Disclaimer: The Sookie Stackhouse Series is the creation of Charlaine Harris. Don't sue me Charlaine! I love your books.
Strong Warning- there is a scene of implied sexual violence in one of the last chapters. I strongly suggest caution on the part of readers uneasy with such plot elements.
It was late July. Eric convened the pre-Summit meeting of Area 5 vampires on a Friday night at 11 pm. I was already tired that night. I had planned a day off to rest, but I had gone in to work that morning to cover for Holly, who was home with her son Cody, who was ill. Then, I arrived at Fangtasia to find Pam and Felicia stressing because a waitress hadn't shown at 8 pm. I helped Felicia restock the bar before opening and waited tables from 9 pm until the start of the meeting at 11 pm, while Pam called around and tried to get one of her other waitresses to come in to cover.
Eric had finally gotten over himself about my working in the bar to help out Pam whenever it was needed. If Eric started complaining about my working in the bar, my first line of defense was that I was helping Pam. If still he got testy about it, I'd point out that Louisiana was a community property state and that I was merely securing my business. He gave up. It was on nights like this that Pam and Felicia were glad I was one feisty human.
So I felt exhausted but looked pretty good, dressed in a strappy black tank top with faint shimmers in the fabric, a flattering pair of black slacks and platforms that raised my height to a good five foot nine. My hair was up in a ponytail and my neck was unadorned by bite marks. My nails were a delicate shade of pink. My only jewelry, other than my wedding ring which I now wore all the time, were the diamond earrings that Eric had given me for my twenty eighth birthday at the beginning of the month. Yes, I looked positively prudish for Fangtasia. I was truly the anti-fangbanger according to Pam.
There were so many of us crowded in the small office space that some people had to stand. I, however, ranked a chair. Eric had glanced at Clancy, who got up and offered me his seat when I entered. In spite of the fact that I usually don't go in for those little gestures that Eric was so fond of demanding on my behalf, I took Clancy up on this one. Eight hours on my feet at Merlotte's plus another three here at Fangtasia helping Felicia and covering for the waitress who failed to show had just about done me in.
Clancy actually acted as if he didn't much mind yielding his seat to me. He probably already knew from Pam that I'd been on my feet for 10+ hours by the time I squeezed into the room. Clancy and I had not gotten along well for the longest time. We had come to an understanding in recent months. He knew I was completely uninterested in gestures of respect just because I was Eric's wife. Ironically, that had earned me Clancy's respect. As soon as I sat down, Pam swapped seats with Thalia so she and I could sit next to each other. Felicia was on my other side. Felicia and I had been getting along pretty well these days too, ever since I helped her hook up with her human girlfriend. Long story that. They both murmured their thanks, because they had been slammed without the extra waitress at opening. Now the floor was fully staffed so they had coverage for the meeting.
So we were all here, all the usual suspects. Pam, Bill, Clancy, Felicia, Thalia, Indira, Maxwell Lee, and… Rasul? I was surprised to see Rasul walking through the doorway of the office instead of Victor. It seemed everyone was caught off guard, even Eric. Rasul was the sole survivor of Queen Sophie-Anne LeClerq's Area 1 group, which had been decimated in a takeover some eight months before, when she was overthrown and killed by Nevada vampires. Sophie-Anne had been living in Baton Rouge after Katrina and was recovering from grievous injuries received at the last summit, in Rhodes. Sigebert, one of her children, had survived but had been killed shortly thereafter in an attempt on the new King's, and Eric's, life.
Rasul and I had always been on friendly terms, ever since I had met him the previous year in New Orleans. In an odd breach of vampire manners, he smiled at me first and then nodded hello to Eric.
"Eric- neither Victor nor Sandy can't make it tonight. They have sent me to take notes and to provide you with any details you and your crew will need," Rasul informed Eric.
I was rather taken aback that Rasul was working so directly with Victor Madden and Sandy Sechrest. (They were, respectively, the new King's lieutenant in Lousiana and his area representative.) The weight of his new position as regime representative was evident when Eric looked at Felicia and she rose from sitting at my side to make room for Rasul.
This year's central regional vampire summit was to be convened in Memphis, Tennessee. I was pleased at the idea of seeing a new city, a new state. There was much to discuss, including the ongoing challenge of post-Katrina rebuilding in New Orleans and the recent takeover. Felipe de Castro, King of the states of Nevada, Louisiana and Arkansas, would of course be in attendance. Hopefully there would be no bombs (large or small), shootings, stakings, or other forms of violence. Of course, I realized given the crowd involved, that tempering my hopes on these points might allay disappointment on that account.
