Dead Until Dark Chapter 11

MY NERVES WERE raw the next day. When I got to work and told Arlene what had happened, she gave me a hard hug, and said, ’’I'd like to kill the bastard that did that to poor Tina!’’ Somehow, that made me feel a lot better. Charlsie was just as sympathetic, if more concerned with the shock to me rather than the agonized demise of my cat. Sam just looked grim. He thought I should call the sheriff, or Andy Bellefleur, and tell one of them what had happened. I finally did call Bud Dearborn.

’’Usually these things go in cycles,’’ Bud rumbled. ’’Ain't nobody else reported a pet missing or dead, though. I'm afraid it sounds like some kind a personal thing, Sookie. That vampire friend of yours, he like cats?’’

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I was using the phone in Sam's office, and he was sitting behind the desk figuring out his next liquor order.

’’Bill was at home when whoever killed Tina threw her on my porch,’’ I said as calmly as I could. ’’I called him directly afterward, and he answered the phone.’’ Sam looked up quizzically, and I rolled my eyes to let him know my opinion of the sheriff's suspicions.

’’And he told you the cat was strangled,’’ Bud went on ponderously.

’’Yes.’’

’’Do you have the ligature?’’

’’No. I didn't even see what it was.’’

’’What did you do with the kitty?’’

’’We buried her.’’

’’Was that your idea or Mr. Compton's?’’

’’Mine.’’ What else would we have done with Tina?

’’We may come dig your kitty up. If we had had the ligature and the cat, maybe we could see if the method of strangulation matched the method used in killing Dawn and Maudette,’’ Bud explained ponderously.

’’I'm sorry. I didn't think about that.’’

’’Well, it don't matter much. Without the ligature.’’

’’Okay, good-bye.’’ I hung up, probably applying a little more pressure than the receiver required. Sam's eyebrows lifted.

’’Bud is a jerk,’’ I told him.

’’Bud's not a bad policeman,’’ Sam said quietly. ’’None of us here are used to murders that are this sick.’’

’’You're right,’’ I admitted, after a moment. ’’I wasn't being fair. He just kept saying ¡®ligature'like he was proud he'd learned a new word. I'm sorry I got mad at him.’’

’’You don't have to be perfect, Sookie.’’

’’You mean I get to screw up and be less than understanding and forgiving, from time to time? Thanks, boss.’’ I smiled at him, feeling the wry twist to my lips, and got up off the edge of his desk where I'd been propped to make my phone call. I stretched. It wasn't until I saw the way Sam's eyes drank in that stretch that I became self-conscious again. ’’Back to work!’’ I said briskly and strode out of the room, trying to make sure there wasn't a hint of sway to my hips.

’’Would you keep the kids for a couple of hours this evening?’’ Arlene asked, a little shyly. I remembered the last time we'd talked about my keeping her kids, and I remembered the offense I'd taken at her reluctance to leave her kids with a vampire. I hadn't been thinking like a mother would think. Now, Arlene was trying to apologize.

’’I'd be glad to.’’ I waited to see if Arlene would mention Bill again, but she didn't. ’’When to when?’’

’’Well, Rene and I are gonna go to the movies in Monroe,’’ she said. ’’Say, six-thirty?’’

’’Sure. Will they have had supper?’’

’’Oh, yeah, I'll feed'em. They'll be excited to see their aunt Sookie.’’

’’I look forward to it.’’

’’Thanks,’’ Arlene said. She paused, almost said something else, then appeared to think again. ’’See you at six-thirty.’’

I got home about five, most of the way driving against the sun, which was glaring like it was staring me down. I changed to a blue-and-green knit short set, brushed my hair and secured it with a banana clip. I had a sandwich, sitting uneasily by myself at the kitchen table. The house felt big and empty, and I was glad to see Rene drive up with Coby and Lisa.

’’Arlene's having trouble with one of her artificial nails,’’ he explained, looking embarrassed at having to relay this feminine problem. ’’And Coby and Lisa were raring to get over here.’’ I noticed Rene was still in his work clothes - heavy boots, knife, hat, and all. Arlene wasn't going to let him take her anywhere until he showered and changed.

Coby was eight and Lisa was five, and they were hanging all over me like big earrings when Rene bent to kiss them good-bye. His affection for the kids gave Rene a big gold star in my book, and I smiled at him approvingly. I took the kids'hands to lead them back to the kitchen for some ice cream.

’’We'll see you about ten-thirty, eleven,’’ he said. ’’If that's all right.’’ He put his hand on the doorknob.

’’Sure,’’ I agreed. I opened my mouth to offer to keep the kids for the night, as I'd done on previous occasions, but then I thought of Tina's limp body. I decided that tonight they'd better not stay. I raced the kids to the kitchen, and a minute or two later I heard Rene's old pickup rattling down the driveway.

I picked up Lisa. ’’I can hardly lift you anymore, girl, you're getting so big! And you, Coby, you shaving yet?’’ We sat at the table for a good thirty minutes while the children ate ice cream and rattled off their list of achievements since we'd last visited.

Then Lisa wanted to read to me, so I got out a coloring book with the color and number words printed inside, and she read those to me with some pride. Coby, of course, had to prove he could read much better, and then they wanted to watch a favorite show. Before I knew it, it was dark.

’’My friend is coming over tonight,’’ I told them. ’’His name is Bill.’’

’’Mama told us you had a special friend,’’ Coby said. ’’I better like him. He better be nice to you.’’

’’Oh, he is,’’ I assured the boy, who had straightened and thrust out his chest, ready to defend me if my special friend wasn't nice enough in Coby's estimation.

’’Does he send you flowers?’’ Lisa asked romantically.

’’No, not yet. Maybe you can kind of hint I'd like some?’’

’’Ooo. Yeah, I can do that.’’

’’Has he asked you to marry him?

’’Well, no. But I haven't asked him, either.’’

Naturally, Bill picked that moment to knock.

’’I have company,’’ I said, smiling, when I answered the door.

’’I can hear,’’ he said.

I took his hand and led him into the kitchen.

