There were lots of humans who hadn't liked discovering they shared the planet with vampires. Despite the fact that they had always done so – without knowing it – once they believed that vampires were real, these people were bent on the vampires' destruction. They weren't any choosier about their methods of murder than a rogue vampire was about his.
Rogue vampires were the backward-looking undead; they hadn't wanted to be made known to humans any more than the humans wanted to know about them. Rogues refused to drink the synthetic blood that was the mainstay of most vampires' diets these days. Rogues believed the only future for vampires lay in a return to secrecy and invisibility. Rogue vampires would slaughter humans for the fun of it, now, because they actually welcomed a return of persecution of their own kind. Rogues saw it as a means of persuading mainstream vampires that secrecy was best for the future of their kind; and then, too, persecution was a form of population control.
Now I learned from Bill that there were vampires who became afflicted with terrible remorse, or perhaps ennui, after a long life. These renouncers planned to "meet the sun," the vampire term for committing suicide by staying out past daybreak.
Once again, my choice of boyfriend had led me down paths I never would have trod otherwise. I wouldn't have needed to know any of this, would never have even dreamed of dating someone definitely deceased, if I hadn't been born with the disability of telepathy. I was kind of a pariah to human guys. You can imagine how impossible it is to date someone whose mind you can read. When I met Bill, I began the happiest time of my life. But I'd undoubtedly encountered more trouble in the months I'd known him than I had in my entire twenty-five years previously. "So, you're thinking Farrell is already dead?" I asked, forcing myself to focus on the current crisis. I hated to ask, but I needed to know.
"Maybe," Stan said after a long pause.
"Possibly they're keeping him somewhere," said Bill. "You know how they invite the press to these… ceremonies,"
Stan stared into space for a long moment. Then he stood. "The same man was in the bar and at the airport," he said, almost to himself. Stan, the geeky head vampire of Dallas, was pacing now, up and down the room. It was making me nuts, though saying so was out of the question. This was Stan's house, and his "brother" was missing. But I'm not one for long, brooding silences. I was tired, and I wanted to go to bed.
"So," I said, doing my best to sound brisk, "how'd they know I was going to be there?"
If there's anything worse than having a vampire stare at you, it's having two vampires stare at you.
"To know you were coming ahead of time… there is a traitor," Stan said. The air in the room began to tremble and crackle with the tension he was producing.
But I had a less dramatic idea. I picked up a notepad lying on the table and wrote, "MAYBE YOU'RE BUGGED." They both glared at me as if I'd offered them a Big Mac. Vampires, who individually have incredible and various powers, are sometimes oblivious to the fact that humans have developed some powers of their own. The two men gave each other a look of speculation, but neither of them offered any practical suggestion.
Well, to heck with them. I'd only seen this done in movies, but I figured if someone had planted a bug in this room, they'd done it in a hurry and they'd been scared to death. So the bug would be close and not well hidden. I shrugged off the gray jacket and kicked off my shoes. Since I was a human and had no dignity to lose in Stan's eyes, I dropped below the table and began crawling down its length, pushing the rolling chairs away as I went. For about the millionth time, I wished I'd worn slacks.
I'd gotten about two yards from Stan's legs when I saw something odd. There was a dark bump adhering to the underside of the blond wood of the table. I looked at it as closely as I could without a flashlight. It was not old gum.
Having found the little mechanical device, I didn't know what to do. I crawled out, somewhat dustier for the experience, and found myself right at Stan's feet. He held out his hand and I took it reluctantly. Stan pulled gently, or it seemed gently, but suddenly I was on my feet facing him. He wasn't very tall, and I looked more into his eyes than I really wanted. I held up my finger in front of my face to be sure he was paying attention. I pointed under the table.
Bill left the room in a flash. Stan's face grew even whiter, and his eyes blazed. I looked anywhere but directly at him. I didn't want to be the sight filling his eyes while he digested the fact that someone had planted a bug in his audience chamber. He had indeed been betrayed, just not in the fashion he'd expected.
I cast around in my mind for something to do that would help. I beamed at Stan. Reaching up automatically to straighten my ponytail, I realized my hair was still in its roll on the back of my head, though considerably less neat. Fiddling with it gave me a good excuse to look down.
I was considerably relieved when Bill reappeared with Isabel and the dishwashing man, who was carrying a bowl of water. "I'm sorry, Stan," Bill said. "I'm afraid Farrell is already dead, if you go by what we have discovered this evening. Sookie and I will return to Louisiana tomorrow, unless you need us further." Isabel pointed to the table, and the man set the bowl down.
"You might as well," Stan replied, in a voice as cold as ice. "Send me your bill. Your master, Eric, was quite adamant about that. I will have to meet him someday." His tone indicated the meeting would not be pleasant for Eric.
Isabel said abruptly, "You stupid human! You've spilled my drink!" Bill reached past me to snatch the bug from under the table and drop it in the water, and Isabel, walking even more smoothly to keep the water from slopping over the sides of the bowl, left the room. Her companion remained behind.
That had been disposed of simply enough. And it was at least possible that whoever had been listening in had been fooled by that little bit of dialogue. We all relaxed, now that the bug was gone. Even Stan looked a little less frightening.
