Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse #2)

Chapter 6

chapter
Chapter

"You know, I have a touch of claustrophobia," I said instantly. "I didn't know many Dallas buildings had a basement, but I have to say, I just don't believe I want to see it." I clung to Hugo's arm and tried to smile in a charming but self-deprecating way.

Hugo's heart was beating like a drum because he was scared shitless – I'll swear he was. Faced with those stairs, somehow his calm was eroding again. What was with Hugo? Despite his fear, he gamely patted my shoulder and smiled apologetically at our companions. "Maybe we should go," he murmured.

"But I really think you should see what we've got underground. We actually have a bomb shelter," Sarah said, almost laughing in her amusement. "And it's fully equipped, isn't it, Steve?"

"Got all kinds of things down there," Steve agreed. He still looked relaxed, genial, and in charge, but I no longer saw those as benign characteristics. He stepped forward, and since he was behind us, I had to step forward or risk him touching me, which I found I very much did not want.

"Come on," Sarah said enthusiastically. "I'll bet Gabe's down here, and Steve can go on and see what Gabe wanted while we look at the rest of the facility." She trotted down the stairs as quickly as she'd moved down the hall, her round butt swaying in a way I probably would have considered cute if I hadn't been just on the edge of terrified.

Polly waved us down ahead of her, and down we went. I was going along with this because Hugo seemed absolutely confident that no harm would come to him. I was picking that up very clearly. His earlier fear had completely abated. It was as though he'd resigned himself to some program, and his ambivalence had vanished. Vainly, I wished he were easier to read. I turned my focus on Steve Newlin, but what I got from him was a thick wall of self-satisfaction.

We moved farther down the stairs, despite the fact that my steps had slowed, and then become slower again. I could tell Hugo was convinced that he would get to walk back up these stairs: after all, he was a civilized person. These were all civilized people.

Hugo really couldn't imagine that anything irreparable could happen to him, because he was a middle-class white American with a college education, as were all the people on the stairs with us.

I had no such conviction. I was not a wholly civilized person.

That was a new and interesting thought, but like many of my ideas that afternoon, it had to be stowed away, to be explored at leisure. If I ever had leisure again.

At the base of the stairs there was another door, and Sarah knocked on it in a pattern. Three fast, skip, two fast, my brain recorded. I heard locks shooting back.

Black Crewcut – Gabe – opened the door. "Hey, you brought me some visitors," he said enthusiastically. "Good show!" His golf shirt was tucked neatly into his pleated Dockers, his Nikes were new and spotless, and he was shaved as clean as a razor could get. I was willing to bet he did fifty push-ups every morning. There was an undercurrent of excitement in his every move and gesture; Gabe was really pumped about something.

I tried to "read" the area for life, but I was too agitated to concentrate.

"I'm glad you're here, Steve," Gabe said. "While Sarah is showing our visitors the shelter, maybe you can give our guest room a look-see." He nodded his head to the door in the right side of the narrow concrete hall. There was another door at the end of it, and a door to the left.

I hated it down here. I had pleaded claustrophobia to get out of this. Now that I had been coerced into coming down the stairs, I was finding that it was a true failing of mine. The musty smell, the glare of the artificial light, and the sense of enclosure… I hated it all. I didn't want to stay here. My palms broke out in a sweat. My feet felt anchored to the ground. "Hugo," I whispered. "I don't want to do this." There was very little act in the desperation in my voice. I didn't like to hear it, but it was there.

"She really needs to get back upstairs," Hugo said apologetically. "If you all don't mind, we'll just go back up and wait for you there."

I turned around, hoping this would work, but I found myself looking up into Steve's face. He wasn't smiling anymore. "I think you two need to wait in the other room over there, until I'm through with my business. Then, we'll talk." His voice brooked no discussion, and Sarah opened the door to disclose a bare little room with two chairs and two cots.

"No," I said, "I can't do that," and I shoved Steve as hard as I could. I am very strong, very strong indeed, since I've had vampire blood, and despite his size, he staggered. I nipped up the stairs as fast as I could move, but a hand closed around my ankle, and I fell most painfully. The edges of the stairs hit me everywhere, across my left cheekbone, my breasts, my hipbones, my left knee. It hurt so much I almost gagged.

"Here, little lady," said Gabe, hauling me to my feet.

"What have you – how could you hurt her like that?" Hugo was sputtering, genuinely upset. "We come here thinking of joining your group, and this is the way you treat us?"

"Drop the act," Gabe advised, and he twisted my arm behind my back before I had gotten my wits back from the fall. I gasped with the new pain, and he propelled me into the room, at the last minute grabbing my wig and yanking it off my head. Hugo stepped in behind me, though I gasped, "No!" and then they shut the door behind him.

And we heard it lock.

And that was that.

"Sookie," Hugo said, "there's a dent across your cheekbone."

"No shit," I muttered weakly.

"Are you badly hurt?"

"What do you think?"

He took me literally. "I think you have bruises and maybe a concussion. You didn't break any bones, did you?"

"Not but one or two," I said.

"And you're obviously not hurt badly enough to cut out the sarcasm," Hugo said. If he could be angry with me, it would make him feel better, I could tell, and I wondered why. But I didn't wonder too hard. I was pretty sure I knew.

I was lying on one of the cots, an arm across my face, trying to keep private and do some thinking. We hadn't been able to hear much happening in the hall outside. Once I thought I'd heard a door opening, and we'd heard muted voices, but that was all. These walls were built to withstand a nuclear blast, so I guess the quiet was to be expected.

"Do you have a watch?" I asked Hugo.

"Yes. It's five-thirty."

A good two hours until the vampires rose.

I let the quiet go on. When I knew hard-to-read Hugo must have relapsed into his own thoughts, I opened my mind and I listened with complete concentration.

Not supposed to happen like this, don't like this, surely everything'll be okay, what about when we need to go to the bathroom, I can't haul it out in front of her, maybe Isabel won't ever know, I should have known after that girl last night, how can I get out of this still practicing law, if I begin to distance myself after tomorrow maybe I can kind of ease out of it…

I pressed my arm against my eyes hard enough to hurt, to stop myself from jumping up and grabbing a chair and beating Hugo Ayres senseless. At present, he didn't fully understand my telepathy, and neither did the Fellowship, or they wouldn't have left me in here with him.

Or maybe Hugo was as expendable to them as he was to me. And he certainly would be to the vampires; I could hardly wait to tell Isabel that her boy toy was a traitor.

That sobered up my bloodlust. When I realized what Isabel would do to Hugo, I realized that I would take no real satisfaction in it if I witnessed it. In fact, it would terrify me and sicken me.

But part of me thought he richly deserved it.

To whom did this conflicted lawyer owe fealty?

One way to find out.

I sat up painfully, pressed my back against the wall. I would heal pretty fast – the vampire blood, again – but I was still a human, and I still felt awful. I knew my face was badly bruised, and I was willing to believe my cheekbone was fractured. The left side of my face was swelling something fierce. But my legs weren't broken, and I could still run, given the chance; that was the main thing.

Once I was braced and as comfortable as I was going to get, I said, "Hugo, how long have you been a traitor?"

He flushed an incredible red. "To whom? To Isabel, or to the human race?"

"Take your pick."

"I betrayed the human race when I took the side of the vampires in court. If I'd had any idea of what they were… I took the case sight unseen, because I thought it would be an interesting legal challenge. I have always been a civil rights lawyer, and I was convinced vampires had the same civil rights as other people."

Mr. Floodgates. "Sure," I said.

"To deny them the right to live anywhere they wanted to, that was un-American, I thought," Hugo continued. He sounded bitter and world-weary.

He hadn't seen bitter, yet.

"But you know what, Sookie? Vampires aren't American. They aren't even black or Asian or Indian. They aren't Rotarians or Baptists. They're all just plain vampires. That's their color and their religion and their nationality."

Well, that was what happened when a minority went underground for thousands of years. Duh.

"At the time, I thought if Stan Davis wanted to live on Green Valley Road, or in the Hundred-Acre Wood, that was his right as an American. So I defended him against the neighborhood association, and I won. I was real proud of myself. Then I got to know Isabel, and I took her to bed one night, feeling real daring, really the big man, the emancipated thinker."

I stared at him, not blinking or saying a word.

"As you know, the sex is great, the best. I was in thrall to her, couldn't get enough. My practice suffered. I started seeing clients only in the afternoon, because I couldn't get up in the morning. I couldn't make my court dates in the morning. I couldn't leave Isabel after dark."

This sounded like an alcoholic's tale, to me. Hugo had become addicted to vampiric sex. I found the concept fascinating and repellent.

