Chapter 9

Alcide changed to some boots he had in the truck, and he shed his tie and coat. Jannalynn wisely took off her spike-heeled sandals and Annabelle her own more modest heels. I gave them both some sneakers of mine, and I offered Jannalynn an old T-shirt to cover her shiny silver dress so it wouldn't snag in the woods. She pulled it over her head. She even said, "Thanks," though she didn't sound actually grateful. I retrieved two shovels from the toolshed. Alcide took one shovel, Eric the other. Jason carried one of those great big flashlights called a lantern that he'd fished out of the toolbox on his truck. The lantern was for my benefit. The vampires could see perfectly well in the dark, and the Weres could see very well, too. Since Jason was a werepanther, he had excellent night vision. I was the blind one in the group.

"Do we know where we're going?" Annabelle said.

"Heidi said it was due east, close to the stream, in a clearing," I said, and we slogged eastward. I kept running into stuff, and after a while Eric handed off his shovel to Jason and crouched so I could cling to his back. I kept my head tucked behind his so branches wouldn't hit me in the face. Our progress was smoother after that.

"I smell it," Jannalynn said suddenly. She was out ahead of us all, as if her job in the pack were to make the way clear for the packleader. She was a different woman out in the woods. Though I couldn't see very well, I could see that. She was quick, sure-footed, and decisive. She darted ahead, and after a moment she called back, "Here it is!"

We got there to find her standing over a patch of dirt in a little clearing. It had been disturbed recently, though an attempt had been made to camouflage that disturbance.

Eric eased me down onto the ground, and Jason shone the lantern at the earth. "It's not ... ?" I whispered, knowing everyone there could hear me.

"No," Eric said firmly. "Too recent." Not Debbie Pelt. She was elsewhere, in an older grave.

"Only one way to find out who it is," Alcide said. Jason and Alcide began to dig, and since they were both very strong, it went quickly. Alexei came over to stand by me, and it occurred to me that a grave in the woods had to be a bad flashback for him. I put an arm around him as if he were still human, though I noticed that Appius gave me a sardonic look. Alexei's eyes were on the gravediggers, especially Jason. I knew this child could dig the grave with his bare hands as fast as they were digging with shovels, but Alexei looked so frail it was hard to think of him being as strong as other vampires. I wondered how many people had made that mistake in the past few decades, and how many of those had died at Alexei's small hands.

Jason and Alcide could make the dirt fly. While they worked, Annabelle and Jannalynn prowled around the little clearing, probably trying to pick up what scents they could. Despite the rain of two nights ago, there might be something in the areas protected by the trees. Heidi hadn't been looking for a murderer; she'd been trying to make a list of who'd crossed the land. I was thinking that the only creatures who hadn't been tromping through my woods had been regular old humans. If the Weres were lying, a Were could be the killer. Or it could be one of the fae, who were a violent race, as I had observed. Or the killer could be Bill, since Heidi thought the vampire she'd scented was my neighbor.

I hadn't smelled the body while it was under the dirt as the others had, since my sense of smell was only a fraction of theirs. But as the dirt piles grew and the hole got deeper, I could tell it was there. Oh gosh, could I.

I put my hand across my nose, which didn't help at all. I couldn't imagine how the others were enduring it, since it would be so much sharper to their senses. Maybe they were also more practical, or simply more accustomed.

Then both the diggers stopped. "He's wrapped up," Jason said. Alcide bent over and fumbled with something at the bottom of the hole.

"I think I got it pulled apart," Alcide said after a moment.

"Pass me the lantern, Sookie," Jason said, and I tossed it to him. He shone it down. "I don't know this man," he said.

"I do," said Alcide in a strange voice. Annabelle and Jannalynn were at the edge of the grave instantly. I had to brace myself to step forward to look down into the pit.

I recognized him instantly. The three Weres threw back their heads and howled.

"It's the Long Tooth enforcer," I told the vampires. I gagged and had to wait a minute before I could go on. "It's Basim al Saud." The passage of days had made a great difference, but I knew him instantly. Those corkscrew curls I'd envied, the muscled body.

"Shit," screamed Jannalynn, when the howling was done.

And that about summed it up.

When the Weres had calmed down, there was a lot to talk about.

"I only met him the once," I said. "Of course, he was fine when he got in the truck with Alcide and Annabelle."

"He told me what he'd smelled on the property, and I told him to tell Sookie," Alcide told Eric. "She had a right to know. We didn't talk about anything in particular on the way back to Shreveport, did we, Annabelle?"

"No," she said, and I could tell she was crying.

"I dropped him off at his apartment. When I called him the next day to go with me to a meeting with our representative, he said he had to pass because he had to work. He was a website designer, and he had a meeting with an important client. I wasn't too happy he couldn't go, but of course, the guy had to make a living." Alcide shrugged.

Annabelle said, "He didn't have to work that day."

There was a moment of silence.

"I was at his apartment when you called," she said, and I could tell the effort she was expending to keep her voice calm and level. "I had been there a few hours."

Wow. Unexpected revelation. Jason had hopped out of the grave, and he and I gave each other big eyes. This was like one of Gran's "stories," the soap operas she'd watched religiously.

Alcide growled. The ritual howling for the dead had brought out the wolf in him.

"I know," Annabelle said. "And we'll talk about it later. I'll take my punishment, which I deserve. But Basim's death is more important than my bad judgment. This is my duty, to tell you what happened. Basim got a phone call before yours, and he didn't want me to hear it. But I heard enough to understand his conversation was with someone who was paying him."

