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Dead until dark, p.22
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       Dead Until Dark, p.22

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 
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  “She is.”

  Jason shifted nervously at Bill’s flat statement.

  Desiree gave me a good looking over. “She’s got funny eyes,” she finally pronounced.

  “She’s my sister,” Jason said.

  “Oh. I’m sorry. You’re much more . . . normal.” Desiree gave Jason the up-and-down, and seemed more pleased with what she saw. “Hey, what’s your last name?”

  Jason took her hand and began leading her toward his pickup. “Stackhouse,” he was saying, giving her the full eye treatment, as they walked away. “Maybe on the way home, you can tell me a little about what you do . . .”

  I turned back to Bill, wondering what Jason’s motive was for this generous act, and met Bill’s gaze. It was like walking into a brick wall.

  “So, you want to talk?” I asked harshly.

  “Not here. Come home with me.”

  I scuffed the gravel with my shoe. “Not your house.”

  “Then yours.”

  “No.”

  He raised his arched brows. “Where then?”

  Good question.

  “My folks’ pond.” Since Jason was going to be giving Miss Dark and Tiny a ride home, he wouldn’t be there.

  “I’ll follow you,” he said briefly, and we parted to go to our respective cars.

  The property where I’d spent my first few years was to the west of Bon Temps. I turned down the familiar gravel driveway and parked at the house, a modest ranch that Jason kept up pretty well. Bill emerged from his car as I slid from mine, and I motioned him to follow me. We went around the house and down the slope, following a path set with big paving stones. In a minute we were at the pond, man-made, that my dad had put in our backyard and stocked, anticipating fishing with his son in that water for years.

  There was a kind of patio overlooking the water, and on one of the metal chairs was a folded blanket. Without asking me, Bill picked it up and shook it out, spreading it on the grass downslope from the patio. I sat on it reluctantly, thinking the blanket wasn’t safe for the same reasons meeting him in either home wasn’t safe. When I was close to Bill, what I thought about was being even closer to him.

  I hugged my knees to me and stared off across the water. There was a security light on the other side of the pond, and I could see it reflected in the still water. Bill lay on his back next to me. I could feel his eyes on my face. He laced his fingers together across his ribs, ostentatiously keeping his hands to himself.

  “Last night frightened you,” he said neutrally.

  “Weren’t you just a little scared?” I asked, more quietly than I’d thought I would.

  “For you. A little for myself.”

  I wanted to lie on my stomach but worried about getting that close to him. When I saw his skin glow in the moonlight, I yearned to touch him.

  “It scared me that Eric can control our lives while we’re a couple.”

  “Do you not want to be a couple anymore?”

  The pain in my chest was so bad I put my hand over it, pressing the area above my breast.

  “Sookie?” He was kneeling by me, an arm around me.

  I couldn’t answer. I had no breath.

  “Do you love me?” he asked.

  I nodded.

  “Why do you talk of leaving me?”

  The pain made its way out through my eyes in the form of tears.

  “I’m too scared of the other vampires and the way they are. What will he ask me to do next? He’ll try to make me do something else. He’ll tell me he’ll kill you otherwise. Or he’ll threaten Jason. And he can do it.”

  Bill’s voice was as quiet as the sound of a cricket in the grass. A month ago, I might not have been able to hear it. “Don’t cry,” he told me. “Sookie, I have to tell you unwelcome facts.”

  The only welcome thing he could have told me at that point was that Eric was dead.

  “Eric is intrigued by you now. He can tell you have mental powers that most humans don’t have, or ignore if they know they possess them. He anticipates your blood is rich and sweet.” Bill’s voice got hoarse when he said that, and I shivered. “And you’re beautiful. You’re even more beautiful now. He doesn’t realize you have had our blood three times.”

  “You know that Long Shadow bled onto me?”

  “Yes. I saw.”

  “Is there anything magic about three times?”

  He laughed, that low, rumbly, rusty laugh. “No. But the more vampire blood you drink, the more desirable you become to our kind, and actually, more desirable to anyone. And Desiree thought she was a vintage! I wonder what vampire said that to her.”

