Dead Until Dark Chapter 12

SAM CAME TO give me the news about eleven o'clock. ’’They're going to arrest Jason as soon as he comes to, Sookie, which looks like being soon.’’ Sam didn't tell me how he came to know this, and I didn't ask.

I stared at him, tears running down my face. Any other day, I might have thought of how plain I look when I cry, but today was not a day I cared about my outsides. I was all in a knot, frightened for Jason, sad about Amy Burley, full of anger the police were making such a stupid mistake, and underneath it all, missing my Bill.

’’They think it looks like Amy Burley put up a fight. They think he got drunk after he killed her.’’

’’Thanks, Sam, for warning me.’’ My voice came from way faraway. ’’You better go to work, now.’’

After Sam had seen that I needed to be alone, I called information and got the number of Blood in the Quarter. I punched in the numbers, feeling somehow I was doing a bad thing, but I couldn't think how or why.

’’Bloooooood ... in the Quarter,’’ announced a deep voice dramatically. ’’Your coffin away from home.’’

Geez. ’’Good morning. This is Sookie Stackhouse calling from Bon Temps,’’ I said politely. ’’I need to leave a message for Bill Compton. He's a guest there.’’

’’Fang or human?’’

’’Ah ... fang.’’

’’Just one minute, please.’’

The deep voice came back on the line after a moment. ’’What is the message, madam?’’

That gave me pause.

’’Please tell Mr. Compton that ... my brother has been arrested, and I would appreciate it if he could come home as soon as his business is completed.’’

’’I have that down.’’ The sound of scribbling. ’’And your name again?’’

’’Stackhouse. Sookie Stackhouse.’’

’’All right, miss. I'll see to it that he gets your message.’’

’’Thanks.’’

And that was the only action I could think of to take, until I realized it would be much more practical to call Sid Matt Lancaster. He did his best to sound appalled to hear Jason was going to be arrested, said he'd hurry over to the hospital as soon as he got out of court that afternoon, and that he'd report back to me.

I drove back to the hospital to see if they'd let me sit with Jason until he became conscious. They wouldn't. I wondered if he was already conscious, and they weren't telling me. I saw Andy Bellefleur at the other end of the hall, and he turned and walked the other way.

Damn coward.

I went home because I couldn't think of anything to do. I realized it wasn't a workday for me anyway, and that was a good thing, though I didn't really care too much at that point. It occurred to me that I wasn't handling this as well as I ought, that I had been much steadier when Gran had died.

But that had been a finite situation. We would bury Gran, her killer would be arrested, we would go on. If the police seriously believed that Jason had killed Gran in addition to the other women, then the world was such a bad and chancy place that I wanted no part of it.

But I realized, as I sat and looked in front of me that long, long afternoon, that it was naivete like that that had led to Jason's arrest. If I'd just gotten him into Sam's trailer and cleaned him up, hidden the film until I found out what it contained, above all not called the ambulance ... that had been what Sam had been thinking when he'd looked at me so doubtfully. However, Arlene's arrival had kind of wiped out my options.

I thought the phone would start ringing as soon as people heard.

But no one called.

They didn't know what to say.

Sid Matt Lancaster came about four-thirty.

Without any preliminary, he told me, ’’They've arrested him. For first-degree murder.’’

I closed my eyes. When I opened them, Sid was regarding me with a shrewd expression on his mild face. His conservative black-framed glasses magnified his muddy brown eyes, and his jowls and sharp nose made him look a little like a bloodhound.

’’What does he say?’’ I asked.

’’He says that he was with Amy last night.’’

I sighed.

’’He says they went to bed together, that he had been with Amy before. He says he hadn't seen Amy in a long time, that the last time they were together Amy was acting jealous about the other women he was seeing, really angry. So he was surprised when she approached him last night in Good Times. Jason says Amy acted funny all night, like she had an agenda he didn't know about. He remembers having se* with her, he remembers them lying in bed having a drink afterward, then he remembers nothing until he woke up in the hospital.’’

’’He was set up,’’ I said firmly, thinking I sounded exactly like a bad made-for-TV movie.

’’Of course.’’ Sid Matt's eyes were as steady and assured as if he'd been at Amy Burley's place last night.

Hell, maybe he had.

’’Listen, Sid Matt.’’ I leaned forward and made him meet my eyes. ’’Even if I could somehow believe that Jason had killed Amy, and Dawn, and Maudette, I could never believe he would raise his finger to hurt my grandmother.’’

’’All right, then.’’ Sid Matt prepared to meet my thoughts, fair and square, his entire body proclaimed it. ’’Miss Sookie, let's just assume for a minute that Jason did have some kind of involvement in those deaths. Perhaps, the police might think, your friend Bill Compton killed your grandmother since she was keeping you two apart.’’

I tried to give the appearance of considering this piece of idiocy. ’’Well, Sid Matt, my grandmother liked Bill, and she was pleased I was seeing him.’’

Until he put his game face back on, I saw stark disbelief in the lawyer's eyes. He wouldn't be at all happy if his daughter was seeing a vampire. He couldn't imagine a responsible parent being anything but appalled. And he couldn't imagine trying to convince a jury that my grandmother had been pleased I was dating a guy who wasn't even alive, and furthermore was over a hundred years older than me.

Those were Sid Matt's thoughts.

’’Have you met Bill?’’ I asked.

He was taken aback. ’’No,’’ he admitted. ’’You know, Miss Sookie, I'm not for this vampire stuff. I think it's taking a chink out of a wall we should keep built up, a wall between us and the so-called virus-infected. I think God intended that wall to be there, and I for one will hold up my section.’’

’’The problem with that, Sid Matt, is that I personally was created straddling that wall.’’ After a lifetime of keeping my mouth shut about my ’’gift,’’ I found that if it would help Jason, I'd shake it in anybody's face.

’’Well,’’ Sid Matt said bravely, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his sharp nose, ’’I am sure the Good Lord gave you this problem I've heard about for a reason. You have to learn how to use it for his glory.’’

No one had ever quite put it that way. That was an idea to chew over when I had time.

