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Dead until dark, p.21
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       Dead Until Dark, p.21

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 
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  “I’ve been out in the sun a lot,” I assured him. Dawn had never gotten along with Lafayette, whether because he was black or because he was gay, I didn’t know . . . maybe both. Arlene and Charlsie just accepted the cook, but didn’t go out of their ways to be friendly. But I’d always kind of liked Lafayette because he conducted what had to be a tough life with verve and grace.

  I looked down at the cutting board. All the lemons had been quartered. All the limes had been sliced. My hand was holding the knife, and it was wet with juices. I had done it without knowing it. In about thirty seconds. I closed my eyes. My God.

  When I opened them, Lafayette was staring from my face to my hands.

  “Tell me I didn’t just see that, girlfriend,” he suggested.

  “You didn’t,” I said. My voice was cool and level, I was surprised to note. “Excuse me, I got to put these away.” I put the fruit in separate containers in the big cooler behind the bar where Sam kept the beer. When I shut the door, Sam was standing there, his arms crossed across his chest. He didn’t look happy.

  “Are you all right?” he asked. His bright blue eyes scanned me up and down. “You do something to your hair?” he said uncertainly.

  I laughed. I realized that my guard had slid into place easily, that it didn’t have to be a painful process. “Been out in the sun,” I said.

  “What happened to your arm?”

  I looked down at my right forearm. I’d covered the bite with a bandage.

  “Dog bit me.”

  “Had it had its shots?”

  “Sure.”

  I looked up at Sam, not too far, and it seemed to me his wiry, curly, red-blond hair snapped with energy. It seemed to me I could hear his heart beating. I could feel his uncertainly, his desire. My body responded instantly. I focussed on his thin lips, and the rich smell of his aftershave filled my lungs. He moved two inches closer. I could feel the breath going in and out of his lungs. I knew his penis was stiffening.

  Then Charlsie Tooten came in the front door and slammed it behind her. We both took a step away from each other. Thank God for Charlsie, I thought. Plump, dumb, good-natured, and hardworking, Charlsie was a dream employee. Married to Ralph, her high school sweetheart, who worked at one of the chicken processing plants, Charlsie had a girl in the eleventh grade and a married daughter. Charlsie loved to work at the bar so she could get out and see people, and she had a knack for dealing with drunks that got them out the door without a fight.

  “Hi, you two!” she called cheerfully. Her dark brown hair (L’Oreal, Lafayette said) was pulled back dramatically to hang from the crown of her head in a cascade of ringlets. Her blouse was spotless and the pockets of her shorts gaped since the contents were too packed. Charlsie was wearing sheer black support hose and Keds, and her artificial nails were a sort of burgundy red.

  “That girl of mine is expecting. Just call me Grandma!” she said, and I could tell Charlsie was happy as a clam. I gave her the expected hug, and Sam patted her on the shoulder. We were both glad to see her.

  “When is the baby due?” I asked, and Charlsie was off and running. I didn’t have to say anything for the next five minutes. Then Arlene trailed in, makeup inexpertly covering the hickeys on her neck, and she listened to everything all over again. Once my eyes met Sam’s, and after a little moment, we looked away simultaneously.

  Then we began serving the lunchtime crowd, and the incident was over.

  Most people didn’t drink much at lunchtime, maybe a beer or a glass of wine. A hefty proportion just had iced tea or water. The lunch crowd consisted of people who happened to be close to Merlotte’s when the lunch hour came, people who were regulars and thought of it naturally, and the local alcoholics for whom their lunchtime drink was maybe the third or fourth. As I began to take orders, I remembered my brother’s plea.

  I listened in all day, and it was gruelling. I’d never spent the day listening; I’d never let my guard down for so long. Maybe it wasn’t as painful as it had been; maybe I felt cooler about what I was hearing. Sheriff Bud Dearborn was sitting at a table with the mayor, my grandmother’s friend Sterling Norris. Mr. Norris patted me on the shoulder, standing up to do so, and I realized it was the first time I’d seen him since Gran’s funeral.

  “How are you doing, Sookie?” he asked in a sympathetic voice. He was looking poorly, himself.

