Chapter 3

Luckily for me, all the customers cleared out early, and I was able to get my closing work done in record time. I called, "Good night!" over my shoulder and hared out the back door to my car. When I parked behind the house, I noticed Claude's car wasn't there. So he was probably still in Monroe, which simplified matters. I hurried to change clothes and freshen my makeup, and just as I put on some lipstick, Pam knocked at the back door.

Pam was looking especially Pammish tonight. Her blond hair was absolutely straight and shining, her pale blue suit looked like a vintage gem, and she was wearing hose with seams up the back, which she turned around to show me.

"Wow," I said, which was the only possible response. "You're looking great." She put my red skirt and red and white blouse to shame.

"Yes," she said with considerable satisfaction. "I am. Ah ..." She became utterly still. "Do I smell fairy?"

"You do, but there's not one here now, so just rein it in. My cousin Claude was here today. He's going to be bunking with me for a while."

"Claude, the mouthwateringly beautiful asshole?"

Claude's fame preceded him. "Yes, that Claude."

"Why? Why is he staying with you?"

"He's lonely," I said.

"Do you really believe that?" Pam's pale brows were arched incredulously.

"Well ... yes, I do." Why else would Claude want to stay at my house, which was not convenient to his job? He certainly didn't want to get in my pants, and he hadn't asked to borrow money.

"This is some fairy intrigue," Pam said. "You were a fool to be taken in."

Nobody likes being called a fool. Pam had stepped over the line, but then "tact" was not her middle name. "Pam, that's enough," I said. I must have sounded serious, because she stared at me for all of fifteen seconds.

"I've offended you," she said, though not as if the idea gave her pain.

"Yeah, you have. Claude's missing his sisters. There aren't any fairies left for him to intrigue with since Niall closed the portal, or doors, or whatever the heck he closed. I'm the closest Claude's got to his kind - which is pretty pitiful, since I just have a dab of fairy in me."

"Let's go," Pam said. "Eric will be waiting."

Changing the subject when she had nothing left to say was another of Pam's characteristics. I had to smile and shake my head. "How'd the meeting with Victor go?" I asked.

"It would be a good thing if Victor met with an unfortunate accident."

"You really mean that?"

"No. I really wish someone would kill him."

"Me, too." Our eyes met, and she gave me a brisk nod. We were in synch on the Victor issue.

"I suspect his every statement," she said. "I question his every decision. I think he's out to take Eric's position. He doesn't want to be the king's emissary any longer. He wants to carve out his own territory."

I pictured a fur-clad Victor paddling a canoe down the Red River with an Indian maiden sitting stoically behind him. I laughed. As we got into Pam's car, she looked at me darkly.

"I don't understand you," she said. "I really don't." We went out to Hummingbird Road and turned north.

"Why would being a sheriff in Louisiana be a step above being the emissary of Felipe, who has a rich kingdom?" I asked very seriously, to make up my lost ground.

" 'Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,' " Pam said. I knew she was quoting someone, but I didn't have a clue who it was.

"Louisiana is hell? Las Vegas is heaven?" I could almost believe some cosmopolitan vampire would consider Louisiana as less than desirable as a permanent residence, but Las Vegas - divine? I didn't think so.

"I'm just saying." Pam shrugged. "It's time for Victor to get out from under Felipe's thumb. They've been together a long time. Victor is ambitious."

"That's true. What do you think Victor's strategy is? How do you think he plans to dislodge Eric?"

"He'll try to discredit him," Pam said, without pausing a beat. She'd really been thinking about this. "If Victor can't do that, he'll try to kill Eric - but he won't do it directly, in combat."

"He's scared of fighting Eric?"

"Yes," Pam said, smiling. "I do believe he is." We'd reached the interstate and were on our way west to Shreveport. "If he challenged Eric, it would be Eric's right to send me in first. I would so love to fight Victor." Her fangs gleamed briefly in the dashboard light.

"Does Victor have a second? Wouldn't he send that second in?"