Alcide's growl intensified. Jannalynn was standing close to her pack sister, and the only way I can put it was that she was aimed at Annabelle. She was crouching slightly, her hands curved as if they were about to sprout claws.

Alexei had edged close to Jason, and when the tension kept ratcheting up, Jason's arm slung around the boy's shoulders. Jason was having the same problem separating illusion and reality that I was.

Annabelle flinched at the sound coming from Alcide, but she kept on going. "So Basim made up an excuse to get me out of the apartment, and he took off. I tried to follow him, but I lost him."

"You were suspicious," Jannalynn said. "But you didn't call the packmaster. You didn't call me. You didn't call anyone. We took you in and made you a member of our pack, and you betrayed us." Suddenly, she hit Annabelle in the head with her fist, actually leaping into the air to land the blow. Just like that, Annabelle was on the ground. I gasped, and I wasn't the only one.

But I was the only one who noticed that Jason was straining to hold Alexei back. Something about the violence in the air had sent the boy over the edge. If he'd been a little bigger, Jason would've been on the ground. I punched Eric in the arm, jerked my head in the direction of the struggle. Eric leaped over to help Jason restrain the boy, who fought and snarled in their arms.

For a moment there was silence in the dark clearing as everyone watched Alexei struggle with his madness. Appius Livius looked profoundly sad. He worked his way into the knot of limbs and wrapped his own arms around his child. "Sshhhhhh," he said. "My son, be still." And gradually Alexei grew quiet.

Alcide's voice was very close to a rumble when he said, "Jannalynn, you are my new second. Annabelle, get up. This is pack business now, and we'll settle it at a pack meeting." He turned his back on us and began moving.

The Weres were simply going to walk out of the woods and drive away. "Excuse me," I said sharply. "There's the little matter of the body being buried on my land. I think there's something pretty damn significant about that."

The Weres stopped walking.

Eric said, "Yes." The one word carried a lot of weight. "Alcide, I believe Sookie and I need to sit in on your pack meeting."

"Only pack members," Jannalynn snapped. "No oneys, no deaders." She was still as small as ever, but with her field promotion to second, she seemed harder and stronger in spirit. She was a ruthless little thing, no doubt about it. I thought Sam was mighty brave, or mighty foolish.

"Alcide?" Eric said quietly.

"Sookie can bring Jason, since he's two-natured," Alcide growled. "She's a oney, but she's a friend of the pack. No vamps."

Eric glanced at my brother. "Jason, will you accompany your sister?"

"Sure," Jason said.

So it was settled. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Annabelle stagger to her feet and reorient herself. Jannalynn packed a wallop.

"What are you going to do with the body?" I called after Alcide, who was definitely moving out. "Do you want us to cover him back up or what?"

Annabelle took a hesitant step after Jannalynn and Alcide. That was going to be a happy ride back to Shreveport. "Someone will come get him tonight," Jannalynn called over her shoulder. "So there'll be activity in your woods. Don't be alarmed." When Annabelle glanced back, I noticed she was bleeding from one corner of her mouth. I felt the vampires come to attention. In fact, Alexei stepped away from Jason and would have followed her if Appius Livius hadn't kept his grip on the boy.

"Should we cover him back up?" Jason said.

"If they're sending a crew to get him, that seems like wasted effort," I said. "Eric, I'm so glad you sent Heidi. Otherwise ..." I thought hard. "Listen, if he was buried on my land, it was so he could be found here, right? So there's no telling when someone's going to get a tip to come looking for him."

The only one who seemed to follow my reasoning was Jason, who said, "Okay, we got to get him out of here."

I was flapping my hands in the air, I was so anxious. "We've got to put him somewhere," I said. "We could just set him in the cemetery!"

"Naw, too close," Jason said.

"What about the pond behind your house?" I said.

"Naw, dammit! The fish! I couldn't ever eat those fish again."

"Aaargh," I said. Really!

"Is your time with her usually like this?" Appius Livius asked Eric, who was smart enough not to answer.

"Sookie," he said. "It won't be pleasant, but I think I can fly carrying him if you can suggest a good place to put him."

I felt like my brain was running through a maze and hitting all the dead ends. I actually smacked myself on the side of the head to jog an idea loose. It worked. "Sure, Eric. Put him in the woods right across the road from my driveway. There's a little bit of a driveway left there, but no house. The Weres can use the driveway as a marker when they come to retrieve him. Cause someone's coming to find him, and coming soon."

Without further discussion, Eric leaped into the hole and rewrapped Basim in the sheet or whatever the wrapping was. Though the lantern showed me his face was full of disgust, he scooped up the decomposing body and leaped into the air. He was out of view in a second.

"Damn," said Jason, impressed. "Cool."

"Let's fill in this grave," I said. We set to work, with Appius Livius watching. It obviously didn't occur to him that his help would make the job go much faster. Even Alexei shoved in piles of dirt, and he seemed to be having a pretty good time doing it. This was probably as close to a normal activity as the thirteen-year-old had come in some time. Gradually, the hole filled in. It still looked like a grave. The tsarevitch tore at the hard edges with his small hands. I almost protested, but then I saw what he was doing. He reconfigured the grave-shaped dent until it looked like an irregular dent, maybe created by rain or a collapsed mole tunnel. He beamed at us when he'd finished, and Jason clapped him on the back. Jason got a branch and swept it over the area, and then we tossed leaves and branches around. Alexei enjoyed that part, too.

Finally, we gave up. I couldn't think of one more thing to do.

