Club Dead Chapter Five


Janice Herveaux Phillips (married two years, mother of one, I learned quickly) was exactly what I might have expected of a sister of Alcide's. She was tall, attractive, plainspoken, and confident;and she ran her business efficiently.

I seldom went into beauty parlors. My gran had always done her own home perms, and I had never colored my hair or done anything else to it, besides a trim now and then. When I confessed this to Janice, who'd noticed I was looking around me with the curiosity of the ignorant, her broad face split in a grin. ’’Then you'll need everything,’’ she said with satisfaction.

’’No, no, no,’’ I protested anxiously. ’’Alcide - .’’

’’Called me on his cell phone and made it clear I was to give you the works,’’ Janice said. ’’And frankly, honey, anyone who helps him recover from that Debbie is my best friend.’’

I had to smile. ’’But I'll pay,’’ I told her.

’’No, your money's no good here,’’ she said. ’’Even if you break up with Alcide tomorrow, just getting him through tonight will be worth it.’’

’’Tonight?’’ I began to have a sinking feeling that once again, I didn't know everything there was to know.

’’I happen to know that tonight that bitch is going to announce her engagement at that club they go to,’’ Janice said.

Okay, this time what I didn't know was something pretty major. ’’She's marrying the - man she took up with after she dumped Alcide?’’ (I barely stopped myself from saying, ’’The shapeshifter?’’)

’’Quick work, huh? What could he have that my brother doesn't have?’’

’’I can't imagine,’’ I said with absolutely sincerity, earning a quick smile from Janice. There was sure to be a flaw in her brother somewhere - maybe Alcide came to the supper table in his underwear, or picked his nose in public.

’’Well, if you find out, you let me know. Now, let's get you going.’’ Janice glanced around her in a businesslike way. ’’Corinne is going to give you your pedicure and manicure, and Jarvis is going to do your hair. You sure have a great head of it,’’ Janice said in a more personal way.

’’All mine, all natural,’’ I admitted.

’’No color?’’

’’Nope.’’

’’You're the lucky one,’’ Janice said, shaking her head.

That was a minority opinion.

Janice herself was working on a client whose silver hair and gold jewelry proclaimed she was a woman of privilege, and while this cold-faced lady examined me with indifferent eyes, Janice fired off some instructions to her employees and went back to Ms. Big Bucks.

I had never been so pampered in my life. And everything was new to me. Corinne (manicures and pedicures), who was as plump and juicy as one of the sausages I'd cooked that morning, painted my toenails and fingernails screaming red to match the dress I was going to wear. The only male in the shop, Jarvis, had fingers as light and quick as butterflies. He was thin as a reed and artificially platinum blond. Entertaining me with a stream of chatter, he washed and set my hair and established me under the dryer. I was one chair down from the rich lady, but I got just as much attention. I had a People magazine to read, and Corinne brought me a Coke. It was so nice to have people urging me to relax.

I was feeling kind of roasted under the dryer when the timer dinged. Jarvis got me out from under it and set me back in his chair. After consulting with Janice, he whipped his preheated curling iron from a sort of holster mounted on the wall, and painstakingly arranged my hair in loose curls trailing down my back. I looked spectacular. Looking spectacular makes you happy. This was the best I'd felt since Bill had left.

Janice came over to talk every moment she was able. I caught myself forgetting that I wasn't Alcide's real girlfriend, with a real chance of becoming Janice's sister-in-law. This kind of acceptance didn't come my way too often.

I was wishing I could repay her kindness in some way, when a chance presented itself. Jarvis's station mirrored Janice's, so my back was to Janice's customer's back. Left on my own while Jarvis went to get a bottle of the conditioner he thought I should try, I watched (in the mirror) Janice take off her earrings and put them in a little china dish. I might never have observed what happened next if I hadn't picked up a clear covetous thought from the rich lady's head, which was, simply, ’’Aha!’’ Janice walked away to get another towel, and in the clear reflection, I watched the silver-haired customer deftly sweep up the earrings and stuff them into her jacket pocket, while Janice's back was turned.

By the time I was finished, I'd figured out what to do. I was just waiting to say good-bye to Jarvis, who'd had to go to the telephone;I knew he was talking to his mother, from the pictures I got from his head. So I slid out of my vinyl chair and walked over to the rich woman, who was writing a check for Janice.

’’'Scuse me,’’ I said, smiling brilliantly. Janice looked a little startled, and the elegant woman looked snooty. This was a client who spent a lot of money here, and Janice wouldn't want to lose her. ’’You got a smear of hair gel on your jacket. If you'll please just slide out of it for a second, I'll get it right off.’’

She could hardly refuse. I grasped the jacket shoulders and gently tugged, and she automatically helped me slide the green-and-red plaid jacket down her arms. I carried it behind the screen that concealed the hair-washing area, and wiped at a perfectly clean area just for verisimilitude (a great word from my Word of the Day calendar). Of course, I also extracted the earrings and put them in my own pocket.

’’There you are, good as new!’’ I beamed at her and helped her into the jacket.

’’Thanks, Sookie,’’ Janice said, too brightly. She suspected something was amiss.

’’You're welcome!’’ I smiled steadily.

’’Yes, of course,’’ said the elegant woman, somewhat confusedly. ’’Well, I'll see you next week, Janice.’’

