All Together Dead (Sookie Stackhouse #7)

1,588
05.03.2019

BATANYA KILLED THE ASSASSIN WITH A THROWING star. She was facing the crowd, so she saw the vampire left standing after all the others had prudently hit the floor. This vampire wasn't firing the arrows from a bow; he was throwing them, which was why he'd managed to remain inconspicuous. Even in that group, someone carrying in a bow would have attracted a certain amount of attention.

Only a vampire could throw an arrow and kill someone. Perhaps only a Britlingen could throw a razor-sharp star in such a way as to decapitate a vampire.

I've seen vampires decapitated before, and it's not as messy as you'd think; not like cutting off the head of a human. But it's not pleasant, either, and as I watched the head topple off the shoulders, I had a moment of knee-knocking nausea from my position on the floor. I scrambled to my knees to check on Quinn.

"I'm not bad," he said instantly. "Not bad. It's in my shoulder, not my heart." He rolled over to lie on his back. The Louisiana vamps had all leaped up to the platform to circle the queen, just a second behind Andre. Once they were sure the threat was over, they clustered around us.

Cleo threw off her tuxedo jacket and ripped off the pleated white shirt. She folded it into a pad in movements so fast I could hardly follow them. "Hold this," she said, pressing it into my hand and placing my hand close to the wound. "Prepare to press hard." She didn't wait for me to nod. "Hold on," she said to Quinn. And she put her strong hands on his shoulders to hold him still while Gervaise pulled the arrow out.

Quinn bellowed, not too surprisingly. The next few minutes were pretty bad. I pressed the pad against the wound, and while Cleo pulled on the tuxedo jacket over her black lace bra, she directed Herve, her human squeeze, to donate his shirt, too. I've got to say, he whipped it right off. There was something really shocking about seeing a bare hairy chest in the middle of all this evening finery. And it was beyond weird that I would note that, after I'd just seen a guy's head separated from his body.

I knew Eric was beside me before he spoke, because I felt less terrified. He knelt down to my level. Quinn was concentrating on not yelling, so his eyes were shut as though he was unconscious and there was still lots of action going on all around me. But Eric was next to me, and I felt…not exactly calm, but not as upset. Because he was there.

I just hated that.

"He's going to heal," Eric said. He didn't sound especially happy about it, but not sad, either.

"Yes," I said.

"I know. I didn't see it coming."

"Oh, would you have flung yourself in front of me?"

"No," Eric said simply. "Because it might have hit me in the heart, and I would die. But I would have dived in and tackled you to take you out of the arrow's path if there had been time."

I couldn't think of a thing to say.

"I know you may come to hate me because I spared you the bite of Andre," he said quietly. "But I really am the lesser of two evils."

I glanced sideways at him. "I know that," I said, Quinn's blood staining my hands as it soaked through the makeshift pad. "I wouldn't have rather died than get bit by Andre, but it was a close thing."

He laughed, and Quinn's eyes flickered. "The weretiger is regaining consciousness," Eric said. "Do you love him?"

"Don't know yet."

"Did you love me?"

A team of stretcher bearers came over. Of course, these weren't regular paramedics. Regular paramedics wouldn't have been welcome in the Pyramid of Gizeh. These were Weres and shifters who worked for the vamps, and their leader, a young woman who looked like a honey bear, said, "We'll make sure he gets healed in record time, lady."

"I'll check on him later."

"We'll take care of him," she said. "Among us, he'll do better. It's a privilege to take care of Quinn."

Quinn nodded. "I'm ready to be moved," he said, but he was clenching the words between his teeth.

"See you later," I said, taking his hand in mine. "You're the bravest of the brave, Quinn."

"Babe," he said, biting his lower lip from the pain. "Be careful."

"Don't you be worrying about her," said a black guy with a short, clipped Afro. "She's got guardians." He gave Eric a cool look. Eric held out his hand and I took it to stand up. My knees were aching a little after their acquaintance with the hard floor.

As they got him onto the stretcher and lifted him, Quinn seemed to lose consciousness. I started forward, but the black guy held out his arm. It looked like carved ebony, the muscles were so defined. "Sister, you just stay here," he said. "We're on the job now."

I watched them carry him off. Once he was out of sight, I looked down at my dress. Amazingly, it was all right. Not dirty, not bloody, and the wrinkles were at a minimum.

Eric waited.

"Did I love you?" I knew Eric wasn't going to give up, and I might as well figure out an answer. "Maybe. Sort of. But I knew all along that whoever was with me, it wasn't the real you. And I knew sooner or later you'd remember who you were and what you were."

"You don't seem to have yes or no answers about men," he said.

"You don't exactly seem to know how you feel about me, either," I said.

"You're a mystery," he said. "Who was your mother, and who was your father? Oh, I know, you'll say they raised you from a child and died when you were a little girl. I remember you telling me the story. But I don't know if it's exactly true. If it is, when did the fairy blood enter your family tree? Did it come in with one of your grandparents? That's what I'm supposing."

"And what business is it of yours?"

"You know it is my business. Now we are tied."

"Is this going to fade? It will, right? We won't always be like this?"

"I like being like this. You'll like it, too," he said, and he seemed mighty damn sure.

"Who was the vampire who tried to kill us?" I asked, to change the subject. I was hoping he wasn't right, and anyway, we'd said everything there was to say on the subject, as far as I was concerned.

