Dead to the world, p.3
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       Dead to the World, p.3
 

         Part #4 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris  
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Chapter 2

  2

  I woke up slowly. As I lay snuggled under the covers, now and then stretching an arm or a leg, I gradually remembered the surrealistic happenings of the night before.

  Well, Eric wasn't in bed with me now, so I had to assume he was safely ensconced in the hidey-hole. I went across the hall. As I'd promised, I put the contents back in the closet to make it look normal. The clock told me it was noon, and outside the sun was bright, though the air was cold. For Christmas, Jason had given me a thermometer that read the outside temperature and showed it to me on a digital readout inside. He'd installed it for me, too. Now I knew two things: it was noon, and it was thirty-four degrees outside.

  In the kitchen, the pan of water I'd washed Eric's feet with was still sitting on the floor. As I dumped it into the sink, I saw that at some point he'd rinsed out the bottle that had held the synthetic blood. I'd have to get some more to have around when he rose, since you didn't want a hungry vampire in your house, and it would be only polite to have extra to offer Pam and whoever else drove over from Shreveport. They'd explain things to me - or not. They'd take Eric away and work on whatever problems were facing the Shreveport vampire community, and I would be left in peace. Or not.

  Merlotte's was closed on New Year's Day until four o'clock. On New Year's Day, and the day after, Charlsie and Danielle and the new girl were on the schedule, since the rest of us had worked New Year's Eve. So I had two whole days off. . . and at least one of them I got to spend alone in a house with a mentally ill vampire. Life just didn't get any better.

  I had two cups of coffee, put Eric's jeans in the washer, read a romance for a while, and studied my brand-new Word of the Day calendar, a Christmas gift from Arlene. My first word for the New Year was "exsanguinate. " This was probably not a good omen.

  Jason came by a little after four, flying down my drive in his black pickup with pink and purple flames on the side. I'd showered and dressed by then, but my hair was still wet. I'd sprayed it with detangler and I was brushing through it slowly, sitting in front of the fireplace. I'd turned on the TV to a football game to have something to watch while I brushed, but I kept the sound way down. I was pondering Eric's predicament while I luxuriated in the feel of the fire's warmth on my back.

  We hadn't used the fireplace much in the past couple of years because buying a load of wood was so expensive, but Jason had cut up a lot of trees that had fallen last year after an ice storm. I was well stocked, and I was enjoying the flames.

  My brother stomped up the front steps and knocked perfunctorily before coming in. Like me, he had mostly grown up in this house. We'd come to live with Gran when my parents died, and she'd rented out their house until Jason said he was ready to live on his own, when he'd been twenty. Now Jason was twenty-eight and the boss of a parish road crew. This was a rapid rise for a local boy without a lot of education, and I'd thought it was enough for him until the past month or two, when he'd begun acting restless.

  "Good," he said, when he saw the fire. He stood squarely in front of it to warm his hands, incidentally blocking the warmth from me. "What time did you get home last night?" he said over his shoulder.

  "I guess I got to bed about three. "

  "What did you think of that girl I was with?"

  "I think you better not date her anymore. "

  That wasn't what he'd expected to hear. His eyes slid sideways to meet mine. "What did you get off her?" he asked in a subdued voice. My brother knows I am telepathic, but he would never discuss it with me, or anyone else. I've seen him get into fights with some man who accused me of being abnormal, but he knows I'm different. Everyone else does, too. They just choose not to believe it, or they believe I couldn't possibly read their thoughts - just someone else's. God knows, I try to act and talk like I'm not receiving an unwanted spate of ideas and emotions and regrets and accusations, but sometimes it just seeps through.

  "She's not your kind," I said, looking into the fire.

  "She surely ain't a vamp," he protested.

  "No, not a vamp. "

  "Well, then. " He glared at me belligerently.

  "Jason, when the vampires came out - when we found out they were real after all those decades of thinking they were just a scary legend - didn't you ever wonder if there were other tall tales that were real?"

  My brother struggled with that concept for a minute. I knew (because I could "hear" him) that Jason wanted to deny any such idea absolutely and call me a crazy woman - but he just couldn't. "You know for a fact," he said. It wasn't quite a question.

