Bill didn't call back that night, and I left for work before sunset the next day. He'd left a message on the answering machine when I came home to dress for the "party."
"Sookie, I had a hard time making out what the situation was, from your very guarded message," he said. His usually calm voice was definitely on the unhappy side. Miffed. "If you are going to this party, don't go alone, whatever you do. It isn't worth it. Get your brother or Sam to go with you."
Well, I'd gotten someone even stronger to go with me, so I should be feeling pretty virtuous. Somehow, I didn't think that my having Eric with me would reassure Bill.
"Stan Davis and Joseph Velasquez send their regards, and Barry the bellhop."
I smiled. I was sitting cross-legged on my bed wearing only an old chenille bathrobe, giving my hair a brushing while I listened to my messages.
"I haven't forgotten Friday night," Bill said, in the voice that always made me shiver. "I will never forget."
"So what happened Friday night?" Eric asked.
I shrieked. Once I could feel my heart was going to stay in my chest cavity, I scrambled off the bed and strode over to him with my fists balled.
"You are old enough to know you don't come in someone's house without knocking on the door and having it answered. Besides, when did I ever invite you inside?" I had to have extended the invitation, or else Eric couldn't have crossed the threshold.
"When I stopped by last month to see Bill. I did knock," Eric said, trying his best to look wounded. "You didn't answer, and I thought I heard voices, so I came in. I even called your name."
"You may have whispered my name." I was still furious. "But you acted bad, and you know it!"
"What are you wearing to the party?" Eric asked, effectively changing the subject. "If this is to be an orgy, what does a good girl like you wear?"
"I just don't know," I said, deflated by the reminder. "I'm sure I'm supposed to look like the kind of girl who goes to orgies, but I've never been to one and I have no idea how to start out, though I have a pretty clear idea of how I'm supposed to end up."
"I have been to orgies," he offered.
"Why does that not surprise me? What do you wear?"
"The last time I wore an animal hide; but this time I settled for this." Eric had been wearing a long trench coat. Now he threw it off dramatically, and I could only stand and stare. Normally, Eric was a blue-jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy. Tonight, he wore a pink tank top and Lycra leggings. I don't know where he got them; I didn't know any company made Lycra leggings in Men's X-tra Large Tall. They were pink and aqua, like the swirls down the sides of Jason's truck.
"Wow," I said, since it was all I could think of to say. "Wow. That's some outfit." When you've got a big guy wearing Lycra it doesn't leave a whole lot to the imagination. I resisted the temptation to ask Eric to turn around.
"I don't believe I could be convincing as a queen," Eric said, "but I decided this sent such a mixed signal, almost anything was possible." He fluttered his eyelashes at me. Eric was definitely enjoying this.
"Oh, yes," I said, trying to find somewhere else to look.
"Shall I go through your drawers and find something for you to wear?" Eric suggested. He had actually opened the top drawer of my bureau before I said, "No, no! I'll find something!" But I couldn't find anything more informally sexy than shorts and a tee shirt. However, the shorts were some I had left over from my junior high days, and they encased me "like a caterpillar embraces a butterfly," Eric said poetically.
"More like Daisy Dukes," I muttered, wondering if the lace pattern of my bikini underwear would be imprinted on my butt for the rest of my life. I wore a matching steel blue bra with a dipping white tank top that exposed a lot of the decoration on the bra. This was one of my replacement bras, and Bill hadn't even gotten to see it yet, so I sure hoped nothing happened to it. My tan was still holding up, and I wore my hair loose.
"Hey, our hair's the same color," I said, eyeing us side by side in the mirror.
"Sure is, girlfriend." Eric grinned at me. "But are you blond all the way down?"
"Don't you wish you knew?"
"Yes," he said simply.
"Well, you'll just have to wonder."
"I am," he said. "Blond everywhere."
"I could tell as much from your chest hair."
He raised my arm to check my armpit. "You silly women, shaving your body hair," he said, dropping my arm.
I opened my mouth to say something else on the topic, suddenly realized that would lead to disaster, and said instead, "We need to go."
"Aren't you going to wear perfume?" He was sniffing all the bottles on top of my dressing table. "Oh, wear this!" He tossed me a bottle and I caught it without thinking. His eyebrows flew up. "You have had more vampire blood than I thought, Miss Sookie."
"Obsession," I said, looking at the bottle. "Oh, okay." Carefully not responding to his observation, I dabbed a little bit of Obsession between my breasts and behind my knees. I figured that way I was covered from head to toe.