Filthy and frightened, I shouldered one of the shovels and prepared to make my way through the woods. Jason took the other shovel in his right hand, and Alexei took Jason's left hand, as if he were even younger than the child he looked. My brother, though his face was a picture, kept hold of the vampire. Appius Livius at last made himself useful by leading us through the trees and undergrowth with some assurance.

Eric was at the house when we reached it. He'd already thrown his clothes into the garbage and gotten into the shower. Under other circumstances, I would have loved to join him, but it just wasn't possible to feel sexy at the moment. I was grimy and nasty, but I was still the hostess, so I heated up some more TrueBlood for the two visiting vampires and showed them the downstairs bathroom in case they wanted to wash up.

Jason came into the kitchen to tell me that he was going to shove off.

"Let me know when the meeting is," he said in a subdued way. "And I gotta report all this to Calvin, you know."

"I understand," I said, weary to death of politics of all kinds. I wondered if America knew what it was in for when it considered requiring the two-natured to register. America was really better off not having to go through this crap. Human politics were tedious enough.

Jason went out the back door. A second later, I heard his truck roaring away. Almost as soon as Appius Livius and Alexei had had their drinks, Eric came out of my bedroom in fresh clothes (he kept a change at my house) and smelling very much like my apricot body wash. With his maker around, Eric could hardly have a heart-to-heart with me, assuming he wanted to. He wasn't exactly acting like my honey now that his dad was in the house. There could be several reasons for this. I didn't like any of them.

Soon afterward, the three vampires left for Shreveport. Appius Livius thanked me for my hospitality in such an impassive way that I had no idea whether he was being sarcastic. Eric was as silent as a stone. Alexei, as calm and smiling as if he'd never gone mad, gave me a cold embrace. I had a hard time accepting it with equal calm.

Three seconds after they were out the door, I was on the phone.

"Fangtasia, where all your bloody dreams come true," said a bored female voice.

"Pam. Listen."

"The phone is pressed to my ear. Speak."

"Appius Livius Ocella just dropped in."

"Fuck a zombie!"

I wasn't sure that I'd heard that correctly. "Yes, he's been here. I guess he's your granddad? Anyway, he's got a new prot¨¦g¨¦ with him, and they're heading for Eric's to spend the day."

"What does he want?"

"He hasn't said yet."

"How is Eric?"

"Very tightly wound. Plus, a lot of stuff happened that he'll tell you about."

"Thanks for the warning. I'll go to the house now. You're my favorite breather."

"Oh. Well ... great."

She hung up. I wondered what preparations she would make. Would the vamps and humans who worked at the Shreveport night-club go into a cleaning frenzy at Eric's? I'd only seen Pam and Bobby Burnham there, though I assumed some of the crew came in from time to time. Would Pam rush some willing humans over to act as bedtime snacks?

I was too tense to think about going to bed. Whatever Eric's maker was doing here, it wasn't something I was going to like. And I already knew Appius Livius's presence was bad for our relationship. While I was in the shower - and before I picked up the wet towels Eric had left on the floor - I did some serious thinking.

Vampire plotting can be pretty convoluted. But I tried to imagine the significance of the Roman's surprise visit. Surely he hadn't shown up in America, in Louisiana, in Shreveport, just to catch up on the geezer gossip.

Maybe he needed a loan. That wouldn't be too bad. Eric could always make more money. Though I had no idea how Eric stood financially, I had a little nest egg in the bank since Sophie-Anne's estate had paid up the money she'd owed me. And whatever Claudine had had in her checking account would be coming to join it. If Eric needed it, he could have it.

But what if money wasn't the issue? Maybe Appius Livius needed to hole up because he'd gotten in trouble somewhere else. Maybe some Bolshevik vampires were after Alexei! That would be interesting. I could always hope they'd catch up with Appius Livius ... as long as it wasn't at Eric's house.

Or perhaps Eric's maker had been courted by Felipe de Castro or Victor Madden because they wanted something from Eric that he hadn't given up yet, and they planned on using Eric's maker to pull his strings.

But here was my most likely scenario: Appius Livius Ocella had dropped by with his "new" boy toy just to mess with Eric's head. That was the guess I was putting my money on. Appius Livius was hard to read. At moments he seemed okay. He seemed to care about Eric, and he seemed to care about Alexei. As for Eric's maker's relationship with Alexei - the boy would have died if Appius Livius hadn't intervened. Given the circumstances - Alexei's witnessing the murders of his entire family and their servants and friends - letting the tsarevitch die might have been a blessing.

I was sure Appius Livius was having sex with Alexei, but it was impossible to tell whether Alexei's passive demeanor came from the fact that he was in an unwanted sexual relationship or from his being permanently traumatized from seeing his family shot multiple times. I shuddered. I dried off and brushed my teeth, hoping I could sleep.

I realized there was another phone call I should make. With great reluctance, I called Bobby Burnham, Eric's daytime guy. Bobby and I had never liked each other. Bobby was weirdly jealous of me, though he didn't have the hots for Eric sexually at all. In Bobby's opinion, I diverted Eric's attention and energy away from its proper focus, which was Bobby and the business affairs he handled for Eric while Eric slept the day away. I was down on Bobby because instead of silently disliking me, he actively tried to make my life more difficult, which was a whole different kettle of fish. But still, we were both in the Eric business.

"Bobby, it's Sookie."

"I got caller ID."

Mr. Sullen. "Bobby, I think you ought to know that Eric's maker is in town. When you go over to get your instructions, be careful." Bobby normally got briefed right before Eric went to ground for the day, unless Eric stayed over at my place.