  I made sure he was looking me in the eyes, and I nodded emphatically.

  "Well, shit," he said, disgusted. "I really liked that girl, and she was a tiger in the sack. "

  "Really?" I asked, absolutely stunned that she had changed in front of him when it wasn't the full moon. "Are you okay?" The next second, I was chastising myself for my stupidity. Of course she hadn't.

  He gaped at me for a second, before busting out laughing. "Sookie, you are one weird woman! You looked just like you thought she really could - " And his face froze. I could feel the idea bore a hole through the protective bubble most people inflate around their brain, the bubble that repels sights and ideas that don't jibe with their expectation of the everyday. Jason sat down heavily in Gran's recliner. "I wish I didn't know that," he said in a small voice.

  "That may not be specifically what happens to her - the tiger thing - but believe me, something happens. "

  It took a minute for his face to settle back into more familiar lines, but it did. Typical Jason behavior: There was nothing he could do about his new knowledge, so he pushed it to the back of his mind. "Listen, did you see Hoyt's date last night? After they left the bar, Hoyt got stuck in a ditch over to Arcadia, and they had to walk two miles to get to a phone because he'd let his cell run down. "

  "He did not!" I exclaimed, in a comforting and gossipy way. "And her in those heels. " Jason's equilibrium was restored. He told me the town gossip for a few minutes, he accepted my offer of a Coke, and he asked me if I needed anything from town.

  "Yes, I do. " I'd been thinking while he was talking. Most of his news I'd heard from other brains the nights before, in unguarded moments.

  "Ah-oh," he said, looking mock-frightened. "What am I in for now?"

  "I need ten bottles of synthetic blood and clothes for big man," I said, and I'd startled him again. Poor Jason, he deserved a silly vixen of a sister who bore nieces and nephews who called him Uncle Jase and held on to his legs. Instead, he got me.

  "How big is the man, and where is he?"

  "He's about six foot four or five, and he's asleep," I said. "I'd guess a thirty-four waist, and he's got long legs and broad shoulders. " I reminded myself to check the size label on Eric's jeans, which were still in the dryer out on the back porch.

  "What kind of clothes?"

  "Work clothes. "

  "Anybody I know?"

  "Me," said a much deeper voice.

  Jason whipped around as if he was expecting an attack, which shows his instincts aren't so bad, after all. But Eric looked as unthreatening as a vampire his size can look. And he'd obligingly put on the brown velour bathrobe that I'd left in the second bedroom. It was one I'd kept here for Bill, and it gave me a pang to see it on someone else. But I had to be practical; Eric couldn't wander around in red bikini underwear - at least, not with Jason in the house.

  Jason goggled at Eric and cast a shocked glance at me. "This is your newest man, Sookie? You didn't let any grass grow under your feet. " He didn't know whether to sound admiring or indignant. Jason still didn't realize Eric was dead. It's amazing to me that lots of people can't tell for a few minutes. "And I need to get him clothes?"

  "Yes. His shirt got torn last night, and his blue jeans are still dirty. "

  "You going to introduce m
e?"

  I took a deep breath. It would have been so much better if Jason hadn't seen Eric. "Better not," I said.

  They both took that badly. Jason looked wounded, and the vampire looked offended.

  "Eric," he said, and stuck out a hand to Jason.

  "Jason Stackhouse, this rude lady's brother," Jason said.

  They shook, and I felt like wringing both their necks.

  "I'm assuming there's a reason why you two can't go out to buy him more clothes," Jason said.

  "There's a good reason," I said. "And there's about twenty good reasons you should forget you ever saw this guy. "

  "Are you in danger?" Jason asked me directly.

  "Not yet," I said.

  "If you do something that gets my sister hurt, you'll be in a world of trouble," Jason told Eric the vampire.

  "I would expect nothing less," Eric said. "But since you are being blunt with me, I'll be blunt with you. I think you should support her and take her into your household, so she would be better protected. "

  Jason's mouth fell open again, and I had to cover my own so I wouldn't laugh out loud. This was even better than I'd imagined.

  "Ten bottles of blood and a change of clothes?" Jason asked me, and I knew by the change in his voice that he'd finally cottoned on to Eric's state.

