Darkness had just fallen on a chilly afternoon in winter as I stepped out of my recently- replaced back door. The security lights flicked on, blinding me just for a second. I still wasn't used to their glare; they were a new addition to my home, and I felt much safer knowing that no-one - and nothing - could sneak up on me unseen.
Although it was near freezing I took the time to lock the door carefully behind me, uttering a mental apology to the shade of my late Gran as I did so; I knew it was contrary to the rules of hospitality, but even she would have acknowledged that it was totally in line with the rules of survival, and I had learned in the last year that I definitely wanted to survive.
I was a little early for my shift at Merlotte's, so I also took a minute to stand back and admire the repair work to the rear of the house. No trace of the damage from the recent arson attack - Shurtliff Construction had done a real good job. I had been surprised how quickly they'd completed it - the original quotation had reckoned three to four months, but they'd worked as hard as any workmen I'd ever seen, and something under a month after the fire, I was back in my own home with a new kitchen, all-new appliances and a nice new enclosed back porch.
It hadn't taken as much of a toll on my bank balance as I thought it would, either. My insurance company had been pretty generous with the compensation and Gus Aubert, my insurance agent, had paid the deductible himself. Not that I'd asked him to, but I guess it was by way of being a guilt offering; I'd discovered that he'd been keeping claims down by protecting his clients with magic. Not exactly illegal, but not exactly ethical either.
Of course, he may have seen it as hush money, but there wasn't a lot of point - after all, who was I going to tell? The rest of the world had grown used to vampires, but still had their heads buried in the sand regarding anything else that might be out there. But I'd found that the trouble with burying your head in the sand is, things can sneak up and bite you in the ass…
Still, if his sense of shame led him to make some sort of reparation, that could only be to the good. It also meant I could afford a new car - well, new old, - and return Tara's loaner. My little blue Mazda was parked out front under the trees right now, and it was my pride and joy. It had a great heater too, which made a real pleasant change when the temperature dropped below thirty.
As I looked with satisfaction at the new siding and the fresh paint on the windows, I heard the sound of an engine approaching. A year ago, I'd have run to see who my visitor was, but now I didn't stir from the spot; instead, I looked round and checked my escape routes - yep, I could reach the surrounding trees in a few steps and Vampire Bill, my neighbour, would be up and about if I needed help.
I listened carefully. It sounded like a motorcycle, which might mean a Were; they loved all things Harley and Patrick Furnan, the local packmaster, owned a dealership. It was unlikely to be Alcide Herveaux, as I didn't think he rode a motorcycle, but I could be wrong. He hadn't been to see me since he'd asked me to move in with him and I'd turned him down. Now, maybe his absence meant he was being sensitive to my feelings or maybe it meant he was sulking because I'd wounded his manly pride, but either way I didn't know that I was ready to see him again yet. Yes, he was definitely hunkalicious, but I was still pissed that he had used me without my knowledge during the contest for the new packmaster. I did not like being manipulated.
I slowly made my way round the side of the house. The gravel crunched lightly under my Reeboks, and I stepped onto the grass bordering the trees instead, walking as quietly as I could until I could see who my visitor was. The liquid engine note grew louder as the bike approached up my long drive, but I didn't abandon my caution. What did make me suddenly high-tail it round to the front of the old house was the ominous sound of tires skidding on gravel, followed by a long, hideous and expensive-sounding crunch.
I rounded the corner at speed, but at first I couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. I hurriedly scanned the area and spotted a long, dark scar gouged out of my nice gravel drive. I followed the line with my eyes and gulped as I saw that it finished at my car.
Jesus Christ Shepherd of Judea! My beautiful new car was still where I'd left it, but it was raised at a strange angle, owing to the large motorcycle wedged firmly underneath it. Correction; the large motorcycle and rider wedged firmly underneath it, in a sort of gravel-leg-bike-leg-car triple-decker.
The trapped rider was kind of twisted, but mostly on his back. I could see his gloved hand moving, fluttering across the gas tank, but the motion was slow and fumbling. He was wearing a full-face helmet, but I could hear him cursing steadily. Okay, so at least he was still conscious. Conscious and pissed off.
