Well, I had to give him credit. The man knew how to build a kick-ass bat cave.
As Eric guided me through the enormous layout of that fortified basement (if you could even call it something as everyday as a basement), I once again congratulated myself on bonding with something more than just a pretty face. The brain operating behind it bordered on genius. The War Room, as I dubbed it, where the car fleet and stacks of Skynet computers resided, was very impressive. But as he led me through hallways the led to the living areas, I had to credit him with a whole other level of smarts.
Aside from the lack of windows, it could have been mistaken for a lovely, spacious home.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe cinder block walls with army cots pushed up against them, along with skinny metal shelving units full of freeze-dried rations. Scratchy wool blankets. Gas masks hanging from bent nails. A box full of mismatched walkie-talkies operating on corroded batteries. A plain clock being the only decoration, its ticking growing louder with each pass, slowly driving the bunker inmates insane.
In short, a 1950s budget bomb shelter.
I really was an idiot. If I’d given any real thought to it, what I saw now is exactly what I would have expected from someone who did nothing by halves.
We first walked into the living room. The walls were painted a warm grey, complete with some nice landscape photographs of wild places: a meadow, a turbulent surf, a misty cliff, an autumnal forest. The fat leather sofa was a deep charcoal, its Lazyboy tags still hanging from its back. My brow climbed into my hairline as I flicked the tag and looked at Eric. It wasn’t like him to sacrifice beauty for comfort that his body didn’t need.
He cocked his head at me like I was an idiot. “For your back. And to help your circulation. Pregnant women should elevate their feet when they can.”
I smiled, but said nothing. Instead, I simply walked by him, lifting his hand to kiss his knuckles before dropping it and moving to the huge tv across from the sitting area. The dark screen was surrounded by a Blockbuster outlet. Any movie I could possibly ever want to see. More than I’d ever get to in one lifetime (luckily I now had several). I grinned wide and turned to my provider once again.
“Shame on you. I prefer books.”
At that, he matched my grin. “It’s a good thing I had a Barnes & Noble installed as well.”
“You better not have. I like a decent selection of good books, not fifty copies of The DaVinci Code.”
“Snobby little bookworm.”
We exited that comfortable room by a side door and entered a modest library, stuffed floor to ceiling with classics, new and old, plus a collection of noir crime novels and, I noticed, the occasional brain Twinkie romance paperback. After seeing Claudine’s mammoth library, I would never again be impressed by a book depository in terms of size, but me-oh-my did this room make me a million times happier than her creepy book mausoleum.
“This is what I’m talking about.”
“I’m glad you approve.”
“You knew I would. You sure know how to fancy up a foxhole.”
“I’ve had practice.”
I took his hand as I waddled into the hall towards what I assumed were bedrooms. The first was clearly ours. Big and cozy, with a bed the size of a double barn door. The hues were inviting and the chests and wardrobes were rich woods that no doubt cost a fortune. I walked over to a bureau and peered into the mirror gracing its top. Smirking at Eric in the reflection, I pulled the top drawer open, confirming my suspicions. It was already full of women’s clothes. I opened the next. And the next.
“You really do think of everything, don’t you?” I asked him through the mirror.
“I think of you. That’s all,” he answered my reflected twin.
“What’s in the other rooms?”
“Storage. A kitchen. A pantry. A bathroom.” He paused, lowering his voice an octave. “A nursery.”
I shivered. “You really think we’ll need one? Down here? Once Adam is born, won’t all of this be over? Massawa wants to kill me before he’s born, and when he fails, then he’s lost. Adam can’t be killed once he breaks loose.”
He stalked towards me. Once he loomed deep into my personal space, he reached behind me and closed the remaining open drawer. “I don’t skimp on your safety simply because some ancient dime novel written by a melodramatic kidnapper says it’s okay to do so. Adam is mine. His brothers and sisters are mine. This place may not just serve us now, but from future enemies as well. Which is why there isn’t just one child’s bed in that nursery. There are forty in storage. The pantry has fifty-gallon drums of formula. The deep freeze has a swimming pool of applesauce. I don’t know what the fuck Yo Gabba Gabba is, but we have every doll they make, right next to the chessboard I will teach them on. We will always be prepared.” He trapped my belly between us. “You. And my little ones. Nothing will ever take you from me again.”
