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Dead until dark, p.7
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       Dead Until Dark, p.7

         Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris

  “Sookie.” It was Sam. He turned me around with a hand on my shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

  His voice was gentle and pushed me much closer to tears.

  “You should sound mean so I won’t cry!” I said.

  He laughed, not a big laugh, a small one. He put an arm around me.

  “What’s the matter?” He wasn’t going to give up and go away.

  “Oh, I . . .” and I stopped dead. I’d never, ever explicitly discussed my problem (that’s how I thought of it) with Sam or anyone else. Everyone in Bon Temps knew the rumors about why I was strange, but no one seemed to realize that I had to listen to their mental clatter nonstop, whether I wanted to or not—every day, the yammer yammer yammer. . .

  “Did you hear something that bothered you?” His voice was quiet and matter-of-fact. He touched the middle of my forhead, to indicate he knew exactly how I could “hear.”


  “Can’t help it, can you?”


  “Hate it, don’t you, cher?”

  “Oh, yes.”

  “Not your fault then, is it?”

  “I try not to listen, but I can’t always keep my guard up.” I felt a tear I hadn’t been able to quell start trickling down my cheek.

  “Is that how you do it? How do you keep your guard up, Sookie?”

  He sounded really interested, not as though he thought I was a basket case. I looked up, not very far, into Sam’s prominent, brilliant blue eyes.

  “I just . . . it’s hard to describe unless you can do it . . . I pull up a fence—no, not a fence, it’s like I’m snapping together steel plates—between my brain and all others.”

  “You have to hold the plates up?”

  “Yes. It takes a lot of concentration. It’s like dividing my mind all the time. That’s why people think I’m crazy. Half my brain is trying to keep the steel plates up, and the other half might be taking drink orders, so sometimes there’s not a lot left over for coherent conversation.” What a gush of relief I was feeling, just being able to talk about it.

  “Do you hear words or just get impressions?”

  “Depends on who I’m listening to. And their state. If they’re drunk, or really disturbed, it’s just pictures, impressions, intentions. If they’re sober and sane it’s words and some pictures.”

  “The vampire says you can’t hear him.”

  The idea of Bill and Sam having a conversation about me made me feel very peculiar. “That’s true,” I admitted.

  “Is that relaxing to you?”

  “Oh, yes.” I meant it from my heart.

  “Can you hear me, Sookie?”

  “I don’t want to try!” I said hastily. I moved to the door of the storeroom and stood with my hand on the knob. I pulled a tissue from my shorts pocket and patted the tear track off my cheek. “I’ll have to quit if I read your mind, Sam! I like you, I like it here.”

  “Just try it sometime, Sookie,” he said casually, turning to open a carton of whiskey with the razor-edged box cutter he kept in his pocket. “Don’t worry about me. You have a job as long as you want one.”

  I wiped down a table Jason had spilled salt on. He’d been in earlier to eat a hamburger and fries and down a couple of beers.

  I was turning over Sam’s offer in my mind.

  I wouldn’t try to listen to him today. He was ready for me. I’d wait when he was busy doing something else. I’d just sort of slip in and give him a listen. He’d invited me, which was absolutely unique.

  It was kind of nice to be invited.

  I repaired my makeup and brushed my hair. I’d worn it loose, since Bill had seemed to like that, and a darn nuisance it had been all evening. It was just about time to go, so I retrieved my purse from its drawer in Sam’s office.

  THE COMPTON HOUSE, like Gran’s, was set back from the road. It was a bit more visible from the parish road than hers, and it had a view of the cemetery, which her house didn’t. This was due (at least in part) to the Compton house’s higher setting. It was on top of a knoll and it was fully two-storied. Gran’s house had a couple of spare bedrooms upstairs, and an attic, but it was more like half a top story.

  At one point in the family’s long history, the Comptons had had a very nice house. Even in the dark, it had a certain graciousness. But I knew in the daylight you could see the pillars were peeling, the wood siding was crooked, and the yard was simply a jungle. In the humid warmth of Louisiana, yard growth could get out of hand mighty quick, and old Mr. Compton had not been one to hire someone to do his yard work. When he’d gotten too feeble, it had simply gone undone.