  “Just great, Mr. Norris. Yourself?”

  “I’m an old man, Sookie,” he said with an uncertain smile. He didn’t even wait for me to protest. “These murders are wearing me down. We haven’t had a murder in Bon Temps since Darryl Mayhew shot Sue Mayhew. And there wasn’t no mystery about that.”

  “That was . . . what? Six years ago?” I asked the sheriff, just to keep standing there. Mr. Norris was feeling so sad at seeing me because he was thinking my brother was going to be arrested for murder, for killing Maudette Pickens, and the mayor reckoned that meant Jason had most likely also killed Gran. I ducked my head to hide my eyes.

  “I guess so. Let’s see, I remember we were dressed up for Jean-Anne’s dance recital . . . so that was . . . yes, you’re right, Sookie, six years ago.” The sheriff nodded at me with approval. “Jason been in today?” he asked casually, as if it were a mere afterthought.

  “No, haven’t seen him,” I said. The sheriff told me he wanted iced tea and a hamburger; and he was thinking of the time he’d caught Jason with his Jean-Anne, making out like crazy in the bed of Jason’s pickup truck.

  Oh, Lord. He was thinking Jean-Anne was lucky she hadn’t been strangled. And then he had a clear thought that cut me to the quick: Sheriff Dearborn thought, These girls are all bottom-feeders, anyway.

  I could read his thought in its context because the sheriff happened to be an easy scan. I could feel the nuances of the idea. He was thinking, “Low-skill jobs, no college, screwing vampires . . . bottom of the barrel.”

  Hurt and angry didn’t begin to describe how I felt at this assessment.

  I went from table to table automatically, fetching drinks and sandwiches and clearing up the remainders, working as hard as I usually did, with that awful smile stretching my face. I talked to twenty people I knew, most of whom had thoughts as innocent as the day is long. Most customers were thinking of work, or tasks they had to get done at home, or some little problem they needed to solve, like getting the Sears repairman to come work on the dishwasher or getting the house clean for weekend company.

  Arlene was relieved her period had started.

  Charlsie was immersed in pink glowing reflections on her shot at immortality, her grandchild. She was praying earnestly for an easy pregnancy and safe delivery for her daughter.

  Lafayette was thinking that working with me was getting spooky.

  Policeman Kevin Pryor was wondering what his partner Kenya was doing on her day off. He himself was helping his mother clean out the tool shed and hating every minute of it.

  I heard many comments, both aloud and unspoken, about my hair and complexion and the bandage on my arm. I seemed more desirable to more men, and one woman. Some of the guys who’d gone on the vampire burning expedition were thinking they didn’t have a chance with me because of my vampire sympathies, and they were regretting their impulsive act. I marked their identities in my mind. I wasn’t going to forget they could have killed my Bill, even though at the moment the rest of the vampire community was low on my list of favorite things.

  Andy Bellefleur and his sister, Portia, were having lunch together, something they did at least once every week. Portia was a female version of Andy: medium height, blocky build, determined mouth and jaw. The resemblance between brother and sister favored Andy, not Portia. She was a very competent lawyer, I’d heard. I might have suggested her to Jason when he was thinking he’d need an attorney, if she’d not been female . . . and I’d been thinking about Portia’s welfare more than Jason’s.

  Today the lawyer was feeling inwardly depressed because she was educated and made good money, but never had a date.
That was her inner preoccupation.

  Andy was disgusted with my continued association with Bill Compton, interested in my improved appearance, and curious about how vampires had sex. He also was feeling sorry he was probably going to arrest Jason. He was thinking that the case against Jason was not much stronger than that against several other men, but Jason was the one who looked the most scared, which meant he had something to hide. And there were the videos, which showed Jason having sex—not exactly regular, garden-variety sex—with Maudette and Dawn.

  I stared at Andy while I processed his thoughts, which made him uneasy. Andy really did know what I was capable of. “Sookie, you going to get that beer?” he asked finally, waving a broad hand in the air to make sure he had my attention.

  “Sure, Andy,” I said absently, and got one out of the cooler. “You need any more tea, Portia?”

