Chapter 12

Judith began her story by asking me a question. "Have you ever met Lorena?"

"Yes," I said, and left it at that. Evidently, Judith didn't know exactly how I'd met Lorena, which had been a few seconds before I drove a stake through her heart and ended her long, nasty life.

"Then you know she's ruthless."

I nodded.

"You need to know why I've stayed away from Bill all these years, when I'm very fond of him," Judith said. "Lorena has had a hard life. I wouldn't necessarily believe everything she's told me, but I've heard confirmation of a few parts of it from others." Judith wasn't seeing me anymore; she was looking past me, down the years, I guess.

"How old was she?" I said, just to keep the story rolling.

"By the time Lorena met Bill she had been a vampire for many decades. She had been turned in 1788 by a man named Solomon Brunswick. He met her in a brothel in New Orleans."

"He met her in the obvious way?"

"Not exactly. He was there to take blood from another whore, one who specialized in the odder desires of men. Compared to some of her other customers, a little bite wasn't anything too remarkable."

"Had Solomon been a vampire a long time?" I was curious despite myself. Vampires as living history ... Well, since they'd come out of the coffin, they'd added a lot to college courses. Bring a vampire to class to tell his or her story, and you got great attendance.

"Solomon had been a vampire for twenty years by then. He became a vampire by accident. He was a sort of tinker. He sold pots and pans, and he mended broken ones. He had other goods that were hard to find in New England then: needles, thread, odds and ends like that. He took his horse and cart from town to town and farm to farm, all by himself. Solomon encountered one of us while he camped in the woods one night. He told me that he survived the first encounter, but the vampire followed him during the night to his next camp and attacked him again. This second attack was a critical one. Solomon was one of the unfortunates who get turned accidentally. Since the vampire who drank from him left him for dead, unaware of the change - or at least, I like to think so - Solomon was untrained and had to learn all by himself."

"Sounds really awful," I said, and I meant that.

She nodded. "It must have been. He worked his way down to New Orleans to avoid people who wondered why he hadn't aged. Where he came upon Lorena. After he'd had his meal, he was leaving out the back when he spotted her in the dark courtyard. She was with a man. The customer tried to leave without paying, and in the blink of an eye Lorena seized him and cut his throat."

That sounded like the Lorena I'd known.

"Solomon was impressed with her savagery and excited by the fresh blood. He grabbed the dying man and drained him, and when he threw the body into the yard of the next house, Lorena was impressed and fascinated. She wanted to be like he was."

"That sounds about right."

Judith smiled faintly. "She was illiterate but tenacious and a tremendous survivor. He was far more intelligent, but he had poor killing skills. By then, he had figured some things out, and so he was able to bring her over. They took blood from each other sometimes, and that gave them the courage to find others like us, to learn what they needed to learn to live well instead of merely surviving. The two of them practiced how to be successful vampires, tested the limits of their new natures, and made an excellent team."

"So Solomon was your grandfather, since he begat Lorena," I said biblically. "What happened after that?"

"Eventually, the bloom went off the rose," Judith said. "Makers and their children stay together longer than a merely sexual couple but not forever. Lorena betrayed Solomon. She was caught with the half-drained body of a dead child, but she was able to play a human woman pretty convincingly. She told the men who grabbed her that Solomon was the one who'd killed the child, that he'd made her carry the body, so the blood was all over her. Solomon barely got out of the town alive - they were in Natchez, Mississippi. He never saw Lorena again. He's never met Bill, either. Lorena found him after the War between the States.

"As Bill later told me, one night Lorena was wandering through this area. It was much harder then to stay concealed, especially in rural areas. There weren't as many people to hunt you down, true, and there was little or no communication. But strangers were conspicuous and with the thinner population, the choices of prey were less. An individual death was noticed more. A body had to be hidden very carefully, or the death meticulously staged. At least there wasn't much organized law enforcement."

I reminded myself not to look disgusted. This knowledge was nothing new. That was how vampires had lived until a few years ago.

"Lorena saw Bill and his family through the windows of their house." Judith looked away. "She fell in love. For several nights, she listened to the family. During the day she would dig a hole in the woods and bury herself. At night, she'd watch.

"Finally, she decided to act. She realized - even Lorena realized - Bill would never forgive her if she killed his children, so she waited until he came out in the middle of the night to find out why the dog wouldn't stop barking. When Bill came out with his rifle, she crept up behind him and took him."

