Club Dead Chapter Three


When the sun came up, I'd managed a half hour of sleep. I started to rise and make some coffee, but there didn't seem to be much point. I just stayed in bed. The phone rang during the morning, but I didn't pick it up. The doorbell rang, but I didn't answer it.

At some point toward the middle of the afternoon, I realized that there was one thing I had to do, the task Bill had insisted on my accomplishing if he was delayed. This situation exactly fit what he'd told me.

Now I sleep in the largest bedroom, formerly my grandmother's. I wobbled across the hall to my former room. A couple of months before, Bill had taken out the floor of my old closet and made it into a trapdoor. He'd established a lighttight hidey-hole for himself in the crawl space under the house. He'd done a great job.

I made sure I couldn't be seen from the window before I opened the closet door. The floor of the closet was bare of everything but the carpet, which was an extension of the one cut to fit the room. After I'd retracted the flap that covered the closet floor, I ran a pocketknife around the flooring and eventually pried it up. I looked down into the black box below. It was full: Bill's computer, a box of disks, even his monitor and printer.

So Bill had foreseen this might happen, and he'd hidden his work before he'd left. He'd had some faith in me, no matter how faithless he might have been himself. I nodded, and rolled the carpet back into place, fitting it carefully into the corners. On the floor of the closet I put out-of-season things - shoe boxes containing summer shoes, a beach bag filled with big sunbathing towels and one of my many tubes of suntan lotion, and my folding chaise that I used for tanning. I stuck a huge umbrella back in the corner, and decided that the closet looked realistic enough. My sundresses hung from the bar, along with some very lightweight bathrobes and nightgowns. My flare of energy faded as I realized I'd finished the last service Bill had asked of me, and I had no way to let him know I had followed his wishes.

Half of me (pathetically) wanted to let him know I'd kept the faith;half of me wanted to get in the toolshed and sharpen me some stakes.

Too conflicted to form any course of action, I crawled back to my bed and hoisted myself in. Abandoning a lifetime of making the best of things, and being strong and cheerful and practical, I returned to wallowing in my grief and my overwhelming sense of betrayal.

When I woke, it was dark again, and Bill was in bed with me. Oh, thank God! Relief swept over me. Now all would be well. I felt his cool body behind me, and I rolled over, half asleep, and put my arms around him. He eased up my long nylon gown, and his hand stroked my leg. I put my head against his silent chest and nuzzled him. His arms tightened around me, he pressed firmly against me, and I sighed with joy, inserting a hand between us to unfasten his pants. Everything was back to normal.

Except he smelled different.

My eyes flew open, and I pushed back against rock-hard shoulders. I let out a little squeak of horror.

’’It's me,’’ said a familiar voice.

’’Eric, what are you doing here?’’

’’Snuggling.’’

’’You son of a bitch! I thought you were Bill! I thought he was back!’’

’’Sookie, you need a shower.’’

’’What?’’

’’Your hair is dirty, and your breath could knock down a horse.’’

’’Not that I care what you think,’’ I said flatly.

’’Go get cleaned up.’’

’’Why?’’

’’Because we have to talk, and I'm pretty sure you don't want to have a long conversation in bed. Not that I have any objection to being in bed with you’’ - he pressed himself against me to prove how little he objected - ’’but I'd enjoy it more if I were with the hygienic Sookie I've come to know.’’

Possibly nothing he could have said would have gotten me out of the bed faster than that. The hot shower felt wonderful to my cold body, and my temper took care of warming up my insides. It wasn't the first time Eric had surprised me in my own home. I was going to have to rescind his invitation to enter. What had stopped me from that drastic step before - what stopped me now - was the idea that if I ever needed help, and he couldn't enter, I might be dead before I could yell, ’’Come in!’’

I'd entered the bathroom carrying my jeans and underwear and a red-and-green Christmas sweater with reindeer on it, because that's what had been at the top of my drawer. You only get a month to wear the darn things, so I make the most of it. I used a blow-dryer on my hair, wishing Bill were there to comb it out for me. He really enjoyed doing that, and I enjoyed letting him. At that mental image, I almost broke down again, but I stood with my head resting against the wall for a long moment while I gathered my resolve. I took a deep breath, turned to the mirror, and slapped on some makeup. My tan wasn't great this far into the cold season;but I still had a nice glow, thanks to the tanning bed at Bon Temps Video Rental.

