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Dead until dark, p.13
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       Dead Until Dark, p.13

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 
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  “Though I told Tolliver that God did not wish him to waste his life foolishly—that he had a wife and children praying for his safe return at home—Tolliver asked me to divert the enemy while he attempted the boy’s rescue. He ran out into the field like it was a spring day and he was well rested. And he got as far as the wounded boy. But then a shot rang out, and Tolliver fell dead. And, after a time, the boy began screaming for help again.”

  “What happened to him?” asked Mrs. Fortenberry, her voice as quiet as she could manage to make it.

  “He lived,” Bill said, and there was tone to his voice that sent shivers down my spine. “He survived the day, and we were able to retrieve him that night.”

  Somehow those people had come alive again as Bill spoke, and for the old man in the front row there was a memory to cherish, a memory that said much about his ancestor’s character.

  I don’t think anyone who’d come to the meeting that night was prepared for the impact of hearing about the Civil War from a survivor. They were enthralled; they were shattered.

  When Bill had answered the last question, there was thunderous applause, or at least it was as thunderous as forty people could make it. Even Sam, not Bill’s biggest fan, managed to put his hands together.

  Everyone wanted to have a personal word with Bill afterward except me and Sam. While the reluctant guest speaker was surrounded by Descendants, Sam and I sneaked out to Sam’s pickup. We went to the Crawdad Diner, a real dive that happened to have very good food. I wasn’t hungry, but Sam had key lime pie with his coffee.

  “That was interesting,” Sam said cautiously.

  “Bill’s speech? Yes,” I said, just as cautiously.

  “Do you have feelings for him?”

  After all the indirection, Sam had decided to storm the main gate.

  “Yes,” I said.

  “Sookie,” Sam said, “You have no future with him.”

  “On the other hand, he’s been around a while. I expect he’ll be around for a another few hundred years.”

  “You never know what’s going to happen to a vampire.”

  I couldn’t argue with that. But, as I pointed out to Sam, I couldn’t know what was going to happen to me, a human, either.

  We wrangled back and forth like this for too long. Finally, exasperated, I said, “What’s it to you, Sam?”

  His ruddy skin flushed. His bright blue eyes met mine. “I like you, Sookie. As friend or maybe something else sometime . . .”

  Huh?

  “I just hate to see you take a wrong turn.”

  I looked at him. I could feel my skeptical face forming, eyebrows drawn together, the corner of my mouth tugging up.

  “Sure,” I said, my voice matching my face.

  “I’ve always liked you.”

  “So much that you had to wait till someone else showed an interest, before you mentioned it to me?”

  “I deserve that.” He seemed to be turning something over in his mind, something he wanted to say, but hadn’t the resolution.

  Whatever it was, he couldn’t come out with it, apparently.

  “Let’s go,” I suggested. It would be hard to turn the conversation back to neutral ground, I figured. I might as well go home.

  It was a funny ride back. Sam always seemed on the verge of speaking, and then he’d shake his head and keep silent. I was so aggravated I wanted to swat him.

  We got home later than I’d thought. Gran’s light was on, but the rest of the house was dark. I didn’t see her car, so I figured she’d parked in back to unload the leftovers right into the kitchen. The porch light was on for me.

  Sam walked around and opened the pickup door, and I stepped down. But in the shadow, my foot missed the running board, and I just sort of tumbled out. Sam caught me. First his hands gripped my arms to steady me, then they just slid around me. And he kissed me.

  I assumed it was going to be a little good-night peck, but his mouth just kind of lingered. It was really more than pleasant, but suddenly my inner censor said, “This is the boss.”

  I gently disengaged. He was immediately aware that I was backing off, and gently slid his hands down my arms until he was just holding hands with me. We went to the door, not speaking.

  “I had a good time,” I said, softly. I didn’t want to wake Gran, and I didn’t want to sound bouncy.

  “I did, too. Again sometime?”

  “We’ll see,” I said. I really didn’t know how I felt about Sam.