Pam cocked her head to one side. She seemed to be thinking about it as she passed a semi. "His second is Bruno Brazell. He was with Victor the night Eric surrendered to Nevada," she said. "Short beard, an earring? If Eric allowed me to fight for him, Victor might send in Bruno. He's impressive, I grant you. But I would kill him in five minutes or less. You can put money on that."

Pam, who had been a Victorian middle-class young lady with a secret wild streak, had been liberated by becoming a vampire. I had never asked Eric why he'd chosen Pam for the change, but I was convinced it was because Eric had detected her inner ferocity.

On an impulse, I said, "Pam? Do you ever wonder what would have happened to you if you hadn't met up with Eric?"

There was a long silence, or at least it seemed long to me. I wondered if she was angry or sad about her lost chance for a husband and children. I wondered if she was looking back with longing on her sexual relationship with her maker, Eric, which (like most vampire-vampire relationships) hadn't lasted long, but had surely been very intense.

Finally, just when I was going to apologize for asking, Pam said, "I think I was born for this." The faint light from the dashboard illuminated her perfectly symmetrical face. "I would have been a dismal wife, a terrible mother. The part of me that has taken to slashing the throats of my enemies would have surfaced if I'd remained human. I wouldn't have killed anyone, I suppose, because that wasn't on my list of things I could do, when I was human. But I would have made my family very miserable; you can be sure of that."

"You're a great vampire," I said, since I couldn't think of anything else to say.

She nodded. "Yes. I am."

We didn't speak again until we reached Eric's house. Oddly enough, he'd bought a place in a gated community with a strict building code. Eric liked the daytime security of the gate and the guard. And he liked the fieldstone house. There weren't too many basements in Shreveport, because the water level was too high, but Eric's house was on a slope. Originally, its downstairs was a walk-in from the back patio. Eric had had that door pulled out and the wall made solid, so he had a great place to sleep.

Until we'd become blood bonded, I'd never been to Eric's house.

Sometimes it was exciting being so closely yoked with Eric, and sometimes it made me feel trapped. Though I could scarcely believe it, the sex was even better now that I'd recovered, at least in large part, from the attack. At this moment, I felt like every molecule in my body was humming because I was near him.

Pam had a garage-door opener, and she pressed it now. The door swung up to reveal Eric's car. Other than the gleaming Corvette, the garage was spotless: no lawn chairs, no bags of grass seed or half-empty paint cans. No stepladder, or coveralls, or hunting boots. Eric didn't need any of those accoutrements. The neighborhood had lawns, pretty lawns, with rigidly planted and mulched flower beds - but a lawn-care service trimmed every blade of grass there, pruned every bush, raked every leaf.

Pam got a kick out of closing the garage door once we were inside. The kitchen door was locked, and she used a key so we could pass from the garage into the kitchen. A kitchen is largely useless to a vampire, though a little refrigerator is necessary for the synthetic blood, and a microwave is handy to heat it to room temperature. Eric had bought a coffeemaker for me, and he kept some food in the freezer for whatever human was in the house. Lately, that human had been me.

"Eric!" I called, when we came through the door. Pam and I took off our shoes, which was one of Eric's house rules.

"Oh, go get your greeting over with!" Pam said, when I looked at her. "I've got some TrueBlood and some Life Support to put away."

I passed from the sterile kitchen into the living room. The kitchen colors were bland, but the living room echoed Eric's personality. Though it wasn't often reflected in his clothing, Eric harbored a love of deep colors. The first time I'd been to his house, the living room had surprised the hell out of me. The walls were a sapphire blue, the crown molding and baseboards a pure, gleaming white. The furniture was an eclectic collection of pieces that had appealed to him, all upholstered in jewel tones, some intricately patterned - deep red, blue, the yellow of citrine, the greens of jade and emerald, the gold of topaz. Since Eric is a big man, all the pieces were big: heavy, sturdy, and strewn with pillows.

