Chapter 12


I LET MYSELF in with the key I'd gotten from Sam. I was on the right side of a duplex, the mirror of the one next door presently occupied by Halleigh Robinson, the young schoolteacher dating Andy Bellefleur. I figured I was likely to have police protection at least part of the time, and Halleigh would be gone during most of the day, which was nice considering my late hours.

The living room was small and contained a flowered couch, a low coffee table, and an armchair. The next room was the kitchen, which was tiny, of course. But it had a stove, a refrigerator, and a microwave. No dishwasher, but I'd never had one. Two plastic chairs were tucked under a tiny table.

After I'd glanced at the kitchen I went through into the small hall that separated the larger (but still small) bedroom on the right from the smaller (tiny) bedroom and the bathroom on the left. At the end of the hall there was a door to the little back porch.

This was a very basic accommodation, but it was quite clean. There was central heating and cooling, and the floors were level. I ran a hand around the windows. They fit well. Nice. I reminded myself I'd have to keep the venetian blinds drawn down, since I had neighbors.

I made up the double bed in the larger bedroom. I put my clothes away in the freshly painted chest of drawers. I started a list of other things I needed: a mop, a broom, a bucket, some cleaning products... those had been on the back porch. I'd have to get my vacuum cleaner out of the house. It had been in the closet in the living room, so it should be fine. I'd brought one of my phones to plug in over here, so I would have to arrange with the phone company for them to route calls to this address. I'd loaded my television into my car, but I had to arrange for my cable to be hooked up here. I'd have to call from Merlotte's. Since the fire, all my time was being absorbed with the mechanics of living.

I sat on the hard couch, staring into space. I tried to think of something fun, something I could look forward to. Well, in two months, it'd be sunbathing time. That made me smile. I enjoyed lying in the sun in a little bikini, timing myself carefully so I didn't burn. I loved the smell of coconut oil. I took pleasure in shaving my legs and removing most of my other body hair so I'd look smooth as a baby's bottom. And I don't want to hear any lectures about how bad tanning is for you. That's my vice. Everybody gets one.

More immediately, it was time to go to the library and get another batch of books; I'd retrieved my last bagful while I was at the house, and I'd spread them out on my tiny porch here so they'd air out. So going to the library - that would be fun.

Before I went to work, I decided I'd cook myself something in my new kitchen. That necessitated a trip to the grocery store, which took longer than I'd planned because I kept seeing staples I was sure I'd need. Putting the groceries away in the duplex cabinets made me feel that I really lived there. I browned a couple of pork chops and put them in the oven, microwaved a potato, and heated some peas. When I had to work nights, I usually went to Merlotte's at about five, so my home meal on those days was a combination lunch and dinner.

After I'd eaten and cleaned up, I thought I just had time to drive down to visit Calvin in the Grainger hospital.

The twins had not arrived to take up their post in the lobby again, if they were still keeping vigil. Dawson was still stationed outside Calvin's room. He nodded to me, gestured to me to stop while I was several feet away, and stuck his head in Calvin's room. To my relief, Dawson swung the door wide open for me to enter and even patted my shoulder as I went in.

Calvin was sitting up in the padded chair. He clicked off the television as I came in. His color was better, his beard and hair were clean and trimmed, and he looked altogether more like himself. He was wearing pajamas of blue broadcloth. He still had a tube or two in, I saw. He actually tried to push himself up out of the chair.

"No, don't you dare get up!" I pulled over a straight chair and sat in front of him. "Tell me how you are."

"Glad to see you," he said. Even his voice was stronger. "Dawson said you wouldn't take any help. Tell me who set that fire."

"That's the strange thing, Calvin. I don't know why this man set the fire. His family came to see me..." I hesitated, because Calvin was recuperating from his own brush with death, and he shouldn't have to worry about other stuff.

But he said, "Tell me what you're thinking," and he sounded so interested that I ended up relating everything to the wounded shifter: my doubts about the arsonist's motives, my relief that the damage could be repaired, my concern about the trouble between Eric and Charles Twining. And I told Calvin that the police here had learned of more clusters of sniper activity.

"That would clear Jason," I pointed out, and he nodded. I didn't push it.

"At least no one else has been shot," I said, trying to think of something positive to throw in with the dismal mix.

"That we know of," Calvin said.


"That we know of. Maybe someone else has been shot, and no one's found 'em yet."

I was astonished at the thought, and yet it made sense. "How'd you think of that?"

"I don't have nothing else to do," he said with a small smile. "I don't read, like you do. I'm not much one for television, except for sports." Sure enough, the station he'd had on when I'd entered had been ESPN.

"What do you do in your spare time?" I asked out of sheer curiosity.

Calvin was pleased I'd asked him a personal question. "I work pretty long hours at Norcross," he said. "I like to hunt, though I'd rather hunt at the full moon." In his panther body. Well, I could understand that. "I like to fish. I love mornings when I can just sit in my boat on the water and not worry about a thing."

"Uh-huh," I said encouragingly. "What else?"

"I like to cook. We have shrimp boils sometimes, or we cook up a whole mess of catfish and we eat outside - catfish and hush puppies and slaw and watermelon. In the summer, of course."

