Chapter 3


I'D NEVER HAD to pay the cover charge at Fangtasia before. The few times I'd come through the public entrance, I'd been with a vampire. But now I was bymy self and feeling mightyconspicuous. I was exhausted from an especiallylong night. I'd been at the hospital until six in the morning, and I'd had onlya few hours' fitful sleep after I'd gotten home.

Pam was taking the cover charge and showing the customers to tables. She was wearing the long filmy black outfit she usually wore when she was on door duty. Pam never looked happy when she was dressed like a fictional vampire. She was the real thing and proud of it. Her personal taste leaned more toward slack sets in pastel colors and penny loafers. She looked as surprised as a vampire can look when she saw me.

"Sookie," she said, "do you have an appointment with Eric?" She took my money without a blink.

I was actually happy to see her: pathetic, huh? I don't have a lot of friends, and I value the ones I have, even if I suspect they dream about catching me in a dark alley and having their bloody way with me. "No, but I do need to talk to him. Business," I added hastily. I didn't want anyone thinking I was courting the romantic attention of the undead head honcho of Shreveport, a position called "sheriff" by the vamps. I shrugged off my new cranberry-colored coat and folded it carefully over my arm. WDED, the Baton Rouge¨Cbased all-vampire radio station, was being piped over the sound system. The smooth voice of the early night deejay, Connie the Corpse, said, "And here's a song for all you lowlifes who were outside howling earlier this week... 'Bad Moon Rising,' an old hit from Creedence Clearwater Revival." Connie the Corpse was giving a private tip of the hat to the shape-shifters.

"Wait at the bar while I tell him you're here," Pam said. "You'll enjoy the new bartender."

Bartenders at Fangtasia didn't tend to last long. Eric and Pam always tried to hire someone colorful - an exotic bartender drew in the human tourists who came by the busloads to take a walk on the wild side - and in this they were successful. But somehow the job had acquired a high attrition rate.

The new man gave me a white-toothed smile when I perched on one of the high stools. He was quite an eyeful. He had a head full of long, intensely curly hair, chestnut brown in color. It clustered thickly on his shoulders. He also sported a mustache and a Vandyke. Covering his left eye was a black eye patch. Since his face was narrow and the features on it sizable, his face was crowded. He was about my height, five foot six, and he was wearing a black poet shirt and black pants and high black boots. All he needed was a bandanna tied around his head and a pistol.

"Maybe a parrot on your shoulder?" I said.

"Aaargh, dear lady, you are not the first to suggest such a thing." He had a wonderful rich baritone voice. "But I understand there are health department regulations against having an uncaged bird in an establishment serving drinks." He bowed to me as deeply as the narrow area behind the bar permitted. "May I get you a drink and have the honor of your name?"

I had to smile. "Certainly, sir. I'm Sookie Stackhouse." He'd caught the whiff of otherness about me. Vampires almost always pick up on it. The undead usually note me; humans don't. It's kind of ironic that my mind reading doesn't work on the very creatures who believe it distinguishes me from the rest of the human race, while humans would rather believe I was mentally ill than credit me with an unusual ability.

The woman on the barstool next to me (credit cards maxed out, son with ADD) half turned to listen in. She was jealous, having been trying to entice the bartender into showing her some attention for the past thirty minutes. She eyed me, trying to figure out what had caused the vamp to choose to open a conversation with me. She wasn't impressed at all with what she saw.

"I am delighted to meet you, fair maiden," the new vampire said smoothly, and I grinned. Well, at least I was fair - in the blond-and-blue-eyed sense. His eyes took me in; of course, if you're a woman who works in a bar, you're used to that. At least he didn't look at me offensively; and believe me, if you're a woman who works in a bar, you can tell the difference between an evaluation and an eye fuck.

"I bet good money she's no maiden," said the woman next to me.

She was right, but that was beside the point.

"You must be polite to other guests," the vampire told her, with an altered version of his smile. Not only were his fangs slightly extended, but I also noticed he had crooked (though beautifully white) teeth. American standards of tooth straightness are very modern.

"No one tells me how to act," the woman said combatively. She was sullen because the evening wasn't going as she'd planned. She'd thought it would be easy to attract a vampire, that any vamp would think he was lucky to have her. She'd planned to let one bite her neck, if he'd just settle her credit card bills.

She was overestimating herself and underestimating vampires.

"I beg your pardon, madam, but while you are in Fangtasia, most definitely I shall tell you how to act," the bartender said.

She subsided after he fixed her with his quelling gaze, and I wondered if he hadn't given her a dose of glamour.

