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Dead until dark, p.17
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       Dead Until Dark, p.17

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 
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  “I know you’ll—feed on someone else besides me.” I was trying very hard to keep my voice level. “Please, not anyone here, not anyone I have to see. I couldn’t bear it. It’s not fair of me to ask, but I’m asking.”

  “If you won’t date anyone else, won’t bed anyone else.”

  “I won’t.” That seemed an easy enough promise to make.

  “Will you mind if I come into the bar?”

  “No. I’m not telling anyone we’re apart. I’m not talking about it.”

  He leaned over, I could feel the pressure on my arm as his body pressed against it.

  “Kiss me,” he said.

  I lifted my head and turned, and our lips met. It was blue fire, not orange-and-red flames, not that kind of heat: blue fire. After a second, his arms went around me. After another, my arms went around him. I began to feel boneless, limp. With a gasp, I pulled away.

  “Oh, we can’t, Bill.”

  I heard his breath draw in. “Of course not, if we’re separating,” he said quietly, but he didn’t sound like he thought I meant it. “We should definitely not be kissing. Still less should I want to throw you back on the porch and fuck you till you faint.”

  My knees were actually shaking. His deliberately crude language, coming out in that cold sweet voice, made the longing inside me surge even higher. It took everything I had, every little scrap of self-control, to push myself up and go in the house.

  But I did it.

  IN THE FOLLOWING week, I began to craft a life without Gran and without Bill. I worked nights and worked hard. I was extra careful, for the first time in my life, about locks and security. There was a murderer out there, and I no longer had my powerful protector. I considered getting a dog, but couldn’t decide what kind I wanted. My cat, Tina, was only protection in the sense that she always reacted when someone came very near the house.

  I got calls from Gran’s lawyer from time to time, informing me about the progress of winding up her estate. I got calls from Bartlett’s lawyer. My great-uncle had left me twenty thousand dollars, a great sum for him. I almost turned down the legacy. But I thought again. I gave the money to the local mental health center, earmarking it for the treatment of children who were victims of molestation and rape.

  They were glad to get it.

  I took vitamins, loads of them, because I was a little anemic. I drank lots of fluids and ate lots of protein.

  And I ate as much garlic as I wanted, something Bill hadn’t been able to tolerate. He said it came out through my pores, even, when I had garlic bread with spaghetti and meat sauce one night.

  I slept and slept and slept. Staying up nights after a work shift had me rest-deprived.

  After three days I felt restored, physically. In fact, it seemed to me that I was a little stronger than I had been.

  I began to take in what was happening around me.

  The first thing I noticed was that local folks were really pissed off at the vampires who nested in Monroe. Diane, Liam, and Malcolm had been touring bars in the area, apparently trying to make it impossible for other vampires who wanted to mainstream. They’d been behaving outrageously, offensively. The three vampires made the escapades of the Louisiana Tech students look bland.

  They didn’t seem to ever imagine they were endangering themselves. The freedom of being out of the coffin had gone to their heads. The right to legally exist had withdrawn all their constraints, all their prudence and caution. Malcolm nipped at a bartender in Bogaloosas. Diane danced naked in Farmerville. Liam dated an underage girl in Shongaloo, and her mother, too. He took blood from both. He didn’t erase the memory of either.

  Rene was talking to Mike Spencer, the funeral director, in Merlotte’s one Thursday night, and they hushed when I got near. Naturally, that caught my attention. So I read Mike’s mind. A group of local men were thinking of burning out the Monroe vampires.

  I didn’t know what to do. The three were, if not exactly friends of Bill, at least sort of coreligionists. But I loathed Malcolm, Diane, and Liam just as much as anyone else. On the other hand; and boy—there always was another hand, wasn’t there?—it just went against my grain to know ahead of the fact about premeditated murders and just sit on my hands.

  Maybe this was all liquor talking. Just to check, I dipped into the minds of the people around me. To my dismay, many of them were thinking about torching the vampire’s nest. But I couldn’t track down the origin of the idea. It felt as though the poison had flowed from one mind and infected others.

