Dead as a Doornail
I wasn't imagining the snort the sheriff gave or Andy Bellefleur's eye roll.
"And you'd be on the spot because... ?"
"He's staying with me," Bill said smoothly, "while he works at Merlotte's."
Presumably the sheriff had already heard about the new bartender, because he just nodded. I was relieved at not having to confess that Charles was supposed to be sleeping in my closet, and I blessed Bill for having lied about that. Our eyes met for a moment.
"So you admit you killed this man?" Andy asked Charles. Charles nodded curtly.
Andy beckoned to the woman in hospital scrubs who'd been waiting by her car - which made maybe five cars in my front yard, plus the fire truck. This new arrival glanced at me curiously as she walked past to the huddled form in the bushes. Pulling a stethoscope from a pocket, she knelt by the man and listened to various parts of his body. "Yep, dead as a doornail," she called.
Andy had gotten a Polaroid out of the police car to take pictures of the body. Since the only light was the flash of the camera and the flicker of flame from my burning house, I didn't think the pictures would turn out too well. I was numb with shock, and I watched Andy as if this were an important activity.
"What a pity. It would have been a good thing to find out why he torched Sookie's house," Bill said as he watched Andy work. His voice rivaled a refrigerator for coldness.
"In my fear for Sookie's safety, I suppose I struck too hard." Charles tried to look regretful.
"Since his neck seems to be broken, I suppose you did," said the doctor, studying Charles's white face with the same careful attention she'd given mine. The doctor was in her thirties, I thought; a woman slim to the point of skinny, with very short red hair. She was about five foot three, and she had elfin features, or at least the kind I'd always thought of as elfin: a short, turned-up nose, wide eyes, large mouth. Her words were both dry and bold, and she didn't seem at all disconcerted by or excited at being called out in the middle of the night for something like this. She must be the parish coroner, so I must have voted for her, but I couldn't recall her name.
"Who are you?" Claudine asked in her sweetest voice.
The doctor blinked at the vision of Claudine. Claudine, at this ungodly hour of the morning, was in full makeup and a fuchsia knit top with black knit leggings. Her shoes were fuchsia and black striped, and her jacket was, too. Claudine's black rippling hair was held off her face with fuchsia combs.
"I'm Dr. Tonnesen. Linda. Who are you?"
"Claudine Crane," the fairy said. I'd never known the last name Claudine used.
"And why were you here on the spot, Ms. Crane?" Andy Bellefleur asked.
"I'm Sookie's fairy godmother," Claudine said, laughing. Though the scene was grim, everyone else laughed, too. It was like we just couldn't stop being cheerful around Claudine. But I wondered very much about Claudine's explanation.
"No, really," Bud Dearborn said. "Why are you here, Ms. Crane?"
Claudine smiled impishly. "I was spending the night with Sookie," she said, winking.
In a second, we were the objects of fascinated scrutiny from every male within hearing, and I had to lock down my head as if it were a maximum-security prison to block the mental images the guys were broadcasting.
Andy shook himself, closed his mouth, and squatted by the dead man. "Bud, I'm going to roll him," he said a little hoarsely, and turned the corpse so he could feel inside the dead man's pockets. The man's wallet proved to be in his jacket, which seemed a little unusual to me. Andy straightened and stepped away from the body to examine the billfold's contents.
"You want to have a look, see if you recognize him?" Sheriff Dearborn asked me. Of course I didn't, but I also saw that I really didn't have a choice. Nervously, I inched a little closer and looked again at the face of the dead man. He still looked ordinary. He still looked dead. He might be in his thirties. "I don't know him," I said, my voice small in the din of the firefighters and the water pouring onto the house.
"What?" Bud Dearborn was having trouble hearing me. His round brown eyes were locked onto my face.
"Don't know him!" I said, almost yelling. "I've never seen him, that I remember. Claudine?"
I don't know why I asked Claudine.
"Oh, yes, I've seen him," she said cheerfully.
That attracted the undivided attention of the two vampires, the two lawmen, the doctor, and me.