’’Bill, this is Coby and this young woman is Lisa,’’ I said formally.

’’Good, I've been wanting to meet you,’’ Bill said, to my surprise. ’’Lisa and Coby, is it all right with you if I keep company with your aunt Sookie?’’

They eyed him thoughtfully. ’’She isn't really our aunt,’’ Coby said, testing the waters. ’’She's our mom's good friend.’’

’’Is that right?’’

’’Yes, and she says you don't send her flowers,’’ Lisa said. For once, her little voice was crystal clear. I was so glad to realize that Lisa had gotten over her little problem with her r's. Really.

Bill looked sideways at me. I shrugged. ’’Well, they asked me,’’ I said helplessly.

’’Hmmm,’’ he said thoughtfully. ’’I'll have to mend my ways, Lisa. Thank you for pointing that out to me. When is Aunt Sookie's birthday, do you know?’’

I could feel my face flushing. ’’Bill,’’ I said sharply. ’’Cut it out.’’

’’Do you know, Coby?’’ Bill asked the boy.

Coby shook his head, regretfully. ’’But I know it's in the summer because the last time Mama took Sookie to lunch in Shreveport for her birthday, it was summertime. We stayed with Rene.’’

’’You're smart to remember that, Coby,’’ Bill told him.

’’I'm smarter than that! Guess what I learned in school the other day.’’ And Coby was off and running.

Lisa eyed Bill with great attention the whole time Coby spoke, and when Coby was finished, she said, ’’You look real white, Bill.’’

’’Yes,’’ he said, ’’that's my normal complexion.’’

The kids exchanged glances. I could tell they were deciding that ’’normal complexion’’ was an illness, and it wouldn't be too polite to ask more questions. Every now and then children show a certain tactfulness.

Bill, initially a little stiff, began to get more and more flexible as the evening wore on. I was ready to admit I was tired by nine, but he was still going strong with the kids when Arlene and Rene came by to pick them up at eleven.

I'd just introduced my friends to Bill, who shook their hands in an absolutely normal way, when another caller arrived.

A handsome vampire with thick black hair combed into an improbable wavy style strolled up out of the woods as Arlene was bundling the kids into the truck, and Rene and Bill were chatting. Bill waved a casual hand at the vampire, and he raised one in return, joining Bill and Rene as if he'd been expected.

From the front porch swing, I watched Bill introduce the two, and the vampire and Rene shook hands. Rene was gaping at the newcomer, and I could tell he felt he'd recognized him. Bill looked meaningfully at Rene and shook his head, and Rene's mouth closed on whatever comment he'd been going to make.

The newcomer was husky, taller than Bill, and he wore old jeans and an ’’I Visited Graceland’’ T-shirt. His heavy boots were worn at the heel. He carried a squirt bottle of synthetic blood in one hand and took a swig from time to time. Mr. Social Skills.

Maybe I'd been cued by Rene's reaction, but the more I looked at the vampire, the more familiar he seemed. I tried mentally warming up the skin tone, adding a few lines, making him stand straighter and investing his face with some liveliness.

Oh my God.

It was the man from Memphis.

Rene turned to go, and Bill began steering the newcomer up to me. From ten feet away, the vampire called, ’’Hey, Bill tells me someone killed your cat!’’ He had a heavy Southern accent.

Bill closed his eyes for a second, and I just nodded speechlessly.

’’Well, I'm sorry about that. I like cats,’’ the tall vampire said, and I clearly got the idea he didn't mean he liked to stroke their fur. I hoped the kids weren't picking up on that, but Arlene's horrified face appeared in the truck window. All the good will Bill had established had probably just gone down the drain.

Rene shook his head behind the vampire's back and climbed into the driver's seat, calling a good-bye as he started up the engine. He stuck his head out the window for a long last look at the newcomer. He must have said something to Arlene because she appeared at her window again, staring for all she was worth. I saw her mouth drop open in shock as she looked harder at the creature standing beside Bill. Her head disappeared into the truck, and I heard a screech as the truck pulled away.

’’Sookie,’’ Bill said warningly, ’’this is Bubba.’’

’’Bubba,’’ I repeated, not quite trusting my ears.

’’Yep, Bubba,’’ the vampire said cheerfully, goodwill radiating from his fearsome smile. ’’That's me. Pleased to meetcha.’’

I shook hands with him, making myself smile back. Good God Almighty, I never thought I'd be shaking hands with him. But he'd sure changed for the worse.

’’Bubba, would you mind waiting here on the porch? Let me explain our arrangement to Sookie.’’

’’That's all right with me,’’ Bubba said casually. He settled on the swing, as happy and brainless as a clam.

We went into the living room, but not before I'd noticed that when Bubba had made his appearance, much of the night noise - bugs, frogs - had simply stopped. ’’I had hoped to explain this to you before Bubba got here,’’ Bill whispered. ’’But I couldn't.’’

I said, ’’Is that who I think it is?’’

’’Yes. So now you know at least some of the sighting stories are true. But don't call him by his name. Call him Bubba! Something went wrong when he came over - from human to vampire - maybe it was all the chemicals in his blood.’’

’’But he was really dead, wasn't he?’’

’’Not ... quite. One of us was a morgue attendant and a big fan, and he could detect the tiny spark still left, so he brought him over, in a hurried manner.’’

’’Brought him over?’’

’’Made him vampire,’’ Bill explained. ’’But that was a mistake. He's never been the same from what my friends tell me. He's as smart as a tree trunk, so to make a living he does odd jobs for the rest of us. We can't have him out in public, you can see that.’’

I nodded, my mouth hanging open. Of course not. ’’Geez,’’ I murmured, stunned at the royalty in my yard.

’’So remember how stupid he is, and how impulsive ... don't spend time alone with him, and don't ever call him anything but Bubba. Also, he likes pets, as he told you, and a diet of their blood hasn't made him any the more reliable. Now, as to why I brought him here...’’

I stood with my arms across my chest, waiting for Bill's explanation with some interest.

’’Sweetheart, I have to go out of town for a while,’’ Bill said.

