Dead to the world, p.12
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       Dead to the World, p.12
 

         Part #4 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris  
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Chapter 11

  11

  Amazingly, I did sleep. I woke with Eric on the bed beside me. He was smelling me.

  "Sookie, what is this?" he asked in a very quiet voice. He knew, of course, when I woke. "You smell of the woods, and you smell of shifter. And something even wilder. "

  I supposed the shifter he smelled was Sam. "And Were," I prompted, not wanting him to miss out on anything.

  "No, not Were," he said.

  I was puzzled. Calvin had lifted me over the brambles, and his scent should still have been on me.

  "More than one kind of shifter," Eric said in the near-dark of my room. "What have you been doing, my lover?"

  He didn't exactly sound angry, but he didn't sound happy, either. Vampires. They wrote the book on possessive.

  "I was in the search party for my brother, in the woods behind his home," I said.

  Eric was still for a minute. Then he wrapped his arms around me and hauled me up against him. "I'm sorry," he said. "I know you are worried. "

  "Let me ask you something," I said, willing to test a theory of mine.

  "Of course. "

  "Look inside yourself, Eric. Are you really, really sorry? Worried about Jason?" Because the real Eric, in his right mind, would not have cared one little bit.

  "Of course," he protested. Then, after a long moment - I wished I could see his face - he said, "Not really. " He sounded surprised. "I know I should be. I should be concerned about your brother, because I love having sex with you, and I should want you to think well of me so you'll want sex, too. "

  You just had to like the honesty. This was the closest to the real Eric I'd seen in days.

  "But you'll listen, right? If I need to talk? For the same reason?"

  "Of course, my lover. "

  "Because you want to have sex with me. "

  "That, of course. But also because I find I really do. . . " He paused, as if he were about to say something outrageous. "I find I have feelings for you. "

  "Oh," I said into his chest, sounding as astonished as Eric had. His chest was bare, as I suspected the rest of him was. I felt the light sprinkling of curly blond hair against my cheek.

  "Eric," I said, after a long pause, "I almost hate to say this, but I have feelings for you, too. " There was a lot I needed to tell Eric, and we should be in the car on our way to Shreveport already. But I was taking this moment to savor this little bit of happiness.

  "Not love, exactly," he said. His fingers were busy trying to find out how best to get my clothes off.

  "No, but something close. " I helped him. "We don't have much time, Eric," I said, reaching down, touching him, making him gasp. "Let's make it good. "

  "Kiss me," he said, and he wasn't talking about his mouth. "Turn this way," he whispered. "I want to kiss you, too. "

  It didn't take long, after all, for us to be holding each other, sated and happy.

  "What's happened?" he asked. "I can tell something is frightening you. "

  "We have to go to Shreveport now," I said. "We're already past the time Pam said on the phone. Tonight's the night we face off against Hallow and her witches. "

  "Then you must stay here," he said immediately.

  "No," I said gently, putting my hand on his cheek. "No, baby, I have to go with you. " I didn't tell him Pam thought using me in the battle would be a good idea. I didn't tell him he was going to be used as a fighting machine. I didn't tell him I was sure someone was going to die tonight; maybe quite a few someones, human and Were and vampire. It was probably the last time I would use an endearment when I addressed Eric. It was perhaps the last time Eric would wake up in my house. One of us might not survive this night, and if we did, there was no way to know how we'd be changed.

  The drive to Shreveport was silent. We'd washed up and dressed without talking much, either. At least seven times, I thought of heading back to Bon Temps, with or without Eric.

  But I didn't.

  Eric's skills did not include map reading, so I had to pull over to check my Shreveport map to plot our course to 714 Parchman, something I hadn't foreseen before we got to the city. (I'd somehow expected Eric to remember the directions, but of course, he didn't. )

  "Your word of the day was 'annihilate,'" he told me cheerfully.

  "Oh. Thanks for checking. " I probably didn't sound very thankful. "You're sounding pretty excited about all this. "

  "Sookie, there's nothing like a good fight," he said defensively.

  "That depends on who wins, I would think. "

  That kept him quiet for a few minutes, which was fine. I was having trouble negotiating the strange streets in the darkness, with so much on my mind. But we finally got to the right street, and the right house on that street. I had always pictured Pam and Chow living in a mansion, but the vampires had a large ranch-style house in an upper-middle-class suburb. It was a trimmed-lawn, bike-riding, lawn-sprinkling street, from what I could tell.

  The light by the driveway was on at 714, and the three-car garage around at the rear was full. I drove up the slope to the concrete apron that was placed for overflow parking. I recognized Alcide's truck and the compact car that had been parked in Colonel Flood's carport.