I thought of Lorena, so close to my own family, right through the woods... . She could have come to my great-great-grandparents' place just as easily, and my whole family history would have been different.

"She turned him that night, buried him, and helped him resurrect three nights later."

I couldn't imagine how shattered Bill must have been. Everything gone in the blink of an eye: his whole life taken and altered and given back to him in a terrible form.

"I guess she took him away from here," I said.

"Yes, that was essential. She had arranged a death for him. She'd smeared a clearing with his blood and left his gun there and rags from his clothing. He told me it looked as though a panther had gotten him. So they traveled together, and while he was bound to her, he hated her, too. He was miserable with her, but she remained obsessed with him. After thirty years, she tried to make him happier by killing a woman who looked very much like his wife."

"Oh, gosh," I said, trying not to feel sick. "You, huh?" That was why her face had been vaguely familiar. I'd seen Bill's old family pictures.

Judith nodded. "Evidently, Bill saw me entering a neighbor's house, going to a party with my family. He followed me home and watched me, because the resemblance caught his fancy. When Lorena discovered this new interest, she thought Bill would stay with her if she provided him with a companion."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm really, really sorry."

Judith shrugged. "It wasn't Bill's fault, but you'll understand why I had to think about it before I came in answer to your message. Solomon is in Europe now, or I would have asked him to come with me. I dread seeing Lorena again, and I was afraid ... afraid she would be here, afraid you would have asked her to help Bill, too. Or she might have made up this story to bring me here, for all I knew. Is she ... Is she around?"

"She's dead. Didn't you know?"

Judith's round blue eyes went wide. She couldn't be any more pale, but her eyes closed for a long moment. "I felt a strong wrench around eighteen months ago... . That was Lorena's death?"

I nodded.

"That's why she hasn't summoned me. Oh, this is wonderful, wonderful!"

Judith looked like a different woman.

"I guess I'm a little surprised that Bill didn't get in touch with you to tell you."

"Maybe he thought I would know it. Children and makers are bound. But I wasn't sure. It seemed too good to be true." Judith smiled, and she looked suddenly pretty, even with the fangs. "Where is Bill?"

"He's through the woods." I pointed in the right direction. "In his old home."

"I'll be able to track him once I'm outside," she said happily. "Oh, to be with him without Lorena near!"

Ah. What?

Before, it had been okay for Judith to sit and talk my ear off, but now all of a sudden, she was ready to take off like a scalded cat. I was sitting there with my eyes narrowed, wondering what I'd done.

"I'll heal him, and I'm sure he'll thank you after," she said, and I felt like I'd been dismissed. "Was Bill there when Lorena died?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Did he suffer much punishment for killing her?"

"He didn't kill her," I said. "I did."

She froze, staring at me as if I'd suddenly announced I was King Kong. She said, "I owe you my freedom. Bill must think very highly of you."

"I believe he does," I said. To my embarrassment, she bent to kiss my hand. Her lips were cold.

"Bill and I can be together now," she said. "Finally! I'll see you another night to tell you how grateful I am, but now I have to go to him." And she was out of the house and zipping through the woods to the south before I could say Jack Robinson.

I kind of felt like a very large fist had hit me upside the head.

I would be a total sleaze to feel anything but happy for Bill. Now he could hang around with Judith for centuries, if he wanted to. With the never-aging duplicate of his wife. I made myself smile with gladness.

When looking happy didn't make me happy, I did twenty jumping jacks, then twenty push-ups. Okay, that's better, I thought, as I lay on my stomach on the living room floor. Now I was ashamed that my arm muscles were trembling. I remembered the workouts the Lady Falcons softball coach had put us through, and I knew Coach Peterson would kick my butt if she could see me now. On the other hand, I wasn't seventeen anymore.

As I rolled over to lie on my back, I considered that fact soberly. It wasn't the first occasion I'd felt the passage of time, but it was the first occasion that I'd noticed my body had changed into something a little less efficient. I had to contrast that with the lot of the vampires I knew. At least 99 percent of them had become vamps at the peak of their lives. There were a few who had been younger, like Alexei, and a few who had been older, like the Ancient Pythoness, but most of them had ranged in age from sixteen to thirty-five at the time of their first death. They'd never have to apply for Social Security or Medicare. They'd never need to worry about hip replacements or lung cancer or arthritis.

