In a blur or movement that couldn't be broken down into increments my eye could clearly recognize, a beast knocked me into Quinn, who stumbled forward a step. I was on the ground underneath the snarling half man, half wolf by the time Quinn wheeled, and as soon as he did, another Were appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to leap on Quinn's back.
The creature on top of me was a brand-new fresh half Were, so young he could only have been bitten in the past three weeks. He was in such a frenzy that he had attacked before he had finished with the partial change that a bitten Were can achieve. His face was still elongating into a muzzle, even as he tried to choke me. He would never attain the beautiful wolf form of the full-blooded Were. He was "bitten, not blood," as the Weres put it. He still had arms, he still had legs, he had a body covered with hair, and he had a wolf's head. But he was just as savage as a full-blood.
I clawed at his hands, the hands that were gripping my neck with such ferocity. I wasn't wearing my silver chain tonight. I'd decided it would be tacky, since my date was himself a shifter. Being tacky might have saved my life, I thought in a flash, though it was the last coherent thought I had for a few moments.
The Were was straddling my body, and I brought my knees up sharply, trying to give him a big enough jolt that he'd loosen his hold. There were shrieks of alarm from the few remaining pedestrians, and a higher, more piercing shriek from Quinn's attacker, whom I saw flying through the air as if he'd been launched from a cannon. Then a big hand grasped my attacker by his own neck and lifted him. Unfortunately, the half beast who had his hands wrapped around my throat didn't let me go. I began to rise from the pavement, too, my throat becoming more and more pinched by the grip he had on me.
Quinn must have seen my desperate situation, because he struck the Were on top of me with his free hand, a slap that rocked the Were's head back and simply knocked him for a loop so thoroughly that he let go of my neck.
Then Quinn grabbed the young Were by the shoulders and tossed him aside. The boy landed on the pavement and didn't move.
"Sookie," Quinn said, hardly sounding out of breath. Out of breath is what I was, struggling to get my throat to open back up so I could gulp in some oxygen. I could hear a police siren, and I was profoundly thankful. Quinn slipped his arm under my shoulders and held me up. Finally I breathed in, and the air was wonderful, blissful. "You're breathing okay?" he asked. I gathered myself enough to nod. "Any bones broken in your throat?" I tried to raise my hand to my neck, but my hand wasn't cooperating just at the moment.
His face filled my scope of vision, and in the dim light of the corner lamp I could see he was pumped. "I'll kill them if they hurt you," he growled, and just then, that was delightful news.
"Bitten," I wheezed, and he looked horrified, checking me over with hands and eyes for the bite mark. "Not me," I elaborated. "Them. Not born Weres." I sucked in a lot of air. "And maybe on drugs," I said. Awareness dawned in his eyes.
That was the only explanation for such insane behavior.
A heavyset black patrolman hurried up to me. "We need an ambulance at the Strand," he was saying to someone on his shoulder. No, it was a little radio set. I shook my head.
"You need an ambulance, ma'am," he insisted. "Girl over there says the man took you down and tried to choke you."
"I'm okay," I said, my voice raspy and my throat undeniably painful.
"Sir, you with this lady?" the patrolman asked Quinn. When he turned, the light flashed off his name pin; it said holing.
"Yes, I am."
"You... ah, you got these punks offa her?"
Boling's partner, a Caucasian version of Boling, came up to us then. He looked at Quinn with some reservation. He'd been examining our assailants, who had fully changed to human form before the police had arrived. Of course, they were naked.
"The one has a broken leg," he told us. "The other is claiming his shoulder's dislocated."
Boling shrugged. "Got what was coming to 'em." It might have been my imagination, but he, too, seemed a bit more cautious when he looked at my date.
"They got more than they expected," his partner said neutrally. "Sir, do you know either of these kids?" He tilted his head toward the teenagers, who were being examined by a patrolman from another car, a younger man with a more athletic build. The boys were leaning against each other, looking stunned.
"I've never seen them before," Quinn said. "You, babe?" He looked down at me questioningly. I shook my head. I was feeling better enough that I felt at a distinct disadvantage, being on the ground. I wanted to get up, and I said so to my date. Before the police officers could tell me once again to wait for an ambulance, Quinn managed to get me to my feet with as little pain as possible.
I looked down at my beautiful new outfit. It was really dirty. "How does the back look?" I asked Quinn, and even I could hear the fear in my voice. I turned my back to Quinn and looked at him anxiously over my shoulder. Quinn seemed a little startled, but he dutifully scanned my rear view.
"No tearing," he reported. "There may be a spot or two where the material got a little scraped across the pavement."
I burst into tears. I probably would have started crying no matter what, because I was feeling a powerful reaction to the adrenaline that had surged through my body when we'd been attacked, but the timing was perfect. The police got more avuncular the more I cried, and as an extra bonus, Quinn pulled me into his arms and I rested my cheek against his chest. I listened to his heartbeat when I quit sobbing. I'd gotten rid of my nervous reaction to the attack and disarmed the police at the same time, though I knew they'd still wonder about Quinn and his strength.