  There wasn’t any proof, any proof at all, that Maudette and Dawn and my grandmother had been killed by a vampire. In fact, rumor had it that the coroner’s report might show evidence against that. But the three vampires were behaving in such a way that people wanted to blame them for something, wanted to get rid of them, and since Maudette and Dawn were both vampire-bitten and habitues of vampire bars, well, folks just cobbled that together to pound out a conviction.

  Bill came in the seventh night I’d been alone. He appeared at his table quite suddenly. He wasn’t by himself. There was a boy with him, a boy who looked maybe fifteen. He was a vampire, too.

  “Sookie, this is Harlen Ives from Minneapolis,” Bill said, as if this were an ordinary introduction.

  “Harlen,” I said, and nodded. “Pleased to meet you.”

  “Sookie.” He bobbed his head at me, too.

  “Harlen is in transit from Minnesota to New Orleans,” Bill said, sounding positively chatty.

  “I’m going on vacation,” Harlen said. “I’ve been wanting to visit New Orleans for years. It’s just a mecca for us, you know.”

  “Oh . . . right,” I said, trying to sound matter of fact.

  “There’s this number you can call,” Harlen informed me. “You can stay with an actual resident, or you can rent a . . .”

  “Coffin?” I asked brightly.

  “Well, yes.”

  “How nice for you,” I said, smiling for all I was worth. “What can I get you? I believe Sam has restocked the blood, Bill, if you’d like some? It’s flavored A neg, or we’ve got the O positive.”

  “Oh, A negative, I think,” Bill said, after he and Harlen had a silent communication.

  “Coming right up!” I stomped back to the cooler behind the bar and pulled out two A neg’s, popped the tops, and carted them back on a tray. I smiled the whole time, just like I used to.

  “Are you all right, Sookie?” Bill asked in a more natural voice after I’d plonked their drinks down in front of them.

  “Of course, Bill,” I said cheerily. I wanted to break the bottle over Bill’s head. Harlen, indeed. Overnight stay. Right.

  “Harlen would like to drive over to visit Malcolm, later,” Bill said, when I came to take the empties and ask if they wanted a refill.

  “I’m sure Malcolm would love to meet Harlen,” I said, trying not to sound as bitchy as I felt.

  “Oh, meeting Bill has just been super,” Harlen said, smiling at me, showing fangs. Harlen knew how to do bitch, all right. “But Malcolm is absolutely a legend.”

  “Watch out,” I said to Bill. I wanted to tell him how much peril the three nesting vampires had put themselves into, but I didn’t think it’d come to a head just yet. And I didn’t want to spell it out because Harlen was sitting there, batting his baby blues at me and looking like a teen sex symbol. “Nobody’s too happy with those three, right now,” I added, after a moment. It was not an effectual warning.

  Bill just looked at me, puzzled, and I spun on my heel and walked away.

  I came to regret that moment, regret it bitterly.

  AFTER BILL AND Harlen had left, the bar buzzed even harder with the kind of talk I’d heard from Rene and Mike Spencer. It seemed to me like someone had been lighting fire, keeping the anger level stoked up. But for the life of me I couldn’t discover who it was, though I did some random listening, both mental and physical. Jason came into the bar, and we said hello, but not much more. He hadn’t forgiven me for my reaction t
o Uncle Bartlett’s death.

  He’d get over it. At least he wasn’t thinking about burning anything, except maybe creating some heat in Liz Barrett’s bed. Liz, even younger than me, had curly short brown hair and big brown eyes and an unexpectedly no-nonsense air about her that made me think Jason might have met his match. After I’d said good-bye to them after their pitcher of beer was empty, I realized that the anger level in the bar had escalated, that the men were really serious about doing something.

  I began to be more than anxious.

  As the evening wore on, the activity in the bar grew more and more frenetic. Less women, more men. More table-hopping. More drinking. Men were standing, instead of sitting. It was hard to pin down, since there wasn’t any big meeting, really. It was by word-of-mouth, whispered from ear to ear. No one jumped on the bar and screamed, “Whatta ya say, boys? Are we gonna put up with those monsters in our midst? To the castle!” or anything like that. It was just that, after a time, they all began drifting out, standing in huddled groups out in the parking lot. I looked out one of the windows at them, shaking my head. This wasn’t good.

