Club Dead Chapter Four


Since it seemed I was going out of town, there was laundry to be done, and stuff in the refrigerator that needed throwing away. I wasn't particularly sleepy after spending so long in bed the preceding day and night, so I got out my suitcase, opened it, and tossed some clothes into the washer out on the freezing back porch. I didn't want to think about my own character any longer. I had plenty of other items to mull over.

Eric had certainly adopted a shotgun approach to bending me to his will. He'd bombarded me with many reasons to do what he wanted: intimidation, threat, seduction, an appeal for Bill's return, an appeal for his (and Pam's, and Chow's) life and/or well-being - to say nothing of my own health. ’’I might have to torture you, but I want to have se* with you;I need Bill, but I'm furious with him because he deceived me;I have to keep peace with Russell Edgington, but I have to get Bill back from him;Bill is my serf, but he's secretly working more for my boss.’’

Darn vampires. You can see why I'm glad their glamour doesn't affect me. It's one of the few positives my mind-reading ability has yielded me. Unfortunately, humans with psychic glitches are very attractive to the undead.

I certainly could not have foreseen any of this when I'd become attached to Bill. Bill had become almost as necessary to me as water;and not entirely because of my deep feelings for him, or my physical pleasure in his lovemaking. Bill was the only insurance I had against being annexed by another vampire, against my will.

After I'd run a couple of loads through the washer and dryer and folded the clothes, I felt much more relaxed. I was almost packed, and I'd put in a couple of romances and a mystery in case I got a little time to read. I am self-educated from genre books.

I stretched and yawned. There was a certain peace of mind to be found in having a plan, and my uneasy sleep of the past day and night had not refreshed me as much as I thought. I might be able to fall asleep easily.

Even without help from the vampires, I could maybe find Bill, I thought, as I brushed my teeth and climbed into bed. But breaking him out of whatever prison he was in and making a successful escape, that was another question. And then I'd have to decide what to do about our relationship.

I woke up at about four in the morning with an odd feeling there was an idea just waiting to be acknowledged. I'd had a thought at some point during the night;it was the kind of idea that you just know has been bubbling in your brain, waiting to boil over.

Sure enough, after a minute the idea resurfaced. What if Bill had not been abducted, but had defected? What if he'd become so enamored or addicted to Lorena that he'd decided to leave the Louisiana vampires and join with the Mississippi group? Immediately, I had doubts that that had been Bill's plan;it would be a very elaborate one, with the leakage of informants to Eric concerning Bill's abduction, the confirmed presence of Lorena in Mississippi. Surely there'd be a less dramatic, and simpler, way to arrange his disappearance.

I wondered if Eric, Chow, and Pam were even now searching Bill's house, which lay across the cemetery from mine. They weren't going to find what they were looking for. Maybe they'd come back here. They wouldn't have to get Bill back at all, if they could find the computer files the queen wanted so badly. I fell to sleep out of sheer exhaustion, thinking I heard Chow laugh outside.

Even the knowledge of Bill's betrayal did not stop me from searching for him in my dreams. I must have rolled over three times, reaching out to see if he'd slid into bed with me, as he often did. And every time, the other side of the bed was empty and cold.

However, that was better than finding Eric there instead.

I was up and showering at first light, and I'd made a pot of coffee before the knock at the front door came.

’’Who is it?’’ I stood to one side of the door as I asked.

’’Eric sent me,’’ a gruff voice said.

I opened the door and looked up. And looked up some more.

He was huge. His eyes were green. His tousled hair was curly and thick and black as pitch. His brain buzzed and pulsed with energy;kind of a red effect. Werewolf.

’’Come on in. You want some coffee?’’

Whatever he'd expected, it wasn't what he was seeing. ’’You bet, chere. You got some eggs? Some sausage?’’

’’Sure.’’ I led him to the kitchen. ’’I'm Sookie Stackhouse,’’ I said, over my shoulder. I bent over to get the eggs out of the refrigerator. ’’You?’’

’’Alcide,’’ he said, pronouncing it Al-see, with the d barely sounded. ’’Alcide Herveaux.’’

