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Dead until dark, p.27
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       Dead Until Dark, p.27

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 
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  I heard, sensed, movement. Throwing caution to the winds, I leaped up and dashed for the trees. Someone crashed through the edge of the woods to my right and headed for me. But I knew where I was going, and in a vault that amazed me, I’d seized the low branch of our favorite childhood climbing tree and pulled myself up. If I lived until the next day, I’d have severely strained muscles, but it would be worth it. I balanced on the branch, trying to keep my breathing quiet, when I wanted to pant and groan like a dog dreaming.

  I wished this were a dream. Yet here I undeniably was, Sookie Stackhouse, waitress and mind reader, sitting on a branch in the woods in the dead of night, armed with nothing more than a pocket knife.

  Movement below me; a man glided through the woods. He had a length of cord hanging from one wrist. Oh, Jesus. Though the moon was almost full, his head stayed stubbornly in the shadow of the tree, and I couldn’t tell who it was. He passed underneath without seeing me.

  When he was out of sight, I breathed again. As quietly as I could, I scrambled down. I began working my way through the woods to the road. It would take awhile, but if I could get to the road maybe I could flag someone down. Then I thought of how seldom the road got traveled; it might be better to work my way across the cemetery to Bill’s house. I thought of the cemetery at night, of the murderer looking for me, and I shivered all over.

  Being even more scared was pointless. I had to concentrate on the here and now. I watched every foot placement, moving slowly. A fall would be noisy in this undergrowth, and he’d be on me in a minute.

  I found the dead cat about ten yards south east of my perching tree. The cat’s throat was a gaping wound. I couldn’t even tell what color its fur had been in the bleaching effect of the moonlight, but the dark splotches around the little corpse were surely blood. After five more feet of stealthy movement, I found Bubba. He was unconscious or dead. With a vampire it was hard to tell the difference. But with no stake through his heart, and his head still on, I could hope he was only unconscious.

  Someone had brought Bubba a drugged cat, I figured. Someone who had known Bubba was guarding me and had heard of Bubba’s penchant for draining cats.

  I heard a crackle behind me. The snap of a twig. I glided into the shadow of the nearest large tree. I was mad, mad and scared, and I wondered if I would die this night.

  I might not have the rifle, but I had a built-in tool. I closed my eyes and reached out with my mind.

  Dark tangle, red, black. Hate.

  I flinched. But this was necessary, this was my only protection. I let down every shred of defense.

  Into my head poured images that made me sick, made me terrified. Dawn, asking someone to punch her, then finding out that he’d got one of her hose in his hand, was stretching it between his fingers, preparing to tighten it around her neck. A flash of Maudette, naked and begging. A woman I’d never seen, her bare back to me, bruises and welts covering it. Then my grandmother—my grandmother—in our familiar kitchen, angry and fighting for her life.

  I was paralyzed by the shock of it, the horror of it. Whose thoughts were these? I had an image of Arlene’s kids, playing on my living room floor; I saw myself, and I didn’t look like the person I saw in my own mirror. I had huge holes in my neck, and I was lewd; I had a knowing leer on my face, and I patted the inside of my thigh suggestively.

  I was in the mind of Rene Lenier. This was how Rene saw me.

  Rene was mad.

  Now I knew why I’d never been able to read his thoughts explicitly; he kept them in a secret hole, a place in his mind he kept hidden and separate from his conscious self.

  He was seeing an outline behind a tree now and wondering if it looked like the outline of a woman.

  He was seeing me.

  I bolted and ran west toward the cemetery. I couldn’t listen to his head anymore, because my own head was focused so fixedly on running, dodging the obstacles of trees, bushes, fallen limbs, a little gully where rain had collected. My strong legs pumped, my arms swung, and my breath sounded like the wheezing of a bagpipe.

  I broke from the woods and was in the cemetery. The oldest portion of the graveyard was farther north toward Bill’s house, and it had the best places of concealment. I bounded over headstones, the modern kind, set almost flush with the ground, no good for hiding. I leaped over Gran’s grave, the earth still raw, no stone yet. Her killer followed me. I turned to look, to see how close he was, like a fool, and in the moonlight I saw Rene’s rough head of hair clearly as he gained on me.