’’I've made us stray from the subject, I'm afraid, and I know your time is valuable.’’ I gathered my thoughts. ’’I want Jason out on bail. There is nothing but circumstantial evidence tying him to Amy's murder, am I right?’’

’’He's admitted to being with the victim right before the murder, and the videotape, one of the cops hinted to me pretty strongly, shows your brother having se* with the victim. The time and date on the film indicate it was made in the hours before her death, if not minutes.’’

Damn Jason's peculiar bedroom preferences. ’’Jason doesn't drink much at all. He smelled of liquor in the truck. I think it was just spilled over him. I think a test will prove that. Maybe Amy gave him some narcotic in the drink she fixed him.’’

’’Why would she do that?’’

’’Because, like so many women, she was mad at Jason because she wanted him so much. My brother is able to date almost anyone he wants. No, I'm using that euphemism.’’

Sid Matt looked surprised I knew the word.

’’He could go to bed with almost anyone he wanted. A dream life, most guys would think.’’ Weariness descended on me like fog. ’’Now there he sits in the jail.’’

’’You think another man did this to him? Framed him for this murder?’’

’’Yes, I do.’’ I leaned forward, trying to persuade this skeptical lawyer by the force of my own belief. ’’Someone envious of him. Someone who knows his schedule, who kills these women when Jason's off work. Someone who knows Jason had had se* with these gals. Someone who knows he likes to make tapes.’’

’’Could be almost anyone,’’ Jason's lawyer said practically.

’’Yep,’’ I said sadly. ’’Even if Jason was nice enough to keep quiet about exactly who he'd been with, all anyone'd have to do is see who he left a bar with at closing time. Just being observant, maybe having asked about the tapes on a visit to his house...’’ My brother might be somewhat immoral, but I didn't think he'd show those videos to anyone else. He might tell another man that he liked to make the videos, though. ’’So this man, whoever he is, made some kind of deal with Amy, knowing she was mad at Jason. Maybe he told her he was going to play a practical joke on Jason or something.’’

’’Your brother's never been arrested before,’’ Sid Matt observed.

’’No.’’ Though it had been a near thing, a couple of times, to hear Jason tell it.

’’No record, upstanding member of the community, steady job. There may be a chance I can get him out on bail. But if he runs, you'll lose everything.’’

It truly had never occurred to me that Jason might skip bail. I didn't know anything about arranging for bail, and I didn't know what I'd have to do, but I wanted Jason out of that jail. Somehow, staying in jail until the legal processes had been gone through before the trial... somehow, that would make him look guiltier.

’’You find out about it and let me know what I have to do,’’ I said. ’’In the meantime, can I go see him?’’

’’He'd rather you didn't,’’ Sid Matt said.

That hurt dreadfully. ’’Why?’’ I asked, trying really hard not to tear up again.

’’He's ashamed,’’ said the lawyer.

The thought of Jason feeling shame was fascinating.

’’So,’’ I said, trying to move along, suddenly tired of this unsatisfactory meeting. ’’You'll call me when I can actually do something?’’

Sid Matt nodded, his jowls trembling slightly with the movement. I made him uneasy. He sure was glad to be leaving me.

The lawyer drove off in his pickup, clapping a cowboy hat on his head when he was still in sight.

When it was full dark, I went out to check on Bubba. He was sitting under a pin oak, bottles of blood lined up beside him, empties on one side, fulls on the other.

I had a flashlight, and though I knew Bubba was there, it was still a shock to see him in the beam of light. I shook my head. Something really had gone wrong when Bubba ’’came over,’’ no doubt about it. I was sincerely glad I couldn't read Bubba's thoughts. His eyes were crazy as hell.

’’Hey, sugar,’’ he said, his Southern accent as thick as syrup. ’’How you doing? You come to keep me company?’’

’’I just wanted to make sure you were comfortable,’’ I said.

’’Well, I could think of places I'd be more comfortable, but since you're Bill's girl, I ain't about to talk about them.’’

’’Good,’’ I said firmly.

’’Any cats around here? I'm getting mighty tired of this bottled stuff.’’

’’No cats. I'm sure Bill will be back soon, and then you can go home.’’ I started back toward the house, not feeling comfortable enough in Bubba's presence to prolong the conversation, if you could call it that. I wondered what thoughts Bubba had during his long watchful nights;I wondered if he remembered his past.

’’What about that dog?’’ he called after me.

’’He went home,’’ I called back over my shoulder.

’’Too bad,’’ Bubba said to himself, so softly I almost didn't hear him.

I got ready for bed. I watched television. I ate some ice cream, and I even chopped up a Heath Bar for a topping. None of my usual comfort things seemed to work tonight. My brother was in jail, my boyfriend was in New Orleans, my grandmother was dead, and someone had murdered my cat. I felt lonely and sorry for myself all the way around.

Sometimes you just have to roll in it.

Bill didn't return my call.

That added fuel to the flame of my misery. He'd probably found some accommodating whore in New Orleans, or some fang-banger, like the ones who hung around Blood in the Quarter every night, hoping for a vampire ’’date.’’

If I were a drinking woman, I would have gotten drunk. If I'd been a casual woman, I would have called lovely JB du Rone and had se* with him. But I'm not anything so dramatic or drastic, so I just ate ice cream and watched old movies on TV. By an eerie coincidence, Blue Hawaii was on.

I finally went to bed about midnight.

A shriek outside my bedroom window woke me up. I sat up straight in bed. I heard thumps, and thuds, and finally a voice I was sure was Bubba's shouting, ’’Come back here, sucker!’’

When I hadn't heard anything in a couple of minutes, I pulled on a bathrobe and went to the front door. The yard, lit by the security light, was empty. Then I glimpsed movement to the left, and when I stuck my head out the door, I saw Bubba, trudging back to his hideout.

’’What happened?’’ I called softly.

Bubba changed direction and slouched over to the porch.

’’Sure enough, some sumbitch, scuse me, was sneaking around the house,’’ Bubba said. His brown eyes were glowing, and he looked more like his former self. ’’I heard him minutes before he got here, and I thought I'd catch ahold of him. But he cut through the woods to the road, and he had a truck parked there.’’

’’Did you get a look?’’

