Dead Until Dark Chapter 3

THE PHONE WAS ringing. I pulled my pillow over my head. Surely Gran would get it? As the irritating noise persisted, I realized Gran must be gone shopping or outside working in the yard. I began squirming to the bed table, not happy but resigned. With the headache and regrets of someone who has a terrible hangover (though mine was emotional rather than alcohol induced) I stretched out a shaky hand and grabbed the receiver.

’’Yes?’’ I asked. It didn't come out quite right. I cleared my throat and tried again. ’’Hello?’’

’’Sookie?’’

’’Um-hum. Sam?’’

’’Yeah. Listen, cher, do me a favor?’’

’’What?’’ I was due to work today anyway, and I didn't want to hold down Dawn's shift and mine, too.

’’Go by Dawn's place, and see what she's up to, would you? She won't answer her phone, and she hasn't come in. The delivery truck just pulled up, and I got to tell these guys where to put stuff.’’

’’Now? You want me to go now?’’ My old bed had never held on to me harder.

’’Could you?’’ For the first time, he seemed to grasp my unusual mood. I had never refused Sam anything.

’’I guess so,’’ I said, feeling tired all over again at the very idea. I wasn't too crazy about Dawn, and she wasn't too crazy about me. She was convinced I'd read her mind and told Jason something she'd been thinking about him, which had cause him to break up with her. If I took that kind of interest in Jason's romances, I'd never have time to eat or sleep.

I showered and pulled on my work clothes, moving sluggishly. All my bounce had gone flat, like soda with the top left off. I ate cereal and brushed my teeth and told Gran where I was going when I tracked her down;she'd been outside planting petunias in a tub by the back door. She didn't seem to understand exactly what I meant, but smiled and waved anyway. Gran was getting a little more deaf every week, but I realized that was no great wonder since she was seventy-eight. It was marvelous that she was so strong and healthy, and her brain was sound as a bell.

As I went on my unwelcome errand, I thought about how hard it must have been for Gran to raise two more children after she'd already raised her own. My father, her son, had died when I was seven and Jason ten. When I'd been twenty-three, Gran's daughter, my Aunt Linda, had died of uterine cancer. Aunt Linda's girl, Hadley, had vanished into the same subculture that had spawned the Rattrays even before Aunt Linda had passed away, and to this day we didn't know if Hadley realizes her mother is dead. That was a lot of grief to get through, yet Gran had always been strong for us.

I peered through my windshield at the three small duplexes on one side of Berry Street, a run-down block or two that ran behind the oldest part of downtown Bon Temps. Dawn lived in one of them. I spotted her car, a green compact, in the driveway of one of the better-kept houses, and pulled in behind it. Dawn had already put a hanging basket of begonias by her front door, but they looked dry. I knocked.

I waited for a minute or two. I knocked again.

’’Sookie, you need some help?’’ The voice sounded familiar. I turned around and shielded my eyes from the morning sun. Rene Lenier was standing by his pickup, parked across the street at one of the small frame houses that populated the rest of the neighborhood.

’’Well,’’ I began, not sure if I needed help or not, or if I did that Rene could supply it. ’’Have you seen Dawn? She didn't come to work today, and she never called in yesterday. Sam asked me to stop by.’’

’’Sam should come do his own dirty work,’’ Rene said, which perversely made me defend my boss.

’’Truck came in, had to be unloaded.’’ I turned and knocked again. ’’Dawn,’’ I yelled. ’’Come let me in.’’ I looked down at the concrete porch. The pine pollen had begun falling two days ago. Dawn's porch was solid yellow. Mine were the only footprints. My scalp began to prickle.

I barely registered the fact that Rene stood awkwardly by the door to his pickup, unsure whether to stay or go.

Dawn's duplex was a one-story, quite small, and the door to the other half was just feet away from Dawn's. Its little driveway was empty, and there were no curtains at the windows. It looked as though Dawn was temporarily out of a neighbor. Dawn had been proud enough to hang curtains, white with dark gold flowers. They were drawn, but the fabric was thin and unlined, and Dawn hadn't shut the cheap one-inch aluminum blinds. I peered in and discovered the living room held only some flea-market furniture. A coffee mug sat on the table by a lumpy recliner and an old couch covered with a hand-crocheted afghan was pushed against the wall.

