Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse #2)

Chapter 9

chapter
Chapter

We'd fought before, Bill and I. I'd gotten fed up before, tired of the vampirey stuff I had to learn to accommodate, frightened of getting in deeper. Sometimes, I just wanted to see humans for a while.

So for over three weeks, that was what I did. I didn't call Bill; he didn't call me. I knew he was back from Dallas because he left my suitcase on my front porch. When I unpacked it, I found a black velvet jeweler's box tucked in the side pocket. I wish I'd had the strength to keep from opening it, but I didn't. Inside was a pair of topaz earrings, and a note that said, "To go with your brown dress." Which meant the taupe knit thing I'd worn to the vampires' headquarters. I stuck my tongue out at the box, and drove over to his house that afternoon to leave it in his mailbox. He'd finally gone out and bought me a present, and here I had to return it.

I didn't even try to "think things through." I figured my brain would clear up in a while, and then I would know what to do.

I did read the papers. The vampires of Dallas and their human friends were now martyrs, which probably suited Stan down to the ground. The Dallas Midnight Massacre was being touted in all the newsmagazines as the perfect example of a hate crime. Legislatures were being pressured to pass all kinds of laws that would never make it onto the books, but it made people feel better to think they might; laws that would provide vampire-owned buildings with federal protection, laws that would permit vampires to hold certain elected positions (though no one yet suggested a vampire could run for the U.S. Senate or serve as a representative). There was even a motion in the Texas legislature to appoint a vampire as legal executioner of the state. After all, a Senator Garza was quoted as saying, "Death by vampire bite is at least supposed to be painless, and the vampire receives nutrition from it."

I had news for Senator Garza. Vampire bites were only pleasant by the will of the vampire. If the vampire didn't glamour you first, a serious vampire bite (as opposed to a love nip) hurt like hell.

I wondered if Senator Garza was related to Luna, but Sam told me that "Garza" was as common among Americans of Mexican descent as "Smith" was among Americans of English stock.

Sam didn't ask why I wanted to know. That made me feel a little forlorn, because I was used to feeling important to Sam. But he was preoccupied these days, on the job and off. Arlene said she thought he was dating someone, which was a first, as far as any of us could remember. Whoever she was, none of us got to see her, which was strange in and of itself. I tried to tell him about the shapeshifters of Dallas, but he just smiled and found an excuse to go do something else.

My brother, Jason, dropped by the house for lunch one day. It wasn't like it had been when my grandmother was alive. Gran would have a huge meal on the table at lunchtime, and then we'd just eat sandwiches at night. Jason had come by pretty frequently then; Gran had been an excellent cook. I managed to serve him meatloaf sandwiches and potato salad (though I didn't tell him it was from the store), and I had some peach tea fixed, which was lucky.

"What's with you and Bill?" he asked bluntly, when he was through. He'd been real good about not asking on the drive back from the airport.

"I got mad at him," I said.

"Why?"

"He broke a promise to me," I said. Jason was trying hard to act like a big brother, and I should try to accept his concern instead of getting mad. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that possibly I had a pretty hot temper. Under some circumstances. I locked my sixth sense down firmly, so I would only hear what Jason was actually saying.

"He's been seen over in Monroe."

I took a deep breath. "With someone else?"

"Yes."

"Who?"

"You're not going to believe this. Portia Bellefleur."

I couldn't have been more surprised if Jason had told me Bill had been dating Hillary Clinton (though Bill was a Democrat). I stared at my brother as if he'd suddenly announced he was Satan. The only things Portia Bellefleur and I had in common were a birthplace, female organs, and long hair. "Well," I said blankly. "I don't know whether to pitch a fit or laugh. What do you make of that?"

Because if anyone knew about man-woman stuff, it was Jason. At least, he knew about it from the man's point of view.

"She's your opposite," he said, with undue thoughtfulness. "In every way that I can think of. She's real educated, she comes from an, I guess you'd call it, aristocratic background, and she's a lawyer. Plus, her brother's a cop. And they go to symphonies and shit."

Tears prickled at my eyes. I would have gone to a symphony with Bill, if he'd ever asked me.

"On the other hand, you're smart, you're pretty, and you're willing to put up with his little ways." I wasn't exactly sure what Jason meant by that, and thought it better not to ask. "But we sure ain't aristocracy. You work in a bar, and your brother works on a road crew." Jason smiled at me lopsidedly.

"We've been here as long as the Bellefleurs," I said, trying not to sound sullen.

