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Dead until dark, p.3
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       Dead Until Dark, p.3

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 

  “Sookie, I had to replace the hot water heater in the house,” Jason said suddenly. He lives in my parents’ old house, the one we’d been living in when they died in a flash flood. We lived with Gran after that, but when Jason got through his two years of college and went to work for the state, he moved back into the house, which on paper is half mine.

  “You need any money on that?” I asked.

  “Naw, I got it.”

  We both make salaries, but we also have a little income from a fund established when an oil well was sunk on my parents’ property. It played out in a few years, but my parents and then Gran made sure the money was invested. It saved Jason and me a lot of struggle, that padding. I don’t know how Gran could have raised us if it hadn’t been for that money. She was determined not to sell any land, but her own income is not much more than social security. That’s one reason I don’t get an apartment. If I get groceries when I’m living with her, that’s reasonable, to her; but if I buy groceries and bring them to her house and leave them on her table and go home to my house, that’s charity and that makes her mad.

  “What kind did you get?” I asked, just to show interest.

  He was dying to tell me; Jason’s an appliance freak, and he wanted to describe his comparison shopping for a new water heater in detail. I listened with as much attention as I could muster.

  And then he interrupted himself. “Hey Sook, you remember Maudette Pickens?”

  “Sure,” I said, surprised. “We graduated in the same class.”

  “Somebody killed Maudette in her apartment last night.”

  Gran and I were riveted. “When?” Grand asked, puzzled that she hadn’t heard already.

  “They just found her this very morning in her bedroom. Her boss tried to call her to find out why she hadn’t shown up for work yesterday and today and got no answer, so he rode over and got the manager up, and they unlocked the place. You know she had the apartment across from DeeAnne’s?” Bon Temps had only one bona fide apartment complex, a three-building, two-story U-shaped grouping, so we knew exactly where he meant.

  “She got killed there?” I felt ill. I remembered Maudette clearly. Maudette had had a heavy jaw and a square bottom, pretty black hair and husky shoulders. Maudette had been a plodder, never bright or ambitious. I thought I recalled her working at the Grabbit Kwik, a gas station/convenience store.

  “Yeah, she’d been working there for at least a year, I guess,” Jason confirmed.

  “How was it done?” My grandmother had that squnched, give-it-to-me-quick look with which nice people ask for bad news.

  “She had some vampire bites on her—uh—inner thighs,” my brother said, looking down at his plate. “But that wasn’t what killed her. She was strangled. DeeAnne told me Maudette liked to go to that vampire bar in Shreveport when she had a couple of days off, so maybe that’s where she got the bites. Might not have been Sookie’s vampire.”

  “Maudette was a fang-banger?” I felt queasy, imagining slow, chunky Maudette draped in the exotic black dresses fang-bangers affected.

  “What’s that?” asked Gran. She must have missed Sally-Jessy the day the phenomenon was explored.

  “Men and women that hang around with vampires and enjoy being bitten. Vampire groupies. They don’t last too long, I think, because they want to be bitten too much, and sooner or later they get that one bite too many.”

  “But a bite didn’t kill Maudette.” Gran wanted to be sure she had it straight.

  “Nope, strangling.” Jason had begun finishing his lunch.

  “Don’t you always get gas at the Grabbit?” I asked.

  “Sure. So do a lot of people.”

  “And didn’t you hang around with Maudette some?” Gran asked.

  “Well, in a way of speaking,” Jason said cautiously.

  I took that to mean he’d bedded Maudette when he couldn’t find anyone else.

  “I hope the sheriff doesn’t want to talk to you,” Gran said, shaking her head as if indicating “no” would make it less likely.

  “What?” Jason was turning red, looking defensive.

  “You see Maudette in the store all the time when you get your gas, you so-to-speak date her, then she winds up dead in an apartment you’re familiar with,” I summarized. It wasn’t much, but it was something, and there were so few mysterious homicides in Bon Temps that I thought every stone would be turned in its investigation.

  “I ain’t the only one who fills the bill. Plenty of other guys get their gas there, and all of them know Maudette.”

