Dead to the world, p.8
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       Dead to the World, p.8
 

         Part #4 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris  
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Chapter 7

  7

  The next morning, the sun was shining outside when I woke. I lay in bed in a mindless pool of contentment. I was sore, but pleasantly so. I had a little bruise or two - nothing that would show. And the fang marks that were a dead giveaway (har-de-har) were not on my neck, where they'd been in the past. No casual observer was going to be able to tell I'd enjoyed a vampire's company, and I didn't have an appointment with a gynecologist - the only other person who'd have a reason to check that area.

  Another shower was definitely called for, so I eased out of bed and wobbled across the floor to the bathroom. We'd left it in something of a mess, with towels tossed everywhere and the shower curtain half-ripped from its plastic hoops (when had that happened?), but I didn't mind picking it up. I rehung the curtain with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.

  As the water pounded on my back, I reflected that I must be pretty simple. It didn't take much to make me happy. A long night with a dead guy had done the trick. It wasn't just the dynamic sex that had given me so much pleasure (though that had contained moments I'd remember till the day I died); it was the companionship. Actually, the intimacy.

  Call me stereotypical. I'd spent the night with a man who'd told me I was beautiful, a man who'd enjoyed me and who'd given me intense pleasure. He had touched me and held me and laughed with me. We weren't in danger of making a baby with our pleasures, because vampires just can't do that. I wasn't being disloyal to anyone (though I'll admit I'd had a few pangs when I thought of Bill), and neither was Eric. I couldn't see the harm.

  As I brushed my teeth and put on some makeup, I had to admit to myself that I was sure that the Reverend Fullenwilder wouldn't agree with my viewpoint.

  Well, I hadn't been going to tell him about it, anyway. It would just be between God and me. I figured God had made me with the disability of telepathy, and he could cut me a little slack on the sex thing.

  I had regrets, of course. I would love to get married and have babies. I'd be faithful as can be. I'd be a good mom, too. But I couldn't marry a regular guy, because I would always know when he lied to me, when he was angry with me, every little thought he had about me. Even dating a regular guy was more than I'd been able to manage. Vampires can't marry, not yet, not legally; not that a vampire had asked me, I reminded myself, tossing a washcloth into the hamper a little forcefully. Perhaps I could stand a long association with a Were or a shifter, since their thoughts weren't clear. But there again, where was the willing Were?

  I had better enjoy what I had at this moment - something I've become quite good at doing. What I had was a handsome vampire who'd temporarily lost his memory and, along with it, a lot of his personality: a vampire who needed reassurance just as much as I did.

  In fact, as I put in my earrings, I figured out that Eric had been so delighted with me for more than one reason. I could see that after days of being completely without memories of his possessions or underlings, days lacking any sense of self, last night he had gained something of his own - me. His lover.

  Though I was standing in front of a mirror, I wasn't really seeing my reflection. I was seeing, very clearly, that - at the moment - I was all in the world that Eric could think of as his own.

  I had better not fail him.

  I was rapidly bringing myself down from "relaxed happiness" to "guilty grim resolution," so I was relieved when the phone rang. It had a built-in caller ID, and I noticed Sam was calling from the bar, instead of his trailer.

  "Sookie?"

  "Hey, Sam. "

  "I'm sorry about Jason. Any news?"

  "No. I called down to the sheriff's department when I woke up, and I talked to the dispatcher. She said Alcee Beck would let me know if anything new came up. That's what she's said the last twenty times I've called. "

  "Want me to get someone to take your shift?"

  "No. It would be better for me to be busy, than to sit here at home. They know where to reach me if they've got anything to tell me. "

  "You sure?"

  "Yes. Thanks for asking, though. "

  "If I can do anything to help, you let me know. "

  "There is something, come to think of it. "

  "Name it. "

  "You remember the little shifter Jason was in the bar with New Year's Eve?"

  Sam gave it thought. "Yes," he said hesitantly. "One of the Norris girls? They live out in Hotshot. "

  "That's what Hoyt said. "

  "You have to watch out for people from out there, Sookie. That's an old settlement. An inbred settlement. "

  I wasn't sure what Sam was trying to tell me. "Could you spell that out? I'm not up to unraveling subtle hints today. "

  "I can't right now. "

  "Oh, not alone?"

  "No. The snack delivery guy is here. Just be careful. They're really, really different. "

  "Okay," I said slowly, still in the dark. "I'll be careful. See you at four-thirty," I told him, and hung up, vaguely unhappy and quite puzzled.

  I had plenty of time to go out to Hotshot and get back before I had to go to work. I pulled on some jeans, sneakers, a bright red long-sleeved T-shirt, and my old blue coat. I looked up Crystal Norris's address in the phone book and had to get out my chamber of commerce map to track it down. I've lived in Renard Parish my whole life, and I thought I knew it pretty well, but the Hotshot area was a black hole in my otherwise thorough knowledge.

  I drove north, and when I came to the T-junction, I turned right. I passed the lumber processing plant that was Bon Temps's main employer, and I passed a reupholstering place, and I flew past the water department. There was a liquor store or two, and then a country store at a crossroads that had a prominent COLD BEER AND BAIT sign left over from the summer and propped up facing the road. I turned right again, to go south.

  The deeper I went into the countryside, the worse the road seemed to grow. The mowing and maintenance crews hadn't been out here since the end of summer. Either the residents of the Hotshot community had no pull whatsoever in the parish government, or they just didn't want visitors. From time to time, the road dipped in some low-lying areas as it ran between bayous. In heavy rains, the low spots would be flooded. I wouldn't be surprised at all to hear folks out here encountered the occasional gator.