"I know that, and you know that. And Bill sure knows that, because he was alive then." True enough.

"What's happening about the case against Andy?" I asked.

"No charges brought against him yet, but the rumors are flying around town thick and fast about this sex club thing. Lafayette was so pleased to have been asked; evidently he mentioned it to quite a few people. They say that since the first rule of the club is Keep Silent, Lafayette got whacked for his enthusiasm."

"What do you think?"

"I think if anyone was forming a sex club around Bon Temps, they woulda called me," he said, dead serious.

"You're right," I said, struck again by how sensible Jason could be. "You'd be number one on the list." Why hadn't I thought of that before? Not only did Jason have a reputation as a guy who'd heated up many a bed, he was both very attractive and unmarried.

"The only thing I can think of," I said slowly, "Lafayette was gay, as you well know."

"And?"

"And maybe this club, if it exists, only accepts people who are all right with that."

"You might have a point there," Jason said.

"Yes, Mr. Homophobe."

Jason smiled and shrugged. "Everybody's got a weak point," he said. "Plus, as you know, I've been going out with Liz pretty steady. I think anyone with a brain would see Liz ain't about to share a napkin, much less a boyfriend."

He was right. Liz's family notoriously took "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" to a complete extreme.

"You are a piece of work, brother," I said, focusing on his shortcomings, rather than those of Liz's folks. "There are so many worse things to be than gay."

"Such as?"

"Thief, traitor, murderer, rapist…"

"Okay, okay, I get the idea."

"I hope you do," I said. Our differences grieved me. But I loved Jason anyway; he was all I had left.

I saw Bill out with Portia that same night. I caught a glimpse of them together in Bill's car, driving down Claiborne Street. Portia had her head turned to Bill, talking; he was looking straight ahead, expressionless, as far as I could tell. They didn't see me. I was coming from the automated teller at the bank, on my way to work.

Hearing of and seeing directly are two very different things. I felt an overwhelming surge of rage; and I understood how Bill had felt, when he'd seen his friends dying. I wanted to kill someone. I just wasn't sure who I wanted to kill.

Andy was in the bar that evening, sitting in Arlene's section. I was glad, because Andy looked bad. He was not clean-shaven, and his clothes were rumpled. He came up to me as he was leaving, and I could smell the booze. "Take him back," he said. His voice was thick with anger. "Take the damn vampire back so he'll leave my sister alone."

I didn't know what to say to Andy Bellefleur. I just stared at him until he stumbled out of the bar. It crossed my mind that people wouldn't be as surprised to hear of a dead body in his car now as they had been a few weeks ago.

The next night I had off, and the temperature dropped. It was a Friday, and suddenly I was tired of being alone. I decided to go to the high school football game. This is a townwide pastime in Bon Temps, and the games are discussed thoroughly on Monday morning in every store in town. The film of the game is shown twice on a local-access channel, and boys who show promise with pigskin are minor royalty, more's the pity.

You don't show up at the game all disheveled.

I pulled my hair back from my forehead in an elastic band and used my curling iron on the rest, so I had thick curls hanging around my shoulders. My bruises were gone. I put on complete makeup, down to the lip liner. I put on black knit slacks and a black-and-red sweater. I wore my black leather boots, and my gold hoop earrings, and I pinned a red-and-black bow to hide the elastic band in my hair. (Guess what our school colors are.)

"Pretty good," I said, viewing the result in my mirror. "Pretty damn good." I gathered up my black jacket and my purse and drove into town.

The stands were full of people I knew. A dozen voices called to me, a dozen people told me how cute I looked, and the problem was… I was miserable. As soon as I realized this, I pasted a smile on my face and searched for someone to sit with.

"Sookie! Sookie!" Tara Thornton, one of my few good high school friends, was calling me from high up in the stands. She made a frantic beckoning gesture, and I smiled back and began to hike up, speaking to more people along the way. Mike Spencer, the funeral home director, was there, in his favorite western regalia, and my grandmother's good friend Maxine Fortenberry, and her grandson Hoyt, who was a buddy of Jason's. I saw Sid Matt Lancaster, the ancient lawyer, bundled up beside his wife.

Tara was sitting with her fianc¨¦, Benedict Tallie, who was inevitably and regrettably called "Eggs." With them was Benedict's best friend, JB du Rone. When I saw JB, my spirits began to rise, and so did my repressed libido. JB could have been on the cover of a romance novel, he was so lovely. Unfortunately, he didn't have a brain in his head, as I'd discovered on our handful of dates. I'd often thought I'd hardly have to put up any mental shield to be with JB, because he had no thoughts to read.

