Chapter 8


CLAUDINE WAS ON my left. Bill came to stand to my right and took my hand. Together, we watched the firefighters aim the hose through the broken window. A sound of shattering glass from the other side of the house indicated they were breaking the window over the sink, too. While the firefighters concentrated on the fire, the police concentrated on the body. Charles stepped up to bat right away.

"I killed him," he said calmly. "I caught him setting fire to the house. He was armed, and he attacked me."

Sheriff Bud Dearborn looked more like a Pekinese than any human should look. His face was practically concave. His eyes were round and bright, and at the moment extremely curious. His brown hair, liberally streaked with gray, was combed back from his face all around, and I expected him to snuffle when he spoke. "And you would be?" he asked the vampire.

"Charles Twining," Charles answered gracefully. "At your service."

I wasn't imagining the snort the sheriff gave or Andy Bellefleur's eye roll.

"And you'd be on the spot because... ?"

"He's staying with me," Bill said smoothly, "while he works at Merlotte's."

Presumably the sheriff had already heard about the new bartender, because he just nodded. I was relieved at not having to confess that Charles was supposed to be sleeping in my closet, and I blessed Bill for having lied about that. Our eyes met for a moment.

"So you admit you killed this man?" Andy asked Charles. Charles nodded curtly.

Andy beckoned to the woman in hospital scrubs who'd been waiting by her car - which made maybe five cars in my front yard, plus the fire truck. This new arrival glanced at me curiously as she walked past to the huddled form in the bushes. Pulling a stethoscope from a pocket, she knelt by the man and listened to various parts of his body. "Yep, dead as a doornail," she called.

Andy had gotten a Polaroid out of the police car to take pictures of the body. Since the only light was the flash of the camera and the flicker of flame from my burning house, I didn't think the pictures would turn out too well. I was numb with shock, and I watched Andy as if this were an important activity.

"What a pity. It would have been a good thing to find out why he torched Sookie's house," Bill said as he watched Andy work. His voice rivaled a refrigerator for coldness.

"In my fear for Sookie's safety, I suppose I struck too hard." Charles tried to look regretful.

"Since his neck seems to be broken, I suppose you did," said the doctor, studying Charles's white face with the same careful attention she'd given mine. The doctor was in her thirties, I thought; a woman slim to the point of skinny, with very short red hair. She was about five foot three, and she had elfin features, or at least the kind I'd always thought of as elfin: a short, turned-up nose, wide eyes, large mouth. Her words were both dry and bold, and she didn't seem at all disconcerted by or excited at being called out in the middle of the night for something like this. She must be the parish coroner, so I must have voted for her, but I couldn't recall her name.

"Who are you?" Claudine asked in her sweetest voice.

The doctor blinked at the vision of Claudine. Claudine, at this ungodly hour of the morning, was in full makeup and a fuchsia knit top with black knit leggings. Her shoes were fuchsia and black striped, and her jacket was, too. Claudine's black rippling hair was held off her face with fuchsia combs.

"I'm Dr. Tonnesen. Linda. Who are you?"

"Claudine Crane," the fairy said. I'd never known the last name Claudine used.

"And why were you here on the spot, Ms. Crane?" Andy Bellefleur asked.

"I'm Sookie's fairy godmother," Claudine said, laughing. Though the scene was grim, everyone else laughed, too. It was like we just couldn't stop being cheerful around Claudine. But I wondered very much about Claudine's explanation.

"No, really," Bud Dearborn said. "Why are you here, Ms. Crane?"

Claudine smiled impishly. "I was spending the night with Sookie," she said, winking.

In a second, we were the objects of fascinated scrutiny from every male within hearing, and I had to lock down my head as if it were a maximum-security prison to block the mental images the guys were broadcasting.

