I'D FINALLY GONE TO BED AT FOUR IN THE MORNING, and I woke at noon. That eight hours wasn't a good eight hours. I kept starting half awake, and I couldn't regulate my temperature, which might have had something to do with the blood exchange…or not. I had bad dreams, too, and twice I thought I heard Carla entering the room, only to open my eyes enough to see she wasn't there. The weird light that entered through the heavily colored glass of the human-only floor was not like real daylight, not at all. It was throwing me off.
I felt a tad bit better after a long shower, and I lifted the phone to call room service to get something to eat. Then I decided to go down to the little restaurant. I wanted to see other humans.
There were a few there; not my roommate, but a human playmate or two, and Barry. He gestured to the empty chair at his table, and I dropped into it, looking around for the waiter to signal for coffee. It came right away, and I shuddered with pleasure at the first sip. After I'd finished the first cup, I said – in my way – How are you today? Were you up all night?
No, Stan went to bed early with his new girlfriend, so I wasn't needed. They're still in the honeymoon stage. I went to the dance for a while, then I hung out with the makeup girl the Queen of Iowa brought with her. He waggled his eyebrows to tell me that the makeup girl was hot.
So, what's your program for today?
Did you get one of these slid under your door? Barry pushed a stapled sheaf of papers across the table to me just as the waiter brought my English muffin and eggs.
Yeah, I stuffed it in my purse. Wow, I could talk to Barry while I ate, the neatest answer to talking with your mouth full I could ever devise.
Take a look.
While Barry cut open a biscuit to slather it with butter, I scanned the pages. An agenda for the night, which was very helpful. Sophie-Anne's trial had been the most serious case that had to be adjudicated, the only one involving royalty. But there were a couple of others. The first session was set for 8:00, and it was a dispute over a personal injury. A Wisconsin vampire named Jodi (which seemed unlikely in and of itself ) was being sued by an Illinois vampire named Michael. Michael alleged that Jodi had waited until he had dozed off for the day and then broken off one of his canines. With pliers.
Wow. That sounds…interesting. I raised my eyebrows. How come the sheriffs aren't handling this? Vampires really didn't like airing their dirty laundry.
"Interstate," Barry said succinctly. The waiter had just brought a whole pot of coffee, so Barry topped off my cup and filled his own.
I flipped over a page. The next case involved a Kansas City, Missouri, vampire named Cindy Lou Suskin, who'd turned a child. Cindy Lou claimed that the child was dying of a blood disorder anyway, and she'd always wanted a child; so now she had a perpetual vampire preteen. Furthermore, the boy had been turned with his parents' consent, gotten in writing. Kate Book, the Kansas City, Kansas, lawyer appointed by the state to supervise the child's welfare, was complaining that now the child refused to see his human parents or to have any interaction with them, which was contrary to the agreement between the parents and Cindy Lou.
Sounded like something on daytime television. Judge Judy, anyone?
So, tonight is court cases, I summarized after scanning the remaining sheets. "I guess we're needed?"
"Yes, I guess so. There'll be human witnesses for the second case. Stan wants me to be there, and I'm betting your queen will want you there, too. Her subject Bill is one of the appointed judges. Only kings and queens can judge other kings and queens, but for cases involving lesser vampires, the judges are picked from a pool. Bill's name came out of the hat."
You got a history with him?
Yeah. But I think he'd probably be a good judge. I wasn't sure why I believed this; after all, Bill had shown he was capable of great deception. But I thought he would try to be fair and dispassionate.
I had noticed that the "court" cases would take up the hours between eight and eleven. After that, midnight to four a.m. was blocked out as "Commerce." Barry and I looked at each other and shrugged.
"Swap meet?" I suggested. "Flea market?"
Barry had no idea.