Another policeman called from his place by one of the assailants, the one Quinn had thrown. Our two patrolmen went to answer the summons, and we were briefly alone.
"Smart," Quinn murmured into my ear.
"Mmmm," I said, snuggling against him.
He tightened his arms around me. "You get any closer, we're going to have to excuse ourselves and get a room," he whispered.
"Sorry." I pulled back slightly and looked up at him. "Who you reckon hired them?"
He may have been surprised I'd figured that out, but you couldn't tell by his brain. The chemical reaction that had fueled my tears had made his mental snarl extra complicated. "I'm definitely going to find out," he said. "How's your throat?"
"Hurts," I admitted, my voice raspy. "But I know there's nothing really wrong with it. And I don't have health insurance. So I don't want to go to the hospital. It would be a waste of time and money."
"Then we won't go." He bent and kissed my cheek. I turned my face up to him, and his next kiss landed in exactly the right spot. After a gentle second, it flared into something more intense. We were both feeling the aftereffects of the adrenalin rush.
The sound of a throat clearing brought me back into my right mind as effectively as if Officer Boling had thrown a bucket of cold water on us. I disengaged and buried my face against Quinn's chest again. I knew I couldn't move away for a minute or two, since his excitement was pressed right up against me. Though these weren't the best circumstances for evaluation, I was pretty sure Quinn was proportional. I had to resist the urge to rub my body against his. I knew that would make things worse for him, from a public viewpoint - but I was in a much better mood than I had been, and I guess I was feeling mischievous. And frisky. Very frisky. Going through this ordeal together had probably accelerated our relationship the equivalent of four dates.
"Did you have other questions for us, Officer?" Quinn asked, in a voice that was not perfectly calm.
"Yes, sir, if you and the lady will come down to the station, we need to take your statements. Detective Coughlin will do that while we take the prisoners to the hospital."
"All right. Does that have to be tonight? My friend needs to rest. She's exhausted. This has been quite an ordeal for her."
"It won't take long," the officer said mendaciously. "You sure you've never seen these two punks before? Because this seems like a real personal attack, you don't mind me saying so."
"Neither of us knows them."
"And the lady still refuses medical attention?"
"Well, all right then, folks. Hope you don't have no more trouble."
"Thank you for coming so quickly," I said, and turned my head a little to meet Officer Boling's eyes. He looked at me in a troubled way, and I could hear in his head that he was worried about my safety with a violent man like Quinn, a man who could throw two boys several feet in the air. He didn't realize, and I hoped he never would, that the attack had been personal. It had been no random mugging.
We went to the station in a police car. I wasn't sure what their thinking was, but Boling's partner told us that we'd be returned to Quinn's vehicle, so we went along with the program. Maybe they didn't want us to have a chance to talk to each other alone. I don't know why; I think the only thing that could have aroused their suspicion was Quinn's size and expertise in fighting off attackers.
In the brief seconds we had alone before an officer climbed into the driver's seat, I told Quinn, "If you think something at me, I'll be able to hear you - if you need me to know something urgently."
"Handy," he commented. The violence seemed to have relaxed something inside him. He rubbed his thumb across the palm of my hand. He was thinking he'd like to have thirty minutes in a bed with me, right now, or even fifteen; hell, even ten, even in the backseat of a car, would be fantastic. I tried not to laugh, but I couldn't help it, and when he realized that I'd read all that clearly, he shook his head with a rueful smile.
We have somewhere to go after this, he thought deliberately. I hoped he didn't mean he was going to rent a room or take me to his place for sex, because no matter how attractive I found him, I wasn't going to do that tonight. But his brain had mostly cleared of lust, and I perceived his purpose was something different. I nodded.
So don't get too tired, he said. I nodded again. How I was supposed to prevent exhaustion, I wasn't sure, but I'd try to hoard a little energy.
The police station was much like I expected it to be. Though there's a lot to be said for Shreveport, it has more than its fair share of crime. We didn't excite much attention at all, until officers who'd been on the scene put their heads together with police in the building, and then there were a few stolen glances at Quinn, some surreptitious evaluations. He was formidable-looking enough for them to credit ordinary strength as the source of his defeat of the two muggers. But there was just enough strangeness about the incident, enough peculiar touches in the eyewitness reports... and then my eye caught a familiar weathered face. Uh-oh.
"Detective Coughlin," I said, remembering now why the name had sounded familiar.
"Miss Stackhouse," he responded, with about as much enthusiasm as I had shown. "What you been up to?"
"We got mugged," I explained.
"Last time I saw you, you were engaged to Alcide Herveaux, and you'd just found one of the most sickening corpses I've ever seen," he said easily. His belly seemed to have gotten even bigger in the few months since I'd met him at a murder scene here in Shreveport. Like many men with a disproportionate belly, he wore his khaki pants buttoned underneath the overhang, so to speak. Since his shirt had broad blue and white stripes, the effect was that of a tent overhanging packed dirt.