"Let's go find out," he said, and took my hand. I trailed along with him, simply because I wanted to know.

Batanya was standing by the vampire's body, which had begun the rapid disintegration of its kind. She'd retrieved her throwing star, and she was polishing it on her pants leg.

"Good throw," Eric said. "Who was he?"

She shrugged. "I dunno. The guy with the arrows, was all I know. All I care."

"He was the only one?"

"Yes."

"Can you tell me what he looked like?"

"I was sitting next to him," said a very small male vampire. He was perhaps five feet tall, and slim besides. His hair trailed down his back. If he went to jail, he'd have guys knocking on his cell door within thirty minutes. They'd be sorry, of course, but to the unobservant eye, he did look like the world's easiest target. "He was a rough one, and not dressed for the evening. Khakis and a striped dress shirt…well, you can see."

Though the body was blackening and flaking away as vamp corpses did, naturally the clothes were intact.

"Maybe he had a driver's license?" I suggested. That was almost a given with humans, but not with vampires. However, it was worth a shot.

Eric squatted and inserted his fingers into the man's front pocket. Nothing came out, or from the other front pocket, so without further ado Eric rolled him over. I took a couple of steps back to avoid the flurry of flakes of ash. There was something in the rear pocket: a regular wallet. And inside it, sure enough, was a driver's license.

It had been issued by Illinois. Under blood type was the designation "NA." Yep, a vamp, for sure. Reading over Eric's shoulder, I could see that the vamp's name had been Kyle Perkins. Perkins had put "3V" as his age, so he had been a vamp for only three years.

"He must have been an archer before he died," I said. "Because that's not a skill you'd pick up right away, especially that young."

"I agree," Eric said. "And in the daytime, I want you to check all the local places you can practice archery. Throwing arrows is not a skill you can improvise. He trained. The arrow was specially made. We need to find out what happened to Kyle Perkins, and why this rogue accepted the job to attend this meeting and kill whomever necessary."

"So he was a…vampire hit man?"

"Yes, I think so," Eric said. "Someone is maneuvering us very carefully. Of course, this Perkins was simply backup in case the trial went wrong. And if it hadn't been for you, the trial might well have gone wrong. Someone went to a lot of trouble to play on Henrik Feith's fears, and stupid Henrik was about to give that someone up. This Kyle, he was planted to prevent just that."

Then the cleanup crew arrived: a group of vampires with a body bag and cleaning supplies. The human maids would not be asked to mop up Kyle. Luckily, they were all occupied in refreshing the vampire rooms, which were off-limits to them during the day.

In very short order, the residue of Kyle Perkins was bagged up and taken away, with one vampire remaining behind to wield a little handheld vacuum. Let Rhodes CSI try to get ahold of that.

I sensed a lot of movement and looked up to see that the service doors were open and staff was pouring into the large room to pack away the chairs. In less than fifteen minutes, Quinn's judicial paraphernalia was being stored away, his sister directing the work. Then a band set up on the platform, and the room was cleared for dancing. I'd never seen anything like it. First a trial, then a few murders, then dancing. Life goes on. Or, in this case, death continues.

Eric said, "You had better check in with the queen."

"Oh. Yeah, she might have a few words to say to me." I glanced around and spotted Sophie-Anne pretty quickly. She was surrounded by a crowd of people congratulating her on the favorable verdict. Of course, they would have been just as glad to see her executed, or whatever would have happened if the Ancient Pythoness had turned thumbs down. Speaking of the A.P….

"Eric, where'd the old gal go?" I asked.

"The Ancient Pythoness is the original oracle that Alexander consulted," he said, his voice quite neutral. "She was considered so revered that even in her old age, she was converted by the very primitive vampires of her time. And now she has outlasted all of them."

I didn't want to think about how she'd fed before the advent of the synthetic blood that had changed the vampire world. How'd she hobble after her human prey? Maybe they'd brought people to her, like snake owners bring live mice to their pets?

"To answer your question, I would guess her handmaidens have removed her to her suite. She is brought out for special occasions."

"Like the good silver," I said seriously, and then burst into giggles. To my surprise, Eric smiled, too, that big smile that made multiple little arcs appear in the corners of his mouth.

We took our places behind the queen. I wasn't sure she'd even registered my presence, she was so busy being the belle of the ball. But in a momentary lull in the chitchat, she reached behind her and took my hand, squeezing it very lightly. "We'll talk later," she said, and then greeted a stout female vampire in a sequined pantsuit. "Maude," Sophie-Anne said, "how good to see you. And how are things going in Minnesota?"

Just then a tap on the music stand drew everyone's attention to the band. It was all vampire, I noticed with a start. The slick-haired guy at the podium said, "If all you hot vamps and vampesses are ready to rumble, we're ready to play! I'm Rick Clark, and this is…the Dead Man Dance Band!"

There was a polite smattering of applause.

"Here to open the evening are two of Rhodes's finest dancers, courtesy of Blue Moon Productions. Please welcome…Sean and Layla!"

The pair who stepped out into the middle of the dance floor were striking, whether you were human or vamp. They were both of the cold-blooded variety themselves, though he was very old and she was freshly turned, I thought. She was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen, and she was wearing a beige lace dress that drifted around her world-class legs like snow falling around trees. Her partner was maybe the only vampire I'd ever seen with freckles, and his dusty red hair was as long as hers.

They only had eyes for each other, and they danced together as if they were gliding through a dream.