"What is our agenda, Sookie?" Eric asked, eyeing this procedure with interest.
"What we're going to do is go to this stupid so-called sex party and do as little as possible in that line while I gather information from the minds of the people there."
"Pertaining to the murder of Lafayette Reynold, the cook at Merlotte's Bar."
"And why are we doing this?"
"Because I liked Lafayette. And to clear Andy Bellefleur of the suspicion that he murdered Lafayette."
"Bill knows you are trying to save a Bellefleur?"
"Why do you ask that?"
"You know Bill hates the Bellefleurs," Eric said, as if that were the best-known fact in Louisiana.
"No," I said. "No, I didn't know that at all." I sat down on the chair by my bed, my eyes fixed on Eric's face. "Why?"
"You'll have to ask Bill that, Sookie. And this is the only reason we're going? You're not cleverly using this as an excuse to make out with me?"
"I'm not that clever, Eric."
"I think you deceive yourself, Sookie," Eric said with a brilliant smile.
I remembered he could now sense my moods, according to Bill. I wondered what Eric knew about me that I didn't know.
"Listen, Eric," I began, as we went out the door and across the porch. Then I had to stop and cast around in my mind for how to say what I wanted to say.
He waited. The evening had been cloudy, and the woods felt closer around the house. I knew the night just seemed oppressive because I was going to go to an event personally distasteful to me. I was going to learn things about people that I didn't know and didn't want to know. It seemed stupid to be seeking the kind of information that I'd spent my life learning how to block out. But I felt a sort of public service obligation to Andy Bellefleur to discover the truth; and I respected Portia, in an odd way, for her willingness to subject herself to something unpleasant in order to save her brother. How Portia could feel a genuine distaste for Bill was simply incomprehensible to me, but if Bill said she was frightened of him, it was true. This coming evening, the idea of seeing the true secret face of people I'd known forever was just as frightening to me.
"Don't let anything happen to me, okay?" I said to Eric directly. "I have no intention of getting intimate with any of those people. I guess I'm scared that something will happen, someone will go too far. Even for the sake of Lafayette's murder being avenged, I won't willingly have sex with any of those people." That was my real fear, one I hadn't admitted to myself until this moment: that some cog would slip, some safeguard fail, and I would be a victim. When I'd been a child, something had happened to me, something that I could neither prevent nor control, something incredibly vile. I would almost rather die than be subjected to abuse like that again. That was why I'd fought so hard against Gabe and been so relieved when Godfrey had killed him.
"You trust me?" Eric sounded surprised.
"That's… crazy, Sookie."
"I don't think so." Where that surety had come from, I didn't know, but it was there. I pulled on a thigh-length heavy sweater I had brought out with me.
Shaking his blond head, his trench coat drawn close around him, Eric opened the door to his red Corvette. I would be arriving at the orgy in style.
I gave Eric directions to Mimosa Lake, and I filled him in as much as I could on the background of this series of events as we drove (flew) down the narrow two-lane. Eric drove with great zest and ¨¦lan – and the recklessness of someone extremely hard to kill.
"Remember, I'm mortal," I said, after going around a curve at a speed that made me wish my fingernails were long enough to bite.
"I think about that often," Eric said, his eyes fixed on the road ahead of him.
I didn't know what to make of that, so I let my mind drift to relaxing things. Bill's hot tub. The nice check I would get from Eric when the check from the Dallas vampires cleared. The fact that Jason had dated the same woman several months in a row, which might mean he was serious about her, or might mean he'd run through all the available women (and a few who shouldn't have been) in Renard Parish. That it was a beautiful, cool night and I was riding in a wonderful car.
"You are happy," Eric said.
"Yes. I am."
"You will be safe."
"Thanks. I know I will."
I pointed to the little sign marked FOWLER that indicated a driveway almost hidden by a stand of myrtle and hawthorn. We turned down a short, rutted gravel driveway lined with trees. It canted sharply downhill. Eric frowned as the Corvette lurched along the deep ruts. By the time the drive leveled out into the clearing where the cabin stood, the slope was enough to render the roof a little below the height of the road around the lake. There were four cars parked on the beaten dirt in front of the cabin. The windows were open to admit the sharp cool of the evening, but the shades were drawn. I could hear voices drifting out, though I couldn't make out words. I was suddenly, deeply reluctant to enter Jan Fowler's cabin.
