Club Dead Chapter Fourteen


’’We got her,’’ said a voice I didn't recognize. I had been yanked to my feet, and I was swaying between two men who were holding me up.

’’What about the vamp?’’

’’I shot him twice, but he's in the woods. He got away.’’

’’That's bad news. Work fast.’’

I could sense that there were many men in the room with me, and I opened my eyes. They'd turned on the lights. They were in my house. They were in my home. As much as the blow to my jaw, that made me sick. Somehow, I'd assumed my visitors would be Sam or Arlene or Jason.

There were five strangers in my living room, if I was thinking clearly enough to count. But before I could form another idea, one of the men - and now I realized he was wearing a familiar leather vest - punched me in the stomach.

I didn't have enough breath to scream.

The two men holding me pulled me back upright.

’’Where is he?’’

’’Who?’’ I really couldn't remember, at this point, what particular missing person he wanted me to locate. But, of course, he hit me again. I had a dreadful minute when I needed to gag but hadn't the air to do it. I was strangling and suffocating.

Finally, I drew in a long breath. It was noisy and painful and just heaven.

My Were interrogator, who had light hair shaved close to his scalp and a nasty little goatee, slapped me, hard, open-handed. My head rocked on my neck like a car on faulty shock absorbers. ’’Where's the vampire, bitch?’’ the Were said. He drew his fist back.

I couldn't take any more of this. I decided to speed things up. I pulled my legs up, and while the two at my sides kept desperate grips on my arms, I kicked the Were in front of me with both feet. If I hadn't had on bedroom slippers, it probably would have been more effective. I'm never wearing safety boots when I need them. But Nasty Goatee did stagger back, and then he came for me with my death in his eyes.

By then my legs had swung back to the floor, but I made them keep going backward, and threw my two captors completely off balance. They staggered, tried to recover, but their frantic footing was in vain. Down we all went, the Were along with us.

This might not be better, but it was an improvement over waiting to get hit.

I'd landed on my face, since my arms and hands weren't under my control. One guy did let go as we fell, and when I got that hand underneath me for leverage, I yanked away from the other man.

I'd gotten halfway to my feet when the Were, quicker than the humans, managed to grab my hair. He dealt a slap to my face while he wound my hair around his hand for a better grip. The other hired hands closed in, either to help the two on the floor to rise, or just to see me get battered.

A real fight is over in a few minutes because people wear out quick. It had been a very long day, and the fact was, I was ready to give up against these overwhelming odds. But I had a little pride and I went for the guy closest to me, a potbellied pig of a man with greasy dark hair. I dug my fingers into his face, trying to cause any damage I could, while I could.

The Were kneed me in the belly and I screamed, and the pig-man began to yell for the others to get me off of him, and the front door crashed open as Eric came in, blood covering his chest and right leg. Bill was right behind him.

They lost all control.

I saw firsthand what a vampire could do.

After a second, I realized my help would not be needed, and I decided the Goddess of Really Tough Gals would have to excuse me while I closed my eyes.

In two minutes, all the men in my living room were dead.

***

’’Sookie? Sookie?’’ Eric's voice was hoarse. ’’Do we need to take her to the hospital?’’ he asked Bill.

I felt cool fingers on my wrist, touching my neck. I almost explained that for once I was conscious, but it was just too hard. The floor seemed like a good place to be.

’’Her pulse is strong,’’ Bill reported. ’’I'm going to turn her over.’’

’’She's alive?’’

’’Yes.’’

Eric's voice, suddenly closer, said, ’’Is the blood hers?’’

’’Yes, some of it.’’

He drew a deep, shuddering breath. ’’Hers is different.’’

’’Yes,’’ Bill said coldly. ’’But surely you are full by now.’’

’’It's been a long time since I had real blood in quantity,’’ Eric said, just exactly like my brother, Jason, would have remarked it had been a long time since he'd had blackberry cobbler.

Bill slid his hands underneath me. ’’For me, too. We'll need to put them all out in the yard,’’ he said casually, ’’and clean up Sookie's house.’’

