THE DRIVE BACK to Bon Temps was pleasant. Vampires don't smell like humans or act like humans, but they're sure relaxing to my brain. Being with a vampire is almost as tension-free as being alone, except, of course, for the blood-sucking possibilities.
Charles Twining asked a few questions about the work for which he'd been hired and about the bar. My driving seemed to make him a little uneasy - though possibly his unease was due to simply being in a car. Some of the pre¨CIndustrial Revolution vamps loathe modern transportation. His eye patch was on his left eye, on my side, which gave me the curious feeling I was invisible.
I'd run him by the vampire hostel where he'd been living so he could gather a few things. He had a sports bag with him, one large enough to hold maybe three days' worth of clothes. He'd just moved into Shreveport, he told me, and hadn't had time to decide where he would settle.
After we'd been on our way for about forty minutes, the vampire said, "And you, Miss Sookie? Do you live with your father and mother?"
"No, they've been gone since I was seven," I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a hand gesture inviting me to continue. "There was a whole lot of rain in a real short time one night that spring, and my dad tried to cross a little bridge that had water already over it. They got swept away."
I glanced to my right to see that he was nodding. People died, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly, and sometimes for very little reason. A vampire knew that better than anyone. "My brother and I grew up with my grandmother," I said. "She died last year. My brother has my parents' old house, and I have my grandmother's."
"Lucky to have a place to live," he commented.
In profile, his hooked nose was an elegant miniature. I wondered if he cared that the human race had gotten larger, while he had stayed the same.
"Oh, yes," I agreed. "I'm major lucky. I've got a job, I've got my brother, I've got a house, I've got friends. And I'm healthy."
He turned to look at me full-face, I think, but I was passing a battered Ford pickup, so I couldn't return his gaze. "That's interesting. Forgive me, but I was under the impression from Pam that you have some kind of disability."
"Oh, well, yeah."
"And that would be...? You look very, ah, robust."
"I'm a telepath."
He mulled that over. "And that would mean?"
"I can read other humans' minds."
"But not vampires."
"No, not vampires."
"Yes, I think so." If I could read vampire minds, I'd have been dead long ago. Vampires value their privacy.
"Did you know Chow?" he asked.
"Yes." It was my turn to be terse.
"And Long Shadow?"
"As the newest bartender at Fangtasia, I have a definite interest in their deaths."
Understandable, but I had no idea how to respond. "Okay," I said cautiously.
"Were you there when Chow died again?" This was the way some vamps referred to the final death.
"And Long Shadow?"
"I would be interested in hearing what you had to say."
"Chow died in what they're calling the Witch War. Long Shadow was trying to kill me when Eric staked him because he'd been embezzling."
"You're sure that's why Eric staked him? For embezzling?"
"I was there. I oughta know. End of subject."
"I suppose your life has been complicated," Charles said after a pause.
"Where will I be spending the sunlight hours?"
"My boss has a place for you."
"There is a lot of trouble at this bar?"
"Not until recently." I hesitated.
"Your regular bouncer can't handle shifters?"
"Our regular bouncer is the owner, Sam Merlotte. He is a shifter. Right now, he's a shifter with a broken leg. He got shot. And he's not the only one."
This didn't seem to astonish the vampire. "How many?"
"Three that I know of. A werepanther named Calvin Norris, who wasn't mortally wounded, and then a shifter girl named Heather Kinman, who's dead. She was shot at the Sonic. Do you know what Sonic is?" Vampires didn't always pay attention to fast-food restaurants, because they didn't eat. (Hey, how many blood banks can you locate off the top of your head?)
Charles nodded, his curly chestnut hair bouncing on his shoulders. "That's the one where you eat in your car?"
"Yes, right," I said. "Heather had been in a friend's car, talking, and she got out to walk back to her car a few slots down. The shot came from across the street. She had a milkshake in her hand." The melting chocolate ice cream had blended with blood on the pavement. I'd seen it in Andy Bellefleur's mind. "It was late at night, and all the businesses on the other side of the street had been closed for hours. So the shooter got away."
"All three shootings were at night?"
"I wonder if that's significant."
"Could be; but maybe it's just that there's better concealment at night."
"Since Sam got hurt, there's been a lot of anxiety among the shifters because it's hard to believe three shootings could be a coincidence. And regular humans are worried because in their view three people have been shot at random, people with nothing in common and few enemies. Since everyone's tense, there are more fights in the bar."
"I've never been a bouncer before," Charles said conversationally. "I was the youngest son of a minor baronet, so I've had to make my own way, and I've done many things. I've worked as a bartender before, and many years ago I was shill for a whorehouse. Stood outside, trumpeted the wares of the strumpets - that's a neat phrase, isn't it? - threw out men who got too rough with the whores. I suppose that's the same as being a bouncer."
