YOU HAVE TO figure out what to wear to a funeral, just like any other social occasion, even if it seems your clothes should be the last thing on your mind. I had liked and admired Colonel Flood during our brief acquaintance, so I wanted to look appropriate at his burial service, especially after Alcide's comments.
I just couldn't find anything in my closet that seemed right. About eight the next morning, I phoned Tara, who told me where her emergency key was. "Get whatever you need out of my closet," Tara said. "Just be sure you don't go into any other rooms, okay? Go straight from the back door to my room and back out again."
"That's what I'd be doing anyway," I said, trying not to sound offended. Did Tara think I'd rummage around her house just to pry?
"Of course you would, but I just feel responsible."
Suddenly, I understood that Tara was telling me that there was a vampire sleeping in her house. Maybe it was the bodyguard Mickey, maybe Franklin Mott. After Eric's warning, I wanted to stay far away from Mickey. Only the very oldest vampires could rise before dark, but coming across a sleeping vampire would give me a nasty start in and of itself.
"Okay, I get you," I said hastily. The idea of being alone with Mickey made me shiver, and not with happy anticipation. "Straight in, straight out." Since I didn't have any time to waste, I jumped in my car and drove into town to Tara's little house. It was a modest place in a modest part of town, but Tara's owning her own home was a miracle, when I recalled the place where she'd grown up.
Some people should never breed; if their children have the misfortune to be born, those children should be taken away immediately. That's not allowed in our country, or any country that I know of, and I'm sure in my brainier moments that's a good thing. But the Thorntons, both alcoholics, had been vicious people who should have died years earlier than they did. (I forget my religion when I think of them.) Iremember Myrna Thornton tearing my grandmother's house up looking for Tara, ignoring my grandmother's protests, until Gran had to call the sheriff's department to come drag Myrna out. Tara had run out our back door to hide in the woods behind our house when she had seen the set of her mother's shoulders as Mrs. Thornton staggered to our door, thank God. Tara and I had been thirteen at the time.
I can still see the look on my grandmother's face while she talked to the deputy who'd just put Myrna Thornton in the back of the patrol car, handcuffed and screaming.
"Too bad I can't drop her off in the bayou on the way back to town," the deputy had said. I couldn't recall his name, but his words had impressed me. It had taken me a minute to be sure what he meant, but once I was, I realized that other people knew what Tara and her siblings were going through. These other people were all-powerful adults. If they knew, why didn't they solve the problem?
I sort of understood now that it hadn't been so simple; but I still thought the Thornton kids could have been spared a few years of their misery.
At least Tara had this neat little house with all-new appliances, and a closet full of clothes, and a rich boyfriend. I had an uneasy feeling that I didn't know everything that was happening in Tara's life, but on the surface of it, she was still way ahead of the predictions.
As she'd directed, I went through the spanky-clean kitchen, turned right, and crossed a corner of the living room to pass through the doorway to Tara's bedroom. Tara hadn't had a chance to make her bed that morning. I pulled the sheets straight in a flash and made it look nice. (I couldn't help it.) I couldn't decide if that was a favor to her or not, since now she'd know I minded it not being made, but for the life of me I couldn't mess it up again.
I opened her walk-in closet. I spotted exactly what I needed right away. Hanging in the middle of the rear rack was a knit suit. The jacket was black with creamy pink facings on the lapels, meant to be worn over the matching pink shell on the hanger beneath it. The black skirt was pleated. Tara had had it hemmed up; the alteration tag was still on the plastic bag covering the garment. I held the skirt up to me and looked in Tara's full-length mirror. Tara was two or three inches taller than I, so the skirt fell just an inch above my knees, a fine length for a funeral. The sleeves of the jacket were a little long, but that wasn't so obvious. I had some black pumps and a purse, and even some black gloves that I'd tried to save for nice.
Mission accomplished, in record time.
I slid the jacket and shell into the plastic bag with the skirt and walked straight out of the house. I'd been in Tara's place less than ten minutes. In a hurry, because of my ten o'clock appointment, I began getting ready. I French braided my hair and rolled the remaining tail under, securing everything with some antique hairpins my grandmother had stashed away; they'd been her grandmother's. I had some black hose, fortunately, and a black slip, and the pink of my fingernails at least coordinated with the pink of the jacket and shell. When I heard a knock on the front door at ten, I was ready except for my shoes. I stepped into my pumps on the way to the door.
