QUINN TOOK OVER the cleanup with the sure authority of one who's supervised such things before. Though I was dull and stupid with shock, I noticed he gave clear, concise directions as to the dispersal of the testing materials. Pack members dismantled the cage into sections and took apart the agility arena with efficient dispatch. A cleanup crew took care of mopping up the blood and other fluids.
Soon the building was empty of all but the people. Patrick Furnan had reverted to his human form, and Dr. Ludwig was attending his many wounds. I was glad he had every one of them. I was only sorry they weren't worse. But the pack had accepted Furnan's choice. If they would not protest such unnecessary brutality, I couldn't.
Alcide was being comforted by Maria-Star Cooper, a young Were I knew slightly.
Maria-Star held him and stroked his back, providing support by her sheer closeness. He didn't have to tell me that on this occasion, he preferred another Were's companionship to mine. I'd gone to hug him, but when I'd neared him and met his eyes, I'd known. That hurt, and it hurt bad; but today wasn't about me and my feelings.
Claudine was crying in her brother's arms. "She's so tenderhearted," I whispered to Claude, feeling a bit abashed that I wasn't crying myself. My concern was for Alcide; I'd hardly known Jackson Herveaux.
"She went through the second elf war in Iowa fighting with the best of them," Claude said, shaking his head. "I've seen a decapitated goblin stick its tongue out at her in its death throes, and she laughed. But as she gets closer to the light, she becomes more sensitive."
That effectively shut me up. I was not about to ask for any explanation of yet another arcane supernatural rule. I'd had a bellyful this day.
Now that all the mess was cleared away (that mess included Jackson's body, which Dr. Ludwig had taken somewhere to be altered, to make the story of how he'd met his death more plausible), all the pack members present gathered in front of Patrick Furnan, who hadn't resumed clothes. According to his body, victory had made him feel manly. Ick.
He was standing on a blanket; it was a red plaid stadium blanket, like you'd take to a football game. I felt my lips twitch, but I became completely sober when the new packmaster's wife led a young woman to him, a brown-haired girl who seemed to be in her late teens. The girl was as bare as the packmaster, though she looked considerably better in that state.
What the hell?
Suddenly I remembered the last part of the ceremony, and I realized Patrick Furman was going to fuck this girl in front of us. No. No way was I going to watch this. I tried to turn to walk out. But Claude hissed, "You can't leave." He covered my mouth and picked me up bodily to move me to the back of the crowd. Claudine moved with us and stood in front of me, but with her back to me, so I wouldn't have to see. I made a furious sound into Claude's hand.
"Shut up," the fairy said grimly, his voice as concentrated with sincerity as he could manage. "You'll land us all in trouble. If it makes you feel any better, this is traditional. The girl volunteered. After this, Patrick'll be a faithful husband once more. But he's already bred his whelp by his wife, and he has to make the ceremonial gesture of breeding another one. May take, may not, but it has to be done."
I kept my eyes shut and was grateful when Claudine turned to me and placed her tear-wet hands over my ears. A shout went up from the crowd when the thing was completed. The two fairies relaxed and gave me some room. I didn't see what happened to the girl. Furnan remained naked, but as long as he was in a calm state, I could handle that.
To seal his status, the new packmaster began to receive the pledges of his wolves. They went in turn, oldest to youngest, I figured, after a moment's observation. Each Were licked the back of Patrick Furnan's hand and exposed his or her neck for a ritual moment. When it was Alcide's turn, I suddenly realized there was potential for even more disaster.
I found I was holding my breath.
From the profound silence, I knew I wasn't the only one.
After a long hesitation, Furnan bent over and placed his teeth on Alcide's neck; I opened my mouth to protest, but Claudine clapped her hand over it. Furnan's teeth came away from Alcide's flesh, leaving it unscathed.
Packmaster Furnan had sent a clear signal.
By the time the last Were had performed the ritual, I was exhausted from all the emotion. Surely this was an end to it? Yes, the pack was dispersing, some members giving the Furnans congratulatory hugs, and some striding out silently.