Andy shook himself, closed his mouth, and squatted by the dead man. "Bud, I'm going to roll him," he said a little hoarsely, and turned the corpse so he could feel inside the dead man's pockets. The man's wallet proved to be in his jacket, which seemed a little unusual to me. Andy straightened and stepped away from the body to examine the billfold's contents.

"You want to have a look, see if you recognize him?" Sheriff Dearborn asked me. Of course I didn't, but I also saw that I really didn't have a choice. Nervously, I inched a little closer and looked again at the face of the dead man. He still looked ordinary. He still looked dead. He might be in his thirties. "I don't know him," I said, my voice small in the din of the firefighters and the water pouring onto the house.

"What?" Bud Dearborn was having trouble hearing me. His round brown eyes were locked onto my face.

"Don't know him!" I said, almost yelling. "I've never seen him, that I remember. Claudine?"

I don't know why I asked Claudine.

"Oh, yes, I've seen him," she said cheerfully.

That attracted the undivided attention of the two vampires, the two lawmen, the doctor, and me.


Claudine threw her arm around my shoulders. "Why, he was in Merlotte's tonight. You were too worried about your friend to notice, I guess. He was over in the side of the room where I was sitting." Arlene had been working that side.

It wasn't too amazing that I'd missed one male face in a crowded bar. But it did bother me that I'd been listening in to people's thoughts and I'd missed out on thoughts that must have been relevant to me. After all, he was in the bar with me, and a few hours later he'd set fire to my house. He must have been mulling me over, right?

"This driver's license says he's from Little Rock, Arkansas," Andy said.

"That wasn't what he told me," Claudine said. "He said he was from Georgia." She looked just as radiant when she realized he'd lied to her, but she wasn't smiling. "He said his name was Marlon."

"Did he tell you why he was in town, Ms. Crane?"

"He said he was just passing through, had a motel room up on the interstate."

"Did he explain any further?"


"Did you go to his motel, Ms. Crane?" Bud Dearborn asked in his best nonjudgmental voice.

Dr. Tonnesen was looking from speaker to speaker as if she was at a verbal tennis match.

"Gosh, no, I don't do things like that." Claudine smiled all around.

Bill looked as if someone had just waved a bottle of blood in front of his face. His fangs extended, and his eyes fixed on Claudine. Vampires can only hold out so long when fairies are around. Charles had stepped closer to Claudine, too.

She had to leave before the lawmen observed how the vampires were reacting. Linda Tonnesen had already noticed; she herself was pretty interested in Claudine. I hoped she'd just attribute the vamps' fascination to Claudine's excellent looks, rather than the overwhelming allure fairies held for vamps.

"Fellowship of the Sun," Andy said. "He has an honest-to-God membership card in here. There's no name written on the card; that's strange. His license is issued to Jeff Marriot." He looked at me questioningly.

I shook my head. The name meant nothing to me.

It was just like a Fellowship member to think that he could do something as nasty as torching my house - with me in it - and no one would question him. It wasn't the first time the Fellowship of the Sun, an anti-vampire hate group, had tried to burn me alive.

"He must have known you've had, ah, an association with vampires," Andy said into the silence.

"I'm losing my home, and I could have died, because I know vampires?"

Even Bud Dearborn looked a little embarrassed.

"Someone must have heard you used to date Mr. Compton, here," Bud muttered. "I'm sorry, Sookie."

I said, "Claudine needs to leave."

The abrupt change of subject startled both Andy and Bud, as well as Claudine. She looked at the two vampires, who were perceptibly closer to her, and hastily said, "Yes, I'm sorry, I have to get back home. I have to work tomorrow."

"Where's your car, Ms. Crane?" Bud Dearborn looked around elaborately. "I didn't see any car but Sookie's, and it's parked in the back."

"I'm parked over at Bill's," Claudine lied smoothly, having had years of practice. Without waiting for further discussion, she disappeared into the woods, and only my hands gripping their arms prevented Charles and Bill from gliding into the darkness after her. They were staring into the blackness of the trees when I pinched them, hard.