’’Not enough of one to describe him,’’ Bubba said shamefacedly. ’’He was driving a pickup, but I couldn't even tell what color it was. Dark.’’

’’You saved me, though,’’ I said, hoping my very real gratitude showed in my voice. I felt a swell of love for Bill, who had arranged my protection. Even Bubba looked better than he had before. ’’Thanks, Bubba.’’

’’Aw, think nothing of it,’’ he said graciously, and for that moment he stood up straight, kind of tossed his head back, had that sleepy smile on his face... it was him, and I'd opened my mouth to say his name, when Bill's warning came back to shut my mouth.

JASON MADE BAIL the next day.

It cost a fortune. I signed what Sid Matt told me to, though mostly the collateral was Jason's house and truck and his fishing boat. If Jason had ever been arrested before, even for jaywalking, I don't think he would have been permitted to post bond.

I was standing on the courthouse steps wearing my horrible, sober, navy blue suit in the heat of the late morning. Sweat trickled down my face and ran between my lips in that nasty way that makes you want to go jump in the shower. Jason stopped in front of me. I hadn't been sure he would speak. His face was years older. Real trouble had come to sit on his shoulder, real trouble that would not go away or ease up, like grief did.

’’I can't talk to you about this,’’ he said, so softly I could barely hear him. ’’You know it wasn't me. I've never been violent beyond a fight or two in a parking lot over some woman.’’

I touched his shoulder, let my hand drop when he didn't respond. ’’I never thought it was you. I never will. I'm sorry I was fool enough to call 911 yesterday. If I'd realized that wasn't your blood, I'd have taken you into Sam's trailer and cleaned you up and burned the tape. I was just so scared that was your blood.’’ And I felt my eyes fill. This was no time to cry, though, and I tightened up all over, feeling my face tense. Jason's mind was a mess, like a mental pigsty. In it bubbled an unhealthy brew compounded of regrets, shame at his se*ual habits being made public, guilt that he didn't feel worse about Amy being killed, horror that anyone in the town would think he'd killed his own grandmother while lying in wait for his sister.

’’We'll get through this,’’ I said helplessly.

’’We'll get through this,’’ he repeated, trying to make his voice sound strong and assured. But I thought it would be awhile, a long while, before Jason's assurance, that golden certainty that had made him irresistible, returned to his posture and his face and his speech.

Maybe it never would.

We parted there, at the courthouse. We had nothing more to say.

I sat in the bar all day, looking at the men who came in, reading their minds. Not one of them was thinking of how he'd killed four women and gotten away with it so far. At lunchtime Hoyt and Rene walked in the door and walked back out when they saw me sitting. Too embarrassing for them, I guess.

Finally, Sam made me leave. He said I was so creepy that I was driving away any customers who might give me useful information.

I trudged out the door and into the glaring sun. It was about to set. I thought about Bubba, about Bill, about all those creatures that were coming out of their deep sleep to walk the surface of the earth.

I stopped at the Grabbit Kwik to buy some milk for my morning cereal. The new clerk was a kid with pimples and a huge Adam's apple, who stared at me eagerly as if he was trying to make a print in his head of how I looked, the sister of a murderer. I could tell he could hardly wait for me to leave the store so he could use the phone to call his girlfriend. He was wishing he could see the puncture marks on my neck. He was wondering if there was any way he could find out how vampires did it.

This was the kind of trash I had to listen to, day in, day out. No matter how hard I concentrated on something else, no matter how high I kept my guard, how broad I kept my smile, it seeped through.

I reached home just when it was getting dark. After putting away the milk and taking off my suit, I put on a pair of shorts and a black Garth Brooks T-shirt and tried to think of some goal for the evening. I couldn't settle down enough to read;and I needed to go to the library and change my books anyway, which would be a real ordeal under the circumstances. Nothing on TV was good, at least tonight. I thought I might watch Braveheart again: Mel Gibson in a kilt is always a mood raiser. But it was just too bloody for my frame of mind. I couldn't bear for that gal get her throat cut again, even though I knew when to cover my eyes.

I'd gone into the bathroom to wash off my sweaty makeup when, over the sound of the running water, I thought I heard a yowl outside.

I turned the faucets off. I stood still, almost feeling my antenna twitch, I was listening so intently. What ... ? Water from my wet face trickled onto my T-shirt.

No sound. No sound at all.

I crept toward the front door because it was closest to Bubba's watch point in the woods.

I opened the door a little. I yelled, ’’Bubba?’’

No answer.

I tried again.

It seemed to me even the locusts and toads were holding their breaths. The night was so silent it might hold anything. Something was prowling out there, in the darkness.

I tried to think, but my heart was hammering so hard it interfered with the process.

Call the police, first.

I found that was not an option. The phone was dead.

So I could either wait in this house for trouble to come to me, or I could go out into the woods.

That was a tough one. I bit into my lower lip while I went around the house turning out the lamps, trying to map out a course of action. The house provided some protection: locks, walls, nooks, and crannies. But I knew any really determined person could get in, and then I would be trapped.

Okay. How could I get outside without being seen? I turned off the outside lights, for a start. The back door was closer to the woods, so that was the better choice. I knew the woods pretty well. I should be able to hide in them until daylight. I could go over to Bill's house, maybe;surely his phone was working, and I had a key.

Or I could try to get to my car and start it. But that pinned me down to a particular place for particular seconds.

No, the woods seemed the better choice to me.

In one of my pockets I tucked Bill's key and a pocketknife of my grandfather's that Gran had kept in the living-room table drawer, handy for opening packages. I tucked a tiny flashlight in the other pocket. Gran kept an old rifle in the coat closet by the front door. It had been my dad's when he was little, and she mostly had used it for shooting snakes;well, I had me a snake to shoot. I hated the damn rifle, hated the thought of using it, but now seemed to be the time.

It wasn't there.

I could hardly believe my senses. I felt all through the closet.

He'd been in my house!

But it hadn't been broken into.

Someone I'd invited in. Who'd been here? I tried to list them all as I went to the back door, my sneakers retied so they wouldn't have any spare shoelaces to step on. I skinned my hair into a ponytail sloppily, almost one handed, so it wouldn't get in my face, and twisted a rubber band around it. But all the time I thought about the stolen rifle.

