Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse #2)

Chapter 2

chapter
Chapter

We reopened at four-thirty, by which time we were all as bored as we could possibly be. I was ashamed of that, since after all, we were there because a man we knew had died, but it was undeniable that after straightening up the storeroom, cleaning out Sam's office, and playing several hands of bourr¨¦ (Sam won five dollars and change) we were all ready to see someone new. When Terry Bellefleur, Andy's cousin and a frequent substitute barman or cook at Merlotte's, came through the back door, he was a welcome sight.

I guess Terry was in his late fifties. A Vietnam vet, he'd been a prisoner of war for a year and a half. Terry had some obvious facial scarring, and my friend Arlene told me that the scars on his body were even more drastic. Terry was redheaded, though he was graying a little more each month, it seemed like.

I'd always been fond of Terry, who bent over backward to be kind to me – except when he was in one of his black moods. Everyone knew not to cross Terry Bellefleur when he was in one of his moods. Terry's dark days were inevitably preceded by nightmares of the worst kind, as his neighbors testified. They could hear Terry hollering on the nightmare nights.

I never, never read Terry's mind.

Terry looked okay today. His shoulders were relaxed, and his eyes didn't dart from side to side. "You okay, sweet thing?" he asked, patting my arm sympathetically.

"Thanks, Terry, I'm fine. Just sorry about Lafayette."

"Yeah, he wasn't too bad." From Terry, that was high praise. "Did his job, always showed up on time. Cleaned the kitchen good. Never a bad word." Functioning on that level was Terry's highest ambition. "And then he dies in Andy's Buick."

"I'm afraid Andy's car is kind of…" I groped for the blandest term.

"It's cleanable, he said." Terry was anxious to close that subject.

"Did he tell you what had happened to Lafayette?"

"Andy says it looks like his neck was broken. And there was some, ah, evidence that he'd been… messed with." Terry's brown eyes flickered away, revealing his discomfort. "Messed with" meant something violent and sexual to Terry.

"Oh. Gosh, how awful." Danielle and Holly had come up behind me, and Sam, with another sack of garbage he'd cleaned out of his office, paused on his way to the Dumpster out back.

"He didn't look that… I mean, the car didn't look that…"

"Stained?"

"Right."

"Andy thinks he was killed somewhere else."

"Yuck," said Holly. "Don't talk about it. That's too much for me."

Terry looked over my shoulder at the two women. He had no great love for either Holly or Danielle, though I didn't know why and had made no effort to learn. I tried to leave people privacy, especially now that I had better control over my own ability. I heard the two moving away, after Terry had kept his gaze trained on them for a few seconds.

"Portia came and got Andy last night?" he asked.

"Yes, I called her. He couldn't drive. Though I'm betting he wishes I'd let him, now." I was just never going to be number one on Andy Bellefleur's popularity list.

"She have trouble getting him to her car?"

"Bill helped her."

"Vampire Bill? Your boyfriend?"

"Uh-huh."

"I hope he didn't scare her," Terry said, as if he didn't remember I was still there.

I could feel my face squinching up. "There's no reason on earth why Bill would ever scare Portia Bellefleur," I said, and something about the way I said it penetrated Terry's fog of private thought.

"Portia ain't as tough as everyone thinks she is," Terry told me. "You, on the other hand, are a sweet little ¨¦clair on the outside and a pit bull on the inside."

"I don't know whether I should feel flattered, or whether I should sock you in the nose."

"There you go. How many women – or men, for that matter – would say such a thing to a crazy man like me?" And Terry smiled, as a ghost would smile. I hadn't known how conscious of his reputation Terry was, until now.

I stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss on the scarred cheek, to show him I wasn't scared of him. As I sank back to my heels, I realized that wasn't exactly true. Under some circumstances, not only would I be quite wary of this damaged man, but I might become very frightened indeed.