  Finally I came to another crossroads, compared to which the one with the bait shop seemed like a mall. There were a few houses scattered around, maybe eight or nine. These were small houses, none of them brick. Most of them had several cars in the front yard. Some of them sported a rusty swing set or a basketball hoop, and in a couple of yards I spotted a satellite dish. Oddly, all the houses seemed pulled away from the actual crossroads; the area directly around the road intersection was bare. It was like someone had tied a rope to a stake sunk in the middle of the crossing and drawn a circle. Within it, there was nothing. Outside it, the houses crouched.

  In my experience, in a little settlement like this, you had the same kind of people you had anywhere. Some of them were poor and proud and good. Some of them were poor and mean and worthless. But all of them knew each other thoroughly, and no action went unobserved.

  On this chilly day, I didn't see a soul outdoors to let me know if this was a black community or a white community. It was unlikely to be both. I wondered if I was at the right crossroads, but my doubts were washed away when I saw an imitation green road sign, the kind you can order from a novelty company, mounted on a pole in front of one of the homes. It read, HOTSHOT.

  I was in the right place. Now, to find Crystal Norris's house.

  With some difficulty, I spotted a number on one rusty mailbox, and then I saw another. By process of elimination, I figured the next house must be the one where Crystal Norris lived. The Norris house was little different from any of the others; it had a small front porch with an old armchair and two lawn chairs on it, and two cars parked in front, one a Ford Fiesta a
nd the other an ancient Buick.

  When I parked and got out, I realized what was so unusual about Hotshot.

  No dogs.

  Any other hamlet that looked like this would have at least twelve dogs milling around, and I'd be wondering if I could safely get out of the car. Here, not a single yip broke the winter silence.

  I crossed over the hard, packed dirt of the yard, feeling as though eyes were on every step I took. I opened the torn screen door to knock on the heavier wooden door. Inset in it was a pattern of three glass panes. Dark eyes surveyed me through the lowest one.

  The door opened, just when the pause was beginning to make me anxious.

  Jason's date from New Year's Eve was less festive today, in black jeans and a cream-colored T-shirt. Her boots had come from Payless, and her short curly hair was a sort of dusty black. She was thin, intense, and though I'd carded her, she just didn't look twenty-one.

  "Crystal Norris?"

  "Yeah?" She didn't sound particularly unfriendly, but she did sound preoccupied.

  "I'm Jason Stackhouse's sister, Sookie. "

  "Oh, yeah? Come in. " She stood back, and I stepped into the tiny living room. It was crowded with furniture intended for a much larger space: two recliners and a three-cushion couch of dark brown Naugahyde, the big buttons separating the vinyl into little hillocks. You'd stick to it in the summer and slide around on it in the winter. Crumbs would collect in the depression around the buttons.

  There was a stained rug in dark red and yellows and browns, and there were toys strewn in an almost solid layer over it. A picture of the Last Supper hung above the television set, and the whole house smelled pleasantly of red beans and rice and cornbread.

  A toddler was experimenting with Duplos in the doorway to the kitchen. I thought it was a boy, but it was hard to be sure. Overalls and a green turtleneck weren't exactly a clue, and the baby's wispy brown hair was neither cut short nor decorated with a bow.

  "Your child?" I asked, trying to make my voice pleasant and conversational.

  "No, my sister's," Crystal said. She gestured toward one of the recliners.

  "Crystal, the reason I'm here. . . Did you know that Jason is missing?"

  She was perched on the edge of the couch, and she'd been staring down at her thin hands. When I spoke, she looked into my eyes intently. This was not fresh news to her.

  "Since when?" she asked. Her voice had a pleasantly hoarse sound to it; you'd listen to what this girl had to say, especially if you were a man.

  "Since the night of January first. He left my house, and then the next morning he didn't show up for work. There was some blood on that little pier out behind the house. His pickup was still in his front yard. The door to it was hanging open. "

  "I don't know nothing about it," she said instantly.

  She was lying.

  "Who told you I had anything to do with this?" she asked, working up to being bitchy. "I got rights. I don't have to talk to you. "

  Sure, that was Amendment 29 to the Constitution: Shifters don't have to talk to Sookie Stackhouse.

  "Yes, you do. " Suddenly, I abandoned the nice approach. She'd hit the wrong button on me. "I'm not like you. I don't have a sister or a nephew," and I nodded at the toddler, figuring I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. "I don't have a mom or a dad or anything, anything, except my brother. " I took a deep breath. "I want to know where Jason is. And if you know anything, you better tell me. "

  "Or you'll do what?" Her thin face was twisted into a snarl. But she genuinely wanted to know what kind of pull I had; I could read that much.

  "Yeah, what?" asked a calmer voice.

  I looked at the doorway to see a man who was probably on the upside of forty. He had a trimmed beard salted with gray, and his hair was cut close to his head. He was a small man, perhaps five foot seven or so, with a lithe build and muscular arms.

  "Anything I have to," I said. I looked him straight in the eyes. They were a strange golden green. He didn't seem inimical, exactly. He seemed curious.

  "Why are you here?" he asked, again in that neutral voice.

  "Who are you?" I had to know who this guy was. I wasn't going to waste my time repeating my story to someone who just had some time to fill. Given his air of authority, and the fact that he wasn't opting for mindless belligerence, I was willing to bet this man was worth talking to.

  "I'm Calvin Norris. I'm Crystal's uncle. " From his brain pattern, he was also a shifter of some kind. Given the absence of dogs in this settlement, I assumed they were Weres.