Claudine threw her arm around my shoulders. "Why, he was in Merlotte's tonight. You were too worried about your friend to notice, I guess. He was over in the side of the room where I was sitting." Arlene had been working that side.
It wasn't too amazing that I'd missed one male face in a crowded bar. But it did bother me that I'd been listening in to people's thoughts and I'd missed out on thoughts that must have been relevant to me. After all, he was in the bar with me, and a few hours later he'd set fire to my house. He must have been mulling me over, right?
"This driver's license says he's from Little Rock, Arkansas," Andy said.
"That wasn't what he told me," Claudine said. "He said he was from Georgia." She looked just as radiant when she realized he'd lied to her, but she wasn't smiling. "He said his name was Marlon."
"Did he tell you why he was in town, Ms. Crane?"
"He said he was just passing through, had a motel room up on the interstate."
"Did he explain any further?"
"Did you go to his motel, Ms. Crane?" Bud Dearborn asked in his best nonjudgmental voice.
Dr. Tonnesen was looking from speaker to speaker as if she was at a verbal tennis match.
"Gosh, no, I don't do things like that." Claudine smiled all around.
Bill looked as if someone had just waved a bottle of blood in front of his face. His fangs extended, and his eyes fixed on Claudine. Vampires can only hold out so long when fairies are around. Charles had stepped closer to Claudine, too.
She had to leave before the lawmen observed how the vampires were reacting. Linda Tonnesen had already noticed; she herself was pretty interested in Claudine. I hoped she'd just attribute the vamps' fascination to Claudine's excellent looks, rather than the overwhelming allure fairies held for vamps.
"Fellowship of the Sun," Andy said. "He has an honest-to-God membership card in here. There's no name written on the card; that's strange. His license is issued to Jeff Marriot." He looked at me questioningly.
I shook my head. The name meant nothing to me.
It was just like a Fellowship member to think that he could do something as nasty as torching my house - with me in it - and no one would question him. It wasn't the first time the Fellowship of the Sun, an anti-vampire hate group, had tried to burn me alive.
"He must have known you've had, ah, an association with vampires," Andy said into the silence.
"I'm losing my home, and I could have died, because I know vampires?"
Even Bud Dearborn looked a little embarrassed.
"Someone must have heard you used to date Mr. Compton, here," Bud muttered. "I'm sorry, Sookie."
I said, "Claudine needs to leave."
The abrupt change of subject startled both Andy and Bud, as well as Claudine. She looked at the two vampires, who were perceptibly closer to her, and hastily said, "Yes, I'm sorry, I have to get back home. I have to work tomorrow."
"Where's your car, Ms. Crane?" Bud Dearborn looked around elaborately. "I didn't see any car but Sookie's, and it's parked in the back."
"I'm parked over at Bill's," Claudine lied smoothly, having had years of practice. Without waiting for further discussion, she disappeared into the woods, and only my hands gripping their arms prevented Charles and Bill from gliding into the darkness after her. They were staring into the blackness of the trees when I pinched them, hard.
"What?" asked Bill, almost dreamily.
"Snap out of it," I muttered, hoping Bud and Andy and the new doctor wouldn't overhear. They didn't need to know that Claudine was supernatural.
"That's quite a woman," Dr. Tonnesen said, almost as dazed as the vampires. She shook herself. "The ambulance will come get, uh, Jeff Marriot. I'm just here because I had my scanner turned on as I was driving back from my shift at the Clarice hospital. I need to get home and get some sleep. Sorry about your fire, Ms. Stackhouse, but at least you didn't end up like this guy here." She nodded down at the corpse.
As she got into her Ranger, the fire chief trudged up to us. I'd known Catfish Hunter for years - he'd been a friend of my dad's - but I'd never seen him in his capacity as volunteer fire chief. Catfish was sweating despite the cold, and his face was smudged with smoke.
"Sookie, we done got it out," he said wearily. "It's not as bad as you might think."
"It's not?" I asked in a small voice.
"No, honey. You lost your back porch and your kitchen and your car, I'm afraid. He splashed some gas in that, too. But most of the house should be okay."