Bobby took his time with his reply - probably trying to figure out if I was playing some elaborate practical joke on him. "Is he likely to want to bite me?" he asked. "The maker?"

"I don't know what he's going to want, Bobby. I just felt like I ought to give you a heads-up."

"Eric won't let him hurt me," Bobby said confidently.

"Just as general information - if this guy says jump, Eric has to ask how high."

"No way," Bobby said. To Bobby, Eric was the most powerful creature under the moon.

"Way. They gotta mind their maker. This is no lie."

Bobby had to have heard that news item before. I know there's some kind of website or message board for vampires' human assistants. I'm sure they swap all kinds of handy hints about dealing with their employers. Whatever the reason, Bobby didn't argue or accuse me of trying to deceive him, which was a nice change.

"Okay," he said, "I'm ready for 'em. Was ... What kind of person is Eric's maker?"

"He's not much like a person at all anymore," I said. "And he's got a thirteen-year-old boyfriend who used to be Russian royalty."

After a long silence, Bobby said, "Thanks. It's good to be prepared."

That was the nicest thing he'd ever said to me.

"You're welcome. Good night, Bobby," I said, and we hung up. We'd managed to have an entire civil conversation. Vampires, bringing America together!

I changed into a nightshirt and crawled into bed. I had to try to get some sleep, but it took its own sweet time coming. I kept seeing the light from the lantern dance across the clearing in the woods as the dirt mounded up around the edges of Basim's grave. And I saw the dead Were's face. But eventually, finally, the edges of that face blurred and darkness slid over me.

I slept late and heavily the next day. The minute I woke, I knew someone was in the kitchen cooking. I let my extra sense check it out, and I found that Claude was frying bacon and eggs. There was coffee in the pot, and I didn't need telepathy to know that. I could smell it. The perfume of morning.

After a trip to the bathroom, I stumbled into the hall and made my way into the kitchen. Claude was sitting at the table eating, and I could see there was enough coffee in the pot for me.

"There's food," he said, pointing to the stove.

I got a plate and a mug, and settled in for a good start to my day. I glanced over at the clock. It was Sunday, and Merlotte's wouldn't be open until the afternoon. Sam was trying Sundays again in a limited way, though the whole staff half hoped it wouldn't be profitable. As Claude and I ate in a companionable silence, I realized I felt wonderfully peaceful because Eric was in his day sleep. That meant I didn't have to feel him walking around with me. His problematic sire and his new "brother" were out of it, too. I sighed with relief.

"I saw Dermot last night," Claude said.

Crap! Well, so much for peace. "Where?" I asked.

"He was at the club. Staring at me with longing," Claude said.

"Dermot's gay?"

"No, I don't think so. It wasn't my dick he was thinking of. He wanted to be around another fairy."

"I sure hoped he was gone. Niall told Jason and me that Dermot helped kill my parents. I wish he'd gone into the fae land when it was closing up."

"He would have been killed on sight." Claude took the time to sip some coffee before he added, "No one in the fae world understands Dermot's actions. He should have sided with Niall from the beginning, because he's kin and because he's half-human and Niall wanted to spare humans. But his own self-loathing - or at least that's all I can imagine - led him to take the side of the fairies who really couldn't stand him, and that side lost." Claude looked happy. "So Dermot has cut off his own nose to spite his face. I love that saying. Sometimes humans put things very well."

"Do you think he still means to hurt my brother and me?"

"I don't think he ever intended to hurt you," Claude said, after thinking it over. "I think Dermot is crazy, though he used to be an agreeable guy a few score years ago. I don't know if it's his human side that's gone batshit, or his fae side that's soaked up too many toxins from the human world. I can't even explain his part in killing your parents. The Dermot I used to know would never have done such a thing."

I considered pointing out that truly crazy people can hurt others around them without meaning to, or without even realizing they're doing it. But I didn't. Dermot was my great-uncle, and according to everyone who'd met him, he was nearly a dead ringer for my brother. I admitted to myself I was curious about him. And I wondered about what Niall had said about Dermot having been the one who'd opened the truck doors so my parents could be pulled out and drowned by Neave and Lochlan. Dermot's behavior, the bit that I'd observed, didn't gibe with the horror of that incident. Would Dermot think of me as kin? Were Jason and I fae enough to attract him? I had doubted Bill's assertion that he felt better from my nearness because of my fairy blood.

"Claude, can you tell I'm not entirely human? How do I register on the fairy meter?" Fae-dar.

"If you were in a crowd of humans, I could pick you out blindfolded and say you are my kin," Claude said without hesitation. "But if you were in the middle of the fae, I would call you human. It's an elusive scent. Most vamps would think, 'She smells good,' and they'd enjoy being close to you. That would be the extent of it. Once they know you have fairy blood, they can attribute that enjoyment to it."

So Bill really could be comforted by my little streak of fae, at least now that he knew how to identify it. I got up to rinse off my plate and pour another mugful of coffee, and in passing I grabbed Claude's empty plate, too. He didn't thank me.

"I appreciate your cooking," I said. "We haven't talked about how we'll handle grocery expenses or household items."

Claude looked surprised. "I hadn't thought about it," he said.

Well, at least that was honest. "I'll tell you how Amelia and I did it," I said, and in a few sentences I laid out the guidelines. Looking a little stunned, Claude agreed.

I opened the refrigerator. "These two shelves are yours," I said, "and the rest are mine."

"I get it," he said.