  "Mr. Norris, I'm Sookie Stackhouse. " I wasn't imagining the increased interest in his expression. "Your niece here went to the New Year's Eve party at Merlotte's Bar with my brother, Jason. Sometime the next night, my brother went missing. I want to know if Crystal can tell me anything that might help me find him. "

  Calvin Norris bent to pat the toddler on the head, and then walked over to the couch where Crystal glowered. He sat beside her, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands dangling, relaxed, between them. His head inclined as he looked into Crystal's sullen face.

  "This is reasonable, Crystal. Girl wants to know where her brother is. Tell her, if you know anything about it. "

  Crystal snapped at him, "Why should I tell her anything? She comes out here, tries to threaten me. "

  "Because it's just common courtesy to help someone in trouble. You didn't exactly go to her to volunteer help, did you?"

  "I didn't think he was just missing. I thought he - " And her voice cut short as she realized her tongue had led her into trouble.

  Calvin's whole body tensed. He hadn't expected that Crystal actually knew anything about Jason's disappearance. He had just wanted her to be polite to me. I could read that, but not much else. I could not decipher their relationship. He had power over the girl, I could tell that easily enough, but what kind? It was more than the authority of an uncle; it felt more like he was her ruler. He might be wearing old work clothes and safety boots, he might look like any blue-collar man in the area, but Calvin Norris was a lot more.

  Packmaster, I thought. But who would be in a pack, this far out in the boondocks? Just Crystal? Then I remembered Sam's veiled warning about the unusual nature of Hotshot, and I had a revelation. Everyone in Hotshot was two-natured.

  Was that possible? I wasn't completely certain Calvin Norris was a Were - but I knew he didn't change into any bunny. I had to struggle with an almost irresistible impulse to lean over and put my hand on his forearm, touch skin to skin to read his mind as clearly as possible.

  I was completely certain about one thing: I wouldn't want to be anywhere around Hotshot on the three nights of the full moon.

  "You're the barmaid at Merlotte's," he said, looking into my eyes as intently as he'd looked into Crystal's.

  "I'm a barmaid at Merlotte's. "

  "You're a friend of Sam's. "

  "Yes," I said carefully. "I am. I'm a friend of Alcide Herveaux's, too. And I know Colonel Flood. "

  These names meant something to Calvin Norris. I wasn't surprised that Norris would know the names of some prominent Shreveport Weres - and he'd know Sam, of course. It had taken my boss time to connect with the local two-natured community, but he'd been working on it.

  Crystal had been listening with wide dark eyes, in no better mood than she had been before. A girl wearing overalls appeared from the back of the house, and she lifted the toddler from his nest of Duplos. Though her face was rounder and less distinctive and her figure was fuller, she was clearly Crystal's younger sister. She was also just as apparently pregnant again.

  "You need anything, Uncle Calvin?" she asked, staring at me over the toddler's shoulder.

  "No, Dawn. Take care of Matthew. " She disappeared into the back of the house with her burden. I had guessed right on the sex of the kid.

  "Crysta
l," said Calvin Norris, in a quiet and terrifying voice, "you tell us now what you done. "

  Crystal had believed she'd gotten away with something, and she was shocked at being ordered to confess.

  But she'd obey. After a little fidgeting, she did.

  "I was out with Jason on New Year's Eve," she said. "I'd met him at WalMart in Bon Temps, when I went in to get me a purse. "

  I sighed. Jason could find potential bedmates anywhere. He was going to end up with some unpleasant disease (if he hadn't already) or slapped with a paternity suit, and there was nothing I could do about it except watch it happen.

  "He asked me if I'd spend New Year's Eve with him. I had the feeling the woman he'd had a date with had changed her mind, 'cause he's not the kind of guy to go without lining up a date for something big like that. "

  I shrugged. Jason could have made and broken dates with five women for New Year's Eve, for all I knew. And it wasn't infrequent for women to get so exasperated by his earnest pursuit of anything with a vagina that they broke off plans with him.

  "He's a cute guy, and I like to get out of Hotshot, so I said yeah. He asked me if he could come pick me up, but I knew some of my neighbors wouldn't like that, so I said I'd just meet him at the Fina station, and then we'd go in his truck. So that's what we did. And I had a real good time with him, went home with him, had a good night. " Her eyes gleamed at me. "You want to know how he is in bed?"

  There was a blur of movement, and then there was blood at the corner of her mouth. Calvin's hand was back dangling between his legs before I even realized he'd moved. "You be polite. Don't show your worst face to this woman," he said, and his voice was so serious I made up my mind I'd be extra polite, too, just to be safe.

  "Okay. That wasn't nice, I guess," she admitted, in a softer and chastened voice. "Well, I wanted to see him the night after, too, and he wanted to see me again. So I snuck out and went over to his place. He had to leave to see his sister - you? You're the only sister he's got?"

  I nodded.

  "And he said to stay there, he'd be back in a bit. I wanted to go with him, and he said if his sister didn't have company, that woulda been fine, but she had vamp company, and he didn't want me to mix with them. "

  I think Jason knew what my opinion of Crystal Norris would be, and he wanted to dodge hearing it, so he left her at his house.

  "Did he come back home?" Calvin said, nudging her out of her reverie.

  "Yes," she said, and I tensed.

  "What happened then?" Calvin asked, when she stopped again.

  "I'm not real sure," she said. "I was in the house, waiting for him, and I heard his truck pull up, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, good, he's here, we can party,' and then I didn't hear him come up the front steps, and I'm wondering what's happening, you know? Of course all the outside lights are on, but I didn't go to the window, 'cause I knew it was him. " Of course a Were would know his step, maybe catch his smell. "I'm listening real good," she went on, "and I hear him going around the outside of the house, so I'm thinking he's going to come in the back door, for some reason - muddy boots, or something. "

  I took a deep breath. She'd get to the point in just a minute. I just knew she would.