Terry tied the strings of one of the white cook's aprons and began to open up the kitchen. The rest of us got back into the work mode. I wouldn't have long to wait tables, since I was getting off at six tonight to get ready to drive to Shreveport with Bill. I hated for Sam to pay me for the time I'd spent lollygagging around Merlotte's today, waiting to work; but straightening the storeroom and cleaning out Sam's office had to count for something.

As soon as the police opened up the parking lot, people began streaming in, in as heavy a flow as a small town like Bon Temps ever gets. Andy and Portia were among the first in, and I saw Terry look out the hatch from the kitchen at his cousins. They waved at him, and he raised a spatula to acknowledge their greeting. I wondered how close a cousin Terry actually was. He wasn't a first cousin, I was sure. Of course, here you could call someone your cousin or your aunt or your uncle with little or no blood relation at all. After my mother and father had died in a flash flood that swept their car off a bridge, my mother's best friend tried to come by my Gran's every week or two with a little present for me; and I'd called her Aunt Patty my whole life.

I answered all the customers' questions if I had time, and served hamburgers and salads and chicken breast strips – and beer – until I felt dazed. When I glanced at the clock, it was time for me to go. In the ladies' room I found my replacement, my friend Arlene. Arlene's flaming red hair (two shades redder this month) was arranged in an elaborate cluster of curls on the back of her head, and her tight pants let the world know she'd lost seven pounds. Arlene had been married four times, and she was on the lookout for number five.

We talked about the murder for a couple of minutes, and I briefed her on the status of my tables, before I grabbed my purse from Sam's office and scooted out the back door. It wasn't quite dark when I pulled up to my house, which is a quarter mile back in the woods off a seldom-traveled parish road. It's an old house, parts of it dating back a hundred and forty-plus years, but it's been altered and added onto so often we don't count it as an antebellum house. It's just an old farmhouse, anyway. My grandmother, Adele Hale Stackhouse, left me this house, and I treasured it. Bill had spoken of me moving into his place, which sat on a hill just across the cemetery from my home, but I was reluctant to leave my own turf.

I yanked off my waitress outfit and opened my closet. If we were going over to Shreveport on vampire business, Bill would want me to dress up a little. I couldn't quite figure that out, since he didn't want anyone else making a pass at me, but he always wanted me to look extra pretty when we were going to Fangtasia, a vampire-owned bar catering mainly to tourists.

Men.

I couldn't make up my mind, so I hopped in the shower. Thinking about Fangtasia always made me tense. The vampires who owned it were part of the vampire power structure, and once they'd discovered my unique talent, I'd become a desirable acquisition to them. Only Bill's determined entry into the vampire self-governing system had kept me safe; that is, living where I wanted to live, working at my chosen job. But in return for that safety, I was still obliged to show up when I was summoned, and to put my telepathy to use for them. Milder measures than their former choices (torture and terror) were what "mainstreaming" vampires needed. The hot water immediately made me feel better, and I relaxed as it beat on my back.

"Shall I join you?"

"Shit, Bill!" My heart pounding a mile a minute, I leaned against the shower wall for support.

"Sorry, sweetheart. Didn't you hear the bathroom door opening?"

"No, dammit. Why can't you just call 'Honey, I'm home,' or something?"

"Sorry," he said again, not sounding very sincere. "Do you need someone to scrub your back?"

"No, thank you," I hissed. "I'm not in the back-scrubbing kind of mood."

Bill grinned (so I could see his fangs were retracted) and pulled the shower curtain closed.

When I came out of the bathroom, towel wrapped around me more or less modestly, he was stretched out on my bed, his shoes neatly lined up on the little rug by the night table. Bill was wearing a dark blue long-sleeved shirt and khakis, with socks that matched the shirt and polished loafers. His dark brown hair was brushed straight back, and his long sideburns looked retro.

Well, they were, but more retro than most people could ever have imagined.

He has high arched brows and a high-bridged nose. His mouth is the kind you see on Greek statues, at least the ones I've seen in pictures. He died a few years after the end of the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, as my grandmother always called it).