I'm a summer person. I like the sun, and the short dresses, and the feeling you had many hours of light to do whatever you chose. Even Bill loved the smells of summer;he loved it when he could smell suntan oil and (he told me) the sun itself on my skin.

But the sweet part of winter was that the nights were much longer - at least, I'd thought so when Bill was around to share those nights with me. I threw my hairbrush across the bathroom. It made a satisfying clatter as it ricocheted into the tub. ’’You bastard!’’ I screamed at the top of my lungs. Hearing my voice saying such a thing out loud calmed me down as nothing else could have.

When I emerged from the bathroom, Eric was completely dressed. He had on a freebie T-shirt from one of the breweries that supplied Fangtasia (’’This Blood's For You,’’ it read) and blue jeans, and he had thoughtfully made the bed.

’’Can Pam and Chow come in?’’ he asked.

I walked through the living room to the front door and opened it. The two vampires were sitting silently on the porch swing. They were in what I thought of as downtime. When vampires don't have anything in particular to do, they sort of go blank;retreat inside themselves, sitting or standing utterly immobile, eyes open but vacant. It seems to refresh them.

’’Please come in,’’ I said.

Pam and Chow entered slowly, looking around them with interest, as if they were on a field trip. Louisiana farmhouse, circa early twenty-first century. The house had belonged to our family since it was built over a hundred and sixty years ago. When my brother, Jason, had struck out on his own, he'd moved into the place my parents had built when they'd married. I'd stayed here, with Gran, in this much-altered, much-renovated house;and she'd left it to me in her will.

The living room had been the total original house. Other additions, like the modern kitchen and the bathrooms, were relatively new. The next floor, which was much smaller than the ground level, had been added in the early 1900s to accommodate a generation of children who all survived. I rarely went up there these days. It was awfully hot upstairs in the summer, even with the window air conditioners.

All my furniture was aged, styleless, and comfortable - absolutely conventional. The living room had couches and chairs and a television and a VCR, and then you passed through a hall that had my large bedroom with its own bath on one side, and a hall bathroom and my former bedroom and some closets - linen, coat - on the other. Through that passage, you were into the kitchen/dining area, which had been added on soon after my grandparents'wedding. After the kitchen, there was a big roofed back porch, which I'd just had screened in. The porch housed a useful old bench, the washer and dryer, and a bunch of shelves.

There was a ceiling fan in every room and a fly swatter, too, hung in a discreet spot on a tiny nail. Gran wouldn't turn on the air conditioner unless she absolutely had to.

Though they didn't venture upstairs, no detail escaped Pam and Chow on the ground floor.

By the time they settled at the old pine table where Stackhouses had eaten for a few generations, I felt like I lived in a museum that had just been cataloged. I opened the refrigerator and got out three bottles of TrueBlood, heated them up in the microwave, gave them a good shake, and plonked them down on the table in front of my guests.

Chow was still practically a stranger to me. He'd been working at Fangtasia only a few months. I assume he'd bought into the bar, as the previous bartender had. Chow had amazing tattoos, the dark blue Asian kind that are so intricate, they are like a set of fancy clothes. These were so different from my attacker's jailhouse decorations that it was hard to believe they were the same art form. I'd been told Chow's were Yakuza tattoos, but I had never had the nerve to ask him, especially since it wasn't exactly my business. However, if these were true Yakuza tats, Chow was not that old for a vampire. I'd looked up the Yakuza, and the tattooing was a (relatively) recent development in that criminal organization's long history. Chow had long black hair (no surprise there), and I'd heard from many sources that he was a tremendous draw at Fangtasia. Most evenings, he worked shirtless. Tonight, as a concession to the cold, he was wearing a zipped red vest.

I couldn't help but wonder if he ever really felt naked;his body was so thoroughly decorated. I wished I could ask him, but of course that was out of the question. He was the only person of Asian descent I had ever met, and no matter how you know individuals don't represent their whole race, you do kind of expect at least some of the generalizations to be valid. Chow did seem to have a strong sense of privacy. But far from being silent and inscrutable, he was chattering away with Pam, though in a language I couldn't understand. And he smiled at me in a disconcerting way. Okay, maybe he was too far from inscrutable. He was probably insulting the hell out of me, and I was too dumb to know it.