"Isabel says you have reason to think Farrell might have been abducted by the Fellowship," the man said. "Maybe this young lady and I could go to the Fellowship Center tomorrow, and try to find out if there're plans for any kind of ceremony soon."
Bill and Stan regarded him thoughtfully.
"That's a good idea," Stan said. "A couple would seem less noticeable."
"Sookie?" Bill asked.
"Certainly none of you can go," I said. "I think maybe we could at least get the layout of the place. If you think there's really a chance Farrell's being held there." If I could find out more about the situation at the Fellowship Center, maybe I could keep the vampires from attacking. They sure weren't going to go down to the police station to file a missing persons report to prod the police into searching the Center. No matter how much the Dallas vampires wanted to remain within the boundaries of human law so they could successfully reap the benefits of mainstreaming, I knew that if a Dallas vampire was being held captive in the Center, humans would die right, left, and sideways. I could maybe prevent that from happening, and locate the missing Farrell, too.
"If this tattooed vampire is a renouncer and plans to meet the sun, taking Farrell with him, and if this is being arranged through the Fellowship, then this pretend priest who tried to grab you at the airport must work for them. They know you now," Bill pointed out. "You would have to wear your wig." He smiled with gratification. The wig had been his idea.
A wig in this heat. Oh, hell. I tried not to look petulant. After all, it would be better to have an itchy head than to be identified as a woman who associated with vampires, while I was visiting a Fellowship of the Sun Center. "It would be better if there were another human with me," I admitted, sorry as I was to involve anyone else in danger.
"This is Isabel's current man," Stan said. He was silent for a minute, and I guessed he was "beaming" at her, or however he contacted his underlings.
Sure enough, Isabel glided in. It must be handy, being able to summon people like that. You wouldn't need an intercom, or a telephone. I wondered how far away other vamps could be and still receive his message. I was kind of glad Bill couldn't signal me without words, because I'd feel too much like his slave girl. Could Stan summon humans the way he called his vamps? Maybe I didn't really want to know.
The man reacted to Isabel's presence the way a bird dog does when he senses quail. Or maybe it was more like a hungry man who gets served a big steak, and then has to wait for grace. You could almost see his mouth water. I hoped I didn't look like that when I was around Bill.
"Isabel, your man has volunteered to go with Sookie to the Fellowship of the Sun Center. Can he be convincing as a potential convert?"
"Yes, I think he can," Isabel said, staring into the man's eyes.
"Before you go – are there visitors this evening?"
"Yes, one, from California."
"Where is he?"
"In the house."
"Has he been in this room?" Naturally, Stan would love the bug-planter to be a vamp or human he didn't know.
A good five minutes later, Isabel returned with a tall blond vampire in tow. He must have been six foot four, or maybe even more. He was brawny, clean-shaven, and he had a mane of wheat-colored hair. I looked down at my feet immediately, just as I sensed Bill going immobile.
Isabel said, "This is Leif."
"Leif," Stan said smoothly, "welcome to my nest. This evening we have a problem here."
I stared at my toes, wishing more than I'd ever wished anything that I could be completely alone with Bill for two minutes and find out what the hell was going on, because this vampire wasn't any "Leif," and he wasn't from California.
It was Eric.
Bill's hand came into my line of vision and closed around mine. He gave my fingers a very careful little squeeze, and I returned it. Bill slid his arm around me, and I leaned against him. I needed to relax, by golly.
"How may I help you?" Eric – no, Leif, for the moment – asked courteously.
"It seems that someone has entered this room and performed an act of spying."
That seemed a nice way to put it. Stan wanted to keep the bugging a secret for right now, and in view of the fact that there surely was a traitor here, that was probably a great idea.
"I am a visitor to your nest, and I have no problem with you or any of yours."
Leif's calm and sincere denial was quite impressive, given that I knew for a fact that his whole presence was an imposture to further some unfathomable vampire purpose.
"Excuse me," I said, sounding as frail and human as I possibly could.
Stan looked quite irritated at the interruption, but screw him.
"The, uh, item, would have had to be put in here earlier than today," I said, trying to sound like I was sure Stan had already thought of this fact. "To get the details of our arrival in Dallas."
Stan was staring at me with no expression whatsoever.
In for a penny, in for a pound. "And excuse me, but I am really worn out. Could Bill take me back to the hotel now?"
"We will have Isabel take you back by yourself," Stan said dismissively.
Behind the fake glasses, Stan's pale eyebrows flew up. "No?" He sounded as though he'd never heard the word.
"By the terms of my contract, I don't go anywhere without a vampire from my area. Bill is that vampire. I go nowhere without him, at night."
Stan gave me another good long stare. I was glad I had found the bug and proved myself useful otherwise, or I wouldn't last long in Stan's bailiwick. "Go," he said, and Bill and I didn't waste any time. We couldn't help Eric if Stan came to suspect him, and we might quite possibly give him away. I would be by far the more likely to do that by some word or gesture, with Stan watching me. Vampires have studied humans for centuries, in the way predators learn as much as they can about their prey.
Isabel came out with us, and we got back into her Lexus for the ride back to the Silent Shore Hotel. The streets of Dallas, though not empty, were at least much quieter than when we'd arrived at the nest hours earlier. I estimated it was less than two hours until dawn.
"Thank you," I said politely when we pulled under the porte cochere of the hotel.