I dodged them myself and made a beeline for the door. The next time someone told me I had to watch a supernatural rite, I was going to tell him I had to wash my hair.
Once out in the open air, I walked slowly, my feet dragging. I had to think about things I'd put to one side, like what I'd seen in Alcide's head after the whole debacle was over. Alcide thought I'd failed him. He'd told me I had to come, and I had; I should have known he had some purpose in insisting I be present.
Now I knew that he'd suspected Furnan had some underhanded trick in mind. Alcide had primed Christine, his father's ally, ahead of time. She made sure I used my telepathy on Patrick Furnan. And, sure enough, I had found that Jackson's opponent was cheating. That disclosure should have ensured Jackson's win.
Instead, the will of the pack had gone against Jackson, and the contest had continued with the stakes even higher. I'd nothing to do with that decision. But right now Alcide, in his grief and rage, was blaming me.
I was trying to be angry, but I was too sad.
Claude and Claudine said good-bye, and they hopped into Claudine's Cadillac and peeled out of the parking lot as if they couldn't wait to get back to Monroe. I was of the same mind, but I was a lot less resilient than the fairies. I had to sit behind the wheel of the borrowed Malibu for five or ten minutes, steadying myself for the drive home.
I found myself thinking of Quinn. It was a welcome relief from thinking of torn flesh and blood and death. When I'd looked into his head, I'd seen a man who knew his way. And I still didn't have a clue as to what he was.
The drive home was grim.
I might as well have phoned in to Merlotte's that evening. Oh, sure, I went through all the motions of taking orders and carrying them to the right tables, refilling pitchers of beer, popping my tips in the tip jar, wiping up spills and making sure the temporary cook (a vampire named Anthony Bolivar; he'd subbed for us before) remembered the busboy was off limits. But I didn't have any sparkle, any joy, in my work.
I did notice that Sam seemed be getting around better. He was obviously restive, sitting in his corner watching Charles work. Possibly Sam was also a little piqued, since Charles just seemed to get more and more popular with the clientele. The vamp was charming, that was for sure. He was wearing a red sequined eye patch tonight and his usual poet shirt under a black sequined vest - flashy in the extreme, but entertaining, too.
"You seem depressed, beautiful lady," he said when I came to pick up a Tom Collins and a rum and Coke.
"Just been a long day," I said, making an effort to smile. I had so many other things to digest emotionally that I didn't even mind when Bill brought Selah Pumphrey in again. Even when they sat in my section, I didn't care. But when Bill took my hand as I was turning away to get their order, I snatched it away as if he'd tried to set me on fire.
"I only want to know what's wrong," he said, and for a second I remembered how good it had felt that night at the hospital when he'd lain down with me. My mouth actually began to open, but then I caught a glimpse of Selah's indignant face, and I shut my emotional water off at the meter.
"I'll be right back with that blood," I said cheerfully, smiling wide enough to show every tooth in my head.
To heck with him, I thought righteously. Him and the horse he rode in on.
After that it was strictly business. I smiled and worked, and worked and smiled. I stayed away from Sam, because I didn't want to have a long conversation with yet another shifter that evening. I was afraid - since I didn't have any reason to be mad at Sam - that if he asked me what was wrong, I'd tell him; and I just didn't want to talk about it. You ever just feel like stomping around and being miserable for a while? That was the kind of mood I was in.
But I had to go over to Sam, after all, when Catfish asked if he could pay with a check for this evening's festivities. That was Sam's rule: he had to approve checks. And I had to stand close to Sam, because the bar was very noisy.
I thought nothing of it, aside from not wanting to get into my own mood with him, but when I bent over him to explain Catfish's cash-flow problem, Sam's eyes widened. "My God, Sookie," he said, "Who have you been around?"
I backed off, speechless. He was both shocked and appalled by a smell I hadn't even known I carried. I was tired of supes pulling this on me.
"Where'd you meet up with a tiger?" he asked.