Pam was dressed, as always, in sort of middle-class anonymous clothes. This evening it was a pair of winter white knit pants and a blue sweater. Her blond hair was shining, straight and loose, down her back. She looked like Alice in Wonderland with fangs.

’’Have you found out anything else about Bill?’’ I asked, when they'd all had a swallow of their drinks.

Eric said, ’’A little.’’

I folded my hands in my lap and waited.

’’I know Bill's been kidnapped,’’ he said, and the room swam around my head for a second. I took a deep breath to make it stop.

’’Who by?’’ Grammar was the least of my worries.

’’We aren't sure,’’ Chow told me. ’’The witnesses are not agreeing.’’ His English was accented, but very clear.

’’Let me at them,’’ I said. ’’If they're human, I'll find out.’’

’’If they were under our dominion, that would be the logical thing to do,’’ Eric said agreeably. ’’But, unfortunately, they're not.’’

Dominion, my foot. ’’Please explain.’’ I was sure I was showing extraordinary patience under the circumstances.

’’These humans owe allegiance to the king of Mississippi.’’

I knew my mouth was falling open, but I couldn't seem to stop it. ’’Excuse me,’’ I said, after a long moment, ’’but I could have sworn you said ... the king? Of Mississippi?’’

Eric nodded without a trace of a smile.

I looked down, trying to keep a straight face. Even under the circumstances, it was impossible. I could feel my mouth twitch. ’’For real?’’ I asked helplessly. I don't know why it seemed even funnier that Mississippi had a king - after all, Louisiana had a queen - but it did. I reminded myself I wasn't supposed to know about the queen. Check.

The vampires looked at one another. They nodded in unison.

’’Are you the king of Louisiana?’’ I asked Eric, giddy with all my mental effort to keep varying stories straight. I was laughing so hard that it was all I could do to keep upright in the chair. Possibly there was a note of hysteria.

’’Oh, no,’’ he said. ’’I am the sheriff of Area 5.’’

That really set me off. I had tears running down my face, and Chow was looking uneasy. I got up, made myself some Swiss Miss microwave hot chocolate, and stirred it with a spoon so it would cool off. I was calming down as I performed the little task, and by the time I returned to the table, I was almost sober.

’’You never told me all this before,’’ I said, by way of explanation. ’’You all have divided up America into kingdoms, is that right?’’

Pam and Chow looked at Eric with some surprise, but he didn't regard them. ’’Yes,’’ he said simply. ’’It has been so since vampires came to America. Of course, over the years the system's changed with the population. There were far fewer vampires in America for the first two hundred years, because the trip over was so perilous. It was hard to work out the length of the voyage with the available blood supply.’’ Which would have been the crew, of course. ’’And the Louisiana Purchase made a great difference.’’

Well, of course it would. I stifled another bout of giggles. ’’And the kingdoms are divided into ... ?’’

’’Areas. Used to be called fiefdoms, until we decided that was too behind the times. A sheriff controls each area. As you know, we live in Area 5 of the kingdom of Louisiana. Stan, whom you visited in Dallas, is sheriff of Area 6 in the kingdom of ... in Texas.’’

I pictured Eric as the sheriff of Nottingham, and when that had lost amusement value, as Wyatt Earp. I was definitely on the light-headed side. I really felt pretty bad physically. I told myself to pack away my reaction to this information, to focus on the immediate problem. ’’So, Bill was kidnapped in daylight, I take it?’’

Multiple nods all around.

’’This kidnapping was witnessed by some humans who live in the kingdom of Mississippi.’’ I just loved to say that. ’’And they're under the control of a vampire king?’’

’’Russell Edgington. Yes, they live in his kingdom, but a few of them will give me information. For a price.’’

’’This king won't let you question them?’’

’’We haven't asked him yet. It could be Bill was taken on his orders.’’

That raised a whole new crop of questions, but I told myself to stay focused. ’’How can I get to them? Assuming I decide I want to.’’

’’We've thought of a way you may be able to gather information from humans in the area where Bill disappeared,’’ said Eric. ’’Not just people I have bribed to let me know what's happening there, but all the people that associated with Russell. It's risky. I had to tell you what I have, to make it work. And you may be unwilling. Someone's already tried to get you once. Apparently, whoever has Bill must not have much information about you yet. But soon, Bill will talk. If you're anywhere around when he breaks, they'll have you.’’

