From Dead to Worse
Chapter 12

 Charlaine Harris

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Since the lights were still off in the living room and the security light was on outside, from inside the house we could see pretty well. The vampire standing by himself in the front yard was not particularly tall, but he was a striking man. He was wearing a business suit. His hair was short and curly, and though the light wasn't good for making such a determination, I thought it was black. He stood with an attitude, like a GQ model.
Eric was pretty much blocking the doorway, so that was all I could tell. It seemed tacky to go to the window and stare.
"Eric Northman," said Victor Madden. "I haven't seen you in a few decades."
"You've been working hard in the desert," Eric said neutrally.
"Yes, business has been booming. There are some things I want to discuss with you - rather urgent things, I'm afraid. May I come in?"
"How many are with you?" Eric asked.
"Ten," I whispered at Eric's back. "Nine vamps and Quinn." If a human brain left a buzzing hole in my inner consciousness, a vampire brain left an empty one. All I had to do was count the holes.
"Four companions are with me," Victor said, sounding absolutely truthful and frank.
"I think you've lost your counting ability," Eric said. "I believe there are nine vampires there, and one shifter."
Victor's silhouette realigned as his hand twitched. "No use trying to pull the wool over your eyes, old sport."
"Old sport?" muttered Amelia.
"Let them step out of the woods so I can see," Eric called.
Amelia and Bill and I abandoned being discreet and went to the windows to watch. One by one, the vampires of Las Vegas came out of the trees. Since they were at the edges of the darkness I couldn't see most of them very well, but I noticed a statuesque woman with lots of brown hair and a man no taller than me who sported a neat beard and an earring.
The last to emerge from the woods was the tiger. I was sure Quinn had shifted into his animal form because he didn't want to look at me face-to-face. I felt horribly sorry for him. I figured that however ripped up inside I was, his insides had to be like hamburger meat.
"I see a few familiar faces," Eric said. "Are they all under your charge?"
This had a meaning that I didn't understand.
"Yes," Victor said very firmly.
This meant something to Eric. He stood back from the doorway, and the the rest of us turned to look at him. "Sookie," Eric said, "it's not for me to invite him in. This is your house." Eric turned to Amelia. "Is your ward specific?" he asked. "Will the ward let in him only?"
"Yes," she said. I wished she sounded more certain. "He has to be invited in by someone the ward accepts, like Sookie."
Bob the cat strolled to the open doorway. He sat in the exact middle of the threshold, his tail wrapped around his paws, and surveyed the newcomer steadily. Victor laughed a little when Bob first appeared, but that died away after a second.
"This is not just a cat," Victor said.
"No," I said, loud enough for Victor to hear me. "Neither is the one out there." The tiger made a chuffing sound, which I'd read was supposed to be friendly. I guess it was as close as Quinn could come to telling me he was sorry about the whole damn thing. Or maybe not. I came to stand right behind Bob. He raised his head to look at me, and then strolled off with as much indifference as he'd arrived. Cats.
Victor Madden approached the front porch. Evidently the wards would not let him cross the boards, and he waited at the foot of the steps. Amelia flipped on the front porch lights, and Victor blinked in the sudden glare. He was a very attractive man, if not exactly handsome. His eyes were big and brown, and his jaw was decided. He had beautiful teeth displayed in a jaw-cracking smile. He looked at me very carefully.
"Reports of your attractions were not exaggerated," he said, which took me a minute to decipher. I was too scared to be at my most intelligent. I made out Jonathan the spy among the vampires in the yard.
"Uh-huh," I said, unimpressed. "You alone can come in."
"I'm delighted," he said, bowing. He took a cautious step up and looked relieved. After that he crossed the porch so smoothly that all of a sudden he was right in front of me, his pocket handkerchief - I swear to God, a snowy white pocket handkerchief - almost touching my white T-shirt. It was all I could do to keep from flinching, but I managed to hold very still. I met his eyes and felt the pressure behind them. He was trying his mind tricks to see what might work on me.
Not much would, in my experience. After I'd let him establish that, I moved back to give him room to enter.
Victor stood quite still just inside the door. He gave everyone in the room a very cautious look, though his smile never faded. When he spotted Bill, the smile actually brightened. "Ah, Compton," he said, and though I expected he'd follow up with a more illuminating remark, that didn't happen. He gave Amelia a thorough scrutiny. "The source of the magic," he muttered, and inclined his head to her. Frannie got a quicker evaluation. When Victor recognized her, he looked, for one second, severely displeased.
I should have hidden her. I simply hadn't thought about it. Now the Las Vegas group knew that Quinn had sent his sister ahead to warn us. I wondered if we'd survive this.