"I could be bisexual?" Eric asked. It didn't seem to bother him; he seemed, if anything, amused. We stood by Eric's car, facing each other, my hands stuffed in the sweater pockets.
"Okay." I shrugged. Who cared? This was make believe. I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone was watching us through a partially raised shade. "We're being watched."
"Then I'll act friendly."
We were out of the car by that time. Eric bent, and without yanking me to him, set his mouth on mine. He didn't grab me, so I felt fairly relaxed. I'd known that at the very minimum I'd have to kiss other people. So I set my mind to it.
Maybe I had natural talent, which had been nurtured by a great teacher. Bill had pronounced me an excellent kisser, and I wanted to do him proud.
Judging from the state of Eric's Lycra, I succeeded.
"Ready to go in?" I asked, doing my best to keep my eyes above his chest.
"Not really," Eric said. "But I suppose we have to. At least I look in the mood."
Though it was dismaying to think that this was the second time I had kissed Eric and that I had enjoyed it more than I should, I could feel a smile twitch the corners of my mouth as we crossed the bumpy ground of the clearing. We went up the steps to a large wooden deck, strewn with the usual aluminum folding chairs and a large gas grill. The screen door screeched as Eric pulled it open, and I knocked lightly on the inner door. "Who is it?" Jan's voice said.
"It's Sookie and a friend," I answered.
"Oh, goodie! Come on in!" she called.
When I pushed open the door, all the faces in the room were turned toward us. The welcoming smiles turned to startled looks as Eric came in behind me.
Eric stepped to my side, his coat over his arm, and I almost hooted at the variety of expressions. After the shock of realizing Eric was vampire, which everyone in the room did after a minute or so, eyes flickered up and down the length of Eric's body, taking in the panorama.
"Hey, Sookie, who's your friend?" Jan Fowler, a multiple divorcee in her thirties, was wearing what looked like a lace slip. Jan's hair was streaked and professionally tousled, and her makeup would have seemed in place on stage, though for a cabin by Mimosa Lake the effect was a bit much. But as hostess, I guess she felt she could wear what she wanted to her own orgy. I slid out of my sweater and endured the embarrassment of receiving the same scrutiny Eric had been given.
"This is Eric," I said. "I hope you don't mind me bringing a friend?"
"Oh, the more the merrier," she said with undoubted sincerity. Her eyes never rose to Eric's face. "Eric, what can I get you to drink?"
"Blood?" Eric asked hopefully.
"Yeah, I think I've got some O here," she said, unable to tear her gaze away from the Lycra. "Sometimes we… pretend." She raised her eyebrows significantly, and kind of leered at Eric.
"No need to pretend anymore," he said, giving her back look for look. On his way to join her at the refrigerator, he managed to stroke Eggs's shoulder, and Eggs's face lit up.
Oh. Well, I'd known I'd learn some things. Tara, beside him, was sulking, her dark brows drawn down over dark eyes. Tara was wearing a bra and panties of shrieking red, and she looked pretty good. Her toenails and fingernails were painted so they matched, and so did her lipstick. She'd come prepared. I met her eyes, and she looked away. It didn't take a mind reader to recognize shame.
Mike Spencer and Cleo Hardaway were on a dilapidated couch against the left-hand wall. The whole cottage, basically one large room with a sink and stove against the right-hand wall and a walled-in bathroom in the far corner, was furnished in cast-offs, because in Bon Temps that was what you did with your old furniture. However, most lake cabins would not have featured such a thick soft rug and such a lot of pillows tossed around at random, and there would not have been such thick shades drawn at all the windows. Plus, the knickknacks strewn around on that soft rug were simply nasty. I didn't even know what some of them were.
But I pasted a cheerful smile on my face, and hugged Cleo Hardaway, as I usually did when I saw her. Granted, she had always been wearing more clothes when she ran the high school cafeteria. But panties were more than Mike was wearing, which was not a stitch.
Well, I'd known it would be bad, but I guess you just can't prepare yourself for some sights. Cleo's huge milk-chocolate brown boobs were glistening with some kind of oil, and Mike's private parts were equally shiny. I didn't even want to think about that.
Mike tried to grab my hand, probably to assist with the oil, but I slithered away and edged over to Eggs and Tara.
"I sure never thought you'd come," Tara said. She was smiling, too, but not real happily. In fact, she looked pretty damn miserable. Maybe the fact that Tom Hardaway was kneeling in front of her smooching up the inside of her leg had something to do with that. Maybe it was Eggs's obvious interest in Eric. I tried to meet Tara's eyes, but I felt sick.