I was speechless at this unexpected confidence.
"Of course, that was after I lost my eye, but before I became a vampire," the vampire said.
"Of course," I echoed weakly.
"Which was while I was a pirate," he continued. He was smiling. I checked with a sideways glance.
"What did you, um, pirate?" I didn't know if that was a verb or not, but he got my meaning clearly.
"Oh, we'd try to catch almost anyone unawares," he said blithely. "Off and on I lived on the coast of America, down close to New Orleans, where we'd take small cargo ships and the like. I sailed aboard a small hoy, so we couldn't take on too large or well defended a ship. But when we caught up with some bark, then there was fighting!" He sighed - recalling the happiness of whacking at people with a sword, I guess.
"And what happened to you?" I asked politely, meaning how did he come to depart his wonderful warm-blooded life of rapine and slaughter for the vampire edition of the same thing.
"One evening, we boarded a galleon that had no living crew," he said. I noticed that his hands had curled into fists. His voice chilled. "We had sailed to the Tortugas. It was dusk. I was first man to go down into the hold. What was in the hold got me first."
After that little tale, we fell silent by mutual consent.
Sam was on the couch in the living room of his trailer. Sam had had the double-wide anchored so it was at a right angle to the back of the bar. That way, at least he opened his front door to a view of the parking lot, which was better than looking at the back of the bar, with its large garbage bin between the kitchen door and the employees' entrance.
"Well, there you are," Sam said, and his tone was grumpy. Sam was never one for sitting still. Now that his leg was in a cast, he was fretting from the inactivity. What would he do during the next full moon? Would the leg be healed enough by then for him to change? If he changed, what would happen to the cast? I'd known other injured shape-shifters before, but I hadn't been around for their recuperation, so this was new territory for me. "I was beginning to think you'd gotten lost on the way back." Sam's voice returned me to the here and now. It had a distinct edge.
" 'Gee, thanks, Sookie, I see you returned with a bouncer,' " I said. " 'I'm so sorry you had to go through the humiliating experience of asking Eric for a favor on my behalf.' " At that moment, I didn't care if he was my boss or not.
Sam looked embarrassed.
"Eric agreed, then," he said. He nodded at the pirate.
"Charles Twining, at your service," said the vampire.
Sam's eyes widened. "Okay. I'm Sam Merlotte, owner of the bar. I appreciate your coming to help us out here."
"I was ordered to do so," the vampire said coolly.
"So the deal you struck was room, board, and favor," Sam said to me. "I owe Eric a favor." This was said in a tone that a kind person would describe as grudging.
"Yes." I was mad now. "You sent me to make a deal. I checked the terms with you! That's the deal I made. You asked Eric for a favor; now he gets a favor in return. No matter what you told yourself, that's what it boils down to."
Sam nodded, though he didn't look happy. "Also, I changed my mind. I think Mr. Twining, here, should stay with you."
"And why would you think that?"
"The closet looked a little cramped. You have a light-tight place for vampires, right?"
"You didn't ask me if that was okay."
"You're refusing to do it?"
"Yes! I'm not the vampire hotel keeper!"
"But you work for me, and he works for me..."
"Uh-huh. And would you ask Arlene or Holly to put him up?"
Sam looked even more amazed. "Well, no, but that's because - " He stopped then.
"Can't think of how to finish the sentence, can you?" I snarled. "Okay, buddy, I'm out of here. I spent a whole evening putting myself in an embarrassing situation for you. And what do I get? No effing thanks!"
I stomped out of the double-wide. I didn't slam the door because I didn't want to be childish. Door slamming just isn't adult. Neither is whining. Okay, maybe stomping out isn't, either. But it was a choice between making an emphatic verbal exit or slapping Sam. Normally Sam was one of my favorite people in the world, but tonight... not.
I was working the early shift for the next three days - not that I was sure I had a job anymore. When I got into Merlotte's at eleven the next morning, dashing to the employees' door through the pouring rain in my ugly but useful rain slicker, I was nearly sure that Sam would tell me to collect my last paycheck and hit the door. But he wasn't there. I had a moment of what I recognized as disappointment. Maybe I'd been spoiling for another fight, which was odd.
Terry Bellefleur was standing in for Sam again, and Terry was having a bad day. It wasn't a good idea to ask him questions or even to talk to him beyond the necessary relay of orders.
Terry particularly hated rainy weather, I'd noticed, and he also didn't like Sheriff Bud Dearborn. I didn't know the reason for either prejudice. Today, gray sheets of rain battered at the walls and roof, and Bud Dearborn was pontificating to five of his cronies over on the smoking side. Arlene caught my eye and widened her eyes to give me a warning.
