Club Dead Chapter Nine


I had the shivery, shaky feeling that precedes walking into danger. This was the last night that Alcide could go to Club Dead: Terence had warned him away, very definitely. After this, I would be on my own, if I were even allowed into the club when Alcide did not escort me.

As I dressed, I found myself wishing I were going to an ordinary vampire bar, the kind where regular humans came to gape at the undead. Fangtasia, Eric's bar in Shreveport, was such a place. People would actually come through on tours, make an evening of wearing all black, maybe pouring on a little fake blood or inserting some cheesy fake fangs. They'd stare at the vampires carefully planted throughout the bar, and they'd thrill at their own daring. Every now and then, one of these tourists would step across the line that kept them safe. Maybe he'd make a pass at one of the vamps, or maybe he'd disrespect Chow, the bartender. Then, perhaps, that tourist would find out what he'd been messing with.

At a bar like Club Dead, all the cards were out on the table. Humans were the adornments, the frills. The supernaturals were the necessity.

I'd been excited this time the night before. Now I just felt a detached sort of determination, like I was on a powerful drug that divorced me from all my more ordinary emotions. I pulled on my hose and some pretty black garters that Arlene had given me for my birthday. I smiled as I thought of my red-haired friend and her incredible optimism about men, even after four marriages. Arlene would tell me to enjoy the minute, the second, with every bit of zest I could summon up. She would tell me I never knew what man I might meet, maybe tonight would be the magic night. Maybe wearing garters would change the course of my life, Arlene would tell me.

I can't say I exactly summoned up a smile, but I felt a little less grim as I pulled my dress over my head. It was the color of champagne. There wasn't much of it. I had on black heels and jet earrings, and I was trying to decide if my old coat would look too horrible, or if I should just freeze my butt off out of vanity. Looking at the very worn blue cloth coat, I sighed. I carried it into the living room over my arm. Alcide was ready, and he was standing in the middle of the room waiting for me. Just as I registered the fact that he was looking distinctly nervous, Alcide pulled one of the wrapped boxes out of the pile he'd collected during his morning shopping. He got that self-conscious look on his face, the one he'd been wearing when I'd returned to the apartment.

’’I think I owe you this,’’ he said. And handed me the large box.

’’Oh, Alcide! You got me a present?’’ I know, I know, I was standing there holding the box. But you have to understand, this is not something that happens to me very often.

’’Open it,’’ he said gruffly.

I tossed the coat onto the nearest chair and I unwrapped the gift awkwardly - I wasn't used to my fake nails. After a little maneuvering, I opened the white cardboard box to find that Alcide had replaced my evening wrap. I pulled out the long rectangle slowly, savoring every moment. It was beautiful;a black velvet wrap with beading on the ends. I couldn't help but realize that it cost five times what I'd spent on the one that had been damaged.

I was speechless. That hardly ever happens to me. But I don't get too many presents, and I don't take them lightly. I wrapped the velvet around me, luxuriating in the feel of it. I rubbed my cheek against it.

’’Thank you,’’ I said, my voice wobbling.

’’You're welcome,’’ he said. ’’God, don't cry, Sookie. I meant you to be happy.’’

’’I'm real happy,’’ I said. ’’I'm not going to cry.’’ I choked back the tears, and went to look at myself in the mirror in my bathroom. ’’Oh, it's beautiful,’’ I said, my heart in my voice.

’’Good, glad you like it,’’ Alcide said brusquely. ’’I thought it was the least I could do.’’ He arranged the wrap so that the material covered the red, scabbed marks on my left shoulder.

’’You didn't owe me a thing,’’ I said. ’’It's me that owes you.’’ I could tell that my being serious worried Alcide just as much as my crying. ’’Come on,’’ I said. ’’Let's go to Club Dead. We'll learn everything, tonight, and no one will get hurt.’’

Which just goes to prove I don't have second sight.