By the time I reached middle age (if I was so lucky, since my life was what you would call "high risk"), I would be slowing down in perceptible ways. After that, the wrinkles would only grow and deepen, my skin would look looser on my bones and sport a spot or two, and my hair would thin out. My chin would sag a little, and my boobs would, too. My joints would ache when I sat too long in one position. I'd have to get reading glasses.

I might develop high blood pressure. I might have a blocked artery. My heart might beat irregularly. When I got the flu, I would be very sick. I'd fear Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, a stroke, pneumonia ... the boogie-bears that hid under the beds of the aging.

What if I told Eric I wanted to be with him forever? Assuming he didn't scream and run as fast as he could in the other direction, assuming he actually changed me, I tried to imagine what being a vampire would be like. I would watch all my friends grow old and die. I would sleep in the hidey-hole in the closet floor myself. If Jason married Michele, she might not like me holding their babies. I would feel the urge to attack people, to bite them; they'd all be walking McBloodburgers to me. I'd think of people as food. I stared up at the ceiling fan and tried to imagine wanting to bite Andy Bellefleur or Holly. Ick.

On the other hand, I'd never be sick again unless someone shot me or bit me with silver, or staked me, or put me out in the sun. I could protect frail humans from danger. I could be with Eric forever ... except for that bit where vampire couples usually didn't stay together all that long.

Okay, I could still be with Eric for a few years.

How would I make my living? I could only take the later shift at Merlotte's, and that after dark had fallen, if Sam let me keep my job. And Sam, too, would grow old and die. A new owner might not like having a permanent barmaid who could only work one shift. I could go back to college and take night classes and computer classes until I got some kind of degree. In what?

I'd reached the limit of my imagination. I rolled to my knees and rose from the floor, wondering if I was imagining a slight stiffness in my joints.

Sleep was long in coming that night, despite my very long and very scary day. The silence of the house pressed in around me. Claude came home in the wee hours, whistling.

When I got up the next morning, not bright but way too early, I felt sluggish and dispirited. I found two envelopes shoved under my front door on my way to the porch with my coffee. The first note was from Mr. Cataliades, and it had been hand-delivered by his niece Diantha at three a.m., she'd noted on the envelope. I was sorry to miss a chance to talk to Diantha, though I was grateful she hadn't woken me. I opened that envelope first out of sheer curiosity. "Dear Miss Stackhouse," Mr. Cataliades wrote. "Here is a check for the amount in Claudine Crane's account when she passed away. She wanted you to have it."

Short and to the point, which was more than most people I'd talked to recently. I flipped the check over and found that it was for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

"Oh my God," I said out loud. "Oh my God." I dropped it because my fingers suddenly lost their power, and the check drifted down to the porch. I scrambled to retrieve it and read it again to make sure I hadn't been mistaken.

"Oh," I said. I was sticking with the classics, because saying anything else seemed to be beyond me. I couldn't even imagine what I would do with so much money. That was beyond me, too. I had to give myself a little space until I could think about this unexpected legacy with any rational plan.

I carried the amazing check into the house and put it in a drawer, terrified something would happen to it before I got it to the bank. Only when I was sure it was safe did I even think of opening my other note, which was from Bill.

I carried it back out to the porch chair and took a gulp of my cooling coffee. I tore open the envelope.

"Dearest Sookie - I didn't want to frighten you by knocking on your door at two in the morning, so I'm leaving this for you to read in the daylight. I wondered why you had been in my house last week. I knew you'd come in, and I knew that sooner or later your motive would become apparent. Your generous heart has given me the cure I needed.

"I never thought I would see Judith after the last time we parted. There were reasons I didn't call her over the years. I understand she told you why Lorena picked her to turn vampire. Lorena didn't ask me before she attacked Judith. Please believe this. I would never condemn someone to our life unless she wanted it and told me so."

Okay, Bill was giving me credit for some complicated thinking. I'd never dreamed of suspecting that Bill had asked Lorena to find him a mate resembling his late wife.

"I would never have been brave enough to contact Judith myself for fear she hated me. I am so glad to see her again. And her blood, freely given, has already worked a great healing in me."

All right! That had been the whole point.

"Judith has agreed to stay for a week so we can 'catch up' with each other. Maybe you will join us some evening? Judith was most impressed with your kindness. Love, Bill."