’’They won't really need me then,’’ I pointed out. ’’If he's already broken.’’

’’That's not necessarily true,’’ Pam said. They did some more of the enigmatic-gaze-swapping thing.

’’Give me the whole story,’’ I said. I noticed that Chow had finished his blood, so I got up to get him some more.

’’As Russell Edgington's people tell it, Betty Jo Pickard, Edgington's second in command, was supposed to begin a flight to St. Louis yesterday. The humans responsible for taking her coffin to the airport took Bill's identical coffin by mistake. When they delivered the coffin to the hangar Anubis Airlines leases, they left it unguarded for perhaps ten minutes while they were filling out paperwork. During that time - they claim - someone wheeled the coffin, which was on a kind of gurney, out of the back of the hangar, loaded it onto a truck, and drove away.’’

’’Someone who could penetrate Anubis security,’’ I said, doubt heavy in my voice. Anubis Airlines had been established to transport vampires safely both day and night, and their guarantee of heavy security to guard the coffins of sleeping vampires was their big calling card. Of course, vampires don't have to sleep in coffins, but it sure is easy to ship them that way. There had been unfortunate ’’accidents’’ when vampires had tried to fly Delta. Some fanatic had gotten in the baggage hold and hacked open a couple of coffins with an ax. Northwest had suffered the same problem. Saving money suddenly didn't seem so attractive to the undead, who now flew Anubis almost exclusively.

’’I'm thinking that someone could have mingled with Edgington's people, someone the Anubis employees thought was Edgington's, and Edgington's people thought belonged to Anubis. He could have wheeled Bill out as Edgington's people left, and the guards would be none the wiser.’’

’’The Anubis people wouldn't ask to see papers? On a departing coffin?’’

’’They say they did see papers, Betty Jo Pickard's. She was on her way to Missouri to negotiate a trade agreement with the vampires of St. Louis.’’ I had a blank moment of wondering what on earth the vampires of Mississippi could be trading with the vampires of Missouri, and then I decided I just didn't want to know.

’’There was also extra confusion at the time,’’ Pam was saying. ’’A fire started under the tail of another Anubis plane, and the guards were distracted.’’

’’Oh, accidentally-on-purpose.’’

’’I think so,’’ Chow said.

’’So, why would anyone want to snatch Bill?’’ I asked. I was afraid I knew. I was hoping they'd provide me with something else. Thank God Bill had prepared for this moment.

’’Bill's been working on a little special project,’’ Eric said, his eyes on my face. ’’Do you know anything about that?’’

More than I wanted to. Less than I ought to.

’’What project?’’ I said. I've spent my whole life concealing my thoughts, and I called on all my skill now. That life depended on my sincerity.

Eric's gaze flickered over to Pam, to Chow. They both gave some infinitesimal signal. He focused on me again, and said, ’’That is a little hard to believe, Sookie.’’

’’How come?’’ I asked, anger in my voice. When in doubt, attack. ’’When do any of you exactly spill your emotional guts to a human? And Bill is definitely one of you.’’ I infused that with as much rage as I could muster.

They did that eye-flicker thing at one another again.

’’You think we'll believe that Bill didn't tell you what he was working on?’’

’’Yes, I think so. Because he didn't.’’ I had more or less figured it out all by myself anyway.

’’Here's what I'm going to do,’’ Eric said finally. He looked at me from across the table, his blue eyes as hard, as marbles and just as warm. No more Mr. Nice Vampire. ’’I can't tell if you're lying or not, which is remarkable. For your sake, I hope you are telling the truth. I could torture you until you told me the truth, or until I was sure you had been telling me the truth from the beginning.’’

Oh, brother. I took a deep breath, blew it out, and tried to think of an appropriate prayer. God, don't let me scream too loud seemed kind of weak and negative. Besides, there was no one to hear me besides the vampires, no matter how loudly I shrieked. When the time came, I might as well let it rip.

’’But,’’ Eric continued thoughtfully, ’’that might damage you too badly for the other part of my plan. And really, it doesn't make that much difference if you know what Bill has been doing behind our backs or not.’’

Behind their backs? Oh, shit. And now I knew whom to blame for my very deep predicament. My own dear love, Bill Compton.

’’That got a reaction,’’ Pam observed.

’’But not the one I expected,’’ Eric said slowly.

