ERIC POV, CONTINUED
“I need guards for Sookie’s property tomorrow,” I said flatly.
“Don’t you usually go to Long Tooth for things like that?” Calvin asked.
“My association with them has come to an end due to their ineptness.”
The werepanther exhaled loudly. “I heard that you punished Sookie in public tonight. Is that why the Long Tooth pack won’t help you anymore? You know what?” he added quickly. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not inclined to do anything for you, vampire. Sookie’s good people, and my pack and I aren’t about to help anyone who has mistreated that girl.”
“Thanks, Calvin,” Sookie spoke up. “But I’m fine.”
“Sookie?” the werepanther asked with surprise.
“Are you somewhere private?” I inquired.
“My office,” he replied, still seemingly flabbergasted at hearing Sookie’s voice. “The walls in here are pretty sound-proof, and I don’t sense anyone in range of hearing.”
“Good,” I said, before launching into a shortened version of what was occurring, including the facts that Sookie’s punishment had been a ruse and that de Castro’s nights among the undead were about to end.
“It’s all true,” Sookie confirmed when I was done.
“Whew!” Calvin exclaimed after a few moments of silence as he took everything in. “So you’re plannin’ on bein’ king, Northman?”
“It is the best way I know to keep Sookie safe at this point,” I responded honestly. “But, given the fact that Herveaux’s second was helping Sandra Pelt—and for other reasons I’m not willing to go into at the time—I no longer trust Long Tooth. And that has led me to you.”
“And I trust you,” Sookie spoke up with emphasis. “And Eric will pay you and your people really well,” she added. “And—no offense—but I know you could use the money in Hotshot.”
Calvin sighed deeply. “No offense taken, Sook. And you’re right. Norcross—you know, the lumber mill where I work—just went through a round of lay-offs. Two of my people got laid off, and even my hours were cut from forty to thirty-five a week.”
“So you won’t be full-time,” Sookie sighed out a lament for her friend.
“Yeah, and I’m losing my benefits too,” he said glumly.
“I’m sorry Calvin. That’s dirty business on their part, given the years you’ve put in at the mill.”
With that information in hand, I figured that my proposition would likely be well-received, so I jumped right into it. “To start, I will offer you and three of your worthiest people full-time guard positions. Your contract will be guaranteed for at least a year, and I’ll arrange for your salary to be wired to your bank account even if I fail tomorrow night and am slain. As for your people: I will hire them on a trial basis for a month. If they prove competent, I’ll give them all annual contracts and hire more of your people.”
Calvin was silent for a moment.
“Salary?” he finally asked.
“For you—one-hundred thousand for the first year. And a benefits package. We can negotiate beyond that. For your people—Three thousand for the trial month. And then sixty thousand annually.”
He choked up a little. “And benefits?”
“Of course,” I said. “It is bad business, after all, for someone in my employ to be injured and not be taken care of. And, of course, Ludwig will be the doctor used if need be.”
“Fuck,” he muttered.
“Do you agree?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied quickly. “When and where do you need us?”
“At Sookie’s home—five minutes after sunrise. You will partner with Mustapha Khan, my day-man. He is a Were; you don’t have a problem with deferring to him—do you?”
“No,” he responded. “I work with a few Weres at the plant. Never had a problem with doing it.”
“Good. Your people should patrol the woods, but not get too close to the house unless called for. There will be a human sniper in position to offer covering fire if needed. And Mustapha will make sure your people are aware of his position so that he’s left unbothered.”
“You expect trouble?” Calvin asked.
“No—not really. Not today. But I like to be prepared for every eventuality.”
“I’ve heard,” he muttered, still obviously surprised about the sudden turn to his life.
“In that vein, I have some news for you—news that I believe will be beneficial for us all eventually.”
“What news?” he and Sookie asked simultaneously.
“The number of shifting members in your pack is dwindling—correct?” I asked him.
He sighed. “That depends on your perspective. Hotshot was originally settled with forty-three families—all full-blooded. But that was over three hundred and fifty years back. Now, we’re down to fewer than thirty-five people who can shift. And—of those—about a third of them are . . . .” His voice trailed off. “Well—uh—they need help functioning in day-to-day life.”
