Pam yanked Bruno's body off me and rolled him all the way down into the water coursing through the ditch. She helped me up.
"Where were you?" I croaked.
"Disposing of Corinna," literal-minded Pam said. She pointed to the body lying by the white car. Fortunately, the corpse was on the side of the car concealed from the view of the rare passerby. In the poor light it was hard to be sure, but I believed Corinna was already beginning to flake away. I'd never seen a dead vampire in the rain before.
"I thought Bruno was such a great fighter. How come you didn't take him on?"
"I gave you the knife," Pam said, giving a good imitation of surprise. "He didn't have a knife."
"Right." I coughed and, boy, did that hurt my throat. "So what do we do now?"
"We're getting out of here," Pam said. "We're going to hope that no one noticed my car. I think only three cars passed since we pulled over. With the rain and poor visibility, if the drivers were human, we have a very good chance that none of them will remember seeing us."
By then we were back in Pam's car. "Wouldn't it be better if we moved the Lexus?" I said, wheezing out the words.
"What a good idea," Pam said, patting me on the head. "Do you think you can drive it?"
Pam thought for a moment, which was good, because I needed the recovery time. I was soaked through and shivering, and I felt awful.
"Won't Victor know what's happened?" I asked. I couldn't seem to stop asking questions.
"Maybe. He wasn't brave enough to do this himself, so he has to take the consequences. He's lost his two best people, and he has nothing to show for it." Pam was enjoying the hell out of that.
"I think we get out of here right now. Before some more of his people come to check, or whatever." I sure wasn't up for fighting again.
"It's you who keeps asking questions. I think Eric will be here soon; I'd better call him to tell him to stay away," Pam said. She looked faintly worried.
"Why?" I would have loved to have Eric appear to take charge of this situation, frankly.
"If someone is watching his house, and he leaps into his car and drives in this direction to come rescue you, it'll be a pretty clear indication that we're responsible for what happened to Bruno and Corinna," Pam said, clearly exasperated. "Use your brain, Sookie!"
"My brain is all soggy," I said, and if I sounded a little testy, I don't think that's any big, amazing thing. But Pam was already hitting a speed-dial number on her cell. I could hear Eric yelling when he answered the phone.
Pam said, "Shut up and I'll explain. Of course, she lives." There was silence.
Pam summed up the situation in a few pithy phrases, and she concluded with, "Go somewhere it's reasonable to be going in a hurry. Back to the bar in answer to some crisis. To the all-night dry cleaners to pick up your suits. To the store to pick up some TrueBlood. Don't lead them here."
After a squawk or two, Eric apparently saw the sense in what Pam was saying. I couldn't hear his voice clearly, though he was still talking to her.
"Her throat will be bruised," Pam said impatiently. "Yes, she killed Bruno herself. All right, I'll tell her." Pam turned to me. "He's proud of you," she said with some disgust.
"Pam gave me the knife," I croaked. I knew he could hear me.
"But it was Sookie's idea to move the car," Pam said, with the air of someone who's going to be fair if it kills her. "I'm trying to think of where to put it. The truck stops will have security cameras. I think we'll leave it on the shoulder well past the Bon Temps exit."
That's what we did. Pam had some towels in her trunk, and I put them down on the seat of Bruno's car. Pam poked around in his ashes to retrieve the Lexus key, and after looking over the instrument panel, I figured I could drive it. I followed Pam for forty minutes, staring longingly at the Bon Temps sign as we sped past it. I pulled over to the shoulder right after Pam did. Following Pam's instructions, I left the key in the car, wiped off the steering wheel with the towels (which were damp from their contact with me), and then scuttled to Pam's car and climbed in. It was still raining, by the way.
Then we had to return to my house. By then I was aching in every joint and a little sick to my stomach. Finally, finally, we pulled up to my back door. To my amazement, Pam leaned over to give me a hug. "You did very well," she said. "You did what had to be done." For once, she didn't look as if she were secretly laughing at me.
"I hope this all turns out to be worth it," I said, sounding as gloomy and exhausted as I felt.
"We're still alive, so it was worth it," Pam said.
I couldn't argue with that, though something within me wanted to. I climbed out of her car and trudged across the dripping backyard. The rain had finally stopped.