Somehow I doubted that. Claude sounded like he was simply trying to give the impression that he understood and agreed. There was a good chance we'd have to have this conversation again. When he'd left to go upstairs, I took care of the dishes - after all, he'd cooked - and after I got dressed, I thought I'd read for a while. But I was too restless to concentrate on my book.

I heard cars coming down the driveway through the woods. I looked out the front window. Two police cars.

I'd been sure this was coming. But my heart sank down to my toes. Sometimes I hated being right. Whoever had killed Basim had planted his body on my land to implicate me in his death. "Claude," I called up the stairs. "Get decent, if you're not. The police are here."

Claude, curious as ever, came down the stairs at a trot. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, like me. We went out on the front porch. Bud Dearborn, the sheriff (the regular human sheriff), was in the first car, and Andy Bellefleur and Alcee Beck were in the second. The sheriff and two detectives - I must be a dangerous criminal.

Bud got out of his car slowly, the way he did most things these days. I knew from his thoughts that Bud was increasingly a victim to arthritis, and he had some doubts about his prostate, too. Bud's mashed-in face didn't give any hint about his physical discomfort as he came up to the porch, his heavy belt creaking with the weight of all the things hanging from it.

"Bud, what's up?" I asked. "Not that I'm not glad to see you-all."

"Sookie, we got an anonymous phone call," Bud said. "As you know, law enforcement couldn't solve much without anonymous tips, but I personally don't respect a person who won't tell you who they are."

I nodded.

"Who's your friend?" Andy asked. He looked worn. I'd heard his grandmother, who'd raised him, was on her deathbed. Poor Andy. He'd much rather be there than here. Alcee Beck, the other detective, really didn't like me. He never had, and his dislike had found a good foundation to settle on - his wife had been attacked by a Were who was trying to get to me. Even though I'd taken the guy out, Alcee was down on me. Maybe he was one of the rare people repulsed by my trace of fairy blood, but more likely, he just didn't care for me. There was no point in trying to win him over. I gave him a nod, which he did not return.

"This here is my cousin Claude Crane from Monroe," I said.

"How's he related?" Andy asked. All three of these men knew the skein of blood ties that bound together practically the whole parish.

"It's kind of embarrassing," Claude said. (Nothing would embarrass Claude, but he gave a good imitation.) "I'm from what you call the wrong side of the blanket."

For once, I was grateful to Claude for taking that weight. I cast my eyes down as though I couldn't bear to talk about the shame of it. "Claude and I are trying to get acquainted since we found out we were related," I said.

I could see that fact go into their mental files. "Why y'all here?" I asked. "What did the anonymous caller say?"

"That you had a body buried in your woods." Bud looked away as if he were a little ashamed to say something so outrageous, but I knew different. After years in law enforcement, Bud knew exactly what human beings could do, even the most normal-looking human beings. Even young blondes with big boobs. Maybe especially them.

"You didn't bring any tracking dogs," Claude observed. I was kind of hoping that Claude would keep his mouth shut, but I saw I wasn't going to get my wish.

"I think a physical search will do it," Bud said. "The location was real specific." (And the tracking dogs were expensive to hire, he thought.)

"Oh my gosh," I said, genuinely startled. "How could this person claim not to be involved if they knew where the body was exactly? I don't get it." I'd hoped Bud would tell me more, but he didn't bite.

Andy shrugged. "We got to go look."

"Look away," I said, with absolute confidence. If they'd brought the dogs, I'd have been sweating bullets that they'd scent Debbie Pelt or the former resting site of Basim. "You'll excuse me if I just stay here in the house while you-all tramp through the woods. I hope you don't pick up too many ticks." Ticks lurked on bushes and weeds, sensing your chemicals and body heat as you passed, then making a leap of faith. I watched Andy tuck his pants into his boots, and Bud and Alcee sprayed themselves.

After the men had disappeared into the woods, Claude said, "You'd better tell me why you're not scared."

"We moved the body last night," I said, and turned to sit down at the desk where I'd installed the computer I'd gotten from Hadley's apartment. Let Claude put that in his pipe and smoke it! After a few seconds, I heard him stomp back up the stairs.

Since I had to wait for the men to come out of the woods, I might as well check my e-mail. A lot of forwarded messages, most of them inspirational or patriotic, from Maxine Fortenberry, Hoyt's mother. I deleted those without reading them. I read an e-mail from Andy Bellefleur's pregnant wife, Halleigh. It was a strange coincidence, hearing from her while her husband was out in back of my house on a wild-goose chase.

Halleigh told me she was feeling great. Just great! But Grand-mama Caroline was failing fast, and Halleigh feared Miss Caroline wouldn't live to see her great-grandchild born.

Caroline Bellefleur was very old. Andy and Portia had been brought up in Miss Caroline's house after their parents had died. Miss Caroline had been a widow for longer than she'd been married. I had no memory of Mr. Bellefleur at all, and I was pretty sure Portia and Andy hadn't known him that long. Andy was older than Portia, and Portia was a year older than me, so I estimated that Miss Caroline, who'd once been Renard Parish's finest cook and had made the best chocolate cake in the world, was at least in her nineties.

"Anyway," Halleigh went on, "she wants to find the family Bible more than anything else on this earth. You know she's always got a bee in her bonnet, and now it's finding that Bible, which has been missing for umpty-ump years. I had a wild thought. She thinks way back our family was connected to some branch of the Comptons. Would you ask your neighbor, Mr. Compton, if he would mind very much looking for that old Bible? It seems like a long shot, but she hasn't lost any of her personality though she's physically weak."

