“So—your name’s really Molly Jolly?” Alastair asked with a chuckle, even as he kept one eye on the camera feeds in front of him. Sophie-Anne always chose him for the task of monitoring the feeds on an important night of State, for his sense of sight and his attention to detail were highly precise. The 338-year-old vampire had been employed by Sophie-Anne for the previous sixty-five years, and he’d greatly enjoyed his work for most of those years.
In fact, Alastair was suited to his current position because of more than simply his gift. In the early days of closed-circuit television technology, Alastair had been employed by a U.S. company called Vericon, which developed the first closed-circuit monitoring devices available commercially. It had been thought by Alastair’s maker and other powerful vampires that their kind needed people working on the “inside” when it came to all technological advancements. After all, secrecy had been essential to the very survival of their kind!
Alastair had actually slowed down the speed of some of the human advancements through the 1950s and 1960s; however, humans were too tenacious to be held back indefinitely. And—eventually—Alastair had gotten tired of sabotage when all that he really wanted to do was to indulge his own ambitions to advance the technology which so intrigued him. That desire, plus the fact that he’d been working with the same humans for long enough that they’d begun to make comments about his “good genes” that “kept him young,” compelled Alastair to seek out employment with vampires.
Sophie-Anne had offered him the opportunity to build a complete monitoring system from the ground up, and he’d enjoyed Louisiana and the queen’s court so much that he’d never left it! For decades, he’d been tweaking the system to Sophie-Anne and Andre’s unique specifications, which involved leaving significant gaps in the video feeds in order to allow for “privacy.” At times, he’d questioned the wisdom of such a system, but Andre had insisted.
Thinking about Andre now made Alastair fume! Recently, Molly, the cute, young computer savant by his side, had figured out that Andre had built backdoors into the surveillance system, as well as all the other security systems on the estate!
And, frankly, that fact pissed off the handsome brunette vampire! Though he’d disagreed with Andre plenty, Alastair had never fathomed that the queen’s child would go behind his back like that! Of course, it was Andre’s right to do whatever the queen wanted, even if that circumvented Alastair’s work. But—as it turned out—the queen hadn’t ordered Andre to put in the backdoors, and Alastair was pissed off about that too—though he was most pissed off about not noticing those backdoors to begin with, especially given the fact that he’d spend so much time in espionage!
Humility was not something the centuries-old vampire was used to, nor did he enjoy the feeling.
Though Alastair was rarely involved in the more physical battles at court, he’d very much enjoyed taking out some of his anger—when he’d aided Sheriff Northman’s child, Pam, in ridding the world of the two-faced spy, Margeaux, whom Alastair had never really liked.
Margeaux had inexplicably found a way to sour up almost any interaction, which was something that the good-humored, charming Alastair couldn’t abide. By contrast, he quite liked working with Molly Jolly, though—alas—Rasul had already staked his claim to her, at least for the duration of this particular visit by Area’s 5 retinue to New Orleans. And Rasul was not one to share.
However, Alastair was patient and hoped that—in the future—he might have the chance to spend some quality time with the young computer “geek,” for he rarely found someone who was both physically appealing to him and capable of holding a decent conversation about the topics that intrigued him. For the moment, he would content himself with enjoying Molly’s company while they worked together and would—perhaps—steal a trick or two from her when it came to the surveillance system. For—even he could admit—she was much better at manipulating it than he had ever been, despite his years helping Andre to develop the system.
Some people were just savants when it came to tech, and Molly Jolly was one of those. Alastair also guessed that she had an amazing pair of tits—though they were hiding under her frumpy T-shirt! “Fucking Rasul,” he thought to himself, “always lucky at finding women first!”
Alastair’s reverie was broken as his current muse spoke.
“Why’d you have to tell him my name?” Molly huffed in Palomino’s direction.
The platinum blonde beauty, also a member of Sheriff Northman’s retinue, smirked at her.
“Remember that time you called me ‘grandma’ because I couldn’t link my Fangtasia email to my personal account?” Palomino asked snidely. “Well, I do.”
Molly shook her head as Alastair chuckled.
“You know, linking email accounts couldn’t be any easier,” Molly said, rolling her eyes.
Palomino scoffed. The vampiress had been late to adapt to newer technology for a good reason: because during her years, she’d rarely seen it change the world for the better! And it often left behind some kind of ridiculously negative consequence. Born in 1781, after the Industrial Age had really picked up steam in England, Palomino had witnessed both of her parents and her two older siblings succumb to lung disease after years of working in a cotton factory. Palomino had escaped the same terrible fate only because she’d been turned when she was in her late teens.