***

Alcide was wearing a different suit and I a different dress, but Josephine's seemed just the same. Deserted sidewalk, atmosphere of doom. It was even colder tonight, cold enough for me to see my breath on the air, cold enough to make me pathetically grateful for the warmth of the velvet wrap. Tonight, Alcide practically leaped from the truck to the cover of the awning, not even helping me down, and then stood under it waiting for me.

’’Full moon,’’ he explained tersely. ’’It'll be a tense night.’’

’’I'm sorry,’’ I said, feeling helpless. ’’This must be awfully hard on you.’’ If he hadn't been obliged to accompany me, he could have been off bounding through the woods after deer and bunnies. He shrugged my apology off. ’’There'll always be tomorrow night,’’ he said. ’’That's almost as good.’’ But he was humming with tension.

Tonight I didn't jump quite so much when the truck rolled away, apparently on its own, and I didn't even quiver when Mr. Hob opened the door. I can't say the goblin looked pleased to see us, but I couldn't tell you what his ordinary facial expression really meant. So he could have been doing emotional cartwheels of joy, and I wouldn't have known it.

Somehow, I doubted he was that excited about my second appearance in his club. Or was he the owner? It was hard to imagine Mr. Hob naming a club ’’Josephine's.’’ ’’Dead Rotten Dog,’’ maybe, or ’’Flaming Maggots,’’ but not ’’Josephine's.’’

’’We won't have trouble tonight,’’ Mr. Hob told us grimly. His voice was bumpy and rusty, as if he didn't talk much, and didn't enjoy it when he did.

’’It wasn't her fault,’’ Alcide said.

’’Nonetheless,’’ Hob said, and left it at that. He probably felt he didn't need to say anything else, and he was right. The short, lumpy goblin jerked his head at a group of tables that had been pushed together. ’’The king is waiting for you.’’

The men stood as I reached the table. Russell Edgington and his special friend Talbot were facing the dance floor;and across from them were an older (well, he'd become undead when he was older) vampire, and a woman, who of course stayed seated. My gaze trailed over her, came back, and I shrieked with delight.

’’Tara!’’

My high school friend shrieked right back and jumped up. We gave each other a full frontal hug, rather than the slightly less enthusiastic half-hug that was our norm. We were both strangers in a strange land, here at Club Dead.

Tara, who is several inches taller than I am, has dark hair and eyes and olive skin. She was wearing a long-sleeved gold-and-bronze dress that shimmered as she moved, and she had on high, high heels. She had attained the height of her date.

Just as I was disengaging from the embrace and giving her a happy pat on the back, I realized that seeing Tara was the worst thing that could have happened. I went into her mind, and I saw that, sure enough, she was about to ask me why I was with someone who wasn't Bill.

’’Come on, girlfriend, come to the ladies'with me for a second!’’ I said cheerfully, and she grabbed her purse, while giving her date a perfect smile, both promising and rueful. I gave Alcide a little wave, asked the other gentlemen to excuse us, and we walked briskly to the rest rooms, which were off the passage leading to the back door. The ladies'room was empty. I pressed my back against the door to keep other females out. Tara was facing me, her face lit up with questions.

’’Tara, please, don't say anything about Bill or anything about Bon Temps.’’

’’You want to tell me why?’’

’’Just ...’’ I tried to think of something reasonable, couldn't. ’’Tara, it'll cost me my life if you do.’’

She twitched, and gave me a steady stare. Who wouldn't? But Tara had been through a lot in her life, and she was a tough, if wounded, bird. ’’I'm so happy to see you here,’’ she said. ’’It was lonely being in this crowd by myself. Who's your friend? What is he?’’

I always forgot that other people couldn't tell. And sometimes I nearly forgot that other people didn't know about Weres and shifters. ’’He's a surveyor,’’ I said. ’’Come on, I'll introduce you.’’

’’Sorry we left so quickly,’’ I said, smiling brightly at all the men. ’’I forgot my manners.’’ I introduced Tara to Alcide, who looked appropriately appreciative. Then it was Tara's turn. ’’Sook, this is Franklin Mott.’’