I frowned. “That is worse than I thought.”
Calvin was silent for a moment. “It used to be even worse. When I took over the pack a dozen years back, there were only eighteen of us that could shift. But we rebounded, and now we’ve got quite a few real promising kids.” He paused again. “But you should know, there are only six adults—besides me—that I would trust being guards for Sookie and you. If that changes your mind about hiring us on, I’ll understand.”
“My mind is not changed. In fact, I believe that I can help you with those numbers.”
I looked closely at my bonded, ready to gauge her reaction. “Anticipating that I might be in need of the services of a pack other than Long Tooth, I started a little research project last year.”
“Research project?” Sookie asked.
I nodded in affirmation for her benefit, though I knew that Norris wouldn’t be able to see the gesture.
“What project?” the packmaster asked.
“I have found two groups of werepanthers who are willing to relocate: one in Appalachia and one in Oregon. The Oregon pack could be here within the month. The other—within three months.”
“What? What did you say?” Calvin gasped.
I went on with my explanation. “Unlike your group, the two packs I am speaking of have not been ‘lessened’ through inbreeding. No offense,” I added, recalling Sookie’s mandate to be polite.
“But why would they move here?” Sookie asked.
“For different reasons,” I responded. “Since they resisted the practice of inbreeding, the Appalachia group is down to fifteen adult members that can shift and only six first-borns who will be able to shift. The problem is that it is becoming difficult for them to breed without . . . .”
“Without it involving cousins or closer,” Calvin finished with a sigh.
“Yes,” I responded. “And—like I said—they have been trying to avoid that.”
Calvin cleared his throat. “So what about the other group? From Oregon?”
“Similar to what you and yours are facing at the lumber plant, many of them have lost their livelihoods due to the bad economy. A fishery in northern Oregon, where whole families of werepanthers had worked for generations, was all but shut down last year. In addition, another chunk of that werepanther population had owned and operated a large wheat farm. That property was also where the pack would run safely during the full moon. Unfortunately, a couple of bad crops led to the panthers having to sell their land to a large corporate farm. As it stands, more than three-quarters of the pack are either underemployed or unemployed, and most live in a rundown apartment complex. They have no territory of their own in which to run now since the area Weres have no pity for their plight.”
“How—uh—how many of them?” Calvin asked.
“More than fifty shifting adults,” I responded. “More than twenty first-gen children.”
“Seventy! Jesus,” Calvin sputtered.
“In addition, I have found a small group of wereleopards in India that is looking for documentation to come to the United States. Apparently, the group is facing extinction because they are hunted like all other leopards when they run during the full moon. There are only three shifting adults—one male and two females—and one shifting child in that group though. But—as you may know—panthers and leopards have no difficulty producing children, and,” I winked at Sookie, “seeing a few spots now and then would be a nice change—don’t you think?”
Sookie sniffled and her eyes brightened again as she absorbed the plights of the various were-cats I’d told her and Norris about. Wanting to avoid her tears—again—I kept speaking. “I know this is overwhelming, Mr. Norris.” (See, I could be very polite when needed.) “But the fact is that I will soon be king if the Fates are on my side. I will need guards that I trust. There is an adequate pack in New Orleans, but Sookie and I wish to headquarter in Area 5.”
Again my bonded sniffled. Only this time, a tear fell from her beautiful blue eyes. Fucking unacceptable!
“You know,” I continued in a gentler tone as if reading an old fable, “once upon a time, werepanthers thrived to a greater degree than even werewolves in many parts of the world. In fact, many years ago—centuries actually—I preferred working with werepanthers—I even sought them out—when I needed help of the two-natured variety. Panthers, though smaller than Weres, are fiercer in battle. Did you know that, min kära?”
Sookie shook her head, but her tears had stopped. I neither knew what Norris was doing nor did I care that he was overhearing an affectionate moment between me and my bonded. As one of our main guards, he’d have to get used to those kinds of moments anyway.