He watched me steadily while I lifted out the skillet - my grandmother's old, blackened iron skillet. She'd gotten it when she got married, and fired it, like any woman worth her salt would do. Now it was perfectly seasoned. I turned the gas eye on at the stove. I cooked the sausage first (for the grease), plopped it on a paper towel on a plate and stuck it in the oven to keep warm. After asking Alcide how he wanted the eggs, I scrambled them and cooked them quickly, sliding them onto the warm plate. He opened the right drawer for the silverware on the first try, and poured himself some juice and coffee after I silently pointed out which cabinet contained the cups. He refilled my mug while he was at it.

He ate neatly. And he ate everything.

I plunged my hands into the hot, soapy water to clean the few dishes. I washed the skillet last, dried it, and rubbed some Crisco into the blackness, taking occasional glances at my guest. The kitchen smelled comfortably of breakfast and soapy water. It was a peculiarly peaceful moment.

This was anything but what I had expected when Eric had told me someone who owed him a favor would be my entree into the Mississippi vampire milieu. As I looked out the kitchen window at the cold landscape, I realized that this was how I had envisioned my future;on the few occasions I'd let myself imagine a man sharing my house.

This was the way life was supposed to be, for normal people. It was morning, time to get up and work, time for a woman to cook breakfast for a man, if he had to go out and earn. This big rough man was eating real food. He almost certainly had a pickup truck sitting out in front of my house.

Of course, he was a werewolf. But a Were could live a more close-to-human life than a vampire.

On the other hand, what I didn't know about Weres could fill a book.

He finished, put his plate in the water in the sink, and washed and dried it himself while I wiped the table. It was as smooth as if we'd choreographed it. He disappeared into the bathroom for a minute while I ran over my mental list of things that had to be done before I left. I needed to talk to Sam, that was the main thing. I'd called my brother the night before to tell him I'd be gone for a few days. Liz had been at Jason's, so he hadn't really thought a lot about my departure. He'd agreed to pick up my mail and my papers for me.

Alcide came to sit opposite me at the table. I was trying to think about how we should talk about our joint task;I was trying to anticipate any sore paws I might tread on. Maybe he was worrying about the same things. I can't read the minds of shape-shifters or werewolves with any consistency;they're supernatural creatures. I can reliably interpret moods, and pick up on the occasional clear idea. So the humans-with-a-difference are much less opaque to me than the vampires. Though I understand there's a contingent of shape-shifters and Weres who wants to change things, the fact of their existence still remains a secret. Until they see how publicity works out for the vampires, the supernaturals of the two-natured variety are ferocious about their privacy.

Werewolves are the tough guys of the shape-shifting world. They're shape-shifters by definition, but they're the only ones who have their own separate society, and they will not allow anyone else to be called ’’Were’’ in their hearing. Alcide Herveaux looked plenty tough. He was big as a boulder, with biceps that I could do pull-ups on. He would have to shave a second time if he planned on going out in the evening. He would fit right in on a construction site or a wharf.

He was a proper man.

’’How are they forcing you to do this?’’ I asked.

’’They have a marker of my dad's,’’ he said. He put his massive hands on the table and leaned into them. ’’They own a casino in Shreveport, you know?’’

’’Sure.’’ It was a popular weekend excursion for people in this area, to go over to Shreveport or up to Tunica (in Mississippi, right below Memphis) and rent a room for a couple of nights, play the slots, see a show or two, eat lots of buffet food.

’’My dad got in too deep. He owns a surveying company - I work for him - but he likes to gamble.’’ The green eyes smoldered with rage. ’’He got in too deep in the casino in Louisiana, so your vamps own his marker, his debt. If they call it in, our company will go under.’’ Werewolves seemed to respect vampires about as much as vampires respect them. ’’So, to get the marker back, I have to help you hang around with the vamps in Jackson.’’ He leaned back in the chair, looking me in the eyes. ’’That's not a hard thing, taking a pretty woman to Jackson and out barhopping. Now that I've met you, I'm glad to do it, to get my father out from under the debt. But why the hell you want to do that? You look like a real woman, not one of those sick bitches who get off on hanging around the vamps.’’

This was a refreshingly direct conversation, after my conference with the vampires. ’’I only hang around with one vampire, by choice,’’ I said bitterly. ’’Bill, my - well, I don't know if he's even my boyfriend anymore. It seems the vampires of Jackson may have kidnapped him. Someone tried to grab me last night.’’ I thought it only fair to let him know. ’’Since the kidnapper didn't seem to know my name, just that I worked at Merlotte's, I'll probably be safe in Jackson if no one figures out I'm the woman who goes with Bill. I have to tell you, the man who tried to grab me was a werewolf. And he had a Hinds County car plate.’’ Jackson was in Hinds County.