Eric came out of the doorway to his home office. When I saw him, every hormone I had stood to attention. He's very tall, his hair is long and golden, and his eyes are so blue the color practically pops out of the whiteness of his face, a face that is bold and masculine. There's nothing epicene about Eric. He wears jeans and T-shirts, mostly, but I've seen him in a suit. GQ missed a good thing when Eric decided his talents lay in building a business empire rather than modeling. Tonight he was shirtless, sparse dark gold hair trailing down to the waist of his jeans and gleaming against his pallor.

"Jump," Eric said, holding out his hands and smiling. I laughed. I took a running start, and leaped. Eric caught me, his hands clamped around my waist. He lifted me up until my head touched the ceiling. Then he lowered me for a kiss. I wrapped my legs around his torso, my arms around his neck. We were lost in each other for a long moment.

Pam said, "Back to earth, monkey girl. Time is passing."

I noted that she was blaming me and not Eric. I pulled away and gave him a special smile.

"Come, sit, and tell me what's wrong," he said. "Do you want Pam to know, too?"

"Yes," I said. I figured he'd tell her anyway.

The two vampires sat at opposite ends of the dark red couch, and I sat across from them on the gold and red love seat. In front of the couch was a very large square coffee table with inlaid woodwork on the top and elaborately carved legs. The table was scattered with things Eric had been enjoying recently: the manuscript of a book about the Vikings that he'd been asked to endorse, a heavy jade cigarette lighter (though he didn't smoke), and a beautiful silver bowl with a deep blue enamel interior. I always found his selections interesting. My own house was kind of ... cumulative. In fact, I hadn't picked out anything in it but the kitchen cabinets and appliances - but my house was the history of my family. Eric's house was the history of Eric.

I brushed a finger across the inlaid wood. "Day before yesterday," I began, "I got a call from Alcide Herveaux."

I wasn't imagining that the two vampires had a reaction to my news. It was minute (most vampires aren't given to extravagant expressions), but it was definitely there. Eric leaned forward, inviting me to continue my account. I did, telling them that I'd also met some of the new additions to the Long Tooth pack, including Basim and Annabelle.

"I've seen this Basim," Pam said. I looked at her with some surprise. "He came to Fangtasia one night with another Were, another new one ... that Annabelle, the brown-haired woman. She's Alcide's new ... squeeze."

Though I'd suspected as much, it was still a little astonishing to me. "She must have hidden assets," I said, before I thought.

Eric raised an eyebrow. "Not what you thought Alcide would pick, my lover?"

"I liked Maria-Star," I said. Like so many other people I'd met in the past two years, Alcide's previous girlfriend had met an awful end. I'd grieved for her.

"But before that, he had long associated with Debbie Pelt," Eric said, and I had to struggle to control my face. "You can see that Alcide's catholic in his pleasures," Eric continued. "He carried the torch for you, didn't he?" Eric's slight accent made the outmoded phrase sound exotic. "From a true bitch, to a startling talent, to a sweet photographer, to a tough girl who doesn't mind visiting a vampire bar. Alcide has very variable taste in women."

That was true. I'd never put it together before.

"He sent Annabelle and Basim to the club for a purpose. Have you been reading the newspapers lately?" Pam asked.

"No," I said. "I've been enjoying not reading the papers."

"Congress is thinking of passing a bill requiring all the werewolves and shifters to register. Legislation and issues regarding them would then fall under the Bureau of Vampire Affairs, as laws and lawsuits pertaining to us, the undead, do now." Pam was looking very grim.

I almost said, "But that's not right!" Then I understood how that would sound - as if I thought it was okay to require the vampires to register, but Weres and shifters shouldn't have to. Thank God I didn't open my mouth.

"Not too surprisingly, the Weres are furious about this. In fact, Alcide has told me himself that he thinks the government has sent people to spy on his pack, the idea being that they would then give some kind of secret report to the people in Congress who are considering this bill. He doesn't believe it's only his pack that's being singled out. Alcide has good sense." Eric sounded approving. "But he believes he's being watched."

Now I understood why Alcide had been so concerned about the people camping on his land. He'd suspected they weren't what they appeared to be.