"My name," he said, returning his attention to me, "is Charles Twining."

"Pleased to meet you," I said.

"And the drink?"

"Yes, please. A ginger ale." I had to drive back to Bon Temps after I'd seen Eric.

He raised his arched brows but poured me the drink and placed it on a napkin in front of me. I paid him and deposited a good tip in the jar. The little white napkin had some fangs outlined in black, with a single drop of red falling from the right fang - custom-made napkins for the vampire bar. "Fangtasia" was printed in jazzy red script on the opposite corner of the napkin, duplicating the sign outside. Cute. There were T-shirts for sale in a case over in a corner, too, along with glasses decorated with the same logo. The legend underneath read, "Fangtasia - The Bar with a Bite." Eric's merchandising expertise had made great strides in the past few months.

As I waited my turn for Eric's attention, I watched Charles Twining work. He was polite to everyone, served the drinks swiftly, and never got rattled. I liked his technique much better than that of Chow, the previous bartender, who'd always made patrons feel like he was doing them a favor by bringing them drinks at all. Long Shadow, the bartender before Chow, had had too much of an eye for the female customers. That'll cause a lot of strife in a bar.

Lost in my own thoughts, I didn't realize Charles Twining was right across the bar from me until he said, "Miss Stackhouse, may I tell you how lovely you look tonight?"

"Thank you, Mr. Twining," I said, entering into the spirit of the encounter. The look in Charles Twining's one visible brown eye let me know that he was a first-class rogue, and I didn't trust him any farther than I could throw him, which was maybe two feet. (The effects of my last infusion of vampire blood had worn off, and I was my regular human self. Hey, I'm no junkie; it had been an emergency situation calling for extra strength.)

Not only was I back at average stamina for a fit woman in her twenties, my looks were back to normal; no vampire-blood enhancement. I hadn't dressed up, since I didn't want Eric to think I was dressing up for him, but I hadn't wanted to look like a slob, either. So I was wearing low-riding blue jeans and a fuzzy white long-sleeved sweater with a boat-neck. It stopped just at my waist, so some tummy showed when I walked. That tummy wasn't fish-belly white, either, thanks to the tanning bed at the video rental place.

"Please, dear lady, call me Charles," the bartender said, pressing his hand to his heart.

I laughed out loud, despite my weariness. The gesture's theatricality wasn't diminished by the fact that Charles's heart wasn't beating.

"Of course," I said agreeably. "If you'll call me Sookie."

He rolled his eyes up as if the excitement was too much for him, and I laughed again. Pam tapped me on the shoulder.

"If you can tear yourself away from your new buddy, Eric's free."

I nodded to Charles and eased off the stool to follow Pam. To my surprise, she didn't lead me back to Eric's office, but to one of the booths. Evidently, tonight Eric was on bar duty. All the Shreveport-area vampires had to agree to show themselves at Fangtasia for a certain number of hours each week so the tourists would keep coming; a vampire bar without any actual vampires is a money-losing establishment. Eric set a good example for his underlings by sitting out in the bar at regular intervals.

Usually the sheriff of Area Five sat in the center of the room, but tonight he was in the corner booth. He watched me approach. I knew he was taking in my jeans, which were on the tight side, and my tummy, which was on the flat side, and my soft fuzzy white sweater, which was filled with natural bounty. I should have worn my frumpiest clothes. (Believe me, I have plenty in my closet.) I shouldn't have carried the cranberry coat, which Eric had given me. I should have done anything but look good for Eric - and I had to admit to myself that that had been my goal. I'd blindsided myself.

Eric slid out of the booth and rose to his considerable height - around six foot four. His mane of blond hair rippled down his back, and his blue eyes sparkled from his white, white face. Eric has bold features, high cheekbones, and a square jaw. He looks like a lawless Viking, the kind that could pillage a village in no time at all; and that's exactly what he had been.

Vampires don't shake hands except under extraordinary circumstances, so I didn't expect any salutation from Eric. But he bent to give me a kiss on the cheek, and he gave it lingeringly, as if he wanted me to know he'd like to seduce me.

He didn't realize he'd already kissed just about every inch of Sookie Stackhouse. We'd been as up close and personal as a man and a woman could be.

Eric just couldn't remember anything about it. I wanted it to stay that way. Well, not exactly wanted; but I knew it was better all the way around if Eric didn't recall our little fling.

"What pretty nail polish," Eric said, smiling. He had a slight accent. English was not his second language, of course; it was maybe his twenty-fifth.