"I started doing little jobs she found for me. This past month, I've been going over there and doing the housekeeping chores, just so I can hang around Isabel. When she wanted me to bring the bowl of water into the dining room, I was excited. Not at doing such a menial task – I'm a lawyer, for God's sake! But because the Fellowship had called me, asked me if I could give them any insight into what the vampires of Dallas intended to do. At the time they called, I was mad at Isabel. We'd had a fight about the way she treated me. So I was open to listening to them. I'd heard your name pass between Stan and Isabel, so I passed it on to the Fellowship. They have a guy who works for Anubis Air. He found out when Bill's plane was coming in, and they tried to grab you at the airport so they could find out what the vamps wanted with you. What they'd do to get you back. When I came in with the bowl of water, I heard Stan or Bill call you by name, so I knew they'd missed you at the airport. I felt like I had something to tell them, to make up for losing the bug I'd put in the conference room."

"You betrayed Isabel," I said. "And you betrayed me, though I'm human, like you."

"Yes," he said. He didn't look me in the eyes.

"What about Bethany Rogers?"

"The waitress?"

He was stalling. "The dead waitress," I said.

"They took her," he said, shaking his head from side to side, as if he were actually saying, No, they couldn't have done what they did. "They took her, and I didn't know what they were going to do. I knew she was the only one who'd seen Farrell with Godfrey, and I'd told them that. When I got up today and I heard she'd been found dead, I just couldn't believe it."

"They abducted her after you told them she'd been at Stan's. After you told them she was the only true witness."

"Yes, they must have."

"You called them last night."

"Yes, I have a cell phone. I went out in the backyard and I called. I was really taking a chance, because you know how well the vamps can hear, but I called." He was trying to convince himself that had been a brave, bold thing to do. Place a phone call from vamp headquarters to lay the finger on poor, pathetic Bethany, who'd ended up shot in an alley.

"She was shot after you betrayed her."

"Yes, I… I heard that on the news."

"Guess who did that, Hugo."

"I… just don't know."

"Sure you do, Hugo. She'd been an eyewitness. And she was a lesson, a lesson to the vampires: 'This is what we'll do to people who work for you or make their living from you, if they go against the Fellowship.' What do you think they're going to do with you, Hugo?"

"I've been helping them," he said, surprised.

"Who else knows that?"

"No one."

"So who would die? The lawyer that helped Stan Davis live where he wanted."

Hugo was speechless.

"If you're so all-fired important to them, how come you're in this room with me?"

"Because up until now, you didn't know what I'd done," he pointed out. "Up until now, it was possible you would give me other information we could use against them."

"So now, now that I know what you are, they'll let you out. Right? Why don't you try it and see? I'd much rather be alone."

Just then a small aperture in the door opened. I hadn't even known it was there, having been preoccupied while I was out in the hall. A face appeared at the opening, which measured perhaps ten inches by ten inches.

It was a familiar face. Gabe, grinning. "How you doing in there, you two?"

"Sookie needs a doctor," Hugo said. "She's not complaining, but I think her cheekbone is broken." He sounded reproachful. "And she knows about my alliance with the Fellowship, so you might as well let me out."

I didn't know what Hugo thought he was doing, but I tried to look as beaten as possible. That was pretty easy.

"I have me an idea," Gabe said. "I've gotten kind of bored down here, and I don't expect Steve or Sarah – or even old Polly – will be coming back down here any time soon. We got another prisoner over here, Hugo, might be glad to see you. Farrell? You meet him over at the headquarters of the Evil Ones?"

"Yes," said Hugo. He looked very unhappy about this turn of the conversation.

"You know how fond Farrell's gonna be of you? And he's gay, too, a queer bloodsucker. We're so deep underground that he's been waking up early. So I thought I might just put you in there with him, while I have me a little fun with the female traitor, here." And Gabe smiled at me in a way that made my stomach lurch.

Hugo's face was a picture. A real picture. Several things crossed my mind, pertinent things to say. I forewent the doubtful pleasure. I needed to save my energy.

One of my Gran's favorite adages popped into my mind irresistibly as I looked at Gabe's handsome face. "Pretty is as pretty does," I muttered, and began the painful process of getting to my feet to defend myself. My legs might not be broken, but my left knee was surely in bad shape. It was already badly discolored and swollen.

I wondered if Hugo and I together could take Gabe down when he opened the door, but as soon as it swung outward, I saw he'd armed himself with a gun and a black, menacing-looking object I decided might be a stun gun.

"Farrell!" I called. If he were awake, he'd hear me; he was a vampire.

Gabe jumped, looked at me suspiciously.

"Yes?" came a deep voice from the room farther down the hall. I heard chains clink as the vampire moved. Of course, they'd have to chain him with silver. Otherwise he could rip the door off its hinges.

"Stan sent us!" I yelled, and then Gabe backhanded me with the hand that held the gun. Since I was against the wall, my head bounced off it. I made an awful noise, not quite a scream but too loud for a moan.

"Shut up, bitch!" Gabe screamed. He was pointing the gun at Hugo and had the stun gun held at the ready a few inches from me. "Now, Lawyer, you get out here in the hall. Keep away from me, you hear?"

Hugo, sweat pouring down his face, edged past Gabe and into the hall. I was having a hard time tracking what was happening, but I noticed that in the narrow width Gabe had to maneuver, he came very close to Hugo on his way to open Farrell's cell. Just when I thought he was far enough down the hall for me to make it, he told Hugo to close my cell door, and though I frantically shook my head at Hugo, he did so.

I don't think Hugo even saw me. He was turned completely inward. Everything inside him was collapsing, his thoughts were in chaos. I'd done my best for him by telling Farrell we were from Stan, which in Hugo's case was stretching it considerably, but Hugo was too frightened or disillusioned or ashamed to show any backbone. Considering his deep betrayal, I was very surprised I'd bothered. If I hadn't held his hand and seen the images of his children, I wouldn't have.

"There's nothing to you, Hugo," I said. His face reappeared at the still-open window momentarily, his face white with distress of all kinds, but then he vanished. I heard a door open, I heard the clink of chains, and I heard a door close.

Gabe had forced Hugo into Farrell's cell. I took deep breaths, one right after another, until I felt I might Hyperventilate. I picked up one of the chairs, a plastic one with four metal legs, the kind you've sat on a million times in churches and meetings and classrooms. I held it lion-tamer style, with the legs facing outward. It was all I could think of to do. I thought of Bill, but that was too painful. I thought of my brother, Jason, and I wished he were there with me. It had been a long time since I'd wished that about Jason.

The door opened. Gabe was already smiling as he came in. It was a nasty smile, letting all the ugliness leak out of his soul through his mouth and eyes. This really was his idea of a good time.

"You think that little chair is going to keep you safe?" he asked.

I wasn't in the mood for talking, and I didn't want to listen to the snakes in his mind. I closed myself off, contained myself tightly, bracing myself.

He'd bolstered the gun, but kept the stun gun in his hand. Now, such was his confidence, he put it in a little leather pouch on his belt, on the left side. He seized the legs of the chair and began to yank the chair from side to side.

I charged.

I almost had him out the door, so unexpected was my strong counterattack, but at the last minute he managed to twist the legs sideways, so that they couldn't pass through the narrow doorway. He stood against the wall on the other side of the hall, panting, his face red.

"Bitch," he hissed, and came at me again, and this time he tried to pull the chair out of my hands altogether. But as I've said before, I've had vampire blood, and I didn't let him have it. And I didn't let him have me.

Without my seeing it, he'd drawn the stun gun and, quick as a snake, he reached over the chair and touched it to my shoulder.

I didn't collapse, which he expected, but I went down on my knees, still holding the chair. While I was still trying to figure out what had happened to me, he yanked the chair from my hands, and knocked me backwards.

I could hardly move, but I could scream and lock my legs together, and I did.

"Shut up!" he yelled, and since he was touching me, I could tell that he really wanted me unconscious, he would enjoy raping me while I was unconscious; in fact, that was his ideal.

"Don't like your women awake," I panted, "do you?" He stuck a hand between us and yanked open my blouse.

I heard Hugo's voice, yelling, as if that would do any good. I bit at Gabe's shoulder.

He called me a bitch again, which was getting old. He'd opened his own pants, now he was trying to pull up my skirt. I was fleetingly glad I'd bought a long one.

"You afraid they'll complain, if they're awake?" I yelled. "Let me go, get off me! Get off, get off, get off!" Finally, I'd unpinned my arms. In a moment, they'd recovered enough from the electric jolt to function. I formed two cups with my hands. As I screamed at him, I clapped my hands over his ears.

He roared, and reared back, his own hands going to his head. He was so full of rage it escaped him and washed over me; it felt like bathing in fury. I knew then that he would kill me if he could, no matter what reprisals he faced. I tried to roll to one side, but he had me pinned with his legs. I watched as his right hand formed a fist, which seemed as big as a boulder to me. And with a sense of doom, I watched the arc of that fist as it descended to my face, knowing this one would knock me out and it would be all over… .

And it didn't happen.

Up in the air Gabe went, pants open and dick hanging out, his fist landing on air, his shoes kicking at my legs.