The fourth night of the conference was the last, and the first half of it was marked "Free Time for Everyone in Rhodes." Some of the suggested activities: seeing the Blue Moon dancers again, or their more explicit division, Black Moon. The difference wasn't spelled out, but I got the definite idea that the Black Moon employees did much more sexually oriented performances. Different dance teams from the studio were listed as appearing at different venues. The visiting vampires were also advised to visit the zoo, which would be open at night by special arrangement, or the city museum, ditto. Or they could visit a club "for the particular enjoyment of those who enjoy their pleasures on the darker side." It was called Kiss of Pain. Remind me to walk down the other side of the street from that one, I told Barry.
You never enjoy a little bite? Barry touched his tongue to his own blunt canines so I couldn't miss the implication.
There's lots of pleasure in that, I said, because I could hardly deny it. But I think this place probably goes a little beyond a nip in the neck. Are you busy right now? Because I have to do some legwork for Eric, and I could use some help.
"Sure," Barry said. "What's up?"
"We need to find archery places," I said.
"This was left for you at the desk, miss," said our waiter, who dropped a manila envelope on the table and retreated as if he suspected we had rabies. Evidently our silent exchanges had freaked someone out.
I opened the envelope to find a picture of Kyle Perkins inside. There was a note paper-clipped to it in Bill's familiar cramped handwriting. "Sookie: Eric says you need this to do some detective work, and that this picture is necessary. Please be cautious. William Compton." And just when I was thinking about asking the waiter for a phone book, I saw there was a second sheet. Bill had searched the Internet and made a list of all the archery practice places in the city. There were only four. I tried not to be impressed by Bill's thoughtfulness and assistance. I'd done with being impressed by Bill.
I called the hotel garage to get one of the cars brought by the Arkansas contingent. The queen had assumed ownership of them, and Eric had offered me one of them.
Barry had run up to his room to get a jacket, and I was standing by the front door, waiting for the car to be brought around and wondering how much I should tip the valet when I spotted Todd Donati. He came over to me, walking slowly and somehow heavily, though he was a thin man. He looked bad today, the scalp exposed by his receding hairline gray and damp looking, even his mustache sagging.
He stood facing me for a moment, not speaking. I thought he was gathering his courage, or his hopelessness. If ever I saw death riding on a man's shoulder, it was on Todd Donati's.
"My boss is trying to interest your boss in hooking up," he said abruptly. If I'd imagined how he'd open our conversation, it had never included that line.
"Yeah, now that she's a widow, she's attracting quite a lot of interest," I said.
"He's an old-fashioned guy in a lot of ways," Todd Donati said. "Comes from an old family, doesn't like modern thinking."
"Um-hum," I said, trying to sound neutral but encouraging.
"He don't believe in women making up their own minds, being able to fend for themselves," the security chief said.
I couldn't look like I understood what Donati was talking about, because I sure didn't.
"Even vampire women," he said, and looked at me squarely and directly.
"Okay," I said.
"Think about it," Donati said. "Get your queen to ask him where the security tape is that shows that area in front of her room."
"I will," I said, having no idea why I was agreeing. Then the ailing man spun on his heel and walked away with an air of having discharged his duty.
Then the car came around, Barry hurried out of the elevator and came over to join me, and any thinking I might have done about the encounter faded in my fear of driving in the city. I don't think Eric ever considered how hard it would be for me to drive in Rhodes, because he just didn't think about stuff like that. If I hadn't had Barry with me, it would have been nearly impossible. I could cope with the driving, or I could look at the map the parking attendant loaned us, but not both.
I didn't do too bad, though the traffic was heavy and the weather was cold and raining. I hadn't been out of the hotel since we'd arrived, and it was kind of refreshing to see the outside world. Also, this was probably the only glimpse of the rest of the city I would get. I did as much looking as I could. Who knew if I'd ever come back? And this was so far north.
Barry plotted our course, and we began our archery tour of Rhodes.
We started with the farthest business, called Straight Arrow. It was a long, narrow place on a very busy avenue. It was gleaming, well-lit – and had qualified instructors behind the counter who were heavily armed. I knew this, because a big sign said so. The men there were not impressed by Barry's southern accent. They thought it made him sound stupid. Though when I talked, they thought I was cute. Okay, how insulting is that? The subtext, which I read very clearly from their minds, was: women sound stupid anyway, so a southern accent just enhances that adorable dimness. Men are supposed to sound crisp and direct, so southern men sound stupid and weak.
