We are delighted to be able to be able to exclusively share with you the second chapter of Deadlocked. What a Tuesday treat! Can’t wait till May 1st to catch up with Sookie? Here’s an early trip to Bon Temps!
Fairies. Never simple. My grandmother Adele would definitely have agreed. She’d had a long affair with Dermot’s fraternal twin, Fintan, and my aunt Linda and my father, Corbett, (both dead for years now) had been the results.
“Maybe it’s time for some plain speaking,” I said, trying to look confident. “Niall, maybe you could tell us why you’re pretending Dermot isn’t standing right here. And why you put that crazy spell on him.” Dr. Phil to the fae- that was me.
Or not. Niall gave me his most lordly look.
“This one defied me,” he said, tilting his head at his son.
Dermot bowed his head. I didn’t know if he was keeping his eyes down so he wouldn’t provoke Niall or if he was concealing rage or if he just couldn’t think of where to begin.
Being related to Niall, even at two removes, was not easy. I couldn’t imagine having a closer tie. If Niall’s beauty and power had been united with a coherent course of action and a nobleness of purpose, he would have been very like an angel.
This conviction could not have popped into my head at a more inconvenient moment.
“You’re looking at me strangely,” Niall said. “What’s wrong, dearest one?”
“In the time he’s spent here,” I said, “my great-uncle has been kind, hardworking, and smart. The only thing that’s been wrong with Der mot is a bit of mental fragility, a direct result of being made crazy for years. So, why’d you do that? ‘He defied me’ isn’t really an answer.”
“You haven’t got the right to question me,” Niall said, in his most royal voice. “I am the only living prince of Faery.”
“I don’t know why that means I can’t ask you questions. I’m an American,” I said, standing tall.
The beautiful eyes examined me coldly. “I love you,” he said very unlovingly, “but you’re presuming too much.”
“If you love me, or even if you just respect me a little, you need to answer my question. I love Dermot, too.”
Claude was standing absolutely still, doing a great imitation of Switzerland. I knew he wasn’t going to chime in on my side or Dermot’s side or even Niall’s side. To Claude, the only side was his.
“You allied yourself with the water fairies,” Niall said to Dermot. “After you cursed me,” Dermot protested, looking up at his father briefly.
“You helped them kill Sookie’s father,” Niall said. “Your nephew.” “I did not,” Dermot said quietly. “And I’m not mistaken in this.
Even Sookie believes this, and she lets me stay here.”
“You weren’t in your right mind. I know you would never do that if you hadn’t been cursed,” I said.
“You see her kindness, and yet you have none for me,” Dermot told Niall. “Why did you curse me? Why?” He was looking directly at his father, his distress written all over his face.
“But I didn’t,” Niall said. He sounded genuinely surprised. Finally, he was addressing Dermot directly. “I wouldn’t addle the brains of my own son, half-human or not.”
“Claude told me it was you who bespelled me.” Dermot looked at Claude, who was still waiting to see which way the frog would Jump.
“Claude,” Niall said, the power in his voice making my head pound, “who told you this?”
“It’s common knowledge among the fae,” Claude said. He’d been preparing himself for this, was braced to make his answer.
”According to whom?” Niall was not going to give up. “Murry told me this.”
“Murry told you I had cursed my son? Murry, the friend of my enemy Breandan?” Niall’s elegant face was incredulous.
The Murry I killed with Gran’s trowel? I thought, but I knew it was better not to interrupt.
“Murry told me this before he switched his allegiance,” Claude said defensively.
”And who had told Murry?” Niall said, an edge of exasperation in his voice.
“I don’t know.” Claude shrugged. “He sounded so certain, I never questioned him.”
“Claude, come with me;’ Niall said, after a moment’s fraught silence. ‘We will talk to your father and to the rest of our people. We’ll discover who spread this rumor about me. And we’ll know who actually cursed Dermot, made him behave so.”
I would have thought Claude would be ecstatic, since he’d been ready to return to Faery ever since entrance had been denied him. But he looked absolutely vexed, just for a moment.
“What about Dermot?” I asked.
“It’s too dangerous for him now;’ Niall said. “The one who cursed him may be waiting to take further action against him. I’ll take Claude with me … and, Claude, if you cause any trouble with your human ways …”
“I understand. Dermot, will you take over at the club until I return?”
“I will;’ said Dermot, but he looked so dazed by the sudden turn of events that I wasn’t sure he knew what he was saying.Niall bent to kiss me on the mouth, and the subtle smell of fairy filled my nose. Then he and Claude flowed out the back door and into the woods. “Walked” is simply too jerky a word to describe their progress.
Dermot and I were left alone in my shabby living room. To my consternation, my great-uncle (who looked a tiny bit younger than me) began to weep. His knees crumpled, his whole body shook, and he pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.
I covered the few feet between us and sank to the floor beside him .
I put my arm around him and said, “I sure didn’t expect any of that.” I surprised a laugh out of him. He hiccupped, raising reddened eyes to meet mine. I stretched my free arm to reach the box of tissues on the table by the recliner. I extracted one and used it to pat Dermot’s wet cheeks.
“I can’t believe you’re being so nice to me,” he said. “It’s seemed incredible to me from the beginning, considering what Claude told you.”
I had been a little surprised myself, to tell you the truth.
I spoke from my heart. ”I’m not convinced you were even there the night my parents died. If you were, I think you were under a compul sion. In my experience of you, you’ve been a total sweetie.”
He leaned against me like a tired child. By now, a human guy would have made a huge effort to pull himself together. He’d be embarrassed at displaying vulnerability. Dermot seemed quite willing to let me comfort him.
“Are you feeling better now?” I asked, after a couple of minutes.
