Club Dead Chapter Thirteen


Eric caught up with me as I was climbing into the Lincoln.

’’I had to give Bill a few instructions about cleaning up the mess he caused,’’ he said, though I didn't ask.

Eric was used to driving sports cars, and he had a few issues with the Lincoln.

’’Had it occurred to you,’’ he said, after we'd rolled out of the city's center, ’’that you tend to walk away when things between you and Bill become rocky? Not that I mind, necessarily, since I would be glad for you two to sever your association. But if this is the pattern you follow in your romantic attachments, I want to know now.’’

I thought of several things to say, discarded the first few, which would have blistered my grandmother's ears, and drew a deep breath.

’’Firstly, Eric, what happens between Bill and me is just none of your damn business.’’ I let that sink in for a few seconds. ’’Second, my relationship with Bill is the only one I've ever had, so I've never had any idea what I'm going to do even from day to day, much less establishing a policy.’’ I paused to work on phrasing my next idea. ’’Third, I'm through with you all. I'm tired of seeing all this sick stuff. I'm tired of having to be brave, and having to do things that scare me, and having to hang out with the bizarre and the supernatural. I am just a regular person, and I just want to date regular people. Or at least people who are breathing.’’

Eric waited to see if I'd finished. I cast a quick glance over at him, and the streetlights illuminated his strong profile with its knife-edge nose. At least he wasn't laughing at me. He wasn't even smiling.

He glanced at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. ’’I'm listening to what you say. I can tell you mean it. I've had your blood: I know your feelings.’’

A mile of darkness went by. I was pleased Eric was taking me seriously. Sometimes he didn't;and sometimes he didn't seem to care what he said to me.

’’You are spoiled for humans,’’ Eric said. His slight foreign accent was more apparent.

’’Maybe I am. Though I don't see that as much of a loss, since I didn't have any luck with guys before.’’ Hard to date, when you know exactly what your date is thinking. So much of the time, knowing a man's exact thoughts can erase desire and even liking. ’’But I'd be happier with no one than I am now.’’

I'd been considering the old Ann Landers rule of thumb: Would I be better off with him, or without him? My grandmother and Jason and I had read Ann Landers every day when Jason and I had been growing up. We'd discussed all Ann's responses to reader questions. A lot of the advice she'd ladled out had been intended to help women deal with guys like Jason, so he certainly brought perspective to the conversations.

Right at this moment, I was pretty darn sure I was better off without Bill. He'd used me and abused me, betrayed me and drained me.

He'd also defended me, avenged me, worshiped me with his body, and provided hours of uncritical companionship, a very major blessing.

Well, I just didn't have my scales handy. What I had was a heart full of hurt and a way to go home. We flew through the black night, wrapped in our own thoughts. Traffic was light, but this was an interstate, so of course there were cars around us from time to time.

I had no idea what Eric was thinking about, a wonderful feeling. He might be debating pulling over to the shoulder and breaking my neck, or he might be wondering what tonight's take at Fangtasia would add up to. I wanted him to talk to me. I wished he would tell me about his life before he became a vampire, but that's a real touchy subject with lots of vamps, and I wasn't about to bring it up tonight of all nights.

About an hour out of Bon Temps, we took an exit ramp. We were a little low on gas, and I needed to use the ladies'room. Eric had already begun to fill the tank as I eased my sore body carefully out of the car. He had dismissed my offer to pump the gas with a courteous, ’’No, thank you.’’ One other car was filling up, and the woman, a peroxide blond about my age, hung up the nozzle as I got out of the Lincoln.

At one in the morning, the gas station/convenience store was almost empty besides the young woman, who was heavily made up and wrapped in a quilted coat. I spied a battered Toyota pickup parked by the side of the filling station, in the only shadow on the lot. Inside the pickup, two men were sitting, involved in a heated conversation.

’’It's too cold to be sitting outside in a pickup,’’ the dark-rooted blond said, as we went through the glass doors together. She gave an elaborate shiver.

’’You'd think so,’’ I commented. I was halfway down the aisle by the back of the store, when the clerk, behind a high counter on a raised platform, turned away from his little television to take the blond's money.