Judge me if you like, but before I approached I had a good look round, with all my senses, and then checked him out mentally. I'd seen too much not to be careful when unexpected things happened, and I didn't trust anyone I didn't know. Sometimes I doubted the wisdom of trusting people I did know; only recently a work colleague had turned out to be a homicidal maniac, and a vampire that I'd thought would protect me had burned down part of my home and then tried to kill me.
But this guy's mind said he was a regular human - nothing Supe about him that I could detect - and at the moment his thoughts were awash with pain. Reassured and feeling slightly guilty, I hurried over to his side and knelt down, wincing slightly as my knees met the gravel through my thin black work pants.
"Where are you hurt?"
He stopped cursing and flipped up his visor, revealing a pair of dark eyes with strongly marked eyebrows. I couldn't see much else, as his cheeks were distorted by the padding in the helmet, but his voice was clear enough.
"Not sure, but I don't think it's too bad. My legs are trapped, but I can move my toes, so I don't think anything's broken. Can you call an ambulance?" I didn't recognise his accent, but he wasn't from around here, that was for sure.
I shrugged. "Sure, but it'll take a while for them to arrive. What can I do for you in the meanwhile? Are you bleeding at all?"
"No way of telling." He tried to move a little and hissed in pain. He wasn't going anyplace any time soon. I pulled out my phone and dialled nine-one-one. When Mindy-Ann Morrison, the local emergency despatcher answered, I told her what had happened, and I could hear her sucking her teeth with regret.
"I'm real sorry, honey, the Clarice ambulance has just this minute gone to bring Emmeline Delapre into hospital - she's in labour with her first and her worthless, no-good husband's taken their car and she says he's out getting blind drunk in a bar somewhere." I cursed silently; that was the problem with a small parish like Renard - we only ran to one ambulance. Getting one over from Grainger would take an hour or more. She continued, "it'll be forty minutes minimum before they can get to you."
"Then could you send the fire department meantime? I think … hold on would you?" The biker was signalling me. "What?"
"Tell them to hurry the fuck up!"
I refrained from rolling my eyes. Just. "Did you hear that Miz Morrison? He's asking if they could hurry, please." I think I kept the 'what the fuck does he think they're gonna do? Stop to pick flowers?' tone out of my voice, but maybe not...
"Why sure, darlin'. They'll be with you in twenty." She rang off and I turned back to the biker. He was glaring at me, and I opened my mouth to say something sarcastic about his manners, and stopped. And sniffed the air. Oh crap.
"Yeah. Now can you see why I want 'em to hurry the fuck up?" His tone was dry, and he gestured to where I could now see a dark trickle emerging from somewhere underneath the mass of man and metal. Gasoline. This was not good.
I thought fast. I couldn't leave him lying there for twenty minutes - who knew what would happen if that gas reached hot engine parts. I needed to get him out of there. Bill would be the best solution - a quick call to him and he'd be here in a New York minute and lift the car clean off the guy. Also, he was a mainstreamer, so if there was any blood around, he could probably resist the temptation to feed.
I explained as I dialled that I was calling a neighbour to come help. I didn't know his attitude towards Supes, but he didn't have to know Bill was a vampire yet, and he'd probably be too grateful to object if he did have any issues. I listened for my ex-boyfriend's familiar dark tones, but he didn't pick up.
He had to be awake by now - beyond the security lights the sky was completely dark and the fireflies were dancing under the trees - but there was just the endless ringing. That was odd - Bill had been away a lot recently, but he usually told me if he was travelling and asked me to keep an eye on his place, and he hadn't said anything the last time I'd seen him.
Whatever the reason, I had to think of something else. The gasoline smell was getting stronger, and the ominous trickle had nearly reached the biker's leathers. I couldn't wait any longer. I looked around and tried to think of a plan. There was no way I could drag him out from under - he was wedged in there like a whaler's harpoon.
Get some rope and try to drag the car off him? No, that wouldn't work, I didn't have anything that wouldn't snap. I could call Jason to bring his truck - he had a winch on the front of it, and there were always chains and bits of rope in the back. I hit speed dial and breathed a sigh of relief when my brother answered.
"Hey Sook, how you doin'?"
"I'm fine, but I need you to come over here as quick as you can." I explained the position, and he grasped the point instantly, bless him.
