SAM WAS IN the bar that night, seated at a corner table like a visiting king, his leg propped up on another chair cushioned with pillows. He was keeping one eye on Charles, one eye on the clientele's reaction to a vampire bartender.
People would stop by, drop down in the chair across from him, visit for a few minutes, and then vacate the chair. I knew Sam was in pain. I can always read the preoccupation of people who are hurting. But he was glad to be seeing other people, glad to be back in the bar, pleased with Charles's work.
All this I could tell, and yet when it came to the question of who had shot him, I didn't have a clue. Someone was gunning for the two-natured, someone who'd killed quite a few and wounded even more. Discovering the identity of the shooter was imperative. The police didn't suspect Jason, but his own people did. If Calvin Norris's people decided to take matters into their own hands, they could easily find a chance to take out Jason. They didn't know there were more victims than those in Bon Temps.
I probed into minds, I tried to catch people in unguarded moments, I even tried to think of the most promising candidates for the role of assassin so I wouldn't waste time listening to (for example) Liz Baldwin's worries about her oldest granddaughter.
I assumed the shooter was almost certainly a guy. I knew plenty of women who went hunting and plenty more with access to rifles. But weren't snipers always men? The police were baffled by this sniper's selection of targets, because they didn't know the true nature of all the victims. The two-natured were hampered in their search because they were looking only at local suspects.
"Sookie," Sam said as I passed close to him. "Kneel down here a minute."
I sank to one knee right by his chair so he could speak in a low voice.
"Sookie, I hate to ask you again, but the closet in the storeroom isn't working out for Charles." The cleaning supplies closet in the storeroom was not exactly built to be light tight, but it was inaccessible to daylight, which was good enough. After all, the closet had no windows, and it was inside a room with no windows.
It took me a minute to switch my train of thought to another track. "You can't tell me he's not able to sleep," I said incredulously. Vampires could sleep in the daytime under any circumstances. "And I'm sure you put a lock on the inside of the door, too."
"Yes, but he has to kind of huddle on the floor, and he says it smells like old mops."
"Well, we did keep the cleaning stuff in there."
"What I'm saying is, would it be so bad for him to stay at your place?"
"Why do you really want me to have him at the house?" I asked. "There's got to be a reason more than a strange vampire's comfort during the day, when he's dead, anyway."
"Haven't we been friends a long time, Sookie?"
I smelled something big and rotten.
"Yes," I admitted, standing so that he would have to look up at me. "And?"
"I hear through the grapevine that the Hotshot community has hired a Were bodyguard for Calvin's hospital room."
"Yeah, I think that's kind of strange, too." I acknowledged his unspoken concern. "So I guess you heard what they suspect."
Sam nodded. His bright blue eyes caught mine. "You have to take this seriously, Sookie."
"What makes you think I don't?"
"You refused Charles."
"I don't see what telling him he couldn't sleep in my house has to do with worrying about Jason."
"I think he'd help you protect Jason, if it came to that. I'm down with this leg, or I'd... I don't believe it was Jason who shot me."
A knot of tension within me relaxed when Sam said that. I hadn't realized I'd been worried about what he thought, but I had.
My heart softened a little. "Oh, all right," I said with poor grace. "He can come stay with me." I stomped off grumpily, still not certain why I'd agreed.
Sam beckoned Charles over, conferred with him briefly. Later in the evening Charles borrowed my keys to stow his bag in the car. After a few minutes, he was back at the bar and signaled he'd returned my keys to my purse. I nodded, maybe a little curtly. I wasn't happy, but if I had to be saddled with a houseguest, at least he was a polite houseguest.
Mickey and Tara came into Merlotte's that night. As before, the dark intensity of the vampire made everyone in the bar a little excited, a little louder. Tara's eyes followed me with a kind of sad passivity. I was hoping to catch her alone, but I didn't see her leave the table for any reason. I found that was another cause for alarm. When she'd come into the bar with Franklin Mott, she'd always taken a minute to give me a hug, chat with me about family and work.
I caught a glimpse of Claudine the fairy across the room, and though I planned to work my way over to have a word with her, I was too preoccupied with Tara's situation. As usual, Claudine was surrounded by admirers.
