Dead Until Dark Chapter 10

THE NEXT DAY, when I was getting ready for work, I realized I was definitely off vampires for a while. Even Bill.

I was ready to remind myself I was a human.

The trouble was, I had to notice that I was a changed human.

It wasn't anything major. After the first infusion of Bill's blood on the night the Rats had beaten me, I'd felt healed, healthy, stronger. But not markedly different. Maybe more - well, se*ier.

After my second draft of Bill's blood, I'd felt really strong, and I'd been braver because I'd had more confidence. I felt more secure in my se*uality and its power. It seemed apparent I was handling my disability with more aplomb and capability.

I'd had Long Shadow's blood by accident. The next morning, looking in the mirror, my teeth were whiter and sharper. My hair looked lighter and livelier, and my eyes were brighter. I looked like a poster girl for good hygiene, or some healthy cause like taking vitamins or drinking milk. The savage bite on my arm (Long Shadow's last bite on this earth, I realized) was not completely healed, but it was well on its way.

Then my purse spilled as I picked it up, and my change rolled under the couch. I held up the end of the couch with one hand while with the other I retrieved the coins.

Whoa.

I straightened and took a deep breath. At least the sunlight didn't hurt my eyes, and I didn't want to bite everyone I saw. I'd enjoyed my breakfast toast, rather than longing for tomato juice. I wasn't turning into a vampire. Maybe I was sort of an enhanced human?

Life had sure been simpler when I hadn't dated.

When I got to Merlotte's, everything was ready except for slicing the lemons and limes. We served the fruit both with mixed drinks and with tea, and I got out the cutting board and a sharp knife. Lafayette was tying on his apron as I got the lemons from the big refrigerator.

’’You highlighted your hair, Sookie?’’

I shook my head. Under the enveloping white apron, Lafayette was a symphony of color;he was wearing a fuschia thin-strap tee, dark purple jeans, red thong sandals, and he had sort of raspberry eye shadow on.

’’It sure looks lighter,’’ he said skeptically, raising his own plucked brows.

’’I've been out in the sun a lot,’’ I assured him. Dawn had never gotten along with Lafayette, whether because he was black or because he was gay, I didn't know ... maybe both. Arlene and Charlsie just accepted the cook, but didn't go out of their ways to be friendly. But I'd always kind of liked Lafayette because he conducted what had to be a tough life with verve and grace.

I looked down at the cutting board. All the lemons had been quartered. All the limes had been sliced. My hand was holding the knife, and it was wet with juices. I had done it without knowing it. In about thirty seconds. I closed my eyes. My God.

When I opened them, Lafayette was staring from my face to my hands.

’’Tell me I didn't just see that, girlfriend,’’ he suggested.

’’You didn't,’’ I said. My voice was cool and level, I was surprised to note. ’’Excuse me, I got to put these away.’’ I put the fruit in separate containers in the big cooler behind the bar where Sam kept the beer. When I shut the door, Sam was standing there, his arms crossed across his chest. He didn't look happy.

’’Are you all right?’’ he asked. His bright blue eyes scanned me up and down. ’’You do something to your hair?’’ he said uncertainly.

I laughed. I realized that my guard had slid into place easily, that it didn't have to be a painful process. ’’Been out in the sun,’’ I said.

’’What happened to your arm?’’

I looked down at my right forearm. I'd covered the bite with a bandage.

’’Dog bit me.’’

’’Had it had its shots?’’

’’Sure.’’

I looked up at Sam, not too far, and it seemed to me his wiry, curly, red-blond hair snapped with energy. It seemed to me I could hear his heart beating. I could feel his uncertainly, his desire. My body responded instantly. I focussed on his thin lips, and the rich smell of his aftershave filled my lungs. He moved two inches closer. I could feel the breath going in and out of his lungs. I knew his pen** was stiffening.