It made my mouth water just to think about it.

"In the winter, I work on the inside of my house. I go out and cut wood for the people in our community who can't cut their own. I've always got something to do, seems like."

Now I knew twice as much about Calvin Norris as I had.

"Tell me how you're recovering," I asked.

"I've still got the damn IV in," he said, gesturing with his arm. "Other than that, I'm a lot better. We heal pretty good, you know."

"How are you explaining Dawson to the people from your work who come to visit?" There were flower arrangements and bowls of fruit and even a stuffed cat crowding the level surfaces in the room.

"Just tell 'em he's my cousin here to make sure I won't get too wore out with visitors."

I was pretty sure no one would question Dawson directly.

"I have to get to work," I said, catching a glimpse of the clock on the wall. I was oddly reluctant to leave. I'd enjoyed having a regular conversation with someone. Little moments like these were rare in my life.

"Are you still worried about your brother?" he asked.

"Yes." But I'd made my mind up I wouldn't beg again. Calvin had heard me out the first time. There wasn't any need for a repeat.

"We're keeping an eye on him."

I wondered if the watcher had reported to Calvin that Crystal was spending the night with Jason. Or maybe Crystal herself was the watcher? If so, she was certainly taking her job seriously. She was watching Jason about as close as he could be watched.

"That's good," I said. "That's the best way to find out he didn't do it." I was relieved to hear Calvin's news, and the longer I pondered it, the more I realized I should have figured it out myself.

"Calvin, you take care." I rose to leave, and he held up his cheek. Rather reluctantly, I touched my lips to it.

He was thinking that my lips were soft and that I smelled good. I couldn't help but smile as I left. Knowing someone simply finds you attractive is always a boost to the spirits.

I drove back to Bon Temps and stopped by the library before I went to work. The Renard Parish library is an old ugly brown-brick building erected in the thirties. It looks every minute of its age. The librarians had made many justified complaints about the heating and cooling, and the electrical wiring left a lot to be desired. The library's parking lot was in bad shape, and the old clinic next door, which had opened its doors in 1918, now had boarded-up windows - always a depressing sight. The long-closed clinic's overgrown lot looked more like a jungle than a part of downtown.

I had allotted myself ten minutes to exchange my books. I was in and out in eight. The library parking lot was almost empty, since it was just before five o'clock. People were shopping at Wal-Mart or already home cooking supper.

The winter light was fading. I was not thinking about anything in particular, and that saved my life. In the nick of time, I identified intense excitement pulsing from another brain, and reflexively I ducked, feeling a sharp shove in my shoulder as I did so, and then a hot lance of blinding pain, and then wetness and a big noise. This all happened so fast I could not definitely sequence it when I later tried to reconstruct the moment.

A scream came from behind me, and then another. Though I didn't know how it had happened, I found myself on my knees beside my car, and blood was spattered over the front of my white T-shirt.

Oddly, my first thought was Thank God I didn't have my new coat on.

The person who'd screamed was Portia Bellefleur. Portia was not her usual collected self as she skidded across the parking lot to crouch beside me. Her eyes went one way, then another, as she tried to spot danger coming from any direction.

"Hold still," she said sharply, as though I'd proposed running a marathon. I was still on my knees, but keeling over appeared to be a pleasant option. Blood was trickling down my arm. "Someone shot you, Sookie. Oh my God, oh my God."

"Take the books," I said. "I don't want to get blood on the books. I'll have to pay for them."

Portia ignored me. She was talking into her cell phone. People talked on their phones at the damnedest times! In the library, for goodness's sake, or at the optometrist. Or in the bar. Jabber, jabber, jabber. As if everything was so important it couldn't wait. So I put the books on the ground beside me all by myself.

Instead of kneeling, I found myself sitting, my back against my car. And then, as if someone had taken a slice out of my life, I discovered I was lying on the pavement of the library parking lot, staring at someone's big old oil stain. People should take better care of their cars....


"Wake up," a voice was saying. I wasn't in the parking lot, but in a bed. I thought my house was on fire again, and Claudine was trying to get me out. People were always trying to get me out of bed. Though this didn't sound like Claudine; this sounded more like...

"Jason?" I tried to open my eyes. I managed to peer through my barely parted lids to identify my brother. I was in a dimly lit blue room, and I hurt so bad I wanted to cry.

"You got shot," he said. "You got shot, and I was at Merlotte's, waiting for you to get there."

"You sound... happy," I said through lips that felt oddly thick and stiff. Hospital.

"I couldn't have done it! I was with people the whole time! I had Hoyt in the truck with me from work to Merlotte's, because his truck's in the shop. I am covered."

"Oh, good. I'm glad I got shot, then. As long as you're okay." It was such an effort to say it, I was glad when Jason picked up on the sarcasm.

"Yeah, hey, I'm sorry about that. At least it wasn't serious."

"It isn't?"

"I forgot to tell you. Your shoulder got creased, and it's going to hurt for a while. Press this button if it hurts. You can give yourself pain medication. Cool, huh? Listen, Andy's outside."

