Home > Dead and Gone (Sookie Stackhouse #9)(4)

Dead and Gone (Sookie Stackhouse #9)(4)
Author: Charlaine Harris

"Here," he said, and I turned around, irritated. "Eric said you would need this." He handed me a bundle wrapped in black velvet. Vampires couldn't give you anything in a Wal-Mart bag or wrapped in Hallmark paper, oh, no. Black velvet. The bundle was secured with a gold tasseled cord, like you'd use to tie back a curtain.

Just holding it gave me a bad feeling. "And what would this be?"

"I don't know. I wasn't tasked with opening it."

I hate the word "tasked," with "gifted" running close behind. "What am I supposed to do with this?" I said.

"Eric said, 'Tell her to give it to me tonight, in front of Victor.' "

Eric did nothing without a reason. "All right," I said reluctantly. "Consider me messaged ."

I got through the next shift okay. Everyone was pitching in to help, and that was pleasing. The cook had been working hard all day; this was maybe the fifteenth short-order cook we'd had since I'd begun working at Merlotte's. We'd had every variation on a human being you could imagine: black, white, male, female, old, young, dead (yes, a vampire cook), lycanthropically(见 lycanthrope) inclined (a werewolf), and probably one or two I'd completely forgotten. This cook, Antoine Lebrun, was real nice. He'd come to us out of Katrina. He'd outstayed most of the other refugees, who'd moved back to the Gulf Coast or moved on.

Antoine was in his fifties, his curly hair showing a strand or two of gray. He'd worked concessions at the Superdome, he'd told me the day he got hired, and we'd both shuddered. Antoine got along great with D'Eriq, the busboy who doubled as his assistant.

When I went in the kitchen to make sure he had everything he needed, Antoine told me he was really proud to be working for a shapeshifter, and D'Eriq wanted to go over and over his reaction to Sam's and Tray's transformations. After he'd left work, D'Eriq had gotten a phone call from his cousin in Monroe, and now D'Eriq wanted to tell us all about his cousin's wife being a werewolf.

D'Eriq's reaction was what I hoped was typical. Two nights before, many people had discovered that someone they knew personally was a were of some kind. Hopefully, if the were had never shown signs of insanity or violence, these people would be willing to accept that shape-changing was an unthreatening addition to their knowledge of the world. It was even exciting.

I hadn't had time to check reactions around the world, but at least as far as local stuff went, the revelation seemed to be going smoothly. I didn't get the feeling anyone was going to be firebombing Merlotte's because of Sam's dual nature, and I thought Tray's motorcycle repair business was safe.

Tanya was twenty minutes early, which raised her up in my estimation, and I gave her a genuine smile. After we ran over a few of the basics like hours, pay, and Sam's house rules, I said, "You like being out there in Hotshot?"

"Yeah, I do," she said, sounding a little surprised. "The families out in Hotshot, they really get along well. If something goes wrong, they have a meeting and discuss it. Those that don't like the life, they leave, like Mel Hart did." Almost everyone in Hotshot was either a Hart or a Norris.

"He's really taken up with my brother lately," I said, because I was a little curious about Jason's new friend.

"Yeah, that's what I hear. Everyone's glad he's found someone to hang with after being on his own so long."

"Why didn't he fit in out there?" I asked directly.

Tanya said, "I understand Mel doesn't like to share, like you have to if you live in a little community like that. He's real ... 'What's mine is mine.' " She shrugged. "At least, that's what they say."

"Jason's like that, too," I said. I couldn't read Tanya's mind too clearly because of her double nature, but I could read the mood and intent of it, and I understood the other panthers worried about Mel Hart.

They were concerned about Mel making it in the big world of Bon Temps, I guessed. Hotshot was its own little universe.

I was feeling a bit lighter of heart by the time I'd finished briefing Tanya (who had definitely had experience) and hung up my apron. I gathered my purse and Bobby Burnham's bundle, and I hurried out the employee door to drive to Shreveport.

I started to listen to the news as I drove, but I was tired of grim reality. Instead, I listened to a Mariah Carey CD, and I felt the better for it. I can't sing worth a damn, but I love to belt out the lyrics to a song when I'm driving. The tensions of the day began to drain away, replaced by an optimistic mood.