Then Charlsie Tooten came in the front door and slammed it behind her. We both took a step away from each other. Thank God for Charlsie, I thought. Plump, dumb, good-natured, and hardworking, Charlsie was a dream employee. Married to Ralph, her high school sweetheart, who worked at one of the chicken processing plants, Charlsie had a girl in the eleventh grade and a married daughter. Charlsie loved to work at the bar so she could get out and see people, and she had a knack for dealing with drunks that got them out the door without a fight.

’’Hi, you two!’’ she called cheerfully. Her dark brown hair (L'Oreal, Lafayette said) was pulled back dramatically to hang from the crown of her head in a cascade of ringlets. Her blouse was spotless and the pockets of her shorts gaped since the contents were too packed. Charlsie was wearing sheer black support hose and Keds, and her artificial nails were a sort of burgundy red.

’’That girl of mine is expecting. Just call me Grandma!’’ she said, and I could tell Charlsie was happy as a clam. I gave her the expected hug, and Sam patted her on the shoulder. We were both glad to see her.

’’When is the baby due?’’ I asked, and Charlsie was off and running. I didn't have to say anything for the next five minutes. Then Arlene trailed in, makeup inexpertly covering the hickeys on her neck, and she listened to everything all over again. Once my eyes met Sam's, and after a little moment, we looked away simultaneously.

Then we began serving the lunchtime crowd, and the incident was over.

Most people didn't drink much at lunchtime, maybe a beer or a glass of wine. A hefty proportion just had iced tea or water. The lunch crowd consisted of people who happened to be close to Merlotte's when the lunch hour came, people who were regulars and thought of it naturally, and the local alcoholics for whom their lunchtime drink was maybe the third or fourth. As I began to take orders, I remembered my brother's plea.

I listened in all day, and it was gruelling. I'd never spent the day listening;I'd never let my guard down for so long. Maybe it wasn't as painful as it had been;maybe I felt cooler about what I was hearing. Sheriff Bud Dearborn was sitting at a table with the mayor, my grandmother's friend Sterling Norris. Mr. Norris patted me on the shoulder, standing up to do so, and I realized it was the first time I'd seen him since Gran's funeral.

’’How are you doing, Sookie?’’ he asked in a sympathetic voice. He was looking poorly, himself.

’’Just great, Mr. Norris. Yourself?’’

’’I'm an old man, Sookie,’’ he said with an uncertain smile. He didn't even wait for me to protest. ’’These murders are wearing me down. We haven't had a murder in Bon Temps since Darryl Mayhew shot Sue Mayhew. And there wasn't no mystery about that.’’

’’That was ... what? Six years ago?’’ I asked the sheriff, just to keep standing there. Mr. Norris was feeling so sad at seeing me because he was thinking my brother was going to be arrested for murder, for killing Maudette Pickens, and the mayor reckoned that meant Jason had most likely also killed Gran. I ducked my head to hide my eyes.

’’I guess so. Let's see, I remember we were dressed up for Jean-Anne's dance recital ... so that was ... yes, you're right, Sookie, six years ago.’’ The sheriff nodded at me with approval. ’’Jason been in today?’’ he asked casually, as if it were a mere afterthought.

’’No, haven't seen him,’’ I said. The sheriff told me he wanted iced tea and a hamburger;and he was thinking of the time he'd caught Jason with his Jean-Anne, making out like crazy in the bed of Jason's pickup truck.

Oh, Lord. He was thinking Jean-Anne was lucky she hadn't been strangled. And then he had a clear thought that cut me to the quick: Sheriff Dearborn thought, These girls are all bottom-feeders, anyway.

I could read his thought in its context because the sheriff happened to be an easy scan. I could feel the nuances of the idea. He was thinking, ’’Low-skill jobs, no college, screwing vampires ... bottom of the barrel.’’

Hurt and angry didn't begin to describe how I felt at this assessment.

I went from table to table automatically, fetching drinks and sandwiches and clearing up the remainders, working as hard as I usually did, with that awful smile stretching my face. I talked to twenty people I knew, most of whom had thoughts as innocent as the day is long. Most customers were thinking of work, or tasks they had to get done at home, or some little problem they needed to solve, like getting the Sears repairman to come work on the dishwasher or getting the house clean for weekend company.