  Sam was uneasy, too.

  “What do you think?” I asked him, and I realized this was the first time I’d spoken to him all evening, other than “Pass the pitcher,” or “Give me another margarita.”

  “I think we’ve got a mob,” he said. “But they’ll hardly go over to Monroe now. The vampires’ll be up and about until dawn.”

  “Where is their house, Sam?”

  “I understand it’s on the outskirts of Monroe on the west side—in other words, closest to us,” he told me. “I don’t know for sure.”

  I drove home after closing, half hoping I’d see Bill lurking in my driveway so I could tell him what was afoot.

  But I didn’t see him, and I wouldn’t go to his house. After a long hesitation, I dialed his number, but got only his answering machine. I left a message. I had no idea what the three nesting vampires’ phone was listed under, if they had a phone at all.

  As I pulled off my shoes and removed my jewelry—all silver, take that, Bill!—I remember worrying, but I wasn’t worrying enough. I went to bed and quickly to sleep in the bedroom that was now mine. The moonlight streamed in the open shades, making strange shadows on the floor. But I only stared at them for a few minutes. Bill didn’t wake me that night, returning my call.

  * * *

  BUT THE PHONE did ring, early in the morning, after daylight.

  “What?” I asked, dazed, the receiver pressed to my ear. I peered at the clock. It was seven-thirty.

  “They burned the vampires’ house,” Jason said. “I hope yours wasn’t in it.”

  “What?” I asked again, but my voice was panicked now.

  “They burned the vampires’ house outside of Monroe. After sunrise. It’s on Callista Street, west of Archer.”

  I remembered Bill saying he might take Harlen over there. Had he stayed?

  “No.” I said it definitely.

  “Yes.”

  “I have to go,” I said, hanging up the phone.

  IT SMOLDED IN the bright sunlight. Wisps of smoke trailed up into the blue sky. Charred wood looked like alligator skin. Fire trucks and law enforcement cars were parked helter-skelter on the lawn of the two-story house. A group of the curious stood behind yellow tape.

  The remains of four coffins sat side by side on the scorched grass. There was a body bag, too. I began to walk toward them, but for the longest time they seemed to be no closer; it was like one of those dreams where you can never reach your goal.

  Someone grabbed my arm and tried to stop me. I can’t remember what I said, but I remember a horrified face. I trudged on through the debris, inhaling the smell of burned things, wet charred things, a smell that wouldn’t leave me the rest of my life.

  I reached the first coffin and looked in. What was left of the lid was open to the light. The sun was coming up; any moment now it would kiss the dreadful thing resting on soggy, white silk lining.

  Was it Bill? There was no way to tell. The corpse was disintegrating bit by bit even as I watched. Tiny fragments flaked off and blew into the breeze, or disappeared in a tiny puff of smoke where the sun’s rays began to touch the body.

  Each coffin held a similar horror.

  Sam was standing by me.

  “Can you call this murder, Sam?”

  He shook his head. “I just don’t know, Sookie. Legally, killing the vampires is murder. But you’d have to prove arson first, though I don’t think that’d be very hard.” We could both smell gasoline. There were men buzzing around the house, climbing here and there, yelling to each other. It didn’t appear to me that these men were conducting any serious crime-scene investigation.

  “But this body here, Sookie.” Sam pointed to the body bag on the grass. “This was a real human, and they have to investigate. I don’t think any member of that mob ever realized there might be a human in there, ever considered anything besides what they did.”

  “So why are you here, Sam?”

  “For you,” he said simply.

  “I won’t know if it’s Bill all day, Sam.”

  “Yes, I know.”

  “What am I supposed to do all day? How can I wait?”

  “Maybe some drugs,” he suggested. “What about sleeping pills or something?”

  “I don’t have anything like that,” I said. “I’ve never had trouble sleeping.”

  This conversation was getting odder and odder, but I don’t think I could have said anything else.