  “No, thanks, Sookie,” Portia said politely, patting her mouth with her paper napkin. Portia was remembering high school, when she would have sold her soul for a date with the gorgeous Jason Stackhouse. She was wondering what Jason was doing now, if he had a thought in his head that would interest her—maybe his body would be worth the sacrifice of intellectual companionship? So Portia hadn’t seen the tapes, didn’t know of their existence; Andy was being a good cop.

  I tried to picture Portia with Jason, and I couldn’t help smiling. That would be an experience for both of them. I wished, not for the first time, that I could plant ideas as well as reap them.

  By the end of my shift, I’d learned—nothing. Except that the videos my brother had so unwisely made featured mild bondage, which caused Andy to think of the ligature marks around the victims’ necks.

  So, taken as a whole, letting my head open for my brother had been a futile exercise. All I’d heard tended to make me worry more and didn’t supply any additional information that might help his cause.

  A different crowd would come in tonight. I had never come to Merlotte’s just for fun. Should I come in tonight? What would Bill do? Did I want to see him?

  I felt friendless. There was no one I could talk to about Bill, no one who wouldn’t be halfway shocked I was seeing him in the first place. How could I tell Arlene I was blue because Bill’s vampire buddies were terrifying and ruthless, that one of them had bitten me the night before, bled into my mouth, been staked on top of me? This was not the kind of problem Arlene was equipped to handle.

  I couldn’t think of anyone who was.

  I couldn’t recall anyone dating a vampire who wasn’t an indiscriminate vampire groupie, a fang-banger who would go with just any bloodsucker.

  By the time I left work, my enhanced physical appearance no longer had the power to make me confident. I felt like a freak.

  I puttered around the house, took a short nap, watered Gran’s flowers. Toward dusk, I ate something I’d nuked in the microwave. Wavering up until the last moment about going out, I finally put on a red shirt and white slacks and some jewelry and drove back to Merlotte’s.

  It felt very strange entering as a customer. Sam was back behind the bar, and his eyebrows went up as he marked my entrance. Three waitresses I knew by sight were working tonight, and a different cook was grilling hamburgers, I saw through the serving hatch.

  Jason was at the bar. For a wonder, the stool next to him was empty, and I eased onto it.

  He turned to me with his face set for a new woman: mouth loose and smiling, eyes bright and wide. When he saw it was me, his expression underwent a comical change. “What the hell are you doing here, Sookie?” he asked, his voice indignant.

  “You’d think you weren’t glad to see me,” I remarked. When Sam paused in front of me, I asked him for a bourbon and coke, without meeting his eyes. “I did what you told me to do, and so far nothing,” I whispered to my brother. “I came in here tonight to try some more people.”

  “Thanks, Sookie,” he said, after a long pause. “I guess I didn’t realize what I was asking. Hey, is something different about your hair?”

  He even paid for my drink when Sam slid it in front of me.

  We didn’t seem to have much to talk about, which was actually okay, since I was trying to listen to the other customers. There were a few strangers, and I scanned them first, to see if they were possible suspects. It didn’t seem they were, I decided reluctantly. One was thinking hard about how much he missed his wife, and the subtext was that he was faithful to her. One was thinking about it being his first time here, and the drinks were good. Another was just concentrating on sitting up straight and hoping he could drive back to the motel.

  I’d had another drink.

  Jason and I had been swapping conjectures about how much the lawyer’s fees would be when Gran’s estate was settled. He glanced at the doorway and said, “Uh-oh.”

  “What?” I asked, not turning to see what he was looking at.

  “Sis, the boyfriend’s here. And he’s not alone.”

  My first idea was that Bill had brought one of his fellow vampires with him, which would have been upsetting and unwise. But when I turned, I realized why Jason had sounded so angry. Bill was with a human girl. He had a grip on her arm, she was coming on to him like a whore, and his eyes were scanning the crowd. I decided he was looking for my reaction.

  I got off the barstool and decided another thing.

  I was drunk. I seldom drank at all, and two bourbon and cokes consumed within minutes had made me, if not knee-walking drunk, at least tipsy.

  Bill’s eyes met mine. He hadn’t really expected to find me here. I couldn’t read his mind as I had Eric’s for an awful moment, but I could read his body language.