“A full-grown werepanther is an amazing thing to behold in battle; trust me. And they can also achieve a level of stealth that Weres cannot. In this country, werewolves were merely more plentiful, and then they became arrogant and got it into their heads that they were superior, even insisting upon the whole ‘Were’ with a capital ‘W’ thing and the extra emphasis. Were!” I chuckled, emphasizing the “W” exaggeratedly. “You know—now that I’m thinking of it—I’d rather have the help of werepanthers, compared to even tigers,” I commented, certain that I’d scoffed out the word “tigers.”
“You just don’t like Quinn,” Sookie said with a hint of a smirk.
“True. But tigers are filled with too much bravado. Give me a werepanther any day of the week over a weretiger. Plus, as Pam might say, the outfits those tigers choose are God-awful and gaudy,” I added with a smirk of my own.
“But you said you liked spots,” she grinned.
“Pam has taught me that stripes are what can make one look fat—as far as fur goes. I think that spots are okay,” I said, making an effort to keep a straight face.
My bonded laughed, her sadness over the troubles of the various packs I’d mentioned forgotten for the time being.
Calvin took the momentary silence as his opportunity to speak out his concerns. “As nice as it is to hear that you appreciate my kind, Mr. Northman, moving three packs of cats to Hotshot won’t be easy. And—as I’m sure you know—panthers tend to be solitary in the wild. Hell! There isn’t even a name for a collective of animal panthers or leopards since they don’t form prides like other large cats. That’s why we’ve taken to calling ourselves a ‘pack.’ What I’m sayin’ is that it takes a lot of effort for a group of us to get along. And several groups coming together? Well—that seems like a disaster waiting to happen.”
“I understand your worries,” I assured. “But the groups I told you about have been vetted carefully and have been made aware that one of the conditions of my help is that they will defer to you as their leader. I am not saying that there won’t be power struggles and growing pains, but the leaders of each group seem reasonable, and I believe you could work with them to come to some kind of arrangement, perhaps even appointing them as your lieutenants. But, make no mistake, they have all been forewarned that any challenge to you will be met with extreme repercussions by me,” I added, my voice reverberating a promise of danger and violence.
“When did you arrange all this?” a flabbergasted Sookie asked me.
“It has been in the works since Herveaux took you to Colonel Flood’s funeral—since he used you to further his father’s candidacy to become packmaster of Long Tooth,” I responded.
Sookie’s mouth opened in surprise. “That long?”
I nodded unapologetically. “Given the inadequacies of Flood’s potential replacements as well as Alcide’s flagrant disregard for your safety, it was clear that the Long Tooth pack had all but outlived its usefulness.
Sookie sat up. I didn’t like the distance her movement created between us, but I kept my side of the bond calm.
“Why didn’t you tell me your plans?” she asked.
“Or me?” Calvin echoed.
Eyebrow raised, I looked at my bonded and ignored the man on the phone. “You know why.”
“You were waiting until you needed them,” she commented.
I nodded. “Yes. That. Plus, negotiations took a while. Believe it or not, there were six other interested groups of were-cats, but none of those groups fit my most important criterion.”
“And what was that?” Sookie asked.
“That they were not the type to betray and kill your friend and his people—including your brother,” I said evenly. “When I said that I vetted the groups I’m proposing to add to Hotshot, I did not do so without considering you, min kära.”
My bonded sniffled and nodded in understanding, but still smacked my leg. “You are a high-handed vampire!” she said loudly before snuggling beside me once more. High-handed—I could take. The lack of snuggling—not so much.
Norris took the opportunity to speak. “You are high-handed, vampire. But thanks.”
“My motives are not unselfish,” I said evenly, even as I caressed my bonded’s back. “In the end, what I want most is a pack that is beholden to me. But I will, in turn, treat you well in business.”
“Oh—believe me—I know your own motives are at the root of all of this,” Norris laughed. “Still. This could be the making of my pack.”
“I know,” I said, trying not to sound arrogant; I didn’t want Sookie to stop snuggling again for any reason.
