Bill glanced away from me nervously.
“Who said I’d been in Bonita?” I repeated, getting cross.
“You mentioned it the night I stopped by to visit, the night before we went to Fangtasia,” he quickly replied, but I knew it was a cover.
“I never named any specifics. No names. No places,” I informed him, my eyes narrowing on him.
Bill’s face was still carefully blank, but I could see the small movements as his eyes darted about. I’d already noticed earlier in the evening how easy it was for me to see in the dark, an apparent side effect of ingesting Long Shadow’s blood, but seeing the minute movement of Bill’s eyes frightened me. That just wasn’t normal.
Knowing I couldn’t dwell on it right now, I kept pushing my life-challenged neighbor. “Where’d you learn I had been in Bonita? ‘Cause you didn’t learn it from me.”
My shields were all the way down since there weren’t any humans in the area I might hear, allowing me to finally relax my mind. If they hadn’t been down, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the third vampire approaching. But I swung around just in time to see Eric casually waltz into the pool of light my security light cast.
Eric calmly walked a little ways away from where Bill, Bubba, and I were raking leaves, and leaned against the side of my car. “Yes, Bill. Do tell. How did you come to learn so much about Sookie?”
I was definitely going to have to do something about Eric showing up unannounced at my house. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a phone and know how to use it. But I wasn’t going to launch into that conversation now. My mind was piqued, and as the wheels turned, certain things began falling into place.
“I’m the reason you moved back here from New Orleans, aren’t I?”
Bill’s gaze actually dropped with a hint of guilt. His hands tightly gripped against the rake handle and the wood actually audibly creaked.
But still, he kept silent.
I moved forward and pushed against his chest, forcing him to look me in the eye. “Answer me, Bill! I saved your life … existence … whatever. I could have left you to those drainers and you’d be dead and gone now. But I didn’t. Sam and I risked our lives to save your neck. The least you could do is be honest with me.” My volume rose as I spoke, my anger finally getting the better of me. I always tried my best to keep my emotions under control, but this was proving to be too much.
Again, his head dipped down to avoid my stare. I felt the void of Eric’s mind move closer behind me, but didn’t check over my shoulder to see.
“I deserve some honesty, Bill. You said you wanted to repay me for saving your life. Then this is how you can do it. All your talk of wanting to be friends and such. Prove it. Tell me the truth,” I challenged him.
Bill glanced up over my shoulder at Eric. I got the feeling he wasn’t keen on letting Eric in on his secrecy.
“She deserves to know the truth from your lips, Bill. I’ve smelled your scent all over the edges of Sookie’s property. If you’re going to moon over the girl she should know the real reason you were sent after her,” Eric added.
My head swung around to search Eric’s face. Many things he’d just imparted bothered me. Not the least of which was that he seemed to know why Bill was here. Had he known all along?
As Bill sighed and began speaking, I turned to focus on him again. He still wouldn’t look up at me, but at least he was talking now.
“It was bound to come out anyway, Sookie. I had to give you news of your cousin, Hadley, somehow, and I couldn’t foresee a way to do so without revealing my mission to you,” he explained.
When he seemed to stall, I prompted, “What has any of this got to do with my cousin, and how do you even know about her?”
“She was a favorite of the queen’s, and recently turned. Unfortunately, she also recently met her final death. The queen wished to give you the one responsible for Hadley’s death in the hopes that you would be more easily appeased and amenable to moving to New Orleans and joining her retinue.”
I could almost feel Eric bristling beside me. But unfortunately I was so overwhelmed by what Bill had imparted, that I could only focus on one piece of information.
“I take it you’re not talking about the Queen of England, are you?” I asked, and then burst into inappropriate giggles. Somehow, the image of Queen Elizabeth with fangs and biting into someone’s neck suddenly seemed like the funniest thing in the world. I could just see her daintily wiping blood from her lips with a lace handkerchief after she’d finished.
Both Eric and Bill looked at me as though I’d really become “Crazy Sookie” but Bill took it upon himself to inform me.