’’Of course.’’

Bill began rolling me over, and I began crying. I couldn't help it. As strong as I wanted to be, all I could think of was my body. If you've ever been really beaten, you'll know what I mean. When you've been really beaten, you realize that you are just an envelope of skin, an easily penetrated envelope that holds together a lot of fluids and some rigid structures, which in their turn can simply be broken and invaded. I thought I'd been badly hurt in Dallas a few weeks before, but this felt worse. I knew that didn't mean it was worse;there was a lot of soft tissue damage. In Dallas, my cheekbone had been fractured and my knee twisted. I thought maybe the knee had been compromised all over again, and I thought maybe one of the slaps had rebroken the cheekbone. I opened my eyes, blinked, and opened them again. My vision cleared after a few seconds.

’’Can you speak?’’ Eric said, after a long, long moment.

I tried, but my mouth was so dry, nothing came out.

’’She needs a drink.’’ Bill went to the kitchen, having to take a less than direct route, since there were a lot of obstructions in the way.

Eric's hands stroked back my hair. He'd been shot, I remembered, and I wanted to ask him how he felt, but I couldn't. He was sitting on his butt beside me, leaning on the cushions of my couch. There was blood on his face, and he looked pinker than I'd ever seen him, ruddy with health. When Bill returned with my water - he'd even added a straw - I looked at his face. Bill looked almost sunburned.

Bill held me up carefully and put the straw to my lips. I drank, and it was the best thing I'd ever tasted.

’’You killed them all,’’ I said in a creaky voice.

Eric nodded.

I thought of the circle of brutish faces that had surrounded me. I thought of the Were slapping me in the face.

’’Good,’’ I said. Eric looked a little amused, just for a second. Bill didn't look anything in particular.

’’How many?’’

Eric looked around vaguely, and Bill pointed a finger silently as he toted them up.

’’Seven?’’ Bill said doubtfully. ’’Two in the yard and five in the house?’’

’’I was thinking eight,’’ Eric murmured.

’’Why did they come after you like that?’’

’’Jerry Falcon.’’

’’Oh,’’ said Bill, a different note in his voice. ’’Oh, yes. I've encountered him. In the torture room. He is first on my list.’’

’’Well, you can cross him off,’’ Eric said. ’’Alcide and Sookie disposed of his body in the woods yesterday.’’

’’Did this Alcide kill him?’’ Bill looked down at me, reconsidered. ’’Or Sookie?’’

’’He says no. They found the corpse in the closet of Alcide's apartment, and they hatched a plan to hide his remains.’’ Eric sounded like that had been kind of cute of us.

’’My Sookie hid a corpse?’’

’’I don't think you can be too sure about that possessive pronoun.’’

’’Where did you learn that term, Northman?’’

’’I took 'English as a Second Language'at a community college in the seventies.’’

Bill said, ’’She is mine.’’

I wondered if my hands would move. They would. I raised both of them, making an unmistakable one-fingered gesture.

Eric laughed, and Bill said, ’’Sookie!’’ in shocked admonishment.

’’I think that Sookie is telling us she belongs to herself,’’ Eric said softly. ’’In the meantime, to finish our conversation, whoever stuffed the corpse in the closet meant to saddle Alcide with the blame, since Jerry Falcon had made a blatant pass at Sookie in the bar the night before, and Alcide had taken umbrage.’’

’’So all this plot might be directed at Alcide instead of us?’’

’’Hard to say. Evidently, from what the armed robbers at the gas station told us, what's remaining of the gang called in all the thugs they knew and stationed them along the interstate to intercept us on the way back. If they'd just called ahead, they wouldn't now be in jail for armed robbery. And I'm certainly sure that's where they are.’’

’’So how'd these guys get here? How'd they know where Sookie lived, who she really was?’’

’’She used her own name at Club Dead. They didn't know the name of Bill's human girlfriend. You were faithful.’’

’’I hadn't been faithful in other ways,’’ Bill said bleakly. ’’I thought it was the least I could do for her.’’

