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Dead until dark, p.5
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       Dead Until Dark, p.5

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
 

  “Sookie Stackhouse, your granny is letting you associate with that vampire?” Spencer said unwisely.

  “You can sure talk to her about that,” I suggested maliciously, hardly able to wait to hear what Gran would say when someone suggested she wasn’t taking care of me. “You know, the Rattrays were trying to drain Bill.”

  “So the vampire was being drained by the Rattrays? And you stopped them?” interrupted the sheriff.

  “Yes,” I said and tried to look resolute.

  “Vampire draining is illegal,” he mused.

  “Isn’t it murder, to kill a vampire that hasn’t attacked you?” I asked.

  I may have pushed the naivete a little too hard.

  “You know damn good and well it is, though I don’t agree with that law. It is a law, and I will uphold it,” the sheriff said stiffly.

  “So the vampire just let them leave, without threatening vengeance? Saying anything like he wished they were dead?” Mike Spencer was being stupid.

  “That’s right.” I smiled at both of them and then looked at my watch. I remembered the blood on its face, my blood, beaten out of me by the Rattrays. I had to look through that blood to read the time.

  “Excuse me, I have to get to work,” I said. “Good-bye, Mr. Spencer, Sheriff.”

  “Good-bye, Sookie,” Sheriff Dearborn said. He looked like he had more to ask me, but couldn’t think of how to put it. I could tell he wasn’t totally happy with the look of the scene, and I doubted any tornado had shown up on radar anywhere. Nonetheless, there was the trailer, there was the car, there were the trees, and the Rattrays had been dead under them. What could you decide but that the tornado had killed them? I guessed the bodies had been sent for an autopsy, and I wondered how much could be told by such a procedure under the circumstances.

  The human mind is an amazing thing. Sheriff Dearborn must have known that vampires are very strong. But he just couldn’t imagine how strong one could be: strong enough to turn over a trailor, crush it. It was even hard for me to comprehend, and I knew good and well that no tornado had touched down at Four Corners.

  The whole bar was humming with the news of the deaths. Maudette’s murder had taken a backseat to Denise and Mack’s demises. I caught Sam eyeing me a couple of times, and I thought about the night before and wondered how much he knew. But I was scared to ask in case he hadn’t seen anything. I knew there were things that had happened the night before that I hadn’t yet explained to my own satisfaction, but I was so grateful to be alive that I put off thinking of them.

  I’d never smiled so hard while I toted drinks, I’d never made change so briskly, I’d never gotten orders so exactly. Even ol’ bushy-haired Rene didn’t slow me down, though he insisted on dragging me into his long-winded conversations every time I came near the table he was sharing with Hoyt and a couple of other cronies.

  Rene played the role of crazy Cajun some of the time, though any Cajun accent he might assume was faked. His folks had let their heritage fade. Every woman he’d married had been hard-living and wild. His brief hitch with Arlene had been when she was young and childless, and she’d told me that from time to time she’d done things then that curled her hair to think about now. She’d grown up since then, but Rene hadn’t. Arlene was sure fond of him, to my amazement.

  Everyone in the bar was excited that night because of the unusual happenings in Bon Temps. A woman had been murdered, and it was a mystery; usually murders in Bon Temps are easily solved. And a couple had died violently by a freak of nature. I attributed what happened next to that excitement. This is a neighborhood bar, with a few out of towners who pass through on a regular basis, and I’ve never had much problem with unwanted attention. But that night one of the men at a table next to Rene and Hoyt’s, a heavy blond man with a broad, red face, slid his hand up the leg of my shorts when I was bringing their beer.

  That doesn’t fly at Merlotte’s.

  I thought of bringing the tray down on his head when I felt the hand removed. I felt someone standing right behind me. I turned my head and saw Rene, who had left his chair without my even realizing it. I followed his arm down and saw that his hand was gripping the blond’s and squeezing. The blond’s red face was turning a mottled mixture.

  “Hey, man, let go!” the blond protested. “I didn’t mean nothing.”

  “You don’t touch anyone who works here. That’s the rule.” Rene might be short and slim, but anyone there would have put his money on our local boy over the beefier visitor.