She clicked on her high heels all the way out the door, not looking back. When she was out of sight, I reached in my pocket and held out my hand to Janice. She opened her hand under mine, and I dropped the earrings into her palm.

’’Good God almighty,’’ Janice said, suddenly looking about five years older. ’’I forgot and left something where she could reach it.’’

’’She does this all the time?’’

’’Yeah. That's why we're about the fifth beauty salon she's patronized in the past ten years. The others put up with it for a while, but eventually she did that one thing too many. She's so rich, and so educated, and she was brought up right. I don't know why she does stuff like this.’’

We shrugged at each other, the vagaries of the white-collar well-to-do beyond our comprehension. It was a moment of perfect understanding. ’’I hope you don't lose her as a customer. I tried to be tactful,’’ I said.

’’And I really appreciate that. But I would have hated losing those earrings more than losing her as a client. My husband gave them to me. They tend to pinch after a while, and I didn't even think when I pulled them off.’’

I'd been thanked more than enough. I pulled on my own coat. ’’I better be off,’’ I said. ’’I've really enjoyed the wonderful treat.’’

’’Thank my brother,’’ Janice said, her broad smile restored. ’’And, after all, you just paid for it.’’ She held up the earrings.

I was smiling, too, as I left the warmth and camaraderie of the salon, but that didn't last too long. The thermometer had dropped and the sky was getting darker by the minute. I walked the distance back to the apartment building very briskly. After a chilly ride on a creaky elevator, I was glad to use the key Alcide had given me and step into the warmth. I switched on a lamp and turned on the television for a little company, and I huddled on the couch and thought about the pleasures of the afternoon. Once I'd thawed out, I realized Alcide must have turned down the thermostat. Though pleasant compared to the out-of-doors, the apartment was definitely on the cool side.

The sound of the key in the door roused me out of my reverie, and Alcide came in with a clipboard full of paperwork. He looked tired and preoccupied, but his face relaxed when he saw me waiting.

’’Janice called me to tell me you'd come by,’’ he said. His voice warmed up as he spoke. ’’She wanted me to say thank you again.’’

I shrugged. ’’I appreciate my hair and my new nails,’’ I said. ’’I've never done that before.’’

’’You've never been to a beauty shop before?’’

’’My grandmother went every now and then. I had my ends trimmed, once.’’

He looked as stunned as if I'd confessed I'd never seen a flush toilet.

To cover my embarrassment, I fanned my nails out for his admiration. I hadn't wanted very long ones, and these were the shortest ones Corinne could in all conscience manage, she had told me. ’’My toenails match,’’ I told my host.

’’Let's see,’’ he said.

I untied my sneakers and pulled off my socks. I held out my feet. ’’Aren't they pretty?’’ I asked.

He was looking at me kind of funny. ’’They look great,’’ he said quietly.

I glanced at the clock on top of the television. ’’I guess I better go get ready,’’ I said, trying to figure out how to take a bath without affecting my hair and nails. I thought of Janice's news about Debbie. ’’You're really ready to dress up tonight, right?’’

’’Sure,’’ he said gamely.

’’'Cause I'm going all out.’’

That interested him. ’’That would mean ... ?’’

’’Wait and see.’’ This was a nice guy, with a nice family, doing me a heavy-duty favor. Okay, he'd been coerced into it. But he was being extremely gracious to me, under any circumstances.

***

I rolled out of my room an hour later. Alcide was standing in the kitchen, pouring himself a Coke. It ran over the edge of the glass while he took me in.

That was a real compliment.

While Alcide mopped up the counter with a paper towel, he kept darting glances at me. I turned around slowly.

I was wearing red - screaming red, fire engine red. I was going to freeze most of the evening, because my dress didn't have any shoulders, though it did have long sleeves that you slid on separately. It zipped up the back. It flared below the hips, what there was below the hips. My grandmother would have flung herself across the doorsill to keep me from going out the door in this dress. I loved it. I had got it on extreme sale at Tara's Togs;I suspected Tara had kind of put it aside for me. Acting on a huge and unwise impulse, I'd bought the shoes and lipstick to go with it. And now the nails, thanks to Janice! I had a gray-and-black fringed silk shawl to wrap around myself, and a little bitty bag that matched my shoes. The bag was beaded.

’’Turn around again,’’ Alcide suggested a little hoarsely. He himself was wearing a conventional black suit with a white shirt and a green patterned tie that matched his eyes. Nothing, apparently, could tame his hair. Maybe he should have gone to Janice's beauty shop instead of me. He looked handsome and rough, though ’’attractive’’ might be a more accurate word than ’’handsome.’’

I rotated slowly. I wasn't confident enough to keep my eyebrows from arching in a silent question as I completed my turn.

’’You look mouthwatering,’’ he said sincerely. I released a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding.

’’Thanks,’’ I said, trying not to beam like an idiot.

I had a trying time getting into Alcide's truck, what with the shortness of the dress and the highness of the heels, but with Alcide giving me a tactical boost, I managed.

Our destination was a small place on the corner of Capitol and Roach. It wasn't impressive from the outside, but the Mayflower Cafe was as interesting as Alcide had predicted. Some of the people at the tables scattered on the black-and-white tile floor were dressed to the nines, like Alcide and me. Some of them were wearing flannel and denim. Some had brought their own wine or liquor. I was glad we weren't drinking;Alcide had one beer, and that was it. I had iced tea. The food was really good, but not fancy. Dinner was long, drawn-out, and interesting. Lots of people knew Alcide, and they came by the table to say hello to him and to find out who I was. Some of these visitors were involved in the state government, some were in the building trade like Alcide, and some appeared to be friends of Alcide's dad's.

