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Dead until dark, p.4
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       Dead Until Dark, p.4

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
slower 1  faster

  Some time later there was silence. Behind me, the dog whined. A cold nose poked my ear, and a warm tongue licked it. I tried to raise my hand to pet the dog that had undoubtedly saved my life, but I couldn’t. I could hear myself sigh. It seemed to come from a long way away.

  Facing the fact, I said, “I’m dying.” It began to seem more and more real to me. The toads and crickets that had been making the most of the night had fallen silent at all the activity and noise in the parking lot, so my little voice came out clearly and fell into the darkness. Oddly enough, soon after that I heard two voices.

  Then a pair of knees covered in bloody blue jeans came into my view. The vampire Bill leaned over so I could look into his face. There was blood smeared on his mouth, and his fangs were out, glistening white against his lower lip. I tried to smile at him, but my face wasn’t working right.

  “I’m going to pick you up,” Bill said. He sounded calm.

  “I’ll die if you do,” I whispered.

  He looked me over carefully. “Not just yet,” he said, after this evaluation. Oddly enough, this made me feel better; no telling how many injuries he’d seen in his lifetime, I figured.

  “This will hurt,” he warned me.

  It was hard to imagine anything that wouldn’t.

  His arms slid under me before I had time to get afraid. I screamed, but it was a weak effort.

  “Quick,” said a voice urgently.

  “We’re going back in the woods out of sight,” Bill said, cradling my body to him as if it weighed nothing.

  Was he going to bury me back there, out of sight? After he’d just rescued me from the Rats? I almost didn’t care.

  It was only a small relief when he laid me down on a carpet of pine needles in the darkness of the woods. In the distance, I could see the glow of the light in the parking lot. I felt my hair trickling blood, and I felt the pain of my broken arm and the agony of deep bruises, but what was most frightening was what I didn’t feel.

  I didn’t feel my legs.

  My abdomen felt full, heavy. The phrase “internal bleeding” lodged in my thoughts, such as they were.

  “You will die unless you do as I say,” Bill told me.

  “Sorry, don’t want to be a vampire,” I said, and my voice was weak and thready.

  “No, you won’t be,” he said more gently. “You’ll heal. Quickly. I have a cure. But you have to be willing.”

  “Then trot out the cure,” I whispered. “I’m going.” I could feel the pull the grayness was exerting on me.

  In the little part of my mind that was still receiving signals from the world, I heard Bill grunt as if he’d been hurt. Then something was pressed up against my mouth.

  “Drink,” he said.

  I tried to stick out my tongue, managed. He was bleeding, squeezing to encourage the flow of blood from his wrist into my mouth. I gagged. But I wanted to live. I forced myself to swallow. And swallow again.

  Suddenly the blood tasted good, salty, the stuff of life. My unbroken arm rose, my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth. I felt better with every swallow. And after a minute, I drifted off to sleep.

  When I woke up, I was still in the woods, still lying on the ground. Someone was stretched out beside me; it was the vampire. I could see his glow. I could feel his tongue moving on my head. He was licking my head wound. I could hardly begrudge him.

  “Do I taste different from other people?” I asked.

  “Yes,” he said in a thick voice. “What are you?”

  It was the third time he’d asked. Third time’s the charm, Gran always said.

  “Hey, I’m not dead,” I said. I suddenly remembered I’d expected to check out for good. I wiggled my arm, the one that had been broken. It was weak, but it wasn’t flopping any longer. I could feel my legs, and I wiggled them, too. I breathed in and out experimentally and was pleased with the resulting mild ache. I struggled to sit up. That proved to be quite an effort, but not an impossibility. It was like my first fever-free day after I’d had pneumonia as a kid. Feeble but blissful. I was aware I’d survived something awful.

  Before I finished straightening, he’d put his arms under me and cradled me to him. He leaned back against a tree. I felt very comfortable sitting on his lap, my head against his chest.

  “What I am, is telepathic,” I said. “I can hear people’s thoughts.”

  “Even mine?” He sounded merely curious.