Though Terry was pale, and perspiring, he'd zipped up the light jacket he often wore over his Merlotte's T-shirt. I noticed his hands shaking as he pulled a draft beer. I wondered if he could last until dark.
At least there weren't many customers, if something did go wrong. Arlene drifted over to catch up with a married couple who'd come in, friends of hers. My section was almost empty, with the exception of my brother, Jason, and his friend Hoyt.
Hoyt was Jason's sidekick. If they weren't both definitely heterosexual, I would have recommended they marry, they complemented each other so well. Hoyt enjoyed jokes, and Jason enjoyed telling them. Hoyt was at a loss to fill his free time, and Jason was always up to something. Hoyt's mother was a little overwhelming, and Jason was parent-free. Hoyt was firmly anchored in the here and now, and had an iron sense of what the community would tolerate and what it would not. Jason didn't.
I thought of what a huge secret Jason now had, and I wondered if he was tempted to share it with Hoyt.
"How you doing, Sis?" Jason asked. He held up his glass, indicating he'd like a refill on his Dr Pepper. Jason didn't drink until after his workday was over, a large point in his favor.
"Fine, Brother. You want some more, Hoyt?" I asked.
"Please, Sookie. Ice tea," Hoyt said.
In a second I was back with their drinks. Terry glared at me when I went behind the bar, but he didn't speak. I can ignore a glare.
"Sook, you want to go with me to the hospital in Grainger this afternoon after you get off?" Jason asked.
"Oh," I said. "Yeah, sure." Calvin had always been good to me.
Hoyt said, "Sure is crazy, Sam and Calvin and Heather getting shot. What do you make of it, Sookie?" Hoyt has decided I am an oracle.
"Hoyt, you know as much about it as I do," I told him. "I think we all should be careful." I hoped the significance of this wasn't lost on my brother. He shrugged.
When I looked up, I saw a stranger waiting to be seated and hurried over to him. His dark hair, turned black by the rain, was pulled back in a ponytail. His face was scarred with one long thin white line that ran along one cheek. When he pulled off his jacket, I could see that he was a bodybuilder.
"Smoking or non?" I asked, with a menu already in my hand.
"Non," he said, and followed me to a table. He carefully hung his wet jacket on the back of a chair and took the menu after he was seated. "My wife will be along in a few minutes," he said. "She's meeting me here."
I put another menu at the adjacent place. "Do you want to order now or wait for her?"
"I'd like some hot tea," he asked. "I'll wait until she comes to order food. Kind of a limited menu here, huh?" He glanced over at Arlene and then back at me. I began to feel uneasy. I knew he wasn't here because this place was convenient for lunch.
"That's all we can handle," I said, taking care to sound relaxed. "What we've got, it's good."
When I assembled the hot water and a tea bag, I put a saucer with a couple of lemon slices on the tray, too. No fairies around to offend.
"Are you Sookie Stackhouse?" he asked when I returned with his tea.
"Yes, I am." I put the saucer gently on the table, right beside the cup. "Why do you want to know?" I already knew why, but with regular people, you had to ask.
"I'm Jack Leeds, a private investigator," he said. He laid a business card on the table, turned so I could read it. He waited for a beat, as if he usually got a dramatic reaction to that statement. "I've been hired by a family in Jackson, Mississippi - the Pelt family," he continued, when he saw I wasn't going to speak.
My heart sank to my shoes before it began pounding at an accelerated rate. This man believed that Debbie was dead. And he thought there was a good chance I might know something about it.
He was absolutely right.
I'd shot Debbie Pelt dead a few weeks before, in self-defense. Hers was the body Eric had hidden. Hers was the bullet Eric had taken for me.
Debbie's disappearance after leaving a "party" in Shreveport, Louisiana (in fact a life-and-death brawl between witches, vamps, and Weres), had been a nine days' wonder. I'd hoped I'd heard the end of it.
"So the Pelts aren't satisfied with the police investigation?" I asked. It was a stupid question, one I picked out of the air at random. I had to say something to break up the gathering silence.
"There really wasn't an investigation," Jack Leeds said. "The police in Jackson decided she probably vanished voluntarily." He didn't believe that, though.
His face changed then; it was like someone had switched on a light behind his eyes. I turned to look where he was looking, and I saw a blond woman of medium height shaking her umbrella out at the door. She had short hair and pale skin, and when she turned, I saw that she was very pretty; at least, she would have been if she had been more animated.