  “Okay, okay.”

  “Apologize to the lady.”

  “To Crazy Sookie?” His voice was incredulous. He must have been here before.

  Rene’s hand must have tightened. I saw tears spring into the blond’s eyes.

  “I’m sorry, Sookie, okay?”

  I nodded as regally as I could. Rene let go of the man’s hand abruptly and jerked his thumb to tell the guy to take a hike. The blond lost no time throwing himself out the door. His companion followed.

  “Rene, you should have let me handle that myself,” I said to him very quietly when it seemed the patrons had resumed their conversations. We’d given the gossip mill enough grist for at least a couple of days. “But I appreciate you standing up for me.”

  “I don’t want no one messing with Arlene’s friend,” Rene said matter-of-factly. “Merlotte’s is a nice place, we all want to keep it nice. ’Sides, sometimes you remind me of Cindy, you know?”

  Cindy was Rene’s sister. She’d moved to Baton Rouge a year or two ago. Cindy was blond and blue-eyed: beyond that I couldn’t think of a similarity. But it didn’t seem polite to say so. “You see Cindy much?” I asked. Hoyt and the other man at the table were exchanging Shreveport Captains scores and statistics.

  “Every so now and then,” Rene said, shaking his head as if to say he’d like it to be more often. “She works in a hospital cafeteria.”

  I patted him on the shoulder. “I gotta go work.”

  When I reached the bar to get my next order, Sam raised his eyebrows at me. I widened my eyes to show how amazed I was at Rene’s intervention, and Sam shrugged slightly, as if to say there was no accounting for human behavior.

  But when I went behind the bar to get some more napkins, I noticed he’d pulled out the baseball bat he kept below the till for emergencies.

  GRAN KEPT ME busy all the next day. She dusted and vacuumed and mopped, and I scrubbed the bathrooms—did vampires even need to use the bathroom? I wondered, as I chugged the toilet brush around the bowl. Gran had me vacuum the cat hair off the sofa. I emptied all the trash cans. I polished all the tables. I wiped down the washer and the dryer, for goodness’s sake.

  When Gran urged me to get in the shower and change my clothes, I realized that she regarded Bill the vampire as my date. That made me feel a little odd. One, Gran was so desperate for me to have a social life that even a vampire was eligible for my attention; two, that I had some feelings that backed up that idea; three, that Bill might accurately read all this; four, could vampires even do it like humans?

  I showered and put on my makeup and wore a dress, since I knew Gran would have a fit if I didn’t. It was a little blue cotton-knit dress with tiny daisies all over it, and it was tighter than Gran liked and shorter than Jason deemed proper in his sister. I’d heard that the first time I’d worn it. I put my little yellow ball earrings in and wore my hair pulled up and back with a yellow banana clip holding it loosely.

  Gran gave me one odd look, which I was at a loss to interpret. I could have found out easily enough by listening in, but that was a terrible thing to do to the person you lived with, so I was careful not to. She herself was wearing a skirt and blouse that she often wore to the Descendants of the Glorious Dead meetings, not quite good enough for church, but not plain enough for everyday wear.

  I was sweeping the front porch, which we’d forgotten, when he came. He made a vampire entrance; one minute he wasn’t there, and the next he was, standing at the bottom of the steps
and looking up at me.

  I grinned. “Didn’t scare me,” I said.

  He looked a little embarrassed. “It’s just a habit,” he said, “appearing like that. I don’t make much noise.”

  I opened the door. “Come on in,” I invited, and he came up the steps, looking around.

  “I remember this,” he said. “It wasn’t so big, though.”

  “You remember this house? Gran’s gonna love it.” I preceded him into the living room, calling Gran as I went.

  She came into the living room very much on her dignity, and I realized for the first time she’d taken great pains with her thick white hair, which was smooth and orderly for a change, wrapped around her head in a complicated coil. She had on lipstick, too.