"My human will come to get you at three o'clock in the afternoon," Isabel told me.
Repressing the urge to say, "Yes, ma'am!" and click my heels together, I just told her that would be fine. "What's his name?" I asked.
"His name is Hugo Ayres," she said.
"Okay." I already knew that he was a quick man with an idea. I went into the lobby and waited for Bill. He was only seconds behind me, and we went up in the elevator in silence.
"Do you have your key?" he asked me at the room door.
I had been half-asleep. "Where's yours?" I asked, none too graciously.
"I'd just like to see you recover yours," he said.
Suddenly I was in a better mood. "Maybe you'd like to find it," I suggested.
A male vampire with a waist-length black mane strolled down the hall, his arm around a plump girl with a head of curly red hair. When they'd entered a room farther down the hall, Bill began searching for the key.
He found it pretty fast.
Once we'd gotten inside, Bill picked me up and kissed me at length. We needed to talk, since a lot had happened during this long night, but I wasn't in the mood and he wasn't, either.
The nice thing about skirts, I discovered, was that they just slide up, and if you were only wearing a thong underneath, it could vanish in a jiffy. The gray jacket was on the floor, the white shell was discarded, and my arms were locked around Bill's neck before you could say, "Screw a vampire."
Bill was leaning against the sitting room wall trying to open his slacks with me still wrapped around him when there was a knock at the door.
"Damn," he whispered in my ear. "Go away," he said, somewhat louder. I wriggled against him and his breath caught in his throat. He pulled the bobby pins and the Hairagami out of my hair to let it roll down my back.
"I need to talk to you," said a familiar voice, somewhat muffled by the thick door.
"No," I moaned. "Say it isn't Eric." The only creature in the world we had to admit.
"It's Eric," said the voice.
I unlocked my legs from around Bill's waist, and he gently lowered me to the floor. In a real snit, I stomped into the bedroom to put on my bathrobe. To hell with rebuttoning all those clothes.
I came back out as Eric was telling Bill that Bill had done well this evening.
"And, of course, you were marvelous, Sookie," Eric said, taking in the pink, short bathrobe with a comprehensive glance. I looked up at him – and up, and up – and wished him at the bottom of the Red River, spectacular smile, golden hair, and all.
"Oh," I said malignantly, "thanks so much for coming up to tell us this. We couldn't have gone to bed without a pat on the back from you."
Eric looked as blandly delighted as he possibly could. "Oh, dear," he said. "Did I interrupt something? Would these – well, this – be yours, Sookie?" He held up the black string that had formerly been one side of my thong.
Bill said, "In a word, yes. Is there anything else you would like to discuss with us, Eric?" Ice would've been surprised by how cold Bill could sound.
"We haven't got time tonight," Eric said regretfully, "since daylight is so soon, and there are things I need to see to before I sleep. But tomorrow night we must meet. When you find out what Stan wants you to do, leave me a note at the desk, and we'll make an arrangement."
Bill nodded. "Good-bye, then," he said.
"You don't want a nightcap?" Was he hoping to be offered a bottle of blood? Eric's eyes went to the refrigerator, then to me. I was sorry I was wearing a thin nylon robe instead of something bulky and chenille. "Warm from the vessel?" Bill maintained a stony silence.
His gaze lingering on me until the last minute, Eric stepped through the door and Bill locked it behind him. "You think he's listening outside?" I asked Bill, as he untied the sash of my robe.
"I don't care," Bill said, and bent his head to other things.
When I got up, about one o'clock in the afternoon, the hotel had a silent feel to it. Of course, most of the guests were sleeping. Maids would not come into a room during the day. I had noted the security last night – vampire guards. The daytime would be different, since daytime guarding was what the guests were paying so heavily for. I called room service for the first time in my life and ordered breakfast. I was as hungry as a horse, since I hadn't eaten last night at all. I was showered and wrapped up in my robe when the waiter knocked on the door, and after I'd made sure he was who he said he was, I let him in.
After my attempted abduction at the airport the day before, I wasn't taking anything for granted. I held the pepper spray down by my side as the young man laid out the food and the coffeepot. If he took one step toward the door behind which Bill slept in his coffin, I would zap him. But this fellow, Arturo, had been well trained, and his eyes never even strayed toward the bedroom. He never looked directly at me, either. He was thinking about me, though, and I wished I'd put on a bra before I let him in.
When he'd gone – and as Bill had instructed me, I added a tip to the room ticket I signed – I ate everything he'd brought: sausage and pancakes and a bowl of melon balls. Oh gosh, it tasted good. The syrup was real maple syrup, and the fruit was just ripe enough. The sausage was wonderful. I was glad Bill wasn't around to watch and make me feel uncomfortable. He didn't really like to see me eat, and he hated it if I ate garlic.
I brushed my teeth and hair and got my makeup situated. It was time to prepare for my visit to the Fellowship Center. I sectioned my hair and pinned it up, and got the wig out of its box. It was short and brown and really undistinguished. I had thought Bill was nuts when he'd suggested I get a wig, and I still wondered why it had occurred to him I might need one, but I was glad to have it. I had a pair of glasses like Stan's, serving the same camouflaging purpose, and I put them on. There was a little magnification in the bottom part, so I could legitimately claim they were reading glasses.