  "And then, to the back of the house, and farther 'way, yards away from the porch, I hear a lot of noise, and some shouting and stuff, and then nothing. "

  If she hadn't been a shifter, she wouldn't have heard so much. There, I knew I'd think of a bright side if I searched hard enough.

  "Did you go out and look?" Calvin asked Crystal. His worn hand stroked her black curls, as if he were petting a favorite dog.

  "No sir, I didn't look. "

  "Smell?"

  "I didn't get close enough," she admitted, just on the good side of sullen. "The wind was blowing the other way. I caught a little of Jason, and blood. Maybe a couple of other things. "

  "Like what?"

  Crystal looked at her own hands. "Shifter, maybe. Some of us can change when it's not the full moon, but I can't. Otherwise, I'd have had a better chance at the scent," she said to me in near-apology.

  "Vampire?" Calvin asked.

  "I never smelled a vampire before," she said simply. "I don't know. "

  "Witch?" I asked.

  "Do they smell any different from regular people?" she asked doubtfully.

  I shrugged. I didn't know.

  Calvin said, "What did you do after that?"

  "I knew something had carried Jason off into the woods. I just. . . I lost it. I'm not brave. " She shrugged. "I came home after that. Nothing more I could do. "

  I was trying not to cry, but tears just rolled down my cheeks. For the first time, I admitted to myself that I wasn't sure I'd ever see my brother again. But if the attacker's intention was to kill Jason, why not just leave his body in the backyard? As Crystal had pointed out, the night of New Year's Day there hadn't been a full moon. There were things that didn't have to wait for the full moon. . . .

  The bad thing about learning about all the creatures that existed in the world besides us is that I could imagine that there were things that might swallow Jason in one gulp. Or a few bites.

  But I just couldn't let myself think about that. Though I was still weeping, I made an effort to smile. "Thank you so much," I said politely. "It was real nice of you to take the time to see me. I know you have things you need to do. "

  Crystal looked suspicious, but her uncle Calvin reached over and patted my hand, which seemed to surprise everyone, himself included.

  He walked me out to my car. The sky was clouding over, which made it feel colder, and the wind began to toss the bare branches of the large bushes planted around the yard. I recognized yellow bells (which the nursery calls forsythia), and spirea, and even a tulip tree. Around them would be planted jonquil bulbs, and iris - the same flowers that are in my grandmother's yard, the same bushes that have grown in southern yards for generations. Right now everything looked bleak and sordid. In the spring, it would seem almost charming, picturesque; the decay of poverty gilded by Mother Nature.

  Two or three houses down the road, a man emerged from a shed behind his house, glanced our way, and did a double take. After a long moment, he loped back into his house. It was too far away to make out more of his features than thick pale hair, but his grace was phenomenal. The people out here more than disliked strangers; they seemed to be allergic to them.

  "That's my house over there," Calvin offered, pointing to a much more substantial home, small but foursquare, painted white quite recently. Everything was in good repair at Calvin Norris's house. The driveway and parking area were clearly defined; the matching white toolshed stood rust-free on a neat concrete slab.

  I nodded. "It looks real nice," I said in a voice that wasn't too wobbly.

  "I want to make you an offer," Calvin Norris said.

  I tried to look interested. I half turned to face him.

  "You're a woman without protection now," he said. "Your brother's gone. I hope he comes back, but you don't have no one to stand up for you while he's missing. "

  There were a lot of things wrong with this speech, but I wasn't in any mood to debate the shifter. He'd done me a large favor, getting Crystal to talk. I stood there in the cold wind and tried to look politely receptive.

  "If you need some place to hide, if you need someone to watch your back or defend you, I'll be your man," he said. His green and golden eyes met mine directly.

  I'll tell you why I didn't dismiss this with a snort: He wasn't being superior about it. According to his mores, he was being as nice as he could be, extending a shield to me if I should need it. Of course he expected to "be my man" in every way, along with protecting me; but he wasn't being lascivious in his manner, or offensively explicit. Calvin Norris was offering to incur injury for my sake. He meant it. That's not somethin
g to get all snitty about.

  "Thanks," I said. "I'll remember you said that. "

  "I heard about you," he said. "Shifters and Weres, they talk to each other. I hear you're different. "

  "I am. " Regular men might have found my outer package attractive, but my inner package repelled them. If I ever began to get a swelled head, after the attention paid me by Eric, or Bill, or even Alcide, all I had to do was listen to the brains of some bar patrons to have my ego deflated. I clutched my old blue coat more closely around me. Like most of the two-natured, Calvin had a system that didn't feel cold as intensely as my completely human metabolism did. "But my difference doesn't lie in being two-natured, though I appreciate your, ah, kindness. " This was as close as I could come to asking him why he was so interested.

  "I know that. " He nodded in acknowledgment of my delicacy. "Actually, that makes you more. . . The thing is, here in Hotshot, we've inbred too much. You heard Crystal. She can only change at the moon, and frankly, even then she's not full-powered. " He pointed at his own face. "My eyes can hardly pass for human. We need an infusion of new blood, new genes. You're not two-natured, but you're not exactly an ordinary woman. Ordinary women don't last long here. "

  Well, that was an ominous and ambiguous way to put it. But I was sympathetic, and I tried to look understanding. Actually, I did understand, and I could appreciate his concern. Calvin Norris was clearly the leader of this unusual settlement, and its future was his responsibility.

  He was frowning as he looked down the road at the house where I'd seen the man. But he turned to me to finish telling me what he wanted me to know. "I think you would like the people here, and you would be a good breeder. I can tell by looking. "

  That was a real unusual compliment. I couldn't quite think how to acknowledge it in an appropriate manner.

  "I'm flattered that you think so, and I appreciate your offer. I'll remember what you said. " I paused to gather my thoughts. "You know, the police will find out that Crystal was with Jason, if they haven't already. They'll come out here, too. "

  "They won't find nothing," Calvin Norris said. His golden green eyes met mine with faint amusement. "They've been out here at other times; they'll be out here again. They never learn a thing. I hope you find your brother. You need help, you let me know. I got a job at Norcross. I'm a steady man. "

  "Thank you," I said, and got into my car with a feeling of relief. I gave Calvin a serious nod as I backed out of Crystal's driveway. So he worked at Norcross, the lumber processing plant. Norcross had good benefits, and they promoted from within. I'd had worse offers; that was for sure.

  As I drove to work, I wondered if Crystal had been trying to get pregnant during her nights with Jason. It hadn't seemed to bother Calvin at all to hear that his niece had had sex with a strange man. Alcide had told me that Were had to breed with Were to produce a baby that had the same trait, so the inhabitants of this little community were trying to diversify, apparently. Maybe these lesser Weres were trying to breed out; that is, have children by regular humans. That would be better than having a generation of Weres whose powers were so weak they couldn't function successfully in their second nature, but who also couldn't be content as regular people.

  Getting to Merlotte's was like driving from one century into another. I wondered how long the people of Hotshot had been clustered around the crossroads, what significance it had originally held for them. Though I couldn't help but be a little curious, I found it was a real relief to discard these wonderings and return to the world as I knew it.

  That afternoon, the little world of Merlotte's Bar was very quiet. I changed, tied on my black apron, smoothed my hair, and washed my hands. Sam was behind the bar with his arms crossed over his chest, staring into space. Holly was carrying a pitcher of beer to a table where a lone stranger sat.

  "How was Hotshot?" Sam asked, since we were alone at the bar.

  "Very strange. "

  He patted me on the shoulder. "Did you find out anything useful?"

  "Actually, I did. I'm just not sure what it means. " Sam needed a haircut, I noticed; his curly red-gold hair formed an arc around his face in a kind of Renaissance-angel effect.

  "Did you meet Calvin Norris?"

  "I did. He got Crystal to talk to me, and he made me a most unusual offer. "

  "What's that?"

  "I'll tell you some other time. " For the life of me, I couldn't figure out how to phrase it. I looked down at my hands, which were busy rinsing out a beer mug, and I could feel my cheeks burning.

  "Calvin's an okay guy, as far as I know," Sam said slowly. "He works at Norcross, and he's a crew leader. Good insurance, retirement package, everything. Some of the other guys from Hotshot own a welding shop. I hear they do good work. But I don't know what goes on in Hotshot after they go home at night, and I don't think anyone else does, either. Did you know Sheriff Dowdy, John Dowdy? He was sheriff before I moved here, I think. "

  "Yeah, I remember him. He hauled Jason in one time for vandalism. Gran had to go get him out of jail. Sheriff Dowdy read Jason a lecture that had him scared straight, at least for a while. "

  "Sid Matt told me a story one night. It seems that one spring, John Dowdy went out to Hotshot to arrest Calvin Norris's oldest brother, Carlton. "

  "For what?" Sid Matt Lancaster was an old and well-known lawyer.

  "Statutory rape. The girl was willing, and she was even experienced, but she was underage. She had a new stepdad, and he decided Carlton had disrespected him. "

  No politically correct stance could cover all those circumstances. "So what happened?"

  "No one knows. Late that night, John Dowdy's patrol car was found halfway back into town from Hotshot. No one in it. No blood, no fingerprints. He hasn't ever been seen since. No one in Hotshot remembered seeing him that day, they said. "

  "Like Jason," I said bleakly. "He just vanished. "

  "But Jason was at his own house, and according to you, Crystal didn't seem to be involved. "

  I threw off the grip of the strange little story. "You're right. Did anyone ever find out what happened to Sheriff Dowdy?"

  "No. But no one ever saw Carlton Norris again, either. "

  Now, that was the interesting part. "And the moral of this story is?"

  "That the people of Hotshot take care of their own justice. "

  "Then you want them on your side. " I extracted my own moral from the story.

  "Yes," Sam said. "You definitely want them on your side. You don't remember this? It was around fifteen years ago. "

  "I was coping with my own troubles then," I explained. I'd been an orphaned nine-year-old, coping with my growing telepathic powers.

  Shortly after that, people began to stop by the bar on their way home from work. Sam and I didn't get a chance to talk the rest of the evening, which was fine with me. I was very fond of Sam, who'd often had a starring role in some of my most private fantasies, but at this point, I had so much to worry about I just couldn't take on any more.

  That night, I discovered that some people thought Jason's disappearance improved Bon Temps society. Among these were Andy Bellefleur and his sister, Portia, who stopped by Merlotte's for supper, since their grandmother Caroline was having a dinner party and they were staying out of the way. Andy was a police detective and Portia was a lawyer, and they were both not on my list of favorite people. For one thing (a kind of sour-grapey thing), when Bill had found out they were his descendants, he'd made an elaborate plan to give the Bellefleurs money anonymously, and they'd really enjoyed their mysterious legacy to the hilt. But they couldn't stand Bill himself, and it made me constantly irritated to see their new cars and expensive clothes and the new roof on the Bellefleur mansion, when they dissed Bill all the time - and me, too, for being Bill's girlfriend.

  Andy had been pretty nice to me before I started dating Bill. At
least he'd been civil and left a decent tip. I'd just been invisible to Portia, who had her own share of personal woes. She'd come up with a suitor, I'd heard, and I wondered maliciously if that might not be due to the sudden upsurge in the Bellefleur family fortunes. I also wondered, at times, if Andy and Portia got happy in direct proportion to my misery. They were in fine fettle this winter evening, both tucking into their hamburgers with great zest.

  "Sorry about your brother, Sookie," Andy said, as I refilled his tea glass.

  I looked down at him, my face expressionless. Liar, I thought. After a second, Andy's eyes darted uneasily away from mine to light on the saltshaker, which seemed to have become peculiarly fascinating.

  "Have you seen Bill lately?" Portia asked, patting her mouth with a napkin. She was trying to break the uneasy silence with a pleasant query, but I just got angrier.

  "No," I said. "Can I get you all anything else?"

  "No, thanks, we're just fine," she said quickly. I spun on my heel and walked away. Then my mouth puckered in a smile. Just as I was thinking, Bitch, Portia was thinking, What a bitch.

  Her ass is hot, Andy chimed in. Gosh, telepathy. What a blast. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. I envied people who only heard with their ears.

  Kevin and Kenya came in, too, very carefully not drinking. Theirs was a partnership that had given the people of Bon Temps much hilarity. Lily white Kevin was thin and reedy, a long-distance runner; all the equipment he had to wear on his uniform belt seemed almost too much for him to carry. His partner, Kenya, was two inches taller, pounds heavier, and fifteen shades darker. The men at the bar had been putting bets down for two years on whether or not they'd become lovers - of course, the guys at the bar didn't put it as nicely as that.

  I was unwillingly aware that Kenya (and her handcuffs and nightstick) featured in all too many patrons' daydreams, and I also knew that the men who teased and derided Kevin the most mercilessly were the ones who had the most lurid fantasies. As I carried hamburger baskets over to Kevin and Kenya's table, I could tell that Kenya was wondering whether she should suggest to Bud Dearborn that he call in the tracking dogs from a neighboring parish in the search for Jason, while Kevin was worried about his mother's heart, which had been acting up more than usual lately.

  "Sookie," Kevin said, after I'd brought them a bottle of ketchup, "I meant to tell you, some people came by the police department today putting out posters about a vampire. "

  "I saw one at the grocery," I said.

  "I realize that just because you were dating a vampire, you aren't an expert," Kevin said carefully, because Kevin always did his best to be nice to me, "but I wondered if you'd seen this vamp. Before he disappeared, I mean. "

  Kenya was looking up at me, too, her dark eyes examining me with great interest. Kenya was thinking I always seemed to be on the fringes of bad things that happened in Bon Temps, without being bad myself (thanks, Kenya). She was hoping for my sake that Jason was alive. Kevin was thinking I'd always been nice to him and Kenya; and he was thinking he wouldn't touch me with a ten-foot pole. I sighed, I hoped imperceptibly. They were waiting for an answer. I hesitated, wondering what my best choice was. The truth is always easiest to remember.

  "Sure, I've seen him before. Eric owns the vampire bar in Shreveport," I said. "I saw him when I went there with Bill. "

  "You haven't seen him recently?"

  "I sure didn't abduct him from Fangtasia," I said, with quite a lot of sarcasm in my voice.

  Kenya gave me a sour look, and I didn't blame her. "No one said you did," she told me, in a "Don't give me any trouble" kind of voice. I shrugged and drifted away.

  I had plenty to do, since some people were still eating supper (and some were drinking it), and some regulars were drifting in after eating at home. Holly was equally busy, and when one of the men who worked for the phone company spilled his beer on the floor, she had to go get the mop and bucket. She was running behind on her tables when the door opened. I saw her putting Sid Matt Lancaster's order in front of him, with her back to the door. So she missed the next entrance, but I didn't. The young man Sam had hired to bus the tables during our busy hour was occupied with clearing two tables pulled together that had held a large party of parish workers, and so I was clearing off the Bellefleurs' table. Andy was chatting with Sam while he waited for Portia, who'd visited the ladies' room. I'd just pocketed my tip, which was fifteen percent of the bill to the penny. The Bellefleur tipping habits had improved - slightly - with the Bellefleur fortunes. I glanced up when the door was held open long enough for a cold gust of air to chill me.

  The woman coming in was tall and so slim and broad-shouldered that I checked her chest, just to be sure I'd registered her gender correctly. Her hair was short and thick and brown, and she was wearing absolutely no makeup. There was a man with her, but I didn't see him until she stepped to one side. He was no slouch in the size department himself, and his tight T-shirt revealed arms more developed than any I'd ever seen. Hours in the gym; no, years in the gym. His chestnut hair trailed down to his shoulders in tight curls, and his beard and mustache were perceptibly redder. Neither of the two wore coats, though it was definitely coat weather. The newcomers walked over to me.

  "Where's the owner?" the woman asked.

  "Sam. He's behind the bar," I said, looking down as soon as I could and wiping the table all over again. The man had looked at me curiously; that was normal. As they brushed past me, I saw that he carried some posters under his arm and a staple gun. He'd stuck his hand through a roll of masking tape, so it bounced on his left wrist.

  I glanced over at Holly. She'd frozen, the cup of coffee in her hand halfway down on its way to Sid Matt Lancaster's placemat. The old lawyer looked up at her, followed her stare to the couple making their way between the tables to the bar. Merlotte's, which had been on the quiet and peaceful side, was suddenly awash in tension. Holly set down the cup without burning Mr. Lancaster and spun on her heel, going through the swinging door to the kitchen at warp speed.

  I didn't need any more confirmation on the identity of the woman.

  The two reached Sam and began a low-voiced conversation with him, with Andy listening in just because he was in the vicinity. I passed by on my way to take the dirty dishes to the hatch, and I heard the woman say (in a deep, alto voice) ". . . put up these posters in town, just in case anyone spots him. "

  This was Hallow, the witch whose pursuit of Eric had caused such an upset. She, or a member of her coven, was probably the murderer of Adabelle Yancy. This was the woman who might have taken my brother, Jason. My head began pounding as if there were a little demon inside trying to break out with a hammer.

  No wonder Holly was in such a state and didn't want Hallow to glimpse her. She'd been to Hallow's little meeting in Shreveport, and her coven had rejected Hallow's invitation.

  "Of course," Sam said. "Put up one on this wall. " He indicated a blank spot by the door that led back to the bathrooms and his office.

  Holly stuck her head out the kitchen door, glimpsed Hallow, ducked back in. Hallow's eyes flicked over to the door, but not in time to glimpse Holly, I hoped.

  I thought of jumping Hallow, beating on her until she told me what I wanted to know about my brother. That was what the pounding in my head was urging me to do - initiate action, any action. But I had a streak of common sense, and luckily for me it came to the fore. Hallow was big, and she had a sidekick who could crush me - plus, Kevin and Kenya would make me stop before I could get her to talk.

  It was horribly frustrating to have her right in front of me and at the same time be unable to discover what she knew. I dropped all my shields, and I listened in as hard as I could.

  But she suspected something when I touched inside her head.

  She looked vaguely puzzled and glanced around. That was enough warning for me. I scrambled back into my own head as quickly as I could.
I continued back behind the bar, passing within a couple of feet of the witch as she tried to figure out who'd brushed at her brain.

  This had never happened to me before. No one, no one, had ever suspected I was listening in. I squatted behind the bar to get the big container of Morton Salt, straightened, and carefully refilled the shaker I'd snatched from Kevin and Kenya's table. I concentrated on this as hard as anyone can focus on performing such a nothing little task, and when I was through, the poster had been mounted with the staple gun. Hallow was lingering, prolonging her talk with Sam so she could figure out who had touched the inside of her head, and Mr. Muscles was eyeing me - but only like a man looks at a woman - as I returned the shaker to its table. Holly hadn't reappeared.

  "Sookie," Sam called.

  Oh, for goodness sake. I had to respond. He was my boss.

  I went over to the three of them, dread in my heart and a smile on my face.

  "Hey," I said, by way of greeting, giving the tall witch and her stalwart sidekick a neutral smile. I raised my eyebrows at Sam to ask him what he'd wanted.

  "Marnie Stonebrook, Mark Stonebrook," he said.

  I nodded to each of them. Hallow, indeed, I thought, half-amused. "Hallow" was just a tad more spiritual than "Marnie. "

  "They're looking for this guy," Sam said, indicating the poster. "You know him?"

  Of course Sam knew that I knew Eric. I was glad I'd had years of concealing my feelings and thoughts from the eyes of others. I looked the poster over deliberately.

  "Sure, I've seen him," I said. "When I went to that bar in Shreveport? He's kind of unforgettable, isn't he?" I gave Hallow - Marnie - a smile. We were just gals together, Marnie and Sookie, sharing a gal moment.

  "Handsome guy," she agreed in her throaty voice. "He's missing now, and we're offering a reward for anyone who can give us information. "

  "I see that from the poster," I said, letting a tiny hint of irritation show in my voice. "Is there any particular reason you think he might be around here? I can't imagine what a Shreveport vampire would be doing in Bon Temps. " I looked at her questioningly. Surely I wasn't out of line in asking that?

  "Good question, Sookie," Sam said. "Not that I mind having the poster up, but how come you two are searching this area for the guy? Why would he be here? Nothing happens in Bon Temps. "

  "This town has a vampire in residence, doesn't it?" Mark Stonebrook said suddenly. His voice was almost a twin of his sister's. He was so buff you expected to hear a bass, and even an alto as deep as Mamie's sounded strange coming from his throat. Actually, from Mark Stonebrook's appearance, you'd think he'd just grunt and growl to communicate.

  "Yeah, Bill Compton lives here," Sam said. "But he's out of town. "

  "Gone to Peru, I heard," I said.

  "Oh, yes, I'd heard of Bill Compton. Where does he live?" Hallow asked, trying to keep the excitement out of her voice.

  "Well, he lives out across the cemetery from my place," I said, because I had no choice. If the two asked someone else and got a different answer than the one I gave them, they'd know I had something (or in this case, someone) to conceal. "Out off Hummingbird Road. " I gave them directions, not very clear directions, and hoped they got lost out in somewhere like Hotshot.

  "Well, we might drop by Compton's house, just in case Eric went to visit him," Hallow said. Her eyes cut to her brother Mark, and they nodded at us and left the bar. They didn't care whether this made sense or not.

  "They're sending witches to visit all the vamps," Sam said softly. Of course. The Stonebrooks were going to the residences of all vampires who owed allegiance to Eric - the vamps of Area Five. They suspected that one of these vamps might be hiding Eric. Since Eric hadn't turned up, he was being hidden. Hallow had to be confident that her spell had worked, but she might not know exactly how it had worked.