’’I think I'll go around back,’’ I called to Rene. He started across the street as though I'd given him a signal, and I stepped off the front porch. My feet brushed the dusty grass, yellow with pine pollen, and I knew I'd have to dust off my shoes and maybe change my socks before work. During pine pollen season, everything turns yellow. Cars, plants, roofs, windows, all are powdered with a golden haze. The ponds and pools of rainwater have yellow scum around the edges.

Dawn's bathroom window was so discreetly high that I couldn't see in. She'd lowered the blinds in the bedroom, but hadn't closed them tightly. I could see a little through the slats. Dawn was in bed on her back. The bedclothes were tossed around wildly. Her legs were spraddled. Her face was swollen and discolored, and her tongue protruded from her mouth. There were flies crawling on it.

I could hear Rene coming up behind me.

’’Go call the police,’’ I said.

’’What you say, Sookie? You see her?’’

’’Go call the police!’’

’’Okay, okay!’’ Rene beat a hasty retreat.

Some female solidarity had made me not want Rene to see Dawn like that, without Dawn's consent. And my fellow waitress was far beyond consenting.

I stood with my back to the window, horribly tempted to look again in the futile hope I'd made a mistake the first time. Staring at the duplex next door to Dawn's, maybe a scant six feet away, I wondered how its tenants could have avoided hearing Dawn's death, which had been violent.

Here came Rene again. His weatherbeaten face was puckered into an expression of deep concern, and his bright brown eyes looked suspiciously shiney.

’’Would you call Sam, too?’’ I asked. Without a word, he turned and trudged back to his place. He was being mighty good. Despite his tendency to gossip, Rene had always been one to help where he saw a need. I remembered him coming out to the house to help Jason hang Gran's porch swing, a random memory of a day far different from this.

The duplex next door was just like Dawn's, so I was looking directly at its bedroom window. Now a face appeared, and the window was raised. A tousled head poked out. ’’What you doing, Sookie Stackhouse?’’ asked a slow, deep, male voice. I peered at him for a minute, finally placing the face, while trying not to look too closely at the fine, bare chest underneath.

’’JB?’’

’’Sure thing.’’

I'd gone to high school with JB du Rone. In fact, some of my few dates had been with JB, who was lovely but so simple that he didn't care if I read his mind or not. Even under today's circumstances, I could appreciate JB's beauty. When your hormones have been held in check as long as mine, it doesn't take much to set them off. I heaved a sigh at the sight of JB's muscular arms and pectorals.

’’What you doing out here?’’ he asked again.

’’Something bad seems to have happened to Dawn,’’ I said, not knowing if I should tell him or not. ’’My boss sent me here to look for her when she didn't come to work.’’

’’She in there?’’ JB simply scrambled out of the window. He had some shorts on, cut-offs.

’’Please don't look,’’ I asked, holding up my hand and without warning I began crying. I was doing that a lot lately, too. ’’She looks so awful, JB.’’

’’Aw, honey,’’ he said, and bless his country heart, he put an arm around me and patted me on the shoulder. If there was a female around who needed comforting, by God, that was a priority to JB du Rone.

’’Dawn liked'em rough,’’ he said consolingly, as if that would explain everything.

It might to some people, but not to unworldly me.

’’What, rough?’’ I asked, hoping I had a tissue in my shorts pocket.

I looked up at JB to see him turn a little red.

’’Honey, she liked ... aw, Sookie, you don't need to hear this.’’

I had a widespread reputation for virtue, which I found somewhat ironic. At the moment, it was inconvenient.

’’You can tell me, I worked with her,’’ I said, and JB nodded solemnly, as if that made sense.

’’Well, honey, she liked men to - like, bite and hit her.’’ JB looked weirded out by this preference of Dawn's. I must have made a face because he said, ’’I know, I can't understand why some people like that, either.’’ JB, never one to ignore an opportunity to make hay, put both arms around me and kept up the patting, but it seemed to concentrate on the middle of my back (checking to see if I was wearing a bra) and then quite a bit lower (JB liked firm rear ends, I remembered.)