"Hey, how ya'll doing?"

"We're great!" Tara said, with her party-girl face on. "How about you? I haven't seen you in a coon's age!" Her dark hair was cut in a short pageboy, and her lipstick could have lit a fire, it was so hot. She was wearing off-white and black with a red scarf to show her team spirit, and she and Eggs were sharing a drink in one of the paper cups sold in the stadium. It was spiked; I could smell the bourbon from where I stood. "Move over, JB, and let me sit with you," I said with an answering smile.

"Sure, Sookie," he said, looking very happy to see me. That was one of JB's charms. The others included white perfect teeth, an absolutely straight nose, a face so masculine yet so handsome that it made you want to reach out and stroke his cheeks, and a broad chest and trim waist. Maybe not quite as trim as it used to be, but then, JB was human, and that was a Good Thing. I settled in between Eggs and JB, and Eggs turned to me with a sloppy smile.

"Want a drink, Sookie?"

I am kind of spare on drinking, since I see its results every day. "No, thank you," I said. "How you been doing, Eggs?"

"Good," he said, after considering. He'd had more to drink than Tara. He'd had too much to drink.

We talked about mutual friends and acquaintances until the kickoff, after which the game was the sole topic of conversation. The Game, broadly, because every game for the past fifty years lay in the collective memory of Bon Temps, and this game was compared to all other games, these players to all others. I could actually enjoy this occasion a little, since I had developed my mental shielding to such an extent I could pretend people were exactly what they said, since I was absolutely not listening in.

JB snuggled closer and closer, after a shower of compliments on my hair and my figure. JB's mother had taught him early on that appreciated women are happy women, and it was a simple philosophy that had kept JB's head above water for some time.

"You remember that doctor at that hospital, Sookie?" he asked me suddenly, during the second quarter.

"Yes. Dr. Sonntag. Widow." She'd been young to be a widow, and younger to be a doctor. I'd introduced her to JB.

"We dated for a while. Me and a doctor," he said wonderingly.

"Hey, that's great." I'd hoped as much. It had seemed to me that Dr. Sonntag could sure use what JB had to offer, and JB needed… well, he needed someone to take care of him.

"But then she got rotated back to Baton Rouge," he told me. He looked a little stricken. "I guess I miss her." A health care system had bought our little hospital, and the emergency room doctors were brought in for four months at a stretch. His arm tightened around my shoulders. "But it's awful good to see you," he reassured me.

Bless his heart. "JB, you could go to Baton Rouge to see her," I suggested. "Why don't you?"

"She's a doctor. She doesn't have much time off."

"She'd make time off for you."

"Do you think so?"

"Unless she's an absolute idiot," I told him.

"I might do that. I did talk to her on the phone the other night. She did say she wished I was there."

"That was a pretty big hint, JB."

"You think?"

"I sure do."

He looked perkier. "Then I'm fixing to drive to Baton Rouge tomorrow," he said again. He kissed my cheek. "You make me feel good, Sookie."

"Well, JB, right back at you." I gave him a peck on the lips, just a quick one.

Then I saw Bill staring a hole in me.

He and Portia were in the next section of seats, close to the bottom. He had twisted around and was looking up at me.

If I'd planned it, it couldn't have worked out better. This was a magnificent Screw-him moment.

And it was ruined.

I just wanted him.

I turned my eyes away and smiled at JB, and all the time what I wanted was to meet with Bill under the stands and have sex with him right then and there. I wanted him to pull down my pants and get behind me. I wanted him to make me moan.

I was so shocked at myself I didn't know what to do. I could feel my face turning a dull red. I Could not even pretend to smile.

After a minute, I could appreciate that this was almost funny. I had been brought up as conventionally as possible, given my unusual disability. Naturally, I'd learned the facts of life pretty early since I could read minds (and, as a child, had no control over what I absorbed). And I'd always thought the idea of sex was pretty interesting, though the same disability that had led to me learning so much about it theoretically had kept me from putting that theory into practice. After all, it's hard to get really involved in sex when you know your partner is wishing you were Tara Thornton instead (for example), or when he's hoping you remembered to bring a condom, or when he's criticizing your body parts. For successful sex, you have to keep your concentration fixed on what your partner's doing, so you can't get distracted by what he's thinking.