And this was the guy whom I'd shot the bird. On the other hand, this was the guy who was talking like I wasn't in the room. And most importantly, this was the guy who'd had another ’’darling,’’ for whom he'd planned to leave me flat.

’’So the Weres may not know she was your girlfriend;they only know she was staying in the apartment with Alcide when Jerry disappeared. They know Jerry may have come by the apartment. This Alcide says that the packmaster in Jackson told Alcide to leave and not return for a while, but that he believed Alcide had not killed Jerry.’’

’’This Alcide ... he seemed to have a troubled relationship with his girlfriend.’’

’’She is engaged to someone else. She believes he is attached to Sookie.’’

’’And is he? He has the gall to tell this virago Debbie that Sookie is good in bed.’’

’’He wanted to make her jealous. He has not slept with Sookie.’’

’’But he likes her.’’ Bill made it sound like a capital crime.

’’Doesn't everyone?’’

I said, with great effort, ’’You just killed a bunch of guys who didn't seem to like me at all.’’ I was tired of them talking about me right above my head, as illuminating as it was. I was hurting real bad, and my living room was full of dead men. I was ready for both those situations to be remedied.

’’Bill, how'd you get here?’’ I asked in a raspy whisper.

’’My car. I negotiated a deal with Russell, since I didn't want to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my existence. Russell was in a tantrum when I called him. Not only had I disappeared and Lorena vanished, but his hired Weres had disobeyed him and thus jeopardized business dealings Russell has with this Alcide and his father.’’

’’Who was Russell angriest with?’’ Eric asked.

’’Lorena, for letting me escape.'

They had a good laugh over that one before Bill continued his story. Those vamps. A laugh a minute.

’’Russell agreed to return my car and leave me alone if I would tell him how I'd escaped, so he could plug the hole I'd wiggled out of. And he asked me to put in a bid for him to share in the vampire directory.’’

If Russell had just done that in the first place, it would have saved everyone a lot of grief. On the other hand, Lorena would still be alive. So would the thugs who'd beaten me, and perhaps so would Jerry Falcon, whose death was still a mystery.

’’So,’’ Bill continued, ’’I sped down the highway, on the way to tell you two that the Weres and their hired hands were pursuing you, and that they had gone ahead to lie in wait. They had discovered, via the computer, that Alcide's girlfriend Sookie Stackhouse lived in Bon Temps.’’

’’These computers are dangerous things,’’ Eric said. His voice sounded weary, and I remembered the blood on his clothes. Eric had been shot twice, because he'd been with me.

’’Her face is swelling,’’ Bill said. His voice was both gentle and angry.

’’Eric okay?’’ I asked wearily, figuring I could skip a few words if I got the idea across.

’’I will heal,’’ he said, from a great distance. ’’Especially since having all that good ...’’

And then I fell asleep, or passed out, or some blend of the two.

***

Sunshine. It had been so long since I'd seen sunshine;I'd almost forgotten how good it looked.

I was in my own bed, and I was in my soft blue brushed-nylon nightgown, and I was wrapped up like a mummy. I really, really had to get up and get to the bathroom. Once I moved enough to establish how awful walking was going to be, only my bladder compelled me to get out of that bed.

I took tiny steps across the floor, which suddenly seemed as wide and empty as the desert. I covered it inch by painful inch. My toenails were still painted bronze, to match my nails. I had a lot of time to look at my toes as I made my journey.

Thank God I had indoor plumbing. If I'd had to make it into the yard to an outhouse, as my grandmother had as a child, I would've given up.

When I had completed my journey and pulled on a fleecy blue robe, I inched my way down the hall to the living room to examine the floor. I noticed along the way that the sun outside was brilliant and the sky was the deep rich blue of heaven. It was forty-two, said the thermometer Jason had given me on my birthday. He'd mounted it for me on the window frame, so I could just peek out to read it.