  Before we got out of my old car, Eric leaned over to kiss me. We looked at each other, his eyes wide and blue, the whites so white you could hardly look away, his golden hair neatly brushed. He'd tied it back with one of my elastic bands, a bright blue one. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a new flannel shirt.

  "We could go back," he said. In the dome light of the car, his face looked hard as stone. "We could go back to your house. I can stay with you always. We can know each other's bodies in every way, night after night. I could love you. " His nostrils flared, and he looked suddenly proud. "I could work. You would not be poor. I would help you. "

  "Sounds like a marriage," I said, trying to lighten the atmosphere. But my voice was too shaky.

  "Yes," he said.

  And he would never be himself again. He would be a false version of Eric, an Eric cheated out of his true life. Providing our relationship (such as it was) lasted, he would stay the same; but I wouldn't.

  Enough with the negative thinking, Sookie, I told myself. I would be a total idiot to pass up living with this gorgeous creature for however long. We actually had a good time together, and I enjoyed Eric's sense of humor and his company, to say nothing of his lovemaking. Now that he'd lost his memory, he was lots of uncomplicated fun.

  And that was the fly in the ointment. We would have a counterfeit relationship, because this was the counterfeit Eric. I'd come full loop.

  I slid out of the car with a sigh. "I'm a total idiot," I said as he came around the back of the car to walk with me to the house.

  Eric didn't say anything. I guess he agreed with me.

  "Hello," I called, pushing open the door after my knock brought no response. The garage door led into the laundry room and from there into the kitchen.

  As you would expect in a vampire home, the kitchen was absolutely clean, because it wasn't used. This kitchen was small for a house the size of this one. I guess the real estate agent had thought it was her lucky day - her lucky night - when she'd shown it to vampires, since a real family who cooked at home would have trouble dealing with a kitchen the size of a king bed. The house had an open floor plan, so you could see over the breakfast bar into the "family" room - in this case, the main room for a mighty odd family. There were three open doorways that probably led into the formal living room, the dining room, and the bedroom area.

  Right at the moment, this family room was crammed with people. I got the impression, from the glimpses of feet and arms, that more people were standing in the open doorways into the other rooms.

  The vampires were there: Pam, Chow, Gerald, and at least two more I recognized from Fangtasia. The two-natured were re
presented by Colonel Flood, red-haired Amanda (my big fan), the teenage boy with spiked brown hair (Sid), Alcide, Culpepper, and (to my disgust) Debbie Pelt. Debbie was dressed in the height of fashion - at least her version of fashion - which seemed a little out of place for a meeting of this kind. Maybe she wanted to remind me that she had a very good job working at an advertising agency.

  Oh, good. Debbie's presence made the night just about perfect.

  The group I didn't recognize had to be the local witches, by the process of elimination. I assumed that the dignified woman sitting on the couch was their leader. I didn't know what her correct title would be - coven master? Mistress? She was in her sixties, and she had iron gray hair. An African American with skin the color of coffee, she had brown eyes that looked infinitely wise and also skeptical. She'd brought a pale young man with glasses, who wore pressed khakis with a striped shirt and polished loafers. He might work in Office Depot or Super One Foods in some kind of managerial position, and his kids would think that he was out bowling or attending some church meeting on this cold January night. Instead, he and the young female witch beside him were about to embark on a fight to the death.

  The remaining two empty chairs were clearly intended for Eric and me.

  "We expected you earlier," Pam said crisply.

  "Hi, good to see you, too, thanks for coming on such short notice," I muttered. For one long moment, everyone in the room looked at Eric, waiting for him to take charge of the action, as he had for years. And Eric looked back at them blankly. The long pause began to be awkward.

  "Well, let's lay this out," Pam said. All the assembled Supes turned their faces to her. Pam seemed to have taken the leadership bit between her teeth, and she was ready to run with it.

  "Thanks to the Were trackers, we know the location of the building Hallow is using for her headquarters," Pam told me. She seemed to be ignoring Eric, but I sensed it was because she didn't know what else to do. Sid grinned at me; I remembered he and Emilio had tracked the killers from the bridal shop to the house. Then I realized he was showing me he'd filed his teeth to points. Ick.

  I could understand the presence of the vamps, the witches, and the Weres, but why was Debbie Pelt at this meeting? She was a shifter, not a Were. The Weres had always been so snobby about the shifters, and here was one; furthermore, one out of her own territory. I loathed and distrusted her. She must have insisted on being here, and that made me trust her even less, if that was possible.

  If she was so determined to join in, put Debbie in the first line of fire, would be my advice. You wouldn't have to worry about what she was doing behind your back.