Claude opened the back door as I reached it. He had opened his mouth to say something, but when he took in my condition, he closed it again. He shut the door behind me, and I heard him lock it.
"I'm going to shower," I said, "and then I'm going to bed. Good night, Claude."
"Good night, Sookie," he said, very quietly, and then he shut up. I appreciated that more than I could say.
When I got into work the next day at eleven, Sam was dusting all the bottles behind the bar.
"Good morning," he said, staring at me. "You look like hell warmed over."
"Thanks, Sam. Good to know I'm looking my best."
Sam turned red. "Sorry, Sookie. You always look good. I was just thinking ..."
"About the big circles under my eyes?" I pulled down the skin of my cheeks, making a hideous face for his benefit. "I was real late getting in last night." I had to kill someone and move his car. "I had to go over to Shreveport to see Eric."
"Business or pleasure?" And he ducked his head, clearly not believing he'd said that, either. "I'm sorry, Sookie. My mom would say I got up on the tactless side of the bed today."
I gave him a half hug. "Don't worry. Every day is like that for me. And I have to apologize to you. I'm sorry I've been so ignorant about the legal trouble facing shifters and Weres right now." It was definitely time for me to look at the big picture.
"You had some good reasons to concentrate on yourself the past few weeks," Sam said. "I don't know that I could have recovered the way you have. I'm real proud of you."
I didn't know what to say. I looked down at the bar, reached for a cloth to polish away a ring. "If you need me to start a petition or call my state representative, you just say the word," I told him. "No one should make you register anywhere. You're an American. Born and bred."
"That's the way I look at it. It's not like I'm any different from the way I've always been. The only difference is that now people know about it. How did the pack run go?"
I'd almost forgotten about it. "They seemed to have a good time, far as I can tell," I said cautiously. "I met Annabelle and the new guy, Basim. Why is Alcide beefing up the ranks? Have you heard anything about what's been happening in the Long Tooth pack?"
"Well, I told you I'd been dating one of them," he said, looking away at the bottles behind the bar as if he were trying to spot one that was still dusty. If this conversation continued in the same vein, the whole bar would be spanking clean.
"Who would that be?" Since this was the second time he'd mentioned it, I figured it was okay for me to ask.
His fascination with the bottles was transferred to the cash register. "Ah, Jannalynn. Jannalynn Hopper."
"Oh," I said, in a neutral way. I was trying to give myself a little time to make my face bland and receptive.
"She was there the night we fought the pack that was trying to take over. She, ah ... took care of the wounded enemies."
That was an extreme euphemism. She'd cracked their skulls with her clenched fists. Trying to prove that it wasn't National Tactless Day at my house, I said, "Oh, yes. The, ah, very slim girl. The young one."
"She's not as young as she looks," Sam said, bypassing the obvious fact that her age was not the first issue one could have with Jannalynn.
"Okeydokey. How old is she?"
"Oh, well, she's quite a girl," I said solemnly. I forced a smile to my lips. "Seriously, Sam, I'm not judging your choice." Not much. "Jannalynn's really, really ... She's dynamic."
"Thanks," he said, his face clearing. "She gave me a call after we fought in the pack war. She's into lions." Sam had changed into a lion that night, the better to fight. He'd made a magnificent king of beasts.
"So, how long have you two been dating?"
"We've been talking for a while, but we went out for the first time maybe three weeks ago."
"Well, that's great," I said. I made myself relax and smile more naturally. "You sure you don't need a note from her mom?"
Sam threw the dust cloth at me. I grabbed it and threw it back.
"Can you two quit playing? I got to talk to Sam," Tanya said. She'd come in without my hearing her.
She's never going to be my best friend, but she's a good worker and she's willing to come in two evenings a week after she gets off her day job at Norcross. "You want me to leave?" I asked.
"No, that's okay."
"Sorry, Tanya. What do you need?" Sam asked, smiling.
"I need you to change my name on my paychecks," Tanya said.
"You changed your name?" I must have been extra slow that day. But Sam would have said it if I hadn't; he looked just as blank.
"Yeah, me and Calvin went to a courthouse across the state line in Arkansas and got married," she said. "I'm Tanya Norris now."
Sam and I both stared at Tanya in a moment of silent astonishment.
"Congratulations!" I said heartily. "I know you'll be real happy." I wasn't so sure about Calvin being happy, but at least I managed to say something nice.
