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Dead until dark, p.20
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       Dead Until Dark, p.20

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 
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  “Sookie, listen to Bruce.”

  I stood staring at Bruce for a second, waiting for him to speak, until I understood what Eric meant.

  “What exactly am I listening for?” I asked, knowing my voice was sharp.

  “Someone has embezzled about sixty thousand dollars from us,” Eric explained.

  Boy, somebody had a death wish.

  “And rather than put all our human employees to death or torture, we thought perhaps you would look into their minds and tell us who it was.”

  He said “death or torture” as calmly as I said, “Bud or Old Milwaukee.”

  “And then what will you do?” I asked.

  Eric seemed surprised.

  “Whoever it is will give our money back,” he said simply.

  “And then?”

  His big blue eyes narrowed as he stared at me.

  “Why, if we can produce proof of the crime, we’ll turn the culprit over to the police,” he said smoothly.

  Liar, liar, pants on fire. “I’ll make a deal, Eric,” I said, not bothering to smile. Winsome did not count with Eric, and he was far from any desire to jump my bones. At the moment.

  He smiled, indulgently. “What would that be, Sookie?”

  “If you really do turn the guilty person over to the police, I’ll do this for you again, whenever you want.”

  Eric cocked an eyebrow.

  “Yeah, I know I’d probably have to anyway. But isn’t it better if I come willing, if we have good faith with each other?” I broke into a sweat. I could not believe I was bargaining with a vampire.

  Eric actually seemed to be thinking that over. And suddenly, I was in his thoughts. He was thinking he could make me do what he wanted, anywhere, anytime, just by threatening Bill or some human I loved. But he wanted to mainstream, to keep as legal as he could, to keep his relations with humans aboveboard, or at least as aboveboard as vampire–human dealings could be. He didn’t want to kill anyone if he didn’t have to.

  It was like suddenly being plunged into a pit of snakes, cold snakes, lethal snakes. It was only a flash, a slice of his mind, sort of, but it left me facing a whole new reality.

  “Besides,” I said quickly, before he could see I’d been inside his head, “how sure are you that the thief is a human?”

  Pam and Long Shadow both moved suddenly, but Eric flooded the room with his presence, commanding them to be still.

  “That’s an interesting idea,” he said. “Pam and Long Shadow are my partners in this bar, and if none of the humans is guilty, I guess we’ll have to look at them.”

  “Just a thought,” I said meekly, and Eric looked at me with the glacial blue eyes of a being who hardly remembers what humanity was like.

  “Start now, with this man,” he commanded.

  I knelt by Bruce’s chair, trying to decide how to proceed. I’d never tried to formalize something that was pretty chancy. Touching would help; direct contact clarified the transmission, so to speak. I took Bruce’s hand, found that too personal (and too sweaty) and pushed back his coat cuff. I took hold of his wrist. I looked into his small eyes.

  I didn’t take the money, who took it, what crazy fool would put us in danger like this, what will Lillian do if they kill me, and Bobby and Heather, why did I work for vampires anyway, it’s sheer greed, and I’m paying for it, God I’ll never work for these things again how can this crazy woman find out who took the fucking money why doesn’t she let go of me what is she is she a vampire, too, or some kind of demon her eyes are so strange I should have found out earlier that the money was missing and found out who took it before I even said anything to Eric . . .

  “Did you take the money?” I breathed, though I was sure I already knew the answer.

  “No,” Bruce groaned, sweat running down his face, and his thoughts, his reaction to the question, confirmed what I’d heard already.

  “Do you know who did?”

  “I wish.”

  I stood, turned to Eric, shook my head. “Not this guy,” I said.

  Pam escorted poor Bruce out, brought the next interrogee.

  My subject was a barmaid, dressed in trailing black with lots of cleavage on display, her ragged strawberry blond hair straggling down her back. Of course, working at Fangtasia would be a dream job for a fang-banger, and this gal had the scars to prove she enjoyed her perks. She was confident enough to grin at Eric, foolish enough to take the wooden chair with some confidence, even crossing her legs like Sharon Stone—she hoped. She was surprised to see a strange vampire and a new woman in the room, and not pleased by my presence, though Bill made her lick her lips.