Finally, I got so anxious that I took the vampire by the fangs and went over to Tara's table. The snakelike Mickey was staring at our flamboyant bartender, and he scarcely flicked a gaze at me as I approached. Tara looked both hopeful and frightened, and I stood by her and laid my hand on her shoulder to get a clearer picture of her head. Tara has done so well for herself I seldom worry over her one weakness: She picks the wrong men. I was remembering when she dated "Eggs" Benedict, who'd apparently died in a fire the previous fall. Eggs had been a heavy drinker and a weak personality. Franklin Mott had at least treated Tara with respect and had showered her with presents, though the nature of the presents had said, "I'm a mistress," rather than "I'm an honored girlfriend." But how had it come to pass that she was in Mickey's company - Mickey, whose name made even Eric hesitate?
I felt like I'd been reading a book only to discover that someone had ripped a few pages from the middle.
"Tara," I said quietly. She looked up at me, her big brown eyes dull and dead: past fear, past shame.
To the outer eye she looked almost normal. She was well groomed and made up, and her clothing was fashionable and attractive. But inside, Tara was in torment. What was wrong with my friend? Why hadn't I noticed before that something was eating her up from the inside out?
I wondered what to do next. Tara and I were just staring at each other, and though she knew what I was seeing inside her, she wasn't responding. "Wake up," I said, not even knowing where the words were coming from. "Wake up, Tara!"
A white hand grabbed my arm and removed my hand from Tara's shoulder forcibly. "I'm not paying you to touch my date," Mickey said. He had the coldest eyes I'd ever seen - mud colored, reptilian. "I'm paying you to bring our drinks."
"Tara is my friend," I said. He was still squeezing my arm, and if a vampire squeezes you, you know about it. "You're doing something to her. Or you're letting someone else hurt her."
"It's none of your concern."
"It is my concern," I said. I knew my eyes were tearing up from the pain, and I had a moment of sheer cowardice. Looking into his face, I knew he could kill me and be out of the bar before anyone there could stop him. He could take Tara with him, like a pet dog or his livestock. Before the fear could get a grip, I said, "Let go of me." I made each word clear and distinct, even though I knew he could hear a pin drop in a storm.
"You're shaking like a sick dog," he said scornfully.
"Let go of me," I repeated.
"Or you'll do - what?"
"You can't stay awake forever. If it's not me, it'll be someone else."
Mickey seemed to be reconsidering. I don't think it was my threat, though I meant it from the tips of my toes to the roots of my hair.
He looked down at Tara, and she spoke, as though he'd pulled a string. "Sookie, don't make such a big deal out of nothing. Mickey is my man now. Don't embarrass me in front of him."
My hand dropped back to her shoulder and I risked taking my eyes off Mickey to look down at her. She definitely wanted me to back off; she was completely sincere about that. But her thinking about her motivation was curiously murky.
"Okay, Tara. Do you need another drink?" I asked slowly. I was feeling my way through her head, and I was meeting a wall of ice, slippery and nearly opaque.
"No, thank you," Tara said politely. "Mickey and I need to be going now."
That surprised Mickey, I could tell. I felt a little better; Tara was in charge of herself, at least to some extent.
"I'll return your suit. I took it by the cleaner's, already," I said.
"All right. I'll see you later." Mickey had a firm grip on my friend's arm as the two made their way through the crowd.
I got the empty glasses off the table, swabbed it down, and turned back to the bar. Charles Twining and Sam were on alert. They'd been observing the whole small incident. I shrugged, and they relaxed.
When we closed the bar that night, the new bouncer was waiting at the back door for me when I pulled on my coat and got my keys out of my purse.
I unlocked my car doors and he climbed in.
"Thanks for agreeing to have me in your home," he said.
I made myself say the polite thing back. No point in being rude.
"Do you think Eric will mind my being here?" Charles asked as we drove down the narrow parish road.
"It's not his say-so," I said curtly. It irked me that he automatically wondered about Eric.
"He doesn't come to see you often?" enquired Charles with unusual persistence.
I didn't answer until we'd parked behind my house. "Listen," I said, "I don't know what you heard, but he's not... we're not... like that." Charles looked at my face and wisely said nothing as I unlocked my back door.
"Feel free to explore," I said after I'd invited him over the threshold. Vampires like to know entrances and exits. "Then I'll show you your sleeping place." While the bouncer looked curiously around the humble house where my family had lived for so many years, I hung up my coat and put my purse in my room. I made myself a sandwich after asking Charles if he wanted some blood. I keep some type O in the refrigerator, and he seemed glad to sit down and drink after he'd studied the house. Charles Twining was a peaceful sortof guy to be around, especially for a vampire. He didn't letch after me, and he didn't seem to want anything from me.
I showed him the lift-up floor panel in the guest bedroom closet. I told him how the television remote worked, showed him my little collection of movies, and pointed out the books on the shelves in the guest bedroom and living room.