I tried not to smile back, but I was pleased at his compliment. Trust Eric to pick out the one thing that was new and different about me. I'd never had long nails until recently, and they were painted a wonderful deep red - cranberry, in fact, to match the coat.

"Thank you," I murmured. "How you been doing?"

"Just fine." He raised a blond eyebrow. Vampires didn't have variable health. He waved a hand at the empty side of the booth, and I slid into it.

"Had any trouble picking up the reins?" I asked, to clarify.

A few weeks previously, a witch had given Eric amnesia, and it had taken several days to restore his sense of identity. During that time, Pam had parked him with me to keep him concealed from the witch who'd cursed him. Lust had taken its course. Many times.

"Like riding a bicycle," Eric said, and I told myself to focus. (Though I wondered when bicycles had been invented, and if Eric had had anything to do with it.) "I did receive a call from Long Shadow's sire, an American Indian whose name seems to be Hot Rain. I'm sure you remember Long Shadow."

"I was just thinking of him," I said.

Long Shadow had been the first bartender of Fangtasia. He'd been embezzling from Eric, who had coerced me into interrogating the barmaids and other human employees until I discovered the culprit. About two seconds before Long Shadow would have ripped out my throat, Eric had executed the bartender with the traditional wooden stake. Killing another vampire is a very serious thing, I gathered, and Eric had had to pay a stiff fine - to whom, I hadn't known, though now I was sure the money had gone to Hot Rain. If Eric had killed Long Shadow without any justification, other penalties would have come into play. I was content to let those remain a mystery.

"What did Hot Rain want?" I said.

"To let me know that though I had paid him the price set by the arbitrator, he didn't consider himself satisfied."

"Did he want more money?"

"I don't think so. He seemed to think financial recompense was not all he required." Eric shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, the matter is settled." Eric took a swallow of synthetic blood, leaned back in his chair, and looked at me with unreadable blue eyes. "And so is my little amnesia episode. The crisis is over, the witches are dead, and order is restored in my little piece of Louisiana. How have things been for you?"

"Well, I'm here on business," I said, and I put my business face on.

"What can I do for you, my Sookie?" he asked.

"Sam wants to ask you for something," I said.

"And he sends you to ask for it. Is he very clever or very stupid?" Eric asked himself out loud.

"Neither," I said, trying not to sound snippy. "He's very leg-broken. That is to say, he got his leg broken last night. He got shot."

"How did this come about?" Eric's attention sharpened.

I explained. I shivered a little when I told him Sam and I had been alone, how silent the night had been.

"Arlene was just out of the parking lot. She went on home without knowing a thing. The new cook, Sweetie - she'd just left, too. Someone shot him from the trees north of the parking lot." I shivered again, this time with fear.

"How close were you?"

"Oh," I said, and my voice shook. "I was real close. I'd just turned to... then he was... There was blood all over."

Eric's face looked hard as marble. "What did you do?"

"Sam had his cell phone in his pocket, thank God, and I held one hand over the hole in his leg and I dialed nine-one-one with the other."

"How is he?"

"Well." I took a deep breath and tried to make myself still. "He's pretty good, all things considered." I'd put that quite calmly. I was proud. "But of course, he's down for a while, and so much... so many odd things have been happening at the bar lately.... Our substitute bartender, he just can't handle it for more than a couple of nights. Terry's kind of damaged."

"So what's Sam's request?"

"Sam wants to borrow a bartender from you until his leg heals."

"Why's he making this request of me, instead of the packmaster of Shreveport?" Shifters seldom got organized, but the city werewolves had. Eric was right: It would have been far more logical for Sam to make the request of Colonel Flood.

I looked down at my hands wrapped around the ginger ale glass. "Someone's gunning for the shifters and Weres in Bon Temps," I said. I kept my voice very low. I knew he would hear me through the music and the talk of the bar.

Just then a man lurched up to the booth, a young serviceman from Barksdale Air Force Base, which is a part of the Shreveport area. (I pigeonholed him instantly from his haircut, fitness, and his running buddies, who were more or less clones.) He rocked on his heels for a long moment, looking from me to Eric.

"Hey, you," the young man said to me, poking my shoulder. I looked up at him, resigned to the inevitable. Some people court their own disaster, especially when they drink. This young man, with his buzz haircut and sturdy build, was far from home and determined to prove himself.

There's not much I dislike more than being addressed as "Hey, you" and being poked with a finger. But I tried to present a pleasant face to the young man. He had a round face and round dark eyes, a small mouth and thick brown brows. He was wearing a clean knit shirt and pressed khakis. He was also primed for a confrontation.