  “No. That’s why I like you so much,” I said, floating on a sea of pinkish well-being. I couldn’t seem to be bothered with camouflaging my thoughts.

  I felt his chest rumble as he laughed. The laugh was a little rusty.

  “I can’t hear you at all,” I blathered on, my voice dreamy. “You have no idea how peaceful that is. After a lifetime of blah, blah, blah, to hear . . . nothing.”

  “How do you manage going out with men? With men your age, their only thought is still surely how to get you into bed.”

  “Well, I don’t. Manage. And frankly, at any age, I think their goal is get a woman in bed. I don’t date. Everyone thinks I’m crazy, you know, because I can’t tell them the truth; which is, that I’m driven crazy by all these thoughts, all these heads. I had a few dates when I started working at the bar, guys who hadn’t heard about me. But it was the same as always. You can’t concentrate on being comfortable with a guy, or getting a head of steam up, when you can hear they’re wondering if you dye your hair, or thinking that your butt’s not pretty, or imagining what your boobs look like.”

  Suddenly I felt more alert, and I realized how much of myself I was revealing to this creature.

  “Excuse me,” I said. “I didn’t mean to burden you with my problems. Thank you for saving me from the Rats.”

  “It was my fault they had a chance to get you at all,” he said. I could tell there was rage just under the calm surface of his voice. “If I had had the courtesy to be on time, it would not have happened. So I owed you some of my blood. I owed you the healing.”

  “Are they dead?” To my embarrassment, my voice sounded squeaky.

  “Oh, yes.”

  I gulped. I couldn’t regret that the world was rid of the Rats. But I had to look this straight in the face, I couldn’t dodge the realization that I was sitting in the lap of a murderer. Yet I was quite happy to sit there, his arms around me.

  “I should worry about this, but I’m not,” I said, before I knew what I was going to say. I felt that rusty laugh again.

  “Sookie, why did you want to talk to me tonight?”

  I had to think back hard. Though I was miraculously recovered from the beating physically, I felt a little hazy mentally.

  “My grandmother is real anxious to know how old you are,” I said hesitantly. I didn’t know how personal a question that was to a vampire. The vampire in question was stroking my back as though he were soothing a kitten.

  “I was made vampire in 1870, when I was thirty human years old.” I looked up; his glowing face was expressionless, his eyes pits of blackness in the dark woods.

  “Did you fight in the War?”

  “Yes.”

  “I have the feeling you’re gonna get mad. But it would make her and her club so happy if you’d tell them a little bit about the War, about what it was really like.”

  “Club?”

  “She belongs to Descendants of the Glorious Dead.”

  “Glorious dead.” The vampire’s voice was unreadable, but I could tell, sure enough, he wasn’t happy.

  “Listen, you wouldn’t have to tell them about the maggots and the infections and the starvation,” I said. “They have their own picture of the War, and though they’re not stupid people—they’ve lived through other wars—they would like to know more about the way people lived then, and uniforms and troop movements.”

  “Clean things.”

  I took a deep breath. “Yep.”

  “Would it make you happy if I did this?”

  “What difference does that make? It would
make Gran happy, and since you’re in Bon Temps and seem to want to live around here, it would be a good public relations move for you.”

  “Would it make you happy?”

  He was not a guy you could evade. “Well, yes.”

  “Then I’ll do it.”

  “Gran says to please eat before you come,” I said.

  Again I heard the rumbling laugh, deeper this time.

  “I’m looking forward to meeting her now. Can I call on you some night?”

  “Ah. Sure. I work my last night tomorrow night, and the day after I’m off for two days, so Thursday would be a good night.” I lifted my arm to look at my watch. It was running, but the glass was covered with dried blood. “Oh, yuck,” I said, wetting my finger in my mouth and cleaning the watch face off with spit. I pressed the button that illuminated the hands, and gasped when I saw what time it was.

  “Oh, gosh, I got to get home. I hope Gran went to sleep.”

  “She must worry about you being out so late at night by yourself,” Bill observed. He sounded disapproving. Maybe he was thinking of Maudette? I had a moment of deep unease, wondering if in fact Bill had known her, if she’d invited him to come home with her. But I rejected the idea because I was stubbornly unwilling to dwell on the odd, awful, nature of Maudette’s life and death; I didn’t want that horror to cast a shadow on my little bit of happiness.

