His accountant was with him. I looked into his eyes with great curiosity. I stepped back, and Andre slithered to my side. I turned so that no one could read my lips.

"Quality of the lumber," I said as quietly as a hummingbird's wings.

That took forever to hammer out, and it was boring, boring, boring. Some of the wannabe providers didn't have humans with them, and I was no help with those; but most of them did. Sometimes the human had paid the vampire a substantial sum to "sponsor" him, so he could just be in the hall and pitch his woo in a one-on-one setting. By the time vendor number eight simpered to a stop in front of the queen, I was unable to suppress my yawns. I'd noticed Bill was doing a landmark business selling copies of his vampire database. For a reserved kind of guy, he did a good job of explaining and promoting his product, considering some of the vampires were very mistrustful of computers. If I heard about the "Yearly Update Package" one more time, I was gonna puke. There were lots of humans clustering around Bill, because they were more computer savvy than the vamps as a whole. While they were absorbed, I tried to get a scan in here and there, but they were just thinking megahertz and RAM and hard drives - stuff like that.

I didn't see Quinn. Since he was a wereanimal, I figured he'd be completely over his wound of the night before. I could only take his absence as a signal. I was heart-heavy and weary.

The queen invited Dahlia, the little, pretty vampire who'd been so direct in her judgment, up to her suite for a drink. Dahlia accepted regally, and our whole party moved up to the suite. Christian Baruch tagged along; he'd been hovering around Sophie-Anne all evening.

His courtship of Sophie-Anne was heavy-handed, to say the least. I thought again of the boy toy I'd watched the previous evening, tickling the back of his ladylove in imitation of a spider, because he knew she was frightened of them, and how he'd gotten her to snuggle closer to him. I felt a lightbulb come on over my head and wondered if it was visible to anyone else.

My opinion of the hotelier plummeted. If he thought such a strategy would work on Sophie-Anne, he had a lot of thinking to do.

I didn't see Jake Purifoy anywhere around, and I wondered what Andre had him doing. Something innocuous probably, like checking to make sure all the cars were gassed up. He wasn't really trusted to handle anything more taxing, at least not yet. Jake's youth and his Were heritage counted against him, and he'd have to bust his tail to earn points. But Jake didn't have that fire in him. He was looking to the past, to his life as a Were. He had a backlog of bitterness.

Sophie's suite had been cleaned; all the vampire suites had to be cleaned at night, of course, while the vamps were out of them. Christian Baruch started telling us about the extra help he'd had to take on to cope with the summit crowd and how nervous some of them were about cleaning rooms occupied by vampires. I could tell Sophie-Anne was not impressed by Baruch's assumption of superiority. He was so much younger than her, he must seem like a swaggering teenager to the centuries-old queen.

Jake came in just then, and after paying his respects to the queen and meeting Dahlia, he came to sit by me. I was slumping in an uncomfortable straight chair, and he pulled a matching one over.

"What's up, Jake?"

"Not much. I've been getting the queen and Andre tickets to a show for tomorrow night. It's an all-vampire production of Hello, Dolly!"

I tried to imagine that, found I couldn't. "What are you going to be doing? It's marked as free time on the schedule."

"I don't know," he said, a curiously remote tone in his voice. "My life has changed so much I just can't predict what will happen. Are you going out tomorrow in the day, Sookie? Shopping, maybe? There are some wonderful stores on Widewater Drive. That's down by the lake."

Even I had heard of Widewater Drive, and I said, "I guess it's possible. I'm not much of a shopper."

"You really should go. There're some great shoe stores, and a big Macy's - you'd love Macy's. Make a day of it. Get away from this place while you can."

"I'll sure think about it," I said, a little puzzled. "Um, have you seen Quinn today?"

"Glimpsed him. And I talked to Frannie for a minute. They've been busy getting props ready for the closing ceremonies."

"Oh," I said. Right. Sure. That took loads of time.

"Call him, ask him to take you out tomorrow," Jake said.

I tried to picture me asking Quinn to take me shopping. Well, it wasn't totally out of the question, but it wasn't likely, either. I shrugged. "Maybe I'll get out some."