As I mentioned, I was quite tired, and listening to Eric droning on about who was going to do what and where, so I wasn't really clear about exactly when I became aware of Rasul's arm across the back of my chair, and when he moved it closer in contact with my shoulders. At some point his thumb stroked my bare shoulder. I felt this ripple of discomfort. What the hell? Without pausing in his speaking for even a moment, Eric looked directly at me, and sent me a wave of calm. He was acutely aware of the sensation, I could tell. I shifted in my chair and leaned away from the back of the chair, sitting up straight. Why would this man be touching me? Why do something so inappropriate? Sitting across from my husband, no less?
We broke for a few minutes to get drinks and so that Pam and Felicia could go out and check the bar. As the others left the crowded office, I left Rasul speaking with Eric to go to the Ladies Room.
I splashed cold water on my face. I really was exhausted. After drying my face and hands and checking that I hadn't smudged my makeup, I exited the bathroom to find myself face to face with Rasul.
"Oh!" I said, almost colliding with him. It looked as if he had been waiting for me since he surely wasn't using the facilities.
"Sookie! It's so great to see you again. I was looking forward to coming tonight when I found out you would be in attendance. I haven't had a chance to congratulate you on your marriage." He was all smiles.
Rasul's warm and lively manner had always put me at ease in the past. If a man, or vampire, could be vivacious, he was. He and Eric had also once rescued me from Debbie Pelt's family just outside New Orleans. Everything in my experience of Rasul told me that he was a nice guy. But there was this undercurrent I was feeling now. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. It was as if you find the person you felt so at ease with suddenly has an agenda you don't much care for.
I decided that I could talk with him as we steadily moved back toward the office. I felt inexplicably like I really needed to get away from him. That touch on my shoulder still burned me.
"It's great to see you, Rasul. Are you living in Baton Rouge still?" I tried to take long but smooth strides toward the office as we spoke.
"Well, I've been living in the old compound in NOLA, actually. Things are steadily improving. We're rebuilding and trying to impact not just our own situation but the community at large."
Well, that sounded fabulous on paper, I thought. Improving the social position of vampires by rebuilding the community in general would be a shrewd move, differentiating vampires from the recently out Weres and shifters. Vampires in Louisiana were heavily involved in the tourist industry and could likely do much to help bring business back to New Orleans. Giving back sounded like a smart idea.
What was Rasul's role in Area 1 I wondered? Why was he sent to replace Victor or Sandy? Whatever he did in Area 1, it would seem his role and responsibilities would have been different from theirs.
"I'd love to hear about how things are going down there," I said with some genuine, but pretty tired interest to Rasul. New Orleans had been a beautiful city. Its devastation had been terrible for our state.
Eric stood in the doorway looking out at us, with his hands gripping the upper moulding on door frame, his muscular arms shown off handsomely. He filled the doorway and looked down at me, and at Rasul. He was wearing black jeans and a Fangtasia t-shirt, after having changed out of what I called his 'throne attire.' I scooted in next to him and wrapped my arms securely around his waist. I smiled up at him.
"Rasul was just congratulating us, Eric."
Eric nodded and smiled politely at Rasul. I could tell Eric was picking up on the fact that I was less than thrilled to be here and that he was working through his own issues with Rasul's being here and whatever that business of touching his wife was. Neither one of us was feeling too keen on his presence, in fact.
As I looked over again at Rasul, I felt that undercurrent yet again. I was just not comfortable. There was definitely something wrong there.
Rasul had been the sole survivor of Sophie-Anne's court, I thought to myself. And he still resides in her compound. It had occurred to me that there was a possibility that he had been directly involved in her downfall and had not been a victim of it at all. And he was here now. Being so friendly with the telepath with whom he had always enjoyed such a good rapport. My mind began to rapidly parse the possibilities. I did not like where the analysis took me.
I had been working twice a month in Vegas since May, for three day weekends, scanning staff and clientele at Felipe's ventures. Felipe had appeared cordial and understanding (thanks to Victor's prompt insistence) about my desire to remain in Louisiana with my husband and family. It had been tiring to go on these trips, but it was better than a battle over not wanting to live in Vegas. Felipe had also hired Barry several times, but whatever there was in what or how I did what I did, Felipe appeared to think that I was somewhat shrewder in my assessments. Felipe had even gone so far as to tell me this personally.