  I ran down into the gentle bowl the cemetery formed, then began sprinting up the other side. When I thought there were enough large headstones and statues between me and Rene, I dodged behind a tall granite column topped with a cross. I remained standing, flattening myself against the cold hardness of the stone. I clamped a hand across my own mouth to silence my sobbing effort to get air in my lungs. I made myself calm enough to try to listen to Rene; but his thoughts were not even coherent enough to decipher, except the rage he felt. Then a clear concept presented itself.

  “Your sister,” I yelled. “Is Cindy still alive, Rene?”

  “Bitch!” he screamed, and I knew in that second that the first woman to die had been Rene’s sister, the one who liked vampires, the one he was supposedly still visiting from time to time, according to Arlene. Rene had killed Cindy, his waitress sister, while she was still wearing her pink-and-white hospital cafeteria uniform. He’d strangled her with her apron strings. And he’d had sex with her, after she was dead. She’d sunk so low, she wouldn’t mind her own brother, he’d thought, as much as he was capable of thinking. Anyone who’d let a vampire do that deserved to die. And he’d hidden her body from shame. The others weren’t his flesh and blood; it had been all right to let them lie.

  I’d gotten sucked down into Rene’s sick interior like a twig dragged down by a whirlpool, and it made me stagger. When I came back into my own head, he was on me. He hit me in the face as hard as he could, and he expected me to go down. The blow broke my nose and hurt so bad I almost blanked out, but I didn’t collapse. I hit him back. My lack of experience made my blow ineffectual. I just thumped him in the ribs, and he grunted, but in the next instant he retaliated.

  His fist broke my collarbone. But I didn’t fall.

  He hadn’t known how strong I was. In the moonlight, his face was shocked when I fought back, and I thanked the vampire blood I’d taken. I thought of my brave grandmother, and I launched myself at him, grabbing him by the ears and attempting to hit his head against the granite column. His hands shot up to grip my forearms, and he tried to pull me away so I’d loose my grip. Finally he succeeded, but I could tell from his eyes he was surprised and more on guard. I tried to knee him, but he anticipated me, twisting just far enough away to dodge me. While I was off-balance, he pushed, and I hit the ground with a teeth-chattering thud.

  Then he was straddling me. But he’d dropped the cord in our struggle, and while he held my neck with one hand, he was groping with the other for his method of choice. My right arm was pinned, but my left was free, and I struck and clawed at him. He had to ignore this, had to look for the strangling cord because that was part of his ritual. My scrabbling hand encountered a familiar shape.

  Rene, in his work clothes, was still wearing his knife on his belt. I yanked the snap open and pulled the knife from its sheath, and while he was still thinking, “I should have taken that off,” I sank the knife into the soft flesh of his waist, angling up. And I pulled it out.

  He screamed, then.

  He staggered to his feet, twisting his upper torso sideways, trying with both hands to stanch the blood that was pouring from the wound.

  I scuttered backward, getting up, trying to put distance between myself and man who was a monster just as surely as Bill was.

  Rene screamed. “Aw, Jesus, woman! What you done to me? Oh, God, it hurts!”

  That was rich.

  He was scared now, frightened of discovery, of an end to his games, of
an end to his vengeance.

  “Girls like you deserve to die,” he snarled. “I can feel you in my head, you freak!”

  “Who’s the freak around here?” I hissed. “Die, you bastard.”

  I didn’t know I had it in me. I stood by the headstone in a crouch, the bloody knife still clutched in my hand, waiting for him to charge me again.

  He staggered in circles, and I watched, my face stony. I closed my mind to him, to his feeling his death crawl up behind him. I stood ready to knife him a second time when he fell to the ground. When I was sure he couldn’t move, I went to Bill’s house, but I didn’t run. I told myself it was because I couldn’t: but I’m not sure. I kept seeing my grandmother, encapsuled in Rene’s memory forever, fighting for her life in her own house.

  I fished Bill’s key out of my pocket, almost amazed it was still there.