"Is there anything else you can think of you might need?" I asked. My grandmother brought me up right, though I don't think she ever imagined I'd have to be hostess to a bunch of vampires.
"No, thank you, Miss Sookie," Charles said politely. His long white fingers tapped his eye patch, an odd habit of his that gave me the cold gruesomes.
"Then, if you'll excuse me, I'll say good night." I was tired, and it was exhausting work making conversation with a near stranger.
"Of course. Rest easy, Sookie. If I want to roam in the woods... ?"
"Feel free," I said immediately. I had an extra key to the back door, and I got it out of the drawer in the kitchen where I kept all the keys. This had been the odds and ends drawer for perhaps eighty years, since the kitchen had been added onto the house. There were at least a hundred keys in it. Some, those that were old when the kitchen was added, were mighty strange looking. I'd labeled the ones from my generation, and I'd put the back door key on a bright pink plastic key ring from my State Farm insurance agent. "Once you're in for the night - well, for good - shoot the dead bolt, please."
He nodded and took the key.
It was usually a mistake to feel sympathy for a vampire, but I couldn't help but think there was something sad about Charles. He struck me as lonely, and there's always something pathetic about loneliness. I'd experienced it myself. I would ferociously deny I was pathetic, but when I viewed loneliness in someone else, I could feel the tug of pity.
I scrubbed my face and pulled on some pink nylon pajamas. I was already half-asleep as I brushed my teeth and crawled into the high old bed my grandmother had slept in until she died. My great-grandmother had made the quilt I pulled over me, and my great-aunt Julia had embroidered the pattern on the edges of the bedspread. Though I might actually be alone in the world - with the exception of my brother, Jason - I went to sleep surrounded by my family.
My deepest sleep is around three a.m., and sometime during that period I was awakened by the grip of a hand on my shoulder.
I was shocked into total awareness, like a person being thrown into a cold pool. To fight off the shock that was close to paralyzing me, I swung my fist. It was caught in a chilly grip.
"No, no, no, ssshhh" came a piercing whisper out of the darkness. English accent. Charles. "Someone's creeping around outside your house, Sookie."
My breath was as wheezy as an accordion. I wondered if I was going to have a heart attack. I put a hand over my heart, as if I could hold it in when it seemed determined to pound its way out of my chest.
"Lie down!" he said right into my ear, and then I felt him crouch beside my bed in the shadows. I lay down and closed my eyes almost all the way. The headboard of the bed was situated between the two windows in the room, so whoever was creeping around my house couldn't really get a good look at my face. I made sure I was lying still and as relaxed as I could get. I tried to think, but I was just too scared. If the creeper was a vampire, he or she couldn't come in - unless it was Eric. Had I rescinded Eric's invitation to enter? I couldn't remember. That's the kind of thing I need to keep track of, I babbled to myself.
"He's passed on," Charles said in a voice so faint it was almost the ghost of a voice.
"What is it?" I asked in a voice I hoped was nearly as soundless.
"It's too dark outside to tell." If a vampire couldn't see what was out there, it must be really dark. "I'll slip outside and find out."
"No," I said urgently, but it was too late.
Jesus Christ, shepherd of Judea! What if the prowler was Mickey? He'd kill Charles - I just knew it.
"Sookie!" The last thing I expected - though frankly, I was way beyond consciously expecting anything - was for Charles to call to me. "Come out here, if you please!"
I slid my feet into my pink fuzzy slippers and hurried down the hall to the back door; that was where the voice had been coming from, I thought.
"I'm turning on the outside light," I yelled. Didn't want anyone to be blinded by the sudden electricity. "You sure it's safe out there?"
"Yes," said two voices almost simultaneously.
I flipped the switch with my eyes shut. After a second, I opened them and stepped to the door of the screened-in back porch, in my pink jammies and slippers. I crossed my arms over my chest. Though it wasn't cold tonight, it was cool.
I absorbed the scene in front of me. "Okay," I said slowly. Charles was in the graveled area where I parked, and he had an elbow around the neck of Bill Compton, my neighbor. Bill is a vampire, has been since right after the Civil War. We have a history. It's probably just a pebble of a history in Bill's long life, but in mine, it's a boulder.
"Sookie," Bill said between clenched teeth. "I don't want to cause this foreigner harm. Tell him to get his hands off me."
I mulled that over at an accelerated rate. "Charles, I think you can let him go," I said, and as fast as I could snap my fingers, Charles was standing beside me.
"You know this man?" Charles's voice was steely.
