Chapter 14


I SLEPT FOR hours.

When I woke up, Tara was gone.

I felt a stab of panic, until I realized she'd folded the blanket, washed her face in the bathroom (wet washcloth), and put her shoes on. She had left me a little note, too, on an old envelope that already held the beginnings of my shopping list. It said, "I'll call you later. T" - a terse note, and not exactly redolent of sisterly love.

I felt a little sad. I figured I wouldn't be Tara's favorite person for a while. She'd had to look more closely at herself than she wanted to look.

There are times to think, and times to lie fallow. Today was a fallow day. My shoulder felt much better, and I decided I would drive to the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Clarice and get all my shopping over with in one trip. Also, there I wouldn't see as many people I knew, and I wouldn't have to discuss getting shot.

It was very peaceful, being anonymous in the big store. I moved slowly and read labels, and I even selected a shower curtain for the duplex bathroom. I took my time completing my list. When I transferred the bags from the buggy into the car, I tried to do all the lifting with my right arm. I was practically reeking with virtue when I got back to the house on Berry Street.

The Bon Temps Florist van was in the driveway. Every woman has a little lift in her heart when the florist's van pulls up, and I was no exception.

"I have a multiple delivery here," said Bud Dearborn's wife, Greta. Greta was flat-faced like the sheriff and squatty like the sheriff, but her nature was happy and unsuspicious. "You're one lucky girl, Sookie."

"Yes, ma'am, I am," I agreed, with only a tincture of irony. After Greta had helped me carry in my bags, she began carrying in flowers.

Tara had sent me a little vase of daisies and carnations. I am very fond of daisies, and the yellow and white looked pretty in my little kitchen. The card just read "From Tara."

Calvin had sent a very small gardenia bush wrapped up in tissue and a big bow. It was ready to pop out of the plastic tub and be planted as soon as the danger of a frost was over. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the gift, since the gardenia bush would perfume my yard for years. Because he'd had to call in the order, the card bore the conventional sentiment "Thinking of you - Calvin."

Pam had sent a mixed bouquet, and the card read, "Don't get shot anymore. From the gang at Fangtasia." That made me laugh a little. I automatically thought of writing thank-you notes, but of course I didn't have my stationery with me. I'd stop by the pharmacy and get some. The downtown pharmacy had a corner that was a card shop, and also it accepted packages for UPS pickup. You had to be diverse in Bon Temps.

I put away my purchases, awkwardly hung the shower curtain, and got cleaned up for work.

Sweetie Des Arts was the first person I saw when I came through the employees' entrance. She had an armful of kitchen towels, and she'd tied on her apron. "You're a hard woman to kill," she remarked. "How you feeling?"

"I'm okay," I said. I felt like Sweetie had been waiting for me, and I appreciated the gesture.

"I hear you ducked just in time," she said. "How come? Did you hear something?"

"Not exactly," I said. Sam limped out of his office then, using his cane. He was scowling. I sure didn't want to explain my little quirk to Sweetie on Sam's time. I said, "I just had a feeling," and shrugged, which was unexpetedly painful.

Sweetie shook her head at my close call and turned to go through the bar and back to the kitchen.

Sam jerked his head toward his office, and with a sinking heart I followed him in. He shut the door behind us. "What were you doing when you got shot?" he asked. His eyes were bright with anger.

I wasn't going to get blamed for what had happened to me. I stood right up to Sam, got in his face. "I was just checking out library books," I said through my teeth.

"So why would he think you're a shifter?"

"I have no idea."

"Who had you been around?"

"I'd been to see Calvin, and I'd..." My voice trailed off as I caught at the tail end of a thought.

"So, who can tell you smell like a shifter?" I asked slowly. "No one but another shifter, right? Or someone with shifter blood. Or a vampire. Some supernatural thing."

"But we haven't had any strange shifters around here lately."

"Have you gone to where the shooter must have been, to smell?"

"No, the only time I was on the spot at a shooting, I was too busy screaming on the ground with blood running out of my leg."

"But maybe now you could pick up something."

Sam looked down at his leg doubtfully. "It's rained, but I guess it's worth a try," he conceded. "I should have thought of it myself. Okay, tonight, after work."

"It's a date," I said flippantly as Sam sank down in his squeaky chair. I put my purse in the drawer Sam kept empty and went out to check my tables.

Charles was hard at work, and he gave me a nod and a smile before he concentrated on the level of beer in the pitcher he was holding to the tap. One of our consistent drunks, Jane Bodehouse, was seated at the bar with Charles fixed in her sights. It didn't seem to make the vampire uncomfortable. I saw that the rhythm of the bar was back to normal; the new bartender had been absorbed into the background.