’’A pleasure to meet you,’’ I said, and extended my hand before I realized my faux pas. Vampires don't shake hands. ’’I beg your pardon,’’ I said hastily, and gave him a little wave instead. ’’Do you live here in Jackson, Mr. Mott?’’ I was determined not to embarrass Tara.

’’Please call me Franklin,’’ he said. He had a wonderful mellow voice with a light Italian accent. When he had died, he had probably been in his late fifties or early sixties;his hair and mustache were iron gray, and his face was lined. He looked vigorous and very masculine. ’’Yes, I do, but I own a business that has a franchise in Jackson, one in Ruston, and one in Vicksburg. I met Tara at a gathering in Ruston.’’

Gradually we progressed through the social do-si-do of getting seated, explaining to the men how Tara and I had attended high school together, and ordering drinks. All the vampires, of course, ordered synthetic blood, and Talbot, Tara, Alcide, and I got mixed drinks. I decided another champagne cocktail would be good. The waitress, a shifter, was moving in an odd, almost slinking manner, and she didn't seem inclined to talk much. The night of the full moon was making itself felt in all kinds of ways.

There were far fewer of the two-natured in the bar this night of the moon cycle. I was glad to see Debbie and her fiance were missing, and there were only a couple of the Were bikers. There were more vampires, and more humans. I wondered how the vampires of Jackson kept this bar a secret. Among the humans who came in with Supe dates, surely one or two were inclined to talk to a reporter or just tell a group of friends about the bar's existence?

I asked Alcide, and he said quietly, ’’The bar's spellbound. You wouldn't be able to tell anyone how to get here if you tried.’’

I'd have to experiment with that later, see if it worked. I wonder who did the spell casting, or whatever it was called. If I could believe in vampires and werewolves and shape-shifters, it was not too far a stretch to believe in witches.

I was sandwiched between Talbot and Alcide, so by way of making conversation I asked Talbot about secrecy. Talbot didn't seem averse to chatting with me, and Alcide and Franklin Mott had found they had acquaintances in common. Talbot had on too much cologne, but I didn't hold that against him. Talbot was a man in love, and furthermore, he was a man addicted to vampiric se* ... the two states are not always combined. He was a ruthless, intelligent man who could not understand how his life had taken such an exotic turn. (He was a big broadcaster, too, which was why I could pick up so much of his life.)

He repeated Alcide's story about the spell on the bar. ’’But the way what happens here is kept a secret, that's different,’’ Talbot said, as if he was considering a long answer and a short answer. I looked at his pleasant, handsome face and reminded myself that he knew Bill was being tortured, and he didn't care. I wished he would think about Bill again, so I could learn more;at least I would know if Bill was dead or alive. ’’Well, Miss Sookie, what goes on here is kept secret by terror and punishment.’’

Talbot said that with relish. He liked that. He liked that he had won the heart of Russell Edgington, a being who could kill easily, who deserved to be feared. ’’Any vampire or Were - in fact, any sort of supernatural creature, and you haven't seen quite a few of them, believe me - who brings in a human is responsible for that human's behavior. For example, if you were to leave here tonight and call a tabloid, it would be Alcide's bounden duty to track and kill you.’’

’’I see.’’ And indeed, I did. ’’What if Alcide couldn't bring himself to do that?’’

’’Then his life would be forfeit, and one of the bounty hunters would be commissioned to do the job.’’

Jesus Christ, Shepherd of Judea. ’’There are bounty hunters?’’ Alcide could have told me a lot more than he had;that was an unpleasant discovery. My voice may have been a little on the croaky side.

’’Sure. The Weres who wear the motorcycle gear, in this area. In fact, they're asking questions around the bar tonight because ...’’ His expression sharpened, became suspicious. ’’The man who was bothering you ... did you see him again last night? After you left the bar?’’