I forced myself to smile down at the folded piece of paper. I'd just write him right back and tell him how pleased I was that he was better and that he'd renewed his old relationship with Judith. Of course, I hadn't been happy when he was dating Selah Pumphrey, a human real estate dealer, because we had only recently broken up, and I knew he didn't really care about her. Now I was determined to be happy for Bill. I was not going to be one of those awful people who gets all bent out of shape when the ex acquires a replacement. That was hypocritical and selfish to the extreme, and I hoped I was a better person than that. At least I was determined to provide a good imitation of such a person.

"Okay," I said to my coffee mug. "That turned out great."

"Would you rather talk to me than to your coffee?" Claude asked.

I'd heard feet on the creaky stairs through the open window, and I'd registered that another brain was up and working, but I hadn't foreseen that he'd join me on the porch.

"You got in late," I said. "You want me to get you a cup of coffee? I made plenty."

"No, thank you. I'll have some pineapple juice in a minute. It's a beautiful day." Claude was shirtless. At least he was wearing drawstring pants with the Dallas Cowboys all over them. Ha! He wished!

"Yeah," I said, with a marked lack of enthusiasm. Claude raised one perfectly shaped black eyebrow.

"Who's down in the dumps?" he asked.

"No, I'm very happy."

"Yes, I can see the joy written all over your face. What's the matter, Cousin?"

"I did get the check from Claudine's estate. God bless her. That was so generous." I looked up at Claude, putting all my sincerity into my face. "Claude, I hope you're not mad at me. That's just ... so much money. I haven't got a clue what I want to do with it."

Claude shrugged. "That was what Claudine wished. Now, tell me what's wrong."

"Claude, you'll have to excuse me being surprised that you care. I would've said you didn't give a flying eff how I felt. Now you're being all sweet with Hunter, and you're offering to help me clean out the attic."

"Maybe I'm developing a cousinly concern for you." He raised one eyebrow.

"Maybe pigs will fly."

He laughed. "I'm trying to be more human," he confessed. "Since I'll live out my long existence among humans, apparently, I'm trying to be more ..."

"Likable?" I supplied.

"Ouch," he said, but he wasn't really hurt. Being hurt would presuppose that he cared about my opinion. And that was something you couldn't be taught, right?

"Where's the boyfriend been?" he asked. "I do so love the smell of vampire around the house."

"Last night was the first time I've seen him in a week. And we didn't have any alone time."

"You two have a fight?" Claude settled one hip on the porch railing, and I could tell he was determined to show me he could be interested in someone else's life.

I felt a certain amount of exasperation. "Claude, I'm drinking my very first cup of coffee, I didn't get a lot of sleep, and I've had a bad few days. Could you just scoot away and take a shower or something?"

He sighed as if I'd broken his heart. "All right, I can take a hint," he said.

"That really wasn't so much a hint as an outright statement."

"Oh, I'll go."

But as he straightened up and took a step toward the door, I realized I did have something else to say. "I take that back. There is something we have to talk about," I said. "I haven't had a chance to tell you that Dermot was here."

Claude stood up straight, almost as if he were prepared to bolt. "What did he say? What did he want?"

"I'm not sure what he wanted. I think, like you, he wanted to be close to someone else with a bit of fairy blood. And he wanted to tell me that he was under a spell."

Claude paled. "From whose magic? Has Grandfather come back through the gate?"

"No," I said. "But could a fairy have cast a spell on him before the gate closed? And I think you must know there's another full-blooded fairy on this side of the portal, or gate, whatever you call it." As I understood fairy morals, it was not possible to answer me with a direct lie.

"Dermot is crazy," Claude said. "I have no idea what he'll do next. If he approached you directly, he must be under extreme pressure. You know how ambivalent he is about humans."

"You didn't answer my question."

"No," Claude said. "I didn't. And there's a reason for that." He turned his back to me and looked out over the yard. "I like my head on my shoulders."

"So there is someone else around, and you know who it is. Or you know more about putting spells on than you're admitting?"

"I'm not going to talk about it." And Claude went inside. Within minutes, I heard him going out the back of the house, and his car passed by on its way down the drive to Hummingbird Road.

So I had gained a valuable piece of knowledge that was completely useless. I couldn't summon up the fairy, ask the fairy why he or she was still on this side, what his or her intentions were. But if I had to guess, I would have to say I was pretty sure that Claude wouldn't be this frightened of a sweet fairy who wanted to spread goodness and light. And a really nice fairy wouldn't have put some spell on poor Dermot that made him so discombobulated.