That was a nice way of saying that Miss Caroline was bringing up that Bible real often.

I was in a quandary. I knew that Bible was over at the Compton house. And I knew after she studied it, Miss Caroline would find out that she was a direct descendant of Bill Compton. How she'd feel about that was anybody's guess. Did I want to screw with her world-view when the woman was on her deathbed?

On the other hand, did ... Oh, hell, I was tired of trying to balance everything out, and I had enough on my plate to worry about. In a reckless moment, I forwarded Halleigh's e-mail to Bill. I had come late to e-mail, and I still didn't entirely trust it. But at least I felt I'd put the ball into Bill's court. If he chose to lob it back, well, okay.

After I'd messed around a little on eBay, marveling at the things people were trying to sell, I heard voices in the front yard. I looked out to see Bud, Alcee, and Andy brushing dust and twigs off their clothes. Andy was rubbing at a bite on his neck.

I went outside. "Did you find a body?" I asked them.

"No, we did not," Alcee Beck said. "We did see that people had been back there."

"Well, sure," I said. "But no body?"

"We won't trouble you any further," Bud said shortly.

They left in a cloud of dust. I watched them go, and shivered. I felt like the guillotine had been descending on my neck and had been prevented from cutting off my head only because the rope was too short.

I went back to the computer and sent Alcide an e-mail. It said only, "The police were just here." I figured that would be enough. I knew I wouldn't hear from him until he was ready for me to come to Shreveport.

I was surprised that it took three days to receive a reply from Bill. Those days had been remarkable only for the number of people I hadn't heard from. I hadn't heard from Remy, which wasn't too extraordinary. None of the members of the Long Tooth pack called, so I could only assume they'd retrieved the body of Basim from its new resting place and that they would let me know when the meeting would be held. If someone came into my woods and tried to find out why Basim's body had vanished, I didn't know about it. And I didn't hear from Pam or Bobby Burnham, which was a little worrisome, but still ... no big.

What did gripe me in a major way was not hearing from Eric. Okay, his (maker, sire, dad) mentor Appius Livius Ocella was in town ... but geez Louise.

In between sessions of worrying, I looked up Roman names and found that "Appius" was his praenomen, his common name. Livius was his nomen, his family name, handed down from father to son, indicating that he was a member of the Livii family or clan. Ocella was his cognomen, so it was meant to indicate what particular branch of the Livii had borne him; or it could have been given as an honorific for his service in a war. (I had no idea what war that could have been.) As a third possibility, if he'd been adopted into another family, the cognomen would reflect his birth family.

Your name said a lot about you in the Roman world.

I wasted a lot of time finding out all about Appius Livius Ocella's name. I still had no idea what he wanted or what he intended to do to my boyfriend. And those were the things I needed to know the most. I have to say, I was feeling pretty sulky, pugnacious, and sullen (I looked up a few words while I was online). Not a pretty posy of emotions, but I couldn't seem to upgrade to dull unhappiness.

Cousin Claude was making himself scarce, too. I glimpsed him only once in those three days, and that was when I heard him go through the kitchen and out the back door and got up in time to see him getting into his car.

This goes to explain why I was delighted to see Bill at my back door when the sun had set on the third day after I'd sent him Halleigh's e-mail. He was not looking appreciably better than he had the last time I'd seen him, but he was dressed in a suit and tie and his hair was carefully combed. The Bible was under his arm.

I understood why he was groomed, what he meant to do. "Good," I said.

"Come with me," he said. "It will help if you're there."

"But they'll think ..." And then I made my mouth shut. It was unworthy to be worrying about the Bellefleurs' assuming Bill and I were a couple again when Caroline Bellefleur was about to meet her maker.

"Would that be so terrible?" he asked with simple dignity.

"No, of course not. I was proud to be your girlfriend," I said, and turned to go back to my room. "Please come in while I change clothes." I'd finished the lunch-and-afternoon shift, and I'd changed to shorts and a T-shirt.

Since I was in a hurry, I changed to an above-the-knee black skirt and a white cap-sleeve fitted blouse I'd gotten on sale at Stage. I slid a red leather belt through the belt loops and got some red sandals from the back of my closet. I fluffed my hair, and I was ready.

I drove us over in my car, which was beginning to need an alignment.

It wasn't a long ride to the Bellefleur mansion; it didn't take long to get anywhere in Bon Temps. We parked in the driveway at the front door, but as we'd driven up I'd glimpsed several cars in the back parking area. I'd seen Andy's car there, and Portia's, too. There was an ancient gray Chevy Chevette parked sort of unobtrusively at the rear, and I wondered if Miss Caroline had a round-the-clock caregiver.

We walked up to the double front doors. Bill didn't think it was appropriate ("seemly" was the word he used) to go to the back, and under the circumstances, I had to agree. Bill walked slowly and with effort. More than once I wanted to offer to carry the heavy Bible but I knew he wouldn't let me, so I saved my breath.

Halleigh answered the door, thank God. She was startled when she saw Bill, but she recovered her poise very quickly and greeted us.

"Halleigh, Mr. Compton has brought the family Bible that Andy's grandmother wants to see," I said, in case Halleigh had gone temporarily blind and hadn't noticed the huge volume. Halleigh was looking a little rough around the edges. Her brown hair was a mess, and her green flowered dress looked almost as tired as her eyes. Presumably, she'd come over to Miss Caroline's after she'd worked all day teaching school. Halleigh was obviously pregnant, something Bill hadn't known, I could tell by the fleeting expression on his face.