’’No,’’ I said, speaking the technical truth. I hadn't seen him again - last night. I knew what God thought about technical truths, but I also figured he expected me to save my own life. ’’Alcide and I, we went right back to the apartment. I was pretty upset.’’ I cast my eyes down like a modest girl unused to approaches in bars, which was also a few steps away from the truth. (Though Sam keeps such incidents down to a minimum, and it was widely known I was crazy and therefore undesirable, I certainly had to put up with the occasional aggressive advance, as well as a certain amount of half-hearted passes from guys who got too drunk to care that I was supposed to be crazy.)

’’You were sure plucky when it looked like there was going to be a fight,’’ Talbot observed. Talbot was thinking that my courage last night didn't jibe with my demure demeanor this evening. Darn it, I'd overplayed my role.

’’Plucky is the word for Sookie,’’ Tara said. It was a welcome interruption. ’’When we danced together on stage, about a million years ago, she was the one who was brave, not me! I was shaking in my shoes.’’

Thank you, Tara.

’’You danced?’’ asked Franklin Mott, his attention caught by the conversation.

’’Oh, yes, and we won the talent contest,’’ Tara told him. ’’What we didn't realize, until we graduated and had some experience in the world, was that our little routine was really, ah - ’’

’’Suggestive,’’ I said, calling a spade a spade. ’’We were the most innocent girls in our little high school, and there we were, with this dance routine we lifted straight off MTV.’’

’’It took us years to understand why the principal was sweating so hard,’’ Tara said, her smile just rascally enough to be charming. ’’As a matter of fact, let me go talk to the deejay right now.’’ She sprang up and worked her way over to the vampire who'd set up his gear on the small stage. He bent over and listened intently, and then he nodded.

’’Oh, no.’’ I was going to be horribly embarrassed.

’’What?’’ Alcide was amused.

’’She's going to make us do it all over again.’’

Sure enough, Tara wiggled her way through the crowd to get back to me, and she was beaming. I had thought of twenty-five good reasons not to do what she wanted by the time she seized my hands and pulled me to my feet. But it was evident that the only way I could get out of this was to go forward. Tara had her heart set on this exhibition, and Tara was my friend. The crowd made a space as Pat Benatar's ’’Love Is a Battlefield’’ began to play.

Unfortunately, I remembered every bump and grind, every hip thrust.

In our innocence, Tara and I had planned our routine almost like pairs figure skating, so we were touching (or very near) during the whole thing. Could it have looked more like some lesbian tease act performed in a stripper bar? Not much. Not that I'd ever been to a stripper bar, or a p*****o movie house;but I assume the rise of communal lust I felt in Josephine's that night was similar. I didn't like being the object of it - but yet, I discovered I felt a certain flood of power.

Bill had informed my body about good se*, and I was sure that now I danced like I knew about enjoying se* - and so did Tara. In a perverse way, we were having an ’’I am woman, hear me roar’’ moment. And, by golly, love sure was a battlefield. Benatar was right about that.

We had our sides to the audience, Tara gripping my waist, for the last few bars, and we pumped our hips in unison, and brought our hands sweeping to the floor. The music stopped. There was a tiny second of silence, and then a lot of applause and whistling.

The vampires thought of the blood flowing in our veins, I was sure from the hungry looks on their faces - especially those lower main lines on our inner thighs. And I could hear that the werewolves were imagining how good we would taste. So I was feeling quite edible as I made my way back to our table. Tara and I were patted and complimented along the way, and we received many invitations. I was halfway tempted to accept the dance offer of a curly-haired brunette vamp who was just about my size and cute as a bunny. But I just smiled and kept on going.

Franklin Mott was delighted. ’’Oh, you were so right,’’ he said as he held Tara's chair for her. Alcide, I observed, remained seated and glowered at me, forcing Talbot to lean over and pull my chair out for me, an awkward and makeshift courtesy. (He did get a caress on the shoulder from Russell for his gesture.) ’’I can't believe you girls didn't get expelled,’’ Talbot said, covering the awkward moment. I never would have pegged Alcide for a possessive jerk.