But that wasn't a factor to Jack Leeds. He was looking at the woman he loved, and when she saw him, the same light switched on behind her eyes, too. She came across the floor to his table as smoothly as if she were dancing, and when she shed her own wet jacket, I saw her arms were as muscular as his. They didn't kiss, but his hand slid over hers and squeezed just briefly. After she'd taken her chair and asked for some diet Coke, her eyes went to the menu. She was thinking that all the food Merlotte's offered was unhealthy. She was right.
"Salad?" Jack Leeds asked.
"I have to have something hot," she said. "Chili?"
"Okay. Two chilis," he told me. "Lily, this is Sookie Stackhouse. Ms. Stackhouse, this is Lily Bard Leeds."
"Hello," she said. "I've just been out to your house."
Her eyes were light blue, and she had a stare like a laser. "You saw Debbie Pelt the night she disappeared." Her mind added, You're the one she hated so much.
They didn't know Debbie Pelt's true nature, and I was relieved that the Pelts hadn't been able to find a Were investigator. They wouldn't out their daughter to regular detectives. The longer the two-natured could keep the fact of their existence a secret, the better, as far as they were concerned.
"Yes," I said. "I saw her that night."
"Can we come talk to you about that? After you get off work?"
"I have to go see a friend in the hospital after work," I said.
"Sick?" Jack Leeds asked.
"Shot," I said.
Their interest quickened. "By someone local?" the blond woman asked.
Then I saw how it might all work. "By a sniper," I said. "Someone's been shooting people at random in this area."
"Have any of them vanished?" Jack Leeds asked.
"No," I admitted. "They've all been left lying. Of course, there were witnesses to all of the shootings. Maybe that's why." I hadn't heard of anyone actually seeing Calvin get shot, but someone had come along right afterward and called 911.
Lily Leeds asked me if they could talk to me the next day before I went to work. I gave them directions to my house and told them to come at ten. I didn't think talking to them was a very good idea, but I didn't think I had much of a choice, either. I would become more of an object of suspicion if I refused to talk about Debbie.
I found myself wishing I could call Eric tonight and tell him about Jack and Lily Leeds; worries shared are worries halved. But Eric didn't remember any of it. I wished that I could forget Debbie's death, too. It was awful to know something so heavy and terrible, to be unable to share it with a soul.
I knew so many secrets, but almost none of them were my own. This secret of mine was a dark and bloody burden.
Charles Twining was due to relieve Terry at full dark. Arlene was working late, since Danielle was attending her daughter's dance recital, and I was able to lighten my mood a little by briefing Arlene on the new bartender/bouncer. She was intrigued. We'd never had an Englishman visit the bar, much less an Englishman with an eye patch.
"Tell Charles I said hi," I called as I began to put on my rain gear. After a couple of hours of sprinkling, the drops were beginning to come faster again.
I splashed out to my car, the hood pulled well forward over my face. Just as I unlocked the driver's door and pulled it open, I heard a voice call my name. Sam was standing on crutches in the door of his trailer. He'd added a roofed porch a couple of years before, so he wasn't getting wet, but he didn't need to be standing there, either. Slamming the car door shut, I leaped over puddles and across the stepping-stones. In a second or two, I was standing on his porch and dripping all over it.
"I'm sorry," he said.
I stared at him. "You should be," I said gruffly.
"Well, I am."
"Okay. Good." I resolutely didn't ask him what he'd done with the vampire.
"Anything happen over at the bar today?"
I hesitated. "Well, the crowd was thin, to put it mildly. But..." I started to tell him about the private detectives, but then I knew he'd ask questions. And I might end up telling him the whole sorry story just for the relief of confessing to someone. "I have to go, Sam. Jason's taking me to visit Calvin Norris in the hospital in Grainger."
He looked at me. His eyes narrowed. The lashes were the same red-gold as his hair, so they showed up only when you were close to him. And I had no business at all thinking about Sam's eyelashes, or any other part of him, for that matter.
"I was a shit yesterday," he said. "I don't have to tell you why."
"Well, I guess you do," I said, bewildered. "Because I sure don't understand."
"The point is, you know you can count on me."
To get mad at me for no reason? To apologize afterward? "You've really confused me a lot lately," I said. "But you've been my friend for years, and I have a very high opinion of you." That sounded way too stilted, so I tried smiling. He smiled back, and a drop of rain fell off my hood and splashed on my nose, and the moment was over. I said, "When do you think you'll get back to the bar?"
"I'll try to come in tomorrow for a while," he said. "At least I can sit in the office and work on the books, get some filing done."
And I dashed back to my car, feeling that my heart was much lighter than it had been before. Being at odds with Sam had felt wrong. I didn't realize how that wrongness had colored my thoughts until I was right with him again.
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