  “Yeah, but in what sense?” Gran asked bluntly. “She wasn’t a prostitute, was she? So she will have talked about who she saw.”

  “She just liked to have a good time, she wasn’t a pro.” It was good of Jason to defend Maudette, considering what I knew of his selfish character. I began to think a little better of my big brother. “She was kinda lonely, I guess,” he added.

  Jason looked at both of us, then, and saw we were surprised and touched.

  “Speaking of prostitutes,” he said hastily, “there’s one in Monroe specializes in vampires. She keeps a guy standing by with a stake in case one gets carried away. She drinks synthetic blood to keep her blood supply up.”

  That was a pretty definite change of subject, so Gran and I tried to think of a question we could ask without being indecent.

  “Wonder how much she charges?” I ventured, and when Jason told us the figure he’d heard, we both gasped.

  Once we got off the topic of Maudette’s murder, lunch went about as usual, with Jason looking at his watch and exclaiming that he had to leave just when it was time to do the dishes.

  But Gran’s mind was still running on vampires, I found out. She came into my room later, when I was putting on my makeup to go to work.

  “How old you reckon the vampire is, the one you met?”

  “I have no idea, Gran.” I was putting on my mascara, looking wide-eyed and trying to hold still so I wouldn’t poke myself in the eye, so my voice came out funny, as if I was trying out for a horror movie.

  “Do you suppose . . . he might remember the War?”

  I didn’t need to ask which war. After all, Gran was a charter member of the Descendants of the Glorious Dead.

  “Could be,” I said, turning my face from side to side to make sure my blush was even.

  “You think he might come to talk to us about it? We could have a special meeting.”

  “At night,” I reminded her.

  “Oh. Yes, it’d have to be.” The Descendants usually met at noon at the library and brought a bag lunch.

  I thought about it. It would be plain rude to suggest to the vampire that he ought to speak to Gran’s club because I’d saved his blood from Drainers, but maybe he would offer if I gave a little hint? I didn’t like to, but I’d do it for Gran. “I’ll ask him the next time he comes in,” I promised.

  “At least he could come talk to me and maybe I could tape his recollections?” Gran said. I could hear her mind clicking as she thought of what a coup that would be for her. “It would be so interesting to the other club members,” she said piously.

  I stifled an impulse to laugh. “I’ll suggest it to him,” I said. “We’ll see.”

  When I left, Gran was clearly counting her chickens.

  I HADN’T THOUGHT of Rene Lenier going to Sam with the story of the parking lot fight. Rene’d been a busy bee, though. When I got to work that afternoon, I assumed the agitation I felt in the air was due to Maudette’s murder. I found out different.

  Sam hustled me into the storeroom the minute I came in. He was hopping with anger. He reamed me up one side and down the other.

  Sam had never been mad with me before, and soon I was on the edge of tears.

  “And if you think a customer isn’t safe, you tell me, and I’ll deal with it, not you,” he was saying for the sixth time, when I finally realized that Sam had been scared for me.

  I caught that rolling off him before I clamped down
firmly on “hearing” Sam. Listening in to your boss led to disaster.

  It had never occurred to me to ask Sam—or anyone else—for help.

  “And if you think someone is being harmed in our parking lot, your next move is to call the police, not step out there yourself like a vigilante,” Sam huffed. His fair complection, always ruddy, was redder than ever, and his wiry golden hair looked as if he hadn’t combed it.

  “Okay,” I said, trying to keep my voice even and my eyes wide open so the tears wouldn’t roll out. “Are you gonna fire me?”

  “No! No!” he exclaimed, apparently even angrier. “I don’t want to lose you!” He gripped my shoulders and gave me a little shake. Then he stood looking at me with wide, crackling blue eyes, and I felt a surge of heat rushing out from him. Touching accelerates my disability, makes it imperative that I hear the person touching. I stared right into his eyes for a long moment, then I remembered myself, and I jumped back as his hands dropped away.

  I whirled and left the storeroom, spooked.