  My grandmother would certainly have been ashamed of my vindictiveness; but then (like Alcide) she would have found it almost impossible to believe that Debbie had really tried to kill me.

  "We'll infiltrate the neighborhood slowly," Pam said. I wondered if she'd been reading a commando manual. "The witches have already broadcast a lot of magic in the area, so there aren't too many people out on the streets. Some of the Weres are already in place. We won't be so obvious. Sookie will go in first. "

  The assembled Supes turned their eyes to me at the same moment. That was pretty disconcerting: like being in a ring of pickup trucks at night, when they all turn on their headlights to illuminate the center.

  "Why?" Alcide asked. His big hands gripped his knees. Debbie, who'd slumped down to sit on the floor beside the couch, smiled at me, knowing Alcide couldn't see her.

  "Because Sookie is human," Pam pointed out. "And she's more of a natural phenomenon than a true Supe. They won't detect her. "

  Eric had taken my hand. He was gripping it so hard that I thought I could hear my bones grinding together. Prior to his enchantment, he would have nipped Pam's plan in the bud, or maybe he would've enthusiastically endorsed it. Now he was too cowed to comment, which he clearly wanted to do.

  "What am I supposed to do when I get there?" I was proud of myself for sounding so calm and practical. I'd rather be taking a complicated drink order from a table of drunken tree-trimmers than be first in the line of battle.

  "Read the minds of the witches inside while we get into position. If they detect us approaching, we lose the surprise of it, and we stand a greater chance of sustaining serious injury. " When she got excited, Pam had a slight accent, though I'd never been able to figure out what it was. I thought it might just be English as it had been spoken three hundred years ago. Or whatever. "Can you count them? Is that possible?"

  I thought for a second. "Yes, I can do that. "

  "That would be a big help, too. "

  "What do we do when we get in the building?" asked Sid. Jittery with the thrill of it all, he was grinning, his pointed teeth showing.

  Pam looked mildly astonished. "We kill them all," she said.

  Sid's grin faded. I flinched. I wasn't the only one.

  Pam seemed to realize she'd said something unpalatable. "What else would we do?" she asked, genuinely amazed.

  That was a stumper.

  "They'll do their best to kill us," Chow pointed out. "They only made one attempt at negotiation, and it cost Eric his memory and Clancy his life. They delivered Clancy's clothes to Fangtasia this morning. " People glanced away from Eric, embarrassed. He looked stricken, and I patted his hand with my free one. His grip on my right hand relaxed a little. My circulation resumed in that hand, and it tingled. That was a relief.

  "Someone needs to go with Sookie," Alcide said. He glowered at Pam. "She can't go close to that house by herself. "

  "I'll go with her," said a familiar voice from the corner of the room, and I leaned forward, searching the faces.

  "Bubba!" I said, pleased to see the vampire. Eric stared in wonder at the famous face. The glistening black hair was combed back in a pompadour, and the pouty lower lip was stretched in the trademark smile. His current keeper must have dressed him for the evening, because instead of a jumpsuit decked with rhinestones, or jeans and a T-shirt, Bubba was wearing camo.

  "Pleased to see ya, Miss Sookie," Bubba said. "I'm wearing my Army duds. "

  "I see that. Looking good, Bubba. "

  "Thank you, ma'am. "

  Pam considered. "That might be a good idea," she said. "His, ah - the mental broadcast, the signature, you all get what I'm telling you? - is so, ah, atypical that they won't discover a vampire is near. " Pam was being very tactful.

  Bubba made a terrible vampire. Though stealthy and obedient, he couldn't reason very clearly, and he liked cat blood better than human blood.

  "Where's Bill, Miss Sookie?" he asked, as I could have predicted he would. Bubba had always been very fond of Bill.

  "He's in Peru, Bubba. That's way down in South America. "

  "No, I'm not," said a cool voice, and my heart flip-flopped. "I'm back. " Out of an open doorway stepped my former flame.

  This was just an evening for surprises. I hoped some of them would be pleasant.

  Seeing Bill so unexpectedly gave me a heavier jolt than I'd figured. I'd never had an ex-boyfriend before, my life having been pretty devoid of boyfriends altogether, so I didn't have much experience in handling my emotions about being in his presence, especially with Eric gripping my hand like I was Mary Poppins and he was my charge.

  Bill looked good in his khakis. He was wearing a Calvin Klein dress shirt I'd picked out for him, a muted plaid in shades of brown and gold. Not that I noticed.

  "Good, we need you tonight," Pam said. Ms. Businesslike. "You'll have to tell me how the ruins were, the ones everyone talks about. You know the rest of the people here?"