"It would be awful to think your own government was spying on you," I said. "Especially after you'd been thinking of yourself as a regular citizen your entire life." The enormity of the impact of this piece of legislation was still sinking in. Instead of being a respected and wealthy citizen in Shreveport, Alcide (and the other members of his pack) would become like ... illegal aliens. "Where would they have to register? Could the kids still go to school with all the other children? What about the men and women at Barksdale Air Force Base? After all these years! Do you think the bill really has a chance of passing?"

Pam said, "The Weres believe it does. Maybe it's paranoia. Maybe they've heard something through the members of Congress who are two-natured. Maybe they know something we don't know. Alcide sent this Annabelle and Basim al Saud to tell me they might be in the same boat with us soon. They wanted to know about the area representative for the BVA, what kind of woman she is, how they could deal with her."

"Who is the rep?" I asked. I felt ignorant and ill-informed. Obviously I should have known this, since I was intimately involved with a vampire.

"Katherine Boudreaux," Pam said. "She likes women somewhat more than men, like I do." Pam grinned a toothy grin. "She also loves dogs. She has a steady lover, Sallie, who shares her house. Katherine is not interested in having a side affair, and she is unbribable."

"You've tried, I take it."

"I tried to interest her sexually. Bobby Burnham tried the bribe." Bobby was Eric's daytime man. We disliked each other intensely.

I took a deep breath. "Well, I'm real glad to know all this, but my real problem came after the Weres used my land."

Eric and Pam were looking at me sharply and with great attention, all of a sudden. "You let the Weres use your property for their monthly run?"

"Well, yeah. Hamilton Bond said there were people camping out on the Herveaux land, and now that I've heard what Alcide's told you - and I'm wondering why he didn't tell me all this - I can see why he didn't want to have a run on his own land. I guess he thought the campers were government agents. What would the new agency be called?" I asked. It wouldn't be BVA, would it? If the BVA was still only "representing" vampires.

Pam shrugged. "The legislation going through Congress proposes it be called the Bureau of Vampire and Supernatural Affairs."

"Get back to your issues, my lover," Eric said.

"Okeydokey. Well, when they were leaving, Basim came to the front door and told me he'd smelled at least one fairy and some other vampire traveling through my land. And my cousin Claude says he wasn't the fairy."

There was a moment of silence.

"Interesting," Eric said.

"Very odd," Pam said.

Eric ran his fingers over the manuscript on the coffee table as if it could tell him who'd been traipsing around my property. "I don't know the credentials of this Basim, except that he was thrown out of the pack in Houston and Alcide took him in. I don't know why he was expelled. I expect it was for some disruption. We'll check on what Basim told you." He turned to Pam. "That new girl, Heidi, says she's a tracker."

"You got a new vamp?" I asked.

"This is one sent us by Victor." Eric's mouth was set in a grim line. "Even from New Orleans, supposedly, Victor is running the state with a tight hand. He sent Sandy, who was supposed to be the liaison, back to Nevada. I suspect Victor thought he didn't have enough control over her."

"How can he get New Orleans up and running if he travels around the state as much as Sandy did?"

"I'm assuming he's leaving Bruno Brazell in charge," Pam said. "I think Bruno pretends Victor is in New Orleans, even when Victor isn't. The rest of Victor's people don't know where he is half the time. Since he killed off all the New Orleans vampires he could find, we've had to rely on the information of our one spy who survived the massacre."

Of course I wanted to veer off and discuss the spy - who would be that brave and reckless, to spy for Eric in the bailiwick of his enemy? But I had to stick to the main subject, which was the sneakiness of Louisiana's new regent head honcho. "So Victor likes to be in the trenches," I said, and Eric and Pam looked at me blankly. Older vampires don't always have a complete grasp of the vernacular. "He likes to see for himself and do for himself, rather than rely on the chain of command," I explained.

"Yes," Pam said. "And the chain of command can be quite heavy and literal, under Victor."