The unexpectedness of this completely disconcerted me.

’’What ... why? No, wait. I don't need to know.’’ I waved my hands in front of me, shooing away any implication that Bill was obligated to tell me his business.

’’I'll tell you when I get back,’’ he said firmly.

’’So where does your friend - Bubba - come in?’’ Though I had a nasty feeling I already knew.

’’Bubba is going to watch you while I'm gone,’’ Bill said stiffly.

I raised my eyebrows.

’’All right. He's not long on...’’ Bill cast around. ’’... anything,’’ he finally admitted. ’’But he's strong, and he'll do what I tell him, and he'll make sure no one breaks into your house.’’

’’He'll stay out in the woods?’’

’’Oh, yes,’’ Bill said emphatically. ’’He's not even supposed to come up and speak to you. At dark, he'll just find a place from which he can see the house, and he'll watch all night.’’

I'd have to remember to close my blinds. The idea of the dim vampire peering in my windows was not edifying.

’’You really think this is necessary?’’ I asked helplessly. ’’You know, I don't remember you asking me.’’

Bill sort of heaved, his version of taking a deep breath. ’’Sweetheart,’’ he began in an overly patient voice, ’’I am trying very hard to get used to the way women want to be treated now. But it isn't natural to me, especially when I fear you are in danger. I'm trying to give myself peace of mind while I'm gone. I wish I didn't have to go, and it isn't what I want to do, but what I have to do, for us.’’

I eyed him. ’’I hear you,’’ I said finally. ’’I'm not crazy about this, but I am afraid at night, and I guess ... well, okay.’’

Frankly, I don't think it mattered a damn whether I consented or not. After all, how could I make Bubba leave if he didn't want to go? Even the law enforcement people in our little town didn't have the equipment to deal with vampires, and if they were faced with this particular vampire, they'd just stand and gape for long enough for him to tear them apart. I appreciated Bill's concern, and I figured I better have the good grace to thank him. I gave him a little hug.

’’Well, if you have to go off, you just be careful while you're gone,’’ I said, trying not to sound forlorn. ’’Do you have a place to stay?’’

’’Yes. I'll be in New Orleans. There was a room open at the Blood in the Quarter.’’

I'd read an article about this hotel, the first in the world that catered exclusively to vampires. It promised complete security, and so far it had delivered. It was right smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter, too. And at dusk it was absolutely surrounded by fang-bangers and tourists waiting for the vampires to come out.

I began to feel envious. Trying not to look like a wistful puppy who's being pushed back in the door when its owners leave, I yanked my smile back into place. ’’Well, you have a good time,’’ I said brightly. ’’Got your packing done? The drive should take a few hours, and it's already dark.’’

’’The car is ready.’’ I understood for the first time that he had delayed leaving to spend time with me and Arlene's kids. ’’I had better leave.’’ He hesitated, seemed to be searching for the right words. Then he held out his hands to me. I took them, and he pulled a little, just exerted a tiny pressure. I moved into his embrace. I rubbed my face against his shirt. My arms circled him, pressed him into me.

’’I'll miss you,’’ he said. His voice was just a breath in the air, but I heard him. I felt him kiss the top of my head, and then he stepped away from me and out the front door. I heard his voice on the front porch as he gave Bubba some last minute directions, and I heard the squeak of the swing as Bubba got up.

I didn't look out the window until I heard Bill's car going down the driveway. Then I saw Bubba sauntering into the woods. I told myself, as I took my shower, that Bill must trust Bubba since he'd left him guarding me. But I still wasn't sure who I was more afraid of: the murderer Bubba was watching for, or Bubba himself.

A T WORK THE next day, Arlene asked me why the vampire had been at my house. I wasn't surprised that she'd brought it up.

’’Well, Bill had to go out of town, and he worries, you know...’’ I was hoping to let it drop at that. But Charlsie had drifted up (we weren't at all busy: the Chamber of Commerce was having a lunch and speaker at Fins and Hooves, and the Ladies'Prayers and Potatoes group were topping their baked potatoes at old Mrs. Bellefleur's huge house). ’’You mean,’’ Charlsie said with starry eyes, ’’that your man got you a personal bodyguard?’’

I nodded reluctantly. You could put it that way.

’’That's so romantic,’’ Charlsie sighed.

You could look at it that way.

’’But you should see him,’’ Arlene told Charlsie, having held her tongue as long as she could. ’’He's exactly like - !’’

’’Oh, no, not when you talk to him,’’ I interrupted. ’’He's not at all the same.’’ That was true. ’’And he really doesn't like it when he hears that name.’’

’’Oh,’’ said Arlene in a hushed voice, as if Bubba could be listening in the broad daylight.

’’I do feel safer with Bubba in the woods,’’ I said, which was more or less true.

’’Oh, he doesn't stay in the house?’’ Charlsie asked, clearly a little disappointed.

’’God, no!’’ I said, then mentally apologized to God for taking his name in vain. I was having to do that a lot lately. ’’No, Bubba stays in the woods at night, watching the house.’’

’’Was that true about the cats?’’ Arlene looked squeamish.

’’He was just joking. Not a great sense of humor, huh?’’ I was lying through my teeth. I certainly believed Bubba enjoyed a snack of cat blood.

Arlene shook her head, unconvinced. It was time to change the subject. ’’Did you and Rene have fun on your evening out?’’ I asked.

’’Rene was so good last night, wasn't he?’’ she said, her cheeks pink.

A much-married woman, blushing. ’’You tell me.’’ Arlene enjoyed a little ribald teasing.

’’Oh, you! What I mean, he was real polite to Bill and even that Bubba.’’

’’Any reason why he wouldn't be?’’

’’He has kind of a problem with vampires, Sookie.’’ Arlene shook her head. ’’I know, I do, too,’’ she confessed when I looked at her with raised eyebrows. ’’But Rene really has some prejudice. Cindy dated a vampire for a while, and that just made Rene awful upset.’’

’’Cindy okay?’’ I had a great interest in the health of someone who'd dated a vamp.