“Anyway,” Molly said, glancing at Alastair, even as she maintained her focus on the video feeds, “what last name did you take?”
“Smith,” he answered flatly—to which everyone in the surveillance room chuckled.
“So original,” Molly sniggered.
“And it so doesn’t go with ‘Alastair,'” Palomino added.
“My maker chose the surname for us,” Alastair shrugged.
“And what was his name? Something like John?” Molly asked with amusement.
“No—his name is Darweesh.”
“Darweesh Smith. Hilarious!” Palomino chuckled, as did the others in the room—who included Alastair, Molly, and four other vampires who’d been assigned to guard them by Sophie-Anne.
“What about you, Palomino? What surname did you pick?” Alastair asked.
“I picked a new name altogether,” the vampiress responded, even as she recalled her human name—Ann. She’d thought the name quite ordinary; moreover, she’d been named for an aunt who had taken great joy in slapping her niece upside the head when she made even the slightest of noises.
However, before the platinum blonde could elaborate, Alastair’s eyes were drawn to the monitor in front of him. “What’s Andre doing? And who’s that with him?”
Molly looked at the image that Alastair was pointing to and quickly used the keyboard in front of her to enlarge it on the bigger screen at the front of the room. She clicked another button to ensure that Andre’s progress would be followed to the next camera feed.
Palomino quickly took her phone out of her pocket. “I don’t know what Andre’s doing, but the person with him is Debbie Pelt.”
“Who?” Alastair asked.
“A werefox who has some kind of grudge against Sookie,” Palomino growled a little. “We’ve been on alert for her for a while now.” She quickly sent a text to Eric, Thalia, and Maria-Star about the unwelcome visitor.
“That’s weird,” Molly commented.
“What?” Alastair asked.
“Why is Andre making a point of looking at every camera in his path?” she responded with a frown. “And why does he look like he’s in pain every time he does? And why did he just basically double back like he’s circling around in the halls?”
Palomino’s phone rang, and she quickly answered it.
The vampires in the room heard that it was Thalia on the other end.
Palomino spoke. “Yes. It is definitely Debbie Pelt. We first picked her and Andre up on camera 19. That’s the . . . ,” she paused and looked at Alastair.
“It’s the feed from the northeast side of the building, but not the main entrance over there. Camera 19’s for one of the delivery entrances. Generally, it wouldn’t even be monitored much on a night like this since that side of the estate is supposed to be locked down.”
Thalia spoke again; of course, all the vampires in the room could hear her.
Molly answered her this time. “We’re tracking Andre and Debbie now. They’re not moving that fast though. And Andre’s looking at every camera like he’s trying to tell us something,” she supplied, knowing that Thalia would hear her clearly.
Listening to Thalia’s next remark, Molly quickly changed the feeds in front of her and then spoke. “No, Thalia, I don’t see any other activity around any of the northeast entrances right now.
Again, Thalia spoke.
“Sorry, but there aren’t any feeds near that gate,” Alastair apologized answering Thalia’s latest question. “Sophie-Anne uses that side of the estate for more discreet purposes,” he supplied.
“No doubt why Andre chose it for whatever he’s doing,” Palomino commented.
Again, Molly changed the feeds displayed in front of her at Thalia’s bidding; Andre was soon back on the screen—with Debbie Pelt still trailing him.
“He’s in Corridor 18,” Alastair informed. “He’s moving south now—like he’s going to the ballroom.”
“No wait,” Molly alerted, “he just turned into the main corridor that heads to the east side of the estate.”
“Is he coming toward you?” everyone in the room heard Thalia ask.
Palomino and Molly both looked at Alastair, who knew the royal estate better than anyone else.
“We’ll know in a moment,” the handsome vampire said, his eyes fixed on the monitor.
Andre made another turn—back to the north.
“Yes, he is coming in this direction now!” Alastair relayed. “He’s not taking a direct route, but he’s just made a turn that will eventually get him here—unless he veers off toward the kitchens.”
Thalia once again said something, but this time it was too quiet for anyone but Palomino to hear.
“I understand,” Palomino said as she hung up her phone. “I’m going to lock down this room,” she informed Molly and Alastair. “You two,” she said, looking at the two strongest guards, “stay in here with Molly and Alastair. Nothing gets to them. Understand?”
The two nodded.
Palomino turned toward Molly. “Stay in here and make sure we don’t lose access to the video feeds. It’s essential that you get in touch with Thalia or Eric if you see anyone else coming in from the northeast side of the estate!”
