Chapter 9


THANKS TO MAXINE, I had clean-smelling clothes to wear to work, but I had to go buy some footwear at Payless. Normally, I put a little money into my shoes since I have to stand up so much, but there was no time to go to Clarice to the one good shoe shop there or to drive over to Monroe to the mall. When I got to work, Sweetie Des Arts came out of the kitchen to hug me, her thin body wrapped in a white cook's apron. Even the boy who bussed the tables told me he was sorry. Holly and Danielle, who were switching off shifts, each gave me a pat on the shoulder and told me they hoped things got better for me.

Arlene asked me if I thought that handsome Dennis Pettibone would be coming by, and I told her I was sure he would.

"I guess he has to travel a lot," she said thoughtfully. "I wonder where he's based."

"I got his business card. He's based in Shreveport. He told me he bought himself a small farm right outside of Shreveport, now that I think about it."

Arlene's eyes narrowed. "Sounds like you and Dennis had a nice talk."

I started to protest that the arson investigator was a little long in the tooth for me, but since Arlene had stuck to saying she was thirty-six for the past three years, I figured that would be less than tactful. "He was just passing the time of day," I told her. "He asked me how long I'd worked with you, and did you have any kids."

"Oh. He did?" Arlene beamed. "Well, well." She went to check on her tables with a cheerful strut to her walk.

I set about my work, having to take longer than usual to do everything because of the constant interruptions. I knew some other town sensation would soon eclipse my house fire. Though I couldn't hope anyone else would experience a similar disaster, I would be glad when I wasn't the object of discussion of every single bar patron.

Terry hadn't been able to handle the light daytime bar duties today, so Arlene and I pitched in to cover it. Being busy helped me feel less self-conscious.

Though I was coasting on three hours of sleep, I managed okay until Sam called me from the hallway that led to his office and the public bathrooms.

Two people had come in earlier and gone up to his corner table to talk to him; I'd noted them only in passing. The woman was in her sixties, very round and short. She used a cane. The young man with her was brown haired, with a sharp nose and heavy brows to give his face some character. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn't make the reference pop to the top of my head. Sam had ushered them back into his office.

"Sookie," Sam said unhappily, "the people in my office want to talk to you."

"Who are they?"

"She's Jeff Marriot's mother. The man is his twin."

"Oh my God," I said, realizing the man reminded me of the corpse. "Why do they want to talk to me?"

"They don't think he ever had anything to do with the Fellowship. They don't understand anything about his death."

To say I dreaded this encounter was putting it mildly. "Why talk to me?" I said in a kind of subdued wail. I was nearly at the end of my emotional endurance.

"They just... want answers. They're grieving."

"So am I," I said. "My home."

"Their loved one."

I stared at Sam. "Why should I talk to them?" I asked. "What is it you want from me?"

"You need to hear what they have to say," Sam said with a note of finality in his voice. He wouldn't push any more, and he wouldn't explain any more. Now the decision was up to me.

Because I trusted Sam, I nodded. "I'll talk to them when I get off work," I said. I secretly hoped they'd leave by then. But when my shift was over, the two were still sitting in Sam's office. I took off my apron, tossed it in the big trash can labeled DIRTY LINEN (reflecting for the hundredth time that the trash can would probably implode if anyone put some actual linen in it), and plodded into the office.

I looked the Marriots over more carefully now that we were face-to-face. Mrs. Marriot (I assumed) was in bad shape. Her skin was grayish, and her whole body seemed to sag. Her glasses were smeared because she'd been weeping so much, and she was clutching damp tissues in her hands. Her son was shocked expressionless. He'd lost his twin, and he was sending me so much misery I could hardly absorb it.

"Thanks for talking to us," he said. He rose from his seat automatically and extended his hand. "I'm Jay Marriot, and this is my mother, Justine."

This was a family that found a letter of the alphabet it liked and stuck to it.

I didn't know what to say. Could I tell them I was sorry their loved one was dead, when he'd tried to kill me? There was no rule of etiquette for this; even my grandmother would have been stymied.

"Miss - Ms. - Stackhouse, had you ever met my brother before?"