Arlene was relieved her period had started.

Charlsie was immersed in pink glowing reflections on her shot at immortality, her grandchild. She was praying earnestly for an easy pregnancy and safe delivery for her daughter.

Lafayette was thinking that working with me was getting spooky.

Policeman Kevin Pryor was wondering what his partner Kenya was doing on her day off. He himself was helping his mother clean out the tool shed and hating every minute of it.

I heard many comments, both aloud and unspoken, about my hair and complexion and the bandage on my arm. I seemed more desirable to more men, and one woman. Some of the guys who'd gone on the vampire burning expedition were thinking they didn't have a chance with me because of my vampire sympathies, and they were regretting their impulsive act. I marked their identities in my mind. I wasn't going to forget they could have killed my Bill, even though at the moment the rest of the vampire community was low on my list of favorite things.

Andy Bellefleur and his sister, Portia, were having lunch together, something they did at least once every week. Portia was a female version of Andy: medium height, blocky build, determined mouth and jaw. The resemblance between brother and sister favored Andy, not Portia. She was a very competent lawyer, I'd heard. I might have suggested her to Jason when he was thinking he'd need an attorney, if she'd not been female ... and I'd been thinking about Portia's welfare more than Jason's.

Today the lawyer was feeling inwardly depressed because she was educated and made good money, but never had a date. That was her inner preoccupation.

Andy was disgusted with my continued association with Bill Compton, interested in my improved appearance, and curious about how vampires had se*. He also was feeling sorry he was probably going to arrest Jason. He was thinking that the case against Jason was not much stronger than that against several other men, but Jason was the one who looked the most scared, which meant he had something to hide. And there were the videos, which showed Jason having se* - not exactly regular, garden-variety se* - with Maudette and Dawn.

I stared at Andy while I processed his thoughts, which made him uneasy. Andy really did know what I was capable of. ’’Sookie, you going to get that beer?’’ he asked finally, waving a broad hand in the air to make sure he had my attention.

’’Sure, Andy,’’ I said absently, and got one out of the cooler. ’’You need any more tea, Portia?’’

’’No, thanks, Sookie,’’ Portia said politely, patting her mouth with her paper napkin. Portia was remembering high school, when she would have sold her soul for a date with the gorgeous Jason Stackhouse. She was wondering what Jason was doing now, if he had a thought in his head that would interest her - maybe his body would be worth the sacrifice of intellectual companionship? So Portia hadn't seen the tapes, didn't know of their existence;Andy was being a good cop.

I tried to picture Portia with Jason, and I couldn't help smiling. That would be an experience for both of them. I wished, not for the first time, that I could plant ideas as well as reap them.

By the end of my shift, I'd learned - nothing. Except that the videos my brother had so unwisely made featured mild bondage, which caused Andy to think of the ligature marks around the victims'necks.

So, taken as a whole, letting my head open for my brother had been a futile exercise. All I'd heard tended to make me worry more and didn't supply any additional information that might help his cause.

A different crowd would come in tonight. I had never come to Merlotte's just for fun. Should I come in tonight? What would Bill do? Did I want to see him?

I felt friendless. There was no one I could talk to about Bill, no one who wouldn't be halfway shocked I was seeing him in the first place. How could I tell Arlene I was blue because Bill's vampire buddies were terrifying and ruthless, that one of them had bitten me the night before, bled into my mouth, been staked on top of me? This was not the kind of problem Arlene was equipped to handle.

I couldn't think of anyone who was.

I couldn't recall anyone dating a vampire who wasn't an indiscriminate vampire groupie, a fang-banger who would go with just any bloodsucker.

By the time I left work, my enhanced physical appearance no longer had the power to make me confident. I felt like a freak.

I puttered around the house, took a short nap, watered Gran's flowers. Toward dusk, I ate something I'd nuked in the microwave. Wavering up until the last moment about going out, I finally put on a red shirt and white slacks and some jewelry and drove back to Merlotte's.