’’Wearing a gang vest?’’ Alcide asked. I nodded. Alcide looked thoughtful, which was a good thing. This was not a situation I took lightly, and it was a good sign that he didn't, either. ’’There's a small gang in Jackson made up of Weres. Some of the bigger shifters hang around the edges of this gang - the panther, the bear. They hire themselves out to the vamps on a pretty regular basis.’’

’’There's one less of them now,’’ I said.

After a moment's digestion of that information, my new companion gave me a long, challenging stare. ’’So, what good is a little human gal going to do against the vampires of Jackson? You a martial artist? You a great shot? You been in the Army?’’

I had to smile. ’’No. You never heard my name?’’

’’You're famous?’’

’’Guess not.’’ I was pleased that he didn't have any preconceptions about me. ’’I think I'll just let you find out about me.’’

’’Long as you're not gonna turn into a snake.’’ He stood up. ’’You're not a guy, are you?’’ That late-breaking thought made his eyes widen.

’’No, Alcide. I'm a woman.’’ I tried to say that matter-of-factly, but it was pretty hard.

’’I was willing to put money on that.’’ He grinned at me. ’’If you're not some kind of superwoman, what are you going to do when you know where your man is?’’

’’I'm going to call Eric, the ...’’ Suddenly I realized that telling vampire secrets is a bad idea. ’’Eric is Bill's boss. He'll decide what to do after that.’’

Alcide looked skeptical. ’’I don't trust Eric. I don't trust any of 'em. He'll probably double-cross you.’’

’’How?’’

’’He might use your man as leverage. He might demand restitution, since they have one of his men. He might use your man's abduction as an excuse to go to war, in which case your man will be executed tout de suite.’’

I had not thought that far. ’’Bill knows stuff,’’ I said. ’’Important stuff.’’

’’Good. That may keep him alive.’’ Then he saw my face, and chagrin ran across his own. ’’Hey, Sookie, I'm sorry. I don't think before I talk sometimes. We'll get him back, though it makes me sick to think of a woman like you with one of those bloodsuckers.’’

This was painful, but oddly refreshing.

’’Thanks, I guess,’’ I said, attempting a smile. ’’What about you? Do you have a plan about how to introduce me to the vampires?’’

’’Yeah. There's a nightclub in Jackson, close to the capitol. It's for Supes and their dates only. No tourists. The vamps can't make it pay on their own, and it's a convenient meeting place for them, so they let us low-lifes share the fun.’’ He grinned. His teeth were perfect - white and sharp. ’’It won't be suspicious if I go there. I always drop in when I'm in Jackson. You'll have to go as my date.’’ He looked embarrassed. ’’Uh, I better tell you, you seem like you're a jeans kind of person like me - but this club, they like you to dress kind of party style.’’ He feared I had no fancy dresses in my closet;I could read that clearly. And he didn't want me to be humiliated by appearing in the wrong clothes. What a man.

’’Your girlfriend won't be crazy about this,’’ I said, angling for information out of sheer curiosity.

’’She lives in Jackson, as a matter of fact. But we broke up a couple of months ago,’’ he said. ’’She took up with another shape-shifter. Guy turns into a damn owl.’’

Was she nuts? Of course, there'd be more to the story. And of course, it fell into the category of ’’none of your business.’’

So without comment, I went to my room to pack my two party dresses and their accessories in a hanging bag. Both were purchases from Tara's Togs, managed (and now owned) by my friend Tara Thornton. Tara was real good about calling me when things went on clearance. Bill actually owned the building that housed Tara's Togs, and had told all the businesses housed in there to run a tab for me that he would pay, but I had resisted the temptation. Well, except for replacing clothes that Bill himself had ripped in our more thrilling moments.

I was very proud of both these dresses, since I'd never had anything like them before, and I zipped the bag shut with a smile.

Alcide stuck his head in the bedroom to ask if I was ready. He looked at the cream-and-yellow bed and curtains, and nodded approvingly. ’’I got to call my boss,’’ I said. ’’Then we'll be good to go.’’ I perched on the side of the bed and picked up the receiver.

