Lillian spent the next day wandering the shopping mall in Shreveport. She was trying to keep distracted and pass the time, but to little avail. She repeatedly checked her cellphone. Yes, it was on. No, there weren’t any missed calls. Yes, there were four bars of service. No, she was not being overly anxious. Well, okay. Maybe a little. She rolled her eyes at herself.
By 5pm, she was back in her dingy hotel room. She didn’t bother to lay out clothes for the evening. Why, if she couldn’t work? She must have dozed off in front of the tv, because her phone started ringing and startled her. “Hello?” she said in a croaky voice.
“Dr. Choate, Nathan Riley here. Look, I just got ahold of the owners and they’d like you to come in and talk a bit more with me. But the good news is I think they are going to agree. Can you get over here by 8? They want to videoconference with us before the club opens up.”
“Oh, well sure. But I’ve got my laptop here if we’re going to Skype. Would that be more convenient?”
“Hold on a sec,” he said. The line clicked and went silent. Moments later it clicked again and Mr. Riley returned. “That will work. I’ll set up the conference and ring you in at 8 sharp. What’s your ID?”
She gave him her Skype address. She tidied up the hotel room and rearranged the desk so it faced the balcony, hoping to give a better impression. It wasn’t much to work with given the dingy and claustrophobic quarters. She pawed through her closet to find something appropriate to wear. She finally settled on jeans and a dress shirt with a suit jacket – “the professor’s tuxedo” as she fondly thought of it.
Promptly at 8, her computer began ringing. “Hello?” she said, placing the headphones on.
“Hi Dr. Choate. Alright, it looks like we’re good to go.” Mr. Riley popped up on her screen. She could see him fidgeting with the computer, and soon two more dialogue boxes were added. “Investors? Can you hear me?” A male voice and female voice responded in unison, “Yes.”
“Mr. Riley, I can hear everyone just fine. Their video doesn’t seem to be working, however.”
“Yeah, uh, that’s because it’s not enabled. Our investors wish to remain anonymous for the time being, professor.”
She was caught slightly off guard “Oh, uh, certainly.” It was an odd request. She was growing more certain by the minute that this Riley character was definitely a lawyer. It must be all the money involved. They were clearly making green hand over fist and no doubt weren’t about to risk another lawsuit.
“So, first thing’s first,” Riley began. “We wanted to ask you about….”
The meeting took far longer than she’d anticipated. The investors said virtually nothing. It was clear that Mr. Riley had already fielded their exact questions and they simply wanted to watch and listen to her responses to ensure that her work would in no way impact their business. It was entirely reasonable, she thought, if not a bit overdramatic in how they chose to go about it. Only once did one of the ‘black boxes’ on her screen offer to join in on what felt like a deposition. She was trying to explain how her work wouldn’t affect business, and that if anything, people usually liked to talk about themselves and what they do.
A husky male voice interrupted her. “Yes, but how do you propose to benefit our club?”
Lillian paused momentarily, trying to keep her poker face. Fake it ’til you make it, that was always her motto. “In all likelihood, sir, I expect to gather detailed information about what your patrons do and do not like about the business. I will be able to offer you insight into how your clients interact with various aspects of the club, including the staff, the spatial arrangement of the place, the décor, music, and most importantly, each other.”
The black box responded tersely. “What do you think we do when we ourselves are on the floor?”
Again, she let a beat pass to compose a thoughtful response. “When you are interacting with your clients, do you not do so as an owner? My outsider status affords me a kind of neutrality that, with all due respect, you cannot claim.”
The line was silent for a moment. “Very well,” the voice purred.
After a few more questions from Riley, her work was approved with the additional condition that she provide a monthly report of her activities for review. Lillian clapped shut the computer and squealed in joy (and relief). Few things were as rewarding to her as a big break. Especially when her job hung in the balance.
The next few days were a blur as she settled into a nightly work routine. The clientele were, for the most part, eager to share their experiences and motivations for loving, and living out, vampire culture. Things even got interesting when she’d inadvertently started a heated debate over the “threshold” myth: that is, whether or not a vampire could in fact cross the threshold of a human’s abode without an invitation. Thankfully she was able to get plenty of data and avoid a full-on fistfight before the bouncers got involved.
