Home > Dead as a Doornail (Sookie Stackhouse #5)(2)

Dead as a Doornail (Sookie Stackhouse #5)(2)
Author: Charlaine Harris

"It looks like I better get moving," I told Sweetie.

She gave me a quick smile and turned back to the griddle. The cowed teenager, whose name I had yet to catch, gave me a ducked-head nod and went back to loading the dishwasher.

I wished Sam had called me before things had gotten so busy; I wouldn't have minded coming in a little earlier. Of course, he wasn't exactly himself tonight. I began checking the tables in my section, getting fresh drinks and clearing off food baskets, collecting money and bringing change.

"Barmaid! Bring me a Red Stuff!" The voice was unfamiliar, and the order was unusual. Red Stuff was the cheapest artificial blood, and only the newest vampires would be caught dead asking for it. I got a bottle from the clear-fronted refrigerator and stuck it in the microwave. While it warmed, I scanned the crowd for the vamp. He was sitting with my friend Tara Thornton. I'd never seen him before, which was worrisome. Tara'd been dating an older vampire (much older: Franklin Mott had been older than Tara in human years before he died, and he'd been a vampire for over three hundred years), and he'd been giving her lavish gifts - like a Camaro. What was she doing with this new guy? At least Franklin had nice manners.

I put the warm bottle on a tray and carried it over to the couple. The lighting in Merlotte's at night isn't particularly bright, which is how patrons like it, and it wasn't until I'd gotten quite near that I could appreciate Tara's companion. He was slim and narrow shouldered with slicked-back hair. He had long fingernails and a sharp face. I supposed that, in a way, he was attractive - if you like a liberal dose of danger with your sex.

I put the bottle down in front of him and glanced uncertainly at Tara. She looked great, as usual. Tara is tall, slim, and dark haired, and she has a wardrobe of wonderful clothes. She'd overcome a truly horrible childhood to own her own business and actually join the chamber of commerce. Then she started dating the wealthy vampire, Franklin Mott, and she quit sharing her life with me.

"Sookie," she said, "I want you to meet Franklin's friend Mickey." She didn't sound like she wanted us to meet. She sounded like she wished I'd never come over with Mickey's drink. Her own glass was almost empty, but she said, "No," when I asked her if she was ready for another.

I exchanged a nod with the vampire; they don't shake hands, not normally. He was watching me as he took a gulp from the bottled blood, his eyes as cold and hostile as a snake's. If he was a friend of the ultra-urbane Franklin, I was a silk purse. Hired hand, more like. Maybe a bodyguard? Why would Franklin give Tara a bodyguard?

She obviously wasn't going to talk openly in front of this slimeball, so I said, "Catch you later," and took Mickey's money to the till.

I was busy all night, but in the spare moments I had, I thought about my brother. For a second night, he was out frolicking under the moon with the other beasties. Sam had taken off like a shot the moment Terry Bellefleur arrived, though his office wastebasket was full of crumpled tissues. His face had been tense with anticipation.

It was one of those nights that made me wonder how the humans around me could be so oblivious to the other world operating right beside ours. Only willful ignorance could ignore the charge of magic in the air. Only a group lack of imagination could account for people not wondering what went on in the dark around them.

But not too long ago, I reminded myself, I'd been as willfully blind as any of the crowd in Merlotte's. Even when the vampires had made their carefully coordinated worldwide announcement that their existence was fact, few authorities or citizens seemed to take the next mental step: If vampires exist, what else could be lurking just outside the edge of the light?

Out of curiosity, I began to dip into the brains around me, testing to see their fears. Most of the people in the bar were thinking about Mickey. The women, and some of the men, were wondering what it would be like to be with him. Even stick-in-the-mud lawyer Portia Bellefleur was peeking around her conservative beau to study Mickey. I could only wonder at these speculations. Mickey was terrifying. That negated any physical attraction I might have felt toward him. But I had lots of evidence that the other humans in the bar didn't feel the same way.