A lot of questions hovered on the edge of my tongue, but they remained shut inside my mouth. The police got there, in the persons of Kenya Jones and Kevin Prior. When the town police chief had partnered Kenya and Kevin, he'd been indulging his sense of humor, the town figured, for Kenya was at least five foot eleven, the color of bitter chocolate, and built to weather hurricanes. Kevin possibly made it up to five foot eight, had freckles over every visible inch of his pale body, and had the narrow, fatless build of a runner. Oddly enough, the two K's got along very well, though they'd had some memorable quarrels.

Now they both looked like cops.

’’What's this about, Miss Stackhouse?’’ Kenya asked. ’’Rene says something happened to Dawn Green?’’ She'd scanned JB while she talked, and Kevin was looking at the ground all around us. I had no idea why, but I was sure there was a good police reason.

’’My boss sent me here to find out why Dawn missed work yesterday and hadn't shown up today,’’ I said. ’’I knocked on her door, and she didn't answer, but her car was here. I was worried about her, so I started around the house looking in the windows, and she's in there.’’ I pointed behind them, and the two officers turned to look at the window. Then they looked at each other and nodded as if they'd had a whole conversation. While Kenya went over to the window, Kevin went around to the back door.

JB had forgotten to pat while he watched the officers work. In fact, his mouth was a little open, revealing perfect teeth. He wanted to go look through the window more than anything, but he couldn't shoulder past Kenya, who pretty much took up whatever space was available.

I didn't want my own thoughts any more. I relaxed, dropping my guard, and listened to the thoughts of others. Out of the clamor, I picked one thread and concentrated on it.

Kenya Jones turned back to stare through us without seeing us. She was thinking of everything she and Kevin needed to do to keep the investigation as textbook perfect as Bon Temps patrol officers could. She was thinking she'd heard bad things about Dawn and her liking for rough se*. She was thinking that it was no surprise Dawn had met a bad end, though she felt sorry for anyone who ended up with flies crawling on her face. Kenya was thinking she was sorry she'd eaten that extra doughnut that morning at the Nut Hut because it might come back up and that would shame her as a black woman police officer.

I tuned in to another channel.

JB was thinking about Dawn getting killed during rough se* just a few feet away from him, and while it was awful it was also a little exciting and Sookie was still built wonderful. He wished he could screw her right now. She was so sweet and nice. He was pushing away the humiliation he'd felt when Dawn had wanted him to hit her, and he couldn't, and it was an old humiliation.

I switched.

Kevin came around the corner thinking that he and Kenya better not botch any evidence and that he was glad no one knew he'd ever slept with Dawn Green. He was furious that someone had killed a woman he knew, and he was hoping it wasn't a black man because that would make his relationship with Kenya even more tense.

I switched.

Rene Lenier was wishing someone would come and get the body out of the house. He was hoping no one knew he'd slept with Dawn Green. I couldn't spell out his thoughts exactly, they were very black and snarled. Some people I can't get a clear reading on. He was very agitated.

Sam came hurrying toward me, slowing down when he saw JB was touching me. I could not read Sam's thoughts. I could feel his emotions (right now a mix of worry, concern, and anger) but I could not spell out one single thought. This was so fascinating and unexpected that I stepped out of JB's embrace, wanting to go up to Sam and grab his arms and look into his eyes and really probe around in his head. I remembered when he'd touched me, and I'd shied away. Now he felt me in his head and though he kept on walking toward me, his mind flinched back. Despite his invitation to me, he hadn't known I would see he was different from others: I picked up on that until he shut me down.

I'd never felt anything like it. It was like an iron door slamming. In my face.

I'd been on the point of reaching out to him instinctively, but my hand dropped to my side. Sam deliberately looked at Kevin, not at me.

’’What's happening, Officer?’’ Sam asked.

’’We're going to break into this house, Mr. Merlotte, unless you have a master key.’’

Why would Sam have a key?

’’He's my landlord,’’ JB said in my ear, and I jumped.

’’He is?’’ I asked stupidly.

’’He owns all three duplexes.’’

Sam had been fishing in his pocket, and now he came up with a bunch of keys. He flipped through them expertly, stopping at one and singling it out, getting it off the ring and handing it to Kevin.

’’This fits front and back?’’ Kevin asked. Sam nodded. He still wasn't looking at me.