Molly shook her head. “There are a lot of holes in the feed over there.”
“You’re right, but I’ll help you to see all that’s possible to see,” Alastair promised, even as he acknowledged that Molly was correct about the purposeful deficits in the surveillance system.
“Wait. What are you gonna do?” Molly asked Palomino.
The older vampiress looked at the other two guards in the room. “You two are with me,” she informed them. They quickly moved to flank her.
“Palo!” Molly yelled out the blonde’s nickname. “What are you gonna do?” she repeated.
“My job. Protecting you,” she informed with a wink.
“Andre’s strong,” Molly whispered, looking back at the monitor as the queen’s child made another turn—again looking pointedly at the camera. “Where’s Thalia? I thought she was following Andre!”
Palomino gave Molly a little smile. “Keep those feeds on—got me? And—you—Mr. Smith,” she said to Alastair, “lock this room down.”
Alastair nodded and then did as she’d asked as soon as the door closed behind Palomino and the two guards with her.
Clearly fearful for her friend, Molly kept her eyes trained on Andre.
“Put the tracking feeds for Andre and the feeds for Palomino’s group on my monitor,” Alastair commanded gently. “You should monitor the rest of the complex, especially that northeast gate area—as Thalia said.”
“But . . . .”
Alastair interrupted Molly’s protest. “You are—understandably—anxious for your friend,” he said compassionately. “But we need to do our jobs.” He smiled softly at her. “You’ll be distracted from everything else if you watch them, Miss Jolly.”
Reluctantly, Molly nodded and transferred the images of Andre to Alastair’s screen before clicking a few buttons and bringing all of the available feeds from the northeast of the estate onto her monitor. Then, she put those feeds into a rotating pattern with the other main entrances of the estate in case trouble came in from an unexpected direction.
“So—the spell around the estate. Is it any good?” Molly asked softly.
“It’s designed to keep anyone from entering or exiting the estate—except by a gate.”
“And to get into a gate?” Molly asked.
“Only a member of the queen’s retinue has the ability to grant access through the spell,” Alastair explained softly.
“Like Andre,” Molly observed flatly.
“Ever known the spell to fail anywhere?” she asked pensively as she scrutinized the screens in front of her.
“No. The witch that set it, Octavia, is good. And she recharged it just last week.”
Molly blew out a puff of air. “That’s good. Amelia said Octavia is her teacher—and even better than she is.” Unable to stop herself, she glanced at Alastair’s screen.
“Andre’s still taking his time,” the older vampire updated.
Molly nodded and turned back to her own screen. “Please let her be okay,” she whispered a prayer for Palomino, even as she continued to study the images before her and to look for any sign of trouble in them.
“I’ll keep an eye on her,” Alastair said softly.
“As well as you can,” Molly said with a twinge of bitterness. “There’s so many gaps in the surveillance—and there are hardly any cameras around the walls of the estate.”
“That’s what the magic is for,” Alastair comforted.
Molly shook her head. “Whatever. I’m gonna write up a proposal to the queen after all this is over—if I survive whatever’s coming. If Andre wasn’t such a paranoid, secret-keeping asshole, I bet you would have designed a much more efficient system that could still ensure the queen’s privacy,” she grumbled.
“To be sure,” Alastair agreed.
“Plus, with encryption capabilities nowadays, it’s not like you couldn’t block access to the feeds or even destroy recorded footage—if you absolutely had to. But Andre clearly didn’t want a good system because he had things to hide from his own maker!” she continued her angry muttering.
“I’d be grateful for your help making something better,” Alastair returned sincerely.
Molly’s knees were jumping up and down nervously.
“I’m sorry it wasn’t better before,” Alastair sighed.
“Not your fault,” Molly said softly. “I’m sorry if it sounded like I was blaming you.”
“It didn’t,” he returned. “But I’m blaming myself a little because we can’t see everything that might be coming at us.”
“That’s Andre’s fault,” Molly said definitively, even as she glanced at Alastair’s monitor and saw that her friend was in position near the entrance of the surveillance room even as Andre was still slowly skulking down the halls, seemingly creating a labyrinth-path to them with all of his backtracking.
“Please let Palomino stake that asshole,” she growled.
Willow celebrated the feeling of soaring—as she always did. The werehawk trained her eyes downward as she did another sweep of the area around the southern side of the queen’s estate, which was where the main gate was. The stream of elegantly-dressed people who had been arriving that night had ebbed to a mere trickle since the Valentine’s Night Ball was now in full swing.