What did fanatics wear to go to a fanatic gathering place? In my limited experience, fanatics were usually conservative in dress, either because they were too preoccupied with other concerns to think about it or because they saw something evil in dressing stylishly. If I'd been at home I'd have run to Wal-Mart and been right on the money, but I was here in the expensive, windowless Silent Shores. However, Bill had told me to call the front desk for anything I needed. So I did.
"Front desk," said a human who was trying to copy the smooth cool voice of an older vampire. "How may I help you?" I felt like telling him to give it up. Who wants an imitation when the real thing is under the roof?
"This is Sookie Stackhouse in three-fourteen. I need a long denim skirt, size eight, and a pastel flowered blouse or knit top, same size."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, after a longish pause. "When shall I have those for you?"
"Soon." Gee, this was a lot of fun. "As a matter of fact, the sooner the better." I was getting into this. I loved being on someone else's expense account.
I watched the news while I waited. It was the typical news of any American city: traffic problems, zoning problems, homicide problems.
"A woman found dead last night in a hotel Dumpster has been identified," said a newscaster, his voice appropriately grave. He bent down the comers of his mouth to show serious concern. "The body of twenty-one-year-old Bethany Rogers was found behind the Silent Shore Hotel, famous for being Dallas's first hotel catering to the undead. Rogers had been killed by a single gunshot wound to the head. Police described the murder as 'execution-style.' Detective Tawny Kelner told our reporter that police are following up several leads." The screen image shifted from the artificially grim face to a genuinely grim one. The detective was in her forties, I thought, a very short woman with a long braid down her back. The camera shot swiveled to include the reporter, a small dark man with a sharply tailored suit. "Detective Kelner, is it true that Bethany Rogers worked at a vampire bar?"
The detective's frown grew even more formidable. "Yes, that's true," she said. "However, she was employed as a waitress, not an entertainer." An entertainer? What did entertainers do at the Bat's Wing? "She had only been working there a couple of months."
"Doesn't the site used to dump her body indicate that there's some kind of vampire involvement?" The reporter was more persistent than I would've been.
"On the contrary, I believe the site was chosen to send a message to the vampires," Kelner snapped, and then looked as if she regretted speaking. "Now, if you'll excuse me…"
"Of course, detective," the reporter said, a little dazed. "So, Tom," and he turned to face the camera, as if he could see through it back to the anchor in the station, "that's a provocative issue."
The anchor realized the reporter wasn't making any sense, too, and quickly moved to another topic.
Poor Bethany was dead, and there wasn't anyone I could discuss that with. I pushed back tears; I hardly felt I had a right to cry for the girl. I couldn't help but wonder what had happened to Bethany Rogers last night after she'd been led from the room at the vampire nest. If there'd been no fang marks, surely a vampire hadn't killed her. It would be a rare vampire who could pass up the blood.
Sniffling from repressed tears and miserable with dismay, I sat on the couch and hunted through my purse to find a pencil. At last, I unearthed a pen. I used it to scratch up under the wig. Even in the air-conditioned dark of the hotel, it itched. In thirty minutes, there was a knock at the door. Once again, I looked through the peephole. There was Arturo again, with garments draped across his arm.
"We'll return the ones you don't want," he said, handing me the bundle. He tried not to stare at my hair.
"Thanks," I said, and tipped him. I could get used to this in a hurry.
It wasn't long until I was supposed to be meeting the Ayres guy, Isabel's honey bun. Dropping the robe where I stood, I looked at what Arturo'd brought me. The pale peachy blouse with the off-white flowers, that would do, and the skirt… hmmm. He hadn't been able to find denim, apparently, and the two he'd brought were khaki. That would be all right, I figured, and I pulled one on. It looked too tight for the effect I needed, and I was glad he'd brought another style. It was just right for the image. I slid my feet into flat sandals, put some tiny earrings in my pierced ears, and I was good to go. I even had a battered straw purse to carry with the ensemble. Unfortunately, it was my regular purse. But it fit right in. I dumped out my identifying items, and wished I had thought of that earlier instead of at the last minute. I wondered what other crucial safety measures I might have forgotten.
I stepped out into the silent corridor. It was exactly as it had been the night before. There were no mirrors and no windows, and the feeling of enclosure was complete. The dark red of the carpet and the federal blue, red, and cream of the wallpaper didn't help. The elevator snicked open when I touched the call button, and I rode down by myself. No elevator music, even. The Silent Shore was living up to its name.
There were armed guards on either side of the elevator, when I reached the lobby. They were looking at the main doors to the hotel. Those doors were obviously locked. There was a television set mounted by the doors, and it showed the sidewalk outside of the doors. Another television set showed a wider view.
I thought a terrible attack must be imminent and I froze, my heart racing, but after a few seconds of calm I figured out they must be there all the time. This was why vampires stayed here, and at other similar specialty hotels. No one would get past these guards to the elevators. No one would make it into the hotel rooms where sleeping and helpless vampires lay. This was why the fee for the hotel was exorbitant. The two guards on duty at the moment were both huge, and wearing the black livery of the hotel. (Ho, hum. Everyone seemed to think vampires were obsessed with black.) The guards' sidearms seemed gigantic to me, but then, I'm not too familiar with guns. The men glanced at me and then went back to their bored forward stare.