Calvin chuckled. “Not that I don’t appreciate the idea of new blood in my pack or the fact that you’ve worked to make sure I stay Hotshot’s leader, but I don’t know how I’m gonna fit all those people into my town.”
“Once you agree with meshing them with your group, I will be subsidizing the relocation of the packs I told you about. The Oregon and Indian groups will move as soon as possible.”
“Subsidize?” Calvin asked.
“Yes. I am offering moving expenses as well as the funds to build a set number of new homes; several businesses, including a gas station, a small grocery store, a diner, and—perhaps—an apartment complex; and a new school.”
“Teachers?” Calvin gasped.
“Both the Oregon and Appalachia groups have members of that profession. My lawyers are already working on the paperwork to get the school publicly funded once it’s built.”
“A school,” the werepanther muttered. “Hotshot’s never . . . .”
“I know. You’ve never had one,” I stated. “But—with the influx of population, one will be justified by government standards. Oh—and I have contacts that will help with infrastructure issues.”
“Infrastructure?” Sookie asked. “That word’s never been on my word-of-the day calendar,” she admitted in a whisper.
I smiled at my bonded. “Powerlines, plumbing systems, water lines, telephone lines—you know, things like that. Most of it will be taken care of by the utility companies themselves—if the proper hoops are jumped through. My lawyers will make sure that they are.”
“Jesus Christ,” Calvin said.
“You know that I’m not altruistic. I will own the grocery store, gas station, and apartments if I build them, and—though I will employ your people—I expect to be profiting from the businesses sooner rather than later,” I stated matter-of-factly.
There was a pause. “What will Long Tooth think about all of this?”
I looked at my bonded as she gauged me questioningly.
“Do you want the short or the long answer?” I asked.
“The short—first,” Calvin answered.
“I don’t give a fuck what those mongrels think, and neither should you. I will have your back, and if Long Tooth becomes an issue for you, it will not be for long,” I said darkly.
Sookie took in a long breath and then took a while to let it out.
“How about the long answer?” Calvin asked.
He was a smart panther for asking for both of my responses.
“Long Tooth may very well feel threatened, especially when all the business that vampires once offered their companies will be transferred to your people.”
“We cannot withstand a war with them—even with more people,” Calvin said with trepidation.
“Oh—but Long Tooth will very likely be focused on other matters,” I responded.
“What matters?” Sookie asked.
I took a long, unneeded breath. “There are rumors that a pack in Texas, one that has outgrown its own territory and is friendly to vampires, is considering a move.”
Sookie frowned, obviously contemplating whether or not Herveaux should be told that information.
“Alcide—if he is worth his salt at all—has access to the same rumors that I do,” I said softly. “What he does with them is his concern. But I will not help his pack remain solvent—not anymore.”
Sookie bit her lower lip nervously (unintentionally enticing the hell out of me), but I didn’t attack her.
Because I was being polite.
“Alcide will either prove his worth as a leader or not,” Calvin said helpfully. Given Sookie’s continual lip-nibbling, I’d almost forgotten that he was still on the phone.
“Will Alcide be killed?” Sookie asked in a whisper.
“Not by me—not unless he threatens me and mine specifically,” I told her.
“He’s made his bed?” she asked.
“Fuck yeah,” Calvin commented. Maybe the panther was worth more than I thought. “Northman,” he said gruffly, “what’s your subsidizing gonna cost my people?”
“Just loyalty,” I said without pause. “I want a pack I can trust in my domain once I am king, and I’ll need that loyalty for generations if I’m a successful king.”
Calvin took a long, loud breath. “You’re buying a pack.”
“Investing in one,” I corrected. “An influx of new bloodlines and jobs. An opportunity for your young to become educated—to meet the highest potential they can meet. I will be using your people for my own protection and gain; I’m not trying to hide that fact. I will count on your allegiance to me and mine. Actually, I will require that allegiance. In turn, your community with thrive. Your people will be tasked with work from a vampire king. Your pack will become greater than you could have ever imagined. And this continent will finally understand that cats are much more efficient than dogs!”
“Just say the word, and the arrangements will begin,” I finished.