I said a prayer or two, hoping that would restore my normal good mood, but it didn't work today. Possibly I wasn't approaching prayer in the right spirit. Communicating with God isn't the same as taking a happy pill - far from it.

I pulled on a dress and sandals and went to Gran's grave. Having a conversation with her usually reminded me of how levelheaded and wise she'd been. Today all I thought about was her wildly out-of-character indiscretion with a half fairy that had resulted in my dad and his sister, Linda. My grandmother had (maybe) had sex with a half fairy because my grandfather couldn't make babies. So she'd gotten to carry and birth her children, two of them, and she'd raised them with love.

And she'd buried both of them.

As I crouched by the headstone looking down at the grass that was getting thicker on her grave, I wondered if I should draw some meaning from that. You could make a case that Gran had done something she shouldn't have ... to get something she wasn't supposed to get ... and after she'd gotten it, she'd lost it in the most painful way imaginable. What could be worse than losing a child? Losing two children.

Or you could decide that everything that had happened was completely at random, that Gran had done the best she could at the moment she'd had to make a decision, and that her decision simply hadn't worked out for reasons equally beyond her control. Constant blame, or constant blamelessness.

There had to be better choices.

I did the best possible thing for me to do. I put in some earrings and went to church. Easter was over, but the flowers on the Methodist altar were still beautiful. The windows were open because the temperature was pleasant. A few clouds were gathering in the west, but nothing to worry about for the next few hours. I listened to every word of the sermon and I sang along with the hymns, though I kept that down to a whisper because I have a terrible voice. It was good for me; it reminded me of Gran and my childhood and faith and clean dresses and Sunday lunch, usually a roast surrounded by potatoes and carrots that Gran put it in the oven before we left the house. She would have made a pie or a cake, too.

Church isn't always easy when you can read the minds around you, and I worked very hard on blocking them out and thinking my own thoughts in an attempt to connect to the part of my upbringing, the part of myself, that was good and kind and intent on trying to become better.

When the service was over, I talked to Maxine Fortenberry, who was in seventh heaven over Hoyt and Holly's wedding plans, and I saw Charlsie Tooten toting her grandbaby, and I talked to my insurance agent, Greg Aubert, who had his whole family with him. His daughter turned red when I looked at her, because I knew a few things about her that made her conscience twinge. But I wasn't judging the girl. We all misbehave from time to time. Some of us get caught, and some of us don't.

Sam was in church, too, to my surprise. I'd never seen him there before. As far as I knew, he'd never been to any church in Bon Temps.

"I'm glad to see you," I said, trying not to sound too startled. "You been going somewhere else, or is this a new venture?"

"I just felt it was time," he said. "For one thing, I like church. For another thing, a bad time is coming for us two-natured folks, and I want to make sure everyone in Bon Temps knows I'm an okay guy."

"They'd have to be fools not to know that already," I said quietly. "Good to see you, Sam." I moved off because a couple of people were waiting to talk to my boss, and I understood that he was trying to anchor his position in the community.

I tried not to worry about Eric or anything else the rest of the day. I'd had a text message inviting me to have lunch with Tara and JB, and I was glad to have their company. Tara had gotten Dr. Dinwiddie to check very carefully, and sure enough, he'd found another heartbeat. She and JB were stunned, in a happy way. Tara had fi xed creamed chicken to spoon over biscuits, and she'd made a spinach casserole and a fruit salad. I had a great time at their little house, and JB checked my wrists and said they were almost back to normal. Tara was all excited about the baby shower JB's aunt was planning on giving them in Clarice, and she assured me I'd get an invitation. We picked a date for her shower in Bon Temps, and she promised she'd register online.

By the time I got home, I figured I'd better put a load of wash in, and I washed my bath mat, too, and hung it out on the line to dry. While I was outside, I made sure I had my little plastic squirt gun, full of lemon juice, tucked in my pocket. I didn't want to get caught by surprise again. I just couldn't figure out what I'd done to deserve having an apparently (judging by Claude's reaction) hostile fairy tromping around my property.

My cell phone rang as I trailed gloomily back to the house. "Hey, Sis," Jason said. He was cooking on the grill. I could hear the sizzle. "Michele and me are cooking out. You want to come? I got plenty of steak."