I craned back all the way, taking him in. “Their mother can’t play chess, either.”
“We have many years for you to surpass me.”
“What do I get if I ever win?”
His clutch on my belly slackened and his fingers travelled north, teasing the underside of my heavy breasts. “You’ll earn the prize of a vanquished chess master. It’s up to you to dictate terms, as you will have slain my army. I’ll be helpless.”
I hummed with excitement at the thought of my mighty warrior beaten and forced to his knees by my superior abilities at a game where I couldn’t even name the pieces yet. That didn’t stop me from imagining taking one of those pieces and, with great ceremony, knocking Eric’s king flat. The look in his eyes when I beat him for the first time. The surprise. The pride. The slight annoyance. And I’d laugh, throw myself back into my chair, cross my legs, fold my hands, and tell him that because the vampire king had let his soapstone king fall, his ass now belonged to me.
Eric felt my wickedness.
His hands fully cupped my breasts, teasing the tips. “Remember, I will beat you many, many times before that happens.” His blue eyes sparked. “And I am not lenient towards prisoners.”
“Are you open to bartering sexual favors in exchange for leniency?” I giggled as I pushed into his hands.
“Artful…little…whore,” each word dripped with mild reprimand. “Think you can manipulate me so blatantly?”
I tapped my chin and rolled my eyes upward in thought. “What if the favors lead to babies? Will you be lenient if I’m making more of your rag rats?”
He dragged a ragged hiss through his teeth, seething. He was much easier to manipulate than he thought. All it took was the promise of more children. Children I was more than happy to leverage for a kinder sentence. “You’d haggle for better food and more cigarettes with the lives of my baby angels?”
I couldn’t help it. I giggled louder. “Damn skippy. And I want sole access to the tv remote, too. Take it or leave it.”
He lost his fight to look stony and grinned. “You are a cruel thing. I concede. When I best you – the many times I best you – I will be merciful. Provided you fuck me constantly and bear me more angels.”
“Taskmaster. Done.” I stepped away from him. “Anyway. This is lovely. It’s hard to remember we’re digging in for a fight.”
His phone made a strange noise from his pocket. He took it out and looked at it, then frowned.
“There’s a ping.”
“What’s that mean?”
His frown deepened as he took my hand and led me (at my penguin pace) back to the War Room. “That someone is here.”
“Could be one of ours.”
He shook his head.
We walked over to the Skynet setup and Eric leaned down to two married computer screens which were divided into several different security feeds, all of them monitoring the house and property. He guided the mouse to a particular square and clicked on it. The screen filled with one camera angle, looking straight up at the darkening sky.
He didn’t look at me as he explained. “The cameras don’t just watch. Their software records all movement. The wind in the trees, passing cars, animals. The technology can decipher which are suspicious. It pings when certain movements linger for longer than thirty minutes.”
We watched the fine pixels in their cloudy arrangement. I squinted. Surely the computer knew better than to think hovering clouds were a threat. But at that moment, a large bird of prey soared lazily across the image, easily one hundred feet above us.
I breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s just a hawk.”
Eric’s cold eyes didn’t leave the screen as the bird made a large, unhurried circle. I tugged his hand. “Come on. I need to sit and you still need to tell me what’s going on.”
He ignored my pull. Instead, he sightlessly pulled out the rolling chair from the desk and gestured at it while he leaned down and rapidly typed on the keyboard. I frowned, but took the offered seat and watched. Another screen popped up with a lot of technical babble scrolling too fast for me to read, with the exception of the header, which blinked REMOTE ACCESS.
“What are you doing?”
The video feed of the hawk was instantly overlaid with a red mesh pattern. A gun sight target also appeared, zeroing in on the hawk, settling right on top of it as it flew unaware.
But it was too late.
He hit Enter.
I didn’t hear the report as a rifle fired from a remote location somewhere, probably because we were surrounded by mountains of steel and cement, but I saw the result as the bird keeled harshly to one side, the bullet tearing into its feathery body, before it plummeted toward earth.
