Chapter 5


THE RAIN PELTED down as we pulled in to the parking lot of the Grainger hospital. It was as small as the one in Clarice, the one most Renard Parish people were carried to. But the Grainger hospital was newer and had more of the diagnostic machines modern hospitals seemed to require.

I'd changed into jeans and a sweater, but I'd resumed wearing my lined slicker. As Jason and I hurried to the sliding glass doors, I was patting myself on the back for wearing boots. Weather-wise, the evening was proving as nasty as the morning had been.

The hospital was roiling with shifters. I could feel their anger as soon as I was inside. Two of the werepanthers from Hotshot were in the lobby; I figured they were acting as guards. Jason went to them and took their hands firmly. Maybe he exchanged some kind of secret shake or something; I don't know. At least they didn't rub against one another's legs. They didn't seem quite as happy to see Jason as he was to see them, and I noticed that Jason stepped back from them with a little frown between his eyes. The two looked at me intently. The man was of medium height and stocky, and he had thick brownish-blond hair. His eyes were full of curiosity.

"Sook, this is Dixon Mayhew," Jason said. "And this is Dixie Mayhew, his twin sister." Dixie wore her hair, the same color as her brother's, almost as short as Dixon's, but she had dark, almost black, eyes. The twins were certainly not identical.

"Has it been quiet here?" I asked carefully.

"No problems so far," Dixie said, keeping her voice low. Dixon's gaze was fixed on Jason. "How's your boss?"

"He's in a cast, but he'll heal."

"Calvin was shot bad." Dixie eyed me for a minute. "He's up in 214."

Having been given the seal of approval, Jason and I went to the stairs. The twins watched us all the way. We passed the hospital auxiliary "pink lady" on duty at the visitors' desk. I felt kind of worried about her: white-haired, heavy glasses, sweet face with a full complement of wrinkles. I hoped nothing would happen during her watch to upset her worldview.

It was easy to pick which room was Calvin's. A slab of muscle was leaning against the wall outside, a barrel-shaped man I'd never seen. He was a werewolf. Werewolves make good bodyguards, according to the common wisdom of the two-natured, because they are ruthless and tenacious. From what I've seen, that's just the bad-boy image Weres have. But it's true that as a rule, they're the roughest element of the two-natured community. You won't find too many Were doctors, for example, but you will find a lot of Weres in construction work. Jobs relating to motorcycles are heavily dominated by Weres, too. Some of those gangs do more than drink beer on the full-moon nights.

Seeing a Were disturbed me. I was surprised the panthers of Hotshot had brought in an outsider. Jason murmured, "That's Dawson. He owns the small engine repair shop between Hotshot and Grainger."

Dawson was on the alert as we came down the hall.

"Jason Stackhouse," he said, identifying my brother after a minute. Dawson was wearing a denim shirt and jeans, but his biceps were about to burst through the material. His black leather boots were battle scarred.

"We've come to see how Calvin is doing," Jason said. "This here's my sister, Sookie."

"Ma'am," Dawson rumbled. He eyeballed me slowly, and there wasn't anything lascivious about it. I was glad I'd left my purse in the locked truck. He would've gone through it, I was sure. "You want to take off that coat and turn around for me?"

I didn't take offense; Dawson was doing his job. I didn't want Calvin to get hurt again, either. I took off my slicker, handed it to Jason, and rotated. A nurse who'd been entering something in a chart watched this procedure with open curiosity. I held Jason's jacket as he took his turn. Satisfied, Dawson knocked on the door. Though I didn't hear a response, he must have, because he opened the door and said, "The Stackhouses."

Just a whisper of a voice came from the room. Dawson nodded.

"Miss Stackhouse, you can go in," he said. Jason started to follow me, but Dawson put a massive arm in front of him. "Only your sister," he said.