Who'd been in my house? Bill, Jason, Arlene, Rene, the kids, Andy Bellefleur, Sam, Sid Matt;I was sure I'd left them all alone for a minute or two, perhaps long enough to stick the rifle outside to retrieve later.

Then I remembered the day of the funeral. Almost everyone I knew had been in and out of the house when Gran had died, and I couldn't remember if I'd seen the rifle since then. But it would have been hard to have casually strolled out of the crowded, busy house with a rifle. And if it had vanished then, I thought I would have noticed its absence by now. In fact, I was almost sure I would have.

I had to shove that aside now and concentrate on outwitting whatever was out there in the dark.

I opened the back door. I duckwalked out, keeping as low as I could, and gently eased the door nearly shut behind me. Rather than use the steps, I straightened one leg and tapped the ground while squatting on the porch;I shifted my weight to it, pulled the other leg behind me. I crouched again. This was a lot like playing hide and seek with Jason in the woods when we were kids.

I prayed I was not playing hide and seek with Jason again.

I used the tub full of flowers that Gran had planted as cover first, then I crept to her car, my second goal. I looked up in the sky. The moon was new, and since the night was clear the stars were out. The air was heavy with humidity, and it was still hot. My arms were slick with sweat in minutes.

Next step, from the car to the mimosa tree.

I wasn't as quiet this time. I tripped over a stump and hit the ground hard. I bit the inside of my mouth to keep from crying out. Pain shot through my leg and hip, and I knew the edges of the ragged stump had scraped my thigh pretty severely. Why hadn't I come out and sawed that stump off clean? Gran had asked Jason to do it, but he'd never found the time.

I heard, sensed, movement. Throwing caution to the winds, I leaped up and dashed for the trees. Someone crashed through the edge of the woods to my right and headed for me. But I knew where I was going, and in a vault that amazed me, I'd seized the low branch of our favorite childhood climbing tree and pulled myself up. If I lived until the next day, I'd have severely strained muscles, but it would be worth it. I balanced on the branch, trying to keep my breathing quiet, when I wanted to pant and groan like a dog dreaming.

I wished this were a dream. Yet here I undeniably was, Sookie Stackhouse, waitress and mind reader, sitting on a branch in the woods in the dead of night, armed with nothing more than a pocket knife.

Movement below me;a man glided through the woods. He had a length of cord hanging from one wrist. Oh, Jesus. Though the moon was almost full, his head stayed stubbornly in the shadow of the tree, and I couldn't tell who it was. He passed underneath without seeing me.

When he was out of sight, I breathed again. As quietly as I could, I scrambled down. I began working my way through the woods to the road. It would take awhile, but if I could get to the road maybe I could flag someone down. Then I thought of how seldom the road got traveled;it might be better to work my way across the cemetery to Bill's house. I thought of the cemetery at night, of the murderer looking for me, and I shivered all over.

Being even more scared was pointless. I had to concentrate on the here and now. I watched every foot placement, moving slowly. A fall would be noisy in this undergrowth, and he'd be on me in a minute.

I found the dead cat about ten yards south east of my perching tree. The cat's throat was a gaping wound. I couldn't even tell what color its fur had been in the bleaching effect of the moonlight, but the dark splotches around the little corpse were surely blood. After five more feet of stealthy movement, I found Bubba. He was unconscious or dead. With a vampire it was hard to tell the difference. But with no stake through his heart, and his head still on, I could hope he was only unconscious.

Someone had brought Bubba a drugged cat, I figured. Someone who had known Bubba was guarding me and had heard of Bubba's penchant for draining cats.

I heard a crackle behind me. The snap of a twig. I glided into the shadow of the nearest large tree. I was mad, mad and scared, and I wondered if I would die this night.

I might not have the rifle, but I had a built-in tool. I closed my eyes and reached out with my mind.

Dark tangle, red, black. Hate.

I flinched. But this was necessary, this was my only protection. I let down every shred of defense.

Into my head poured images that made me sick, made me terrified. Dawn, asking someone to punch her, then finding out that he'd got one of her hose in his hand, was stretching it between his fingers, preparing to tighten it around her neck. A flash of Maudette, naked and begging. A woman I'd never seen, her bare back to me, bruises and welts covering it. Then my grandmother - my grandmother - in our familiar kitchen, angry and fighting for her life.

I was paralyzed by the shock of it, the horror of it. Whose thoughts were these? I had an image of Arlene's kids, playing on my living room floor;I saw myself, and I didn't look like the person I saw in my own mirror. I had huge holes in my neck, and I was lewd;I had a knowing leer on my face, and I patted the inside of my thigh suggestively.

I was in the mind of Rene Lenier. This was how Rene saw me.

Rene was mad.

Now I knew why I'd never been able to read his thoughts explicitly;he kept them in a secret hole, a place in his mind he kept hidden and separate from his conscious self.

He was seeing an outline behind a tree now and wondering if it looked like the outline of a woman.

He was seeing me.

I bolted and ran west toward the cemetery. I couldn't listen to his head anymore, because my own head was focused so fixedly on running, dodging the obstacles of trees, bushes, fallen limbs, a little gully where rain had collected. My strong legs pumped, my arms swung, and my breath sounded like the wheezing of a bagpipe.

I broke from the woods and was in the cemetery. The oldest portion of the graveyard was farther north toward Bill's house, and it had the best places of concealment. I bounded over headstones, the modern kind, set almost flush with the ground, no good for hiding. I leaped over Gran's grave, the earth still raw, no stone yet. Her killer followed me. I turned to look, to see how close he was, like a fool, and in the moonlight I saw Rene's rough head of hair clearly as he gained on me.

I ran down into the gentle bowl the cemetery formed, then began sprinting up the other side. When I thought there were enough large headstones and statues between me and Rene, I dodged behind a tall granite column topped with a cross. I remained standing, flattening myself against the cold hardness of the stone. I clamped a hand across my own mouth to silence my sobbing effort to get air in my lungs. I made myself calm enough to try to listen to Rene;but his thoughts were not even coherent enough to decipher, except the rage he felt. Then a clear concept presented itself.