He inhaled deeply. I knew he was drawing in my fairy scent and that it would help him. “Yes;’ he said. “Yes.”
“You probably need to get a shower and have a good night’s sleep,” I advised him, floundering for something to say that wouldn’t sound totally lame, like I was coddling a toddler. “I bet Niall and Claude’ll be back in no time, and you’ll get to …”Then I had to trail off, since I didn’t know what it was Dermot truly wanted. Claude, who’d been desperate to find a way to enter Faery, had gotten his wish. I’d assumed that had been Dermot’s goal, too. After Claude and I had broken the spell on Dermot, I’d never asked him.
As Dermot trudged off to the bathroom, I went around the house checking all the windows and doors, part of my nightly ritual. I washed and dried a couple of dishes while I tried to imagine what Claude and Niall might be doing at this moment. What could Faery look like? Like Oz, in the movie?
“Sookie,” said Dermot, and I jerked myself into the here and now. He was standing in the kitchen wearing plaid sleep pants, his normal night gear. His golden hair was still damp from the shower.
“Feeling better?” I smiled at him.
“Yes. Could we sleep together tonight?”
It was as though he’d asked, “Can we catch a camel and keep it as a pet?” Because of Niall’s questions about Claude and me, Dermot’s request struck me kind of weird. I just wasn’t in a fairy-loving mood, no matter how innocently he intended it. And truthfully, I wasn’t sure he hadn’t meant we should do more than sleep. “Ahhhhh … no.”
Dermot looked so disappointed that I caught myself feeling guilty. I couldn’t stand it; I had to explain.
“Listen, I understand that you don’t intend that we have sex together, and I know that a couple of times in the past we’ve all slept in the same bed and we all slept like rocks…. It was a good thing, a healing thing. But there are maybe ten reasons I don’t want to do that again. Number one, it’s just really peculiar, to a human. Two, I love Eric and I should only bunk down with him. Three, you’re related to me, so sleeping in the same bed should make me feel really squicky inside. Also, you look enough like my brother to pass for him, which makes any kind of vaguely sexual situation double squicky. I know that’s not ten, but I think that’s enough.”
“You don’t find me attractive?”
“Completely beside the point!” My voice was rising, and I paused to give myself a second. I continued in a quieter tone. “It doesn’t make any difference how attractive I find you. Of course you’re handsome. Just like my brother. But I have no sex feelings about you, and I kind of feel the sleeping-together thing is just odd. So we’re not doing the fairy sleep-athon of comfort anymore.”
”I’m sorry I’ve upset you,” he said, even more miserably.
I felt guilty again. But I made myself suppress the twinge. “I don’t think anyone in the world has a great-uncle like you,” I said, but my voice was fond.
”I’ll never bring it up again. I only sought comfort.” He gave me Big Eyes. There was a hint of laughter turning up the corners of his mouth. “You’ll just have to comfort yourself,” I said tartly.
He was smiling as he left the kitchen.
That night, for the first time in forever, I locked my bedroom door. I felt bad when I turned the latch, like I was dishonoring Der mot with my suspicions. But the last few years had taught me that one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings was true. An ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure.
If Dermot turned my doorknob during the night, I was too soundly asleep to hear it. And maybe my ability to drop off that deeply meant that on a basic level I trusted my great-uncle. Or trusted the lock. When I woke the next day, I could hear him working upstairs in the attic. His footsteps sounded right above my head.
“I made some coffee,” I called up the stairs. He was down in a minute. Somewhere he’d acquired a pair of denim overalls, and since he wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath, he looked like he was about to take his place in the stripper lineup from the night before as the Sexy Farmer with the Big Pitchfork. I asked Sexy Farmer with a silent ges ture if he wanted any toast, and he nodded, happy as a kid. Dermot loved plum jam, and I had a jar made by Maxine Fortenberry, Holly’s future mother-in-law. His smile widened when he saw it.
“I was trying to get as much work finished as I could while it wasn’t so hot,” he explained. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“Nope. I slept like a rock. What are you doing up there today?” Dermot had been inspired by HGTV to hang some doors in the walk-in attic to block off a part of the big room for storage, and he was turning the rest of the floored space into a bedroom for himself. He and Claude had been more or less bunking together in the small bed room and sitting room on the second floor. When we’d cleared out the attic, Dermot had decided to “repurpose” the space. He’d already painted the walls and refinished and resealed the plank floor. I believe he’d recaulked the windows, too.
“The floor is dry now, so I built the new walls. Now I’m actually putting in the hardware to hang the doors. I’m hoping to get that done today and tomorrow. So if you have anything you want to store, the space will be ready.”
When Dermot and Claude had helped me carry everything down from the packed attic, I’d gotten rid of the accumulated Stackhouse debris-generations of discarded trash and treasures. I was practical enough to know that moldering things untouched for decades really weren’t doing anyone any good, and the trash had gone in a large burn pile. The nice items had gone to an antiques store in Shreveport. When I’d dropped by Splendide the week before, Brenda Hesterman and Donald Callaway had told me a few of the smaller pieces had sold.
While the two dealers were at the house looking through the possibilities, Donald had discovered a secret drawer in one of the old pieces of furniture, a desk. In it, I’d found a treasure: a letter from my gran to me and a unique keepsake.
Dermot’s head turned at some noise I couldn’t yet hear. “Motorcycle coming;’ he said around a mouthful of toast and jelly, sounding almost eerily like Jason. I snapped myself back to reality.
I knew only one person who regularly traveled by motorcycle.
A moment after I heard the motor cut off, there was a knock at the front door. I sighed, reminding myself to remember days like this the next time I felt lonely. I was wearing sleep shorts and a big old T-shirt, and I was a mess, but that would have to be the problem of my uninvited guest.