Jason and I began to protest at the same moment, but then Jason shrugged. "Go ahead, Sook," he said. There was obviously no budging Dawson, and there was no point to upsetting a wounded man, for that matter. I pushed the heavy door wide open.

Calvin was by himself, though there was another bed in the room. The panther leader looked awful. He was pale and drawn. His hair was dirty, though his cheeks above his trim beard had been shaved. He was wearing a hospital gown, and he was hooked up to lots of things.

"I'm so sorry," I blurted. I was horrified. Though many brains had indicated as much, I could see that if Calvin hadn't been two-natured, the wound would have killed him instantly. Whoever had shot him had wanted his death.

Calvin turned his head to me, slowly and with effort. "It's not as bad as it looks," he said dryly, his voice a thread. "They're going to take me off some of this stuff tomorrow."

"Where were you hit?" I asked.

Calvin moved one hand to touch his upper left chest. His golden brown eyes captured mine. I went closer to him and covered his hand with mine. "I'm so sorry," I said again. His fingers curled under mine until he was holding my hand.

"There've been others," he said in a whisper of a voice.


"Your boss."

I nodded.

"That poor girl."

I nodded again.

"Whoever's doing this, they've got to be stopped."


"It's got to be someone who hates shifters. The police will never find out who's doing this. We can't tell them what to look for."

Well, that was part of the problem of keeping your condition a secret. "It'll be harder for them to find the person," I conceded. "But maybe they will."

"Some of my people wonder if the shooter is someone who's a shifter," Calvin said. His fingers tightened around mine. "Someone who didn't want to become a shifter in the first place. Someone who was bitten."

It took a second for the light to click on in my head. I am such an idiot.

"Oh, no, Calvin, no, no," I said, my words stumbling over each other in my haste. "Oh, Calvin, please don't let them go after Jason. Please, he's all I've got." Tears began to run down my cheeks as if someone had turned on a faucet in my head. "He was telling me how much he enjoyed being one of you, even if he couldn't be exactly like a born panther. He's so new, he hasn't had time to figure out who all else is two-natured. I don't think he even realized Sam and Heather were...."

"No one's gonna take him out until we know the truth," Calvin said. "Though I might be in this bed, I'm still the leader." But I could tell he'd had to argue against it, and I also knew (from hearing it right out of Calvin's brain) that some of the panthers were still in favor of executing Jason. Calvin couldn't prevent that. He might be angry afterward, but if Jason were dead, that wouldn't make one little bit of difference. Calvin's fingers released mine, and his hand rose with an effort to wipe the tears off my cheek.

"You're a sweet woman," he said. "I wish you could love me."

"I wish I could, too," I said. So many of my problems would be solved if I loved Calvin Norris. I'd move out to Hotshot, become a member of the secretive little community. Two or three nights a month, I'd have to be sure to stay inside, but other than that, I'd be safe. Not only would Calvin defend me to the death, but so would the other members of the Hotshot clan.

But the thought of it just made me shudder. The windswept open fields, the powerful and ancient crossroads around which the little houses clustered... I didn't think I could handle the perpetual isolation from the rest of the world. My Gran would have urged me to accept Calvin's offer. He was a steady man, was a shift leader at Norcross, a job that came with good benefits. You might think that's laughable, but wait until you have to pay for your insurance all by yourself; then laugh.

It occurred to me (as it should have right away) that Calvin was in a perfect position to force my compliance - Jason's life for my companionship - and he hadn't taken advantage of it.

I leaned over and gave Calvin a kiss on the cheek. "I'll pray for your recovery," I said. "Thank you for giving Jason a chance." Maybe Calvin's nobility was partly due to the fact that he was in no shape to take advantage of me, but it was nobility, and I noted and appreciated it. "You're a good man," I said, and touched his face. The hair of his neat beard felt soft.

His eyes were steady as he said good-bye. "Watch out for that brother of yours, Sookie," he said. "Oh, and tell Dawson I don't want no more company tonight."