  The circular drive hadn’t gotten fresh gravel in many years, and my car lurched to the front door. I saw that the house was all lit up, and I began to realize that the evening would not go like last evening. There was another car parked in front of the house, a Lincoln Continental, white with a dark blue top. A blue-on-white bumper sticker read VAMPIRES SUCK. A red and yellow one stated HONK IF YOU’RE A BLOOD DONOR! The vanity plate read, simply, FANGS 1.

  If Bill already had company, maybe I should just go on home.

  But I had been invited and was expected. Hesitantly, I raised my hand and knocked.

  The door was opened by a female vampire.

  She glowed like crazy. She was at least five feet eleven and black. She was wearing spandex. An exercise bra in flamingo pink and matching calf-length leggings, with a man’s white dress shirt flung on unbuttoned, constituted the vampire’s ensemble.

  I thought she looked cheap as hell and most likely absolutely mouthwatering from a male point of view.

  “Hey, little human chick,” the vampire purred.

  And all of a sudden I realized I was in danger. Bill had warned me repeatedly that not all vampires were like him, and he had moments when he was not so nice, himself. I couldn’t read this creature’s mind, but I could hear cruelty in her voice.

  Maybe she had hurt Bill. Maybe she was his lover.

  All of this passed through my mind in a rush, but none of it showed on my face. I’ve had years of experience in controlling my face. I could feel my bright smile snap on protectively, my spine straightened, and I said cheerfully, “Hi! I was supposed to drop by tonight and give Bill some information. Is he available?”

  The female vampire laughed at me, which was nothing I wasn’t used to. My smile notched up a degree brighter. This critter radiated danger the way a light bulb gives off heat.

  “This little human gal here says she has some information for you, Bill!” she yelled over her (slim, brown, beautiful) shoulder.

  I tried not to let relief show in any way.

  “You wanna see this little thing? Or shall I just give her a love bite?”

  Over my dead body, I thought furiously, and then realized it might be just that.

  I didn’t hear Bill speak, but the vampire stood back, and I stepped into the old house. Running wouldn’t do any good; this vamp could undoubtedly bring me down before I’d gone five steps. And I hadn’t laid eyes on Bill, and I couldn’t be sure he was all right until I saw him. I’d brave this out and hope for the best. I’m pretty good at doing that.

  The big front room was crammed with dark old furniture and people. No, not people, I realized after I’d looked carefully; two people, and two more strange vampires.

  The two vampires were both male and white. One had a buzz cut and tattoos on every visible inch of his skin. The other was even taller than the woman, maybe six foot four, with a head of long rippling dark hair and a magnificent build.

  The humans were less impressive. The woman was blond and plump, thirty-five or older. She was wearing maybe a pound too much makeup. She looked as worn as an old boot. The man was another story. He was lovely, the prettiest man I’d ever seen. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-one. He was swarthy, maybe Hispanic, small and fine-boned. He wore denim cut-offs and nothing else. Except for makeup. I took that in my stride, but I didn’t find it appealing.

; Then Bill moved and I saw him, standing in the shadows of the dark hall leading from the living room to the back of the house. I looked at him, trying to get my bearings in this unexpected situation. To my dismay, he didn’t look at all reassuring. His face was very still, absolutely impenetrable. Though I couldn’t believe I was even thinking it, it would have been great at that point to have had a peek into his mind.

  “Well, we can have a wonderful evening now,” the longhaired male vampire said. He sounded delighted. “Is this a little friend of yours, Bill? She’s so fresh.”

  I thought of a few choice words I’d learned from Jason.

  “If you’ll just excuse me and Bill a minute,” I said very politely, as if this was a perfectly normal evening, “I’ve been arranging for workmen for the house.” I tried to sound businesslike and impersonal, though wearing shorts and a T-shirt and Nikes does not inspire professional respect. But I hoped I conveyed the impression that nice people I encountered in the course of my working day could not possibly hold any threat of danger.

  “And we heard Bill was on a diet of synthetic blood only,” said the tattooed vampire. “Guess we heard wrong, Diane.”