The door to the bathroom was hard to shut behind me, since the wooden sill had swollen during some past leakage. In fact, it probably didn't shut all the way behind me, since I was in something of a hurry. But the stall door shut and locked, and it was clean enough. In no hurry to get back in the car with the silent Eric, I took my time after using the facilities. I peered in the mirror over the sink, expecting I'd look like holy hell and not being contradicted by what I saw reflected there.

The mangled bite mark on my neck looked really disgusting, as though a dog had had hold of me. As I cleaned the wound with soap and wet paper towels, I wondered if having ingested vampire blood would give me a specific quantity of extra strength and healing, and then be exhausted, or if it was good for a certain amount of time like a time-release capsule, or what the deal was. After I'd had Bill's blood, I'd felt great for a couple of months.

I didn't have a comb or brush or anything, and I looked like something the cat dragged in. Trying to tame my hair with my fingers just made a bad thing worse. I washed my face and neck, and stepped back into the glare of the store. I hardly registered that once again the door didn't shut behind me, instead lodged quietly on the swollen sill. I emerged behind the last long aisle of groceries, crowded with CornNuts and Lays Chips and Moon Pies and Scotch Snuf and Prince Albert in a can ...

And two armed robbers up by the clerk's platform inside the door.

Holy Moses, why don't they just give these poor clerks shirts with big targets printed on them? That was my first thought, detached, as if I were watching a movie with a convenience store robbery. Then I snapped into the here and now, tuned in by the very real strain on the clerk's face. He was awfully young - a reedy, blotched teenager. And he was facing the two big guys with guns. His hands were in the air, and he was mad as hell. I would have expected blubbering for his life, or incoherence, but this boy was furious.

It was the fourth time he'd been robbed, I read fresh from his brain. And the third time at gunpoint. He was wishing he could grab the shotgun under the seat in his truck behind the store and blast these sumbitches to hell.

And no one acknowledged that I was there. They didn't seem to know.

Not that I was complaining, okay?

I glanced behind me, to verify that the door to the bathroom had stuck open again, so its sound would not betray me. The best thing for me to do would be to creep out the back door to this place, if I could find it, and run around the building to get Eric to call the police.

Wait a minute. Now that I was thinking of Eric, where was he? Why hadn't he come in to pay for the gas?

If it was possible to have a foreboding any more ominous than the one I already had, that fit the bill. If Eric hadn't come in yet, Eric wasn't coming. Maybe he'd decided to leave. Leave me.

Here.

Alone.

Just like Bill left you, my mind supplied helpfully. Well, thanks a hell of a lot, Mind.

Or maybe they'd shot him. If he'd taken a head wound ... and there was no healing a heart that had taken a direct hit with a big-caliber bullet.

There was no point whatsoever in standing there worrying.

This was a typical convenience store. You came in the front door, and the clerk was behind a long counter to your right, up on a platform. The cold drinks were in the refrigerator case that took up the left wall. You were facing three long aisles running the width of the store, plus various special displays and stacks of insulated mugs and charcoal briquettes and birdseed. I was all the way at the back of the store and I could see the clerk (easily) and the crooks (just barely) over the top of the groceries. I had to get out of the store, preferably unseen. I spotted a splintered wooden door, marked ’’Employees Only’’ farther along the back wall. It was actually beyond the counter behind which the clerk stood. There was a gap between the end of the counter and the wall, and from the end of my aisle to the beginning of that counter, I'd be exposed.

Nothing would be gained by waiting.

I dropped to my hands and knees and began crawling. I moved slowly, so I could listen, too.

’’You seen a blond come in here, about this tall?’’ the burlier of the two robbers was saying, and all of a sudden I felt faint.

Which blond? Me, or Eric? Or the peroxide blond? Of course, I couldn't see the height indication. Were they looking for a male vampire or a female telepath? Or ... after all, I wasn't the only woman in the world who could get into trouble, I reminded myself.

’’Blond woman come in here five minutes ago, bought some cigarettes,’’ the boy said sullenly. Good for you, fella!

’’Naw, that one done drove off. We want the one who was with the vampire.’’

Yep, that would be me.

