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Dead until dark, p.23
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       Dead Until Dark, p.23

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
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  “Would you keep the kids for a couple of hours this evening?” Arlene asked, a little shyly. I remembered the last time we’d talked about my keeping her kids, and I remembered the offense I’d taken at her reluctance to leave her kids with a vampire. I hadn’t been thinking like a mother would think. Now, Arlene was trying to apologize.

  “I’d be glad to.” I waited to see if Arlene would mention Bill again, but she didn’t. “When to when?”

  “Well, Rene and I are gonna go to the movies in Monroe,” she said. “Say, six-thirty?”

  “Sure. Will they have had supper?”

  “Oh, yeah, I’ll feed ’em. They’ll be excited to see their aunt Sookie.”

  “I look forward to it.”

  “Thanks,” Arlene said. She paused, almost said something else, then appeared to think again. “See you at six-thirty.”

  I got home about five, most of the way driving against the sun, which was glaring like it was staring me down. I changed to a blue-and-green knit short set, brushed my hair and secured it with a banana clip. I had a sandwich, sitting uneasily by myself at the kitchen table. The house felt big and empty, and I was glad to see Rene drive up with Coby and Lisa.

  “Arlene’s having trouble with one of her artificial nails,” he explained, looking embarrassed at having to relay this feminine problem. “And Coby and Lisa were raring to get over here.” I noticed Rene was still in his work clothes—heavy boots, knife, hat, and all. Arlene wasn’t going to let him take her anywhere until he showered and changed.

  Coby was eight and Lisa was five, and they were hanging all over me like big earrings when Rene bent to kiss them good-bye. His affection for the kids gave Rene a big gold star in my book, and I smiled at him approvingly. I took the kids’ hands to lead them back to the kitchen for some ice cream.

  “We’ll see you about ten-thirty, eleven,” he said. “If that’s all right.” He put his hand on the doorknob.

  “Sure,” I agreed. I opened my mouth to offer to keep the kids for the night, as I’d done on previous occasions, but then I thought of Tina’s limp body. I decided that tonight they’d better not stay. I raced the kids to the kitchen, and a minute or two later I heard Rene’s old pickup rattling down the driveway.

  I picked up Lisa. “I can hardly lift you anymore, girl, you’re getting so big! And you, Coby, you shaving yet?” We sat at the table for a good thirty minutes while the children ate ice cream and rattled off their list of achievements since we’d last visited.

  Then Lisa wanted to read to me, so I got out a coloring book with the color and number words printed inside, and she read those to me with some pride. Coby, of course, had to prove he could read much better, and then they wanted to watch a favorite show. Before I knew it, it was dark.

  “My friend is coming over tonight,” I told them. “His name is Bill.”

  “Mama told us you had a special friend,” Coby said. “I better like him. He better be nice to you.”

  “Oh, he is,” I assured the boy, who had straightened and thrust out his chest, ready to defend me if my special friend wasn’t nice enough in Coby’s estimation.

  “Does he send you flowers?” Lisa asked romantically.

  “No, not yet. Maybe you can kind of hint I’d like some?”

  “Ooo. Yeah, I can do that.”

  “Has he asked you to marry him?

  “Well, no. But I haven’t asked him, either.”

  Naturally, Bill picked that moment to knock.

  “I have company,” I said, smiling, when I answered the door.

  “I can hear,” he said.

  I took his hand and led him into the kitchen.

  “Bill, this is Coby and this young woman is Lisa,” I said formally.

  “Good, I’ve been wanting to meet you,” Bill said, to my surprise. “Lisa and Coby, is it all right with you if I keep company with your aunt Sookie?”

  They eyed him thoughtfully. “She isn’t really our aunt,” Coby said, testing the waters. “She’s our mom’s good friend.”

  “Is that right?”

  “Yes, and she says you don’t send her flowers,” Lisa said. For once, her little voice was crystal clear. I was so glad to realize that Lisa had gotten over her little problem with her r’s. Really.

  Bill looked sideways at me. I shrugged. “Well, they asked me,” I said helplessly.

  “Hmmm,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ll have to mend my ways, Lisa. Thank you for pointing that out to me. When is Aunt Sookie’s birthday, do you know?”

  I could feel my face flushing. “Bill,” I said sharply. “Cut it out.”

  “Do you know, Coby?” Bill asked the boy.

  Coby shook his head, regretfully. “But I know it’s in the summer because the last time Mama took Sookie to lunch in Shreveport for her birthday, it was summertime. We stayed with Rene.”

  “You’re smart to remember that, Coby,” Bill told him.

  “I’m smarter than that! Guess what I learned in school the other day.” And Coby was off and running.

  Lisa eyed Bill with great attention the whole time Coby spoke, and when Coby was finished, she said, “You look real white, Bill.”

  “Yes,” he said, “that’s my normal complexion.”

  The kids exchanged glances. I could tell they were deciding that “normal complexion” was an illness, and it wouldn’t be too polite to ask more questions. Every now and then children show a certain tactfulness.

  Bill, initially a little stiff, began to get more and more flexible as the evening wore on. I was ready to admit I was tired by nine, but he was still going strong with the kids when Arlene and Rene came by to pick them up at eleven.

  I’d just introduced my friends to Bill, who shook their hands in an absolutely normal way, when another caller arrived.

  A handsome vampire with thick black hair combed into an improbable wavy style strolled up out of the woods as Arlene was bundling the kids into the truck, and Rene and Bill were chatting. Bill waved a casual hand at the vampire, and he raised one in return, joining Bill and Rene as if he’d been expected.

  From the front porch swing, I watched Bill introduce the two, and the vampire and Rene shook hands. Rene was gaping at the newcomer, and I could tell he felt he’d recognized him. Bill looked meaningfully at Rene and shook his head, and Rene’s mouth closed on whatever comment he’d been going to make.

  The newcomer was husky, taller than Bill, and he wore old jeans and an “I Visited Graceland” T-shirt. His heavy boots were worn at the heel. He carried a squirt bottle of synthetic blood in one hand and took a swig from time to time. Mr. Social Skills.

  Maybe I’d been cued by Rene’s reaction, but the more I looked at the vampire, the more familiar he seemed. I tried mentally warming up the skin tone, adding a few lines, making him stand straighter and investing his face with some liveliness.

  Oh my God.

  It was the man from Memphis.

  Rene turned to go, and Bill began steering the newcomer up to me. From ten feet away, the vampire called, “Hey, Bill tells me someone killed your cat!” He had a heavy Southern accent.

  Bill closed his eyes for a second, and I just nodded speechlessly.

  “Well, I’m sorry about that. I like cats,” the tall vampire said, and I clearly got the idea he didn’t mean he liked to stroke their fur. I hoped the kids weren’t picking up on that, but Arlene’s horrified face appeared in the truck window. All the good will Bill had established had probably just gone down the drain.

  Rene shook his head behind the vampire’s back and climbed into the driver’s seat, calling a good-bye as he started up the engine. He stuck his head out the window for a long last look at the newcomer. He must have said something to Arlene because she appeared at her window again, staring for all she was worth. I saw her mouth drop open in shock as she looked harder at the creature standing beside Bill. Her head disappeared into the truck, and I heard a screech as the truck pulled away.

  “Sookie,” Bill said warningly,
“this is Bubba.”

  “Bubba,” I repeated, not quite trusting my ears.

  “Yep, Bubba,” the vampire said cheerfully, goodwill radiating from his fearsome smile. “That’s me. Pleased to meetcha.”

  I shook hands with him, making myself smile back. Good God Almighty, I never thought I’d be shaking hands with him. But he’d sure changed for the worse.

  “Bubba, would you mind waiting here on the porch? Let me explain our arrangement to Sookie.”

  “That’s all right with me,” Bubba said casually. He settled on the swing, as happy and brainless as a clam.

  We went into the living room, but not before I’d noticed that when Bubba had made his appearance, much of the night noise—bugs, frogs—had simply stopped. “I had hoped to explain this to you before Bubba got here,” Bill whispered. “But I couldn’t.”

  I said, “Is that who I think it is?”

  “Yes. So now you know at least some of the sighting stories are true. But don’t call him by his name. Call him Bubba! Something went wrong when he came over—from human to vampire—maybe it was all the chemicals in his blood.”

  “But he was really dead, wasn’t he?”

  “Not . . . quite. One of us was a morgue attendant and a big fan, and he could detect the tiny spark still left, so he brought him over, in a hurried manner.”

  “Brought him over?”

  “Made him vampire,” Bill explained. “But that was a mistake. He’s never been the same from what my friends tell me. He’s as smart as a tree trunk, so to make a living he does odd jobs for the rest of us. We can’t have him out in public, you can see that.”

  I nodded, my mouth hanging open. Of course not. “Geez,” I murmured, stunned at the royalty in my yard.

  “So remember how stupid he is, and how impulsive . . . don’t spend time alone with him, and don’t ever call him anything but Bubba. Also, he likes pets, as he told you, and a diet of their blood hasn’t made him any the more reliable. Now, as to why I brought him here . . .”

  I stood with my arms across my chest, waiting for Bill’s explanation with some interest.

  “Sweetheart, I have to go out of town for a while,” Bill said.

  The unexpectedness of this completely disconcerted me.

  “What . . . why? No, wait. I don’t need to know.” I waved my hands in front of me, shooing away any implication that Bill was obligated to tell me his business.

  “I’ll tell you when I get back,” he said firmly.

  “So where does your friend—Bubba—come in?” Though I had a nasty feeling I already knew.

  “Bubba is going to watch you while I’m gone,” Bill said stiffly.

  I raised my eyebrows.

  “All right. He’s not long on . . .” Bill cast around. “. . . anything,” he finally admitted. “But he’s strong, and he’ll do what I tell him, and he’ll make sure no one breaks into your house.”

  “He’ll stay out in the woods?”

  “Oh, yes,” Bill said emphatically. “He’s not even supposed to come up and speak to you. At dark, he’ll just find a place from which he can see the house, and he’ll watch all night.”

  I’d have to remember to close my blinds. The idea of the dim vampire peering in my windows was not edifying.

  “You really think this is necessary?” I asked helplessly. “You know, I don’t remember you asking me.”

  Bill sort of heaved, his version of taking a deep breath. “Sweetheart,” he began in an overly patient voice, “I am trying very hard to get used to the way women want to be treated now. But it isn’t natural to me, especially when I fear you are in danger. I’m trying to give myself peace of mind while I’m gone. I wish I didn’t have to go, and it isn’t what I want to do, but what I have to do, for us.”

  I eyed him. “I hear you,” I said finally. “I’m not crazy about this, but I am afraid at night, and I guess . . . well, okay.”

  Frankly, I don’t think it mattered a damn whether I consented or not. After all, how could I make Bubba leave if he didn’t want to go? Even the law enforcement people in our little town didn’t have the equipment to deal with vampires, and if they were faced with this particular vampire, they’d just stand and gape for long enough for him to tear them apart. I appreciated Bill’s concern, and I figured I better have the good grace to thank him. I gave him a little hug.

  “Well, if you have to go off, you just be careful while you’re gone,” I said, trying not to sound forlorn. “Do you have a place to stay?”

  “Yes. I’ll be in New Orleans. There was a room open at the Blood in the Quarter.”

  I’d read an article about this hotel, the first in the world that catered exclusively to vampires. It promised complete security, and so far it had delivered. It was right smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter, too. And at dusk it was absolutely surrounded by fang-bangers and tourists waiting for the vampires to come out.

  I began to feel envious. Trying not to look like a wistful puppy who’s being pushed back in the door when its owners leave, I yanked my smile back into place. “Well, you have a good time,” I said brightly. “Got your packing done? The drive should take a few hours, and it’s already dark.”

  “The car is ready.” I understood for the first time that he had delayed leaving to spend time with me and Arlene’s kids. “I had better leave.” He hesitated, seemed to be searching for the right words. Then he held out his hands to me. I took them, and he pulled a little, just exerted a tiny pressure. I moved into his embrace. I rubbed my face against his shirt. My arms circled him, pressed him into me.

  “I’ll miss you,” he said. His voice was just a breath in the air, but I heard him. I felt him kiss the top of my head, and then he stepped away from me and out the front door. I heard his voice on the front porch as he gave Bubba some last minute directions, and I heard the squeak of the swing as Bubba got up.

  I didn’t look out the window until I heard Bill’s car going down the driveway. Then I saw Bubba sauntering into the woods. I told myself, as I took my shower, that Bill must trust Bubba since he’d left him guarding me. But I still wasn’t sure who I was more afraid of: the murderer Bubba was watching for, or Bubba himself.

  AT WORK THE next day, Arlene asked me why the vampire had been at my house. I wasn’t surprised that she’d brought it up.

  “Well, Bill had to go out of town, and he worries, you know . . .” I was hoping to let it drop at that. But Charlsie had drifted up (we weren’t at all busy: the Chamber of Commerce was having a lunch and speaker at Fins and Hooves, and the Ladies’ Prayers and Potatoes group were topping their baked potatoes at old Mrs. Bellefleur’s huge house). “You mean,” Charlsie said with starry eyes, “that your man got you a personal bodyguard?”

  I nodded reluctantly. You could put it that way.

  “That’s so romantic,” Charlsie sighed.

  You could look at it that way.

  “But you should see him,” Arlene told Charlsie, having held her tongue as long as she could. “He’s exactly like—!”

  “Oh, no, not when you talk to him,” I interrupted. “He’s not at all the same.” That was true. “And he really doesn’t like it when he hears that name.”

  “Oh,” said Arlene in a hushed voice, as if Bubba could be listening in the broad daylight.

  “I do feel safer with Bubba in the woods,” I said, which was more or less true.

  “Oh, he doesn’t stay in the house?” Charlsie asked, clearly a little disappointed.

  “God, no!” I said, then mentally apologized to God for taking his name in vain. I was having to do that a lot lately. “No, Bubba stays in the woods at night, watching the house.”

  “Was that true about the cats?” Arlene looked squeamish.

  “He was just joking. Not a great sense of humor, huh?” I was lying through my teeth. I certainly believed Bubba enjoyed a snack of cat blood.

  Arlene shook her head, unconvinced. It was time to change the subject. “Did you and Rene have fu
n on your evening out?” I asked.

  “Rene was so good last night, wasn’t he?” she said, her cheeks pink.

  A much-married woman, blushing. “You tell me.” Arlene enjoyed a little ribald teasing.

  “Oh, you! What I mean, he was real polite to Bill and even that Bubba.”

  “Any reason why he wouldn’t be?”

  “He has kind of a problem with vampires, Sookie.” Arlene shook her head. “I know, I do, too,” she confessed when I looked at her with raised eyebrows. “But Rene really has some prejudice. Cindy dated a vampire for a while, and that just made Rene awful upset.”

  “Cindy okay?” I had a great interest in the health of someone who’d dated a vamp.

  “I haven’t seen her,” Arlene admitted, “but Rene goes to visit every other week or so. She’s doing well, she’s back on the right track. She has a job in a hospital cafeteria.”

  Sam, who’d been standing behind the bar loading the refrigerator with bottled blood, said, “Maybe Cindy would like to move back home. Lindsey Krause quit the other shift because she’s moving to Little Rock.”

  That certainly focussed our attention. Merlotte’s was becoming seriously understaffed. For some reason, low-level service jobs had dropped in popularity in the last couple of months.

  “You interviewed anyone else?” Arlene asked.

  “I’ll have to go through the files,” Sam said wearily. I knew that Arlene and I were the only barmaids, waitresses, servers, whatever you wanted to call us, that Sam had hung on to for more then two years. No, that wasn’t true; there was Susanne Mitchell, on the other shift. Sam spent lots of time hiring and occasionally firing. “Sookie, would you have a look through the file, see if there’s anyone there you know has moved, anyone already got a job, anyone you really recommend? That would save me some time.”

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