"He won't take my word for it," I said.

Calvin managed to smile. "Wouldn't be much of a bodyguard if he did, I guess."

I relayed the message to the Were. But sure enough, as Jason and I walked back to the stairs, Dawson was going into the room to check with Calvin.

I debated for a couple of minutes before I decided it would be better if Jason knew what he was up against. In the truck, as he drove home, I relayed my conversation with Calvin to my brother.

He was horrified that his new buddies in the werepanther world could believe such a thing of him. "If I'd thought of that before I changed for the first time, I can't say it wouldn't have been tempting," Jason said as we drove back to Bon Temps through the rain. "I was mad. Not just mad, furious. But now that I've changed, I see it different." He went on and on while my thoughts ran around inside my head in a circle, trying to think of a way out of this mess.

The sniping case had to be solved by the next full moon. If it wasn't, the others might tear Jason up when they changed. Maybe he could just roam the woods around his house when he turned into his panther-man form, or maybe he could hunt the woods around my place - but he wouldn't be safe out at Hotshot. And they might come looking for him. I couldn't defend him against them all.

By the next full moon, the shooter had to be in custody.

Until I was washing my few dishes that night, it didn't strike me as odd that though Jason was being accused by the werepanther community of being an assassin, I was the one who'd actually shot a shifter. I'd been thinking of the private detectives' appointment to meet me here the next morning. And, as I found myself doing out of habit, I'd been scanning the kitchen for signs of the death of Debbie Pelt. From watching the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel, I knew that there was no way I could completely eradicate the traces of blood and tissue that had spattered my kitchen, but I'd scrubbed and cleaned over and over. I was certain that no casual glance - in fact, no careful inspection by the naked eye - could reveal anything amiss in this room.

I had done the only thing I could, short of standing there to be murdered. Was that what Jesus had meant by turning the other cheek? I hoped not, because every instinct in me had urged me to defend myself, and the means at hand had been a shotgun.

Of course, I should immediately have reported it. But by then, Eric's wound had healed, the one made when Debbie'd hit him while trying to shoot me. Aside from the testimony of a vampire and myself, there was no proof that she'd fired first, and Debbie's body would have been a powerful statement of our guilt. My first instinct had been to cover up her visit to my house. Eric hadn't given me any other advice, which also might have changed things.

No, I wasn't blaming my predicament on Eric. He hadn't even been in his right mind at the time. It was my own fault that I hadn't sat down to think things through. There would have been gunshot residue on Debbie's hand. Her gun had been fired. Some of Eric's dried blood would have been on the floor. She'd broken in through my front door, and the door had shown clear signs of her trespass. Her car was hidden across the road, and only her fingerprints would've been in it.

I'd panicked, and blown it.

I just had to live with that.

But I was very sorry about the uncertainty her family was suffering. I owed them certainty - which I couldn't deliver.

I wrung out the washcloth and hung it neatly over the sink divider. I dried off my hands and folded the dish towel. Okay, now I'd gotten my guilt straight. That was so much better! Not. Angry with myself, I stomped out to the living room and turned on the television: another mistake. There was a story about Heather's funeral; a news crew from Shreveport had come to cover the modest service this afternoon. Just think of the sensation it would cause if the media realized how the sniper was selecting his victims. The news anchor, a solemn African-American man, was saying that police in Renard Parish had discovered other clusters of apparently random shootings in small towns in Tennessee and Mississippi. I was startled. A serial shooter, here?

The phone rang. "Hello," I said, not expecting anything good.

"Sookie, hi, it's Alcide."

I found myself smiling. Alcide Herveaux, who worked in his father's surveying business in Shreveport, was one of my favorite people. He was a Were, he was both sexy and hardworking, and I liked him very much. He'd also been Debbie Pelt's fianc¨¦. But Alcide had abjured her before she vanished, in a rite that made her invisible and inaudible to him - not literally, but in effect.

