Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse #2)

Chapter 3

chapter
Chapter

I opened my eyes with great reluctance. I felt that I'd been sleeping in a car, or that I'd taken a nap in a straight-back chair; I'd definitely dozed off somewhere inappropriate and uncomfortable. I felt groggy, and I ached all over. Pam was sitting on the floor a yard away, her wide blue eyes fixed on me.

"It worked," she commented. "Dr. Ludwig was right."

"Great."

"Yes, it would have been a pity to lose you before we'd gotten a chance to get some good out of you," she said with shocking practicality. "There are many other humans associated with us the maenad could have picked, and those humans are far more expendable."

"Thanks for the warm fuzzies, Pam," I muttered. I felt the last degree of nasty, as if I'd been dipped in a vat of sweat and then rolled in the dust. Even my teeth felt scummy.

"You're welcome," she said, and she almost smiled. So Pam had a sense of humor, not something vampires were noted for. You never saw vampire stand-up comedians, and human jokes just left vampires cold, ha-ha. (Some of their humor could give you nightmares for a week.)

"What happened?"

Pam relaced her fingers around her knee. "We did as Dr. Ludwig said. Bill, Eric, Chow, and I all took a turn, and when you were almost dry we began the transfusion."

I thought about that for a minute, glad I'd checked out of consciousness before I could experience the procedure. Bill always took blood when we were making love, so I associated it with the height of erotic activity. To have "donated" to so many people would have been extremely embarrassing to me if I'd been there for it, so to speak. "Who's Chow?" I asked.

"See if you can sit up," Pam advised. "Chow is our new bartender. He is quite a draw."

"Oh?"

"Tattoos," Pam said, sounding almost human for a moment. "He's tall for an Asian, and he has a wonderful set of… tattoos."

I tried to look like I cared. I pushed up, feeling a certain tenderness that made me very cautious. It was like my back was covered with wounds that had just healed, wounds that might break open again if I weren't careful. And that, Pam told me, was exactly the case.

Also, I had no shirt on. Or anything else. Above the waist. Below, my jeans were still intact, though remarkably nasty.

"Your shirt was so ragged we had to tear it off," Pam said, smiling openly. "We took turns holding you on our laps. You were much admired. Bill was furious."

"Go to hell" was all I could think of to say.

"Well, as to that, who knows?" Pam shrugged. "I meant to pay you a compliment. You must be a modest woman." She got up and opened a closet door. There were shirts hanging inside; an extra store for Eric, I assumed. Pam pulled one off a hanger and tossed it to me. I reached up to catch it and had to admit that movement was comparatively easy.

"Pam, is there a shower here?" I hated to pull the pristine white shirt over my grimy self.

"Yes, in the storeroom. By the employees' bathroom."

It was extremely basic, but it was a shower with soap and a towel. You had to step right out into the storeroom, which was probably just fine with the vampires, since modesty is not a big issue with them. When Pam agreed to guard the door, I enlisted her help in pulling off the jeans and shucking my shoes and socks. She enjoyed the process a little too much.

It was the best shower I'd ever had.

I had to move slowly and carefully. I found I was as shaky as though I'd passed through a grave illness, like pneumonia or a virulent strain of the flu. And I guess I had. Pam opened the door enough to pass me some underwear, which was a pleasant surprise, at least until I dried myself and prepared to struggle into it. The underpants were so tiny and lacy they hardly deserved to be called panties. At least they were white. I knew I was better when I caught myself wishing I could see how I looked in a mirror. The underpants and the white shirt were the only garments I could bear to put on. I came out barefoot, to find that Pam had rolled up the jeans and everything else and stuffed them in a plastic bag so I could get them home to the wash. My tan looked extremely brown against the white of the snowy shirt. I walked very slowly back to Eric's office and fished in my purse for my brush. As I began to try to work through the tangles, Bill came in and took the brush from my hand.

"Let me do that, darling," he said tenderly. "How are you? Slide off the shirt, so I can check your back." I did, anxiously hoping there weren't cameras in the office – though from Pam's account, I might as well relax.

"How does it look?" I asked him over my shoulder.

Bill said briefly, "There will be marks."

"I figured." Better on my back than on my front. And being scarred was better than being dead.

I slipped the shirt back on, and Bill began working on my hair, a favorite thing for him. I grew tired very quickly and sat in Eric's chair while Bill stood behind me.

