A/N: Thank you, thank you. Much love to you all.

Chapter 16

My eyes snapped open with a jolt; Eric was gently shaking me awake a little after sundown. I turned over again with an unintelligible grumble.

"On your feet, Stackhouse." He slapped my leg playfully through the comforter before moving to the closet. While Eric always dressed relatively simply, his Fantasia garb was hottest. I was suddenly wide-awake. As usual, he caught me staring.

"Yes…?"

"You," I shrugged. I slipped out of bed and walked toward him, placing a hand inside the deep V of his black t-shirt. "I was starting to think there wasn't anything sexier than you naked, but I like this. A lot…" He looked down at me, a warm glow in his eyes.

I fingered the charm he wore around his neck. "I want to suck this into my mouth while I ride you," I breathed. He brought his forehead to meet mine and exhaled.

"Hmmm… What time is it again? 10 in the morning, you say?" he teased, clasping the back of my neck. I laughed and dragged my fingers over his nipples. He shook his head helplessly.

"I think I've been a good influence on you, lover." He gave me a sexy, lingering kiss. "Now let's get going while I still have a shred of control."

"Where are we off to?"

"Fangtasia. Someone's got to work, you know."

I started a retort but decided to let it pass, pulling my own clothes on. "Did Pam check what was up with Ginger yesterday?"

"Yes, she called. It seems like another dead end. Ginger was waiting for a delivery that never came. I looked through the interior video feed. She was just sitting at the bar looking bored for twenty minutes."

"But isn't it weird to wait for so short a time period? Don't delivery companies usually give a four-hour window?"

"Pam glamored her. She might be dumb, but she's not going to lie about being dumb…"

I sighed. "All these not-quite-clues are making me edgy."

"I'm sorry. My evil plots are much more straightforward, I assure you."

I remained annoyed. "So the plan is…what? Go to Fangtasia and hope something happens?"

"That's where I work."

"Aren't people still after us?"

"Likely," he said casually.

"And you're ok with that?"

"You'll be with me. How bad could things get?" He shot me a winning smile. I rolled my eyes, but took his hand as we walked to the car.

We arrived at Fangtasia early. Pam was already busy in the office. Eric walked directly to the desk and grabbed a stack of folders.

"Are these the ones?" he asked her without so much as a hello. Pam nodded. They were so close; I had a flash of the out-of-placeness I felt last night.

He turned to me. "Sookie, do you mind going through these? You've lived in this area for years and have deeper knowledge than most of your casual acquaintances."

I was flattered at the attention. Pam had set these aside for me? I took a look at the pile. They were still shots of Fangtasia's entry line—someone must have converted them from video and screened out any usuals. I flipped through the first few without recognition.

"Sure—what am I looking for exactly?"

"I know this is a long shot. We've already got the official information, so just focus on the ones you recognize and try to remember if you've heard anything weird or out of place."

I spent close to an hour sifting through them. Although people who frequented Merlotte's were generally different than the Fangtasia crowd, I did recognize a few faces. I couldn't recall any details that stuck out as abnormal, though. This one liked boobs, this one was racist, this one thought Sam was super-hot…

Then a thought occurred to me. What if I was looking for someone who was quiet? During last night's interrogation, Pam had sarcastically suggested Rai Anderson might have been immune to supernatural tampering. While he hadn't been, what if someone else involved was? Wouldn't that make our hypothetical human shifter especially undetectable/dangerous?

I walked over to Eric. "So, I'm not sure if this is helpful, but here are three people that I recognize—as in, I've seen them at Merlotte's multiple times—that I don't have a read on. I can't remember hearing anything."

"We know they're not vampires. Does that mean they're weres?" Pam asked.

"I guess it's possible, although I can usually identify weres; their thoughts are kind of disjointed, and sometimes there's growling." Pam laughed louder than she should have.

Eric was intrigued. "Are you saying these three are silent?"

"I absolutely, 100% could not guarantee that. Most people's thoughts are noisy, and I've seen these guys in crowds. I usually wouldn't notice who was or wasn't quieter than anyone else unless I was specifically paying attention. That said," I plopped the stack down on the desk, "these are the three that interest me."

Eric weighed my input and spoke carefully after a moment, "There might not be anything to this… We have no reason to think the person or people behind these incidents have ever been to Fangtasia before. This is utter speculation."

"But we have to try something. If for no other reason than keeping ourselves sane, right?" Eric gave me a tight smile; Pam was in no mood to indulge hypotheticals.

