A/N: Hi all! If you're just starting out this fic, please note that the first few chapters introduce our heroine and set in motion events which get intriguing when a certain Mr. Northman appears in Ch. 3 and go full on haywire by Ch. 4. In other words, stick with it for a couple chapters. I promise you won't be disappointed!
Disclaimer: I own nothing except the research concept and Lillian (and a few more characters that show up down the line).
The alarm clock next to the hotel bed let out its angry beep far too soon. Lillian forced open her eyes and looked at the large red digital numbers – 12:00…AM. Slapping the obnoxious machine off, she threw off the covers and began to madly rush between the closet and the bathroom. With only three hours of sleep, this was going to be a long night. She slipped into the violet dress she'd set aside and ran back to the mirror to double check her makeup. She smudged the smoky black powder around her hazel eyes just a tad more. God I hope this doesn't smear all over the place and look ridiculous. Well, at least then I'll blend in more if I look gothy. She giggled aloud at her own joke. She certainly wasn't shooting for angst-riddled, black-clad, fake-id carrying teen. No. This was so not her usual lifestyle. In fact, she struggled to remember the last time she'd dressed up to go to a club. As a grad student maybe? No. Too poor and married to her books. She was more of a pitcher of beer at the pub with good friends type, besides. Now as a young professor, she was overworked and still had no social life, despite the respectable salary. At least her latest project was a good excuse to pretend she still had a bit of excitement left, despite having bid farewell to her twenties last year. Glancing at the clock again, she grabbed her briefcase, wiggled her feet into some impressively high silver mules, and checked the mirror once more. Oof, I can't walk into a club with a briefcase! She dumped out the contents onto her floor and ran back to the closet. Digging through her suitcase, she pulled out a black leather hobo with long leather tassels hanging from it. Alright, she thought. A little worse for the wear, but that's what we call vintage, right? It's gonna have to do. She quickly stuffed the mound of pens, notebooks, and voice recorder back inside and was out the door in a flash.
It was a short drive into Shreveport from the hotel, and she ignored her nerves by forcing herself to pay attention to the lush nighttime scenery. Live oaks swathed in Spanish moss seemed to caricature the humid air, making everything seem slower and heavier. Tucked here and there were weathered clapboard buildings – some seemed to still be businesses in the daytime, others were boarded up in plywood, having succumbed to the economic downturn. She loved the decadence of southern decay, it somehow always seemed so brazen and unapologetic. Elsewhere in the U.S., people seemed so preoccupied with tidying up the natural decline of things. In the New England college town where she worked, new paint and shiny glass and perfect concrete were routinely plastered on every surface, denying the passage of time. Yet driving through this landscape felt as though she were settling into a well-used favorite chair. It embraced her with its familiar imperfections. Not that she knew actually this place. Hell, she had only arrived a few days ago. But exploring unfamiliar worlds was her specialty. As an anthropologist she was well travelled and no worse for the wear. During her doctoral work she lived on a small Pacific island studying cloth exchanges among women. How hard could a vampire theme club in Louisiana be? Her colleagues had their doubts. They had seriously balked and snickered at her latest idea. In fact, she'd made it here by the skin of her teeth.
"You want to do what?!" exclaimed the Dean of Social Sciences, when she had approached him about how she wanted to use her research grant.
"I want to study people who do costume role playing, like live action role players and Trekkies and whatnot."
"Professor Choate. How do you honestly expect me to approve your sabbatical? You can't be serious."
"Sir, this is a worthwhile endeavor. It's an aspect of social life that hasn't been adequately examined."
"But Lillian," interjected the chair of her department "you really need to consider how this will reflect during your tenure hearing. If the work isn't solid, how will we justify renewing your contract?"
Exasperated, Lillian stared at her colleagues. She was floundering in a sea of disbelief. " Everyone studies problems!" she exclaimed animatedly. "I want to learn about pleasure! Why do people love dressing up in costume, as fantastical characters? What is so much fun about inhabiting imaginary worlds? Are they really so different from our own?"
Yep. Drowning. They stared back at her unblinking.