Even the desk clerks were armed. There were shotguns on racks behind the counter. I wondered how far they would go to protect their guests. Would they really shoot other humans, intruders? How would the law handle it?
A man wearing glasses sat in one of the padded chairs that punctuated the marble floor of the lobby. He was about thirty, tall and lanky, with sandy hair. He was wearing a suit, a lightweight summer khaki suit, with a conservative tie and penny loafers. The dishwasher, sure enough.
"Hugo Ayres?" I asked.
He sprang up to shake my hand. "You must be Sookie? But your hair… last night, you were blond?"
"I am. I'm wearing a wig."
"It looks very natural."
"Good. Are you ready?"
"My car's outside." He touched my back briefly to point me in the right direction, as if I wouldn't see the doors otherwise. I appreciated the courtesy, if not the implication. I was trying to get a feel for Hugo Ayres. He wasn't a broadcaster.
"How long have you been dating Isabel?" I asked as we buckled up in his Caprice.
"Ah, um, I guess about eleven months," Hugo Ayres said. He had big hands, with freckles on the back. I was surprised he wasn't living in the suburbs with a wife with streaked hair and two sandy children.
"Are you divorced?" I asked impulsively. I was sorry when I saw the grief cross his face.
"Yes," he said. "Pretty recently."
"Too bad." I started to ask about the children, decided it was none of my business. I could read him well enough to know he had a little girl, but I couldn't discover her name and age.
"Is it true you can read minds?" he asked.
"Yes, it's true."
"No wonder you're so attractive to them."
Well, ouch, Hugo. "That's probably a good part of the reason," I said, keeping my voice flat and even. "What's your day job?"
"I'm a lawyer," Hugo said.
"No wonder you're so attractive to them," I said, in the most neutral voice I could manage.
After a longish silence, Hugo said, "I guess I deserved that."
"Let's move on past it. Let's get a cover story."
"Could we be brother and sister?"
"That's not out of the question. I've seen brother and sister teams that looked less like each other than we do. But I think boyfriend-girlfriend would account for the gaps in our knowledge of each other more, if we get separated and questioned. I'm not predicting that'll happen, and I'd be amazed if it did, but as brother and sister we'd have to know all about each other."
"You're right. Why don't we say that we met at church? You just moved to Dallas, and I met you in Sunday school at Glen Craigie Methodist. That's actually my church."
"Okay. How about I'm manager of a… restaurant?" From working at Merlotte's, I thought I could be convincing in the role if I wasn't questioned too intensively.
He looked a little surprised. "That's just different enough to sound good. I'm not much of an actor, so if I just stick to being me, I'll be okay."
"How did you meet Isabel?" Of course I was curious.
"I represented Stan in court. His neighbors sued to have the vampires barred from the neighborhood. They lost." Hugo had mixed feelings about his involvement with a vampire woman, and wasn't entirely sure he should've won the court case, either. In fact, Hugo was deeply ambivalent about Isabel.
Oh, good, that made this errand much more frightening. "Did that get in the papers? The fact that you represented Stan Davis?"
He looked chagrined. "Yes, it did. Dammit, someone at the Center might recognize my name. Or me, from my picture being in the papers."
"But that might be even better. You can tell them you saw the error of your ways, after you'd gotten to know vampires."
Hugo thought that over, his big freckled hands moving restlessly on the steering wheel. "Okay," he said finally. "Like I said, I'm not much of an actor, but I think I can bring that off."
I acted all the time, so I wasn't too worried about myself. Taking a drink order from a guy while pretending you don't know whether he's speculating on whether you're blond all the way down can be excellent acting training. You can't blame people – mostly – for what they're thinking on the inside. You have to learn to rise above it.
I started to suggest to the lawyer that he hold my hand if things got tense today, to send me thoughts that I could act on. But his ambivalence, the ambivalence that wafted from him like a cheap cologne, gave me pause. He might be in sexual thrall to Isabel, he might even love her and the danger she represented, but I didn't think his heart and mind were wholly committed to her.
In an unpleasant moment of self-examination, I wondered if the same could be said of Bill and me. But now was not the time and place to ponder this. I was getting enough from Hugo's mind to wonder if he were completely trustworthy in terms of this little mission of ours. It was just a short step from there to wondering how safe I was in his company. I also wondered how much Hugo Ayres actually knew about me. He hadn't been in the room when I'd been working the night before. Isabel hadn't struck me as a chatterer. It was possible he didn't know much about me.
The four-lane road, running through a huge suburb, was lined with all the usual fast-food places and chain stores of all kinds. But gradually, the shopping gave way to residences, and the concrete to greenery. The traffic seemed unrelenting. I could never live in a place this size, cope with this on a daily basis.
Hugo slowed and put on his turn signal when we came to a major intersection. We were about to turn into the parking lot of a large church; at least, it had formerly been a church. The sanctuary was huge, by Bon Temps standards. Only Baptists could count that kind of attendance, in my neck of the woods, and that's if all their congregations joined together. The two-story sanctuary was flanked by two long one-story wings. The whole building was white-painted brick, and all the windows were tinted. There was a chemically green lawn surrounding the whole, and a huge parking lot.