Alcide propped himself against the wall by my closet door while I dialed Sam's personal number. His voice was sleepy when he answered, and I apologized for calling so early. ’’What's happening, Sookie?’’ he asked groggily.

’’I have to go away for a few days,’’ I said. ’’I'm sorry for not giving you more notice, but I called Sue Jennings last night to see if she'd work for me. She said yes, so I gave her my hours.’’

’’Where are you going?’’ he asked.

’’I have to go to Mississippi,’’ I said. ’’Jackson.’’

’’You got someone lined up to pick up your mail?’’

’’My brother. Thanks for asking.’’

’’Plants to water?’’

’’None that won't live till I get back.’’

’’Okay. Are you going by yourself?’’

’’No,’’ I said hesitantly.

’’With Bill?’’

’’No, he, uh, he hasn't shown up.’’

’’Are you in trouble?’’

’’I'm just fine,’’ I lied.

’’Tell him a man's going with you,’’ Alcide rumbled, and I gave him an exasperated look. He was leaning against the wall, and he took up an awful lot of it.

’’Someone's there?’’ Sam's nothing if not quick on the uptake.

’’Yes, Alcide Herveaux,’’ I said, figuring it was a smart thing to tell someone who cared about me that I was leaving the area with this guy. First impressions can be absolutely false, and Alcide needed to be aware there was someone who would hold him accountable.

’’Aha,’’ Sam said. The name did not seem to be unfamiliar to him. ’’Let me talk to him.’’

’’Why?’’ I can take a lot of paternalism, but I was about up to my ears.

’’Hand over the damn phone.’’ Sam almost never curses, so I made a face to show what I thought of his demand and gave the phone to Alcide. I stomped out to the living room and looked through the window. Yep. A Dodge Ram, extended cab. I was willing to bet it had everything on it that could be put on.

I'd rolled my suitcase out by its handle, and I'd slung my carrying bag over a chair by the door, so I just had to pull on my heavy jacket. I was glad Alcide had warned me about the dress-up rule for the bar, since it never would have occurred to me to pack anything fancy. Stupid vampires. Stupid dress code.

I was Sullen, with a capital S.

I wandered back down the hall, mentally reviewing the contents of my suitcase, while the two shape-shifters had (presumably) a ’’man talk.’’ I glanced through the doorway of my bedroom to see that Alcide, with the phone to his ear, was perched on the side of my bed where I'd been sitting. He looked oddly at home there.

I paced restlessly back into the living room and stared out the window some more. Maybe the two were having shape-shifting talk. Though to Alcide, Sam (who generally shifted into a collie, though he was not limited to that form) would rank as a lightweight, at least they were from the same branch of the tree. Sam, on the other hand, would be a little leery of Alcide;werewolves had a bad rep.

Alcide strode down the hall, safety shoes clomping on the hardwood floor. ’’I promised him I'd take care of you,’’ he said. ’’Now, we'll just hope that works out.’’ He wasn't smiling.

I had been tuning up to be aggravated, but his last sentence was so realistic that the hot air went out of me as if I'd been punctured. In the complex relationship between vampire, Were, and human, there was a lot of leeway for something to go wrong somewhere. After all, my plan was thin, and the vampires'hold over Alcide was tenuous. Bill might not have been taken unwillingly;he might be happy being held captive by a king, as long as the vampire Lorena was on site. He might be enraged that I had come to find him.

He might be dead.

I locked the door behind me and followed Alcide as he stowed my things in the extended cab of the Ram.

The outside of the big truck gleamed, but inside, it was the littered vehicle of a man who spent his working life on the road;a hard hat, invoices, estimates, business cards, boots, a first-aid kit. At least there wasn't any food trash. As we bumped down my eroded driveway, I picked up a rubber-banded sheaf of brochures whose cover read, ’’Herveaux and Son, AAA Accurate Surveys.’’ I eased out the top one and studied it carefully as Alcide drove the short distance to interstate 20 to go east to Monroe, Vicksburg, and then to Jackson.

I discovered that the Herveauxes, father and son, owned a bi-state surveying company, with offices in Jackson, Monroe, Shreveport, and Baton Rouge. The home office, as Alcide had told me, was in Shreveport. There was a photo inside of the two men, and the older Herveaux was just as impressive (in a senior way) as his son.