Looking at the floor, she took a breath. She tossed a last ditch effort at them. "We need to take seriously the business of pleasure." The two leaned in and whispered in low tones.
Oh jesus please let them accept. Please don't can me over this. It IS a good project.
"Listen Lillian, I think it's clear that we all share some reservations about this…"
"Yes!" interjected her dept chair "Let us not have another Nelson debacle" she said cringing. Nelson was an ill-fated colleague who had tried to study online chat rooms and ended up being busted on one of those nightly news shows for soliciting sex from a minor.
"Of course not." For one, I'm not a pervert for christssake, she thought. "I'm looking at real communities in real space and time, not in the virtual world. That is why it will work. There is concrete observational work to be done, actual documentation"
"Alright." sighed the Dean. "Just do this right, okay? This reflects on us too, you know."
"Keep it rigorous," added the department chair. "No pop science."
"Absolutely. I know you will be pleased with the outcome. And thank you for your generosity and consideration. I really appreciate your support."
Gack. Kissing her bosses' asses that hard had really left her feeling bitter. Good thing she was 1000 miles away from her ivory tower. She turned left into a commercial strip and pulled into a parking space. From the car she could already feel the music pumping out of the club. Deep breath, she thought. A large neon sign hung above the growing line of people. Fangtasy it read, in loopy red script. A tall blond woman stood at the door checking ids. In knee high stiletto boots. Lillian found her place at the end of the line. At first glance, the clientele were certainly eclectic. Vamp kids with dyed black hair and faux "leather" clothes waited alongside fat tourists in polos and tennis shoes. Welcome to the weird. This place must be a goldmine, she thought.
She had learned during her preliminary research that Fangtasy had opened up only a year and a half ago. Inspired by the famous Charlaine Harris novels, and the successful HBO tv spinoff, True Blood, everybody and their mother (literally) seemed to visit. They only narrowly got out of the copyright mess by changing the club name.
"Evening" she said as she handed her ID to a pale, no nonsense woman blond. Ah okay, so she must be styled after the Pam character. How clever!
The woman didn't respond. She tilted the ID in the light and passed it back. "You may enter at your own risk," she said curtly. Oh and so wonderfully campy! Her inner child jumped up and down and clapped her hands. I love it! Lillian's nerves began to give way to sheer, overwhelming curiosity. It's like Disneyland for freaky folk!
Inside the club, dance music throbbed and colorful beams of light spun over the patrons and pulsed in rhythm to the music. Leather and spike bedecked young people mingled at high top tables and crowded the dance floor. Blond, busty waitresses with white shirts and ponytails served trays of drinks. They're all fake Sookies!, she delighted. Many people seemed to order the special, Bloody Dacquaries, a crimson concoction garnished with a bone-shaped plastic toothpick through a lime. Lillian made her way to the bar.
"Hi, can I see the manager?" she called out over the music to the nearest bartender.
The guy snorted and rolled his eyes. "The manager doesn't deal with guests, ma'am. What do you need?"
"I wanted to get permission to interview some of the patrons. I am writing about vampire culture in America."
The young guy snorted. "You a reporter?"
"No, I'm a professor of anthropology. Could you please give the manager a call?"
"Boss doesn't see guests without an appointment." He leaned across the bar in a confidential whisper. "Too many idiots think they're gonna meet an actual vampire. I mean, HELLO! It's tv!"
Her heart sunk. Did she really come out tonight for nothing? She couldn't start working until she had the appropriate permissions. "Heh. I'm sure. Okay, that will be fine. Let me give you my card." She passed a business card over the black lacquered bar into the guy's red syrup stained fingers. "How soon can I expect to hear back?"
"I dunno, guess you'll just have to see."
"Alright, well at least give me a gin and tonic while I'm waiting."