  I turned it somehow, staggered into the big living room, felt for the phone. My fingers touched the buttons, managed to figure out which was the nine and where the one was. I pushed the numbers hard enough to make them beep, and then, without warning, I checked out of consciousness.

  I KNEW I was in the hospital: I was surrounded by the clean smell of hospital sheets.

  The next thing I knew was that I hurt all over.

  And someone was in the room with me. I opened my eyes, not without effort.

  Andy Bellefleur. His square face was even more fatigued than the last time I’d seen him.

  “Can you hear me?” he said.

  I nodded, just a tiny movement, but even that sent a wave of pain through my head.

  “We got him,” he said, and then he proceeded to tell me a lot more, but I fell back asleep.

  It was daylight when I woke again, and this time, I seemed to be much more alert.

  Someone in the room.

  “Who’s here?” I said, and my voice came out in a painful rasp.

  Kevin rose from the chair in the corner, rolling a crossword puzzle magazine and sticking it into his uniform pocket.

  “Where’s Kenya?” I whispered.

  He grinned at me unexpectedly. “She was here for a couple of hours,” he explained. “She’ll be back soon. I spelled her for lunch.”

  His thin face and body formed one lean line of approval. “You are one tough lady,” he told me.

  “I don’t feel tough,” I managed.

  “You got hurt,” he told me as if I didn’t know that.

  “Rene.”

  “We found him out in the cemetery,” Kevin assured me. “You stuck him pretty good. But he was still conscious, and he told us he’d been trying to kill you.”

  “Good.”

  “He was real sorry he hadn’t finished the job. I can’t believe he spilled the beans like that, but he was some kind of hurting and he was some kind of scared, by the time we got to him. He told us the whole thing was your fault because you wouldn’t just lie down to die like the others. He said it must run in your genes, because your grandmother . . .” Here Kevin stopped short, aware that he was on upsetting ground.

  “She fought, too,” I whispered.

  Kenya came in then, massive, impassive, and holding a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee.

  “She’s awake,” Kevin said, beaming at his partner.

  “Good.” Kenya sounded less overjoyed about it. “She say what happened? Maybe we should call Andy.”

  “Yeah, that’s what he said to do. But he’s just been asleep four hours.”

  “The man said call.”

  Kevin shrugged, went to the phone at the side of the bed. I eased off into a doze as I heard him speaking, but I could hear him murmur with Kenya as they waited. He was talking about his hunting dogs. Kenya, I guess, was listening.

  Andy came in, I could feel his thoughts, the pattern of his brain. His solid presence came to roost by my bed. I opened my eyes as he was bending to look at me. We exchanged a long stare.

  Two pair of feet in regulation shoes moved out into the hall.

  “He’s still alive,” Andy said abruptly. “And he won’t stop talking.”

  I made the briefest motion of my head, indicating a nod, I hoped.

  “He says this goes back to his sister, who was seeing a vampire. She evidently got so low on blood that Rene thought she’d turn into a vamp herself if he didn’t stop her. He gave her an ultimatum, one evening in her apartment. She talked back, said she wouldn’t give up her lover. She was tying her apron around her, getting ready to go to work as they were arguing. He yanked it off her, strangled her . . . did other stuff.”

  Andy looked a little sick.

  “I know,” I whispered.

  “It seems to me,” Andy began again, “that somehow he decided he’d feel justified in doing that horrible thing if he convinced himself that everyone in his sister’s situation deserved to die. In fact, the murders here are very similar to two in Shreveport that haven’t been solved up until now, and we’re expecting Rene to touch on those while he’s rambling along. If he makes it.”

  I could feel my lips pressing together in horrified sympathy for those other poor women.

  “Can you tell me what happened to you?” Andy asked quietly. “Go slow, take your time, and keep your voice down to a whisper. Your throat is badly bruised.”

  I had figured that out for myself, thanks very much. I murmured my account of the evening, and I didn’t leave anything out. Andy had switched on a little tape recorder after asking me if that was all right. He placed it on the pillow close to my mouth when I indicated the device was okay with me, so he’d have the whole story.