"No," I said. Sam took my hand. Since the Marriots were seated in the only two chairs Sam's office could boast, he and I leaned against the front of his desk. I hoped his leg wasn't hurting.

"Why would he set fire to your house? He'd never been arrested before, for anything," Justine spoke for the first time. Her voice was rough and choked with tears; it had an undertone of pleading. She was asking me to let this not be true, this allegation about her son Jeff.

"I sure don't know."

"Could you tell us how this happened? His - death, I mean?"

I felt a flare of anger at being obliged to pity them - at the necessity for being delicate, for treating them specially. After all, who had almost died here? Who had lost part of her home? Who was facing a financial crunch that only chance had reduced from a disaster? Rage surged through me, and Sam let go of my hand and put his arm around me. He could feel the tension in my body. He was hoping I would control the impulse to lash out.

I held on to my better nature by my fingernails, but I held on.

"A friend woke me up," I said. "When we got outside, we found a vampire who is staying with my neighbor - also a vampire - standing by Mr. Marriot's body. There was a gasoline can near to the... nearby. The doctor who came said there was gas on his hands."

"What killed him?" The mother again.

"The vampire."

"Bit him?"

"No, he... no. No biting."

"How, then?" Jay was showing some of his own anger.

"Broke his neck, I think."

"That was what we heard at the sheriff's office," Jay said. "But we just didn't know if they were telling the truth."

Oh, for goodness's sake.

Sweetie Des Arts stuck her head in to ask Sam if she could borrow the storeroom keys because she needed a case of pickles. She apologized for interrupting. Arlene waved a hand at me as she went down the hall to the employees' door, and I wondered if Dennis Pettibone had come in the bar. I'd been so sunk in my own problems, I hadn't noticed. When the outside door clunked shut behind her, the silence seemed to gather in the little room.

"So why was the vampire in your yard?" Jay asked impatiently. "In the middle of the night?"

I did not tell him it was none of his business. Sam's hand stroked my arm. "That's when they're up. And he was staying at the only other house out by mine." That's what we'd told the police. "I guess he heard someone in my yard while he was close and came to investigate."

"We don't know how Jeff got there," Justine said. "Where is his car?"

"I don't know."

"And there was a card in his wallet?"

"Yes, a Fellowship of the Sun membership card," I told her.

"But he had nothing particular against vampires," Jay protested. "We're twins. I would have known if he'd had some big grudge. This just doesn't make any sense."

"He did give a woman in the bar a fake name and hometown," I said, as gently as I could.

"Well, he was just passing through," Jay said. "I'm a married man, but Jeff's divorced. I don't like to say this in front of my mother, but it's not unknown for men to give a false name and history when they meet a woman in a bar."

This was true. Though Merlotte's was primarily a neighborhood bar, I'd listened to many a tale from out-of-towners who'd dropped in; and I'd known for sure they were lying.

"Where was the wallet?" Justine asked. She looked up at me like an old beaten dog, and it made my heart sick.

"In his jacket pocket," I said.

Jay stood up abruptly. He began to move, pacing in the small space he had at his disposal. "There again," he said, his voice more animated, "that's just not like Jeff. He kept his billfold in his jeans, same as me. We never put our wallets in our jacket."

"What are you saying?" Sam asked.

"I'm saying that I don't think Jeff did this," his twin said. "Even those people at the Fina station, they could be mistaken."

"Someone at the Fina says he bought a can of gas there?" Sam asked.

Justine flinched again, the soft skin of her chin shaking.

I'd been wondering if there might be something to the Marriots' suspicions, but that idea was extinguished now. The phone rang, and all of us jumped. Sam picked it up and said, "Merlotte's," in a calm voice. He listened, said, "Um-hum," and "That right?" and finally, "I'll tell her." He hung up.

"Your brother's car's been found," he told Jay Marriot. "It's on a little road almost directly across from Sookie's driveway."

The light went out completely on the little family's ray of hope, and I could only feel sorry for them. Justine seemed ten years older than she had when she'd come into the bar, and Jay looked like he'd gone days without sleep or food. They left without another word to me, which was a mercy. From the few sentences they exchanged with each other, I gathered they were going to see Jeff's car and ask if they could remove any of his belongings from it. I thought they would meet another blank wall there.