It felt very strange entering as a customer. Sam was back behind the bar, and his eyebrows went up as he marked my entrance. Three waitresses I knew by sight were working tonight, and a different cook was grilling hamburgers, I saw through the serving hatch.

Jason was at the bar. For a wonder, the stool next to him was empty, and I eased onto it.

He turned to me with his face set for a new woman: mouth loose and smiling, eyes bright and wide. When he saw it was me, his expression underwent a comical change. ’’What the hell are you doing here, Sookie?’’ he asked, his voice indignant.

’’You'd think you weren't glad to see me,’’ I remarked. When Sam paused in front of me, I asked him for a bourbon and coke, without meeting his eyes. ’’I did what you told me to do, and so far nothing,’’ I whispered to my brother. ’’I came in here tonight to try some more people.’’

’’Thanks, Sookie,’’ he said, after a long pause. ’’I guess I didn't realize what I was asking. Hey, is something different about your hair?’’

He even paid for my drink when Sam slid it in front of me.

We didn't seem to have much to talk about, which was actually okay, since I was trying to listen to the other customers. There were a few strangers, and I scanned them first, to see if they were possible suspects. It didn't seem they were, I decided reluctantly. One was thinking hard about how much he missed his wife, and the subtext was that he was faithful to her. One was thinking about it being his first time here, and the drinks were good. Another was just concentrating on sitting up straight and hoping he could drive back to the motel.

I'd had another drink.

Jason and I had been swapping conjectures about how much the lawyer's fees would be when Gran's estate was settled. He glanced at the doorway and said, ’’Uh-oh.’’

’’What?’’ I asked, not turning to see what he was looking at.

’’Sis, the boyfriend's here. And he's not alone.’’

My first idea was that Bill had brought one of his fellow vampires with him, which would have been upsetting and unwise. But when I turned, I realized why Jason had sounded so angry. Bill was with a human girl. He had a grip on her arm, she was coming on to him like a whore, and his eyes were scanning the crowd. I decided he was looking for my reaction.

I got off the barstool and decided another thing.

I was drunk. I seldom drank at all, and two bourbon and cokes consumed within minutes had made me, if not knee-walking drunk, at least tipsy.

Bill's eyes met mine. He hadn't really expected to find me here. I couldn't read his mind as I had Eric's for an awful moment, but I could read his body language.

’’Hey, Vampire Bill!’’ Jason's friend Hoyt called. Bill nodded politely in Hoyt's direction, but began to steer the girl - tiny, dark - in my direction.

I had no idea what to do.

’’Sis, what's his game?’’ Jason said. He was working up a head of steam. ’’That gal's a fang-banger from Monroe. I knew her when she liked humans.’’

I still had no idea what to do. My hurt was overwhelming, but my pride kept trying to contain it. I had to add a dash of guilt to that emotional stew. I hadn't been where Bill had expected me to be, and I hadn't left him a note. Then again - on the other hand (my fifth or sixth) - I'd had a lot of shocks the night before at the command performance in Shreveport;and only my association with him had obliged me to go to that shindig.

My warring impulses held me still. I wanted to pitch myself on her and beat the shit out of her, but I hadn't been brought up to brawl in barrooms. (I also wanted to beat the shit out of Bill, but I might as well go bang my head on the wall for the all the damage it would do him.) Then, too, I wanted to burst into tears because my feelings were hurt - but that would be weak. The best option was not to show anything because Jason was ready to launch into Bill, and all it needed was some action from me to squeeze his trigger.

Too much conflict on top of too much alcohol.

While I was enumerating all these options, Bill had approached, wending his way through the tables, with the woman in tow. I noticed the room was quieter. Instead of watching, I was being watched.

I could feel my eyes well with tears while my hands fisted. Great. The worst of both responses.

’’Sookie,’’ Bill said, ’’this is what Eric dropped off at my doorstep.’’

I could hardly understand what he was saying.

’’So?’’ I said furiously. I looked right into the girl's eyes. They were big and dark and excited. I kept my own lids wide apart, knowing if I blinked the tears would flow.

’’As a reward,’’ Bill said. I couldn't understand how he felt about this.