  “Hey, sweetie,” she said to Eric, and I decided she must have no imagination at all.

  “Ginger, answer this woman’s questions,” Eric said. His voice was like a stone wall, flat and implacable.

  Ginger seemed to understand for the first time that this was a time to be serious. She crossed her ankles this time, sat with her hands on the tops of her thighs, and assumed a stern face. “Yes, master,” she said, and I thought I was going to barf.

  She waved an imperious hand at me, as if to say, “Begin, fellow vampire server.” I reached down for her wrist, and she flung my hand away. “Don’t touch me,” she said, almost hissing.

  It was such an extreme reaction that the vampires tensed up, and I could feel that crackling the air in the room.

  “Pam, hold Ginger still,” Eric commanded, and Pam appeared silently behind Ginger’s chair, leaning over and putting her hands on Ginger’s upper arms. You could tell Ginger struggled some because her head moved around, but Pam held her upper body in a grip that kept the girl’s body absolutely immobile.

  My fingers circled her wrist. “Did you take the money?” I asked, staring into Ginger’s flat brown eyes.

  She screamed, then, long and loud. She began to curse me. I listened to the chaos in the girl’s tiny brain. It was like trying to walk over a bombed site.

  “She knows who did,” I said to Eric. Ginger fell silent then, though she was sobbing. “She can’t say the name,” I told the blond vampire. “He has bitten her.” I touched the scars on Ginger’s neck as if that needed more illustration. “It’s some kind of compulsion,” I reported, after I’d tried again. “She can’t even picture him.”

  “Hypnosis,” Pam commented. Her proximity to the frightened girl had made Pam’s fangs run out. “A strong vampire.”

  “Bring in her closest friend,” I suggested.

  Ginger was shaking like a leaf by then with thoughts she was compelled not to think pressing her from their locked closet.

  “Should she stay, or go?” Pam asked me directly.

  “She should go. It’ll only scare someone else.”

  I was so into this, so into openly using my strange ability, that I didn’t look at Bill. I felt that somehow if I looked at him, it would weaken me. I knew where he was, that he and Long Shadow had not moved since the questioning had begun.

  Pam hauled the trembling Ginger away. I don’t know what she did with the barmaid, but she came returned with another waitress in the same kind of clothes. This woman’s name was Belinda, and she was older and wiser. Belinda had brown hair, glasses, and the sexiest pouting mouth I’d ever seen.

  “Belinda, what vampire has Ginger been seeing?” Eric asked smoothly once Belinda was seated, and I was touching her. The waitress had enough sense to accept the process quietly, enough intelligence to realize she had to be honest.

  “Anyone that would have her,” Belinda said bluntly.

  I saw an image in Belinda’s mind, but she had to think the name.

  “Which one from here?” I asked suddenly, and then I had the name. My eyes sought his corner before I could open my mouth, and then he was on me, Long Shadow, vaulting over the chair holding Belinda to land on top of me as I crouched in front of her. I was bowled over backward into Eric’s desk, and only my upflung arms saved me from his teeth sinking into my throat and ripping it out. He bit my forearm savagely
, and I screamed; at least I tried to, but with so little air left from the impact it was more like an alarmed choking noise.

  I was only conscious of the heavy figure on top of me and the pain of my arm, my own fear. I hadn’t been frightened that the Rats were going to kill me until almost too late, but I understood that to keep his name from leaving my lips, Long Shadow was ready to kill me instantly, and when I heard the awful noise and felt his body press even harder on me I didn’t have any idea what it meant. I’d been able to see his eyes over the top of my arm. They were wide, brown, crazed, icy. Suddenly they dulled and seemed to almost flatten. Blood gushed out of Long Shadow’s mouth, bathing my arm. It flowed into my open mouth, and I gagged. His teeth relaxed, and his face fell in on itself. It began to wrinkle. His eyes turned into gelatinous pools. Handfuls of his thick black hair fell on my face.

  I was shocked beyond moving. Hands gripped my shoulders and began pulling me out from under the decaying corpse. I pushed with my feet to scrabble back faster.