  A big man was in front of me, the local law. He was sweating in the morning heat, and he looked like he’d been up for hours. Maybe he’d been on the night shift and had to stay on when the fire started.

  When men I knew had started the fire.

  “Did you know these people, miss?”

  “Yes, I did. I’d met them.”

  “Can you identify the remains?”

  “Who could identify that?” I asked incredulously.

  The bodies were almost gone now, featureless and disintegrating.

  He looked sick. “Yes, ma’am. But the person.”

  “I’ll look,” I said before I had time to think. The habit of being helpful was mighty hard to break.

  As if he could tell I was about to change my mind, the big man knelt on the singed grass and unzipped the bag. The sooty face inside was that of a girl I’d never met. I thanked God.

  “I don’t know her,” I said, and felt my knees give. Sam caught me before I was on the ground, and I had to lean against him.

  “Poor girl,” I whispered. “Sam, I don’t know what to do.”

  The law took part of my time that day. They wanted to know everything I knew about the vampires who had owned the house, and I told them, but it didn’t amount to much. Malcolm, Diane, Liam. Where they’d come from, their age, why they’d settled in Monroe, who their lawyers were; how would I know anything like that? I’d never even been to their house before.

  When my questioner, whoever he was, found out that I’d met them through Bill, he wanted to know where Bill was, how he could contact him.

  “He may be right there,” I said, pointing to the fourth coffin. “I won’t know till dark.” My hand rose of its own volition and covered my mouth.

  Just then one of the firemen started to laugh, and his companion, too. “Southern fried vampires!” the shorter one hooted to the man who was questioning me. “We got us some Southern fried vampires here!”

  He didn’t think it was so damn funny when I kicked him. Sam pulled me off and the man who’d been questioning me grabbed the fireman I’d attacked. I was screaming like a banshee and would have gone for him again if Sam had let go.

  But he didn’t. He dragged me toward my car, his hands just as strong as bands of iron. I had a sudden vision of how ashamed my grandmother would have been to see me screaming at a public servant, to see me physically attack someone. The idea pricked my crazy hostility like a needle puncturing a ba
lloon. I let Sam shove me into the passenger’s seat, and when he started the car and began backing away, I let him drive me home while I sat in utter silence.

  We got to my house all too soon. It was only ten o’clock in the morning. Since it was daylight savings time I had at least ten plus hours to wait.

  Sam made some phone calls while I sat on the couch staring ahead of me. Five minutes had passed when he came back into the living room.

  “Come on, Sookie,” he said briskly. “These blinds are filthy.”

  “What?”

  “The blinds. How could you have let them go like this?”

  “What?”

  “We’re going to clean. Get a bucket and some ammonia and some rags. Make some coffee.”

  Moving slowly and cautiously, afraid I might dry up and blow away like the bodies in the coffins, I did as he bid me.

  Sam had the curtains down on the living-room windows by the time I got back with the bucket and rags.

  “Where’s the washing machine?”

  “Back there, off the kitchen,” I said, pointing.

  Sam went back to the washroom with an armful of curtains. Gran had washed those not a month ago, for Bill’s visit. I didn’t say a word.

  I lowered one of the blinds, closed it, and began washing. When the blinds were clean, we polished the windows themselves. It began raining about the middle of the morning. We couldn’t get the outside. Sam got the long-handled dust mop and got the spider webs out of the corners of the high ceiling, and I wiped down the baseboards. He took down the mirror over the mantel, dusted the parts that we couldn’t normally reach, and then we cleaned the mirror and rehung it. I cleaned the old marble fireplace till there wasn’t a trace of winter’s fire left. I got a pretty screen and put it over the fireplace, one painted with magnolia blossoms. I cleaned the television screen and had Sam lift it so I could dust underneath. I put all the movies back in their own boxes and labeled what I’d taped. I took all the cushions off the couch and vacuumed up the debris that had collected beneath them, finding a dollar and five cents in change. I vacuumed the carpet and used the dust mop on the wood floors.

  We moved into the dining room and polished everything that could be polished. When the wood of the table and chairs was gleaming, Sam asked me how long it’d been since I’d done Gran’s silver.

 
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