Dead Until Dark, p.9Part #1 of Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
I’d been on the point of reaching out to him instinctively, but my hand dropped to my side. Sam deliberately looked at Kevin, not at me.
“What’s happening, Officer?” Sam asked.
“We’re going to break into this house, Mr. Merlotte, unless you have a master key.”
Why would Sam have a key?
“He’s my landlord,” JB said in my ear, and I jumped.
“He is?” I asked stupidly.
“He owns all three duplexes.”
Sam had been fishing in his pocket, and now he came up with a bunch of keys. He flipped through them expertly, stopping at one and singling it out, getting it off the ring and handing it to Kevin.
“This fits front and back?” Kevin asked. Sam nodded. He still wasn’t looking at me.
Kevin went to the back door of the duplex, out of sight, and we were all so quiet we could hear the key turn in the lock. Then he was in the bedroom with the dead woman, and we could see his face twist when the smell hit him. Holding one hand across his mouth and nose, he bent over the body and put his fingers on her neck. He looked out the window then and shook his head at his partner. Kenya nodded and headed out to the street to use the radio in the patrol car.
“Listen, Sookie, how about going to dinner with me tonight?” JB asked. “This has been tough on you, and you need some fun to make up for it.”
“Thanks, JB.” I was very conscious of Sam listening. “It’s really nice of you to ask. But I have a feeling I’m going to be working extra hours today.”
For just a second, JB’s handsome face was blank. Then comprehension filtered in. “Yeah, Sam’s gotta hire someone else,” he observed. “I got a cousin in Springhill needs a job. Maybe I’ll give her a call. We could live right next door to each other, now.”
I smiled at him, though I am sure it was a very weak smile, as I stood shoulder to shoulder with the man I’d worked with for two years.
“I’m sorry, Sookie,” he said quietly.
“For what?” My own voice was just as low. Was he going to acknowledge what had passed between us—or rather, failed to pass?
“For sending you to check on Dawn. I should have come myself. I was sure she was just shacked up with someone new and needed a reminder that she was supposed to be working. The last time I had to come get her, she yelled at me so much I just didn’t want to deal with it again. So like a coward, I sent you, and you had to find her like that.”
“You’re full of surprises, Sam.”
He didn’t turn to look at me or make any reply. But his fingers folded around mine. For a long moment, we stood in the sun with people buzzing around us, holding hands. His palm was hot and dry, and his fingers were strong. I felt I had truly connected with another human. But then his grip loosened, and Sam stepped over to talk with the detective, who was emerging from his car, and JB began asking me how Dawn had looked, and the world fell back into its same old groove.
The contrast was cruel. I felt tired all over again, and remembered the night before in more detail than I wanted to. The world seemed a bad and terrible place, all its denizens suspect, and I the lamb wandering through the valley of death with a bell around my neck. I stomped over to my car and opened the door, sank sideways into the seat. I’d be standing plenty today; I’d sit while I could.
JB followed me. Now that he’d rediscovered me, he could not be detached. I remembered when Gran had had high hopes for some permanent relationship between us, when I’d been in high school. But talking to JB, even reading his mind, was as interesting as a kindergarten primer was to an adult reader. It was one of God’s jokes that such a dumb mind had been put in such an eloquent body.
He knelt before me and took my hand. I found myself hoping that some smart rich lady would come along and marry JB and take care of him and enjoy what he had to offer. She would be getting a bargain.
“Where are you working now?” I asked him, just to distract myself.
“My dad’s warehouse,” he said.
That was the job of last resort, the one JB always returned to when he got fired from other jobs for doing something lamebrained, or for not showing up, or for offending some supervisor mortally. JB’s dad ran an auto parts store.
“How are your folks doing?”
“Oh, fine. Sookie, we should do something together.”
Don’t tempt me, I thought.
Someday my hormones were going to get the better of me and I’d do something I’d regret; and I could do worse than do it with JB. But I would hold out and hope for something better. “Thanks, honey,” I said. “Maybe we will. But I’m kind of upset right now.”
“Are you in love with that vampire?” he asked directly.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Dawn said so.” JB’s face clouded as he remembered Dawn was dead. What Dawn had said, I found on scanning JB’s mind, was “That new vampire is interested in Sookie Stackhouse. I’d be better for him. He needs a woman who can take some rough treatment. Sookie would scream if he touched her.”
It was pointless being mad at a dead person, but briefly I indulged myself by doing just that.
Then the detective was walking toward us, and JB got to his feet and moved away.
The detective took JB’s position, squatting on the ground in front of me. I must look in bad shape.
“Miss Stackhouse?” he asked. He was using that quiet intense voice many professionals adopt in a crisis. “I’m Andy Bellefleur.” The Bellefleurs had been around Bon Temps as long as there’d been a Bon Temps, so I wasn’t amused at a man being “beautiful flower.” In fact, I felt sorry for whoever thought it was amusing as I looked down at the block of muscle that was Detective Bellefleur. This particular family member had graduated before Jason, and I’d been one class behind his sister Portia.