Jack Leeds looked openly astonished at my transformation, while Lily's eyebrows twitched.
"Please come in," I said. "I'm dressed for a funeral."
"I hope you're not burying a friend," Jack Leeds said. His companion's face might have been sculpted from marble. Had the woman never heard of a tanning bed?
"Not a close one. Won't you sit down? Can I get you anything? Coffee?"
"No, thank you," he said, his smile transforming his face.
The detectives sat on the couch while I perched on the edge of the La-Z-Boy. Somehow, my unaccustomed finery made me feel braver.
"About the evening Ms. Pelt vanished," Leeds began. "You saw her in Shreveport?"
"Yes, I was invited to the same party she was. At Pam's place." All of us who'd lived through the Witch War - Pam, Eric, Clancy, the three Wiccans, and the Weres who had survived - had agreed on our story: Instead of telling the police that Debbie had left from the dilapidated and abandoned store where the witches had established their hideout, we'd said that we'd stayed the whole evening at Pam's house, and Debbie had left in her car from that address. The neighbors might have testified that everyone had left earlier en masse if the Wiccans hadn't done a little magic to haze their memories of the evening.
"Colonel Flood was there," I said. "Actually, it's his funeral I'm going to."
Lily looked inquiring, which was probably the equivalent of someone else exclaiming, "Oh, you've got to be kidding!"
"Colonel Flood died in a car accident two days ago," I told them.
They glanced at each other. "So, were there quite a few people at this party?" Jack Leeds said. I was sure he had a complete list of the people who'd been sitting in Pam's living room for what had been essentially a war council.
"Oh, yes. Quite a few. I didn't know them all. Shreveport people." I'd met the three Wiccans that evening for the first time. I'd known the werewolves slightly. The vampires, I'd known.
"But you'd met Debbie Pelt before?"
"When you were dating Alcide Herveaux?"
Well. They'd certainly done their homework.
"Yes," I said. "When I was dating Alcide." My face was as smooth and impassive as Lily's. I'd had lots of practice in keeping secrets.
"You stayed with him once at the Herveaux apartment in Jackson?"
I started to blurt out that we'd stayed in separate bedrooms, but it really wasn't their business. "Yes," I said with a certain edge to my voice.
"You two ran into Ms. Pelt one night in Jackson at a club called Josephine's?"
"Yes, she was celebrating her engagement to some guy named Clausen," I said.
"Did something happen between you that night?"
"Yes." I wondered whom they'd been talking to; someone had given the detectives a lot of information that they shouldn't have. "She came over to the table, made a few remarks to us."
"And you also went to see Alcide at the Herveaux office a few weeks ago? You two were at a crime scene that afternoon?"
They'd done way too much homework. "Yes," I said.
"And you told the officers at that crime scene that you and Alcide Herveaux were engaged?"
Lies will come back to bite you in the butt. "I think it was Alcide who said that," I said, trying to look thoughtful.
"And was his statement true?"
Jack Leeds was thinking that I was the most erratic woman he'd ever met, and he couldn't understand how someone who could get engaged and unengaged so adeptly could be the sensible hardworking waitress he'd seen the day before.
She was thinking my house was very clean. (Strange, huh?) She also thought I was quite capable of killing Debbie Pelt, because she'd found people were capable of the most horrible things. She and I shared more than she'd ever know. I had the same sad knowledge, since I'd heard it directly from their brains.
"Yes," I said. "At the time, it was true. We were engaged for, like, ten minutes. Just call me Britney." I hated lying. I almost always knew when someone else was lying, so I felt I had LIAR printed in big letters on my forehead.
Jack Leeds's mouth quirked, but my reference to the pop singer's fifty-five-hour marriage didn't make a dent in Lily Bard Leeds.
"Ms. Pelt object to your seeing Alcide?"
"Oh, yes." I was glad I'd had years of practice of hiding my feelings. "But Alcide didn't want to marry her."
"Was she angry with you?"
"Yes," I said, since undoubtedly they knew the truth of that. "Yes, you could say that. She called me some names. You've probably heard that Debbie didn't believe in hiding her emotions."
"So when did you last see her?"