’’Is your dad a werewolf, too?’’ I asked, after I'd digested the information and realized that the Herveaux family was at least prosperous, and possibly rich. They'd worked hard for it, though;and they'd keep working hard, unless the older Mr. Herveaux could control his gambling.

’’Both my parents,’’ Alcide said, after a pause.

’’Oh, sorry.’’ I wasn't sure what I was apologizing for, but it was safer than not.

’’That's the only way to produce a Were child,’’ he said, after a moment. I couldn't tell if he was explaining to be polite, or because he really thought I should know.

’’So how come America's not full of werewolves and shapeshifters?’’ I asked, after I'd considered his statement.

’’Like must marry like to produce another, which is not always doable. And each union only produces one child with the trait. Infant mortality is high.’’

’’So, if you marry another werewolf, one of your kids will be a werebaby?’’

’’The condition will manifest itself at the onset of, ah, puberty.’’

’’Oh, that's awful. Being a teenager is tough enough.’’

He smiled, not at me, but at the road. ’’Yeah, it does complicate things.’’

’’So, your ex-girlfriend ... she a shifter?’’

’’Yeah. I don't normally date shifters, but I guess I thought with her it would be different. Weres and shifters are strongly attracted to each other. Animal magnetism, I guess,’’ Alcide said, as an attempt at humor.

My boss, also a shifter, had been glad to make friends with other shifters in the area. He had been hanging out with a maenad (’’dating’’ would be too sweet a word for their relationship), but she'd moved on. Now, Sam was hoping to find another compatible shifter. He felt more comfortable with a strange human, like me, or another shifter, than he did with regular women. When he'd told me that, he'd meant it as a compliment, or maybe just as a simple statement;but it had hurt me a little, though my abnormality had been borne in on me since I was very young.

Telepathy doesn't wait for puberty.

’’How come?’’ I asked baldly. ’’How come you thought it would be different?’’

’’She told me she was sterile. I found out she was on birth control pills. Big difference. I'm not passing this along. Even a shifter and a werewolf may have a child who has to change at the full moon, though only kids of a pure couple - both Weres or both shifters - can change at will,’’

Food for thought, there. ’’So you normally date regular old girls. But doesn't it make it hard to date? Keeping secret such a big, ah, factor, in your life?’’

’’Yeah,’’ he admitted. ’’Dating regular girls can be a pain. But I have to date someone.’’ There was an edge of desperation to his rumbly voice.

I gave that a long moment's contemplation, and then I closed my eyes and counted to ten. I was missing Bill in a most elemental and unexpected way. My first clue had been the tug-below-the-waist I'd felt when I'd watched my tape of The Last of the Mohicans the week before and I'd fixated on Daniel Day-Lewis bounding through the forest. If I could appear from behind a tree before he saw Madeleine Stowe ...

I was going to have to watch my step.

’’So, if you bite someone, they won't turn into a werewolf?’’ I decided to change the direction of my thoughts. Then I remembered the last time Bill had bitten me, and felt a rush of heat through ... oh, hell.

’’That's when you get your wolf-man. Like the ones in the movies. They die pretty quick, poor people. And that's not passed along, if they, ah, engender children in their human form. If it's when they're in their altered form, the baby is miscarried.’’

’’How interesting.’’ I could not think of one other thing to say.

’’But there's that element of the supernatural, too, just like with vampires,’’ Alcide said, still not looking in my direction. ’’The tie-in of genetics and the supernatural element, that's what no one seems to understand. We just can't tell the world we exist, like the vampires did. We'd be locked up in zoos, sterilized, ghettoized - because we're sometimes animals. Going public just seems to make the vampires glamorous and rich.’’ He sounded more than a little bitter.

’’So how come you're telling me all this, right off the bat? If it's such a big secret?’’ He had given me more information in ten minutes than I'd had from Bill in months.

’’If I'm going to be spending a few days with you, it will make my life a lot easier if you know. I figure you have your own problems, and it seems the vampires have some power over you, too. I don't think you'll tell. And if the worst happens, and I've been utterly wrong about you, I'll ask Eric to pay you a visit and wipe out your memory.’’ He shook his head in baffled irritation. ’’I don't know why, really. I just feel like I know you.’’