  The female vampire cocked her head and gave me a long look. “I’m not so sure. She looks like a virgin to me.”

  I didn’t think Diane was talking hymens.

  I took a few casual steps toward Bill, hoping like hell he would defend me if worst came to worst, but finding myself not absolutely sure. I was still smiling, hoping he would speak, would move.

  And then he did. “Sookie is mine,” he said, and his voice was so cold and smooth it wouldn’t have made a ripple in the water if it had been a stone.

  I looked at him sharply, but I had enough brains to keep my mouth shut.

  “How good you been taking care of our Bill?” Diane asked.

  “None of your fucking business,” I answered, using one of Jason’s words and still smiling. I said I had a temper.

  There was a sharp little pause. Everyone, human and vampire, seemed to examine me closely enough to count the hairs on my arms. Then the tall male began to rock with laughter and the others followed suit. While they were yukking it up, I moved a few feet closer to Bill. His dark eyes were fixed on me—he wasn’t laughing—and I got the distinct feeling he wished, just as much as I did, that I could read his mind.

  He was in some danger, I could tell. And if he was, then I was.

  “You have a funny smile,” said the tall male thoughtfully. I’d liked him better when he was laughing.

  “Oh, Malcolm,” said Diane. “All human women look funny to you.”

  Malcolm pulled the human male to him and gave him a long kiss. I began to feel a little sick. That kind of stuff is private. “This is true,” Malcolm said, pulling away after a moment, to the small man’s apparent disappointment. “But there is something rare about this one. Maybe she has rich blood.”

  “Aw,” said the blond woman, in a voice that could blister paint, “That’s just crazy Sookie Stackhouse.”

  I looked at the woman with more attention. I recognized her at last, when I mentally erased a few miles of hard road and half the makeup. Janella Lennox had worked at Merlotte’s for two weeks until Sam had fired her. She’d moved to Monroe, Arlene had told me.

  The male vampire with the tattoos put his arm around Janella and rubbed her breasts. I could feel the blood drain out of my face. I was disgusted. It got worse. Janella, as lost to decency as the vampire, put her hand on his crotch and massaged.

  At least I saw clearly that vampires can sure have sex.

  I was less than excited about that knowledge at the moment.

  Malcolm was watching me, and I’d showed my distaste.

  “She’s innocent,” he said to Bill, with a smile full of anticipation.

  “She’s mine,” Bill said again. This time his voice was more intense. If he’d been a rattlesnake his warning could not have been clearer.

  “Now, Bill, you can’t tell me you’ve been getting everything you need from that little thing,” Diane said. “You look pale and droopy. She ain’t been taking good care of you.”

  I inched a little closer to Bill.

  “Here,” offered Diane, whom I was beginning to hate, “have a taste of Liam’s woman or Malcolm’s pretty boy, Jerry.”

  Janella didn’t react to being offered around, maybe because she was too busy unzipping Liam’s jeans, but Malcolm’s beautiful boyfriend, Jerry, slithered willingly over to Bill. I smiled as though my jaws were going to crack as he wrapped his arms around Bill, nuzzled Bill’s neck, rubbed his chest against Bill’s shirt.

  The strain in my vampire’s face was terrible to see. His fangs slid out. I saw them fully extended for the first time. The synthetic blood was not answering all Bill’s needs, all right.

  Jerry began licking a spot at the base of Bill’s neck. Keeping my guard up was proving to be more than I could handle. Since three present were vampires, whose thoughts I couldn’t hear, and Janella was fully occupied, that left Jerry. I listened and gagged.

  Bill, shaking with temptation, was actually bending to sink his fangs into Jerry’s neck when I said, “No! He has the Sino-virus!”

  As if released from a spell, Bill looked at me over Jerry’s shoulder. He was breathing heavily, but his fangs retracted. I took advantage of the moment by taking more steps. I was within a yard of Bill, now.

  “Sino-AIDS,” I said.

  Alcoholic and heavily drugged victims affected vampires temporarily, and some of them were said to enjoy that buzz; but the blood of a human with full-blown AIDS didn’t, nor did sexually transmitted diseases, or any other bugs that plagued humans.