"Pam and I were talking about Victor on the drive over here. I wonder why Felipe de Castro chose Victor to be his representative in Louisiana?" Victor had actually seemed okay the two times I'd met him face-to-face, which only went to show that you can't judge a vampire by his good manners and his smile.

"There are two schools of thought about that," Eric said, stretching his long legs out in front of him. I had a flash of how those long legs looked spread wide on crumpled sheets, and I forced my mind back to the current subject of discussion.

Eric gave me a fangy smile (he knew what I was feeling) before he continued. "One is that Felipe wants Victor as far away as he can get him. I believe that Felipe feels that if he gives Victor a big chunk of red meat, he won't be tempted to try to snatch the whole steak."

"While others of us," Pam said, "think that Felipe simply appointed Victor because Victor is very efficient. That Victor's devotion to Felipe is possibly sincere."

"If the first theory is correct," Eric said, "there isn't perfect trust between Felipe and Victor."

"If the second theory is correct," Pam said, "and we act against Victor, Felipe will kill us all."

"I'm getting your drift," I said, looking from First Theory (shirtless with blue jeans) to Second Theory (cute vintage suit). "I hate to sound really selfish, but the first thought that popped into my mind is this. Since Victor wouldn't let you come to help me when I needed you - and incidentally I know that I owe you big-time, Pam - that means Victor's not honoring the promise, huh? Felipe promised me that he would extend his protection to me, which he ought to have, because I saved his life, right?"

There was a significant pause while Eric and Pam considered my question.

"I think Victor will do his best not to openly cause you harm, until and if he decides to try to become king in his own right," Pam said. "If Victor decides to make a grab for the kingship, all promises made by Felipe are so many words without meaning." Eric nodded in agreement.

"That's just great." I probably sounded petulant and selfish, because that was the way I felt.

"This is all assuming we don't find a way to kill him first," Pam said quietly. And we were all silent for a long moment. There was something that creeped me out, no matter how much I agreed that Victor should die, about the three of us talking about murdering him.

"And you think this Heidi, who's supposed to be such a great tracker, is here in Shreveport to be Victor's eyes and ears?" I said briskly, trying to throw off the chill that had fallen on me.

"Yes," said Pam. "Unless she's here to be Felipe's eyes and ears, so Felipe can keep track of what Victor is doing in Louisiana." She had that ominous look on her face, the one that said she was going to get her vampire game on. You did not want Pam to look that way when your name entered the conversation. If I were Heidi, I would take care to keep my nose clean.

"Heidi," which conjured up braids and full skirts in my imagination, seemed like a very perky name for a vampire.

"So what should I do about the Long Tooth pack's warning?" I said, to bring the discussion back to the original problem. "You're going to send Heidi to my place to try to track the fairy? I have to tell you something else. Basim scented a body, not a fresh one, buried very deep at the back of my property."

"Oh," Eric said. "Whoops." Eric turned to Pam. "Give us some alone time."

She nodded and went out through the kitchen. I heard the back door shut.

Eric said, "I'm sorry, my lover. Unless you've buried someone else on your property and kept it from me, that body is Debbie Pelt's."

That was what I'd been afraid of. "Is the car back there, too?"

"No, the car is sunk in a pond about ten miles south of your place."

That was a relief. "Well, at least it was a werewolf who found it," I said. "I guess we don't have to worry about it, unless Alcide can identify her scent. They won't go digging the body up. It's none of their doings." Debbie had been Alcide's ex-girlfriend when I'd had the misfortune to meet her. I don't want to drag out the story, but she'd tried to kill me first. It took me a while, but I'm over the angst of her death. Eric had been with me that night, but he hadn't been in his right mind. And that's yet another story.

"Come here," Eric said. His face held my very favorite expression, and I was doubly glad to see it because I didn't want to think too much about Debbie Pelt.

"Hmmm. What will you give me if I do?" I gave him a questioning eye.

"I think you know very well what I will give you. I think you love me to give it to you."

"So ... you don't enjoy it at all?"