’’I'm not too happy about the torture option.’’ I was in so much trouble, I couldn't even begin to add it up, and I was so overloaded with stress that I felt like my head was floating somewhere above my body. ’’And I miss Bill.’’ Even though at the moment I would gladly kick his ass, I did miss him. And if I could just have ten minutes'conversation with him, how much better prepared I would be to face the coming days. Tears rolled down my face. But there was more they had to tell me;more I had to hear, whether I wanted to or not. ’’I do expect you to tell me why he lied about this trip, if you know. Pam mentioned bad news.’’

Eric looked at Pam with no love in his eyes at all.

’’She's leaking again,’’ Pam observed, sounding a little uncomfortable. ’’I think before she goes to Mississippi, she should know the truth. Besides, if she has been keeping secrets for Bill, this will ...’’

Make her spill the beans? Change her loyalty to Bill? Force her to realize she has to tell us?

It was obvious that Chow and Eric had been all for keeping me in ignorance and that they were acutely unhappy with Pam for hinting to me that, though I supposedly didn't know it, all was not well with Bill and me. But they both eyed Pam intently for a long minute, and then Eric nodded curtly.

’’You and Chow wait outside,’’ Eric said to Pam. She gave him a very pointed look, and then they walked out, leaving their drained bottles sitting on the table. Not even a thank-you for the blood. Didn't even rinse the bottles out. My head felt lighter and lighter as I contemplated poor vampire manners. I felt my eyelids flicker, and it occurred to me that I was on the edge of fainting. I am not one of these frail gals who keels over at every little thing, but I felt I was justified right now. Plus, I vaguely realized I hadn't eaten in over twenty-four hours.

’’Don't you do it,’’ Eric said. He sounded definite. I tried to concentrate on his voice, and I looked at him.

I nodded to indicate I was doing my best.

He moved over to my side of the table, turned the chair Pam had occupied until it faced me and was very close. He sat and leaned over to me, his big white hand covering both of mine, still folded neatly in my lap. If he closed his hand, he could crush all my fingers. I'd never work as a waitress again.

’’I don't enjoy seeing you scared of me,’’ he said, his face too close to mine. I could smell his cologne - Ulysse, I thought. ’’I have always been very fond of you.’’

He'd always wanted to have se* with me.

’’Plus, I want to f*k you.’’ He grinned, but at this moment it didn't do a thing to me. ’’When we kiss ... it's very exciting.’’ We had kissed in the line of duty, so to speak, and not as recreation. But it had been exciting. How not? He was gorgeous, and he'd had several hundred years to work on his smooching technique.

Eric got closer and closer. I wasn't sure if he was going to bite me or kiss me. His fangs had run out. He was angry, or homy, or hungry, or all three. New vampires tended to lisp while they talked until they got used to their fangs;you couldn't even tell, with Eric. He'd had centuries of perfecting that technique, too.

’’Somehow, that torture plan didn't make me feel very se*y,’’ I told him.

’’It did something for Chow, though,’’ Eric whispered in my ear.

I wasn't shaking, but I should have been. ’’Could you cut to the chase here?’’ I asked. ’’Are you gonna torture me, or not? Are you my friend, or my enemy? Are you gonna find Bill, or let him rot?’’

Eric laughed. It was short and unfunny, but it was better than him getting closer, at least at the moment. ’’Sookie, you are too much,’’ he said, but not as though he found that particularly endearing. ’’I'm not going to torture you. For one thing, I would hate to ruin that beautiful skin;one day, I will see all of it.’’

I just hoped it was still on my body when that happened.

’’You won't always be so afraid of me,’’ he said, as if he were absolutely certain of the future. ’’And you won't always be as devoted to Bill as you are now. There is something I must tell you.’’

Here came the Big Bad. His cool fingers twined with mine, and without wanting to, I held his hand hard. I couldn't think of a word to say, at least a word that was safe. My eyes fixed on his.

’’Bill was summoned to Mississippi,’’ Eric told me, ’’by a vampire - a female - he'd known many years ago. I don't know if you've realized that vampires almost never mate with other vampires, for any longer than a rare one-night affair. We don't do this because it gives us power over each other forever, the mating and sharing of blood. This vampire ...’’

’’Her name,’’ I said.

’’Lorena,’’ he said reluctantly. Or maybe he wanted to tell me all along, and the reluctance was just for show. Who the heck knows, with a vampire.