  I’d learned a couple of disconcerting things. Sam desired me; and I couldn’t hear his thoughts as clearly as I could other people’s. I’d had waves of impressions of how he was feeling, but not thoughts. More like wearing a mood ring than getting a fax.

  So, what did I do about either piece of information?

  Absolutely nothing.

  I’d never looked on Sam as a beddable man before—or at least not beddable by me—for a lot of reasons. But the simplest one was that I never looked at anyone that way, not because I don’t have hormones—boy, do I have hormones—but they are constantly tamped down because sex, for me, is a disaster. Can you imagine knowing everything your sex partner is thinking? Right. Along the order of “Gosh, look at that mole . . . her butt is a little big . . . wish she’d move to the right a little . . . why doesn’t she take the hint and . . . ?” You get the idea. It’s chilling to the emotions, believe me. And during sex, there is simply no way to keep a mental guard up.

  Another reason is that I like Sam for a boss, and I like my job, which gets me out and keeps me active and earning so I won’t turn into the recluse my grandmother fears I’ll become. Working in an office is hard for me, and college was simply impossible because of the grim concentration necessary. It just drained me.

  So, right now, I wanted to mull over the rush of desire I’d felt from him. It wasn’t like he’d made me a verbal proposition or thrown me down on the storeroom floor. I’d felt his feelings, and I could ignore them if I chose. I appreciated the delicacy of this, and wondered if Sam had touched me on purpose, if he actually knew what I was.

  I took care not be alone with him, but I have to admit I was pretty shaken that night.

  THE NEXT TWO nights were better. We fell back into our comfortable relationship. I was relieved. I was disappointed. I was also run off my feet since Maudette’s murder sparked a business boom at Merlotte’s. All sorts of rumors were buzzing around Bon Temps, and the Shreveport news team did a little piece on Maudette Picken’s grisly death. Though I didn’t attend her funeral, my grandmother did, and she said the church was jam-packed. Poor lumpy Maudette, with her bitten thighs, was more interesting in death than she’d ever been in life.

  I was about to have two days off, and I was worried I’d miss connecting with the vampire, Bill. I needed to relay my grandmother’s request. He hadn’t returned to the bar, and I began to wonder if he would.

  Mack and Denise hadn’t been back in Merlotte’s either, but Rene Lenier and Hoyt Fortenberry made sure I knew they’d threatened me with horrible things. I can’t say I was seriously alarmed. Criminal trash like the Rats roamed the highways and trailer parks of America, not smart enough or moral enough to settle down to productive living. They never made a positive mark on the world, or amounted to a hill of beans, to my way of thinking. I shrugged off Rene’s warnings.

  But he sure enjoyed relaying them. Rene Lenier was small like Sam, but where Sam was ruddy and blond, Rene was swarthy and had a bushy headful of rough, black hair threaded with gray. Rene often came by the bar to drink a beer and visit with Arlene because (as he was fond of telling anyone in the bar) she was his favorite ex-wife. He had three. Hoyt Fortenberry was more of a cipher than Rene. He was neither dark nor fair, neither big nor little. He always seemed cheerful and always tipped decent. He admired my brother Jason far beyond what Jason deserved, in my opinion.

  I was glad Rene and Hoyt weren’t there the night the vampire returned.

  He sat at the same table.

  Now that the vampire was actually in front of me, I felt a little shy. I found I’d forgotten the almost imperceptible glow of his skin. I’d exaggerated his height and the clear-cut lines of his mouth.

  “What can I get you?” I asked.

  He looked up at me. I had forgotten, too, the depth of his eyes. He didn’t smile or blink; he was so immobile. For the second time, I relaxed into his silence. When I let down my guard, I could feel my face relax. It was as good as getting a massage (I am guessing).

  “What are you?” he asked me. It was the second time he’d wanted to know.

  “I’m a waitress,” I said, again deliberately misunderstanding him. I could feel my smile snap back into place again. My little bit of peace vanished.

  “Red wine,” he ordered, and if he was disappointed I couldn’t tell by his voice.