I pondered that, finally deduced Andy Bellefleur was there in his official capacity. "Okay," I said. "He can come in." I stretched out a finger and carefully pushed the button.

I blinked then, and it must have been a long blink, because when I pried my eyes open again, Jason was gone and Andy was in his place, a little notebook and a pen in his hands. There was something I had to tell him, and after a moment's reflection, I knew what it was.

"Tell Portia I said thank you," I told him.

"I will," he said seriously. "She's pretty shook up. She's never been that close to violence before. She thought you were gonna die."

I could think of nothing to say to that. I waited for him to ask me what he wanted to know. His mouth moved, and I guess I answered him.

"... said you ducked at the last second?"

"I heard something, I guess," I whispered. That was the truth, too. I just hadn't heard something with my ears.... But Andy knew what I meant, and he was a believer. His eyes met mine and widened.

And out again. The ER doctor had certainly given me some excellent painkiller. I wondered which hospital I was in. The one in Clarice was a little closer to the library; the one in Grainger had a higher-rated ER. If I was in Grainger, I might as well have saved myself the time driving back to Bon Temps and going to the library. I could have been shot right in the hospital parking lot when I left from visiting Calvin, and that would have saved me the trip.

"Sookie," said a quiet, familiar voice. It was cool and dark, like water running in a stream on a moonless night.

"Bill," I said, feeling happy and safe. "Don't go."

"I'll be right here."

And he was there, reading, in a chair by my bed when I woke up at three in the morning. I could feel the minds in the rooms around me all shut down in sleep. But the brain in the head of the man next to me was a blank. At that moment, I realized that the person who'd shot me had not been a vampire, though all the shootings had taken place at dusk or full dark. I'd heard the shooter's brain in the second before the shot, and that had saved my life.

Bill looked up the instant I moved. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

I pushed the button to raise the head of the bed. "Like hell warmed over," I said frankly after evaluating my shoulder. "My pain stuff has lapsed, and my shoulder aches like it's going to fall off. My mouth feels like an army has marched through it, and I need to go to the bathroom in the worst way."

"I can help you take care of that," he said, and before I could get embarrassed, he'd moved the IV pole around the bed and helped me up. I stood cautiously, gauging how steady my legs were. He said, "I won't let you fall."

"I know," I said, and we started across the floor to the bathroom. When he got me settled on the toilet, he tactfully stepped out, but left the door cracked while he waited just outside. I managed everything awkwardly, but I became profoundly aware I was lucky I'd been shot in my left shoulder instead of my right. Of course, the shooter must have been aiming for my heart.

Bill got me back into the bed as deftly as if he'd been nursing people all his life. He'd already smoothed the bed and shaken the pillows, and I felt much more comfortable. But the shoulder continued to nag me, and I pressed the pain button. My mouth was dry, and I asked Bill if there was water in the plastic pitcher. Bill pressed the Nurse button. When her tinny voice came over the intercom, Bill said, "Some water for Miss Stackhouse," and the voice squawked back that she'd be right down. She was, too. Bill's presence might have had something to do with her speed. People might have accepted the reality of vampires, but that didn't meant they liked undead Americans. Lots of middle-class Americans just couldn't relax around vamps. Which was smart of them, I thought.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"Grainger," he said. "I get to sit with you in a different hospital this time." Last time, I'd been in Renard Parish Hospital in Clarice.

"You can go down the hall and visit Calvin."

"If I had any interest in doing so."

He sat on the bed. Something about the deadness of the hour, the strangeness of the night, made me feel like being frank. Maybe it was just the drugs.

"I never was in a hospital till I knew you," I said.

"Do you blame me?"

"Sometimes." I watched his face glow. Other people didn't always know a vamp when they saw one; that was hard for me to understand.

"When I met you, that first night I came into Merlotte's, I didn't know what to think of you," he said. "You were so pretty, so full of vitality. And I could tell there was something different about you. You were interesting."

"My curse," I said.

"Or your blessing." He put one of his cool hands on my cheek. "No fever," he said to himself. "You'll heal." Then he sat up straighter. "You slept with Eric while he was staying with you."

"Why are you asking, if you already know?" There was such a thing as too much honesty.

"I'm not asking. I knew when I saw you together. I smelled him all over you; I could tell how you felt about him. We've had each other's blood. It's hard to resist Eric," Bill went on in a detached way. "He's as vital as you are, and you share a zest for life. But I'm sure you know that..." He paused, seemed to be trying to think how to frame what he wanted to say.

"I know that you'd be happy if I never slept with anyone else in my life," I said, putting his thoughts into words for him.

"And how do you feel about me?"

"The same. Oh, but wait, you already did sleep with someone else. Before we even broke up." Bill looked away, the line of his jaw like granite. "Okay, that's water under the bridge. No, I don't want to think about you with Selah, or with anyone. But my head knows that's unreasonable."

"Is it unreasonable to hope that we'll be together again?"

I considered the circumstances that had turned me against Bill. I thought of his infidelity with Lorena; but she had been his maker, and he had had to obey her. Everything I'd heard from other vamps had confirmed what he'd told me about that relationship. I thought of his near-rape of me in the trunk of a car; but he'd been starved and tortured, and hadn't known what he was doing. The minute he'd come to his senses, he'd stopped.