’’I didn't see no other woman,’’ the boy said. I glanced up a little and saw the reflection off a mirror mounted up in the corner of the store. It was a security mirror so the clerk could detect shoplifters. I thought, He can see me crouching here. He knows I'm here.

God bless him. He was doing his best for me. I had to do my best for him. At the same time, if we could avoid getting shot, that would be a very good thing. And where the hell was Eric?

Blessing my borrowed sweatpants and slippers for being soft and silent, I crept deliberately toward the stained wooden ’’Employees Only’’ door. I wondered if it creaked. The two robbers were still talking to the clerk, but I blocked out their voices so I could concentrate on reaching the door.

I'd been scared before, plenty of times, but this was right up there with the scariest events of my life. My dad had hunted, and Jason and his buddies hunted, and I'd watched a massacre in Dallas. I knew what bullets could do. Now that I'd reached the end of the aisle, I'd come to the end of my cover.

I peered around the display counter's end. I had to cross about four feet of open floor to reach the partial shelter of the long counter that ran in front of the cash register. I would be lower and well hidden from the robbers'perspective, once I crossed that empty space.

’’Car pulling in,’’ the clerk said, and the two robbers automatically looked out the plate glass window to see. If I hadn't known what he was doing telepathically, I might have hesitated too long. I scuttled across the exposed linoleum faster than I would have believed possible.

’’I don't see no car,’’ said the less bulky man.

The clerk said, ’’I thought I heard the bell ring, the one that goes when a car drives across it.’’

I reached up and turned the knob on the door. It opened quietly.

’’It rings sometimes when there ain't nobody there,’’ the boy continued, and I realized he was trying to make noise and hold their attention so I could get out the door. God bless him, all over again.

I pushed the door a little wider, and duck-walked through. I was in a narrow passage. There was another door at the end of it, a door that presumably led to the area behind the convenience store. In the door was a set of keys. They wisely kept the back door locked. From one of a row of nails by the back door hung a heavy camo jacket. I poked my hand down in the pocket on the right and came up with the boy's keys. That was just a lucky guess. It happens. Clutching them to prevent their jingling, I opened the back door and stepped outside.

There was nothing out here but a battered pickup and a reeking Dumpster. The lighting was poor, but at least there was some light. The blacktop was cracked. Since it was winter, the weeds that had sprouted up from those cracks were dry and bleached. I heard a little sound to my left and drew in a shaky breath after I'd jumped about a foot. The sound was caused by a huge old raccoon, and he ambled off into the small patch of woods behind the store.

I exhaled just as shakily as I'd drawn the air in. I made myself focus on the bunch of keys. Unfortunately, there were about twenty. This boy had more keys than squirrels had acorns. No one on God's green earth could possibly use this many keys. I flicked through them desperately, and finally selected one that had GM stamped on a black rubber cover. I unlocked the door and reached into the musty interior, which smelled strongly of cigarettes and dogs. Yes, the shotgun was under the seat. I broke it open. It was loaded. Thank God Jason believed in self-defense. He'd showed me how to load and fire his new Benelli.

Despite my new protection, I was so scared, I wasn't sure I could get around to the front of the store. But I had to scout out the situation, and find out what had happened to Eric. I eased down the side of the building where the old Toyota truck was parked. Nothing was in the back, except a little spot that picked up a stray fraction of light. The shotgun cradled in one arm, I reached down to run a finger over it.

Fresh blood. I felt old and cold. I stood with my head bowed for a long moment, and then I braced myself.

I looked in the driver's window to find the cab was unlocked. Well, happy days. I opened the door quietly, glanced in. There was a sizeable open box on the front seat, and when I checked its contents, my heart sank so low, I thought it'd come out the bottom of my shoes. On the outside, the box was stamped ’’Contents: Two.’’ Now it contained one silver mesh net, the kind sold in ’’mercenary’’ magazines, the kind always advertised as ’’vampire proof.’’

That was like calling a shark cage a sure deterrent from shark bites.

Where was Eric? I glanced over the immediate vicinity, but I saw no other trace. I could hear traffic whooshing by on the interstate, but the silence hung over this bleak parking lot.