I had never seen anything like it, and from the rapt attention of the audience, no one else had, either. As the music drew to a conclusion – and to this day, I can't remember what they danced to – Sean flung Layla back over his arm, bent over her, and bit. I was shocked, but the others seemed to expect it, and it turned them on no little amount. Sophie-Anne smoldered up at Andre (though she didn't have far to smolder, since he wasn't much taller than she), and Eric looked down at me with that hot light in his eyes that made me wary.

I turned my attention to the dance floor with determination and clapped like a maniac when the two took their bow and more couples began to join them as the music started up again. From habit I looked around for Bill, who was nowhere to be seen.

Then Eric said, "Let's dance," and I found I couldn't say no.

We took the floor along with the queen and her potential king, and I saw Russell Edgington and his husband, Bart, step out to dance, too. They looked almost as enthralled with each other as the two exhibition dancers.

I can't sing, but by golly, I can dance. And Eric had had a few ballroom lessons along the way, some century or other. My hand rested on his back, his on mine, our free hands clasped, and off we went. I wasn't sure exactly what the dance was, but he was a strong leader, so it was easy to follow along. More like the waltz than anything else, I decided.

"Pretty dress," said the dancer Layla as we swung by them.

"Thank you," I said, and beamed at her. From someone as lovely as she was, that was a great compliment. Then her partner leaned over to give her a kiss, and they swirled away into the crowd.

"That is a pretty dress," Eric said. "And you are a beautiful woman."

I was oddly embarrassed. I'd gotten compliments before – you can't be a barmaid and not get compliments – but most of them had consisted of (various degrees of drunk) guys telling me I was really cute – or, in one man's case, how impressive my "rack" was. (Somehow, JB du Rone and Hoyt Fortenberry had managed to stomp on that guy's toes and spill a drink all over him at the same time, just accidentally.)

"Eric," I said, but I couldn't finish the sentence because I couldn't think of what to say next. I had to concentrate on the speed with which my feet were moving. We were dancing so fast I felt like I was flying. Suddenly Eric dropped my hand to grip my waist, and as we turned, he swung me up, and then I was really flying, with a little help from a Viking. I laughed like a loon, my hair billowing out around my head, and then he let me go and caught me, just inches away from the floor, and then he did it again and again, until at last I was standing on the floor and the music was over.

"Thank you," I said, knowing I must look like I'd been standing in a high gale. "Excuse me while I go to the ladies' room."

I scooted off through the crowd, trying not to grin like an idiot. I should be with – oh, yeah – my boyfriend. Instead of dancing with another guy until I felt tingly with happiness. And it didn't do any good, excusing myself on account of our blood tie.

Sophie-Anne and Andre had stopped dancing, and they were standing with a group of other vampires. She couldn't need me, then, since there were no humans for me to "listen" to. I spotted Carla dancing with Gervaise, and they seemed happy enough. Carla was getting lots of admiring looks from other vampires, and that would make Gervaise swell with pride. Having his fellow vampires craving what he was already getting was sweet.

I knew how Gervaise felt.

I stopped in my tracks.

Had I…I wasn't really reading his mind, was I? No, I couldn't. The only times I'd caught a fragment of vampire thought prior to tonight, that fragment had felt cold and snaky.

But I knew how Gervaise felt, for sure, just as I'd read Henrik's thoughts. Was it just my knowledge of men and their reactions or my knowledge of vampires, or could I really follow vampire emotions better since I'd had Eric's blood for a third time? Or had my skill, or my talent, or my curse – whatever I called it – broadened to include vampires since I was closer to being one myself?

No. No, no, no. I felt like myself. I felt human. I felt warm. I was breathing. I had to use the bathroom. I was hungry, too. I thought about old Mrs. Bellefleur's famous chocolate cake. My mouth watered. Yep, human.

Okay, then, this new affinity for vamps would fade, like my extra strength would fade, in time. I'd had two drinks from Bill, I thought; maybe more. And three from Eric. And every time I'd had their blood, two or three months had seen the waning of the strength and acuity I'd gained from the intake. So that would happen this time, too, right? I shook myself briskly. Sure, it would.

Jake Purifoy was leaning against the wall, watching the couples dance. I'd glimpsed him earlier steering a young vampire woman around the floor, and she'd been laughing. So it wasn't all melancholy for Jake, and I was glad.

"Hey," I said.

"Sookie, that was quite some action at the trial."

"Yeah, it was scary."

"Where'd that guy come from?"

"Rogue, I guess. Eric's got me looking at archery ranges tomorrow to track him down, try to find out who hired him."

"Good. That was a close call for you. I'm sorry," he said awkwardly. "I know you must have been frightened."

I'd really been too worried about Quinn to think about the arrow being aimed at me. "I guess I was. You have a good time, now."

"Something's got to make up for not being able to change anymore," Jake said.

"I didn't know you'd tried." I couldn't think of anything else to say.

"Over and over," he said. We looked at each other for a long, long moment. "Well, I'm off to find another partner," he told me, and headed purposefully in the direction of a vampire who'd come with Stan Davis's group from Texas. She looked glad to see him coming.