’’We had no clue,’’ Tara protested, laughing. ’’None. We couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.’’

’’What bit your ass?’’ I asked Alcide, very quietly. But when I listened carefully, I could pick out the source of his dissatisfaction. He was resenting the fact that he had acknowledged to me that he still had Debbie in his heart, because otherwise he'd make a determined effort to share my bed tonight. He felt both guilty and angry about that, since it was the full moon - come to think of it, his time of the month. In a way.

’’Not looking for your boyfriend too hard, are you?’’ he said coldly, in a nasty undertone.

It was like he'd thrown a bucket of cold water in my face. It was a shock, and it hurt terribly. Tears welled up in my eyes. It was also completely obvious to everyone at the table that he had said something to upset me.

Talbot, Russell, and Franklin all gave Alcide level looks practically laden with threat. Talbot's look was a weak echo of his lover's, so it could be disregarded, but Russell was the king, after all, and Franklin was apparently an influential vampire. Alcide recalled where he was, and with whom.

’’Excuse me, Sookie, I was just feeling jealous,’’ he said, loud enough for all at the table to hear. ’’That was really interesting.’’

’’Interesting?’’ I said, as lightly as I could. I was pretty damn mad, myself. I ran my fingers through his hair as I leaned over to his chair. ’’Just interesting?’’ We smiled at each other quite falsely, but the others bought it. I felt like taking a handful of that black hair and giving it a good hard yank. He might not be a mind reader like me, but he could read that impulse loud and clear. Alcide had to force himself not to flinch.

Tara stepped in once again to ask Alcide what his occupation was - God bless her - and yet another awkward moment passed harmlessly by. I pushed my chair a little farther back from the circle around the table and let my mind roam. Alcide had been right about the fact that I needed to be at work, rather than amusing myself;but I didn't see how I could have refused Tara something she enjoyed so much.

A parting of the bodies crowding the little dance floor gave me a glimpse of Eric, leaning against the wall behind the small stage. His eyes were on me, and they were full of heat. There was someone who wasn't pissed off at me, someone who had taken our little routine in the spirit in which it was offered.

Eric looked quite nice in the suit and glasses. The glasses made him seem somehow less threatening, I decided, and turned my mind to business. Fewer Weres and humans made it easier to listen in to each one, easier to track the thread of thought back to its owner. I closed my eyes to help me concentrate, and almost immediately I caught a snatch of inner monologue that shook me up.

’’Martyrdom,’’ the man was thinking. I knew the thinker was a man, and that his thoughts were coming from the area behind me, the area right around the bar. My head began to turn, and I stopped myself. Looking wouldn't help, but it was an almost irresistible impulse. I looked down instead, so the movements of the other patrons wouldn't distract me.

People don't really think in complete sentences, of course. What I'm doing, when I spell out their thoughts, is translating.

’’When I die, my name will be famous,’’ he thought. ’’It's almost here. God, please let it not hurt. At least he's here with me ... I hope the stake's sharp enough.’’

Oh, dammit. The next thing I knew I was on my feet, walking away from the table.

***

I was inching along, blocking the noise of the music and the voices so I could listen sharply to what was being said silently. It was like walking underwater. At the bar, slugging back a glass of synthetic blood, was a woman with a poof of teased hair. She was dressed in a tight-bodiced dress with a full skirt fluffing out around it. Her muscular arms and broad shoulders looked pretty strange with the outfit;but I'd never tell her so, nor would any sane person. This had to be Betty Joe Pickard, Russell Edgington's second in command. She had on white gloves and pumps, too. All she needed was a little hat with a half-veil, I decided. I was willing to bet Betty Joe had been a big fan of Mamie Eisenhower's.