"I last saw her..." (with half her head gone, sprawled on my kitchen floor, her legs tangled up in the legs of a chair) "Let me think.... As she left the party that night. She walked off into the dark by herself." Not from Pam's, but from another location altogether; one full of dead bodies, with blood splashed on the walls. "I just assumed she was starting back to Jackson." I shrugged.
"She didn't come by Bon Temps? It's right off the interstate on her return route."
"I can't imagine why she would. She didn't knock on my door." She'd broken in.
"You didn't see her after the party?"
"I have not seen her since that night." Now, that was the absolute truth.
"You've seen Mr. Herveaux?"
"Yes, I have."
"Are you engaged now?"
I smiled. "Not that I know of," I said.
I wasn't surprised when the woman asked if she could use my bathroom. I'd let down my guard to find out how suspicious the detectives were, so I knew she wanted to have a more extensive look at my house. I showed her to the bathroom in the hall, not the one in my bedroom; not that she'd find anything suspicious in either of them.
"What about her car?" Jack Leeds asked me suddenly. I'd been trying to steal a glimpse of the clock on the mantel over the fireplace, because I wanted to be sure the duo were gone before Alcide picked me up for the funeral.
"Hmm?" I'd lost track of the conversation.
"Debbie Pelt's car."
"What about it?"
"Do you have any idea where it is?"
"Not an idea in the world," I said with complete honesty.
As Lily came back into the living room, he asked, "Ms. Stackhouse, just out of curiosity, what do you think happened to Debbie Pelt?"
I thought, I think she got what was coming to her. I was a little shocked at myself. Sometimes I'm not a very nice person, and I don't seem to be getting any nicer. "I don't know, Mr. Leeds," I said. "I guess I have to tell you that except for her family's worry, I don't really care. We didn't like each other. She burned a hole in my shawl, she called me a whore, and she was awful to Alcide; though since he's a grown-up, that's his problem. She liked to jerk people around. She liked to make them dance to her tune." Jack Leeds was looking a little dazed at this flow of information. "So," I concluded, "that's the way I feel."
"Thanks for your honesty," he said, while his wife fixed me with her pale blue eyes. If I'd had any doubt, I understood clearly now that she was the more formidable of the two. Considering the depth of the investigation Jack Leeds had performed, that was saying something.
"Your collar is crooked," she said quietly. "Let me fix it." I held still while her deft fingers reached behind me and twitched the jacket until the collar lay down correctly.
They left after that. After I watched their car go down the driveway, I took my jacket off and examined it very carefully. Though I hadn't picked up any such intention from her brain, maybe she'd put a bug on me? The Leeds might be more suspicious than they'd sounded. No, I discovered: she really was the neat freak she'd seemed, and she really had been unable to withstand my turned-up collar. As long as I was being suspicious, I inspected the hall bathroom. I hadn't been in it since the last time I'd cleaned it a week ago, so it looked quite straight and as fresh and as sparkly as a very old bathroom in a very old house can look. The sink was damp, and the towel had been used and refolded, but that was all. Nothing extra was there, and nothing was missing, and if the detective had opened the bathroom cabinet to check its contents, I just didn't care.
My heel caught on a hole where the flooring had worn through. For about the hundredth time, I wondered if I could teach myself how to lay linoleum, because the floor could sure use a new layer. I also wondered how I could conceal the fact that I'd killed a woman in one minute, and worry about the cracked linoleum in the bathroom the next.
"She was bad," I said out loud. "She was mean and bad, and she wanted me to die for no very good reason at all."
That was how I could do it. I'd been living in a shell of guilt, but it had just cracked and fallen apart. I was tired of being all angst-y over someone who would have killed me in a New York minute, someone who'd tried her best to cause my death. I would never have lain in wait to ambush Debbie, but I hadn't been prepared to let her kill me just because it suited her to have me dead.
To hell with the whole subject. They'd find her, or they wouldn't. No point in worrying about it either way.
Suddenly, I felt a lot better.
I heard a vehicle coming through the woods. Alcide was right on time. I expected to see his Dodge Ram, but to my surprise he was in a dark blue Lincoln. His hair was as smooth as it could be, which wasn't very, and he was wearing a sober charcoal gray suit and a burgundy tie. I gaped at him through the window as he came up the stepping-stones to the front porch. He looked good enough to eat, and I tried not to giggle like an idiot at the mental image.
