Vickie's house was on a corner, and they approached it from the side street. By now the sky was filled with heavy purple clouds. The light had an almost underwater quality.
"Looks like it's going to storm," Matt said.
Bonnie glanced at Damon. Neither he nor Stefan liked bright light. And she could feel the Power emanating from him, like a low thrum just under the surface of his skin. He smiled without looking at her and said, "How about snow in June?" Bonnie clamped down on a shiver.
She had looked Damon's way once or twice in the barn and found him listening to the story with an air of detached indifference. Unlike Stefan, his expression hadn't changed in the slightest when she mentioned Elena-or when she told about Sue's death. What did he really feel for Elena? He'd called up a snowstorm once and left her to freeze in it. What was he feeling now? Did he even care about catching the murderer?
"That's Vickie's bedroom," said Meredith. "The bay window in the back."
Stefan looked at Damon. "How many people in the house?"
"Two. Man and woman. The woman's drunk."
Poor Mrs. Bennett, thought Bonnie.
"I need them both asleep," Stefan said.
In spite of herself, Bonnie was fascinated by the surge of Power she felt from Damon. Her psychic abilities had never been strong enough to sense its raw essence before, but now they were. Now she could feel it as clearly as she could see the fading violet light or smell the honeysuckle outside Vickie's window.
Damon shrugged. "They're asleep."
Stefan tapped lightly on the glass.
There was no response, or at least none Bonnie could see. But Stefan and Damon looked at each other.
"She's half tranced already," Damon said.
"She's scared. I'll do it; she knows me," said Stefan. He put his fingertips on the window. "Vickie, it's Stefan Salvatore," he said. "I'm here to help you. Come let me in."
His voice was quiet, nothing that should have been heard on the other side of the glass. But after a moment the curtains stirred and a face appeared.
Bonnie gasped aloud.
Vickie's long, light brown hair was disheveled, and her skin was chalky. There were huge black rings under her eyes. The eyes themselves were fixed and glassy.
Her lips were rough and chapped.
"She looks possessed," Bonnie whispered back, unnerved.
Stefan just said, "Vickie, open the window."
Mechanically, like a windup doll, Vickie cranked one of the side panels of the bay window open, and Stefan said, "Can I come in?"
Vickie's glazed eyes swept over the group outside. For a moment Bonnie thought she didn't recognize any of them. But then she blinked and said slowly, "Meredith... Bonnie... Stefan? You're back. What are you doing here?"
"Ask me in, Vickie." Stefan's voice was hypnotic.
"Stefan..." There was a long pause and then: "Come in."
She stepped back as he put a hand on the sill and vaulted through. Matt followed him, then Meredith. Bonnie, who was wearing a mini, re-mained outside with Damon. She wished she'd worn jeans to school today, but then she hadn't known she'd be going on an expedition.
"You shouldn't be here," Vickie said to Stefan, almost calmly. "He's coming to get me. He'll get you too."
Meredith put an arm around her. Stefan just said, "Who?"
"Him. He comes to me in my dreams. He killed Sue." Vickie's matter-of-fact tone was more frightening than any hysteria could have been.
"Vickie, we've come to help you," Meredith said gently. "Everything's going to be all right now. We won't let him hurt you, I promise."
Vickie swung around to stare at her. She looked Meredith up and down as if Meredith had suddenly changed into something unbelievable. Then she began to laugh.
It was awful, a hoarse burst of mirth like a hacking cough. It went on and on until Bonnie wanted to cover her ears. Finally Stefan said, "Vickie, stop it."
The laughter died into something like sobs, and when Vickie lifted her head again, she looked less glassy eyed but more genuinely upset. "You're all going to die, Stefan," she said, shaking her head. "No one can fight him and live."
"We need to know about him so we can fight him. We need your help," Stefan said. "Tell me what he looks like."
"I can't see him in my dreams. He's just a shadow without a face." Vickie whispered it, her shoulders hunching.