This paled, however, to the highlight of the week. It was Friday night and a teen showed up and was refused at the door for having a fake ID. He began shouting insults through the entry way and a bouncer quickly ejected him into the parking lot. It didn’t end there however. He carried on yelling at other patrons, at one point accusing a young woman of “probably liking vampires that sparkle.” Her boyfriend then stepped in and a number of other people hanging around outside starting arguing with the kid, the boyfriend, and then at each other. Apparently the Twilight series was quite the divisive issue. Camps emerged on either side. By that time, three bouncers were manhandling people and the entire thing threatened to boil over into a full-scale shitshow. It would only be minutes before the cops were called. Trying to think on her feet, Lillian raised her voice and hollered, “if you think real vampires don’t sparkle, come with me and you can be in my book! Come on!” The epithets and insults quieted. A number of people waved her off or gave her the finger, but a sizable group of fans ambled over and she lead them back into the bar for more drinks and their promised interview. Crisis averted – with good data too!
Later that night, she returned to her hotel-home and crashed onto the bed, exhausted from the evening’s activities and the adrenaline rush of the near bar brawl. She passed out, fully clothed on top of the covers, and was startled when her cellphone began to ring.
Groping around in her bag, she finally answered it with a groggy and fully annoyed “hello,” not even bothering to open her eyes.
“Good evening Professor Choate,” a husky, velvety voice said on the other end of the line. Her eyes flew open.
“Oh!” she gasped, recognizing the voice. It was one of the Fantasy investors. She tried to roust herself. “Hello, uh…sir. Um…” she blushed, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to call you.”
“Hmm, yes. Apologies. My name is Eric Northman.”
She couldn’t choke back a burst of laughter in time. Sure. Right. Eric Northman. “The” Norseman. The Viking sex god of Harris’ lore. Her fit of undignified giggled was met with an uncomfortable silence.
“I hope your work is coming along satisfactorily thus far.”
“Oh. Yeah, it’s going quite well. Thank you.”
“How do you find my little establishment?”
“Well…um. It’s truly a clever business model. It seems to run very efficiently. More importantly, your clients love it. You must be thrilled with its success.”
“We are pleased, yes.”
Another stretch of silence. Lillian’s mind raced. Why was this man calling her? He couldn’t possibly just want to chitchat at five in the morning. What a nutbar! “So, Mr. Northman…” It was hard not to laugh again at the ridiculous pseudonym. “Um, is there anything in particular you needed?”
“Hmm,” he purred, all too suggestively. “Tonight you delivered on your promise to be of service to me. That was quick thinking, how you diverted those drunken fools. We were lucky not to have the cops show and end up in the morning news. Your effort is appreciated.”
Service to him? Just who did he think he was? “I did promise to not adversely affect your business. It was the least I could do. I got a good set of interviews out of it.”
“Very shrewd of you.
“Has the place been in the news before?”
“Yes, occasionally. This country holds tightly to its Puritan roots. Funny how the devoutest of Christians are the ones who believe the most in witchcraft and the occult.”
“Hm. So not always a good portrayal, I presume?” She made a mental note to check the newspaper archive.
“No, but that only reinforces its allure.”
“No such thing as bad publicity, so they say. Well, thank you for your call. Is there anything else?” The need to sleep was dragging her back under.
“I merely wanted to check up on you. You are tired. You will adjust to our schedule. I assume your phone has caller ID?”
“Yes, sir.” She was not above a bit of politesse, especially given the weirdness of this call. There was something commanding in his voice that automatically brought out her best manners.
“Then you have my number now. You may call me if you ever have the need. See you tomorrow night, Professor Choate.”
And with that, she heard a click. That was seriously bizarre. Check on her? And what is this business about seeing each other tomorrow? Oh Christ, this project was going to be so much more complicated than it needed to be. She had a flashback to her field year, when she had to negotiate the purchase of three head of cattle – and figure out how to transport them some 50 miles – all to kiss the ass of a petty village chief whose approval she only marginally needed. What does one give to a small business owner in bumfuck Louisiana who apparently is convinced that he’s a nonexistent supernatural being from a fiction novel? She groaned, turned out the lamp, and worked her way under the covers. She would deal with that tomorrow.