I had my own theory that Barry just didn't feel the same way about his vampire colleagues as I did. I thought that could color your thinking, and bias you ever so slightly. There were vampires I liked, vampires I didn't like. The same could be said of humans, or really any group. To me, a thief is a thief and it didn't matter what kind of thief you were- human, vampire, shifter. Barry still rooted for the human team a tad more I think.
So Barry hadn't been in Vegas since early June. When I had talked to him earlier this month he told me he had told Joseph, his regent, that he didn't really want to go back. I was worried that Felipe would be back to wanting a full time telepath. Could he be planning to press his case again, in spite of Victor's advice? Maybe, Rasul was sent here instead of Victor because of me?
Looking at Rasul, I had this vision of his having been sent specifically to reestablish a connection, a position of confidence, a position of maneuverability. Something in the idea that Rasul had been sent because of me rang true. I didn't have a firm idea of why, but I felt in my bones that he was here because I was here.
Well, whatever the reason, I didn't like the idea that someone was here to try to gain position with me, and therefore over Eric. I was going to forestall his plan as best I could, if that was the case.
I promptly told Eric that I was tired, had a headache and wanted to go home. Since Clancy would be running the club during the summit, I suggested that Clancy could drive me home, since he wouldn't be missing anything significant by leaving the meeting for a few minutes.
Rasul looked as if someone had taken away his candy. "But what a shame Sookie! I was so looking forward to catching up…"
Time for that Southern Belle charm. "I am so sorry to disappoint you, Rasul. I had to work all day to cover for a friend and then I worked a bit here tonight because we were short staffed. I'm just dead on my feet (har har) and I know I wouldn't be able to participate properly, especially with this headache. Besides, this way, you'll feel freer to discuss business. You'll get much more done. We'll have plenty of time to catch up in Memphis," I said with a wan smile while thinking I am so getting out of here.
Eric looked down at me with a barely contained twinkle in his eyes. "Go home, my Love. You should rest, you've had a long day."
Clancy was returning to the office to rejoin the meeting and I explained I'd appreciate his driving me home. Without a moment's hesitation, he said "Of course". I kissed Eric goodbye, bade farewell to Rasul, and passed a puzzled Pam and Felicia who were headed back to the office with Indira and Thalia in tow. Bill looked puzzled too, to see me exiting as we passed him. He must have seen the relieved look on my face.
Clancy drove me home in his red Audi. We didn't talk much but we never had much to talk about. He walked me to the door, and, after looking discreetly away while I disarmed the alarm system (though we changed the code every week), he walked me into the house, closed the door and checked out every room including the garage in less than two minutes. Impressively thorough.
He turned to me and bowed. "Good night, Sookie. I'll wait to hear you lock the door and set the alarm." He turned to exit.
He turned back, those auburn eyebrows raised. "Yes?"
"Don't… do that. The bow. Don't. You know you don't need to. So don't."
He smiled at me.
"I wanted to Sookie. Consider it the genuine article." He said with a touch of a brogue. Then he winked.
I was puzzled by him but let it slide. He certainly seemed pleased to have gotten out of the club. Perhaps he was relieved to be out of the meeting. Clancy never liked all that vampire hierarchy stuff. At least he wasn't resenting me this year as much as he had last year, I told myself. It felt odd that even vampires who disliked me were softening.
Three hours later, I was awakened by the arrival of what was apparently the real meeting. Eric, Pam, and Bill, found me asleep in front of the TV, wrapped in a quilt. Eric awakened me, sat down and wrapped his arms around me. He was all smiles.
"Rasul was so disappointed that you left. He complained bitterly that we had made the meeting too late for you. You'd have thought his entire purpose for attending our gathering was because of you."
Bill abruptly spoke up. "You looked odd when you were leaving. What did you sense from him?" Bill looked miserable, I noted. It was the first time he had been to Eric's house since Eric and I had married in late March. Eric sitting with his arms around me probably did not help set him at ease. I knew he was still raw about the whole thing.
I proceeded to answer his question carefully. I tried to be careful when I offered opinions about anything in the vamp world. Eric was both the boss and the brains of the outfit when it came to the political hijinks. Other than speaking my mind with him, because he could pretty much feel it anyway, I was cautious in what I said to others. Even with good friends. My position in Eric's life and his high regard for me made my words carry more weight than they had previously. But there was also danger in being a human who apparently knew far too much about vampire politics, which were still highly secretive.