"A tiger," I repeated numbly.
So now I knew what my new acquaintance Quinn turned into when the moon was full.
"Tell me," Sam demanded.
"No," I snapped, "I won't. What about Catfish?"
"He can write a check this once. If there's a problem, he'll never write another one here again."
I didn't relay this last sentence. I took Catfish's check and his alcohol-fueled gratitude, and deposited both where they belonged.
To make my bad mood worse, I snagged my silver chain on a corner of the bar when I bent over to pick up a napkin some slob had tossed to the floor. The chain broke, and I caught it up and dropped it in my pocket. Dammit. This had been a rotten day, followed by a rotten night.
I made sure to wave at Selah as she and Bill left. He'd left me a good tip, and I stuffed it in my other pocket with so much force I almost ripped the fabric. A couple of times during the evening, I had heard the bar phone ring, and when I was taking some dirty glasses to the kitchen hatch, Charles said, "Someone keeps calling and hanging up. Very irritating."
"They'll get tired and quit," I said soothingly.
About an hour later, as I put a Coke in front of Sam, the busboy came to tell me there was someone at the employees' entrance, asking for me.
"What were you doing outside?" Sam asked sharply.
The boy looked embarrassed. "I smoke, Mr. Merlotte," he said. "I was outside taking me a break, 'cause the vamp said he'd drain me if I lit up inside, when this man walked up outta nowhere."
"What's he look like?" I asked.
"Oh, he's old, got black hair," the boy said, shrugging. Not long on the gift of description.
"Okay," I said. I was glad to take a break. I suspected who the visitor might be, and if he'd come into the bar, he'd have caused a riot. Sam found an excuse to follow me out by saying that he needed a pit stop, and he picked up his cane and used it to hobble down the hall after me. He had his own tiny bathroom off his office, and he limped into it as I continued past the men's and women's to the back door. I opened it cautiously and peered outside. But then I began smiling. The man waiting for me had one of the most famous faces in the world - except, apparently, to adolescent busboys.
"Bubba," I said, pleased to see the vampire. You couldn't call him by his former name, or he got real confused and agitated. Bubba was formerly known as... Well, let me just put it this way. You wondered about all those sightings after his death? This was the explanation.
The conversion hadn't been a complete success because his system had been so fuddled with drugs; but aside from his predilection for cat blood, Bubba managed pretty well. The vampire community took good care of him. Eric kept Bubba on staff as an errand boy. Bubba's glossy black hair was always combed and styled, his long sideburns sharply trimmed. Tonight he was wearing a black leather jacket, new blue jeans, and a black-and-silver plaid shirt.
"Looking good, Bubba," I said admiringly.
"You too, Miss Sookie." He beamed at me.
"Did you want to tell me something?"
"Yessum. Mr. Eric sent me over here to tell you that he's not what he seems."
"Who, Bubba?" I asked, trying to keep my voice gentle.
"He's a hit man."
I stared at Bubba's face not because I thought staring would get me anywhere, but because I was trying to figure out the message. This was a mistake; Bubba's eyes began darting from side to side, and his face lost its smile. I should have turned to stare at the wall - it would've given me as much information, and Bubba wouldn't have become as anxious.
"Thanks, Bubba," I said, patting him on his beefy shoulder. "You did good."
"Can I go now? Back to Shreveport?"
"Sure," I said. I would just call Eric. Why hadn't he used the phone for a message as urgent and important as this one seemed to be?
"I found me a back way into the animal shelter," Bubba confided proudly.
I gulped. "Oh, well, great," I said, trying not to feel queasy.
"See ya later, alligator," he called from the edge of the parking lot. Just when you thought Bubba was the worst vampire in the world, he did something amazing like moving at a speed you simply could not track.
"After a while, crocodile," I said dutifully.
"Was that who I think it was?" The voice was right behind me.
I jumped. I spun around to find that Charles had deserted his post at the bar.
"You scared me," I said, as though he hadn't been able to tell.