He didn't waste time on questions but simply said, "I'll be there in five. You hold on now, and stay away from him, you hear? If the bike goes up I don't want you going up with it. Crystal! Crystal, have you seen my boots?" He put the phone down before I could hear his girlfriend's reply, and I turned back to the injured man.
"My brother will be over in five minutes. He'll be able to help. Do you need a blanket?" The air temperature was dropping rapidly and I was starting to shiver in spite of my new warm coat. The cold was probably striking up through the gravel he was lying on, but he shook his head.
"What can your brother do to help?"
"He's got a big truck with a winch and he'll be able to tow the car off of you." Just then my cell rang and it was Jason. "Sorry, Sook, my truck's got a flat, and it'll take at least fifteen minutes to change it for the spare. I'll be awhile. Maybe you should call the fire depart …"
" I already did. Thanks anyway."
I rang off and considered my options. I didn't have many; I could only think of one thing that might work. I'd had vampire blood quite recently, and it was still dancing merrily round my system. Maybe … I crouched by the injured man again. "Is there any way you could push from underneath with your arms while I try to lift the car off you?"
His eyes widened. "Are you out of your fucking mind? The engine-block alone has to weigh four hundred pounds! Can't you find someone else to help?"
"Not with the amount of time we've got. You'll just have to trust me on this." I straightened up and fished my car keys out of my pocket. I opened the door carefully, trying not to jolt him, and reached inside.
"What are you doing? Don't start it - you'll barbecue us!"
His tone was panicky and now I did roll my eyes. "I'm not starting it - I'm putting it in neutral and releasing the handbrake. I can't shift it otherwise."
"You can't shift it anyway - what are you, superwoman?"
"Maybe." I didn't waste any more time arguing with him, but stood back and considered my options. It might be best if … there was a rush of air and a vampire landed gently on the drive in front of the house. It was Eric, the gorgeous local head honcho, with whom I had a slightly chequered history. He strolled towards me, completely ignoring the trapped man.
"Eric." I made no attempt to hide my relief - he was incredibly old and incredibly strong, and would be able to lift the car with no problems. If it suited him to do so. Because that was the problem; as well as being incredibly old and incredibly strong, Eric was incredibly self-centred, and didn't give a rat's ass about anything but himself and his own interests.
Well, maybe that wasn't quite true - he had done one or two things for me recently. He'd bought me a new coat and had my drive re-gravelled, and he'd lent my boss a bartender when Sam had been shot, but that was probably for his own reasons - he'd said he liked having Sam owing him a favour.
Still, that wasn't important right now. I needed his help, and it was worth a shot…
I forced myself to smile. "I'm really glad to see you."
His mobile eyebrows went up. "That's unusual. Why?"
I gestured at the trapped biker. "This guy's trapped - I need you to lift the car off of him."
"Uh … because he's hurt?"
He made a 'go on, I'm listening gesture' and I realised he genuinely didn't understand why that should matter to me. I tried again. "There's gasoline everywhere and I'm worried that my new car might go up in flames. I can't afford another one. Please will you help me?"
"I might be willing to - in return for a favour from you."
Now I was starting to get pissed, but time was growing short and there was no sign of Jason or the fire department. I gritted my teeth. "What did you have in mind?"
"Oh, nothing difficult. Not for you."
I waited for a little more information, but Eric could outwait an unplugged toaster… "So, should I just guess what you want?"
"Would that amuse you?"
"No! Come on, Eric, it'll take, like, ten seconds of your time to move that car. Why shouldn't you help me? I've helped you enough in the past."
"You were paid for that."
"I've told you before, that was Jason's idea. I'd have done it for …" I stopped but he smiled triumphantly.
"You'd have done it for free?"
"Well, a lot less than Jason suggested. Look, can we discuss this after you've moved the car? Please? We're running out of time here."
"First give me your word. If you want me to help you, you must help me. I'm not asking for anything you haven't done before."
"You expect me to agree to just anything? I'm not an idiot Eric, and I've told you before I don't like being exploited."
"And I've told you before, I will always be straightforward in my exploitation of you. Can you deny it?"