I'd only been here five minutes, but I was willing to bet this was the longest five minutes of my life.
"Do you do this real often?" I asked Tara, absurdly. Eggs, his eyes on Eric's bottom while Eric stood talking at the refrigerator with Jan, began fumbling with the button on my shorts. Eggs had been drinking again. I could smell it. His eyes were glassy and his jaw was slack. "Your friend is really big," he said, as if his mouth were watering, and maybe it was.
"Lots bigger than Lafayette," I whispered, and his gaze jerked up to meet mine. "I figured he'd be welcome."
"Oh, yes," Eggs said, deciding not to confront my statement. "Yes, Eric's… very large. It's good to have some diversity."
"This is as rainbow as Bon Temps gets," I said, trying hard not to sound perky. I endured Eggs's continued struggle with the button. This had been a big mistake. Eggs was just thinking about Eric's butt. And other things about Eric.
Speaking of the devil, he snugged up behind me and ran his arms around me, pulling me to him and removing me from Eggs's clumsy fingers. I leaned back into Eric, really glad he was there. I realized that was because I expected Eric to misbehave. But seeing people you'd known all your life act like this, well, it was deeply disgusting. I wasn't too sure I could keep my face from showing this, so I wiggled against Eric, and when he made a happy sound, I turned in his arms to face him. I put my arms up around his neck and raised my face. He happily complied with my silent suggestion. With my face concealed, my mind was free to roam. I opened myself up mentally, just as Eric parted my lips with his tongue, so I felt completely unguarded. There were some strong "senders" in that room, and I no longer felt like myself, but like a pipeline for other people's overwhelming needs.
I could taste the flavor of Eggs's thoughts. He was remembering Lafayette, thin brown body, talented fingers, and heavily made up eyes. He was remembering Lafayette's whispered suggestions. Then he was choking those happy memories off with more unpleasant ones, Lafayette protesting violently, shrilly…
"Sookie," Eric said in my ear, so low that I don't think another person in the room could've heard him. "Sookie, relax. I have you."
I made my hand stroke his neck. I found that someone else was behind Eric, sort of making out with him from behind.
Jan's hand reached around Eric and began rubbing my rear. Since she was touching me, her thoughts were absolutely clear; she was an exceptional "sender." I flicked through her mind like the pages of a book, and read nothing of interest. She was only thinking of Eric's anatomy, and worrying about her own fascination with Cleo's chest. Nothing there for me.
I reached in another direction, wormed into the head of Mike Spencer, found the nasty tangle I'd expected, found that as he rolled Cleo's breasts in his hands he was seeing other brown flesh, limp and lifeless. His own flesh rose as he remembered this. Through his memories I saw Jan asleep on the lumpy couch, Lafayette's protest that if they didn't stop hurting him he would tell everyone what he'd done and with whom, and then Mike's fists descending, Tom Hardaway kneeling on the thin dark chest…
I had to get out of here. I couldn't bear it, even if I hadn't just learned what I needed to know. I didn't see how Portia could have endured it, either, especially since she would have had to stay to learn anything, not having the "gift" I had.
I felt Jan's hand massaging my ass. This was the most joyless excuse for sex I had ever seen: sex separated from mind and spirit, from love or affection. Even simple liking.
According to my four-times-married friend Arlene, men had no problem with this. Evidently, some women didn't either.
"I have to get out," I breathed into Eric's mouth. I knew he could hear me.
"Go along with me," he replied, and it was almost as if I was hearing him in my head.
He lifted me and slung me over his shoulder. My hair trailed down almost to the middle of his thigh.
"We're going outside for a minute," he told Jan, and I heard a big smacking noise. He'd given her a kiss.
"Can I come, too?" she asked, in a breathless Marlene Dietrich voice. It was lucky my face wasn't showing.
"Give us a minute. Sookie is still a little shy," Eric said in a voice as full of promise as a tub of a new flavor of ice cream.
"Warm her up good," Mike Spencer said in a muffled voice. "We all want to see our Sookie fired up."
"She will be hot," Eric promised.
"Hot damn," said Tom Hardaway, from between Tara's legs.
Then, bless Eric, we were out the door and he laid me out on the hood of the Corvette. He lay on top of me, but most of his weight was supported by his hands resting on the hood on either side of my shoulders.