After I'd worked about an hour, Jason came in. He had Crystal cuddled up in the curve of his arm. He was as happy as I'd ever seen him. He was excited by his new life and very pleased with Crystal's company. I wondered how long that would last. But Crystal herself seemed of much the same mind.

She told me that Calvin would be getting out of the hospital the next day and going home to Hotshot. I made sure to mention the flowers he'd sent and told her I'd be fixing Calvin some dish to mark his homecoming.

Crystal was pretty sure she was pregnant. Even through the tangle of shifter brain, I could read that thought as clear as a bell. It wasn't the first time I'd learned that some girl "dating" Jason was sure he was going to be a dad, and I hoped that this time was as false as the last time. It wasn't that I had anything against Crystal... Well, that was a lie I was telling myself. I did have something against Crystal. Crystal was part of Hotshot, and she'd never leave it. I didn't want any niece or nephew of mine to be brought up in that strange little community, within the pulsing magic influence of the crossroads that formed its center.

Crystal was keeping her late period a secret from Jason right now, determined to stay quiet until she was sure what it meant. I approved. She nursed one beer while Jason downed two, and then they were off to the movies in Clarice. Jason gave me a hug on the way out while I was distributing drinks to a cluster of law enforcement people. Alcee Beck, Bud Dearborn, Andy Bellefleur, Kevin Pryor, and Kenya Jones, plus Arlene's new crush, arson investigator Dennis Pettibone, were all huddled around two tables pushed together in a corner. There were two strangers with them, but I picked up easily enough that the two men were cops, too, part of some task force.

Arlene might have liked to wait on them, but they were clearly in my territory, and they clearly were talking about something heap big. When I was taking drink orders, they all hushed up, and when I was walking away, they'd start their conversation back up. Of course, what they said with their mouths didn't make any difference to me, since I knew what each and every one of them was thinking.

And they all knew this good and well; and they all forgot it. Alcee Beck, in particular, was scared to death of me, but even he was quite oblivious to my ability, though I'd demonstrated it for him before. The same could be said of Andy Bellefleur.

"What's the law enforcement convention in the corner cooking up?" asked Charles. Jane had tottered off to the ladies', and he was temporarily by himself at the bar.

"Let me see," I said, closing my eyes so I could concentrate better. "Well, they're thinking of moving the stakeout for the shooter to another parking lot tonight, and they're convinced that the arson is connected to the shootings and that Jeff Marriot's death is tied in with everything, somehow. They're even wondering if the disappearance of Debbie Pelt is included in this clutch of crimes, since she was last seen getting gas on the interstate at the filling station closest to Bon Temps. And my brother, Jason, disappeared for a while a couple of weeks ago; maybe that's part of the picture, too." I shook my head and opened my eyes to find that Charles was disconcertingly close. His one good eye, his right, stared hard into my left.

"You have very unusual gifts, young woman," he said after a moment. "My last employer collected the unusual."

"Who'd you work for before you came into Eric's territory?" I asked. He turned away to get the Jack Daniel's.

"The King of Mississippi," he said.

I felt as if someone had pulled the rug out from under my feet. "Why'd you leave Mississippi and come here?" I asked, ignoring the hoots from the table five feet away.

The King of Mississippi, Russell Edgington, knew me as Alcide's girlfriend, but he didn't know me as a telepath occasionally employed by vampires. It was quite possible Edgington might have a grudge against me. Bill had been held in the former stables behind Edgington's mansion and tortured by Lorena, the creature who'd turned Bill into a vampire over a hundred and forty years before. Bill had escaped. Lorena had died. Russell Edgington didn't necessarily know I was the agent of these events. But then again, he might.

"I got tired of Russell's ways," Sir Charles said. "I'm not of his sexual persuasion, and being surrounded by perversity became tiresome."

Edgington enjoyed the company of men, it was true. He had a house full of them, as well as a steady human companion, Talbot.

It was possible Charles had been there while I was visiting, though I hadn't noticed him. I'd been severely injured the night I was brought to the mansion. I hadn't seen all its inhabitants, and I didn't necessarily remember the ones I'd seen.

I became aware that the pirate and I were maintaining our eye contact. If they've survived for any length of time, vampires read human emotions very well, and I wondered what Charles Twining was gleaning from my face and demeanor. This was one of the few times I wished I could read a vampire's mind. I wondered, very much, if Eric was aware of Charles's background. Surely Eric wouldn't have taken him on without a background check? Eric was a cautious vampire. He'd seen history I couldn't imagine, and he'd lived through it because he was careful.

Finally I turned to answer the summons of the impatient roofers who'd been trying to get me to refill their beer pitchers for several minutes.

I avoided speaking to our new bartender for the rest of the evening. I wondered why he'd told me as much as he had. Either Charles wanted me to know he was watching me, or he really had no idea I'd been in Mississippi recently.