"Yes, that was him."
"Thought so. I've never heard him sing in person. It must be amazing." Charles stared out at the parking lot as though he were thinking hard about something else. I had the definite impression he wasn't listening to his own words.
I opened my mouth to ask a question, but before my words reached my lips I really thought about what the English pirate had just said, and the words froze in my throat. After a long hesitation, I knew I had to speak, or he would know something was wrong.
"Well, I guess I'd better get back to work," I said, smiling the bright smile that pops onto my face when I'm nervous. And, boy, was I nervous now. The one blinding revelation I'd had made everything begin to click into place in my head. Every little hair on my arms and neck stood straight up. My fight-or-flight reflex was fixed firmly on "flight." Charles was between the outside door and me. I began to back down the hall toward the bar.
The door from the bar into the hall was usually left open, because people had to pass into the hall all the time to use the bathrooms. But now it was closed. It had been open when I'd come down the hall to talk to Bubba.
This was bad.
"Sookie," Charles said, behind me. "I truly regret this."
"It was you who shot Sam, wasn't it?" I reached behind me, fumbled for the handle that would open that door. He wouldn't kill me in front of all those people, would he? Then I remembered the night Eric and Bill had polished off a roomful of men in my house. I remembered it had taken them only three or four minutes. I remembered what the men had looked like afterward.
"Yes. It was a stroke of luck when you caught the cook, and she confessed. But she didn't confess to shooting Sam, did she?"
"No, she didn't," I said numbly. "All the others, but not Sam, and the bullet didn't match."
My fingers found the knob. If I turned it, I might live. But I might not. How much did Charles value his own life?
"You wanted the job here," I said.
"I thought there was a good chance I'd come in handy when Sam was out of the picture."
"How'd you know I'd go to Eric for help?"
"I didn't. But I knew someone would tell him the bar was in trouble. Since that would mean helping you, he would do it. I was the logical one to send."
"Why are you doing all this?"
"Eric owes a debt."
He was moving closer, though not very quickly. Maybe he was reluctant to do the deed. Maybe he was hoping for a more advantageous moment, when he could carry me off in silence.
"It looks like Eric's found out I'm not from the Jackson nest, as I'd said."
"Yeah. You picked the wrong one."
"Why? It seemed ideal to me. Many men there; you wouldn't have seen them all. No one can remember all the men who've passed through that mansion."
"But they've heard Bubba sing," I said softly. "He sang for them one night. You'd never have forgotten that. I don't know how Eric found out, but I knew as soon as you said you'd never - "
I was on my back on the floor in a split second, but my hand was already in my pocket, and he opened his mouth to bite. He was supporting himself on his arms, courteously trying not to actually lie on top of me. His fangs were fully out, and they glistened in the light.
"I have to do this," he said. "I'm sworn. I'm sorry."
"I'm not," I said, and thrust the silver chain into his mouth, using the heel of my hand to snap his jaw shut.
He screamed and hit at me, and I felt a rib go, and smoke was coming out of his mouth. I scrambled away and did a little yelling of my own. The door flew open, and a flood of bar patrons thundered into the little hallway. Sam shot out of the door of his office like he'd been fired from a cannon, moving very well for a man with a broken leg, and to my amazement he had a stake in his hand. By that time, the screaming vampire was weighted down by so many beefy men in jeans you couldn't even see him. Charles was trying to bite whoever he could, but his burned mouth was so painful his efforts were weak.
Catfish Hunter seemed to be on the bottom of the pile, in direct contact. "You pass me that stake here, boy!" he called back to Sam. Sam passed it to Hoyt Fortenberry, who passed it to Dago Guglielmi, who transferred it to Catfish's hairy hand.
"We gonna wait for the vampire police, or we gonna take care of this ourselves?" Catfish asked. "Sookie?"
After a horrified second of temptation, I opened my mouth to say, "Call the police." The Shreveport police had a squad of vampire policemen, as well as the necessary special transportation vehicle and special jail cells.