The sign on the well-tended lawn read THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE SUN CENTER – Only Jesus Rose from the Dead.
I snorted as I opened my door and emerged from Hugo's car. "That right there is false," I pointed out to my companion. "Lazarus rose from the dead, too. Jerks can't even get their scripture right."
"You better banish that attitude from your head," Hugo warned me, as he got out and hit the lock button. "It'll make you careless. These people are dangerous. They've accepted responsibility, publicly, for handing over two vampires to the Drainers, saying at least humanity can benefit from the death of a vampire in some way."
"They deal with Drainers?" I felt sick. Drainers followed an extremely hazardous profession. They trapped vampires, wound them around with silver chains, and drained the blood from them for sale on the black market. "These people in here have handed over vampires to the Drainers?"
"That's what one of their members said in a newspaper interview. Of course, the deader was on the news the next day, denying the report vehemently, but I think that was just smokescreen. The Fellowship kills vampires any way they can, thinks they're unholy and an abomination, and they're capable of anything. If you're a vampire's best friend, they can bring tremendous pressure to bear. Just remember that, every time you open your mouth in here."
"You, too, Mr. Ominous Warning."
We walked to the building slowly, looking it over as we went. There were about ten other cars in the parking lot, ranging from aging and dented to brand new and upscale. My favorite was a pearly white Lexus, so nice it might almost have belonged to a vampire.
"Someone's doing well out of the hate business," Hugo observed.
"Who's the head of this place?"
"Guy named Steve Newlin."
"Bet this is his car."
"That would account for the bumper sticker."
I nodded. It read TAKE THE UN OUT OF UNDEAD. Dangling from the mirror inside was a replica – well, maybe a replica – of a stake.
This was a busy place, for a Saturday afternoon. There were children using the swing set and jungle gym in a fenced yard to the side of the building. The kids were being watched by a bored teenager, who looked up every now and then from picking at his nails. Today was not as hot as the day before – summer was losing its doomed last stand, and thank God for that – and the door of the building was propped open to take advantage of the beautiful day and moderate temperature.
Hugo took my hand, which made me jump until I realized he was trying to make us look loverlike. He had zero interest in me personally, which was fine with me. After a second's adjustment we managed to look fairly natural. The contact made Hugo's mind just that more open to me, and I could tell that he was anxious but resolute. He found touching me distasteful, which was a little bit too strong a feeling for me to feel comfortable about; lack of attraction was peachy, but this actual distaste made me uneasy. There was something behind that feeling, some basic attitude… but there were people ahead of us, and I pulled my mind back to my job. I could feel my lips pull into their smile.
Bill had been careful to leave my neck alone last night, so I didn't have to worry about concealing any fang marks, and in my new outfit and on this lovely day it was easier to look carefree as we nodded at a middle-aged couple who were on their way out.
We passed into the dimness of the building, into what must have been the Sunday school wing of the church. There were fresh signs outside the rooms up and down the corridor, signs that read BUDGETING AND FINANCE, ADVERTISING, and most ominously, MEDIA RELATIONS.
A woman in her forties came out of a door farther down the hall, and turned to face us. She looked pleasant, even sweet, with lovely skin and short brown hair. Her definitely pink lipstick matched her definitely pink fingernails, and her lower lip was slightly pouty, which gave her an unexpectedly sensuous air; it sat with odd provocation on her pleasantly round body. A denim skirt and a knit shirt, neatly tucked in, were the echo of my own outfit, and I patted myself on the back mentally.
"Can I help you?" she asked, looking hopeful.
"We want to find out more about the Fellowship," Hugo said, and he seemed every bit as nice and sincere as our new friend. She had on a nametag, I noticed, which read S. NEWLIN.
"We're glad you're here," she said. "I'm the wife of the director, Steve Newlin? I'm Sarah?" She shook hands with Hugo, but not with me. Some women don't believe in shaking hands with another woman, so I didn't worry about it.
We exchanged pleasedtomeetyou's, and she waved a manicured hand toward the double doors at the end of the hall. "If you'll just come with me, I'll show you where we get things done." She laughed a little, as if the idea of meeting goals was a touch ludicrous.
All of the doors in the hall were open, and within the rooms there was evidence of perfectly open activity. If the Newlins' organization was keeping prisoners or conducting covert ops, it was accomplishing its goals in some other part of the building. I looked at everything as hard as I could, determined to fill myself with information. But so far the interior of the Fellowship of the Sun was as blindingly clean as the outside, and the people hardly seemed sinister or devious.
Sarah covered ground ahead of us with an easy walk. She clutched a bundle of file folders to her chest and chattered over her shoulder as she moved at a pace that seemed relaxed, but actually was a bit challenging. Hugo and I, abandoning the handholding, had to step out to keep up.
This building was proving to be far larger than I'd estimated. We'd entered at the far end of one wing. Now we crossed the large sanctuary of the former church, set up for meetings like any big hall, and we passed into the other wing. This wing was divided into fewer and larger rooms; the one closest to the sanctuary was clearly the office of the former pastor. Now it had a sign on the door that read G. STEVEN NEWLIN, DIRECTOR.
This was the only closed door I'd seen in the building.