I had a lot to think about.

The working part of the night finally came to an end. We had to call Jane's son to come get his soused relative, but that was nothing new. The pirate bartender had been working at a good clip, never making mistakes, being sure to give every patron a good word as he filled the orders. His tip jar looked healthy.

Bill arrived to pick up his boarder as we were closing up for the night. I wanted to have a quiet word with him, but Charles was by Bill's side in a flash, so I didn't have an opportunity. Bill gave me an odd look, but they were gone without my making an opportunity to talk to him. I wasn't sure what I would say, anyway. I was reassured when I realized that of course Bill had seen the worst employees of Russell Edgington, because those employees had tortured him. If Charles Twining was unknown to Bill, he might be okay.

Sam was ready to go on our sniffing mission. It was cold and brilliant outside, the stars glittering in the night sky. Sam was bundled up, and I pulled on my pretty red coat. I had a matching set of gloves and a hat, and I would need them now. Though spring was coming closer every day, winter hadn't finished with us yet.

No one was at the bar but us. The entire parking lot was empty, except for Jane's car. The glare of the security lights made the shadows deeper. I heard a dog bark way off in the distance. Sam was moving carefully on his crutches, trying to negotiate the uneven parking lot.

Sam said, "I'm going to change." He didn't mean his clothes.

"What'll happen to your leg if you do?"

"Let's find out."

Sam was full-blood shifter on both sides. He could change when it wasn't the full moon, though the experiences were very different, he'd said. Sam could change into more than one animal, though dogs were his preference, and a collie was his choice among dogs.

Sam retired behind the hedge in front of his trailer to doff his clothes. Even in the night, I saw the air disturbance that signaled magic was working all around him. He fell to his knees and gasped, and then I couldn't see him anymore through the dense bushes. After a minute, a bloodhound trotted out, a red one, his ears swinging from side to side. I wasn't used to seeing Sam this way, and it took me a second to be sure it was him. When the dog looked up at me, I knew my boss was inside.

"Come on, Dean," I said. I'd named Sam that in his animal guise before I'd realized the man and the dog were the same being. The bloodhound trotted ahead of me across the parking lot and into the woods where the shooter had waited for Sam to come out of the club. I watched the way the dog was moving. It was favoring its right rear leg, but not drastically.

In the cold night woods, the sky was partially blocked. I had a flashlight, and I turned it on, but somehow that just made the trees creepier. The bloodhound - Sam - had already reached the place the police had decided marked the shooter's vantage point. The dog, jowls jouncing, bent its head to the ground and moved around, sorting through all the scent information he was receiving. I stayed out of the way, feeling useless. Then Dean looked up at me and said, "Rowf." He began making his way back to the parking lot. I guessed he'd gathered all he could.

As we'd arranged, I loaded Dean in the Malibu to take him to another shooting site, the place behind some old buildings opposite the Sonic where the shooter had hidden on the night poor Heather Kinman had been killed. I turned into the service alley behind the old stores and parked behind Patsy's Cleaners, which had moved to a new and more convenient location fifteen years ago. Between the cleaners and the dilapidated and long-empty Louisiana Feed and Seed, a narrow gap afforded a great view of the Sonic. The drive-in restaurant was closed for the night but still bright with light. Since the Sonic was on the town's main drag, there were lights up and down the street, and I could actually see pretty well in the areas where the structures allowed light to go; unfortunately, that made the shadows impenetrable.

Again, the bloodhound worked the area, paying particular interest to the weedy strip of ground between the two old stores, a strip so narrow it was no more than a gap wide enough for one person. He seemed pretty excited at some particular scent he found. I was excited, too, hoping that he'd found something we could translate into evidence for the police.

Suddenly Dean let out a "Whoof!" and raised his head to look past me. He was certainly focusing on something, or someone. Almost unwillingly, I turned to see. Andy Bellefleur stood at the point where the service alley crossed the gap between the buildings. Only his face and upper torso were in the light.

"Jesus Christ, Shepherd of Judea! Andy, you scared the hell out of me!" If I hadn't been watching the dog so intently, I would've sensed him coming. The stakeout, dammit. I should have remembered.

"What are you doing here, Sookie? Where'd you get the dog?"

I couldn't think of a single answer that would sound plausible. "It seemed worth a try to see if a trained dog could pick up a single scent from the places where the shooter stood," I said. Dean leaned against my legs, panting and slobbering.

"So when did you get on the parish payroll?" Andy asked conversationally. "I didn't realize you'd been hired as an investigator."

Okay, this wasn't going well.