"What's the agenda for tonight?" I asked. "Business, or pleasure?"

"Being with you is always pleasure," Bill said.

"We're going to Shreveport for what reason?" I asked, since I know a dodgy answer when I hear one.

"We were summoned."

"By?"

"Eric, of course."

Now that Bill had run for, and accepted, a position as Area 5 investigator, he was at Eric's beck and call – and under Eric's protection. That meant, Bill had explained, that anyone attacking Bill would also have to deal with Eric, and it meant that Bill's possessions were sacred to Eric. Which included me. I wasn't thrilled to be numbered among Bill's possessions, but it was better than some of the alternatives.

I made a face in the mirror.

"Sookie, you made a deal with Eric."

"Yeah," I admitted, "I did."

"So you must stick by it."

"I plan on it."

"Wear those tight blue jeans that lace up the sides," Bill suggested.

They weren't denim at all, but some kind of stretchy stuff. Bill just loved me in those jeans, which came down low. More than once, I had wondered if Bill had some kind of Britney Spears fantasy thing going on. Since I was fully aware that I looked good in the jeans, I pulled them on, and a dark blue-and-white-checked short-sleeved shirt that buttoned up the front and stopped about two inches below my bra. Just to exhibit a little independence (after all, he'd better remember I was my own woman) I brushed my hair into a ponytail high up on my head. I pinned a blue bow over the elastic band and slapped on a little makeup. Bill glanced at his watch once or twice, but I took my time. If he was so all-fired concerned about how I was going to impress his vampire friends, he could just wait for me.

Once we were in the car and on our way west to Shreveport, Bill said, "I started a new business venture today."

Frankly, I'd been wondering where Bill's money came from. He never seemed rich: he never seemed poor. But he never worked, either; unless it was on the nights we weren't together.

I was uneasily aware that any vampire worth his salt could become wealthy; after all, when you can control the minds of humans to some extent, it's not that difficult to persuade them to part with money or stock tips or investment opportunities. And until vampires gained the legal right to exist, they hadn't had to pay taxes, see. Even the U.S. government had to admit it couldn't tax the dead. But if you gave them rights, Congress had figured, and gave them the vote, then you could obligate them into paying taxes.

When the Japanese had perfected the synthetic blood that actually enabled vampires to "live" without drinking human blood, it had been possible for vampires to come out of the coffin. "See, we don't have to victimize mankind to exist," they could say. "We are not a threat."

But I knew Bill's big thrill was when he drank from me. He might have a pretty steady diet of LifeFlow (the most popular marketing name for the synthetic blood) but nipping my neck was incomparably better. He could drink some bottled A positive in front of a whole bar full of people, but if he planned on a mouthful of Sookie Stackhouse, we had better by golly be in private, the effect was that different. Bill didn't get any kind of erotic thrill from a wineglass of LifeFlow.

"So what's this new business?" I asked.

"I bought the strip mall by the highway, the one where LaLaurie's is."

"Who owned that?"

"The Bellefleurs originally owned the land. They let Sid Matt Lancaster do a development deal for them."

Sid Matt Lancaster had acted as my brother's lawyer before. He'd been around for donkey's years and had way more clout than Portia.

"That's good for the Bellefleurs. They've been trying to sell that for a couple of years. They need the cash, bad. You bought the land and the strip mall? How big a parcel of land is that?"

"Just an acre, but it's in a good location," Bill said, in a businesslike voice that I'd never heard before.

"That same strip's got LaLaurie's, and a hair salon, and Tara's Togs?" Aside from the country club, LaLaurie's was the only restaurant with any pretensions in the Bon Temps area. It was where you took your wife for your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, or your boss when you wanted a promotion, or a date you really, really wanted to impress. But it didn't make a lot of money, I'd heard.