I just nodded. There was really nothing to say.
"Mr. Herveaux doing okay after the loss of his father?" Jackson Herveaux's body had been found half-in, half-out of a feed tank filled with water on an old farm belonging to the family. Though the newspaper had tap-danced around some of the injuries, it was clear wild animals had chewed at some of the bones. The theory was that the older Herveaux had fallen into the tank and broken his leg when he hit the bottom. He had managed to get to the edge and haul himself halfway out, but at that point he had passed out. Since no one knew he'd visited the farm, no one came to his rescue, the theory went, and he'd died all by himself.
Actually, a large crowd had witnessed Jackson's demise, among them the man beside me.
"I haven't talked to Alcide since his dad was found," I said truthfully.
"My goodness, I'm sure sorry that didn't work out," Detective Coughlin said, pretending he didn't see that I was standing with my date for the evening. "You two sure made a nice-looking couple."
"Sookie is pretty no matter who she's with," Quinn said.
I smiled up at him, and he smiled back. He was sure making all the right moves.
"So if you'll come with me for a minute, Miss Stackhouse, we'll get your story down on paper and you can leave."
Quinn's hand tightened on mine. He was warning me. Wait a minute, who was the mind reader around here? I squeezed right back. I was perfectly aware that Detective Coughlin thought I must be guilty of something, and he'd do his best to discover what. But in fact, I was not guilty.
We had been the targets, I'd picked that from the attackers' brains. But why?
Detective Coughlin led me to a desk in a roomful of desks, and he fished a form out of a drawer. The business of the room continued; some of the desks were unoccupied and had that "closed for the night" look, but others showed signs of work in progress. There were a few people coming in and out of the room, and two desks away, a younger detective with short white-blond hair was busily typing on his computer. I was being very careful, and I'd opened my mind, so I knew he was looking at me when I was looking in another direction, and I knew he'd been positioned there by Detective Coughlin, or at least prodded to get a good hard look at me while I was in the room.
I met his eyes squarely. The shock of recognition was mutual. I'd seen him at the packmaster contest. He was a Were. He'd acted as Patrick Furnan's second in the duel. I'd caught him cheating. Maria-Star had told me his punishment had been having his head shaved. Though his candidate won, this punishment had been exacted, and his hair was just now growing in. He hated me with the passion of the guilty. He half rose from his chair, his first instinct being to come over to me and beat the crap out of me, but when he absorbed the fact that someone had already tried to do that, he smirked.
"Is that your partner?" I asked Detective Coughlin.
"What?" He'd been peering at the computer through reading glasses, and he glanced over at the younger man, then back at me. "Yeah, that's my new partner. The guy I was with at the last crime scene I saw you at, he retired last month."
"What's his name? Your new partner?"
"Why, you going after him next? You can't seem to settle on one man, can you, Miss Stackhouse?"
If I'd been a vampire, I could have made him answer me, and if I were really skilled, he wouldn't even know he'd done it.
"It's more like they cant settle on me, Detective Coughlin," I said, and he gave me a curious look. He waved a finger toward the blond detective.
"That's Cal. Cal Myers." He seemed to have called up the right form, because he began to take me through the incident once again, and I answered his questions with genuine indifference. For once, I had very little to hide.
"I did wonder," I said, when we'd concluded, "if they'd taken drugs."
"You know much about drugs, Miss Stackhouse?" His little eyes went over me again.
"Not firsthand, but of course, from time to time someone comes into the bar who's taken something they shouldn't. These young men definitely seemed... influenced by something."
"Well, the hospital will take their blood, and we'll know."
"Will I have to come back?"
"To testify against them? Sure."
No way out of it. "Okay," I said, as firmly and neutrally as I could. "We through here?"
"I guess we are." He met my eyes, his own little brown eyes full of suspicion. There was no point in my resenting it; he was absolutely right, there was something fishy about me, something he didn't know. Coughlin was doing his best to be a good cop. I felt suddenly sorry for him, floundering through a world he only knew the half of.
"Don't trust your partner," I whispered, and I expected him to blow up and call Cal Myers over and ridicule me to him. But something in my eyes or my voice arrested that impulse. My words spoke to a warning that had been sounding surreptitiously in his brain, maybe from the moment he'd met the Were.
He didn't say anything, not one word. His mind was full of fear, fear and loathing... but he believed I was telling him the truth. After a second, I got up and left the squad room. To my utter relief, Quinn was waiting for me in the lobby.
A patrolman - not Boling - took us back to Quinn's car, and we were silent during the drive. Quinn's car was sitting in solitary splendor in the parking lot across from the Strand, which was closed and dark. He pulled out his keys and hit the keypad to open the doors, and we got in slowly and wearily.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"The Hair of the Dog," he said.