  “One that wanted to get in her pants,” I said flatly, and he laughed again. I loved to hear him laugh.

  “With all this telling me how lovely I am, are you saying that Eric, like, lusts for me?”

  “Yes.”

  “What’s to stop him from taking me? You say he’s stronger than you.”

  “Courtesy and custom, first of all.”

  I didn’t snort, but I came close.

  “Don’t discount that. We’re all observant of custom, we vampires. We have to live together for centuries.”

  “Anything else?”

  “I am not as strong as Eric, but I’m not a new vampire. He might get badly hurt in a fight with me, or I might even win if I got lucky.”

  “Anything else?”

  “Maybe,” Bill said carefully, “you yourself.”

  “How so?”

  “If you can be valuable to him otherwise, he may leave you alone if he knows that is your sincere wish.”

  “But I don’t want to be valuable to him! I don’t want to ever see him again!”

  “You promised Eric you’d help him again,” Bill reminded me.

  “If he turned the thief over to the police,” I said. “And what did Eric do? He staked him!”

  “Possibly saving your life in the process.”

  “Well, I found his thief!”

  “Sookie, you don’t know much about the world.”

  I stared at him, surprised. “I guess that’s so.”

  “Things don’t turn out . . . even.” Bill stared out into the darkness. “Even I think sometimes I don’t know much, anymore.” Another gloomy pause. “I have only once before seen one vampire stake another. Eric is going beyond the limits of our world.”

  “So, he’s not too likely to take much notice of that custom and courtesy you were bragging about earlier.”

  “Pam may keep him to the old ways.”

  “What is she to him?”

  “He made her. That is, he made her vampire, centuries ago. She comes back to him from time to time and helps him do whatever he is doing at the moment. Eric’s always been something of a rogue, and the older he gets the more willful he gets.” Calling Eric willful seemed a huge understatement to me.

  “So, have we talked our way around in circles?” I asked.

  Bill seemed to be considering. “Yes,” he confirmed, a tinge of regret in his voice. “You don’t like associating with vampires other than myself, and I have told you we have no choice.”

  “How about this Desiree thing?”

  “He had someone drop her off on my doorstep, hoping I would be pleased he’d sent me a pretty gift. Also, it would test my devotion to you if I drank from her. Perhaps he poisoned her blood somehow, and her blood would have weakened me. Maybe she would just have been a crack in my armor.” He shrugged. “Did you think I had a date?”

  “Yes.” I felt my face harden, thinking about Bill walking in with the girl.

  “You weren’t at home. I had to come find you.” His tone wasn’t accusatory, but it wasn’t happy, either.

  “I was trying to help Jason out by listening. And I was still upset from last night.”

  “Are we all right now?”

  “No, but we’re as all right as we can get,” I said. “I guess no matter who I cared for, it wouldn’t always go smooth. But I hadn’t counted on obstacles this drastic. There
’s no way you can ever outrank Eric, I guess, since age is the criterion?”

  “No,” said Bill. “Not outrank . . .” and he suddenly looked thoughtful. “Though there may be something I can do along those lines. I don’t want to—it goes against my nature—but we would be more secure.”

  I let him think.

  “Yes,” he concluded, ending his long brood. He didn’t offer to explain, and I didn’t ask.

  “I love you,” he said, as if that was the bottom line to whatever course of action he was considering. His face loomed over me, luminous and beautiful in the half-darkness.

  “I feel the same about you,” I said, and put my hands against his chest so he wouldn’t tempt me. “But we have too much against us right now. If we can pry Eric off our backs, that would help. And another thing, we have to stop this murder investigation. That would be a second big piece of trouble off our backs. This murderer has the deaths of your friends to answer for, and the deaths of Maudette and Dawn to answer for.” I paused, took a deep breath. “And the death of my grandmother.” I blinked back tears. I’d gotten adjusted to Gran not being in the house when I came home, and I was getting used to not talking to her and sharing my day with her, but every now and then I had a stab of grief so acute it robbed me of breath.