My eyes lit on a pocketknife on the dash. Yahoo! Carefully placing the shotgun on the front seat, I scooped up the knife, opened it after I'd laid down the shotgun, and I held it ready to sink into the tire. Then I thought twice. A wholehearted tire-slashing was proof someone had been out here while the robbers were inside. That might not be a good thing. I contented myself with poking a single hole in the tire. It was just a smallish hole that might have come from anything, I told myself. If they did drive off, they'd have to stop somewhere down the road. Then I pocketed the knife - I was certainly quite the thief lately - and returned to the shadows around the building. This hadn't taken as long as you might think, but still it had been several minutes since I'd assessed the situation in the convenience store.

The Lincoln was still parked by the pumps. The gas port was closed, so I knew Eric had finished refueling before something had happened to him. I sidled around the corner of the building, hugging its lines. I found good cover at the front, in the angle formed by the ice machine and the front wall of the store. I risked standing up enough to peek over the top of the machine.

The robbers had come up into the higher area where the clerk stood, and they were beating on him.

Hey, now. That had to stop. They were beating him because they wanted to know where I was hiding, was my guess;and I couldn't let someone else get beaten up on my behalf.

’’Sookie,’’ said a voice right behind me.

The next instant a hand clapped across my mouth just as I was about to scream.

’’Sorry,’’ Eric whispered. ’’I should have thought of a better way to let you know I was here.’’

’’Eric,’’ I said, when I could speak. He could tell I was calmer, and he moved his hand. ’’We gotta save him.’’

’’Why?’’

Sometimes vampires just astound me. Well, people, too, but tonight it was a vampire.

’’Because he's getting beaten for our sakes, and they're probably gonna kill him, and it'll be our fault!’’

’’They're robbing the store,’’ Eric said, as if I were particularly dim. ’’They had a new vampire net, and they thought they'd try it out on me. They don't know it yet, but it didn't work. But they're just opportunistic scum.’’

’’They're looking for us,’’ I said furiously.

’’Tell me,’’ he whispered, and I did.

’’Give me the shotgun,’’ he said.

I kept a good grip on it. ’’You know how to use one of these things?’’

’’Probably as well as you.’’ But he looked at it dubiously.

’’That's where you're wrong,’’ I told him. Rather than have a prolonged argument while my new hero was getting internal injuries, I ran in a crouch around the ice machine, the propane gas rack, and through the front door into the store. The little bell over the door rang like crazy, and though with all the shouting they didn't seem to hear it, they sure paid attention when I fired a blast through the ceiling over their heads. Tiles, dust, and insulation rained down.

It almost knocked me flat - but not quite. I leveled the gun right on them. They were frozen. It was like playing Swing the Statue when I was little. But not quite. The poor pimply clerk had a bloody face, and I was sure his nose was broken, and some of his teeth knocked loose.

I felt a fine rage break out behind my eyes. ’’Let the young man go,’’ I said clearly.

’’You gonna shoot us, little lady?’’

’’You bet your ass I am,’’ I said.

’’And if she misses, I will get you,’’ said Eric's voice, above and behind me. A big vampire makes great backup.

’’The vampire got loose, Sonny.’’ The speaker was a thinnish man with filthy hands and greasy boots.

’’I see that,’’ said Sonny, the heavier one. He was darker, too. The smaller man's head was covered with that no-color hair, the kind people call ’’brown’’ because they have to call it something.

The young clerk pulled himself up out of his pain and fear and came around the counter as fast as he could move. Mixed with the blood on his face was a lot of white powder from me shooting into the ceiling. He looked a sight.

’’I see you found my shotgun,’’ he said as he passed by me, carefully not getting between the bad guys and me. He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket, and I heard the tiny beeps as he pressed numbers. His growly voice was soon in staccato conversation with the police.

’’Before the police get here, Sookie, we need to find out who sent these two imbeciles,’’ Eric said. If I'd been them, I'd have been mighty scared at the tone of his voice, and they seemed to be aware of what an angry vampire could do. For the first time Eric stepped abreast of me and then a little bit ahead, and I could see his face. Burns crisscrossed it like angry strings of poison ivy welts. He was lucky only his face had been bare, but I doubt he was feeling very lucky.

’’Come down here,’’ Eric said, and he caught the eyes of Sonny.

Sonny immediately walked down from the clerk's platform and around the counter while his companion was gaping.