  Bill glanced around. "Colonel Flood," he said, nodding. "Alcide. " His nod to Alcide had less cordiality. "I haven't met these new allies," he said, indicating the witches. Bill waited until the introductions were complete to ask, "What is Debbie Pelt doing here?"

  I tried not to ga
pe at having my innermost thoughts spoken aloud. My question exactly! And how did Bill know Debbie? I tried to remember if their paths had crossed in Jackson, if they'd actually met face-to-face; and I couldn't recall such a meeting, though of course Bill knew what she'd done.

  "She's Alcide's woman," Pam said, in a cautious, puzzled sort of way.

  I raised my eyebrows, looking at Alcide, and he turned a dusky red.

  "She's here for a visit, and she decided to come along with him," Pam went on. "You object to her presence?"

  "She joined in while I was being tortured in the king of Mississippi's compound," Bill said. "She enjoyed my pain. "

  Alcide stood, looking as shocked as I'd ever seen him. "Debbie, is this true?"

  Debbie Pelt tried not to flinch, now that every eye was on her, and every eye was unfriendly. "I just happened to be visiting a Were friend who lived there, one of the guards," she said. Her voice didn't sound calm enough to match the words. "Obviously, there was nothing I could do to free you. I would have been ripped to shreds. I can't believe you remember me being there very clearly. You were certainly out of it. " There was a hint of contempt in her words.

  "You joined in the torture," Bill said, his voice still impersonal and all the more convincing for it. "You liked the pincers best. "

  "You didn't tell anyone he was there?" Alcide asked Debbie. His voice was not impersonal at all. It held grief, and anger, and betrayal. "You knew someone from another kingdom was being tortured at Russell's, and you didn't do anything?"

  "He's a vamp, for God's sake," Debbie said, sounding no more than irritated. "When I found out later that you'd been taking Sookie around to hunt for him so you could get your dad out of hock with the vamps, I felt terrible. But at the time, it was just vamp business. Why should I interfere?"

  "But why would any decent person join in torture?" Alcide's voice was strained.

  There was a long silence.

  "And of course, she tried to kill Sookie," Bill said. He still managed to sound quite dispassionate.

  "I didn't know you were in the trunk of the car when I pushed her in! I didn't know I was closing her in with a hungry vampire!" Debbie protested.

  I don't know about anyone else, but I wasn't convinced for a second.

  Alcide bent his rough black head to look down into his hands as if they held an oracle. He raised his face to look at Debbie. He was a man unable to dodge the bullet of truth any longer. I felt sorrier for him than I'd felt for anyone in a long, long time.

  "I abjure you," Alcide said. Colonel Flood winced, and young Sid, Amanda, and Culpepper looked both astonished and impressed, as if this were a ceremony they'd never thought to witness. "I see you no longer. I hunt with you no longer. I share flesh with you no longer. "

  This was obviously a ritual of great significance among the two-natured. Debbie stared at Alcide, aghast at his pronouncement. The witches murmured to one another, but otherwise the room remained silent. Even Bubba was wide-eyed, and most things went right over his shiny head.

  "No," Debbie said in a strangled voice, waving a hand in front of her, as if she could erase what had passed. "No, Alcide!"

  But he stared right through her. He saw her no longer.

  Even though I loathed Debbie, her face was painful to see. Like most of the others present, as soon as I could, I looked anywhere else but at the shifter. Facing Hallow's coven seemed like a snap compared to witnessing this episode.

  Pam seemed to agree. "All right then," she said briskly. "Bubba will lead the way with Sookie. She will do her best to do whatever it is that she does - and she'll signal us. " Pam pondered for a moment. "Sookie, a recap: We need to know the number of people in the house, whether or not they are all witches, and any other tidbit you can glean. Send Bubba back to us with whatever information you find and stand guard in case the situation changes while we move up. Once we're in position, you can retire to the cars, where you'll be safer. "

  I had no problem with that whatsoever. In a crowd of witches, vampires, and Weres, I was no kind of combatant.

  "This sounds okay, if I have to be involved at all," I said. A tug on my hand drew my eyes to Eric's. He looked pleased at the prospect of fighting, but there was still uncertainty in his face and posture. "But what will happen to Eric?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "If you go in and kill everyone, who'll un-curse him?" I turned slightly to face the experts, the Wiccan contingent. "If Hallow's coven dies, do their spells die with them? Or will Eric still be without a memory?"