  “Why do you think the same killer is responsible for the Monroe vampires being burned?”

  “I think it was the murderer who planted this idea, this vigilante thing, in the men in the bar that night. I think it was the murderer who went from group to group, egging the guys on. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen people around here act that way. There’s got to be a reason they did this time.”

  “He agitated them? Fomented the burning?”

  “Yes.”

  “Listening hasn’t turned up anything?”

  “No,” I admitted glumly. “But that’s not to say tomorrow will be the same.”

  “You’re an optimist, Sookie.”

  “Yes, I am. I have to be.” I patted his cheek, thinking how my optimism had been justified since he had entered my life.

  “You keep on listening, since you think it may be fruitful,” he said. “I’ll work on something else, for now. I’ll see you tomorrow evening at your place, okay? I may . . . no, let me explain then.”

  “All right.” I was curious, but Bill obviously wasn’t ready to talk.

  On my way home, following the taillights of Bill’s car as far as my driveway, I thought of how much more frightening the past few weeks would have been if I hadn’t had the security of Bill’s presence. As I went cautiously down the driveway, I found myself wishing Bill hadn’t felt he had to go home to make some necessary phone calls. The few nights we’d spent apart, I wouldn’t say I’d been exactly writhing with fear, but I’d been very jumpy and anxious. At the house by myself, I spent lots of time going from locked window to locked door, and I wasn’t used to living that way. I felt disheartened at the thought of the night ahead.

  Before I got out of my car, I scanned the yard, glad I’d remembered to turn on the security lights before I left for the bar. Nothing was moving. Usually Tina came running when I’d been gone, anxious to get in the house for some cat kibble, but tonight she must be hunting in the woods.

  I separated my house key from the bunch on my key ring. I dashed from the car to the front door, inserted and twisted the key in record time, and slammed and locked the door behind me. This was no way to live, I thought, shaking my head in dismay; and just as I completed that idea, something hit the front door with a thud. I shrieked before I could stop myself.

  I ran for the portable phone by the couch. I punched in Bill’s number as I went around the room pulling down the shades. What if the line was busy? He’d said he was going home to use the phone!

  But I caught him just as he walked in the door. He sounded breathless as he picked up the receiver. “Yes?” he said. He always sounded suspicious.

  “Bill,” I gasped, “there’s someone outside!”

  He crashed the phone down. A vampire of action.

  He was there in two minutes. Looking out into the yard from a slightly lifted blind, I glimpsed him coming into the yard from the woods, moving with a speed and silence a human could never equal. The relief of seeing him was overwhelming. For a second I felt ashamed at calling Bill to rescue me: I should have handled the situation myself. Then I thought, Why? When you know a practically invincible being who professes to adore you, someone so hard to kill it’s next to impossible, someone preternaturally strong, that’s who you’re gonna call.

  Bill investigated the yard and the woods, moving with a sure, silent grace. Finally he came lightly up the steps. He bent over something on the front porch. The angle was too acute, and I couldn’t tell what it was. When he straightened, he had something in his hands, and he looked absolutely . . . expressionless.

  This was very bad.

  I went reluctantly to the front door and unlocked it. I pushed out the screen door.

  Bill was holding the body of my cat.

  “Tina?” I said, hearing my voice quaver and not caring at all. “Is she dead?”

  Bill nodded, one little jerk of his head.

  “What—how?”

  “Strangled, I think.”

  I could feel my face crumple. Bill had to stand there holding the corpse while I cried my eyes out.

  “I never got that live oak,” I said, having calmed a little. I didn’t sound very steady. “We can put her in that hole.” So around to the backyard we went, poor Bill holding Tina, trying to look comfortable about it, and me trying not to dissolve again. Bill knelt and lay the little bundle of black fur at the bottom of my excavation. I fetched the shovel and began to fill it in, but the sight of the first dirt hitting Tina’s fur undid me all over again. Silently, Bill took the shovel from my hands. I turned my back, and he finished the awful job.

  “Come inside,” he said gently when it was finished.