By that time I was ducking into the ladies' room, which was small, of course; most of the females at the Pyramid of Gizeh wouldn't need to use such a facility, except to comb their hair. There was an attendant, a nicety I'd never seen before though I'd read about it in books. I was supposed to tip her. I still had my little evening purse with my room key in it, and I was relieved to recall I'd slipped a few dollars in there, along with some tissues and breath mints and a tiny brush. I nodded to the attendant, a squatty, dark-skinned woman with an unhappy face.

I took care of business in the nice clean stall and then emerged to wash my hands and to try to smooth out my hair. The attendant, wearing a name tag that read "Lena," turned on the water for me, which kind of weirded me out. I mean, I can turn a faucet. But I washed my hands and used the towel she extended to me, figuring this was the routine and I shouldn't act ignorant. I dropped two dollars in the tip bowl, and she tried to smile at me, but she looked too unhappy to manage it. She must be having a bad night.

"Thanks," I said, and turned to leave. I don't know why, but I glanced into the mirror on the inside of the door before I pulled on the handle. There Lena was, staring a hole into my back. She'd looked so unhappy because she'd been having to suppress how much she loathed me.

That's always a bad feeling, when you know someone hates you; especially when it's for no good reason. But her problems were not mine, and if she didn't want to turn on the faucet for women who dated vampires, she could find another job. I didn't want her damn faucet-turning-on, anyway, by God.

So I forged my way through the crowd, checking with the queen to see if she had any humans around who needed scanning (no), checking to see if I could find a Were or shifter to give me an update on Quinn (no).

By a stroke of luck, I did find the weather witch, the male witch I'd spotted earlier. I confess it made me a little proud to find my conjecture had actually been right. His being here tonight was his reward for good service, though I couldn't detect who his patron was. The weather witch had a drink in his hand and a middle-aged woman on his arm. Mrs. Witch, I discovered with another quick dip into his mental pool. He was hoping she hadn't observed that he was very interested in the beautiful vampire dancer and the pretty blond human coming toward him, the one who'd looked at him earlier like she knew him. Oh…that would be me.

I couldn't pick up his name, which would have greased the skids, and I didn't know what to say to him. But this was a person who should be brought to Sophie-Anne's attention. Someone had used him against her.

"Hello," I said, giving them my biggest smile. The wife smiled back, a little cautiously, because the sedate couple weren't normally approached by young single women (she'd glanced at my left hand) during glamorous parties. The weather witch's smile was more on the frightened side. "Are you all enjoying the party?" I asked.

"Yes, quite an evening," the wife said.

"My name is Sookie Stackhouse," I said, oozing charm.

"Olive Trout," she replied, and we shook hands. "This is my husband, Julian." She had no idea what her husband was.

"Are you all from around here?" I was scanning the crowd as unobtrusively as possible. I had no idea what to do with them now that I'd found them.

"You haven't watched our local stations," Olive said proudly. "Julian is the Channel 7 weatherman."

"How interesting," I said, with absolute sincerity. "If you two would just come with me, I know someone who'd just love to meet you." As I dragged the two through the crowd, I began to have second thoughts. What if Sophie-Anne intended retribution? But that wouldn't make sense. The important fact was not that there was a weather witch; the important fact was that someone had hired Julian Trout to predict the weather outlook for Louisiana and had somehow postponed the summit until Katrina had wreaked its havoc.

Julian was bright enough to figure out something was wrong with my enthusiasm, and I was afraid they'd both balk. I was mighty relieved to spot Gervaise's blond head. I called his name in a hearty voice as if I hadn't talked to him in a coon's age. By the time I reached him I was almost out of breath from herding the Trouts with such speed and anxiety.

"Gervaise, Carla," I said, depositing the Trouts in front of the sheriff as if I'd drug them out of the water. "This is Olive Trout and her husband, Julian. The queen's been anxious to meet someone like Julian. He's really into the weather." Okay, not subtle. But Julian's face turned white. Yeah, a little knowledge of wrongdoing definitely present in Julian's conscience.

"Honey, are you sick?" Olive asked.

"We need to go home," he said.

"No, no, no," Carla said, leaping into the conversation. "Gervaise, honey, you remember Andre said if we heard of anyone who was really a weather authority, he and the queen especially wanted to have a word with 'em?" She tucked her arms around the Trouts and beamed at them. Olive looked uncertain.

"Of course," said Gervaise, the lightbulb finally switching on above his head. "Thank you, Sookie. Please, come with us." And they guided the Trouts away.

I felt a little giddy with the pleasure of having been proved right.

Looking around, I spotted Barry sticking a little plate on an empty tray.

"You wanna dance?" I asked, because the Dead Man Dance Band was playing a great cover of an old Jennifer Lopez song. Barry looked reluctant, but I pulled him by his hand, and pretty soon we were shaking our bonbons all over the place and having a great time. Nothing's like dancing for relaxing tension and losing yourself, just for a little while. I wasn't as good as Shakira at muscle control, but maybe if I practiced once in a while…

"What are you doing?" Eric asked, and he wasn't being facetious. He was glacial with disapproval.

"Dancing, why?" I gave a wave to signal Eric to scoot. But Barry had stopped, already, and given me a little good-bye wave.

"I was having a good time," I protested.

"You were twitching your assets in front of every male in the room," he said. "Like a…"

"You hold up, buddy! You stop right there!" I held up a finger, warning him.

"Take your finger out of my face," he said.