"Sookie, I'm at Merlotte's. I'd thought you might be working tonight, so I drove over. Can I come to the house? I need to talk to you."

"You know you're in danger, coming to Bon Temps."

"No, why?"

"Because of the sniper." I could hear the bar sounds in the background. There was no mistaking Arlene's laugh. I was betting the new bartender was charming one and all.

"Why would I worry about that?" Alcide hadn't been thinking about the news too hard, I decided.

"All the people who got shot? They were two-natured," I said. "Now they're saying on the news there've been a lot more across the south. Random shootings in small towns. Bullets that match the one recovered from Heather Kinman here. And I'm betting all the other victims were shape-shifters, too."

There was a thoughtful silence on the end of the line, if silence can be characterized.

"I hadn't realized," Alcide said. His deep, rumbly voice was even more deliberate than normal.

"Oh, and have you talked to the private detectives?"

"What? What are you talking about?"

"If they see us talking together, it'll look very suspicious to Debbie's family."

"Debbie's family has hired private eyes to look for her?"

"That's what I'm saying."

"Listen, I'm coming to your house." He hung up the phone.

I didn't know why on earth the detectives would be watching my house, or where they'd watch it from, but if they saw Debbie's former fianc¨¦ tootling down my driveway, it would be easy to connect the dots and come up with a totally erroneous picture. They'd think Alcide killed Debbie to clear the way for me, and nothing could be more wrong. I hoped like hell that Jack Leeds and Lily Bard Leeds were sound asleep rather than staked out in the woods somewhere with a pair of binoculars.

Alcide hugged me. He always did. And once again I was overwhelmed by the size of him, the masculinity, the familiar smell. Despite the warning bell ringing in my head, I hugged him back.

We sat on the couch and half turned to face each other. Alcide was wearing work clothes, which in this weather consisted of a flannel shirt worn open over a T-shirt, heavy jeans, and thick socks under his work boots. His tangle of black hair had a crease in it from his hard hat, and he was beginning to look a little bristly.

"Tell me about the detectives," he said, and I described the couple and told him what they'd said.

"Debbie's family didn't say anything to me about it," Alcide said. He turned it over in his head for a minute. I could follow his thinking. "I think that means they're sure I made her vanish."

"Maybe not. Maybe they just think you're so grieved they don't want to bring it up."

"Grieved." Alcide mulled that over for a minute. "No. I spent all the..." He paused, grappling for words. "I used up all the energy I had to spare for her," he said finally. "I was so blind, I almost think she used some kind of magic on me. Her mother's a spellcaster and half shifter. Her dad's a full-blooded shifter."

"You think that's possible? Magic?" I wasn't questioning that magic existed, but that Debbie had used it.

"Why else would I stick with her for so long? Ever since she's gone missing, it's been like someone took a pair of dark glasses off my eyes. I was willing to forgive her so much, like when she pushed you into the trunk."

Debbie had taken an opportunity to push me in a car trunk with my vampire boyfriend, Bill, who'd been starved for blood for days. And she'd walked off and left me in the trunk with Bill, who was about to awake.

I looked down at my feet, pushing away the recollection of the desperation, the pain.

"She let you get raped," Alcide said harshly.

Him saying it like that, flat out, shocked me. "Hey, Bill didn't know it was me," I said. "He hadn't had anything to eat for days and days, and the impulses are so closely related. I mean, he stopped, you know? He stopped, when he knew it was me." I couldn't put it like that to myself; I couldn't say that word. I knew beyond a doubt that Bill would rather have chewed off his own hand than done that to me if he'd been in his right mind. At that time, he'd been the only sex partner I'd ever had. My feelings about the incident were so confused that I couldn't even bear to try to pick through them. When I'd thought of rape before, when other girls had told me what had happened to them or I'd read it in their brains, I hadn't had the ambiguity I felt over my own short, awful time in the trunk.

"He did something you didn't want him to do," Alcide said simply.