"Andy, if you'll move out of the way, me and the dog'll just get back into my car, and we'll drive away, and you won't have to be mad at me anymore." He was plenty mad, and he was determined to have it out with me, whatever that entailed. Andy wanted to get the world realigned, with facts he knew forming the tracks it should run on. I didn't fit in that world. I wouldn't run on those tracks. I could read his mind, and I didn't like what I was hearing.

I realized, too late, that Andy'd had one drink too many during the conference at the bar. He'd had enough to remove his usual constraints.

"You shouldn't be in our town, Sookie," he said.

"I have as much right to be here as you, Andy Bellefleur."

"You're a genetic fluke or something. Your grandmother was a real nice woman, and people tell me your dad and mom were good people. What happened to you and Jason?"

"I don't think there's much wrong with me and Jason, Andy," I said calmly, but his words stung like fire ants. "I think we're regular people, no better and no worse than you and Portia."

Andy actually snorted.

Suddenly the bloodhound's side, pressed against my legs, began to vibrate. Dean was growling almost inaudibly. But he wasn't looking at Andy. The hound's heavy head was turned in another direction, toward the dark shadows of the other end of the alley. Another live mind: a human. Not a regular human, though.

"Andy," I said. My whisper pierced his self-absorption. "You armed?"

I didn't know whether I felt that much better when he drew his pistol.

"Drop it, Bellefleur," said a no-nonsense voice, one that sounded familiar.

"Bullshit," Andy sneered. "Why should I?"

"Because I got a bigger gun," said the voice, cool and sarcastic. Sweetie Des Arts stepped from the shadows, carrying a rifle. It was pointed at Andy, and I had no doubt she was ready to fire. I felt like my insides had turned to Jell-O.

"Why don't you just leave, Andy Bellefleur?" Sweetie asked. She was wearing a mechanic's coverall and a jacket, and her hands were gloved. She didn't look anything like a short-order cook. "I've got no quarrel with you. You're just a person."

Andy was shaking his head, trying to clear it. I noticed he hadn't dropped his gun yet. "You're the cook at the bar, right? Why are you doing this?"

"You should know, Bellefleur. I heard your little conversation with the shifter here. Maybe this dog is a human, someone you know." She didn't wait for Andy to answer. "And Heather Kinman was just as bad. She turned into a fox. And the guy that works at Norcross, Calvin Norris? He's a damn panther."

"And you shot them all? You shot me, too?" I wanted to be sure Andy was registering this. "There's just one thing wrong with your little vendetta, Sweetie. I'm not a shifter."

"You smell like one," Sweetie said, clearly sure she was right.

"Some of my friends are shifters, and that day I'd hugged a few of 'em. But me myself - not a shifter of any kind."

"Guilty by association," Sweetie said. "I'll bet you got a dab of shifter from somewhere."

"What about you?" I asked. I didn't want to get shot again. The evidence suggested that Sweetie was not a sharpshooter: Sam, Calvin, and I had lived. I knew aiming at night had to be difficult, but still, you would've thought she could have done better. "Why are you on this vendetta?"

"I'm just a fraction of a shifter," she said, snarling just as much as Dean. "I got bit when I had a car wreck. This half-man half-wolf... thing... ran out of the woods near where I lay bleeding, and the damn thing bit me... and then another car came around the curve and it ran away. But the first full moon after that, my hands changed! My parents threw up."

"What about your boyfriend? You had one?" I kept speaking, trying to distract her. Andy was moving as far away from me as he could get, so she couldn't shoot both of us quickly. She planned on shooting me first, I knew. I wanted the bloodhound to move away from me, but he stayed loyally pressed against my legs. She wasn't sure the dog was a shifter. And, oddly, she hadn't mentioned shooting Sam.

"I was a stripper then, living with a great guy," she said, rage bubbling through her voice. "He saw my hands and the extra hair and he loathed me. He left when the moon was full. He'd take business trips. He'd go golfing with his buddies. He'd be stuck at a late meeting."

"So how long have you been shooting shifters?"

"Three years," she said proudly. "I've killed twenty-two and wounded forty-one."

"That's awful," I said.

"I'm proud of it," she said. "Cleaning the vermin off the face of the earth."

"You always find work in bars?"

"Gives me a chance to see who's one of the brethren," she said, smiling. "I check out the churches and restaurants, too. The day care centers."

"Oh, no." I thought I was going to throw up.

My senses were hyperalert, as you can imagine, so I knew there was someone coming up the alley behind Sweetie. I could feel the anger roiling in a two-natured head. I didn't look, trying to keep Sweetie's attention for as long as I could. But there was a little noise, maybe the sound of a piece of paper trash rustling against the ground, and that was enough for Sweetie. She whirled around with the rifle up to her shoulder, and she fired. There was a shriek from the darkness at the south end of the alley, and then a high whining.