I inhaled to say something unforgivable, welcoming the tide of anger with actual delight – I was not tied to him at the waist – when a strong, wiry arm clamped around me, and an unfamiliar Irish-accented voice said, "Dance, darling?" As the red-haired dancer who'd opened the night's shindig swung me off in a more sedate but complicated set of steps, I spotted his partner seizing Eric's wrist to do the same.

"Just follow while you calm down, girl. I'm Sean."

"Sookie."

"Pleased to meet you, young woman. You're a fine dancer."

"Thank you. That's a high compliment, coming from you. I really enjoyed your routine earlier." I could feel the rush of anger draining away.

"It's my partner," he said, smiling. It didn't look easy for him, that smile, but it transformed him from a thin-faced freckled man with a blade of a nose to a man with sexiness to spare. "My Layla is a dream to dance with."

"She's very beautiful."

"Oh, yes, inside and out."

"How long have you been partners?"

"In dancing, two years. In life, over a year."

"From your accent, I guess you came here in a roundabout way." I glimpsed Eric and the beautiful Layla. Layla had an easy smile on her lips, and she was talking to Eric, who was still looking sort of grim. But not angry.

"You could say so," he agreed. "Of course, I'm from Ireland, but I've been over here for…" His brow furrowed in thought, and it was like watching marble ripple. "Been here for a hundred years, anyway. From time to time, we think about moving back to Tennessee, where Layla's from, but we haven't made up our minds."

This was a lot of conversation from a quiet-looking guy. "You're just getting tired of living in the city?"

"Too much anti-vampire stuff going around lately. The Fellowship of the Sun, the Take the Night from the Dead movement: we seem to breed 'em here."

"The Fellowship is everywhere," I said. The very name made me feel gloomy. "And what'll happen when they get to hear about Weres?"

"Aye. And I think that'll be soon. I keep hearing from Weres that it's just around the corner."

You'd think, that out of all the supes I knew, one of them would let me know what was up. Sooner or later the Weres and the shifters would have to let the world in on their big secret, or they'd get outed by the vampires, either intentionally or unintentionally.

"There might even be a civil war," Sean said, and I forced my mind back to the topic at hand.

"Between the Fellowship and the supes?"

He nodded. "I'm thinking that could happen."

"What would you do in that case?"

"I've been through a few wars, and I don't want to go through another one," he said promptly. "Layla hasn't seen the Old World, and she would enjoy it, so we'd go to England. We could dance there, or we could just find a place to hide out."

As interesting as this was, it wasn't getting me any closer to solving the numerous problems facing me right at the moment, which I could count off on my fingers. Who had paid Julian Trout? Who had planted the Dr Pepper bomb? Who had killed the rest of the Arkansas vampires? Was it the same person who'd had Henrik killed, the employer of the rogue vamp?

"What was the result?" I said out loud, to the red-haired vamp's confusion.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Just talking to myself. It's been a pleasure to dance with you. Excuse me; I have to go find a friend."

Sean danced me to the edge of the crowd, and we parted ways. He was already looking for his mate. Vampire couples didn't stay together for long, as a rule. Even the hundred-year marriages of kings and queens required only a once-a-year nuptial visit. I hoped Sean and Layla would prove to be the exception.

I decided I should check on Quinn. That might be a lengthy process, since I had no idea where the Weres had taken him. I was so confused by the effect Eric was having on me, all mixed up with the beginnings of affection for Quinn. But I knew whom I was beholden to. Quinn had saved my life tonight. I started my search by calling his room but got no answer.

If I was a Were, where would I take a wounded tiger? Well, nowhere public, because Weres were secretive. They wouldn't want the hotel staff to catch a word or a phrase that would tip them off to the existence of the other supes. So they'd take Quinn to a private room, right? So, who had a private room and was sympathetic to the Weres?

Jake Purifoy, of course – former Were, current vamp. Quinn could be there – or he could be down in the hotel garage somewhere, or in the security chief 's room, or in the infirmary, if there was such a thing. I had to start somewhere. I inquired at the front desk, where the clerk didn't seem to have any problem releasing the room number to me, though it's true Jake and I were flagged as being members of the same party. The clerk was not the one who'd been so rude when we'd checked in. She thought my dress was very pretty, and she wanted one just like it.

Jake's room was a floor up from mine, and as I raised my hand to knock on the door, I casually scanned inside to count the brains. There was the hole in the air that marked a vampire brain (that's the best way I can describe it), and a couple of human signatures. But I picked up on a thought that froze my fist before it had a chance to touch the door.

…they should all die, came the faint fragment of thought. Nothing followed it, though – no other thought that clarified or elaborated on that malign idea. So I knocked, and the pattern in the room changed instantly. Jake answered the door. He didn't look welcoming.

"Hi, Jake," I said, making my smile as bright and innocent as I could. "How you doing? I came by to check if Quinn was with you."

"With me?" Jake sounded startled. "Since I turned, I've hardly talked to Quinn, Sookie. We just don't have anything to talk about." I must have looked disbelieving, because he said in a rush, "Oh, it's not Quinn; it's me. I just can't bridge the chasm between who I was and who I am now. I'm not even sure who I am." His shoulders slumped.

That sounded honest enough. And I felt a lot of sympathy for him. "Anyway," Jake said, "I helped carry him to the infirmary, and I bet he's still there. There's a shifter called Bettina and a Were called Hondo with him."

Jake was holding the door shut. He didn't want me to see his companions. Jake didn't know that I could tell that he had people in his room.