He was looking down at me, his face clamped down like a ship's deck during a storm. His fangs were out. His eyes were wide. Since the whites were so purely white, I could see them. It was too dark to see the blue of his eyes, even if I'd wanted to.
I didn't want. "That was…" I began, and had to stop. I took a deep breath. "You can call me a goody two-shoes if you want to, and I wouldn't blame you, after all this was my idea. But you know what I think? I think that's awful. Do men really like that? Do women, for that matter? Is it fun to have sex with someone you don't even like?"
"Do you like me, Sookie?" Eric asked. He rested more heavily on me and moved a little.
Uh-oh. "Eric, remember why we're here?"
"Even if they are, remember?"
"Yes, I remember."
"So we need to go."
"Do you have any evidence? Do you know what you wanted to find out?"
"I don't have any more evidence than I had before tonight, not evidence you can hand out in court." I made myself put my arms around his ribs. "But I know who did it. It was Mike, Tom, and maybe Cleo."
"This is interesting," Eric said, with a complete lack of sincerity. His tongue flicked into my ear. I happen to particularly like that, and I could feel my breathing speed up. Maybe I wasn't as immune to uninvolved sex as I'd thought. But then, I liked Eric, when I wasn't afraid of him.
"No, I just hate this," I said, reaching some inner conclusion. "I don't like any part of this." I shoved Eric hard, though it didn't make a bit of difference. "Eric, you listen to me. I've done everything for Lafayette and Andy Bellefleur I can, though it's precious little. He'll just have to go from here on the little snatches I caught. He's a cop. He can find court evidence. I'm not selfless enough to go any further with this."
"Sookie," Eric said. I didn't think he'd heard a word. "Yield to me."
Well, that was pretty direct.
"No," I said, in the most definite voice I could summon. "No."
"I will protect you from Bill."
"You're the one that's gonna need protection!" When I reflected on that sentence, I was not proud of it.
"You think Bill is stronger than me?"
"I am not having this conversation." Then I proceeded to have it. "Eric, I appreciate your offering to help me, and I appreciate your willingness to come to an awful place like this."
"Believe me, Sookie, this little gathering of trash is nothing, nothing, compared to some of the places I have been."
And I believed him utterly. "Okay, but it's awful to me. Now, I realize that I should've known this would, ah, rouse your expectations, but you know I did not come out here tonight to have sex with anyone. Bill is my boyfriend." Though the words boyfriend and Bill sounded ludicrous in the same sentence, "boyfriend" was Bill's function in my world, anyway.
"I am glad to hear it," said a cool, familiar voice. "This scene would make me wonder, otherwise."
Eric rose up off of me, and I scrambled off the hood of the car and stumbled in the direction of Bill's voice.
"Sookie," he said, when I drew near, "it's getting to where I just can't let you go anywhere alone."
As far as I could tell in the poor lighting, he didn't look very glad to see me. But I couldn't blame him for that. "I sure made a big mistake," I said, from the bottom of my heart. I hugged him.
"You smell like Eric," he said into my hair. Well, hell, I was forever smelling like other men to Bill. I felt a flood of misery and shame, and I realized things were about to happen.
But what happened was not what I expected.
Andy Bellefleur stepped out of the bushes with a gun in his hand. His clothes looked torn and stained, and the gun looked huge.
"Sookie, step away from the vampire," he said.
"No." I wrapped myself around Bill. I didn't know if I was protecting him or he was protecting me. But if Andy wanted us separated, I wanted us joined.
There was a sudden surge of voices on the porch of the cabin. Someone clearly had been looking out of the window – I had kind of wondered if Eric had made that up – because, though no voices had been raised, the showdown in the clearing had attracted the attention of the revelers inside. While Eric and I had been in the yard, the orgy had progressed. Tom Hardaway was naked, and Jan, too. Eggs Tallie looked drunker.
"You smell like Eric," Bill repeated, in a hissing voice.
I reared back from him, completely forgetting about Andy and his gun. And I lost my temper.
This is a rare thing, but not as rare as it used to be. It was kind of exhilarating. "Yeah, uh-huh, and I can't even tell what you smell like! For all I know you've been with six women! Hardly fair, is it?"
Bill gaped at me, stunned. Behind me, Eric started laughing. The crowd on the sundeck was silently enthralled. Andy didn't think we should all be ignoring the man with the gun.
"Stand together in a group," he bellowed. Andy had had a lot to drink.