Mustapha Khan, Eric’s daytime guy, was standing on the front porch. Since it was way too hot to wear leather, his “Blade” impersonation had suffered. But he managed to look plenty tough in a sleeve less denim shirt and jeans and his ever-present shades. He wore his hair in a geometric burr, a la the Wesley Snipes look in the movies, and I was sure he would have strapped huge weapons to his legs if the gun laws had let him.
“Good morning;’ I said, with moderate sincerity. “You want a cup of coffee? Or some lemonade?” I tacked on the lemonade because he was looking at me like I was crazy.
He shook his head in disgust. “I don’t take stimulants,” he said, and I remembered-too late-that he’d told me that before. “Some people just sleep their lives away,” he remarked after glancing at the clock on the mantel. We walked back to the kitchen.
“Some people were out late last night,” I said, as Mustapha who was a werewolf-stiffened at the sight and scent of Farmer Dermot.
“I see what kind of work you been doing late,” Mustapha said.
I’d been about to explain that Dermot had been the one who’d worked late, while I’d only watched him work, but at Mustapha’s tone I canceled that plan. He didn’t deserve an explanation. “Oh, don’t be an idiot. You know this is my great-uncle,” I said. “Dermot, you’ve met Mustapha Khan before. Eric’s daytime guy.” I thought it more tact ful not to bring up the fact that Mustapha’s real name was KeShawn Johnson.
“He doesn’t look like anyone’s great–uncle,“ Mustapha snarled.
“But he is, and it’s none of your business, anyway.”
Dermot hiked a blond eyebrow. “Do you want to make my presence an issue?” he asked. ”I’m sitting here eating breakfast with my great niece. I have no problem with you.”
Mustapha seemed to gather up his stoic Zen-like impassivity, an
important part of his image, and within a few seconds he was his cool self “If Eric don’t have a problem with it, why should I?” he said. (It would have been nice if he had realized that earlier.) “”m here to tell you a few things, Sookie.”
“Sure. Have a seat.”
“No, thanks. Won’t be here long enough.”
“Warren didn’t come with you?” Warren was most often on the back of Mustapha’s motorcycle. Warren was a skinny little ex-con with pale skin and straggly blond hair and some gaps in his teeth, but he was a great shooter and a great friend of Mustapha’s.
“Didn’t figure I’d need a gun here.” Mustapha looked away. He seemed really jangled. Odd. Werewolves were hard to read, but it didn’t take a telepath to know that something was up with Mustapha Khan. “Let’s hope no one needs a gun. What’s happening in Shreveport that you couldn’t tell me over the phone?”
I sat down myself and waited for Mustapha to deliver his message. Eric could have left one on my answering machine or even sent me an e-mail, rather than sending Mustapha-but like most vamps, he didn’t really have a rock-solid trust in electronics, especially if the news was important.
“You want him to hear this?” Mustapha tilted his head toward Dermot.
“You might be better off not knowing,” I told Dermot. He gave the daytime man a level blue stare that warned Mustapha to be on his best behavior and rose, taking his mug with him. We heard the stairs creak as he mounted them. When Mustapha’s Were hearing told him Dermot was out of earshot, he sat down opposite me and placed his hands side by side on the table very precisely. Style and attitude.
“Okay, I’m waiting,” I said.
“Felipe de Castro is coming to Shreveport to talk about the dis- appearance of his buddy Victor.”
“Oh, shit,” I said.
“Say it, Sookie. We’re in for it now.” He smiled. “That’s it? That’s the message?”
“Eric would like you to come to Shreveport tomorrow night to greet Felipe.”
“I won’t see Eric till then?” I could feel my face narrow in a suspi cious squint. That didn’t suit me at all. The thin cracks in our relation ship would only spread wider if we didn’t get to spend time together.
“He has to get ready,” Mustapha said, shrugging. “I don’t know if he got to clean out his bathroom cabinets or change the sheets or what. ‘Has to get ready’ is what he told me.”
“Right,” I said. “And that’s it? That’s the whole message?” Mustapha hesitated. “I got some other things to tell you, not from Eric. Two things.” He took off his sunglasses. His chocolate-chip eyes were downcast; Mustapha was not a happy camper.
“Okay, I’m ready.” I was biting the inside of my mouth. If Musta pha could be stoical about Felipe’s impending visit, I could, too. We were at great risk. We had both participated in the plan to trap Victor Madden, regent of the state of Louisiana, put in place by King Felipe of Nevada, and we had helped to kill Victor and his entourage. What was more, I was pretty sure Felipe de Castro suspected all this with a high degree of certainty.
“First thing, from Pam.”
Blond and sardonic, Eric’s child Pam was as close to a friend as I had among the vamps. I nodded, signaling Mustapha to deliver the message. “She says, ‘Tell Sookie that this is the hard time that will show what she is made of’ ”
I cocked my head. “No advice other than that? Not too helpful. I figured as much.” I’d pretty much assumed Felipe’s post-Victor visit would be a very touchy one. But that Pam would warn me … seemed a bit odd.
“Harder than you know,” Mustapha said intently. I stared at him, waiting for more.
Maddeningly, he did not elaborate. I knew better than to ask him to. “The other thing is from me,” he continued.
Only the fact that I’d had to control my face all my life kept me from giving him major Doubtful. Mustapha? Giving me advice?
”I’m a lone wolf,” he said, by way of preamble.
I nodded. He hadn’t affiliated with the Shreveport werewolves, all members of the Long Tooth pack.
“When I first blew into Shreveport, I looked into joining. I even went to a pack gathering,” Mustapha said.