’’Free beverage?’’ I said, and couldn't believe how venomous my voice sounded.

Jason put his hand on my shoulder. ’’Steady, girl,’’ he said, his voice as low and mean as mine. ’’He ain't worth it.’’

I didn't know what Bill wasn't worth, but I was about to find out. It was almost exhilarating to have no idea what I was about to do, after a lifetime of control.

Bill was regarding me with sharp attention. Under the flourescents over the bar, he looked remarkably white. He hadn't fed from her. And his fangs were retracted.

’’Come outside and talk,’’ he said.

’’With her?’’ I was almost growling.

’’No,’’ he said. ’’With me. I have to send her back.’’

The distaste in his voice influenced me, and I followed Bill outside, keeping my head up and not meeting any eyes. He kept ahold of the girl's arm, and she was practically walking on her toes to keep up. I didn't know Jason was coming with us until I turned to see him behind me as we passed into the parking lot. Outside, people were coming and going, but it was marginally better than the crowded bar.

’’Hi,’’ the girl said chattily. ’’My name's Desiree. I think I've met you before, Jason.’’

’’What are you doing here, Desiree?’’ Jason asked, his voice quiet. You could almost believe he was calm.

’’Eric sent me over here to Bon Temps as a reward for Bill,’’ she said coyly, looking at Bill from the corners of her eyes. ’’But he seems less than thrilled. I don't know why. I'm practically a special vintage.’’

’’Eric?’’ Jason asked me.

’’A vampire from Shreveport. Bar owner. Head honcho.’’

’’He left her on my doorstep,’’ Bill told me. ’’I didn't ask for her.’’

’’What are you going to do?’’

’’Send her back,’’ he said impatiently. ’’You and I have to talk.’’

I gulped. I felt my fingers uncurl.

’’She needs a ride back to Monroe?’’ Jason asked.

Bill looked surprised. ’’Yes. Are you offering? I need to talk to your sister.’’

’’Sure,’’ Jason said, all geniality. I was instantly suspicious.

’’I can't believe you're refusing me,’’ Desiree said, looking up at Bill and pouting. ’’No one has ever turned me down before.’’

’’Of course I am grateful, and I'm sure you are, as you put it, a special vintage,’’ Bill said politely. ’’But I have my own wine cellar.’’

Little Desiree stared at him blankly for a second before comprehension slowly lit her brown eyes. ’’This woman yours?’’ she asked, jerking her head at me.

’’She is.’’

Jason shifted nervously at Bill's flat statement.

Desiree gave me a good looking over. ’’She's got funny eyes,’’ she finally pronounced.

’’She's my sister,’’ Jason said.

’’Oh. I'm sorry. You're much more ... normal.’’ Desiree gave Jason the up-and-down, and seemed more pleased with what she saw. ’’Hey, what's your last name?’’

Jason took her hand and began leading her toward his pickup. ’’Stackhouse,’’ he was saying, giving her the full eye treatment, as they walked away. ’’Maybe on the way home, you can tell me a little about what you do...’’

I turned back to Bill, wondering what Jason's motive was for this generous act, and met Bill's gaze. It was like walking into a brick wall.

’’So, you want to talk?’’ I asked harshly.

’’Not here. Come home with me.’’

I scuffed the gravel with my shoe. ’’Not your house.’’

’’Then yours.’’

’’No.’’

He raised his arched brows. ’’Where then?’’

Good question.

’’My folks'pond.’’ Since Jason was going to be giving Miss Dark and Tiny a ride home, he wouldn't be there.

’’I'll follow you,’’ he said briefly, and we parted to go to our respective cars.

The property where I'd spent my first few years was to the west of Bon Temps. I turned down the familiar gravel driveway and parked at the house, a modest ranch that Jason kept up pretty well. Bill emerged from his car as I slid from mine, and I motioned him to follow me. We went around the house and down the slope, following a path set with big paving stones. In a minute we were at the pond, man-made, that my dad had put in our backyard and stocked, anticipating fishing with his son in that water for years.