With Bill, I couldn't hear a single thing. And he was so experienced, so smooth, so absolutely dedicated to getting it right. It appeared I was as much a junkie as Hugo.

I sat through the rest of the game, smiling and nodding when it seemed indicated, trying not to look down and to my left, and finding after the halftime show was over that I hadn't heard a single song the band had played. Nor had I noticed Tara's cousin's twirling solo. As the crowd moved slowly to the parking lot after the Bon Temps Hawks had won, 28-18, I agreed to drive JB home. Eggs had sobered some by then, so I was pretty sure he and Tara would be okay; but I was relieved to see Tara take the wheel.

JB lived close to downtown in half a duplex. He asked me very sweetly to come in, but I told him I had to get home. I gave him a big hug, and I advised him to call Dr. Sonntag. I still didn't know her first name.

He said he would, but then, with JB, you couldn't really tell.

Then I had to stop and get gas at the only late-night gas station, where I had a long conversation with Arlene's cousin Derrick (who was brave enough to take the night shift), so I was a little later getting home than I had planned.

As I unlocked the front door, Bill came out of the darkness. Without a word, he grabbed my arm and turned me to him, and then he kissed me. In a minute we were pressed against the door with his body moving rhythmically against mine. I reached one hand behind myself to fumble with the lock, and the key finally turned. We stumbled into the house, and he turned me to face the couch. I gripped it with my hands and, just as I'd imagined, he pulled down my pants, and then he was in me.

I made a hoarse noise I'd never heard come from my throat before. Bill was making noises equally as primitive. I didn't think I could form a word. His hands were under my sweater, and my bra was in two pieces. He was relentless. I almost collapsed after the first time I came. "No," he growled when I was flagging, and he kept pounding. Then he increased the pace until I was almost sobbing, and then my sweater tore, and his teeth found my shoulder. He made a deep, awful sound, and then, after long seconds, it was over.

I was panting as if I'd run a mile, and he was shivering, too. Without bothering to refasten his clothing, he turned me around to face him, and he bent his head to my shoulder again to lick the little wound. When it had stopped bleeding and begun healing, he took off everything I had on, very slowly. He cleaned me below; he kissed me above.

"You smell like him" was the only thing he said. He proceeded to erase that smell and replace it with his own.

Then we were in the bedroom, and I had a moment to be glad I'd changed the sheets that morning before he bent his mouth to mine again.

If I'd had doubts up until then, I had them no longer. He was not sleeping with Portia Bellefleur. I didn't know what he was up to, but he did not have a true relationship with her. He slid his arms underneath me and held me to him as tightly as possible; he nuzzled my neck, kneaded my hips, ran his fingers down my thighs, and kissed the backs of my knees. He bathed in me. "Spread your legs for me, Sookie," he whispered, in his cold dark voice, and I did. He was ready again, and he was rough with it, as if he were trying to prove something.

"Be sweet," I said, the first time I had spoken.

"I can't. It's been too long, next time I'll be sweet, I swear," he said, running his tongue down the line of my jaw. His fangs grazed my neck. Fangs, tongue, mouth, fingers, manhood; it was like being made love to by the Tasmanian Devil. He was everywhere, and everywhere in a hurry.

When he collapsed on top of me, I was exhausted. He shifted to lie by my side, one leg draped over mine, one arm across my chest. He might as well have gotten out a branding iron and had done with it, but it wouldn't have been as much fun for me.

"Are you okay?" he mumbled.

"Except for having run into a brick wall a few times," I said indistinctly.

We both drifted off to sleep for a little, though Bill woke first, as he always did at night. "Sookie," he said quietly. "Darling. Wake up."

"Oo," I said, slowly coming to consciousness. For the first time in weeks, I woke with the hazy conviction that all was right with the world. With slow dismay, I realized that things were far from right. I opened my eyes. Bill's were right above me.

"We have to talk," he said, stroking the hair back from my face.

"So talk." I was awake now. What I was regretting was not the sex, but having to discuss the issues between us.

"I got carried away in Dallas," he said immediately. "Vampires do, when the chance to hunt presents itself so obviously. We were attacked. We have the right to hunt down those who want to kill us."

"That's returning to days of lawlessness," I said.

"But vampires hunt, Sookie. It is our nature," he said very seriously. "Like leopards; like wolves. We are not human. We can pretend to be, when we're trying to live with people… in your society. We can sometimes remember what it was like to be among you, one of you. But we are not the same race. We are no longer of the same clay."

I thought this over. He'd told me this, over and over, in different words, since we'd begun seeing each other.