Well, wouldn't that just cream your corn? Reluctantly, I had to admit, "I guess not. You're usually pretty up front about exploiting me." A groan from the biker and a glance at my watch decided me. I sighed. "Okay, if it's just more mind-reading, I'll go along with it, but usual rules apply - no-one gets hurt because of what I tell you. Agreed?"
"Agreed. You might even enjoy it, this time."
"Yeah, yeah, you can tell me what a laugh riot it's gonna be after you've moved the car!" I gestured impatiently and Eric finally turned his attention to the heap of bike and car and rider.
"Hmm." As he studied the situation, the trapped man tried to explain what had happened, but Eric ignored him as though he was just a part of the scenery. He took his time inspecting the pile-up from all sides, even crouching down and looking underneath as best he could, and I was growing real twitchy before he straightened up.
Then he levitated into the air and landed on top of the car, studying the picture from that point of view. The roof creaked and buckled under his two hundred pounds and change, the biker yelled with pain, and again Eric ignored him completely. He took his time looking around, and I guessed he was enjoying making me wait.
"Eric, if that car goes up in flames, so will you." He frowned at me for spoiling his fun with a healthy dose of reality, and floated back to the ground.
"If I move the car, it'll simply bring the bike with it - they're jammed together. You hold the bike and pull it free while I lift the car. Are you strong enough to do that?"
I shrugged. "I guess." He smirked slightly at the knowledge of exactly why I was strong enough to do that – his blood was stronger than almost anybody's because of his age - but for a wonder he didn't make any further comment. I stepped forward, avoiding the rider and taking a grip on the handlebars.
Eric grasped the door frame and lifted the car a few inches. He shook it hard, I gritted my teeth and yanked the bike, and the two separated, the rider falling to the ground as his legs came free. He groaned and fell back in a dead faint, which was probably the best thing that could have happened to him, considering what he'd just gone through. His leathers and boots looked intact, thank goodness, so he might have got away without too much damage, and I couldn't see any blood. This was just as well, as although Eric was old enough to resist drinking if he needed to, I wasn't sure he'd see the need to on this occasion.
Eric placed my car carefully on the gravel at a little distance, facing down the drive, while I tried to disentangle the biker from his machine before he regained consciousness. I was going real slow and careful, trying not to make the guy's injuries worse, but suddenly I yelped in surprise as Eric simply lifted me out of the way and pulled the bike free with one hand. Then he tossed it to the side and turned away, more interested in wiping his fingers free of oil with a large handkerchief than in the fact that it bounced off a large tree with a crash before ending up in a mangled heap on its side.
"There. I can't tell how much damage was done to the underside of your car, so you'd better call a mechanic before you drive it again. Now, about my favour."
"Just a minute. I need to see to this guy." I crouched next to the still figure, who was now lying face down, and checked his mind. He wasn't dead, but he was definitely unconscious. I tried to remember my First Aid lessons from school. First, don't move the casualty. Huh, looking at that in the rear view mirror ... Don't remove any helmet - it might be protecting a head injury. Okay, That I can do. Put him in recovery position. Well, I could do that too, but I didn't want him inhaling fumes, so I hooked my hands in his armpits and began towing him away from the pool of gasoline.
Eric tsked with impatience and pushed me out of the way again. He picked up the prone man by the waist of his leather pants and carried him across to some grass on the other side of my drive where he dropped him, causing me to wince in sympathy before turning to face me. "Who is he, anyway?"
I shrugged. "No idea. I was out back, I heard a bike engine, then a crash and that's what I saw when I got here. His accent isn't local; why don't y'all check his licence plates?"
He crouched down to make out the writing "It says Great Faces, Great Places. What does that mean?"
I knew this one. "That's a state slogan - it means Mount Rushmore, which is South Dakota."
"What?" Eric's eyebrows drew into a frown and he turned to glare at the unconscious man.
"What's the problem? Do you know something about South Dakota?"
"It's … complicated. Maybe even more so than I'd thought." So what was new? Things were always complicated in the Supe world. "I'll tell you inside."
"Not yet, I have to wait for Catfish and the others - tell them what happened."
The fire chief. I called the fire department when Bill didn't answer my phonecall."
"Bill's away on business."
"I guessed. So now my car's out of action I'll need to call Sam to see if someone can give me a ride into work. Speaking of which, can we talk about this favour after I've finished my shift? I'm already late as the White Rabbit."