A short man was holding Gabe up in the air; not a man, I realized at second glance, a teenager. An ancient teenager.

He was blond and shirtless, and his arms and chest were covered with blue tattoos. Gabe was yelling and flailing, but the boy stood calmly, his face expressionless, until Gabe ran down. By the time Gabe was silent, the boy had transferred his grip to a kind of bear hug encircling Gabe's waist, and Gabe was hanging forward.

The boy looked down at me dispassionately. My blouse had been torn open, and my bra was ripped down the middle.

"Are you badly hurt?" the boy asked, almost reluctantly.

I had a savior, but not an enthusiastic one.

I stood up, which was more of a feat than it sounds. It took me quite a while. I was trembling violently from the emotional shock. When I was upright, I was on an eye level with the boy. In human years, he would've been about sixteen when he'd been made vampire. There was no telling how many years ago that had been. He must be older than Stan, older than Isabel. His English was clear, but heavily accented. I had no idea what kind of accent it was. Maybe his original language was not even spoken anymore. What a lonely feeling that would be.

"I'll mend," I said. "Thank you." I tried to rebutton my blouse – there were a few remaining buttons – but my hands were shaking too badly. He wasn't interested in seeing my skin, anyway. It didn't do a thing for him. His eyes were quite dispassionate.

"Godfrey," Gabe said. His voice was thready. "Godfrey, she was trying to escape."

Godfrey shook him, and Gabe shut up.

So, Godfrey was the vampire I'd seen through Bethany's eyes – the only eyes that could remember seeing him at the Bat's Wing that evening. The eyes that were no longer seeing anything.

"What do you intend to do?" I asked him, keeping my voice quiet and even.

Godfrey's pale blue eyes flickered. He didn't know.

He'd gotten the tattoos while he was alive, and they were very strange, symbols whose meaning had been lost centuries ago, I was willing to bet. Probably some scholar would give his eyeteeth to have a look at those tattoos. Lucky me, I was getting to see them for nothing.

"Please let me out," I said with as much dignity as I could muster. "They'll kill me."

"But you consort with vampires," he said.

My eyes darted from one side to another, as I tried to figure this one out.

"Ah," I said hesitantly. "You're a vampire, aren't you?"

"Tomorrow I atone for my sin publicly," Godfrey said. "Tomorrow I greet the dawn. For the first time in a thousand years, I will see the sun. Then I will see the face of God."

Okay. "You chose," I said.

"Yes."

"But I didn't. I don't want to die." I spared a glance for Gabe's face, which was quite blue. In his agitation, Godfrey was squeezing Gabe much tighter than he ought to. I wondered if I should say something.

"You do consort with vampires," Godfrey accused, and I switched my gaze back to his face. I knew I'd better not let my concentration wander again.

"I'm in love," I said.

"With a vampire."

"Yes. Bill Compton."

"All vampires are damned, and should all meet the sun. We're a taint, a blot on the face of the earth."

"And these people" – I pointed upward to indicate I meant the Fellowship – "these people are better, Godfrey?"

The vampire looked uneasy and unhappy. He was starving, I noticed; his cheeks were almost concave, and they were as white as paper. His blond hair almost floated around his head, it was so electric, and his eyes looked like blue marbles against his pallor. "They, at least, are human, part of God's plan," he said quietly. "Vampires are an abomination."

"Yet you've been nicer to me than this human." Who was dead, I realized, as I glanced down at his face. I tried not to flinch, and refocused on Godfrey, who was much more important to my future.

"But we take the blood of the innocents." Godfrey's pale blue eyes fixed on mine.

"Who is innocent?" I asked rhetorically, hoping I didn't sound too much like Pontius Pilate asking, What is truth? when he knew damn well.

"Well, children," Godfrey said.

"Oh, you… fed on children?" I put my hand over my mouth.

"I killed children."

I couldn't think of a thing to say for a long time. Godfrey stood there, looking at me sadly, holding Gabe's body in his arms, forgotten.

"What stopped you?" I asked.

"Nothing will stop me. Nothing but my death."

"I'm so sorry," I said inadequately. He was suffering, and I was truly sorry for that. But if he'd been human, I'd have said he deserved the electric chair without thinking twice.

"How soon is it until dark?" I asked, not knowing what else to say.

Godfrey had no watch, of course. I assumed he was up only because he was underground and he was very old. Godfrey said, "An hour."

"Please let me go. If you help me, I can get out of here."

"But you will tell the vampires. They will attack. I will be prevented from meeting the dawn."

"Why wait till the morning?" I asked, suddenly irritated. "Walk outside. Do it now."

He was astounded. He dropped Gabe, who landed with a thud. Godfrey didn't even spare him a glance. "The ceremony is planned for dawn, with many believers there to witness it," he explained. "Farrell will also be brought up to face the sun."

"What part would I have played in this?"

He shrugged. "Sarah wanted to see if the vampires would exchange one of their own for you. Steve had other plans. His idea was to lash you to Farrell, so that when he burned, so would you."

I was stunned. Not that Steve Newlin had had the idea, but that he thought it would appeal to his congregation, for that was what they were. Newlin was further over the top than even I had guessed. "And you think lots of people would enjoy seeing that, a young woman executed without any kind of trial? That they would think it was a valid religious ceremony? You think the people who planned this terrible death for me are truly religious?"

For the first time, he seemed a shade doubtful. "Even for humans, that seems a little extreme," he agreed. "But Steve thought it would be a powerful statement."

"Well, sure it would be a powerful statement. It would say, 'I'm nuts.' I know this world has plenty of bad people and bad vampires, but I don't believe the majority of the people in this country, or for that matter just here in Texas, would be edified by the sight of a screaming woman burning to death."

Godfrey looked doubtful. I could see I was voicing thoughts that had occurred to him, thoughts he had denied to himself he was entertaining. "They have called the media," he said. It was like the protest of a bride slated to marry a groom she suddenly doubted. But the invitations have been sent out, Mother.

"I'm sure they have. But it'll be the end of their organization, I can tell you that flat out. I repeat, if you really want to make a statement that way, a big 'I'm sorry,' then you walk out of this church right now and stand on the lawn. God'll be watching, I promise you. That's who you should care about."

He struggled with it; I'll give him that.

"They have a special white robe for me to wear," he said. (But I've already bought the dress and reserved the church.)

"Big damn deal. If we're arguing clothes, you don't really want to do it. I bet you'll chicken out."

I had definitely lost sight of my goal. When the words came out of my mouth, I regretted them.

"You will see," he said firmly.

"I don't want to see, if I'm tied to Farrell at the time. I am not evil, and I don't want to die."

"When was the last time you were in church?" He was issuing me a challenge.

"About a week ago. And I took Communion, too." I was never happier to be a churchgoer, because I couldn't have lied about that.

"Oh." Godfrey looked dumbfounded.

"See?" I felt I was robbing him of all his wounded majesty by this argument, but dammit, I didn't want to die by burning. I wanted Bill, wanted him with a longing so intense I hoped it would pop his coffin open. If only I could tell him what was going on… . "Come on," said Godfrey, holding out his hand.

I didn't want to give him a chance to rethink his position, not after this long do-si-do, so I took his hand and stepped over Gabe's prone form out into the hall. There was an ominous lack of conversation from Farrell and Hugo, and to tell the truth, I was too scared to call out to find out what was going on with them. I figured if I could get out, I could rescue them both, anyway.

Godfrey sniffed the blood on me, and his face was swept with longing. I knew that look. But it was devoid of lust. He didn't care a thing for my body. The link between blood and sex is very strong for all vampires, so I considered myself lucky that I was definitely adult in form. I inclined my face to him out of courtesy. After a long hesitation, he licked the trickle of blood from the cut on my cheekbone. He closed his eyes for a second, savoring the taste, and then we started for the stairs.

With a great deal of help from Godfrey, I made it up the steep flight. He used his free arm to punch in a combination on the door, and swung it open. "I've been staying down here, in the room at the end," he explained, in a voice that was hardly more than a disturbance of the air.

The corridor was clear, but any second someone might come out of one of the offices. Godfrey didn't seem to fear that at all, but I did, and I was the one whose freedom was at stake. I didn't hear any voices; apparently the staff had gone home to get ready for the lock-in, and the lock-in guests had not yet started arriving. Some of the office doors were closed, and the windows in the offices were the only means of sunlight getting to the hall. It was dark enough for Godfrey to be comfortable, I assumed, since he didn't even wince. There was bright artificial light coming from under the main office door.

We hurried, or at least tried to, but my left leg was not very cooperative. I wasn't sure what door Godfrey was heading toward, perhaps double doors I'd seen earlier at the back of the sanctuary. If I could get safely out of those, I wouldn't have to traverse the other wing. I didn't know what I'd do when I got outside. But being outside would definitely be better than being inside. Just as we reached the open doorway to the next-to-last office on the left, the one from which the tiny Hispanic woman had come, the door to Steve's office opened. We froze. Godfrey's arm around me felt like an iron band. Polly stepped out, still facing into the room. We were only a couple of yards away.