Sam would come back, his mother having recovered, and her husband having made amends and having pledged he'd love her forever. The world would oooh and aaah about werewolves and other shifters for a while, then all would be normal again.

Isn't it always a bad idea, thinking things like that?

Chapter 3

The closer I got to the vampire bar, the more my pulse picked up; this was the downside to the blood bond I had with Eric Northman. I knew I was going to see him, and I was simply happy about it. I should have been worried, I should have been apprehensive about what he wanted, I should have asked a million questions about the velvet-wrapped bundle, but I just drove with a smile on my face.

Though I couldn't help how I felt, I could control my actions. Out of sheer perversity, since no one had told me to come around to the employees' entrance, I entered through the main door. It was a busy night at Fangtasia, and there was a crowd waiting on benches inside the first set of doors. Pam was at the hostess podium. She smiled at me broadly, showing a little fang. (The crowd was delighted.)

I'd known Pam for a while now, and she was as close to a friend as I had among the vampires. Tonight the blond vampire was wearing the obligatory filmy black dress, and she'd camped it up with a long, sheer black veil. Her fingernails were polished scarlet.

"My friend," Pam said, and came out from behind the podium to hug me. I was surprised but pleased and gladly hugged her back. She'd spritzed on a little perfume to eclipse the faint, rather dry smell of vampire. "Have you got it?" she whispered in my ear.

"Oh, the bundle? It's in my purse." I lifted my big brown shoulder bag by its straps.

Pam gave me a look I couldn't interpret through the veil. It appeared to be an expression that compounded exasperation and affection. "You didn't even look inside?"

"I haven't had time," I said. It wasn't that I hadn't been curious. I simply hadn't had the leisure to think about it. "Sam had to leave because his mom got shot by his stepdad, and I've been managing the bar."

Pam gave me a long look of appraisal. "Go back to Eric's office and hand him the bundle," she said. "Leave it wrapped. No matter who's there. And don't handle it like it was a garden tool he left outside, either."

I gave her the look right back. "What am I doing, Pam?" I asked, jumping on the cautious train way too late.

"You're protecting your own skin," Pam said. "Never doubt it. Now go." She gave me a get-along pat on the back and turned to answer a tourist's question about how often vampires needed to get their teeth cleaned.

"Would you like to come very close and look at mine?" Pam asked in a sultry voice, and the woman shrieked with delighted fear. That was why the humans came to vampire bars, and vampire comedy clubs, and vampire dry cleaners, and vampire casinos ... to flirt with danger.

Every now and then, flirtation became the real thing.

I made my way between the tables and across the dance floor to the rear of the bar. Felicia, the bartender, looked unhappy when she saw me. She found something to do that involved crouching down out of my sight. I had an unfortunate history with the bartenders of Fangtasia.

There were a few vampires seated throughout the bar area, strewn among the gawking tourists, the costumed vampire wannabes, and the humans who had business dealings with the vamps. Over in the little souvenir shop, one of the New Orleans vampire refugees from Katrina was selling a Fangtasia T-shirt to a pair of giggling girls.

Tiny Thalia, paler than bleached cotton and with a profile from an ancient coin, was sitting by herself at a small table. Thalia was actually tracked by fans who had devoted a website to her, though she would not have cared if they'd all burst into flames. A drunken serviceman from Barksdale Air Force Base knelt before her as I watched, and as Thalia turned her dark eyes on him, his prearranged speech died in his throat. Turning rather pale himself, the strapping young man backed away from the vampire half his size, and though his friends jeered as he returned to his table, I knew he wouldn't approach her again.

After this little slice of bar life, I was glad to knock on Eric's door. I heard his voice inside, telling me to come in. I stepped inside and shut the door behind me. "Hi, Eric," I said, and was almost rendered mute by the surge of happiness that swept through me whenever I saw him. His long blond hair was braided tonight, and he was wearing his favorite jeans-and-a-tee combo. The T-shirt tonight was bright green, making him look whiter than ever.