’’I haven't seen her,’’ Arlene admitted, ’’but Rene goes to visit every other week or so. She's doing well, she's back on the right track. She has a job in a hospital cafeteria.’’

Sam, who'd been standing behind the bar loading the refrigerator with bottled blood, said, ’’Maybe Cindy would like to move back home. Lindsey Krause quit the other shift because she's moving to Little Rock.’’

That certainly focussed our attention. Merlotte's was becoming seriously understaffed. For some reason, low-level service jobs had dropped in popularity in the last couple of months.

’’You interviewed anyone else?’’ Arlene asked.

’’I'll have to go through the files,’’ Sam said wearily. I knew that Arlene and I were the only barmaids, waitresses, servers, whatever you wanted to call us, that Sam had hung on to for more then two years. No, that wasn't true;there was Susanne Mitchell, on the other shift. Sam spent lots of time hiring and occasionally firing. ’’Sookie, would you have a look through the file, see if there's anyone there you know has moved, anyone already got a job, anyone you really recommend? That would save me some time.’’

’’Sure,’’ I said. I remembered Arlene doing the same thing a couple of years ago when Dawn had been hired. We had more ties to the community than Sam, who never seemed to join anything. Sam had been in Bon Temps for six years now, and I had never met anyone who seemed to know about Sam's life prior to his buying the bar here.

I settled down at Sam's desk with the thick file of applications. After a few minutes, I could tell I was really making a difference. I had three piles: moved, employed elsewhere, good material. Then I added a fourth and fifth stack: a pile for people I couldn't work with because I couldn't stand them, and a pile for the dead. The first form on the fifth pile had been filled out by a girl who'd died in a car accident last Christmas, and I felt sorry for her folks all over again when I saw her name at the top of the form. The other application was headed ’’Maudette Pickens.’’

Maudette had applied for a job with Sam three months before her death. I guess working at Grabbit Kwik was pretty uninspiring. When I glanced over the filled-in blanks and noticed how poor Maudette's handwriting and spelling had been, it made me feel pitiful all over again. I tried to imagine my brother thinking of having se* with this woman - and filming it - was a worthwhile way to spend his time, and I marvelled at Jason's strange mentality. I hadn't seen him since he'd driven off with Desiree. I hoped he'd gotten home in one piece. That gal was a real handful. I wished he'd settle down with Liz Barrett: she had enough backbone to hold him up, too.

Whenever I thought about my brother lately, it was to worry. If only he hadn't known Maudette and Dawn so well! Lots of men knew them both, apparently, both casually and carnally. They'd both been vampire bitten. Dawn had liked rough se*, and I didn't know Maudette's proclivities. Lots of men got gas and coffee at the Grabbit Kwik, and lots of men came in to get a drink here, too. But only my stupid brother had recorded se* with Dawn and Maudette on film.

I stared at the big plastic cup on Sam's desk, which had been full of iced tea. ’’The Big Kwencher from Grabbit Kwik’’ was written in neon orange on the side of the green cup. Sam knew them both, too. Dawn had worked for him, Maudette had applied for a job here.

Sam sure didn't like me dating a vampire. Maybe he didn't like anyone dating a vampire.

Sam walked in just then, and I jumped like I'd been doing something bad. And I had, in my book. Thinking evil of a friend was a bad thing to do.

’’Which is the good pile?’’ he asked, but he gave me a puzzled look.

I handed him a short stack of maybe ten applications. ’’This gal, Amy Burley,’’ I said, indicating the one on top, ’’has experience, she's only subbing at the Good Times Bar, and Charlsie used to work with her there. So you could check with Charlsie first.’’

’’Thanks, Sookie. This'll save me some trouble.’’

I nodded curtly in acknowledgment.

’’Are you all right?’’ he asked. ’’You seem kind of distant today.’’

I looked at him closely. He looked just like he always did. But his mind was closed to me. How could he do that? The only other mind completely closed to me was Bill's, because of his vampire state. But Sam was sure no vampire.

’’Just missing Bill,’’ I said deliberately. Would he lecture me about the evils of dating a vampire?

Sam said, ’’It's daytime. He couldn't very well be here.’’

’’Of course not,’’ I said stiffly, and was about to add, ’’He's out of town.’’ Then I asked myself if that was a smart thing to do when I had even a hint of suspicion in my heart about my boss. I left the office so abruptly that Sam stared after me in astonishment.

When I saw Arlene and Sam having a long conversation later that day, their sidelong glances told me clearly that I was the topic. Sam went back to his office looking more worried than ever. But we didn't have any more chitchat the rest of the day.

Going home that evening was hard because I knew I'd be alone until morning. When I'd been alone other evenings, I'd had the reassurance that Bill was just a phone call away. Now he wasn't. I tried to feel good about being guarded once it was dark and Bubba crawled out of whatever hole he'd slept in, but I didn't manage it.

I called Jason, but he wasn't home. I called Merlotte's, thinking he might be there, but Terry Bellefleur answered the phone and said Jason hadn't been in.

I wondered what Sam was doing tonight. I wondered why he never seemed to date much. It wasn't for want of offers, I'd been able to observe many times.

Dawn had been especially aggressive.

That evening I couldn't think of anything that pleased me.

I began wondering if Bubba was the hitman - hitvampire? - Bill had called when he wanted Uncle Bartlett bumped off. I wondered why Bill had chosen such a dim-witted creature to guard me.

Every book I picked up seemed wrong, somehow. Every television show I tried to watch seemed completely ridiculous. I tried to read my Time and became incensed at the determination to commit suicide that possessed so many nations. I pitched the magazine across the room.

My mind scrabbled around like a squirrel trying to get out of a cage. It couldn't light on anything or be comfortable anywhere.

When the phone rang, I jumped a foot.

’’Hello?’’ I said harshly.

’’Jason's here now,’’ Terry Bellefleur said. ’’He wants to buy you a drink.’’

I thought uneasily about going out to the car, now that it was dark;about coming home to an empty house, at least a house I would have to hope was empty. Then I scolded myself because, after all, there would be someone watching the house, someone very strong, if very brainless.