  “It’s part of my job,” I said tartly. “Can’t be helped. I don’t work nights all the time, anyway. But when I can, I do.”

  “Why?” The vampire gave me a shove up to my feet, and then he rose easily from the ground.

  “Better tips. Harder work. No time to think.”

  “But night is more dangerous,” he said disapprovingly.

  He ought to know. “Now don’t you go sounding like my grandmother,” I chided him mildly. We had almost reached the parking lot.

  “I’m older than your grandmother,” he reminded me. That brought the conversation up short.

  After I stepped out of the woods, I stood staring. The parking lot was as serene and untouched as if nothing had ever happened there, as if I hadn’t been nearly beaten to death on that patch of gravel only an hour before, as if the Rats hadn’t met their bloody end.

  The lights in the bar and in Sam’s trailer were off.

  The gravel was wet, but not bloody.

  My purse was sitting on the hood of my car.

  “And what about the dog?” I said.

  I turned to look at my savior.

  He wasn’t there.

  Chapter 2

  I GOT UP very late the next morning, which was not too surprising. Gran had been asleep when I got home, to my relief, and I was able to climb into my bed without waking her.

  I WAS DRINKING a cup of coffee at the kitchen table and Gran was cleaning out the pantry when the phone rang. Gran eased her bottom up onto the stool by the counter, her normal chatting perch, to answer it.

  “Hel-lo,” she said. For some reason, she always sounded put out, as if a phone call were the last thing on earth she wanted. I knew for a fact that wasn’t the case.

  “Hey, Everlee. No, sitting here talking to Sookie, she just got up. No, I haven’t heard any news today. No, no one called me yet. What? What tornado? Last night was clear. Four Tracks Corner? It did? No! No, it did not! Really? Both of ’em? Um, um, um. What did Mike Spencer say?”

  Mike Spencer was our parish coroner. I began to have a creepy feeling. I finished my coffee and poured myself another cup. I thought I was going to need it.

  Gran hung up a minute later. “Sookie, you are not going to believe what has happened!”

  I was willing to bet I would believe it.

  “What?” I asked, trying not to look guilty.

  “No matter how smooth the weather looked last night, a tornado must have touched down at Four Tracks Corner! It turned over that rent trailer in the clearing there. The couple that was staying in it, they both got killed, trapped under the trailer somehow and crushed to a pulp. Mike says he hasn’t seen anything like it.”

  “Is he sending the bodies for autopsy?”

  “Well, I think he has to, though the cause of death seems clear enough, according to Stella. The trailer is over on its side, their car is halfway on top of it, and trees are pulled up in the yard.”

  “My God,” I whispered, thinking of the strength necessary to accomplish the staging of that scene.

  “Honey, you didn’t tell me if your friend the vampire came in last night?”

  I jumped in a guilty way until I realized that in Gran’s mind, she’d changed subjects. She’d been asking me if I’d seen Bill every day, and now, at last, I could tell her yes—but not with a light heart.

  Predictably, Gran was excited out of her gourd. She fluttered around the kitchen as if Prince Charles were the expected guest.

  “Tomorrow night. Now what time’s he coming?” she asked.

  “After dark. That’s as close as I can get.”

  “We’re on daylight saving time, so that’ll be pretty late.” Gran considered. “Good, we’ll have time to eat supper and clear it away beforehand. And we’ll have all day tomorrow to clean the house. I haven’t cleaned that area rug in a year, I bet!”

  “Gran, we’re talking about a guy who sleeps in the ground all day,” I reminded her. “I don’t think he’d ever look at the rug.”

  “Well, if I’m not doing it for him, then I’m doing it for me, so I can feel proud,” Gran said unanswerably. “Besides, young lady, how do you know where he sleeps?”

  “Good question, Gran. I don’t. But he has to keep out of the light and he has to keep safe, so that’s my guess.”