And standing behind this formidable vampire, also facing the bar, were two male humans. One was tall, and oddly familiar. His gray-threaded brown hair was long, but neatly combed. It looked like a regular men's haircut, allowed to grow however it wanted to grow. The hairstyle looked odd with his suit. His shorter companion had rough black hair, tousled and flecked with gray. This second man wore a sports coat that maybe came off the rack from JC Penney on a sale day.

And inside that cheap coat, in a specially sewn pocket, he carried a stake.

Horribly enough, I hesitated. If I stopped him, I would be revealing my hidden talent, and to reveal that would be to unmask my identity. The consequences of this revelation would depend on what Edgington knew about me;he apparently knew Bill's girlfriend was a barmaid at Merlotte's in Bon Temps, but not her name. That's why I'd been free to introduce myself as Sookie Stackhouse. If Russell knew Bill's girlfriend was a telepath, and he discovered I was a telepath, who knew what would happen then?

Actually, I could make a good guess.

As I dithered, ashamed and frightened, the decision was made for me. The man with the black hair reached inside his coat and the fanaticism roiling in his head reached fever pitch. He pulled out the long sharpened piece of ash, and then a lot happened.

I yelled, ’’STAKE!’’ and lunged for the fanatic's arm, gripping it desperately with both my hands. The vampires and their humans whirled around looking for the threat, and the shifters and Weres wisely scattered to the walls to leave the floor free for the vampires. The tall man beat at me, his big hands pounding at my head and shoulders, and his dark-haired companion kept twisting his arm, trying to free it from my grasp. He heaved from side to side to throw me off.

Somehow, in the melee, my eyes met those of the taller man, and we recognized each other. He was G. Steve Newlin, former leader of the Brotherhood of the Sun, a militant anti-vampire organization whose Dallas branch had more or less bit the dust after I'd paid it a visit. He was going to tell them who I was, I just knew it, but I had to pay attention to what the man with the stake was doing. I was staggering around on my heels, trying to keep my feet, when the assassin finally had a stroke of brilliance and transferred the stake from his pinned right hand to his free left.

With a final punch to my back, Steve Newlin dashed for the exit, and I caught a flash of creatures bounding in pursuit. I heard lots of yowling and tweeting, and then the black-haired man threw back his left arm and plunged the stake into my waist on my right side.

I let go of his arm then, and stared down at what he'd done to me. I looked back up into his eyes for a long moment, reading nothing there but a horror to mirror my own. Then Betty Joe Pickard swung back her gloved fist and hit him twice - boom-boom. The first blow snapped his neck. The second shattered his skull. I could hear the bones break.

And then he went down to the floor, and since my legs were tangled with his, I went down, too. I landed flat on my back.

I lay looking up at the ceiling of the bar, at the fan that was rotating solemnly above my head. I wondered why the fan was on in the middle of winter. I saw a hawk fly across the ceiling, narrowly avoiding the fan blades. A wolf came to my side and licked my face and whined, but turned and dashed away. Tara was screaming. I was not. I was so cold.

With my right hand, I covered the spot where the stake entered my body. I didn't want to see it, and I was scared I'd look down. I could feel the growing wetness around the wound.

’’Call nine-one-one!’’ Tara yelled as she landed on her knees beside me. The bartender and Betty Joe exchanged a look over her head. I understood.

’’Tara,’’ I said, and it came out like a croak. ’’Honey, all the shifters are changing. It's full moon. The police can't come in here, and they'll come if anyone calls nine-one-one.’’

The shifter part just didn't seem to register with Tara, who didn't know such things were possible. ’’The vampires are not gonna let you die,’’ Tara said confidently. ’’You just saved one of them!’’

I wasn't so sure about that. I saw Franklin Mott's face above Tara. He was looking at me, and I could read his expression.

’’Tara,’’ I whispered, ’’you have to get out of here. This is getting crazy, and if there's any chance the police are coming, you can't be here.’’

Franklin Mott nodded in approval.

’’I'm not going to leave you until you have help,’’ Tara said, her voice full of determination. Bless her heart.