I remembered how happy I'd been when I'd had what I thought was his love. I'd never felt more secure in my life. How false a feeling that had been: He'd become so absorbed in his work for the Queen of Louisiana that I'd begun to come in a distant second. Out of all the vampires who could have walked into Merlotte's Bar, I'd gotten the workaholic.

"I don't know if we can ever have the same relationship again," I said. "It might be possible, when I'm a little less raw from the pain of it. But I'm glad you're here tonight, and I wish you would lie down with me for a little while... if you want to." I moved over on the narrow bed and turned on my right side, so the wounded shoulder was up. Bill lay down behind me and put his arm over me. No one could approach me without him knowing. I felt perfectly secure, absolutely safe, and cherished. "I'm so glad you're here," I mumbled as the medicine kicked in. As I was drifting off to sleep again, I remembered my New Year's Eve resolution: I wanted not to get beaten up. Note to self: I should have included "shot."

I was released the next morning. When I went to the business office, the clerk, whose name tag read MS. BEESON, said, "It's already been taken care of."

"By who?" I asked.

"The person wishes to remain anonymous," the clerk said, her round brown face set in a way that implied I shouldn't look gift horses in the mouth.

This made me uneasy, very uneasy. I actually had the money in the bank to pay the whole bill, instead of sending a check each month. And nothing comes without a price. There were some people to whom I just didn't want to be beholden. When I absorbed the total at the bottom of the bill, I was shocked to find how very beholden I'd be.

Maybe I should have stayed in the office longer and argued with Ms. Beeson more forcefully, but I just didn't feel up to it. I wanted to shower, or at least bathe - something more thorough than the high-spots scrub I'd given myself (very slowly and carefully) that morning. I wanted to eat my own food. I wanted some solitude and peace. So I got back in the wheelchair and let the aide wheel me out of the main entrance. I felt like the biggest idiot when it occurred to me that I didn't have a way home. My car was still in the library parking lot in Bon Temps - not that I was supposed to drive it for a couple of days.

Just as I was about to ask the aide to wheel me back inside so I could ride up to Calvin's room (maybe Dawson could give me a lift), a sleek red Impala came to a halt in front of me. Claudine's brother, Claude, leaned over to push open the passenger door. I sat gaping at him. He said irritably, "Well, are you going to get in?"

"Wow," muttered the aide. "Wow." I thought her blouse buttons were going to pop open, she was breathing so hard.

I'd met Claudine's brother Claude only once before. I'd forgotten what an impact he made. Claude was absolutely breathtaking, so lovely that his proximity made me tense as a high wire. Relaxing around Claude was like trying to be nonchalant with Brad Pitt.

Claude had been a stripper on ladies' night at Hooligans, a club in Monroe, but lately he'd not only moved into managing the club, he'd also branched into print and runway modeling. The opportunities for such work were few and far between in northern Louisiana, so Claude (according to Claudine) had decided to compete for Mr. Romance at a romance readers' convention. He'd even had his ears surgically altered so they weren't pointed anymore. The big payoff was the chance to appear on a romance cover. I didn't know too much about the contest, but I knew what I saw when I looked at Claude. I felt pretty confident Claude would win by acclamation.

Claudine had mentioned that Claude had just broken up with his boyfriend, too, so he was unattached: all six feet of him, accessorized with rippling black hair and rippling muscles and a six-pack that could have been featured in Abs Weekly. Mentally add to that a pair of brown velour-soft eyes, a chiseled jaw, and a sensuous mouth with a pouty bottom lip, and you've got Claude. Not that I was noticing.

Without the help of the aide, who was still saying, "Wow, wow, wow," very quietly, I got out of the wheelchair and eased myself into the car. "Thanks," I said to Claude, trying not to sound as astonished as I felt.

"Claudine couldn't get off work, so she called me and woke me up so I'd be here to chauffeur you," Claude said, sounding totally put out.

"I'm grateful for the ride," I said, after considering several possible responses.

I noticed that Claude didn't have to ask me for directions to Bon Temps, though I'd never seen him in the area - and I think I've made the point that he was hard to miss.

"How is your shoulder?" he said abruptly, as if he'd remembered that was the polite question to ask.

"On the mend," I said. "And I have a prescription for some painkillers to fill."

"So I guess you need to do that, too?"

"Um, well, that would be nice, since I'm not supposed to drive for another day or two."

When we reached Bon Temps, I directed Claude to the pharmacy, where he found a parking slot right in front. I managed to get out of the car and take in the prescription, since Claude didn't offer. The pharmacist, of course, had heard what had happened already and wanted to know what this world was coming to. I couldn't tell him.

I passed the time while he was filling my prescription by speculating on the possibility that Claude was bisexual - even a little bit? Every woman who came into the pharmacy had a glazed look on her face. Of course, they hadn't had the privilege of having an actual conversation with Claude, so they hadn't had the benefit of his sparkling personality.

"Took you long enough," Claude said as I got back in the car.