"Oh," Halleigh said, her face visibly relaxing with relief. "Mr. Compton, please come in. You have no idea how Miss Caroline's fretted about this." I think Halleigh's reaction was a pretty good indicator of just how much Miss Caroline had fretted.

We stepped into the entrance hall together. The wide flight of stairs was ahead of us and to our left. It curved gracefully up to the second floor. Lots of local brides had had their pictures made on this staircase. I had come down it in heels and a long dress when I'd been a stand-in for a sick bridesmaid at Halleigh and Andy's wedding.

"I think it would be real nice if Bill could give the Bible to Miss Caroline," I said, before the pause could become awkward. "There's a family connection."

Even Halleigh's excellent manners faltered. "Oh ... how interesting." Her back stiffened, and I saw Bill appreciating the curve of her pregnancy. A faint smile curved his lips for a second. "I'm sure that would be just fine," Halleigh said, rallying. "Let's just go upstairs."

We went up the stairs after her, and I had to struggle with the impulse to put a hand under Bill's elbow to help him a little. I would have to do something to help Bill. He obviously wasn't getting any better. A little fear crept into my heart.

We walked a little farther along the gallery to the door to the largest bedroom, which was open a discreet few inches. Halleigh stepped in ahead of us.

"Sookie and Mr. Compton have brought the family Bible," she said. "Miss Caroline, can he bring it in?"

"Yes, of course, have him bring it," said a weak voice, and Bill and I walked in.

Miss Caroline was the queen of the room, no doubt about it. Andy and Portia were standing to the right of the bed, and they looked both worried and uneasy as Bill ushered me in. I noticed the absence of Portia's husband, Glen. A middle-aged African-American woman was sitting in a chair to the left of the bed. She was wearing the bright, loose pants and cheerful tunic that nurses favored now. The pattern made her look as though she worked on a pediatric ward. However, in a room decorated in subdued peach and cream, the splash of color was welcome. The nurse was thin and tall, and wore an incredible wig that reminded me of a movie Cleopatra. She nodded to us as we came closer to the bed. Caroline Bellefleur, who looked like the steel magnolia she was, lay propped up on a dozen pillows in the four-poster bed. There were shadows of exhaustion under her old eyes, and her hands curled in wrinkled claws on the bedspread. But there was still a flicker of interest in her eyes as she looked at us.

"Miss Stackhouse, Mr. Compton, I haven't seen you since the big wedding," she said with an obvious effort. Her voice was thin as paper.

"That was a beautiful occasion, Mrs. Bellefleur," Bill said with an almost equal effort. I only nodded. This was not my conversation to have.

"Please take a seat," the old woman said, and Bill pulled a chair up closer to her bed. I sat a couple of feet back.

"Looks like that Bible is too big for me to handle now," the ancient lady said, with a smile. "It was so nice of you to bring it over. I have sure been wanting to see it. Has it been in your attic? I know we don't have much connection with the Comptons, but I sure wanted to find that old book. Halleigh was nice enough to do some checking for me."

"As a matter of fact, this book was on my coffee table," Bill said gently. "Mrs. Bellefleur - Caroline - my second child was a daughter, Sarah Isabelle."

"Oh my goodness," said Miss Caroline, to indicate she was listening. She didn't seem to know where this was headed, but she was definitely attentive.

"Though I didn't learn this until I read the family page in this Bible after I returned to Bon Temps, my daughter Sarah had four children, though one baby was born dead."

"That happened so often back then," she said.

I glanced over at the Bellefleur grandchildren. Portia and Andy weren't happy that Bill was here, not at all, but they were listening, too. They hadn't spared a glance for me, which was actually just fine. Though they were puzzled by Bill's presence, the focus of their thoughts was the woman who had raised them and the visible fact that she was fading away.

Bill said, "My Sarah's daughter was named Caroline, for her grandmother ... my wife."

"My name?" Miss Caroline sounded pleased, though her voice was a little weaker.

"Yes, your name. My granddaughter Caroline married a cousin, Matthew Phillips Holliday."

"Why, those are my mother and father." She smiled, which did drastic things to her scores of wrinkles. "So you are ... Really?" To my amazement, Caroline Bellefleur laughed.

"Your great-grandfather. Yes, I am."

Portia made a sound as though she were choking on a stink-bug. Miss Caroline disregarded her granddaughter entirely, and she didn't look over at Andy - which was lucky, because he was turkey-wattle red.

"Well, if this isn't funny," she said. "I'm as wrinkled as unironed linen, and you're as smooth as a fresh peach." She was genuinely amused. "Great-granddaddy!"

Then a thought seemed to occur to the dying lady. "Was it you arranged for that timely windfall we got?"

"The money couldn't have been put to better use," Bill said gallantly. "The house looks beautiful. Who will live in it after you die?"

Portia gasped, and Andy looked a little taken aback. But I glanced at the nurse. She gave me a brief nod. Miss Caroline's time was very near, and the lady was fully aware of it.

"Well, I think Portia and Glen will stay here," Miss Caroline said slowly. It was evident she was tiring fast. "Halleigh and Andy want to have their baby in their own home, and I don't blame them one bit. You're not saying you're interested in the house?"

"Oh, no, I have my own," Bill reassured her. "And I was glad to give my own family the wherewithal to repair this place. I want my descendants to keep on living here through the years and have many happy times in this place."

"Thank you," Miss Caroline said, and now her voice was barely a whisper.

"Sookie and I must go," Bill said. "You rest easy, now."

"I will," she said, and smiled, though her eyes were closing.