I have no inkling of how to run a business, or manage business dealings, having been just a step or two ahead of poor all my life. If my parents hadn't had the good fortune to find a little oil on their land and save all the money from it before the oil ran out, Jason and Gran and I would've had a hand-to-mouth time of it. At least twice, we had been close to selling my parents' place, just to keep up Gran's house and taxes, while she raised the two of us.

"So, how does that work? You own the building that houses those three businesses, and they pay you rent?"

Bill nodded. "So now, if you want to get something done to your hair, go to Clip and Curl."

I'd only been to a hairdresser once in my life. If the ends got ragged, I usually went over to Arlene's trailer and she trimmed them evenly. "Do you think my hair needs something done to it?" I asked uncertainly.

"No, it's beautiful." Bill was reassuringly positive. "But if you should want to go, they have, ah, manicures, and hair-care products." He said "hair-care products" as if it were in a foreign language. I stifled a smile.

"And," he continued, "take anyone you want to LaLaurie's, and you won't have to pay."

I turned in my seat to stare at him.

"And Tara knows that if you come in, she will put any clothes you buy on my account."

I could feel my temper creak and give way. Bill, unfortunately, could not. "So, in other words," I said, proud of the evenness of my voice, "they know to indulge the boss's fancy woman."

Bill seemed to realize he'd made a mistake. "Oh, Sookie," he began, but I wasn't having any of it. My pride had risen up and whopped me in the face. I don't lose my temper a lot, but when I do, I make a good job of it.

"Why can't you just send me some damn flowers, like anyone else's boyfriend? Or some candy. I like candy. Just buy me a Hallmark card, why don't you? Or a kitten or a scarf!"

"I meant to give you something," he said cautiously.

"You've made me feel like a kept woman. And you've certainly given the people who work at those businesses the impression I am."

As far as I could tell in the dim dashboard light, Bill looked like he was trying to figure out the difference. We were just past the turnoff to Mimosa Lake, and I could see the deep woods on the lake side of the road in Bill's headlights.

To my complete surprise, the car coughed and stopped dead. I took it as a sign.

Bill would've locked the doors if he'd known what I was going to do, because he certainly looked startled when I scrambled out of the car and marched over to the woods by the road.

"Sookie, get back in here right now!" Bill was mad now, by God. Well, it had taken him long enough.

I shot him the bird as I stepped into the woods.

I knew if Bill wanted me in the car, I'd be in the car, since Bill's about twenty times stronger and faster than me. After a few seconds in the darkness, I almost wished he'd catch up with me. But then my pride gave a twitch, and I knew I'd done the right thing. Bill seemed to be a little confused about the nature of our relationship, and I wanted him to get it straight in his head. He could just take his sorry ass to Shreveport and explain my absence to his superior, Eric. By golly, that'd show him.

"Sookie," Bill called from the road, "I'm going to go to the nearest service station to get a mechanic."

"Good luck," I muttered under my breath. A service station with a full-time mechanic, open at night? Bill was thinking of the fifties, or some other era.

"You're acting like a child, Sookie," Bill said. "I could come to get you, but I'm not going to waste the time. When you're calm, come get in the car and lock it. I'm going now." Bill had his pride, too.

To my mingled relief and concern, I heard the faint footfalls along the road that meant Bill was running at vampire speed. He'd really left.

He probably thought he was teaching me a lesson. When it was just the opposite. I told myself that several times. After all, he'd be back in a few minutes. I was sure. All I had to do was be sure I didn't stumble far enough through the woods to fall into the lake.

It was really dark in the pines. Though the moon was not full, it was a cloudless night, and the shadows in the trees were pitch black in contrast with the cool remote glow of the open spaces.

I made my way back to the road, then took a deep breath and began marching back toward Bon Temps, the opposite direction from Bill. I wondered how many miles we'd put between us and Bon Temps before Bill had begun our conversation. Not so very many, I reassured myself, and patted myself on the back that I was wearing sneakers, not high-heeled sandals. I hadn't brought a sweater, and the exposed skin between my cropped top and my low-cut blue jeans felt goose-pimply. I began to run down the shoulder in an easy jog. There weren't any streetlights, so I would have been in bad shape if it weren't for the moonlight.