  "The spell must be removed," said the oldest witch, the calm African-American woman. "If it is removed by the one who laid it in the first place, that's best. It can be lifted by someone else, but it will take more time, more effort, since we don't know what went into the making of the spell. "

  I was trying to avoid looking at Alcide, because he was still shaking with the violence of the emotions that had led him to cast out Debbie. Though I hadn't known such an action was possible, my first reaction was to feel a little bitter about his not casting her out right after I'd told him a month ago she'd tried to kill me. However, he could have told himself I'd been mistaken, that it hadn't been Debbie I'd sensed near me before she'd pushed me into the Cadillac's trunk.

  As far as I knew, this was the first time Debbie had admitted she had done it. And she'd protested she hadn't known Bill was in the trunk, unconscious. But shoving a person into a car trunk and shutting the lid was no kind of amusing prank, right?

  Maybe Debbie had been lying to herself some, too.

  I needed to listen to what was happening now. I'd have lots of time to think about the human ego's capacity to deceive itself, if I survived the night.

  Pam was saying, "So you're thinking we need to save Hallow? To take the spell off Eric?" She didn't sound happy at the prospect. I swallowed my painful feelings and made myself listen. This was no time to start brooding.

  "No," the witch said instantly. "Her brother, Mark. There is too much danger in leaving Hallow alive. She must die as quickly as we can reach her. "

  "What will you be doing?" Pam asked. "How will you help us in this attack?"

  "We will be outside, but within two blocks," the man said. "We'll be winding spells around the building to make the witches weak and indecisive. And we have a few tricks up our sleeves. " He and the young woman, who had on a huge amount of black eye makeup, looked pretty pleased at a chance to use those tricks.

  Pam nodded as if winding spells was sufficient aid. I thought waiting outside with a flamethrower would have been better.

  All this time, Debbie Pelt had been standing as if she'd been paralyzed. Now she began to pick her way through to the back door. Bubba leaped up to grab her arm. She hissed at him, but he didn't falter, though I would have.

  None of the Weres reacted to this occurrence. It really was as though she were invisible to them.

  "Let me leave. I'm not wanted," she said to Bubba, fury and misery fighting for control of her face.

  Bubba shrugged. He just held on to her, waiting for Pam's judgment.

  "If we let you go, you might run to the witches and let them know we are coming," Pam said. "That would be of a piece with your character, apparently. "

  Debbie had the gall to look outraged. Alcide looked as if he were watching the Weather Channel.

  "Bill, you take charge of her," Chow suggested. "If she turns on us, kill her. "

  "That sounds wonderful," Bill said, smiling in a fangy way.

  After a few more arrangements about transportation, and some more quiet consultation among the witches, who were facing a completely different kind of fight, Pam said, "All right, let's go. " Pam, who looked more than ever like Alice in Wonderland in her pale pink sweater and darker pink slacks, stood up and checked her lipstick in the mirror on the wall close to where I'd been sittin
g. She gave her reflection an experimental smile, as I've seen women do a thousand times.

  "Sookie, my friend," she said, turning to aim the smile at me. "Tonight is a great night. "

  "It is?"

  "Yes. " Pam put her arm around my shoulders. "We defend what is ours! We fight for the restoration of our leader!" She grinned past me at Eric. "Tomorrow, Sheriff, you will be back at your desk at Fangtasia. You'll be able to go to your own house, your own bedroom. We've kept it clean for you. "

  I checked Eric's reaction. I'd never heard Pam address Eric by his title before. Though the head vampire for each section was called a sheriff, and I should have been used to that by now, I couldn't help but picture Eric in a cowboy outfit with a star pinned to his chest, or (my favorite) in black tights as the villainous sheriff of Nottingham. I found it interesting, too, that he didn't live here with Pam and Chow.

  Eric gave Pam such a serious look that the grin faded right off her face. "If I die tonight," he said, "pay this woman the money that was promised her. " He gripped my shoulder. I was just draped in vampires.

  "I swear," Pam said. "Chow and Gerald will know, too. "

  Eric said, "Do you know where her brother is?"

  Startled, I stepped away from Pam.

  Pam looked equally taken aback. "No, Sheriff. "

  "It occurred to me that you might have taken him hostage to ensure she didn't betray me. "

  The idea had never crossed my mind, but it should have. Obviously, I had a lot to learn about being devious.

  "I wish I'd thought of that," Pam said admiringly, echoing my thoughts with her own twist. "I wouldn't have minded spending some time with Jason as my hostage. " I couldn't understand it: Jason's allure just seemed universal. "But I didn't take him," Pam said. "If we get through this, Sookie, I'll look for him myself. Could it be Hallow's witches have him?"