". . . bonfire," she was saying.

"Oh, I think we've got enough," Sarah's sweet voice said. "If everyone returned their attendance cards, we'd know for sure. I can't believe how bad people are about not replying. It's so inconsiderate, after we made it as easy as possible for them to tell us whether or not they'd be here!"

An argument about etiquette. Gosh, I wished Miss Manners were here to give me advice on this situation. I was an uninvited guest of a small church, and I left without saying good-bye. Am I obliged to write a thank-you note, or may I simply send flowers?

Polly's head began turning, and I knew any moment she would see us. Even as the thought formed, Godfrey pushed me into the dark empty office.

"Godfrey! What are you doing up here?" Polly didn't sound frightened, but she didn't sound happy, either. It was more like she'd found the yardman in the living room, making himself at home.

"I came to see if there is anything more I need to do."

"Isn't it awfully early for you to be awake?"

"I am very old," he said politely. "The old don't need as much sleep as the young."

Polly laughed. "Sarah," she said brightly, "Godfrey's up!"

Sarah's voice sounded closer, when she spoke. "Well, hey, Godfrey!" she said, in an identical bright tone. "Are you excited? I bet you are!"

They were talking to a thousand-year-old vampire like he was a child on his birthday eve.

"Your robe's all ready," Sarah said. "All systems go!"

"What if I changed my mind?" Godfrey asked.

There was a long silence. I tried to breathe very slowly and quietly. The closer it got to dark the more I could imagine I had a chance of getting out of this.

If I could telephone… I glanced over at the desk in the office. There was a telephone on it. But wouldn't the buttons in the offices light up, the buttons for that line, if I used the phone? At the moment, it would make too much noise.

"You changed your mind? Can this be possible?" Polly asked. She was clearly exasperated. "You came to us, remember? You told us about your life of sin, and the shame you felt when you killed children and… did other things. Has any of this changed?"

"No," Godfrey said, sounding more thoughtful than anything else. "None of this has changed. But I see no need to include any humans in this sacrifice of mine. In fact, I believe that Farrell should be left to make his own peace with God. We shouldn't force him into immolation."

"We need to get Steve back here," Polly said to Sarah in an undertone.

After that, I just heard Polly, so I assumed Sarah had gone back into the office to call Steve.

One of the lights on the phone lit up. Yep, that was what she was doing. She'd know if I tried to use one of the other lines. Maybe in a minute.

Polly was trying sweet reason with Godfrey. Godfrey was not talking much, himself, and I had no idea what was going through his head. I stood helplessly, pressed against the wall, hoping no one would come into the office, hoping no one would go downstairs and raise the alarm, hoping Godfrey wouldn't have yet another change of heart.

Help, I said in my mind. If only I could call for help that way, through my other sense!

A flicker of an idea crossed my mind. I made myself stand calmly, though my legs were still trembling with shock, and my knee and face hurt like the six shades of hell. Maybe I could call someone: Barry, the bellboy. He was a telepath, like me. He could be able to hear me. Not that I'd ever made such an attempt before – well, I'd never met another telepath, had I? I tried desperately to locate myself in relation to Barry, assuming he was at work. This was about the same time we'd arrived from Shreveport, so he might be. I pictured my location on the map, which luckily I'd looked up with Hugo – though I knew now that he had been pretending not to know where the Fellowship Center was – and I figured we were southwest of the Silent Shore Hotel.

I was in new mental territory. I gathered up what energy I had and tried to roll it into a ball, in my mind. For a second, I felt absolutely ridiculous, but when I thought of getting free of this place and these people, there was very little to gain in not being ridiculous. I thought to Barry. It's hard to peg down exactly how I did it, but I projected. Knowing his name helped, and knowing his location helped.

I decided to start easy. Barry Barry Barry Barry…

What do you want? He was absolutely panicked. This had never happened to him before.

I've never done this either. I hoped I sounded reassuring. I need help. I'm in big trouble.

Who are you?

Well, that would help. Stupid me. I'm Sookie, the blond who came in last night with the brown-haired vampire. Third-floor suite.

The one with the boobs? Oh, sorry.

At least he'd apologized. Yes. The one with the boobs. And the boyfriend.

So, what's the matter?

Now, all this sounds very clear and organized, but it wasn't words. It was like we were sending each other emotional telegrams and pictures.

I tried to think how to explain my predicament. Get my vampire as soon as he wakes.

And then?

Tell him I'm in danger. Dangerdangerdanger…

Okay, I get the idea. Where?

Church. I figured that would be shorthand for the Fellowship Center. I couldn't think how to convey that to Barry.

He knows where?

He knows where. Tell him, Go down the stairs.

Are you for real? I didn't know there was anyone else…

I'm for real. Please, help me.

I could feel a complicated bundle of emotions racing through Barry's mind. He was scared of talking to a vampire, he was frightened that his employers would discover he had a "weird brain thing," he was just excited that there was someone like him. But mostly he was scared of this part of him that had puzzled and frightened him for so long.

I knew all those feelings. It's okay, I understand, I told him. I wouldn't ask if I wasn't going to be killed.

Fear struck him again, fear of his own responsibility in this. I should never have added that.

And then, somehow, he erected a flimsy barrier between us, and I wasn't sure what Barry was going to do.

While I'd been concentrating on Barry, things had been moving right along in the hall. When I began listening again, Steve had returned. He, too, was trying to be reasonable and positive with Godfrey.

"Now, Godfrey," he was saying, "if you didn't want to do this, all you had to do was say so. You committed to it, we all did, and we've moved forward with every expectation that you would keep to your word. A lot of people are going to be very disappointed if you lose your commitment to the ceremony."

"What will you do with Farrell? With the man Hugo, and the blond woman?"

"Farrell's a vampire," said Steve, still the voice of sweet reason. "Hugo and the woman are vampires' creatures. They should go to the sun, too, tied to a vampire. That is the lot they chose in their lives, and it should be their lot in death."

"I am a sinner, and I know it, so when I die my soul will go to God," Godfrey said. "But Farrell does not know this. When he dies, he won't have a chance. The man and woman, too, have not had a chance to repent their ways. Is it fair to kill them and condemn them to hell?"

"We need to go into my office," Steve said decisively.

And I realized, finally, that that was what Godfrey had been aiming for all along. There was a certain amount of foot shuffling, and I heard Godfrey murmur, "After you," with great courtesy.

He wanted to be last so he could shut the door behind him.

My hair finally felt dry, freed from the wig that had drenched it in sweat. It was hanging around my shoulders in separate locks, because I'd been silently unpinning it during the conversation. It had seemed a casual thing to be doing, while listening to my fate being settled, but I had to keep occupied. Now I cautiously pocketed the bobby pins, ran my fingers through the tangled mess, and prepared to sneak out of the church.

I peered cautiously from the doorway. Yes, Steve's door was closed. I tiptoed out of the dark office, took a left, and continued to the door leading into the sanctuary. I turned its knob very quietly and eased it open. I stepped into the sanctuary, which was very dusky. There was just enough light from the huge stained-glass windows to help me get down the aisle without falling over the pews.

Then I heard voices, getting louder, coming from the far wing. The lights in the sanctuary came on. I dove into a row and rolled under the pew. A family group came in, all talking loudly, the little girl whining about missing some favorite show on television because she had to go to the stinky old lock-in.

That got her a slap on the bottom, sounded like, and her father told her she was lucky she was going to get to see such an amazing evidence of the power of God. She was going to see salvation in action.

Even under the circumstances, I took issue with that. I wondered if this father really understood that his leader planned for the congregation to watch two vampires burn to death, at least one of them clutching a human who would also burn. I wondered how the little girl's mental health would fare after that "amazing evidence of the power of God."

To my dismay, they proceeded to put their sleeping bags up against a wall on the far side of the sanctuary, still talking. At least this was a family that communicated. In addition to the whiny little girl, there were two older kids, a boy and a girl, and like true siblings they fought like cats and dogs.

A pair of small flat red shoes trotted by the end of my pew and disappeared through the door into Steve's wing. I wondered if the group in his office was still debating.

The feet went by again after a few seconds, this time going very fast. I wondered about that, too.

I waited about five more minutes, but nothing else happened.

From now on, there would be more people coming in. It was now or never. I rolled out from under the pew and got up. By my good fortune, they were all looking down at their task when I stood up, and I began walking briskly to the double doors at the back of the church. By their sudden silence, I knew they'd spotted me.

"Hi!" called the mother. She rose to her feet beside her bright blue sleeping bag. Her plain face was full of curiosity. "You must be new at the Fellowship. I'm Francie Polk."

"Yes," I called, trying to sound cheerful. "Gotta rush! Talk to you later!"