  We went in the house, having to walk around to the front because I hadn’t yet unlocked the back.

  Bill patted me and comforted me, though I knew he hadn’t ever been crazy about Tina. “God bless you, Bill,” I whispered. I tightened my arms around him ferociously, in a sudden convulsion of fear that he, too, would be taken from me. When I’d gotten the sobs reduced to hiccups, I looked up, hoping I hadn’t made him uncomfortable with my flood of emotion.

  Bill was furious. He was staring at the wall over my shoulder, and his eyes were glowing. He was the most frightening thing I’d ever seen in my life.

  “Did you find anything out in the yard?” I asked.

  “No. I found traces of his presence. Some footprints, a lingering scent. Nothing you could bring into court as proof,” he went on, reading my mind.

  “Would you mind staying here until you have to go to . . . get away from the sun?”

  “Of course.” He stared at me. He’d fully intended to do that whether or not I agreed, I could tell.

  “If you still need to make phone calls, just make them here. I don’t care.” I meant if they were on my phone bill.

  “I have a calling card,” he said, once again astonishing me. Who would have thought?

  I washed my face and took a Tylenol before I put on my nightgown, sadder than I’d been since Gran had been killed, and sadder in different way. The death of a pet is naturally not in the same category as the death of a family member, I chided myself, but it didn’t seem to affect my misery. I went through all the reasoning I was capable of and came no closer to any truth except the fact that I’d fed and brushed and loved Tina for four years, and I would miss her.

  Chapter 11

  MY NERVES WERE raw the next day. When I got to work and told Arlene what had happened, she gave me a hard hug, and said, “I’d like to kill the bastard that did that to poor Tina!” Somehow, that made me feel a lot better. Charlsie was just as sympathetic, if more concerned with the shock to me rather than the agonized demise of my cat. Sam just looked gr
im. He thought I should call the sheriff, or Andy Bellefleur, and tell one of them what had happened. I finally did call Bud Dearborn.

  “Usually these things go in cycles,” Bud rumbled. “Ain’t nobody else reported a pet missing or dead, though. I’m afraid it sounds like some kind a personal thing, Sookie. That vampire friend of yours, he like cats?”

  I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I was using the phone in Sam’s office, and he was sitting behind the desk figuring out his next liquor order.

  “Bill was at home when whoever killed Tina threw her on my porch,” I said as calmly as I could. “I called him directly afterward, and he answered the phone.” Sam looked up quizzically, and I rolled my eyes to let him know my opinion of the sheriff’s suspicions.

  “And he told you the cat was strangled,” Bud went on ponderously.

  “Yes.”

  “Do you have the ligature?”

  “No. I didn’t even see what it was.”

  “What did you do with the kitty?”

  “We buried her.”

  “Was that your idea or Mr. Compton’s?”

  “Mine.” What else would we have done with Tina?

  “We may come dig your kitty up. If we had had the ligature and the cat, maybe we could see if the method of strangulation matched the method used in killing Dawn and Maudette,” Bud explained ponderously.

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t think about that.”

  “Well, it don’t matter much. Without the ligature.”

  “Okay, good-bye.” I hung up, probably applying a little more pressure than the receiver required. Sam’s eyebrows lifted.

  “Bud is a jerk,” I told him.

  “Bud’s not a bad policeman,” Sam said quietly. “None of us here are used to murders that are this sick.”

  “You’re right,” I admitted, after a moment. “I wasn’t being fair. He just kept saying ‘ligature’ like he was proud he’d learned a new word. I’m sorry I got mad at him.”

  “You don’t have to be perfect, Sookie.”

  “You mean I get to screw up and be less than understanding and forgiving, from time to time? Thanks, boss.” I smiled at him, feeling the wry twist to my lips, and got up off the edge of his desk where I’d been propped to make my phone call. I stretched. It wasn’t until I saw the way Sam’s eyes drank in that stretch that I became self-conscious again. “Back to work!” I said briskly and strode out of the room, trying to make sure there wasn’t a hint of sway to my hips.

 
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