A few of them were not law-abiding men at all;even though I've always lived in Bon Temps, I know hoods when I see the product of their brains. I'm not saying they were thinking about bumping off anyone, or bribing senators, or anything specific like that. Their thoughts were greedy - greedy of money, greedy of me, and in one case, greedy of Alcide (to which he was completely oblivious, I could tell).

But most of all, these men - all of them - were greedy for power. I guess in a state capital, that lust for power was inevitable, even in as poverty-plagued a state as Mississippi.

The women with the greediest men were almost all extremely well groomed and very expensively dressed. For this one evening, I could match them, and I held my head up. One of them thought I looked like a high-priced whore, but I decided that was a compliment, at least for tonight. At least she thought I was expensive. One woman, a banker, knew Debbie the-former-girlfriend, and she examined me from head to toe, thinking Debbie would want a detailed description.

None of these people, of course, knew one thing about me. It was wonderful to be among people who had no idea of my background and upbringing, my occupation or my abilities. Determined to enjoy the feeling, I concentrated on not speaking unless I was spoken to, not spilling any food on my beautiful dress, and minding my manners, both table and social. While I was enjoying myself, I figured it would be a pity if I caused Alcide any embarrassment, since I was entering his life so briefly.

Alcide snatched the bill before I could reach it, and scowled at me when I opened my mouth to protest. I finally gave a little bob of my head. After that silent struggle, I was glad to observe that Alcide was a generous tipper. That raised him in my estimation. To tell the truth, he was entirely too high in my estimation already. I was on the alert to pick out something negative about the man. When we got back in Alcide's pickup - this time he gave me even more help when he boosted me up to the seat, and I was pretty confident he enjoyed the procedure - we were both quiet and thoughtful.

’’You didn't talk much at supper,’’ he said. ’’You didn't have a good time?’’

’’Oh, sure, I did. I just didn't think it was a real good time to start broadcasting any opinions.’’

’’What did you think of Jake O'Malley?’’ O'Malley, a man in his early sixties with thick steel-colored eyebrows, had stood talking to Alcide for at least five minutes, all the while stealing little sideways glances at my boobs.

’’I think he's planning on screwing you six ways from Sunday.’’

It was lucky we hadn't pulled away from the curb yet. Alcide switched on the overhead light and looked at me. His face was grim. ’’What are you talking about?’’ he asked.

’’He's going to underbid you on the next job, because he's bribed one of the women in your office - Thomasina something? - to let him know what you all's bid is. And then - ’’

’’What?’’

I was glad the heater was running full blast. When werewolves got mad, you could feel it in the air around you. I had so hoped I wouldn't have to explain myself to Alcide. It had been so neat, being unknown.

’’You are ... what?’’ he asked, to make sure I understood him.

’’Telepath,’’ I said, kind of mumbling.

A long silence fell, while Alcide digested this.

’’Did you hear anything good?’’ he asked, finally.

’’Sure. Mrs. O'Malley wants to jump your bones,’’ I told him, smiling brightly. I had to remind myself not to pull at my hair.

’’That's good?’’

’’Comparatively,’’ I said. ’’Better to be screwed physically than financially.’’ Mrs. O'Malley was at least twenty years younger than Mr. O'Malley, and she was the most groomed person I'd ever seen. I was betting she brushed her eyebrows a hundred strokes a night.

He shook his head. I had no clear picture of what he was thinking. ’’What about me, you read me?’’

Aha. ’’Shape-shifters are not so easy,’’ I said. ’’I can't pick out a clear line of thought, more a general mood, intentions, sort of. I guess if you thought directly at me, I'd get it. You want to try? Think something at me.’’

The dishes I use at the apartment have a border of yellow roses.

’’I wouldn't call them roses,’’ I said doubtfully. ’’More like zinnias, if you ask me.’’

I could feel his withdrawal, his wariness. I sighed. Same old, same old. It sort of hurt, since I liked him. ’’But just to pick your own thoughts out of your head, that's a murky area,’’ I said. ’’I can't consistently do that, with Weres and shifters.’’ (A few Supes were fairly easy to read, but I saw no need to bring that up at this point in time.)

’’Thank God.’’

’’Oh?’’ I said archly, in an attempt to lighten the mood. ’’What are you afraid I'll read?’’

Alcide actually grinned at me before he turned off the dome light and we pulled out of our parking space. ’’Never mind,’’ he said, almost absently. ’’Never mind. So what you're going to be doing tonight is reading minds, to try to pick up clues about your vampire's whereabouts?’’

’’That's right. I can't read vampires;they don't seem to put out any brainwaves. That's just how I put it. I don't know how I do this, or if there's a scientific way to phrase it.’’ I wasn't exactly lying: Undead minds really were unreadable - except for a little split second's glimpse every now and then (which hardly counted, and no one could know about). If vampires thought I could read their minds, not even Bill could save me. If he would.

Every time I forgot for a second that our relationship had radically changed, it hurt all over again to be reminded.

’’So what's your plan?’’