There was a kind of patio overlooking the water, and on one of the metal chairs was a folded blanket. Without asking me, Bill picked it up and shook it out, spreading it on the grass downslope from the patio. I sat on it reluctantly, thinking the blanket wasn't safe for the same reasons meeting him in either home wasn't safe. When I was close to Bill, what I thought about was being even closer to him.

I hugged my knees to me and stared off across the water. There was a security light on the other side of the pond, and I could see it reflected in the still water. Bill lay on his back next to me. I could feel his eyes on my face. He laced his fingers together across his ribs, ostentatiously keeping his hands to himself.

’’Last night frightened you,’’ he said neutrally.

’’Weren't you just a little scared?’’ I asked, more quietly than I'd thought I would.

’’For you. A little for myself.’’

I wanted to lie on my stomach but worried about getting that close to him. When I saw his skin glow in the moonlight, I yearned to touch him.

’’It scared me that Eric can control our lives while we're a couple.’’

’’Do you not want to be a couple anymore?’’

The pain in my chest was so bad I put my hand over it, pressing the area above my breast.

’’Sookie?’’ He was kneeling by me, an arm around me.

I couldn't answer. I had no breath.

’’Do you love me?’’ he asked.

I nodded.

’’Why do you talk of leaving me?’’

The pain made its way out through my eyes in the form of tears.

’’I'm too scared of the other vampires and the way they are. What will he ask me to do next? He'll try to make me do something else. He'll tell me he'll kill you otherwise. Or he'll threaten Jason. And he can do it.’’

Bill's voice was as quiet as the sound of a cricket in the grass. A month ago, I might not have been able to hear it. ’’Don't cry,’’ he told me. ’’Sookie, I have to tell you unwelcome facts.’’

The only welcome thing he could have told me at that point was that Eric was dead.

’’Eric is intrigued by you now. He can tell you have mental powers that most humans don't have, or ignore if they know they possess them. He anticipates your blood is rich and sweet.’’ Bill's voice got hoarse when he said that, and I shivered. ’’And you're beautiful. You're even more beautiful now. He doesn't realize you have had our blood three times.’’

’’You know that Long Shadow bled onto me?’’

’’Yes. I saw.’’

’’Is there anything magic about three times?’’

He laughed, that low, rumbly, rusty laugh. ’’No. But the more vampire blood you drink, the more desirable you become to our kind, and actually, more desirable to anyone. And Desiree thought she was a vintage! I wonder what vampire said that to her.’’

’’One that wanted to get in her pants,’’ I said flatly, and he laughed again. I loved to hear him laugh.

’’With all this telling me how lovely I am, are you saying that Eric, like, lusts for me?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’What's to stop him from taking me? You say he's stronger than you.’’

’’Courtesy and custom, first of all.’’

I didn't snort, but I came close.

’’Don't discount that. We're all observant of custom, we vampires. We have to live together for centuries.’’

’’Anything else?’’

’’I am not as strong as Eric, but I'm not a new vampire. He might get badly hurt in a fight with me, or I might even win if I got lucky.’’

’’Anything else?’’

’’Maybe,’’ Bill said carefully, ’’you yourself.’’

’’How so?’’

’’If you can be valuable to him otherwise, he may leave you alone if he knows that is your sincere wish.’’

’’But I don't want to be valuable to him! I don't want to ever see him again!’’

’’You promised Eric you'd help him again,’’ Bill reminded me.

’’If he turned the thief over to the police,’’ I said. ’’And what did Eric do? He staked him!’’

’’Possibly saving your life in the process.’’

’’Well, I found his thief!’’

’’Sookie, you don't know much about the world.’’

I stared at him, surprised. ’’I guess that's so.’’

’’Things don't turn out ... even.’’ Bill stared out into the darkness. ’’Even I think sometimes I don't know much, anymore.’’ Another gloomy pause. ’’I have only once before seen one vampire stake another. Eric is going beyond the limits of our world.’’

’’So, he's not too likely to take much notice of that custom and courtesy you were bragging about earlier.’’