Seeing nothing amiss, Willow decided that she would circle a few more times and then head west toward the guesthouse—where Eric and Sookie were staying—in order to give that area a quick look.
So far—nothing unusual had presented itself to her sharp eyes. Nothing dangerous.
However, she was ever-vigilant. She might be only twenty-two, but she took her job very seriously. Oh—on first sight, she might strike people as a “flighty” young woman—pun intended. As a matter of fact, she enjoyed being young and carefree—at least, on a personal level. But—on a professional one—she’d most certainly inherited the work-ethic of her parents, a werehawk and a werefalcon, who ran the largest Aerie in North America. Her parents’ Aerie, located in Oregon, was the equivalent of a Werepack, but—of course—better in her sharp eyes. It consisted of many varieties of birds of prey, including eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, kites, and crows.
Willow, though she changed into a werehawk like her father, had also inherited much of her mother’s speed, for there were none faster than werefalcons among the raptors in the Aerie. However, despite being a superior specimen from her birth, Willow had never been one to “crow”—pun intended—about her strengths. Yes—everyone in the Aerie knew that Willow would, one day, share in the leadership of the group. But Willow had never behaved like some kind of privileged heir apparent.
Her sharing of leadership would be with her fraternal twin sister, who was also able to shift. Wren was ten minutes older than Willow and shifted into a werefalcon. The sisters had never really had much competition between them, though that fact was surprising to outsiders, who still hypothesized that the twins might, one day, vie for the leadership of the Aerie. Some even imagined some kind of soap opera-inspired “fight to the death” between them.
But Willow and Wren just laughed at anyone who tried to suggest that they wouldn’t be able to equally share leadership of the Aerie. As different as night and day in some ways, the twins were perfect complements of each other, and they knew it. Simply put, it seemed natural that they would easily and successfully divvy up the leadership responsibilities of the group when the time came—though, hopefully, that would be many cycles of the moon into the future.
Both of their parents, after all, were still vibrant and young—at least by the standards of the two-natured. They had been supportive of both of their very different daughters as they’d come of age. Wren had fallen in love with the “boy next door”—literally. She’d married at eighteen and had already added to the Aerie. She was a whiz with numbers and worked as the Aerie’s main accountant. Willow, on the other hand, had never been in love and wondered if she would ever marry. Oh—she was enjoying her time casually dating Hoyt Fortenberry, one of Jason Stackhouse’s friends. But she knew that the relationship would not go very far, nor did she want it to.
She enjoyed her independence too much! However, she was also a born protector. Onawa, also from Oregon, had become a kind of mentor for Willow, for the shifter, too, was a protector. Older than Willow by ten years, Onawa had often worked as a guard for significant beings in the supernatural world. Supported by her parents, Willow had left the nest—pun intended—and had begun to work with Onawa right after her sister’s wedding.
The work they were doing right now was Willow’s favorite assignment, and she planned to stay on with Eric Northman and Sookie Stackhouse until she was called to come home to help run the Aerie. Until then, she felt herself blessed to be learning from vampires like Thalia and Weres like Maria-Star. She also very much enjoyed the fact that Eric Northman was not prejudiced in any way when it came to hiring and trusting women. Indeed, he treated the men and women among the guards equally, recognizing each of their strengths. She’d never felt that level of validation from any of her other employers.
Her eyes trained toward the ground, Willow made one more sweeping pattern around the main entrance of the queen’s estate. She noted many of the queen’s Were guards patrolling that area, in addition to Mustapha and Colonel Flood, the latter of whom had driven up from Shreveport that day with some of his pack in order to lend a hand.
Yes—it might be quiet at the moment, but Willow could practically sense something in the air.
An energy that always signaled that a storm was brewing.
From where he was perched, Warren watched as Willow flew another circuit around the front gate and then headed in his direction. She’d been circling the area from many hours, but never seemed to tire in her duty.
They were alike in this way, for he could sit up in a tree—or another high perch—for a very long time before his legs screamed at him to find solid ground again. Indeed, sometimes he felt more comfortable in one of his perches, separate from those who seemed more of the world than he did. Perhaps that was why he’d connected so strongly and so quickly with Mustapha, for he’d sensed in him something different—apart from the world.
Of course, he’d had no idea when he first met Mustapha that he wasn’t of the human world at all!
Warren chuckled to himself as he continued to trace the graceful patterns of the werehawk. He wondered whether—even with his sniper’s scope—his sight could be a rival for hers. He somehow doubted it. But his eyes weren’t half bad.