Kevin went to the back door of the duplex, out of sight, and we were all so quiet we could hear the key turn in the lock. Then he was in the bedroom with the dead woman, and we could see his face twist when the smell hit him. Holding one hand across his mouth and nose, he bent over the body and put his fingers on her neck. He looked out the window then and shook his head at his partner. Kenya nodded and headed out to the street to use the radio in the patrol car.

’’Listen, Sookie, how about going to dinner with me tonight?’’ JB asked. ’’This has been tough on you, and you need some fun to make up for it.’’

’’Thanks, JB.’’ I was very conscious of Sam listening. ’’It's really nice of you to ask. But I have a feeling I'm going to be working extra hours today.’’

For just a second, JB's handsome face was blank. Then comprehension filtered in. ’’Yeah, Sam's gotta hire someone else,’’ he observed. ’’I got a cousin in Springhill needs a job. Maybe I'll give her a call. We could live right next door to each other, now.’’

I smiled at him, though I am sure it was a very weak smile, as I stood shoulder to shoulder with the man I'd worked with for two years.

’’I'm sorry, Sookie,’’ he said quietly.

’’For what?’’ My own voice was just as low. Was he going to acknowledge what had passed between us - or rather, failed to pass?

’’For sending you to check on Dawn. I should have come myself. I was sure she was just shacked up with someone new and needed a reminder that she was supposed to be working. The last time I had to come get her, she yelled at me so much I just didn't want to deal with it again. So like a coward, I sent you, and you had to find her like that.’’

’’You're full of surprises, Sam.’’

He didn't turn to look at me or make any reply. But his fingers folded around mine. For a long moment, we stood in the sun with people buzzing around us, holding hands. His palm was hot and dry, and his fingers were strong. I felt I had truly connected with another human. But then his grip loosened, and Sam stepped over to talk with the detective, who was emerging from his car, and JB began asking me how Dawn had looked, and the world fell back into its same old groove.

The contrast was cruel. I felt tired all over again, and remembered the night before in more detail than I wanted to. The world seemed a bad and terrible place, all its denizens suspect, and I the lamb wandering through the valley of death with a bell around my neck. I stomped over to my car and opened the door, sank sideways into the seat. I'd be standing plenty today;I'd sit while I could.

JB followed me. Now that he'd rediscovered me, he could not be detached. I remembered when Gran had had high hopes for some permanent relationship between us, when I'd been in high school. But talking to JB, even reading his mind, was as interesting as a kindergarten primer was to an adult reader. It was one of God's jokes that such a dumb mind had been put in such an eloquent body.

He knelt before me and took my hand. I found myself hoping that some smart rich lady would come along and marry JB and take care of him and enjoy what he had to offer. She would be getting a bargain.

’’Where are you working now?’’ I asked him, just to distract myself.

’’My dad's warehouse,’’ he said.

That was the job of last resort, the one JB always returned to when he got fired from other jobs for doing something lamebrained, or for not showing up, or for offending some supervisor mortally. JB's dad ran an auto parts store.

’’How are your folks doing?’’

’’Oh, fine. Sookie, we should do something together.’’

Don't tempt me, I thought.

Someday my hormones were going to get the better of me and I'd do something I'd regret;and I could do worse than do it with JB. But I would hold out and hope for something better. ’’Thanks, honey,’’ I said. ’’Maybe we will. But I'm kind of upset right now.’’

’’Are you in love with that vampire?’’ he asked directly.

’’Where did you hear that?’’

’’Dawn said so.’’ JB's face clouded as he remembered Dawn was dead. What Dawn had said, I found on scanning JB's mind, was ’’That new vampire is interested in Sookie Stackhouse. I'd be better for him. He needs a woman who can take some rough treatment. Sookie would scream if he touched her.’’

It was pointless being mad at a dead person, but briefly I indulged myself by doing just that.

Then the detective was walking toward us, and JB got to his feet and moved away.

The detective took JB's position, squatting on the ground in front of me. I must look in bad shape.