Before I could blink he was on his knees in front of me, pushing my legs apart, leaning in to kiss me. "I think you know how I feel," he said, in a whisper. "We are bonded. Can you believe I'm not thinking of you while I work? When my eyes open, I think of you, of every part of you." His fingers got busy, and I gasped. This was direct, even for Eric. "Do you love me?" he asked, his eyes fi xing mine.

This was a little difficult to answer, especially considering what his fingers were doing. "I love being with you, whether we're having sex or not. Oh, God, do that again! I love your body. I love what we do together. You make me laugh, and I love that. I like to watch you do anything." I kissed him, long and lingeringly. "I like to watch you get dressed. I like to watch you undress. I like to watch your hands when you're doing this to me. Oh!" I shuddered all over with pleasure. When I'd had a moment of recovery, I murmured, "If I asked you the same question, what would your answer be?"

"I would say exactly the same thing," Eric said. "And I think that means I love you. If this is not true love, it's as close as anyone gets. Can you see what you've done to me?" He didn't really have to point. It was pretty damn obvious.

"That looks painful. Would you like me to nurse it?" I asked, in the coolest voice I could manage.

In reply, he simply growled. We switched places in an instant. I knelt in front of Eric, and his hands rested on my head, stroking. Eric was a sizable guy, and this was a part of our sex life that I'd had to work on. But I thought I was getting pretty good at it, and he seemed to agree. His hands tightened in my hair after a minute or two, and I made a little noise of protest. He let go and gripped the couch instead. He growled, deep in his throat. "Faster," he said. "Now, now!" He shut his eyes and his head fell back, his hands opening and closing spasmodically. I loved having that power over him; that was another thing I loved. Suddenly, he said something in an ancient language, and his back arched, and I moved with increased purpose, swallowing down everything he gave me.

And all this with most of our clothes on. "Was that enough love for you?" he asked, his voice slow and dreamy.

I climbed into his lap and wound my arms around his neck for an interlude of cuddling. Now that I had recovered my pleasure in sex, I felt limp as a dishrag after a session with Eric; but this was my favorite part, though it made me feel very "women's magazine" to admit it.

As we sat holding each other, Eric told me about a conversation he'd had with a fangbanger at the bar, and we laughed about it. I told him about how torn up Hummingbird Road was while the parish was patching it. I suppose this is the kind of thing you talk about with someone you love; you figure they'll care about trivial topics, since those things are important to you.

Unfortunately, I knew that Eric had more business to get through that night, so I told him I'd go back to Bon Temps with Pam. Sometimes I stayed at his place, reading while he worked. It's not easy to arrange alone time with a leader and businessman who's awake only during the hours of darkness.

He gave me a kiss to remember him by. "I'll send Heidi to you, probably night after next," he said. "She'll verify what Basim says he smelled in the woods. Let me know if you hear from Alcide."

When Pam and I left Eric's house, it had started raining. The rain put a little chill in the air, and I turned the heat on low in Pam's car. It wouldn't make any difference to her. We drove for a while in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. I watched the windshield wipers fan back and forth.

Pam said, "You didn't tell Eric about the fairy staying with you." "Oh, gosh!" I put my hand over my eyes. "No, I didn't. There was so much else to talk about, I completely forgot."

"You realize Eric won't like another man living in the same house with his woman."

"Another man who is my cousin and also gay."

"But very beautiful and a stripper." Pam glanced over at me. She was smiling. Pam's smiles are somewhat disconcerting.

"You can strip all you want to - if you don't like the person you're looking at while you're naked, it's not going to happen," I said tartly.

"I kind of understand that sentence," she said, after a moment. "But still, having such an attractive man in the same house ... It's not good, Sookie."

"You're kidding me, right? Claude is gay. Not only does he like men, he likes men with beard stubble and oil stains on their blue jeans."

"What does that mean?" Pam said.

"That means he likes blue-collar guys who work with their hands. Or their fists."