Or maybe, he'd been seeing me, but I hadn't been seeing him: clearly, truly. No matter how often I thought I'd made my peace with his otherness, I realized that I still expected him to react as he would if he were JB du Rone, or Jason, or my church pastor.

"I think I'm finally getting this," I said. "But you got to realize, sometimes I'm not going to like that difference. Sometimes I have to get away and cool down. I'm really going to try. I really love you." Having done my best to promise to meet him halfway, I was reminded of my own grievance. I grabbed his hair and rolled him over so I was looking down at him. I looked right in his eyes.

"Now, you tell me what you're doing with Portia."

Bill's big hands rested on my hips as he explained.

"She came to me after I got back from Dallas, the first night. She had read about what happened there, wondered if I knew anyone who'd been there that day. When I said that I had been there myself – I didn't mention you – Portia said she had information that some of the arms used in the attack had come from a place in Bon Temps, Sheridan's Sport Shop. I asked her how she had heard this; she said as a lawyer, she couldn't say. I asked her why she was so concerned, if there wasn't anything further she'd tell me about it; she said she was a good citizen and hated to see other citizens persecuted. I asked her why she came to me; she said I was the only vampire she knew."

I believed that like I believed Portia was a secret belly dancer.

I narrowed my eyes as I worked this through. "Portia doesn't care one damn thing about vampire rights," I said. "She might want to get in your pants, but she doesn't care about vampire legal issues."

"'Get in my pants?' What a turn of phrase you have."

"Oh, you've heard that before," I said, a little abashed.

He shook his head, amusement sparkling in his face. "Get in my pants," he repeated, sounding it out slowly. "I would be in your pants, if you had any on." He rubbed his hands up and down to demonstrate.

"Cut that out," I said. "I'm trying to think."

His hands were pressing my hips, then releasing, moving me back and forth on him. I began to have difficulty forming thoughts.

"Stop, Bill," I said. "Listen, I think Portia wants to be seen with you so she might be asked to join that supposed sex club here in Bon Temps."

"Sex club?" Bill said with interest, not stopping in the least.

"Yes, didn't I tell you… oh, Bill, no… Bill, I'm still worn out from last… Oh. Oh, God." His hands had gripped me with their great strength, and moved me purposefully, right onto his stiffness. He began rocking me again, back and forth. "Oh," I said, lost in the moment. I began to see colors floating in front of my eyes, and then I was being rocked so fast I couldn't keep track of my motion. The end came at the same time for both of us, and we clung together panting for several minutes.

"We should never separate again," Bill said.

"I don't know, this makes it almost worth it."

A little aftershock rippled his body. "No," he said. "This is wonderful, but I would rather just leave town for a few days, than fight with you again." He opened his eyes wide. "Did you really suck a bullet from Eric's shoulder?"

"Yeah, he said I had to get it out before his flesh closed over it."

"Did he tell you he had a pocketknife in his pocket?"

I was taken aback. "No. Did he? Why would he do that?"

Bill raised his eyebrows, as if I had said something quite ridiculous.

"Guess," he said.

"So I would suck on his shoulder? You can't mean that."

Bill just maintained the skeptical look.

"Oh, Bill. I fell for it. Wait a minute – he got shot! That bullet could have hit me, but instead it hit him. He was guarding me."

"How?"

"Well, by lying on top of me…"

"I rest my case." There was nothing old-fashioned about Bill at the moment. On the other hand, there was a pretty old-fashioned look on his face.

"But, Bill… you mean he's that devious?"

Again with the raised eyebrows.

"Lying on top of me is not such a big treat," I protested, "that someone should take a bullet for it. Geez. That's nuts!"

"It got some of his blood in you."

"Only a drop or two. I spit the rest out," I said.

"A drop or two is enough when you are as old as Eric is."

"Enough for what?"

"He will know some things about you, now."

"What, like my dress size?"

Bill smiled, not always a relaxing sight. "No, like how you are feeling. Angry, horny, loving."

I shrugged. "Won't do him any good."

"Probably it is not too important, but be careful from now on," Bill warned me. He seemed quite serious.

"I still can't believe someone would put themselves in a position to take a bullet for me just in the hopes I'd ingest a drop of blood getting the bullet out. That's ridiculous. You know, it seems like to me you introduced this subject so I'd quit bugging you about Portia, but I'm not going to. I think Portia believes if she's dating you, someone will ask her to go to this sex club, since if she's willing to ball a vampire, she's willing to do anything. They think," said hastily after looking at Bill's face. "So Portia figures she'll go, she'll learn stuff, she'll find out who actually killed Lafayette, Andy'll be off the hook."