  “Hey, Vampire Bill!” Jason’s friend Hoyt called. Bill nodded politely in Hoyt’s direction, but began to steer the girl—tiny, dark—in my direction.

  I had no idea what to do.

  “Sis, what’s his game?” Jason said. He was working up a head of steam. “That gal’s a fang-banger from Monroe. I knew her when she liked humans.”

  I still had no idea what to do. My hurt was overwhelming, but my pride kept trying to contain it. I had to add a dash of guilt to that emotional stew. I hadn’t been where Bill had expected me to be, and I hadn’t left him a note. Then again—on the other hand (my fifth or sixth)—I’d had a lot of shocks the night before at the command performance in Shreveport; and only my association with him had obliged me to go to that shindig.

  My warring impulses held me still. I wanted to pitch myself on her and beat the shit out of her, but I hadn’t been brought up to brawl in barrooms. (I also wanted to beat the shit out of Bill, but I might as well go bang my head on the wall for the all the damage it would do him.) Then, too, I wanted to burst into tears because my feelings were hurt—but that would be weak. The best option was not to show anything because Jason was ready to launch into Bill, and all it needed was some action from me to squeeze his trigger.

  Too much conflict on top of too much alcohol.

  While I was enumerating all these options, Bill had approached, wending his way through the tables, with the woman in tow. I noticed the room was quieter. Instead of watching, I was being watched.

  I could feel my eyes well with tears while my hands fisted. Great. The worst of both responses.

  “Sookie,” Bill said, “this is what Eric dropped off at my doorstep.”

  I could hardly understand what he was saying.

  “So?” I said furiously. I looked right into the girl’s eyes. They were big and dark and excited. I kept my own lids wide apart, knowing if I blinked the tears would flow.

  “As a reward,” Bill said. I couldn’t understand how he felt about this.

  “Free beverage?” I said, and couldn’t believe how venomous my voice sounded.

  Jason put his hand on my shoulder. “Steady, girl,” he said, his voice as low and mean as mine. “He ain’t worth it.”

  I didn’t know what Bill wasn’t worth, but I was about to find out. It was almost exhilarating to have no idea what I was about
to do, after a lifetime of control.

  Bill was regarding me with sharp attention. Under the flourescents over the bar, he looked remarkably white. He hadn’t fed from her. And his fangs were retracted.

  “Come outside and talk,” he said.

  “With her?” I was almost growling.

  “No,” he said. “With me. I have to send her back.”

  The distaste in his voice influenced me, and I followed Bill outside, keeping my head up and not meeting any eyes. He kept ahold of the girl’s arm, and she was practically walking on her toes to keep up. I didn’t know Jason was coming with us until I turned to see him behind me as we passed into the parking lot. Outside, people were coming and going, but it was marginally better than the crowded bar.

  “Hi,” the girl said chattily. “My name’s Desiree. I think I’ve met you before, Jason.”

  “What are you doing here, Desiree?” Jason asked, his voice quiet. You could almost believe he was calm.

  “Eric sent me over here to Bon Temps as a reward for Bill,” she said coyly, looking at Bill from the corners of her eyes. “But he seems less than thrilled. I don’t know why. I’m practically a special vintage.”

  “Eric?” Jason asked me.

  “A vampire from Shreveport. Bar owner. Head honcho.”

  “He left her on my doorstep,” Bill told me. “I didn’t ask for her.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  “Send her back,” he said impatiently. “You and I have to talk.”

  I gulped. I felt my fingers uncurl.

  “She needs a ride back to Monroe?” Jason asked.

  Bill looked surprised. “Yes. Are you offering? I need to talk to your sister.”

  “Sure,” Jason said, all geniality. I was instantly suspicious.

  “I can’t believe you’re refusing me,” Desiree said, looking up at Bill and pouting. “No one has ever turned me down before.”

  “Of course I am grateful, and I’m sure you are, as you put it, a special vintage,” Bill said politely. “But I have my own wine cellar.”

  Little Desiree stared at him blankly for a second before comprehension slowly lit her brown eyes. “This woman yours?” she asked, jerking her head at me.

 
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