"Thanks, but I ate at JB and Tara's. Give me a rain check on that."

"Sure thing. I got your message. Tomorrow at eight, right?"

"Yeah. Let's ride over to Shreveport together."

"Sure. I'll pick you up at seven at your place."

"See you then."

"Gotta go!"

Jason did not like long phone conversations. He'd broken up with girls who wanted to chat while they shaved their legs and painted their nails.

It was not a great commentary on my life that the prospect of meeting with a bunch of unhappy Weres seemed like a good time - or at least an interesting time.

Kennedy was bartending when I got to work the next day. She told me that Sam had a final, take-the-checkbook appointment with his accountant, who'd gotten an extension since Sam had been so late turning all the paperwork over.

Kennedy looked as pretty as she always did. She refused to wear the shorts most of the rest of us wore in warm weather, instead opting for tailored khakis and a fancy belt with her Merlotte's T-shirt. Kennedy's makeup and hair were pageant quality. I glanced automatically at Danny Prideaux's usual barstool. Empty.

"Where's Danny?" I asked when I went to the bar to get a beer for Catfish Hennessy. He was Jason's boss, and I half expected to see Jason come in to join him, but Hoyt and a couple of the other roadwork guys sat at Catfish's table.

"He had to work at his other job today," Kennedy said, trying to sound offhand. "I appreciate Sam making sure I've got protection while I'm working, Sookie, but I really don't think there's going to be any trouble."

The bar door slammed. "I'm here to protest!" yelled a woman who looked like anyone's grandmother. She had a sign, and she hoisted it up. NO COHABITATION WITH ANIMALS, it read, and you could see that she'd written "cohabitation" while she looked at a dictionary; each letter was written with such care.

"Call the police first," I told Kennedy. "And then Sam. Tell him to get back here no matter what he's talking about." Kennedy nodded and turned to the wall phone.

Our protester was wearing a blue and white blouse and red pants she'd probably gotten at Bealls or Stage. She had short permed hair dyed a reasonable brown and wore wire-rimmed glasses and a modest wedding ring on her arthritic fingers. Despite this completely average exterior, I could feel her thoughts burning with the fire of a zealot.

"Ma'am, you need to take yourself outside. This building is privately owned," I said, having no idea if this was a good line to take or not. We'd never had anyone protesting before.

"But it's a public business. Anyone can come inside," she said, as if she were the authority.

Not any more than I was. "No, not if Sam doesn't want them in here, and as his representative, I'm telling you to leave."

"You're not Sam Merlotte, or his wife. You're that girl who dates a vampire," she said venomously.

"I am Sam's right-hand person at this bar," I lied, "and I'm telling you to get out, or I'll put you out."

"You lay one finger on me, and I'll call the law on you," she said, jerking her head.

Rage flared up in me. I really, really don't like threats.

"Kennedy," I said, and in a second she was standing by me. "I'd say between us we're strong enough to pick up this lady and take her out of the bar. What do you say?"

"I'm all for it." Kennedy stared down at the woman as if she were only waiting for the starting gun to go off. "And you're that girl who shot her boyfriend," the woman said, beginning to look properly frightened.

"I am. I was really mad at him, and at the moment I'm pretty pissed off at you," Kennedy said. "You get your butt out of here and take your little sign with you, and you do it right now."

The older woman's courage broke, and she scuttled out, remembering at the last moment to keep her head up and her back straight since she was one of God's soldiers. I got that direct from her head.

Catfish clapped for Kennedy, and a few others joined in, but mostly the bar patrons sat in stunned silence. Then we heard the chanting from the parking lot, and we all surged to the windows.

"Jesus Christ, Shepherd of Judea," I breathed. There were at least thirty protesters in the parking lot. Most of them were middle-aged, but I spotted a few teenagers who should have been in school, and I recognized a couple of guys who I knew to be in their early twenties. I sort of recognized most of the crowd. They attended a "charismatic" church in Clarice, a church that was growing by leaps and bounds (if construction was any indicator). The last time I'd driven by when I was going to have physical therapy with JB, a new activities building had been going up.

I wished they were being active there, where they belonged, rather than here. Just as I was about to do something idiotic (like going out in the parking lot), two Bon Temps police cars pulled up, lights flashing. Kevin and Kenya got out. Kevin was skinny and white, and Kenya was round and black. They were both good police officers, and they loved each other dearly ... but unofficially.