"But you saw him at Caroline's house," Stefan said insistently. "Vickie, listen to me," he added as the girl turned away sharply. "I know you're frightened, but this is important, more important than you can understand. We can't fight him unless we know what we're up against, and you are the only one, the only one right now who has the information we need. You have to help us."
Stefan's voice was unyielding. "I have a way to help you remember," he said. "Will you let me try?"
Seconds crawled by, then Vickie gave a long, bubbling sigh, her body sagging. "Do whatever you want," she said indifferently. "I don't care. It won't make any difference."
"You're a brave girl. Now look at me, Vickie. I want you to relax. Just look at me and relax." Stefan's voice dropped to a lulling murmur. It went on for a few minutes, and then Vickie's eyes drooped shut.
"Sit down." Stefan guided her to sit on the bed. He sat beside her, looking into her face.
"Vickie, you feel calm and relaxed now. Nothing you remember will hurt you," he said, his voice soothing. "Now, I need you to go back to Saturday night. You're upstairs, in the master bedroom of Caroline's house. Sue Carson is with you, and someone else. I need you to see-"
"No!" Vickie twisted back and forth as if trying to escape something. "No! I can't -"
"Vickie, calm down. He won't hurt you. He can't see you, but you can see him. Listen to me."
As Stefan spoke, Vickie's whimpers quieted. But she still thrashed and writhed.
"You need to see him, Vickie. Help us fight him. What does he look like?"
"He looks like the devil!"
It was almost a scream. Meredith sat on Vickie's other side and took her hand. She looked out through the window at Bonnie, who looked back wide eyed and shrugged slightly. Bonnie had no idea what Vickie was talking about.
"Tell me more," Stefan said evenly.
Vickie's mouth twisted. Her nostrils were flared as if she were smelling something awful. When she spoke, she got out each word separately, as if they were making her sick.
"He wears... an old raincoat. It flaps around his legs in the wind. He makes the wind blow. His hair is blond. Almost white. It stands up all over his head. His eyes are so blue-electric blue." Vickie licked her lips and swallowed, looking nauseated. "Blue is the color of death."
Thunder rumbled and cracked in the sky. Damon glanced up quickly, then frowned, eyes narrowed.
"He's tall. And he's laughing. He's reaching for me, laughing. But Sue screams 'No, no' and tries to pull me away. So he takes her instead. The window's broken, and the balcony is right there. Sue's crying 'No, please.' And then I watch him-I watch him throw her..." Vickie's breath was hitching, her voice rising hysterically.
"Oh, please, no-Sue! Sue! Sue!"
"Vickie, stay with me. Listen. I need just one more thing. Look at him. Tell me if he's wearing a blue jewel-"
But Vickie was whipping her head back and forth, sobbing, more hysterical each second. "No! No! I'm next! I'm next!" Suddenly, her eyes sprang open as she came out of the trance by herself, choking and gasping. Then her head jerked around.
On the wall, a picture was rattling.
It was picked up by the bamboo-framed mirror, then by perfume bottles and lipsticks on the dresser below. With a sound like popcorn, earrings began bursting from an earring tree. The rattling got louder and louder. A straw hat fell off a hook. Photos were showering down from the mirror. Tapes and CDs sprayed out of a rack and onto the floor like playing cards being dealt.
Meredith was on her feet and so was Matt, fists clenched.
"Make it stop! Make it stop!" Vickie cried wildly.
But it didn't stop. Matt and Meredith looked around as new objects joined the dance. Everything movable was shaking, jittering, swaying. It was as if the room were caught in an earthquake.
"Stop! Stop!" shrieked Vickie, her hands over her ears.
Directly above the house thunder exploded.
Bonnie jumped violently as she saw the zigzag of lightning shoot across the sky. Instinctively she grabbed for something to hang on to. As the lightning bolt flared a poster on Vickie's wall tore diagonally as if slashed by a phantom knife. Bonnie choked back a scream and clutched tighter.
Then, as quickly as if someone had flicked a power switch off, all the noise stopped.