’’Miss Stackhouse?’’ he asked. He was using that quiet intense voice many professionals adopt in a crisis. ’’I'm Andy Bellefleur.’’ The Bellefleurs had been around Bon Temps as long as there'd been a Bon Temps, so I wasn't amused at a man being ’’beautiful flower.’’ In fact, I felt sorry for whoever thought it was amusing as I looked down at the block of muscle that was Detective Bellefleur. This particular family member had graduated before Jason, and I'd been one class behind his sister Portia.

He'd been placing me, too. ’’Your brother doing okay?’’ he asked, his voice still quiet, not quite as neutral. It sounded like he'd had a run-in or two with Jason.

’’The little I see of him, he's doing fine,’’ I answered.

’’And your grandmother?’’

I smiled. ’’She's out planting flowers this morning.’’

’’That's wonderful,’’ he said, doing that sincere head shake that's supposed to indicate admiring amazement. ’’Now, I understand that you work at Merlotte's?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’And so did Dawn Green?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’When was the last time you saw Dawn?’’

’’Two days ago. At work.’’ I already felt exhausted. Without shifting my feet from the ground or my arm from the steering wheel, I lay my head sideways on the headrest of the driver's seat.

’’Did you talk to her then?’’

I tried to remember. ’’I don't think so.’’

’’Were you close to Miss Green?’’

’’No.’’

’’And why did you come here today?’’

I explained about working for Dawn yesterday, about Sam's phone call this morning.

’’Did Mr. Merlotte tell you why he didn't want to come here himself?’’

’’Yes, a truck was there to unload. Sam has to show the guys where to put the boxes.’’ Sam also did a lot of the unloading himself, half the time, to speed up the process.

’’Do you think Mr. Merlotte had any relationship with Dawn?’’

’’He was her boss.’’

’’No, outside work.’’

’’Nope.’’

’’You sound pretty positive.’’

’’I am.’’

’’Do you have a relationship with Sam?’’

’’No.’’

’’Then how are you so sure?’’

Good question. Because from time to time I'd heard thoughts that indicated that if she didn't hate Sam, Dawn sure as hell wasn't real fond of him? Not too smart a thing to tell the detective.

’’Sam keeps everything real professional at the bar,’’ I said. It sounded lame, even to me. It just happened to be the truth.

’’Did you know anything about Dawn's personal life?’’

’’No.’’

’’You weren't friendly?’’

’’Not particularly.’’ My thoughts drifted as the detective bent his head in thought. At least that was what it looked like.

’’Why is that?’’

’’I guess we didn't have anything in common.’’

’’Like what? Give me an example.’’

I sighed heavily, blowing my lips out in exasperation. If we didn't have anything in common, how could I give him an example?

’’Okay,’’ I said slowly. ’’Dawn had a real active social life, and she liked to be with men. She wasn't so crazy about spending time with women. Her family is from Monroe, so she didn't have family ties here. She drank, and I don't. I read a lot, and she didn't. That enough?’’

Andy Bellefleur scanned my face to see if I was giving him attitude. He must have been reassured by what he saw.

’’So, you two didn't ever see each other after working hours?’’

’’That's correct.’’

’’Doesn't it seem strange to you that Sam Merlotte asked you to check on Dawn, then?’’

’’No, not at all,’’ I said stoutly. At least, it didn't seem strange now, after Sam's description of Dawn's tantrum. ’’This is on my way to the bar, and I don't have children like Arlene, the other waitress on our shift. So it would be easier for me.’’ That was pretty sound, I thought. If I said Dawn had screamed at Sam the last time he'd been here, that would give exactly the wrong impression.

’’What did you do after work two days ago, Sookie?’’

’’I didn't come to work. I had the day off.’’

’’And your plan for that day was - ?’’

’’I sunbathed and helped Gran clean house, and we had company.’’

’’Who would that be?’’

’’That would be Bill Compton.’’

’’The vampire.’’

’’Right.’’

’’How late was Mr. Compton at your house?’’

’’I don't know. Maybe midnight or one.’’

’’How did he seem to you?’’

’’He seemed fine.’’

’’Edgy? Irritated?’’

’’No.’’

’’Miss Stackhouse, we need to talk to you more at the station house. This is going to take awhile, here, as you can see.’’

’’Okay, I guess.’’

’’Can you come in a couple of hours?’’

I looked at my wristwatch. ’’If Sam doesn't need me to work.’’