If we lived until daytime, we three humans could leave in a car, and if the cars were disabled, well, we had cell phones and could call for a pickup. But there was no telling what other day-walking helpers the vampires of Las Vegas had... besides Quinn. And as far as Eric and Bill being able to fight their way through the line of vampires outside: they could try. I didn't know how far they'd get.
"Please have a seat," I said, though I sounded about as welcoming as a church lady forced to entertain an atheist. We all moved to the couch and the chairs. We left Frannie where she was. It would be better to maintain every bit of calm we could manage. The tension in the room was almost palpable as it was.
I switched on some lamps and asked the vampires if they would like a drink. They all looked surprised. Only Victor accepted. After a nod from me, Amelia went to the kitchen to heat up some TrueBlood. Eric and Bill were on the couch, Victor had taken the easy chair, and I perched on the edge of the recliner, my hands clenched in my lap. There was a long silence while Victor selected his opening line.
"Your queen is dead, Viking," he said.
Eric's head jerked. Amelia, entering, stopped in her tracks for a second before carrying the glass of TrueBlood to Victor. He accepted it with a little bow. Amelia stared down at him, and I noticed her hand was hidden in the folds of her robe. Just as I drew in breath to tell her not to be crazy, she moved away from him and came to stand by me.
Eric said, "I had guessed that was the case. How many of the sheriffs?" I had to hand it to him. You couldn't tell how he felt from his voice.
Victor made a show of consulting his memory. "Let me see. Oh, yes! All of them."
I pressed my lips together hard so no sound would escape. Amelia pulled out the straight-backed chair we keep to one side of the hearth. She set it close to me and sank down on it like she was a bag of sand. Now that she was sitting, I could see she had a knife clutched in her hand, the filleting knife from the kitchen. It was real sharp.
"What of their people?" Bill asked. Bill was doing the clean-slate imitation, too.
"There are a few alive. A dark young man named Rasul... a few servitors of Arla Yvonne. Cleo Babbitt's crew died with her even after an offer of surrender, and Sigebert seems to have perished with Sophie-Anne."
"Fangtasia?" Eric had saved this for last because he could hardly bear to speak of it. I wanted to go over to him and put my arms around him, but he wouldn't appreciate that at all. It would look weak.
There was a long silence while Victor took a swallow of the TrueBlood.
Then he said, "Eric, your people are all in the club. They have not surrendered. They say they won't until they hear from you. We're ready to burn it down. One of your minions escaped, and she - we think it is a female - is taking out any of my people stupid enough to get separated from the others."
Yay, Pam! I bent my head to hide an involuntary smile. Amelia grinned at me. Even Eric looked pleased, just for a split second. Bill's face didn't alter a bit.
"Why am I alive, of all the sheriffs?" Eric asked - the four-hundred-pound question.
"Because you're the most efficient, the most productive, and the most practical." Victor had the answer ready at his lips. "And you have one of the biggest moneymakers living in your area and working for you." He nodded toward Bill. "Our king would like to leave you in position, if you will swear loyalty to him."
"I suppose I know what will happen if I refuse."
"My people in Shreveport are ready with the torches," Victor said with his cheerful smile. "Actually, with more modern devices, but you get the point. And, of course, we can take care of your little group here. You are certainly fond of diversity, Eric. I trail you here thinking to find you with your elite vampires, and we find you in this odd company."
I didn't even think about bristling. We were an odd company, no doubt about it. I also noticed the rest of us didn't get a vote. This all rested on the question of how proud Eric was.
In the silence, I wondered how long Eric would ponder his decision. If he didn't cave, we'd all die. That would be Victor's way of "taking care" of us, despite Eric's out-loud thought about me being too valuable to kill. I didn't think Victor gave a fig for my "value," much less Amelia's. Even if we overwhelmed Victor (and between Bill and Eric that could probably be managed), the rest of the vampires outside had only to set this house on fire as they were threatening to do Fangtasia, and we'd be gone. They might not be able to come in without an invitation, but we certainly had to get out.
My eyes met Amelia's. Her brain was pinging with fear, though she was making a supreme effort to keep her spine stiff. If she called Copley, he would bargain for her life, and he had the wherewithal to bargain effectively. If the Las Vegas crew was hungry enough to invade Louisiana, then they were hungry enough to accept a bribe for the life of the daughter of Copley Carmichael. And surely Frannie would be okay, since her brother was right outside? Surely they would spare Frannie to keep Quinn complaisant? Victor had already pointed out that Bill had skills they needed, because his computer database had proved lucrative. So Eric and I were the most expendable.