Andy took his moment and shot Sweetie Des Arts while her back was turned. I pressed myself against the uneven bricks of the old Feed and Seed, and as the rifle dropped from her hand, I saw the blood come out of her mouth, black in the starlight. Then she folded to the earth.

While Andy was standing over her, his gun dangling from his hand, I made my way past them to find out who had come to our aid. I switched on my flashlight to discover a werewolf, terribly wounded. Sweetie's bullet had hit him in the middle of the chest, as best I could tell through the thick fur, and I yelled at Andy, "Use your cell phone! Call for help!" I was pressing down on the bubbling wound as hard as I could, hoping I was doing the right thing. The wound kept moving in a very disconcerting way, since the Were was in the process of changing back into a human. I glanced back to see that Andy was still lost in his own little vale of horror at what he'd done. "Bite him," I told Dean, and Dean padded over to the policeman and nipped his hand.

Andy cried out, of course, and raised his gun as if he were going to shoot the bloodhound. "No!" I yelled, jumping up from the dying Were. "Use your phone, you idiot. Call an ambulance."

Then the gun swung around to point at me.

For a long, tense moment I thought for sure the end of my life had come. We'd all like to kill what we don't understand, what scares us, and I powerfully scared Andy Bellefleur.

But then the gun faltered and dropped back to Andy's side. His broad face stared at me with dawning comprehension. He fumbled in his pocket, withdrew a cell phone. To my profound relief, he holstered the gun after he punched in a number.

I turned back to the Were, now wholly human and naked, while Andy said, "There's been a multiple shooting in the alley behind the old Feed and Seed and Patsy's Cleaners, across Magnolia Street from Sonic. Right. Two ambulances, two gunshot wounds. No, I'm fine."

The wounded Were was Dawson. His eyes flickered open, and he tried to gasp. I couldn't even imagine the pain he must be suffering. "Calvin," he tried to say.

"Don't worry now. Help's on the way," I told the big man. My flashlight was lying on the ground beside me, and by its oddly skewed light I could see his huge muscles and bare hairy chest. He looked cold, of course, and I wondered where his clothes were. I would have been glad to have his shirt to wad up over the wound, which was steadily leaking blood. My hands were covered in it.

"Told me to finish out my last day by watching over you," Dawson said. He was shuddering all over. He tried to smile. "I said, 'Piece of cake.' " And then he didn't say anything else, but lost consciousness.

Andy's heavy black shoes came to stand in my field of vision. I thought Dawson was going to die. I didn't even know his first name. I had no idea how we were going to explain a naked guy to the police. Wait... was that up to me? Surely Andy was the one who'd have the hard explaining to do?

As if he'd been reading my mind - for a change - Andy said, "You know this guy, right?"


"Well, you're going to have to say you know him better than that, to explain his lack of clothes."

I gulped. "Okay," I said, after a brief, grim pause.

"You two were back here looking for his dog. You," Andy said to Dean. "I don't know who you are, but you stay a dog, you hear me?" Andy stepped away nervously. "And I came back here because I'd followed the woman - she was acting suspiciously."

I nodded, listening to the air rattle in Dawson's throat. If I could only give him blood to heal him, like a vampire. If I only knew a medical procedure... But I could already hear the police cars and the ambulances coming closer. Nothing in Bon Temps was very far from anything else, and on this side of town, the south side, the Grainger hospital would be closest.

"I heard her confess," I said. "I heard her say she shot the others."

"Tell me something, Sookie," Andy said in a rush. "Before they get here. There's nothing weird about Halleigh, right?"

I stared up at him, amazed he could think of such a thing at this moment. "Nothing aside from the stupid way she spells her name." Then I reminded myself who'd shot the bitch lying on the ground five feet away. "No, not a thing," I said. "Halleigh is just plain old normal."

"Thank God," he said. "Thank God."

And then Alcee Beck dashed down the alley and stopped in his tracks, trying to make sense of the scene before him. Right behind him was Kevin Pryor, and Kevin's partner Kenya crept along hugging the wall with her gun out. The ambulance teams were hanging back until they were sure the scene was secure. I was up against the wall getting searched before I knew what was happening. Kenya kept saying, "Sorry, Sookie" and "I have to do this," until I told her, "Just get it done. Where's my dog?"

"He run off," she said. "I guess the lights spooked him. He's a bloodhound, huh? He'll come home." When she'd done her usual thorough job, Kenya said, "Sookie? How come this guy is naked?"

This was just the beginning. My story was extremely thin. I read disbelief written large on almost every face. It wasn't the temperature for outdoor loving, and I was completely dressed. But Andy backed me up every step of the way, and there was no one to say it hadn't happened the way I told it.