Eric had told me that that little road, a dirt track leading back to a deer camp, was where Debbie Pelt had hidden her car when she'd come to kill me. Might as well put up a sign: PARKING FOR SOOKIE STACKHOUSE NIGHTTIME ATTACKS.

Sam came swinging back into the room. He'd been seeing the Marriots out. He stood by me propped against his desk and set his crutches aside. He put his arm around me. I turned to him and slid my arms around his waist. He held me to him, and I felt peaceful for a wonderful minute. The heat of his body warmed me, and the knowledge of his affection comforted me.

"Does your leg hurt?" I asked when he moved restlessly.

"Not my leg," he said.

I looked up, puzzled, to meet his eyes. He looked rueful. Suddenly, I became aware of exactly what was hurting Sam, and I flushed red. But I didn't let go of him. I was reluctant to end the comfort of being close to someone - no, of being close to Sam. When I didn't move away, he slowly put his lips to mine, giving me every chance to step out of reach. His mouth brushed mine once, twice. Then he settled in to kissing me, and the heat of his tongue filled my mouth, stroking.

That felt incredibly good. With the visit of the Marriot family, I'd been browsing the Mystery section. Now I'd definitely wandered over to the Romances.

His height was close enough to mine that I didn't have to strain upward to meet his mouth. His kiss became more urgent. His lips strayed down my neck, to the vulnerable and sensitive place just at the base, and his teeth nipped very gently.

I gasped. I just couldn't help it. If I'd had the gift of teleportation, I would've had us somewhere more private in an instant. Remotely, I felt there was something kind of tacky at feeling this lustful in a messy office in a bar. But the heat surged as he kissed me again. We'd always had something between us, and the smoldering ember had just burst into flame.

I struggled to hold on to some sense. Was this survivor lust? What about his leg? Did he really need the buttons on his shirt?

"Not good enough for you here," he said, doing a little gasping of his own. He pulled away and reached for his crutches, but then he hauled me back and kissed me again. "Sookie, I'm going to - "

"What are you going to do?" asked a cold voice from the doorway.

If I was shocked senseless, Sam was enraged. In a split second I was pushed to one side, and he launched himself at the intruder, broken leg and all.

My heart was thumping like a scared rabbit's, and I put one hand over it to make sure it stayed in my chest. Sam's sudden attack had knocked Bill to the floor. Sam pulled back his fist to get in a punch, but Bill used his greater weight and strength to roll Sam until he was on the bottom. Bill's fangs were out and his eyes were glowing.

"Stop!" I yelled at a reduced volume, scared the patrons would come running. In a little fast action of my own, I gripped Bill's smooth dark hair with both hands and used it to yank his head back. In the excitement of the moment, Bill reached behind him to catch my wrists in his hands, and he began twisting. I choked with pain. Both my arms were about to break when Sam took the opportunity to sock Bill in the jaw with all his power. Shifters are not as powerful as Weres and vampires, but they can pack quite a punch, and Bill was rocked sideways. He also came to his senses. Releasing my arms, he rose and turned to me in one graceful movement.

My eyes welled full of tears from the pain, and I opened them wide, determined not to let the drops roll down my cheeks. But I'm sure I looked exactly like someone who was trying hard not to cry. I was holding my arms out in front of me, wondering when they'd stop hurting.

"Since your car was burned, I came to get you because it was time for you to get off work," Bill said, his fingers gently evaluating the marks on my forearms. "I swear I just intended to do you a favor. I swear I wasn't spying on you. I swear I never intended you any harm."

That was a pretty good apology, and I was glad he'd spoken first. Not only was I in pain, I was totally embarrassed. Naturally, Bill had no way of knowing that Tara had loaned me a car. I should have left him a note or left a message on his answering machine, but I'd driven straight to work from the burned house, and it simply hadn't crossed my mind. Something else did occur to me, as it should have right away.