It wasn't any of my business, of course. But it was disquieting. Even as I thanked him and turned to leave, I was thinking the situation over. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to cause the troubled Jake any more problems, but if he was somehow involved in the plot that seemed to be snaking through the halls of the Pyramid of Gizeh, I had to find out.

First things first. I went down to my room and called the desk to get directions to the infirmary, and I carefully wrote them on the phone pad. Then I sneaked back up the stairs to stand outside Jake's door again, but in the time I'd been gone, the party had begun to disperse. I saw two humans from the rear. Strange; I couldn't be certain, but one of them looked like the surly Joe, the computer-consulting employee from the luggage area. Jake had been meeting with some of the hotel staff in his room. Maybe he still felt more at home with humans than he did with vampires. But surely Weres would have been his choice….

As I stood there in the corridor, feeling sorry for him, Jake's door opened and he stepped out. I hadn't checked for blank spots, only live signatures. My bad. Jake looked a bit suspicious when he saw me, and I couldn't blame him.

"Do you want to go with me?" I asked.

"What?" He looked startled. He hadn't been a vampire long enough to get the inscrutable face down pat.

"To see Quinn?" I said. "I got directions to the infirmary, and you said you hadn't talked to him in a while, so I thought you might want to go with me if I'd kind of smooth the way?"

"That's a nice idea, Sookie," he said. "I think I'll pass. The fact is, most shifters don't want me around anymore. Quinn is better than most, I'm sure, but I make him uneasy. He knows my mom, my dad, my ex-girlfriend; all the people in my former life, the ones who don't want to hang with me now."

I said impulsively, "Jake, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry Hadley turned you if you would rather have passed on. She was fond of you, and she didn't want you to die."

"But I did die, Sookie," Jake said. "I'm not the same guy anymore. As you know." He picked up my arm and looked at the scar on it, the one he'd left with his teeth. "You won't ever be the same, either," he said, and he walked away. I'm not sure he knew where he was going, but he just wanted to get away from me.

I watched him until he was out of sight. He didn't turn to look back at me.

My mood had been fragile anyway, and that encounter pretty much started it on the downslope. I trudged to the elevators, determined to find the damn infirmary. The queen hadn't buzzed me, so presumably she was hobnobbing with other vampires, trying to find out who had hired the weather witch, and generally reveling in her relief. No more trial, a clear inheritance, the chance to put her beloved Andre in power. Things were coming up roses for the Queen of Louisiana, and I tried not to be bitter. Or did I have a right to be? Hmmm, let's see. I'd helped stop the trial, though I hadn't counted on it stopping as finally and completely as it had for, say, the hapless Henrik. Since she'd been found innocent, she'd get the inheritance as promised in her marriage contract. And who'd had the idea about Andre? And I'd been proved right about the witch. Okay, maybe I could be a little bitter at my own unbenevolent fortune. Plus, sooner or later I'd have to choose between Quinn and Eric, through no fault of my own. I'd stood holding a bomb for a very long time. The Ancient Pythoness was not a member of my fan club, and she was an object of reverence to most of the vampires. I'd almost been killed with an arrow.

Well, I'd had worse nights.

I found the infirmary, which was easier to locate than I'd thought, because the door was open and I could hear a familiar laugh coming from the room. I stepped in to find that Quinn was talking to the honey bear¨Clooking woman, who must be Bettina, and the black guy, who must be Hondo. Also, to my astonishment, Clovache was there. Her armor was not off, but she managed to give the impression of a guy who'd loosened his tie.

"Sookie," said Quinn. He smiled at me, but the two shape-changers didn't. I was definitely an unwelcome visitor.

But I hadn't come to see them. I'd come to see the man who'd saved my life. I walked over to him, letting him watch me, giving him a little smile. I sat on the plastic chair by the bed and took his hand.

"Tell me how you're feeling," I said.

"Like I had a real close shave," he said. "But I'm gonna be fine."

"Could you all excuse us a moment, please?" I was at my most polite as I met the eyes of the three others in the room.

Clovache said, "Back to guarding Kentucky," and took off. She might have winked at me before she vanished. Bettina looked a bit disgruntled, as if she'd been student teaching on her own and now the teacher had returned and snatched back her authority.

Hondo gave me a dark look that held more than a hint of threat. "You treat my man right," he said. "Don't give him no hard time."

"Never," I said. He couldn't think of a way to stay, since Quinn apparently wanted to talk to me, so he left.

"My fan base just gets bigger and bigger," I said, watching them go. I got up and shut the door behind them. Unless a vampire, or Barry, stood outside the door, we were reasonably private.

"Is this where you dump me for the vampire?" Quinn asked. All trace of good humor had vanished from his face, and he was holding very still.

"No. This is where I tell you what happened, and you listen, and then we talk." I said this as if I was sure he'd go along with it, but that was far from the case, and my heart was thudding in my throat as I waited for his reply. Finally he nodded, and I closed my eyes in relief, clutching his left hand in both of mine. "Okay," I said, bracing myself, and then I was off and running with my narrative, hoping that he would see that Eric really was the lesser of two evils.

Quinn didn't pull his hand away, but he didn't hold mine, either. "You're bound to Eric," he said.

"Yes."

"You've exchanged blood with him at least three times."

"Yes."

"You know he can turn you whenever he feels like it?"

"Any of us could be turned whenever the vampires feel like it, Quinn. Even you. It might take two of them to hold you down and one to take all your blood and give you his, but it still could happen."