About two hours later, they let me get back in my car to return to the duplex. The first thing I did when I got inside was phone the hospital to find out how Dawson was. Somehow, Calvin got ahold of the phone. "He's alive," he said tersely.

"God bless you for sending him after me," I said. My voice was as limp as a curtain on a still summer day. "I'd be dead if it wasn't for him."

"I hear the cop shot her."

"Yes, he did."

"I hear a lot of other stuff."

"It was complicated."

"I'll see you this week."

"Yes, of course."

"Go get some sleep."

"Thanks again, Calvin."

My debt to the werepanther was piling up at a rate that scared me. I knew I'd have to work it off later. I was tired and aching. I was filthy inside from Sweetie's sad story, and filthy outside from being on my knees in the alley, helping the bloody Were. I dropped my clothes on the floor of the bedroom, went into the bathroom, and stood under the shower, trying hard to keep my bandage dry with a shower cap, the way one of the nurses had shown me.

When the doorbell rang the next morning, I cursed town living. But as it turned out, this was no neighbor who wanted to borrow a cup of flour. Alcide Herveaux was standing outside, holding an envelope.

I glared at him through eyes that felt crusty with sleep. Without saying a word, I plodded back to my bedroom and crawled into the bed. This wasn't enough to deter Alcide, who strode in after me.

"You're now doubly a friend of the pack," he said, as if he was sure that was the concern uppermost in my mind. I turned my back to him and snuggled under the covers. "Dawson says you saved his life."

"I'm glad Dawson's well enough to speak," I muttered, closing my eyes tightly and wishing Alcide would go away. "Since he got shot on my account, your pack doesn't owe me a damn thing."

From the movement of the air, I could tell that Alcide was kneeling at the side of the bed. "That's not for you to decide, but us," he said chidingly. "You're summoned to the contest for the packleader."

"What? What do I have to do?"

"You just watch the proceedings and congratulate the winner, no matter who it is."

Of course, to Alcide, this struggle for succession was the most important thing going. It was hard for him to get that I didn't have the same priorities. I was getting swamped by a wave of supernatural obligations.

The werewolf pack of Shreveport said they owed me. I owed Calvin. Andy Bellefleur owed me and Dawson and Sam for solving his case. I owed Andy for saving my life. Though I'd cleared Andy's mind about Halleigh's complete normality, so maybe that canceled my debt to him for shooting Sweetie.

Sweetie had owed payback to her assailant.

Eric and I were even, I figured.

I owed Bill slightly.

Sam and I were more or less caught up.

Alcide personally owed me, as far as I was concerned. I had showed up for this pack shit and tried to follow the rules to help him out.

In the world I lived in, the world of human people, there were ties and debts and consequences and good deeds. That was what bound people to society; maybe that was what constituted society. And I tried to live in my little niche in it the best way I could.

Joining in the secret clans of the two-natured and the undead made my life in human society much more difficult and complicated.

And interesting.

And sometimes... fun.

Alcide had been talking at least some of the time I'd been thinking, and I'd missed a lot of it. He was picking up on that. He said, "I'm sorry if I'm boring you, Sookie," in a stiff voice.

I rolled over to face him. His green eyes were full of hurt. "Not bored. I just have a lot to think about. Leave the invitation, okay? I'll get back with you on that." I wondered what you wore to a fighting-for-packmaster event. I wondered if the senior Mr. Herveaux and the somewhat pudgy motorcycle dealership owner would actually roll on the ground and grapple.

Alcide's green eyes were full of puzzlement. "You're acting so strange, Sookie. I felt so comfortable with you before. Now I feel like I don't know you."

Valid had been one of my Words of the Day last week. "That's a valid observation," I said, trying to sound matter-of-fact. "I felt just as comfortable with you when I first met you. Then I started to find out stuff. Like about Debbie, and shifter politics, and the servitude of some shifters to the vamps."

"No society is perfect," Alcide said defensively. "As for Debbie, I don't ever want to hear her name again."

"So be it," I said. God knew I couldn't get any sicker of hearing her name.

Leaving the cream envelope on the bedside table, Alcide took my hand, bent over it, and laid a kiss on the back of it. It was a ceremonial gesture, and I wished I knew its significance. But the moment I would have asked, Alcide was gone.

"Lock the door behind you," I called. "Just turn the little button on the doorknob." I guess he did, because I went right back to sleep, and no one woke me up until it was almost time for me to go to work. Except there was a note on my front door that said, "Got Linda T. to stand in for you. Take the night off. Sam." I went back inside and took off my waitress clothes and pulled on some jeans. I'd been ready to go to work, and now I felt oddly at a loss.

I was almost cheered to realize I had another obligation, and I went into the kitchen to start fulfilling it.