The living room looked real good. I wasn't sure how long the vampire cleaning crew had been at work the night before, but there were no body parts visible. The wood of the floor was gleaming, and the furniture looked spanky clean. The old throw rug was missing, but I didn't care. It had been no wonderful heirloom anyway, just a sort of pretty rug Gran had picked up at a flea market for thirty-five dollars. Why did I remember that? It didn't matter at all. And my grandmother was dead.

I felt the sudden danger of weeping, and I pushed it away. I wasn't going to fall back into a trough of self-pity. My reaction to Bill's unfaithfulness seemed faint and far away now;I was a colder woman, or maybe my protective hide had just grown thicker. I no longer felt angry with him, to my surprise. He'd been tortured by the woman - well, the vampire - he'd thought loved him. And she'd tortured him for financial gain - that was the worst.

To my startled horror, suddenly I relived the moment when the stake had gone in under her ribs, and I was feeling the movement of the wood as it plowed through her body.

I made it back to the hall bathroom just in time.

Okay, I'd killed someone.

I'd once hurt someone who was trying to kill me, but that had never bothered me: oh, the odd dream or two. But the horror of staking the vampire Lorena felt worse. She would've killed me a lot quicker, and I was sure it would have been no problem whatsoever for Lorena. She probably would've laughed her ass off.

Maybe that was what had gotten to me so much. After I'd sunk the stake in, I was sure I'd had a moment, a second, a flash of time in which I'd thought, So there, bitch. And it had been pure pleasure.

***

A couple of hours later, I'd discovered it was the early afternoon, and it was Monday. I called my brother on his cell phone, and he came by with my mail. When I opened my door, he stood for a long minute, looking me up and down.

’’If he did that to you, I'm heading over there with a torch and a sharpened broom handle,’’ he said.

’’No, he didn't.’’

’’What happened to the ones who did?’’

’’You better not think about it too much.’’

’’At least he does some things right.’’

’’I'm not gonna see him anymore.’’

’’Uh-huh. I've heard that before.’’

He had a point. ’’For a while,’’ I said firmly.

’’Sam said you'd gone off with Alcide Herveaux.’’

’’Sam shouldn't have told you.’’

’’Hell, I'm your brother. I need to know who you're going around with.’’

’’It was business,’’ I said, trying a little smile on for size.

’’You going into surveying?’’

’’You know Alcide?’’

’’Who doesn't, at least by name? Those Herveauxes, they're well known. Tough guys. Good to work for. Rich.’’

’’He's a nice guy.’’

’’He coming around anymore? I'd like to meet him. I don't want to be on a road crew working for the parish my whole life.’’

That was news to me. ’’Next time I see him, I'll call you. I don't know if he'll be stopping by anytime soon, but if he does, you'll know about it.’’

’’Good.’’ Jason glanced around. ’’What happened to the rug?’’

I noticed a spot of blood on the couch, about where Eric had leaned. I sat down so my legs were covering it. ’’The rug? I spilled some tomato sauce on it. I was eating spaghetti out here while I watched TV.’’

’’So you took it to get it cleaned?’’

I didn't know how to answer. I didn't know if that was what the vampires had done with the rug, or if it'd had to be torched. ’’Yes,’’ I said, with some hesitation. ’’But they may not be able to get the stain out, they said.’’

’’New gravel looks good.’’

I stared at him in gape-mouthed surprise. ’’What?’’

He looked at me as if I were a fool. ’’The new gravel. On the driveway. They did a good job, getting it level. Not a single pothole.’’

Completely forgetting the bloodstain, I heaved myself up from the couch with some difficulty and peered out the front window, this time really looking.

Not only was the driveway done, but also there was a new parking area in front of the house. It was outlined with landscaping timbers. The gravel was the very expensive kind, the kind that's supposed to interlock so it doesn't roll out of the desired area. I put my hand over my mouth as I calculated how much it had cost. ’’It's done like that all the way to the road?’’ I asked Jason, my voice hardly audible.

’’Yeah, I saw the Burgess and Sons crew out here when I drove by earlier,’’ he said slowly. ’’Didn't you fix it up to have it done?’’

I shook my head.