  Bill proved as adept at social tactics as my grandmother. They greeted, thanked each other, complimented, and finally Bill ended up sitting on the couch and, after carrying out a tray with three glasses of peach tea, my Gran sat in the easy chair, making it clear I was to perch by Bill. There was no way to get out of this without being even more obvious, so I sat by him, but scooted forward to the edge, as if I might hop up at any moment to get him a refill on his, the ritual glass of iced tea.

  He politely touched his lips to the edge of the glass and then set it down. Gran and I took big nervous swallows of ours.

  Gran picked an unfortunate opening topic. She said, “I guess you heard about the strange tornado.”

  “Tell me,” Bill said, his cool voice as smooth as silk. I didn’t dare look at him, but sat with my hands folded and my eyes fixed to them.

  So Gran told him about the freak tornado and the deaths of the Rats. She told him the whole thing seemed pretty awful, but cut-and-dried, and at that I thought Bill relaxed just a millimeter.

  “I went by yesterday on my way to work,” I said, without raising my gaze. “By the trailer.”

  “Did you find it looked as you expected?” Bill asked, only curiosity in his voice.

  “No,” I said. “It wasn’t anything I could have expected. I was really . . . amazed.”

  “Sookie, you’ve seen tornado damage before,” Gran said, surprised.

  I changed the subject. “Bill, where’d you get your shirt? It looks nice.” He was wearing khaki Dockers and a green-and-brown striped golfing shirt, polished loafers, and thin, brown socks.

  “Dillard’s,” he said, and I tried to imagine him at the mall in Monroe, perhaps, other people turning to look at this exotic creature with his glowing skin and beautiful eyes. Where would he get the money to pay with? How did he wash his clothes? Did he go into his coffin naked? Did he have a car or did he just float wherever he wanted to go?

  Gran was pleased with the normality of Bill’s shopping habits. It gave me another pang of pain, observing how glad she was to see my supposed suitor in her living room, even if (according to popular literature) he was a victim of a virus that made him seem dead.

  Gran plunged into questioning Bill. He answered her with courtesy and apparent goodwill. Okay, he was a polite dead man.

  “And your people were from this area?” Gran inquired.

  “My father’s people were Comptons, my mother’s people Loudermilks,” Bill said readily. He seemed quite relaxed.

  “There are lots of Loudermilks left,” Gran said happily. “But I’m afraid old Mr. Jessie Compton died last year.”

  “I know,” Bill said easily. “That’s why I came back. The land reverted to me, and since things have changed in our culture toward people of my particular persuasion, I decided to claim it.”

  “Did you know the Stackhouses? Sookie says you have a long history.” I thought Gran had put it well. I smiled at my hands.

  “I remember Jonas Stackhouse,” Bill said, to Gran’s delight. “My folks were here when Bon Temps was just a hole in the road at the edge of the frontier. Jonas Stackhouse moved here with his wife and his four children when I was a young man of sixteen. Isn’t this the house he built, at least in part?”

  I noticed that when Bill was thinking of the past, his voice took on a different cadence and vocabulary. I wondered how many changes in slang and tone his English had taken on through the past century.

  Of course, Gran was in genealogical hog heaven. She wanted to know all about Jonas, her husband’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. “Did he own slaves?” she asked.

  “Ma’am, if I remember correctly, he had a house slave and a yard slave. The house slave was a woman of middle age and the yard slave a very big young man, very strong, named Minas. But the Stackhouses mostly worked their own fields, as did my folks.”

  “Oh, that is exactly the kind of thing my little group would love to hear! Did Sookie tell you . . .” Gran and Bill, after much polite do-si-doing, set a date for Bill to address a night meeting of the Descendants.

  “And now, if you’ll excuse Sookie and me, maybe we’ll take a walk. It’s a lovely night.” Slowly, so I could see it coming, he reached over and took my hand, rising and pulling me to my feet, too. His hand was cold and hard and smooth. Bill wasn’t quite asking Gran’s permission, but not quite not, either.

  “Oh, you two go on,” my grandmother said, fluttering with happiness. “I have so many things to look up. You’ll have to tell me all the local names you remember from when you were . . .” and here Gran ran down, not wanting to say something wounding.