  "Right. Liquor store'll have the blood. You can get the clothes at WalMart. " Eric had mostly been a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy, which was all I could afford, anyway. "Oh, he needs some shoes, too. "

  Jason went to stand by Eric and put his foot parallel to the vampire's. He whistled, which made Eric jump.

  "Big feet," Jason commented, and flashed me a look. "Is the old saying true?"

  I smiled at him. He was trying to lighten the atmosphere. "You may not believe me, but I don't know. "

  "Kind of hard to swallow. . . no joke intended. Well, I'm gone," Jason said, nodding to Eric. In a few seconds, I heard his truck speeding around the curves in the driveway, through the dark woods. Night had fallen completely.

  "I'm sorry I came out while he was here," Eric said tentatively. "You didn't want me to meet him, I think. " He came over to the fire and seemed to be enjoying the warmth as I had been doing.

  "It's not that I'm embarrassed to have you here," I said. "It's that I have a feeling you're in a heap of trouble, and I don't want my brother drawn in. "

  "He is your only brother?"

  "Yes. And my parents are gone, my grandmother, too. He's all I have, except for a cousin who's been on drugs for years. She's lost, I guess. "

  "Don't be so sad," he said, as if he couldn't help himself.

  "I'm fine. " I made my voice brisk and matter-of-fact.

  "You've had my blood," he said.

  Ah-oh. I stood absolutely still.

  "I wouldn't be able to tell how you feel if you hadn't had my blood," he said. "Are we - have we been - lovers?"

  That was certainly a nice way to put it. Eric was usually pretty Anglo-Saxon about sex.

  "No," I said promptly, and I was telling the truth, though only by a narrow margin. We'd been interrupted in time, thank God. I'm not married. I have weak moments. He is gorgeous. What can I say?

  But he was looking at me with intense eyes, and I felt color flooding my face.

  "This is not your brother's bathrobe. "

  Oh, boy. I stared into the fire as if it were going to spell out an answer for me.

  "Whose, then?"

  "Bill's," I said. That was easy.

  "He is your lover?"

  I nodded. "Was," I said honestly.

  "He is my friend?"

  I thought that over. "Well, not exactly. He lives in the area you're the sheriff of? Area Five?" I resumed brushing my hair and discovered it was dry. It crackled with electricity and followed the brush. I smiled at the effect in my reflection in the mirror over the mantel. I could see Eric in the reflection, too. I have no idea why the story went around that vampires can't be seen in mirrors. There was certainly plenty of Eric to see, because he was so tall and he hadn't wrapped the robe very tightly. . . . I closed my eyes.

  "Do you need something?" Eric asked anxiously.

  More self-control.

  "I'm just fine," I said, trying not to grind my teeth. "Your friends will be here soon. Your jeans are in the dryer, and I'm hoping Jason will be back any minute with some clothes. "

  "My friends?"

  "Well, the vampires who work for you. I guess Pam counts as a friend. I don't know about Chow. "

  "Sookie, where do I work? Who is Pam?"

  This was really an uphill conversation. I tried to explain to Eric about his position, his ownership of Fangtasia, his other business interests, but truthfully, I wasn't knowledgeable enough to brief him completely.

  "You don't know much about what I do," he observed accurately.

  "Well, I only go to Fangtasia when Bill takes me, and he takes me when you make me do something. " I hit myself in the forehead with my brush. Stupid, stupid!

  "How could I make you do anything? May I borrow the brush?" Eric asked. I stole a glance at him. He was looking all broody and thoughtful.

  "Sure," I said, deciding to ignore his first question. I handed over the brush. He began to use it on his own hair, making all the muscles in his chest dance around. Oh boy. Maybe I should get back in the shower and turn the water on cold? I stomped into the bedroom and got an elastic band and pulled my hair back in the tightest ponytail I could manage, up at the crown of my head. I used my second-best brush to get it very smooth, and checked to make sure I'd gotten it centered by turning my head from side to side.

  "You are tense," Eric said from the doorway, and I yipped.

  "Sorry, sorry!" he said hastily.

  I glared at him, full of suspicion, but he seemed sincerely contrite. When he was himself, Eric would have laughed. But darn if I didn't miss Real Eric. You knew where you were with him.