It was the first chink I’d seen in his ‘Tm badass and I don’t need anyone” armor. I was startled that he’d even tried. Alcide Herveaux, the packleader in Shreveport, would have been glad to gain a strong wolf like Mustapha.
“The reason I didn’t even consider it is because of Jannalynn,” he said. Jannalynn Hopper was Alcide’s enforcer. She was about as big as a wasp, and she had the same nature.
“Because Jannalynn’s really tough and she would challenge someone as alpha as you?” I said.
He inclined his head. “She wouldn’t leave me standing. She would push and push until we fought.”
“You think she could win? Over you.” I made it not quite a ques tion. With Mustapha’s size advantage and his greater experience, I could not fathom why Mustapha had a doubt he would be the victor.
He inclined his head again. “I do. Her spirit is big.”
“She likes to feel in charge? She has to be the baddest bitch in the fight?”
“I was in Hair of the Dog yesterday, early evening. Just to spend some time with the other Weres after I got through working for the vamps, get the smell of Eric’s house out of my nose … though we got a deader hanging around at the Hair, lately. Anyway, Jannalynn was talking to Alcide while she was serving him a drink. She knows you loaned Merlotte some money to keep his bar afloat.”
I shifted in my chair, suddenly uneasy. ”I’m a little surprised Sam told her, but I didn’t ask him to keep it a secret.”
“I”m not so sure he did tell her. Jannalynn’s not above snooping when she thinks she ought to know something, and she doesn’t even think of it as snooping. She thinks of it as fact-gathering. Here’s the bottom line: Don’t cross that bitch. You’re on the borderline with her.” “Because I helped Sam? That doesn’t make any sense.” Though my sinking heart told me it did.
“Doesn’t need to. You helped him when she couldn’t. And that galls her. You ever seen her when she’s got a mad on?”
“I”ve seen her in action.” Sam always liked such challenging women. I could only conclude that she saved her softer, gentler side for him.
“Then you know how she treats people she sees as a threat.”
“I wonder why Alcide hasn’t picked Jannalynn as his first lady, or whatever the term is,” I said, just to veer away from the subject for a moment. “He made her pack enforcer, but I would have thought he would pick the strongest female wolf as his mate.”
“She’d love that,” Mustapha said. “I can smell that on her. He can smell that on her. But she don’t love Alcide, and he don’t love her. She’s not the kind of woman he likes. He likes women his own age, women with a little curve to ’em. Women like you.”
“But she told Alcide …” I had to stop, because I was hopelessly confused. “A few weeks ago, she advised Alcide he should try to seduce me,” I said awkwardly. “She thought I would be an asset to the pack.”
“If you’re confused, think how Jannalynn’s feeling.” Mustapha’s face might have been carved in stone. “She’s got a relationship with Sam, but you were able to save him when she wasn’t. She halfway wants Alcide, but she knows he wanted you, too. She’s big in the pack, and she knows you have pack protection. You know what she can do to people who don’t.”
I shuddered. “She does enjoy the enforcement,” I said. “I’ve watched her. Thanks for the heads-up, Mustapha. If you’d like a drink or some thing to eat, the offer still stands.”
”I’ll take a glass of water,” he said, and I got it in short order. I could hear one of Dermot’s rented power tools going above our heads in the attic, and though Mustapha cocked an eye toward the ceiling, he didn’t comment until he’d finished his drink. “Too bad he can’t come with you to Shreveport,” he said then. “Fairies are good fighters.” Mu stapha handed me his empty glass. “Thanks;’ he said. And then he was out the door.
I mounted the stairs to the second floor as the motorcycle roared its way back to Hummingbird Road. I stood in the attic doorway. Dermot was shaving the bottom off one of the doors. He knew I was there, but he kept on working, casting a quick smile over his shoulder to acknowledge my presence. I considered telling him what Mustapha had just told me, simply to share my worries.
But as I watched my great-uncle work, I reconsidered. Dermot had his own problems. Claude had left with Niall, and there was no way of knowing when he’d return or in what condition. Until Claude’s return, Dermot was supposed to make sure all was running smoothly at Hooligans. What would that motley crew be capable of, without Claude’s control? I had no idea if Dermot could keep them in line or if they’d ignore his authority.
I started to launch a boatful of worry about that, but I gave myself a reality check. I couldn’t assume responsibility for Hooligans. It was none of my business. For all I knew, Claude had a system in place and all Dermot had to do was follow it. I could only worry about one bar, and that was Merlotte’s. Kind of alternating with Fangtasia. Okay, two bars.
Speaking of which, my cell phone buzzed me to remind me we were getting a beer delivery that morning. It was time for me to hustle in to work.
“If you need me, you call me,” I told Dermot.
With a proud air, as if he’d learned a clever phrase in a foreign language, Dermot said, “You have a nice day, you hear?”
I took a hasty shower and pulled on some shorts and a Merlotte’s T-shirt. I didn’t have time to blow-dry my hair completely, but at least I put on some eye makeup before I hustled out the door. It felt excellent to shed my supernatural worries and to fall back on thinking about what I had to do at Merlotte’s, especially now that I’d bought into it.
The rival bar opened by the now-deceased Victor, Vic’s Redneck Roadhouse, had taken a lot of customers away. To our relief, the newness of our rival was wearing off, and some of our regulars were return ing to the fold. At the same time, the protests against patronizing a bar owned by a shapeshifter had stopped since Sam had started attend ing the church that had supplied most of the protesters.
It had been a surprisingly effective countermove, and I am proud to say I thought of it. Sam had blown me off at first, but he’d recon sidered when he’d cooled off. Sam had been pretty nervous the first Sunday, and only a handful of people talked to him. But he’d kept it going, if irregularly, and the members were getting to know him as a person first, a shapeshifter second.