"End it," said Charles, somewhere below the heaving pile of men. "I failed in my mission, and I can't abide jails."
"Okeydokey," Catfish said, and staked him.
After it was over and the body had disintegrated, the men went back into the bar and settled down at the tables where they'd been before they heard the fight going on in the hall. It was beyond strange. There wasn't much laughing, and there wasn't much smiling, and no one who'd stayed in the bar asked anyone who'd left what had happened.
Of course, it was tempting to think this was an echo of the terrible old days, when black men had been lynched if there was even a rumor they'd winked at a white woman.
But, you know, the simile just didn't hold. Charles was a different race, true. But he'd been guilty as hell of trying to kill me. I would have been a dead woman in thirty more seconds, despite my diversionary tactic, if the men of Bon Temps hadn't intervened.
We were lucky in a lot of ways. There was not one law enforcement person in the bar that night. Not five minutes after everyone resumed his table, Dennis Pettibone, the arson investigator, came in to have a visit with Arlene. (The busboy was still mopping the hall, in fact.) Sam had bound my ribs with some Ace bandages in his office, and I walked out, slowly and carefully, to ask Dennis what he wanted to drink.
We were lucky that there weren't any outsiders. No college guys from Ruston, no truckers from Shreveport, no relatives who'd dropped in for a beer with a cousin or an uncle.
We were lucky there weren't many women. I don't know why, but I imagined a woman would be more likely to get squeamish about Charles's execution. In fact, I felt pretty squeamish about it, when I wasn't counting my lucky stars I was still alive.
And Eric was lucky when he dashed into the bar about thirty minutes later, because Sam didn't have any more stakes handy. As jittery as everyone was, some foolhardy soul would have volunteered to take out Eric: but he wouldn't have come out of it relatively unscathed, as those who'd tackled Charles had.
And Eric was also lucky that the first words out of his mouth were "Sookie, are you all right?" In his anxiety, he grabbed me, one hand on either side of my waist, and I cried out.
"You're hurt," he said, and then realized five or six men had jumped to their feet.
"I'm just sore," I said, making a huge effort to look okay. "Everything's fine. This here's my friend Eric," I said a little loudly. "He's been trying to get in touch with me, and now I know why it was so urgent." I met the eyes of each man, and one by one, they dropped back into their seats.
"Let's us go sit and talk," I said very quietly.
"Where is he? I will stake the bastard myself, no matter what Hot Rain sends against me." Eric was furious.
"It's been taken care of," I hissed. "Will you chill?"
With Sam's permission, we went to his office, the only place in the building that offered both chairs and privacy. Sam was back behind the bar, perched on a high stool with his leg on a lower stool, managing the bartending himself.
"Bill searched his database," Eric said proudly. "The bastard told me he came from Mississippi, so I wrote him down as one of Russell's discarded pretty boys. I had even called Russell, to ask him if Twining had worked well for him. Russell said he had so many new vampires in the mansion, he had only the vaguest recollection of Twining. But Russell, as I observed at Josephine's Bar, is not the kind of manager I am."
I managed a smile. That was definitely true.
"So when I found myself wondering, I asked Bill to go to work, and Bill traced Twining from his birth as a vampire to his pledge to Hot Rain."
"This Hot Rain was the one who made him a vampire?"
"No, no," Eric said impatiently. "Hot Rain made the pirate's sire a vampire. And when Charles's sire was killed during the French and Indian War, Charles pledged himself to Hot Rain. When Hot Rain was dissatisfied with Long Shadow's death, he sent Charles to exact payment for the debt he felt was owed."
"Why would killing me cancel the debt?"
"Because he decided after listening to gossip and much reconnoitering that you were important to me, and that your death would wound me the way Long Shadow's had him."
"Ah." I could not think of one thing to say. Not one thing.
At last I asked, "So Hot Rain and Long Shadow were doing the deed, once upon a time?"
Eric said, "Yes, but it wasn't the sexual connection, it was the... the affection. That was the valuable part of the bond."