Sam chimed in, too, with all the right things. Tanya showed us her wedding ring, a broad gold band, and after going into the kitchen to show it to Antoine and D'Eriq, she left as abruptly as she'd arrived to drive back to work at Norcross. She'd mentioned they'd registered at Target and Wal-Mart for the few things they needed, so Sam dashed into his office and picked out a wall clock to give them from all the Merlotte's employees. He put a jar out by the bar for our contributions, and I dropped in a ten.
By that time, people were coming in for lunch, and I had to get busy. "I never did get around to asking you some questions," I said to Sam. "Maybe before I leave work?"
"Sure, Sook," he said, and began filling glasses with iced tea. It was a warm day.
After I'd served drinks and food for about an hour, I was surprised to see Claude coming through the door. Even in rumpled clothes he'd obviously picked up off the floor to pull on, he looked breathtakingly gorgeous. He'd pulled his hair back into a messy ponytail ... and it didn't detract.
It was almost enough to make you hate him, really.
Claude slouched over to me as if he were in Merlotte's every day ... and as if his kind and tactful moment last night had never been. "The water heater's not working," he said.
"Hi, Claude. Good to see you," I said. "Did you sleep well? I'm so glad. I slept well, too. I guess you better do something about the water heater, huh? If you want to shower and wash your clothes. Remember me asking you to help me out by handling some things I can't? You could call Hank Clearwater. He's come out to the house before."
"I can go have a look," a voice said. I turned to see Terry Bellefleur standing behind me. Terry is a Vietnam War vet, and he's got some awful scars - both the kind you can see and the kind you can't. He'd been very young when he'd gone to war. He'd been very old when he returned. His auburn hair was graying, but it was still thick, and long enough to braid. I'd always gotten along real well with Terry, who could do just about anything around the yard or in the house, by way of repairs.
"I would sure appreciate it," I said. "But I don't want to take advantage, Terry." He'd always been kind to me. He'd cleared away the debris of my burned kitchen so the builders could start working on the new one, and I'd had to insist he take a fair wage for it.
"No problem," he muttered, his eyes on his old work boots. Terry survived on a monthly government check and on several odd jobs. For example, he came into Merlotte's either very late at night or early in the morning to clean the tables and the bathrooms, and to mop the floors. He always said keeping busy kept him fit, and it was true that Terry was still built.
"I'm Claude Crane, Sookie's cousin." Claude held out his hand to Terry.
Terry muttered his own name and took Claude's hand. His eyes came up to meet Claude's. Terry's eyes were unexpectedly beautiful, a rich golden brown and heavily lashed. I'd never noticed before. I realized I'd never thought about Terry as a man before.
After the handshake, Terry looked startled. When he was faced with something out of his normal path, usually Terry reacted badly; the only question was of degree. But at the moment, Terry seemed more puzzled than frightened or angry.
"Ah, did you want me to come look at it now?" Terry asked. "I have a couple of hours free."
"That would be wonderful," Claude said. "I want my shower, and I want a hot one." He smiled at Terry.
"Dude, I'm not gay," Terry said, and the expression on Claude's face was priceless. I'd never seen Claude nonplussed before.
"Thanks, Terry, I'd sure appreciate it," I said briskly. "Claude's got a key, and he'll let you in. If you have to buy some parts, just give me the receipts. You know I'm good for it." I might have to transfer some money from my savings to my checking, but I still had what I thought of as my "vampire money" safely stashed at the bank. And Mr. Cataliades would be sending me poor Claudine's money, too. Something relaxed inside me every time I thought about that bit of money. I'd been balanced on the fine edge of poverty so many times that I was used to it, and the knowledge of that money I'd be able to sock in the bank was a huge relief to me.
Terry nodded and then went out the back door to get his pickup. I speared Claude with a scowl. "That man is very fragile," I said. "He had a bad war. Just remember that."
Claude's face was slightly flushed. "I'll remember," he said. "I've been in wars myself." He gave me another quick graze on the cheek, to show me he'd recovered from the blow to his pride. I could feel the envy of every woman in the bar beating against me. "I'll be gone to Monroe by the time you get home, I suppose. Thanks, Cousin."
Sam came to stand beside me as Claude went out the door. "Elvis has left the building," he said dryly.