After an hour and a half of struggling to cook in an unfamiliar kitchen with about half the usual paraphernalia, I was on my way to Calvin's house in Hotshot with a dish of chicken breasts baked with rice in a sour-cream sauce, and some biscuits. I didn't call ahead. I planned to drop off the food and go. But when I reached the little community, I saw there were several cars parked on the road in front of Calvin's trim little house. "Dang," I said. I didn't want to get involved any further with Hotshot than I already was. My brother's new nature and Calvin's courting had already dragged me in too far.

Heart sinking, I parked and ran my arm through the handle of the basket full of biscuits. I took the hot dish of chicken and rice in oven-mitted hands, gritted my teeth against the ache in my shoulder, and marched my butt up to Calvin's front door. Stackhouses did the right thing.

Crystal answered the door. The surprise and pleasure on her face shamed me. "I'm so glad you're here," she said, doing her best to be offhand. "Please come in." She stood back, and now I could see that the small living room was full of people, including my brother. Most of them were werepanthers, of course. The werewolves of Shreveport had sent a representative; to my astonishment, it was Patrick Furnan, contender for the throne and Harley-Davidson salesman.

Crystal introduced me to the woman who appeared to be acting as hostess, Maryelizabeth Norris. Maryelizabeth moved as if she hadn't any bones. I was willing to bet Maryelizabeth didn't often leave Hotshot. The shifter introduced me around the room very carefully, making sure I understood the relationship Calvin bore to each individual. They all began to blur after a bit. But I could see that (with a few exceptions) the natives of Hotshot ran to two types: the small, dark-haired, quick ones like Crystal, and the fairer, stockier ones with beautiful green or golden-brown eyes, like Calvin. The surnames were mostly Norris or Hart.

Patrick Furnan was the last person Crystal reached. "Why, of course I know you," he said heartily, beaming at me as if we'd danced at a wedding together. "This here's Alcide's girlfriend," he said, making sure he was heard by everyone in the room. "Alcide's the son of the other candidate for packmaster."

There was long silence, which I would definitely characterize as "charged."

"You're mistaken," I said in a normal conversational tone. "Alcide and I are friends." I smiled at him in such a way as to let him know he better not be alone with me in an alley anytime soon.

"My mistake," he said, smooth as silk.

Calvin was receiving a hero's welcome home. There were balloons and banners and flowers and plants, and his house was meticulously clean. The kitchen had been full of food. Now Maryelizabeth stepped forward, turned her back to cut Patrick Furnan dead, and said, "Come this way, honey. Calvin's ready to see you." If she'd had a trumpet handy, she'd have blown a flourish on it. Maryelizabeth was not a subtle woman, though she had a deceptive air of mystery due to her wide-spaced golden eyes.

I guess I could have been more uncomfortable, if there'd been a bed of red-hot coals to walk on.

Maryelizabeth ushered me into Calvin's bedroom. His furniture was very nice, with spare, clean lines. It looked Scandinavian, though I know little about furniture - or style, for that matter. He had a high bed, a queen-size, and he was propped up in it against sheets with an African motif of hunting leopards. (Someone had a sense of humor, anyway.) Against the deep colors in the sheets and the deep orange of the bedspread, Calvin looked pale. He was wearing brown pajamas, and he looked exactly like a man who'd just been released from the hospital. But he was glad to see me. I found myself thinking there was something a bit sad about Calvin Norris, something that touched me despite myself.

"Come sit," he said, indicating the bed. He moved over a little so I'd have room to perch. I guess he'd made some signal, because the man and the woman who'd been in the room - Dixie and Dixon - silently eased out through the door, shutting it behind them.

I perched, a little uneasily, on the bed beside him. He had one of those tables you most often see in hospitals, the kind that can be rolled across the bed. There was a glass of ice tea and a plate on it, steam rising from the food. I gestured that he should begin. He bowed his head and said a silent prayer while I sat quietly. I wondered to whom the prayer was addressed.

"Tell me about it," Calvin said as he unfolded his napkin, and that made me a lot more comfortable. He ate while I told him what had happened in the alley. I noticed that the food on the tray was the chicken-and-rice casserole I'd brought, with a dab of mixed vegetable casserole and two of my biscuits. He wanted me to see that he was eating the food I'd prepared for him. I was touched, which sounded a warning bell at the back of my brain.

"So, without Dawson, there's no telling what would've happened," I concluded. "I thank you for sending him. How is he?"

Calvin said, "Hanging on. They airlifted him from Grainger to Baton Rouge. He would be dead, if he wasn't a Were. He's lasted this long; I think he'll make it."

I felt terrible.

"Don't go blaming yourself for this," Calvin said, his voice suddenly sounding deeper. "This is Dawson's choice."

"Huh?" would've sounded ignorant, so I said, "How so?"