I couldn't think of a response to that, but I had to speak. Silence would lend too much importance to his last sentence. ’’I'm sorry the vampires have a hold on your dad. But I have to find Bill. If this is the only way I can do it, this is what I have to do. I at least owe him that much, even if ...’’ My voice trailed off. I didn't want to finish the sentence. All the possible endings were too sad, too final.

He shrugged, a large movement on Alcide Herveaux. ’’Taking a pretty girl to a bar isn't that big a deal,’’ he reassured me again, trying to bolster my spirits.

In his position, I might not have been so generous. ’’Is your dad a constant gambler?’’

’’Only since my mother died,’’ Alcide said, after a long pause.

’’I'm sorry.’’ I kept my eyes off his face in case he needed some privacy. ’’I don't have either of my parents,’’ I offered.

’’They been gone long?’’

’’Since I was seven.’’

’’Who raised you?’’

’’My grandmother raised me and my brother.’’

’’She still living?’’

’’No. She died this year. She was murdered.’’

’’Tough.’’ He was matter-of-fact.

’’Yeah.’’ I had one more question. ’’Did both your parents tell you about yourself?’’

’’No. My grandfather told me when I was about thirteen. He'd noticed the signs. I just don't know how orphaned Weres get through it without guidance.’’

’’That would be really rough.’’

’’We try to keep aware of all the Weres breeding in the area, so no one will go unwarned.’’

Even a secondhand warning would be better than no warning at all. But still, such a session would be a major trauma in anyone's life.

We stopped in Vicksburg to get gas. I offered to pay for filling the tank, but Alcide told me firmly this could go on his books as a business expense, since he did in fact need to see some customers. He waved off my offer to pump the gas, too. He did accept the cup of coffee I bought him, with as many thanks as if it had been a new suit. It was a cold, bright day, and I took a brisk walk around the travel center to stretch my legs before climbing back into the cab of the truck.

Seeing the signs for the battlefield reminded me of one of the most taxing days I'd had as an adult. I found myself telling Alcide about my grandmother's favorite club, the Descendants of the Glorious Dead, and about their field trip to the battlefield two years before. I'd driven one car, Maxine Fortenberry (grandmother of one of my brother Jason's good buddies) another, and we'd toured at length. Each of the Descendants had brought a favorite text covering the siege, and an early stop at the visitors'center had gotten the Descendants all tanked up with maps and memorabilia. Despite the failure of Velda Cannon's Depends, we'd had a great time. We'd read every monument, we'd had a picnic lunch by the restored USS Cairo, and we'd gone home laden with souvenir booty and exhausted. We'd even gone into the Isle of Capri Casino for an hour of amazed staring, and some tentative slot machine feeding. It had been a very happy day for my grandmother, almost as happy a time as the evening she'd inveigled Bill into speaking at the Descendants meeting.

’’Why did she want him to do that?’’ Alcide asked. He was smiling at my description of our supper stop at a Cracker Barrel.

’’Bill's a vet,’’ I said. ’’An Army vet, not an animal-doctor vet.’’

’’So?’’ After a beat, he said, ’’You mean your boyfriend is a veteran of the Civil War!’’

’’Yeah. He was human then. He wasn't brought over until after the war. He had a wife and children.’’ I could hardly keep calling him my boyfriend, since he'd been on the verge of leaving me for someone else.

’’Who made him a vampire?’’ Alcide asked. We were in Jackson now, and he was making his way downtown to the apartment his company maintained.

’’I don't know,’’ I said. ’’He doesn't talk about it.’’

’’That seems a little strange to me.’’

Actually, it seemed a little strange to me, too;but I figured it was something really personal, and when Bill wanted to tell me about it, he would. The relationship was very strong, I knew, between the older vampire and the one he'd ’’brought over.’’

’’I guess he really isn't my boyfriend anymore,’’ I admitted. Though ’’boyfriend’’ seemed a pretty pale term for what Bill had been to me.

’’Oh, yeah?’’

I flushed. I shouldn't have said anything. ’’But I still have to find him.’’

We were silent for a while after that. The last city I'd visited had been Dallas, and it was easy to see that Jackson was nowhere close to that size. (That was a big plus, as far as I was concerned.) Alcide pointed out the golden figure on the dome of the new capitol, and I admired it appropriately. I thought it was an eagle, but I wasn't sure, and I was a little embarrassed to ask. Did I need glasses? The building we were going to was close to the corner of High and State streets. It was not a new building;the brick had started out a golden tan, and now it was a grimy light brown.