Just as coldly, Bill said, "She does know me, intimately."
"Now, is that polite?" I may have had a little cold steel in my own voice. "I don't go around telling everyone the details of our former relationship. I would expect the same of any gentleman."
To my gratification, Charles glared at Bill, raising one eyebrow in a very superior and irritating way.
"So this one is sharing your bed now?" Bill jerked his head toward the smaller vampire.
If he'd said anything else, I could've held on to my temper. I don't lose it a lot, but when I do, it's well and truly lost. "Is that any of your business?" I asked, biting off each word. "If I sleep with a hundred men, or a hundred sheep, it's not any of your business! Why are you creeping around my house in the middle of the night? You scared me halfway to death."
Bill didn't look remotely repentant. "I'm sorry you wakened and were frightened," he said insincerely. "I was checking on your safety."
"You were roaming around the woods and smelled another vampire," I said. He'd always had an extremely acute sense of smell. "So you came over here to see who it was."
"I wanted to be sure you weren't being attacked," Bill said. "I thought I caught a sniff of human, too. Did you have a human visitor today?"
I didn't believe for a minute Bill was only concerned with my safety, but I didn't want to believe jealousy brought him to my window, or some kind of prurient curiosity. I just breathed in and out for a minute, calming down and considering.
"Charles is not attacking me," I said, proud I was speaking so levelly.
Bill sneered. "Charles," he repeated in tones of great scorn.
"Charles Twining," said my companion, bowing - if you could call a slight inclination of his curly brown head a bow.
"Where did you come up with this one?" Bill's voice had regained its calm.
"Actually, he works for Eric, like you do."
"Eric's provided you with a bodyguard? You need a bodyguard?"
"Listen, bozo," I said through clenched jaws, "my life goes on while you're gone. So does the town. People are getting shot around here, among them Sam. We needed a substitute bartender, and Charles was volunteered to help us out." That may not have been entirely accurate, but I was not in the accuracy business at the moment. I was in the Make My Point business.
At least Bill was appropriately taken aback by the information.
"Sam. Who else?"
I was shivering, since it wasn't nylon pajama weather. But I didn't want Bill in the house. "Calvin Norris and Heather Kinman."
"Heather was. Calvin was pretty badly wounded."
"Have the police arrested anyone?"
"Do you know who did it?"
"You're worried about your brother."
"He turned at the full moon."
Bill looked at me with what might have been pity. "I'm sorry, Sookie," he said, and he meant it.
"No point telling me about it," I snapped. "Tell Jason - it's him who turns fuzzy."
Bill's face went cold and stiff. "Excuse my intrusion," he said. "I'll go." He melted into the woods.
I don't know how Charles reacted to the episode, because I turned and stalked back into the house, turning off the outside light as I went. I threw myself back in bed and lay there, fuming and fussing silently. I pulled the covers up over my head so the vampire would take the hint that I didn't want to discuss the incident. He moved so quietly, I couldn't be sure where he was in the house; I think he paused in the doorway for a second, and then moved on.
I lay awake for at least forty-five minutes, and then I found myself settling back into sleep.
Then someone shook me by the shoulder. I smelled sweet perfume, and I smelled something else, something awful. I was terribly groggy.
"Sookie, your house is on fire," a voice said.
"Couldn't be," I said. "I didn't leave anything on."
"You have to get out now," the voice insisted. A persistent shriek reminded me of fire drills at the elementary school.
"Okay," I said, my head thick with sleep and (I saw when I opened my eyes) smoke. The shriek in the background, I slowly realized, was my smoke detector. Thick gray plumes were drifting through my yellow and white bedroom like evil genies. I wasn't moving fast enough for Claudine, who yanked me out of bed and carried me out the front door. A woman had never lifted me, but, of course, Claudine was no ordinary woman. She set me on my feet in the chilly grass of the front yard. The cold feel of it suddenly woke me up. This was not a nightmare.
"My house caught on fire?" I was still struggling to be alert.
"The vampire says it was that human, there," she said, pointing to the left of the house. But for a long minute my eyes were fixed on the terrible sight of flames, and the red glow of fire lighting the night. The back porch and part of the kitchen were blazing.
I made myself look at a huddled form on the ground, close to a forsythia in bud. Charles was kneeling by it. "Have you called the fire department?" I asked them both as I picked my way around the house in my bare feet to have a look at the recumbent figure. I peered at the dead man's slack face in the poor light. He was white, clean-shaven, and probably in his thirties. Though conditions were hardly ideal, I didn't recognize him.
