Sorry about that - ff must have had a moment, and formatted the chapter really strangely. Try again...


In an instant Eric was kneeling beside me, peering into the box. "What is it?"

I gulped. "It's money."

And it was. Lots and lots of tightly packed bundles of money.

Eric broke the silence. "How much is in there?"

Of all the questions bubbling up in my mind, that didn't even make the top five. I was thinking more, who was sending Bill large amounts of cash? And why? And what should I do with it? I really didn't want it in my home, but I didn't know when he was coming back. Should I call him? Because then he'd know I'd opened his package. "I don't know."

"Well, count it."

"Why should I?"

"Because I want to know how much is there."

"Then you count it."

A sigh. "Bill will scent me on it if I do. He won't be surprised to smell you; In fact, he'll probably enjoy it."

Eeww. The mental picture of Bill sniffing money just to pick up my scent was … slightly disturbing. I shrugged the image away and gingerly picked up one of the bundles. It was all hundred-dollar bills, and flicking through it, there were about fifty. There looked to be at least fifty bundles in the carton, which meant…

"Geez, I think there's about a quarter of a million dollars in here! What would Bill be doing with that much cash?"

"I don't know, but…" He broke off and raised his head, his whole body on alert. "They're coming." And he was gone from my side before I could ask who, but I realised he must have heard the approach of the firetruck. Working almost too fast for me to see, he grabbed the biker and his Harley and positioned them back in the puddle of gasoline, re-constructing the crash scene. He handed Oscar his helmet and gave him some orders in a quiet murmur, while he put it on. The biker nodded obediently and lay back and then, to my horror, Eric leaned on his leg and snapped it like a carrot stick! The sound of the breaking bone was almost, but not quite masked by my gasp of shock. Oscar himself didn't make a sound or move a muscle, but I couldn't believe what I'd just seen!

"Eric! What the hell are you doing?"

He looked up. "With a crash like this, the firecrew will be suspicious if they find no injuries at all."

"But you've only just healed him!"

"So?" While he was talking to me he was lifting my car back into place, carefully replicating the earlier scene. The biker didn't so much as blink as the car was repositioned, even though the pressure must have been enormous and the pain on his newly-broken leg excruciating. As I watched, I heard the faint sound of a siren approaching, and then Eric was walking back to me.

"Wasn't that kind of a waste, now you've injured him again?"

He shrugged as he stepped up onto the porch. "That's what I thought, but you wouldn't talk with me until he was healed."

"Well, you'd better heal him again when the firecrew have gone."

He snorted in derision. "Don't be ridiculous. They'll insist on justifying their visit by helping him, and will probably summon an ambulance. And that will be very convenient."

"For who?"

"For me, of course. I haven't finished questioning him, but if he was fit and well, he'd just go home wherever that is. Now, he isn't going anywhere – he'll be in a hospital for at least a couple of days, and I'll be able to finish the interrogation at my leisure." He frowned. "We may have to re-think our trip to South Dakota, depending on what I find out from him." He carefully replaced the lid on the carton of money and stood up saying, "I'll see you later. Come to Fangtasia after your shift finishes and we'll talk some more."

"I thought you didn't want your scent on… hey! Give that back!" He was about to fly off with the cash, I just knew it!

"I said I'll see you later. I can't stay now, they'll be here in a second."

"But you can't just take all that money!"

"I suggested leaving it on Bill's porch but you didn't like the idea. Do you want it in your house?"

"Well, no, but…"

"I've got a safe at Fangtasia. I'll keep it there and Bill can pick it up when he comes back."

"He'll go berserk when he finds out you've got his money!"

His grin was one of unholy amusement. "I know. He hates coming to Fangtasia at the best of times, and he'll hate having to beg me for his money even more. Pam will have hysterics when I tell her. Now, get rid of that wrapping paper before the fire crew arrive." And he took off, disappearing from view just as I heard the crunch of gravel from the firetruck turning onto my drive.

I put my annoyance on one side and stuffed the tell-tale wrapping paper behind the cushions on the porch swing before I hurried over to Oscar. I crouched next to him, trying to look as though I'd been there all along, while he lay with his eyes closed, either unconscious or faking it at Eric's command. I straightened up as the beams from the approaching headlights caught me, and shaded my eyes from the dazzle.

The fire truck pulled up and several guys including Catfish jumped out and looked around them. I greeted them with relief, saying, "thank goodness you've arrived – I was worried his bike was gonna explode or something before you got here. He's still unconscious." Then I retreated to the porch and left them to work.