’’I'm aiming for humans dating or serving local vampires. Humans were the actual abductors. He was snatched in daytime. At least, that's what they told Eric.’’

’’I should have asked you about this earlier,’’ he said, mostly to himself. ’’Just in case I hear something the regular way - through my ears - maybe you should tell me the circumstances.’’

As we drove by what Alcide said was the old train station, I gave him a quick summary. I caught a glimpse of a street sign reading ’’Amite’’ as we pulled up to an awning that stretched over a deserted length of sidewalk in the outskirts of downtown Jackson. The area directly under the awning was lit with a brilliant and cold light. Somehow that length of sidewalk seemed creepily ominous, especially since the rest of the street was dark. Uneasiness crawled down my back. I felt a deep reluctance to stop at that bit of sidewalk.

It was a stupid feeling, I told myself. It was just a stretch of cement. No beasts were in sight. After the businesses closed at five, downtown Jackson was not exactly teeming, even under ordinary circumstances. I was willing to bet that most of the sidewalks in the whole state of Mississippi were bare on this cold December night.

But there was something ominous in the air, a watchfulness laced with a charge of malice. The eyes observing us were invisible;but they were observing us, nonetheless. When Alcide climbed out of the truck and came around to help me down, I noticed that he left the keys in the ignition. I swung my legs outward and put my hands on his shoulders, my long silk stole wound firmly around me and trailing behind, fringe trembling in a gust of chilled air. I pushed off as he lifted, and then I was on the sidewalk.

The truck drove away.

I looked at Alcide sideways, to see if this was startling to him, but he looked quite matter-of-fact. ’’Vehicles parked in front would attract attention from the general public,’’ he told me, his voice hushed in the vast silence of that coldly lit bit of pavement.

’’They can come in? Regular people?’’ I asked, nodding toward the single metal door. It looked as uninviting as a door can look. There was no name anywhere on it, or on the building, for that matter. No Christmas decorations, either. (Of course, vampires don't observe holidays, except for Halloween. It's the ancient festival of Samhain dressed up in trappings that the vamps find delightful. So Halloween's a great favorite, and it's celebrated worldwide in the vamp community.)

’’Sure, if they want to pay a twenty-dollar cover charge to drink the worst drinks in five states. Served by the rudest waiters. Very slowly.’’

I tried to smother my smile. This was not a smiley kind of place. ’’And if they stick that out?’’

’’There's no floor show, no one speaks to them, and if they last much longer, they find themselves out on the sidewalk getting into their car with no memory of how they got there.’’

He grasped the handle of the door and pulled it open. The dread that soaked the air did not seem to affect Alcide.

We stepped into a tiny hall that was blocked by another door after about four feet. There, again, I knew we were being watched, though I couldn't see a camera or a peephole anywhere.

’’What's the name of this place?’’ I whispered.

’’The vamp that owns it calls it Josephine's,’’ he said, just as quietly. ’’But Weres call it Club Dead.’’

I thought about laughing, but the inner door opened just then.

The doorman was a goblin.

I had never seen one before, but the word ’’goblin’’ popped into my mind as if I had a supernatural dictionary printed on the inside of my eyeballs. He was very short and very cranky-looking, with a knobby face and broad hands. His eyes were full of fire and malignance. He glared up at us as if customers were the last things he needed.

Why any ordinary person would walk into Josephine's after the cumulative effect of the haunted sidewalk, the vanishing vehicle, and the goblin at the door ... well, some people are just born asking to be killed, I guess.

’’Mr. Herveaux,’’ the goblin said slowly, in a deep, growly voice. ’’Good to have you back. Your companion is ... ?’’

’’Miss Stackhouse,’’ Alcide said. ’’Sookie, this is Mr. Hob.’’ The goblin examined me with glowing eyes. He looked faintly troubled, as if he couldn't quite fit me into a slot;but after a second, he stood aside to let us pass.

Josephine's was not very crowded. Of course, it was somewhat early for its patrons. After the eerie build-up, the large room looked almost disappointingly like any other bar. The serving area itself was in the middle of the room, a large square bar with a lift-up panel for the staff to go to and fro. I wondered if the owner had been watching reruns of Cheers. The glasses hung down, suspended on racks, and there were artificial plants and low music and dim lighting. There were polished bar stools set evenly all around the square. To the left of the bar was a small dance floor, and even farther left was a tiny stage for a band or a disc jockey. On the other three sides of the square were the usual small tables, about half of which were in use.

Then I spotted the list of ambiguous rules on the wall, rules designed to be understood by the regular habitues, but not by the occasional tourist. ’’No Changing on the Premises,’’ one said sternly. (Weres and shifters could not switch from animal to human when they were at the bar;well, I could understand that.) ’’No Biting of Any Kind,’’ said another. ’’No Live Snacks,’’ read a third. Ick.

The vampires were scattered throughout the bar, some with others of their own kind, some with humans. There was a raucous party of shifters in the southeast corner, where several tables had been drawn together to accommodate the size of the party. The center of this group appeared to be a tall young woman with gleaming short black hair, an athletic build, and a long, narrow face. She was draped over a square man of her own age, which I guessed to be about twenty-eight. He had round eyes and a flat nose and the softest looking hair I'd ever seen - it was almost baby fine, and so light a blond, it was nearly white. I wondered if this were the engagement party, and I wondered if Alcide had known it was to take place. His attention was definitely focused on that group.

