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Dead until dark, p.24
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       Dead Until Dark, p.24

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 
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  “Sure,” I said. I remembered Arlene doing the same thing a couple of years ago when Dawn had been hired. We had more ties to the community than Sam, who never seemed to join anything. Sam had been in Bon Temps for six years now, and I had never met anyone who seemed to know about Sam’s life prior to his buying the bar here.

  I settled down at Sam’s desk with the thick file of applications. After a few minutes, I could tell I was really making a difference. I had three piles: moved, employed elsewhere, good material. Then I added a fourth and fifth stack: a pile for people I couldn’t work with because I couldn’t stand them, and a pile for the dead. The first form on the fifth pile had been filled out by a girl who’d died in a car accident last Christmas, and I felt sorry for her folks all over again when I saw her name at the top of the form. The other application was headed “Maudette Pickens.”

  Maudette had applied for a job with Sam three months before her death. I guess working at Grabbit Kwik was pretty uninspiring. When I glanced over the filled-in blanks and noticed how poor Maudette’s handwriting and spelling had been, it made me feel pitiful all over again. I tried to imagine my brother thinking of having sex with this woman—and filming it—was a worthwhile way to spend his time, and I marvelled at Jason’s strange mentality. I hadn’t seen him since he’d driven off with Desiree. I hoped he’d gotten home in one piece. That gal was a real handful. I wished he’d settle down with Liz Barrett: she had enough backbone to hold him up, too.

  Whenever I thought about my brother lately, it was to worry. If only he hadn’t known Maudette and Dawn so well! Lots of men knew them both, apparently, both casually and carnally. They’d both been vampire bitten. Dawn had liked rough sex, and I didn’t know Maudette’s proclivities. Lots of men got gas and coffee at the Grabbit Kwik, and lots of men came in to get a drink here, too. But only my stupid brother had recorded sex with Dawn and Maudette on film.

  I stared at the big plastic cup on Sam’s desk, which had been full of iced tea. “The Big Kwencher from Grabbit Kwik” was written in neon orange on the side of the green cup. Sam knew them both, too. Dawn had worked for him, Maudette had applied for a job here.

  Sam sure didn’t like me dating a vampire. Maybe he didn’t like anyone dating a vampire.

  Sam walked in just then, and I jumped like I’d been doing something bad. And I had, in my book. Thinking evil of a friend was a bad thing to do.

  “Which is the good pile?” he asked, but he gave me a puzzled look.

  I handed him a short stack of maybe ten applications. “This gal, Amy Burley,” I said, indicating the one on top, “has experience, she’s only subbing at the Good Times Bar, and Charlsie used to work with her there. So you could check with Charlsie first.”

  “Thanks, Sookie. This’ll save me some trouble.”

  I nodded curtly in acknowledgment.

  “Are you all right?” he asked. “You seem kind of distant today.”

  I looked at him closely. He looked just like he always did. But his mind was closed to me. How could he do that? The only other mind completely closed to me was Bill’s, because of his vampire state. But Sam was sure no vampire.

  “Just missing Bill,” I said deliberately. Would he lecture me about the evils of dating a vampire?

  Sam said, “It’s daytime. He couldn’t very well be here.”

  “Of course not,” I said stiffly, and was about to add, “He’s out of town.” Then I asked myself if that was a smart thing to do when I had even a hint of suspicion in my heart about my boss. I left the office so abruptly that Sam stared after me in astonishment.

  When I saw Arlene and Sam having a long conversation later that day, their sidelong glances told me clearly that I was the topic. Sam went back to his office looking more worried than ever. But we didn’t have any more chitchat the rest of the day.

  Going home that evening was hard because I knew I’d be alone until morning. When I’d been alone other evenings, I’d had the reassurance that Bill was just a phone call away. Now he wasn’t. I tried to feel good about being guarded once it was dark and Bubba crawled out of whatever hole he’d slept in, but I didn’t manage it.

  I called Jason, but he wasn’t home. I called Merlotte’s, thinking he might be there, but Terry Bellefleur answered the phone and said Jason hadn’t been in.

  I wondered what Sam was doing tonight. I wondered why he never seemed to date much. It wasn’t for want of offers, I’d been able to observe many times.