"What?" asked Bill, almost dreamily.

"Snap out of it," I muttered, hoping Bud and Andy and the new doctor wouldn't overhear. They didn't need to know that Claudine was supernatural.

"That's quite a woman," Dr. Tonnesen said, almost as dazed as the vampires. She shook herself. "The ambulance will come get, uh, Jeff Marriot. I'm just here because I had my scanner turned on as I was driving back from my shift at the Clarice hospital. I need to get home and get some sleep. Sorry about your fire, Ms. Stackhouse, but at least you didn't end up like this guy here." She nodded down at the corpse.

As she got into her Ranger, the fire chief trudged up to us. I'd known Catfish Hunter for years - he'd been a friend of my dad's - but I'd never seen him in his capacity as volunteer fire chief. Catfish was sweating despite the cold, and his face was smudged with smoke.

"Sookie, we done got it out," he said wearily. "It's not as bad as you might think."

"It's not?" I asked in a small voice.

"No, honey. You lost your back porch and your kitchen and your car, I'm afraid. He splashed some gas in that, too. But most of the house should be okay."

The kitchen... where the only traces of the death I'd caused could have been found. Now not even the technicians featured on the Discovery Channel could find any blood traces in the scorched room. Without meaning to, I began to laugh. "The kitchen," I said between giggles. "The kitchen's all gone?"

"Yes," said Catfish uneasily. "I hope you got you some homeowners insurance."

"Oh," I said, trying hard not to giggle any more. "I do. It was hard for me to keep up the payments, but I kept the policy Grandmother had on the house." Thank God my grandmother had been a great believer in insurance. She'd seen too many people drop policy payments to cut their monthly expenses and then suffer losses they were unable to recoup.

"Who's it with? I'll call right now." Catfish was so anxious to stop me laughing, he was ready to make clown faces and bark if I asked him to.

"Greg Aubert," I said.

The whole night suddenly rose up and whalloped me one. My house had burned, at least partially. I'd had more than one prowler. I had a vampire in residence for whom daytime cover had to be provided. My car was gone. There was a dead man named Jeff Marriot in my yard, and he'd set fire to my house and car out of sheer prejudice. I was overwhelmed.

"Jason isn't at home," Catfish said from a distance. "I tried him. He'd want her to come over to his house."

"She and Charles - that is, Charles and I will take her over to my house," Bill said. He seemed to be equally far away.

"I don't know about that," Bud Dearborn said doubtfully. "Sookie, is that okay with you?"

I could barely make my mind shuffle through a few options. I couldn't call Tara because Mickey was there. Arlene's trailer was as crowded as it needed to be already.

"Yes, that would be all right," I said, and my voice sounded remote and empty, even to my own ears.

"All right, long's we know where to reach you."

"I called Greg, Sookie, and left a message on his office answering machine. You better call him yourself in the morning," Catfish said.

"Fine," I said.

And all the firefighters shuffled by, and they all told me how sorry they were. I knew every one of them: friends of my father's, friends of Jason's, regulars at the bar, high school acquaintances.

"You all did the best you could," I said over and over. "Thanks for saving most of it."

And the ambulance came to cart away the arsonist.

By then, Andy had found a gasoline can in the bushes, and the corpse's hands reeked of gasoline, Dr. Tonnesen said.

I could hardly believe that a stranger had decided I should lose my home and my life because of my dating preference. Thinking at that moment of how close I'd come to death, I didn't feel it was unjust that he'd lost his own life in the process. I admitted to myself that I thought Charles had done a good thing. I might owe my life to Sam's insistence that the vampire be billeted at my house. If Sam had been there at the moment, I would have given him a very enthusiastic thank-you.

Finally Bill and Charles and I started over to Bill's house. Catfish had advised me not to go back into my house until the morning, and then only after the insurance agent and the arson investigator had checked it over. Dr. Tonnesen had told me that if I felt wheezy, to come in to her office in the morning. She'd said some other stuff, but I hadn't quite absorbed it.