He shook his head. "Now. The shifter can wait - I told him not to expect you on time."
"What? You told Sam … when? … and why would he agree? What's going on, Eric?"
"I've been trying to tell you but you seem to be fixated on trivia. Now, come inside where I can talk to you."
I lifted my chin. "No. Not until I'm sure the biker's gonna be okay."
Eric sighed. "Will you talk if I heal him?"
"Yes." Then I thought again. "But healing him doesn't mean I owe you another favour, okay?"
"You're stubborn as a mule. Alright, I'll heal him, then we talk." He walked across to the biker rolling up his sleeve as he went, and his arm glowed white in the security lights. I watched him bite into his own wrist and drip a few ruby drops slowly between the lips of the injured man. There was a risk the V would send him psychotic, but he seemed to be lucky; he regained consciousness almost immediately, and sat up, staring into Eric's eyes as the vampire glamoured him and ordered him to remain where he was. Then he rose from his crouch and came back over to me.
"Satisfied? He's fine now, so there's no need for you to concern yourself. He won't move until I tell him to, so now we can talk."
"What about Catfish? He'll be here soon with the fire engine and the jaws of life and all..."
"Then you can explain, he'll write a report and that'll be the last you hear of it."
Somehow I doubted that, but I couldn't see what else I could do, so I shrugged and led the way up onto my porch. In spite of the cold I didn't invite him in; I didn't know how he would feel being back in my house, but I wasn't at all comfortable with my memories of what we'd got up to in there. Including, but not limited to, epic sex in every room and the killing of Debbie Pelt in the kitchen. He knew all about it in theory - I'd told him - but he had no memory of that time. So we sat on the porch swing, me shivering in spite of my red coat, him completely indifferent to the cold.
"Okay Eric, tell me what it is I've agreed to."
"I need you to come on a trip with me."
"To the summit? I thought we'd already settled that." Eric had asked to hire my services in early March to attend a meeting of local vampire rulers. I'd said I'd do it, and had been working extra shifts at Merlotte's to bank enough time so that the other waitresses wouldn't mind covering for me.
"No, we're going to a place called Pringle."
"Pringle? Like the potato chip?"
He looked puzzled momentarily. "I … suppose so. But this is a place near one of your National Parks."
"Okay, so when were you thinking of going to Pringle?"
"We will be leaving at first dark tomorrow night."
"What? Not a hope! There's no way I can get even more time off work - Sam will go postal."
"No he didn't. He agreed."
"So you've already asked him." I couldn't even be bothered to make that sound like a question. I should have known.
One eyebrow lifted. "Obviously. He objected at first, but then I reminded him of the favour he owed me and he acknowledged the debt. You'll like it in Pringle - it's near the Wind Cave National Park, an area of great natural beauty, rich in wildlife with many interesting rock formations and …"
It sounded as though he was quoting a travel brochure from memory. I broke in. "But we're not going there for the sight-seeing, are we? Cut to the chase Eric, and tell me why we're going to Pringle."
"We're going there to see Hot Rain. He lives in the Wind Cave National Park."
"Hot Rain? The guy who tried to have me killed? What makes you think I'd go within a thousand miles of him?"
"Because you gave me your word." Damn, he had me there. He continued, "I can't allow him to make attempts on the lives of people I … find of interest. I paid him compensation for the death of Longshadow, that should have been enough. It was done through the correct channels, but he's still not satisfied, so now I need to be a … little more direct." His fangs showed briefly, and I shuddered at the thought of Eric being 'direct'. Who knew what horrors those simple words could hide?
"But how can I help you? He's a vampire, and you know I can't read them."
"Because my spies tell me that he tried using a vampire against me and it failed, so he's now turning to other races. And you can read them - at least partially."
"You have spies in Windy Cave wherever?"
"The Wind Cave National Park. Of course. As soon as I realised he was still a threat to me, I borrowed Rose-Anne from Salome - she's the same racial heritage as Hot Rain, and she's been in South Dakota for nearly a month."
I gestured to where the biker was sitting staring into nothingness. "So that's why this dude freaked you out with his licence plates?"
He nodded. "Correct. I need to find out who he is and why he's here before I make any further moves."