  I heard a knock on the front door.

  "You stay in here," I said. He seemed pretty worried, and he sat on the chair in the corner of the room, like a good little fella. I was glad I'd picked up my discarded clothes the night before, so my room didn't seem so personal. I went through the living room to the front door, hoping for no more surprises.

  "Who is it?" I asked, putting my ear to the door.

  "We are here," said Pam.

  I began to turn the knob, stopped, then remembered they couldn't come in anyway, and opened the door.

  Pam has pale straight hair and is as white as a magnolia petal. Other than that, she looks like a young suburban housewife who has a part-time job at a preschool.

  Though I don't think you'd really ever want Pam to take care of your toddlers, I've never seen her do anything extraordinarily cruel or vicious. But she's definitely convinced that vampires are better than humans, and she's very direct and doesn't mince words. I'm sure if Pam saw that some dire action was necessary for her well-being, she'd do it without missing any sleep. She seems to be an excellent second-in-command, and not overly ambitious. If she wants to have her own bailiwick, she keeps that desire very well concealed.

  Chow is a whole different kettle of fish. I don't want to know Chow any better than I already do. I don't trust him, and I've never felt comfortable around him. Chow is Asian, a small-built but powerful vampire with longish black hair. He is no more than five foot seven, but every inch of visible skin (except his face) is covered with those intricate tattoos that are true art dyed into human skin. Pam says they are yakuza tattoos. Chow acts as Fangtasia's bartender some evenings, and on other nights he just sits around to let patrons approach him. (That's the whole purpose of vampire bars, to let regular humans feel they're walking on the wild side by being in the same room with the in-the-flesh undead. It's very lucrative, Bill told me. )

 
Pam was wearing a fluffy cream sweater and golden-brown knit pants, and Chow was in his usual vest and slacks. He seldom wore a shirt, so the Fangtasia patrons could get the full benefit of his body art.

  I called Eric, and he came into the room slowly. He was visibly wary.

  "Eric," Pam said, when she saw him. Her voice was full of relief. "You're well?" Her eyes were fixed on Eric anxiously. She didn't bow, but she sort of gave a deep nod.

  "Master," Chow said, and bowed.

  I tried not to overinterpret what I was seeing and hearing, but I assumed that the different greetings signified the relationships among the three.

  Eric looked uncertain. "I know you," he said, trying to make it sound more statement than question.

  The two other vampires exchanged a glance. "We work for you," Pam said. "We owe you fealty. "

  I began to ease out of the room, because they'd want to talk about secret vampire stuff, I was sure. And if there was anything I didn't want to know, it was more secrets.

  "Please don't go," Eric said to me. His voice was frightened. I froze and looked behind me. Pam and Chow were staring over Eric's shoulders at me, and they had quite different expressions. Pam looked almost amused. Chow looked openly disapproving.

  I tried not to look in Eric's eyes, so I could leave him with a clear conscience, but it just didn't work. He didn't want to be left alone with his two sidekicks. I blew lots of air out, puffing up my cheeks. Well, dammit. I trudged back to Eric's side, glaring at Pam the whole way.

  There was another knock at the door, and Pam and Chow reacted in a dramatic way. They were both ready to fight in an instant, and vampires in that readiness are very, very scary. Their fangs run out, their hands arch like claws, and their bodies are on full alert. The air seems to crackle around them.

  "Yes?" I said from right inside the door. I had to get a peephole installed.

  "It's your brother," Jason said brusquely. He didn't know how lucky he was that he hadn't just walked in.

  Something had put Jason into a foul mood, and I wondered if there was anyone with him. I almost opened the door. But I hesitated. Finally, feeling like a traitor, I turned to Pam. I silently pointed down the hall to the back door, making an opening-and-closing gesture so she could not mistake what I meant. I made a circle in the air with my finger - Come around the house, Pam - and pointed at the front door.

  Pam nodded and ran down the hall to the back of the house. I couldn't hear her feet on the floor. Amazing.

  Eric moved away from the door. Chow got in front of him. I approved. This was exactly what an underling was supposed to do.