The crowd around me consisted of vampires. One of them was Eric. I could not decipher his face.

’’The tall blond will help me,’’ I told Tara, my voice barely a rasp. I pointed a finger at Eric. I didn't look at him for fear I'd read rejection in his eyes. If Eric wouldn't help me, I suspected I would lie here and die on this polished wood floor in a vampire bar in Jackson, Mississippi.

My brother, Jason, would be so pissed off.

Tara had met Eric in Bon Temps, but their introduction had been on a very stressful night. She didn't seem to identify the tall blond she'd met that night with the tall blond she saw tonight, wearing glasses and a suit and with his hair pulled back strictly into a braid.

’’Please help Sookie,’’ she said to him directly, as Franklin Mott almost yanked her to her feet.

’’This young man will be glad to help your friend,’’ Mott said. He gave Eric a sharp look that told Eric he damn well better agree.

’’Of course. I'm a good friend of Alcide's,’’ Eric said, lying without a blink.

He took Tara's place by my side, and I could tell after he was on his knees that he caught the smell of my blood. His face went even whiter, and his bones stood out starkly under his skin. His eyes blazed.

’’You don't know how hard it is,’’ he whispered to me, ’’not to bend over and lick.’’

’’If you do, everyone else will,’’ I said. ’’And they won't just lick, they'll bite.’’ There was a German shepherd staring at me with luminous yellow eyes, just past my feet.

’’That's the only thing stopping me.’’

’’Who are you?’’ asked Russell Edgington. He was giving Eric a careful once-over. Russell was standing to my other side, and he bent over both of us. I had been loomed over enough, I can tell you that, but I was in no position to do a damn thing about it.

’’I'm a friend of Alcide's,’’ Eric repeated. ’’He invited me here tonight to meet his new girlfriend. My name is Leif.’’

Russell could look down at Eric, since Eric was kneeling, and his golden brown eyes bored into Eric's blue ones. ’’Alcide doesn't hang with many vampires,’’ Russell said.

’’I'm one of the few.’’

’’We have to get this young lady out of here,’’ Russell said.

The snarling a few feet away increased in intensity. There appeared to be a knot of animals gathered around something on the floor.

’’Take that out of here!’’ roared Mr. Hob. ’’Out the back door! You know the rules!’’

Two of the vampires lifted the corpse, for that was what the Weres and shifters were squabbling over, and carried it out the back door, followed by all the animals. So much for the black-haired fanatic.

Just this afternoon Alcide and I had disposed of a corpse. We'd never thought of just bringing it down to the club, laying it in the alley. Of course, this one was fresh.

’’... maybe has nicked a kidney,’’ Eric was saying. I had been unconscious, or at least somewhere else, for a few moments.

I was sweating heavily, and the pain was excruciating. I felt a flash of chagrin when I realized I was sweating all over my dress. But possibly the big bloody hole had already ruined the dress anyway, huh?

’’We'll take her to my place,’’ Russell said, and if I hadn't been sure I was very badly hurt, I might have laughed. ’’The limo's on its way. I'm sure a familiar face would make her more comfortable, don't you agree?’’

What I thought was, Russell didn't want to get his suit nasty picking me up. And Talbot probably couldn't lug me. Though the small vampire with curly black hair was still there, and still smiling, I would be awful bulky for him ...

And I lost some more time.

’’Alcide turned into a wolf and chased after the assassin's companion,’’ Eric was telling me, though I didn't remember asking. I started to tell Eric who the companion was, and then I realized that I'd better not. ’’Leif,’’ I muttered, trying to commit the name to memory. ’’Leif. I guess my garters are showing. Does that mean ... ?’’

’’Yes, Sookie?’’

... and I was out again. Then I was aware I was moving, and I realized that Eric was carrying me. Nothing had ever hurt so badly in my life, and I reflected, not for the first time, that I'd never even been in a hospital until I'd met Bill, and now I seemed to spend half my time battered or recovering from being battered. This was very significant and important.