"That's a complicated plot."

"Can you refute it?" I was proud to use refute, which had been on my Word of the Day calendar.

"As a matter of fact, I can't." He became immobile. His eyes were fixed and unblinking, and his hands relaxed. Since Bill doesn't breathe, he was absolutely still.

Finally he blinked. "It would have been better if she had told me the truth to begin with."

"You better not have had sex with her," I said, finally admitting to myself that the bare possibility had made me nearly blind with jealousy.

"I wondered when you were going to ask me," he said calmly. "As if I would ever bed a Bellefleur. No, she has not the slightest desire to have sex with me. She even has a hard time pretending she wants to at some later date. Portia is not much of an actress. Most of the time we are together, she takes me on wild goose chases to find this cache of arms the Fellowship has stowed here, saying all the Fellowship sympathizers are hiding them."

"So why'd you go along with any of this?"

"There's something about her that's honorable. And I wanted to see if you would be jealous."

"Oh, I see. Well, what do you think?"

"I think," he said, "I had better never see you within a yard of that handsome moron again."

"JB? I'm like his sister," I said.

"You forget, you've had my blood, and I can tell what you are feeling," Bill said. "I don't think you feel exactly like a sister to him."

"That would explain why I'm here in bed with you, right?"

"You love me."

I laughed, up against his throat.

"It's close to dawn," he said. "I have to go."

"Okay, baby." I smiled up at him as he gathered up his clothes. "Hey, you owe me a sweater and a bra. Two bras. Gabe tore one, so that was a work-related clothes injury. And you tore one last night, plus my sweater."

"That's why I bought a women's clothing store," he said smoothly. "So I could rip if the spirit moves me."

I laughed and lay back down. I could sleep for a couple more hours. I was still smiling when he let himself out of my house, and I woke up in the middle of the morning with a lightness in my heart that hadn't been there for a long time. (Well, it felt like a long time.) I walked, somewhat gingerly, into the bathroom to soak in a tubful of hot water. When I began to wash, I felt something in my earlobes. I stood up in the tub and looked over at the mirror above the sink. He'd put the topaz earrings in while I was asleep.

Mr. Last Word.

Since our reunion had been secret, it was I who got invited to the club first. It had never occurred to me that that might happen; but after it did, I realized that if Portia had figured she might be invited after going with a vampire, I was even primer meat.

To my surprise and disgust, the one to broach the subject was Mike Spencer. Mike was the funeral home director and the coroner in Bon Temps, and we had not always had a completely cordial relationship. However, I'd known him all my life and was used to offering him respect, a hard habit to break. Mike was wearing his funeral home duds when he came in to Merlotte's that evening, because he'd come from Mrs. Cassidy's visitation. A dark suit, white shirt, subdued striped tie, and polished wing tips changed Mike Spencer from the guy who really preferred bolo ties and pointy-toed cowboy boots.

Since Mike was at least twenty years older than me, I'd always related to him as an elder, and it shocked me silly when he approached me. He was sitting by himself, which was unusual enough to be noteworthy. I brought him a hamburger and a beer. As he paid me, he said casually, "Sookie, some of us are getting together at Jan Fowler's lake house tomorrow night and we wondered if we could get you to come."

I am fortunate I have a well-schooled face. I felt as if a pit had opened beneath my feet, and I was actually a little nauseated. I understood immediately, but I couldn't quite believe it. I opened my mind to him, while my mouth was saying, "You said 'some of us'? Who would that be, Mr. Spencer?"

"Why don't you call me Mike, Sookie?" I nodded, looking inside his head all the while. Oh, geez Louise. Ick. "Well, some of your friends will be there. Eggs, and Portia, and Tara. The Hardaways."

Tara and Eggs… that really shocked me.

"So, what goes on at these parties? Is this just a drinking and dancing type thing?" This was not an unreasonable question. No matter how many people knew I was supposed to be able to read minds, they almost never believed it, no matter how much evidence to the contrary they'd witnessed. Mike simply could not believe that I could receive the images and concepts floating in his mind.

"Well, we get a little wild. We thought since you'd broken up with your boyfriend, that you might want to come let your hair down a little."

"Maybe I'll come," I said, without enthusiasm. It wouldn't do to look eager. "When?"