The kitchen... where the only traces of the death I'd caused could have been found. Now not even the technicians featured on the Discovery Channel could find any blood traces in the scorched room. Without meaning to, I began to laugh. "The kitchen," I said between giggles. "The kitchen's all gone?"
"Yes," said Catfish uneasily. "I hope you got you some homeowners insurance."
"Oh," I said, trying hard not to giggle any more. "I do. It was hard for me to keep up the payments, but I kept the policy Grandmother had on the house." Thank God my grandmother had been a great believer in insurance. She'd seen too many people drop policy payments to cut their monthly expenses and then suffer losses they were unable to recoup.
"Who's it with? I'll call right now." Catfish was so anxious to stop me laughing, he was ready to make clown faces and bark if I asked him to.
"Greg Aubert," I said.
The whole night suddenly rose up and whalloped me one. My house had burned, at least partially. I'd had more than one prowler. I had a vampire in residence for whom daytime cover had to be provided. My car was gone. There was a dead man named Jeff Marriot in my yard, and he'd set fire to my house and car out of sheer prejudice. I was overwhelmed.
"Jason isn't at home," Catfish said from a distance. "I tried him. He'd want her to come over to his house."
"She and Charles - that is, Charles and I will take her over to my house," Bill said. He seemed to be equally far away.
"I don't know about that," Bud Dearborn said doubtfully. "Sookie, is that okay with you?"
I could barely make my mind shuffle through a few options. I couldn't call Tara because Mickey was there. Arlene's trailer was as crowded as it needed to be already.
"Yes, that would be all right," I said, and my voice sounded remote and empty, even to my own ears.
"All right, long's we know where to reach you."
"I called Greg, Sookie, and left a message on his office answering machine. You better call him yourself in the morning," Catfish said.
"Fine," I said.
And all the firefighters shuffled by, and they all told me how sorry they were. I knew every one of them: friends of my father's, friends of Jason's, regulars at the bar, high school acquaintances.
"You all did the best you could," I said over and over. "Thanks for saving most of it."
And the ambulance came to cart away the arsonist.
By then, Andy had found a gasoline can in the bushes, and the corpse's hands reeked of gasoline, Dr. Tonnesen said.
I could hardly believe that a stranger had decided I should lose my home and my life because of my dating preference. Thinking at that moment of how close I'd come to death, I didn't feel it was unjust that he'd lost his own life in the process. I admitted to myself that I thought Charles had done a good thing. I might owe my life to Sam's insistence that the vampire be billeted at my house. If Sam had been there at the moment, I would have given him a very enthusiastic thank-you.
Finally Bill and Charles and I started over to Bill's house. Catfish had advised me not to go back into my house until the morning, and then only after the insurance agent and the arson investigator had checked it over. Dr. Tonnesen had told me that if I felt wheezy, to come in to her office in the morning. She'd said some other stuff, but I hadn't quite absorbed it.
It was dark in the woods, of course, and by then it was maybe five in the morning. After a few paces into the trees, Bill picked me up and carried me. I didn't protest, because I was so tired I'd been wondering how I was going to manage stumbling through the cemetery.
He put me down when we reached his house. "Can you make it up the stairs?" he asked.
"I'll take you," offered Charles.
"No, I can do it," I said, and started up before they could say anything more. To tell the truth, I was not so sure I could, but slowly I made my way up to the bedroom I'd used when Bill had been my boyfriend. He had a snug light-tight place somewhere on the ground floor of the house, but I'd never asked him exactly where. (I had a pretty good idea it was in the space the builders had lopped off the kitchen to create the hot tub/plant room.) Though the water table is too high in Louisiana for houses to have basements, I was almost as sure there was another dark hole concealed somewhere. He had room for Charles without them bunking together, anyway - not that that was too high on my list of concerns. One of my nightgowns still lay in the drawer in the old-fashioned bedroom, and there was still a toothbrush of mine in the hall bathroom. Bill hadn't put my things in the trash; he'd left them, like he'd expected me to return.