’’Okay, I'll be there in a minute,’’ I said.

Terry simply hung up. Mr. Chatterbox.

I pulled on a denim skirt and a yellow T-shirt and, looking both ways, crossed the yard to my car. I'd left on every outside light, and I unlocked my car and scooted inside quick as a wink. Once inside the car, I relocked my door.

This was sure no way to live.

I AUTOMATICALLY PARKED in the employee lot when I got to Merlotte's. There was a dog pawing around the Dumpster, and I patted him on the head when I went in. We had to call the pound about once a week to come get some stray or dumped dogs, so many of them pregnant it just made me sick.

Terry was behind the bar.

’’Hey,’’ I said, looking around. ’’Where's Jason?’’

’’He ain't here,’’ Terry said. ’’I haven't seen him this evening. I told you so on the phone.’’

I gaped at him. ’’But you called me after that and said he had come in.’’

’’No, I didn't.’’

We stared at each other. Terry was having one of his bad nights, I could tell. His head was writhing around on the inside with the snakes of his army service and his battle with alcohol and drugs. On the outside, you could see he was flushed and sweating despite the air conditioning, and his movements were jerky and clumsy. Poor Terry.

’’You really didn't?’’ I asked, in as neutral a tone as possible.

’’Said so, didn't I?’’ His voice was belligerent.

I hoped none of the bar patrons gave Terry trouble tonight.

I backed out with a conciliatory smile.

The dog was still at the back door. He whined when he saw me.

’’Are you hungry, fella?’’ I asked. He came right up to me, without the cringing I'd come to expect from strays. As he moved more into the light, I saw that this dog had been recently abandoned, if his glossy coat was any indicator. He was a collie, at least mostly. I started to step into the kitchen to ask whoever was cooking if they had any scraps for this guy, but then I had a better idea.

’’I know bad ol'Bubba is at the house, but maybe you could come in the house with me,’’ I said in that baby voice I use with animals when I think nobody's listening. ’’Can you pee outside, so we don't make a mess in the house? Hmmm, boy?’’

As if he'd understood me, the collie marked the corner of the Dumpster.

’’Good fella! Come for a ride?’’ I opened my car door, hoping he wouldn't get the seats too dirty. The dog hesitated. ’’Come on, sugar, I'll give you something good to eat when we get to my place, okay?’’ Bribery was not necessarily a bad thing.

After a couple more looks and a thorough sniffing of my hands, the dog jumped onto the passenger seat and sat looking out the windshield like he'd committed himself to this adventure.

I told him I appreciated it, and I tickled his ears. We set off, and the dog made it clear he was used to riding.

’’Now, when we get to the house, buddy,’’ I told the collie firmly, ’’we're gonna make tracks for the front door, okay? There's an ogre in the woods who'd just love to eat you up.’’

The dog gave an excited yip.

’’Well, he's not gonna get a chance,’’ I soothed him. It sure was nice to have something to talk to. It was even nice he couldn't talk back, at least for the moment. And I didn't have to keep my guard up because he wasn't human. Relaxing. ’’We're gonna hurry.’’

’’Woof,’’ agreed my companion.

’’I got to call you something,’’ I said. ’’How about... Buffy?’’

The dog growled.

’’Okay. Rover?’’

Whine.

’’Don't like that either. Hmmm.’’ We turned into my driveway.

’’Maybe you already have a name?’’ I asked. ’’Let me check your neck.’’ After I turned off the engine, I ran my fingers through the thick hair. Not even a flea collar. ’’Someone's been taking bad care of you, sweetie,’’ I said. ’’But not anymore. I'll be a good mama.’’ With that last inanity, I got my house key ready and opened my door. In a flash, the dog pushed past me and stood in the yard, looking around him alertly. He sniffed the air, and a growl rose in his throat.

’’It's just the good vampire, sugar, the one that's guarding the house. You come on inside.’’ With some constant coaxing, I got the dog to come into the house. I locked the door behind us instantly.

The dog padded all around the living room, sniffing and peering. After watching him for a minute to be sure he wasn't going to chew on anything or lift his leg, I went to the kitchen to find something for him to eat. I filled a big bowl with water. I got another plastic bowl Gran had kept lettuce in, and I put the remains of Tina's cat food and some leftover taco meat in it. I figured if you'd been starving, that would be acceptable. The dog finally worked his back to the kitchen and headed for the bowls. He sniffed at the food and raised his head to give me a long look.

’’I'm sorry. I don't have any dog food. That's the best I could come up with. If you want to stay with me, I'll get some Kibbles'N Bits.’’ The dog stared at me for a few more seconds, then bent his head to the bowl. He ate a little meat, took a drink, and looked up at me expectantly.

’’Can I call you Rex?’’

A little growl.

’’What about Dean?’’ I asked. ’’Dean's a nice name.’’ A pleasant guy who helped me at a Shreveport bookstore was named Dean. His eyes looked kind of like this collie's, observant and intelligent. And Dean was a little different;I'd never met a dog named Dean. ’’I'll bet you're smarter than Bubba,’’ I said thoughtfully, and the dog gave his short, sharp bark.

’’Well, come on, Dean, let's get ready for bed,’’ I said, quite enjoying having something to talk to. The dog padded after me into the bedroom, checking out all the furniture very thoroughly. I pulled off the skirt and tee, put them away, and stepped out of my panties and unhooked my bra. The dog watched me with great attention while I pulled out a clean nightgown and went into the bathroom to shower. When I stepped out, clean and soothed, Dean was sitting in the doorway, his head cocked to one side.

’’That's to get clean, people like to have showers,’’ I told him. ’’I know dogs don't. I guess it's a human thing.’’ I brushed my teeth and pulled on my nightgown. ’’You ready for sleep, Dean?’’

In answer, he jumped up on the bed, turned in a circle, and lay down.

’’Hey! Wait a minute!’’ I'd certainly talked myself into that one. Gran would have a fit if she could know a dog was on her bed. Gran had believed animals were fine as long as they spent the night outside. Humans inside, animals outside, had been her rule. Well, now I had a vampire outside and a collie on my bed.