  I let the smile fade off my face, and I leaned against the bar on my elbows, trying to think real hard.

  Sam said, "This is big trouble, right?" His face was serious.

  "Yes, this is big trouble. "

  "Do you need to leave? There's not too much happening here. Holly can come out of the kitchen now that they're gone, and I can always see to the tables myself, if you need to get home. . . . " Sam wasn't sure where Eric was, but he suspected, and he'd noticed Holly's abrupt bolt into the kitchen.

  Sam had earned my loyalty and respect a hundred times over.

  "I'll give them five minutes to get out of the parking lot. "

  "Do you think they might have something to do with Jason's disappearance?"

  "Sam, I just don't know. " I automatically dialed the sheriff's department and got the same answer I'd gotten all day - "No news, we'll call you when we know something. " But after she said that, the dispatcher told me that the pond was going to be searched the next day; the police had managed to get hold of two search-and-rescue divers. I didn't know how to feel about this information. Mostly, I was relieved that Jason's disappearance was being taken seriously.

  When I hung up the phone, I told Sam the news. After a second, I said, "It seems too much to believe that two men could disappear in the Bon Temps area at the same time. At least, the Stonebrooks seem to think Eric's around here. I have to think that there's a connection. "

  "Those Stonebrooks are Weres," Sam muttered.

  "And witches. You be careful, Sam. She's a killer. The Weres of Shreveport are out after her, and the vamps, too. Watch your step. "

  "Why is she so scary? Why would the Shreveport pack have any trouble handling her?"

  "She's drinking vampire blood," I said, as close to his ear as I could get without kissing him. I glanced around the room, to see that Kevin was watching our exchange with a lot of interest.

  "What does she want with Eric?"

  "His business. All his businesses. And him. "

  Sam's eyes widened. "So it's business, and personal. "

  "Yep. "

  "Do you know where Eric is?" He'd avoided asking me directly until now.

  I smiled at him. "Why would I know that? But I confess, I'm worried about those two being right down the road from my house. I have a feeling they're going to break into Bill's place. They might figure Eric's hiding with Bill, or in Bill's house. I'm sure he's got a safe hole for Eric to sleep in and blood on hand. " That was pretty much all a vampire required, blood and a dark place.

  "So you're going over to guard Bill's property? Not a good idea, Sookie. Let Bill's homeowners insurance take care of whatever damage they do searching. I think he told me he went with State Farm. Bill wouldn't want you hurt in defense of plants and bricks. "

  "I don't plan on doing anything that dangerous," I said, and truly, I didn't plan it. "But I do think I'll run home. Just in case. When I see their car lights leaving Bill's house, I'll go over and check it out. "

  "You need me to come with you?"

  "Nah, I'm just going to do damage assessment, that's all. Holly'll be enough help here?" She'd popped out of the kitchen the minute the Stonebrooks had left.

  "Sure. "

  "Okay, I'm gone. Thanks so much. " My conscience didn't twinge as much when I noticed that the place wasn't nearly as busy as it'd been an hour ago. You got nights like that, when people just cleared out all of a sudden.

  I had an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades, and maybe all our patrons had, too. It was that feeling that something was prowling that shouldn't be: that Halloween feeling, I call it, when you kind of picture something bad is easing around the corner of your house, to peer into your windows.

  By the time I grabbed my purse, unlocked my car, and drove back to my house, I was almost twitching from uneasiness. Everything was going to hell in a handbasket, seemed to me. Jason was missing, the witch was here instead of Shreveport, and now she was within a half mile of Eric.

&nbs
p; As I turned from the parish road onto my long, meandering driveway and braked for the deer crossing it from the woods on the south side to the woods on the north - moving away from Bill's house, I noticed - I had worked myself into a state. Pulling around to the back door, I leaped from the car and bounded up the back steps.

  I was caught in midbound by a pair of arms like steel bands. Lifted and whirled, I was wrapped around Eric's waist before I knew it.

  "Eric," I said, "you shouldn't be out - "

  My words were cut off by his mouth over mine.

  For a minute, going along with this program seemed like a viable alternative. I'd just forget all the badness and screw his brains out on my back porch, cold as it was. But sanity seeped back in past my overloaded emotional state, and I pulled a little away. He was wearing the jeans and Louisiana Tech Bulldogs sweatshirt Jason had bought for him at WalMart. Eric's big hands supported my bottom, and my legs circled him as if they were used to it.

  "Listen, Eric," I said, when his mouth moved down to my neck.

  "Ssshh," he whispered.

  "No, you have to let me speak. We have to hide. "

  That got his attention. "From whom?" he said into my ear, and I shivered. The shiver was unrelated to the temperature.

  "The bad witch, the one that's after you," I scrambled to explain. "She came into the bar with her brother and they put up that poster. "

  "So?" His voice was careless.

  "They asked what other vampires lived locally, and of course we had to say Bill did. So they asked for directions to Bill's house, and I guess they're over there looking for you. "

  "And?"

  "That's right across the cemetery from here! What if they come over here?"

  "You advise me to hide? To get back in that black hole below your house?" He sounded uncertain, but it was clear to me his pride was piqued.

  "Oh, yes. Just for a little while! You're my responsibility; I have to keep you safe. " But I had a sinking feeling I'd expressed my fears in the wrong way. This tentative stranger, however uninterested he seemed in vampire concerns, however little he seemed to remember of his power and possessions, still had the vein of pride and curiosity Eric had always shown at the oddest moments. I'd tapped right into it. I wondered if maybe I could talk him into at least getting into my house, rather than standing out on the porch, exposed.

  But it was too late. You just never could tell Eric anything.
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