Kevin approached the chanting group with apparent confidence. I couldn't hear what he said, but they all turned to face him and began talking all at once. He held up his hands to pat the air in a "back off and get quiet" gesture, and Kenya circled around to come up behind the group.

"Maybe we should go out there?" Kennedy said.

Kennedy, I noted, was not in the habit of sitting back and letting things take their course. Nothing wrong with being proactive, but this was not the time to escalate the confrontation in the parking lot, and that was what our presence would do. "No, I think we need to stay right here," I said. "There's no point in throwing fuel on the fire." I looked around. None of the patrons were eating or drinking. They were all looking out the windows. I thought of requesting that they sit down at their tables, but there was no point in asking them to do something they clearly weren't going to do, with so much drama going on outside.

Antoine came out of the kitchen and stood by me. He looked at the scene for a long moment. "I didn't have nothing to do with it," he said.

"I never thought you did," I said, surprised. Antoine relaxed, even inside his head. "This is some crazy church action," I said. "They're picketing Merlotte's because Sam is two-natured. But the woman who came in here, she was pretty aware of me and she knew Kennedy's history, too. I hope this is a one-shot. I'd hate to have to deal with protesters all the time."

"Sam'll go broke if this keeps up," Kennedy said in a low voice. "Maybe I should just quit. It's not going to help Sam that I work here."

"Kennedy, don't set yourself up to be a martyr," I said. "They don't like me, either. Everyone who doesn't think I'm crazy thinks there's something supernatural about me. We'd all have to quit, from Sam on down."

She looked at me sharply to make sure I was sincere. She gave me a quick nod. Then she looked out the window again and said, "Uh-oh." Danny Prideaux had pulled up in his 1991 Chrysler LeBaron, a machine he found only slightly less fascinating than he found Kennedy Keyes.

Danny had parked right at the edge of the crowd, and he hopped out and began to hurry toward the bar. I just knew he was coming to check on Kennedy. Either they'd had a police band radio on at the home builders' supply place or Danny had heard the news from a customer. The jungle drums beat fast and furious in Bon Temps. Danny was wearing a gray tank top and jeans and boots, and his broad olive shoulders were gleaming with sweat.

As he strode toward the door, I said, "I think my mouth is watering." Kennedy put her hand over her mouth to stifle a yip of laughter.

"Yeah, he looks pretty good," she said, trying to sound offhand. We both laughed.

But then disaster struck. One of the protesters, angry at being shooed away from Merlotte's, brought his sign down on the hood of the LeBaron. At the sound Danny turned around. He froze for a second, and then he was heading at top speed toward the sinner who'd marred the paint job on his car.

"Oh, no," Kennedy said and hurtled out of the bar as if she'd been fired from a slingshot. "Danny!" she yelled. "Danny! You stop!"

Danny hesitated, turning his head just a fraction to see who was calling him. With a leap that would have done a kangaroo proud, Kennedy was beside him and wrapping her arms around him. He made an impatient movement, as if to shake her off, and then it seemed to dawn on him that Kennedy, whom he'd spent hours admiring, was embracing him. He stood stiffly, his arms at his side, apparently afraid to move.

I couldn't tell what Kennedy was saying to him, but Danny looked down at her face, completely focused on her. One of the demonstrators had forgotten herself enough to get an "Awww" expression on her face, but she snapped out of her lapse into humanity and brandished her sign again.

"Animals go! People stay! We want Congress to show the way!" one of the older demonstrators, a man with a lot of white hair, shouted as I opened the door and stepped out.

"Kevin, get them out of here!" I called. Kevin, whose thin, pale face was creased into unhappy lines, was trying to shepherd the little crowd out of the parking lot.

"Mr. Barlowe," Kevin said to the white-haired man, "what you're doing is illegal, and I could put you in jail. I really don't want to have to do that."

"We're willing to be arrested for our beliefs," the man said. "Isn't that so, you-all?"

Some of the church members didn't look entirely certain of that.

"Maybe you are," Kenya said, "but we got Jane Bodehouse in one of the cells now. She's coming off a bender, and she's throwing up about every five minutes. Believe me, people, you do not want to be in there with Jane."

The woman who'd originally come into Merlotte's turned a little green.

"This is private property," Kevin said. "You cannot demonstrate here. If you don't clear this parking lot in three minutes, all of you are under arrest."