"Alright. Enough with the rose-colored glasses." She turned to Eric. "Get out there—you haven't been around the last few nights, and sales have been down." She adjusted her already-perfect hair in the wall mirror. "And that new bouncer has no pizzazz—I'm going to show him how it's done."

She began an imperious exit. I didn't have the gumption to suggest that her "get to work" attitude was also a coping strategy, although I was secretly glaring it into her back. As if she heard me, Pam turned on her heels and snapped, "And Sookie? I have a system. Try not to mess anything up back here." So much for the newfound respect…

Eric headed for the door, too, and shrugged back at me in apology. "She might be dressed in a pleather cat suit, but you can see who wears the pants."

I waved him off. "It's fine. I'm not really up for clubbing tonight. Although I wouldn't mind staring at you for a few hours…" I added.

"I know," he winked. Smart ass. Alone in the office with nothing to do, I decided to stretch out on the couch.

I awoke a while later to the buzz of a message alert. Groggy and disoriented, I fumbled with my phone for a full minute before finding the text from Pam. It just read, "Check the line."

It took me some time to figure out what she was referring to, but my eyes eventually settled on the security feed showing Fangtasia's entry. Instantly alert, I scanned the line. Sure enough, there was one of the three people I had singled out from the pile of pictures: a large, olive-skinned man with hard, wide-set eyes. His picture was on the top of the stack, his name in small black letters—Andras Mirto. My phone buzzed again. Pam's text just read, "Find out." So she had been listening to me… Feeling a little smug, I scrambled to make myself presentable.

I watched the line until Andras entered the club, following a few minutes later. Upon entering the main room, though, I almost forgot the mission: seeing Eric casually stretched across the throne was utterly absorbing. Although his posture signaled authoritative boredom, the concern that flowed through the bond told me otherwise. I couldn't telegraph my intentions, but I was fairly confident Eric would catch the plan once he saw what I was doing. The heat behind his eyes suggested he would be doing nothing but watching me from that point on.

Andras stood drinking at one of the tall bar tables. His size dwarfed it; he was far larger than the picture made him seem. Though it wasn't a kind thought, he certainly looked like a villain. I steeled myself for the approach. It was easier for me to read quiet minds if I could touch people, so I tried the "old friend" tactic.

Still behind him, I called loudly, "Max?! Max! Is that you?" squeezing him lightly on the arm. Whipping his head around with a hostility I had not anticipated, he recoiled. I was so surprised at the reaction I didn't have time to register whether or not I'd caught an interior thought.

"What do you want?" he grunted. I tried to focus in on his mind, but I couldn't decode him in the crowded room. With discomfort, I realized I would have to touch him again, and decided to turn on the Southern charm.

"Oh, I'm sorry, sweetheart. I thought you were an old friend. You really are just the spitting image. You're both so big." He still looked angry. "And handsome," I added, running my hand down his bicep. He caught my arm and held it. Hard.

"That's the second time you've touched me. I don't like it," he said with menace. The contact was long enough for me to feel the word "fangbanger." Andras may have been quiet but he wasn't silent. Now that I knew, my flight instinct started to kick in.

"Alright, darlin', I get it. Rules are rules. I'm meeting some friends anyway," I said, trying to turn away. He did not relinquish his hold on me.

"I don't mind touching you, though," he said with a low growl, reaching around to my other arm until he gripped them both in one fist. I really did not want to use my light at Fangtasia, but I felt the telltale electric charge building up inside me. He barely had time to curl his free hand around my waist before Eric appeared.

"Get the fuck out of my club," Eric threatened, fangs extended, calm and cold. Andras slowly turned to face him. He was big, but Eric was taller. With a scoff, he wrenched my arms so I moved closer to his side.

"Sure. But I'm taking her with me."

A dark grin flashed over Eric's face. "I'm so glad you said that."

Suddenly they were both gone, my limbs free again, the table upended; shattered glass covered the floor. Several bystanders rushed outside to witness the fight. I followed as fast as I could, though there wasn't much to see by the time I arrived. Eric had Andras pressed up against a nearly demolished trash receptacle, his forearm pressed into his throat.

"If I ever see you again," Eric spat, "it will be the last time anyone does." Andras didn't look intimidated, though the fight seemed to have left him. Eric loosened his hold.

Andras adjusted his jacket in sullen defiance and called out over his shoulder in leaving, "Fucking fangers. Your time is nearly up."

I watched him go with a mixture of anger, fear, and curiosity. An instant later, Eric had his arms wrapped protectively around me.