’’You know, Miss Stackhouse, this really takes precedence over working at a bar.’’

Okay, I was pissed off. Not because he thought murder investigations were more important than getting to work on time;I agreed with him, there. It was his unspoken prejudice against my particular job.

’’You may not think my job amounts to much, but it's one I'm good at, and I like it. I am as worthy of respect as your sister, the lawyer, Andy Bellefleur, and don't you forget it. I am not stupid, and I am not a slut.’’

The detective turned red, slowly and unattractively. ’’I apologize,’’ Andy said stiffly. He was still trying to deny the old connection, the shared high school, the knowledge of each other's family. He was thinking he should have been a detective in another town, where he could treat people the way he thought a police officer should.

’’No, you'll be a better detective here if you can get over that attitude,’’ I told him. His gray eyes flared wide in shock, and I was childishly glad I'd rocked him, though I was sure I would pay for it sooner or later. I always did when I gave people a peek at my disability.

Mostly, people couldn't get away from me fast enough when I'd given them a taste of mind reading, but Andy Bellefleur was fascinated. ’’It's true, then,’’ he breathed, as if we were somewhere alone instead of sitting in the driveway of a rundown duplex in rural Louisiana.

’’No, forget it,’’ I said quickly. ’’I can just tell sometimes by the way people look what they're thinking.’’

He deliberately thought about unbuttoning my blouse. But I was wary now, back to my normal state of barricaded seige, and I did no more than smile brightly. I could tell I wasn't fooling him, though.

’’When you're ready for me, you come to the bar. We can talk in the storeroom or Sam's office,’’ I said firmly and swung my legs into the car.

The bar was buzzing when I got there. Sam had called Terry Bellefleur, Andy's second cousin if I recalled correctly, in to watch the bar while he talked to the police at Dawn's place. Terry had had a bad war in Vietnam, and he existed narrowly on government disability of some kind. He'd been wounded, captured, held prisoner for two years, and now his thoughts were most often so scary that I was extra special careful when I was around him. Terry had a hard life, and acting normal was even harder for him than it was for me. Terry didn't drink, thank God.

Today I gave him a light kiss on the cheek while I got my tray and scrubbed my hands. Through the window into the little kitchen I could see Lafayette Reynold, the cook, flipping burgers and sinking a basket of fries into hot oil. Merlotte's serves a few sandwiches, and that's all. Sam doesn't want to run a restaurant, but a bar with some food available.

’’What was that for, not that I'm not honored,’’ Terry said. He'd raised his eyebrows. Terry was redhaired, though when he needed a shave, I could tell his whiskers were gray. Terry spent a lot of time outside, but his skin never exactly tanned. It got a rough, reddened look, which made the scars on his left cheek stand out more clearly. That didn't seem to bother Terry. Arlene had been to bed with Terry one night when she'd been drinking, and she'd confided in me that Terry had many scars even worse than the one on his cheek.

’’Just for being here,’’ I said.

’’It true about Dawn?’’

Lafayette put two plates on the serving hatch. He winked at me with a sweep of his thick, false lashes. Lafayette wears a lot of makeup. I was so used to him I never thought of it any more, but now his eye shadow brought the boy, Jerry, to my mind. I'd let him go with the three vampires without protest. That had probably been wrong, but realistic. I couldn't have stopped them from taking him. I couldn't have gotten the police to catch up with them in time. He was dying anyway, and he was taking as many vampires and humans with him as he could;and he was already a killer himself. I told my conscience this would be the last talk we'd have about Jerry.

’’Arlene, burgers up,’’ Terry called, jerking me back into the here and how. Arlene came over to grab the plates. She gave me a look that said she was going to pump me dry at the first chance she got. Charlsie Tooten was working, too. She filled in when one of the regular women got sick or just didn't show. I hoped Charlsie would take Dawn's place full-time. I'd always liked her.

’’Yeah, Dawn's dead,’’ I told Terry. He didn't seem to mind my long pause.

’’What happened to her?’’

’’I don't know, but it wasn't peaceful.’’ I'd seen blood on the sheets, not a lot, but some.

’’Maudette,’’ Terry said, and I instantly understood.

’’Maybe,’’ I said. It sure was possible that whoever had done in Dawn was the same person who'd killed Maudette.