"No, I haven't seen him in a while," I said, definitely on auto-mouth. Then I shook myself. "Sorry, Sam. Claude's one of a kind, isn't he?"
"I haven't seen Claudine in a while. She's a lot of fun," Sam said. "Claude seems to be ... more typical of the general run of fairies." There was a question in his voice.
"We won't be seeing Claudine anymore," I said. "As far as I know, we won't be seeing any fairies but Claude. The doors are shut. However that works. Though I understand there's still one or two lurking around my house."
"There's a lot you haven't told me," he said.
"We need to catch up," I agreed.
"What about this evening? After you get off? Terry's supposed to come back and do some repairs that have piled up around here, but Kennedy is scheduled to take the bar." Sam looked a little worried. "I hope Claude doesn't make another pass at Terry. Claude's ego is as big as a barn, and Terry's so ... You never know how he's going to take stuff."
"Terry's a grown man," I reminded Sam. Of course, I was trying to reassure myself. "They both are."
"Claude isn't a man at all," Sam said. "Though he's a male."
It was a huge relief when I noticed Terry'd returned an hour later. He seemed absolutely normal, not flustered, angry, or anything else.
I had always tried to keep out of Terry's head, because it could be a very frightening place. Terry did well as long as he kept his focus on one thing at a time. He thought about his dogs a lot. He'd kept one of the puppies from his bitch's last litter, and he was training the youngster. (In fact, if ever a dog was taught to read, Terry would be the man who'd done it.)
After he'd worked on a loose doorknob in Sam's office, Terry sat at one of my tables and ordered a salad and some sweet tea. After I took his order, Terry silently handed me a receipt. He'd had to get a new element for the water heater. "It's all fi xed now," he said. "Your cousin was able to get his hot shower."
"Thanks, Terry," I said. "I'm going to give you something for your time and labor."
"Not a problem," Terry said. "Your cousin took care of that." He turned his attention to his magazine. He'd brought a copy of Louisiana Hunting and Fishing to read while he waited for his food.
I wrote Terry a check for the element and gave it to him when I brought his food. He nodded and slipped it in his pocket. Since Terry's schedule meant he wasn't always available to fill in, Sam had hired another bartender so he could have some regular evenings off. The new bartender, who'd been at work for a couple of weeks, was really pretty in a supersized way. Kennedy Keyes was five-eleven, easy; taller than Sam, for sure. She had the kind of good looks you associate with traditional beauty queens: shoulder-length chestnut hair with discreet blond highlights, wide brown eyes, a white and even smile that was an orthodontist's wet dream. Her skin was perfect, her back straight, and she'd graduated from Southern Arkansas University with a degree in psychology.
She'd also done time.
Sam had asked her if she wanted a job when she'd drifted in for lunch the day after she'd gotten out of jail. She hadn't even asked what she'd be doing before she'd said yes. He'd given her a basic bartender's guide, and she'd studied every spare moment until she'd mastered an amazing number of drinks.
"Sookie!" she said, as if we'd been best friends since childhood. That was Kennedy's way. "How you doing?"
"Good, thank you. Yourself?"
"Happy as a clam." She bent to check the number of sodas in the glass-fronted refrigerator behind the bar. "We need us some A&W," she said.
"Coming right up." I got the keys from Sam, then went back to the stockroom to find a case of root beer. I got two six-packs.
"I didn't mean you to get that. I coulda gotten them!" Kennedy smiled at me. Her smile was kind of perpetual. "I appreciate it."
"Do I look any smaller, Sookie?" she said hopefully. She half turned to show me her butt and looked at me over her own shoulder.
Kennedy's issue didn't seem to be that she had been in jail, but that she had put on weight in jail. The food had been crappy, she'd told me, and it had been high on the carbohydrate count. "But I'm an emotional eater," she'd said, as if that were a terrible thing. "And I was real emotional in jail." Ever since she'd gotten back to Bon Temps, she'd been anxious to return to her beauty queen measurements.
She was still beautiful. There was just more of her to look good.
"You're gorgeous, as always," I said. I looked around for Danny Prideaux. Sam had asked Danny to come in when Kennedy was working at night. This arrangement was supposed to last for a month, until Sam was sure people wouldn't take advantage of Kennedy.