Vickie's room was still. The fringe on the bedside lamp swayed slightly. The poster had curled up in two irregular pieces, top and bottom. Slowly, Vickie lowered her hands from her ears.
Matt and Meredith looked around rather shakily.
Bonnie shut her eyes and murmured something like a prayer. It wasn't until she opened them again that she realized what she had been hanging on to. It was the supple coolness of a leather jacket. It was Damon's arm.
He hadn't moved away from her, though. He didn't move now. He was leaning forward slightly, eyes narrowed, watching the room intently.
"Look at the mirror," he said.
On the glass surface of the bamboo mirror two words were scrawled in Vickie's hot coral lipstick.
"Oh, God," Bonnie whispered.
Stefan turned from the mirror to Vickie. There was something different about him, Bonnie thought-he was holding himself relaxed but poised, like a soldier who's just gotten confirmation of a battle. It was as if he'd accepted a personal challenge of some kind.
He took something out of his back pocket and unfolded it, revealing sprigs of a plant with long green leaves and tiny lilac flowers.
"This is vervain, fresh vervain," he said quietly, his voice even and intense. "I picked it outside Florence; it's blooming there now." He took Vickie's hand and pressed the packet into it. "I want you to hold on to this and keep it. Put some in every room of the house, and hide pieces somewhere in your parents' clothes if you can, so they'll have it near them. As long as you have this with you, he can't take over your mind. He can scare you, Vickie, but he can't make you do anything, like open a window or door for him. And listen, Vickie, because this is important."
Vickie was shivering, her face crumpled. Stefan took both her hands and made her look at him, speaking slowly and distinctly.
"If I'm right, Vickie, he can't get in unless you let him. So talk to your parents. Tell them it's important that they don't ask any stranger inside the house. In fact, I can have Damon put that suggestion in their mind right now." He glanced at Damon, who shrugged slightly and nodded, looking as if his attention was somewhere else. Self-consciously, Bonnie removed her hand from his jacket.
Vickie's head was bent over the vervain.
"He'll get in somehow," she said softly, with terrible certainty.
"No. Vickie, listen to me. From now on, we're going to watch your house; we're going to be waiting for him."
"It doesn't matter," Vickie said. "You can't stop him." She began to laugh and cry at the same time.
"We're going to try," Stefan said. He looked at Meredith and Matt, who nodded. "Right. From this moment on, you will never be alone. There will always be one or more of us outside watching you."
Vickie just shook her bent head. Meredith gave her arm a squeeze and stood as Stefan tilted his head toward the window.
When she and Matt joined him there, Stefan spoke to all of them in a low voice. "I don't want to leave her unguarded, but I can't stay myself right now. There's something I have to do, and I need one of the girls with me. On the other hand, I don't want to leave either Bonnie or Meredith alone here." He turned to Matt. "Matt, will you..."
Everyone looked at him, startled.
"Well, it's the logical solution, isn't it?" Damon seemed amused. "After all, what do you expect one of them to do against him anyway?"
"They can call for me. I can monitor their thoughts that far," Stefan said, not giving one inch.
"Well," Damon said whimsically, "I can call for you too, little brother, if I get into trouble. I'm getting bored with this investigation of yours anyway. I might as well stay here as anywhere."
"Vickie needs to be protected, not abused," Stefan said.
Damon's smile was charming. "Her?" He nodded toward the girl who sat on the bed, rocking over the vervain. From disheveled hair to bare feet, Vickie was not a pretty picture. "Take my word for it, brother, I can do better than that." For just an instant Bonnie thought those dark eyes flicked sideways toward her. "You're always saying how you'd like to trust me, anyway," Damon added. "Here's your chance to prove it."
Stefan looked as if he wanted to trust, as if he were tempted. He also looked suspicious. Damon said nothing, merely smiled in that taunting, enigmatic way. Practically asking to be mistrusted, Bonnie thought.