’’Stay,’’ said Eric. The no-color man squeezed his eyes shut so he couldn't glimpse Eric, but he opened them just a crack when he heard Eric take a step closer, and that was enough. If you don't have any extra abilities yourself, you just can't look a vampire in the eyes. If they want to, they'll get you.

’’Who sent you here?’’ Eric asked softly.

’’One of the Hounds of Hell,’’ Sonny said, with no inflection in his voice.

Eric looked startled. ’’A member of the motorcycle gang,’’ I explained carefully, mindful that we had a civilian audience who was listening with great curiosity. I was getting a great amplification of the answers through their brains.

’’What did they tell you to do?’’

’’They told us to wait along the interstate. There are more fellas waiting at other gas stations.’’

They'd called about forty thugs altogether. They'd outlaid a lot of cash.

’’What were you supposed to watch for?’’

’’A big dark guy and a tall blond guy. With a blond woman, real young, with nice tits.’’

Eric's hand moved too fast for me to track. I was only sure he'd moved when I saw the blood running down Sonny's face.

’’You are speaking of my future lover. Be more respectful. Why were you looking for us?’’

’’We were supposed to catch you. Take you back to Jackson.’’

’’Why?’’

’’The gang suspected you mighta had something to do with Jerry Falcon's disappearance. They wanted to ask you some questions about it. They had someone watching some apartment building, seen you two coming out in a Lincoln, had you followed part of the way. The dark guy wasn't with you, but the woman was the right one, so we started tracking you.’’

’’Do the vampires of Jackson know anything about this plan?’’

’’No, the gang figured it was their problem. But they also got a lot of other problems, a prisoner escape and so on, and lots of people out sick. So what with one thing and another, they recruited a bunch of us to help.’’

’’What are these men?’’ Eric asked me.

I closed my eyes and thought carefully. ’’Nothing,’’ I said. ’’They're nothing.’’ They weren't shifters, or Weres, or anything. They were hardly human beings, in my opinion, but nobody died and made me God.

’’We need to get out of here,’’ Eric said. I agreed heartily. The last thing I wanted to do was spend the night at the police station, and for Eric, that was an impossibility. There wasn't an approved vampire jail cell any closer than Shreveport. Heck, the police station in Bon Temps had just gotten wheelchair accessible.

Eric looked into Sonny's eyes. ’’We weren't here,’’ he said. ’’This lady and myself.’’

’’Just the boy,’’ Sonny agreed.

Again, the other robber tried to keep his eyes tight shut, but Eric blew in his face, and just as a dog would, the man opened his eyes and tried to wiggle back. Eric had him in a second, and repeated his procedure.

Then he turned to the clerk and handed him the shotgun. ’’Yours, I believe,’’ Eric said.

’’Thanks,’’ the boy said, his eyes firmly on the barrel of the gun. He aimed at the robbers. ’’I know you weren't here,’’ he growled, keeping his gaze ahead of him. ’’And I ain't saying nothing to the police.’’

Eric put forty dollars on the counter. ’’For the gas,’’ he explained. ’’Sookie, let's make tracks.’’

’’A Lincoln with a big hole in the trunk does stand out,’’ the boy called after us.

’’He's right.’’ I was buckling up and Eric was accelerating as we heard sirens, pretty close.

’’I should have taken the truck,’’ Eric said. He seemed pleased with our adventure, now that it was over.

’’How's your face?’’

’’It's getting better.’’

The welts were not nearly as noticeable.

’’What happened?’’ I asked, hoping this was not a very touchy subject.

He cast me a sideways glance. Now that we were back on the interstate, we had slowed down to the speed limit, so it wouldn't seem to any of the many police cars converging on the convenience store that we were fleeing.

’’While you were tending to your human needs in the bathroom,’’ he said, ’’I finished putting gas in the tank. I had hung up the pump and was almost at the door when those two got out of the truck and just tossed a net over me. It is very humiliating, that they were able to do that, two fools with a silver net.’’

’’Your mind must have been somewhere else.’’

’’Yes,’’ he said shortly. ’’It was.’’

’’So then what happened?’’ I asked, when it seemed he was going to stop there.