  "It's possible," I said. "Claudine said she didn't see any hostages, but she also said there were rooms she didn't look into. Though I don't know why they would have taken Jason, unless Hallow knows I have Eric? Then they might have used him to make me talk, just the way you would have used him to make me keep silent. But they haven't approached me. You can't use blackmail on someone who doesn't know anything about the hold you have on them. "

  "Nonetheless, I'll remind all those who are going to enter the building to watch out for him," Pam said.

  "How is Belinda?" I asked. "Have you made arrangements to pay her hospital bills?"

  She looked at me blankly.

  "The waitress who was hurt defending Fangtasia," I reminded her, a little dryly. "You remember? The friend of Ginger, who died?"

  "Of course," said Chow, from his place against the wall. "She is recovering. We sent her flowers and candy," he told Pam. Then he focused on me. "Plus, we have a group insurance policy. " He was proud as a new father about that.

  Pam looked pleased with Chow's report. "Good," she said. "You have to keep them happy. Are we ready to go?"

  I shrugged. "I guess so. No point in waiting. "

  Bill stepped in front of me as Chow and Pam consulted about which vehicle to take. Gerald had gone out to make sure everyone was on the same page as far as the plan of battle.

  "How was Peru?" I asked Bill. I was very conscious of Eric, a huge blond shadow at my elbow.

  "I made a lot of notes for my book," Bill said. "South America hasn't been good to vampires as a whole, but Peru is not as hostile as the other countries, and I was able to talk to a few vampires I hadn't heard of before. " For months, Bill had been compiling a vampire directory at the behest of the queen of Louisiana, who thought having such an item would be very handy. Her opinion was certainly not the universal opinion of the vampire community, some of whom had very strong objections to being outed, even among their own kind. I guess secrecy could be almost impossible to give up, if you'd clung to it for centuries.

  There were vampires who still lived in graveyards, hunting every night, refusing to recognize the change in their status; it was like the stories about the Japanese soldiers who'd held out on Pacific islands long after World War II was over.

  "Did you get to see those ruins you talked about?"

  "Machu Picchu? Yes, I climbed up to them by myself. It was a great experience. "

  I tried to picture Bill going up a mountain at night, seeing the ruins of an ancient civilization in the moonlight. I couldn't even imagine what that must have been like. I'd never been out of the country. I hadn't often been out of the state, for that matter.

  "This is Bill, your former mate?" Eric's voice sounded a little. . . strained.

  "Ah, this is - well, yes, sort of," I said unhappily. The "former" was correct; the "mate" was a little off.

  Eric placed both his hands on my shoulders and moved in close to me. I had no doubt he was staring over the top of my head at Bill, who was staring right back. Eric might as well have stuck a SHE'S MINE sign on top of my head. Arlene had told me that she loved moments like this, when her ex saw plainly that someone else valued her even if he didn't. All I can say is, my taste in satisfaction runs completely different. I hated it. I felt awkward and ridiculous.

  "You really don't remember me," Bill said to Eric, as if he'd doubted it up until this moment. My suspicion was confirmed when he told me, as if Eric wasn't standing there, "Truly, I thought this was an elaborate scheme on Eric's part to stay in your house so he could talk his way into your bed. "

  Since the same thought had occurred to me, though I'd discarded it pretty quickly, I couldn't protest; but I could feel myself turning red.

  "We need to get in the car," I told Eric, turning to catch a glimpse of his face. It was rock hard and expressionless, which usually signaled he was in a dangerous state of mind. But he came with me when I moved toward the door, and the whole house slowly emptied its inhabitants into the narrow suburban street. I wondered what the neighbors thought. Of course, they knew the house was inhabited by vampires - no one around during the day, all the yard work done by human hirelings, the people who came and went at night being so very pale. This sudden activity had to invite neighborhood attention.

  I drove in silence, Eric beside me on the front seat. Every now and then he reached over to touch me. I don't know who Bill had caught a ride with, but I was glad it wasn't me. The testosterone level would have been too high in the car, and I might have smothered.

  Bubba was sitting in the backseat, humming to himself. It sounded like "Love Me Tender. "

  "This is a crappy car," Eric said, out of the blue, as far as I was concerned.

  "Yes," I agreed.

  "Are you afraid?"

  "I am. "

  "If this whole thing works, will you still see me?"

  "Sure," I said, to make him happy. I was convinced that after this confrontation, nothing would be the same. But without the true Eric's conviction of his own prowess and intelligence and ruthlessness, this Eric was pretty shaky. He'd be up for the actual battle, but right now he needed a boost.