  There wasn’t an odor, but there was gunk, black and streaky, and the absolute horror and disgust of watching Long Shadow deconstruct with incredible speed. There was a stake sticking out of his back. Eric stood watching, as we all were, but he had a mallet in his hand. Bill was behind me, having pulled me out from under Long Shadow. Pam was standing by the door, her hand gripping Belinda’s arm. The waitress looked as rocky as I must have.

  Even the gunk began to vanish in smoke. We all stood frozen until the last wisp was gone. The carpet had a kind of scorched mark on it.

  “You’ll have to get you an area rug,” I said, completely out of the blue. Honest to God, I couldn’t stand the silence any more.

  “Your mouth is bloody,” Eric said. All the vampires had fully extended fangs. They’d gotten pretty excited.

  “He bled onto me.”

  “Did any go down your throat?”

  “Probably. What does that mean?”

  “That remains to be seen,” Pam said. Her voice was dark and husky. She was eyeing Belinda in a way that would have made me distinctly nervous, but Belinda seemed to be preening, incredibly. “Usually,” Pam went on, her eyes on Belinda’s pouty lips, “we drink from humans, not the other way around.”

  Eric was looking at me with interest, the same kind of interest that Pam had in Belinda. “How do things look to you now, Sookie?” he asked in such a smooth voice you’d never think he’d just executed an old friend.

  How did things look to me now? Brighter. Sounds were clearer, and I could hear better. I wanted to turn and look at Bill, but I was scared to take my eyes off Eric.

  “Well, I guess Bill and me’ll go now,” I said, as if no other process was possible. “I did that for you, Eric, and now we get to go. No retaliation for Ginger and Belinda and Bruce, okay? We agreed.” I started toward the door with an assurance I was far from feeling. “I’ll just bet you need to go see how the bar is doing, huh? Who’s mixing the drinks, tonight?”

  “We got a substitute,” Eric said absently, his eyes never leaving my neck. “You smell different, Sookie,” he murmured, taking a step closer.

  “Well, remember now, Eric, we had a deal,” I reminded him, my smile broad and tense, my voice snapping with good cheer. “Bill and I are going home now, aren’t we?” I risked a glance behind me at Bill. My heart sank. His eyes were open wide, unblinking, his lips drawn back in a silent snarl to expose his extended fangs. His pupils were dilated enormously. He was staring at Eric.

  “Pam, get out of the way,” I said, quietly but sharply. Once Pam was distracted from her own blood lust, she evaluated the situation in one glance. She swung open the office door and propelled Belinda through it, stood beside it to usher us out. “Call Ginger,” I suggested, and the sense of what I was saying penetrated Pam’s fog of desire. “Ginger,” she called hoarsely, and the blond girl stumbled from a door down the hall. “Eric wants you,” Pam told her. Ginger’s face lit up like she had a date with David Duchovny, and she was in the room and rubbing against Eric almost as fast as a vampire could have. As if he’d woken from a spell, Eric looked down at Ginger when she ran her hands up his chest. As he bent to kiss her, Eric looked at me over her head. “I’ll see you again,” he said, and I pulled Bill out the door as quick as a wink. Bill didn’t want to go. It was like trying to tow a log. But once we were out in the hall he seemed to be a little more aware of the need to get out of there, and we hurried from Fangtasia and got into Bill’s car.

  I looked down at myself. I was bloodstained and wrinkled, and I smelled funny. Yuck. I looked over at Bill to share my disgust with him, but he was looking at me in an unmistakable way.

  “No,” I said forcefully. “You start this car and get out of here before anything else happens, Bill Compton. I tell you flat, I’m not in the mood.”

  He scooted across the seat toward me, his arms scooping me up before I could say anything else. Then his mouth was on mine, and after a second his tongue began licking the blood from my face.

  I was really scared. I was also really angry. I grabbed his ears and pulled his head away from mine using every ounce of strength I possessed, which happened to be more than I thought I had.

  His eyes were still like caves with ghosts dwelling in their depths.

  “Bill!” I shrieked. I shook him. “Snap out of it!”

  Slowly, his personality seeped back into his eyes. He drew a shuddering sigh. He kissed me lightly on the lips.