Catfish inspected the situation, gave some brisk orders, and then joined me on the porch while his men got to work. He was just about to sit down on the swing when I said, hurriedly, "Come on inside, I need a hot drink - I've been out here a while and it's cold as blue flujens. " I shivered theatrically, to make my point, and he hesitated, glancing back at his men.

His mind wasn't suspicious – at least, not more so than most people's when visiting at my place these days – but he really wanted to stay and supervise, so I said, "Do you want something to keep out the cold? I know you've trained your team well enough so they know what all to do." He brightened at the suggestion, so I moved to the front door and unlocked it, giving him no time to argue.

I sat him in the front parlour and made hot drinks for us both, spicing them up with a little Southern Comfort - I hadn't been lying – it was seriously cold out there. Then I told my story without mentioning Eric or the money. At the start he kept looking towards the door, as though anxious to get back to his men, but as the spirits warmed him through, he started to relax. I could pick up the minds of the men outside as they worked, and before long the ambulance siren could be heard in the distance.

Catfish had mostly finished quizzing me by then – my tale was straightforward enough – so he went back out on the porch to meet the ambulance crew. Or maybe he just didn't want to be seen warming himself inside while his men were out in the cold. So colour me cynical….

They'd lifted my car away and got Oscar on a stretcher by then, and he'd come around a little. He wasn't saying much, but what he did say matched my story. He didn't mention the money either (I guess at Eric's instruction) and just said he'd lost his way and had been hoping for directions before skidding on my gravel. He kept it short, between gasps of (possibly fake) pain and when they asked him what he'd been doing in these parts he conveniently fainted again.

At last he was stretchered into the ambulance and they took off for Clarice, while Catfish and his men began to put their equipment away. They hadn't been as careful with my poor car as Eric, and had simply rolled it on its side to free Oscar. I begged them to right it before they left, and four of them pushed it until it dropped and bounced back onto its tires.

I thanked them politely, and asked for a lift to Merlotte's, as I agreed with Eric about getting the all-clear from a mechanic, but they looked at Catfish and he shook his head, muttering something about civilians on board municipal firetrucks.

"But you're civilians too – this is a volunteer force!" I protested. "Dane runs the supermarket, Maury's a veterinarian and Pete works on the roads with Jason. Surely you've got room for me – it's not even out of your way."

But they weren't having any of it, and two minutes later they were heading off down the drive, scattering my new gravel all to blazes as they went. So that left me with a wrecked Harley, a damaged car and no means of getting to work. And to think I'd thought that things had been looking up some as I'd gotten ready for work this evening.

I stared after them and huffed with exasperation, then went back inside, remembering to take the wrapping paper Catfish had nearly sat on. I put it on the fire that was still smouldering low in the parlour and then called Sam to tell him what had happened. By then it was close on six and things were hotting up at Merlotte's with the after-work drinkers and diners, so he couldn't spare anyone to come get me, but by the grace of God Jason pulled up out front while I was talking to Sam, and I got a lift off of him. He was sorry he hadn't been able to help, and at least he called a mechanic to come check my car over in the morning and loaded the wreckage of the Harley into the back of his truck. He said he'd keep it safe until the owner could claim it, which was a relief to me.

When I finally reached Merlotte's it was heaving, and Sam didn't have time for conversation; he just gave me one look which said, "I know Eric is involved in this somehow, and I'm not happy about it." I smiled back sweetly, stashed my purse and coat in his office and headed for my section. His wounded leg was mostly better, but I could tell he was still in pain, so I charitably put his bad mood down to that.

Arlene passed by on her way to the bar and whispered, "you've got something on the knees of your pants, hon. What have you been doing? And why were you kneeling down to do it?" Her raised eyebrows hinted at all sorts of unspeakable possibilities, and I looked down to see that my black work pants were streaked with dirt and stained with what was probably gasoline.

I shrugged, and said, "My car broke down and I had to get a lift from Jason. I didn't want to take the time to change my pants – I figured I'd be needed here." I looked around. "You look pretty pushed to me."

"Hell yeah, I've been busier than a tornado in a trailer park tonight." She had the grace to blush slightly as I raised an eyebrow – it hadn't been that long sing the Rattrays' trailer had been destroyed by a very localised tornado (called Bill Compton, but she wasn't to know that) and she hurriedly changed the subject. She looked round the room full of thirsty customers and she tossed her red hair. "I swear someone must have turned over a log somewhere because half the vermin in Louisiana seem to have rolled up here tonight." Then she was gone, making her way between tables to pick up her next order. I sighed mentally, took my order pad out of my apron pocket, plastered a bright smile on my face and went to my first table, hoping they wouldn't notice the state of my pants….