"It wouldn't take that long if he made up his mind, now that you two have swapped so often. And this is Andre's fault."

"There's nothing I can do about that now. I wish there were. I wish I could cut Eric out of my life. But I can't."

"Unless he gets staked," Quinn said.

I felt a pang in my heart that almost had me clapping a hand to my chest.

"You don't want that to happen." Quinn's mouth was compressed in a hard line.

"No, of course not!"

"You care about him."

Oh, crap. "Quinn, you know Eric and I were together for a while, but he had amnesia and he doesn't remember it. I mean, he knows it's a fact, but he doesn't remember it at all."

"If anyone besides you told me that story, you know what I'd think."

"Quinn. I'm not anybody else."

"Babe, I don't know what to say. I care about you, and I love spending time with you. I love going to bed with you. I like eating at the table with you. I like cooking together. I like almost everything about you, including your gift. But I'm not good at sharing."

"I don't go with two guys at the same time."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying, I'm going with you, unless you tell me different."

"What will you do when Mr. Big and Blond tells you to hop in bed with him?"

"I'll tell him I'm spoken for…if you're going to speak."

Quinn shifted restlessly on the narrow bed. "I'm healing, but I'm hurting," he admitted. He looked very tired.

"I wouldn't trouble you with all this if it didn't seem pretty important to me," I said. "I'm trying to be honest with you. Absolutely honest. You took the arrow for me, and it's the least I can do in return."

"I know that. Sookie, I'm a man who almost always knows his own mind, but I have to tell you…I don't know what to say. I thought we were just about ideal for each other until this." Quinn's eyes blazed in his face suddenly. "If he died, we'd have no problems."

"If you killed him, I'd have a problem," I said. I couldn't get any plainer than that.

Quinn closed his eyes. "We have to think about this again when I'm all healed and you've had sleep and time to relax," he said. "You gotta meet Frannie, too. I'm so…" To my horror, I thought Quinn was going to choke up. If he cried, I would, too, and the last thing I needed was tears. I leaned over so far I thought I was going to fall on top of him, and I kissed him, just a quick pressure of my mouth on his. But then he held my shoulder and pulled me back to him, and there was much more to explore, his warmth and intensity…but then his gasp drew us out of the moment. He was trying not to grimace with pain.

"Oh! I'm sorry."

"Don't ever apologize for a kiss like that," he said. And he didn't look teary anymore. "We definitely have something going on, Sookie. I don't want Andre's vampire crap to ruin it."

"Me, either," I said. I didn't want to give Quinn up, not the least because of our sizzling chemistry. Andre terrified me, and who knew what his intentions were? I certainly didn't. I suspected Eric didn't know, either, but he was never averse to power.

I said good-bye to Quinn, a reluctant good-bye, and began finding my way back to the dance. I felt obliged to check in with the queen to make sure she didn't need me, but I was exhausted, and I needed to get out of my dress and collapse on my bed.

Clovache was leaning against a wall in the corridor ahead, and I had the impression she was waiting for me. The younger Britlingen was less statuesque than Batanya, and while Batanya looked like a striking hawk with dark curls, Clovache was lighter altogether, with feathery ash-brown hair that needed a good stylist and big green eyes with high, arched brows.

"He seems like a good man," she said in her harsh accent, and I got the strong feeling that Clovache was not a subtle woman.

"He seems that way to me, too."

"While a vampire, by definition, is twisty and deceptive."

"By definition? You mean, without exception?"

"I do."

I kept silent as we walked. I was too tired to figure out the warrior's purpose in telling me this. I decided to ask. "What's up, Clovache? What's the point?"

"Did you wonder why we were here, guarding the King of Kentucky? Why he had decided to pay our truly astronomical fees?"

"Yes, I did, but I figured it wasn't my business."

"It's very much your business."

"Then tell me. I'm not up to guessing."

"Isaiah caught a Fellowship spy in his entourage a month ago."

I stopped dead, and Clovache did, too. I processed her words. "That's really bad," I said, knowing the words were inadequate.

"Bad for the spy, of course. But she gave up some information before she went to the vale of shadows."

"Wow, that's a pretty way to put it."

"It's a load of crap. She died, and it wasn't pretty. Isaiah is an old-fashioned guy. Modern on the surface, a traditional vampire underneath. He had a wonderful time with the poor bitch before she gave it up."

"You think you can trust what she said?"

"Good point. I'd confess to anything if I thought it would spare me some of the things his cronies did to her."

I wasn't sure that was true. Clovache was made of pretty stern stuff.

"But I think she told him the truth. Her story was, a splinter group in the Fellowship got wind of this summit and decided it would be a golden opportunity to come out in the open with their fight against the vampires. Not simply protests and sermons against the vamps, but out-and-out warfare. This isn't the main body of the Fellowship…the leaders are always careful to say, 'Oh, gosh, no, we don't condone violence against anyone. We're only cautioning people to be aware that if they consort with vampires, they're consorting with the devil.'"

"You know a lot about things in this world," I said.

"Yes," she agreed. "I do a lot of research before we take a job."

I wanted to ask her what her world was like, how she got from one to the other, how much she charged, if all the warriors on (in?) her world were women or could the guys kick butt, too; and if so, what they looked like in the wonderful pants. But this wasn't the time or the place.

"So, what's the bottom line on this?" I asked.