He waited to see if I would speak, but I did not.

’’She was in Mississippi. I am not sure if she regularly lives there, or if she went there to ensnare Bill. She had been living in Seattle for years, I know, because she and Bill lived there together for many years.’’

I had wondered why he'd picked Seattle as his fictitious destination. He hadn't just plucked it out of the air.

’’But whatever her intention in asking him to meet her there ... what excuse she gave him for not coming here ... maybe he was just being careful of you ...’’

I wanted to die at that moment. I took a deep breath and looked down at our joined hands. I was too humiliated to look in Eric's eyes.

’’He was - he became - instantly enthralled with her, all over again. After a few nights, he called Pam to say that he was coming home early without telling you, so he could arrange your future care before he saw you again.’’

’’Future care?’’ I sounded like a crow.

’’Bill wanted to make a financial arrangement for you.’’

The shock of it made me blanch. ’’Pension me off,’’ I said numbly. No matter how well he had meant, Bill could not have offered me any greater offense. When he'd been in my life, it had never occurred to him to ask me how my finances were faring - though he could hardly wait to help his newly discovered descendants, the Bellefleurs.

But when he was going to be out of my life, and felt guilty for leaving pitiful, pitiable me - then he started worrying.

’’He wanted ...’’ Eric began, then stopped and looked closely at my face. ’’Well, leave that for now. I would not have told you any of this, if Pam hadn't interfered. I would have sent you off in ignorance, because then it wouldn't have been words from my mouth that hurt you so badly. And I would not have had to plead with you, as I'm going to plead.’’

I made myself listen. I gripped Eric's hand as if it were a lifeline.

’’What I'm going to do - and you have to understand, Sookie, my hide depends on this, too ...’’

I looked him straight in the face, and he saw the rush of my surprise.

’’Yes, my job, and maybe my life, too, Sookie - not just yours, and Bill's. I'm sending you a contact tomorrow. He lives in Shreveport, but he has a second apartment in Jackson. He has friends among the supernatural community there, the vampires, shifters, and Weres. Through him you can meet some of them, and their human employees.’’

I was not completely in my head right now, but I felt like I'd understand all this when I played it back. So I nodded. His fingers stroked mine, over and over.

’’This man is a Were,’’ Eric said carelessly, ’’so he is scum. But he is more reliable than some others, and he owes me a big personal favor.’’

I absorbed that, nodded again. Eric's long fingers seemed almost warm.

’’He'll take you out and about in the vampire community in Jackson, and you can pick brains there among human employees. I know it's a long shot, but if there's something to discover, if Russell Edgington did abduct Bill, you may pick up a hint. The man who tried to abduct you was from Jackson, going by the bills in his car, and he was a Were, as the wolf's head on his vest indicates. I don't know why they came after you. But I suspect it means Bill is alive, and they wanted to grab you to use as leverage over him.’’

’’Then I guess they should have abducted Lorena,’’ I said.

Eric's eyes widened in appreciation.

’’Maybe they already have her,’’ he said. ’’But maybe Bill has realized it is Lorena who betrayed him. He wouldn't have been taken if she hadn't revealed the secret he had told her.’’

I mulled that over, nodded yet again.

’’Another puzzle is why she happened to be there at all,’’ Eric said. ’’I think I would have known if she'd been a regular member of the Mississippi group. But I'll be thinking about that in my spare time.’’ From his grim face, Eric had already put in considerable brain time on that question. ’’If this plan doesn't work within about three days, Sookie, we may have to kidnap one of the Mississippi vampires in return. This would almost certainly lead to a war, and a war - even with Mississippi - would be costly in lives and money. And in the end, they would kill Bill anyway.’’

Okay, the weight of the world was resting on my shoulders. Thanks, Eric. I needed more responsibility and pressure.

’’But know this: If they have Bill - if he is still alive - we will get him back. And you will be together again, if that's what you want.’’

Big if.

’’To answer your question: I am your friend, and that will last as long as I can be your friend without jeopardizing my own life. Or the future of my area.’’

Well, that laid it on the line. I appreciated his honesty. ’’As long as it's convenient for you, you mean,’’ I said calmly, which was both unfair and inaccurate. However, I thought it was odd that my characterization of his attitude actually seemed to bother him. ’’Let me ask you something, Eric.’’