"Okay, I get that. But he couldn't have been coming to attack me in some way - just charging up my drive on a Harley isn't exactly sneaky."
"Agreed. Which is why I need to find out what his business is." He beckoned to the biker who got up and walked towards us. He didn't even glance at the wreck of his beautiful bike as he passed it. Eric stood up and towered over the man, who was now revealed as being quite short and stocky.
"What's your name and where are you from?"
He answered in the calm, level voice I'd heard before from glamoured folk. "I'm Oscar Getz and I'm from Sioux Falls."
"What do you want with Sookie Stackhouse?"
The man's brow wrinkled. "Huh?" He seemed honestly puzzled by the question, so Eric re-phrased.
"What do you want with this woman?"
"What? Then why are you here?"
"I was making a delivery to the address next door but no-one was in. I didn't want to leave the box on the stoop, and I saw this house's lights through the trees, so I came around here to see if anyone would take delivery for the owner."
"Where is this box?"
"In my pannier."
Eric flashed across to the bike and rooted in the side panniers, which were pretty solid, and seemed to have escaped most of the damage. They were locked, but he simply ripped the top off and came back with a package about a foot square, wrapped in brown paper and addressed clearly to W Compton in bold black handwriting. There were no other marks that I could see.
Eric and I looked at each other. "What should we do?" I said.
He shrugged. He seemed to have lost interest now that he knew Oscar had no business with me. "Leave it on the porch. Bill can pick it up when he comes back."
"You don't think it's a coincidence that Bill's getting deliveries from South Dakota just when you've got issues with someone who lives there?"
"We don't know the package is from South Dakota, just the courier, but you may be right." He handed the box to me. "Open it."
"I can't do that – it's addressed to Bill."
"So?" Eric was not big on boundaries.
"You can't tamper with the mail – it's a federal offence."
He made a vulgar sound expressing his opinion of federal authority.
"And Bill will know we've opened it."
"Even if you don't open it, he'll detect your scent. You have nothing to lose."
"So why don't you open it?"
"Because my scent is only on the wrapping paper. If you burn that, you can claim that when you found the box there was no address on it and you naturally thought it was for you. Getz will be long gone, and if Bill is suspicious he can question this Catfish person; he'll be able to confirm what happened. I'll put the bike and courier back under the car …"
"What? ?" I couldn't believe my ears but I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised. Eric had always regarded humans as commodities; some more useful than others, but on the whole pretty disposable.
He said, "I don't want to appear in this at all, so I'll put things back the way they were before I arrived."
"You can't do that!"
"Why not? The bike engine has cooled down so there's no risk of fire to your car; Getz has been glamoured so he won't feel any pain and I'll instruct him to forget I was here; and the fire department can have the fun of using their 'jaws of life', whatever they are, and the pleasure of feeling useful to somebody." His tone was somewhat dry, but I couldn't fault his argument.
I couldn't think of any other objections, and time was a-wasting, so I shrugged and tore the paper off the package. Inside was a carton with a lid. On the lid were printed the words The Day Of The Dead. I looked at Eric but his face clearly showed his lack of understanding.
I'd seen enough movies to know not to open strange packages without precautions, so I put it down on the porch and picked up an umbrella that was leaning against the siding. Gingerly I poked at the box from arm's length until it fell on its side, facing away from me and the lid came off.
I waited a few minutes, but Eric started to huff and tap his watch, so I stepped around to the open side, hunkered down at a distance, and peered in.
"Jesus Christ Shepherd of Judea!"
What the hell did I do now?
To Be Continued…
Well, there you have it – a little Hallowe'en treat for you. I hope you enjoy it.
Incidentally, in case any of you are interested, I have just published my first book on Amazon. It's called An Innocent Heart by Merryl Anderson, and is a re-working of Immortal Beloved, for those of you who remember that story. IB was so huge that I've split it up into several volumes and this is the first.
You were always so generous to me with your support, and I'd really appreciate it if you could let your friends know my book is now available, as if there's enough interest I'll produce it in paperback and add the next volume.
Obviously, I've had to do a massive re-write, and you've no idea how hard it was to come up with a hero as faboo as our beloved Eric, but what would you say to a sexy Spanish pirate with green eyes and a huge cutlass … ? *wink*
See you soon, I hope.