When I opened the door, he seemed equally stunned. "You look wonderful," he said after a long stare.
"You, too," I said, feeling almost shy.
"I guess we need to get going."
"Sure, if we want to be there on time."
"We need to be there ten minutes early," he said.
"Why that, exactly?" I picked up my black clutch purse, glanced in the mirror to make sure my lipstick was still fresh, and locked the front door behind me. Fortunately, the day was just warm enough for me to leave my coat at home. I didn't want to cover up my outfit.
"This is a Were funeral," he said in a tone of significance.
"That's different from a regular funeral how?"
"It's a packmaster's funeral, and that makes it more... formal."
Okay, he'd told me that the day before. "How do you keep regular people from realizing?"
I felt misgivings about the whole thing. "Are you sure I should be going to this?"
"He made you a friend of the pack."
I remembered that, though at the time I hadn't realized it was a title, the way Alcide made it sound now: Friend of the Pack.
I had an uneasy feeling that there was a lot more to know about Colonel Flood's funeral ceremony. Usually I had more information than I could handle about any given subject, since I could read minds; but there weren't any Weres in Bon Temps, and the other shifters weren't organized like the wolves were. Though Alcide's mind was hard to read, I could tell he was preoccupied with what was going to happen in the church, and I could tell he was worried about a Were named Patrick.
The service was being held at Grace Episcopal, a church in an older, affluent suburb of Shreveport. The church edifice was very traditional, built of gray stone, and topped with a steeple. There wasn't an Episcopal church in Bon Temps, but I knew that the services were similar to those of the Catholic church. Alcide had told me that his father was attending the funeral, too, and that we'd come over from Bon Temps in his father's car. "My truck didn't look dignified enough for the day, my father thought," Alcide said. I could tell that his father was foremost in Alcide's thoughts.
"Then how's your dad getting here?" I asked.
"His other car," Alcide said absently, as if he weren't really listening to what I was saying. I was a little shocked at the idea of one man owning two cars: In my experience, men might have a family car and a pickup, or a pickup and a four-wheeler. My little shocks for the day were just beginning. By the time we had reached I-20 and turned west, Alcide's mood had filled up the car. I wasn't sure what it was, but it involved silence.
"Sookie," Alcide said abruptly, his hands tightening on the wheel until his knuckles were white.
"Yes?" The fact that bad stuff was coming into the conversation might as well have been written in blinking letters above Alcide's head. Mr. Inner Conflict.
"I need to talk to you about something."
"What? Is there something suspicious about Colonel Flood's death?" I should have wondered! I chided myself. But the other shifters had been shot. A traffic accident was such a contrast.
"No," Alcide said, looking surprised. "As far as I know, the accident was just an accident. The other guy ran a red light."
I settled back into the leather seat. "So what's the deal?"
"Is there anything you want to tell me?"
I froze. "Tell you? About what?"
"About that night. The night of the Witch War."
Years of controlling my face came to my rescue. "Not a thing," I said calmly enough, though I may have been clenching my hands as I said it.
Alcide said nothing more. He parked the car and came around to help me out, which was unnecessary but nice. I'd decided I wouldn't need to take my purse inside, so I stuck it under the seat and Alcide locked the car. We started toward the front of the church. Alcide took my hand, somewhat to my surprise. I might be a friend of the pack, but I was apparently supposed to be friendlier with one member of the pack than the others.
"There's Dad," Alcide said as we approached a knot of mourners. Alcide's father was a little shorter than Alcide, but he was a husky man like his son. Jackson Herveaux had iron-gray hair instead of black, and a bolder nose. He had the same olive skin as Alcide. Jackson looked all the darker because he was standing by a pale, delicate woman with gleaming white hair.
"Father," Alcide said formally, "this is Sookie Stackhouse."
"A pleasure to meet you, Sookie," Jackson Herveaux said. "This is Christine Larrabee." Christine, who might have been anything from fifty-seven to sixty-seven, looked like a painting done in pastels. Her eyes were a washed-out blue, her smooth skin was magnolia pale with the faintest tinge of pink, her white hair was immaculately groomed. She was wearing a light blue suit, which I personally wouldn't have worn until the winter was completely over, but she looked great in it, for sure.