"So why did the maenad pick me?"

"She would have been waiting for the first vampire to come through. That I had you with me – so much easier to hurt – that was a bonus."

"Did she cause our fight?"

"No, I think that was just chance. I still don't understand why you got so angry."

"I'm too tired to explain, Bill. We'll talk about it tomorrow, okay?"

Eric came in, along with a vampire I knew must be Chow. Right away I could see why Chow would bring in customers. He was the first Asian vampire I'd seen, and he was extremely handsome. He was also covered – at least the parts I could see – with that intricate tattooing that I'd heard members of the Yakuza favored. Whether Chow had been a gangster when he was human or not, he was certainly sinister now. Pam slid through the door after another minute had passed, saying, "All locked up. Dr. Ludwig left, too."

So Fangtasia had closed its doors for the night. It must be two in the morning, then. Bill continued to brush my hair, and I sat in the office chair with my hands on my thighs, acutely conscious of my inadequate clothing. Though, come to think of it, Eric was so tall his shirt covered as much of me as some of my short sets. I guess it was the French-cut bikini panties underneath that made me so embarrassed. Also, no bra. Since God was generous with me in the bosom department, there's no mistaking when I leave off a bra.

But no matter if my clothes showed more of me than I wanted, no matter if all of these people had seen even more of my boobs than they could discern now, I had to mind my manners.

"Thank you all for saving my life," I said. I didn't succeed in sounding warm, but I hope they could tell I was sincere.

"It was truly my pleasure," said Chow, with an unmistakable leer in his voice. He had a trace of an accent, but I don't have enough experience with the different characteristics of the many strains of Asians to tell you where he came from originally. I am sure "Chow" was not his complete name, either, but it was all the other vampires called him. "It would have been perfect, without the poison."

I could feel Bill tense behind me. He laid his hands on my shoulders, and I reached up to put my fingers over his.

Eric said, "It was worth ingesting the poison." He held his fingers to his lips and kissed them, as if praising the bouquet of my blood. Ick.

Pam smiled. "Any time, Sookie."

Oh, just fantastic. "You, too, Bill," I said, leaning my head back against him.

"It was my privilege," he said, controlling his temper with an effort.

"You two had a fight before Sookie's encounter with the maenad?" Eric asked. "Is that what I heard Sookie say?"

"That's our business," I snapped, and the three vampires smiled at each other. I didn't like that one bit. "By the way, why did you want us to come over here tonight, anyway?" I asked, hoping to get off of the topic of Bill and me.

"You remember your promise to me, Sookie? That you would use your mental ability to help me out, as long as I let the humans involved live?"

"Of course I remember." I am not one to forget a promise, especially one made to a vampire.

"Since Bill has been appointed investigator of Area 5, we have not had a lot of mysteries. But Area 6, in Texas, has need of your special asset. So we have loaned you out."

I realized I'd been rented, like a chainsaw or backhoe. I wondered if the vampires of Dallas had had to put down a deposit against damage.

"I won't go without Bill." I looked Eric steadily in the eye. Bill's fingers gave me a little squeeze, so I knew I'd said the right thing.

"He'll be there. We drove a hard bargain," Eric said, smiling broadly. The effect was really disconcerting, because he was happy about something, and his fangs were out. "We were afraid they might keep you, or kill you, so an escort was part of our deal all along. And who better than Bill? If anything should render Bill incapable of guarding you, we will send another escort right out. And the vampires of Dallas have agreed to providing a car and chauffeur, lodgings and meals, and of course, a nice fee. Bill will get a percentage of that."

When I'd be doing the work? "You must work out your financial arrangement with Bill," Eric said smoothly. "I am sure he will at least recompense you for your time away from your bar job."

Had Ann Landers ever covered "When Your Date Becomes Your Manager"?

"Why a maenad?" I asked, startling all of them. I hoped I was pronouncing the word correctly. "Naiads are water and dryads are trees, right? So why a maenad, out there in the woods? Weren't maenads just women driven mad by the god Bacchus?"

"Sookie, you have unexpected depths," Eric said, after an appreciable pause. I didn't tell him I'd learned that from reading a mystery. Let him think I read ancient Greek literature in the original language. It couldn't hurt.