I’d loaned Sam some money to float the bar through the worst time. Instead of repaying me bit by bit as I’d imagined he would, Sam now regarded me as a part owner. After a long and cautious conversa tion, he’d upped my paycheck and added to my responsibilities. I’d never had something that was kind of my own before. There was no other word for it but “awesome.”
Now that I handled some of the administrative work at the bar and Kennedy could come in as bartender, Sam was enjoying a little more well-earned time off. He spent some of it with Jannalynn. He went fishing, a pastime he’d enjoyed with his dad and mom when he was a kid. Sam also worked on his double-wide inside and out, trim ming his hedge and raking his yard, planting flowers and tomatoes in season, to the amusement of the rest of the staff.
I didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was real nice that Sam liked to take care of his home, even if it was parked behind the bar.
What gave me the most pleasure was seeing the tension ease out of his shoulders now that Merlotte’s was on an even keel again.
I was a little early. I had the time to make some measurements in the storeroom. I figured if I had the right to accept beer shipments, I had the right to institute a few changes, too-subject to Sam’s approval and consent, of course.
The guy who drove the truck, Duff McClure, knew exactly where to put the beer. I counted the cases as he unloaded them. I’d offered to help the first time we’d dealt together, and Duff had made it clear it would be a cold day in Hell before a woman helped him do physical work. “You been selling more Michelob lately,” he remarked.
“Yeah, we got a few guys who’ve decided that’s all they’re gonna drink,” I said. “They’ll be back to Bud Light before too long.”
“You need any TrueBlood?”
“Yeah, the usual case.”
“You got a regular vamp clientele.”
“Small but regular,” I agreed, my mind on writing the check for the shipment. We had a few days to pay it, but Sam had always paid on delivery. I thought that was a good policy.
“They take three, four cases at Vic’s,” Duff said conversationally. “Bigger bar.” I began writing the check.
“I guess vamps are everywhere now.”
“Urn-hum,” I muttered, filling it out carefully. I was serious about my check-writing privileges. I signed with a flourish.
“Even that bar in Shreveport, that one that turned out to be for werewolves, they take some blood drinks now.”
“Hair of the Dog?” Hadn’t Mustapha mentioned a vamp who was hanging out at the Were bar?
“Yeah. I delivered there this morning.”
“Huh.” This news was unsettling, but husky Duff was a huge gos sip, and I didn’t want him to know he’d shaken me. “Well, everybody’s got to drink,” I said easily. “Here’s your check, Duff. How’s Dorothy?” Duff tucked the check into the zippered pouch he kept in a locked box in the passenger floorboard. “She’s good,” he said with a grin. “We’re having another young’un, she says.”
“Oh my gosh, how many does that make?”
“This’ll be number three,” Duff said, shaking his head with a rueful grin. “They gonna have to take out some college loans, do it themselves.” “It’ll be fine,” I said, which meant almost nothing except that I felt goodwill toward the McClure family.
“Sure thing,” he said. “Catch you next time, Sookie. I see Sam’s got his fishing pole out. Tell him I said to catch some crappie for me.”
When the truck had gone, Sam came out of the trailer and came over to the bar.
“You did that on purpose,” I said. “You just don’t like Duff.” “Duff’s okay,” Sam said. “He just talks too much. Always has.”
I hesitated a moment. “He says they’re stocking TrueBlood at the
Hair of the Dog.” I was treading on shaky ground. “Really? That’s pretty weird.”
I may not be able to read two-natured minds as easily as I can human minds, but I could tell Sam was genuinely surprised. ]anna lynn hadn’t told him a vampire was coming into her bar, a Were bar. I relaxed. “Come on in and let me show you something,” I said. ”I’ve been in there measuring.”
“Uh-oh, you want to move the furniture?” Sam was half-smiling as he followed me into the bar.
“No, I want to buy some;’ I said over my shoulder. “See here?”
I paced off a modest area just outside the storeroom. “Look, right here by the back door. This is where we need us some lockers.”
“What for?” Sam didn’t sound indignant, but like he genuinely wanted to know.
“So we women won’t have to put our purses in a drawer in your desk,” I said. “So Antoine and D’Eriq can keep a change of clothes here. So each employee will have their own little space to store stuff”
“You think we need this?” Sam looked startled.
“So bad,” I said. “Now, I looked in a few catalogs and checked online, and the best price I found …” We continued talking lockers for a few minutes, Sam protesting at the expense, me giving him all kinds of grief, but in a friendly way.
After a token fuss, Sam agreed. I’d been pretty sure he would.
Then it was thirty minutes till opening time, and Sam went behind the bar to start slicing lemons for the tea. I tied on my apron and began to check the salt and pepper shakers on the tables. Terry had come in very early that morning to clean the bar, and he’d done his usual good job. I straightened a few chairs.
“How long has it been since Terry had a raise?” I asked Sam, since the other waitress hadn’t come in yet and Antoine was in the walk-in refrigerator.
“Two years,” Sam said. “He’s due. But I couldn’t go giving raises
until things got better. I still think we better wait until we’re sure we’re level.”
I nodded, accepting his judgment. Now that I’d gone over the books, I could see how careful Sam had been in the good times, saving money up for the bad.
India, Sam’s newest hire, came in ten minutes early, ready to hustle.
I liked her more and more as I worked with her. She was clever at han dling difficult customers. Since the only person who came in (when we unlocked the front door at eleven) was our most consistent alcoholic, Jane Bodehouse, India went back to the kitchen to help Antoine, who’d turned on the fryers and heated up the griddle. India was glad to find things to do while she was at work, which was a refreshing change.