"Nice to meet you," I said, wondering if I should curtsy. I'd shaken hands with Alcide's father, but Christine didn't extend hers. She gave me a nod and a sweet smile. Probably didn't want to bruise me with her diamond rings, I decided after a squint at her fingers. Of course, they matched her earrings. I was outclassed, no doubt about it. Eff it, I thought. It seemed to be my day for shrugging off unpleasant things.
"Such a sad occasion," Christine said.
If she wanted to do polite chitchat, I was up to it. "Yes, Colonel Flood was a wonderful man," I said.
"Oh, you knew him, dear?"
"Yes," I said. As a matter of fact, I'd seen him naked, but in decidedly unerotic circumstances.
My brief answer didn't leave her much of anywhere to go. I saw genuine amusement lurking in her pale eyes. Alcide and his dad were exchanging low-voiced comments, which we were obviously supposed to be ignoring. "You and I are strictly decorations today," Christine said.
"Then you know more than I do."
"I expect so. You're not one of the two-natured?"
"No." Christine was, of course. She was a full-blooded Were, like Jackson and Alcide. I couldn't picture this elegant woman changing into a wolf, especially with the down-and-dirty reputation the Weres had in the shifter community, butthe impressions I got from her mind were unmistakable.
"The funeral of the packmaster marks the opening of the campaign to replace him," Christine said. Since that was more solid information than I'd gotten in two hours from Alcide, immediately I felt kindly disposed toward the older woman.
"You must be something extraordinary, for Alcide to choose you as his companion today," Christine continued.
"I don't know about extraordinary. In the literal sense, I guess I am. I have extras that aren't ordinary."
"Witch?" Christine guessed. "Fairy? Part goblin?"
Gosh. I shook my head. "None of the above. So what's going to happen in there?"
"There are more roped-off pews than usual. The whole pack will sit at the front of the church, the mated ones with their mates, of course, and their children. The candidates for packmaster will come in last."
"How are they chosen?"
"They announce themselves," she said. "But they'll be put to the test, and then the membership votes."
"Why is Alcide's dad bringing you, or is that a real personal question?"
"I'm the widow of the packmaster prior to Colonel Flood," Christine Larrabee said quietly. "That gives me a certain influence."
I nodded. "Is the packmaster always a man?"
"No. But since strength is part of the test, males usually win."
"How many candidates are there?"
"Two. Jackson, of course, and Patrick Furnan." She inclined her patrician head slightly to her right, and I gave a closer look at the couple that had been on the periphery of my attention.
Patrick Furnan was in his mid-forties, somewhere between Alcide and his father. He was a thick-bodied man with a light brown crew cut and a very short beard shaved into a fancy shape. His suit was brown, too, and he'd had trouble buttoning the jacket. His companion was a pretty woman who believed in a lot of lipstick and jewelry. She had short brown hair, too, but it was highlighted with blond streaks and elaborately styled. Her heels were at least three inches high. I eyed the shoes with awe. I would break my neck if I tried to walk in them. But this woman maintained a smile and offered a good word to everyone who approached. Patrick Furnan was colder. His narrow eyes measured and assessed every Were in the gathering crowd.
"Tammy Faye, there, is his wife?" I asked Christine in a discreetly low tone.
Christine made a sound that I would have called snigger if it had issued from someone less patrician. "She does wear a lot of makeup," Christine said. "Her name is Libby, actually. Yes, she's his wife and a full-blooded Were, and they have two children. So he's added to the pack."
Only the oldest child would become a Were at puberty.
"What does he do for a living?" I asked.
"He owns a Harley-Davidson dealership," Christine said.
"That's a natural." Weres tended to like motorcycles a lot.
Christine smiled, probably as close as she came to laughing out loud.
"Who's the front-runner?" I'd been dumped into the middle of a game, and I needed to learn the rules. Later, I was going to let Alcide have it right between the eyes; but right now, I was going to get through the funeral, since that's what I'd come for.
"Hard to say," Christine murmured. "I wouldn't have thrown in with either one, given a choice, but Jackson called on our old friendship, and I had to come down on his side."
"That's not nice."
"No, but it's practical," she said, amused. "He needs all the support he can get. Did Alcide ask you to endorse his father?"
"No. I'd be completely ignorant of the situation if you hadn't been kind enough to fill me in." I gave her a nod of thanks.