Naturally, I immediately checked out what the other women in the bar were wearing. The female vampires and the women with male vampires were dressed about at my level. The shifter females tended to dress down a bit more. The black-haired woman I'd pegged for Debbie was wearing a gold silk blouse and skintight brown leather pants, with boots. She laughed at some comment of the blond man's, and I felt Alcide's arm grow rigid under my fingers. Yep, this must be the ex-girlfriend, Debbie. Her good time had certainly escalated since she'd glimpsed Alcide's entrance.

Phony bitch, I decided in the time it takes to snap your fingers, and I made up my mind to behave accordingly. The goblin Hob led the way to an empty table within view of the happy party, and held out a chair for me. I nodded to him politely, and unwound my wrap, folding it and tossing it onto an empty chair. Alcide sat in the chair to my right, so he could put his back to the corner where the shifters were having such a raucous good time.

A bone-thin vampire came to take our order. Alcide asked my pleasure with an inclination of his head. ’’A champagne cocktail,’’ I said, having no idea what one tasted like. I'd never gone to the trouble to mix myself one at Merlotte's, but now that I was in someone else's bar, I thought I'd give it a shot. Alcide ordered a Heineken. Debbie was casting many glances our way, so I leaned forward and smoothed back a lock of Alcide's curly black hair. He looked surprised, though of course Debbie couldn't see that.

’’Sookie?’’ he said, rather doubtfully.

I smiled at him, not my nervous smile - because I wasn't, for once. Thanks to Bill, I now had a little confidence about my own physical attractiveness. ’’Hey, I'm your date, remember? I'm acting date-like,’’ I told him.

The thin vampire brought our drinks just then, and I clinked my glass against his bottle. ’’To our joint venture,’’ I said, and his eyes lit up. We sipped.

I loved champagne cocktails.

’’Tell me more about your family,’’ I said, because I enjoyed listening to his nimbly voice. I would have to wait until there were more humans in the bar before I began listening in to others'thoughts.

Alcide obligingly began telling me about how poor his dad had been when he started his surveying business, and how long it had taken for him to prosper. He was just beginning to tell me about his mother when Debbie sashayed up.

It had only been a matter of time.

’’Hello, Alcide,’’ she purred. Since he hadn't been able to see her coming, his strong face quivered. ’’Who's your new friend? Did you borrow her for the evening?’’

’’Oh, longer than that,’’ I said clearly, and smiled at Debbie, a smile that matched her own for sincerity.

’’Really?’’ If her eyebrows had crawled any higher, they'd have been in heaven.

’’Sookie is a good friend,’’ Alcide said impassively.

’’Oh?’’ Debbie doubted his word. ’’It wasn't too long ago you told me you'd never have another 'friend'if you couldn't have ... Well.’’ She smirked.

I covered Alcide's huge hand with my own and gave her a look that implied much.

’’Tell me,’’ Debbie said, her lips curling in a skeptical way, ’’how do you like that birthmark of Alcide's?’’

Who could have predicted she was willing to be a bitch so openly? Most women try to hide it, at least from strangers.

It's on my right butt cheek. It's shaped like a rabbit. Well, how nice. Alcide had remembered what I'd said, and he'd thought directly at me.

’’I love bunnies,’’ I said, still smiling, my hand drifting down Alcide's back to caress, very lightly, the top of his right buttock.

For a second, I saw sheer rage on Debbie's face. She was so focused, so controlled, that her mind was a lot less opaque than most shifters'. She was thinking about her owl fiance, about how he wasn't as good in the sack as Alcide, but he had a lot of ready cash and he was willing to have children, which Alcide wasn't. And she was stronger than the owl, able to dominate him.

She was no demon (of course, her fianc¨¦ would have a really short shelf life if she were) but she was no sweetie, either.

Debbie still could have recovered the situation, but her discovery that I knew Alcide's little secret made her nuts. She made a big mistake.

She raked me over with a glare that would have paralyzed a lion. ’’Looks like you went to Janice's salon today,’’ she said, taking in the casually tumbled curls, the fingernails. Her own straight black hair had been cut in asymmetrical clumps, tiny locks of different lengths, making her look a little like a dog in a very good show, maybe an Afghan. Her narrow face increased the resemblance. ’’Janice never sends anyone out looking like they live in this century.’’

Alcide opened his mouth, rage tensing all his muscles. I laid my hand on his arm.

’’What do you think of my hair?’’ I asked softly, moving my head so it slithered over my bare shoulders. I took his hand and held it gently to the curls falling over my chest. Hey, I was pretty good at this! Sookie the se* kitten.

Alcide caught his breath. His fingers trailed through the length of my hair, and his knuckles brushed my collarbone. ’’I think it's beautiful,’’ he said, and his voice was both sincere and husky.

I smiled at him.

’’I guess instead of borrowing you, he rented you,’’ Debbie said, goaded into irreparable error.

It was a terrible insult, to both of us. It took every bit of resolution I had to hang on to a ladylike self-control. I felt the primitive self, the truer me, swim nearly to the surface. We sat staring at the shifter, and she blanched at our silence. ’’Okay, I shouldn't have said that,’’ she said nervously. ’’Just forget it.’’

Because she was a shifter, she'd beat me in a fair fight. Of course, I had no intention of fighting fair, if it came to that.