"Yes, Mr. Social Skills," I snapped. "I'll try to hurry from now on. Why should getting shot slow me down? I apologize."

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Claude's cheeks reddening.

"I'm sorry," he said stiffly. "I was abrupt. People tell me I'm rude."

"No! Really?"

"Yes," he admitted, and then realized I'd been a tad sarcastic. He gave me a look I would have called a glower from a less beautiful creature. "Listen, I have a favor to ask you."

"You're certainly off to a good start. You've softened me up now."

"Would you stop that? I know I'm not... not..."

"Polite? Minimally courteous? Gallant? Going about this the right way?"

"Sookie!" he bellowed. "Be quiet!"

I wanted one of my pain pills. "Yes, Claude?" I said in a quiet, reasonable voice.

"The people running the pageant want a portfolio. I'll go to the studio in Ruston for some glamour shots, but I think it might be a good idea to do some posed pictures, too. Like the covers of the books Claudine is always reading. Claudine says I should have a blonde pose with me, since I'm dark. I thought of you."

I guess if Claude had told me he wanted me to have his baby I could have been more surprised, but only just. Though Claude was the surliest man I'd ever encountered, Claudine had a habit of saving my life. For her sake, I wanted to oblige.

"Would I need, like, a costume?"

"Yes. But the photographer also does amateur dramatics and he rents out Halloween costumes, so he thought he might have some things that would do. What size do you wear?"

"An eight." Sometimes more like a ten. But then again, once in a blue moon, a six, okay?

"So when can you do this?"

"My shoulder has to heal," I said gently. "The bandage wouldn't look good in the pictures."

"Oh, right. So you'll call me?"


"You won't forget?"

"No. I'm so looking forward to it." Actually, at the moment what I wanted was my own space, free and clear of any other person, and a Diet Coke, and one of the pills I was clutching in my hand. Maybe I'd have a little nap before I took the shower that also featured on my list.

"I've met the cook at Merlotte's before," Claude said, the floodgates evidently now wide open.

"Uh-huh. Sweetie."

"That's what she's calling herself? She used to work at the Foxy Femmes."

"She was a stripper?"

"Yeah, until the accident."

"Sweetie was in an accident?" I was getting more worn out by the second.

"Yeah, so she got scarred and didn't want to strip anymore. It would've required too much makeup, she said. Besides, by then she was getting a little on the, ah, old side to be stripping."

"Poor thing," I said. I tried to picture Sweetie parading down a runway in high heels and feathers. Disturbing.

"I'd never let her hear you say that," he advised.

We parked in front of the duplex. Someone had brought my car back from the library parking lot. The door to the other side of the duplex opened, and Halleigh Robinson stepped out, my keys in her hand. I was wearing the black pants I'd had on since I had been on my way to work, but my Merlotte's T-shirt had been ruined so the hospital had given me a white sweatshirt that someone had left there once upon a time. It was huge on me, but that wasn't why Halleigh was standing stock-still, catching flies with her mouth. Claude had actually gotten out to help me into the house, and the sight of him had paralyzed the young schoolteacher.

Claude eased his arm tenderly around my shoulders, bent his head to look adoringly into my face, and winked.

This was the first hint I'd had that Claude had a sense of humor. It pleased me to find he wasn't universally disagreeable.

"Thanks for bringing me my keys," I called, and Halleigh suddenly remembered she could walk.

"Um," she said. "Um, sure." She put the keys somewhere in the vicinity of my hand, and I snagged them.

"Halleigh, this is my friend Claude," I said with what I hoped was a meaningful smile.

Claude moved his arm down to circle my waist and gave her a distracted smile of his own, hardly moving his eyes from mine. Oh, brother. "Hello, Halleigh," he said in his richest baritone.

"You're lucky to have someone to bring you home from the hospital," Halleigh said. "That's very nice of you, uh, Claude."

"I would do anything for Sookie," Claude said softly.

"Really?" Halleigh shook herself. "Well, how nice. Andy drove your car back over here, Sookie, and he asked if I'd give you your keys. It's lucky you caught me. I just ran home to eat lunch. I, um, I have to go back to..." She gave Claude a final comprehensive stare before getting into her own little Mazda to drive back to the elementary school.

I unlocked my door clumsily and stepped into my little living room. "This is where I'm staying while my house is being rebuilt," I told Claude. I felt vaguely embarrassed at the small sterile room. "I just moved in the day I got shot. Yesterday," I said with some wonder.

Claude, his faux admiration having been dropped when Halleigh pulled away, eyed me with some disparagement. "You have mighty bad luck," he observed.

"In some ways," I said. But I thought of all the help I'd already gotten, and of my friends. I remembered the simple pleasure of sleeping close to Bill the night before. "My luck could definitely be worse," I added, more or less to myself.

Claude was massively uninterested in my philosophy.

After I thanked him again and asked him to give Claudine a hug from me, I repeated my promise to call him when my wound had healed enough for the posing session.