Of course, everyone in Renard Parish came in that day, if not for lunch, then for an afternoon cup of coffee or a beer. If they couldn't make their work schedule bend around that, they waited until they clocked out and came in on their way home. Two young women in our town murdered in one month? You bet people wanted to talk.

Sam returned about two, with heat radiating off his body and sweat trickling down his face from standing out in the shadeless yard at the crime scene. He told me that Andy Bellefleur had said he was coming to talk to me again soon.

’’I don't know why,’’ I said, maybe a tad sullenly. ’’I never hung around with Dawn. What happened to her, did they tell you?’’

’’Someone strangled her after beating on her a little,’’ Sam said. ’’But she had some old tooth marks, too. Like Maudette.’’

’’There are lots of vampires, Sam,’’ I said, answering his unspoken comment.

’’Sookie.’’ His voice was so serious and quiet. It made me remember how he'd held my hand at Dawn's house, and then I remembered how he'd shut me out of his mind, known I was probing, known how to keep me out. ’’Honey, Bill is a good guy, for a vampire, but he's just not human.’’

’’Honey, neither are you,’’ I said, very quietly but very sharply. And I turned my back on Sam, not exactly wanting to admit why I was so angry with him, but wanting him to know it nonetheless.

I worked like a demon. Whatever her faults, Dawn had been efficient, and Charlsie just couldn't keep up with the pace. She was willing, and I was sure she'd catch up with the rhythm of the bar, but for tonight, Arlene and I had to take up the slack.

I earned a ton of money in tips that evening and on into the night when people found out I'd actually discovered the body. I just kept my face solemn and got through it, not wanting to offend customers who just wanted to know what everyone else in town wanted to know.

On my way home, I allowed myself to relax a little. I was exhausted. The last thing I expected to see, after I turned into the little drive through the woods that led to our house, was Bill Compton. He was leaning against a pine tree waiting for me. I drove past him a little, almost deciding to ignore him. But then I stopped.

He opened my door. Without looking him in the eyes, I got out. He seemed comfortable in the night, in a way I never could be. There were too many childhood taboos about the night and the darkness and things that went bump.

Come to think of it, Bill was one of those things. No wonder he felt at ease.

’’Are you going to look at your feet all night, or are you going to talk to me?’’ he asked in a voice that was just above a whisper.

’’Something happened you should know about.’’

’’Tell me.’’ He was trying to do something to me: I could feel his power hovering around me, but I batted it away. He sighed.

’’I can't stand up,’’ I said wearily. ’’Let's sit on the ground or something. My feet are tired.’’

In answer, he picked me up and set me on the hood of the car. Then he stood in front of me, his arms crossed, very obviously waiting.

’’Tell me.’’

’’Dawn was murdered. Just like Maudette Pickens.’’

’’Dawn?’’

Suddenly I felt a little better. ’’The other waitress at the bar.’’

’’The redheaded one, the one who's been married so often?’’

I felt a lot better. ’’No, the dark-haired one, the one who kept bumping into your chair with her hips to get you to notice her.’’

’’Oh, that one. She came to my house.’’

’’Dawn? When?’’

’’After you left the other night. The night the other vampires were there. She's lucky she missed them. She was very confident of her ability to handle anything.’’

I looked up at him. ’’Why is she so lucky? Wouldn't you have protected her?’’

Bill's eyes were totally dark in the moonlight. ’’I don't think so,’’ he said.

’’You are...’’

’’I'm a vampire, Sookie. I don't think like you. I don't care about people automatically.’’

’’You protected me.’’

’’You're different.’’

’’Yeah? I'm a waitress, like Dawn. I come from a plain family, like Maudette. What's so different?’’

I was in a sudden rage. I knew what was coming.

His cool finger touched the middle of my forehead. ’’Different,’’ he said. ’’You're not like us. But you're not like them, either.’’

I felt a flare of rage so intense it was almost divine. I hauled off and hit him, an insane thing to do. It was like hitting a Brink's armored truck. In a flash, he had me off the car and pinned to him, my arms bound to my sides by one of his arms.

’’No!’’ I screamed. I kicked and fought, but I might as well have saved the energy. Finally I sagged against him.