Chow said, "The god entered some women so completely that they became immortal, or very close to it. Bacchus was the god of the grape, of course, so bars are very interesting to maenads. In fact, so interesting that they don't like other creatures of the darkness becoming involved. Maenads consider that the violence sparked by the consumption of alcohol belongs to them; that's what they feed off, now that no one formally worships their god. And they are attracted to pride."

That rang a chime. Hadn't Bill and I both been feeling our pride, tonight?

"We had only heard rumors one was in the area," Eric said. "Until Bill brought you in."

"So what was she warning you of? What does she want?"

"Tribute," Pam said. "We think."

"What kind?"

Pam shrugged. It seemed that was the only answer I was going to get.

"Or what?" I asked. Again with the stares. I gave a deep sigh of exasperation. "What's she gonna do if you don't pay her tribute?"

"Send her madness." Bill sounded worried.

"Into the bar? Merlotte's?" Though there were plenty of bars in the area.

The vampires eyed each other.

"Or into one of us," Chow said. "It has happened. The Halloween massacre of 1876, in St. Petersburg."

They all nodded solemnly. "I was there," Eric said. "It took twenty of us to clean up. And we had to stake Gregory, it took all of us to do that. The maenad, Phryne, received tribute after that, you can be sure."

For the vampires to stake one of their own, things had to be pretty serious. Eric had staked a vampire who had stolen from him, and Bill had told me Eric had had to pay a severe penalty. Who to, Bill hadn't said, and I hadn't asked. There were some things I could live quite well without knowing.

"So you'll give a tribute to this maenad?"

They were exchanging thoughts on this, I could tell. "Yes," Eric said. "It is better if we do."

"I guess maenads are pretty hard to kill," Bill said, a question in his voice.

Eric shuddered. "Oh, yes," he said. "Oh, yes."

During our ride back to Bon Temps, Bill and I were silent. I had a lot of questions about the evening, but I was tired from my bones out to my skin.

"Sam should know about this," I said, as we stopped at my house.

Bill came around to open my door. "Why, Sookie?" He took my hand to pull me from the car, knowing that I could barely walk.

"Because…" and then I stopped dead. Bill knew Sam was supernatural, but I didn't want to remind him. Sam owned a bar, and we had been closer to Bon Temps than Shreveport when the maenad had interfered.

"He owns a bar, but he should be all right," Bill said reasonably. "Besides, the maenad said the message was for Eric."

That was true.

"You think too much about Sam to suit me," Bill said, and I gaped up at him.

"You're jealous?" Bill was very wary when other vampires seemed to be admiring me, but I'd assumed that was just territorial. I didn't know how to feel about this new development. I'd never had anyone feel jealous of my attentions before.

Bill didn't answer, in a very snitty way.

"Hmmm," I said thoughtfully. "Well, well, well." I was smiling to myself as Bill helped me up the steps and through the old house, into my room; the room my grandmother had slept in for so many years. Now the walls were painted pale yellow, the woodwork was off-white, the curtains were off-white with bright flowers scattered over them. The bed had a matching cover.

I went into the bathroom for a moment to brush my teeth and take care of necessities, and came out still in Eric's shirt.

"Take it off," Bill said.

"Look, Bill, normally I'd be hot to trot, but tonight – "

"I just hate to see you in his shirt."

Well, well, well. I could get used to this. On the other hand, if he carried it to extremes, it could be a nuisance.

"Oh, all right," I said, making a sigh he could hear from yards away. "I guess I'll just have to take this ole shirt off." I unbuttoned it slowly, knowing Bill's eyes were watching my hands move down the buttons, pulling the shirt apart a little more each time. Finally, I doffed it and stood there in Pam's white underwear.

"Oh," Bill breathed, and that was tribute enough for me. Maenads be damned, just seeing Bill's face made me feel like a goddess.

Maybe I'd go to Foxy Femme Lingerie in Ruston my next day off. Or maybe Bill's newly acquired clothing store carried lingerie?