“No. It is not the human queen of England. Vampires still operate within a feudalist system. States with large vampire populations are ruled by a monarch with sheriffs underneath them managing the various fiefdoms or areas of their kingdom.”
I was still trying to quiet my giggles. It had been hard enough to accept the image of a vampire sheriff, but at least that somehow seemed sensible and plausible since the human police wouldn’t be able to enforce anything with vampires, but the notion that in our democratic age, the vampires had kings and queens—well, it just seemed ridiculous.
“So let me get this straight. Y’all have kings and queens, and we’ve got a queen that rules Louisiana from New Orleans?” I laughed.
Bill nodded, but Eric grasped my elbow to turn me slightly towards him. “Queen Sophie-Anne is no laughing matter, Sookie. She is the authority in this state. Even I must answer to her. If she desires to have your presence in New Orleans, she will have you brought there.”
I pulled away from him. “She can’t force me to go to New Orleans if I don’t want to,” I denied shaking my head.
Eric’s eyes narrowed as he stepped closer and glared down at me. “You are an unclaimed human. No vampire will care what you want. If the queen desires you, she will take you.” Seeing the fear on my face, he pushed on, “Sign the contract I gave you, and it will bind you to my retinue. You may be required to work occasionally for the queen, but she will have to go through me to do so. You will still be able to live here as you wish.”
I stepped back and wrapped my arms around myself. I wasn’t a fool. I knew Eric was using the threat of their vampire queen to try to make me sign his contract.
And while I knew nothing about this queen of theirs, I at least knew Eric a little bit. He frightened the hell out of me, but I still felt like I could trust him on a certain level. At least trust him to tell me he was going to kill me before he tears my throat out, I thought darkly.
Better the devil you know than the one you don’t. And I sure didn’t want to live in New Orleans. Being around that many humans on a full-time basis would drive me crazy in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
A few more of the puzzle pieces fell into place in my mind. Turning to Bill I asked, “Hadley told your queen that I was different, and what? She sent you here to investigate me? How’d she even know I’d come back to Bon Temps?”
Bill looked uncomfortable again. “It was arranged for your grandmother’s home to pass to you after Bartlett Hale’s death. A letter was left at your last known address in hopes of luring you back to Bon Temps.”
I considered the things that were left unsaid for a moment. “Uncle Bartlett didn’t just fall into the creek by his house, did he? Someone killed him and put him there to speed the process up, didn’t they?” Bill fidgeted even more. “Did you do the deed yourself? Don’t lie to me.”
“Yes.” The one word came out low and regretful.
I wasn’t. “Good,” I hissed.
Both vampires swung to look at me with surprise at the venom in my voice, but I wasn’t about to elaborate on it. “So everything about my coming back here was orchestrated by your queen on the off chance that whatever my cousin had said about me was true, and you were sent here to what? Convince me how wonderful it would be to go live under some vampire queen’s thumb?”
“I was sent to garner your loyalties for Queen Sophie-Anne through any means necessary. And yes, eventually bring you to New Orleans when you were ready.” I must have looked incredulous about the whole notion because Bill went on. “You have no idea how valuable a telepath would be to a monarch. Quite especially so since the Great Revelation. We cannot always resort to glamoring humans now. Telepaths are rare and very valuable. I’ve never seen one before.”
“I won’t go to New Orleans,” I insisted. I’d go back to living like a nomad first. New Orleans was too big of a metropolitan city for me to live in. I’d go crazy. I’d never have a moment’s peace.
Bill actually almost looked regretful. “You don’t have a choice, Sookie. I have to bring you to New Orleans.”
Bill took a step towards me, but Eric was suddenly between us thrusting paperwork he’d pulled from out of nowhere into my hands.
“Sign the contract, Sookie, and I can keep you here.”
I could hear Bill protesting from behind Eric’s back. “She cannot sign a contract with you, Eric. I have made the queen’s desires known. You cannot usurp her wishes.”