I rose as quietly as I could and slipped out of the room ahead of Bill. I thought Portia and Andy might want to say a few things to Bill. Sure enough, they didn't want to disturb their grandmother, so they followed Bill out onto the gallery.

"Thought you were dating another vampire now?" Andy asked me. He didn't sound as snarky as he usually did.

"I am," I said. "But Bill is still my friend."

Portia had briefly dated Bill, though not because she thought he was cute or anything. I was sure that added to her embarrassment as she stuck out her hand to Bill. Portia needed to brush up on her vampire etiquette. Though Bill looked a little taken aback, he accepted the handshake. "Portia," he said. "Andy. I hope you don't find this too awkward."

I was busting-at-the-seams proud of Bill. It was easy to see where Caroline Bellefleur had gotten her graciousness.

Andy said, "I wouldn't have taken the money if I'd known it came from you." He'd evidently come straight from work, because he was wearing all his gear: a badge and handcuffs clipped to his belt, a holstered gun. He looked pretty formidable, but he was no match for Bill, even as sick as Bill was.

"Andy, I know you're not a fan of the fang. But you're part of my family, and I know you were raised to respect your elders."

Andy looked completely taken aback.

"That money was to make Caroline happy, and I think it did," Bill continued. "So it served its purpose. I've gotten to see her and to tell her about our relationship, and she has the Bible. I won't burden you with my presence any longer. I would ask that you have the funeral at night so I can attend."

"Who ever heard of a funeral at night?" Andy said.

"Yes, we'll do that." Portia didn't sound warm and welcoming, but she did sound absolutely resolved. "The money made her last few years very happy. She loved restoring the house to its best state, and she loved giving us the wedding here. The Bible is the frosting on the cake. Thank you."

Bill nodded to both of them, and without further ado we left Belle Rive.

Caroline Bellefleur, Bill's great-granddaughter, died in the early hours of the morning.

Bill sat with the family during the funeral, which took place the next night, to the profound amazement of the town.

I sat at the back with Sam.

It wasn't an occasion for tears; without a doubt, Caroline Bellefleur had had a long life - a life not devoid of sorrow, but at least full of moments of compensatory happiness. She had very few remaining contemporaries, and those who were still alive were almost all too tottery to come to her funeral.

The service seemed quite normal until we drove out to the cemetery, which didn't have night lighting - of course - and I saw that temporary lights had been set up around the perimeter of the grave in the Bellefleur plot. That was a strange sight. The minister had a hard time reading the service until a member of the congregation held his own flashlight to the page.

The bright lights in the dark night were an unpleasant reminder of the recovery of Basim al Saud's body. It was hard to think properly about Miss Caroline's life and legacy with all the conjecture rattling around in my head. And why hadn't anything already happened? I felt as though I were living waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wasn't aware my hand had tightened on Sam's arm until he turned to look at me with some alarm. I forced my fingers to relax and bowed my head for the prayer.

The family, I heard, was going to Belle Rive for a buffet meal after the service. I wondered if they'd gotten Bill his favorite blood. Bill looked awful. He was using a cane at the grave site. Something had to be done about finding his sibling, since he wasn't taking action himself. If there was a chance his sibling's blood might cure him, the effort had to be made.

I'd driven to the funeral with Sam, and since my house was so close, I told Sam I'd walk back from the grave site. I'd stuck a little flashlight in my purse, and I reminded Sam I knew the cemetery like the back of my hand. So when all the other attendees took off, including Bill, to go to Belle Rive for the buffet meal, I waited in the shadows until the cemetery employees started filling in the hole, and then I walked through the trees to Bill's house.

I still had a key.

Yes, I knew I was being a terrible busybody. And maybe I was doing the wrong thing. But Bill was wasting away, and I just couldn't sit by and let him do it.

I unlocked the front door and went to Bill's office, which had been the Compton formal dining room. Bill had all his computer gear set up on a huge table, and he had a rolling chair he'd gotten at Office Depot. A smaller table served as a mailing station, where Bill prepared copies of his vampire database to send to purchasers. He advertised heavily in vampire magazines - Fang, of course, and Dead Life, which appeared in so many languages. Bill's newest marketing effort involved hiring vampires who spoke many different languages to translate all the information so he could sell foreign-language editions of his worldwide vampire listing service. As I remembered from a previous visit, there were a dozen CD copies of his database in cases by his mailing station. I double-checked to make sure I had one that was in English. Wouldn't do me much good to get one in Russian.

Of course, Russian reminded me of Alexei, and thinking of Alexei reminded me all over of how worried/angry/frightened I was about Eric's silence.

I could feel my mouth pinching together in a really unpleasant expression as I thought about that silence. But I had to pay attention to my own little problem right now, and I scooted out of the house, relocked the door, and hoped Bill wouldn't pick up on my scent in the air.

I went through the cemetery as quickly as if it had been daytime. When I was in my own kitchen, I looked around for a good hiding place. I finally fi xed on the linen closet in the hall bathroom as a good spot, and I put the CD under the stack of clean towels. I didn't think even Claude could use five towels before I got up the next day.

I checked my answering machine; I checked my cell phone, which I hadn't taken to the service. No messages. I undressed slowly, trying to imagine what could have happened to Eric. I'd decided I wouldn't call him, no matter what. He knew where I was and how to reach me. I hung my black dress in the closet, put my black heels on the shoe rack, and then pulled on my Tweety Bird nightshirt, an old favorite. Then I went to bed, mad as a wet hen.

And scared.

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