The wave of delight wasn't necessarily related to Eric's gorgeousness or the fact that we'd bumped pelvises, though. The blood bond was responsible. Maybe. I had to fight the feeling. For sure.

Victor Madden, representative of the new king, Felipe de Castro, stood and inclined his curly dark head. Victor, short and compact, was always polite and always well-dressed. This evening he was especially resplendent in an olive suit and brown striped tie. I smiled at him and was just about to tell him I was glad to see him again when I noticed that Eric was eyeing me expectantly. Oh, right.

I shucked off my coat and extracted the velvet bundle from my purse. I dropped the purse and coat in an empty chair, and walked over to Eric's desk with the bundle extended in both hands. This was making as much of the moment as I could, short of getting on my knees and crawling over to him, which I would do when hell froze over.

I laid the bundle in front of him, inclined my own head in what I hoped was a ceremonious manner, and sat down in the other guest chair.

"What has our fair-haired friend brought you, Eric?" Victor asked in the cheerful voice that he affected most of the time. Maybe he was actually that happy, or maybe his mama had taught him (a few centuries ago) that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

With a certain sense of theater, Eric untied the golden cord and silently unfolded the velvet. Sparkling like a jewel on the dark material was the ceremonial knife I'd last seen in the city of Rhodes. Eric had used it when he officiated at the marriage of two vampire kings, and he'd used it to nick himself later when he'd taken blood from me and given me blood in return: the final exchange, the one that (from my point of view) had caused all the trouble. Now Eric lifted the shining blade to his lips and kissed it.

After Victor recognized the knife, there was no trace of a smile remaining on his face. He and Eric regarded each other steadily.

"Very interesting," Victor said finally.

Once again, I had that feeling of drowning when I hadn't even known I was in the pool. I started to speak, but I could feel Eric's will pressing on me, urging me to be silent. In vampire matters, it was smart to take Eric's advice.

"Then I'll take the tiger's request off the table," Victor said. "My master was unhappy about the tiger wanting to leave, anyway. And of course, I'll inform my master about your prior claim. We acknowledge your formal attachment to this one."

From the inclination of Victor's head in my direction, I knew I was "this one." And I knew only one male weretiger. "What are you talking about?" I asked bluntly.

"Quinn requested a private meeting with you," Victor said. "But he can't come back to Eric's area without Eric's permission now. It's one of the terms we negotiated when we ... when Eric became our new associate."

That was a nice way to say,When we killed all the other vampires in Louisiana except for Eric and his followers. When you saved our king from death .

I wished I had a moment to think, far away from this room where two vampires were staring at me.

"Does this new rule apply only to Quinn or to all wereanimals who want to come into Louisiana? How could you boss the weres? And when did you put that rule into effect?" I said to Eric, trying to buy some time while I collected myself. I wanted Victor to explain the last part of his little speech, too, that bit about the formal attachment, but I decided to tackle one question at a time.

"Three weeks ago," Eric said, answering the last question first. His face was calm; his voice was uninflected. "And the 'new rule' applies only to wereanimals who are associated with us in a business way." Quinn worked for E(E)E, which I suspected was at least partially vampire owned, since Quinn's job was not putting on the weddings and bar mitzvahs the company's human branch dealt with. Quinn's job was staging supernatural events. "The tiger got his dismissal from you. I heard it from his own lips. Why should he return?" Eric shrugged.

At least he didn't try to sugarcoat it by saying, "I thought he might bother you" or "I did it for your own good." No matter how bonded we were - and I was actually struggling against the temptation to smile at him - I felt the hair on the back of my neck rising at Eric managing my life like this.

"Now that you and Eric are openly pledged," Victor said in a silky voice, "you certainly won't want to see Quinn, and I'll tell him so."

"We're what ?" I glared at Eric, who was looking at me with an expression I can only describe as bland.

"The knife," Victor said, sounding even happier. "That's its significance. It's a ritual knife handed down over the centuries and used in important ceremonies and sacrifices. It's not the only one of its kind, of course, but it's rare. Now it's only used in marriage rituals. I'm not sure how Eric came to have possession of it, but its presentation from you to Eric, and his acceptance, can only mean that you and Eric are pledged to each other."

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