’’Damn, they did it by mistake?’’ Quick to rage, Jason flushed. ’’I'll call that Randy Burgess and ream his ass. Don't you pay the bill! Here's the note that was stuck to the front door.’’ Jason pulled a rolled receipt from his front pocket. ’’Sorry, I was going to hand that to you before I noticed your face.’’

I unrolled the yellow sheet and read the note scribbled across it. ’’Sookie - Mr. Northman said not to knock on your door, so I'm sticking this to it. You may need this in case something is wrong. Just call us. Randy.’’

’’It's paid for,’’ I said, and Jason calmed a little.

’’The boyfriend? The ex?’’

I remembered screaming at Eric about my driveway. ’’No,’’ I said. ’’Someone else.’’ I caught myself wishing the man who'd been so thoughtful had been Bill.

’’You sure are getting around these days,’’ Jason said. He didn't sound as judgmental as I expected, but then Jason was shrewd enough to know he could hardly throw many stones.

I said flatly, ’’No, I'm not.’’

He eyed me for a long moment. I met his gaze. ’’Okay,’’ he said slowly. ’’Then someone owes you, big time.’’

’’That would be closer to the truth,’’ I said, and wondered in turn if I myself was being truthful. ’’Thanks for getting my mail for me, Big Bro. I need to crawl back in bed.’’

’’No problem. You want to go to the doctor?’’

I shook my head. I couldn't face the waiting room.

’’Then you let me know if you need me to get you some groceries.’’

’’Thanks,’’ I said again, with more pleasure. ’’You're a good brother.’’ To our mutual surprise, I stood on tiptoe and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He awkwardly put his arm around me, and I made myself keep the smile on my face, rather than wincing from the pain.

’’Get back in bed, Sis,’’ he said, shutting the door behind him carefully. I noticed he stood on the porch for a full minute, surveying all that premium gravel. Then he shook his head and got back into his pickup, always clean and gleaming, the pink and aqua flames startling against the black paint that covered the rest of the truck.

I watched a little television. I tried to eat, but my face hurt too much. I felt lucky when I discovered some yogurt in the refrigerator.

A big pickup pulled up to the front of the house about three o'clock. Alcide got out with my suitcase. He knocked softly.

He might be happier if I didn't answer, but I figured I wasn't in the business of making Alcide Herveaux happy, and I opened the door.

’’Oh, Jesus Christ,’’ he said, not irreverently, as he took me in.

’’Come in,’’ I said, through jaws that were getting so sore I could barely part them. I knew I'd said I'll call Jason if Alcide came by;but Alcide and I needed to talk.

He came in and stood looking at me. Finally, he put the suitcase back in my room, fixed me a big glass of iced tea with a straw in it, and put it on the table by the couch. My eyes filled with tears. Not everyone would have realized that a hot drink made my swollen face hurt.

’’Tell me what happened, chere,’’ he said, sitting on the couch beside me. ’’Here, put your feet up while you do.’’ He helped me swivel sideways and lay my legs over his lap. I had plenty of pillows propped behind me, and I did feel comfortable, or as comfortable as I was going to feel for a couple of days.

I told him everything.

’’So, you think they'll come after me in Shreveport?’’ he asked. He didn't seem to be blaming me for bringing all this on his head, which frankly I'd half expected.

I shook my head helplessly. ’’I just don't know. I wish we knew what had really happened. That might get them off our backs.’’

’’Weres are nothing if not loyal,’’ Alcide said.

I took his hand. ’’I know that.’’

Alcide's green eyes regarded me steadily.

’’Debbie asked me to kill you,’’ he said.

For a moment I felt cold down to my bones. ’’What did you tell her back?’’ I asked, through stiff lips.

’’I told her she could go f*k herself, excuse my language.’’

’’And how do you feel now?’’

’’Numb. Isn't that stupid? I'm pulling her out of me by the roots, though. I told you I would. I had to do it. It's like being addicted to crack. She's awful.’’