Never taking his eyes from mine, Eric replied, “I entered into negotiations before my contact in the queen’s court informed me of your mission here, Bill. By rights, she can choose to finalize an agreement with me. I am still loyal to Sophie-Anne, I am not usurping her wishes—merely redirecting them. If she wishes it otherwise, she should have informed me and not gone behind my back in my own area.”
His stare was so intense I wondered if he was trying to glamor me, but there was no familiar pressing on my mind. He was making it clear though—I didn’t have much choice here. Sign those papers. Or run.
His eyes narrowed again in suspicion. “If you run now, you will have to continue running for the rest of your life, Sookie. You are known to the vampire world now. You cannot escape. I for one will find you and drag you back here,” he threatened, his fangs running out as he leaned down towards me.
My head jerked up from the paperwork to glare into his eyes. I swear, sometimes he seemed telepathic. Did I really give that much away on my face? Or maybe there was some part of him that knew me the same way some small part of me said he wouldn’t hurt me if he could help it.
I grabbed the pen he held out and quickly singed the last page before Bill could protest again. “Better the devil you know,” I mumbled. “You’d probably chase me across kingdom-come.”
My eyes glanced up into Eric’s intense stare again. “If you ran, I’d chase you until I found you,” he confirmed.
“Why?” I found myself asking.
Eric’s brow gathered together. “I am not sure. I have not had you yet, for one,” he added with a smirk.
“The queen will not be pleased,” Bill muttered stepping around Eric. He still gripped the rake with one hand, and the other ran through his dark hair.
Eric waved his had dismissively. His grin was one of self-satisfaction. Like he’d just won a well-played game of chess. “Sookie is part of my retinue now and thereby loyal to the queen as well. Sophie-Anne will be accepting of this.”
“There is still the matter of the vampire responsible for Hadley’s death,” Bill reminded.
To be honest with myself, I couldn’t even bring a clear picture to mind of my cousin Hadley. Jason would be upset by her death, or redeath, or final death—whatever they called it—but I had a hard time caring about someone who was a stranger to me. She’d been closer to Jason’s age, and unfortunately, obviously remembered me, or remembered I’d been different, but I didn’t remember her. She was just a name to me.
“I didn’t know Hadley, so I don’t much care what’s done with her killer. Frankly, I’m not too happy she talked about family business with this queen of yours, so I’m even less inclined to bring myself to care,” I admitted.
My feet started carrying me away from Bill, but he called out to me, stopping me short.
He seemed to fumble with his wording, but couldn’t get anything out.
“What, Bill?” I asked impatiently.
“I have wanted to tell you what my purpose in Bon Temps was, but I could not by order of the queen. I wanted to tell you,” he repeated.
“And just how far would you have continued to carry this whole charade if you hadn’t been forced to tell me the truth?”
His dropped gaze was my only answer.
“Actions speak a whole lot louder than intentions or the things you wanted to do,” I quietly told him.
Again I started to turn away, and again he stopped me.
“I would still like to be your friend, Sookie. I would still like to know you,” he quietly pleaded. “You did save my life. You are unlike any human I have ever known. I hope you can one day forgive me.”
I shrugged noncommittally. “It’s gonna take a lot to gain any trust back, Bill. I don’t like being lied to or used. And you’ve done both. Friendship might be a far piece off yet.”
He nodded in acceptance, and leaned his rake against a nearby tree.
As Bill slowly began walking towards his own place, Eric called out, “Bubba, return with Bill. I will speak with you later.”
My eyes turned to see Bubba walking towards me. I was ashamed of myself for completely forgetting Bubba’s presence until now. He’d continued raking and actually made a nice neat pile of leaves, seemingly oblivious to what we had been discussing.
Bill had turned to wait for Bubba, and both he and Eric were visibly shocked when Bubba stopped in front of me and softly kissed my cheek. Without thought, I automatically returned his kiss to his cool cheek.