Actually, they were pretty much perfect—at least, by human standards. He’d been measured at 20-10 vision the day that he’d joined the military. So, of course, they’d put a sniper’s rifle in his hands. Unfortunately, though the military trained him to “be all he could be,” they didn’t care much for his being gay. One of his superior officers had even had the gall to “ask” him—when “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had been the fucking rule!
But the prick had asked. And Warren was never one to lie. So he’d fucking told!
And then he’d been kicked out of the service—losing the only career he’d ever wanted!
Mustapha, who was his husband in every way that mattered, though they couldn’t make it legal yet, had faced an even bigger shitstorm because he was gay. The two had both been in the Special Forces; in fact, they’d met because their squads had once been assigned to work together. As soon as Mustapha had heard that Warren had been kicked out, he’d resigned his own commission, also losing his livelihood. But Mustapha had also lost his pack. Specifically, he’d been abjured when he’d refused to get married and have kids. Oh—and they’d threatened to kill Warren for good measure.
One Were had even tried; Warren had made quick work of him though.
After that, he and Mustapha had done freelance security work together, usually for vampires or humans. But they’d never settled down anywhere.
Now, they were quite happy. Their employer, Eric Northman, paid them well—and treated them well. They had a house that they were making their own. Mustapha had joined the Long Tooth pack, where Colonel Flood didn’t give a rat’s ass about his sexual orientation or his sperm count. And Sookie Stackhouse treated them like family!
Warren’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard something to his left, and he quickly shifted to sight the noise-maker through his scope. When he saw that it was just Onawa making her patrol, he smiled a little to himself. He thought back to a discussion he’d had with the shifter at Christmas—when Sookie’s farmhouse had been full to the brim.
As a soldier—especially a sniper—Warren had been taught to detach himself from the humans he saw through his scope. What he’d actually learned was to detach himself almost fully from people—at least, on an emotional level. Mustapha had been the only one whom he couldn’t keep out.
It was that night which had made Warren know that the woman he’d been hired to guard was destined to be his friend. And the men and women he worked with were to be his brothers. His sisters.
His smile grew a little. Yeah—he’d found a family, one well-worth protecting.
Willow finished her circuit and landed in a large oak tree—about equidistant from the main entrance and the guesthouse.
“Hey birdy,” Warren smirked at her.
If Willow could have rolled her hawk eyes, she would have done so. She didn’t particularly enjoy Warren’s nickname for her, though she knew that he meant it in a teasing spirit. She hopped next to him and gave his shoulder a little tap with her beak.
Willow stretched her wings a bit, readying herself for another long period in the sky. Though the human had no way of knowing it, she looked at Warren with affection as she did so. Other than Onawa and her twin, Wren, Willow felt closest to Warren, perhaps because they were both so often in trees. She squawked out a little laugh.
Indeed, she and Warren had spent much time together during their work shifts. Of course, Willow was always in her hawk form when she took a break on the branches of Warren’s favored perches. And Warren would rarely say much more than “hello.”
Still, the two enjoyed their companionship in the same way that her father and uncle enjoyed fishing together—either in human or raptor form. Willow recalled how the two men could sit on a lake for hours without speaking. Yet they both seemed to have a tremendous amount of fun!
And it wasn’t as if Willow didn’t have fun “hanging out” with Warren when she was a human—when the two did converse more. But there was something so nice about having a friend in a tree, the hawk thought to herself.
“What’s that?” Warren asked in barely a whisper, suddenly on alert. His now-squinting eyes were trained toward the west as he looked through his infrared-enhanced scope.
Willow followed the sniper’s eyes and saw with her own vision what appeared to be two individuals, moving slowly on the other side of the large iron fence—just outside of the queen’s estate. They were approximately 125 yards away, and the thick panels of the fence obscured them.
Willow let out a relatively quiet, though sharp sound—a signal to all guards in the nearby Area 5 group.
Were the shadows dangerous? Willow did not know.
Would they be investigated?
As she saw Maria-Star and Onawa, both of whom were shifted, moving toward the fence, she gave Warren a little nod and then took off in flight.
A/N: I’m posting this later than I wanted today because the WiFi was down for a while. Sorry I kept you waiting.
I promise more action in the next chapter, but in this one, I really wanted to offer some perspectives from some of the guards. In most stories I’ve read, they are just sort of there, and I like putting myself in their heads a bit.
I hope that you enjoyed the peek into them. Please leave a comment if you have the time and inclination.
All the best,