"See?" he whispered into my hair. "I told you nothing bad would happen tonight."

"Good thing you took that nap," I tossed back. "I was getting ready to light up all of Fangtasia." My thoughts shifted and I pulled away, agitated. "He's not silent, by the way—God, just the fact that he was here tonight is a crazy coincidence. And shouldn't we be glamoring him? Are there too many witnesses to drag him down to the dungeon right now?"

Eric didn't answer directly, but he looked pleased. "You are beginning to think like me. I love it."

Turning to the patrons gathered around, Eric bellowed, "That's it for tonight. Everyone out." It was a little after midnight, long before Fangtasia usually closed. The crowd began to bicker in agitation. Eric couldn't have cared less, focused only on pushing us back toward the office.

Pam stopped us halfway down the hall. "We've got to give them free drink tickets or admission tomorrow or something, Eric."

"You're the boss," he dismissed. She still wouldn't let us pass.

"And we'll have to pay the staff for the entire evening."

"Whatever you say."

"Also—"

"Yes?" Eric asked, exasperated.

"—you are really getting pussy-whipped," Pam finished with a smile.

"Best compliment you ever paid me." Finally alone in the office, Eric slammed the door and sat at the desk, pulling me close.

"You're staying right here until we leave," he said firmly. He still had work to finish—not to mention security measures to increase—but I was happy to sit with him as long as it took.

A little while later Pam poked her head in. "Shitty. fuckin'. day," she sighed. "Everyone's gone now, and I locked you in. Try not to fuck anything else up."

"See you tomorrow, princess," Eric called back in his sweetest tone. He turned to me. "Just a few more forms, and then we can get out of here." He had moved on to tallying sales for the night, marking out an order for the next week. I absentmindedly watched the security tapes from my perch on his lap.

Several minutes passed before Eric finished. He arranged the paperwork, shut down his computer, and squeezed my ribcage in both hands. "Time to head home."

Something wasn't quite right.

"Eric… I haven't seen Pam leave yet."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, she said goodbye to us, what, twenty minutes ago? I've been watching the door cameras, and I haven't seen her exit the building."

He raised his eyebrows. "Super-sleuth Sookie is at it again." I shot him a look. "Pam can be very fast, especially when she's in a mood." I considered this.

"I guess you're probably right. I just…really wanted something important to happen tonight…"

"Oh trust me, lover, something important's going to happen tonight. I guarantee it." He rubbed his body suggestively against me. I turned to him with a smirk.

"What are we waiting for, then?"

Eric was just bending down to kiss me when he went completely rigid, his head cocked at a sound I hadn't even detected. I froze. He looked at me pointedly, and I strained into the silence. I didn't hear anything, thoughts or otherwise, and I shook my head. Eric reached for my hand, keeping me slightly behind him, as we walked through the dim corridor back into the club.

"Pam?" Eric called into the darkened room.

"I prefer 'Doctor,'" came a smooth, congenial male voice with an untraceable, cosmopolitan accent. I stopped dead in my tracks. Pam had locked the place down—where the hell had he come from?

A trim, mischievous man in an expensive gray suit turned toward us, seated in Eric's throne. He appeared to be in his late forties, but his confidence and impeccable bearing reminded me of Eric. I assumed he was much, much older. His face was handsome, his hair and beard shot through with gray. Though his eyes crinkled around the corners as if he was having a private joke, there was something sinister in them, too. He was attractive and compelling, and I immediately distrusted him. I couldn't hear him at all.

Abruptly, Fangtasia's dark red interior hummed with bright blue static as all the servers' stations flickered on at once. At the same time, both our cellphones vibrated. Eric and I exchanged glances—they displayed the same static pattern.

Simultaneously, all the screens erupted into silent pictures. I glanced between them. They alternated between a loop of Eric dispatching the witches in the woods jarringly fast and Eric menacingly ending the life of the werewolf in my kitchen. Most disturbing to me, though, was the video displayed on both our phones: me blasting the werewolf backward against the wall, violet jets of light streaming out of my hands. The sequences of violence played continuously for several minutes.

It shouldn't have been a surprise to see the images—we had assumed someone had them (at least the ones regarding the were)—but I started to panic nonetheless. And now we knew who was behind them. This small, elegant man with the glittering smile.

He pressed a button on what appeared to be an ordinary cellphone and all of the media stilled at once. I looked at Eric; his fists were locked, his face motionless.

"My dears," the stranger continued, warm and calm, "I believe we need to talk."