"I don't believe I know you," I said gently, trying to defuse the situation.

"You shouldn't be sitting with a vamp," he said. "Human girls shouldn't go with dead guys."

How often had I heard that? I'd gotten an earful of this kind of crap when I'd been dating Bill Compton.

"You should go back over there to your friends, Dave. You don't want your mama to get a phone call about you being killed in a bar fight in Louisiana. Especially not in a vampire bar, right?"

"How'd you know my name?" he asked slowly.

"Doesn't make any difference, does it?"

From the corner of my eye, I could see that Eric was shaking his head. Mild deflection was not his way of dealing with intrusion.

Abruptly, Dave began to simmer down.

"How'd you know about me?" he asked in a calmer voice.

"I have x-ray vision," I said solemnly. "I can read your driver's license in your pants."

He began to smile. "Hey, can you see other stuff through my pants?"

I smiled back at him. "You're a lucky man, Dave," I said ambiguously. "Now, I'm actually here to talk business with this guy, so if you'd excuse us..."

"Okay. Sorry, I..."

"No problem at all," I assured him. He went back to his friends, walking cocky. I was sure he'd give them a highly embellished account of the conversation.

Though everyone in the bar had tried to pretend they weren't watching the incident, which had so much potential for some juicy violence, they had to scramble to look busy when Eric's eyes swept the surrounding tables.

"You were starting to tell me something when we were so rudely interrupted," he said. Without my asking, a barmaid came up and deposited a fresh drink in front of me, whisking my old glass away. Anyone sitting with Eric got the deluxe treatment.

"Yes. Sam isn't the only shape-shifter who's been shot in Bon Temps lately. Calvin Norris was shot in the chest a few days ago. He's a werepanther. And Heather Kinman was shot before that. Heather was just nineteen, a werefox."

Eric said, "I still don't see why this is interesting."

"Eric, she was killed."

He still looked inquiring.

I clenched my teeth together so I wouldn't try to tell him what a nice girl Heather Kinman had been: She'd just graduated from high school and she was working at her first job as a clerk at Bon Temps Office Supplies. She'd been drinking a milkshake at the Sonic when she'd been shot. Today, the crime lab would be comparing the bullet that had shot Sam with the bullet that had killed Heather, and both of those with the bullet from Calvin's chest. I assumed the bullets would match.

"I'm trying to explain to you why Sam doesn't want to ask another shape-shifter or Were to step in to help," I said through clenched teeth. "He thinks that might be putting him or her in danger. And there's just not a local human who's got the qualifications for the job. So he asked me to come to you."

"When I stayed at your house, Sookie..."

I groaned. "Oh, Eric, give it a rest."

It griped Eric's butt that he couldn't remember what had happened while he was cursed. "Someday I'll remember," he said almost sullenly.

When he remembered everything, he wouldn't just recall the sex.

He'd also recall the woman who'd been waiting in my kitchen with a gun. He'd remember that he'd saved my life by taking the bullet meant for me. He'd remember that I'd shot her. He'd remember disposing of the body.

He'd realize that he had power over me forever.

He might also recall that he'd humbled himself enough to offer to abandon all his businesses and come to live with me.

The sex, he'd enjoy remembering. The power, he'd enjoy remembering. But somehow I didn't think Eric would enjoy remembering that last bit.

"Yes," I said quietly, looking down at my hands. "Someday, I expect you will remember." WDED was playing an old Bob Seger song, "Night Moves." I noticed Pam was twirling unself-consciously in her own dance, her unnaturally strong and limber body bending and twisting in ways human bodies couldn't.

I'd like to see her dance to live vampire music. You ought to hear a vampire band. You'll never forget that. They mostly play New Orleans and San Francisco, sometimes Savannah or Miami. But when I'd been dating Bill, he'd taken me to hear a group playing in Fangtasia for one night while making their way south to New Orleans. The lead singer of the vampire band - Renfield's Masters, they'd called themselves - had wept tears of blood as he sang a ballad.

"Sam was clever to send you to ask me," Eric said after a long pause. I had nothing to say to that. "I'll spare someone." I could feel my shoulders relax with relief. I focused on my hands and took a deep breath. When I glanced over at him, Eric was looking around the bar, considering the vampires present.