“I’m saying it,” Calvin said. “Whatever word you are looking for—I’m saying it.”
I smiled. “Good. Tomorrow, the head of the Oregon group will contact you. Several of his people are adept at construction. You’re about to become a city planner, Mr. Norris.”
“Oh shit. Uh—oh. Okay,” the werepanther stammered. “And—Sookie?”
“Yeah?” my bonded answered.
“You know I would’ve protected you for nothing.”
She giggled. “I know. But—this way’s better. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
At that, I hung up the phone, much to Sookie’s consternation.
“You need to learn to say goodbye, at least,” she schooled me.
I chuckled and gripped her tighter.
“Why?” she asked. “Why help the werepanthers so much?”
“Besides the reasons I already gave?” I chuckled. “The fact that I cannot trust Long Tooth? The fact that your brother is tied to Norris’s pack? The fact that I prefer working with werepanthers to werewolves? The fact that I want a loyal pack that owes me their allegiance indefinitely?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “I think there’s more.”
I sighed and caressed her hair, enjoying her soft moan as I did so. “Before you and I reconciled—when it seemed like I might be required to go to Oklahoma . . . .” I stopped for a moment.
“Please. Tell me,” Sookie requested—insisted.
“I thought I might have to leave you and Pam here—alone. I don’t trust Alcide—as you know. The shifter isn’t strong enough to protect you on his own. So I expedited matters so that the Hotshot pack would be as strong as I could make them.”
“For me and Pam,” Sookie sighed.
“For the most important people in my world,” I responded sincerely. “And don’t cry!” I added quickly—firmly. “Every time I say something nice, you cry.”
Sookie, thankfully, responded with a giggle before looking up at me, her eyes bright, but not filled with cursed tears.
“How much money are you gonna have to spend to help the werepanthers?” she asked.
“Six million or so,” I replied, “for my initial investment and not counting salaries. If I decide to add an apartment complex to my list of improvements in Hotshot, I’ll have to add another 1.5 million, but such a place would create two new jobs—a manager and a maintenance person. Of course, even with rental income, small apartment complexes barely break even,” I commented as Sookie looked at me with her mouth wide open.
I took the liberty of lifting her chin before an insect flew into her mouth. After all, I’d heard that humans could “catch flies” that way, and the thought of kissing my bonded after she’d swallowed an insect didn’t sit well with me.
“Fuck! 7.5 million!” she gasped.
“A drop in a very large bucket. Indeed, that amount doesn’t even compare to what I was willing to give Freyda to get out of the marriage contract. I offered de Castro the same amount, but neither would accept my money.”
Sookie exhaled as if she were blowing out birthday candles.
“I’m gonna need time to get over the you bein’ so rich thing,” she said.
I chuckled. “You know—you and I don’t have to live as if we have more money than we need. I don’t expect you to become a shoe connoisseur like Pam, and—once I am king—I can run things however I fucking want to. If we want casual, that’s what we’ll do,” I added. “Oh—there will be the occasional summit or ball or state meeting that we’ll have to get dolled up for. But, otherwise, we can dress as we do now.”
“So you won’t be ashamed if I keep dressing in Target gear?”
“If Le Target is the store you enjoy, I will ensure that one be opened nearer to our home, and you can cut the ribbon,” I said dramatically.
My bonded laughed at me.
One thing was for certain: I enjoyed her laughter much more than her tears.
A/N: Hi! I hope that you all enjoyed this little peek into how Eric creates advantageous situations for himself. In the books, I always liked Calvin and I felt sad about the werepanthers’ situation. This is my attempt to “fix” it.
And, yeah, I’m a cat person. Sorry to all dog people! I don’t dislike dogs. Indeed, I have wonderful memories of the German shepherds that occupied my life from my early, early years to when I was in my 20’s. But cats are just my thing. Indeed, I have one lying next to me now-on his special pillow and with his special blanket. Because cats make demands. LOL!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this and will grace me with a comment if you have the time and/or inclination.
As always, I would be remiss not to thank the amazing Kleannhouse and the wonderful Sephrenia for their additions to this story!