It was dark in the woods, of course, and by then it was maybe five in the morning. After a few paces into the trees, Bill picked me up and carried me. I didn't protest, because I was so tired I'd been wondering how I was going to manage stumbling through the cemetery.

He put me down when we reached his house. "Can you make it up the stairs?" he asked.

"I'll take you," offered Charles.

"No, I can do it," I said, and started up before they could say anything more. To tell the truth, I was not so sure I could, but slowly I made my way up to the bedroom I'd used when Bill had been my boyfriend. He had a snug light-tight place somewhere on the ground floor of the house, but I'd never asked him exactly where. (I had a pretty good idea it was in the space the builders had lopped off the kitchen to create the hot tub/plant room.) Though the water table is too high in Louisiana for houses to have basements, I was almost as sure there was another dark hole concealed somewhere. He had room for Charles without them bunking together, anyway - not that that was too high on my list of concerns. One of my nightgowns still lay in the drawer in the old-fashioned bedroom, and there was still a toothbrush of mine in the hall bathroom. Bill hadn't put my things in the trash; he'd left them, like he'd expected me to return.

Or maybe he just hadn't had much reason to go upstairs since we'd broken up.

Promising myself a long shower in the morning, I took off my smelly, stained pajamas and ruined socks. I washed my face and pulled on the clean nightgown before I crawled in the high bed, using the antique stool still positioned where I'd left it. As the incidents of the day and night buzzed in my head like bees, I thanked God for the fact that my life had been spared, and that was all I had time to say to Him before sleep swallowed me up.

I slept only three hours. Then worry woke me up. I was up in plenty of time to meet Greg Aubert, the insurance agent. I dressed in a pair of Bill's jeans and a shirt of his. They'd been left outside my door, along with heavy socks. His shoes were out of the question, but to my delight I found an old pair of rubber-soled slippers I'd left at the very back of the closet. Bill still had some coffee and a coffeemaker in his kitchen from our courtship, and I was grateful to have a mug to carry with me as I made my way carefully across the cemetery and through the belt of woods surrounding what was left of my house.

Greg was pulling into the front yard as I stepped from the trees. He got out of his truck, scanned my oddly fitting ensemble, and politely ignored it. He and I stood side by side, regarding the old house. Greg had sandy hair and rimless glasses, and he was an elder in the Presbyterian Church. I'd always liked him, at least in part because whenever I'd taken my grandmother by to pay her premiums, he'd come out of his office to shake her hand and make her feel like a valued client. His business acumen was matched only by his luck. People had said for years that his personal good fortune extended to his policyholders, though of course they said this in a joking kind of way.

"If only I could have foreseen this," Greg said. "Sookie, I am so sorry this happened."

"What do you mean, Greg?"

"Oh, I'm just... I wish I'd thought of you needing more coverage," he said absently. He began walking around to the back of the house, and I trailed behind him. Curious, I began to listen in to his head, and I was startled out of my gloom by what I heard there.

"So casting spells to back up your insurance really works?" I asked.

He yelped. There's no other word for it. "It's true about you," he gasped. "I - I don't - it's just..." He stood outside my blackened kitchen and gaped at me.

"It's okay," I said reassuringly. "You can pretend I don't know if it'll help you feel better."

"My wife would just die if she knew," he said soberly. "And the kids, too. I just want them kept separate from this part of my life. My mother was... she was..."

"A witch?" I supplied helpfully.

"Well, yes." Greg's glasses glinted in the early morning sun as he looked at what was left of my kitchen. "But my dad always pretended he didn't know, and though she kept training me to take her place, I wanted to be a normal man more than anything in the world." Greg nodded, as if to say he'd achieved his goal.