Explaining to Sam that I needed to go to Dallas wasn't easy. Sam had been wonderful to me when I'd lost my grandmother, and I counted him as a good friend, a great boss, and (every now and then) a sexual fantasy. I just told Sam that I was taking a little vacation; God knows, I'd never asked for one before. But he pretty much had figured out what the deal was. Sam didn't like it. His brilliant blue eyes looked hot and his face stony, and even his red-blond hair seemed to sizzle. Though he practically muzzled himself to keep from saying so, Sam obviously thought Bill should not have agreed to my going. But Sam didn't know all the circumstances of my dealings with the vampires, just as only Bill, of the vampires I knew, realized that Sam was a shapeshifter. And I tried not to remind Bill. I didn't want Bill thinking about Sam any more than he already did. Bill might decide Sam was an enemy, and I definitely didn't want Bill to do that. Bill is a really bad enemy to have.

I am good at keeping secrets and keeping my face blank, after years of reading unwanted items out of peoples' minds. But I have to confess that compartmentalizing Bill and Sam took a lot of energy.

Sam had leaned back in his chair after he'd agreed to give me the time off, his wiry build hidden by a big kingfisher-blue Merlotte's Bar tee shirt. His jeans were old but clean, and his boots were heavy-soled and ancient. I was sitting on the edge of the visitor's chair in front of Sam's desk, the office door shut behind me. I knew no one could be standing outside the door listening; after all, the bar was as noisy as usual, with the jukebox wailing a zydeco tune and the bellowing of people who'd had a few drinks. But still, when you talked about something like the maenad, you wanted to lower your voice, and I leaned across the desk.

Sam automatically mimicked my posture, and I put my hand on his arm and said in a whisper, "Sam, there's a maenad out by the Shreveport road." Sam's face went blank for a long second before he whooped with laughter.

Sam didn't get over his convulsions for at least three minutes, during which time I got pretty mad. "I'm sorry," he kept saying, and off he'd go again. You know how irritating that can be when you're the one who triggered it? He came around the desk, still trying to smother his chuckles. I stood because he was standing, but I was fuming. He grasped my shoulders. "I'm sorry, Sookie," he repeated. "I've never seen one, but I've heard they're nasty. Why does this concern you? The maenad, that is."

"Because she's not happy, as you would know if you could see the scars on my back," I snapped, and his face changed then, by golly.

"You were hurt? How did this happen?"

So I told him, trying to leave some of the drama out of it, and toning down the healing process employed by the vampires of Shreveport. He still wanted to see the scars. I turned around, and he pulled up my tee shirt, not past bra strap level. He didn't make a sound, but I felt a touch on my back, and after a second I realized Sam had kissed my skin. I shivered. He pulled the tee shirt over my scars and turned me around.

"I'm very sorry," he said, with complete sincerity. He wasn't laughing now, wasn't even close to it. He was awful close to me. I could practically feel the heat radiating from his skin, electricity crackling through the small fine hairs on his arms.

I took a deep breath. "I'm worried she'll turn her attention to you," I explained. "What do maenads want as tribute, Sam?"

"My mother used to tell my father that they love a proud man," he said, and for a moment I thought he was still teasing me. But I looked at his face, and he was not. "Maenads love nothing more than to tear a proud man down to size. Literally."

"Yuck," I said. "Anything else satisfy them?"

"Large game. Bears, tigers, so on."

"Hard to find a tiger in Louisiana. Maybe you could find a bear, but how'd you get it to the maenad's territory?" I pondered this for a while, but didn't come to any answer. "I assume she'd want it alive," I said, a question in my voice.

Sam, who seemed to have been watching me instead of thinking over the problem, nodded, and then he leaned forward and kissed me.

I should have seen it coming.

He was so warm after Bill, whose body never got up to warm. Tepid, maybe. Sam's lips actually felt hot, and his tongue, too. The kiss was deep, intense, unexpected, like the excitement you feel when someone gives you a present you didn't know you wanted. His arms were around me, mine were around him, and we were giving it everything we had, until I came back to earth.

I pulled away a little, and he slowly raised his head from mine.

"I do need to get out of town for a little while," I said.

"Sorry, Sookie, but I've been wanting to do that for years."

There were a lot of ways I could go from that statement, but I ratcheted up my determination and took the high road. "Sam, you know I am…"

"In love with Bill," he finished my sentence.

I wasn't completely sure I was in love with Bill, but I loved him, and I had committed myself to him. So to simplify the matter, I nodded in agreement.

I couldn't read Sam's thoughts clearly, because he was a supernatural being. But I would have been a dunce, a telepathic null, not to feel the waves of frustration and longing that rolled off of him.