She drew closer. "Have you hurt yourself?" she asked. "You – excuse me – you look awful. Is that blood?"

I glanced down at my blouse. There were some small stains on my chest.

"I had a fall," I said, trying to sound rueful. "I need to go home and do a little first aid, change my clothes, like that. I'll be back!"

I could see the doubt on Francie Folk's face. "There's a first aid kit in the office, why don't I just run and get that?" she asked.

Because I don't want you to. "You know, I need to get a fresh blouse, too," I said. I wrinkled my nose to show my low opinion of going around in a spotted blouse all evening.

Another woman had come in the very doors I was hoping to go out of, and she stood listening to the conversation, her dark eyes darting back and forth from me to the determined Francie.

"Hey, girl!" she said in a lightly accented voice, and the little Hispanic woman, the shapeshifter, gave me a hug. I come from a hugging culture, and it was automatic to hug her right back. She gave me a meaningful pinch while we were clenched.

"How are you?" I asked brightly. "It's been too long."

"Oh, you know, same old same old," she said. She beamed up at me, but there was caution in her eyes. Her hair was a very dark brown, rather than black, and it was coarse and abundant. Her skin was the color of a milky caramel, and she had dark freckles. Generous lips were painted an outstanding fuchsia. She had big white teeth, flashing at me in her wide smile. I glanced down at her feet. Flat red shoes.

"Hey, come outside with me while I have a cigarette," she said.

Francie Polk was looking more satisfied.

"Luna, can't you see your friend needs to go to the doctor?" she said righteously.

"You do have a few bumps and bruises," Luna said, examining me. "Have you fallen down again, girl?"

"You know Mama always tells me, 'Marigold, you're as clumsy as an elephant.'"

"That mama of yours," Luna said, shaking her head in disgust. "Like that would make you less clumsy!"

"What can you do?" I said, shrugging. "If you'll excuse us, Francie?"

"Well, sure," she said. "I'll see you later, I guess."

"Sure will," said Luna. "I wouldn't miss it for anything."

And with Luna, I strolled out of the Fellowship of the Sun meeting hall. I concentrated ferociously on keeping my gait even, so Francie wouldn't see me limp and become even more suspicious.

"Thank God," I said, when we were outside.

"You knew me for what I was," she said rapidly. "How did you know?"

"I have a friend who's a shapeshifter."

"Who is he?"

"He's not local. And I won't tell you without his consent."

She stared at me, all pretence of friendship dropped in that instant.

"Okay, I respect that," she said. "Why are you here?"

"What's it to you?"

"I just saved your ass."

She had a point, a good point. "Okay. I am a telepath, and I was hired by your vampire area leader to find out what had become of a missing vampire."

"That's better. But it ain't my area leader. I'm a supe, but I ain't no freaking vampire. What vamp did you deal with?"

"I don't need to tell you that."

She raised her eyebrows.

"I don't."

She opened her mouth as if to yell.

"Yell away. There're some things I just won't tell. What's a supe?"

"A supernatural being. Now, you listen to me," Luna said. We were walking through the parking lot now, and cars were beginning to pull in regularly from the road. She did a lot of smiling and waving, and I tried to at least look happy. But the limp was no longer concealable, and my face was swelling like a bitch, as Arlene would say.

Gosh, I was homesick all of a sudden. But I thrust that feeling away to pay attention to Luna, who clearly had things to tell me.

"You tell the vampires we have this place under surveillance – "

"'We' being who?"

"'We' being the shapeshifters of the greater Dallas area."

"You guys are organized? Hey, that's great! I'll have to tell… my friend."

She rolled her eyes, clearly not impressed with my intellect. "Listen here, missy, you tell the vampires that as soon as the Fellowship figures out about us, they will be on us, too. And we aren't going to mainstream. We're underground for good. Stupid freakin' vampires. So we're keeping an eye on the Fellowship."

"If you're keeping such a good eye, how come you didn't call the vampires and tell them about Farrell being in the basement? And about Godfrey?"

"Hey, Godfrey wants to kill himself, no skin off our teeth. He came to the Fellowship; they didn't go to him. They about peed their pants, they were so glad to have him, after they got over the shock of sitting in the same room with one of the damned."

"What about Farrell?"

"I didn't know who was down there," Luna admitted. "I knew they'd captured someone, but I'm not exactly in the inner circle yet, and I couldn't find out who. I even tried buttering up that asshole Gabe, but that didn't help."

"You'll be pleased to know that Gabe is dead."

"Hey!" She smiled genuinely for the first time. "That is good news."

"Here's the rest. As soon as I get in touch with the vampires, they're going to be here to get Farrell. So if I were you, I wouldn't go back to the Fellowship tonight."

She chewed on her lower lip for a minute. We were at the far end of the parking lot.

"In fact," I said, "it would be perfect if you would give me a lift to the hotel."

"Well, I'm not in the business of making your life perfect," she snarled, recalled to her tough cookie persona. "I got to get back in that church before the shit hits the fan, and get some papers out. Think about this, girl. What are the vampires gonna do with Godfrey? Can they let him live? He's a child molester and a serial killer; so many times over you couldn't even count. He can't stop, and he knows it."

So there was a good side to the church… it gave vampires like Godfrey a venue to commit suicide while being watched?

"Maybe they should just put it on pay-per-view," I said.

"They would if they could." Luna was serious. "Those vampires trying to mainstream, they're pretty harsh to anyone who might upset their plan. Godfrey's no poster boy."

"I can't solve every problem, Luna. By the way, my real name is Sookie. Sookie Stackhouse. Anyway, I've done what I could. I did the job I was hired to do, and now I have to get back and report. Godfrey lives or Godfrey dies. I think Godfrey will die."

"You better be right," she said ominously.

I couldn't figure out why it was my fault if Godfrey changed his mind. I had just questioned his chosen venue. But maybe she was right. I might have some responsibility, here.

It was all just too much for me.

"Good-bye," I said, and began limping along the back of the parking lot to the road. I hadn't gotten far when I heard a hue and cry arise from the church, and all the outside lights popped on. The sudden glare was blinding.

"Maybe I won't go back in the Fellowship Center after all. Not a good idea," Luna said from the window of a Subaru Outback. I scrambled into the passenger's seat, and we sped toward the nearest exit onto the four-lane road. I fastened my seat belt automatically.

But as swiftly as we had moved, others had moved even more swiftly. Various family vehicles were being positioned to block the exits from the parking lot.

"Crap," said Luna.

We sat idling for a minute while she thought.

"They'll never let me out, even if we hide you somehow. I can't get you back into the church. They can search the parking lot too easily." Luna chewed on her lip some more.

"Oh, freak this job, anyway," she said, and threw the Outback into gear. She drove conservatively at first, trying to attract as little attention as possible. "These people wouldn't know what religion was if it bit them in the ass," she said. Up by the church, Luna drove over the curb separating the parking lot from the lawn. Then we were flooring it over the lawn, circling the fenced play area, and I discovered I was grinning from ear to ear, though it hurt to do so.

"Yee-hah!" I yelled, as we hit a sprinkler head on the lawn watering system. We flew across the front yard of the church, and, out of sheer shock, no one was pursuing us. They'd organize themselves in a minute, though, the die-hards. Those people who didn't espouse the more extreme measures of this Fellowship were going to get a real wake-up call tonight.

Sure enough, Luna looked in her rearview mirror and said, "They've unblocked the exits, and someone's coming after us." We pulled out into traffic on the road running in front of the church, another major four-lane road, and horns honked all around at our sudden entry into the traffic flow.

"Holy shit," Luna said. She slowed down to a reasonable speed and kept looking in her rearview mirror. "It's too dark now, I can't tell which headlights are them."

I wondered if Barry had alerted Bill.

"You got a cell phone?" I asked her.

"It's in my purse, along with my driver's license, which is still sitting in my office in the church. That's how I knew you were loose. I went in my office, smelled your scent. Knew you'd been hurt. So I went outside and scouted around, and when I couldn't find you, I came back in. We're damn lucky I had my keys in my pocket."

God bless shapeshifters. I felt wistful about the phone, but it couldn't be helped. I suddenly wondered where my purse was. Probably back in the Fellowship of the Sun office. At least I'd taken all my i.d. out of it.

"Should we stop at a pay phone, or the police station?"

"If you call the police, what are they going to do?" asked Luna, in the encouraging voice of someone leading a small child to wisdom.

"Go to the church?"

"And what will happen then, girl?"

"Ah, they'll ask Steve why he was holding a human prisoner?"

"Yep. And what will he say?"

"I don't know."

"He'll say, 'We never held her prisoner. She got into some kind of argument with our employee Gabe, and he ended up dead. Arrest her!'"

"Oh. You think?"

"Yeah, I think."

"What about Farrell?"

"If the police start coming in, you can better believe they've got someone detailed to hustle down to the basement and stake him. By the time the cops get there, no more Farrell. They could do the same to Godfrey, if he wouldn't back them up. He would probably stand still for it. He wants to die, that Godfrey."