  In less than a minute, I heard Jason bellow from maybe six inches away. I jumped away from the door, startled.

  Pam said, "Open up!"

  I swung the door wide to see Jason locked in Pam's arms. She was holding him off the ground with no effort, though he was flailing wildly and making it as hard as he could, God bless him.

  "You're by yourself," I said, relief being my big emotion.

  "Of course, dammit! Why'd you set her on me? Let me down!"

  "It's my brother, Pam," I said. "Please put him down. "

  Pam set Jason down, and he spun around to look at her. "Listen, woman! You don't just sneak up on a man like that! You're lucky I didn't slap you upside the head!"

  Pam looked amused all over again, and even Jason looked embarrassed. He had the grace to smile. "I guess that might be pretty hard," he admitted, picking up the bags he'd dropped. Pam helped him. "It's lucky I got the blood in the big plastic bottles," he said. "Otherwise, this lovely lady would have to go hungry. "

  He smiled at Pam engagingly. Jason loves women. With Pam, Jason was in way over his head, but didn't have the sense to know it.

  "Thanks. You need to go now," I said abruptly. I took the plastic bags from his hands. He and Pam were still in an eye-lock. She was putting the whammy on him. "Pam," I said sharply. "Pam, this is my brother. "

  "I know," she said calmly. "Jason, did you have something to tell us?"

  I'd forgotten that Jason had sounded like he was barely containing himself when he'd come to the door.

  "Yes," he said, hardly able to tear his eyes away from the vampire. But when he glanced at me, he caught sight of Chow, and his eyes widened. He had enough sense to fear Chow, at least. "Sookie?" he said. "Are you all right?" He took a step into the room, and I could see the adrenaline left over from the fright Pam had given begin to pump through his system again.

  "Yes. Everything's all right. These are just friends of Eric's who came to check on him. "

  "Well, they better go take those wanted posters down. "

  That got everyone's full attention. Jason enjoyed that.

  "There's posters up at WalMart, and Grabbit Kwik, and the Bottle Barn, and just about everywhere else in town," he said. "They all say, 'Have you seen this man?' and they go on to tell about him being kidnapped and his friends being so anxious, and the reward for a confirmed sighting is fifty thousand dollars. "

  I didn't process this too well. I was mostly thinking, Huh?, when Pam got the point.

  "They're hoping to sight him and catch him," she said to Chow. "It will work. "

  "We should take care of it," he said, nodding toward Jason.

  "Don't you lay one hand on my brother," I said. I moved between Jason and Chow, and my hands itched for a stake or hammer or anything at all that would keep this vamp from touching Jason.

  Pam and Chow focused on me with that unswerving attention. I didn't find it flattering, as Jason had. I found it deadly. Jason opened his mouth to speak - I could feel the anger building in him, and the impulse to confront - but my hand clamped down on his wrist, and he grunted, and I said, "Don't say a word. " For a miracle, he didn't. He seemed to sense that events were moving forward too rapidly and in a grave direction.

  "You'll have to kill me, too," I said.

  Chow shrugged. "Big threat. "

  Pam didn't say anything. If it came to a choice between upholding vamp interests and being my buddy. . . well, I guessed we were just going to have to cancel our sleepover, and here I'd been planning on French-braiding her hair.

  "What is this about?" Eric asked. His voice was considerably stronger. "Explain. . . Pam. "

  A minute went by while things hung in the balance. Then Pam turned to Eric, and she may have been slightly relieved that she didn't have to kill me right at the moment. "Sookie and this man, her brother, have seen you," she explained. "They're human. They need the money. They will turn you in to the witches. "

  "What witches?" Jason and I said simultaneously.

  "Thank you, Eric, for getting us into this shit," Jason muttered unfairly. "And could you let go of my wrist, Sook? You're stronger than you look. "

  I was stronger than I should be because I'd had vampire blood - most recently, Eric's. The effects would last around three more weeks, maybe longer. I knew this from past experience.

  Unfortunately, I'd needed that extra strength at a low point in my life. The very vampire who was now draped in my former boyfriend's bathrobe had donated that blood when I was grievously wounded but had to keep going.