He’d been placing me, too. “Your brother doing okay?” he asked, his voice still quiet, not quite as neutral. It sounded like he’d had a run-in or two with Jason.
“The little I see of him, he’s doing fine,” I answered.
“And your grandmother?”
I smiled. “She’s out planting flowers this morning.”
“That’s wonderful,” he said, doing that sincere head shake that’s supposed to indicate admiring amazement. “Now, I understand that you work at Merlotte’s?”
“And so did Dawn Green?”
“When was the last time you saw Dawn?”
“Two days ago. At work.” I already felt exhausted. Without shifting my feet from the ground or my arm from the steering wheel, I lay my head sideways on the headrest of the driver’s seat.
“Did you talk to her then?”
I tried to remember. “I don’t think so.”
“Were you close to Miss Green?”
“And why did you come here today?”
I explained about working for Dawn yesterday, about Sam’s phone call this morning.
“Did Mr. Merlotte tell you why he didn’t want to come here himself?”
“Yes, a truck was there to unload. Sam has to show the guys where to put the boxes.” Sam also did a lot of the unloading himself, half the time, to speed up the process.
“Do you think Mr. Merlotte had any relationship with Dawn?”
“He was her boss.”
“No, outside work.”
“You sound pretty positive.”
“Do you have a relationship with Sam?”
“Then how are you so sure?”
Good question. Because from time to time I’d heard thoughts that indicated that if she didn’t hate Sam, Dawn sure as hell wasn’t real fond of him? Not too smart a thing to tell the detective.
“Sam keeps everything real professional at the bar,” I said. It sounded lame, even to me. It just happened to be the truth.
“Did you know anything about Dawn’s per
“You weren’t friendly?”
“Not particularly.” My thoughts drifted as the detective bent his head in thought. At least that was what it looked like.
“Why is that?”
“I guess we didn’t have anything in common.”
“Like what? Give me an example.”
I sighed heavily, blowing my lips out in exasperation. If we didn’t have anything in common, how could I give him an example?
“Okay,” I said slowly. “Dawn had a real active social life, and she liked to be with men. She wasn’t so crazy about spending time with women. Her family is from Monroe, so she didn’t have family ties here. She drank, and I don’t. I read a lot, and she didn’t. That enough?”
Andy Bellefleur scanned my face to see if I was giving him attitude. He must have been reassured by what he saw.
“So, you two didn’t ever see each other after working hours?”
“Doesn’t it seem strange to you that Sam Merlotte asked you to check on Dawn, then?”
“No, not at all,” I said stoutly. At least, it didn’t seem strange now, after Sam’s description of Dawn’s tantrum. “This is on my way to the bar, and I don’t have children like Arlene, the other waitress on our shift. So it would be easier for me.” That was pretty sound, I thought. If I said Dawn had screamed at Sam the last time he’d been here, that would give exactly the wrong impression.
“What did you do after work two days ago, Sookie?”
“I didn’t come to work. I had the day off.”
“And your plan for that day was—?”
“I sunbathed and helped Gran clean house, and we had company.”
“Who would that be?”
“That would be Bill Compton.”
“How late was Mr. Compton at your house?”
“I don’t know. Maybe midnight or one.”
“How did he seem to you?”
“He seemed fine.”
“Miss Stackhouse, we need to talk to you more at the station house. This is going to take awhile, here, as you can see.”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Can you come in a couple of hours?”
I looked at my wristwatch. “If Sam doesn’t need me to work.”
“You know, Miss Stackhouse, this really takes precedence over working at a bar.”
Okay, I was pissed off. Not because he thought murder investigations were more important than getting to work on time; I agreed with him, there. It was his unspoken prejudice against my particular job.
“You may not think my job amounts to much, but it’s one I’m good at, and I like it. I am as worthy of respect as your sister, the lawyer, Andy Bellefleur, and don’t you forget it. I am not stupid, and I am not a slut.”
The detective turned red, slowly and unattractively. “I apologize,” Andy said stiffly. He was still trying to deny the old connection, the shared high school, the knowledge of each other’s family. He was thinking he should have been a detective in another town, where he could treat people the way he thought a police officer should.
“No, you’ll be a better detective here if you can get over that attitude,” I told him. His gray eyes flared wide in shock, and I was childishly glad I’d rocked him, though I was sure I would pay for it sooner or later. I always did when I gave people a peek at my disability.
Mostly, people couldn’t get away from me fast enough when I’d given them a taste of mind reading, but Andy Bellefleur was fascinated. “It’s true, then,” he breathed, as if we were somewhere alone instead of sitting in the driveway of a rundown duplex in rural Louisiana.
“No, forget it,” I said quickly. “I can just tell sometimes by the way people look what they’re thinking.”
He deliberately thought about unbuttoning my blouse. But I was wary now, back to my normal state of barricaded seige, and I did no more than smile brightly. I could tell I wasn’t fooling him, though.
“When you’re ready for me, you come to the bar. We can talk in the storeroom or Sam’s office,” I said firmly and swung my legs into the car.