"So because this Hot Rain decided the fine you paid him for Long Shadow's death just didn't give him closure, he sent Charles to do something equally painful to you."
"And Charles got to Shreveport, kept his ears open, found out about me, decided my death would fill the bill."
"So he heard about the shootings, knew Sam is a shifter, and shot Sam so there'd be a good reason for him to come to Bon Temps."
"That's real, real complicated. Why didn't Charles just jump me some night?"
"Because he wanted it to look like an accident. He didn't want blame attached to a vampire at all, because not only did he not want to get caught, he didn't want Hot Rain to incur any penalty."
I closed my eyes. "He set fire to my house," I said. "Not that poor Marriot guy. I bet Charles killed him before the bar even closed that night and brought him back to my house so he'd take the blame. After all, the guy was a stranger to Bon Temps. No one would miss him. Oh my God! Charles borrowed my keys! I bet the man was in my trunk! Not dead, but hypnotized. Charles planted that card in the guy's pocket. The poor fella wasn't a member of the Fellowship of the Sun anymore than I am."
"It must have been frustrating for Charles, when he found you were surrounded by friends," Eric said a little coldly, since a couple of those "friends" had just clomped by noisily, using a trip to the john as a pretext to keep an eye on him.
"Yes, must have been." I smiled.
"You seem better than I expected," Eric said a little hesitantly. "Less traumatized, as they say now."
"Eric, I'm a lucky woman," I said. "Today I've seen more bad stuff than you can imagine. All I can think is, I escaped. By the way, Shreveport now has a new packmaster, and he's a lying, cheating bastard."
"Then I take it Jackson Herveaux lost his bid for the job."
"Lost more than that."
Eric's eyes widened. "So the contest was today. I'd heard Quinn was in town. Usually, he keeps transgressions to a minimum."
"It wasn't his choice," I said. "A vote went against Jackson; it should have helped him, but it... didn't."
"Why were you there? Was that blasted Alcide trying to use you for some purpose in the contest?"
"You should talk about using."
"Yes, but I'm straightforward about it," Eric said, his blue eyes wide and guileless.
I had to laugh. I hadn't expected to laugh for days, or weeks, and yet here I was, laughing. "True," I admitted.
"So, I'm to understand that Charles Twining is no more?" Eric asked quite soberly.
"Well, well. The people here are unexpectedly enterprising. What damage have you suffered?"
"A broken rib is not much when a vampire is fighting for his life."
"When Bubba got back and I found he hadn't exactly delivered his message, I rushed here gallantly to rescue you. I had tried calling the bar tonight to tell you to beware, but Charles answered the phone every time."
"It was gallant of you, in the extreme," I admitted. "But, as it turns out, unnecessary."
"Well, then... I'll go back to my own bar and look at my own bar patrons from my own office. We're expanding our Fangtasia product line."
"Yes. What would you think of a nude calendar? 'Fangtasia's Vampire Hunks' is what Pam thinks it should be called."
"Are you gonna be in it?"
"Oh, of course. Mr. January."
"Well, put me down for three. I'll give one to Arlene and one to Tara. And I'll put one up on my own wall."
"If you promise to keep it open to my picture, I'll give you one for free," Eric promised.
"You got a deal."
He stood up. "One more thing, before I go."
I stood, too, but much more slowly.
"I may need to hire you in early March."
"I'll check my calendar. What's up?"
"There's going to be a little summit. A meeting of the kings and queens of some of the southern states. The location hasn't been settled, but when it is, I wonder if you can get time off from your job here to accompany me and my people."
"I can't think that far ahead just at the moment, Eric," I said. I winced as I began to walk out of the office.
"Wait one moment," he said suddenly, and justlikethat he was in front of me.
I looked up, feeling massively tired.
He bent and kissed me on my mouth, as softly as a butterfly's fluttering.
"You said I told you you were the best I'd ever had," he said. "But did you respond in kind?"
"Don't you wish you knew?" I said, and went back to work.
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