I thought of Lorena. ’’Sometimes,’’ I said, and even to my own ears I sounded sad, ’’the bitch wins.’’ Lorena was far from dead between Bill and me. Speaking of Debbie raised yet another unpleasant memory. ’’Hey, you told her we had been to bed together, when you two were fighting!’’

He looked profoundly embarrassed, his olive skin flushing. ’’I'm ashamed of that. I knew she'd been having a good time with her fiance;she bragged about it. I sort of used your name in vain when I was really mad. I apologize.’’

I could understand that, even though I didn't like it. I raised my eyebrows to indicate that wasn't quite enough.

’’Okay, that was really low. A double apology and a promise to never do it again.’’

I nodded. I would accept that.

’’I hated to hustle you all out of the apartment like that, but I didn't want her to see the three of you, in view of conclusions she might have drawn. Debbie can get really mad, and I thought if she saw you in conjunction with the vampires, she might hear a rumor that Russell was missing a prisoner and put two and two together. She might even be mad enough to call Russell.’’

’’So much for loyalty among Weres.’’

’’She's a shifter, not a Were,’’ Alcide said instantly, and a suspicion of mine was confirmed. I was beginning to believe that Alcide, despite his stated conviction that he was determined to kept the Were gene to himself, would never be happy with anyone but another Were. I sighed: I tried to keep it a nice, quiet sigh. I might be wrong, after all.

’’Debbie aside,’’ I said, waving my hand to show how completely Debbie was out of our conversational picture, ’’someone killed Jerry Falcon and put him in your closet. That's caused me - and you - a lot more trouble that the original mission, which was searching for Bill. Who would do something like that? It would have to be someone really malicious.’’

’’Or someone really stupid,’’ Alcide said fairly.

’’I know Bill didn't do it, because he was a prisoner. And I'd swear Eric was telling the truth when he said he didn't do it.’’ I hesitated, hating to bring a name back up. ’’But what about Debbie? She's ...’’ I stopped myself from saying ’’a real bitch,’’ because only Alcide should call her that. ’’She was angry with you for having a date,’’ I said mildly. ’’Maybe she would put Jerry Falcon in your closet to cause you trouble?’’

’’Debbie's mean and she can cause trouble, but she's never killed anyone,’’ Alcide said. ’’She doesn't have the, the ... grit for it, the sand. The will to kill.’’

Okay. Just call me Sandy.

Alcide must have read my dismay on my face. ’’Hey, I'm a Were,’’ he said, shrugging. ’’I'd do it if I had to. Especially at the right time of the moon.’’

’’So maybe a fellow pack member did him in, for reasons we don't know, and decided to lay the blame on you?’’ Another possible scenario.

’’That doesn't feel right. Another Were would have - well, the body would've looked different.’’ Alcide said, trying to spare my finer feelings. He meant the body would have been ripped to shreds. ’’And I think I would've smelled another Were on him. Not that I got that close.’’

We just didn't have any other ideas, though if I'd tape-recorded that conversation and played it back, I would have thought of another possible culprit easily enough.

Alcide said he had to get back to Shreveport, and I lifted my legs for him to rise. He got up, but went down on one knee by the head of the couch to tell me goodbye. I said the polite things, how nice it had been of him to give me a place to stay, how much I'd enjoyed meeting his sister, how much fun it had been to hide a body with him. No, I didn't really say that, but it crossed my mind, as I was being Gran's courteous product.

’’I'm glad I met you,’’ he said. He was closer to me than I'd thought, and he gave me a peck on the lips in farewell. But after the peck, which was okay, he returned for a longer good-bye. His lips felt so warm;and after a second, his tongue felt even warmer. His head turned slightly to get a better angle, and then he went at it again. His right hand hovered above me, trying to find a place to settle that wouldn't hurt me. Finally he covered my left hand with his. Oh boy, this was good. But only my mouth and my lower pelvis were happy. The rest of me hurt. His hand slid, in a questioning sort of way, up to my breast, and I gave a sharp gasp.

’’Oh, God, I hurt you!’’ he said. His lips looked very full and red after the long kiss, and his eyes were brilliant.