  "Jason," I said in a level voice - as though the vampires couldn't hear me - "please watch yourself. " That was as close as I could come to telling Jason to be smart for once in his life. He was way too fond of walking on the wild side.

  Very slowly and cautiously, as if an uncaged lion were in the room, Jason and I went to sit on the old couch to one side of the fireplace. That notched the situation down a couple of degrees. After a brief hesitation, Eric sat on the floor and pressed himself into my legs. Pam settled on the edge of the recliner, closest to the fireplace, but Chow chose to remain standing (within what I calculated was lunging distance) near Jason. The atmosphere became less tense, though not by any means relaxed - but still
, this was an improvement over the moments before.

  "Your brother must stay and hear this," Pam said. "No matter how much you don't want him to know. He needs to learn why he mustn't try to earn that money. "

  Jason and I gave quick nods. I was hardly in a position to throw them out. Wait, I could! I could tell them all that their invitation to come in was rescinded, and whoosh, out the door they'd go, walking backward. I found myself smiling. Rescinding an invitation was extremely satisfying. I'd done it once before; I'd sent both Bill and Eric zooming out of my living room, and it had felt so good I'd rescinded the entrance invite of every vampire I knew. I could feel my smile fading as I thought more carefully.

  If I gave way to this impulse, I'd have to stay in my house every night for the rest of my life, because they'd return at dusk the next day and the day after that and so on, until they got me, because I had their boss. I glowered at Chow. I was willing to blame this whole thing on him.

  "Several night ago, we heard - at Fangtasia," Pam explained for Jason's benefit, "that a group of witches had arrived in Shreveport. A human told us, one who wants Chow. She didn't know why we were so interested in that information. "

  That didn't sound too threatening to me. Jason shrugged. "So?" he said. "Geez, you all are vampires. What can a bunch of girls in black do to you?"

  "Real witches can do plenty to vampires," Pam said, with remarkable restraint. "The 'girls in black' you're thinking of are only poseurs. Real witches can be women or men of any age. They are very formidable, very powerful. They control magical forces, and our existence itself is rooted in magic. This group seems to have some extra. . . " She paused, casting around for a word.

  "Juice?" Jason suggested helpfully.

  "Juice," she agreed. "We haven't discovered what makes them so strong. "

  "What was their purpose in coming to Shreveport?" I asked.

  "A good question," Chow said approvingly. "A much better question. "

  I frowned at him. I didn't need his damn approval.

  "They wanted - they want - to take over Eric's businesses," Pam said. "Witches want money as much as anyone, and they figure they can either take over the businesses, or make Eric pay them to leave him alone. "

  "Protection money. " This was a familiar concept to a television viewer. "But how could they force you into anything? You guys are so powerful. "

  "You have no idea how many problems a business can develop if witches want a piece of it. When we met with them for the first time, their leaders - a sister and brother team - spelled it out. Hallow made it clear she could curse our labor, turn our alcoholic drinks bad, and cause patrons to trip on the dance floor and sue us, to say nothing of plumbing problems. " Pam threw up her hands in disgust. "It would make every night a bad dream, and our revenues would plummet, maybe to the point that the Fangtasia would become worthless. "

  Jason and I gave each other cautious glances. Naturally, vampires were heavily into the bar business, since it was most lucrative at night, and they were up then. They'd dabbled in all-night dry cleaners, all-night restaurants, all-night movie theaters. . . but the bar business paid best. If Fangtasia closed, Eric's financial base would suffer a blow.

  "So they want protection money," Jason said. He'd watched the Godfather trilogy maybe fifty times. I thought about asking him if he wanted to sleep with the fishes, but Chow was looking antsy, so I refrained. We were both of us just a snick and a snee away from an unpleasant death, and I knew it was no time for humor, especially humor that so nearly wasn't.

  "So how did Eric end up running down the road at night without a shirt or shoes?" I asked, thinking it was time to get down to brass tacks.

  Much exchanging of glances between the two subordinates. I looked down at Eric, pressed up against my legs. He seemed to be as interested in the answer as we were. His hand firmly circled my ankle. I felt like a large security blanket.