  Nothing would prevent my grandmother from going into a house-proud frenzy, I realized very shortly. While I was getting ready for work, she went to the grocery and rented a rug cleaner and set to cleaning.

  On my way to Merlotte’s, I detoured north a bit and drove by the Four Tracks Corner. It was a crossroads as old as human habitation of the area. Now formalized by road signs and pavement, local lore said it was the intersection of two hunting trails. Sooner or later, there would be ranch-style houses and strip malls lining the roads, I guessed, but for now it was woods and the hunting was still good, according to Jason.

  Since there was nothing to prevent me, I drove down the rutted path that led to the clearing where the Rattrays’ rented trailer had stood. I stopped my car and stared out the windshield, appalled. The trailer, a very small and old one, lay crushed ten feet behind its original location. The Rattrays’ dented red car was still resting on one end of the accordian-pleated mobile home. Bushes and debris were littered around the clearing, and the woods behind the trailer showed signs of a great force passing through; branches snapped off, the top of one pine hanging down by a thread of bark. There were clothes up in the branches, and even a roast pan.

  I got out slowly and looked around me. The damage was simply incredible, especially since I knew it hadn’t been caused by a tornado; Bill the vampire had staged this scene to account for the deaths of the Rattrays.

  An old Jeep bumped its way down the ruts to come to a stop by me.

  “Well, Sookie Stackhouse!” called Mike Spencer, “What you doing here, girl? Ain’t you got work to go to?”

  “Yes, sir. I knew the Rat—the Rattrays. This is just an awful thing.” I thought that was sufficiently ambiguous. I could see now that the sheriff was with Mike.

  “An awful thing. Yes, well. I did hear,” Sheriff Bud Dearborn said as climbed down out of the Jeep, “that you and Mack and Denise didn’t exactly see eye to eye in the parking lot of Merlotte’s, last week.”

  I felt a cold chill somewhere around the region of my liver as the two men ranged themselves in front of me.

  Mike Spencer was the funeral director of one of Bon Temps’ two funeral homes. As Mike was always quick and definite in pointing out, anyone who wanted could be buried by Spencer and Sons Funeral Home; but only white people seemed to want to. Likewise
, only people of color chose to be buried at Sweet Rest. Mike himself was a heavy middle-aged man with hair and mustache the color of weak tea, and a fondness for cowboy boots and string ties that he could not wear when he was on duty at Spencer and Sons. He was wearing them now.

  Sheriff Dearborn, who had the reputation of being a good man, was a little older than Mike, but fit and tough from his thick gray hair to his heavy shoes. The sheriff had a mashed-in face and quick brown eyes. He had been a good friend of my father’s.

  “Yes, sir, we had us a disagreement,” I said frankly in my down-homiest voice.

  “You want to tell me about it?” The sheriff pulled out a Marlboro and lit it with a plain, metal lighter.

  And I made a mistake. I should have just told him. I was supposed to be crazy, and some thought me simple, too. But for the life of me, I could see no reason to explain myself to Bud Dearborn. No reason, except good sense.

  “Why?” I asked.

  His small brown eyes were suddenly sharp, and the amiable air vanished.

  “Sookie,” he said, with a world of disappointment in his voice. I didn’t believe in it for a minute.

  “I didn’t do this,” I said, waving my hand at the destruction.

  “No, you didn’t,” he agreed. “But just the same, they die the week after they have a fight with someone, I feel I should ask questions.”

  I was reconsidering staring him down. It would feel good, but I didn’t think feeling good was worth it. It was becoming apparent to me that a reputation for simplicity could be handy.

  I may be uneducated and unworldly, but I’m not stupid or unread.

  “Well, they were hurting my friend,” I confessed, hanging my head and eyeing my shoes.

  “Would that be this vampire that’s living at the old Compton house?” Mike Spencer and Bud Dearborn exchanged glances.

  “Yes, sir.” I was surprised to hear where Bill was living, but they didn’t know that. From years of deliberately not reacting to things I heard that I didn’t want to know, I have good facial control. The old Compton house was right across the fields from us, on the same side of the road. Between our houses lay only the woods and the cemetery. How handy for Bill, I thought, and smiled.

 
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