  Dawn had been especially aggressive.

  That evening I couldn’t think of anything that pleased me.

  I began wondering if Bubba was the hitman—hitvampire?—Bill had called when he wanted Uncle Bartlett bumped off. I wondered why Bill had chosen such a dim-witted creature to guard me.

  Every book I picked up seemed wrong, somehow. Every television show I tried to watch seemed completely ridiculous. I tried to read my Time and became incensed at the determination to commit suicide that possessed so many nations. I pitched the magazine across the room.

  My mind scrabbled around like a squirrel trying to get out of a cage. It couldn’t light on anything or be comfortable anywhere.

  When the phone rang, I jumped a foot.

  “Hello?” I said harshly.

  “Jason’s here now,” Terry Bellefleur said. “He wants to buy you a drink.”

  I thought uneasily about going out to the car, now that it was dark; about coming home to an empty house, at least a house I would have to hope was empty. Then I scolded myself because, after all, there would be someone watching the house, someone very strong, if very brainless.

  “Okay, I’ll be there in a minute,” I said.

  Terry simply hung up. Mr. Chatterbox.

  I pulled on a denim skirt and a yellow T-shirt and, looking both ways, crossed the yard to my car. I’d left on every outside light, and I unlocked my car and scooted inside quick as a wink. Once inside the car, I relocked my door.

  This was sure no way to live.

  I AUTOMATICALLY PARKED in the employee lot when I got to Merlotte’s. There was a dog pawing around the Dumpster, and I patted him on the head when I went in. We had to call the pound about once a week to come get some stray or dumped dogs, so many of them pregnant it just made me sick.

  Terry was behind the bar.

  “Hey,” I said, looking around. “Where’s Jason?”

  “He ain’t here,” Terry said. “I haven’t seen him this evening. I told you so on the phone.”

  I gaped at him. “But you called me after that and said he had come in.”

  “No, I didn’t.”

  We stared at each other. Terry was having one of his bad nights, I could tell. His head was writhing around on the inside with the snakes of his army service and his battle with alcohol and drugs. On the outside, you could see he was flushed and sweating despite the air conditioning, and his movements were jerky and clumsy. Poor Terry.

  “You really didn’t?” I asked, in as neutral a tone as possible.

  “Said so, didn’t I?” His voice was belligerent.

  I hoped none of the bar patrons gave Terry trouble tonight.

  I backed out with a conciliatory smile.

  The dog was still at the back door. He whined when he saw me.

  “Are you hungry, fella?” I asked. He came right up to me, without the cringing I’d come to expect from strays. As he moved more into the light, I saw that this dog had been recently abandoned, if his glossy coat was any indicator. He was a collie, at least mostly. I started to step into the kitchen to ask whoever was cooking if they had any scraps for this guy, but then I had a better idea.

  “I know bad ol’ Bubba is at the house, but maybe you could come in the house with me,” I said in that baby voice I use with animals when I think nobody’s listening. “Can you pee outside, so we don’t make a mess in the house? Hmmm, boy?”

  As if he’d understood me, the collie marked the corner of the Dumpster.

  “Good fella! Come for a ride?” I
opened my car door, hoping he wouldn’t get the seats too dirty. The dog hesitated. “Come on, sugar, I’ll give you something good to eat when we get to my place, okay?” Bribery was not necessarily a bad thing.

  After a couple more looks and a thorough sniffing of my hands, the dog jumped onto the passenger seat and sat looking out the windshield like he’d committed himself to this adventure.

  I told him I appreciated it, and I tickled his ears. We set off, and the dog made it clear he was used to riding.

  “Now, when we get to the house, buddy,” I told the collie firmly, “we’re gonna make tracks for the front door, okay? There’s an ogre in the woods who’d just love to eat you up.”

  The dog gave an excited yip.

  “Well, he’s not gonna get a chance,” I soothed him. It sure was nice to have something to talk to. It was even nice he couldn’t talk back, at least for the moment. And I didn’t have to keep my guard up because he wasn’t human. Relaxing. “We’re gonna hurry.”

  “Woof,” agreed my companion.

  “I got to call you something,” I said. “How about. . . Buffy?”