I looked down into my mug of coffee, glad I had something to hold in my hands. Greg was lying to himself in a major way, but it wasn't up to me to point that out to him. It was something he'd have to square with his God and his conscience. I wasn't saying Greg's method was a bad one, but it sure wasn't a normal man's choice. Insuring your livelihood (literally) by the use of magic had to be against some kind of rule.

"I mean, I'm a good agent," he said, defending himself, though I hadn't said a word. "I'm careful about what I insure. I'm careful about checking things out. It's not all the magic."

"Oh, no," I said, because he would just explode with anxiety if I didn't. "People have accidents anyway, right?"

"Regardless of what spells I use," he agreed gloomily. "They drive drunk. And sometimes metal parts give way, no matter what."

The idea of conventional Greg Aubert going around Bon Temps putting spells on cars was almost enough to distract me from the ruin of my house... but not quite.

In the clear chilly daylight, I could see the damage in full. Though I kept telling myself it could have been much worse - and that I was very lucky that the kitchen had extended off the back of the house, since it had been built at a later date - it had also been the room that had held big-ticket items. I'd have to replace the stove, the refrigerator, the hot water heater, and the microwave, and the back porch had been home to my washer and drier.

After the loss of those major appliances, there came the dishes and the pots and the pans and the silverware, some of it very old indeed. One of my greats had come from a family with a little money, and she'd brought a set of fine china and a silver tea service that had been a pain to polish. I'd never have to polish it again, I realized, but there was no joy in the thought. My Nova was old, and I'd needed to replace it for a long time, but I hadn't planned on that being now.

Well, I had insurance, and I had money in the bank, thanks to the vampires who'd paid me for keeping Eric when he'd lost his memory.

"And you had smoke detectors?" Greg was asking.

"Yes, I did," I said, remembering the high-pitched pulsing that had started up right after Claudine had woken me. "If the ceiling in the hall is still there, you'll be able to see one."

There were no more back steps to get us up onto the porch, and the porch floorboards looked very unsteady. In fact, the washer had half fallen through and was tilted at an odd angle. It made me sick, seeing my everyday things, things I'd touched and used hundreds of times, exposed to the world and ruined.

"We'll go through from the front door," Greg suggested, and I was glad to agree.

It was still unlocked, and I felt a flutter of alarm before I realized how ludicrous that was. I stepped in. The first thing I noticed was the smell. Everything reeked of smoke. I opened the windows, and the cool breeze that blew through began to clear the smell out until it was just tolerable.

This end of the house was better than I'd expected. The furniture would need cleaning, of course. But the floor was solid and undamaged. I didn't even go up the stairs; I seldom used the rooms up there, so whatever had happened up there could wait.

My arms were crossed under my breasts. I looked from side to side, moving slowly across the room toward the hall. I felt the floor vibrate as someone else came in. I knew without looking around that Jason was behind me. He and Greg said something to each other, but after a second Jason fell silent, as shocked as I was.

We passed into the hall. The door to my bedroom and the door to the bedroom across the hall were both open. My bedding was still thrown back. My slippers were beside the night table. All the windows were smudged with smoke and moisture, and the dreadful odor grew even stronger. There was the smoke detector on the hall ceiling. I pointed to it silently. I opened the door to the linen closet and found that everything in it felt damp. Well, these things could be washed. I went into my room and opened my closet door. My closet shared a wall with the kitchen. At first glance my clothes looked intact, until I noticed that each garment hanging on a wire hanger had a line across the shoulders where the heated hanger had singed the cloth. My shoes had baked. Maybe three pairs were usable.

I gulped.

Though I felt shakier by the second, I joined my brother and the insurance agent as they carefully continued down the hall to the kitchen.

