A further sneak peek inside DEADLOCKED: Chapter Two

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! 



Chapter Two

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 greatuncle, 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.