He looked pleased.

"Sookie, you can go," Andre said. I was so tired I hadn't even noticed him glide up.

"Okay. Good night, you two," I said, and stood to stretch. I noticed the blue suitcase was still where I'd dropped it two nights ago. "Oh, Jake, you need to take that suitcase back down to the basement. They called me and told me to bring it up here, but no one's claimed it."

"I'll ask around," he said vaguely, and took off for his own room. Andre's attention had already returned to the queen, who was laughing at the description of some wedding Dahlia had attended.

"Andre," I said in a very low voice, "I gotta tell you, I think Mr. Baruch had something to do with that bomb outside the queen's door."

Andre looked as if someone had stuck a nail up his fundament. "What?"

"I'm thinking that he wanted Sophie-Anne scared," I said. "I'm thinking that he thought she'd be vulnerable and need a strong male protector if she felt threatened."

Andre was not Mr. Expressive, but I saw incredulity, disgust, and belief cross his face in quick order.

"And I'm also thinking maybe he told Henrik Feith that Sophie-Anne was going to kill him. Because he's the hotel owner, right? And he'd have a key to get into the queen's room, where we thought Henrik was safe, right? So Henrik would continue the queen's trial, because he'd been persuaded she would do him in. Again, Christian Baruch would be there, to be her big savior. Maybe he had Henrik killed, after he'd set him up, so he could do a tah-dah reveal and dazzle Sophie-Anne with his wonderful care of her."

Andre had the strangest expression on his face, as if he was having trouble following me. "Is there proof?" he asked.

"Not a smidge. But when I talked to Mr. Donati in the lobby this morning, he hinted that there was a security tape I might want to watch."

"Go see," Andre said.

"If I go ask for it, he'll get fired. You need to get the queen to ask Mr. Baruch point-blank if she can see the security tape for the lobby outside during the time the bomb was planted. Gum on the camera or not, that tape will show something."

"Leave first, so he won't connect you to this." In fact, the hotelier had been absorbed in the queen and her conversation, or his vampire hearing would have tipped him off that we were talking about him.

Though I was exhausted, I had the gratifying feeling that I was earning the money they were paying me for this trip. And it was a load off my mind to feel that the Dr Pepper thing was solved. Christian Baruch would not be doing any more bomb planting now that the queen was on to him. The threat the splinter group of the Fellowship posed...well, I'd only heard of that from hearsay, and I didn't have any evidence of what form it would take. Despite the death of the woman at the archery place, I felt more relaxed than I had since I'd walked into the Pyramid of Gizeh, because I was inclined to attribute the killer archer to Baruch, too. Maybe when he saw that Henrik would actually take Arkansas from the queen, he'd gotten greedy and had the assassin take out Henrik, so the queen would get everything. There was something confusing and wrong about that scenario, but I was too tired to think it through, and I was content to let the whole tangled web lie until I was rested.

I crossed the little lobby to the elevator and pressed the button. When the doors dinged open, Bill stepped out, his hands full of order forms.

"You did well this evening," I said, too tired to hate him. I nodded at the forms.

"Yes, we'll all make a lot of money from this," he said, but he didn't sound particularly excited.

I waited for him to step out of my way, but he didn't do that, either.

"I would give it all away if I could erase what happened between us," he said. "Not the times we spent loving each other, but..."

"The times you spent lying to me? The times you pretended you could hardly wait to date me when it turns out you were under order to? Those times?"

"Yes," he said, and his deep brown eyes didn't waver. "Those times."

"You hurt me too much. That's not ever gonna happen."

"Do you love any man? Quinn? Eric? That moron JB?"

"You don't have the right to ask me that," I said. "You don't have any rights at all where I'm concerned."

JB? Where'd that come from? I'd always been fond of the guy, and he was lovely, but his conversation was about as stimulating as a stump's. I was shaking my head as I rode down in the elevator to the human floor.

Carla was out, as usual, and since it was five in the morning the chances seemed good that she'd stay out. I put on my pink pajamas and put my slippers beside the bed so I wouldn't have to grope around for them in the darkened room in case Carla came in before I awoke.

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