The two brothers stood looking at each other while the silence and the tension stretched out between them. Just then Bonnie could see the family resemblance in their faces, one serious and intense, the other bland and faintly mocking, but both inhumanly beautiful.
Stefan let his breath out slowly. "All right," he said quietly at last. Bonnie and Matt and Meredith were all staring at him, but he didn't seem to notice. He spoke to Damon as if they were the only two people there. "You stay here, outside the house where you won't be seen. I'll come back and take over when I'm finished with what I'm doing."
Meredith's eyebrows were in her hair, but she made no comment. Neither did Matt. Bonnie tried to quell her own feelings of unease. Stefan must know what he's doing, she told herself. Anyway, he'd better.
"Don't take too long," Damon said dismissively.
And that was how they left it, with Damon blending in with the darkness in the shadow of the black walnut trees in Vickie's backyard and Vickie herself in her room, rocking endlessly.
In the car, Meredith said, "Where next?"
"I need to test a theory," said Stefan briefly.
"That the killer is a vampire?" Matt said from the back, where he sat with Bonnie. Stefan glanced at him sharply. "Yes."
"That's why you told Vickie not to invite anyone in," Meredith added, not to be outdone in the reasoning department. Vampires, Bonnie remembered, couldn't enter a place where humans lived and slept unless they were invited. "And that's why you asked if the man was wearing a blue stone."
"An amulet against daylight," Stefan said, spreading his right hand. On the third finger there was a silver ring set with lapis lazuli. "Without one of these, direct exposure to the sun kills us. If the murderer is a vampire, he keeps a stone like this somewhere on him." As if by instinct, Stefan reached up to briefly touch something under his T-shirt. After a moment Bonnie realized what it must be.
Elena's ring. Stefan had given it to her in the first place, and after she died he'd taken it to wear on a chain around his neck. So that part of her would be with him always, he'd said.
When Bonnie looked at Matt beside her, she saw his eyes were closed.
"So how can we tell if he's a vampire?" Meredith asked.
"There's only one way I can think of, and it isn't very pleasant. But it's got to be done."
Bonnie's heart sank. If Stefan thought it wasn't very pleasant, she was sure she was going to find it even less so. "What is it?" she said unenthusiastically.
"I need to get a look at Sue's body."
There was dead silence. Even Meredith, normally so unflappable, looked appalled. Matt turned away, leaning his forehead against the window glass. "You've got to be kidding," Bonnie said.
"I wish I were."
"But-for God's sake, Stefan. We can't. They won't let us. I mean, what are we going to say? 'Excuse me while I examine this corpse for holes'?"
"Bonnie, stop it," Meredith said.
"I can't help it," Bonnie snapped back shakily. "It's an awful idea. And besides, the police already checked her body. There wasn't a mark on it except the cuts she got in the fall."
"The police don't know what to look for," Stefan said. His voice was steely. Hearing it brought something home to Bonnie, something she tended to forget. Stefan was one of them. One of the hunters. He'd seen dead people before. He might even have killed some.
He drinks blood, she thought, and shuddered.
"Well?" said Stefan. "Are you still with me?"
Bonnie tried to make herself small in the backseat. Meredith's hands were tight on the steering wheel. It was Matt who spoke, turning back from the window.
Bonnie tried to make herself small in the backseat. Meredith's hands were tight on the steering wheel. It was Matt who spoke, turning back from the window.
"There's a viewing of the body from seven to ten at the funeral home," Meredith added, her voice low.
"We'll have to wait until after the viewing, then. After they close the funeral home, when we can be alone with her," said Stefan.
"This is the most gruesome thing I've ever had to do," Bonnie whispered wretchedly. The funeral chapel was dark and cold. Stefan had sprung the locks on the outside door with a thin piece of flexible metal.
The viewing room was thickly carpeted, its walls covered with somber oak panels. It would have been a depressing place even with the lights on. In the dark it seemed close and suffocating and crowded with grotesque shapes. It looked as if someone might be crouching behind each of the many standing flower arrangements.
"I don't want to be here," Bonnie moaned.
"Let's just get it over with, okay?" Matt said through his teeth.
When he snapped the flashlight on, Bonnie looked anywhere but where it was pointing. She didn't want to see the coffin, she didn't. She stared at the flowers, at a heart made of pink roses. Outside, thunder grumbled like a sleeping animal.
"Let me get this open-here," Stefan was saying. In spite of her resolve not to, Bonnie looked.
The casket was white, lined with pale pink satin. Sue's blond hair shone against it like the hair of a sleeping princess in a fairy tale. But Sue didn't look as if she were sleeping. She was too pale, too still. Like a waxwork.
Bonnie crept closer, her eyes fixed on Sue's face.
That's why it's so cold in here, she told herself staunchly. To keep the wax from melting. It helped a little.
Stefan reached down to touch Sue's high-necked pink blouse. He undid the top button.
"For God's sake," Bonnie whispered, outraged.
"What do you think we're here for?" Stefan hissed back. But his fingers paused on the second button.
Bonnie watched a minute and then made her decision. "Get out of the way," she said, and when Stefan didn't move immediately, she gave him a shove. Meredith drew up close to her and they formed a phalanx between Sue and the boys. Their eyes met with understanding. If they had to actually remove the blouse, the guys were going out.
Bonnie undid the small buttons while Meredith held the light. Sue's skin felt as waxy as it looked, cool against her fingertips. Awkwardly, she folded the blouse back to reveal a lacy white slip. Then she made herself push Sue's shining gold hair off the pale neck. The hair was stiff with spray.
"No," said Stefan oddly. "But there's something else. Look at this." Gently, he reached around Bonnie to point out a cut, pale and bloodless as the skin around it, but visible as a faint line running from collarbone to breast. Over the heart. Stefan's long finger traced the air above it and Bonnie stiffened, ready to smack the hand away if he touched.
"What is it?" asked Meredith, puzzled.
"A mystery," Stefan said. His voice was still odd. "If I saw a mark like that on a vampire, it would mean the vampire was giving blood to a human. That's how it's done. Human teeth can't pierce our skin, so we cut ourselves if we want to share blood. But Sue wasn't a vampire."
"She certainly wasn't!" said Bonnie. She tried to fight off the image her mind wanted to show her, of Elena bending to a cut like that on Stefan's chest and sucking, drinking...
She shuddered and realized her eyes were shut. "Is there anything else you need to see?" she said, opening them.
"No. That's all."
Bonnie did up the buttons. She rearranged Sue's hair. Then, while Meredith and Stefan eased the lid of the casket back down, she walked quickly out of the viewing room and to the outside door. She stood there, arms wrapped around herself.
A hand touched her elbow lightly. It was Matt.
"You're tougher than you look," he said.
"Yes, well..." She tried to shrug. And then suddenly she was crying, crying hard. Matt put his arms around her.
"I know," he said. Just that. Not "Don't cry" or "Take it easy" or "Everything's going to be all right." Just "I know." His voice was as desolate as she felt. "They've got hair spray in her hair," she sobbed. "Sue never used hair spray. It's awful." Somehow, just then, this seemed the worst thing of all.
He simply held her.
After a while Bonnie got her breath. She found she was holding on to Matt almost painfully tightly and loosened her arms. "I got your shirt all wet," she said apologetically, sniffling.
"It doesn't matter." Something in his voice made her step back and look at him. He looked the way he had in the high school parking lot. So lost, so... hopeless.
"Matt, what is it?" she whispered. "Please."
"I'm not so sure." Bonnie didn't even think she wanted to. It was too scary. But she was overwhelmed by an urge to comfort him, to wipe that lost look from his eyes. "Matt, I-"
"We're finished," Stefan said from behind them.
As Matt looked toward the voice the lost look seemed to intensify. "Sometimes I think we're all finished," Matt said, moving away from Bonnie, but he didn't explain what he meant by that. "Let's go."