I'd met most of them in passing. Thalia had long black ringlets down her back and a profile that could best be described as classical. She had a heavy accent - Greek, I thought - and she also had a hasty temper. Indira was a tiny Indian vamp, complete with doe eyes and tikal; no one would take her seriously until things got out of hand. Maxwell Lee was an African-American investment banker. Though strong as any vampire, Maxwell tended to enjoy more cerebral pastimes than acting as a bouncer.

"What if I send Charles?" Eric sounded casual, but I knew him well enough to suspect he wasn't.

"Or Pam," I said. "Or anyone else who can keep their temper." I watched Thalia crush a metal mug with her fingers to impress a human male who was trying to put the moves on her. He blanched and scurried back to his table. Some vampires enjoy human company, but Thalia was not one of them.

"Charles is the least temperamental vampire I've ever met, though I confess I don't know him well. He's been working here only two weeks."

"You seem to be keeping him busy here."

"I can spare him." Eric gave me a haughty look that said quite clearly it was up to him to decide how busy he wanted to keep his employee.

"Um... okeydokey." The patrons of Merlotte's would like the pirate just fine, and Sam's revenue would jump in consequence.

"Here are the terms," Eric said, fixing me with his gaze. "Sam supplies unlimited blood for Charles and a secure place to stay. You might want to keep him in your house, as you did me."

"And I might not," I said indignantly. "I'm not running any hostel for traveling vampires." Frank Sinatra began to croon "Strangers in the Night" in the background.

"Oh, of course, I forgot. But you were generously paid for my board."

He'd touched on a sore spot. In fact, he'd poked it with a sharp stick. I flinched. "That was my brother's idea," I said. I saw Eric's eyes flash, and I flushed all over. I'd just confirmed a suspicion he'd had. "But he was absolutely right," I said with conviction. "Why should I have put a vampire up in my house without getting paid? After all, I needed the money."

"Is the fifty thousand already gone?" Eric said very quietly. "Did Jason ask for a share of it?"

"None of your business," I said, my voice exactly as sharp and indignant as I'd intended it to be. I'd given Jason only a fifth of it. He hadn't exactly asked, either, though I had to admit to myself he'd clearly expected me to give him some. Since I needed it a lot worse, I'd kept more of it than I'd initially planned.

I had no health insurance. Jason, of course, was covered through the parish plan. I'd begun thinking, What if I was disabled? What if I broke my arm or had to have my appendix out? Not only would I not put in my hours at work, but I'd have hospital bills. And any stay in a hospital, in this day and age, is an expensive one. I'd incurred a few medical bills during the past year, and it had taken me a long, painful time to pay them off.

Now I was profoundly glad I'd had that twinge of caution. In the normal course of things, I don't look real far ahead, because I'm used to living day to day. But Sam's injury had opened my eyes. I'd been thinking of how badly I needed a new car - well, a newer secondhand one. I'd been thinking of how dingy the living room drapes were, how pleasant it would be to order new ones from JCPenney. It had even crossed my mind that it would be a lot of fun to buy a dress that wasn't on sale. But I'd been shocked out of such frivolity when Sam had his leg broken.

As Connie the Corpse introduced the next song ("One of These Nights"), Eric examined my face. "I wish that I could read your mind as you can read the minds of others," he said. "I wish very much that I could know what was going on in your head. I wish I knew why I cared what's going on in that head."

I gave him a lopsided smile. "I agree to the terms: free blood and lodging, though the lodging won't necessarily be with me. What about the money?"

Eric smiled. "I'll take my payment in kind. I like Sam owing me a favor."

I called Sam with the cell phone he'd lent me. I explained.

Sam sounded resigned. "There's a place in the bar the vamp can sleep. All right. Room and board, and a favor. When can he come?"

I relayed the question to Eric.

"Right now." Eric beckoned to a human waitress, who was wearing the low-cut long black dress all the female human employees wore. (I'll tell you something about vampires: They don't like to wait tables. And they're pretty poor at it, too. You won't catch a vamp bussing tables, either. The vamps almost always hire humans to do the grubbier work at their establishments.) Eric told her to fetch Charles from behind the bar. She bowed, fist to her opposite shoulder, and said, "Yes, Master."

Honestly, it just about made you sick.

Anyway, Charles leapt over the bar theatrically, and while patrons applauded, he made his way to Eric's booth.

Bowing to me, he turned to Eric with an air of attentiveness that should have seemed subservient but instead seemed simply matter-of-fact.

"This woman will tell you what to do. As long as she needs you, she is your master." I just couldn't decipher Charles Twining's expression as he heard Eric's directive. Lots of vampires simply wouldn't agree to being at a human's beck and call, no matter what their head honcho said.