I've been able to read minds all my life. The ability is no great gift. Most peoples' minds don't bear reading. Their thoughts are boring, disgusting, disillusioning, but very seldom amusing. At least Bill had helped me learn how to cut out some of the buzz. Before he'd given me some clues, it had been like tuning in to a hundred radio stations simultaneously. Some of them had come in crystal clear, some had been remote, and some, like the thoughts of shape-shifters, had been full of static and obscurity. But they'd all added up to cacophony. No wonder lots of people had treated me as a half-wit.

Vampires were silent. That was the great thing about vamps, at least from my point of view: They were dead. Their minds were dead, too. Only once in a coon's age did I get any kind of flash from a vampire mind.

Shirley Hunter, my brother's boss at his parish roadwork job, asked me where Jason was when I brought a pitcher of beer to his table. Shirley was universally known as "Catfish."

"Your guess is as good as mine," I said mendaciously, and he winked at me. The first guess as to where Jason was always involved a woman, and the second guess usually included another woman. The tableful of men, still in their working clothes, laughed more than the answer warranted, but then they'd had a lot of beer.

I raced back to the bar to get three bourbon-and-Cokes from Terry Bellefleur, Portia's cousin, who was working under pressure. Terry, a Vietnam vet with a lot of physical and emotional scars, appeared to be holding up well on this busy night. He liked simple jobs that required concentration. His graying auburn hair was pulled back in a ponytail and his face was intent as he plied the bottles. The drinks were ready in no time, and Terry smiled at me as I put them on my tray. A smile from Terry was a rare thing, and it warmed me.

Just as I was turning with my tray resting on my right hand, trouble erupted. A Louisiana Tech student from Ruston got into a one-on-one class war with Jeff LaBeff, a redneck who had many children and made a kind of living driving a garbage truck. Maybe it was just a case of two stubborn guys colliding and really didn't have much to do with town vs. gown (not that we were that close to Ruston). Whatever the reason for the original quarrel, it took me a few seconds to realize the fight was going to be more than a shouting match.

In those few seconds, Terry tried to intervene. Moving quickly, he got between Jeff and the student and caught firm hold of both their wrists. I thought for a minute it would work, but Terry wasn't as young or as active as he had been, and all hell broke loose.

"You could stop this," I said furiously to Mickey as I hurried past his and Tara's table on my way to try to make peace.

He sat back in his chair and sipped his drink. "Not my job," he said calmly.

I got that, but it didn't endear the vampire to me, especially when the student whirled and took a swing at me as I approached him from behind. He missed, and I hit him over the head with my tray. He staggered to one side, maybe bleeding a little, and Terry was able to subdue Jeff LaBeff, who was looking for an excuse to quit.

Incidents like this had been happening with more frequency, especially when Sam was gone. It was evident to me that we needed a bouncer, at least on weekend nights... and full-moon nights.

The student threatened to sue.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Mark Duffy," the young man said, clutching his head.

"Mark, where you from?"

"Minden."

I did a quick evaluation of his clothes, his demeanor, and the contents of his head. "I'm gonna enjoy calling your mama and telling her you took a swing at a woman," I said. He blanched and said no more about suing, and he and his buds left soon after. It always helps to know the most effective threat.

We made Jeff leave, too.

Terry resumed his place behind the bar and began dispensing drinks, but he was limping slightly and had a strained look in his face, which worried me. Terry's war experiences hadn't left him real stable. I'd had enough trouble for one night.

But of course the night wasn't over yet.

About an hour after the fight, a woman came into Merlotte's. She was plain and plainly dressed in old jeans and a camo coat. She had on boots that had been wonderful when they'd been new, but that had been a long time ago. She didn't carry a purse, and she had her hands thrust into her pockets.

There were several indicators that made my mental antennae twitch. First of all, this gal didn't look right. A local woman might dress like that if she were going hunting or doing farm work, but not to come to Merlotte's. For an evening out at the bar, most women fixed themselves up. So this woman was in a working mode; but she wasn't a whore by the same reasoning.

That meant drugs.

To protect the bar in Sam's absence, I tuned in to her thoughts. People don't think in complete sentences, of course, and I'm smoothing it out, but what was running through her head was along the order of: Three vials left getting old losing power gotta sell it tonight so I can get back to Baton Rouge and buy some more. Vampire in the bar if he catches me with vamp blood I'm dead. This town is a dump. Back to the city first chance I get.