"Oh. Interesting." Pam still had an air of disapproval. She hesitated for a moment, then said, "Eric hasn't had anyone like you in a long, long time, Sookie. I think he's levelheaded enough to keep on course, but you have to consider his responsibilities. This is a perilous time for the few of us in his original crew remaining since Sophie-Anne met her final death. We Shreveport vampires doubly belong to Eric, since he's the only surviving sheriff from the old regime. If Eric goes down, we all go down. If Victor succeeds in discrediting Eric or somehow eating into his base here in Shreveport, we'll all die."

I hadn't put the situation to myself in terms that dire. Eric hadn't spelled it out to me, either. "It's that bad?" I said, feeling numb.

"He is male enough to want to look strong in front of you, Sookie. Truly, Eric's a great vampire, and very practical. But he isn't practical nowadays - not when it comes to you."

"Are you saying you don't think Eric and I should see each other anymore?" I asked her directly. Though generally I was very glad that vampire minds were closed to me, sometimes I found it frustrating. I was used to knowing more than I wanted to know about how people were thinking and feeling, rather than wondering if I was right.

"No, not exactly." Pam looked thoughtful. "I would hate to see him unhappy. And you, too," she added, as an afterthought. "But if he's worried about you, he won't react the same as he would - as he should ..."

"If I weren't in the picture."

Pam didn't say anything for a while. Then she said, "I think the only reason Victor hasn't abducted you to hold you over Eric is because Eric married you. Victor's still trying to cover his ass by doing everything by the book. He isn't ready to rebel against Felipe openly. He'll still try to show justification for whatever he does. He's walking on thin ice with Felipe right now because he almost let you get killed."

"Maybe Felipe will do the job for us," I said.

Pam looked thoughtful. "That would be ideal," she said. "But we'll have to wait for it. Felipe's not going to do anything rash when it comes to killing a lieutenant of his. That would make his other lieutenants uneasy and uncertain."

I shook my head. "That's too bad. I don't think it would bother Felipe very much at all to kill Victor."

"And it would bother you, Sookie?"

"Yes. It would bother me." Though not as much as it ought to.

"So if you could do it in a rush of rage when Victor was attacking you, that would be far preferable to planning a way to kill him when he couldn't fight back effectively?"

Okay, put like that my attitude didn't make much sense. I could see that if you were willing to kill someone, planning to kill someone, wishing someone would die, quibbling about the circumstances was ridiculous.

"It shouldn't make a difference," I said quietly. "But it does. Victor has to go, though."

"You've changed," Pam said, after a little silence. She didn't sound surprised or horrified or disgusted. For that matter, she didn't sound happy. It was more as though she'd realized I'd altered my hairstyle.

"Yes," I said. We watched the rain pour down some more.

Suddenly, Pam said, "Look!" There was a sleek white car parked on the shoulder of the interstate. I didn't understand why Pam was so agitated until I noticed that the man leaning against the car had his arms crossed over his chest in an attitude of total nonchalance, despite the rain.

As we drew abreast of the car, a Lexus, the figure waved a languid hand at us. We were being flagged down.

"Shit," Pam said. "That's Bruno Brazell. We have to stop." She pulled over to the shoulder and stopped in front of the car. "And Corinna," she said, sounding bitter. I glanced in the side mirror to see that a woman had gotten out of the Lexus.

"They're here to kill us," Pam said quietly. "I can't kill them both. You have to help."

"They're going to try to kill us?" I was really, really scared.

"That's the only reason I can think of that Victor would send two people on a one-person errand," she said. She sounded calm. Pam was obviously thinking much faster than I was. "Showtime! If the peace can be kept, we need to keep it, at least for now. Here." She pressed something into my hand. "Take it out of the sheath. It's a silver dagger."

I remembered Bill's gray skin and the slow way he moved after silver poisoning. I shuddered, but I was angry with myself for my squeamishness. I slid the dagger from the leather sheath.

"We have to get out, huh?" I said. I tried to smile. "Okay, showtime."