Just about the time I recalled that there was someone out there who'd murdered Lafayette, I heard footsteps in the woods parallel to my own path.

When I stopped, the movement in the trees did also.

I'd rather know now. "Okay, who's there?" I called. "If you're going to eat me, let's just get it over with."

A woman stepped out of the woods. With her was a razorback, a feral hog. Its tusks gleamed from the shadows. In her left hand she carried a sort of stick or wand, with a tuft of something on its end.

"Great," I whispered to myself. "Just great." The woman was as scary as the razorback. I was sure she wasn't a vampire, because I could feel the activity in her mind; but she was sure some supernatural being, so she didn't send a clear signal. I could snatch the tenor of her thoughts anyway. She was amused.

That couldn't be good.

I hoped the razorback was feeling friendly. They were very rarely seen around Bon Temps, though every now and then a hunter would spot one; even more rarely bring one down. That was a picture-in-the-paper occasion. This hog smelled, an awful and distinctive odor.

I wasn't sure which to address. After all, the razorback might not be a true animal at all, but a shapeshifter. That was one thing I'd learned in the past few months. If vampires, so long thought of as thrilling fiction, actually did exist, so did other things that we'd regarded as equally exciting fiction.

I was really nervous, so I smiled.

She had long snarled hair, an indeterminate dark in the uncertain light, and she was wearing almost nothing. She had a kind of shift on, but it was short and ragged and stained. She was barefoot. She smiled back at me. Rather than scream, I grinned even more brightly.

"I have no intention of eating you," she said.

"Glad to hear it. What about your friend?"

"Oh, the hog." As if she'd just noticed it, the woman reached over and scratched the razorback's neck, like I would a friendly dog's. The ferocious tusks bobbed up and down. "She'll do what I tell her," the woman said casually. I didn't need a translator to understand the threat. I tried to look equally casual as I glanced around the open space where I stood, hoping to locate a tree that I could climb if I had to. But all the trunks close enough for me to reach in time were bare of branches; they were the loblolly pines grown by the millions in our neck of the woods, for their lumber. The branches start about fifteen feet up.

I realized what I should've thought of sooner; Bill's car stopping there was no accident, and maybe even the fight we'd had was no coincidence.

"You wanted to talk to me about something?" I asked her, and in turning to her I found she'd come several feet closer. I could see her face a little better now, and I was in no wise reassured. There was a stain around her mouth, and when it opened as she spoke, I could see the teeth had dark margins; Miss Mysterious had been eating a raw mammal. "I see you've already had supper," I said nervously, and then could've slapped myself.

"Mmmm," she said. "You are Bill's pet?"

"Yes," I said. I objected to the terminology, but I wasn't in much position to take a stand. "He would be really awfully upset if anything happened to me."

"As if a vampire's anger is anything to me," she said offhandedly.

"Excuse me, ma'am, but what are you? If you don't mind me asking."

She smiled again, and I shuddered. "Not at all. I'm a maenad."

That was something Greek. I didn't know exactly what, but it was wild, female, and lived in nature, if my impressions were correct.

"That's very interesting," I said, grinning for all I was worth. "And you are out here tonight because… ?"

"I need a message taken to Eric Northman," she said, moving closer. This time I could see her do it. The hog snuffled along at her side as if she were tied to the woman. The smell was indescribable. I could see the little brushy tail of the razorback – it was switching back and forth in a brisk, impatient sort of way.

"What's the message?" I glanced up at her – and whirled to run as quickly as I could. If I hadn't ingested some vampire blood at the beginning of the summer, I couldn't have turned in time, and I would've taken the blow on my face and chest instead of my back. It felt exactly as though someone very strong had swung a heavy rake and the points had caught in my skin, gone deeper, and torn their way across my back.