A lynx padded out of the bar beside us. I looked down into the golden eyes. What a night this was turning out to be for Jackson. I hoped all the good people had decided to stay home tonight.

And then we were in the limo. My head was resting on Eric's thigh, and in the seat across from us sat Talbot, Russell, and the small curly-haired vampire. As we stopped at a light, a bison lumbered by.

’’Lucky no one's out in downtown Jackson on a weekend night in December,’’ Talbot was remarking, and Eric laughed.

We drove for what seemed like some time. Eric smoothed my skirt over my legs, and brushed my hair out of my face. I looked up at him, and ...

’’... did she know what he was going to do?’’ Talbot was asking.

’’She saw him pull the stake out, she said,’’ Eric said mendaciously. ’’She was going to the bar to get another drink.’’

’’Lucky for Betty Joe,’’ Russell said in his smooth Southern drawl. ’’I guess she's still hunting the one that got away.’’

Then we pulled up into a driveway and stopped at a gate. A bearded vampire came up and peered in the window, looking at all the occupants carefully. He was far more alert than the indifferent guard at Alcide's apartment building. I heard an electronic hum, and the gate opened. We went up a driveway (I could hear the gravel crunching) and then we swung around in front of a mansion. It was lit up like a birthday cake, and as Eric carefully extracted me from the limo, I could see we were under a porte cochere that was as fancy as all get-out. Even the carport had columns. I expected to see Vivian Leigh come down the steps.

I had a blank moment again, and then we were in the foyer. The pain seemed to be fading away, and its absence left me giddy.

As the master of this mansion, Russell's return was a big event, and when the inhabitants smelled fresh blood, they were doubly quick to come thronging. I felt like I'd landed in the middle of romance cover model contest. I had never seen so many cute men in one place in my life. But I could tell they were not for me. Russell was like the gay vampire Hugh Hefner, and this was the Playboy Mansion, with an emphasis on the ’’boy.’’

’’Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,’’ I said, and Eric laughed out loud. That was why I liked him, I thought rosily;he ’’got’’ me.

’’Good, the shot's taking effect,’’ said a white-haired man in a sports shirt and pleated trousers. He was human, and he might as well have had a stethoscope tattooed around his neck, he was so clearly a doctor. ’’Will you be needing me?’’

’’Why don't you stay for a while?’’ Russell suggested. ’’Josh will keep you company, I'm sure.’’

I didn't get to see what Josh looked like, because Eric was carrying me upstairs then.

’’Rhett and Scarlet,’’ I said.

’’I don't understand,’’ Eric told me.

’’You haven't seen Gone with the Wind?’’ I was horrified. But then, why should a vampire Viking have seen that staple of the Southern mystique? But he'd read The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which I had worked my way through in high school. ’’You'll have to watch it on video. Why am I acting so stupid? Why am I not scared?’’

’’That human doctor gave you a big dose of drugs,’’ Eric said, smiling down at me. ’’Now I am carrying you to a bedroom so you can be healed.’’

’’He's here,’’ I told Eric.

His eyes flashed caution at me. ’’Russell, yes. But I'm afraid that Alcide made less than a stellar choice, Sookie. He raced off into the night after the other attacker. He should have stayed with you.’’

’’Screw him,’’ I said expansively.

’’He wishes, especially after seeing you dance.’’

I wasn't feeling quite good enough to laugh, but it did cross my mind. ’’Giving me drugs maybe wasn't such a great idea,’’ I told Eric. I had too many secrets to keep.

’’I agree, but I am glad you're out of pain.’’

Then we were in a bedroom, and Eric was laying me on a gosh-to-goodness canopied four-poster. He took the opportunity to whisper, ’’Be careful,’’ in my ear. And I tried to bore that thought into my drug-addled brain. I might blurt out the fact that I knew, beyond a doubt, that Bill was somewhere close to me.

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