’’Pam may keep him to the old ways.’’

’’What is she to him?’’

’’He made her. That is, he made her vampire, centuries ago. She comes back to him from time to time and helps him do whatever he is doing at the moment. Eric's always been something of a rogue, and the older he gets the more willful he gets.’’ Calling Eric willful seemed a huge understatement to me.

’’So, have we talked our way around in circles?’’ I asked.

Bill seemed to be considering. ’’Yes,’’ he confirmed, a tinge of regret in his voice. ’’You don't like associating with vampires other than myself, and I have told you we have no choice.’’

’’How about this Desiree thing?’’

’’He had someone drop her off on my doorstep, hoping I would be pleased he'd sent me a pretty gift. Also, it would test my devotion to you if I drank from her. Perhaps he poisoned her blood somehow, and her blood would have weakened me. Maybe she would just have been a crack in my armor.’’ He shrugged. ’’Did you think I had a date?’’

’’Yes.’’ I felt my face harden, thinking about Bill walking in with the girl.

’’You weren't at home. I had to come find you.’’ His tone wasn't accusatory, but it wasn't happy, either.

’’I was trying to help Jason out by listening. And I was still upset from last night.’’

’’Are we all right now?’’

’’No, but we're as all right as we can get,’’ I said. ’’I guess no matter who I cared for, it wouldn't always go smooth. But I hadn't counted on obstacles this drastic. There's no way you can ever outrank Eric, I guess, since age is the criterion?’’

’’No,’’ said Bill. ’’Not outrank...’’ and he suddenly looked thoughtful. ’’Though there may be something I can do along those lines. I don't want to - it goes against my nature - but we would be more secure.’’

I let him think.

’’Yes,’’ he concluded, ending his long brood. He didn't offer to explain, and I didn't ask.

’’I love you,’’ he said, as if that was the bottom line to whatever course of action he was considering. His face loomed over me, luminous and beautiful in the half-darkness.

’’I feel the same about you,’’ I said, and put my hands against his chest so he wouldn't tempt me. ’’But we have too much against us right now. If we can pry Eric off our backs, that would help. And another thing, we have to stop this murder investigation. That would be a second big piece of trouble off our backs. This murderer has the deaths of your friends to answer for, and the deaths of Maudette and Dawn to answer for.’’ I paused, took a deep breath. ’’And the death of my grandmother.’’ I blinked back tears. I'd gotten adjusted to Gran not being in the house when I came home, and I was getting used to not talking to her and sharing my day with her, but every now and then I had a stab of grief so acute it robbed me of breath.

’’Why do you think the same killer is responsible for the Monroe vampires being burned?’’

’’I think it was the murderer who planted this idea, this vigilante thing, in the men in the bar that night. I think it was the murderer who went from group to group, egging the guys on. I've lived here all my life, and I've never seen people around here act that way. There's got to be a reason they did this time.’’

’’He agitated them? Fomented the burning?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Listening hasn't turned up anything?’’

’’No,’’ I admitted glumly. ’’But that's not to say tomorrow will be the same.’’

’’You're an optimist, Sookie.’’

’’Yes, I am. I have to be.’’ I patted his cheek, thinking how my optimism had been justified since he had entered my life.

’’You keep on listening, since you think it may be fruitful,’’ he said. ’’I'll work on something else, for now. I'll see you tomorrow evening at your place, okay? I may ... no, let me explain then.’’

’’All right.’’ I was curious, but Bill obviously wasn't ready to talk.

On my way home, following the taillights of Bill's car as far as my driveway, I thought of how much more frightening the past few weeks would have been if I hadn't had the security of Bill's presence. As I went cautiously down the driveway, I found myself wishing Bill hadn't felt he had to go home to make some necessary phone calls. The few nights we'd spent apart, I wouldn't say I'd been exactly writhing with fear, but I'd been very jumpy and anxious. At the house by myself, I spent lots of time going from locked window to locked door, and I wasn't used to living that way. I felt disheartened at the thought of the night ahead.