I leaned over and touched one red fingertip to her leather pants. ’’Wearing Cousin Elsie?’’ I asked.

Unexpectedly, Alcide burst into laughter. I smiled at him as he doubled over, and when I looked up, Debbie was stalking back to her party, who had fallen silent during our exchange.

I reminded myself to skip going to the ladies'room alone this evening.

***

By the time we ordered our second drinks, the place was full. Some Were friends of Alcide's came in, a large group - Weres like to travel in packs, I understand. Shifters, it depended on the animal they most often shifted to. Despite their theoretical versatility, Sam had told me that shape-shifters most often changed to the same animal every time, some creature they had a special affinity for. And they might call themselves by that animal: weredog, or werebat, or weretiger. But never just ’’Weres’’ - that term was reserved for the wolves. The true werewolves scorned such variance in form, and they didn't think much of shifters in general. They, the werewolves, considered themselves the cream of the shape-shifting world.

Shifters, on the other hand, Alcide explained, thought of werewolves as the thugs of the supernatural scene. ’’And you do find a lot of us in the building trades,’’ he said, as if he were trying hard to be fair. ’’Lots of Weres are mechanics, or brick masons, or plumbers, or cooks.’’

’’Useful occupations,’’ I said.

’’Yes,’’ he agreed. ’’But not exactly white-collar. So though we all cooperate with each other, to some extent, there's a lot of class discrimination.’’

A small group of Weres in motorcycle gear strode in. They wore the same sort of leather vest with wolf's heads on the back that had been worn by the man who'd attacked me at Merlotte's. I wondered if they'd started searching for their comrade yet. I wondered if they had a clearer idea of who they were looking for, what they'd do if they realized who I was. The four men ordered several pitchers of beer and began talking very secretively, heads close together and chairs pulled right up to the table.

A deejay - he appeared to be a vampire - began to play records at the perfect level;you could be sure what the song was, but you could still talk.

’’Let's dance,’’ Alcide suggested.

I hadn't expected that;but it would put me closer to the vampires and their humans, so I accepted. Alcide held my chair for me, and took my hand as we went over to the minuscule dance floor. The vampire changed the music from some heavy metal thing to Sarah McLachlan's ’’Good Enough,’’ which is slow, but with a beat.

I can't sing, but I can dance;as it happened, Alcide could, too.

The good thing about dancing is that you don't have to talk for a while, if you feel chatted out. The bad thing is it makes you hyperconscious of your partner's body. I had already been uncomfortably aware of Alcide's - excuse me - animal magnetism. Now, so close to him, swaying in rhythm with him, following his every move, I found myself in a kind of trance. When the song was over, we stayed on the little dance floor, and I kept my eyes on the floor. When the next song started up, a faster piece of music - though for the life of me I couldn't have told you what - we began dancing again, and I spun and dipped and moved with the werewolf.

Then the muscular squat man sitting at a bar stool behind us said to his vampire companion, ’’He hasn't talked yet. And Harvey called today. He said they searched the house and didn't find anything.’’

’’Public place,’’ said his companion, in a sharp voice. The vampire was a very small man - perhaps he'd become a vampire when men were shorter.

I knew they were talking about Bill, because the human was thinking of Bill when he said, ’’He hasn't talked.’’ And the human was an exceptional broadcaster, both sound and visuals coming through clearly.

When Alcide tried to lead me away from their orbit, I resisted his lead. Looking up into his surprised face, I cut my eyes toward the couple. Comprehension filtered into his eyes, but he didn't look happy.

Dancing and trying to read another person's mind at the same time is not something I'd recommend. I was straining mentally, and my heart was pounding with shock at the glimpse of Bill's image. Luckily, Alcide excused himself to go to the men's room just then, parking me on a stool at the bar right by the vampire. I tried to keep looking around at different dancers, at the deejay, at anything but the man to the vampire's left, the man whose mind I was trying to pick through.

He was thinking about what he'd done during the day;he'd been trying to keep someone awake, someone who really needed to sleep - a vampire. Bill.

Keeping a vampire awake during the day was the worst kind of torture. It was difficult to do, too. The compulsion to sleep when the sun came up was imperative, and the sleep itself was like death.

Somehow, it had never crossed my mind - I guess since I'm an American - that the vampires who had snatched Bill might be resorting to evil means to get him to talk. If they wanted the information, naturally they weren't just going to wait around until Bill felt like telling them. Stupid me - dumb, dumb, dumb. Even knowing Bill had betrayed me, even knowing he had thought of leaving me for his vampire lover, I was struck deep with pain for him.

Engrossed in my unhappy thoughts, I didn't recognize trouble when it was standing right beside me. Until it grabbed me by the arm.

One of the Were gang members, a big dark-haired man, very heavy and very smelly, had grabbed hold of my arm. He was getting his greasy fingerprints all over my beautiful red sleeves, and I tried to pull away from him.

’’Come to our table and let us get to know you, sweet thing,’’ he said, grinning at me. He had a couple of earrings in one ear. I wondered what happened to them during the full moon. But almost immediately, I realized I had more serious problems to solve. The expression on his face was too frank;men just didn't look at women that way unless those women were standing on a street corner in hot pants and a bra: in other words, he thought I was a sure thing.