"Since you're not a Were - excuse me, honey, but I'm just trying to figure this out - what can you do for Alcide, I wonder? Why'd he drag you into this?"
"He'll have to tell me that real soon," I said, and if my voice was cold and ominous, I just didn't care.
"His last girlfriend disappeared," Christine said thoughtfully. "They were pretty on-again, off-again, Jackson tells me. If his enemies had something to do with it, you might watch your step."
"I don't think I'm in danger," I said.
But I'd said enough.
"Hmmmm," Christine said after a long, thoughtful look at my face. "Well, she was too much of a diva for someone who isn't even a Were." Christine's voice expressed the contempt the Weres feel for the other shifters. ("Why bother to change, if you can't change into a wolf?" I'd heard a Were say once.)
My attention was caught by the dull gleam of a shaved head, and I stepped a bit to my left to have a better view. I'd never seen this man before. I would certainly have remembered him; he was very tall, taller than Alcide or even Eric, I thought. He had big shoulders and arms roped with muscle. His head and arms were the brown of a Caucasian with a real tan. I could tell, because he was wearing a sleeveless black silk tee tucked into black pants and shiny dress shoes. It was a nippy day at the end of January, but the cold didn't seem to affect him at all. There was a definite space between him and the people around him.
As I looked at him, wondering, he turned and looked at me, as if he could feel my attention. He had a proud nose, and his face was as smooth as his shaved head. At this distance, his eyes looked black.
"Who is that?" I asked Christine, my voice a thread in the wind that had sprung up, tossing the leaves of the holly bushes planted around the church.
Christine darted a look at the man, and she must have known whom I meant, but she didn't answer.
Regular people had gradually been filtering through the Weres, going up the steps and into the church. Now two men in black suits appeared at the doors. They crossed their hands in front of them, and the one on the right nodded at Jackson Herveaux and Patrick Furnan.
The two men, with their female companions, came to stand facing each other at the bottom of the steps. The assembled Weres passed between them to enter the church. Some nodded at one, some at the other, some at both. Fence-sitters. Even after their ranks had been reduced by the recent war with the witches, I counted twenty-five full-blooded adult Weres in Shreveport, a very large pack for such a small city. Its size was attributable to the Air Force base, I figured.
Everyone who walked between the two candidates was a full Were. I saw only two children. Of course, some parents might have left their kids in school rather than bring them to the funeral. But I was pretty sure I was seeing the truth of what Alcide had told me: Infertility and a high infant mortality rate plagued the Weres.
Alcide's younger sister, Janice, had married a human. She herself would never change shape, since she was not the firstborn child. Her son's recessive Were traits, Alcide had told me, might show as increased vigor and a great healing ability. Many professional athletes came from couples whose genetic pool contained a percentage of Were blood.
"We go in a second," Alcide murmured. He was standing beside me, scanning the faces as they went by.
"I'm going to kill you later," I told him, keeping my face calm for the Weres passing by. "Why didn't you explain this?"
The tall man walked up the steps, his arms swinging as he walked, his large body moving with purpose and grace. His head swung toward me as he went by, and I met his eyes. They were very dark, but still I couldn't distinguish the color. He smiled at me.
Alcide touched my hand, as if he knew my attention had wandered. He leaned over to whisper in my ear, "I need your help. I need you to find a chance after the funeral to read Patrick's mind. He's going to do something to sabotage my father."
"Why didn't you just ask me?" I was confused, and mostly I was hurt.
"I thought you might feel like you owed me anyway!"
"How do you figure that?"
"I know you killed Debbie."
If he'd slapped me, it couldn't have shocked me more. I have no idea what my face looked like. After the impact of the shock and the reflexive guilt wore off, I said, "You'd abjured her. What's it to you?"
"Nothing," he said. "Nothing. She was already dead to me." I didn't believe that for a minute. "But you thought it would be a big deal to me, and you concealed it. I figure you'd guess you owed me."
If I'd had a gun in my purse, I would've been tempted to pull it out then. "I don't owe you squat," I said. "I think you came to get me in your dad's car because you knew I'd drive away once you said that."
"No," he said. We were still keeping our voices down, but I could see from the sideways glances we were getting that our intense colloquy was attracting attention. "Well, maybe. Please, forget what I said about you owing me. The fact is, my dad's in trouble and I'd do just about anything to help him out. And you can help."