Kenya, one of our patrol officers, came and looked around inquir ingly. “You need something, Kenya?” I asked. “Kevin’s not here.” Kevin, another patrolman, was deeply in love with Kenya, and she with him. They ate lunch here at least once or twice a week.
“My sister here? She told me she was going to be working today,” Kenya asked.
“Is India your sister?” Kenya was a good ten years older than India, so I hadn’t put them together.
“Half sister. Yeah, our mother would get out the map when we were born,” Kenya said, kind of daring me to find that amusing. “She named us after places she wanted to go. My big brother’s name is Spain. I got a younger one named Cairo.”
“She didn’t stick to countries.”
“No, she threw in a few cities for good measure. She thought the word ‘Egypt’ was ‘too chewy.’ That’s a direct quote.” Kenya was walk ing as she talked, following my pointed finger in the direction of the kitchen. “Thanks, Sookie.”
The foreign names were kind of cool. Kenya’s mom sounded like fun to me. My mom hadn’t been a fun person; but then, she’d had a lot to worry about, after she’d had me. I sighed to myself I tried not to regret things I couldn’t change. I listened to Kenya’s voice coming through the serving hatch, brisk and warm and clear, greeting Antoine, telling India that Cairo had fixed India’s car and she should come by to pick it up when she got off work. I brightened when my own brother walked in just as Kenya was leaving. Instead of sitting at the bar or taking a table, he came up to me.
“You think I look like a Holland?” I asked him, and Jason gave me one of his blankest stares.
“Naw, you look like a Sookie,” he said. “Listen, Sook, I’m gonna do it.”
“Gonna do what?”
He looked at me impatiently. I could tell this wasn’t how he’d expected the conversation to go. ”I’m gonna ask Michele to marry me.
“Oh, that’s great!” I said, with genuine enthusiasm. “Really, Jason, I’m happy for you. I sure hope she says yes.”
“This time I’m going to do everything right,” he said, almost to himself.
His first marriage had been a mistake from the start, and it had ended even worse than it had begun.
“Michele’s got a good head on her shoulders,” I said.
“She’s no kid,” he agreed. “In fact, she’s a little older than me, but she don’t like me to bring that up.”
“You won’t, then, right? No jokes;’ I warned him.
He grinned at me. “No jokes. And she’s not pregnant, and she’s got her own job and her own money.” None of these facts had been true of his first wife.
“Go for it, Brother.” I gave him a quick hug.
He flashed the grin at me, the one that had hooked scores of women. “I”m asking her today when she gets off work. I was gonna eat lunch here, but I’m too nervous.”
“Let me know what she says, Jason. I’ll be praying for you.” I beamed at his back as he left the bar. He was as happy and nervous as I’d ever seen him.
Merlotte’s began to fill up after that, and I was too busy to think much. I love being at work, because I get to be around people and I know what’s going on in Bon Temps. On the other hand, most of the time I know too much. It’s a feathery balance between listening to people with my ears and not listening to them in my head, and it’s not too surprising that I have a big rep for being eccentric. At least most people are too nice to call me Crazy Sookie anymore. I like to think I’ve proved myself to the community.
Tara came in with her assistant, McKenna, to order an early lunch. Tara looked even bigger with her pregnancy than she had at Hooli gans the night before.
Since she’d brought McKenna along, I couldn’t ask Tara what I really wanted to know. What had happened when she talked to JB about his second job at Hooligans? Even if he hadn’t seen Tara in the crowd, he’d have to know we were going to tell her.
But Tara was thinking about the shop with great determination, and when she wasn’t planning to restock the lingerie counter, she was concentrating on the Merlotte’s menu-the very limited menu that she knew back and forth-trying to figure out what she could digest, and how many more calories she could ingest, without actually explod ing. McKenna’s brain wasn’t any help; though McKenna loved to know every little snippet of information about Bon Temps happenings, she didn’t know about JB’s moonlighting. She would have been vastly interested if I’d told her. McKenna would have loved to be a telepath, for about twenty-four hours.
But after she’d heard stuff like I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to wait till he’s asleep and slash him or I’d like to take her and bend her over the bar and drive my . .. Well, after a day or two of that, she wouldn’t love it so much.
Tara didn’t even go to the ladies’ room by herself. She towed McKenna along. I looked questioningly at Tara. She glared at me. Not ready to talk, not yet.
When the lunch rush was over, only two tables remained in use, and they were in India’s section. I went back to Sam’s office to work on the endless paperwork. Trees had died to make these forms, and that seemed a great pity to me. I tried to fill out anything I could online, though I was very slow at it. Sam came back to his office to retrieve a screw driver from his desk, so I asked him a question about an employee tax form. He was leaning over me to look at it when Jannalynn walked in.
“Hey, Jannalynn,” I said. I didn’t even look at her because I’d identified her mental signature before she’d entered, and I was trying real hard to complete the form while Sam’s instructions were still fresh in my mind.
“Oh, hey, Jan;’ Sam said. I could feel his smile in his voice.
Instead of a response, there was an ominous silence. “What?” I said, filling in one more figure.
I finally looked up to see that Jannalynn was m high offensive mode, her eyes round and wide, her nostrils dilated, her whole slim body tense with aggression.
“What?” I asked again, alarmed. “Are we being attacked?”
Sam remained silent. I swung around in the swivel chair to look up at him, and he was in a posture that was tense, too. But his face was one big warning.
“You two want to be alone?” I scrambled to get up and out from between them.
“I would have thought so before I walked in;’ Jannalynn said, her fists like little hammers.
“What … wait! You thinking Sam and I are fooling around in the office?” Despite Mustapha’s warning, I was genuinely astonished. “Honey, we are filling out tax forms. If you think there’s anything sexy about that, you should get a job with the IRS!”