  Pam had plotted out where everyone should park, to prevent Hallow's coven from becoming alarmed by the sudden appearance of a lot of cars. We had a map with our spot marked on it. That turned out to be an E-Z Mart on the corner of a couple of larger roads in a down-sliding area that was changing over from residential to commercial. We parked in the most out-of-the-way corner the E-Z Mart afforded. Without further discussion, we set out to our appointed locations.

  About half the houses on the quiet street had real-estate signs in the front lawn, and the ones that remained in private hands were not well maintained. Cars were as battered as mine, and big bare patches indicated that the grass wasn't fertilized or watered in the summer. Every lighted window seemed to show the flickering of a television screen.

  I was glad it was winter so the people who lived here were all inside. Two white vampires
and a blond woman would excite comment, if not aggression, in this neighborhood. Plus, one of the vampires was pretty recognizable, despite the rigors of his changeover - which was why Bubba was almost always kept out of sight.

  Soon we were at the corner where Eric was supposed to part from us so he could rendezvous with the other vampires. I would have continued on to my appointed post without a word; by now I was keyed up to such a pitch of tension I felt I could vibrate if you tapped me with a finger. But Eric wasn't content with a silent separation. He gripped my arms and kissed me for all he was worth, and believe me, that was plenty.

  Bubba made a sound of disapproval. "You're not supposed to be kissing on anybody else, Miss Sookie," he said. "Bill said it was okay, but I don't like it. "

  After one more second, Eric released me. "I'm sorry if we offended you," he said coldly. He looked back down at me. "I'll see you later, my lover," he said very quietly.

  I laid my hand against his cheek. "Later," I said, and I turned and walked away with Bubba at my heels.

  "You ain't mad at me, are you, Miss Sookie?" he asked anxiously.

  "No," I said. I made myself smile at him, since I knew he could see me far more clearly than I could see him. It was a cold night, and though I was wearing my coat, it didn't seem to be as warm as it used to be. My bare hands were quivering with cold, and my nose felt numb. I could just detect a whiff of wood smoke from a fireplace, and automobile exhaust, and gasoline, and oil, and all the other car odors that combine to make City Smell.

  But there was another smell permeating the neighborhood, an aroma that indicated this neighborhood was contaminated by more than urban blight. I sniffed, and the odor curled through the air in almost visible flourishes. After a moment's thought, I realized this must be the smell of magic, thick and stomach-clenching. Magic smells like I imagine a bazaar in some exotic foreign country might. It reeks of the strange, the different. The scent of a lot of magic can be quite overwhelming. Why weren't the residents complaining to the police about it? Couldn't everyone pick up on that odor?

  "Bubba, do you smell something unusual?" I asked in a very low voice. A dog or two barked as we walked past in the black night, but they quickly quieted when they caught the scent of vampire. (To them, I guess, Bubba was the something unusual. ) Dogs are almost always frightened of vampires, though their reaction to Weres and shifters is more unpredictable.

  I found myself convinced I wanted nothing more than to go back to the car and leave. It was a conscious effort to make my feet move in the correct direction.

  "Yeah, I sure do," he whispered back. "Someone's been laying some spells. Stay-away magic. " I didn't know if the Wiccans on our side, or the witches on Hallow's, had been responsible for this pervasive piece of craft, but it was effective.

  The night seemed almost unnaturally silent. Maybe three cars passed us as we walked the maze of suburban streets. Bubba and I saw no other pedestrians, and the sense of ominous isolation grew. The stay-away intensified as we came closer to what we were supposed to stay away from.

  The darkness between the pools of light below the street-lamps seemed darker, and the light didn't seem to reach as far. When Bubba took my hand, I didn't pull away. My feet seemed to drag at each step.

  I'd caught a whiff of this smell before, at Fangtasia. Maybe the Were tracker had had an easier job than I'd thought.

  "We're there, Miss Sookie," Bubba said, his voice just a quiet thread in the night. We'd come around a corner. Since I knew there was a spell, and I knew I could keep walking, I did; but if I'd been a resident of the area, I would have found an alternative route, and I wouldn't have thought twice about it. The impulse to avoid this spot was so strong that I wondered if the people who lived on this block had been able to come home from their jobs. Maybe they were eating out, going to movies, drinking in bars - anything to avoid returning to their homes. Every house on the street looked suspiciously dark and untenanted.

  Across the road, and at the opposite end of the block, was the center of the magic.

  Hallow's coven had found a good place to hole up: a business up for lease, a large building that had held a combination florist shop-bakery. Minnie's Flowers and Cakes stood in a lonely position, the largest store in a strip of three that had, one by one, faded and gone out like flames on a candelabra. The building had apparently been empty for years. The big plate-glass windows were plastered with posters for events long past and political candidates long since defeated. Plywood nailed over the glass doors was proof that vandals had broken in more than once.