"Oh, Sam, did your leg get hurt worse?" I brushed past Bill to help Sam to his feet. I took as much of his weight as I could, knowing he'd rather lie on the floor forever than accept any assistance from Bill. Finally, with some difficulty, I maneuvered Sam upright, and I saw he was careful to keep his weight on his good leg. I couldn't even imagine how Sam must be feeling.

He was feeling pretty pissed off, I discovered directly. He glared past me at Bill. "You come in without calling out, without knocking? I'm sure you don't expect me to say I'm sorry for jumping you." I'd never seen Sam so angry. I could tell that he was embarrassed that he hadn't "protected" me more effectively, that he was humiliated that Bill had gained the upper hand and furthermore had hurt me. Last but not least, Sam was coping with the backwash from all those hormones that had been exploding when we'd been interrupted.

"Oh, no. I don't expect that." Bill's voice dropped in temperature when he spoke to Sam. I expected to see icicles form on the walls.

I wished I were a thousand miles away. I longed for the ability to walk out, get into my own car, and drive to my own home. Of course, I couldn't. At least I had the use of a car, and I explained that to Bill.

"Then I needn't have gone to the trouble of coming to get you, and you two could have continued uninterrupted," he said in an absolutely lethal tone. "Where are you going to spend the night, if I may ask? I was going to go to the store to buy food for you."

Since Bill hated grocery shopping, that would have been a major effort, and he wanted to be sure I knew about it. (Of course, it was also possible that he was making this up on the spot to be sure I felt as guilty as possible.)

I reviewed my options. Though I never knew what I'd walk into over at my brother's, that seemed my safest choice. "I'm going to run by my house to get some makeup out of the bathroom, and then I'm going to Jason's," I said. "Thank you for putting me up last night, Bill. I guess you brought Charles to work? Tell him if he wants to spend the night at my house, I guess the, ah, hole is okay."

"Tell him yourself. He's right outside," Bill said in a voice I can only characterize as grumpy. Bill's imagination had evidently spun a whole different scenario for the evening. The way events were unfolding was making him mighty unhappy.

Sam was in so much pain (I could see it hovering like a red glow around him) that the most merciful thing I could do was clear out of there before he gave into it. "I'll see you tomorrow, Sam," I said, and kissed him on the cheek.

He tried to smile at me. I didn't dare offer to help him over to his trailer while the vampires were there, because I knew Sam's pride would suffer. At the moment, that was more important to him than the state of his injured leg.

Charles was behind the bar and already busy. When Bill offered accommodations again for a second day, Charles accepted rather than opting for my untested hidey hole. "We have to check your hiding place, Sookie, for cracks that may have occurred during the fire," Charles said seriously.

I could understand the necessity, and without saying a word to Bill, I got into the loaner car and drove to my house. We'd left the windows open all day, and the smell had largely dissipated. That was a welcome development. Thanks to the strategy of the firefighters and the inexpert way the fire had been set, the bulk of my house would be livable in short order. I'd called a contractor, Randall Shurtliff, that evening from the bar, and he'd agreed to stop by the next day at noon. Terry Bellefleur had promised to start removing the remains of the kitchen early the next day. I would have to be there to set aside anything I could salvage. I felt like I had two jobs now.

I was suddenly and completely exhausted, and my arms ached. I would have huge bruises the next day. It was almost too warm to justify long sleeves, but I'd have to wear them. Armed with a flashlight from the glove compartment of Tara's car, I got my makeup and some more clothes from my bedroom, throwing them all into a sport duffle I'd won at the Relay for Life. I tossed in a couple of paperbacks I hadn't read yet - books I'd traded for at the library swap rack. That prompted another line of thought. Did I have any movies that needed to go back to the rental place? No. Library books? Yes, had to return some, and I needed to air them out first. Anything else that belonged to another person? Thank goodness I'd dropped Tara's suit at the cleaner's.

There was no point in closing and locking the windows, which I'd left open to dissipate the odor, as the house was easily accessible through the burned kitchen. But when I went out my front door, I locked it behind me. I'd gotten to Hummingbird Road before I realized how silly that had been, and as I drove to Jason's, I found myself smiling for the first time in many, many hours.

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