"Oh, ten o'clock tomorrow night."

"Thanks for the invite," I said, as if remembering my manners, and then sauntered off with my tip. I thought furiously, in the odd moments I had to myself during the rest of my shift.

What good could my going serve? Could I really learn anything that would solve the mystery of Lafayette's death? I didn't like Andy Bellefleur much, and now I liked Portia even less, but it wasn't fair that Andy might be prosecuted, his reputation ruined, for something that wasn't his fault. On the other hand, it stood to reason that no one present at a party at the lake house would trust me with any deep dark secrets until I'd become a regular, and I just couldn't stomach that. I wasn't even sure I could get through one gathering. The last thing in the world I wanted to see was my friends and my neighbors "letting their hair down." I didn't want to see them let down their hair, or anything else.

"What's the matter, Sookie?" Sam asked, so close to me that I jumped.

I looked at him, wishing that I could ask what he thought. Sam was strong and wiry, and he was clever, too. The bookkeeping, the ordering, the maintenance and planning, he never seemed to be taxed with any of it. Sam was a self-sufficient man, and I liked and trusted him.

"I'm just in a little quandary," I said. "What's up with you, Sam?"

"I got an interesting phone call last night, Sookie."

"Who from?"

"A squeaky woman in Dallas."

"Really?" I found myself smiling, really, not the grin I used to cover my nerves. "Would that be a lady of Mexican descent?"

"I believe so. She spoke of you."

"She's feisty," I said.

"She's got a lot of friends."

"Kind of friends you'd want to have?"

"I already have some good friends," Sam said, squeezing my hand briefly. "But it's always nice to know people who share your interests."

"So, are you driving over to Dallas?"

"I just might. In the meantime, she's put me in touch with some people in Ruston who also…"

Change their appearance when the moon is full, I finished mentally.

"How did she trace you? I didn't give her your name, on purpose, because I didn't know if you'd want me to."

"She traced you," Sam said. "And she found out who your boss was through local… people."

"How come you had never hooked up with them on your own?"

"Until you told me about the maenad," Sam said, "I never realized that there were so many more things I had to learn."

"Sam, you haven't been hanging around with her?"

"I've spent a few evenings in the woods with her, yes. As Sam, and in my other skin."

"But she's so evil," I blurted.

Sam's back stiffened. "She's a supernatural creature like me," he said evenly. "She's neither evil nor good, she just is."

"Oh, bullshit." I couldn't believe I was hearing this from Sam. "If she's feeding you this line, then she wants something from you." I remembered how beautiful the maenad had been, if you didn't mind bloodstains. And Sam, as a shapeshifter, wouldn't. "Oh," I said, comprehension sweeping me. Not that I could read Sam's mind clearly, since he was a supernatural creature, but I could get a lock on his emotional state, which was – embarrassed, horny, resentful, and horny.

"Oh," I said again, somewhat stiffly. "Excuse me, Sam. I didn't mean to speak ill of someone you… you, ah…" I could hardly say, "are screwing," however apropos it might be. "You're spending time with," I finished lamely. "I'm sure she's lovely once you get to know her. Of course, the fact that she cut my back to bloody ribbons may have something to do with my prejudice against her. I'll try to be more open-minded." And I stalked off to take an order, leaving Sam openmouthed behind me.

I left a message on Bill's answering machine. I didn't know what Bill intended to do about Portia, and I guessed there was a possibility someone else would be there when he played his messages, so I said, "Bill, I got invited to that party tomorrow night. Let me know if you think I should go." I didn't identify myself, since he'd know my voice. Possibly, Portia had left an identical message, an idea that just made me furious.

When I drove home that night, I half-hoped Bill would be waiting to ambush me again in an erotic way, but the house and yard were silent. I perked up when I noticed the light on my answering machine was blinking.

"Sookie," said Bill's smooth voice, "stay out of the woods. The maenad was dissatisfied with our tribute. Eric will be in Bon Temps tomorrow night to negotiate with her, and he may call you. The – other people – of Dallas, the ones who helped you, are asking for outrageous recompense from the vampires of Dallas, so I am going over there on Anubis to meet with them, with Stan. You know where I'll be staying."

Yikes. Bill wouldn't be in Bon Temps to help me, and he was out of my reach. Or was he? It was one in the morning. I called the number I'd put in my address book, for the Silent Shore. Bill had not yet checked in, though his coffin (which the concierge referred to as his "baggage") had been put in his room. I left a message, which I had to phrase so guardedly that it might be incomprehensible.