’’Your sister,’’ I yelled. ’’Is Cindy still alive, Rene?’’

’’Bitch!’’ he screamed, and I knew in that second that the first woman to die had been Rene's sister, the one who liked vampires, the one he was supposedly still visiting from time to time, according to Arlene. Rene had killed Cindy, his waitress sister, while she was still wearing her pink-and-white hospital cafeteria uniform. He'd strangled her with her apron strings. And he'd had se* with her, after she was dead. She'd sunk so low, she wouldn't mind her own brother, he'd thought, as much as he was capable of thinking. Anyone who'd let a vampire do that deserved to die. And he'd hidden her body from shame. The others weren't his flesh and blood;it had been all right to let them lie.

I'd gotten sucked down into Rene's sick interior like a twig dragged down by a whirlpool, and it made me stagger. When I came back into my own head, he was on me. He hit me in the face as hard as he could, and he expected me to go down. The blow broke my nose and hurt so bad I almost blanked out, but I didn't collapse. I hit him back. My lack of experience made my blow ineffectual. I just thumped him in the ribs, and he grunted, but in the next instant he retaliated.

His fist broke my collarbone. But I didn't fall.

He hadn't known how strong I was. In the moonlight, his face was shocked when I fought back, and I thanked the vampire blood I'd taken. I thought of my brave grandmother, and I launched myself at him, grabbing him by the ears and attempting to hit his head against the granite column. His hands shot up to grip my forearms, and he tried to pull me away so I'd loose my grip. Finally he succeeded, but I could tell from his eyes he was surprised and more on guard. I tried to knee him, but he anticipated me, twisting just far enough away to dodge me. While I was off-balance, he pushed, and I hit the ground with a teeth-chattering thud.

Then he was straddling me. But he'd dropped the cord in our struggle, and while he held my neck with one hand, he was groping with the other for his method of choice. My right arm was pinned, but my left was free, and I struck and clawed at him. He had to ignore this, had to look for the strangling cord because that was part of his ritual. My scrabbling hand encountered a familiar shape.

Rene, in his work clothes, was still wearing his knife on his belt. I yanked the snap open and pulled the knife from its sheath, and while he was still thinking, ’’I should have taken that off,’’ I sank the knife into the soft flesh of his waist, angling up. And I pulled it out.

He screamed, then.

He staggered to his feet, twisting his upper torso sideways, trying with both hands to stanch the blood that was pouring from the wound.

I scuttered backward, getting up, trying to put distance between myself and man who was a monster just as surely as Bill was.

Rene screamed. ’’Aw, Jesus, woman! What you done to me? Oh, God, it hurts!’’

That was rich.

He was scared now, frightened of discovery, of an end to his games, of an end to his vengeance.

’’Girls like you deserve to die,’’ he snarled. ’’I can feel you in my head, you freak!’’

’’Who's the freak around here?’’ I hissed. ’’Die, you bastard.’’

I didn't know I had it in me. I stood by the headstone in a crouch, the bloody knife still clutched in my hand, waiting for him to charge me again.

He staggered in circles, and I watched, my face stony. I closed my mind to him, to his feeling his death crawl up behind him. I stood ready to knife him a second time when he fell to the ground. When I was sure he couldn't move, I went to Bill's house, but I didn't run. I told myself it was because I couldn't: but I'm not sure. I kept seeing my grandmother, encapsuled in Rene's memory forever, fighting for her life in her own house.

I fished Bill's key out of my pocket, almost amazed it was still there.

I turned it somehow, staggered into the big living room, felt for the phone. My fingers touched the buttons, managed to figure out which was the nine and where the one was. I pushed the numbers hard enough to make them beep, and then, without warning, I checked out of consciousness.

I KNEW I was in the hospital: I was surrounded by the clean smell of hospital sheets.

The next thing I knew was that I hurt all over.

And someone was in the room with me. I opened my eyes, not without effort.

Andy Bellefleur. His square face was even more fatigued than the last time I'd seen him.

’’Can you hear me?’’ he said.

I nodded, just a tiny movement, but even that sent a wave of pain through my head.

’’We got him,’’ he said, and then he proceeded to tell me a lot more, but I fell back asleep.

It was daylight when I woke again, and this time, I seemed to be much more alert.

Someone in the room.

’’Who's here?’’ I said, and my voice came out in a painful rasp.

Kevin rose from the chair in the corner, rolling a crossword puzzle magazine and sticking it into his uniform pocket.

’’Where's Kenya?’’ I whispered.

He grinned at me unexpectedly. ’’She was here for a couple of hours,’’ he explained. ’’She'll be back soon. I spelled her for lunch.’’

His thin face and body formed one lean line of approval. ’’You are one tough lady,’’ he told me.

’’I don't feel tough,’’ I managed.

’’You got hurt,’’ he told me as if I didn't know that.

’’Rene.’’

’’We found him out in the cemetery,’’ Kevin assured me. ’’You stuck him pretty good. But he was still conscious, and he told us he'd been trying to kill you.’’

’’Good.’’

’’He was real sorry he hadn't finished the job. I can't believe he spilled the beans like that, but he was some kind of hurting and he was some kind of scared, by the time we got to him. He told us the whole thing was your fault because you wouldn't just lie down to die like the others. He said it must run in your genes, because your grandmother...’’ Here Kevin stopped short, aware that he was on upsetting ground.

’’She fought, too,’’ I whispered.

Kenya came in then, massive, impassive, and holding a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee.

’’She's awake,’’ Kevin said, beaming at his partner.

’’Good.’’ Kenya sounded less overjoyed about it. ’’She say what happened? Maybe we should call Andy.’’

’’Yeah, that's what he said to do. But he's just been asleep four hours.’’

’’The man said call.’’

Kevin shrugged, went to the phone at the side of the bed. I eased off into a doze as I heard him speaking, but I could hear him murmur with Kenya as they waited. He was talking about his hunting dogs. Kenya, I guess, was listening.

Andy came in, I could feel his thoughts, the pattern of his brain. His solid presence came to roost by my bed. I opened my eyes as he was bending to look at me. We exchanged a long stare.