  “Mr. Compton still out of town?” he asked me, after I’d finished.

  “New Orleans,” I whispered, barely able to speak.

  “We’ll look in Rene’s house for the rifle, now that we know it’s yours. It’ll be a nice piece of corroborative evidence.”

  Then a gleaming young woman in white came into the room, looked at my face, and told Andy he’d have to come back some other time.

  He nodded at me, gave me an awkward pat on the hand, and left. He gave the doctor a backward glance of admiration. She was sure worth admiring, but she was also wearing a wedding ring, so Andy was once again too late.

  She thought he seemed too serious and grim.

  I didn’t want to hear this.

  But I didn’t have enough energy to keep everyone out of my head.

  “Miss Stackhouse, how are you feeling?” the young woman asked a little too loudly. She was brunette and lean, with wide brown eyes and a full mouth.

  “Like hell,” I whispered.

  “I can imagine,” she said, nodding repeatedly while looking me over. I somehow didn’t think she could. I was willing to bet she’d never been beaten up by a multiple murderer in a graveyard.

  “You just lost your grandmother, too, didn’t you?” she asked sympathetically. I nodded, just a fraction of an inch.

  “My husband died about six months ago,” she said. “I know about grief. It’s tough being brave, isn’t it?”

  Well, well, well. I let my expression ask a question.

  “He had cancer,” she explained. I tried to look my condolences without moving anything, which was nearly impossible.

  “Well,” she said, standing upright, returning to her brisk manner, “Miss Stackhouse, you’re sure gonna live. You have a broken collarbone, and two broken ribs, and a broken nose.”

  Shepherd of Judea! No wonder I felt bad.

  “Your face and neck are severely bruised. Of course, you could tell your throat was hurt.”

  I was trying to imagine what I looked like. Good thing I didn’t have a mirror handy.

  “And you have lots of relatively minor bruises and cuts on your legs and arms.” She smiled. “Your stomach is fine, and your feet!”

  Hohoho. Very funny.

  “I have prescribed pain medication for you, so when you start feeling bad, just ring for the nurse.”

  A visitor stuck his head in the door behind her. She turned, bloc
king my view, and said, “Hello?”

  “This Sookie’s room?”

  “Yes, I was just finishing her examination. You can come in.” The doctor (whose name was Sonntag, by her nameplate) looked questioningly at me to get my permission, and I managed a tiny “Sure.”

  JB du Rone drifted to my bedside, looking as lovely as the cover model on a romance novel. His tawny hair gleamed under the fluorescent lights, his eyes were just the same color, and his sleeveless shirt showed muscle definition that might have been chiseled with a—well, with a chisel. He was looking down at me, and Dr. Sonntag was drinking him in.

  “Hey, Sookie, you feelin’ all right?” he asked. He lay a finger gently on my cheek. He kissed an unbruised spot on my forehead.

  “Thanks,” I whispered. “I’ll be okay. Meet my doctor.”

  JB turned his wide eyes on Dr. Sonntag, who practically tripped over her own feet to introduce herself.

  “Doctors weren’t this pretty when I was getting my shots,” JB said sincerely and simply.

  “You haven’t been to a doctor since you were a kid?” Dr. Sonntag said, amazed.

  “I never get sick.” He beamed at her. “Strong as an ox.”

  And the brain of one. But Dr. Sonntag probably had smarts enough for two.

  She couldn’t think of any reason for lingering, though she cast a wistful glance over her shoulder as she left.

  JB bent down to me and said earnestly, “Can I bring you anything, Sookie? Nabs or something?”

  The thought of trying to eat crackers made tears come to my eyes. “No thanks,” I breathed. “The doctor’s a widow.”

  You could change subjects on JB without him wondering why.

  “Wow,” he said, impressed. “She’s smart and single.”

  I wiggled my eyebrows in a significant way.

  “You think I oughtta ask her out?” JB looked as thoughtful as it was possible for him to be. “That might be a good idea.” He smiled down at me. “Long as you won’t date me, Sookie. You’re always number one to me. You just crook your little finger, and I’ll come running.”

 
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