"You know," she said, interpreting my glance, "I can handle myself."
Everyone in Bon Temps knew that Kennedy could handle herself, and that was the problem. Her reputation might constitute a challenge to certain men (certain men who were assholes). "I know you can," I said mildly. Danny Prideaux was insurance.
And there he came through the door. He was taller than Kennedy by a couple of inches, and he was of some racial mixture that I hadn't figured out. Danny had deep olive skin, short brown hair, and a broad face. He'd been out of the army for a month, and he hadn't yet settled into a career of any sort. He worked part-time at the home builders' supply store. He was willing enough to be a bouncer for a few nights a week, especially since he got to look at Kennedy the whole time.
Sam drifted out of his office to say good night and brief Kennedy on a customer whose check had bounced, and then he and I went out the back door together. "Let's go to Crawdad Diner," he suggested. That sounded good to me. It was an old restaurant just off the square around the courthouse. Like all the businesses in the area around the square, the oldest part of Bon Temps, the diner had a history. The original owners had been Perdita and Crawdad Jones, who'd opened the restaurant in the forties. When Perdita had retired, she'd sold the business to Charlsie Tooten's husband, Ralph, who'd quit his job at the chicken processing plant to take over. Their deal was that Perdita would give Ralph all her recipes if he'd agree to keep the name Crawdad Diner. When Ralph's arthritis had forced him to retire, he'd sold Crawdad Diner to Pinkie Arnett with the same condition. So generations of Bon Temps diners were ensured of getting the best bread pudding in the state, and the heirs of Perdita and Crawdad Jones were able to point with pride.
I told Sam this bit of local history after we'd ordered country-fried steak with green beans and rice.
"Thank God Pinkie got the bread pudding recipe, and when the green tomatoes are in season, I want to come in every other night to have 'em fried," Sam said. "How's living with your cousin?" He squeezed his lemon slice into his tea.
"I hardly know yet. He just moved in some stuff, and we haven't had a lot of overlap."
"Have you seen him strip?" Sam laughed. "I mean, professionally? I sure couldn't do that on a stage with people watching."
Physically, there sure wouldn't be anything stopping him. I'd seen Sam naked when he changed from a shifter form into human. Yum. "No, I always planned on going with Amelia, but since she went back to New Orleans I haven't been in a strip-club kind of mood. You should ask Claude for a job on your nights off," I said, grinning.
"Oh, sure," he said sarcastically, but he looked pleased.
We talked about Amelia's departure for a while, and then I asked Sam about his family in Texas. "My mom's divorce came through," he said. "Of course, my stepdad's been in jail since he shot her, so she hasn't seen him in months. At this point, I'm guessing the main difference to her is going to be financial. She's getting my dad's military pension, but she doesn't know if her job at the school will be waiting for her or not when the summer's over. They hired a substitute for the rest of the school year after she got shot, and they're waffling over having Mom back."
Before she'd gotten shot, Sam's mom had been the receptionist/ secretary at an elementary school. Not everyone was calm about having a woman who turned into an animal working in the same office as them, though Sam's mom was the same woman she'd been before. I was baffled by this attitude.
The waitress brought our plates and a basket of rolls. I sighed with anticipated pleasure. This was much nicer than cooking for myself.
"Any news on Craig's wedding?" I asked, when I could yank myself away from my country-fried steak.
"They finished couples counseling," he said with a shrug. "Now her parents want them to have genetics counseling, whatever that is."
"Some people just think anything different is bad," Sam said as he buttered his second roll. "And it's not like Craig could change." As the firstborn of a pure shifter couple, only Sam felt the call of the moon.
"I'm sorry." I shook my head. "I know the situation's hard on everyone in your family."
He nodded. "My sister Mindy's gotten over it pretty well. She let me play with the kids the last time I saw them, and I'm going to try to get over to Texas for the Fourth of July. Her town has a big fireworks display, and the whole family goes. I think I'd enjoy it."
I smiled. They were lucky to have Sam in their family - that was what I thought. "Your sister must be pretty smart," I said. I took a big bite of country-fried steak with milk gravy. It was blissful.
He laughed. "Listen, while we're talking family," he said. "You ready to tell me how you're really doing? You told me about your great-grandfather and what happened. How are your injuries? I don't want to sound like I expect you to tell me everything that goes on in your life. But you know I care."