  Even in the winter chill, weeds pushed up through cracks in the parking area. A big Dumpster stood to the right side of the parking lot. I viewed it from across the street, getting as much of a picture of the outside as I could before closing my eyes to concentrate on my other senses. I took a moment to be rueful.

  If you'd asked me, I would've had a hard time tracing the steps that had led me to this dangerous place at this dangerous time. I was on the edges of a battle in which both sides were pretty dubious. If I'd fallen in with Hallow's witches first, I would probably have been convinced that the Weres and the vampires deserved to be eradicated.

  At this time a year ago, no one in the world really understood what I was, or cared. I was just Crazy Sookie, the one with the wild brother, a woman others pitied and avoided, to varying degrees. Now here I was, on a freezing street in Shreveport, gripping the hand of a vampire whose face was legendary and whose brain was mush. Was this betterment?

  And I was here not for amusement, or improvement, but to reconnoiter for a bunch of supernatural creatures, gathering information on a group of homicidal, blood-drinking, shape-changing witches.

  I sighed, I hoped inaudibly. Oh, well. At least no one had hit me.

  My eyes closed, and I dropped my shields and reached out with my mind to the building across the street.

  Brains, busy busy busy. I was startled at the bundle of impressions I was receiving. Maybe the absence of other humans in the vicinity, or the overwhelming pervasion of magic, was responsible; but some factor had sharpened my other sense to the point of pain. Almost stunned by the flow of information, I realized I had to sort through it and organize it. First, I counted brains. Not literally ("One temporal lobe, two temporal lobes. . . " ), but as a thought cluster. I came up with fifteen. Five were in the front room, which had been the showroom of the store, of course. One was in the smallest space, which was most likely the bathroom, and the rest were in the third and largest room, which lay to the rear. I figured it had been the work area.

  Everyone in the building was awake. A sleeping brain still gives me a low mumble of a thought or two, in dreaming, but it's not the same as a waking brain. It's like the difference between a dog twitching in its sleep and an alert puppy.

  To get as much information as possible, I had to get closer. I had never attempted to pick through a group to get details as specific as guilt or innocence, and I wasn't even sure that was possible. But if any of the people in the building were not evil witches, I didn't want them to be in the thick of what was to come.

  "Closer," I breathed to Bubba. "But under cover. "

  "Yes'm," he whispered back. "You gonna keep your eyes closed?"

  I nodded, and he led me very carefully across the street and into the shadow of the Dumpster that stood about five yards south of the building. I was glad it was cold, because that kept the garbage smell at an acceptable level. The ghosts of the scents of doughnuts and blossoms lay on top of the funk of spoiled things and old diapers that passersby had tossed into the handy receptacle. It didn't blend happily with the magic smell.

  I adjusted, blocked out the assault on my nose, and began listening. Though I'd gotten better at this, it was still like trying to hear twelve phone conversations at once. Some of them were Weres, too, which complicated matters. I could only get bits and pieces.

  . . . hope that's not
a vaginal infection I feel coming on. . .

  She won't listen to me, she doesn't think men can do the job.

  If I turned her into a toad, who could tell the difference?

  . . . wish we'd gotten some diet Coke. . .

  I'll find that damn vamp and kill him. . .

  Mother of the Earth, listen to my pleas.

  I'm in too deep. . .

  I better get a new nail file.

  This was not decisive, but no one had been thinking, "Oh, these demonic witches have trapped me, won't somebody help?" or "I hear the vampires approaching!" or anything dramatic like that. This sounded like a band of people who knew each other, were at least relaxed in each other's company, and therefore held the same goals. Even the one who was praying was not in any state of urgency or need. I hoped Hallow wouldn't sense the crush of my mind, but everyone I'd touched had seemed preoccupied.

  "Bubba," I said, just a little louder than a thought, "you go tell Pam there are fifteen people in there, and as far as I can tell, they're all witches. "

  "Yes'm. "

  "You remember how to get to Pam?"

  "Yes'm. "

  "So you can let go my hand, okay?"

  "Oh. Okay. "

  "Be silent and careful," I whispered.

  And he was gone. I crouched in the shadow that was darker than the night, beside the smells and cold metal, listening to the witches. Three brains were male, the rest female. Hallow was in there, because one of the women was looking at her and thinking of her. . . dreading her, which kind of made me uneasy. I wondered where they'd parked their cars - unless they flew around on broomsticks, ha ha. Then I wondered about something that should already have crossed my mind.

  If they were so darn wary and dangerous, where were their sentries?

  At that moment, I was seized from behind.
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