’’No, thank you,’’ I said politely. I had a weary, wary feeling that this wasn't going to be the end of it, but I might as well try. I'd had plenty of experience at Merlotte's with pushy guys, but I always had backup at Merlotte's. Sam wouldn't tolerate the servers being pawed or insulted.

’’Sure, darlin'. You want to come see us,’’ he said insistently.

For the first time in my life, I wished Bubba were with me.

I was getting far too used to people who bothered me meeting a bad end. And maybe I was getting too accustomed to having some of my problems solved by others.

I thought of scaring the Were by reading his mind. It would have been an easy read - he was wide open, for a Were. But not only were his thoughts boring and unsurprising (lust, aggression), if his gang was charged with searching for the girlfriend of Bill the vampire, and they knew she was a barmaid and a telepath, and they found a telepath, well ...

’’No, I don't want to come sit with you,’’ I said definitely. ’’Leave me alone.’’ I slid off the stool so I wouldn't be trapped in one position.

’’You don't have no man here. We're real men, honey.’’ With his free hand, he cupped himself. Oh, charming. That really made me horny. ’’We'll keep you happy.’’

’’You couldn't make me happy if you were Santa Claus,’’ I said, stomping on his instep with all my strength. If he hadn't been wearing motorcycle boots, it might have been effective. As it was, I came close to breaking the heel of my shoe. I was mentally cursing my false nails because they made it hard to form a fist. I was going to hit him in the nose with my free hand;a blow to the nose really hurts badly. He'd have to let go.

He snarled at me, really snarled, when my heel hit his instep, but he didn't loosen his grip. His free hand seized my bare shoulder, and his fingers dug in.

I'd been trying to be quiet, hoping to resolve this without hubbub, but I was past that point right now. ’’Let go!’’ I yelled, as I made a heroic attempt to knee him in the balls. His thighs were heavy and his stance narrow, so I couldn't get a good shot. But I did make him flinch, and though his nails gouged my shoulder, he let go.

Part of this was due to the fact that Alcide had a hold on the scruff of his neck. And Mr. Hob stepped in, just as the other gang members surged around the bar to come to the aid of their buddy. The goblin who'd ushered us into the club doubled as the bouncer, it happened. Though he looked like a very small man on the outside, he wrapped his arms around the biker's waist and lifted him with ease. The biker began shrieking, and the smell of burned flesh began to circulate in the bar. The rail-thin bartender switched on a heavy-duty exhaust fan, which helped a lot, but we could hear the screams of the biker all the way down a narrow dark hall I hadn't noticed before. It must lead to the rear exit of the building. Then there was a big clang, a yell, and the same clang sounding again. Clearly, the back door of the bar had been opened and the offender tossed outside.

Alcide swung around to face the biker's friends, while I stood shaking with reaction behind him. I was bleeding from the imprints of the biker's fingernails in the flesh of my shoulder. I needed some Neosporin, which was what my grandmother had put on every injury when I'd objected to Campho-Phenique. But any little first-aid concerns were going to have to wait: It looked as though we faced another fight. I glanced around for a weapon, and saw the bartender had gotten a baseball bat out and laid it on the bar. She was keeping a wary eye on the situation. I seized the bat and went to stand beside Alcide. I swung the bat into position and waited for the next move. As my brother, Jason, had taught me - based on his many fights in bars, I'm afraid - I picked out one man in particular, pictured myself swinging the bat and bringing it to strike on his knee, which was more accessible to me than his head. That would bring him down, sure enough.

Then someone stepped into the no-man's-land between Alcide and me and the Weres. It was the small vampire, the one who'd been talking with the human whose mind had been such a source of unpleasant information.

Maybe five feet five with his shoes on, he was also slight of build. When he'd died, he'd been in his early twenties, I guessed. Clean-shaven and very pale, he had eyes the color of bitter chocolate, a jarring contrast with his red hair.

’’Miss, I apologize for this unpleasantness,’’ he said, his voice soft and his accent heavily Southern. I hadn't heard an accent that thick since my great-grandmother had died twenty years ago.

’’I'm sorry the peace of the bar has been disturbed,’’ I said, summoning up as much dignity as I could while gripping a baseball bat. I'd instinctively kicked off my heels so I could fight. I straightened up from my fighting stance, and inclined my head to him, acknowledging his authority.

’’You men should leave now,’’ the little man said, turning to the group of Weres, ’’after apologizing to this lady and her escort.’’

They milled around uneasily, but none wanted to be the first to back down. One of them who was apparently younger and dumber than the others, was a blond with a heavy beard and a bandanna around his head in a particularly stupid-looking style. He had the fire of battle in his eyes;his pride couldn't handle the whole situation. The biker telegraphed his move before he'd even begun it, and quick as lightning I held out the bat to the vampire, who snatched it in a move so fast, I couldn't even glimpse it. He used it to break the werewolf's leg.

The bar was absolutely silent as the screaming biker was carried out by his friends. The Weres chorused, ’’Sorry, sorry,’’ as they lifted the blond and removed him from of the bar.

Then the music started again, the small vampire returned the bat to the bartender, Alcide began checking me over for damage, and I began shaking.

’’I'm fine,’’ I said, pretty much just wanting everyone to look somewhere else.

’’But you're bleeding, my dear,’’ said the vampire.

It was true;my shoulder was trailing blood from the biker's fingernails. I knew etiquette. I leaned toward the vampire, offering him the blood.