My shoulder was beginning to ache now. When I locked the door behind him, I swallowed a pill. I'd called the phone company from the library the afternoon before, and to my surprise and pleasure I got a dial tone when I picked up my phone. I called Jason's cell to tell him I was out of the hospital, but he didn't answer so I left a message on his voice mail. Then I called the bar to tell Sam I'd be back at work the next day. I'd missed two days' worth of pay and tips, and I couldn't afford any more.

I stretched out on the bed and took a long nap.

When I woke up, the sky was darkening in a way that meant rain. In the front yard of the house across the street, a small maple was whipping around in an alarming way. I thought of the tin roof my Gran had loved and of the clatter the rain made when it hit the hard surface. Rain here in town was sure to be quieter.

I was looking out my bedroom window at the identical duplex next door, wondering who my neighbor was, when I heard a sharp knock. Arlene was breathless from running through the first drops of rain. She had a bag from Wendy's in her hand, and the smell of the food made my stomach wake up with a growl.

"I didn't have time to cook you anything," she said apologetically as I stood aside to let her in. "But I remembered you liked to get the double hamburger with bacon when you were feeling low, and I figured you'd be feeling pretty low."

"You figured right," I said, though I was discovering I was much better than I'd been that morning. I went to the kitchen to get a plate, and Arlene followed, her eyes going to every corner.

"Hey, this is nice!" she said. Though it looked barren to me, my temporary home must have looked wonderfully uncluttered to her.

"What was it like?" Arlene asked. I tried not to hear that she was thinking that I got into more trouble than anyone she knew. "You must have been so scared!"

"Yes." I was serious, and my voice showed it. "I was very scared."

"The whole town is talking about it," Arlene said artlessly. That was just what I wanted to hear: that I was the subject of many conversations. "Hey, you remember that Dennis Pettibone?"

"The arson expert?" I said. "Sure."

"We've got a date tomorrow night."

"Way to go, Arlene. What are you all gonna do?"

"We're taking the kids to the roller rink in Grainger. He's got a girl, Katy. She's thirteen."

"Well, that sounds like fun."

"He's on stakeout tonight," Arlene said importantly.

I blinked. "What's he staking out?"

"They needed all the officers they could call in. They're staking out different parking lots around town to see if they can catch this sniper in the act."

I could see a flaw in their plan. "What if the sniper sees them first?"

"These are professionally trained men, Sookie. I think they know how to handle this." Arlene looked, and sounded, quite huffy. All of a sudden, she was Ms. Law Enforcement.

"Chill," I said. "I'm just concerned." Besides, unless the lawmen were Weres, they weren't in danger. Of course, the big flaw in that theory was that I had been shot. And I was no Were, no shifter. I still hadn't figured out how to work that into my scenario.

"Where's the mirror?" Arlene asked, and I looked around.

"I guess the only big one's in the bathroom," I said, and it felt strange to have to think about the location of an item in my own place. While Arlene fussed with her hair, I put my food on a plate, hoping I'd get to eat while it was still warm. I caught myself standing like a fool with the empty food bag in my hand, wondering where the garbage can was. Of course there wasn't a garbage can until I went out to buy one. I'd never lived anywhere but my Gran's house for the past nineteen years. I'd never had to start housekeeping from the ground up.

"Sam's still not driving, so he can't come to see you, but he's thinking about you," Arlene called. "You gonna be able to work tomorrow night?"

"I'm planning on it."

"Good. I'm scheduled to be off, Charlsie's granddaughter's in the hospital with pneumonia, so she's gone, and Holly doesn't always show up when she's scheduled. Danielle's going to be out of town. That new girl, Jada - she's better than Danielle, anyway."

"You think?"

"Yeah." Arlene snorted. "I don't know if you've noticed, but Danielle just doesn't seem to care anymore. People can be wanting drinks and calling to her, and it doesn't make a smidge of difference to her. She'll just stand there talking to her boyfriend while people holler at her."

It was true that Danielle had been less than scrupulous about her work habits since she'd started steady-dating a guy from Arcadia. "You think she's gonna quit?" I asked, and that opened up another conversational pit we mined for about five minutes, though Arlene had said she was in a hurry. She'd ordered me to eat while the food was good, so I chewed and swallowed while she talked. We didn't say anything startlingly new or original, but we had a good time. I could tell that Arlene (for once) was just enjoying sitting with me, being idle.

One of the many downsides to telepathy is the fact that you can tell the difference between when someone's really listening to you, and when you're talking to just a face instead of a mind.

Andy Bellefleur arrived as Arlene was getting into her car. I was glad I'd stuffed the bag from Wendy's in a cabinet just to get it out of the way.

"You're right next to Halleigh," Andy said - an obvious opening gambit.

"Thanks for leaving my keys with her and getting my car over here," I said. Andy had his moments.

"She says the guy that brought you home from the hospital was really, ah, interesting." Andy was obviously fishing. I smiled at Andy. Whatever Halleigh had said had made him curious and maybe a little jealous.

"You could say that," I agreed.

He waited to see if I'd expound. When I didn't, he became all business.

"The reason I'm here, I wanted to find out if you remembered any more about yesterday."

"Andy, I didn't know anything then, much less now."

"But you ducked."