Anyway, aside from their built-in prejudices, these men were not helpful. They'd never seen Kyle Perkins at any of their night classes, and they didn't think he'd ever rented time to practice at their place.
Barry was fuming at the disrespect he'd endured, and he didn't even want to go in the second place. I trotted in by myself with the picture, and the one guy at work at the second archery supply store, which had no range, said, "No," immediately. He didn't discuss the picture, ask me why I wanted to know about Kyle Perkins, or wish me a nice day. He didn't have a sign to tell me how formidable he was. I figured he just ruded people to death.
The third place, housed in a building that I thought might at one time have been a bowling alley, had a few cars in the parking lot and a heavy opaque door. STOP AND BE IDENTIFIED a sign said. Barry and I could read it from the car. It seemed a little ominous.
"I'm tired of being in the car anyway," he said gallantly, and got out with me. We stood where we could be seen, and I alerted Barry when I spotted the camera above our heads. Barry and I both looked as pleasant as we could. (In Barry's case, that was pretty pleasant. He just had a way about him.) After a few seconds, we heard a loud click, and the door unlocked. I glanced at Barry, and he pulled open the heavy door while I stepped inside the room and to one side so he could enter, too.
We were faced with a long counter extending the length of the opposite wall. There was a woman about my age behind the counter, with coppery hair and skin, the product of an interesting racial blend. She'd dyed her eyebrows black, which added a touch of the bizarre to the whole uni-color effect.
She looked us over just as carefully in person as she had over the camera, and I could read the thought that she was much happier to see Barry than she was to see me. I told Barry, You better take this one.
Yeah, I'm getting the idea, he answered, and while I laid Kyle's picture on the counter, he said, "Could you tell us if this guy ever came in here to buy arrows or to practice?"
She didn't even ask why we wanted to know. She bent over to look at the picture, maybe a little farther than necessary to give Barry the benefit of her neckline. She scanned Kyle's picture and immediately made a face. "Yeah, he came in here right after dark yesterday," she said. "We'd never had a vampire customer, and I didn't really want to serve him, but what are you gonna do? He had the money, and the law says we can't discriminate." She was a woman who was ready and willing to discriminate, no doubt about it.
"Was anyone with him?" Barry asked.
"Oh, let me think." She posed, her head thrown back, for Barry's benefit. She didn't think his southern accent sounded stupid. She thought it was adorable and sexy. "I just can't remember. Listen, I'll tell ya what I'll do. I'll get the security tape for last night; we've still got it. And I'll let you have a look at it, okay?"
"Can we do that right now?" I asked, smiling sweetly.
"Well, I can't leave the counter right now. There's no one else here to watch the store if I have to go to the back. But if you'll come to look tonight after my replacement gets here" – she cast a very pointed glance at Barry, to make sure I realized I need not come – "I'll let you have a peek."
"What time?" Barry said, rather reluctantly.
"Shall we say seven? I get off right after that."
Barry didn't touch the hint, but he agreed to be back at seven.
"Thanks, Barry," I said as we buckled up again. "You're really helping me out." I called the hotel and left a message for the queen and Andre, explaining where I was and what I was doing, so they wouldn't get mad when I wasn't at their disposal the moment they woke, which should be very soon. After all, I was following Eric's orders.
"You gotta come in with me," Barry said. "I'm not seeing that woman by myself. She'll eat me alive. That was the War of Northern Aggression, for sure."
"Okay. I'll stay out in the car, and you can yell to me from your head if she climbs on top of you."
"It's a deal."
To fill the time, we had a cup of coffee and some cake at a bakery. It was great. My grandmother had always believed that northern women couldn't cook. It was delightful to find out exactly how untrue that conviction had been. My appetite was also delightful. It was a continuing relief to find that I was just as hungry as I normally was. Nothing vampy about me, no sir!
After we filled up the tank and checked our route back to the Pyramid, it was finally time to return to the archery range to talk to Copper. The sky was full dark, and the city glowed with light. I felt sort of urban and glamorous, driving around such a large and famous city. And I'd been given a task and performed it successfully. No country mouse, me.
My feeling of happiness and superiority didn't last long.
Our first clue that all was not well at the Monteagle Archery Company was the heavy metal door hanging askew.
"Shit," said Barry, which summed up my feelings in a nutshell.
We got out – very reluctantly – and, with many glances from side to side, we went up to the door to examine it.
"Blown or ripped?" I said.
Barry knelt on the gravel to have a closer look.
"I'm no 007," he said, "but I think this was ripped off."
I looked at the door doubtfully. But when I bent over to look more closely, I saw the twisted metal of the hinges. Chalk one up for Barry.
"Okay," I said. Here's the part where we actually have to go in.
Barry's jaw tightened. Yeah, he said, but he didn't sound too sure. Barry was definitely not into violence or confrontations. Barry was into money, and he had the best-paying employer. Right now, he was wondering if any amount of money would be enough to compensate for this, and he was thinking if he weren't with a woman, he'd just get in the car and drive away.
Sometimes male pride can be a good thing. I sure didn't want to do this by myself.
I shoved the door, which responded in a spectacular way by falling off its hinges and crashing to the gravel.
"Hi, we're here," Barry said weakly. "Anyone who didn't know before…"
After the noise had stopped and nothing had leaped out of the building to eat us, Barry and I straightened up from our instinctive crouching positions. I took a deep breath. This was my task, since this had been my errand. I stepped into the stream of light coming from the empty doorway. I took one big step forward over the threshold of the building. A quick scan hadn't given me a brain signal, so I pretty much figured what I was going to find.
Oh, yeah, Copper was dead. She was on top of the counter, laid out in a sprawl of limbs, her head canting off to one side. There was a knife protruding from her chest. Someone had been sick about a yard to the left of my foot – not blood – so there'd been at least one human on-site. I heard Barry step into the building and pause, just as I had.
I'd noted two doors from the room on our earlier visit. There was a door to the right, outside the counter, that would admit customers to the range. There was a door behind the counter that would allow employees to duck back for breaks and to attend customers in the range area. I was sure the tape we'd come to watch had been back there, because that would be the natural place for the security equipment. Whether it was still back there, that was the big question.
I wanted to turn around and leave without a backward glance, and I was scared out of my mind, but she'd died because of that tape, I figured, and it seemed like I'd be discarding her unwilling sacrifice if I discarded the tape. That didn't really make much sense, but that was how I felt.
I'm not finding anyone else in the area, Barry told me.
Me, either, I said, after I'd performed my second, more thorough, scan.
Barry, of course, knew exactly what I planned to do, and he said, Do you want me to come with you?
No, I want you to wait outside. I'll call you if I need you. In truth, it would have been nice to have him closer, but it smelled too bad in the room for anyone to stand around for more than a minute, and our minute was up.
Without protesting, Barry went back outside, and I crept down the counter to a clear area. It felt indescribably creepy to scramble over, avoiding Copper's body. I was glad her sightless eyes were not aimed in my direction as I used a tissue to wipe the area my hands had gripped.
On the employee side of the counter, there was evidence of a considerable struggle. She'd fought hard. There were smears of blood here and there, and paperwork had gotten knocked to the floor. There was a panic button clearly visible, below the top of the counter, but I guess she hadn't had time to punch it.
The lights were on in the office behind the counter, too, as I could see through the partially open door. I pushed it with my foot, and it swung away from me with a little creak. Again, nothing leaped out at me. I took a deep breath and stepped through.
The room was a combination security room/office/break-room. There were counters built around the walls with rolling chairs pulled up to them, and there were computers and a microwave and a little refrigerator: the usual stuff. And there were the security tapes, heaped in a pile on the floor and smoldering. All the other smells in the outer room had been so bad we simply hadn't gotten around to this one. There was another door leading out; I didn't go check to see where it led to, because there was a body blocking it. It was a man's body, and it was lying facedown, which was a blessing. I didn't need to go over to check to see if he was dead. He was surely dead. Copper's replacement, I assumed.
"Well, crap," I said out loud. And then I thought, Thank God I can get the hell out of here. One thing about the security tapes having been burned: any record of our earlier visit was gone, too.
On my way, I pressed the panic button with my elbow. I hoped it was ringing somewhere at a police station, and that they'd get here soon.
Barry was waiting for me outside, as I'd been 99 percent sure he would be. Though I confess I wouldn't have been completely surprised if he'd left. "Let's book! I set off the alarm," I said, and we jumped into the car and got the hell out of there.
I was driving, because Barry was looking green. We had to pull over once (and in Rhodes traffic that wasn't easy) for him to be sick. I didn't blame him one little bit. What we'd seen was awful. But I've been blessed with a strong stomach, and I'd seen worse.
We got back to the hotel in time for the judicial session. Barry looked at me with gaping astonishment when I commented that I'd better get ready for it. He hadn't had an inkling what I'd been thinking, so I knew he was really feeling bad.
"How can you think of going?" he said. "We have to tell someone what happened."
"I called the police, or at least a security company who'll report it," I said. "What else can we do?" We were in the elevator rising from the parking garage to the lobby.
"We have to talk to them."
"Why?" The doors opened and we stepped out into the hotel lobby.
"To tell them."
"That someone tried to kill you last night here by…okay, throwing an arrow at you." He fell silent.
"Right. See?" I was getting his thoughts now, and he'd come to the correct conclusion. "Would it help solve her murder? Probably not, because the guy is dead and the tapes are destroyed. And they'd come here asking questions of the master vampires of a third of the United States. Who would thank me for that? No one, that's who."
"We can't stand by and do nothing."
"This isn't perfect. I know that. But it's realistic. And practical."
"Oh, so now you're practical?" Barry was getting shrieky.
"And you're yelling at my – at Sookie," said Eric, earning another shriek (this one wordless) from Barry. By that time, Barry didn't care if he ever saw me again in his life. Though I didn't feel quite that drastic, I didn't think we were going to become pen pals, either.
If Eric didn't know how to pick a term for what I was to him, I was equally stumped. "Do you need something?" I asked him in a voice that warned him I wasn't in the mood for any double entendres.
"What did you find out today?" he asked, all business, and the starch ran out of me in a stream.
"You go on," I told Barry, who didn't need telling twice.
Eric looked around for a safe place to talk, didn't see one. The lobby was busy with vampires who were going to the judicial proceedings, or chatting, or flirting. "Come," he said, not as rudely as it sounds, and we went to the elevators and up to his room. Eric was on the ninth floor, which covered a much larger area than the queen's. There were twenty rooms on nine, at least. There was a lot more traffic, too; we passed quite a few vamps on the way to Eric's room, which he told me he was sharing with Pam.
I was a little curious about seeing a regular vampire room, since I'd seen only the living room of the queen's suite. I was disappointed to find that aside from the traveling coffins, it looked quite ordinary. Of course, that was kind of a big "aside." Pam's and Eric's coffins were resting on fancy trestles covered with fake hieroglyphics in gilt on black-painted wood, which gave them a neat atmospheric touch. There were two double beds, too, and a very compact bathroom. Both towels were hung up, which I could see because the door was open. Eric had never hung up his towels when he lived with me, so I was willing to bet that Pam had folded them and hung them on the rack. It seemed oddly domestic. Pam had probably picked up for Eric for over a century. Good God. I hadn't even managed two weeks.
What with the coffins and the beds, the room was a bit crowded, and I wondered what the lower echelon vamps had to put up with, say, on floor twelve. Could you arrange coffins in a bunk configuration? But I was just waffling, trying not to think about being alone with Eric. We sat down, Eric on one bed and I on another, and he leaned forward. "Tell me," he said.
"Well, it's not good," I said, just to put him on the right track.
His face darkened, the blond brows drawing in to meet, his mouth turning down.
"We did find an archery range that Kyle Perkins visited. You were right about that. Barry went with me to be nice, and I really appreciated it," I said, getting my opening credits in. "To condense the whole afternoon, we found the right range at our third stop, and the gal behind the counter said we could look at the security tape from the night Kyle visited. I thought we might see someone we knew coming in with him. But she wanted us to come back at the end of her shift, seven o'clock." I paused to take a deep breath. Eric's face didn't change at all. "We came back at the appointed time, and she was dead, murdered, in the store. I went past her to look in the office, and the tapes had been burned."
"She'd been stabbed, and the knife was left in her chest, and the killer or someone with him had thrown up food. Also, a guy who worked at the store was killed, but I didn't check him out to see how."
"Ah." Eric considered this. "Anything else?"
"No," I said, and got to my feet to leave.
"Barry was angry with you," he observed.
"Yeah, he was, but he'll get over it."
"What's his problem?"
"He doesn't think I handled the…He doesn't think we should've left. Or…I don't know. He thinks I was unfeeling."
"I think you did exceptionally well."
"Well, great!" Then I clamped down on myself. "Sorry," I said. "I know you meant to compliment me. I'm not feeling all that good about her dying. Or leaving her. Even if it was the practical thing to do."
"You're second-guessing yourself."
A knock at the door. Since Eric didn't shift himself, I got up to answer it. I didn't think it was a sexist thing; it was a status thing. I was definitely the lower dog in the room.
Completely and totally not to my surprise, the knocker was Bill. That just made my day complete. I stood aside to let him enter. Darn if I was going to ask Eric if I should let him in.
Bill looked me up and down, I guess to check that my clothes were in order, then strode by me without a word. I rolled my eyes at his back. Then I had a brilliant idea: instead of turning back into the room for further discussion, I stepped out of the open door and shut it behind me. I marched off quite briskly and grabbed the elevator with hardly any wait. In two minutes, I was unlocking my door.
End of problem.
I felt quite proud of myself.
Carla was in our room, naked again.
"Hi," I said. "Please put on a robe."
"Well, hey, if it bothers you," she said in a fairly relaxed manner, and pulled on a robe. Wow. End of another problem. Direct action, straightforward statements; obviously, those were the keys to improving my life.
"Thanks," I said. "Not going to the judicial stuff?"
"Human dates aren't invited," she said. "It's Free Time for us. Gervaise and I are going out nightclubbing later. Some really extreme place called Kiss of Pain."
"You be careful," I said. "Bad things can happen if there are lots of vamps together and a bleeding human or two."
"I can handle Gervaise," Carla said.
"No, you can't."
"He's nuts about me."
"Until he stops being nuts. Or until a vamp older than Gervaise takes a shine to you, and Gervaise gets all conflicted."
She looked uncertain for a second, an expression I felt sure Carla didn't wear too often.
"What about you? I hear you're tied to Eric now."
"Only for a while," I said, and I meant it. "It'll wear off."
I will never go anywhere with vampires again, I promised myself. I let the lure of the money and the excitement of the travel pull me in. But I won't do that again. As God is my witness… Then I had to laugh out loud. Scarlett O'Hara, I wasn't. "I'll never be hungry again," I told Carla.
"Why, did you eat a big supper?" she asked, focused on the mirror because she was plucking her eyebrows.
I laughed. And I couldn't stop.
"What's up with you?" Carla swung around to eye me with some concern. "You're not acting like yourself, Sookie."
"Just had a bad shock," I said, gasping for breath. "I'll be okay in a minute." It was more like ten before I gathered my control back around me. I was due at the judicial meeting, and frankly, I wanted to have something to occupy my mind. I scrubbed my face and put on some makeup, changed into a bronze silk blouse and tobacco-colored pants with a matching cardigan, and put on some brown leather pumps. With my room key in my pocket and a relieved good-bye from Carla, I was off to find the judicial sessions.