Two pair of feet in regulation shoes moved out into the hall.

’’He's still alive,’’ Andy said abruptly. ’’And he won't stop talking.’’

I made the briefest motion of my head, indicating a nod, I hoped.

’’He says this goes back to his sister, who was seeing a vampire. She evidently got so low on blood that Rene thought she'd turn into a vamp herself if he didn't stop her. He gave her an ultimatum, one evening in her apartment. She talked back, said she wouldn't give up her lover. She was tying her apron around her, getting ready to go to work as they were arguing. He yanked it off her, strangled her ... did other stuff.’’

Andy looked a little sick.

’’I know,’’ I whispered.

’’It seems to me,’’ Andy began again, ’’that somehow he decided he'd feel justified in doing that horrible thing if he convinced himself that everyone in his sister's situation deserved to die. In fact, the murders here are very similar to two in Shreveport that haven't been solved up until now, and we're expecting Rene to touch on those while he's rambling along. If he makes it.’’

I could feel my lips pressing together in horrified sympathy for those other poor women.

’’Can you tell me what happened to you?’’ Andy asked quietly. ’’Go slow, take your time, and keep your voice down to a whisper. Your throat is badly bruised.’’

I had figured that out for myself, thanks very much. I murmured my account of the evening, and I didn't leave anything out. Andy had switched on a little tape recorder after asking me if that was all right. He placed it on the pillow close to my mouth when I indicated the device was okay with me, so he'd have the whole story.

’’Mr. Compton still out of town?’’ he asked me, after I'd finished.

’’New Orleans,’’ I whispered, barely able to speak.

’’We'll look in Rene's house for the rifle, now that we know it's yours. It'll be a nice piece of corroborative evidence.’’

Then a gleaming young woman in white came into the room, looked at my face, and told Andy he'd have to come back some other time.

He nodded at me, gave me an awkward pat on the hand, and left. He gave the doctor a backward glance of admiration. She was sure worth admiring, but she was also wearing a wedding ring, so Andy was once again too late.

She thought he seemed too serious and grim.

I didn't want to hear this.

But I didn't have enough energy to keep everyone out of my head.

’’Miss Stackhouse, how are you feeling?’’ the young woman asked a little too loudly. She was brunette and lean, with wide brown eyes and a full mouth.

’’Like hell,’’ I whispered.

’’I can imagine,’’ she said, nodding repeatedly while looking me over. I somehow didn't think she could. I was willing to bet she'd never been beaten up by a multiple murderer in a graveyard.

’’You just lost your grandmother, too, didn't you?’’ she asked sympathetically. I nodded, just a fraction of an inch.

’’My husband died about six months ago,’’ she said. ’’I know about grief. It's tough being brave, isn't it?’’

Well, well, well. I let my expression ask a question.

’’He had cancer,’’ she explained. I tried to look my condolences without moving anything, which was nearly impossible.

’’Well,’’ she said, standing upright, returning to her brisk manner, ’’Miss Stackhouse, you're sure gonna live. You have a broken collarbone, and two broken ribs, and a broken nose.’’

Shepherd of Judea! No wonder I felt bad.

’’Your face and neck are severely bruised. Of course, you could tell your throat was hurt.’’

I was trying to imagine what I looked like. Good thing I didn't have a mirror handy.

’’And you have lots of relatively minor bruises and cuts on your legs and arms.’’ She smiled. ’’Your stomach is fine, and your feet!’’

Hohoho. Very funny.

’’I have prescribed pain medication for you, so when you start feeling bad, just ring for the nurse.’’

A visitor stuck his head in the door behind her. She turned, blocking my view, and said, ’’Hello?’’

’’This Sookie's room?’’

’’Yes, I was just finishing her examination. You can come in.’’ The doctor (whose name was Sonntag, by her nameplate) looked questioningly at me to get my permission, and I managed a tiny ’’Sure.’’

JB du Rone drifted to my bedside, looking as lovely as the cover model on a romance novel. His tawny hair gleamed under the fluorescent lights, his eyes were just the same color, and his sleeveless shirt showed muscle definition that might have been chiseled with a - well, with a chisel. He was looking down at me, and Dr. Sonntag was drinking him in.

’’Hey, Sookie, you feelin'all right?’’ he asked. He lay a finger gently on my cheek. He kissed an unbruised spot on my forehead.

’’Thanks,’’ I whispered. ’’I'll be okay. Meet my doctor.’’

JB turned his wide eyes on Dr. Sonntag, who practically tripped over her own feet to introduce herself.

’’Doctors weren't this pretty when I was getting my shots,’’ JB said sincerely and simply.

’’You haven't been to a doctor since you were a kid?’’ Dr. Sonntag said, amazed.

’’I never get sick.’’ He beamed at her. ’’Strong as an ox.’’

And the brain of one. But Dr. Sonntag probably had smarts enough for two.

She couldn't think of any reason for lingering, though she cast a wistful glance over her shoulder as she left.

JB bent down to me and said earnestly, ’’Can I bring you anything, Sookie? Nabs or something?’’

The thought of trying to eat crackers made tears come to my eyes. ’’No thanks,’’ I breathed. ’’The doctor's a widow.’’

You could change subjects on JB without him wondering why.

’’Wow,’’ he said, impressed. ’’She's smart and single.’’

I wiggled my eyebrows in a significant way.

’’You think I oughtta ask her out?’’ JB looked as thoughtful as it was possible for him to be. ’’That might be a good idea.’’ He smiled down at me. ’’Long as you won't date me, Sookie. You're always number one to me. You just crook your little finger, and I'll come running.’’

What a sweet guy. I didn't believe in his devotion for a minute, but I did believe he knew how to make a woman feel good, even if she was as sure as I was that I looked breathtakingly bad. I felt pretty bad, too. Where were those pain pills? I tried to smile at JB.

’’You're hurting,’’ he said. ’’I'll send the nurse down here.’’

Oh, good. The reach to the little button had seemed longer and longer as I tried to get my arm to move.

He kissed me again as he left and said, ’’I'll go track that doctor of yours down, Sookie. I better ask her some more questions about your recovery.’’

After the nurse injected some stuff into my IV drip, I was just looking forward to feeling no pain when the door opened again.