She took the drink and found a booth out of the way near the corner. Dang, I can't even take notes without approval. Well, at least I can try to enjoy my drink and take in the atmosphere. The "vampy" club-goers and other young folks stood around island tables talking closely over empty bottles and glasses. Many people were out on the dance floor grinding and shaking away. The more touristy types, she noticed, kept mainly to the booths where they sipped their sugary alcohol and greasy bar food. Or they hung over a large souvenir case, where no less than three employees were busy swiping credit cards and passing back bags stuffed with Fangtasy and True Blood merchandise. At the center of the back wall, on a raised platform surrounded by velvet roping, sat a large carved chair with plush leather and brass tacks. A spotlight hung over it rather dramatically. A number of people snapped photos. It's an odd but clever mix, shepondered. On the one hand it's way over the top – all the fake Sookies break the suspension of disbelief. On the other, the throne chair makes it seem like maybe, just maybe, it is possible that a real vampire could actually walk in and sit down. Whoever thought of this is one hell of a keen businessperson.
The rest of the night was uneventful. She wasn't inclined to dance, at least not with the young guys who'd come to her table. They were young enough to be her students! she had howled internally. Towards 4am Lillian, after her third drink, decided to call it quits. As she was passing by the bar, the bartender gestured at her.
"Hey lady, uh, I'm sorry, I got caught up with work. Lemme take you back, boss said he'd see you."
Lillian just stared at him. "What? I've been here for four hours!" she bellowed.
"Yah, well. Um. Sorry."
IDIOT! she thought at him, scowling.
He took her down a hallway, past the bathrooms. Everything was lit with a blacklight, which made the goofy vampire movie posters lining the black wall to pop out colorfully. At the end of the hallway, the kid left her in front of a door where a security guard stood.
"Hi, I'm here to see the manager?"
The big guy pointed at a camera above the door. She looked and waved. The door buzzed and the guard turned the keypad and punched in a code, releasing the lock.
"Go on in," he said. "First door on the right."
Pretty serious security. God they must get some majorly obsessed folks in here. Hrm, have to examine that angle – how business owners perceive their role playing clients.
The inner hallway stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the club. Clean wood flooring and white walls. She found the door and rapped on it twice with her knuckles.
"Come in Miss Choate" a voice called out.
Pushing aside the door, she was met by a short man in a navy pin stripe suit. "Hi, hi, hi!" he called out, offering his hand. "Nathan Riley. So sorry to keep you waiting." The man had a funny air about him - dressed up and slick, but not in a sleezy club manager type way. He struck her as very lawyerly.
"Ah, it's a pleasure. And it is Professor Choate. Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice."
"Gladly, yes. Well, tell me about what it is that brings you here. Some kind of report is it?"
"Well, not exactly." Lillian launched into her spiel. She tried to keep it simple, avoid the jargon, and made sure to explain that it was not at all meant to be an exposé on the business aspect or operation of the club, but simply about the clients and why they choose to pursue "costumed" recreation.
"I should add that any resulting publications I will be happy to share with you, and I would expect that the data might be of interest to you from a business perspective, since it might help you better understand the clientele you are trying to cater to."
"Hrm, yes. Good point. Well, I'm gonna have to check with the owners, of course," he said in a thick Louisiana drawl. "But I'll give you a ring as soon as possible."
"Alright Mr. Riley. Who are the owners?"
"Oh, well honey," he said. Here Lillian gritted her teeth at the "quaint" southernism. "It's a consortium of investors. But I wouldn't worry. There's no such thing as bad publicity, right? I'll let you know what they say."
"Sure thing. Thanks for your time."
"My pleasure. You have a good night now, ya'hear?" he replied.
She headed out of the bar and crossed the tungsten light dappled parking lot towards her car. Only a few patrons lingered outside, and they were mostly drunkenly groping each other. Perhaps it was the desolate strip mall, surrounded by inky black patches of woods at just a lonely hour of the night. Or simply the fact that her car was at the edge of the lot. But she had the strangest creeping sensation in the pit of her stomach. Just her luck to get mugged, she thought. She glanced around to see if she was being watched, and felt the instinctual impulse to sprint. She didn't, but she sure as heck walked briskly. Once she reached her car, she quickly got in and locked the doors. She turned over the engine and adjusted the mirror. For a fleeting second, less than a blink, really, she swore she saw someone standing by the dumpsters on the far end of the building, staring in her direction. She blinked again, but there was no one there. Probably just a busboy taking out the trash. She dismissed her disconcerting feeling of unease and started back towards the hotel.