I felt obliged to apologize. ’’I'm just so sore,’’ I said.

’’What did they do to you?’’ he asked. ’’Not just a few slaps across the face?’’

He had imagined my swollen face was my most serious problem.

’’I wish that had been it,’’ I said, trying to smile.

He truly looked stricken. ’’And here I am, making a pass at you.’’

’’Well, I didn't push you away,’’ I said mildly. (I was too sore to push.) ’’And I didn't say, 'No, sir, how dare you force your attentions on me!'’’

Alcide looked somewhat startled. ’’I'll come back by soon,’’ he promised. ’’If you need anything, you call me.’’ He fished a card out of his pocket and laid it on the table by the couch. ’’This has got my work number on it, and I'm writing my cell number on the back, and my home number. Give me yours.’’ Obediently, I recited the numbers to him, and he wrote them down in, no kidding, a little black book. I didn't have the energy to make a joke.

When he was gone, the house felt extra empty. He was so big and so energetic - so alive - he filled large spaces with his personality and presence.

It was a day for me to sigh.

Having talked to Jason at Merlotte's, Arlene came by at half past five. She surveyed me, looked as if she were suppressing a lot of comments she really wanted to make, and heated me up some Campbell's. I let it cool before I ate it very carefully and slowly, and felt the better for it. She put the dishes in the dishwasher, and asked me if I needed any other help. I thought of her children waiting for her at home, and I said I was just fine. It did me good to see Arlene, and to know she was struggling with herself about speaking out of turn made me feel even better.

Physically, I was feeling more and more stiff. I made myself get up and walk a little (though it looked more like a hobble), but as my bruises became fully developed and the house grew colder, I began to feel much worse. This was when living alone really got to you, when you felt bad or sick and there was no one there.

You might feel a little sorry for yourself, too, if you weren't careful.

To my surprise, the first vampire to arrive after dark was Pam. Tonight she was wearing a trailing black gown, so she was scheduled to work at Fangtasia. Ordinarily, Pam shunned black;she was a pastels kind of female. She yanked at the chiffon sleeves impatiently.

’’Eric says you may need a female to help you,’’ she said impatiently. ’’Though why I am supposed to be your lady's maid, I don't know. Do you really need help, or is he just trying to curry favor with you? I like you well enough, but after all, I am vampire, and you are human.’’

That Pam, what a sweetie.

’’You could sit and visit with me for a minute,’’ I suggested, at a loss as to how to proceed. Actually, it would be nice to have help getting into and out of the bathtub, but I knew Pam would be offended to be asked to perform such a personal task. After all, she was vampire, I was human ... .

Pam settled into the armchair facing the couch. ’’Eric says you can fire a shotgun,’’ she said, more conversationally. ’’Would you teach me?’’

’’I'd be real glad to, when I'm better.’’

’’Did you really stake Lorena?’’

The shotgun lessons were more important than the death of Lorena, it seemed.

’’Yes. She would've killed me.’’

’’How'd you do it?’’

’’I had the stake that had been used on me.’’

Then Pam had to hear about that, and ask me how it felt, since I was the only person she knew who'd survived being staked, and then she asked me exactly how I'd killed Lorena, and there we were, back at my least favorite topic.

’’I don't want to talk about it,’’ I admitted.

’’Why not?’’ Pam was curious. ’’You say she was trying to kill you.’’

’’She was.’’

’’And after she had done that, she would have tortured Bill more, until he broke, and you would have been dead, and it all would have been for nothing.’’

Pam had a point, a good one, and I tried to think about it as a practical step to have taken, rather than a desperate reflex.

’’Bill and Eric will be here soon,’’ Pam said, looking at her watch.

’’I wish you had told me that earlier,’’ I said, struggling to my feet.

’’Got to brush your teeth and hair?’’ Pam was cheerfully sarcastic. ’’That's why Eric thought you might need my help.’’

’’I think I can manage my own grooming, if you wouldn't mind heating up some blood in the microwave - of course, for yourself as well. I'm sorry, I wasn't being polite.’’