  “Resident here in Bon Temps,” I supplied helpfully.

  “Of course,” the vampire said, and I could tell from the compression of his lips that he was trying not to smile.

  Somehow we were at the door, and I knew that Bill had lifted me and moved me quickly. I smiled, genuinely. I like the unexpected.

  “We’ll be back in a while,” I said to Gran. I didn’t think she’d noticed my odd transition, since she was gathering up our tea glasses.

  “Oh, you two don’t hurry on my account,” she said. “I’ll be just fine.”

  Outside, the frogs and toads and bugs were singing their nightly rural opera. Bill kept my hand as we strolled out into the yard, full of the smell of new-mown grass and budding things. My cat, Tina, came out of the shadows and asked to be tickled, and I bent over and scratched her head. To my surprise, the cat rubbed against Bill’s legs, an activity he did nothing to discourage.

  “You like this animal?” he asked, his voice neutral.

  “It’s my cat,” I said. “Her name is Tina, and I like her a lot.”

  Without comment, Bill stood still, waiting until Tina went on her way into the darkness outside the porch light.

  “Would you like to sit in the swing or the lawn chairs, or would you like to walk?” I asked, since I felt I was now the hostess.

  “Oh, let’s walk for a while. I need to stretch my legs.”

  Somehow this statement unsettled me a little, but I began moving down the long driveway in the direction of the two-lane parish road that ran in front of both our homes.

  “Did the trailer upset you?”

  I tried to think how to put it.

  “I feel very . . . hmmm. Fragile. When I think about the trailer.”

  “You knew I was strong.”

  I tilted my head from side to side, considering. “Yes, but I didn’t realize the full extent of your strength,” I told him. “Or your imagination.”

  “Over the years, we get good at hiding what we’ve done.”

  “So. I guess you’ve killed a bunch of people.”

  “Some.” Deal with it, his voice implied.

  I clasped both hands behind my back. “Were you hungrier right after you became a vampire? How did that happen?”

  He hadn’t expected that. He looked at me. I could feel his eyes on me even though we were now in the dark. The woods were close around us. Our feet crunched on the gravel.

  “As to how I became a vampire, that’s too long a story for now,” he said. “But yes, when I was younger—a few times—I killed by accident. I was never sure when I’d get to eat again, you understand? We were always hunte
d, naturally, and there was no such thing as artificial blood. And there were not as many people then. But I had been a good man when I was alive—I mean, before I caught the virus. So I tried to be civilized about it, select bad people as my victims, never feed on children. I managed never to kill a child, at least. It’s so different now. I can go to the all-night clinic in any city and get some synthetic blood, though it’s disgusting. Or I can pay a whore and get enough blood to keep going for a couple of days. Or I can glamor someone, so they’ll let me bite them for love and then forget all about it. And I don’t need so much now.”

  “Or you can meet a girl who gets head injuries,” I said.

  “Oh, you were the dessert. The Rattrays were the meal.”

  Deal with it.

  “Whoa,” I said, feeling breathless. “Give me a minute.”

  And he did. Not one man in a million would have allowed me that time without speaking. I opened my mind, let my guards down completely, relaxed. His silence washed over me. I stood, closed my eyes, breathed out the relief that was too profound for words.

  “Are you happy now?” he asked, just as if he could tell.

  “Yes,” I breathed. At that moment I felt that no matter what this creature beside me had done, this peace was priceless after a lifetime of the yammering of other minds inside my own.

  “You feel good to me, too,” he said, surprising me.

  “How so?” I asked, dreamy and slow.

  “No fear, no hurry, no condemnation. I don’t have to use my glamor to make you hold still, to have a conversation with you.”

  “Glamor?”

  “Like hypnotism,” he explained. “All vampires use it, to some extent or another. Because to feed, until the new synthetic blood was developed, we had to persuade people we were harmless . . . or assure them they hadn’t seen us at all . . . or delude them into thinking they’d seen something else.”

  “Does it work on me?”

  “Of course,” he said, sounding shocked.

  “Okay, do it.”

  “Look at me.”

  “It’s dark.”

 
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