  I waited to hear his truck turn around before I switched off the porch light and went into the house. I was unbuttoning my blouse as I walked, tired and ready for bed.

  Something was wrong.

  I stopped in the middle of the living room. I looked around me.

  Everything looked all right, didn’t it?

  Yes. Everything was in its proper place.

  It was the smell.

  It was a sort of penny smell.

  A coppery smell, sharp and salty.

  The smell of blood.

  It was down here with me, not upstairs where the guest bedrooms sat in neat solitude.

  “Gran?” I called. I hated the quavering in my voice.

  I made myself move, I made myself go to the door of her room. It was pristine. I began switching on lights as I went through the house.

  My room was just as I’d left it.

  The bathroom was empty.

  The washroom was empty.

  I switched on the last light. The kitchen was . . .

  I screamed, over and over. My hands were fluttering uselessly in the air, trembling more with each scream. I heard a crash behind me, but couldn’t be concerned. Then big hands gripped me and moved me, and a big body was between me and what I’d seen on the kitchen floor. I didn’t recognize Bill, but he picked me up and moved me to the living room where I couldn’t see any more.

  “Sookie,” he said harshly, “Shut up! This isn’t any good!”

  If he’d been kind to me, I’d have kept on shrieking.

  “Sorry,” I said, still out of my mind. “I am acting like that boy.”

  He stared at me blankly.

  “The one in your story,” I said numbly.

  “We have to call the police.”

  “Sure.”

  “We have to dial the phone.”

  “Wait. How did you come here?”

  “Your grandmother gave me a ride home, but I insisted on coming with her first and helping her unload the car.”

  “So why are you still here?”

  “I was waiting for you.”

  “So, did you see who killed her?”

  “No. I went home, across the cemetery, to change.”

  He was wearing blue jeans and Grateful Dead T-shirt, and suddenly I began to giggle.

  “That’s priceless,” I said, doubling over with the laughter.

  And I was crying, just as suddenly. I picked up the phone and dialled 911.

  Andy Bellefleur was there in five minutes.

  JASON CAME AS soon as I reached him. I tried to call him at four or five different places, and finally reached him at Merlotte’s. Terry Bellefleur was bartending for Sam that night, and when he’d gotten back from telling Jason to come to his grandmother’s house, I asked Terry if he’d call Sam and tell him I had troubles and couldn’t work for a few days.

  Terry must have called Sam right away because Sam was at my house within thirty minutes, still wearing the clothes he’d worn to the meeting that night. At the sight of him I looked down, remembering unbuttoning my blouse as I walked through the living room, a fact I’d completely lost track of; but I was decent. It dawned on me that Bill must have set me to rights. I might find that embarrassing later, but at the moment I was just grateful.

  So Jason came in, and when I told him Gran was dead, and dead by violence, he just looked at me. There seemed to be nothing going on behind his eyes. It was as if someone had erased his capacity for absorbing new facts. Then what I’d said sank in, and my brother san
k to his knees right where he stood, and I knelt in front of him. He put his arms around me and lay his head on my shoulder, and we just stayed there for a while. We were all that was left.

  Bill and Sam were out in the front yard sitting in lawn chairs, out of the way of the police. Soon Jason and I were asked to go out on the porch, at least, and we opted to sit outside, too. It was a mild evening, and I sat facing the house, all lit up like a birthday cake, and the people that came and went from it like ants who’d been allowed at the party. All this industry surrounding the tissue that had been my grandmother.

  “What happened?” Jason asked finally.

  “I came in from the meeting,” I said very slowly. “After Sam pulled off in his truck. I knew something was wrong. I looked in every room.” This was the story of How I Found Grandmother Dead, the official version. “And when I got to the kitchen I saw her.”

  Jason turned his head very slowly so his eyes met mine.

  “Tell me.”

  I shook my head silently. But it was his right to know. “She was beaten up, but she had tried to fight back, I think. Whoever did this cut her up some. And then strangled her, it looked like.”