I needn't have worried; everyone was too thirsty to care about what I was wearing just as long as I kept the drinks coming. It was crowded, hot and noisy in Merlotte's tonight, and Arlene was right – there did seem to be a whole heap of truckers, loggers and road crews in, as well as the usual crowd. Sam had a new short order cook, Janie-May, who seemed competent and got the orders right which was all he asked really, but even so we were pretty hard pressed at times. I barely had a chance to stop and look around me all evening, and it didn't seem like more than an hour had passed before the last patron was staggering hiccupping into the night and Sam was cashing up.

Arlene had already gone and I was wiping down the last of the tables in my section when I felt cold air on the back of my neck as the door opened behind me. I turned to say, "I'm sorry, we're closed," but the words died in my throat. Pam was standing in the doorway. She wasn't wearing her street clothes tonight – instead she had on a tight black leather catsuit and six-inch stiletto heels, which meant she'd probably come straight from Fangtasia, where Eric liked her to dress the part. She couldn't have looked more cliché'd if she'd tried, and I think she knew it. She nodded briefly to me, ignored Sam, and sat down in the nearest booth.

I hurried over. "Pam, why are you here? Is everything okay? Is Eric okay?"

She raised an eyebrow, in exact imitation of her maker, and her tone was dry as she said, "would you care if he wasn't?"

I wasn't about to answer that question – not even to myself. "Never mind that. Why are you here?"

She leaned forward, narrowing her eyes, and her voice was dark and ominous, filled with menace. "I have come for you," she said.

The back of my neck prickled and the room seemed to chill for a moment. The primitive part of my brain moved my body a step backwards without waiting to consult the rational sections. Even though I saw Pam as someone I could almost call a friend, and she saw me as someone she could almost tolerate, I suddenly remembered that it really didn't do to take vampires for granted. "What do you mean, you've come for me?"

She leaned back in her seat again, the atmosphere lightened and her voice resumed its normal, slightly bored tone as she replied, "Eric said your car was out of action, so he sent me to give you lift."

"I can take her home," said Sam from behind the bar.

Pam ignored him and stood up. "I'll wait for you in the parking lot," she said and turned for the door.

I hurried to finish my clean-down and went for my purse and coat. Predictably, Sam followed me into his office. "You don't have to go with her," he said. "I can run you home."

I took a deep breath. "I'm not going straight home, I'm going to Fangtasia first." Equally predictably, he was furious.

"I might have known it. Why is it, every time the damn vamps snap their fingers you go a-running?"

"I could ask the same question of you, Sam Merlotte. How much of a fight did you put up when Eric asked you to give me time off?"

He scowled. "That's different. You know I owed Eric a favour."

I pulled my coat on, thankful that it hadn't got marked by the activities of the early evening. "And how do you know I don't owe him a favour? Anyhow, it's none of your beeswax; I've finished my shift and how I spend my leisure time is up to me."

He huffed but I ignored him and headed for the door. He'd just have to get over it.

Outside I was surprised to see Pam leaning against Eric's Corvette. I didn't think he let anyone else drive it, but I got into the passenger seat without comment, and buckled up just in time as Pam hit the gas and we exited the car park leaving a swirl of dust in the air and long streaks of rubber on the tarmac.

Once I'd caught my breath, adjusted to the speed and finished wondering how the hell she managed to drive in heels like that, I asked, "aren't you worried about getting a ticket?"

She shook her head. "Eric just thinks of them like tolls, or season tickets. His day guy pays them when he remembers to tell him. Mostly he forgets, though." She leaned over and flipped open the glove compartment, letting a miniature avalanche of citations spill out, all over my lap.

I stuffed them back in the space and forced the little door closed, shaking my head at the idea of being so wealthy you could afford to treat 150-dollar fines like pocket change…

As we drove I noticed Pam wrinkling her nose; she looked as disgusted as though she was sharing the car with a dead possum.

"What?"

"You smell of gasoline." Well, no surprise there. She had to know what had happened earlier in the evening, so I didn't bother explaining myself. I looked ruefully at my pants legs. Now that I had time to study them I could feel that kneeling on the gravel had left small holes in the cheap material. I definitely wouldn't be wearing these again.

"I'm gonna have to use these pants for rags, I guess."

"That's funny. From the look of them, I thought you'd already been using rags for pants. Can't you afford anything better?"

"This is workwear – I'm not gonna waste money on expensive stuff just to get all kinds of crud spilled on it. I work in a bar, remember?"

"Tell me about it." She glanced down at her own outfit. "At least leather is mostly stainproof and wipes clean."