It was more like five minutes, but the parking lot was clear of demonstrators when Sam joined us in the parking lot to thank Kevin and Kenya. Since I hadn't seen his truck drive up, his appearance was quite a surprise.

"When did you get back?" I asked.

"Less than ten minutes ago," he said. "I knew if I showed myself, they'd just get pumped up again, so I parked on School Street and walked through the back way."

"Smart," I said. The lunch crowd was leaving Merlotte's, and the incident was already on the track to becoming a local legend. Only one or two of the patrons seemed upset; the rest regarded the demonstration as good entertainment. Catfish Hennessy clapped Sam on the shoulder as he went by, and he wasn't the only one who made an extra effort to show support. I wondered how long the tolerant attitude would last. If the picketers kept it up, a lot of people might decide that coming here simply wasn't worth the trouble.

I didn't need to say any of this out loud. It was written on Sam's face. "Hey," I said, slinging an arm around his shoulders. "They'll go away. You know what you should do? You should call the pastor of that church. They're all from Holy Word Tabernacle in Clarice. You should tell him that you want to come talk to the church. Show them you're a person just like everyone else. I bet that would work."

Then I realized how stiff his shoulders were. Sam was rigid with anger. "I should not have to tell anyone anything," he said. "I'm a citizen of this country. My father was in the army. I was in the army. I pay my share of taxes. And I'm not a person like everyone else. I'm a shifter. And they need to just put that on their plates and eat it." He whirled to go back into his bar.

I flinched, though I knew his anger wasn't directed at me. As I watched Sam stalk away, I reminded myself that none of this was about me. But I couldn't help but feel I had a stake in the outcome of this new development. Not only did I work at Merlotte's, but the woman who'd come in initially had named me as part of the problem.

Furthermore, I still thought approaching the church in person was a good idea. It was reasonable and civil.

Sam wasn't in a reasonable and civil mood, and I could understand that. I just didn't know where he was going to put his anger.

A newspaper reporter came in an hour later and interviewed all of us about "the incident," as he called it. Errol Clayton was a guy in his forties who wrote about half the stories in the little Bon Temps paper. He didn't own it, but he managed it on a shoestring budget. I had no issue with the paper, but of course lots of folks made fun of it. The Bon Temps Bugle was frequently called the Bon Temps Bungle.

While Errol was waiting for Sam to finish a phone call, I said, "You want a drink, Mr. Clayton?"

"I'd sure appreciate some iced tea, Sookie," he said. "How's that brother of yours?"

"He's doing well."

"Getting over the death of his wife?"

"I think he's come to terms with it," I said, which covered all sorts of ground. "That was a terrible thing."

"Yes, very bad. And it was right here in this parking lot," Errol Clayton said, as if I might have forgotten. "And right here, in this parking lot, was where the body of Lafayette Reynold was found."

"That's true, too. But of course, none of that was Sam's fault, or had anything to do with him."

"Never arrested anyone for Crystal's death that I recall."

I reared back to give Errol Clayton a hard stare. "Mr. Clayton, if you've come here to make trouble, you can just leave now. We need things to be better, not worse. Sam is a good man. He goes to the Rotary, he puts an ad in the high school yearbook, he sponsors a baseball team at the Boys and Girls Club every spring, and he helps with the Fourth of July fireworks. Plus, he's a great boss, a veteran, and a tax-paying citizen."

"Merlotte, you got you a fan club," Errol Clayton said to Sam, who'd come to stand right behind me.

"I've got a friend," Sam said quietly. "I'm lucky enough to have a lot of friends and a good business. I sure would hate to see that ruined." I heard an apology in his voice, and I felt his hand pat my shoulder. Feeling much better, I slipped away to do my job, leaving Sam to talk to the newspaperman.

I didn't get a chance to talk to my boss again before I left to go home. I had to stop at the store because I needed a couple of things - Claude had made inroads into my potato chip stash and my cereal, too - and I wasn't just imagining that the store was full of people who were busy talking about what had happened at lunchtime at Merlotte's. There was silence every time I came around a corner, but of course that didn't make any difference to me. I could tell what people were thinking.

Most of them didn't share the beliefs of the demonstrators. But the mere fact of the incident had set some of the previously indifferent townspeople to thinking about the issue of the two-natured, and about the legislation that proposed to take away some of their rights.

And some of them were all for it.

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