  I could not even look at my brother’s face. “It was my fault.” My voice was nothing more than a whisper.

  “How do you figure that?” Jason said, sounding nothing more than dull and sluggish.

  “I figure someone came to kill me like they killed Maudette and Dawn, but Gran was here instead.”

  I could see the idea percolate in Jason’s brain.

  “I was supposed to be home tonight while she was at the meeting, but Sam asked me to go at the last minute. My car was here like it would be normally because we went in Sam’s truck. Gran had parked her car around back while she was unloading, so it wouldn’t look like she was here, just me. She had given Bill a ride home, but he helped her unload and went to change clothes. After he left, whoever it was . . . got her.”

  “How do we know it wasn’t Bill?” Jason asked, as though Bill wasn’t sitting right there beside him.

  “How do we know it wasn’t anyone?” I said, exasperated at my brother’s slow wits. “It could be anyone, anyone we know. I don’t think it was Bill. I don’t think Bill killed Maudette and Dawn. And I do think whoever killed Maudette and Dawn killed Grandmother.”

  “Did you know,” Jason said, his voice too loud, “that Grandmother left you this house all by yourself?”

  It was like he’d thrown a bucket of cold water in my face. I saw Sam wince, too. Bill’s eyes got darker and chillier.

  “No. I just always assumed you and I would share like we did on the other one.” Our parents’ house, the one Jason lived in now.

  “She left you all the land, too.”

  “Why are you saying this?” I was going to cry again, just when I’d been sure I was dry of tears now.

  “She wasn’t fair!” he was yelling. “It wasn’t fair, and now she can’t set it right!”

  I began to shake. Bill pulled me out of the chair and began walking with me up and down the yard. Sam sat in front of Jason and began talking to him earnestly, his voice low and intense.

  Bill’s arm was around me, but I couldn’t stop shaking.

  “Did he mean that?” I asked, not expecting Bill to answer.

  “No,” he said. I looked up, surprised.

  “No, he couldn’t help your grandmother, and he couldn’t handle the idea of someone lying in wait for you and killing her instead. So he had to get angry about something. And instead of getting angry with you for not getting killed, he’s angry about things. I wouldn’t let it worry me.”

  “I think it’s pretty amazing that you’re saying this,” I told him bluntly.

  “Oh, I took some night school courses in psychology,” said Bill Compton, vampire.

  And, I couldn’t help thinking, hunters always study their prey. “Why would Gran leave me all this, and not Jason?”

  “Maybe you’ll find out later,” he said, and that seemed fine to me.

  Then Andy Bellefleur came out of the house and stood on the steps, looking up at the sky as if there were clues written on it.

  “Compton,” he called sharply.

  “No,” I said, and my voice came out as a growl.

  I could feel Bill look down at me with the slight surprise that was a big reaction, coming from him.

  “Now it’s gonna happen,” I said furiously.

  “You were protecting me,” he said. “You thought the police would suspect me of killing those two women. That’s why you wanted to be sure they were accessible to other vampires. Now you think this Bellefleur will try to blame your grandmother’s death on me.”

  “Yes.”

  He took a deep breath. We were in the dark, by the trees that lined the yard. Andy bellowed Bill’s name again.

  “Sookie,” Bill said gently, “I am sure you were the intended victim, as sure as you are.”

  It was kind of a shock to hear someone else say it.

  “And I didn’t kill them. So if the killer was the same as their killer, then I didn’t do it, and he will see that. Even if he is a Bellefleur.”

  We began walking back into the light. I wanted none of this to be. I wanted the lights and the people to vanish, all of them, Bill, too. I wanted to be alone in the house with my grandmother, and I wanted her to look happy, as she had the last time I’d seen her.

  It was futile and childish, but I could wish it nonetheless. I was lost in that dream, so lost I didn’t see harm coming until it was too late.

  My brother, Jason, stepped in front of me and slapped me in the face.