Eric shrugged. "Have you ever dealt with vampires, Bellefleur?" he asked.
"No," Andy said. "But I can shoot you dead. I have silver bullets."
"That's – " I started to say, but Bill's hand covered my mouth. Silver bullets were only definitely fatal to werewolves, but vampires also had a terrible reaction to silver, and a vampire hit in a vital place would certainly suffer.
Eric raised an eyebrow and sauntered over to the orgiasts on the deck. Bill took my hand, and we joined them. For once, I would have loved to know what Bill was thinking.
"Which one of you was it, or was it all of you?" Andy bellowed.
We all kept silent. I was standing by Tara, who was shivering in her red underwear. Tara was scared, no big surprise. I wondered if knowing Andy's thoughts would help any, and I began to focus on him. Drunks don't make for good reading, I can tell you, because they only think about stupid stuff, and their ideas are quite unreliable. Their memories are shaky, too. Andy didn't have too many thoughts at the moment. He didn't like anyone in the clearing, not even himself, and he was determined to get the truth out of someone.
"Sookie, come here," he yelled.
"No," Bill said very definitely.
"I have to have her right here beside me in thirty seconds, or I shoot – her!" Andy said, pointing his gun right at me.
"You will not live thirty seconds after, if you do," Bill said.
I believed him. Evidently Andy did, too.
"I don't care," Andy said. "She's not much loss to the world."
Well, that made me mad all over again. My temper had begun to die down, but that made it flare up in a big way.
I yanked free from Bill's hand and stomped down the steps to the yard. I wasn't so blind with anger that I ignored the gun, though I was sorely tempted to grab Andy by his balls and squeeze. He'd still shoot me, but he'd hurt, too. However, that was as self-defeating as drinking was. Would the moment of satisfaction be worth it?
"Now, Sookie, you read the minds of those people and you tell me which one did it," Andy ordered. He gripped the back of my neck with his big hands, like I was an untrained puppy, and swiveled me around to face the deck.
"What the hell do you think I was doing here, you stupid shit? Do you think this is the way I like to spend my time, with assholes like these?"
Andy shook me by my neck. I am very strong, and there was a good chance that I could break free from him and grab the gun, but it was not close enough to a sure thing to make me comfortable. I decided to wait for a minute. Bill was trying to tell me something with his face, but I wasn't sure what it was. Eric was trying to cop a feel from Tara. Or Eggs. It was hard to tell.
A dog whined at the edge of the woods. I rolled my eyes in that direction, unable to turn my head. Well, great. Just great.
"That's my collie," I told Andy. "Dean, remember?" I could have used some human-shaped help, but since Sam had arrived on the scene in his collie persona, he'd have to stay that way or risk exposure.
"Yeah. What's your dog doing out here?"
"I don't know. Don't shoot him, okay?"
"I'd never shoot a dog," he said, sounding genuinely shocked.
"Oh, but me, it's okay," I said bitterly.
The collie padded over to where we were standing. I wondered what was on Sam's mind. I wondered if he retained much human thinking while he was in his favorite form. I rolled my eyes toward the gun, and Sam/Dean's eyes followed mine, but how much comprehension was in there, I just couldn't estimate.
The collie began to growl. His teeth were bared and he was glaring at the gun.
"Back up, dog," Andy said, annoyed.
If I could just hold Andy still for a minute, the vampires could get him. I tried to work out all the moves in my mind. I'd have to grab his gun hand with both of my hands and force it up. But with Andy holding me out from him like this, that wasn't going to be easy.
"No, sweetheart," Bill said.
My eyes flashed over to him. I was considerably startled. Bill's eyes moved from my face to behind Andy. I could take a hint.
"Oh, who is being held like a little cub?" inquired a voice behind Andy.
Oh, this was just peachy.
"It is my messenger!" The maenad sauntered around Andy in a wide circle and came to stand to his right, a few feet before him. She was not between Andy and the group on the deck. She was clean tonight, and wearing nothing at all. I guessed she and Sam had been out in the woods making whoopee, before they heard the crowd. Her black hair fell in a tangled mass all the way to her hips. She didn't seem cold. The rest of us (except the vampires) were definitely feeling the nip in the air. We'd come dressed for an orgy, not an outdoors party.
"Hello, messenger," the maenad said to me. "I forgot to introduce myself last time, my canine friend reminds me. I am Callisto."
"Miss Callisto," I said, since I had no idea what to call her. I would have nodded, but Andy had hold of my neck. It was sure beginning to hurt.