The bar was buzzing when I got there. Sam had called Terry Bellefleur, Andy’s second cousin if I recalled correctly, in to watch the bar while he talked to the police at Dawn’s place. Terry had had a bad war in Vietnam, and he existed narrowly on government disability of some kind. He’d been wounded, captured, held prisoner for two years, and now his thoughts were most often so scary that I was extra special careful when I was around him. Terry had a hard life, and acting normal was even harder for him than it was for me. Terry didn’t drink, thank God.
Today I gave him a light kiss on the cheek while I got my tray and scrubbed my hands. Through the window into the little kitchen I could see Lafayette Reynold, the cook, flipping burgers and sinking a basket of fries into hot oil. Merlotte’s serves a few sandwiches, and that’s all. Sam doesn’t want to run a restaurant, but a bar with some food available.
“What was that for, not that I’m not honored,” Terry said. He’d raised his eyebrows. Terry was redhaired, though when he needed a shave, I could tell his whiskers were gray. Terry spent a lot of time outside, but his skin never exactly tanned. It got a rough, reddened look, which made the scars on his left cheek stand out more clearly. That didn’t seem to bother Terry. Arlene had been to bed with Terry one night when she’d been drinking, and she’d confided in me that Terry had many scars even worse than the one on his cheek.
“Just for being here,” I said.
“It true about Dawn?”
Lafayette put two plates on the serving hatch. He winked at me with a sweep of his thick, false lashes. Lafayette wears a lot of makeup. I was so used to him I never thought of it any more, but now his eye shadow brought the boy, Jerry, to my mind. I’d let him go with the three vampires without protest. That had probably been wrong, but realistic. I couldn’t have stopped them from taking him. I couldn’t have gotten the police to catch up with them in time. He was dying anyway, and he was taking as many vampires and humans with him as he could; and he was already a killer himself. I told my conscience this would be the last talk we’d have about Jerry.
“Arlene, burgers up,” Terry called, jerking me back into the here and how. Arlene came over to grab the plates. She gave me a look that said she was going to pump me dry at the first chance she got. Charlsie Tooten was working, too. She filled in when one of the regular women got sick or just didn’t show. I hoped Charlsie would take Dawn’s place full-time. I’d always liked her.
“Yeah, Dawn’s dead,” I told Terry. He didn’t seem to mind my long pause.
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know, but it wasn’t peaceful.” I’d seen blood on the sheets, not a lot, but some.
“Maudette,” Terry said, and I instantly understood.
“Maybe,” I said. It sure was possible that whoever had done in Dawn was the same person who’d killed Maudette.
Of course, everyone in Renard Parish came in that day, if not for lunch, then for an afternoon cup of coffee or a beer. If they couldn’t make their work schedule bend around that, they waited until they clocked out and came in on their way home. Two young women in our town murdered in one month? You bet people wanted to talk.
Sam returned about two, with heat radiating off his body and sweat trickling down his face from standing out in the shadeless yard at the crime scene. He told me that Andy Bellefleur had said he was coming to talk to me again soon.
“I don’t know why,” I said, maybe a tad sullenly. “I never hung around with Dawn. What happened to her, did they tell you?”
“Someone strangled her after beating on her a little,” Sam said. “But she had some old tooth marks, too. Like Maudette.”
“There are lots of vampires, Sam,” I said, answering his unspoken comment.
“Sookie.” His voice was so serious and quiet. It made me remember how he’d held my hand at Dawn’s house, and then I remembered how he’d shut me out of his mind, known I was probing, known how to keep me out. “Honey, Bill is a good guy, for a vampire, but he’s just not human.”
“Honey, neither are you,” I said, very quietly but very sharply. And I turned my back on Sam, not exactly wanting to admit why I was so angry with him, but wanting him to know it nonetheless.
I worked like a demon. Whatever her faults, Dawn had been efficient, and Charlsie just couldn’t keep up with the pace. She was willing, and I was sure she’d catch up with the rhythm of the bar, but for tonight, Arlene and I had to take up the slack.
I earned a ton of money in tips that evening and on into the night when people found out I’d actually discovered the body. I just kept my face solemn and got through it, not wanting to offend customers who just wanted to know what everyone else in town wanted to know.
On my way home, I allowed myself to relax a little. I was exhausted. The last thing I expected to see, after I turned into the little drive through the woods that led to our house, was Bill Compton. He was leaning against a pine tree waiting for me. I drove past him a little, almost deciding to ignore him. But then I stopped.
He opened my door. Without looking him in the eyes, I got out. He seemed comfortable in the night, in a way I never could be. There were too many childhood taboos about the night and the darkness and things that went bump.
Come to think of it, Bill was one of those things. No wonder he felt at ease.
“Are you going to look at your feet all night, or are you going to talk to me?” he asked in a voice that was just above a whisper.
“Something happened you should know about.”
“Tell me.” He was trying to do something to me: I could feel his power hovering around me, but I batted it away. He sighed.
“I can’t stand up,” I said wearily. “Let’s sit on the ground or something. My feet are tired.”
In answer, he picked me up and set me on the hood of the car. Then he stood in front of me, his arms crossed, very obviously waiting.
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes