MY MELANCHOLY BROTHER was glad to see me. The fact that his new "family" didn't trust him had been eating away at Jason all day. Even his panther girlfriend, Crystal, was nervous about seeing him while the cloud of suspicion hung around him. She'd sent him packing when he'd shown up on her front doorstep this evening. When I found out he'd actually driven out to Hotshot, I exploded. I told my brother in no uncertain terms that he apparently had a death wish and I was not responsible for whatever happened to him. He responded that I'd never been responsible for anything that he did, anyway, so why would I start now?
It went on like that for a while.
After he'd grudgingly agreed to stay away from his fellow shifters, I carried my bag down the short hall to the guest bedroom. This was where he kept his computer, his old high school trophies from the baseball team and the football team, and an ancient foldout couch on hand primarily for visitors who drank too much and couldn't drive home. I didn't even bother to unfold it but spread out an ancient quilt over the glossy Naugahyde. I pulled another one over me.
After I said my prayers, I reviewed my day. It had been so full of incident that I got tired trying to remember everything. In about three minutes, I was out like a light. I dreamed about growling animals that night: they were all around me in the fog, and I was scared. I could hear Jason screaming somewhere in the mist, though I couldn't find him to defend him.
Sometimes you don't need a psychiatrist to interpret a dream, right?
I woke up just a bit when Jason left for work in the morning, mostly because he slammed the door behind him. I dozed off again for another hour, but then I woke up decisively. Terry would be coming to my house to begin tearing down the ruined part, and I needed to see if any of my kitchen things could be saved.
Since this was liable to be a dirty job, I borrowed Jason's blue jumpsuit, the one he put on when he worked on his car. I looked in his closet and pulled out an old leather jacket Jason wore for rough work. I also appropriated a box of garbage bags. As I started Tara's car, I wondered how on earth I could repay her for its use. I reminded myself to pick up her suit. Since it was on my mind, I made a slight detour to retrieve it from the dry cleaner's.
Terry was in a stable mood today, to my relief. He was smiling as he smacked away at the charred boards of the back porch with a sledgehammer. Though the day was very cool, Terry wore only a sleeveless T-shirt tucked in his jeans. It covered most of the dreadful scars. After greeting him and registering that he didn't want to talk, I went in through the front door. I was drawn down the hall to the kitchen to look again at the damage.
The firefighters had said the floor was safe. It made me nervous to step out onto the scorched linoleum, but after a moment or two, I felt easier. I pulled on gloves and began to work, going through cabinets and cupboards and drawers. Some things had melted or twisted with the heat. A few things, like my plastic colander, were so warped it took me a second or two to identify what I was holding.
I tossed the ruined things directly out the south kitchen window, away from Terry.
I didn't trust any of the food that had been in the cabinets that were on the outer wall. The flour, the rice, the sugar - they'd all been in Tupperware containers, and though the seals had held, I just didn't want to use the contents. The same held true of the canned goods; for some reason, I felt uneasy about using food from cans that had gotten so hot.
Fortunately, my everyday stoneware and the good china that had belonged to my great-great-grandmother had survived, since they were in the cabinet farthest from the flames. Her sterling silver was in fine shape, too. My far more useful stainless tableware, much closer to the fire, was warped and twisted. Some of the pots and pans were usable.
I worked for two or three hours, consigning things to the growing pile outside the window or bagging them in Jason's garbage bags for future use in a new kitchen. Terry worked hard, too, taking a break every now and then to drink bottled water while he perched on the tailgate of his pickup. The temperature rose to the upper sixties. We might have a few more hard frosts, and there was always the chance of an ice storm, but it was possible to count on spring coming soon.
It wasn't a bad morning. I felt like I was taking a step toward regaining my home. Terry was an undemanding companion, since he didn't like to talk, and he was exorcising his demons with hard work. Terry was in his late fifties now. Some of the chest hair I could see above his T-shirt neck was gray. The hair on his head, once auburn, was fading as he aged. But he was a strong man, and he swung his sledgehammer with vigor and loaded boards onto the flatbed of his truck with no sign of strain.
Terry left to take a load to the parish dump. While he was gone, I went into my bedroom and made my bed - a strange and foolish thing to do, I know. I would have to take the sheets off and wash them; in fact, I'd have to wash almost every piece of fabric in the house to completely rid it of the smell of burning. I'd even have to wash the walls and repaint the hall, though the paint in the rest of the house seemed clean enough.
I was taking a break out in the yard when I heard a truck approaching a moment before it appeared, coming out of the trees that surrounded the driveway. To my astonishment, I recognized it as Alcide's truck, and I felt a pang of dismay. I'd told him to stay away.
He seemed miffed about something when he leaped out of the cab. I'd been sitting in the sunshine on one of my aluminum lawn chairs, wondering what time it was and wondering when the contractor would get here. After the all-round discomfort of my night at Jason's, I was also planning on finding somewhere else to stay while the kitchen was being rebuilt. I couldn't imagine the rest of my house being habitable until the work was complete, and that might be months from now. Jason wouldn't want me around that long, I was sure. He'd have to put up with me if I wanted to stay - he was my brother, after all - but I didn't want to strain his fraternal spirit. There wasn't anyone I wanted to stay with for a couple of months, when I came to consider the matter.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Alcide bellowed as his feet touched the ground.
I sighed. Another angry man.
"We aren't big buddies right now," I reminded him. "But I would have gotten around to it. It's only been a couple of days."
"You should have called me first thing," he told me, striding around the house to survey the damage. He stopped right in front of me. "You could have died," he said, as if it was big news.
"Yes," I said. "I know that."
"A vampire had to save you." There was disgust in his voice. Vamps and Weres just didn't get along.
"Yes," I agreed, though actually my savior had been Claudine. But Charles had killed the arsonist. "Oh, would you rather I'd burned?"
"No, of course not!" He turned away, looked at the mostly dismantled porch. "Someone's working on tearing down the damaged part already?"
"I could have gotten a whole crew out here."
"I can get you a good rate on the reconstruction."
"I've lined up a contractor."
"I can loan you the money to do it."
"I have the money, thank you very much."
That startled him. "You do? Where'd - " He stopped before saying something inexcusable. "I didn't think your grandmother had had much to leave you," he said, which was almost as bad.
"I earned the money," I said.
"You earned the money from Eric?" he guessed accurately. Alcide's green eyes were hot with anger. I thought he was going to shake me.
"You just calm down, Alcide Herveaux," I said sharply. "How I earned it is none of your damn business. I'm glad to have it. If you'll get down off your high horse, I'll tell you that I'm glad you're concerned about me, and I'm grateful you're offering help. But don't treat me like I'm a slow fifth grader in the special class."
Alcide stared down at me while my speech soaked in. "I'm sorry. I thought you - I thought we were close enough for you to've called me that night. I thought... maybe you needed help."
He was playing the "you hurt my feelings" card.
"I don't mind asking for help when I need it. I'm not that proud," I said. "And I'm glad to see you." (Not totally true.) "But don't act like I can't do things for myself, because I can, and I am."
"The vampires paid you for keeping Eric while the witches were in Shreveport?"
"Yes," I said. "My brother's idea. It embarrassed me. But now I'm grateful I've got the money. I won't have to borrow any to get the house put into shape."
Terry Bellefleur returned with his pickup just then, and I introduced the two men. Terry didn't seem at all impressed by meeting Alcide. In fact, he went right back to work after he gave Alcide's hand a perfunctory shake. Alcide eyed Terry doubtfully.
"Where are you staying?" Alcide had decided not to ask questions about Terry's scars, thank goodness.
"I'm staying with Jason," I said promptly, leaving out the fact that I hoped that would be temporary.
"How long is it gonna take to rebuild?"
"Here's the guy who can tell me," I said gratefully. Randall Shurtliff was in a pickup, too, and he had his wife and partner with him. Delia Shurtliff was younger than Randall, pretty as a picture, and tough as nails. She was Randall's second wife. When he'd gotten divorced from his "starter" wife, the one who'd had three children and cleaned his house for twelve years, Delia had already been working for Randall and had gradually begun to run his business for him far more efficiently than he'd ever done. He was able to give his first wife and sons more advantages with the money his second wife had helped him earn than he otherwise might have, had he married someone else. It was common knowledge (by which I mean I wasn't the only one who knew this) that Delia was very ready for Mary Helen to remarry and for the three Shurtliff boys to graduate from high school.
I shut out Delia's thoughts with a firm resolve to work on keeping my shields up. Randall was pleased to meet Alcide, whom he'd known by sight, and Randall was even more eager to take on rebuilding my kitchen when he knew I was a friend of Alcide's. The Herveaux family carried a lot of weight personally and financially in the building trade. To my irritation, Randall began addressing all his remarks to Alcide instead of to me. Alcide accepted this quite naturally.
I looked at Delia. Delia looked at me. We were very unlike, but we were of one mind at that moment.
"What do you think, Delia?" I asked her. "How long?"
"He'll huff and he'll puff," she said. Her hair was paler than mine, courtesy of the beauty salon, and she wore emphatic eye makeup, but she was dressed sensibly in khakis and a polo shirt with "Shurtliff Construction" in script above her left breast. "But he's got that house over on Robin Egg to finish. He can work on your kitchen before he begins a house in Clarice. So, say, three to four months from now, you'll have you a usable kitchen."
"Thanks, Delia. Do I need to sign something?"
"We'll get an estimate ready for you. I'll bring it to the bar for you to check. We'll include the new appliances, because we can get a dealer discount. But I'll tell you right now, you're looking at this ballpark."
She showed me the estimate on a kitchen renovation they had done a month before.
"I have it," I said, though I gave one long shriek deep inside. Even with the insurance money, I'd be using up a big chunk of what I had in the bank.
I should be thankful, I reminded myself sternly, that Eric had paid me all that money, that I had it to spend. I wouldn't have to borrow from the bank or sell the land or take any other drastic step. I should think of that money as just passing through my account rather than living there. I hadn't actually owned it. I'd just had custody of it for a while.
"You and Alcide good friends?" Delia asked, our business concluded.
I gave it some thought. "Some days," I answered honestly.
She laughed, a harsh cackle that was somehow sexy. Both men looked around, Randall smiling, Alcide quizzical. They were too far away to hear what we were saying.
"I'll tell you something," Delia Shurtliff said to me quietly. "Just between you and me and the fencepost. Jackson Herveaux's secretary, Connie Babcock - you met her?"
I nodded. I'd at least seen her and talked to her when I'd dropped by Alcide's office in Shreveport.
"She got arrested this morning for stealing from Herveaux and Son."
"What did she take?" I was all ears.
"This is what I don't understand. She was caught sneaking some papers out of Jackson Herveaux's office. Not business papers, but personal, the way I heard it. She said she'd been paid to do it."
"Some guy who owns a motorcycle dealership. Now, does that make sense?"
It did if you knew that Connie Babcock had been sleeping with Jackson Herveaux, as well as working in his office. It did if you suddenly realized that Jackson had taken Christine Larrabee, a pure Were and influential, to the funeral of Colonel Flood, instead of taking the powerless human Connie Babcock.
While Delia elaborated on the story, I stood, lost in thought. Jackson Herveaux was without a doubt a clever businessman, but he was proving to be a stupid politician. Having Connie arrested was dumb. It drew attention to the Weres, had the potential to expose them. A people so secretive would not appreciate a leader who couldn't manage a problem with more finesse than that.
As a matter of fact, since Alcide and Randall were still discussing the rebuilding of my house with each other instead of with me, a lack of finesse appeared to run in the Herveaux family.
Then I frowned. It occurred to me that Patrick Furnan might be devious and clever enough to have engineered the whole thing - bribing the spurned Connie to steal Jackson's private papers, then ensuring she was caught - knowing that Jackson would react with a hot head. Patrick Furnan might be much smarter than he looked, and Jackson Herveaux much stupider, at least in the way that mattered if you wanted to be packmaster. I tried to shake off these disturbing speculations. Alcide hadn't said a word about Connie's arrest, so I had to conclude that he considered it none of my business. Okay, maybe he thought I had enough to worry about, and he was right. I turned my mind back to the moment.
"You think they'd notice if we left?" I asked Delia.
"Oh, yeah," Delia said confidently. "It might take Randall a minute, but he'd look around for me. He'd get lost if he couldn't find me."
Here was a woman who knew her own worth. I sighed and thought about getting in my borrowed car and driving away. Alcide, catching sight of my face, broke off his discussion with my contractor and looked guilty. "Sorry," he called. "Habit."
Randall came back to where I was standing quite a bit faster than he'd wandered away. "Sorry," he apologized. "We were talking shop. What did you have in mind, Sookie?"
"I want the same dimensions for the kitchen as before," I said, having dropped visions of a larger room after seeing the estimate. "But I want the new back porch to be just as wide as the kitchen, and I want to enclose it."
Randall produced a tablet, and I sketched what I wanted.
"You want the sinks where they were? You want all the appliances where they were?"
After some discussion, I drew everything I wanted, and Randall said he'd call me when it was time to pick out the cabinets and the sinks and all the other incidentals.
"One thing I wish you'd do for me today or tomorrow is fix the door from the hall into the kitchen," I said. "I want to be able to lock the house."
Randall rummaged around in the back of his pickup for a minute or two and came up with a brand-new doorknob with a lock, still in its package. "This won't keep out anyone really determined," he said, still in the apologetic vein, "but it's better'n nothing." He had it installed within fifteen minutes, and I was able to lock the sound part of the house away from the burned part. I felt much better, though I knew this lock wasn't worth much. I needed to put a dead bolt on the inside of the door; that would be even better. I wondered if I could do it myself, but I recalled that would entail cutting away some of the door frame, and I wasn't anything of a carpenter. Surely I could find someone who'd help me with that task.
Randall and Delia left with many assurances that I would be next on the list, and Terry resumed work. Alcide said, "You're never alone," in mildly exasperated tones.
"What did you want to talk about? Terry can't hear us over here." I led the way over to where my aluminum chair was sitting under a tree. Its companion was leaning up against the rough bark of the oak, and Alcide unfolded it. It creaked a little under his weight as he settled into it. I assumed he was going to tell me about the arrest of Connie Babcock.
"I upset you the last time I talked to you," he said directly.
I had to change mental gears at the unexpected opening. Okay, I liked a man who could apologize. "Yes, you did."
"You didn't want me to tell you I knew about Debbie?"
"I just hate that the whole thing happened. I hate that her family is taking it so hard. I hate that they don't know, that they're suffering. But I'm glad to be alive, and I'm not going to jail for defending myself."
"If it'll make you feel any better, Debbie wasn't that close to her family. Her parents always preferred Debbie's little sister, though she didn't inherit any shifter characteristics. Sandra is the apple of their eye, and the only reason they're pursuing this with such vigor is that Sandra expected it."
"You think they'll give up?"
"They think I did it," Alcide said. "The Pelts think that because Debbie got engaged to another man, I killed her. I got an e-mail from Sandra in response to mine about the private eyes."
I could only gape at him. I had a horrible vista of the future in which I saw myself going down to the police station and confessing to save Alcide from a jail term. Even to be suspected of a murder he hadn't committed was an awful thing, and I couldn't permit it. It just hadn't occurred to me that someone else would be blamed for what I'd done.
"But," Alcide continued, "I can prove I didn't. Four pack members have sworn I was at Pam's house after Debbie left, and one female will swear I spent the night with her."
He had been with the pack members, just somewhere else. I slumped with relief. I was not going to have a jealous spasm about the female. He wouldn't have called her that if he'd actually had sex with her.
"So the Pelts will just have to suspect someone else. That's not what I wanted to talk to you about, anyway."
Alcide took my hand. His were big, and hard, and enclosed mine like he was holding something wild that would fly away if he relaxed his grip. "I want you to think about seeing me on a steady basis," Alcide said. "As in, every day."
Once again, the world seemed to rearrange itself around me. "Huh?" I said.
"I like you very much," he said. "I think you like me, too. We want each other." He leaned over to kiss me once on the cheek and then, when I didn't move, on the mouth. I was too surprised to get into it and unsure whether I wanted to anyway. It's not often a mind reader gets taken by surprise, but Alcide had achieved it.
He took a deep breath and continued. "We enjoy each other's company. I want to see you in my bed so much it makes me ache. I wouldn't have spoken this soon, without us being together more, but you need a place to live right now. I have a condo in Shreveport. I want you to think about staying with me."
If he'd whomped me upside the head with a two-by-four, I couldn't have been more stunned. Instead of trying so hard to stay out of people's heads, I should consider getting back into them. I started several sentences in my head, discarded them all. The warmth of him, the attraction of his big body, was something I had to fight as I struggled to sort my thoughts.
"Alcide," I began at last, speaking over the background noise of Terry's sledgehammer knocking down the boards of my burned kitchen, "you're right that I like you. In fact, I more than like you." I couldn't even look at his face. I looked instead at his big hands, with their dusting of dark hair across the backs. If I looked down past his hands, I could see his muscular thighs and his... Well, back to the hands. "But the timing seems all wrong. I think you need more time to get over your relationship with Debbie, since you seemed so enslaved to her. You may feel that just saying the words 'I abjure you' got rid of all your feelings for Debbie, but I'm not convinced that's so."
"It's a powerful ritual of my people," Alcide said stiffly, and I risked a quick glance at his face.
"I could tell it was a powerful ritual," I assured him, "and it had a big effect on everyone there. But I can't believe that, quick as a flash, every single feeling you had for Debbie was uprooted when you said the words. That's just not how people work."
"That's how werewolves work." He looked stubborn. And determined.
I thought very hard about what I wanted to say.
"I'd love for someone to step in and solve all my problems," I told him. "But I don't want to accept your offer because I need a place to live and we're hot for each other. When my house is rebuilt, then we'll talk, if you still feel the same."
"This is when you need me the most," he protested, the words spilling out of his mouth in his haste to persuade me. "You need me now. I need you now. We're right for each other. You know it."
"No, I don't. I know that you're worried about a lot of things right now. You lost your lover, however it happened. I don't think it's sunk into you yet that you'll never see her again."
"I shot her, Alcide. With a shotgun."
His whole face clenched.
"See? Alcide, I've seen you rip into a person's flesh when you were being a wolf. And it didn't make me scared of you. Because I'm on your side. But you loved Debbie, at least for a time. We get into a relationship now, at some point you're going to look up and say, 'Here's the one who ended her life.' "
Alcide opened his mouth to protest, but I held up a hand. I wanted to finish.
"Plus, Alcide, your dad's in this succession struggle. He wants to win the election. Maybe you being in a settled relationship would help his ambitions. I don't know. But I don't want any part of Were politics. I didn't appreciate you dragging me into it cold last week at the funeral. You should have let me decide."
"I wanted them to get used to the sight of you by my side," Alcide said, his face stiffening with offense. "I meant it as an honor to you."
"I might have appreciated that honor more if I'd known about it," I snapped. It was a relief to hear another vehicle approaching, to see Andy Bellefleur get out of his Ford and watch his cousin knocking down my kitchen. For the first time in months, I was glad to see Andy.
I introduced Andy to Alcide, of course, and watched them size each other up. I like men in general, and some men in specific, but when I saw them practically circle each other as they sniffed each other's butts - excuse me, exchanged greetings - I just had to shake my head. Alcide was the taller by a good four inches, but Andy Bellefleur had been on his college wrestling team, and he was still a block of muscle. They were about the same age. I would put even money on them in a fight, providing that Alcide kept his human form.
"Sookie, you asked me to keep you posted on the man who died here," Andy said.
Sure, but it had never occurred to me he'd actually do it. Andy did not have any very high opinion of me, though he'd always been a big fan of my rear end. It's wonderful being telepathic, huh?
"He has no prior record," Andy said, looking down at the little notebook he'd produced. "He has no known association with the Fellowship of the Sun."
"But that doesn't make sense," I said into the little silence that followed. "Why would he set the fire otherwise?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that," Andy said, his clear gray eyes meeting mine.
I'd had it with Andy, abruptly and finally. In our dealings over the years, he'd insulted me and wounded me, and now I'd encountered that last straw.
"Listen to me, Andy," I said, and I looked right back into his eyes. "I never did anything to you that I know of. I've never been arrested. I've never even jaywalked, or been late paying my taxes, or sold a drink to an underage teen. I've never even had a speeding ticket. Now someone tried to barbecue me inside my own home. Where do you get off, making me feel like I've done something wrong?" Other than shoot Debbie Pelt, a voice whispered in my head. It was the voice of my conscience.
"I don't think there's anything in this guy's past that would indicate he'd do this to you."
"Fine! Then find out who did! Because someone burned my house, and it sure wasn't me!" I was yelling when I got to the last part, partly to drown the voice. My only recourse was to turn and walk away, striding around the house until I was out of Andy's sight. Terry gave me a sidelong look, but he didn't stop swinging his sledgehammer.
After a minute, I heard someone picking his way through the debris behind me. "He's gone," Alcide said, his deep voice just a tiny bit amused. "I guess you're not interested in going any further with our conversation."
"You're right," I said briefly.
"Then I'll go back to Shreveport. Call me if you need me."
"Sure." I made myself be more polite. "Thanks for your offer of help."
" 'Help'? I asked you to live with me!"
"Then thank you for asking me to live with you." I couldn't help it if I didn't sound completely sincere. I said the right words. Then my grandmother's voice sounded in my head, telling me that I was acting like I was seven years old. I made myself turn around.
"I do appreciate your... affection," I said, looking up into Alcide's face. Even this early in the spring, he had a tan line from wearing a hard hat. His olive complexion would be shades darker in a few weeks. "I do appreciate..." I trailed off, not sure how to put it. I appreciated his willingness to consider me as an eligible woman to mate with, which so many men didn't, as well as his assumption that I would make a good mate and a good ally. This was as close as I could get to phrasing what I meant.
"But you're not having any." The green eyes regarded me steadily.
"I'm not saying that." I drew a breath. "I'm saying now is not the time to work on a relationship with you." Though I wouldn't mind jumping your bones, I added to myself wistfully.
But I wasn't going to do that on a whim, and certainly not with a man like Alcide. The new Sookie, the rebound Sookie, wasn't going to make the same mistake twice in a row. I was double rebounding. (If you rebound from the two men you've had so far, do you end up a virgin again? To what state are you rebounding?) Alcide gave me a hard hug and dropped a kiss on my cheek. He left while I was still mulling that over. Soon after Alcide left, Terry knocked off for the day. I changed from the jumpsuit into my work clothes. The afternoon had chilled, so I pulled on the jacket I'd borrowed from Jason's closet. It smelled faintly of Jason.
I detoured on the way to work to drop off the pink and black suit at Tara's house. Her car wasn't there, so I figured she was still at the shop. I let myself in and went back to her bedroom to put the plastic bag in her closet. The house was dusky and deep shadowed. It was almost dark outside. Suddenly my nerves thrummed with alarm. I shouldn't be here. I turned away from the closet and stared around the room. When my eyes got to the doorway, it was filled with a slim figure. I gasped before I could stop myself. Showing them you're scared is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
I couldn't see Mickey's face to read his expression, if he had any.
"Where did that new bartender at Merlotte's come from?" he asked.
If I'd expected anything, it wasn't that.
"When Sam got shot, we needed another bartender in a hurry. We borrowed him from Shreveport," I said. "From the vampire bar."
"Had he been there long?"
"No," I said, managing to feel surprised even through my creeping fear. "He hadn't been there long at all."
Mickey nodded, as if that confirmed some conclusion he'd reached. "Get out of here," he said, his deep voice quite calm. "You're a bad influence on Tara. She doesn't need anything but me, until I'm tired of her. Don't come back."
The only way out of the room was through the door he was filling. I didn't trust myself to speak. I walked toward him as confidently as I could, and I wondered if he would move when I reached him. It felt like three hours later by the time I rounded Tara's bed and eased my way around her dressing table. When I showed no sign of slowing down, the vampire stepped aside. I couldn't stop myself from looking up at his face as I passed him, and he was showing fang. I shuddered. I felt so sick for Tara that I couldn't stop myself. How had this happened to her?
When he saw my revulsion, he smiled.
I tucked the problem of Tara away in my heart to pull out later. Maybe I could think of something to do for her, but as long as she seemed willing to stay with this monstrous creature, I didn't see what I could do to help.
Sweetie Des Arts was outside smoking a cigarette when I parked my car at the back of Merlotte's. She looked pretty good, despite being wrapped in a stained white apron. The outside floodlights lit up every little crease in her skin, revealing that Sweetie was a little older than I'd thought, but she still looked very fit for someone who cooked most of the day. In fact, if it hadn't been for the white apron swathing her and the lingering perfume of cooking oil, Sweetie might have been a sexy woman. She certainly carried herself like a person who was used to being noticed.
We'd had such a succession of cooks that I hadn't made much effort to know her. I was sure she'd drift away sooner or later - probably sooner. But she raised a hand in greeting and seemed to want to talk to me, so I paused.
"I'm sorry about your house," she said. Her eyes were shining in the artificial light. It didn't smell so great here by the Dumpster, but Sweetie was as relaxed as if she were on an Acapulco beach.
"Thanks," I said. I just didn't want to talk about it. "How are you today?"
"Fine, thanks." She waved the hand with the cigarette around, indicating the parking lot. "Enjoying the view. Hey, you got something on your jacket." Holding her hand carefully to one side so she wouldn't get ash on me, she leaned forward, closer than my comfort zone permitted, and flicked something off my shoulder. She sniffed. Maybe the smokey smell of the burned wood clung to me, despite all my efforts.
"I need to go in. Time for my shift," I said.
"Yeah, I gotta get back in myself. It's a busy night." But Sweetie stayed where she was. "You know, Sam's just nuts about you."
"I've worked for him for a long time."
"No, I think it goes a little beyond that."
"Ah, I don't think so, Sweetie." I couldn't think of any polite way to conclude a conversation that had gotten way too personal.
"You were with him when he got shot, right?"
"Yeah, he was heading for his trailer and I was heading for my car." I wanted to make it clear we were going in different directions.
"You didn't notice anything?" Sweetie leaned against the wall and tilted her head back, her eyes closed as if she were sunbathing.
"No. I wish I had. I'd like the police to catch whoever's doing this."
"Did you ever think there might be a reason those people were targeted?"
"No," I lied stoutly. "Heather and Sam and Calvin have nothing in common."
Sweetie opened one brown eye and squinted up at me. "If we were in a mystery, they'd all know the same secret, or they'd have witnessed the same accident, or something. Or the police would find out they all had the same dry cleaner." Sweetie flicked the ashes off her cigarette.
I relaxed a little. "I see what you're getting at," I said. "But I think real life doesn't have as many patterns as a serial killer book. I think they were all chosen at random."
Sweetie shrugged. "You're probably right." I saw she'd been reading a Tami Hoag suspense novel, now tucked into an apron pocket. She tapped her book with one blunt fingernail. "Fiction just makes it all more interesting. Truth is so boring."
"Not in my world," I said.
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