’’The apartments here are larger than they are in new buildings,’’ Alcide said. ’’There's a small guest bedroom. Everything should be all ready for us. We use the apartment cleaning service.’’

I nodded silently. I could not remember if I'd ever been in an apartment building before. Then I realized I had, of course. There was a two-story U-shaped apartment building in Bon Temps. I had surely visited someone there;in the past seven years, almost every single person in Bon Temps had rented a place in Kingfisher Apartments at some point in his or her dating career.

Alcide's apartment, he told me, was on the top floor, the fifth. You drove in from the street down a ramp to park. There was a guard at the garage entrance, standing in a little booth. Alcide showed him a plastic pass. The heavyset guard, who had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, barely glanced at the card Alcide held out before he pressed a button to raise the barrier. I wasn't too impressed with the security. I felt like I could whip that guy, myself. My brother, Jason, could pound him into the pavement.

We scrambled out of the truck and retrieved our bags from the rudimentary backseat. My hanging bag had fared pretty well. Without asking me, Alcide took my small suitcase. He led the way to a central block in the parking area, and I saw a gleaming elevator door. He punched the button, and it opened immediately. The elevator creaked its way up after Alcide punched the button marked with a 5. At least the elevator was very clean, and when the door swished open, so were the carpet and the hall beyond.

’’They went condo, so we bought the place,’’ Alcide said, as if it was no big deal. Yes, he and his dad had made some money. There were four apartments per floor, Alcide told me.

’’Who are your neighbors?’’

’’Two state senators own 501, and I'm sure they've gone home for the holiday season,’’ he said. ’’Mrs. Charles Osburgh the Third lives in 502, with her nurse. Mrs. Osburgh was a grand old lady until the past year. I don't think she can walk anymore. Five-oh-three is empty right now, unless the realtor sold it this past two weeks.’’ He unlocked the door to number 504, pushed it open, and gestured for me to enter ahead of him. I entered the silent warmth of the hall, which opened on my left into a kitchen enclosed by counters, not walls, so the eye was unobstructed in sweeping the living room/dining area. There was a door immediately on my right, which probably opened onto a coat closet, and another a little farther down, which led into a small bedroom with a neatly made-up double bed. A door past that revealed a small bathroom with white-and-blue tiles and towels hung just so on the racks.

Across the living room, to my left, was a door that led into a larger bedroom. I peered inside briefly, not wanting to seem overly interested in Alcide's personal space. The bed in that room was a king. I wondered if Alcide and his dad did a lot of entertaining when they visited Jackson.

’’The master bedroom has its own bath,’’ Alcide explained. ’’I'd be glad to let you have the bigger room, but the phone's in there, and I'm expecting some business calls.’’

’’The smaller bedroom is just fine,’’ I said. I peeked around a little more after my bags were stowed in my room.

The apartment was a symphony in beige. Beige carpet, beige furniture. Sort of oriental bamboo-y patterned wallpaper with a beige background. It was very quiet and very clean.

As I hung my dresses in the closet, I wondered how many nights I'd have to go to the club. More than two, and I'd have to do some shopping. But that was impossible, at the least imprudent, on my budget. A familiar worry settled hard on my shoulders.

My grandmother hadn't had much to leave me, God bless her, especially after her funeral expenses. The house had been a wonderful and unexpected gift.

The money she'd used to raise Jason and me, money that had come from an oil well that had petered out, was long gone. The fee I'd gotten paid for moonlighting for the Dallas vampires had mostly gone to buy the two dresses, pay my property taxes, and have a tree cut down because the previous winter's ice storm had loosened its roots and it had begun to lean too close to the house. A big branch had already fallen, damaging the tin roof a bit. Luckily, Jason and Hoyt Fortenberry had known enough about roofing to repair that for me.

I recalled the roofing truck outside of Belle Rive.

I sat on the bed abruptly. Where had that come from? Was I petty enough to be angry that my boyfriend had been thinking of a dozen different ways to be sure his descendants (the unfriendly and sometimes snooty Bellefleurs) prospered, while I, the love of his afterlife, worried herself to tears about her finances?