"I think maybe the Fellowship is trying to mount some major offensive here."

"The bomb in the soda can?"

"Actually, that baffles me. But it was outside Louisiana's room, and the Fellowship has to know by now that their operative didn't succeed, if it was their work."

"And there are also the three murdered vampires in the Arkansas suite," I pointed out.

"Like I say, baffled," Clovache said.

"Would they have killed Jennifer Cater and the others?"

"Certainly, if they had a chance. But to tip their hand in such a small way when according to the spy they have planned something really big – that seems very unlikely. Also, how could a human get into the suite and kill three vampires?"

"So, what was the result of the Dr Pepper bomb?" I asked, trying hard to figure out the thinking behind it. We'd resumed walking, and now we were right outside the ceremonies room. I could hear the orchestra.

"Well, it gave you a few new white hairs," Clovache said, smiling.

"I can't think that was the goal," I said. "I'm not that egocentric."

Clovache had made up her mind. "You're right," she said, "because the Fellowship wouldn't have planted it. They wouldn't want to draw attention to their larger plan with the little bomb."

"So it was there for some other purpose."

"And what was that purpose?"

"The end result of the bomb, if it had gone off, would have been that the queen got a big scare," I said slowly.

Clovache looked startled. "Not killed?"

"She wasn't even in the room."

"It should have gone off earlier than it did," Clovache said.

"How do you know that?"

"Security guy. Donati. That's what the police told him. Donati sees us as fellow professionals." Clovache grinned. "He likes women in armor."

"Hey, who doesn't?" I grinned back.

"And it was a weak bomb, if any bomb can be called weak. I'm not saying there wouldn't have been damage. There would have. Maybe even someone killed, like you could have been. But the episode seems to be ineffective and ill-planned."

"Unless it was designed only to scare. Designed to be spotted. Designed to be disarmed."

Clovache shrugged.

"I don't understand," I said. "If not the Fellowship, who? What does the Fellowship plan to do? Charge the lobby armed with sharpened baseball bats?"

"The security here is not so good," Clovache said.

"Yeah, I know. When I was down in the basement, getting a suitcase for the queen, the guards were pretty lazy, and I don't think the employees are searched as they come in, either. And they got a lot of suitcases mixed up."

"And the vampires hired these people. Unbelievable. On one level vampires realize they're not immortal. They can be killed. On another, they've survived for so long, it makes them feel omnipotent." Clovache shrugged. "Well, back to duty." We'd reached the ballroom. The Dead Man Dance Band was still playing.

The queen was standing very close to Andre, who no longer stood behind her but to her side. I knew this was significant, but it wasn't plain enough to cause Kentucky to give up hope. Christian Baruch was also in close attendance. If he'd had a tail, it would have been wagging, he was so anxious to please Sophie-Anne. I glanced around the room at the other kings and queens, recognizable by their entourages. I hadn't seen them in a room all together before, and I counted. There were only four queens. The other twelve rulers were males. Of the four queens, Minnesota appeared to be mated with the King of Wisconsin. Ohio had his arm around Iowa, so they were a couple. Besides Alabama, the only unmated queen was Sophie-Anne.

Though many vampires tend to be elastic about the gender of their sexual partner, or at least tolerant of those who prefer something different, some of them definitely aren't. No wonder Sophie-Anne was shining so brightly, even from under the lifted cloud of Peter Threadgill's death. Vampires didn't seem to be afraid of merry widows.

Alabama's boy toy scuttled his fingers up her bare back, and she shrieked in pretended fear. "You know I hate spiders," she said playfully, looking almost human, clutching him close to her. Though he'd played at frightening her, she clung closer.

Wait, I thought. Wait just a minute. But the idea wouldn't form.

Sophie-Anne noticed me lurking, and she beckoned. "I think most of the humans are gone for the night," she said.

A glance around the room told me that was true. "What did you think of Julian Trout?" I asked, to allay my fear that she'd do something awful to him.

"I think he doesn't understand what he did," Sophie-Anne said. "At least to some extent. But he and I will come to an understanding." She smiled. "He and his wife are quite all right. I don't need you anymore tonight. Go amuse yourself," she said, and it didn't sound condescending. Sophie-Anne really wanted me to have a good time, though, granted, she wasn't too particular about how I did it.

"Thanks," I said, and then recalled that I'd better dress that up a bit. "Thank you, ma'am, and you have a good night. See you tomorrow evening."

I was glad to get out of there. With the room chock full o' vampires, the glances I was getting were a little on the pointy-toothed side. Individual bloodsuckers had an easier time of it sticking to the artificial blood than a group did. Something about the memory of the good ole days just made them want something warm from the source, rather than a liquid created in a lab and heated up in a microwave. Right on schedule, the crowd of Willing Donors returned through a back door and lined up, more or less, against the back wall. In very short order, they were all occupied, and (I suppose) happy.

After Bill had taken my blood during lovemaking, he'd told me blood from the neck of a human – after a diet of TrueBlood, say – was like going to Ruth's Chris Steak House after many meals at McDonald's. I saw Gervaise nuzzling Carla off in a corner, and I wondered if she needed help; but when I saw her face, I decided not.

Carla didn't come in that night, either, and without the distraction of Quinn, I was kind of sorry. I had too much to think about. It seemed that trouble was looking for me in the corridors of the Pyramid of Gizeh, and no matter which turn I took, it was going to find me.