I was really tired, since I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, but I had no intention of going to the next night's party alone. I sighed deeply, and called Fangtasia, the vampire bar in Shreveport.

"You've reached Fantasia, where the undead live again every night," said a recording of Pam's voice. Pam was a co-owner. "For bar hours, press one. To make a party reservation, press two. To talk to a live person or a dead vampire, press three. Or, if you were intending to leave a humorous prank message on our answering machine, know this: we will find you."

I pressed three.

"Fangtasia," Pam said, as if she were bored more completely than anyone had ever been bored.

"Hi," I said, weighing in on the perky side to counteract the ennui. "This is Sookie, Pam. Is Eric around?"

"He is enthralling the vermin," Pam said. I took that to mean Eric was sprawling in a chair on the main floor of the bar, looking gorgeous and dangerous. Bill had told me that some vampires were under contract to Fangtasia, to put in one or two appearances a week of a stated duration, so the tourists would keep coming. Eric, as an owner, was there almost every night. There was another bar where vampires went of their own accord, a bar a tourist would never enter. I'd never been in it, because frankly, I see enough of bars while I'm at work.

"Could you take him the phone, please, ma'am?"

"Oh, all right," she said grudgingly. "I hear you had quite a time in Dallas," she said as she walked. Not that I could hear her steps, but the noise in the background ebbed and flowed.

"Unforgettable."

"What did you think of Stan Davis?"

Hmmm. "He's one of a kind."

"I like that nerdy, geeky look myself."

I was glad she wasn't there to see the astonished look I gave the telephone. I'd never realized Pam liked guys, too. "He certainly didn't seem to be dating anyone," I said, I hoped casually.

"Ah. Maybe I'll take a vacation to Dallas soon."

It was also news to me that vampires were interested in each other. I'd never actually seen two vampires together.

"I am here," Eric said.

"And I am here." I was a little amused at Eric's phone answering technique.

"Sookie, my little bullet-sucker," he said, sounding fond and warm.

"Eric, my big bullshitter."

"You want something, my darling?"

"I'm not your darling, and you know it, for one thing. For another – Bill said you were coming over here tomorrow night?"

"Yes, to tromp up in the woods looking for the maenad. She finds our offerings of vintage wine and a young bull inadequate."

"You took her a live bull?" I was momentarily sidetracked by the vision of Eric herding a cow into a trailer and driving it to the shoulder of the interstate and shooing it into the trees.

"Yes, indeed we did. Pam and Indira and I."

"Was it fun?"

"Yes," he said, sounding faintly surprised. "It had been several centuries since I dealt with livestock. Pam is a city girl. Indira had too much awe of the bull to be a lot of help. But if you like, the next time I have to transport animals I will give you a call, and you can go along."

"Thanks, that would be lovely," I said, feeling pretty confident that was a call I'd never get. "The reason I called you is that I need you to go to a party with me tomorrow night."

A long silence.

"Bill is no longer your bedmate? The differences you developed in Dallas are permanent?"

"What I should have said is, 'I need a bodyguard for tomorrow night.' Bill's in Dallas." I was smacking myself on the forehead with the heel of my hand. "See, there's a long explanation, but the situation is that I need to go to a party tomorrow night that's really just a… well, it's a… kind of orgy thing? And I need someone with me in case… just in case."

"That's fascinating," Eric said, sounding fascinated. "And since I'm going to be in the neighborhood, you thought I might do as an escort? To an orgy?"

"You can look almost human," I said.

"This is a human orgy? One that excludes vampires?"

"It's a human orgy that doesn't know a vampire is coming."

"So, the more human I look the less frightening I'll be?"

"Yes, I need to read their thoughts. Pick their brains. And if I get them thinking about a certain thing, and pick their brains, then we can get out of there." I'd just had a great idea about how to get them to think about Lafayette. Telling Eric was going to be the problem.

"So you want me to go to a human orgy, where I will not be welcome, and you want us to leave before I get to enjoy myself?"

"Yes," I said, almost squeaking in my anxiety. In for a penny, in for a pound. "And… do you think you could pretend to be gay?"

There was a long silence. "What time do I need to be there?" Eric asked softly.

"Um. Nine-thirty? So I can brief you?"

"Nine-thirty at your house."

"I am carrying the phone back," Pam informed me. "What did you say to Eric? He is shaking his head back and forth with his eyes shut."

"Is he laughing, even a little bit?"

"Not that I can tell," Pam said.


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