The floor closest to the old part of the house seemed okay. The kitchen had been a large room, since it had also served as the family dining room. The table was partially burned, as were two of the chairs. The linoleum on the floor was all broken up, and some of it was charred. The hot water heater had gone through the floor, and the curtains that had covered the window over the sink were hanging in strips. I remembered Gran making those curtains; she hadn't enjoyed sewing, but the ones from JCPenney that she'd liked were just too much. So she'd gotten out her mother's old sewing machine and bought some cheap but pretty flowered material at Hancock's, and she'd measured, and cursed under her breath, and worked and worked until finally she'd gotten them done. Jason and I had admired them extravagantly to make her feel it had been worth the effort, and she'd been so pleased.

I opened one drawer, the one that had held all the keys. They were melted together. I pressed my lips together, hard. Jason stood beside me, looked down.

"Shit," he said, his voice low and vicious. That helped me push the tears back.

I held on to his arm for just a minute. He patted me awkwardly. Seeing items so familiar, items made dear by use, irrevocably altered by fire was a terrible shock, no matter how many times I reminded myself that the whole house could have been consumed by the flames; that I could have died, too. Even if the smoke detector had wakened me in time, there was every likelihood I would have run outside to be confronted by the arsonist, Jeff Marriot.

Almost everything on the east side of the kitchen was ruined. The floor was unstable. The kitchen roof was gone.

"It's lucky the rooms upstairs don't extend over the kitchen," Greg said when he came down from examining the two bedrooms and the attic. "You'll have to get a builder to let you know, but I think the second story is essentially sound."

I talked to Greg about money after that. When would it come? How much would it be? What deductible would I have to pay?

Jason wandered around the yard while Greg and I stood by his car. I could interpret my brother's posture and movements. Jason was very angry: at my near-death escape, at what had happened to the house. After Greg drove off, leaving me with an exhausting list of things to do and phone calls to make (from where?) and work to get ready for (wearing what?), Jason meandered over to me and said, "If I'd been here, I coulda killed him."

"In your new body?" I asked.

"Yeah. It would've given that sumbitch the scare of his life before he left it."

"I think Charles probably was pretty scary, but I appreciate the thought."

"They put the vamp in jail?"

"No, Bud Dearborn just told him not to leave town. After all, the Bon Temps jail doesn't have a vampire cell. And regular cells don't hold 'em, plus they have windows."

"That's where the guy was from - Fellowship of the Sun? Just a stranger who came to town to do you in?"

"That's what it looks like."

"What they got against you? Other than you dating Bill and associating with some of the other vamps?"

Actually, the Fellowship had quite a bit against me. I'd been responsible for their huge Dallas church being raided and one of their main leaders going underground. The papers had been full of what the police had found in the Fellowship building in Texas. Arriving to find the members dashing in turmoil around their building, claiming vampires had attacked them, the police entered the building to search it and found a basement torture chamber, illegal arms adapted to shoot wooden stakes into vampires, and a corpse. The police failed to see a single vampire. Steve and Sarah Newlin, the leaders of the Fellowship church in Dallas, had been missing since that night.

I'd seen Steve Newlin since then. He'd been at Club Dead in Jackson. He and one of his cronies had been preparing to stake a vampire in the club when I'd prevented them. Newlin had escaped; his buddy hadn't.

It appeared that the Newlins' followers had tracked me down. I hadn't foreseen such a thing, but then, I'd never foreseen anything that had happened to me in the past year. When Bill had been learning how to use his computer, he'd told me that with a little knowledge and money, anyone could be found through a computer.

Maybe the Fellowship had hired private detectives, like the couple who had been in my house yesterday. Maybe Jack and Lily Leeds had just been pretending to be hired by the Pelt family? Maybe the Newlins were their real employers? They hadn't struck me as politicized people, but the power of the color green is universal.

"I guess dating a vampire was enough for them to hate me," I told Jason. We were sitting on the tailgate of his truck, staring dismally at the house. "Who do you think I should call about rebuilding the kitchen?"

I didn't think I needed an architect: I just wanted to replace what was missing. The house was raised up off the ground, so slab size wasn't a factor. Since the floor was burned through in the kitchen and would have to be completely replaced, it wouldn't cost much more to make the kitchen a little bigger and enclose the back porch completely. The washer and dryer wouldn't be so awful to use in bad weather, I thought longingly. I had more than enough money to satisfy the deductible, and I was sure the insurance would pay for most of the rest.