  The dog growled.

  “Okay. Rover?”

  Whine.

  “Don’t like that either. Hmmm.” We turned into my driveway.

  “Maybe you already have a name?” I asked. “Let me check your neck.” After I turned off the engine, I ran my fingers through the thick hair. Not even a flea collar. “Someone’s been taking bad care of you, sweetie,” I said. “But not anymore. I’ll be a good mama.” With that last inanity, I got my house key ready and opened my door. In a flash, the dog pushed past me and stood in the yard, looking around him alertly. He sniffed the air, and a growl rose in his throat.

  “It’s just the good vampire, sugar, the one that’s guarding the house. You come on inside.” With some constant coaxing, I got the dog to come into the house. I locked the door behind us instantly.

  The dog padded all around the living room, sniffing and peering. After watching him for a minute to be sure he wasn’t going to chew on anything or lift his leg, I went to the kitchen to find something for him to eat. I filled a big bowl with water. I got another plastic bowl Gran had kept lettuce in, and I put the remains of Tina’s cat food and some leftover taco meat in it. I figured if you’d been starving, that would be acceptable. The dog finally worked his back to the kitchen and headed for the bowls. He sniffed at the food and raised his head to give me a long look.

  “I’m sorry. I don’t have any dog food. That’s the best I could come up with. If you want to stay with me, I’ll get some Kibbles ’N Bits.” The dog stared at me for a few more seconds, then bent his head to the bowl. He ate a little meat, took a drink, and looked up at me expectantly.

  “Can I call you Rex?”

  A little growl.

  “What about Dean?” I asked. “Dean’s a nice name.” A pleasant guy who helped me at a Shreveport bookstore was named Dean. His eyes looked kind of like this collie’s, observant and intelligent. And Dean was a little different; I’d never met a dog named Dean. “I’ll bet you’re smarter than Bubba,” I said thoughtfully, and the dog gave his short, sharp bark.

  “Well, come on, Dean, let’s get ready for bed,” I said, quite enjoying having something to talk to. The dog padded after me into the bedroom, checking out all the furniture very thoroughly. I pulled off the skirt and tee, put them away, and stepped out of my panties and unhooked my bra. The dog watched me with great attention while I pulled out a clean nightgown and went into the bathroom to shower. When I stepped out, clean and soothed, Dean was sitting in the doorway, his head cocked to one side.

  “That’s to get clean, people like to have showers,” I told him. “I know dogs don’t. I guess it’s a human thing.” I brushed my teeth and pulled on my nightgown. “You ready for sleep, Dean?”

  In answer, he jumped up on the bed, turned in a circle, and lay down.

  “Hey! Wait a minute!” I’d certainly talked myself into that one. Gran would have a fit if she could know a dog was on her bed. Gran had believed animals were fine as long as they spent the night outside. Humans inside, animals outside, had been her rule. Well, now I had a vampire outside and a collie on my bed.

  I said, “You get down!” and pointed at the rug.

  The collie, slowly, reluctantly, descended from the bed. He eyed me reproachfully as he sat on the rug.

  “You stay there,” I said sternly and got in the bed. I was very tired, and not nearly so nervous now that the dog was here; though what help I expected him to be in case of an intruder, I didn’t know, since he didn’t know me well enough to be loyal to me. But I would accept any comfort I could find, and I began to relax into sleep. Just as I was drifting off, I felt the bed indent under the weight of the collie. A narrow tongue gave my cheek a swipe. The dog settled close to me. I turned over and patted him. It was sort of nice having him here.

  The next thing I knew, it was dawn. I could hear the birds going to town outside, chirping up a storm, and it felt wonderful to be snuggled in bed. I could feel the warmth of the dog through my nightgown; I must have gotten hot during the night and thrown off the sheet. I drowsily patted the animal’s head and began to stroke his fur, my fingers running idly through the thick hair. He wriggled even closer, sniffed my face, put his arm around me.

  His arm?

  I was off the bed and shrieking in one move.

  In my bed, Sam propped himself on his elbows, sunny side up, and looked at me with some amusement.