My mind was so occupied with the various possible substances that might need wiping from Pam's leather that I didn't know what to say, so we spent the rest of the drive in silence. To tell the truth, it was pleasant to get the weight off my feet, the smile off my face and the noise out of my mind for a while. The night shift had better tips, but tended to be more of a strain on my shields, as there were usually more customers and they'd usually had more to drink. I enjoyed the peace until we pulled into the parking lot behind Fangtasia, and Pam said, "I'll tell Eric you're here. Wait in his office." Then she was out of the car and heading for the staff entrance, not even looking back to see if I was following.

She was out of sight by the time I entered the short passageway just inside the door, which led to the main bar and Eric's office. I was happy to wait in private, as I wasn't dressed to mingle with the fangbangers and tourists, but to my surprise, when I went into his office, there was someone already there; a female vampire was lounging comfortably on the couch, flicking through a back issue of Night Life – the most popular of the new publications that had sprung up to cater for vampires and their interests. I'd seen a few issues before, and knew they carried articles like the latest developments in artificial blood, who had moved into who's area, advice on how to fit in with the human population and page after page of pleading small ads from fangbangers desperate to attract a vampire.

I knew all the Area 5 vampires, and this lady was not one of them. She glanced up as I came in and gestured me away, saying, "I am already feeding," and went back to her magazine. Her accent was very heavy, maybe European, but it was clear what she meant; she must have thought I was a fangbanger sent to amuse her.

I didn't want to stay in the office if Eric had business with her, so I decided to step back into the hallway until he could be bothered to come see me. As I turned to leave, the woman said, "wait." Her tone was imperious, as though speaking to a servant. Like all vampires she was used to being obeyed instantly, but I wasn't about to be trapped in an office with a predator, even if she had just fed. Vampires had been known to play with their food even when they weren't hungry.

I opened the door again and was about to exit when she spoke again, "you are sulky."

What?

I slowly turned. "Excuse me?"

She had put her magazine down and was looking at me curiously, but not half as curiously as I was looking at her. Now I took in her appearance, and she looked ... well, to be honest, she looked like Morticia Addams – almost a caricature of a vampire. She was dark haired and dark eyed, with very red lips, a long flowing black dress showing a lot of cleavage, and a she used a lot of perfume. Most vampires used scent to disguise the faint, dry smell that they all seemed to give off, but they were usually quite sparing with it. This female had put it on with a hose.

She repeated her question. "You are sulky, no?"

"Not particularly." Did she think I was pouting because she was in Eric's office? Why the hell would I care?

She frowned, clearly not understanding me any more than I was understanding her. She dismissed what I had said with a wave of her hand (long scarlet fingernails), and tried again. "Or is it sooty?"

"Is what sooty?" Clearly this woman was even further down the rabbit hole than I was, but she tsked in annoyance.

"Your name. Which is it? Sulky or sooty? I know is one like this, but I am not remembering."

Light dawned. "It's Sookie. Sookie Stackhouse."

She tried out the unfamiliar syllables silently, her lips moving, then she shook her head. "No matter. You are she. The one dear Eric is speaking of."

Dear Eric? I wondered what this woman's connection to Eric was. She rose from the couch and the resemblance to Morticia Addams increased – she must have been over six feet tall and as she moved towards me she seemed to glide soundlessly. She was smiling (or, at least, showing teeth) and I backed up into the corridor, prepared to make a dash for the bar. She frowned and said, "stand still, stupid human. I am not harming you. I am wishing to talk only."

I shook my head and kept right on backing up. She was trying glamour on me - I could feel the waves of power flowing over me - but as usual it didn't work and as usual she didn't understand how I could defy her.

"Stop. You will obey me! I command you!"

For a second or two I considered faking the glamour just to find out what she wanted – I knew how to do that – but just then the door leading into the bar opened and Eric appeared. He frowned to see me standing in the hallway. "What are you doing out here?"

I gestured towards the open door where Vampirella was now standing, but at the sound of Eric's voice she emerged from the office smiling broadly. She turned to him, saying "Eric! Fiul meu! There you are! How long you are being. I was missing you but now I have met your little sucky. She is pretty I think, but not so beautiful like me."

I ignored Eric's raised eyebrow and said, "That's Sookie. Soo – kie." I pronounced it carefully but she was ignoring me and smiling at Eric.

He said something to her in a language I didn't understand, but it sounded like a question. She nodded graciously and then he turned to me, grinning wickedly, and said, "Sucky, I'd like you to meet Antanasia, my mother."


Well, there's a thing...

Incidentally, thanks so much to all those of you who bought and/or reviewed my new book. Enough people have bought it to make it possible to bring out a paperback version, so thank you again for being so generous to me.

Big mwahs...

AAE