  “Sure,” I said. “The synthetic blood should come in on the truck tomorrow. Listen, could I talk to you after work? I have a favor to ask you.”

  “Of course. I’m in your debt.” And he sure didn’t sound happy about it.

  “Not a favor for me!” I was getting miffed myself. “For my grandmother. If you’ll be up—well, I guess you will be—when I get off work at one-thirty, would you very much mind meeting me at the employee door at the back of the bar?” I nodded toward it, and my ponytail bounced around my shoulders. His eyes followed the movement of my hair.

  “I’d be delighted.”

  I didn’t know if he was displaying the courtesy Gran insisted was the standard in bygone times, or if he was plain old mocking me.

  I resisted the temptation to stick out my tongue at him or blow a raspberry. I spun on my heel and marched back to the bar. When I brought him his wine, he tipped me 20 percent. Soon after that, I looked over at his table only to realize he’d vanished. I wondered if he’d keep his word.

  Arlene and Dawn left before I was ready to go, for one reason and another; mostly because all the napkin holders in my area proved to be half-empty. As I retrieved my purse from the locked cabinet in Sam’s office, where I stow it while I work, I called good-bye to my boss. I could hear him clanking around in the men’s room, probably trying to fix the leaky toilet. I stepped into the ladies’ room for a second to check my hair and makeup.

  When I stepped outside I noticed that Sam had already switched off the customer parking lot lights. Only the security light on the electricity pole in front of his trailer illuminated the employee parking lot. To the amusement of Arlene and Dawn, Sam had put in a yard and planted boxwood in front of his trailer, and they were constantly teasing him about the neat line of his hedge.

  I thought it was pretty.

  As usual, Sam’s truck was parked in front of his trailer, so my car was the only one left in the lot.

  I stretched, looking from side to side. No Bill. I was surprised at how disappointed I was. I had really expected him to be courteous, even if his heart (did he have one?) wasn’t in it.

  Maybe, I thought with a smile, he’d jump out of a tree, or appear with a poof! in front of me draped in a red-lined black cape. But nothing happened. So I trudged over to my car.

  I’d hoped for a surprise, but not the one I got.

  Mack Rattray jumped out from behind my car and in one stride got close enough to clip me in the jaw. He didn’t hold back one little bit, and I went down onto the gravel like a sack of cement. I let out a yell when I went down, but the ground knocked all the air out of me and
some skin off of me, and I was silent and breathless and helpless. Then I saw Denise, saw her swing back her heavy boot, had just enough warning to roll into a ball before the Rattrays began kicking me.

  The pain was immediate, intense, and unrelenting. I threw my arms over my face instinctively, taking the beating on my forearms, legs, and my back.

  I think I was sure, during the first few blows, that they’d stop and hiss warnings and curses at me and leave. But I remember the exact moment I realized that they intended to kill me.

  I could lie there passively and take a beating, but I would not lie there and be killed.

  The next time a leg came close I lunged and grabbed it and held on for my life. I was trying to bite, trying to at least mark one of them. I wasn’t even sure whose leg I had.

  Then, from behind me, I heard a growl. Oh, no, they’ve brought a dog, I thought. The growl was definitely hostile. If I’d had any leeway with my emotions, the hair would have stood up on my scalp.

  I took one more kick to the spine, and then the beating stopped.

  The last kick had done something dreadful to me. I could hear my own breathing, stertorous, and a strange bubbling sound that seemed to be coming from my own lungs.

  “What the hell is that?” Mack Rattray asked, and he sounded absolutely terrified.

  I heard the growl again, closer, right behind me. And from another direction, I heard a sort of snarl. Denise began wailing, Mack was cursing. Denise yanked her leg from my grasp, which had grown very weak. My arms flopped to the ground. They seemed to be beyond my control. Though my vision was cloudy, I could see that my right arm was broken. My face felt wet. I was scared to continue evaluating my injuries.

  Mack began screaming, and then Denise, and there seemed to be all kinds of activity going on around me, but I couldn’t move. My only view was my broken arm and my battered knees and the darkness under my car.

 
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