"The point I was trying to make," I said, after a minute, during which time we disentangled and stepped away from each other, "is that if this maenad takes a special interest in bars, this is a bar run by someone who is not exactly run-of-the-mill human, like Eric's bar in Shreveport. So you better watch out."

Sam seemed to take heart that I was warning him, seemed to get some hope from it. "Thanks for telling me, Sookie. The next time I change, I'll be careful in the woods."

I hadn't even thought of Sam encountering the maenad in his shapeshifting adventures, and I had to sit down abruptly as I pictured that.

"Oh, no," I told him emphatically. "Don't change at all."

"It's full moon in four days," Sam said, after a glance at the calendar. "I'll have to. I've already got Terry scheduled to work for me that night."

"What do you tell him?"

"I tell him I have a date. He hasn't looked at the calendar to figure out that every time I ask him to work, it's a full moon."

"That's something. Did the police come back any more about Lafayette?"

"No." Sam shook his head. "And I hired a friend of Lafayette's, Khan."

"As in Sher Khan?"

"As in Chaka Khan."

"Okay, but can he cook?"

"He's been fired from the Shrimp Boat."

"What for?"

"Artistic temperament, I gather." Sam's voice was dry.

"Won't need much of that around here," I observed, my hand on the doorknob. I was glad Sam and I had had a conversation, just to ease down from our tense and unprecedented situation. We had never embraced each other at work. In fact, we'd only kissed once, when Sam brought me home after our single date months before. Sam was my boss, and starting something with your boss is always a bad idea. Starting something with your boss when your boyfriend is a vampire is another bad idea, possibly a fatal idea. Sam needed to find a woman. Quickly.

When I'm nervous, I smile. I was beaming when I said, "Back to work," and stepped through the door, shutting it behind me. I had a muddle of feelings about everything that had happened in Sam's office, but I pushed it all away, and prepared to hustle some drinks.

There was nothing unusual about the crowd that night in Merlotte's. My brother's friend Hoyt Fortenberry was drinking with some of his cronies. Kevin Prior, whom I was more accustomed to seeing in uniform, was sitting with Hoyt, but Kevin was not having a happy evening. He looked as though he'd rather be in his patrol car with his partner, Kenya. My brother, Jason, came in with his more and more frequent arm decoration, Liz Barrett. Liz always acted glad to see me, but she never tried to ingratiate herself, which earned her high points in my book. My grandmother would have been glad to know Jason was dating Liz so often. Jason had played the scene for years, until the scene was pretty darned tired of Jason. After all, there is a finite pool of women in Bon Temps and its surrounding area, and Jason had fished that pool for years. He needed to restock.

Besides, Liz seemed willing to ignore Jason's little brushes with the law.

"Baby sis!" he said in greeting. "Bring me and Liz a Seven-and-Seven apiece, would you?"

"Glad to," I said, smiling. Carried away on a wave of optimism, I listened in to Liz for a moment; she was hoping that very soon Jason would pop the question. The sooner the better, she thought, because she was pretty sure she was pregnant.

Good thing I've had years of concealing what I was thinking. I brought them each a drink, carefully shielding myself from any other stray thoughts I might catch, and tried to think what I should do. That's one of the worst things about being telepathic; things people are thinking, not talking about, are things other people (like me) really don't want to know. Or shouldn't want to know. I've heard enough secrets to choke a camel, and believe me, not a one of them was to my advantage in any way.

If Liz was pregnant, the last thing she needed was a drink, no matter who the baby's daddy was.

I watched her carefully, and she took a tiny sip from her glass. She wrapped her hand around it to partially hide it from public view. She and Jason chatted for a minute, then Hoyt called out to him, and Jason swung around on the bar stool to face his high school buddy. Liz stared down at her drink, as if she'd really like to gulp it in one swallow. I handed her a similar glass of plain 7UP and whisked the mixed drink away.

Liz's big round brown eyes gazed up at me in astonishment. "Not for you," I said very quietly. Liz's olive complexion turned as white as it could. "You have good sense," I said. I was struggling to explain why I'd intervened, when it was against my personal policy to act on what I learned in such a surreptitious way. "You have good sense, you can do this right."

Jason turned back around then, and I got a call for another pitcher from one of my tables. As I moved out from behind the bar to answer the summons, I noticed Portia Bellefleur in the doorway. Portia peered around the dark bar as though she were searching for someone. To my astonishment, that someone turned out to be me.