There was a long moment when I wondered if I was going to get my ass kicked, but gradually the suspense ratcheted down. I did notice that Sam didn’t say anything, not a word, until Jannalynn’s stance had completely relaxed. I took a deep breath.
“Excuse us for a minute, Sookie,” Sam said, and I could tell he was really angry.
“Certainly.” I was out of that room as fast as a greased pig. I would rather have cleaned the men’s room after a Saturday night than have stayed in Sam’s office.
India was helping D’Eriq clear off a table. She glanced at me and half smiled. “What lit your tail on fire?” she asked. “Sam’s scary girlfriend?”
I nodded. “”m just going to find something to do out here;’ I said. This was a very good opportunity to dust the bottles and shelves behind the bar, and I moved them all carefully, cleaning a bit of shelf and moving on to another one.
Though I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in Sam’s office, I reminded myself repeatedly that it wasn’t my business. I had the bar as clean as a whistle by the time Jannalynn and Sam emerged.
“Sorry,” she said to me, with no particular sincerity. I nodded in acknowledgment.
Jannalynn thought, She’ll get Sam if she can.
Oh, please! I thought, She’d be real happy if I died.
And then she left the bar, Sam following her to say good-bye. Or to make sure she actually got in her car. Or both.
By the time he returned, I was so desperate for something to do I was about to start counting the toothpicks in the clear plastic dis penser. “We can get back on that paperwork tomorrow,” Sam said in passing, and continued walking. He avoided my eyes. He was surely embarrassed. It’s always good to give people time to recover from that, especially guys, so I cut Sam some slack.
A work crew from Norcross came in, their shift over and some celebration in progress. India and I began putting tables together to accommodate all of them. While I worked, I thought about young shifter women. I’d encountered more than one who was very aggres sive, but there were very few female packleaders in the United States, especially in the South. An outstanding few of the female Weres I’d met were extremely vicious. I wondered if this exaggerated aggression was due to the established male power structure in the packs.
Jannalynn wasn’t psychotic, as the Pelt sisters and Marnie Stone brook had been; but she was uber-conscious of her own toughness and ability.
I had to abandon theoretical thinking to get the drink orders right for the Norcross men and women. Sam emerged to work behind the bar, India and I began moving at a faster pace, and gradually every thing settled back to normal.
Just as I was about to get off work, Michele and Jason came in together. They were holding hands. From Jason’s smile, it was easy to see what her answer had been.
“Seems like we’re going to be sisters,” Michele said in her husky voice, and I gave her a heartfelt hug. I gave Jason an even happier one. I could feel his delight pouring out of his head, and his thoughts weren’t so much coherent as a jumble of pleasure.
“Have you two had time to think about when it’ll be?”
“Nothing stopping us from having it soon,” Jason said. “We’ve both been married already, and we don’t go to church much, so there’s no reason to have a church wedding.”
I thought that was a pity, but I kept my mouth shut. There was nothing to gain and everything to lose by adding my two cents. They were grown-ups.
“I might need to prepare Cork a little bit,” Michele said, smiling. “I don’t think he’ll kick up a fuss over me remarrying, but I do want to break it to him gentle.” Michele still worked for her former father in-law, who seemed to have more regard for Michele than he had for his lazy son.
“So it’ll be soon. I hope that it’s okay if I come?”
“Oh, sure, Soak,” Jason said, and hugged me. “We ain’t eloping or anything. We just don’t want a big church thing. We’ll have a party out at the house afterward. Right, honey?” He deferred to Michele.
“Sure,” she said. “We’ll fire up our grill, maybe Hoyt can bring his over, too, and we’ll cook whatever anybody brings. And other guests can bring drinks or whatever, vegetables and desserts. That way no one will worry and we’ll all have a good time.”
A potluck wedding. That was very practical and low-key. I asked them to let me know what I could bring that would be most helpful. After lots of mutual goodwill had been exchanged, they left, still holding hands and smiling.
India said, “Another one bites the dust. How you feeling about this, Sookie?”
“I like Michele real well. I’m so happy!” Sam called, “They engaged?”
“Yeah,” I called back, a few happy tears in my eyes. Sam was mak ing an effort to sound upbeat, though he was still a little worried about his own romantic situation. Any irritation I’d felt about the Jannalynn episode simply melted away. Sam had been my friend for years, while significant others came and went. I went up to the bar and leaned against it. “Second time around for both of ’em. They’re real good together.”
He nodded, accepting my tacit reassurance that I wasn’t going to bring up Jannalynn’s little outburst of jealousy. “Crystal was all wrong for your brother; Michele is all right.”
“In a nutshell;’ I agreed.
Since Holly called in to say her car wouldn’t start but Hoyt was working on it, I was still at Merlotte’s when JB came in about ten minutes later. My friend, the secret stripper, was looking handsome and hearty as always. There’s something about JB, something warm and simple that’s really appealing, especially when added to his non threatening good looks. He’s like a great loaf of homemade bread.
“Hey, friend;’ I said. “What can I get for you?”
“Sookie, I saw you last night.” He waited for my big reaction. “I saw you, too.” Just about every inch of him.
“Tara was there,” JB told me, as though that would be news. “I saw her as she was leaving.”
“Uh-huh,” I agreed. “She was.”
“Was she mad?”
“She was real surprised,” I said cautiously. “Are you seriously telling me you-all have not talked about last night?”
“I got in pretty late;’ he said. “I slept out on the couch. When I got up this morning, she’d already gone to the store.”
“Oh, JB.” I shook my head. “Honey, you got to talk to her.”