"Well, what about Hugo?"

"You think Hugo is going to explain how come he got locked in a basement there? I don't know what that jerk would say, but he won't tell the truth. He's led a double life for months now, and he can't say whether his head is on straight or not."

"So we can't call the police. Who can we call?"

"I got to get you with your people. You don't need to meet mine. They don't want to be known, you understand?"

"Sure."

"You have to be something weird yourself, huh? To recognize us."

"Yes."

"So what are you? Not a vamp, for sure. Not one of us, either."

"I'm a telepath."

"You are! No shit! Well, woooo woooo," Luna said, imitating the traditional ghost sound.

"No more woo woo than you are," I said, feeling I could be pardoned for sounding a bit testy.

"Sorry," she said, not meaning it. "Okay, here's the plan – "

But I didn't get to hear what the plan was, because at that moment we were hit from the rear.

The next thing I knew, I was hanging upside down in my seat belt. A hand was reaching in to pull me out. I recognized the fingernails; it was Sarah. I bit her.

With a shriek, the hand withdrew. "She's obviously out of it," I heard Sarah's sweet voice gabbling to someone else, someone unconnected with the church, I realized, and knew I had to act.

"Don't you listen to her. It was her car that hit us," I called. "Don't you let her touch me."

I looked over at Luna, whose hair now touched the ceiling. She was awake but not talking. She was wriggling around, and I figured she was trying to undo her seat belt.

There was lots of conversation outside the window, most of it contentious.

"I tell you, I am her sister, and she is just drunk," Polly was telling someone.

"I am not. I demand to have a sobriety test right now," I said, in as dignified a voice as I could manage, considering that I was shocked silly and hanging upside down, "Call the police immediately, please, and an ambulance."

Though Sarah began spluttering, a heavy male voice said, "Lady, doesn't sound like she wants you around. Sounds like she's got some good points."

A man's face appeared in the window. He was kneeling and bent sideways to see in. "I've called nine-one-one," the heavy voice said. He was disheveled and stubbly and I thought he was beautiful.

"Please stay here till they come," I begged.

"I will," he promised, and his face vanished.

There were more voices now. Sarah and Polly were getting shrill. They'd hit our car. Several people had witnessed it. Them claiming to be sisters or whatever didn't go over well with this crowd. Also, I gathered, they had two Fellowship males with them who were being less than endearing.

"Then we'll just go," Polly said, fury in her voice.

"No, you won't," said my wonderful belligerent male. "You gotta trade insurance with them, anyway."

"That's right," said a much younger male voice. "You just don't want to pay for getting their car fixed. And what if they're hurt? Don't you have to pay their hospital?"

Luna had managed to unbuckle herself, and she twisted when she fell to the roof that was now the floor of the car. With a suppleness I could only envy, she worked her head out of the open window, and then began to brace her feet against whatever purchase she could find. Gradually, she began to wriggle her way out of the window. One of the purchases happened to be my shoulder, but I didn't even peep. One of us needed to be free.

There were exclamations outside as Luna made her appearance, and then I heard her say, "Okay, which one of you was driving?"

Various voices chimed in, some saying one, some saying another, but they all knew Sarah and Polly and their henchmen were the perpetrators and Luna was a victim. There were so many people around that when yet another car of men from the Fellowship pulled up, there wasn't any way they could just haul us off. God bless the American spectator, I thought. I was in a sentimental mood.

The paramedic that ended up extricating me from the car was the cutest guy I'd ever seen. His name was Salazar, according to his bar pin, and I said, "Salazar," just to be sure I could say it. I had to sound it out carefully.

"Yep, that's me," he said while lifting my eyelid to look at my eye. "You're kinda banged up, lady."

I started to tell him that I'd had some of these injuries before the car accident, but then I heard Luna say, "My calendar flew off the dashboard and hit her in the face."

"Be a lot safer if you'd keep your dash clear, ma'am," said a new voice with a flat twang to it.

"I hear you, Officer."

Officer? I tried to turn my head and got admonished by Salazar. "You just keep still till I finish looking you over," he said sternly.

"Okay." After a second I said, "The police are here?"

"Yes, ma'am. Now, what hurts?"

We went through a whole list of questions, most of which I was able to answer.

"I think you're going to be fine, ma'am, but we need to take you and your friend to the hospital just to check you out." Salazar and his partner, a heavy Anglo woman, were matter-of-fact about this necessity.

"Oh," I said anxiously, "we don't need to go to the hospital, do we, Luna?"

"Sure," she said, as surprised as she could be. "We have to get you X-rayed, honey bunch. I mean, that cheek of yours looks bad."

"Oh." I was a little stunned by this turn of events. "Well, if you think so."

"Oh, yeah."

So Luna walked to the ambulance, and I was loaded in on a gurney, and with siren blaring, we started off. My last view before Salazar shut the doors was of Polly and Sarah talking to a very tall policeman. Both of them looked very upset. That was good.

The hospital was like all hospitals. Luna stuck to me like white to rice, and when we were in the same cubicle and a nurse entered to take down still more details. Luna said, "Tell Dr. Josephus that Luna Garza and her sister are here."

The nurse, a young African American woman, gave Luna a doubtful look, but said, "Okay," and left immediately.

"How'd you do that?" I asked.

"Get a nurse to stop filling out charts? I asked for this hospital on purpose. We've got someone at every hospital in the city, but I know our man here best."

"Our?"

"Us. The Two-Natured."

"Oh." The shapeshifters. I could hardly wait to tell Sam about this.

"I'm Dr. Josephus," said a calm voice. I raised my head to see that a spare, silver-haired man had stepped into our curtained area. His hair was receding and he had a sharp nose on which a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched. He had intent blue eyes, magnified by his glasses.

"I'm Luna Garza, and this is my friend, ah, Marigold." Luna said this as if she were a different person. In fact, I glanced over to see if it was the same Luna. "We met with misfortune tonight in the line of duty."

The doctor looked at me with some mistrust.

"She is worthy," Luna said with great solemnity. I didn't want to ruin the moment by giggling, but I had to bite the inside of my mouth.

"You need X rays," the doctor said after looking at my face and examining my grotesquely swollen knee. I had various abrasions and bruises, but those were my only really significant injuries.

"Then we need them very quickly, and then we need out of here in a secure way," Luna said in a voice that would brook no denial.

No hospital had ever moved so quickly. I could only suppose that Dr. Josephus was on the board of directors. Or maybe he was the chief of staff. The portable X-ray machine was wheeled in, the X rays were taken, and in a few minutes Dr. Josephus told me that I had a hairline fracture of the cheekbone which would mend on its own. Or I could see a plastic surgeon when the swelling had gone down. He gave me a prescription for pain pills, a lot of advice, and an ice pack for my face and another for my knee, which he called "wrenched."

Within ten minutes after that, we were on our way out of the hospital. Luna was pushing me in a wheelchair, and Dr. Josephus was leading us through a kind of service tunnel. We passed a couple of employees on their way in. They appeared to be poor people, the kind who take low-paying jobs like hospital janitor and cook. I couldn't believe the massively self-assured Dr. Josephus had ever come down this tunnel before, but he seemed to know his way, and the staff didn't act startled at the sight of him. At the end of the tunnel, he pushed open a heavy metal door.

Luna Garza nodded to him regally, said, "Many thanks," and wheeled me out into the night. There was a big old car parked out there. It was dark red or dark brown. As I looked around a little more, I realized that we were in an alley. There were big trash bins lining the wall, and I saw a cat pouncing on something – I didn't want to know what – between two of the bins. After the door whooshed pneumatically shut behind us, the alley was quiet. I began to feel afraid again.

I was incredibly tired of being afraid.

Luna went over to the car, opened the rear door, and said something to whoever was inside. Whatever answer she got, it made her angry. She expostulated in another language.

There was further argument.

Luna stomped back to me, "You have to be blindfolded," she said, obviously certain I would take great offense.

"No problem," I said, with a sweep of one hand to indicate how trifling a matter this was.

"You don't mind?"

"No. I understand, Luna. Everyone likes his privacy."

"Okay, then." She hurried back to the car and returned with a scarf in her hands, of green and peacock blue silk. She folded it as if we were going to play pin-the-tail, and tied it securely behind my head. "Listen to me," she said in my ear, "these two are tough. You watch it." Good. I wanted to be more frightened.

She rolled me over to the car and helped me in. I guess she wheeled the chair back to the door to await pickup; anyway, after a minute she got in the other side of the car.

There were two presences in the front seat. I felt them mentally, very delicately, and discovered both were shapeshifters; at least, they had the shapeshifter feel to their brains, the semi-opaque snarly tangle I got from Sam and Luna. My boss, Sam, usually changes into a collie. I wondered what Luna preferred. There was a difference about these two, a pulsing sort of heaviness. The outline of their heads seemed subtly different, not exactly human.