"Next time you need help, just ask. Don't trying blackmailing me into it or maneuvering me into it. I like to help people. But I hate to be pushed and tricked." He'd lowered his eyes, so I grabbed his chin and made him look into mine. "I hate it."
I glanced up at the top of the steps to gauge how much interest our quarrel was attracting. The tall man had reappeared. He was looking down at us without perceptible expression. But I knew we had his attention.
Alcide glanced up, too. His face reddened. "We need to go in now. Will you go with me?"
"What is the meaning of me going in with you?"
"It means you're on my father's side in his bid for the pack."
"What does that oblige me to do?"
"Then why is it important for me to do it?"
"Though choosing a packmaster is pack business, it may influence those who know how much you helped us during the Witch War."
Witch Skirmish would have been more accurate, because though it had certainly been them vs. us, the total number of people involved had been fairly small - say, forty or fifty. But in the history of the Shreveport pack, it was an epic episode, I gathered.
I glared down at my black pumps. I struggled with my warring instincts. They seemed about equally strong. One said, "You're at a funeral. Don't make a scene. Alcide has been good to you, and it wouldn't hurt you to do this for him." The other said, "Alcide helped you in Jackson because he was trying to get his dad out of trouble with the vampires. Now, again, he's willing to involve you in something dangerous to help his dad out." The first voice chipped in, "He knew Debbie was bad. He tried to pull away from her, and then he abjured her." The second said, "Why'd he love a bitch like Debbie in the first place? Why'd he even consider sticking with her when he had clear evidence she was evil? No one else has suggested she had spellcasting power. This 'spellcasting' thing is a cheap excuse." I felt like Linda Blair in the The Exorcist, with her head whirling around on her neck.
Voice number one won out. I put my hand on Alcide's crooked elbow and we went up the stairs and into the church.
The pews were full of regular people. The front three rows on both sides had been saved for the pack. But the tall man, who would stand out anywhere, sat in the back row. I caught a glimpse of his big shoulders before I had to pay strict attention to the pack ceremony. The two Furnan children, cute as the dickens, went solemnly down to the front pew on the right of the church. Then Alcide and I entered, preceding the two candidates for packmaster. This seating ceremony was oddly like a wedding, with Alcide and me being the best man and maid of honor. Jackson and Christine and Patrick and Libby Furnan would enter like the parents of the bride and groom.
What the civilians made of this I don't know.
I knew they were all staring, but I'm used to that. If being a barmaid will get you used to anything, it's being looked over. I was dressed appropriately and I looked as good as I could make myself look, and Alcide had done the same, so let them stare. Alcide and I sat on the front row on the left side of the church, and moved in. I saw Patrick Furnan and his wife, Libby, enter the pew across the aisle. Then I looked back to see Jackson and Christine coming in slowly, looking fittingly grave. There was a slight flutter of heads and hands, a tiny buzz of whispers, and then Christine sidled into the pew, Jackson beside her.
The coffin, draped with an elaborately embroidered cloth, was wheeled up the aisle as we all stood, and then the somber service began.
After going through the litany, which Alcide showed me in the Prayer Book, the priest asked if anyone would like to say a few words about Colonel Flood. One of his Air Force friends went first and spoke of the colonel's devotion to duty and his sense of pride in his command. One of his fellow church members took the next turn, praising the colonel's generosity and applauding the time he'd spent balancing the church's books.
Patrick Furnan left his pew and strode to the lectern. He didn't do a good stride; he was too stout for that. But his speech was certainly a change from the elegies the two previous men had given. "John Flood was a remarkable man and a great leader," Furnan began. He was a much better speaker than I'd expected. Though I didn't know who'd written his remarks, it was someone educated. "In the fraternal order we shared, he was always the one who told us the direction we should take, the goal we should achieve. As he grew older, he remarked often that this was a job for the young."
A right turn from eulogy to campaign speech. I wasn't the only one who'd noticed this; all around me there were little movements, whispered comments.