You bet, I was petty enough.

I should be ashamed of myself.

But later. My mind was not through toting up grievances.

As long as I was considering money (lack of), I wondered if it had even occurred to Eric when he dispatched me on this mission that since I'd be missing work, I wouldn't get paid. Since I wouldn't get paid, I couldn't pay the electric company, or the cable, or the phone, or my car insurance ... though I had a moral obligation to find Bill, no matter what had happened to our relationship, right?

I flopped back on the bed and told myself that this would all work out. I knew, in the back of my mind, that all I had to do was sit down with Bill - assuming I ever got him back - and explain my situation to him, and he'd ... he'd do something.

But I couldn't just take money from Bill. Of course, if we were married, it would be okay;husband and wife held all in common. But we couldn't get married. It was illegal.

And he hadn't asked me.

’’Sookie?’’ a voice said from the doorway.

I blinked and sat up. Alcide was lounging against the jamb, his arms crossed over his chest.

’’You okay?’’

I nodded uncertainly.

’’You missing him?’’

I was too ashamed to mention my money troubles, and they weren't more important than Bill, of course. To simplify things, I nodded.

He sat beside me and put his arm around me. He was so warm. He smelled like Tide detergent, and Irish Spring soap, and man. I closed my eyes and counted to ten again.

’’You miss him,’’ he said, confirming. He reached across his body to take my left hand, and his right arm tightened around me.

You don't know how I miss him, I thought.

Apparently, once you got used to regular and spectacular se*, your body had a mind of its own (so to speak) when it was deprived of that recreation;to say nothing of missing the hugging and cuddling part. My body was begging me to knock Alcide Herveaux back onto the bed so it could have its way with him. Right now.

’’I do miss him, no matter what problems we have,’’ I said, and my voice came out tiny and shaky. I wouldn't open my eyes, because if I did, I might see on his face a tiny impulse, some little inclination, and that would be all it would take.

’’What time do you think we should go to the club?’’ I asked, firmly steering in another direction.

He was so warm.

Other direction! ’’Would you like me to cook supper before we go?’’ Least I could do. I shot up off the bed like a bottle rocket;turned to face him with the most natural smile I could muster. Get out of close proximity, or jump his bones.

’’Oh, let's go to the Mayflower Cafe. It looks like an old diner - it is an old diner - but you'll enjoy it. Everyone goes there - senators and carpenters, all kinds of people. They just serve beer, that okay?’’ I shrugged and nodded. That was fine with me. ’’I don't drink much,’’ I told him.

’’Me neither,’’ he said. ’’Maybe because, every so often, my dad tends to drink too much. Then he makes bad decisions.’’ Alcide seemed to regret having told me this. ’’After the Mayflower, we'll go to the club,’’ Alcide said, much more briskly. ’’It gets dark real early these days, but the vamps don't show up till they've had some blood, picked up their dates, done some business. We should get there about ten. So we'll go out to eat about eight, if that suits you?’’

’’Sure, that'll be great.’’ I was at a loss. It was only two in the afternoon. His apartment didn't need cleaning. There was no reason to cook. If I wanted to read, I had romance novels in my suitcase. But in my present condition, it was hardly likely to help my state of ... mind.

’’Listen, would it be okay if I ran out to visit some clients?’’ he asked.

’’Oh, that would be fine.’’ I thought it would be all to the good if he wasn't in my immediate vicinity. ’’You go do whatever you need to do. I have books to read, and there's the television.’’ Maybe I could begin the mystery novel.

’’If you want to ... I don't know ... my sister, Janice, owns a beauty shop about four blocks away, in one of the older neighborhoods. She married a local guy. You want to, you could walk over and get the works.’’

’’Oh, I ... well, that ...’’ I didn't have the sophistication to think of a smooth and plausible refusal, when the glaring roadblock to such a treat was my lack of money.

Suddenly, comprehension crossed his face. ’’If you stopped by, it would give Janice the opportunity to look you over. After all, you're supposed to be my girlfriend, and she hated Debbie. She'd really enjoy a visit.’’

’’You're being awful nice,’’ I said, trying not to sound as confused and touched as I felt. ’’That's not what I expected.’’

’’You're not what I expected, either,’’ he said, and left his sister's shop number by the phone before heading out on his business.

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