  Chow decided to take a narrative turn. "We told them we would discuss their threat. But last night, when we went to work, one of the lesser witches was waiting at Fangtasia with an alternative proposal. " He looked a little uncomfortable. "During our initial meeting, the head of the coven, Hallow, decided she, uh, lusted after Eric. Such a coupling is very frowned upon among witches, you understand, since we are dead and witchcraft is supposed to be so. . . organic. " Chow spat the word out like it was something stuck to his shoe. "Of course, most witches would never do what this coven was attempting. These are all people drawn to the power itself, rather than to the religion behind it. "

  This was interesting, but I wanted to hear the rest of the story. So did Jason, who made a "hurry along" gesture with his hand. With a little shake to himself, as if to rouse himself from his thoughts, Chow went on. "This head witch, this Hallow, told Eric, through her subordinate, that if he would entertain her for seven nights, she would only demand a fifth of his business, rather than a half. "

  "You must have some kind of reputation," my brother said to Eric, his voice full of honest awe. Eric was not entirely successful at hiding his pleased expression. He was glad to hear he was such a Romeo. There was a slight difference in the way he looked up at me in the next moment, and I had a feeling of horrid inevitability - like when you see your car begin to roll downhill (though you're sure you left it in park), and you know there's no way you can catch up to it and put on the brakes, no matter how much you want to. That car is gonna crash.

  "Though some of us thought he might be wise to agree, our master balked," Chow said, shooting "our master" a less than loving glance. "And our master saw fit to refuse in such insulting terms that Hallow cursed him. "

  Eric looked embarrassed.

  "Why on earth would you turn down a deal like that?" Jason asked, honestly puzzled.

  "I don't remember," Eric said, moving fractionally closer to my legs. Fractionally was all the closer he could get. He looked relaxed, but I knew he wasn't. I could feel the tension in his body. "I didn't know my name until this woman, Sookie, told me it. "

  "And how did you come to be out in the country?"

  "I don't know that either. "

  "He just vanished from where he was," Pam said. "We were sitting in the office with the young witch, and Chow and I were arguing with Eric about his refusal. And then we weren't. "

  "Ring any bells, Eric?" I asked. I'd caught myself reaching out to stroke his hair, like I would a dog that was huddling close to me.

  The vampire looked puzzled. Though Eric's English was excellent, every now and then an idiom would faze him.

  "Do you recall anything about this?" I said, more plainly. "Have any memories of it?"

  "I was born the moment I was running down the road in the dark and the cold," he said. "Until you took me in, I was a void. "

  Put that way, it sounded terrifying.

  "This just doesn't track," I said. "This wouldn't just happen out of the blue, with no warning. "

  Pam didn't look offended, but Chow tried to make the effort.

  "You two did something, didn't you? You messed up. What did you do?" Both Eric's arms wrapped around my legs, so I was pinned in place. I suppressed a little ripple of panic. He was just insecure.

  "Chow lost his temper with the witch," Pam said, after a significant pause.

  I closed my eyes. Even Jason seemed to grasp what Pam was saying, because his eyes got bigger. Eric turned his face to rub his cheek along my thigh. I wondered what he was making of this.

  "And the minute she was attacked, Eric vanished?" I asked.

  Pam nodded.

  "So she was booby-trapped with a spell. "

  "Apparently," Chow said. "Though I had never heard of such a thing, and I can't be held responsible. " His glare dared me to say anything.

  I turned to Jason and rolled my eyes. Dealing with Chow's blunder was not my responsibility. I was pretty sure that
if the whole story was told to the queen of Louisiana, Eric's overlord, she might have a few things to say to Chow about the incident.

  There was a little silence, during which Jason got up to put another log on the fire. "You've been in Merlotte's before, haven't you?" he asked the vampires. "Where Sookie works?"

  Eric shrugged; he didn't remember. Pam said, "I have, but not Eric. " She looked at me to confirm, and after some thought, I nodded.

  "So no one's going to instantly associate Eric with Sookie. " Jason dropped that observation casually, but he was looking very pleased and almost smug.

  "No," Pam said slowly. "Maybe not. "

  There was definitely something I ought to be worrying about right now, but I couldn't quite see the shape of it.

  "So you're clear as far as Bon Temps goes," Jason continued. "I doubt if anyone saw him out last night, except Sookie, and I'm damned if I know why he ended up on that particular road. "

  My brother had made a second excellent point. He was really operating on all his batteries tonight.