He raised his eyebrows to tell me he was waiting. His hands traveled up and down my arms, absently, as if he wasn't thinking of what he was doing. The movement reminded me of a man warming his hands at a fire.

’’If I'm understanding you, Bill was working on a project for the ...’’ I felt a wild bubble of laughter rising, and I ruthlessly suppressed it. ’’For the queen of Louisiana,’’ I finished. ’’But you didn't know about it. Is this right?’’

Eric stared at me for a long moment, while he thought about what to tell me. ’’She told me she had work for Bill to do,’’ he said. ’’But not what it was, or why he had to be the one to do it, or when it would be complete.’’

That would miff almost any leader, having his underling co-opted like that. Especially if the leader was kept in ignorance. ’’So, why isn't this queen looking for Bill?’’ I asked, keeping my voice carefully neutral.

’’She doesn't know he's gone.’’

’’Why is that?’’

’’We haven't told her.’’

Sooner or later he'd quit answering. ’’Why not?’’

’’She would punish us.’’

’’Why?’’ I was beginning to sound like a two-year-old.

’’For letting something happen to Bill, when he was doing a special project for her.’’

’’What would that punishment be?’’

’’Oh, with her it's difficult to tell.’’ He gave a choked laugh. ’’Something very unpleasant.’’

Eric was even closer to me, his face almost touching my hair. He was inhaling, very delicately. Vampires rely on smell, and hearing, much more than sight, though their eyesight is extremely accurate. Eric had had my blood, so he could tell more about my emotions than a vampire who hadn't. All bloodsuckers are students of the human emotional system, since the most successful predators know the habits of their prey.

Eric actually rubbed his cheek against mine. He was like a cat in his enjoyment of contact.

’’Eric.’’ He'd given me more information than he knew.

’’Mmm?’’

’’Really, what will the queen do to you if you can't produce Bill on the date her project is due?’’

My question got the desired result. Eric pulled away from me and looked down at me with eyes bluer than mine and harder than mine and colder than the Arctic waste.

’’Sookie, you really don't want to know,’’ he said. ’’Producing his work would be good enough. Bill's actual presence would be a bonus.’’

I returned his look with eyes almost as cold as his. ’’And what will I get in return for doing this for you?’’ I asked.

Eric managed to look both surprised and pleased. ’’If Pam hadn't hinted to you about Bill, his safe return would have been enough and you would have jumped at the chance to help,’’ Eric reminded me.

’’But now I know about Lorena.’’

’’And knowing, do you agree to do this for us?’’

’’Yes, on one condition.’’

Eric looked wary. ’’What would that be?’’ he asked.

’’If something happens to me, I want you to take her out.’’

He gaped at me for at least a whole second before he roared with laughter. ’’I would have to pay a huge fine,’’ he said when he'd quit chortling. ’’And I'd have to accomplish it first. That's easier said than done. She's three hundred years old.’’

’’You've told me that what will happen to you if all this comes unraveled would be pretty horrible,’’ I reminded him.

’’True.’’

’’You've told me you desperately need me to do this for you.’’

’’True.’’

’’That's what I ask in return.’’

’’You might make a decent vampire, Sookie,’’ Eric said finally. ’’All right. Done. If anything happens to you, she'll never f*k Bill again.’’

’’Oh, it's not just that.’’

’’No?’’ Eric looked very skeptical, as well he might.

’’It's because she betrayed him.’’

Eric's hard blue eyes met mine. ’’Tell me this, Sookie: Would you ask this of me if she were a human?’’ His wide, thin-lipped mouth, most often amused, was in a serious straight line.

’’If she were a human, I'd take care of it myself,’’ I said, and stood to show him to the door.

After Eric had driven away, I leaned against the door and laid my cheek against the wood. Did I mean what I'd told him? I'd long wondered if I were really a civilized person, though I kept striving to be one. I knew that at the moment I'd said I would take care of Lorena myself, I had meant it. There was something pretty savage inside me, and I'd always controlled it. My grandmother had not raised me to be a murderess.

As I plodded down the hall to my bedroom, I realized that my temper had been showing more and more lately. Ever since I'd gotten to know the vampires.

I couldn't figure out why that should be. They exerted tremendous control over themselves. Why should mine be slipping?

But that was enough introspection for one night.

I had to think about tomorrow.

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