"Sookie, be brave and ruthless," Pam said, and she opened her door and disappeared from sight. I sent a last waft of love toward Eric by way of good-bye while I was sticking the dagger through my skirt's waistband at the back. I got out of the car into the pelting darkness, holding my hands out to show they were empty.

I was drenched in seconds. I shoved my hair behind my ears so it wouldn't hang in my eyes. Though the Lexus's headlights were on, it was very dark. The only other light came from oncoming headlights from both sides of the interstate, and the brightly lit truck stop a mile away. Otherwise, we were nowhere, an anonymous stretch of divided interstate with woods on either side. The vampires could see a lot better than I could. But I knew where everyone was because I cast out that other sense of mine and felt for their brains. Vampires register as holes to me, almost black spots in the atmosphere. It's negative tracking.

No one spoke, and the only noise was the pelting of the rain drumming on the cars. I couldn't hear an oncoming vehicle. "Hi, Bruno," I called, and I sounded perky in a crazy way. "Who's your buddy?"

I walked over to him. Across the median, a car whizzed by going west. If the driver caught a glimpse of us, it probably looked as though two Good Samaritans had stopped to help some people with car trouble. Humans see what they want to see ... what they expect to see.

Now that I was closer to Bruno, I could tell that his short brown hair was plastered to his head. I'd seen Bruno only once before, and he was wearing the same serious expression on his face that he'd worn the night he'd been standing in my front yard ready to move in and burn down my house with me in it. Bruno was a serious kind of guy in the same way I'm a perky kind of woman. It was a fallback position.

"Hello, Miss Stackhouse," Bruno said. He wasn't any taller than me, but he was a burly man. The vampire Pam had called Corinna loomed up on Bruno's right. Corinna was - had been - African-American, and the water was dripping off the tips of her intricately braided hair. The beads worked into the braids clicked together, a sound I could just pick up under the drumming of the rain. She was thin and tall, and she'd added to her height with three-inch heels. Though she was wearing a dress that had probably been very expensive, her whole ensemble had suffered by the drenching it had taken. She looked like a very elegant drowned rat.

Since I was almost out of my head with alarm anyway, I started laughing.

"You got a flat tire or something, Bruno?" I asked. "I can't imagine what else you'd be doing out here in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain."

"I was waiting for you, bitch."

I wasn't sure where Pam was, and I couldn't spare the brainpower to search for her. "Language, Bruno! I don't think you know me well enough to call me that. I guess you-all have someone watching Eric's house."

"We do. When we saw you two leaving together, it seemed like a good time to take care of a few things."

Corinna hadn't spoken still, but she was looking around her warily, and I realized she didn't know where Pam had gone. I grinned. "For the life of me, I don't know why you're doing all this. It seems like Victor should be glad to have someone as smart as Eric working for him. Why can't he appreciate that?" And leave us alone.

Bruno took a step closer to me. The light was too poor for me to make out his eye color, but I could tell he was still looking serious. I thought it was strange when Bruno took the time to answer me, but anything that bought us more time was good. "Eric is a great vampire. But Eric will never bow to Victor, not really. And he's accumulating his own power at a pace that makes Victor anxious. He's got you, for one thing. Your great-grandfather may have sealed himself away, but who's to say he won't come back? And Eric can use your stupid ability whenever he chooses. Victor doesn't want Eric to have that advantage." And then Bruno had his hands around my neck. He'd moved so quickly I couldn't possibly react, and I knew vaguely over the pounding in my ears that there was a sudden and violent commotion going on to my left. I reached behind me to pull the knife, but we were suddenly down in the tall, wet grass at the edge of the shoulder, and I kicked my leg up and over, and pushed, trying to get on top. I kind of overdid it, because we began rolling down into the drainage ditch. That was a pity, because it was filling with water. Bruno couldn't drown, but I sure could. Wrenching my shoulder with the force of my effort, I yanked the knife out of my skirt when I rotated to the top, and as we rolled yet again I saw dark spots in front of my eyes. I knew this was my last chance. I stabbed Bruno up under his ribs.

And I killed him.

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