I jumped to my feet and smacked him hard on the arm. “Why the hell did you do that? It wasn’t hurting anybody! Jesus, Eric, you can’t just kill innocent animals because they happen to by flying over our-,” I gasped as camera angle changed, following the bird’s trajectory as it fell.
Only it wasn’t a bird.
For the last fifty feet, I watched in horror as a naked man pinwheeled in the air, crashing into the ground with a sickening burst of blood.
With rock-steady hands, Eric calmly pulled up another camera, one with a better view. Through my fingers, I saw a broken body, bent and twisted like a branch pile, blood flowing freely from his head and snapped legs.
“Oh, my God.”
Eric zoomed in.
Next to the man’s bare feet lay a phone.
Satisfied, Eric stood up, glaring at the screen like he wanted to spit on it. He turned to me. “I apologize. What were you saying?”
There wasn’t much sarcasm in his question. He was merely making a point. My anger changed instantly to gratitude as I bent myself around Adam to hug him as hard as I could. “How could you even tell? He was just a bird. How did you know he was a shifter?”
He petted me. “The security system catalogues atypical behaviour, even in animals. That eagle had been circling our property for two hours, despite the headwind. It’s almost dark. Eagles don’t hunt at night. I didn’t see the phone in his talons, but the other clues were enough. Had I killed an actual eagle, I would have mourned it. But, I killed a dumb fuck shifter who didn’t think to vary his flight pattern while he spied on us.”
“Yes. But not for killing a dumb fuck shifter.”
He pulled back, his eyes angry but kind. “We have very little time. What would you like to know?”
“A nocturnal mammal native to Africa.”
“Very little time, remember? Don’t make me punch you in the balls,” I said.
He checked his phone again and tapped something, probably resetting his fancy traps, and gestured back to the rooms. “Sit, please. You must ache with Adam so big now.”
I huffed, then scurried. Once we entered the living room and I eased into the ridiculously comfy sofa, I flapped my hands impatiently. “Let’s hear it.”
He stood directly in front of me, as if speaking to a boardroom. “Very well. Aardvark is simply code for the location of this house.”
“And everyone we trust knows it?” I asked, stuffing a pillow behind my lumbar.
“Code for weapons.”
“And we’re good for weapons, you said,” I squinted at him, making sure.
“We simply cannot run out,” he answered.
“Awesome. So then what’s Mesopotamia? And don’t,” I jutted a finger at him, “tell me it’s an antiquated region of Asia. Don’t make me get up to punch you now that I’m all settled on this thing.” I patted the cushion beside me.
At that, his eyes veered to one side. “Mesopotamia is also code.”
“Thank Christ you’re here to spell that out for me.”
He grunted, leaning to the side so he could look out the door into the main space, probably checking the computer from sixty feet away. Then he checked his phone.
I tapped my watch. “Tick tock, buddy.”
“You were gone for so long. I was suspicious of everything. I… took precautions.”
I waited a second. Then, “Uh-huuuuuh…”
“Very well. After you were taken, several things happened…” And so he began to tell me what went down at the bar that night, mercifully glossing over his near-suicide, which I never wanted to hear about again, and instead gave me another reason to smooch Pam when he described her sacrifice to buy time from the meeting with Massawa.
But also, he said, he realized something incredibly valuable from her rock star act.
“She drank the silver herself, but her cover story was beautiful,” he said. “A human donor, secretly a vampire hater, who had drunk silver and then offered their tainted blood. She would have been in just as much agony, had that actually happened.”
He had been staring off into space as he spoke. Then, he suddenly stared right at me. “You care for so many who are mortal. Fragile. I knew in the coming battle, they would be obvious targets. The thought of you in pain as you mourned them… The thought of your tears, even as you held our son…” He stared off again. “It enraged me.”
I waited without speaking.
Finally, he spoke again.
“Mesopotamia is my attempt to save your family and friends. Silver is one prong of their defense.”
I squinted again. “Soooo… they’re all wearing silver? That’s sweet, but I don’t think that’ll help mu-,”
“No,” he interrupted. “They’re all drinking silver. All of them.”
I snorted. “What?”
He learned forward. “Every member of your family. Every citizen of your town who works at or patronizes Merlotte’s. Even your ridiculous fucking ex-Eric kitty. They’ve been ingesting, some of them even bathing, in colloidal silver.”