She was a Drainer, or maybe she was just a distributor. Vampire blood was the most intoxicating drug on the market, but of course vamps didn't give it up willingly. Draining a vampire was a hazardous occupation, boosting prices of the tiny vials of blood to amazing sums.

What did the drug user get for parting with a lot of money? Depending on the age of the blood - that is, the time since it'd been removed from its owner - and the age of the vampire from whom the blood had been removed, and the individual chemistry of the drug user, it could be quite a lot. There was the feeling of omnipotence, the increased strength, acute vision, and hearing. And most important of all for Americans, an enhanced physical appearance.

Still, only an idiot would drink black-market vampire blood. For one thing, the results were notoriously unpredictable. Not only did the effects vary, but those effects could last anywhere from two weeks to two months. For another thing, some people simply went mad when the blood hit their system - sometimes homicidally mad. I'd heard of dealers who sold gullible users pig's blood or contaminated human blood. But the most important reason to avoid the black market in vamp blood was this: Vampires hated Drainers, and they hated the users of the drained blood (commonly known as bloodheads). You just don't want a vampire pissed off at you.

There weren't any off-duty police officers in Merlotte's that night. Sam was out wagging his tail somewhere. I hated to tip off Terry, because I didn't know how he'd react. I had to do something about this woman.

Truly, I try not to intervene in events when my only connection comes through my telepathy. If I stuck my oar in every time I learned something that would affect the lives around me (like knowing the parish clerk was embezzling, or that one of the local detectives took bribes), I wouldn't be able to live in Bon Temps, and it was my home. But I couldn't permit this scraggy woman to sell her poison in Sam's bar.

She perched on an empty barstool and ordered a beer from Terry. His gaze lingered on her. Terry, too, realized something was wrong about the stranger.

I came to pick up my next order and stood by her. She needed a bath, and she'd been in a house heated by a wood fireplace. I made myself touch her, which always improved my reception. Where was the blood? It was in her coat pocket. Good.

Without further ado, I dumped a glass of wine down her front.

"Dammit!" she said, jumping off the stool and patting ineffectually at her chest. "You are the clumsiest-ass woman I ever saw!"

" 'Scuse me," I said abjectly, putting my tray on the bar and meeting Terry's eyes briefly. "Let me put some soda on that." Without waiting for her permission, I pulled her coat down her arms. By the time she understood what I was doing and began to struggle, I had taken charge of the coat. I tossed it over the bar to Terry. "Put some soda on that, please," I said. "Make sure the stuff in her pockets didn't get wet, too." I'd used this ploy before. I was lucky it was cold weather and she'd had the stuff in her coat, not in her jeans pocket. That would have taxed my inventiveness.

Under the coat, the woman was wearing a very old Dallas Cowboys T-shirt. She began shivering, and I wondered if she'd been sampling more conventional drugs. Terry made a show of patting soda on the wine stain. Following my hint, he delved into the pockets. He looked down at his hand with disgust, and I heard a clink as he threw the vials in the trash can behind the bar. He returned everything else to her pockets.

She'd opened her mouth to shriek at Terry when she realized she really couldn't. Terry stared directly at her, daring her to mention the blood. The people around us watched with interest. They knew something was up, but not what, because the whole thing had gone down very quickly. When Terry was sure she wasn't going to start yelling, he handed me the coat. As I held it so she could slide her arms in, Terry told her, "Don't you come back here no more."

If we kept throwing people out at this rate, we wouldn't have many customers.

"You redneck son of a bitch," she said. The crowd around us drew in a collective breath. (Terry was almost as unpredictable as a bloodhead.)

"Doesn't matter to me what you call me," he said. "I guess an insult from you is no insult at all. You just stay away." I expelled a long breath of relief.

She shoved her way through the crowd. Everyone in the room marked her progress toward the door, even Mickey the vampire. In fact, he was doing something with a device in his hands. It looked like one of those cell phones that can take a picture. I wondered to whom he was sending it. I wondered if she'd make it home.

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