  Except Sino-AIDS. Even Sino-AIDS didn’t kill vampires as surely as the AIDS virus killed humans, but it left the undead very weak for nearly a month, during which time it was comparatively easy to catch and stake them. And every now and then, if a vampire fed from an infected human more than once, the vampire actually died—redied?—without being staked. Still rare in the United States, Sino-AIDS was gaining a foothold around ports like New Orleans, with sailors and other travelers from many countries passing through the city in a partying mood.

  All the vampires were frozen, staring at Jerry as if he were death in disguise; and for them, perhaps, he was.

  The beautiful young man took me completely by surprise. He turned and leapt on me. He was no vampire, but he was strong, evidently only in the earliest stages of the virus, and he knocked me against the wall to my left. He circled my throat with one hand and lifted the other to punch me in the face. My arms were still coming up to defend myself when Jerry’s hand was seized, and his body froze.

  “Let go of her throat,” Bill said in such a terrifying voice that I was scared myself. By now, the scares were just piling up so quickly I didn’t think I’d ever feel safe again. But Jerry’s fingers didn’t relax, and I made a little whimpering sound without wanting to at all. I slewed my eyes sideways, and when I looked at Jerry’s gray face, I realized that Bill was holding his hand, Malcolm was gripping his legs, and Jerry was so frightened he couldn’t grasp what was wanted of him.

  The room began to get fuzzy, and voices buzzed in and out. Jerry’s mind was beating against mine. I was helpless to hold him out. His mind was clouded with visions of the lover who had passed the virus to Jerry, a lover who had left him for a vampire, a lover Jerry himself had murdered in a fit of jealous rage. Jerry was seeing his death coming from the vampires he had wanted to kill, and he was not satisfied that he had extracted enough vengeance with the vampires he had already infected.

  I could see Diane’s face over Jerry’s shoulder, and she was smiling.

  Bill broke Jerry’s wrist.

  He screamed and collapsed on the floor. The blood began surging into my head again, and I almost fainted. Malcolm picked Jerry up and carried him over to the couch as casually as if Jerry were a rolled-up rug. But Malcolm’s face was not as casual. I knew Jerry would be lucky if he died quickly.
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  Bill stepped in front of me, taking Jerry’s place. His fingers, the fingers that had just broken Jerry’s wrist, massaged my neck as gently as my grandmother’s would have done. He put a finger across my lips to make sure I knew to keep silent.

  Then, his arm around me, he turned to face the other vampires.

  “This has all been very entertaining,” Liam said. His voice was as cool as if Janella wasn’t giving him a truly intimate massage there on the couch. He hadn’t troubled himself to budge during the whole incident. He had newly visible tattoos I could never in this world have imagined. I was sick to my stomach. “But I think we should be driving back to Monroe. We have to have a little talk with Jerry when he wakes up, right, Malcolm?”

  Malcolm heaved the unconscious Jerry over his shoulder and nodded at Liam. Diane looked disappointed.

  “But fellas,” she protested. “We haven’t found out how this little gal knew.”

  The two male vampires simultaneously switched their gaze to me. Quite casually, Liam took a second off to reach a climax. Yep, vampires could do it, all right. After a little sigh of completion, he said, “Thanks, Janella. That’s a good question, Malcolm. As usual, our Diane has cut to the quick.” And the three visiting vampires laughed as if that was a very good joke, but I thought it was a scary one.

  “You can’t speak yet, can you, sweetheart?” Bill gave my shoulder a squeeze as he asked, as if I couldn’t get the hint.

  I shook my head.

  “I could probably make her talk,” Diane offered.

  “Diane, you forget,” Bill said gently.

  “Oh, yeah. She’s yours,” Diane said. But she didn’t sound cowed or convinced.

  “We’ll have to visit some other time,” Bill said, and his voice made it clear the others had to leave or fight him.

  Liam stood, zipped up his pants, gestured to his human woman. “Out, Janella, we’re being evicted.” The tattoos rippled across his heavy arms as he stretched. Janella ran her hands along his ribs as if she just couldn’t get enough of him, and he swatted her away as lightly as if she’d been a fly. She looked vexed, but not mortified as I would have been. This was not new treatment for Janella.

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