I said, ’’You get down!’’ and pointed at the rug.

The collie, slowly, reluctantly, descended from the bed. He eyed me reproachfully as he sat on the rug.

’’You stay there,’’ I said sternly and got in the bed. I was very tired, and not nearly so nervous now that the dog was here;though what help I expected him to be in case of an intruder, I didn't know, since he didn't know me well enough to be loyal to me. But I would accept any comfort I could find, and I began to relax into sleep. Just as I was drifting off, I felt the bed indent under the weight of the collie. A narrow tongue gave my cheek a swipe. The dog settled close to me. I turned over and patted him. It was sort of nice having him here.

The next thing I knew, it was dawn. I could hear the birds going to town outside, chirping up a storm, and it felt wonderful to be snuggled in bed. I could feel the warmth of the dog through my nightgown;I must have gotten hot during the night and thrown off the sheet. I drowsily patted the animal's head and began to stroke his fur, my fingers running idly through the thick hair. He wriggled even closer, sniffed my face, put his arm around me.

His arm?

I was off the bed and shrieking in one move.

In my bed, Sam propped himself on his elbows, sunny side up, and looked at me with some amusement.

’’Oh, ohmyGod! Sam, how'd you get here? What are you doing? Where's Dean?’’ I covered my face with my hands and turned my back, but I'd certainly seen all there was to see of Sam.

’’Woof,’’ said Sam, from a human throat, and the truth stomped over me in combat boots.

I whirled back to face him, so angry I felt like I was going to blow a gasket.

’’You watched me undress last night, you ... you ... damn dog!’’

’’Sookie,’’ he said, persuasively. ’’Listen to me.’’

Another thought struck me. ’’Oh, Sam. Bill will kill you.’’ I sat on the slipper chair in the corner by the bathroom door. I put my elbows on my knees and hung my head. ’’Oh, no,’’ I said. ’’No, no, no.’’

He was kneeling in front of me. The wirey red-gold hair of his head was duplicated on his chest and trailed in a line down to ... I shut my eyes again.

’’Sookie, I was worried when Arlene told me you were going to be alone,’’ Sam began.

’’Didn't she tell you about Bubba?’’

’’Bubba?’’

’’This vampire Bill left watching the house.’’

’’Oh. Yeah, she said he reminded her of some singer.’’

’’Well, his name is Bubba. He likes to drain animals for fun.’’

I had the satisfaction of seeing (through my fingers) Sam turn pale.

’’Well, isn't it lucky you let me in, then,’’ he said finally.

Suddenly recalled to his guise of the night before, I said, ’’What are you, Sam?’’

’’I'm a shapeshifter. I thought it was time you knew.’’

’’Did you have to do it quite like that?’’

’’Actually,’’ he said, embarrassed, ’’I had planned on waking up and getting out before you opened your eyes. I just overslept. Running around on all fours kind of tires you out.’’

’’I thought people just changed into wolves.’’

’’Nope. I can change into anything.’’

I was so interested I dropped my hands and tried to just stare at his face. ’’How often?’’ I asked. ’’Do you get to pick?’’

’’I have to at the full moon,’’ he explained. ’’Other times, I have to will it;it's harder and it takes longer. I turn into whatever animal I saw before I changed. So I keep a dog book open to a picture of a collie on my coffee table. Collies are big, but nonthreatening.’’

’’So, you could be a bird?’’

’’Yeah, but flying is hard. I'm always scared I'm going to get fried on a power line, or fly into a window.’’

’’Why? Why did you want me to know?’’

’’You seemed to handle Bill being a vampire really well. In fact, you seemed to enjoy it. So I thought I would see if you could handle my ... condition.’’

’’But what you are,’’ I said abruptly, off on a mental tangent, ’’can't be explained by a virus! I mean, you utterly change!’’

He didn't say anything. He just looked at me, the eyes now blue, but just as intelligent and observant.

’’Being a shapeshifter is definitely supernatural. If that is, then other things can be. So...’’ I said, slowly, carefully, ’’Bill hasn't got a virus at all. Being a vampire, it really can't be explained by an allergy to silver or garlic or sunlight ... that's just so much bullshit the vampires are spreading around, propaganda, you might say ... so they can be more easily accepted, as sufferers from a terrible disease. But really they're ... they're really...’’

I dashed into the bathroom and threw up. Luckily, I made it to the toilet.

’’Yeah,’’ Sam said from the doorway, his voice sad. ’’I'm sorry, Sookie. But Bill doesn't just have a virus. He's really, really dead.’’

I WASHED MY face and brushed my teeth twice. I sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling too tired to go further. Sam sat beside me. He put his arm around me comfortingly, and after a moment I nestled closer, laying my cheek in the hollow of his neck.

’’You know, once I was listening to NPR,’’ I said, completely at random. ’’They were broadcasting a piece about cryogenics, about how lots of people are opting to just freeze their head because it's so much cheaper than getting your whole body frozen.’’

’’Ummm?’’

’’Guess what song they played for the closing?’’

’’What, Sookie?’’

’’¡®Put Your Head on My Shoulder.'’’

Sam made a choking noise, then doubled over with laughter.

’’Listen, Sam,’’ I said, when he'd calmed down. ’’I hear what you're telling me, but I have to work this out with Bill. I love Bill. I am loyal to him. And he isn't here to give his point of view.’’

’’Oh, this isn't about me trying to woo you away from Bill. Though that would be great.’’ And Sam smiled his rare and brilliant smile. He seemed much more relaxed with me now that I knew his secret.

’’Then what is it about?’’

’’This is about keeping you alive until the murderer is caught.’’

’’So that's why you woke up naked in my bed? For my protection?’’

He had the grace to look ashamed. ’’Well, maybe I could have planned it better. But I did think you needed someone with you, since Arlene told me Bill was out of town. I knew you wouldn't let me spend the night here as a human.’’

’’Will you rest easy now that you know Bubba is watching the house at night?’’