"Who is this stalwart brave gripping you?" Callisto moved a little closer.
I had no idea what Andy looked like, but everyone on the deck was enthralled and terrified, Eric and Bill excepted. They were easing back, away from the humans. This wasn't good.
"This is Andy Bellefleur," I croaked. "He has a problem."
I could tell from the way my skin crawled that the maenad had eased forward a little.
"You have never seen anything like me, have you?" she said to Andy.
"No," Andy admitted. He sounded dazed.
"Am I beautiful?"
"Yes," he said, without hesitation.
"Do I deserve tribute?"
"Yes," he said.
"I love drunkenness, and you are very drunk," Callisto said happily. "I love pleasures of the flesh, and these people are full of lust. This is my kind of place."
"Oh, good," Andy said uncertainly. "But one of these people is a murderer, and I need to know which."
"Not just one," I muttered. Reminded I was on the end of his arm, Andy shook me again. I was getting really tired of this.
The maenad had gotten close enough now to touch me. She gently stroked my face, and I smelled earth and wine on her fingers.
"You are not drunk," she observed.
"And you have not had the pleasures of the flesh this evening."
"Oh, just give me time," I said.
She laughed. It was a high, whooping laugh. It went on and on.
Andy's grip loosened, as he grew more and more disconcerted by the maenad's nearness. I don't know what the people on the deck thought they saw. But Andy knew he was seeing a creature of the night. He let go of me, quite suddenly.
"Come on up here, new girl," called Mike Spencer. "Let's have a look at you."
I was on a heap on the ground by Dean, who was licking my face enthusiastically. From that point of view, I could see the maenad's arm snake around Andy's waist. Andy transferred his gun to his left hand so he could return the compliment.
"Now, what did you want to know?" she asked Andy. Her voice was calm and reasonable. She idly waved the long wand with the tuft on the end. It was called a thyrsis; I'd looked maenad up in the encyclopedia. Now I could die educated.
"One of those people killed a man named Lafayette, and I want to know which one," Andy said with the belligerence of the drunk.
"Of course you do, my darling," the maenad crooned. "Shall I find out for you?"
"Please," he begged.
"All right." She scanned the people, and crooked her finger at Eggs. Tara held on to his arm to try to keep him with her, but he lurched down the steps and over to the maenad, grinning foolishly all the while.
"Are you a girl?" Eggs asked.
"Not by any stretch of the imagination," Callisto said. "You have had a lot of wine." She touched him with the thyrsis.
"Oh, yeah," he agreed. He wasn't smiling anymore. He looked into Callisto's eyes, and he shivered and shook. Her eyes were glowing. I looked at Bill, and saw he had his own eyes focused on the ground. Eric was looking at the hood of his car. Ignored by everyone, I began to crawl toward Bill.
This was a fine kettle of fish.
The dog paced beside me, nosing me anxiously. I felt he wanted me to move faster. I reached Bill's legs and gripped them. I felt his hand on my hair. I was scared to make the large movement of rising to my feet.
Callisto wrapped her thin arms around Eggs and began to whisper to him. He nodded and whispered back. She kissed him, and he went rigid. When she left him to glide over to the deck, he stood absolutely still, staring into the woods.
She stopped by Eric, who was closer to the deck than we were. She looked him up and down, and smiled that terrifying smile again. Eric looked at her chest fixedly, careful not to meet her eyes. "Lovely," she said, "just lovely. But not for me, you beautiful piece of dead meat."
Then she was up amongst the people on the deck. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of drinking and sex. She sniffed as if she were following a trail, and then she swung to face Mike Spencer. His middle-aged body did not fare well in the chilly air, but Callisto seemed delighted with him.
"Oh," she said as happily as though she'd just gotten a present, "you're so proud! Are you a king? Are you a great soldier?"
"No," Mike said. "I own a funeral home." He didn't sound too sure. "What are you, lady?"
"Have you ever seen anything like me before?"
"No," he said, and all the others shook their heads.
"You don't remember my first visit?"
"But you've made me an offering before."
"I have? An offering?"
"Oh, yes, when you killed the little black man. The pretty one. He was a lesser child of mine, and a fitting tribute for me. I thank you for leaving him outside the drinking place; bars are my particular delight. Could you not find me in the woods?"
"Lady, we didn't make no offering," Tom Hardaway said, his dark skin all over goose pimples and his penis gone south.
"I saw you," she said.