"I just got the feeling when I was talking to him that there was this whole other agenda. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I felt like there was something subterranean going on. It was so strong I could feel it without even trying to read him. It made me… Well, it gave me the creeps. And I really didn't like it that he touched me."
Eric and Bill both showed a bit of fang at that mention. Bill had been standing behind me and must have had a full view. Eric simply stewed over it because he felt my reaction to it and could not really do much at the time.
I paused to reflect on it again. It had to be a test of some sort on Rasul's part. Of that I was sure. Probing the lay of the land. But what was his agenda? Was he really sent to the meeting because of me? My working relationship with Felipe was largely handled through Victor. Why the change and whose idea had it been?
"Does anyone know how Rasul survived when Sophie-Anne and her people were killed? Why did Rasul and Sigebert survive? Sigebert was so badly injured. Was Rasul injured, too?" I asked cautiously.
"Well, there have been a lot of questions about it," Eric acknowledged. "I don't think that we know anyone who knows the answers, though. Rasul's position in the hierarchy is very vauge. Sometimes it looks as if he is running things in Area 1, but he is clearly not the sheriff. Ambiguity is always troubling. You don't really know who you're dealing with and what is entailed."
I was rather amazed that the three of them would discuss this stuff with me. Even six months ago, they would not have. Well, out of the frying pan, into the fire.
I looked at Bill. "Is there any indication that Rasul and Victor knew each other before? From your database records, I mean. Did they ever live in proximity or fight in a war together? Have any opportunity to form an alliance of any kind?"
"I don't know. I never thought about it. I can research it, though" offered Bill.
Pam and Eric looked at each other. That was a connection that they clearly had not previously considered before tonight.
I ruminated on things. It seemed too much of a coincidence to me that both Rasul and Sigebert had survived and that Sigebert had then gone after Felipe at a location that would have required more tracking skills than I would have credited Sigebert with having. Bon Temps was a good thirty minutes away from Shreveport at a minimum and it was hours away from Baton Rouge. Sigebert was a blunt tool, not a skilled vampire. Rasul, on the other hand, along with Eric, had once tracked me quite some distance from New Orleans when I was kidnapped, along with Quinn, by the Pelts. Whoever tracked Felipe was following Eric's trail as well, just as Felipe had. Could Rasul have led Sigebert to Merlotte's that night? I wondered. If so, then he was prepared to have Sigebert kill Eric, too. I shuddered at that thought.
What if there had been another plan, concealed within Felipe's takeover plan? Get Felipe off his home turf, where he would be less protected. Victor could take Nevada and Rasul, Louisiana perhaps? And Arkansas? To whom? Was there a third person? It seemed impossible to me to think that these two men had planned to take over three states. What was their base of support?
If there had been a plan, I had thwarted it. The plucky little telepath had messed it all up by stopping Sigebert, and now Felipe was still safe and sound in Nevada and was continually trying to get me do his bidding.
What if Felipe wasn't my real problem as I thought earlier, or even Eric's real problem?
What did Rasul really want? What about Victor?
Victor had spent time trying to placate me after our little May encounter, but I was none too trusting of him. He'd sent me sunflowers the day after our May unpleasantness, apologizing for having hurt my wrist and for having upset me. I'd initially won the upper hand with him that night, but afterwards I'd cut him a wide berth and I tried to avoid being alone with him because I was unsure if there would be any fallout. If I had business in Louisiana that required my contact with Victor I would only accept if Eric, Pam or Bill were able to go with me. In Vegas, I now often sat on my own, or with a female companion of Felipe's rather than Victor. I made excuses, since Victor was supposed to be chaperoning me in Vegas. Could Felipe have sent Rasul because of my discomfort with Victor? I couldn't decide. It didn't feel quite right.
All of this raced through my mind but I could not speak it out loud to them. I only discussed such thoughts with Eric. I had a very bad feeling about things based solely on Rasul's arrival. Was it an overreaction? On top of it, we were stuck going to this summit, where as I had already seen, terrible things could happen.
Eric looked at me thoughtfully. But he did not ask what I was thinking in front of Pam and Bill. I was so tired and on the verge of falling back asleep, even as my mind raced.
"Rasul's last minute appearance is definitely an indication that something is up," Eric said. "This regime never takes changes in plans lightly. Everything is too tightly controlled for that. So this was deliberate. We need to proceed with caution."