’’Vampires are strong, and ferocious,’’ Sam conceded. ’’I guess this Bubba owes Bill something, or he wouldn't be doing him a favor. Vampires aren't big on doing each other favors. They have a lot of structure in their world.’’

I should have paid more attention to what Sam was saying, but I was thinking I'd better not explain about Bubba's origins.

’’If there's you, and Bill, I guess there must be lots of other things outside of nature,’’ I said, realizing what a treasure trove of thought awaited me. Since I'd met Bill, I hadn't felt so much need to hoard neat things up for future contemplation, but it never hurt to be prepared. ’’You'll have to tell me sometime.’’ Big Foot? The Loch Ness Monster? I'd always believed in the Loch Ness monster.

’’Well, I guess I better be getting back home,’’ Sam said. He looked at me hopefully. He was still naked.

’’Yes, I think you better. But - oh, dang it - you ... oh, hell.’’ I stomped upstairs to look for some clothes. It seemed to me Jason had a couple of things in an upstairs closet he kept here for some emergency.

Sure enough, there was a pair of blue jeans and a work shirt in the first upstairs bedroom. It was already hot up there, under the tin roof, because the upstairs was on a separate thermostat. I came back down, grateful to feel the cool conditioned air.

’’Here,’’ I said, handing Sam the clothes. ’’I hope they fit well enough.’’ He looked as though he wanted to start our conversation back up, but I was too aware now that I was clad in a thin nylon nightgown and he was clad in nothing at all.

’’On with the clothes,’’ I said firmly. ’’And you get dressed out in the living room.’’ I shooed him out and shut the door behind him. I thought it would be insulting to lock the door, so I didn't. I did get dressed in record time, pulling on clean underwear and the denim skirt and yellow shirt I'd had on the night before. I dabbed on my makeup, put on some earrings, and brushed my hair up into a ponytail, putting a yellow squnchy over the elastic band. My morale rose as I looked in the mirror. My smile turned into a frown when I thought I heard a truck pulling into the front yard.

I came out of the bedroom like I'd been fired from a cannon, hoping like hell Sam was dressed and hiding. He'd done one better. He'd changed back into a dog. The clothes were scattered on the floor, and I swept them up and stuffed them into the closet in the hall.

’’Good boy!’’ I said enthusiastically and scratched behind his ears. Dean responded by sticking his cold black nose up my skirt. ’’Now you cut that out,’’ I said, and looked through the front window. ’’It's Andy Bellefleur,’’ I told the dog.

Andy jumped out of his Dodge Ram, stretched for a long second, and headed for my front door. I opened it, Dean by my side.

I eyed Andy quizzically. ’’You look like you been up all night long, Andy. Can I make you some coffee?’’

The dog stirred restlessly beside me.

’’That would be great,’’ he said. ’’Can I come in?’’

’’Sure.’’ I stood aside. Dean growled.

’’You got a good guard dog, there. Here, fella. Come here.’’ Andy squatted to hold out a hand to the collie, whom I simply could not think of as Sam. Dean sniffed Andy's hand, but wouldn't give it a lick. Instead, he kept between me and Andy.

’’Come on back to the kitchen,’’ I said, and Andy stood and followed me. I had the coffee on in a jiffy and put some bread in the toaster. Assembling the cream and sugar and spoons and mugs took a few more minutes, but then I had to face why Andy was here. His face was drawn;he looked ten years older than I knew him to be. This was no courtesy call.

’’Sookie, were you here last night? You didn't work?’’

’’No, I didn't. I was here except for a quick trip in to Merlotte's.’’

’’Was Bill here any of that time?’’

’’No, he's in New Orleans. He's staying in that new hotel in the French Quarter, the one just for vampires.’’

’’You're sure that's where he is.’’

’’Yes.’’ I could feel my face tighten. The bad thing was coming.

’’I've been up all night,’’ Andy said.

’’Yes.’’

’’I've just come from another crime scene.’’

’’Yes.’’ I went into his mind. ’’Amy Burley?’’ I stared at his eyes, trying to make sure. ’’Amy who worked at the Good Times Bar?’’ The name at the top of yesterday's pile of prospective barmaids, the name I'd left for Sam. I looked down at the dog. He lay on the floor with his muzzle between his paws, looking as sad and stunned as I felt. He whined pathetically.

Andy's brown eyes were boring a hole in me. ’’How'd you know?’’

’’Cut the crap, Andy, you know I can read minds. I feel awful. Poor Amy. Was it like the others?’’

’’Yes,’’ he said. ’’Yes, it was like the others. But the puncture marks were fresher.’’

I thought of the night Bill and I had had to go to Shreveport to answer Eric's summons. Had Amy given Bill blood that night? I couldn't even count how many days ago that had been, my schedule had been so thrown off by all the strange and terrible events of the past few weeks.

I sat down heavily in a wooden kitchen chair, shaking my head absently for a few minutes, amazed at the turn my life had taken.

Amy Burley's life had no more turns to take. I shook the odd spell of apathy off, rose and poured the coffee.

’’Bill hasn't been here since night before last,’’ I said.

’’And you were here all night?’’

’’Yes, I was. My dog can tell you,’’ and I smiled down at Dean, who whined at being noticed. He came over to lay his fuzzy head on my knees while I drank my coffee. I smoothed his ears.

’’Did you hear from your brother?’’

’’No, but I got a funny phone call, from someone who said he was at Merlotte's.’’ After the words left my mouth I realized the caller must have been Sam, luring me over to Merlotte's so he could maneuver himself into accompanying me home. Dean yawned, a big jaw-cracking yawn that let us see every one of his white sharp teeth.

I wished I'd kept my mouth shut.

But now I had to explain the whole thing to Andy, who was slumped only half-awake in my kitchen chair, his plaid shirt wrinkled and blotched with coffee stains, his khakis shapeless through long wear. Andy was longing for bed the way a horse longs for his own stall.

’’You need to get some rest,’’ I said gently. There was something sad about Andy Bellefleur, something daunted.

’’It's these murders,’’ he said, his voice unsteady from exhaustion. ’’These poor women. And they were all the same in so many ways.’’