I couldn't keep to my feet, but pitched forward and landed on my stomach. I heard her laughing behind me, and the hog snuffling, and then I registered the fact that she had gone. I lay there crying for a minute or two. I was trying not to shriek, and I found myself panting like a woman in labor, attempting to master the pain. My back hurt like hell.

I was mad, too, with the little energy I could spare. I was just a living bulletin board to that bitch, that maenad, whatever the hell she was. As I crawled, over twigs and rough ground, pine needles and dust, I grew angrier and angrier. I was shaking all over from the pain and the rage, dragging myself along, until I didn't feel I was worth killing, I was such a mess. I'd begun the crawl back to the car, trying to head back to the likeliest spot for Bill to find me, but when I was almost there I had second thoughts about staying out in the open.

I'd been assuming the road meant help – but of course, it didn't. I'd found out a few minutes before that not everyone met by chance was in a helping kind of mood. What if I met up with something else, something hungry? The smell of my blood might be attracting a predator at this very moment; a shark is said to be able to detect the tiniest particles of blood in the water, and a vampire is surely the shark's land equivalent.

So I crawled inside the tree line, instead of staying out beside the road where I'd be visible. This didn't seem like a very dignified or meaningful place to die. This was no Alamo, or Thermopylae. This was just a spot in the vegetation by a road in northern Louisiana. I was probably lying in poison ivy. I would probably not live long enough to break out, though.

I expected every second that the pain would begin to abate, but it only increased. I couldn't prevent the tears from coursing down my cheeks. I managed not to sob out loud, so I wouldn't attract any more attention, but it was impossible to keep completely still.

I was concentrating so desperately on maintaining my silence that I almost missed Bill. He was pacing along the road looking into the woods, and I could tell by the way he was walking that he was alert to danger. Bill knew something was wrong.

"Bill," I whispered, but with his vampire hearing, it was like a shout.

He was instantly still, his eyes scanning the shadows. "I'm here," I said, and swallowed back a sob. "Watch out." I might be a living booby trap.

In the moonlight, I could see that his face was clean of emotion, but I knew he was weighing the odds, just as I was. One of us had to move, and I realized if I came out into the moon glow, at least Bill could see more clearly if anything attacked.

I stuck my hands out, gripped the grass, and pulled. I couldn't even get up to my knees, so this progress was my best speed. I pushed a little with my feet, though even that use of my back muscles was excruciating. I didn't want to look at Bill while I moved toward him, because I didn't want to soften at the sight of his rage. It was an almost palpable thing.

"What did this to you, Sookie?" he asked softly.

"Get me in the car. Please, get me out of here," I said, doing my best to hold myself together. "If I make a lot of noise, she might come back." I shivered all over at the thought. "Take me to Eric," I said, trying to keep my voice even. "She said this was a message for Eric Northman."

Bill squatted beside me. "I have to lift you," he told me.

Oh, no. I started to say, "There must be some other way," but I knew there wasn't. Bill knew better than to hesitate. Before I could anticipate the pain to its full extent, he scooted an arm under me and applied his other hand to my crotch, and in an instant he had me dangling across his shoulder.

I screamed out loud. I tried not to sob after that, so Bill could listen for an attack, but I didn't manage that very well. Bill began to run along the road, back to the car. It was running already, its engine idling smoothly. Bill flung open the back door and tried to feed me gently but quickly onto the backseat of the Cadillac. It was impossible not to cause me more pain by doing this, but he made the attempt.

"It was her," I said, when I could say anything coherent. "It was her who made the car stop and made me get out." I was keeping an open mind about whether she'd caused the fight to begin with.

"We'll talk about it in a little while," he said. He sped toward Shreveport, at the highest speed he could, while I clawed at the upholstery in an attempt to keep control over myself.

All I remember about that ride was that it was at least two years long.

Bill got me to the back door of Fangtasia somehow, and kicked it to get attention.