My brother came in. He stood by my bed for a long time, staring at my face. He said finally, heavily, ’’I talked to the doctor for a minute before she left for the cafeteria with JB. She told me what-all was wrong with you.’’ He walked away from me, took a turn around the room, came back. More staring. ’’You look like hell.’’

’’Thanks,’’ I whispered.

’’Oh, yeah, your throat. I forgot.’’

He started to pat me, thought the better of it.

’’Listen, Sis, I gotta say thank you, but it's got me down that you stood in for me when it came time to fight.’’

If I could have, I'd have kicked him.

Stood in for him, hell.

’’I owe you big, Sis. I was so dumb, thinking Rene was a good friend.’’

Betrayed. He felt betrayed.

Then Arlene came in, to make things just peachy keen.

She was a mess. Her hair was in a red tangle, she had no makeup, and her clothes were chosen at random. I'd never seen Arlene without her hair curled and her makeup loud and bright.

She looked down at me - boy, would I be glad when I could stand up again - and for a second her face was hard as granite, but when she really took in my face, she began to crumble.

’’I was so mad at you, I didn't believe it, but now that I'm seeing you and what he did... oh, Sookie, can you ever forgive me?’’

Geez, I wanted her out of here. I tried to telegraph this to Jason, and for once I got through, because he put an arm around her shoulders and led her out. Arlene was sobbing before she reached the door. ’’I didn't know...’’ she said, barely coherent. ’’I just didn't know!’’

’’Hell, neither did I,’’ Jason said heavily.

I took a nap after trying to ingest some delicious green gelatin.

My big excitement of the afternoon was walking to the bathroom, more or less by myself. I sat in the chair for ten minutes, after which I was more than ready to get back in bed. I looked in the mirror concealed in the rolling table and was very sorry I had.

I was running a little temperature, just enough to make me shivery and tender-skinned. My face was blue and gray and my nose was swollen double. My right eye was puffy and almost closed. I shuddered, and even that hurt. My legs ... oh, hell, I didn't even want to check. I lay back very carefully and wanted this day to be over. Probably four days from now I'd feel just great. Work! When could I go back to work?

A little knock at the door distracted me. Another damn visitor. Well, this was someone I didn't know. An older lady with blue hair and red-framed glasses wheeled in a cart. She was wearing the yellow smock the hospital volunteers called Sunshine Ladies had to don when they were working.

The cart was covered with flowers for the patients in this wing.

’’I'm delivering you a load of best wishes!’’ the lady said cheerfully.

I smiled, but the effect must have been ghastly because her own cheer wavered a little.

’’These are for you,’’ she said, lifting a potted plant decorated with a red ribbon. ’’Here's the card, honey. Let's see, these are for you, too...’’ This was an arrangement of cut flowers, featuring pink rosebuds and pink carnations and white baby's breath. She plucked the card from that bowl, too. Surveying the cart, she said, ’’Now, aren't you the lucky one! Here are some more for you!!’’

The focus of the third floral tribute was a bizarre red flower I'd never seen before, surrounded by a host of other, more familiar blooms. I looked at this one doubtfully. The Sunshine Lady dutifully presented me with the card from the plastic prongs.

After she'd smiled her way out of the room, I opened the little envelopes. It was easier to move when I was in a better mood, I noticed wryly.

The potted plant was from Sam and ’’all your coworkers at Merlotte's’’ read the card, but it was written in Sam's handwriting. I touched the glossy leaves and wondered where I'd put it when I took it home. The cut flowers were from Sid Matt Lancaster and Elva Deene Lancaster - pooey. The arrangement centered with the peculiar red blossom (I decided that somehow the flower looked almost obscene, like a lady's private part) was definitely the most interesting of the three. I opened the card with some curiosity. It bore only a signature, ’’Eric.’’

That was all I needed. How the hell had he heard I was in the hospital? Why hadn't I heard from Bill?

After some delicious red gelatin for supper, I focused on the television for a couple of hours, since I hadn't anything to read, even if my eyes had been up to it. My bruises grew more charming every hour, and I felt weary to my bones, despite the fact that I'd only walked once to the bathroom and twice around my room. I switched off the television and turned onto my side. I fell asleep, and in my dreams the pain from my body seeped in and made me have nightmares. I ran in my dreams, ran through the cemetery, afraid for my life, falling over stones, into open graves, encountering all the people I knew who lay there: my father and mother, my grandmother, Maudette Pickens, Dawn Green, even a childhood friend who'd been killed in a hunting accident. I was looking for a particular headstone;if I found it, I was home free. They would all go back into their graves and leave me alone. I ran from this one to that one, putting my hand on each one, hoping it would be the right stone. I whimpered.

’’Sweetheart, you're safe,’’ came a familiar cool voice.

’’Bill,’’ I muttered. I turned to face a stone I hadn't yet touched. When I lay my fingers on it, they traced the letters ’’William Erasmus Compton.’’ As if I'd been dashed with cold water, my eyes flew open, I drew in a breath to scream, and my throat gave a great throb of pain. I choked on the extra air, and the pain of the coughing, which pretty much hurt every single thing I'd broken, completed my awakening. A hand slipped under my cheek, the cool fingers feeling wonderfully good against my hot skin. I tried not to whimper, but a little noise made its way through my teeth.

’’Turn to the light, darling,’’ Bill said, his voice very light and casual.

I'be been sleeping with my back to the light the nurse had left on, the one in the bathroom. Now I rolled obediently to my back and looked up at my vampire.

Bill hissed.

’’I'll kill him,’’ he said, with a simple certainty that chilled me to the bone.

There was enough tension in the room to send a fleet of the nervous running for their tranquilizers.

’’Hi, Bill,’’ I croaked. ’’Glad to see you, too. Where you been so long? Thanks for returning all my calls.’’

That brought him up short. He blinked. I could feel him making an effort to calm himself.

’’Sookie,’’ he said. ’’I didn't call because I wanted to tell you in person what has happened.’’ I couldn't read the expression on his face. If I'd had to take a shot, I would've said he looked proud of himself.

He paused, scanned all visible portions of me.