Sarah knocked and, having waited for a moment, entered. The tall, lanky man behind the desk stood to beam at us with an air of pleased expectancy. His head didn't seem quite big enough for his body. His eyes were a hazy blue, his nose was on the beaky side, and his hair was almost the same dark brown as his wife's, with a threading of gray. I don't know what I'd been expecting in a fanatic, but this man was not it. He seemed a little amused by his own life.
He'd been talking to a tall woman with iron gray hair. She was wearing a pair of slacks and a blouse, but she looked as if she'd have been more comfortable in a business suit. She was formidably made up, and she was less than pleased about something – maybe our interruption.
"What can I do for you today?" Steve Newlin asked, indicating that Hugo and I should be seated. We took green leather armchairs pulled up opposite his desk, and Sarah, unasked, plopped down in a smaller chair that was against the wall on one side. "Excuse me, Steve," she said to her husband. "Listen, can I get you two some coffee? Soda?"
Hugo and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
"Honey, this is – oh, I didn't even ask your names?" She looked at us with charming ruefulness.
"I'm Hugo Ayres, and this is my girlfriend, Marigold."
Marigold? Was he nuts? I kept my smile pasted on my face with an effort. Then I saw the pot of marigolds on the table beside Sarah, and at least I could understand his selection. We'd certainly made a large mistake already; we should have talked about this on the drive over. It stood to reason that if the Fellowship was responsible for the bug, the Fellowship knew the name of Sookie Stackhouse. Thank God Hugo had figured that out.
"Don't we know Hugo Ayres, Sarah?" Steve Newlin's face had the perfect quizzical expression – brow slightly wrinkled, eyebrows raised inquiringly, head tilted to one side.
"Ayres?" said the gray-haired woman. "By the way, I'm Polly Blythe, the Fellowship ceremonies officer."
"Oh, Polly, I'm sorry, I got sidetracked." Sarah tilted her head right back. Her forehead wrinkled, too. Then it smoothed out and she beamed at her husband. "Wasn't an Ayres the lawyer representing the vampires in University Park?"
"So he was," Steve said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his long legs. He waved to someone passing by in the corridor and wrapped his laced fingers around his knee. "Well, it's very interesting that you're paying us a call, Hugo. Can we hope that you've seen the other side of the vampire question?" Satisfaction rolled off Steve Newlin like scent off a skunk.
"It's appropriate that you should put it that way – " Hugo began, but Steve's voice just kept rolling on:
"The bloodsucking side, the dark side of vampire existence? Have you found that they want to kill us all, dominate us with their foul ways and empty promises?"
I knew my eyes were as round as plates. Sarah was nodding thoughtfully, still looking as sweet and bland as a vanilla pudding. Polly looked as if she were having some really grim kind of orgasm. Steve said – and he was still smiling – "You know, eternal life on this earth may sound good, but you'll lose your soul and eventually, when we catch up with you – maybe not me, of course, maybe my son, or eventually my granddaughter – we'll stake you and burn you and then you'll be in true hell. And it won't be any the better for having been put off. God has a special corner for vampires who've used up humans like toilet tissue and then flushed…"
Well, ick. This was going downhill in a hurry. And what I was getting off of Steve was just this endless, gloating satisfaction, along with a heavy dash of cleverness. Nothing concrete or informative.
"Excuse me, Steve," said a deep voice. I swiveled in my chair to see a handsome black-haired man with a crewcut and a bodybuilder's muscles. He smiled at all of us in the room with the same goodwill they were all showing. It had impressed me earlier. Now, I thought it was just creepy. "Our guest is asking for you."
"Really? I'll be there in a minute."
"I wish you would come now. I'm sure your guests wouldn't mind waiting?" Black Crewcut glanced at us appealingly. Hugo was thinking of some deep place, a flash of thought which seemed very peculiar to me.
"Gabe, I'll be there when I've finished with our visitors," Steve said very firmly.
"Well, Steve…" Gabe wasn't willing to give up that easily, but he got a flash from Steve's eyes and Steve sat up and uncrossed his legs, and Gabe got the message. He shot Steve a look that was anything but worshipful, but he left.
That exchange was promising. I wondered if Farrell was behind some locked door, and I could picture myself returning to the Dallas nest, telling Stan exactly where his nest brother was trapped. And then…
Uh-oh. And then Stan would come and attack the Fellowship of the Sun and kill all the members and free Farrell, and then…
"We just wanted to know if you have some upcoming events we can attend, something that'll give us an idea of the scope of the programs here." Hugo's voice sounded mildly inquiring, nothing more. "Since Miss Blythe is here, maybe she can answer that."
I noticed Polly Blythe glanced at Steve before she spoke, and I noticed that his face remained shuttered. Polly Blythe was very pleased to be asked to give information, and she was very pleased about Hugo and me being there at the Fellowship.
"We do have some upcoming events," the gray-haired woman said. "Tonight, we're having a special lock-in, and following that, we have a Sunday dawn ritual."
"That sounds interesting," I said. "Literally, at dawn?"
"Oh, yes, exactly. We call the weather service and everything," Sarah said, laughing.
Steve said, "You'll never forget one of our dawn services. It's inspiring beyond belief."
"What kind of – well, what happens?" Hugo asked.
"You'll see the evidence of God's power right before you," Steve said, smiling.
That sounded really, really ominous. "Oh, Hugo," I said. "Doesn't that sound exciting?"