"Oh, no, I didn't think of it." Charles looked up from the body. He came from a time before fire departments.
"And I forgot my cell phone," said Claudine, who was thoroughly modern.
"Then I have to go back in and do it, if the phones still work," I said, turning on my heel. Charles rose to his inconsiderable height and stared at me.
"You will not go back in there." This was definitely an order from Claudine. "New man, you run fast enough to do that."
"Fire," Charles said, "is very quickly fatal to vampires."
It was true; they went up like a torch once they caught. Selfishly, for a second I almost insisted; I wanted my coat and my slippers and my purse.
"Go call from Bill's phone," I said, pointing in the right direction, and off he took like a jackrabbit. The minute he was out of sight and before Claudine could stop me, I dashed back in the front door and made my way to my room. The smoke was much thicker, and I could see the flames a few feet down the hall in the kitchen. As soon as I saw the flames I knew I'd made a huge mistake by reentering the house, and it was hard not to panic. My purse was right where I'd left it, and my coat was tossed over the slipper chair in a corner of my room. I couldn't find my slippers, and I knew I couldn't stay. I fumbled in a drawer for a pair of socks, since I knew for sure they were there, and then I ran out of my room, coughing and choking. Acting through sheer instinct, I turned briefly to my left to shut the door to the kitchen, and then whirled to hurry out the front door. I fell over a chair in the living room.
"That was stupid," said Claudine the fairy, and I shrieked. She grabbed me around the waist and ran out of the house again, with me under her arm like a rolled-up carpet.
The combination of shrieking and coughing tied my respiratory system in knots for a minute or two, during which time Claudine moved me farther away from my house. She sat me down on the grass and put the socks on my feet. Then she helped me stand up and get my arms into the coat. I buttoned it around me gratefully.
This was the second time Claudine had appeared out of nowhere when I was about to get into serious trouble. The first time, I'd fallen asleep at the wheel after a very long day.
"You're making it awfully hard on me," she said. She still sounded cheerful, but maybe not quite as sweet.
Something changed about the house, and I realized the night-light in the hall had gone out. Either the electricity was out, or the line had been shut down in town by the fire department.
"I'm sorry," I said, feeling that was appropriate, though I had no idea why Claudine felt put upon when it was my house that was burning. I wanted to hurry to the backyard to get a better view, but Claudine caught hold of my arm.
"No closer," she said simply, and I could not break her hold. "Listen, the trucks are coming."
Now I could hear the fire engines, and I blessed every person who was coming to help. I knew the pagers had gone off all over the area, and the volunteers had rushed to the firehouse straight from their beds.
Catfish Hunter, my brother's boss, pulled up in his car. He leaped out and ran right to me. "Anyone left inside?" he asked urgently. The town's fire truck pulled in after him, scattering my new gravel all to hell.
"No," I said.
"Is there a propane tank?"
"Where's your car, Sookie?"
"In the back," I said, and my voice was starting to shake.
"Propane tank in the back!" Catfish bellowed over his shoulder.
There was an answering yell, followed by a lot of purposeful activity. I recognized Hoyt Fortenberry and Ralph Tooten, plus four or five other men and a couple of women.
Catfish, after a quick conversation with Hoyt and Ralph, called over a smallish woman who seemed swamped by her gear. He pointed to the still figure in the grass, and she threw off her helmet and knelt beside him. After some peering and touching, she shook her head. I barely recognized her as Dr. Robert Meredith's nurse, Jan something.
"Who's the dead man?" asked Catfish. He didn't seem too upset by the corpse.
"I have no idea," I said. I only discovered how shocked I was by the way my voice came out - quavery, small. Claudine put her arm around me.
A police car pulled in to the side of the fire truck, and Sheriff Bud Dearborn got out of the driver's seat. Andy Bellefleur was his passenger.
Claudine said, "Ah-oh."
"Yeah," I said.
Then Charles was with me again, and Bill was right on his heels. The vampires took in the frantic but purposeful activity. They noticed Claudine.
The small woman, who'd stood to resume her gear, called, "Sheriff, do me a favor and call an ambulance to take this body away."
Bud Dearborn glanced at Andy, who turned away to speak into the car radio.
"Having one dead beau ain't enough, Sookie?" Bud Dearborn asked me.
Bill snarled, the firefighters broke out the window by my great-great-grandmother's dining table, and a visible rush of heat and sparks gushed into the night. The pumper truck made a lot of noise, and the tin roof that covered the kitchen and porch separated from the house.
My home was going up in flames and smoke.
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