’’This doesn't hurt,’’ I croaked obligingly, extending my hand to him. He kissed that, lingered over it in a way that sent a faint tingle through my body. Believe me, a faint tingle was more than I'd thought I was capable of.

’’Tell me what has been done to you,’’ he commanded.

’’Then lean down so I can whisper. This really hurts.’’

He pulled a chair close to the bed, lowered the bed rail, and lay his chin on his folded arms. His face was maybe four inches from mine.

’’Your nose is broken,’’ he observed.

I rolled my eyes. ’’Glad you spotted that,’’ I whispered. ’’I'll tell the doctor when she comes in.’’

His gaze narrowed. ’’Stop trying to deflect me.’’

’’Okay. Nose broken, two ribs, a collarbone.’’

But Bill wanted to examine me all over, and he pulled the sheet down. My mortification was complete. Of course, I was wearing an awful hospital gown, in itself a downer, and I hadn't bathed properly, and my face was several different shades, and my hair hadn't been brushed.

’’I want to take you home,’’ he announced, after he'd run his hands all over and minutely examined each scrape and cut. The Vampire Physician.

I motioned with my hand to make him bend down. ’’No,’’ I breathed. I pointed to the drip bag. He eyed it with some suspicion, but of course he had to know what one was.

’’I can take it out,’’ he said.

I shook my head vehemently.

’’You don't want me to take care of you?’’

I puffed out my breath in exasperation, which hurt like hell.

I made a writing motion with my hand, and Bill searched the drawers until he found a notepad. Oddly enough, he had a pen. I wrote, ’’They'll let me out of the hospital tomorrow if my fever doesn't go high.’’

’’Who'll take you home?’’ he asked. He was standing by the bed again, and looking down at me with stern disapproval, like a teacher whose best pupil happens to be chronically tardy.

’’I'll get them to call Jason, or Charlsie Tooten,’’ I wrote. If things had been different, I would have written Arlene's name automatically.

’’I'll be there at dark,’’ he said.

I looked up into his pale face, the clear whites of his eyes almost shining in the gloomy room.

’’I'll heal you,’’ he offered. ’’Let me give you some blood.’’

I remembered the way my hair had lightened, remembered that I was almost twice as strong as I'd ever been. I shook my head.

’’Why not?’’ he said, as if he'd offered me a drink of water when I was thirsty and I'd said no. I thought maybe I'd hurt his feelings.

I took his hand and guided it to my mouth. I kissed the palm gently. I held the hand to my better cheek.

’’People notice I am changing,’’ I wrote, after a moment. ’’I notice I am changing.’’

He bowed his head for a moment, and then looked at me sadly.

’’You know what happened?’’ I wrote.

’’Bubba told me part of it,’’ he said, and his face grew scary as he mentioned the half-witted vampire. ’’Sam told me the rest, and I went to the police department and read the police reports.’’

’’Andy let you do that?’’ I scribbled.

’’No one knew I was there,’’ he said carelessly.

I tried to imagine that, and it gave me the creeps.

I gave him a disapproving look.

’’Tell me what happened in New Orleans,’’ I wrote. I was beginning to feel sleepy again.

’’You will have to know a little about us,’’ he said hesitantly.

’’Woo woo, secret vampire stuff!!’’ I croaked.

It was his turn to give me disapproving.

’’We're a little organized,’’ he told me. ’’I was trying to think of ways to keep us safe from Eric.’’ Involuntarily, I looked at the red flower arrangement.

’’I knew if I were an official, like Eric, it would be much more difficult for him to interfere with my private life.’’

I looked encouraging, or at least I tried to.

’’So I attended the regional meeting, and though I have never been involved in our politics, I ran for an office. And, through some concentrated lobbying, I won!’’

This was absolutely amazing. Bill was a union rep? I wondered about the concentrated lobbying, too. Did that mean Bill had killed all the opposition? Or that he'd bought the voters a bottle of A positive apiece?

’’What is your job?’’ I wrote slowly, imagining Bill sitting in a meeting. I tried to look proud, which seemed to be what Bill was looking for.

’’I'm the Fifth Area investigator,’’ he said. ’’I'll tell you what that means when you're home. I don't want to wear you out.’’

I nodded, beaming at him. I sure hoped he didn't take it into his head to ask me who all the flowers were from. I wondered if I had to write Eric a thank-you note. I wondered why my mind was going off on all these tangents. Must be the pain medication.

I gestured to Bill to draw close. He did, his face resting on the bed next to mine. ’’Don't kill Rene,’’ I whispered.

He looked cold, colder, coldest.

’’I may have already done the job. He's in intensive care. But even if he lives, there's been enough murder. Let the law do it. I don't want any more witchhunts coming after you. I want us to have peace.’’ It was becoming very difficult to talk. I took his hand in both of mine, held it again to my least-bruised cheek. Suddenly, how much I had missed him became a solid lump lodged in my chest, and I held out my arms. He sat carefully on the edge of the bed, and leaning toward me, he carefully, carefully, slid his arms under me and pulled me up to him, a fraction of an inch at a time, to give me time to tell him if it hurt.

’’I won't kill him,’’ Bill said finally, into my ear.

’’Sweetheart,’’ I breathed, knowing his sharp hearing could pick it up. ’’I missed you.’’ I heard his quick sigh, and his arms tightened a little, his hands began their gentle stroking down my back. ’’I wonder how quickly you can heal,’’ he said, ’’without my help?’’

’’Oh, I'll try to hurry,’’ I whispered. ’’I'll bet I surprise the doctor as it is.’’

A collie trotted down the corridor, looked in the open door, said, ’’Rowwf,’’ and trotted away. Astonished, Bill turned to glance out into the corridor. Oh, yeah, it was the full moon, tonight - I could see it out of the window. I could see something else, too. A white face appeared out of the blackness and floated between me and the moon. It was a handsome face, framed by long golden hair. Eric the Vampire grinned at me and gradually disappeared from my view. He was flying.

’’Soon we'll be back to normal,’’ Bill said, laying me down gently so he could switch out the light in the bathroom. He glowed in the dark.

’’Right,’’ I whispered. ’’Yeah. Back to normal.’’


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