’’Thank you,’’ he said instantly, and his tongue flicked out. I knew I would heal better and quicker with his saliva anyway, so I held quite still, though to tell the truth, it was like letting someone feel me up in public. Despite my discomfort, I smiled, though I know it can't have been a comfortable smile. Alcide held my hand, which was reassuring.

’’Sorry I didn't come out quicker,’’ he said.

’’Not something you can predict.’’ Lick, lick, lick. Oh, come on, I had to have stopped bleeding by now.

The vampire straightened, ran his tongue over his lips, and smiled at me. ’’That was quite an experience. May I introduce myself? I'm Russell Edgington.’’

Russell Edgington, the king of Mississippi;from the reaction of the bikers, I had suspected as much. ’’Pleased to meet you,’’ I said politely, wondering if I should curtsey. But he hadn't introduced himself by his title. ’’I'm Sookie Stackhouse, and this is my friend Alcide Herveaux.’’

’’I've known the Herveaux family for years,’’ the king of Mississippi said. ’’Good to see you, Alcide. How's that father of yours?’’ We might have been standing in the Sunday sunlight outside the First Presbyterian Church, rather than in a vampire bar at midnight.

’’Fine, thank you,’’ Alcide said, somewhat stiffly. ’’We're sorry there was trouble.’’

’’Not your fault,’’ the vampire said graciously. ’’Men sometimes have to leave their ladies alone, and ladies are not responsible for the bad manners of fools.’’ Edgington actually bowed to me. I had no idea what to do in response, but an even deeper head-inclination seemed safe. ’’You're like a rose blooming in an untended garden, my dear.’’

And you're full of bull hockey. ’’Thank you, Mr. Edgington,’’ I said, casting my eyes down lest he read the skepticism in them. Maybe I should have called him ’’Your Highness’’? ’’Alcide, I'm afraid I need to call it a night,’’ I said, trying to sound soft and gentle and shaken. It was a little too easy.

’’Of course, darlin',’’ he said instantly. ’’Let me get your wrap and purse.’’ He began making his way to our table immediately, God bless him.

’’Now, Miss Stackhouse, we want you to come back tomorrow night,’’ Russell Edgington said. His human friend stood behind Edgington, his hands resting on Edgington's shoulders. The small vampire reached up and patted one of those hands. ’’We don't want you scared off by the bad manners of one individual.’’

’’Thanks, I'll mention that to Alcide,’’ I said, not letting any enthusiasm leak into my voice. I hoped I appeared subservient to Alcide without being spineless. Spineless people didn't last long around vampires. Russell Edgington believed he was projecting the appearance of an old-style Southern gentleman, and if that was his thing, I might as well feed it.

Alcide returned, and his face was grim. ’’I'm afraid your wrap had an accident,’’ he said, and I realized he was furious. ’’Debbie, I guess.’’

My beautiful silk shawl had a big hole burned in it. I tried to keep my face impassive, but I didn't manage very well. Tears actually welled up in my eyes, I suppose because the incident with the biker had shaken me already.

Edgington, of course, was soaking this all in.

’’Better the shawl than me,’’ I said, attempting a shrug. I made the corners of my mouth turn up. At least my little purse appeared intact, though I hadn't had any more in it than a compact and a lipstick, and enough cash to pay for supper. To my intense embarrassment, Alcide shrugged out of his suit coat and held it for me to slide into. I began to protest, but the look on his face said he wasn't going to take no for an answer.

’’Good night, Miss Stackhouse,’’ the vampire said. ’’Herveaux, see you tomorrow night? Does your business keep you in Jackson?’’

’’Yes, it does,’’ Alcide said pleasantly. ’’It was good to talk to you, Russell.’’

***

The truck was outside the club when we emerged. The sidewalk seemed no less full of menace than it had when we arrived. I wondered how all these effects were achieved, but I was too depressed to question my escort.

’’You shouldn't have given me your coat, you must be freezing,’’ I said, after we'd driven a couple of blocks.

’’I have on more clothes than you,’’ Alcide said.

He wasn't shivering like I was, even without his coat. I huddled in it, enjoying the silk lining, and the warmth, and his smell.

’’I should never have left you by yourself with those jerks in the club.’’

’’Everyone has to go to the bathroom,’’ I said mildly.

’’I should have asked someone else to sit with you.’’

’’I'm a big girl. I don't need a perpetual guard. I handle little incidents like that all the time at the bar.’’ If I sounded weary of it, I was. You just don't get to see the best side of men when you're a barmaid;even at a place like Merlotte's, where the owner watches out for his servers and almost all the clientele is local.

’’Then you shouldn't be working there.’’ Alcide sounded very definite.

’’Okay, marry me and take me away from all this,’’ I said, deadpan, and got a frightened look in return. I grinned at him. ’’I have to make my living, Alcide. And mostly, I like my job.’’

He looked unconvinced and thoughtful. It was time to change the subject.

’’They've got Bill,’’ I said.

’’You know for sure.’’

’’Yeah.’’

’’Why? What does he know that Edgington would want to know so badly, badly enough to risk a war?’’

’’I can't tell you.’’

’’But you do know?’’

To tell him would be to say I trusted him. I was in the same kind of danger as Bill if it was known that I knew what he knew. And I'd break a lot faster.

’’Yes,’’ I said. ’’I know.’’

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