Pam gave me a skeptical look, but trotted off to the kitchen without further comment. I listened for a minute to make sure she knew how to operate a microwave, and I heard reassuringly unhesitating beeps as she punched in the numbers and hit Start.

Slowly and painfully, I washed off in the sink, brushed my hair and teeth, and put on some silky pink pajamas and a matching robe and slippers. I wished I had the energy to dress, but I just couldn't face underwear and socks and shoes.

There was no point putting on makeup over the bruises. There was no way I could cover them. In fact, I wondered why I'd gotten up from the couch to put myself through this much pain. I looked in the mirror and told myself I was an idiot to make any preparation for their arrival. I was just plain primping. Given my overall misery (mental and physical), my behavior was ridiculous. I was sorry I had felt the impulse, and even sorrier Pam had witnessed it.

But the first male caller I had was Bubba.

He was all decked out. The vampires of Jackson had enjoyed Bubba's company, it was apparent. Bubba was wearing a red jumpsuit with rhinestones on it (I wasn't too surprised one of the boy toys at the mansion had had one) complete with wide belt and half boots. Bubba looked good.

He didn't seem pleased, though. He seemed apologetic. ’’Miss Sookie, I'm sorry I lost you last night,’’ he said right away. He brushed past Pam, who looked surprised. ’’I see something awful happened to you last night, and I wasn't there to stop it like Eric told me to be. I was having a good time in Jackson, those guys there really know how to throw themselves a party.’’

I had an idea, a blindingly simple idea. If I'd been in a comic strip, it would have shown itself as a lightning bolt over my head. ’’You've been watching me every night,’’ I said, as gently as I could, trying hard to keep all excitement out of my voice. ’’Right?’’

’’Yes'm, ever since Mr. Eric told me to.’’ He was standing straighter, his head full of carefully combed hair gelled into the familiar style. The guys at Russell's mansion had really worked hard on him.

’’So you were out there the night we came back from the club? The first night?’’

’’You bet, Miss Sookie.’’

’’Did you see anyone else outside the apartment?’’

’’I sure did.’’ He looked proud.

Oh, boy. ’’Was this a guy in gang leathers?’’

He looked surprised. ’’Yes'm, it was that guy hurt you in the bar. I seen him when the doorman threw him out back. Some of his buddies came around back there, and they were talking about what had happened. So I knew he'd offended you. Mr. Eric said not to come up to you or him in public, so I didn't. But I followed you back to the apartment, in that truck. Bet you didn't even know I was in the back.’’

’’No, I sure didn't know you were in the back of the pickup. That was real smart. Now tell me, when you saw the Were later, what was he doing?’’

’’He had picked the lock on the apartment door by the time I snuck up behind him. I just barely caught that sucker in time.’’

’’What did you do with him?’’ I smiled at Bubba.

’’I broke his neck and stuffed him in the closet,’’ Bubba said proudly. ’’I didn't have time to take the body anywhere, and I figured you and Mr. Eric could figure out what to do about it.’’

I had to look away. So simple. So direct. Solving that mystery had just taken asking the right person the right question.

Why hadn't we thought of it? You couldn't give Bubba orders and expect him to adapt them to circumstances. Quite possibly, he had saved my life by killing Jerry Falcon, since my bedroom was the first one the Were would have come to. I had been so tired when I finally got to bed, I might not have woken until it was too late.

Pam had been looking back and forth between us with a question on her face. I held up a hand to indicate I'd explain later, and I made myself smile at Bubba and tell him he'd done the right thing. ’’Eric will be so pleased,’’ I said. And telling Alcide would be an interesting experience.

Bubba's whole face relaxed. He smiled, that upper lip curling just a little. ’’I'm glad to hear you say so,’’ he said. ’’You got any blood? I'm mighty thirsty.’’

’’Sure,’’ I said. Pam was thoughtful enough to fetch the blood, and Bubba took a big swig.

’’Not as good as a cat's,’’ he observed. ’’But mighty fine just the same. Thank you, thank you very much.’’

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