After a while, we heard another truck coming. Maxine Fortenberry, Hoyt's mother, got out with a couple of laundry baskets. "Where's your clothes, girl?" she called. "I'm gonna take them home and wash them, so you'll have something to wear that don't smell like smoke."

After I protested and she insisted, we went into the chokingly unpleasant air of the house to get some clothes. Maxine also insisted on getting an armful of linens out of the linen closet to see if some of them could be resurrected.

Right after Maxine left, Tara drove her new car into the clearing, followed by her part-time help, a tall young woman called McKenna, who was driving Tara's old car.

After a hug and a few words of sympathy, Tara said, "You drive this old Malibu while you're getting your insurance stuff straightened out. It's just sitting in my carport doing nothing, and I was just about to put it in the paper in the For Sale column. You can be using it."

"Thank you," I said in a daze. "Tara, that's so nice of you." She didn't look good, I noticed vaguely, but I was too sunk in my own troubles to really evaluate Tara's demeanor. When she and McKenna left, I gave them a limp wave good-bye.

After that, Terry Bellefleur arrived. He offered to demolish the burned part for a very nominal sum, and for a little bit more he'd haul all the resultant trash to the parish dump. He'd start as soon as the police gave him the go-ahead, he said, and to my astonishment he gave me a little hug.

Sam came after that, driven by Arlene. He stood and looked at the back of the house for a few minutes. His lips were tightly compressed. Almost any man would have said, "Pretty lucky I sent the vampire home with you, huh?" But Sam didn't. "What can I do?" he said instead.

"Keep me working," I said, smiling. "Forgive me coming to work in something besides my actual work clothes." Arlene walked all around the house, and then hugged me wordlessly.

"That's easily done," he said. He still wasn't smiling. "I hear that the guy who started the fire was a Fellowship member, that this is some kind of payback for you dating Bill."

"He had the card in his wallet, and he had a gas can." I shrugged.

"But how'd he find you? I mean, no one around here..." Sam's voice trailed off as he considered the possibility more closely.

He was thinking, as I had, that though the arson could be just because I'd dated Bill, it seemed a drastic overreaction. A more typical retaliation was a Fellowship member throwing pig's blood on humans who dated, or had a work partnership with, a vampire. That had happened more than once, most notably to a designer from Dior who'd employed all vampire models for one spring show. Such incidents usually occurred in big cities, cities that hosted large Fellowship "churches" and a bigger vampire population.

What if the man had been hired to set fire to my house by someone else? What if the Fellowship card in his wallet was planted there for misdirection?

Any of these things could be true; or all of them, or none of them. I couldn't decide what I believed. So, was I the target of an assassin, like the shape-shifters? Should I, too, fear the shot from the dark, now that the fire had failed?

That was such a frightening prospect that I flinched from pursuing it. Those were waters too deep for me.

The state police arson investigator appeared while Sam and Arlene were there. I was eating a lunch plate Arlene had brought me. That Arlene was not much of a food person is the nicest way to put it, so my sandwich was made of cheap bologna and plastic cheese, and my canned drink was off-brand sugared tea. But she'd thought of me and she'd brought them to me, and her kids had drawn a picture for me. I would have been happy if she'd brought me just a slice of bread under those conditions.

Automatically, Arlene made eyes at the arson investigator. He was a lean man in his late forties named Dennis Pettibone. Dennis had a camera, a notebook, and a grim outlook. It took Arlene maybe two minutes of conversation to coax a little smile from Mr. Pettibone's lips, and his brown eyes were admiring her curves after two more minutes had passed. Before Arlene drove Sam home, she had a promise from the investigator that he'd drop by the bar that evening.