"What?" Pam sounded hostile. She was a pretty blond vampire I'd met a couple of times before, a sensible sort of individual with considerable business acumen. "Oh, Bill. What's happened? Oh, yum, she's bleeding."

"Get Eric," Bill said.

"He's been waiting in here," she began, but Bill strode right by her with me bouncing on his shoulder like a bag of bloody game. I was so out of it by that time that I wouldn't have cared if he'd carried me onto the dance floor of the bar out front, but instead, Bill blew into Eric's office laden with me and rage.

"This is on your account," Bill snarled, and I moaned as he shook me as though he were drawing Eric's attention to me. I hardly see how Eric could have been looking anywhere else, since I was a full-grown female and probably the only bleeding woman in his office.

I would have loved to faint, to pass right out. But I didn't. I just sagged over Bill's shoulder and hurt. "Go to hell," I mumbled.

"What, my darling?"

"Go to hell!"

"We must lay her on her stomach on the couch," Eric said. "Here, let me…" I felt another pair of hands grip my legs, Bill sort of turned underneath me, and together they deposited me carefully on the broad couch that Eric had just bought for his office. It had that new smell, and it was leather. I was glad, staring at it from the distance of half an inch, that he hadn't gotten cloth upholstery. "Pam, call the doctor." I heard footsteps leave the room, and Eric crouched down to look into my face. It was quite a crouch, because Eric, tall and broad, looks exactly like what he is, a former Viking.

"What has happened to you?" he asked.

I glared at him, so incensed I could hardly speak. "I am a message to you," I said, almost in a whisper. "This woman in the woods made Bill's car stop, and maybe even made us argue, and then she came up to me with this hog."

"A pig?" Eric could not have been more astonished if I'd said she had a canary up her nose.

"Oink, oink. Razorback. Wild pig. And she said she wanted to send you a message, and I turned in time to keep her from getting my face, but she got my back, and then she left."

"Your face. She would have gotten your face," Bill said. I saw his hands clenching by his thighs, and the back of him as he began pacing around the office. "Eric, her cuts are not so deep. What's wrong with her?"

"Sookie," Eric said gently, "what did this woman look like?"

His face was right by mine, his thick golden hair almost touching my face.

"She looked nuts, I'll tell you how she looked. And she called you Eric Northman."

"That's the last name I use for human dealings," he said. "By looking nuts, you mean she looked… how?"

"Her clothes were all ragged and she had blood around her mouth and in her teeth, like she'd just eaten something raw. She was carrying this kind of wand thing, with something on the end of it. Her hair was long and tangled… look, speaking of hair, my hair is getting stuck to my back." I gasped.

"Yes, I see." Eric began trying to separate my long hair from my wounds, where blood was acting as an adherent as it thickened.

Pam came in then, with the doctor. If I had hoped Eric meant a regular doctor, like a stethoscope and tongue depressor kind of person, I was once again doomed to disappointment. This doctor was a dwarf, who hardly had to bend over to look me in the eyes. Bill hovered, vibrating with tension, while the small woman examined my wounds. She was wearing a pair of white pants and a tunic, just like doctors at the hospital; well, just like doctors used to, before they started wearing that green color, or blue, or whatever crazy print came their way. Her face was full of her nose, and her skin was olive. Her hair was golden brown and coarse, incredibly thick and wavy. She wore it clipped fairly short. She put me in mind of a hobbit. Maybe she was a hobbit. My understanding of reality had taken several raps to the head in the past few months.

"What kind of doctor are you?" I asked, though it took some time for me to collect myself enough.

"The healing kind," she said in a surprisingly deep voice. "You have been poisoned."

"So that's why I keeping thinking I'm gonna die," I muttered.

"You will, quite soon," she said.

"Thanks a lot, Doc. What can you do about that?"