Everything fell silent then. The woods around the lake, always full of little noises and tiny movements, became still. I very carefully rose to my feet beside Bill.
"I love the violence of sex, I love the reek of drink," she said dreamily. "I can run from miles away to be there for the end."
The fear pouring out of their heads began to fill mine up, and run out. I covered my face with my hands. I threw up the strongest shields I could fashion, but I could still barely contain the terror. My back arched, and I bit my tongue to keep from making a sound. I could feel the movement as Bill turned to me, and then Eric was by his side and they were both mashing me between them. There is not a thing erotic about being pressed between two vampires under those circumstances. Their own urgent desire for my silence fed the fear, because what would frighten vampires? The dog pressed against our legs as if he offered us protection.
"You hit him during sex," the maenad said to Tom. "You hit him, because you are proud, and his subservience disgusted and excited you." She stretched her bony hand to caress Tom's dark face. I could see the whites of his eyes. "And you" – she patted Mike with her other hand – "you beat him, too, because you were seized with the madness. Then he threatened to tell." Her hand left Tom and rubbed his wife, Cleo. Cleo had thrown on a sweater before she went out, but it wasn't buttoned.
Since she had avoided notice, Tara began backing up. She was the only one who wasn't paralyzed by fear. I could feel the tiny spark of hope in her, the desire to survive. Tara crouched under a wrought-iron table on the deck, made herself into a little ball, and squeezed her eyes shut. She was making a lot of promises to God about her future behavior, if he'd get her out of this. That poured into my mind, too. The reek of fear from the others built to a peak, and I could feel my body go into tremors as they broadcast so heavily that it broke through all my barriers. I had nothing left of myself. I was only fear. Eric and Bill locked arms with each other, to hold me upright and immobile between them.
Jan, in her nudity, was completely ignored by the maenad. I can only suppose that there was nothing in Jan that appealed to the creature; Jan was not proud, she was pathetic, and she hadn't had a drink that night. She embraced sex out of other needs than the need for its loss of self – needs that had nothing to do with leaving one's mind and body for a moment of wonderful madness. Trying, as always, to be the center of the group, Jan reached out with a would-be flirty smile and took the maenad's hand. Suddenly she began to convulse, and the noises coming from her throat were horrible. Foam came from her mouth, and her eyes rolled up. She collapsed to the deck, and I could hear her heels drumming the wood.
Then the silence resumed. But something was brewing a few yards away in the little group on the deck: something terrible and fine, something pure and horrible. Their fear was subsiding, and my body began to calm again. The awful pressure eased in my head. But as it ebbed, a new force began to build, and it was indescribably beautiful and absolutely evil.
It was pure madness, it was mindless madness. From the maenad poured the berserker rage, the lust of pillage, the hubris of pride. I was overwhelmed when the people on the deck were overwhelmed, I jerked and thrashed as the insanity rolled off Callisto and into their brains, and only Eric's hand across my mouth kept me from screaming as they did. I bit him and tasted his blood, and heard him grunt at the pain.
It went on and on and on, the screaming, and then there were awful wet sounds. The dog, pressed against our legs, whimpered.
Suddenly, it was over.
I felt like a. dancing puppet whose strings have suddenly been severed. I went limp. Bill laid me down on Eric's car hood again. I opened my eyes. The maenad looked down at me. She was smiling again, and she was drenched in blood. It was like someone had poured a bucket of red paint over her head; her hair was drenched, as was every bit of her bare body, and she reeked of the copper smell, enough to set your teeth on edge.
"You were close," she said to me, her voice as sweet and high as a flute. She moved a little more deliberately, as if she'd eaten a heavy meal. "You were very close. Maybe as close as you'll ever come, maybe not. I've never seen anyone maddened by the insanity of others. An entertaining thought."
"Entertaining for you, maybe," I gasped. The dog bit my leg to bring me to myself. She looked down at him.
"My dear Sam," she murmured. "Darling, I must leave you."
The dog looked up at her with intelligent eyes.
"We've had some good nights running through the woods," she said, and stroked his head. "Catching little rabbits, little coons."
The dog wagged his tail.
"Doing other things."
The dog grinned and panted.
"But it's time for me to go, darling. The world is full of woods and people that need to learn their lesson. I must be paid tribute. They mustn't forget me. I'm owed," she said, in her sated voice, "owed the madness and death." She began to drift to the edge of the woods.
"After all," she said over her shoulder, "it can't always be hunting season."