  “Oh, ohmyGod! Sam, how’d you get here? What are you doing? Where’s Dean?” I covered my face with my hands and turned my back, but I’d certainly seen all there was to see of Sam.

  “Woof,” said Sam, from a human throat, and the truth stomped over me in combat boots.

  I whirled back to face him, so angry I felt like I was going to blow a gasket.

  “You watched me undress last night, you . . . you . . . damn dog!”

  “Sookie,” he said, persuasively. “Listen to me.”

  Another thought struck me. “Oh, Sam. Bill will kill you.” I sat on the slipper chair in the corner by the bathroom door. I put my elbows on my knees and hung my head. “Oh, no,” I said. “No, no, no.”

  He was kneeling in front of me. The wirey red-gold hair of his head was duplicated on his chest and trailed in a line down to . . . I shut my eyes again.

  “Sookie, I was worried when Arlene told me you were going to be alone,” Sam began.

  “Didn’t she tell you about Bubba?”

  “Bubba?”

  “This vampire Bill left watching the house.”

  “Oh. Yeah, she said he reminded her of some singer.”

  “Well, his name is Bubba. He likes to drain animals for fun.”

  I had the satisfaction of seeing (through my fingers) Sam turn pale.

  “Well, isn’t it lucky you let me in, then,” he said finally.

  Suddenly recalled to his guise of the night before, I said, “What are you, Sam?”

  “I’m a shapeshifter. I thought it was time you knew.”

  “Did you have to do it quite like that?”

  “Actually,” he said, embarrassed, “I had planned on waking up and getting out before you opened your eyes. I just overslept. Running around on all fours kind of tires you out.”

  “I thought people just changed into wolves.”

  “Nope. I can change into anything.”

  I was so interested I dropped my hands and tried to just stare at his face. “How often?” I asked. “Do you get to pick?”

  “I have to at the full moon,” he explained. “Other times, I have to will it; it’s harder and it takes longer. I turn into whatever animal I saw before I changed. So I keep a dog book open to a picture of a collie on my coffee table. Collies are big, but nonthreatening.”

  “So, you could be a bird?”

  “Yeah, but flying is hard. I’m always scared I’m going to get fried on a power line, or fly into a window.”
<
br />   “Why? Why did you want me to know?”

  “You seemed to handle Bill being a vampire really well. In fact, you seemed to enjoy it. So I thought I would see if you could handle my . . . condition.”

  “But what you are,” I said abruptly, off on a mental tangent, “can’t be explained by a virus! I mean, you utterly change!”

  He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me, the eyes now blue, but just as intelligent and observant.

  “Being a shapeshifter is definitely supernatural. If that is, then other things can be. So . . .” I said, slowly, carefully, “Bill hasn’t got a virus at all. Being a vampire, it really can’t be explained by an allergy to silver or garlic or sunlight . . . that’s just so much bullshit the vampires are spreading around, propaganda, you might say . . . so they can be more easily accepted, as sufferers from a terrible disease. But really they’re . . . they’re really . . .”

  I dashed into the bathroom and threw up. Luckily, I made it to the toilet.

  “Yeah,” Sam said from the doorway, his voice sad. “I’m sorry, Sookie. But Bill doesn’t just have a virus. He’s really, really dead.”

  I WASHED MY face and brushed my teeth twice. I sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling too tired to go further. Sam sat beside me. He put his arm around me comfortingly, and after a moment I nestled closer, laying my cheek in the hollow of his neck.

  “You know, once I was listening to NPR,” I said, completely at random. “They were broadcasting a piece about cryogenics, about how lots of people are opting to just freeze their head because it’s so much cheaper than getting your whole body frozen.”

  “Ummm?”

  “Guess what song they played for the closing?”

  “What, Sookie?”

  “‘Put Your Head on My Shoulder.’”

  Sam made a choking noise, then doubled over with laughter.

  “Listen, Sam,” I said, when he’d calmed down. “I hear what you’re telling me, but I have to work this out with Bill. I love Bill. I am loyal to him. And he isn’t here to give his point of view.”

  “Oh, this isn’t about me trying to woo you away from Bill. Though that would be great.” And Sam smiled his rare and brilliant smile. He seemed much more relaxed with me now that I knew his secret.

 
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