’’The heavier one hit me with the butt of his gun, and it took me a small time to recover,’’ Eric said.

’’I saw the blood.’’

He touched a place on the back of his head. ’’Yes, I bled. After getting used to the pain, I snagged a corner of the net on the bumper of their truck and managed to roll out of it. They were inept in that, as well as robbery. If they had tied the net shut with silver chains, the result might have been different.’’

’’So you got free?’’

’’The head blow was more of a problem than I thought at first,’’ Eric said stiffly. ’’I ran along the back of the store to the water spigot on the other side. Then I heard someone coming out of the back. When I was recovered, I followed the sounds and found you.’’ After a long moment's silence, Eric asked me what had happened in the store.

’’They got me confused with the other woman who went in the store at the same time I went to the ladies'room,’’ I explained. ’’They didn't seem to be sure I was in the store, and the clerk was telling them that there had been only one woman, and she'd gone. I could tell he had a shotgun in his truck - you know, I heard it in his head - and I went and got it, and I disabled their truck, and I was looking for you because I figured something had happened to you.’’

’’So you planned to save me and the clerk, together?’’

’’Well ... yeah.’’ I couldn't understand the odd tone of his voice. ’’I didn't feel like I had a whole lot of choices there.’’

The welts were just pink lines now.

The silence still didn't seem relaxed. We were about forty minutes from home now. I started to let it drop. I didn't.

’’You don't seem too happy about something,’’ I said, a definite edge to my voice. My own temper was fraying around the edges. I knew I was heading in the wrong direction conversationally;I knew I should just be content with silence, however brooding and pregnant.

Eric took the exit for Bon Temps and turned south.

Sometimes, instead of going down the road less taken, you just charge right down the beaten path.

’’Would there be something wrong with me rescuing the two of you?’’ We were driving through Bon Temps now. Eric turned east after the buildings along Main gradually thinned and vanished. We passed Merlotte's, still open. We turned south again, on a small parish road. Then we were bumping down my driveway.

Eric pulled over and killed the engine. ’’Yes,’’ he said. ’’There is something wrong with that. And why the hell don't you get your driveway fixed?’’

The string of tension that had stretched between us popped. I was out of the car in a New York minute, and he was, too. We faced each other across the roof of the Lincoln, though not much of me showed. I charged around it until I was right in front of him.

’’Because I can't afford it, that's why! I don't have any money! And you all keep asking me to take time off from my job to do stuff for you! I can't! I can't do it anymore!’’ I shrieked. ’’I quit!’’

There was a long moment of silence while Eric regarded me. My chest was heaving underneath my stolen jacket. Something felt funny, something was bothering me about the appearance of my house, but I was too het up to examine my worry.

’’Bill ...’’ Eric began cautiously, and it set me off like a rocket.

’’He's spending all his money on the freaking Bellefleurs,’’ I said, my tone this time low and venomous, but no less sincere. ’’He never thinks about giving me money. And how could I take it? It would make me a kept woman, and I'm not his whore, I'm his ... I used to be his girlfriend.’’

I took a deep, shuddering breath, dismally aware that I was going to cry. It would be better to get mad again. I tried. ’’Where do you get off, telling them that I'm your ... your lover? Where'd that come from?’’

’’What happened to the money you earned in Dallas?’’ Eric asked, taking me completely by surprise.

’’I paid my property taxes with it.’’

’’Did you ever think that if you told me where Bill's hiding his computer program, I would give you anything you asked for? Did you not realize that Russell would have paid you handsomely?’’

I sucked in my breath, so offended, I hardly knew where to begin.

’’I see you didn't think of those things.’’

’’Oh, yeah, I'm just an angel.’’ Actually, none of those things had occurred to me, and I was almost defensive they hadn't. I was shaking with fury, and all my good sense went out the window. I would feel the presence of other brains at work, and the fact that someone was in my place enraged me farther. The rational part of my mind crumpled under the weight of my anger.

’’Someone's waiting in my house, Eric.’’ I swung around and stomped over to my porch, finding the key I'd hidden under the rocker my grandmother had loved. Ignoring everything my brain was trying to tell me, ignoring the beginning of a bellow from Eric, I opened the front door and got hit with a ton of bricks.

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