"Oh, Andy," I said, exasperated, since he knew good and well about my condition, "you don't have to ask why I ducked."

He turned red, slowly and unbecomingly. Andy was a fireplug of a man and an intelligent police detective, but he had such ambiguity toward things he knew to be true, even if those things weren't completely conventional items of common knowledge.

"We're here all by ourselves," I pointed out. "And the walls are thick enough that I don't hear Halleigh moving around."

"Is there more?" he asked suddenly, his eyes alight with curiosity. "Sookie, is there more?"

I knew exactly what he meant. He would never spell it out, but he wanted to know if there was even more in this world than humans, and vampires, and telepaths. "So much more," I said, keeping my voice quiet and even. "Another world."

Andy's eyes met mine. His suspicions had been confirmed, and he was intrigued. He was right on the edge of asking me about the people who'd been shot - right on the verge of making the leap - but at the last instant, he drew back. "You didn't see anything or hear anything that would help us? Was there anything different about the night Sam was shot?"

"No," I said. "Nothing. Why?"

He didn't answer, but I could read his mind like a book. The bullet from Sam's leg didn't match the other recovered bullets.

After he left, I tried to dissect that quick impression I'd gotten, the one that had prompted me to duck. If the parking lot hadn't been empty, I might not have caught it at all, since the brain that had made it had been at some distance. And what I'd felt had been a tangle of determination, anger, and above all, disgust. The person who'd been shooting had been sure I was loathsome and inhuman. Stupidly enough, my first reaction was hurt - after all, no one likes to be despised. Then I considered the strange fact that Sam's bullet didn't match any of the previous Were shootings. I couldn't understand that at all. I could think of many explanations, but all of them seemed far-fetched.

The rain began to pour down outside, hitting the north-facing windows with a hiss. I didn't have a reason to call anyone, but I felt like making one up. It wasn't a good night to be out of touch. As the pounding of the rain increased, I became more and more anxious. The sky was a leaden gray; soon it would be full dark.

I wondered why I was so twitchy. I was used to being by myself, and it seldom bothered me. Now I was physically closer to people than I'd ever been in my house on Hummingbird Road, but I felt more alone.

Though I wasn't supposed to drive, I needed things for the duplex. I would have made the errand a necessity and gone to Wal-Mart despite the rain - or because of the rain - if the nurse hadn't made such a big deal out of resting my shoulder. I went restlessly from room to room until the crunch of gravel told me that I was having yet more company. This was town living, for sure.

When I opened the door, Tara was standing there in a leopard-print raincoat with a hood. Of course I asked her in, and she tried her best to shake out the coat on the little front porch. I carried it into the kitchen to drip on the linoleum.

She hugged me very gently and said, "Tell me how you are."

After I went over the story once again, she said, "I've been worried about you. I couldn't get away from the shop until now, but I just had to come see you. I saw the suit in my closet. Did you come to my house?"

"Yes," I said. "The day before yesterday. Didn't Mickey tell you?"

"He was in the house when you were there? I warned you," she said, almost panic-stricken. "He didn't hurt you, did he? He didn't have anything to do with you getting shot?"

"Not that I know of. But I did go into your house kind of late, and I know you told me not to. It was just dumb. He did, ah, try to scare me. I wouldn't let him know you've been to see me, if I were you. How were you able to come here tonight?"

A shutter dropped over Tara's face. Her big dark eyes hardened, and she pulled away from me. "He's out somewhere," she said.

"Tara, can you tell me how you came to be involved with him? What happened to Franklin?" I tried to ask these questions as gently as I could, because I knew I was treading on delicate ground.

Tara's eyes filled with tears. She was struggling to answer me, but she was ashamed. "Sookie," she began at last, almost whispering, "I thought Franklin really cared about me, you know? I mean, I thought he respected me. As a person."

I nodded, intent on her face. I was scared of disrupting the flow of her story now that she'd finally begun to talk to me.

"But he... he just passed me along when he was through with me."

"Oh, no, Tara! He... surely he explained to you why you two were breaking up. Or did you have a big fight?" I didn't want to believe Tara had been passed from vamp to vamp like some fang-banger at a bloodsucker's party.

"He said, 'Tara, you're a pretty girl and you've been good company, but I owe a debt to Mickey's master, and Mickey wants you now.' "

I knew my mouth was hanging open, and I didn't care. I could scarcely believe what Tara was telling me. I could hear the humiliation rolling off of her in waves of self-loathing. "You couldn't do anything about it?" I asked. I was trying to keep the incredulity out of my voice.

"Believe me, I tried," Tara said bitterly. She wasn't blaming me for my question, which was a relief. "I told him I wouldn't. I told him I wasn't a whore, that I'd been dating him because I liked him." Her shoulders collapsed. "But you know, Sookie, I wasn't telling the whole truth, and he knew it. I took all the presents he gave me. They were expensive things. But they were freely given, and he didn't tell me there were strings attached! I never asked for anything!"

"So he was saying that because you'd accepted his gifts, you were bound to do as he said?"