There was only silence for a few minutes, while the car bumped out of the alley and drove through the night.

"Silent Shore Hotel, right?" said the driver. She sounded kind of growly. Then I realized it was almost the full moon. Oh, hell. They had to change at the full moon. Maybe that was why Luna had kicked over the traces so readily at the Fellowship tonight, once it got dark. She had been made giddy by the emergence of the moon.

"Yes, please," I said politely.

"Food that talks," said the passenger. His voice was even closer to a growl.

I sure didn't like that, but had no idea how to respond. There was just as much for me to learn about shape-shifters as there was about vampires, apparently.

"You two can it," Luna said. "This is my guest."

"Luna hangs with puppy chow," said the passenger. I was beginning to really not like this guy.

"Smells more like hamburger to me," said the driver. "She's got a scrape or two, doesn't she, Luna?"

"Y'all are giving her a great impression of how civilized we are," Luna snapped. "Show some control. She's already had a bad night. She's got a broken bone, too."

And the night wasn't even halfway over yet. I shifted the ice pack I was holding to my face. You can only stand so much freezing cold on your sinus cavity.

"Why'd Josephus have to send for freakin' werewolves?" Luna muttered into my ear. But I knew they'd heard; Sam heard everything, and he was by no means as powerful as a true werewolf. Or at least, that was my evaluation. To tell you the truth, until this moment, I hadn't been sure werewolves actually existed.

"I guess," I said tactfully and audibly, "he thought they could defend us best if we're attacked again."

I could feel the creatures in the front seat prick up their ears. Maybe literally.

"We were doing okay," Luna said indignantly. She twitched and fidgeted on the seat beside me like she'd drunk sixteen cups of coffee.

"Luna, we got rammed and your car got totaled. We were in the emergency room. 'Okay' in what sense?"

Then I had to answer my own question. "Hey, I'm sorry, Luna. You got me out of there when they would've killed me. It's not your fault they rammed us."

"You two have a little roughhouse tonight?" asked the passenger, more civilly. He was spoiling for a fight. I didn't know if all werewolves were as feisty as this guy, or if it was just his nature.

"Yeah, with the fucking Fellowship," Luna said, more than a trace of pride in her voice. "They had this chick stuck in a cell. In a dungeon."

"No shit?" asked the driver. She had the same hyper pulsing to her – well, I just had to call it her aura, for lack of a better word.

"No shit," I said firmly. "I work for a shifter, at home," I added, to make conversation.

"No kidding? What's the business?"

"A bar. He owns a bar."

"So, are you far from home?"

"Too far," I said.

"This little bat saved your life tonight, for real?"

"Yes." I was absolutely sincere about that. "Luna saved my life." Could they mean that literally? Did Luna shapeshift into a… oh golly.

"Way to go, Luna." There was a fraction more respect in the deeper growly voice.

Luna found the praise pleasant, as she ought to, and she patted my hand. In a more agreeable silence, we drove maybe five more minutes, and then the driver said, "The Silent Shore, coming up."

I breathed out a long sigh of relief.

"There's a vampire out front, waiting."

I almost ripped off the blindfold, before I realized that would be a really tacky thing to do. "What does he look like?"

"Very tall, blond. Big head of hair. Friend or foe?"

I had to think about that. "Friend," I said, trying not to sound doubtful.

"Yum, yum," said the driver. "Does he cross-date?"

"I don't know. Want me to ask?"

Luna and the passenger both made gagging sounds. "You can't date a deader!" Luna protested. "Come on, Deb – uh, girl!"

"Oh, okay," said the driver. "Some of them aren't so bad. I'm pulling into the curb, little Milkbone."

"That would be you," Luna said in my ear.

We came to a stop, and Luna leaned over me to open my door. As I stepped out, guided and shoved by her hands, I heard an exclamation from the sidewalk. Quick as a wink Luna slammed the door shut behind me. The car full of shapeshifters pulled away from the curb with a screech of tires. A howl trailed behind it in the thick night air.

"Sookie?" said a familiar voice.

"Eric?"

I was fumbling with the blindfold, but Eric just grabbed the back of it and pulled. I had acquired a beautiful, if somewhat stained, scarf. The front of the hotel, with its heavy blank doors, was brilliantly lit in the dark night, and Eric looked remarkably pale. He was wearing an absolutely conventional navy blue pinstripe suit, of all things.

I was actually glad to see him. He grabbed my arm to keep me from wobbling and looked down at me with an unreadable face. Vampires were good at that. "What has happened to you?" he said.

"I got… well, it's hard to explain in a second. Where is Bill?"

"First he went to the Fellowship of the Sun to get you out. But we heard along the way, from one of us who is a policeman, that you had been involved in an accident and gone to a hospital. So then he went to the hospital. At the hospital, he found out you had left outside the proper channels. No one would tell him anything, and he couldn't threaten them properly." Eric looked extremely frustrated. The fact that he had to live within human laws was a constant irritant to Eric, though he greatly enjoyed the benefits. "And then there was no trace of you. The doorman had only heard the once from you, mentally."

"Poor Barry. Is he all right?"

"The richer for several hundred dollars, and quite happy about it," Eric said in a dry voice. "Now we just need Bill. What a lot of trouble you are, Sookie." He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and punched in a number. After what seemed a long time, it was answered.

"Bill, she is here. Some shapeshifters brought her in." He looked me over. "Battered, but walking." He listened some more. "Sookie, do you have your key?" he asked. I felt in the pocket of my skirt where I'd stuffed the plastic rectangle about a million years ago.

"Yes," I said, and simply could not believe that something had gone right. "Oh, wait! Did they get Farrell?"

Eric held up his hand to indicate he'd get to me in a minute. "Bill, I'll take her up and start doctoring." Eric's back stiffened. "Bill," he said and there was a world of threat in his voice. "All right then. Good-bye." He turned back to me as if there'd been no interruption.

"Yes, Farrell is safe. They raided the Fellowship."

"Did… did many people get hurt?"

"Most of them were too frightened to approach. They scattered and went home. Farrell was in an underground cell with Hugo."

"Oh, yes, Hugo. What happened to Hugo?"

My voice must have been very curious, because Eric looked at me sideways while we were progressing toward the elevator. He was matching my pace, and I was limping very badly.

"May I carry you?" he asked.

"Oh, I don't think so. I've made it this far." I would've taken Bill up on the offer instantly. Barry, at the bell captain's desk, gave me a little wave. He would've run up to me if I hadn't been with Eric. I gave him what I hoped was a significant look, to say I'd talk to him again later, and then the elevator door dinged open and we got on. Eric punched the floor button and leaned against the mirrored wall of the car opposite me. In looking at him, I got a look at my own reflection.

"Oh, no," I said, absolutely horrified. "Oh, no." My hair had been flattened by the wig, and then combed out with my fingers, so it was a disaster. My hands went up to it, helplessly and painfully, and my mouth shook with suppressed tears. And my hair was the least of it. I had visible bruises ranging from mild to severe on most of my body, and that was just the part you could see. My face was swollen and discolored on one side. There was a cut in the middle of the bruise over my cheekbone. My blouse was missing half its buttons, and my skirt was ripped and filthy. My right arm was ridged with bloody lumps.

I began crying. I looked so awful; it just broke what was left of my spirit.

To his credit, Eric didn't laugh, though he may have wanted to. "Sookie, a bath and clean clothes and you will be put to rights," he said as if he were talking to a child. To tell you the truth, I didn't feel much older at the moment.

"The werewolf thought you were cute," I said, and sobbed some more. We stepped out of the elevator.

"The werewolf? Sookie, you have had adventures tonight." He gathered me up like an armful of clothes and held me to him. I got his lovely suit jacket wet and snotty, and his pristine white shirt was spotless no more.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" I held back and looked at his ensemble. I swabbed it with the scarf.

"Don't cry again," he said hastily. "Just don't start crying again, and I won't mind taking this to the cleaners. I won't even mind getting a whole new suit."

I thought it was pretty amusing that Eric, the dread master vampire, was afraid of weeping women. I sniggered through the residual sobs.

"Something funny?" he asked.

I shook my head.

I slid my key in the door and we went in. "I'll help you into the tub if you like, Sookie," Eric offered.

"Oh, I don't think so." A bath was what I wanted more than anything else in the world, that and to never put on these clothes again, but I sure wasn't taking a bath with Eric anywhere around.

"I'll bet you are a treat, naked," Eric said, just to boost my spirits.

"You know it. I'm just as tasty as a big ¨¦clair," I said, and carefully settled into a chair. "Though at the moment I feel more like boudain." Boudain is Cajun sausage, made of all kinds of things, none of them elegant. Eric pushed over a straight chair and lifted my leg to elevate the knee. I resettled the ice pack on it and closed my eyes. Eric called down to the desk for some tweezers, a bowl, and some antiseptic ointment, plus a rolling chair. The items arrived within ten minutes. This staff was good.