Before I got out of my car, I scanned the yard, glad I'd remembered to turn on the security lights before I left for the bar. Nothing was moving. Usually Tina came running when I'd been gone, anxious to get in the house for some cat kibble, but tonight she must be hunting in the woods.

I separated my house key from the bunch on my key ring. I dashed from the car to the front door, inserted and twisted the key in record time, and slammed and locked the door behind me. This was no way to live, I thought, shaking my head in dismay;and just as I completed that idea, something hit the front door with a thud. I shrieked before I could stop myself.

I ran for the portable phone by the couch. I punched in Bill's number as I went around the room pulling down the shades. What if the line was busy? He'd said he was going home to use the phone!

But I caught him just as he walked in the door. He sounded breathless as he picked up the receiver. ’’Yes?’’ he said. He always sounded suspicious.

’’Bill,’’ I gasped, ’’there's someone outside!’’

He crashed the phone down. A vampire of action.

He was there in two minutes. Looking out into the yard from a slightly lifted blind, I glimpsed him coming into the yard from the woods, moving with a speed and silence a human could never equal. The relief of seeing him was overwhelming. For a second I felt ashamed at calling Bill to rescue me: I should have handled the situation myself. Then I thought, Why? When you know a practically invincible being who professes to adore you, someone so hard to kill it's next to impossible, someone preternaturally strong, that's who you're gonna call.

Bill investigated the yard and the woods, moving with a sure, silent grace. Finally he came lightly up the steps. He bent over something on the front porch. The angle was too acute, and I couldn't tell what it was. When he straightened, he had something in his hands, and he looked absolutely ... expressionless.

This was very bad.

I went reluctantly to the front door and unlocked it. I pushed out the screen door.

Bill was holding the body of my cat.

’’Tina?’’ I said, hearing my voice quaver and not caring at all. ’’Is she dead?’’

Bill nodded, one little jerk of his head.

’’What - how?’’

’’Strangled, I think.’’

I could feel my face crumple. Bill had to stand there holding the corpse while I cried my eyes out.

’’I never got that live oak,’’ I said, having calmed a little. I didn't sound very steady. ’’We can put her in that hole.’’ So around to the backyard we went, poor Bill holding Tina, trying to look comfortable about it, and me trying not to dissolve again. Bill knelt and lay the little bundle of black fur at the bottom of my excavation. I fetched the shovel and began to fill it in, but the sight of the first dirt hitting Tina's fur undid me all over again. Silently, Bill took the shovel from my hands. I turned my back, and he finished the awful job.

’’Come inside,’’ he said gently when it was finished.

We went in the house, having to walk around to the front because I hadn't yet unlocked the back.

Bill patted me and comforted me, though I knew he hadn't ever been crazy about Tina. ’’God bless you, Bill,’’ I whispered. I tightened my arms around him ferociously, in a sudden convulsion of fear that he, too, would be taken from me. When I'd gotten the sobs reduced to hiccups, I looked up, hoping I hadn't made him uncomfortable with my flood of emotion.

Bill was furious. He was staring at the wall over my shoulder, and his eyes were glowing. He was the most frightening thing I'd ever seen in my life.

’’Did you find anything out in the yard?’’ I asked.

’’No. I found traces of his presence. Some footprints, a lingering scent. Nothing you could bring into court as proof,’’ he went on, reading my mind.

’’Would you mind staying here until you have to go to ... get away from the sun?’’

’’Of course.’’ He stared at me. He'd fully intended to do that whether or not I agreed, I could tell.

’’If you still need to make phone calls, just make them here. I don't care.’’ I meant if they were on my phone bill.

’’I have a calling card,’’ he said, once again astonishing me. Who would have thought?

I washed my face and took a Tylenol before I put on my nightgown, sadder than I'd been since Gran had been killed, and sadder in different way. The death of a pet is naturally not in the same category as the death of a family member, I chided myself, but it didn't seem to affect my misery. I went through all the reasoning I was capable of and came no closer to any truth except the fact that I'd fed and brushed and loved Tina for four years, and I would miss her.


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