  It was so unexpected and so painful that I lost my balance and staggered to the side, landing hard on one knee.

  Jason seemed to be coming after me again, but Bill was suddenly in front of me, crouched, and his fangs were out and he was scary as hell. Sam tackled Jason and brought him down, and he may have whacked Jason’s face against the ground once for good measure.

  Andy Bellefleur was stunned at this unexpected display of violence. But after a second he stepped in between our two little groups on the lawn. He looked at Bill and swallowed, but he said in a steady voice, “Compton, back off. He won’t hit her again.”

  Bill was taking deep breaths, trying to control his hunger for Jason’s blood. I couldn’t read his thoughts, but I could read his body language.

  I couldn’t exactly read Sam’s thoughts, but I could tell he was very angry.

  Jason was sobbing. His thoughts were a confused and tangled blue mess.

  And Andy Bellefleur didn’t like any of us and wished he could lock every freaking one of us up for some reason or another.

  I pushed myself wearily to my feet and touched the painful spot of my cheek, using that to distract me from the pain in my heart, the dreadful grief that rolled over me.

  I thought this night would never end.

  THE FUNERAL WAS the largest ever held in Renard Parish. The minister said so. Under a brilliant early summer sky, my grandmother was buried beside my mother and father in our family plot in the ancient cemetery between the Comptons’ house and Gran’s house.

  Jason had been right. It was my house, now. The house and the twenty acres surrounding it were mine, as were the mineral rights. Gran’s money, what there was, had been divided fairly between us, and Gran had stipulated that I give Jason my half of the home our parents had lived in, if I wanted to retain full rights to her house. That was easy to do, and I didn’t want any money from Jason for that half, though my lawyer looked dubious when I told him that. Jason would just blow his top if I mentioned paying me for my half; the fact that I was part-owner had never been more than a fantasy to him. Yet Gran leaving her house to me outright had come as a big shock. She had understood him better than I had.

  It was lucky I had income other than from the bar, I thought heavily, trying to concentrate on something besides her loss. Paying taxes on the land and house, plus the upkeep of the house, which Gran had
assumed at least partially, would really stretch my income.

  “I guess you’ll want to move,” Maxine Fortenberry said when she was cleaning the kitchen. Maxine had brought over devilled eggs and ham salad, and she was trying to be extra helpful by scrubbing.

  “No,” I said, surprised.

  “But honey, with it happening right here . . .” Maxine’s heavy face creased with concern.

  “I have far more good memories of this kitchen than bad ones,” I explained.

  “Oh, what a good way to look at it,” she said, surprised. “Sookie, you really are smarter than anyone gives you credit for being.”

  “Gosh, thanks, Mrs. Fortenberry,” I said, and if she heard the dry tone in my voice she didn’t react. Maybe that was wise.

  “Is your friend coming to the funeral?” The kitchen was very warm. Bulky, square Maxine was blotting her face with a dishtowel. The spot where Gran had fallen had been scrubbed by her friends, God bless them.

  “My friend. Oh, Bill? No, he can’t.”

  She looked at me blankly.

  “We’re having it in the daytime, of course.”

  She still didn’t comprehend.

  “He can’t come out.”

  “Oh, of course!” She gave herself a light tap on the temple to indicate she was knocking sense into her head. “Silly me. Would he really fry?”

  “Well, he says he would.”

  “You know, I’m so glad he gave that talk at the club, that has really made such a difference in making him part of the community.”

  I nodded, abstracted.

  “There’s really a lot of feeling about the murders, Sookie. There’s really a lot of talk about vampires, about how they’re responsible for these deaths.”

  I looked at her with narrowed eyes.

  “Don’t you go all mad on me, Sookie Stackhouse! Since Bill was so sweet about telling those fascinating stories at the Descendants meeting, most people don’t think he could do those awful things that were done to those women.” I wondered what stories were making the rounds, and I shuddered to think. “But he’s had some visitors that people didn’t much like the looks of.”

 
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