"No, Eric!" I was shocked. "If you make him answerable to anyone, it should be Sam."

"Sam sent you. I'm entrusting Charles's direction to you." Eric's face closed down. I knew from experience that once Eric got that expression, there was no arguing with him.

I couldn't see where this was going, but I knew it wasn't good.

"Let me get my coat, and I'll be ready anytime it pleases you to leave," Charles Twining said, bowing in a courtly and gracious way that made me feel like an idiot. I made a strangled noise in acknowledgment, and though he was still in the down position, his patch-free eye rolled up to give me a wink. I smiled involuntarily and felt much better.

Over the music system, Connie the Corpse said, "Hey, you night listeners. Continuing ten in a row for us genuine deadheads, here's a favorite." Connie began playing "Here Comes the Night," and Eric said, "Will you dance?"

I looked over at the little dance floor. It was empty. However, Eric had arranged for a bartender and bouncer for Sam as Sam had asked. I should be gracious. "Thank you," I said politely, and slid out of the booth. Eric offered me his hand, I took it, and he put his other hand on my waist.

Despite the difference in our heights, we managed quite well. I pretended I didn't know everyone in the bar was looking at us, and we glided along as if we knew what we were doing. I focused on Eric's throat so I wouldn't be looking up into his eyes.

When the dance was over, he said, "Holding you seems very familiar, Sookie."

With a tremendous effort, I kept my eyes fixed on his Adam's apple. I had a dreadful impulse to say, "You told me you loved me and would stay with me forever."

"You wish," I said briskly instead. I let go of his hand as quickly as I could and stepped away from his embrace. "By the way, have you ever run across a kind of mean-looking vampire named Mickey?"

Eric grabbed my hand again and squeezed it. I said, "Ow!" and he eased up.

"He was in here last week. Where have you seen Mickey?" he demanded.

"In Merlotte's." I was astonished at the effect my last-minute question had had on Eric. "What's the deal?"

"What was he doing?"

"Drinking Red Stuff and sitting at a table with my friend Tara. You know, you saw her? At Club Dead, in Jackson?"

"When I saw her she was under the protection of Franklin Mott."

"Well, they were dating. I can't understand why he'd let her go out with Mickey. I hoped maybe Mickey was just there as her bodyguard or something." I retrieved my coat from the booth. "So, what's the bottom line on this guy?" I asked.

"Stay away from him. Don't talk to him, don't cross him, and don't try to help your friend Tara. When he was here, Mickey talked mostly to Charles. Charles tells me he is a rogue. He's capable of... things that are barbarous. Don't go around Tara."

I opened my hands, asking Eric to explain.

"He'll do things the rest of us won't," Eric said.

I stared up at Eric, shocked and deeply worried. "I can't just ignore her situation. I don't have so many friends that I can afford to let one go down the drain."

"If she's involved with Mickey, she's just meat on the hoof," Eric said with a brutal simplicity. He took my coat from me and held it while I slid into it. His hands massaged my shoulders after I'd buttoned it.

"It fits well," he said. It didn't take a mind reader to guess that he didn't want to say any more about Mickey.

"You got my thank-you note?"

"Of course. Very, ah, seemly."

I nodded, hoping to indicate this was the end of the subject. But, of course, it wasn't.

"I still wonder why your old coat had bloodstains on it," Eric murmured, and my eyes flashed up to his. I cursed my carelessness once again. When he'd come back to thank me for keeping him, he'd roamed the house while I was busy until he'd come across the coat. "What did we do, Sookie? And to whom?"

"It was chicken blood. I killed a chicken and cooked it," I lied. I'd seen my grandmother do that when I was little, many a time, but I'd never done it myself.

"Sookie, Sookie. My bullshit meter is reading that as a 'false,' " Eric said, shaking his head in a chiding way.

I was so startled I laughed. It was a good note on which to leave. I could see Charles Twining standing by the front door, thoroughly modern padded jacket at the ready. "Good-bye, Eric, and thanks for the bartender," I said, as if Eric had loaned me some AA batteries or a cup of rice. He bent and brushed my cheek with his cool lips.

"Drive safely," he said. "And stay away from Mickey. I need to find out why he's in my territory. Call me if you have any problems with Charles." (If the batteries are defective, or if the rice is full of worms.) Beyond him I could see the same woman was still sitting at the bar, the one who'd remarked that I was no maiden. She was obviously wondering what I had done to secure the attention of a vampire as ancient and attractive as Eric.

I often wondered the same thing.

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