Though taken aback by the reaction he'd aroused, Patrick Furnan plowed ahead. "I told John that he was the finest man for the job we'd ever had, and I still believe that. No matter who follows in his footsteps, John Flood will never be forgotten or replaced. The next leader can only hope to work as hard as John. I'll always be proud that John put his trust in me more than once, that he even called me his right hand." With those sentences, the Harley dealer underscored his bid to take Colonel's Flood's job as packmaster (or, as I referred to it internally, Leader of the Pack).
Alcide, to my right, was rigid with anger. If he hadn't been sitting in the front row of a funeral, he would have loved to address a few remarks to me on the subject of Patrick Furnan. On the other side of Alcide, I could just barely see Christine, whose face looked carved out of ivory. She was suppressing quite a few things herself.
Alcide's dad waited a moment to begin his trip to the lectern. Clearly, he wanted us to cleanse our mental palate before he gave his address.
Jackson Herveaux, wealthy surveyor and werewolf, gave us the chance to examine his maturely handsome face. He began, "We will not soon see the likes of John Flood. A man whose wisdom had been tempered and tested by the years..." Oh, ouch. This wasn't going to be pointed or anything, no sirree.
I tuned out for the rest of the service to think my own thoughts. I had plenty of food for thought. We stood as John Flood, Air Force colonel and packmaster, exited this church for the last time. I remained silent during the ride to the cemetery, stood by Alcide's side during the graveside service, and got back in the car when it was over and all the post-funeral handshaking was done.
I looked for the tall man, but he wasn't at the cemetery.
On the drive back to Bon Temps, Alcide obviously wanted to keep our silence nice and clean, but it was time to answer some questions.
"How did you know?" I asked.
He didn't even try to pretend to misunderstand what I was talking about. "When I came to your house yesterday, I could smell a very, very faint trace of her at your front door," he said. "It took me a while to think it through."
I'd never considered the possibility.
"I don't think I would've picked up on it if I hadn't known her so well," he offered. "I certainly didn't pick up a whiff anywhere else in the house."
So all my scrubbing had been to some avail. I was just lucky Jack and Lily Leeds weren't two-natured. "Do you want to know what happened?"
"I don't think so," he said after an appreciable pause. "Knowing Debbie, I'm guessing you only did what you had to do. After all, it was her scent at your house. She had no business there."
This was far from a ringing endorsement.
"And Eric was still at your house then, wasn't he? Maybe it was Eric?" Alcide sounded almost hopeful.
"No," I said.
"Maybe I do want the whole story."
"Maybe I've changed my mind about telling it to you. You either believe in me, or you don't. Either you think I'm the kind of person who'd kill a woman for no good reason, or you know I'm not." Truly, I was hurt more than I thought I'd be. I was very careful not to slip into Alcide's head, because I was afraid I might pick up on something that would have been even more painful.
Alcide tried several times to open another conversation, but the drive couldn't end soon enough for me. When he pulled into the clearing and I knew I was yards away from being in my own house, the relief was overwhelming. I couldn't scramble out of that fancy car fast enough.
But Alcide was right behind me.
"I don't care," he said in a voice that was almost a growl.
"What?" I'd gotten to my front door, and the key was in the lock.
"I don't care."
"I don't believe that for one minute."
"You're harder to read than a plain human, Alcide, but I can see the pockets of reservation in your mind. Since you wanted me to help you out with your dad, I'll tell you: Patrick Whatsisname plans to bring up your dad's gambling problems to show he's unsuitable as packleader." Nothing more underhanded and supernatural than the truth. "I'd read his mind before you asked me to. I don't want to see you for a long, long, long time."
"What?" Alcide said again. He looked like I'd hit him in the head with an iron.
"Seeing you... listening to your head... makes me feel bad." Of course, there were several different reasons they did, but I didn't want to enumerate them. "So, thanks for the ride to the funeral." (I may have sounded a bit sarcastic.) "I appreciate your thinking of me." (Even a higher probability of sarcasm here.) I entered the house, shut the door on his startled face, and locked it just to be on the safe side. I marched across the living room so he could hear my steps, but then I stopped in the hall and waited to listen while he got back in the Lincoln. I listened to the big car rocket down the driveway, probably putting ruts in my beautiful gravel.
As I shed Tara's suit and bundled it up to drop at the dry cleaner's, I confess I was mopey. They say when one door shuts, another one opens. But they haven't been living at my house.
Most of the doors I open seem to have something scary crouched behind them, anyway.
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