My breathing was ragged, and so was his. But I didn't think it was for the same reason.

’’Why did you think I needed to know about Dawn?’’ He sounded so reasonable, you'd think the struggle hadn't happened.

’’Well, Mr. Lord of Darkness,’’ I said furiously, ’’Maudette had old bite marks on her thighs, and the police told Sam that Dawn had bite marks, too.’’

If silence can be characterized, his was thoughtful. While he was mulling, or whatever vampires do, his embrace loosened. One hand began rubbing my back absently, as if I was a puppy who had whimpered.

’’You imply they didn't die from these bites.’’

’’No. From strangulation.’’

’’Not a vampire, then.’’ His tone put it beyond question.

’’Why not?’’

’’If a vampire had been feeding from these women, they would have been drained instead of strangled. They wouldn't have been wasted like that.’’

Just when I was beginning to be comfortable with Bill, he'd say something so cold, so vampirey, I had to start all over again.

’’Then,’’ I said wearily, ’’either you have a crafty vampire with great self-control, or you have someone who's determined to kill women who've been with vampires.’’

’’Hmmm.’’

I didn't feel very good about either of those choices.

’’Do you think I'd do that?’’ he asked.

The question was unexpected. I wriggled in his pinioning embrace to look up at him.

’’You've taken great care to point out how heartless you are,’’ I reminded him. ’’What do you really want me to believe?’’

And it was so wonderful not to know. I almost smiled.

’’I could have killed them, but I wouldn't do it here, or now,’’ Bill said. He had no color in the moonlight except for the dark pools of his eyes and the dark arches of his brows. ’’This is where I want to stay. I want a home.’’

A vampire, yearning for home.

Bill read my face. ’’Don't pity me, Sookie. That would be a mistake.’’ He seemed willing me to stare into his eyes.

’’Bill, you can't glamor me, or whatever you do. You can't enchant me into pulling my T-shirt down for you to bite me, you can't convince me you weren't ever here, you can't do any of your usual stuff. You have to be regular with me, or just force me.’’

’’No,’’ he said, his mouth almost on mine. ’’I won't force you.’’

I fought the urge to kiss him. But at least I knew it was my very own urge, not a manufactured one.

’’So, if it wasn't you,’’ I said, struggling to keep on course, ’’then Maudette and Dawn knew another vampire. Maudette went to the vampire bar in Shreveport. Maybe Dawn did, too. Will you take me there?’’

’’Why?’’ he asked, sounding no more than curious.

I just couldn't explain being in danger to someone who was so used to being beyond it. At least at night. ’’I'm not sure Andy Bellefleur will go to the trouble,’’ I lied.

’’There are still Bellefleurs here,’’ he said, and there was something different in his voice. His arms hardened around me to the point of pain.

’’Yes,’’ I said. ’’Lots of them. Andy is a police detective. His sister, Portia, is a lawyer. His cousin Terry is a veteran and a bartender. He substitutes for Sam. There are lots of others.’’

’’Bellefleur...’’

I was getting crushed.

’’Bill,’’ I said, my voice squeaky with panic.

He loosened his grip immediately. ’’Excuse me,’’ he said formally.

’’I have to go to bed,’’ I said. ’’I'm really tired, Bill.’’

He set me down on the gravel with scarcely a bump. He looked down at me.

’’You told those other vampires that I belonged to you,’’ I said.

’’Yes.’’

’’What exactly did that mean?’’

’’That means that if they try to feed on you, I'll kill them,’’ he said. ’’It means you are my human.’’

’’I have to say I'm glad you did that, but I'm not really sure what being your human entails,’’ I said cautiously. ’’And I don't recall being asked if that was okay with me.’’

’’Whatever it is, it's probably better than partying with Malcolm, Liam, and Diane.’’

He wasn't going to answer me directly.

’’Are you going to take me to the bar?’’

’’What's your next night off?’’

’’Two nights from now.’’

’’Then, at sunset. I'll drive.’’

’’You have a car?’’

’’How do you think I get places?’’ There might have been a smile on his shining face. He turned to melt into the woods. Over his shoulder he said, ’’Sookie. Do me proud.’’

I was left standing with my mouth open.

Do him proud indeed.


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