There was a small desk by one wall. Eric moved it over to the right side of my chair, lifted my arm, and laid it over the top of the desk. He switched on the lamp. After swabbing off my arm with a wet washcloth, Eric began removing the lumps. They were tiny pieces of glass from Luna's Outback's window. "If you were an ordinary girl, I could glamour you and you wouldn't feel this," he commented. "Be brave." It hurt like a bitch, and tears streamed down my face the whole time he worked. I worked hard keeping silent.

At last, I heard another key in the door, and I opened my eyes. Bill glanced at my face, winced, and then examined what Eric was doing. He nodded approvingly to Eric.

"How did this happen?" he asked, laying the lightest of touches on my face. He pulled the remaining chair closer and sat in it. Eric continued with his work.

I began to explain. I was so tired my voice faltered from time to time. When I got to the part about Gabe, I didn't have enough wits to tone the episode down, and I could see Bill was holding on to his temper with iron control. He gently lifted my blouse to peer at the ripped bra and the bruises on my chest, even with Eric there. (He looked, of course.)

"What happened to this Gabe?" Bill asked, very quietly.

"Well, he's dead," I said. "Godfrey killed him."

"You saw Godfrey?" Eric leaned forward. He hadn't said a thing up till this point. He'd finished doctoring my arm. He'd put antibiotic ointment all over it as if he were protecting a baby from diaper rash.

"You were right, Bill. He was the one who kidnapped Farrell, though I didn't get any details. And Godfrey stopped Gabe from raping me. Though I got to say, I had gotten in a few good licks myself."

"Don't brag," said Bill with a small smile. "So, the man is dead." But he didn't seem satisfied.

"Godfrey was very good in stopping Gabe and helping me get out. Specially since he just wanted to think about meeting the dawn. Where is he?"

"He ran into the night during our attack on the Fellowship," Bill explained. "None of us could catch him."

"What happened at the Fellowship?"

"I'll tell you, Sookie. But let's say good night to Eric, and I will tell you while I bathe you."

"Okay," I agreed. "Good night, Eric. Thanks for the first aid."

"I think those are the main points," Bill said to Eric. "If there is more, I'll come to your room later."

"Good." Eric looked at me, his eyes half open. He'd had a lick or two at my bloody arm while he doctored it and the taste seemed to have intoxicated him. "Rest well, Sookie."

"Oh," I said, my eyes opening all the way suddenly. "You know, we owe the shapeshifters."

Both the vampires stared at me. "Well, maybe not you guys, but I sure do."

"Oh, they'll put in a claim," Eric predicted. "Those shapeshifters never perform any service for free. Good night, Sookie. I am glad you weren't raped and killed." He gave his sudden flashing grin, and looked a lot more like himself.

"Gee, thanks a lot," I said, my eyes closing again. "Night."

When the door had closed behind Eric, Bill gathered me up out of the chair and took me in the bathroom. It was about as big as most hotel bathrooms, but the tub was adequate. Bill ran it full of hot water and very carefully took off my clothes.

"Just toss 'em, Bill," I said.

"Maybe I will, at that." He was eyeing the bruises again, his lips pressed together in a straight line.

"Some of these are from the fall on the stairs, and some are from the car accident," I explained.

"If Gabe wasn't dead I would find him and kill him," Bill said, mostly to himself. "I would take my time." He lifted me as easily as if I were a baby and put me in the bath, and began washing me with a cloth and a bar of soap.

"My hair is so nasty."

"Yes, it is, but we may have to take care of your hair in the morning. You need sleep."

Beginning with my face, Bill gently scrubbed me all the way down. The water became discolored with dirt and old blood. He checked my arm thoroughly, to make sure Eric had gotten all the glass. Then he emptied the tub and refilled it, while I shivered. This time, I got clean. After I moaned about my hair a second time, he gave in. He wet my head and shampooed my hair, rinsing it laboriously. There is nothing more wonderful than feeling head-to-toe clean after you've been filthy, having a comfortable bed with clean sheets, being able to sleep in it in safety.

"Tell me about what happened at the Fellowship," I said as he carried me to the bed. "Keep me company."

Bill inserted me under the sheet and crawled in the other side. He slid his arm under my head and scooted close. I carefully touched my forehead to his chest and rubbed it.

"By the time we got there, it was like a disrupted anthill," he said. "The parking lot was full of cars and people, and more kept arriving for the – all-night sleep-over?"

"Lock-in," I murmured, carefully turning on my right side to burrow against him.

"There was a certain amount of turmoil when we arrived. Almost all of them piled into their cars and left as fast as traffic would allow. Their leader, Newlin, tried to deny us entrance to the Fellowship hall – surely that was a church at one time? – and he told us we would burst into flames if we entered, because we were the damned." Bill snorted. "Stan picked him up and set him aside. And into the church we went, Newlin and his woman trailing right behind us. Not a one of us burst into flames, which seemed to shake up the people a great deal."

"I'll bet," I mumbled into his chest.

"Barry told us that when he communicated with you, he had the sense you were 'down' – below ground level. He thought he picked up the word 'stairs' from you. There were six of us – Stan, Joseph Velasquez, Isabel, and others – and it took us perhaps six minutes to eliminate all the possibilities and find the stairs."

"What did you do about the door?" It had had stout locks, I remembered.

"We ripped it from its hinges."

"Oh." Well, that would provide quick access, sure enough.

"I thought you were still down there, of course. When I found the room with the dead man, who had his pants open…" He paused a long moment. "I was sure you had been there. I could smell you in the air still. There was a smear of blood on him, your blood, and I found other traces of it around. I was very worried."

I patted him. I felt too tired and weak to pat very vigorously, but it was the only consolation I had to offer at the moment.

"Sookie," he said very carefully, "is there anything more you want to tell me?"

I was too sleepy to figure this one through. "No," I said and yawned. "I think I pretty much covered my adventures earlier."

"I thought maybe since Eric was in the room earlier, you wouldn't want to say everything?"

I finally heard the other shoe drop. I kissed his chest, over his heart. "Godfrey really was in time."

There was a long silence. I looked up to see Bill's face set so rigidly that he looked like a statue. His dark eyelashes stood out against his pallor with amazing clarity. His dark eyes seemed bottomless. "Tell me the rest," I said.

"Then we went farther into the bomb shelter and found the larger room, along with an extended area full of supplies – food and guns – where it was obvious another vampire had been staying."

I hadn't seen that part of the bomb shelter, and I certainly had no plans to revisit it to view what I'd missed.

"In the second cell we found Farrell and Hugo."

"Was Hugo alive?"

"Just barely." Bill kissed my forehead. "Luckily for Hugo, Farrell likes his sex with younger men."

"Maybe that was why Godfrey chose Farrell to abduct, when he decided to make an example of another sinner."

Bill nodded. "That is what Farrell said. But he had been without sex and blood for a long time, and he was hungry in every sense. Without the silver manacles, Hugo would have… had a bad time. Even with silver on his wrists and ankles, Farrell was able to feed from Hugo."

"Did you know that Hugo was the traitor?"

"Farrell heard your conversation with him."

"How – oh, right, vampire hearing. Stupid me."

"Farrell would also like to know what you did to Gabe to make him scream."

"Clapped him over the ears." I cupped one hand to show him.

"Farrell was delighted. This Gabe was one of those men who enjoys power over others. He subjected Farrell to many indignities."

"Farrell's just lucky he's not a woman," I said. "Where is Hugo now?"

"He is somewhere safe."

"Safe for who?"

"Safe for vampires. Away from the media. They would enjoy Hugo's story all too much."

"What are they gonna do with him?"

"That's for Stan to decide."

"Remember the deal we had with Stan? If humans are found guilty by evidence of mine, they don't get killed."

Bill obviously didn't want to debate me on this now. His face shut down. "Sookie, you have to go to sleep now. We'll talk about it when you get up."

"But by then he may be dead."

"Why should you care?"

"Because that was the deal! I know Hugo is a shit, and I hate him, too, but I feel sorry for him; and I don't think I can be implicated in his death and live with a clear conscience."

"Sookie, he will still be alive when you get up. We'll talk about it then."

I felt sleep pulling me under like the undertow of the surf. It was hard to believe it was only two o'clock in the morning.

"Thanks for coming after me."

Bill said, after a pause, "First you weren't at the Fellowship, just traces of your blood and dead rapist. When I found you weren't at the hospital, that you had been spirited out of there somehow…"

"Mmmmh?"

"I was very, very scared. No one had any idea where you were. In fact, while I stood there talking to the nurse who admitted you, your name went off the computer screen."

I was impressed. Those shapeshifters were organized to an amazing degree. "Maybe I should send Luna some flowers," I said, hardly able to get the words out of my mouth.

Bill kissed me, a very satisfying kiss, and that was the last thing I remembered.


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