"Sookie, do you have a minute?" she asked.

I could count the personal conversations I'd had with Portia on one hand, almost on one finger, and I couldn't imagine what was on her mind.

"Sit over there," I said, nodding at an empty table in my area. "I'll be with you in a minute."

"Oh, all right. And I'd better order a glass of wine, I guess. Merlot."

"I'll have it right there." I poured her glass carefully, and put it on a tray. After checking visually to make sure all my customers looked content, I carried the tray over to Portia's table and sat opposite her. I perched on the edge of the chair, so anyone who ran out of a drink could see I was fixing to hop up in just a second.

"What can I do for you?" I reached up to check that my ponytail was secure and smiled at Portia.

She seemed intent on her wineglass. She turned it with her ringers, took a sip, positioned it on the exact center of the coaster. "I have a favor to ask you," she said.

No shit, Sherlock. Since I'd never had a casual conversation with Portia longer than two sentences, it was obvious she needed something from me.

"Let me guess. You were sent here by your brother to ask me to listen in on people's thoughts when they're in the bar, so I can find out about this orgy thing Lafayette went to." Like I hadn't seen that coming.

Portia looked embarrassed, but determined. "He would never have asked you if he wasn't in serious trouble, Sookie."

"He would never have asked me because he doesn't like me. Though I've never been anything but nice to him his whole life! But now, it's okay to ask me for help, because he really needs me."

Portia's fair complexion was turning a deep unbecoming red. I knew it wasn't very pleasant of me to take out her brother's problems on her, but she had, after all, agreed to be the messenger. You know what happens to messengers. That made me think of my own messenger role the night before, and I wondered if I should be feeling lucky today.

"I wasn't for this," she muttered. It hurt her pride, to ask a favor of a barmaid; a Stackhouse, to boot.

Nobody liked me having a "gift." No one wanted me to use it on her. But everyone wanted me to find out something to her advantage, no matter how I felt about sifting through the thoughts (mostly unpleasant and irrelevant) of bar patrons to glean pertinent information.

"You'd probably forgotten that just recently Andy arrested my brother for murder?" Of course he'd had to let Jason go, but still.

If Portia had turned any redder she'd have lit a fire. "Just forget it, then," she said, scraping together all her dignity. "We don't need help from a freak like you, anyway."

I had touched her at the quick, because Portia had always been courteous, if not warm.

"Listen to me, Portia Bellefleur. I'll listen a little. Not for you or your brother, but because I liked Lafayette. He was a friend of mine, and he was always sweeter to me than you or Andy."

"I don't like you."

"I don't care."

"Darling, is there a problem?" asked a cool voice from behind me.

Bill. I reached with my mind, and felt the relaxing empty space right behind me. Other minds just buzzed like bees in a jar, but Bill's was like a globe filled with air. It was wonderful. Portia stood up so abruptly that her chair almost went over backwards. She was frightened of even being close to Bill, like he was a venomous snake or something.

"Portia was just asking me for a favor," I said slowly, aware for the first time that our little trio was attracting a certain amount of attention from the crowd.

"In return for the many kind things the Bellefleurs have done for you?" Bill asked. Portia snapped. She whirled around to stalk out of the bar. Bill watched her leave with the oddest expression of satisfaction.

"Now I have to find out what that was about," I said, and leaned back against him. His arms circled me and drew me back closer to him. It was like being cuddled by a tree.

"The vampires in Dallas have made their arrangements," Bill said. "Can you leave tomorrow evening?"

"What about you?"

"I can travel in my coffin, if you're willing to make sure I'm unloaded at the airport. Then we'll have all night to find out what it is the Dallas vampires want us to do."

"So I'll have to take you to the airport in a hearse?"

"No, sweetheart. Just get yourself there. There's a transportation service that does that kind of thing."

"Just takes vampires places in daytime?"

"Yes, they're licensed and bonded."

I'd have to think about that for a while. "Want a bottle? Sam has some on the heater."

"Yes, please, I'd like some O positive."

My blood type. How sweet. I smiled at Bill, not my strained normal grin, but a true smile from my heart. I was so lucky to have him, no matter how many problems we had as a couple. I couldn't believe I'd kissed someone else, and I blotted out that idea as soon as it skittered across my mind.