"It sure does. What time does the lock-in start?"
"At six-thirty. We want our members to get here before they rise."
For a second I envisioned a tray of rolls set in some warm place. Then I realized Steve meant he wanted members to get here before the vampires rose for the night.
"But what about when your congregation goes home?" I could not refrain from asking.
"Oh, you must not have gone to a lock-in as a teenager!" Sarah said. "It's loads of fun. Everyone comes and brings their sleeping bags, and we eat and have games and Bible readings and a sermon, and we all spend the night actually in the church." I noticed that the Fellowship was a church, in Sarah's eyes, and I was pretty sure that reflected the view of the rest of the management. If it looked like a church, and functioned like a church, then it was a church, no matter what its tax status was.
I'd been to a couple of lock-ins as a teenager, and I'd scarcely been able to endure the experience. A bunch of kids locked in a building all night, closely chaperoned, provided with an endless stream of movies and junk food, activities and sodas. I had suffered through the mental bombardment of teenage hormone-fueled ideas and impulses, the shrieking and the tantrums.
This would be different, I told myself. These would be adults, and purposeful adults, at that. There weren't likely to be a million bags of chips around, and there might be decent sleeping arrangements. If Hugo and I came, maybe we'd get a chance to search around the building and rescue Farrell, because I was sure that he was the one who was going to get to meet the dawn on Sunday, whether or not he got to choose.
Polly said, "You'd be very welcome. We have plenty of food and cots."
Hugo and I looked at each other uncertainly.
"Why don't we just go tour the building now, and you can see all there is to see? Then you can make up your minds," Sarah suggested. I took Hugo's hand, got a wallop of ambivalence. I was filled with dismay at Hugo's torn emotions. He thought, Let's get out of here.
I jettisoned my previous plans. If Hugo was in such turmoil, we didn't need to be here. Questions could wait until later. "We should go back to my place and pack our sleeping bags and pillows," I said brightly. "Right, baby?"
"And I've got to feed the cat," Hugo said. "But we'll be back here at… six-thirty, you said?"
"Gosh, Steve, don't we have some bedrolls left in the supply room? From when that other couple came to stay here for a while?"
"We'd love to have you stay until everyone gets here," Steve urged us, his smile as radiant as ever. I knew we were being threatened, and I knew we needed to get out, but all I was receiving from the Newlins psychically was a wall of determination. Polly Blythe seemed to actually be almost – gloating. I hated to push and probe, now that I was aware they had some suspicion of us. If we could just get out of here right now, I promised myself I'd never come back. I'd give up this detecting for the vampires, I'd just tend bar and sleep with Bill.
"We really do need to go," I said with firm courtesy. "We are so impressed with you all here, and we want to come to the lock-in tonight, but there is still enough time before then for us to get some of our errands done. You know how it is when you work all week. All those little things pile up."
"Hey, they'll still be there when the lock-in ends tomorrow!" Steve said. "You need to stay, both of you."
There wasn't any way to get out of here without dragging everything out into the open. And I wasn't going to be the first one to do that, not while there was any hope left we could get out. There were lots of people around. We turned left when we came out of Steve Newlin's office, and with Steve ambling behind us, and Polly to our right, and Sarah ahead of us, we went down the hall. Every time we passed an open door, someone inside would call, "Steve, can I see you for a minute?" or "Steve, Ed says we have to change the wording on this!" But aside from a blink or a minor tremor in his smile, I could not see much reaction from Steve Newlin to these constant demands.
I wondered how long this movement would last if Steve were removed. Then I was ashamed of myself for thinking this, because what I meant was, if Steve were killed. I was beginning to think either Sarah or Polly would be able to step into his shoes, if they were allowed, because both seemed made of steel.
All the offices were perfectly open and innocent, if you considered the premise on which the organization was founded to be innocent. These all looked like average, rather cleaner-cut-than-normal, Americans, and there were even a few people who were non-Caucasian.
And one nonhuman.
We passed a tiny, thin Hispanic woman in the hall, and as her eyes flicked over to us, I caught a mental signature I'd only felt once before. Then, it came from Sam Merlotte. This woman, like Sam, was a shapeshifter, and her big eyes widened as she caught the waft of "difference" from me. I tried to catch her gaze, and for a minute we stared at each other, me trying to send her a message, and her trying not to receive it.
"Did I tell you the first church to occupy this site was built in the early sixties?" Sarah was saying, as the tiny woman went on down the hall at a fast clip. She glanced back over her shoulder, and I met her eyes again. Hers were frightened. Mine said, "Help."
"No," I said, startled at the sudden turn in the conversation.
"Just a little bit more," Sarah coaxed. "We'll have seen the whole church." We'd come to the last door at the end of the corridor. The corresponding door on the other wing had led to the outside. The wings had seemed to be exactly balanced from the outside of the church. My observations had obviously been faulty, but still…
"It's certainly a large place," said Hugo agreeably. Whatever ambivalent emotions had been plaguing him seemed to have subsided. In fact, he no longer seemed at all concerned. Only someone with no psychic sense at all could fail to be worried about this situation.
That would be Hugo. No psychic sense at all. He looked only interested when Polly opened the last door, the door flat at the end of the corridor. It should have led outside.
Instead, it led down.