Also before she left, Arlene offered me the foldout couch in her trailer, which was sweet of her, but I knew it would crowd her and throw off her get-the-kids-to-school morning routine, so I told her I had a place to stay. I didn't think Bill would evict me. Jason had mentioned his house was open to me, and to my amazement, before he left, Sam said, "You can stay with me, Sookie. No strings. I have two empty bedrooms in the double-wide. There's actually a bed in one of them."

"That's so nice of you," I said, putting all my sincerity into my voice. "Every soul in Bon Temps would have us on the way to being married if I did that, but I sure do appreciate it."

"You don't think they won't make assumptions if you stay with Bill?"

"I can't marry Bill. Not legal," I replied, cutting off that argument. "Besides, Charles is there, too."

"Fuel to the fire," Sam pointed out. "That's even spicier."

"That's kind of flattering, crediting me with enough pizzazz to take care of two vampires at a go."

Sam grinned, which knocked about ten years off his age. He looked over my shoulder as we heard the sound of gravel crunching under yet another vehicle. "Look who's coming," he said.

A huge and ancient pickup lumbered to a stop. Out of it stepped Dawson, the huge Were who'd been acting as Calvin Norris's bodyguard.

"Sookie," he rumbled, his voice so deep I expected the ground to vibrate.

"Hey, Dawson." I wanted to ask, "What are you doing here?" but I figured that would sound plain rude.

"Calvin heard about your fire," Dawson said, not wasting time with preliminaries. "He told me to come by here and see was you hurt, and to tell you that he is thinking about you and that if he were well, he would be here pounding nails already."

I saw from the corner of my eye that Dennis Pettibone was eyeing Dawson with interest. Dawson might as well have been wearing a sign that said DANGEROUS DUDE on it.

"You tell him I'm real grateful for the thought. I wish he were well, too. How's he doing, Dawson?"

"He got a couple of things unhooked this morning, and he's been walking a little. It was a bad wound," Dawson said. "It'll take a bit." He glanced over to see how far away the arson investigator was. "Even for one of us," he added.

"Of course," I said. "I appreciate your coming by."

"Also, Calvin says his house is empty while he's in the hospital, if you need a place to stay. He'd be glad to give you the use of it."

That, too, was kind, and I said so. But I would feel very awkward, being obliged to Calvin in such a significant way.

Dennis Pettibone called me over. "See, Ms. Stackhouse," he said. "You can see where he used the gasoline on your porch. See the way the fire ran out from the splash he made on the door?"

I gulped. "Yes, I see."

"You're lucky there wasn't any wind last night. And most of all, you're lucky that you had that door shut, the one between the kitchen and the rest of the house. The fire would have gone right down that hall if you hadn't shut the door. When the firefighters smashed that window on the north side, the fire ran that way looking for oxygen, instead of trying to make it into the rest of the house."

I remembered the impulse that had pushed me back into the house against all common sense, the last-minute slam of that door.

"After a couple of days, I don't think the bulk of the house will even smell as bad," the investigator told me. "Open the windows now, pray it don't rain, and fairly soon I don't think you'll have much problem. Course, you got to call the power company and talk to them about the electricity. And the propane company needs to take a look at the tank. So the house ain't livable, from that point of view."

The gist of what he was saying was, I could just sleep there to have a roof over my head. No electricity, no heat, no hot water, no cooking. I thanked Dennis Pettibone and excused myself to have a last word with Dawson, who'd been listening in.

"I'll try to come see Calvin in a day or two, once I get this straightened out," I said, nodding toward the blackened back of my house.

"Oh, yeah," the bodyguard said, one foot already in his pickup. "Calvin said let him know who done this, if it was ordered by someone besides the sumbitch dead at the scene."

I looked at what remained of my kitchen and could almost count the feet from the flames to my bedroom. "I appreciate that most of all," I said, before my Christian self could smother the thought. Dawson's brown eyes met mine in a moment of perfect accord.

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