"He wasn't himself," I said.

"But he did it."

"Yes, he did, and I was awful scared." My voice began to shake. "But he came to his senses, and he stopped, and I was okay, and he was really, really sorry. He's never laid a finger on me since then, never asked me if we could have sex, never..." My voice trailed off. I stared down at my hands. "Yes, Debbie was responsible for that." Somehow, saying that out loud made me feel better. "She knew what would happen, or at least she didn't care what would happen."

"And even then," Alcide said, returning to his main point, "she kept coming back and I kept trying to rationalize her behavior. I can't believe I would do that if I wasn't under some kind of magical influence."

I wasn't about to try to make Alcide feel guiltier. I had my own load of guilt to carry. "Hey, it's over."

"You sound sure."

I looked Alcide directly in the eyes. His were narrow and green. "Do you think there's the slightest chance that Debbie's alive?" I asked.

"Her family..." Alcide stopped. "No, I don't."

I couldn't get rid of Debbie Pelt, dead or alive.

"Why'd you need to talk to me in the first place?" I asked. "You said over the phone you needed to tell me something."

"Colonel Flood died yesterday."

"Oh, I'm so sorry! What happened?"

"He was driving to the store when another driver hit him broadside."

"That's awful. Was anyone in the car with him?"

"No, he was by himself. His kids are coming back to Shreveport for the funeral, of course. I wondered if you'd come to the funeral with me."

"Of course. It's not private?"

"No. He knew so many people still stationed at the Air Force base, and he was head of his Neighborhood Watch group and the treasurer of his church, and of course he was the packmaster."

"He had a big life," I said. "Lots of responsibility."

"It's tomorrow at one. What's your work schedule?"

"If I can swap shifts with someone, I'd need to be back here at four thirty to change and go to work."

"That shouldn't be a problem."

"Who'll be packmaster now?"

"I don't know," Alcide said, but his voice wasn't as neutral as I'd expected.

"Do you want the job?"

"No." He seemed a little hesitant, I thought, and I felt the conflict in his head. "But my father does." He wasn't finished. I waited.

"Were funerals are pretty ceremonial," he said, and I realized he was trying to tell me something. I just wasn't sure what it was.

"Spit it out." Straightforward is always good, as far as I'm concerned.

"If you think you can overdress for this, you can't," he said. "I know the rest of the shifter world thinks Weres only go for leather and chains, but that's not true. For funerals, we go all out." He wanted to give me even more fashion tips, but he stopped there. I could see the thoughts crowding right behind his eyes, wanting to be let out.

"Every woman wants to know what's appropriate to wear," I said. "Thanks. I won't wear pants."

He shook his head. "I know you can do that, but I'm always taken by surprise." I could hear that he was disconcerted. "I'll pick you up at eleven thirty," he said.

"Let me see about swapping shifts."

I called Holly and found it suited her to switch shifts with me. "I can just drive over there and meet you," I offered.

"No," he said. "I'll come get you and bring you back."

Okay, if he wanted to go to the trouble of fetching me, I could live with it. I'd save mileage on my car, I figured. My old Nova was none too reliable.

"All right. I'll be ready."

"I better go," he said. The silence drew out. I knew Alcide was thinking of kissing me. He leaned over and kissed me lightly on the lips. We regarded each other from a few inches apart.

"Well, I have some things I need to be doing, and you should be going back to Shreveport. I'll be ready at eleven thirty tomorrow."

After Alcide left, I got my library book, Carolyn Haines's latest, and tried to forget my worries. But for once, a book just couldn't do the trick. I tried a hot soak in the bathtub, and I shaved my legs until they were perfectly smooth. I painted my toenails and fingernails a deep pink and then I plucked my eyebrows. Finally, I felt relaxed, and when I crawled into my bed I had achieved peace through pampering. Sleep came upon me in such a rush that I didn't finish my prayers.

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