"His choice of professions. His choice of actions. Maybe he should have leaped for her a few seconds earlier. Why'd he wait? I don't know. How'd she know to aim low, given the poor light? I don't know. Choices lead to consequences." Calvin was struggling to express something. He was not naturally an articulate man, and he was trying to convey a thought both important and abstract. "There's no blame," he said finally.

"It would be nice to believe that, and I hope some day I do," I said. "Maybe I'm on my way to believing it." It was true that I was sick of self-blame and second-guessing.

"I suspect the Weres are going to invite you to their little packleader shindig," Calvin said. He took my hand. His was warm and dry.

I nodded.

"I bet you'll go," he said.

"I think I have to," I said uneasily, wondering what his goal was.

"I'm not going to tell you what to do," Calvin said. "I have no authority over you." He didn't sound too happy about that. "But if you go, please watch your back. Not for my sake; that don't mean nothing to you, yet. But for yourself."

"I can promise that," I said after a careful pause. Calvin was not a guy to whom you blurted the first idea in your head. He was a serious man.

Calvin gave me one of his rare smiles. "You're a damn fine cook," he said. I smiled back.

"Thank you, sir," I said, and got up. His hand tightened on mine and pulled. You don't fight a man who's just gotten out of the hospital, so I bent toward him and laid my cheek to his lips.

"No," he said, and when I turned a little to find out what was wrong, he kissed me on the lips.

Frankly, I expected to feel nothing. But his lips were as warm and dry as his hands, and he smelled like my cooking, familiar and homey. It was surprising, and surprisingly comfortable, to be so close to Calvin Norris. I backed off a little, and I am sure my face showed the mild shock I felt. The werepanther smiled and released my hand.

"The good thing about being in the hospital was you coming to see me," he said. "Don't be a stranger now that I'm home."

"Of course not," I said, ready to be out of the room so I could regain my composure.

The outer room had emptied of most of its crowd while I talked to Calvin. Crystal and Jason had vanished, and Maryelizabeth was gathering up plates with the help of an adolescent werepanther. "Terry," Maryelizabeth said with a sideways inclination of her head. "My daughter. We live next door."

I nodded to the girl, who gave me a darting look before turning back to her task. She was not a fan of mine. She was from the fairer bloodstock, like Maryelizabeth and Calvin, and she was a thinker. "Are you going to marry my dad?" she asked me.

"I'm not planning on marrying anyone," I said cautiously. "Who's your dad?"

Maryelizabeth gave Terry a sidelong look that promised Terry she'd be sorry later. "Terry is Calvin's," she said.

I was still puzzled for a second or two, but suddenly, the stance of both the younger and the older woman, their tasks, their air of comfort in this house, clicked into place.

I didn't say a word. My face must have shown something, for Maryelizabeth looked alarmed, and then angry.

"Don't presume to judge how we live our life," she said. "We are not like you."

"That's true," I said, swallowing my revulsion. I forced a smile to my lips. "Thank you for introducing me around. I appreciate it. Is there anything I can help you with?"

"We can take care of it," said Terry, giving me another look that was a strange combination of respect and hostility.

"We should never have sent you to school," Maryelizabeth said to the girl. Her wide-spaced golden eyes were both loving and regretful.

"Good-bye," I said, and after I recovered my coat, I left the house, trying not to hurry. To my dismay, Patrick Furnan was waiting for me beside my car. He was holding a motorcycle helmet under his arm, and I spotted the Harley a little farther down the road.

"You interested in hearing what I've got to say?" the bearded Were asked.

"No, actually not," I told him.

"He's not going to keep on helping you out for nothing," Furnan said, and my whole head snapped around so I could look at this man.

"What are you talking about?"

"A thank-you and a kiss ain't going to hold him. He's going to demand payment sooner or later. Won't be able to help it."

"I don't recall asking you for advice," I said. He stepped closer. "And you keep your distance." I let my gaze roam to the houses surrounding us. The watchful gaze of the community was full upon us; I could feel its weight.

"Sooner or later," Furnan repeated. He grinned at me suddenly. "I hope it's sooner. You can't two-time a Were, you know. Or a panther. You'll get ripped to shreds between'em."

"I'm not two-timing anyone," I said, frustrated almost beyond bearing at his insistence that he knew my love life better than I did. "I'm not dating either of them."

"Then you have no protection," he said triumphantly.

I just couldn't win.

"Go to hell," I said, completely exasperated. I got in my car and drove away, letting my eyes glide over the Were as if he weren't there. (This "abjure" concept could come in handy.) The last thing I saw in my rearview mirror was Patrick Furnan sliding his helmet on, still watching my retreating car.

If I hadn't really cared who won the King of the Mountain contest between Jackson Herveaux and Patrick Furnan, I did now.

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