  "But lots of people from here do drive to Shreveport to go to that bar, Fangtasia. I've been myself," Jason said. This was news to me, and I gave him a narrow-eyed glare. He shrugged and looked just a tad embarrassed. "So what's gonna happen when someone tries to claim the reward? When they call the number on the poster?"

  Chow decided to contribute more to the conversation. "Of course, the 'close friend' who answers will come right away to talk to the informant firsthand. If the caller can convince the 'close friend' that he saw Eric after the whore witch worked her spell on him, the witches will begin looking in a specific area. They're sure to find him. They'll try to contact the local witches, too, get them working on it. "

  "No witches in Bon Temps," Jason said, looking amazed that Chow would even suggest the idea. There my brother went again, making assumptions.

  "Oh, I'll bet there are," I said. "Why not? Remember what I told you?" Though I'd been thinking of Weres and shifters when I'd warned him there were things in the world he wouldn't want to see.

  My poor brother was getting overloaded with information this evening. "Why not?" he repeated weakly. "Who would they be?"

  "Some women, some men," Pam said, dusting her hands together as if she were talking about some infectious pest. "They are like everyone else who has a secret life - most of them are quite pleasant, fairly harmless. " Though Pam didn't sound too positive when she said that. "But the bad ones tend to contaminate the good. "

  "However," Chow said, staring thoughtfully at Pam, "this is such a backwater that there may well be very few witches in the area. Not all of them are in covens, and getting an unattached witch to cooperate will be very difficult for Hallow and her followers. "

  "Why can't the Shreveport witches just cast a spell to find Eric?" I asked.

  "They can't find anything of his to use to cast such a spell," Pam said, and she sounded as if she knew what she was talking about. "They can't get into his daytime resting place to find a hair or clothes that bear his scent. And there's no one around who's got Eric's blood in her. "

  Ah-oh. Eric and I looked at each other very briefly. There was me; and I was hoping devoutly that no one knew that but Eric.

  "Besides," Chow said, shifting from foot to foot, "in my opinion, since we are dead, such things would not work to cast a spell. "

  Pam's eyes latched on to Chow's. They were exchanging ideas again, and I didn't like it. Eric, the cause of all this message swapping, was looking back and forth between his two fellow vamps. Even to me he looked clueless.

  Pam turned to me. "Eric should stay here, where he is. Moving him will expose him to more danger. With him out of the way and in safety, we can take countermeasures against the witches. "

  "Going to the mattresses," Jason muttered in my ear, still stuck on the Godfather terminology.

  Now that Pam had said it out loud, I could see clearly why I should have become concerned when Jason began emphasizing how impossible it was that anyone should associate Eric with me. No one would believe that a vampire of Eric's power and importance would be parked with a human barmaid.

  My amnesiac guest looked bewildered. I leaned forward, gave in briefly to my impulse to stroke his hair, and then I held my hands over his ears. He permitted this, even putting his own hands on top of mine. I was going to pretend he couldn't hear what I was going to say.

  "Listen, Chow, Pam. This is the worst idea of all time. I'll tell you why. " I could hardly get the words out fast enough, emphatically enough. "How am I supposed to protect him? You know how this will end! I'll get beaten up. Or maybe even killed. "

  Pam and Chow looked at me with twin blank expressions. They might as well have said, "Your point being?"

  "If my sister does this," Jason said, disregarding me completely, "she deserves to get paid for it. "

  There was what you call a pregnant silence. I gaped at him.

  Simultaneously, Pam and Chow nodded.

  "At least as much as an informer would get if he called the phone number on the poster," Jason said, his bright blue eyes going from one pale face to another. "Fifty thousand. "

  "Jason!" I finally found my voice, and I clamped my hands down even tighter over Eric's ears. I was embarrassed and humiliated, without being able to figure out exactly why. For one thing, my brother was arranging my business as though it were his.

  "Ten," Chow said.

  "Forty-five," Jason countered.

  "Twenty. "

  "Thirty-five. "

  "Done. "

  "Sookie, I'll bring you my shotgun," Jason said.
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