“Thank you for letting me rake leaves with you, Miss Sookie. I’m real glad you’re healed up now.” His eyes darted to the ground as he sheepishly continued, “Do ya’ think I could come see ya again sometime? I could help you out with yard work or lots of other things.”
I carefully took the rake out of his hands and grasped his cool fingers with my free hand. “You’re welcome to stop by anytime you’d like, Bubba.” I wasn’t sure what made me offer it, since the incredulous stares of the other two vampires said they were both surprised, but hey, I figured of the three vampires here, Bubba was the only one who hadn’t either lied to me, or tried to manipulate me in some way.
Bubba’s face lit up in that familiar grin, and he kissed my cheek again before zipping off after Bill. They both quickly disappeared off my mental radar towards Bill’s property.
Now that left me alone with the master manipulator.
“Just how well is a signed piece of paper going to keep some vampire queen from deciding that she still wants to force me to relocate to New Orleans?” I asked, turning to face Eric. He was back to leaning against the side of my car.
“A normal contract? Not at all. One written by a demon lawyer? That she will be subject to abide by. It is binding under vampire law and recognized by most of the supernatural world,” he answered with a shrug.
“A demon lawyer?” The old image of the devil with horns, tail, and a pitchfork, dressed in an expensive suit and carrying a briefcase popped into my head. It oddly seemed fitting. “Vampires, shifters, and demons, oh my,” I muttered.
After tonight, I didn’t even want to ask what else there was out there. But I was guessing a whole lot more. The world was getting bigger and bigger. And I was feeling smaller and smaller.
“So she can’t make me move to New Orleans?” I pressed. I needed to reassure myself of that, just to set my mind at ease.
“Did you wish to move there?”
“No! I don’t think I could stand it,” I exclaimed in surprise.
“Too many people. Too many thoughts. I’d never have a moment’s peace. I’d go crazy.” As I spoke, I let my own rake and Bubba’s fall to the ground and made my way to the back porch. I took a seat on the top step and was surprised when Eric took a seat a few steps down from me. Even sitting several steps down, his head was nearly even with my own.
“What exactly does me signing this contract with you mean?” I decided to ask. I’d read over the copy he’d left with me, but I wanted to hear him tell me himself what he expected. The contract itself had actually been a lot shorter and simpler than I’d expected, and seemed to give me a lot of freedoms. But with an old as hell vampire, I was sure he’d find loop-holes.
“You will work for me when I call on you,” he stated as though it should have been obvious. I nodded but gestured with my hand that I wanted him to elaborate. He sighed, but did continue. “I can understand that you seem independent and do not wish to leave your home. The contract states that you are hired on a contractual basis and essentially on retainer. You may continue working in the shifter’s bar as you wish, but will be required to work for me when I need you to.”
“You can’t just expect me to drop what I’m doing at a moment’s notice and rush over to read employees for you or something,” I argued.
“I admit there are still details we need to discuss, but they can be added to the contract as addendums.”
For a vampire who had jumped at the opportunity to back me into a corner and force me to sign a contract or risk being whisked away to New Orleans, he seemed to be awfully willing to work with me.
I folded my arms over my knees and rested my chin on my arms as I spoke. “I figured you’d think you owned me and could do whatever you wanted with me once I signed those papers,” I quietly admitted.
Eric had been gazing out at my yard until now, but he turned slightly to look at me with some dark unfathomable look. “I have no desire to own you, Sookie.”
I continued looking at him with my head resting sideways on my arms. “What do you want with me?”
If it was possible, his face became even more closed-off than it had been before. “I do not know,” he admitted in a whisper. “I do not like not knowing.”
The swirl of the air around me was the only indicator I had of his departure. That and the empty space where he’d been sitting.
I made my way back into my darkened house with heavy steps. I’d signed a binding contract with a vampire I barely knew and I couldn’t help but feel that my life would never be the same again.
My heart told me there would be no going back. For the rest of my life, I was part of the supernatural world, and whatever that entailed. And I knew if I tried to run, a tall blond vampire would be the first to chase me.