“What can I say? I know I should have told her.” He made a hope less gesture with his hands. “I just couldn’t think of any other way to earn some extra money. Her shop’s not doing so great right now, and
I don’t make a lot. We don’t have good insurance. Twins! That’s gonna be a big hospital bill. What if one of ’em’s sick?”
It was so tempting to tell him not to worry about it- but there was every reason for him to be concerned, and it would be patronizing to tell him he didn’t need to be. JB had made a clever move, for JB; he had found a way to use his assets to make extra money. His downfall had been in not informing his wife he was taking off his clothes in front of many other women on a weekly basis.
We talked off and on while JB nursed a beer at the bar. Tactfully, Sam pretended to be so busy that he was deaf to our intermittent con versation. I urged JB to cook something special for Tara that night or to stop off at Wal-Mart and buy her a little bouquet. Maybe he could give her a foot rub and a back massage, anything to make her feel loved and special. ”And don’t tell her how big she is!” I said, poking a finger into his chest. “Don’t you dare! You tell her she’s more beautiful than ever now that she’s carrying your children!”
JB looked exactly as though he were going to say, “But that’s not true.” He was sure thinking it. He met my eyes and clamped his lips shut.
“Doesn’t make any difference what the truth is, you say she looks great!” I told him. “I know you love her.”
JB looked sideways for a minute, testing that statement for its truth value, and then he nodded. “I do love her,” he said. Then he smiled. “She completes me,” he said proudly. JB loved movies.
“Well, you just complete her right back,” I said. “She needs to feel pretty and adored, because she feels big and clumsy and uncomfortable. It’s not easy being pregnant, I hear.”
”I’ll try, Sookie. Can I call you if she doesn’t soften up?”
“Yeah, but I know you can work this out, JB. Just be loving and sincere, and she’ll come around.”
“I like stripping,” he said suddenly, as I was turning away. “Yeah, I know,” I said.
“I knew you would understand.” He took a last sip of beer, left Sam a tip, and went to work at the gym in Clarice.
“This must be couples day,” India said. “Sam and Jannalynn, Jason and Michele, JB and Tara.” The thought didn’t seem to make her par ticularly happy.
“You still dating Lola?” Though I knew the answer, it was always better to ask.
“Naw. It didn’t work out.”
“”m sorry,” I said. “Maybe some day soon the right woman will just walk in the door of the bar, and you’ll be all fixed up.”
“I hope so.” India looked depressed. ”I’m not a fan of the wedding industry, but I sure would like a steady someone. Dating makes me all confused.”
“I never was any good at dating.”
“That why you go with the vamp? To scare off everyone else?”
“I love him,” I said steadily. “That’s why I go with him.” I didn’t point out that human guys were simply impossible for me. You can imagine reading your date’s mind every minute. No, it really wouldn’t be any fun, would it?
“No need to get all defensive;’ India said.
I thought I’d been matter-of-fact. “He’s fun,” I said mildly, “and he treats me nice.”
“They’re … I don’t know how to ask this, but they’re cold, right?” India wasn’t the first person who’d tried to find a delicate way to ask me that. There wasn’t any delicate way.
“Not room temperature,” I said. I left it at that, because any more was none of anyone else’s business.
“Damn,” she said, after a moment. After a longer moment, she said, “Ew.”
I shrugged. She opened her mouth, looked as though she wanted to ask me something else, and then she closed it.
Fortunately for both of us, her table gestured that they wanted their bill, and one of Jane Bodehouse’s buddies came in drunk off her ass, so we both had things to do. Holly finally arrived to relieve me, complaining about her no-good car. India was working a double shift, so she kept her apron on. I waved a casual good-bye to Sam, glad to be walking out the door.
I just made it to the library before it closed, and then I stopped by the post office to buy some stamps from the machine in the lobby. Hal leigh Bellefleur was there on the same errand, and we greeted each other with real pleasure. You know how sometimes you just like someone, though you don’t hang around with them? Halleigh and I don’t have much of anything in common, from our background to our educational level to our interests, but we like each other, anyway. Halleigh’s baby bump was pronounced, and she looked as rosy as Tara looked wrecked.
“How’s Andy doing?” I asked.
“He’s not sleeping well, he’s so excited about this baby,” she said. “He calls me from work to ask how I am and to find out how many times the baby kicked.”
“Sticking with ‘Caroline’?”
“Yeah, he was real pleased when I suggested that. His grandma brought him up, and she was a fine woman, if a little on the scary side.” Halleigh smiled.
Caroline Bellefleur had been more than a little on the scar y side. She’d been the last great lady of Bon Temps. She had also been my friend Bill Compton’s great-granddaughter. Halleigh’s baby would be three more greats away.
I told Halleigh about Jason’s engagement, and she said all the right things. She was as polite as Andy’s grandmother- and a hell of a lot warmer.
Though it was good to see Halleigh, when I got back into the car with my stamps I was feeling a little blue. I turned the key in the igni tion, but I didn’t put the car in reverse.
I knew I was a lucky woman in many respects. But there was life being created all around me, and I wasn’t …
I shut down that line of thought with a sharp command to myself I would not start down the self-pity path. Just because I wasn’t pregnant and wasn’t married to someone who could make me that way, that was no reason to feel like an island in the stream. I shook myself briskly and set off to complete the rest of my errands. When I caught a glimpse of Faye de Leon coming out of Grabbit Kwik, my attitude adjusted. Faye had been pregnant six times, and she was around my age. She’d told Maxine Fortenberry that she hadn’t wanted the last three. But her hus band loved to see her pregnant, and he loved kids, and Faye allowed herself to be used “like a puppy mill,” as Maxine put it.
Yes, attitude adjustment, indeed.
I had my evening meal and watched television and read one of my new library books that night, and I felt just fine, all by myself, every time I thought about Faye.