  “Okay, can we go home now?” I asked, ashamed that my voice was so quavery.

  “Sure,” he said, sounding none too steady himself.

  “Was that like sharks scenting blood?” I asked, after a fifteen-minute silent drive that almost had us out of Shreveport.

  “Good analogy.”

  He didn’t need to apologize. He’d been doing what nature dictated, as least as natural as vampires got. He didn’t bother to. I would kind of liked to have heard an apology.

  “So, am I in trouble?” I asked finally. It was two in the morning, and I found the question didn’t bother me as much as it should have.

  “Eric will hold you to your word,” Bill said. “As to whether he will leave you alone personally, I don’t know. I wish . . .” but his voice trailed off. It was the first time I’d heard Bill wish for anything.

  “Sixty thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money to a vampire, surely,” I observed. “You all seem to have plenty of money.”

  “Vampires rob their victims, of course,” Bill said matter-of-factly. “Early on, we take the money from the corpse. Later, when we’re more experienced, we can exert enough control to persuade a human to give us money willingly, then forget it’s been done. Some of us hire money managers, some of us go into real estate, some of us live on the interest from our investments. Eric and Pam went in together on the bar. Eric put up most of the money, Pam the rest. They had known Long Shadow for a hundred years, and they hired him to be bartender. He betrayed them.”

  “Why would he steal from them?”

  “He must have had some venture he needed the capital for,” Bill said absently. “And he was in a mainstreaming position. He couldn’t just go out and kill a bank manager after hypnotizing him and persuading the man to give him the money. So he took it from Eric.”

  “Wouldn’t Eric have loaned it to him?”

  “If Long Shadow hadn’t been too proud to ask, yes,” Bill said.

  We had another long silence. Finally I said, “I always think of vampires as smarter than humans, but they’re not, huh?”

  “Not always,” he agreed.

  When we reached the outskirts of Bon Temps, I asked Bill to drop me off at home. He looked sideways at me, but didn’t say anything. Maybe vampires were smarter than humans, after all.

  Chapter 10

  THE NEXT DAY, when I was getting ready for work, I realized I was definitely off vampires for a while. Even Bill.

  I was ready to remind myself I was a human.

  The trouble was, I had to not
ice that I was a changed human.

  It wasn’t anything major. After the first infusion of Bill’s blood on the night the Rats had beaten me, I’d felt healed, healthy, stronger. But not markedly different. Maybe more—well, sexier.

  After my second draft of Bill’s blood, I’d felt really strong, and I’d been braver because I’d had more confidence. I felt more secure in my sexuality and its power. It seemed apparent I was handling my disability with more aplomb and capability.

  I’d had Long Shadow’s blood by accident. The next morning, looking in the mirror, my teeth were whiter and sharper. My hair looked lighter and livelier, and my eyes were brighter. I looked like a poster girl for good hygiene, or some healthy cause like taking vitamins or drinking milk. The savage bite on my arm (Long Shadow’s last bite on this earth, I realized) was not completely healed, but it was well on its way.

  Then my purse spilled as I picked it up, and my change rolled under the couch. I held up the end of the couch with one hand while with the other I retrieved the coins.

  Whoa.

  I straightened and took a deep breath. At least the sunlight didn’t hurt my eyes, and I didn’t want to bite everyone I saw. I’d enjoyed my breakfast toast, rather than longing for tomato juice. I wasn’t turning into a vampire. Maybe I was sort of an enhanced human?

  Life had sure been simpler when I hadn’t dated.

  When I got to Merlotte’s, everything was ready except for slicing the lemons and limes. We served the fruit both with mixed drinks and with tea, and I got out the cutting board and a sharp knife. Lafayette was tying on his apron as I got the lemons from the big refrigerator.

  “You highlighted your hair, Sookie?”

  I shook my head. Under the enveloping white apron, Lafayette was a symphony of color; he was wearing a fuschia thin-strap tee, dark purple jeans, red thong sandals, and he had sort of raspberry eye shadow on.

  “It sure looks lighter,” he said skeptically, raising his own plucked brows.

 
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