"We don't have a lot of choices. You've been poisoned. Have you ever heard of Komodo dragons? Their mouths are teeming with bacteria. Well, maenad wounds have the same toxic level. After a dragon has bitten you, the creature tracks you for hours, waiting for the bacteria to kill you. For maenads, the delayed death adds to the fun. For Komodo dragons, who knows?"

Thanks for the National Geographic side trip, Doc. "What can you do?" I asked, through gritted teeth.

"I can close the exterior wounds. But your bloodstream has been compromised, and your blood must be removed and replaced. That is a job for the vampires." The good doctor seemed positively jolly at the prospect of everyone working together. On me.

She turned to the gathered vamps. "If only one of you takes the poisoned blood, that one will be pretty miserable. It's the element of magic that the maenad imparts. The Komodo dragon bite would be no problem for you guys." She laughed heartily.

I hated her. Tears streamed down my face from the pain.

"So," she continued, "when I'm finished, each of you take a turn, removing just a little. Then we'll give her a transfusion."

"Of human blood," I said, wanting to make that perfectly clear. I'd had to have Bill's blood once to survive massive injuries and once to survive an examination of sorts, and I'd had another vampire's blood by accident, unlikely as that sounds. I'd been able to see changes in me after that blood ingestion, changes I didn't want to amplify by taking another dose. Vampire blood was the drug of choice among the wealthy now, and as far as I was concerned, they could have it.

"If Eric can pull some strings and get the human blood," the dwarf said. "At least half the transfusion can be synthetic. I'm Dr. Ludwig, by the way."

"I can get the blood, and we owe her the healing," I heard Eric say, to my relief. I would have given a lot to see Bill's face, at that moment. "What is your type, Sookie?" Eric asked.

"O positive," I said, glad my blood was so common.

"That shouldn't be a problem," Eric said. "Can you take care of that, Pam?"

Again, a sense of movement in the room. Dr. Ludwig bent forward and began licking my back. I shrieked.

"She's the doctor, Sookie," Bill said. "She will heal you this way."

"But she'll get poisoned," I said, trying to think of an objection that wouldn't sound homophobic and sizist. Truly, I didn't want anyone licking my back, female dwarf or large male vampire.

"She is the healer," Eric said, in a rebuking kind of way. "You must accept her treatment."

"Oh, all right," I said, not even caring how sullen I sounded. "By the way, I haven't heard an 'I'm sorry' from you yet." My sense of grievance had overwhelmed my sense of self-preservation.

"I am sorry that the maenad picked on you."

I glared at him. "Not enough," I said. I was trying hard to hang on to this conversation.

"Angelic Sookie, vision of love and beauty, I am prostrate that the wicked evil maenad violated your smooth and voluptuous body, in an attempt to deliver a message to me."

"That's more like it." I would have taken more satisfaction in Eric's words if I hadn't been jabbed with pain just then. (The doctor's treatment was not exactly comfortable.) Apologies had better be either heartfelt or elaborate, and since Eric didn't have a heart to feel (or at least I hadn't noticed it so far) he might as well distract me with words.

"I take it the message means that she's going to war with you?" I asked, trying to ignore the activities of Dr. Ludwig. I was sweating all over. The pain in my back was excruciating. I could feel tears trickling down my face. The room seemed to have acquired a yellow haze; everything looked sickly.

Eric looked surprised. "Not exactly," he said cautiously. "Pam?"

"It's on the way," she said. "This is bad."

"Start," Bill said urgently. "She's changing color."

I wondered, almost idly, what color I'd become. I couldn't hold my head off the couch anymore, as I'd been trying to do to look a little more alert. I laid my cheek on the leather, and immediately my sweat bound me to the surface. The burning sensation that radiated through my body from the claw marks on my back grew more intense, and I shrieked because I just couldn't help it. The dwarf leaped from the couch and bent to examine my eyes.

She shook her head. "Yes, if there's to be any hope," she said, but she sounded very far away to me. She had a syringe in her hand. The last thing I registered was Eric's face moving closer, and it seemed to me he winked.


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