’’Uneducated, blue-collar women who worked in bars? Didn't mind having a vampire lover from time to time?’’

He nodded, his eyes drooping shut.

’’Women just like me, in other words.’’

His eyes opened then. He was aghast at his error. ’’Sookie...’’

’’I understand, Andy,’’ I said. ’’In some respects, we are all alike, and if you accept the attack on my grandmother as intended for me, well, I guess then I'm the only survivor.’’

I wondered who the murderer had left to kill. Was I the only one alive who met his criteria? That was the scariest thought I'd had all day.

Andy was practically nodding over his coffee cup.

’’Why don't you go lie down in the other bedroom?’’ I suggested quietly. ’’You have to have some sleep. You're not safe to drive, I wouldn't think.’’

’’That's kind of you,’’ Andy said, his voice dragging. He sounded a little surprised, like kindness wasn't something he expected from me. ’’But I have to get home, set my alarm. I can sleep for maybe three hours.’’

’’I promise I'll wake you up,’’ I said. I didn't want Andy sleeping in my house, but I didn't want him to have a wreck on the way to his house, either. Old Mrs. Bellefleur would never forgive me, and probably Portia wouldn't either. ’’You come lie down in this room.’’ I led him to my old bedroom. My single bed was neatly made up. ’’You just lie down on top of the bed, and I'll set the alarm.’’ I did, while he watched. ’’Now, get a little sleep. I have one errand to run, and I'll be right back.’’ Andy didn't offer any more resistance, but sat heavily on the bed even as I shut the door.

The dog had been padding after me while I got Andy situated, and now I said to him, in a quite different tone, ’’You go get dressed right now!’’

Andy stuck his head out the bedroom door. ’’Sookie, who are you talking to?’’

’’The dog,’’ I answered instantly. ’’He always gets his collar, and I put it on every day.’’

’’Why do you ever take it off?’’

’’It jingles at night, keeps me up. You go to bed, now.’’

’’All right.’’ Looking satisfied at my explanation, Andy shut the door again.

I retrieved Jason's clothes from the closet, put them on the couch in front of the dog, and sat with my back turned. But I realized I could see in the mirror over the mantel.

The air grew hazy around the collie, seemed to hum and vibrate with energy, and then the form began to change within that electric concentration. When the haze cleared, there was Sam kneeling on the floor, buck-naked. Wow, what a bottom. I had to make myself close my eyes, tell myself repeatedly that I had not been unfaithful to Bill. Bill's butt, I told myself staunchly, was every bit as neat.

’’I'm ready,’’ Sam's voice said, so close behind me that I jumped. I stood up quickly and turned to face him, and found his face about six inches from mine.

’’Sookie,’’ he said hopefully, his hand landing on my shoulder, rubbing and caressing it.

I was angry because half of me wanted to respond.

’’Listen here, buddy, you could have told me about yourself any time in the past few years. We've known each other what, four years? Or even more! And yet, Sam, despite the fact that I see you almost daily, you wait until Bill is interested in me, before you even...’’ and unable to think how to finish, I threw my hands up in the air.

Sam drew back, which was a good thing.

’’I didn't see what was in front of me until I thought it might be taken away,’’ he said, his voice quiet.

I had nothing to say to that. ’’Time to go home,’’ I told him. ’’And we better get you there without anyone seeing you. I mean it.’’

This was chancy enough without some mischievous person like Rene seeing Sam in my car in the early morning and drawing wrong conclusions. And passing them on to Bill.

So off we went, Sam hunched down in the backseat. I pulled cautiously behind Merlotte's. There was a truck there;black, with pink and aqua flames down the sides. Jason's.

’’Uh-oh,’’ I said.

’’What?’’ Sam's voice was somewhat muffled by his position.

’’Let me go look,’’ I said, beginning to be anxious. Why would Jason park over here in the employees'parking area? And it seemed to me there was a shape in the truck.

I opened my door. I waited for the sound to alert the figure in the truck. I watched for evidence of movement. When nothing happened, I began to walk across the gravel, as frightened as I'd ever been in the light of day.

When I got closer to the window, I could see that the figure inside was Jason. He was slumped behind the wheel. I could see that his shirt was stained, that his chin was resting on his chest, that his hands were limp on the seat on either side of him, that the mark on his handsome face was a long red scratch. I could see a videotape resting on the truck dashboard, unlabelled.

’’Sam,’’ I said, hating the fear in my voice. ’’Please come here.’’

Quicker than I could believe, Sam was beside me, then reaching past me to unlatch the truck door. Since the truck had apparently been sitting there for several hours - there was dew on its hood - with the windows closed, in the early summer, the smell that rolled out was pretty strong and compounded of at least three elements: blood, se*, and liquor.

’’Call the ambulance!’’ I said urgently as Sam reached in to feel for Jason's pulse. Sam looked at me doubtfully. ’’Are you sure you want to do that?’’ he asked.

’’Of course! He's unconscious!’’

’’Wait, Sookie. Think about this.’’

And I might have reconsidered in just a minute, but at that moment Arlene pulled up in her beat-up blue Ford, and Sam sighed and went into his trailer to phone.

I was so naive. That's what comes of being a law-abiding citizen for nearly every day of my life.

I rode with Jason to the tiny local hospital, oblivious to the police looking very carefully at Jason's truck, blind to the squad car following the ambulance, totally trusting when the emergency room doctor sent me home, telling me he'd call me when Jason regained consciousness. The doctor told me, eyeing me curiously, that Jason was apparently sleeping off the effects of alcohol or drugs. But Jason had never drunk that much before, and Jason didn't use drugs: our cousin Hadley's descent into the life of the streets had made a profound impression on both of us. I told the doctor all that, and he listened, and he shooed me off.

Not knowing what to think, I went home to find that Andy Bellefleur had been roused by his pager. He'd left me a note telling me that, and nothing else. Later on, I found that he'd actually been in the hospital while I was there, and waited until I was gone out of consideration for me before he'd handcuffed Jason to the bed.


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