I did a little hesitating myself. But it felt right to tell Sam, so I tried to give him a nutshell account of the past week. "And JB has been helping me with some physical therapy," I added.
"You're walking like nothing happened, unless you get tired," he observed.
"There's a couple of bad patches on my left upper thigh where the flesh actually ... Okay, not going there." I looked down at my napkin for a minute or two. "It grew back. Mostly. There's a kind of dimple. I have a few scars, but they're not terrible. Eric doesn't seem to mind." In fact, he had a scar or two from his human life, though they hardly showed against the whiteness of his skin.
"Are you, ah, coping okay with it?"
"I have nightmares sometimes," I confessed. "And I have some panic moments. But let's not talk about it anymore." I smiled at him, my brightest smile. "Look at us after all these years, Sam. I'm living with a fairy, I've got a vampire boyfriend, you're dating a werewolf who cracks skulls. Would we ever have thought we'd say this, the first day I came to work at Merlotte's?"
Sam leaned forward and briefly put his hand over mine, and just then Pinkie herself came by the table to ask us how we'd liked the food. I pointed to my nearly empty plate. "I think you can tell we did," I said, smiling at her. She grinned back. Pinkie was a big woman who clearly enjoyed her own cooking. Some new customers came in, and she went off to seat them.
Sam took his hand back and began working on his food again. "I wish ..." Sam began, and then he closed his mouth. He ran a hand through his red gold hair. Since he'd had it trimmed so short, it had looked tamer than usual until he tousled it. He laid his fork down, and I noticed he'd managed to dispose of almost all his food, too.
"What do you wish?" I asked. Most people, I'd be scared to ask them to complete that sentence. But Sam and I had been friends for years.
"I wish that you would find happiness with someone else," he said. "I know, I know. It's none of my business. Eric does seem to really care about you, and you deserve that."
"He does," I said. "He's what I've got, and I'd be real ungrateful if I weren't happy with that. We love each other." I shrugged, in a self-deprecating way. I was uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation.
Sam nodded, though a wry twist to the corner of his mouth told me, without even hearing his thoughts, that Sam didn't think Eric was such an object of worth. I was glad I couldn't hear all his thoughts clearly. I thought Jannalynn was equally inappropriate for Sam. He didn't need a ferocious, anything-for-the-packmaster kind of woman. He needed to be with someone who thought he was the greatest man around.
But I didn't say anything.
You can't say I'm not tactful.
It was dreadfully tempting to tell Sam what had happened the night before. But I just couldn't. I didn't want to involve Sam in vampire shit any more than he already was, which was very little. No one needed stuff like that. Of course, I'd worried all day about the fallout from those events.
My cell phone rang while Sam was paying his half of the bill. I glanced at it. Pam was calling. My heart leaped into my throat. I stepped outside the diner.
"What's up?" I asked, sounding just as anxious as I really was.
"Hello to you, too."
"Pam, what happened?" I wasn't in the mood for playfulness.
"Bruno and Corinna didn't show up in New Orleans for work today," Pam said solemnly. "Victor didn't call here, because, of course, there was no good reason for them to come up here."
"Did they find the car?"
"Not yet. I'm sure the highway-patrol officers have put a sticker on it today, asking the owners to come and remove it. That's what they do, I've observed."
"Yes. That's what they do."
"No bodies will appear. Especially since after the downpour of last night, there won't be a trace." Pam sounded smug about that. "No blame can attach to us."
I stood there, phone to my ear, on an empty sidewalk in my little town, the streetlight only a few feet away. I'd seldom felt more alone. "I wish it had been Victor," I said, from the bottom of my heart.
"You want to kill someone else?" Pam sounded mildly surprised.
"No, I want it to be over. I want everything to be okay. I don't want any more killing at all." Sam came out of the restaurant behind me and heard the distress in my voice. I felt his hand on my shoulder. "I have to go, Pam. Keep me posted."
I shut the phone and turned to face Sam. He was looking troubled, and the light streaming from overhead cast deep shadows on his face.
"You're in trouble," he said.
I could only keep silent.
"I know you can't talk about it, but if you ever feel like you have to, you know where I am," he said.
"You, too," I said, because I figured with a girlfriend like Jannalynn, Sam might be in almost as bad a position as I was.
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