Bill smiled back, maybe not the most reassuring sight, since he was happy to see me. "How soon can you get off?" he asked, leaning closer.

I glanced down at my watch. "Thirty minutes," I promised.

"I'll be waiting for you." He sat at the table Portia had vacated, and I brought him the blood, tout de suite.

Kevin drifted over to talk to him, ended up sitting down at the table. I was near enough only twice to catch fragments of the conversation; they were talking about the types of crimes we had in our small town, and the price of gas, and who would win the next sheriff's election. It was so normal! I beamed with pride. When Bill had first started coming into Merlotte's, the atmosphere had been on the strained side. Now, people came and went casually, speaking to Bill or only nodding, but not making a big issue of it either way. There were enough legal issues facing vampires without the social issues involved, too.

As Bill drove me home that night, he seemed to be in an excited mood. I couldn't account for that until I figured out that he was pleased about his visit to Dallas.

"Got itchy feet?" I asked, curious and not too pleased about his sudden case of travel lust.

"I have traveled for years. Staying in Bon Temps these months has been wonderful," he said as he reached over to pat my hand, "but naturally I like to visit with others of my own kind, and the vampires of Shreveport have too much power over me. I can't relax when I'm with them."

"Were vampires this organized before you went public?" I tried not to ask questions about vampire society, because I was never sure how Bill would react, but I was really curious.

"Not in the same way," he said evasively. I knew that was the best answer I'd get from him, but I sighed a little anyway. Mr. Mystery. Vampires still kept limits clearly drawn. No doctor could examine them, no vampires could be required to join the armed forces. In returned for these legal concessions, Americans had demanded that vampires who were doctors and nurses – and there were more than a few – had to hang up their stethoscopes, because humans were too leery of a blood-drinking health care professional. Even though, as far as humans knew, vampirism was an extreme allergic reaction to a combination of various things, including garlic and sunlight.

Though I was a human – albeit a weird one – I knew better. I'd been a lot happier when I believed Bill had some classifiable illness. Now, I knew that creatures we'd shoved off into the realm of myth and legend had a nasty habit of proving themselves real. Take the maenad. Who'd have believed an ancient Greek legend would be strolling through the woods of northern Louisiana?

Maybe there really were fairies at the bottom of the garden, a phrase I remembered from a song my grandmother had sung when she hung out the clothes on the line.

"Sookie?" Bill's voice was gently persistent.

"What?"

"You were thinking mighty hard about something."

"Yes, just wondering about the future," I said vaguely. "And the flight. You'll have to fill me in on all the arrangements, and when I have to be at the airport. And what clothes should I take?"

Bill began to turn that over in his head as we pulled up in the driveway in front of my old house, and I knew he would take my request seriously. It was one of the many good things about him.

"Before you pack, though," he said, his dark eyes solemn under the arch of his brows, "there is something else we have to discuss."

"What?" I was standing in the middle of my bedroom floor, staring in the open closet door, when his words registered.

"Relaxation techniques."

I swung around to face him, my hands on my hips. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"This." He scooped me up in the classic Rhett Butler carrying stance, and though I was wearing slacks rather than a long red – negligee? gown? – Bill managed to make me feel like I was as beautiful, as unforgettable, as Scarlett O'Hara. He didn't have to traipse up any stairs, either; the bed was very close. Most evenings, Bill took things very slow, so slow I thought I would start screaming before we came to the point, so to speak. But tonight, excited by the trip, by the imminent excursion, Bill's speed had greatly accelerated. We reached the end of the tunnel together, and as we lay together during the little aftershocks following successful love, I wondered what the vampires of Dallas would make of our association.

I'd only been to Dallas once, on a senior trip to Six Flags, and it hadn't been a wonderful time for me. I'd been clumsy at protecting my mind from the thoughts eternally broadcasting from other brains, I'd been unprepared for the unexpected pairing of my best friend, Marianne, and a classmate named Dennis Engelbright, and I'd never been away from home before.

This would be different, I told myself sternly. I was going at the request of the vampires of Dallas; was that glamorous, or what? I was needed because of my unique skills. I should focus on not calling my quirks a disability. I had learned how to control my telepathy, at least to have much more precision and predictability. I had my own man. No one would abandon me.

Still, I have to admit that before I went to sleep, I cried a few tears for the misery that had been my lot.


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