I didn’t snort this time, instead letting my mouth hang open slightly. “What?”
“It’s an advantage. A small one, mind you. The humans who drink silver can’t be eaten, but they can still be killed. Pam also took the liberty of spraying every parked car with silver aerosol. Any human who escapes to their vehicle will be far safer than they would otherwise. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing, should anyone you care about be attacked.”
I struggled to sit up properly against the couch trying to suck me into its depths. “I don’t understand. How… I mean… Why would they even agree to it or?… I mean… that must be over two hundred people, Eric! How did you explain…?”
“Most have no idea. I met with Herveaux and Merlotte. I explained the situation to a point. Herveaux agreed to spike your family’s wells with several gallons that I supplied. Merlotte did the same to his beer taps and food stores. His customers never knew. I know it wasn’t the entire Bon Temps population, but it was a fair percentage. Hadley was informed, as was Hunter. Jason…” He paused, looking almost guilty, “…was not.”
Fuck the comfy couch.
I launched out of my seat and hugged him ferociously. “You were thinking about everyone I care about, even though you don’t feel the same. Could you be more perfect?”
“I explained. My reasons are entirely selfish. And their odds are still terrible, should a vampire want them badly enough.”
“No way, bubba. You’re not taking this away from me. My husband’s amazing and I can’t imagine you doing anything better for me than protecting my people.”
He shrugged with mock indifference. “I also bought your cousin a car. At least she appreciates my gifts.”
I laughed and squeezed harder. “See? Perfect.”
He let me hold him a moment longer, then rose as if unencumbered and carefully reset me in the recliner. I settled my hands over my huge bump and cleared my throat in expectation. “The other prongs?”
He bowed his head in compliance. “I hired Lafayette Reynolds to ward as many properties as he could get to in the last week, including parking lots and even busy stretches of road. Even powerful vampires should find it difficult to breach them, and even if they do, they will be forced to move at a human’s speed. Herveaux’s pack has been hired to fan out at night and guard the town. Combined with Reynolds’ wards, they should be able to repel an attack. Hunter had been scanning around his house every day and detected shifters. That was how I knew to watch for them. I found every last one sniffing around his house and dealt with them.”
I’d been nodding vaguely the whole time, loving every word. “So, what did you tell Alcide to do? In the car just now?”
“The doctor, the shifter and wolf were glamored to forget certain things. The location of this house is known to Ludwig and Herveaux only if I prompt them with code words. I couldn’t risk Massawa glamoring them himself. The doctor is coming here now, under twenty pounds of silver and followed by three pack members. Pam and Jessica will execute a series of maneuvers, losing any possible tails, before coming here. Now that the fight has begun, I’ve prompted Herveaux to take your family into hiding. If Chloe is still warding them, I’ve ordered Hunter to contact her telepathically and ask that she take them into Faerie, for the time being.”
“And if she’s not?”
“Then the wolf still has his orders.”
“Where will he take them?”
“Away. Far away. With money and guards to spare.”
I let out an exhausted sigh, shaking my head. “Did I say you were amazing?”
“I love you, but save your praise. It has not yet begun and we have no advantage that I see.”
“We have the bond. We have guns. We have friends. We have anger and a fuck-ton of motivation.”
He smiled faintly. “Indeed.”
I smiled back and we shared that moment silently.
Finally, I asked, “So we just wait for the cavalry?”
His smile widened. “And for Adam. Yes.”
His phone beeped. Louder and harsher than the beep proceeding it. He quickly pulled it from his pocket and read the screen. His face darkened with rage. I inhaled sharply as our bond spiked with his fear, an icicle stabbing deep into the base of my skull.
“What is it? What’s happened?”
His fangs clicked and I heard the plastic of the phone case crack warningly in his hand.
“The doctor,” he answered, the small light of hope dying in his gaze. “I tagged everyone’s car with a spy device, recording their movements and whereabouts, tapping into the on-board readouts. Her device registered a problem, then stopped transmitting.”
I swallowed, my question asked without permission. “What was the problem?”
He put his hand over mine on our baby. For the first time ever, his warm skin gave me no joy.