"He said - " Tara began weeping, and her sobs made everything come out in little jerks. "He said that I was acting like a mistress, and he'd paid for everything I had, and that I might as well be of more use to him. I said I wouldn't, that I'd give him back everything, and he said he didn't want it. He told me this vamp named Mickey had seen me out with him, that Franklin owed Mickey a big favor."

"But this is America," I protested. "How can they do that?"

"Vampires are awful," Tara said dismally. "I don't know how you can stand hanging out with them. I thought I was so cool, having a vamp boyfriend. Okay, he was more like a sugar daddy, I guess." Tara sighed at the admission. "It was just so nice being, you know, treated so well. I'm not used to that. I really thought he liked me, too. I wasn't just being greedy."

"Did he take blood from you?" I asked.

"Don't they always?" she asked, surprised. "During sex?"

"As far as I know," I said. "Yeah. But you know, after he had your blood, he could tell how you felt about him."

"He could?"

"After they've had your blood, they're tuned in to your feelings." I was quite sure that Tara hadn't been as fond of Franklin Mott as she'd been saying, that she was much more interested in his lavish gifts and courteous treatment than in him. Of course, he'd known that. He might not have much cared if Tara liked him for himself or not, but that had surely made him more inclined to trade her off. "So how'd it happen?"

"Well, it wasn't so abrupt as I've made it sound," she said. She stared down at her hands. "First Franklin said he couldn't go somewhere with me, so would it be okay if this other guy took me instead? I thought he was thinking of me, of how disappointed I'd be if I didn't get to go - it was a concert - so I really didn't brood over it. Mickey was on his best behavior, and it wasn't a bad evening. He left me at the door, like a gentleman."

I tried not to raise my eyebrows in disbelief. The snakelike Mickey, whose every pore breathed "bad to the bone," had persuaded Tara he was a gentleman? "Okay, so then what?"

"Then Franklin had to go out of town, so Mickey came by to see if I had everything I needed, and he brought me a present, which I thought was from Franklin."

Tara was lying to me, and halfway lying to herself. She had surely known the present, a bracelet, was from Mickey. She had persuaded herself it was kind of a vassal's tribute to his lord's lady, but she had known it wasn't from Franklin.

"So I took it, and we went out, and then when we came back that night, he started making advances. And I broke that off." She gave me a calm and regal face.

She may have repulsed his advances that night, but she hadn't done it instantly and decisively.

Even Tara forgot I could read her mind.

"So that time he left," she said. She took a deep breath. "The next time, he didn't."

He'd given plenty of advance warning of his intentions.

I looked at her. She flinched. "I know," she wailed. "I know, I did wrong!"

"So, is he living at your place?"

"He's got a day place somewhere close," she said, limp with misery. "He shows up at dark, and we're together the whole night. He takes me to meetings, he takes me out, and he..."

"Okay, okay." I patted her hand. That didn't seem like enough, and I hugged her closer. Tara was taller than I, so it wasn't a very maternal hug, but I just wanted my friend to know I was on her side.

"He's real rough," Tara said very quietly. "He's going to kill me some day."

"Not if we kill him first."

"Oh, we can't."

"You think he's too strong?"

"I think I can't kill someone, even him."

"Oh." I had thought Tara had more grit to her, after what her parents had put her through. "Then we have to think of a way to pry him off you."

"What about your friend?"

"Which one?"

"Eric. Everyone says that Eric has a thing for you."


"The vampires around here. Did Bill pass you to Eric?"

He'd told me once I should go to Eric if anything happened to him, but I hadn't taken that as meaning Eric should assume the same role that Bill had in my life. As it turned out, I had had a fling with Eric, but under entirely different circumstances.

"No, he didn't," I said with absolute clarity. "Let me think." I mulled it over, feeling the terrible pressure of Tara's eyes. "Who's Mickey's boss?" I asked. "Or his sire?"

"I think it's a woman," Tara said. "At least, Mickey's taken me to a place in Baton Rouge a couple of times, a casino, where he's met with a female vamp. Her name is Salome."

"Like in the Bible?"

"Yeah. Imagine naming your kid that."

"So, is this Salome a sheriff?"


"Is she a regional boss?"

"I don't know. Mickey and Franklin never talked about that stuff."

I tried not to look as exasperated as I felt. "What's the name of the casino?"

"Seven Veils."

Hmmm. "Okay, did he treat her with deference?" That was a good Word of the Day entry from my calendar, which I hadn't seen since the fire.

"Well, he kind of bowed to her."

"Just his head, or from the waist?"

"From the waist. Well, more than the head. I mean, he bent over."

"Okay. What did he call her?"


"Okay." I hesitated, and then asked again, "You're sure we can't kill him?"

"Maybe you can," she said morosely. "I stood over him with an ice pick for fifteen minutes one night when he went to sleep after, you know, sex. But I was too scared. If he finds out I've been here to see you, he'll get mad. He doesn't like you at all. He thinks you're a bad influence."

"He got that right," I said with a confidence I was far from feeling. "Let me see what I can think of."

Tara left after another hug. She even managed a little smile, but I didn't know how justified her flash of optimism might be.

There was only one thing I could do.

The next night I'd be working. It was full dark by now, and he'd be up.

I had to call Eric.

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