I thought about Sam, wished I could call him and talk to him for just a minute. But I wouldn't drag him into this for the world, because that would mean his sure death. I closed my eyes and said good-bye to him.
There was a sound outside the door, and it took me a moment to interpret it as a tiger's noise. Quinn wanted in.
Eric looked at me, and I shook my head. This was bad enough without throwing Quinn into the mix. Amelia whispered, "Sookie," and pressed her hand against me. It was the hand with the knife.
"Don't," I said. "It won't do any good." I hoped Victor didn't realize what her intent was.
Eric's eyes were wide and fixed on the future. They blazed blue in the long silence.
Then something unexpected happened. Frannie snapped out of the trance, and she opened her mouth and began to scream. When the first shriek ripped out of her mouth, the door began to thud. In about five seconds Quinn splintered my door by throwing his four hundred and fifty pounds against it. Frannie scrambled to her feet and ran for it, seizing the knob and yanking it open before Victor could grab her, though he missed her by half an inch.
Quinn bounded into the house so quickly he knocked his sister down. He stood over her, roaring at all of us.
To his credit Victor showed no fear. He said, "Quinn, listen to me."
After a second, Quinn shut up. It was always hard to say how much humanity was left in the animal form of a shifter. I'd had evidence the Weres understood me perfectly, and I'd communicated with Quinn before when he was a tiger; he'd definitely comprehended. But hearing Frannie scream had uncorked his rage and he didn't seem to know where to aim it. While Victor was paying attention to Quinn, I fished a card out of my pocket.
I hated the thought of using my great-grandfather's Get Out of Jail Free card so soon ("Love ya, Gramps - rescue me!"), and I hated the thought of bringing him without warning into a room full of vampires. But if ever there was a time for fairy intervention, that time would be now, and I might have left it too late. I had my cell phone in my pajama pocket. I pulled it out surreptitiously and flipped it open, wishing I'd put him on speed dial. I looked down, checking the number, and began to press the buttons. Victor was talking to Quinn, trying to persuade him that Frannie was not being hurt.
Did I not do everything right? Did I not wait until I was sure I needed him before I called? Had I not been so clever to have the card on me, to have the phone with me?
Sometimes, when you do everything right, it still turns out all wrong.
Just as the call went through, a quick hand reached around, plucked the phone from my hand, and dashed it against the wall.
"We can't bring him in," Eric said in my ear, "or a war will start that will kill all of us."
I think he meant all of him, because I was pretty sure I would be okay if Great-grandpa started a war to keep me that way, but there was no help for it now. I looked at Eric with something very close to hatred.
"There's no one you can call who would help you in this situation," Victor Madden said complacently. But then he looked a little less pleased with himself, as if he was having second thoughts. "Unless there is something I don't know about you," he added.
"There is much you don't know about Sookie," Bill said. It was the first time he'd spoken since Madden had entered. "Know this: I will die for her. If you harm her, I'll kill you." Bill turned his dark eyes on Eric. "Can you say the same?"
Eric plainly wouldn't, which put him behind in the "Who Loves Sookie More?" stakes. At the moment, that wasn't so relevant. "You must also know this," Eric said to Victor. "Even more pertinently, if anything happens to her, forces you can't imagine will be set into motion."
Victor looked deeply thoughtful. "Of course, that could be an idle threat," he said. "But somehow, I believe you are serious. If you're referring to this tiger, though, I don't think he'll kill us all for her, since we have his mother and his sister in our grasp. The tiger already has a lot to answer for, since I see his sister here."
Amelia had moved over to put her arm around Frannie, both to sooth her and to include herself in the tiger's circle of protection. She looked at me, thinking very clearly, Should I try some magic? Maybe a stasis spell?
It was very clever of Amelia to think of communicating this way with me, and I thought about her offer furiously. The stasis spell would hold everything exactly as it was. But I didn't know if her spell could encompass the vampires waiting outside, and I couldn't see the situation would be much improved if she froze only all of us in the room except for herself. Could she be specific about whom the spell affected? I wished that Amelia were telepathic, too, and I'd never wished that on anyone before. As things lay, there was just too much I didn't know. Reluctantly I shook my head.
"This is ridiculous," Victor said. His impatience was calculated. "Eric, this is the bottom line and my last offer. Do you accept my king's takeover of Louisiana and Arkansas, or do you want to fight to the death?"
There was another, shorter pause.
"I accept the sovereignty of your king," Eric said, his voice flat.
"Bill Compton?" Victor asked.
Bill looked at me, his dark eyes dwelling on my face. "I accept," he said.
And just like that, Louisiana had a new king, and the old regime was gone.