Dead as a Doornail

Page 3

Terry pointedly didn't ask how I'd known the scruffy woman had something illegal in her pockets. That was another weird thing about the people of Bon Temps. The rumors about me had been floating around as long as I could remember, from when I was little and my folks put me through the mental health battery. And yet, despite the evidence at their disposal, almost everyone I knew would much rather regard me as a dim and peculiar young woman than acknowledge my strange ability. Of course, I was careful not to stick it in their faces. And I kept my mouth shut.

Anyway, Terry had his own demons to fight. Terry subsisted on some kind of government pension, and he cleaned Merlotte's early in the morning, along with a couple of other businesses. He stood in for Sam three or four times a month. The rest of his time was his own, and no one seemed to know what he did with it. Dealing with people exhausted Terry, and nights like tonight were simply not good for him.

It was lucky he wasn't in Merlotte's the next night, when all hell broke loose.

Chapter 2

AT FIRST, I thought everything had returned to normal. The bar seemed a little calmer the next night. Sam was back in place, relaxed and cheerful. Nothing seemed to rile him, and when I told him what had happened with the dealer the night before, he complimented me on my finesse.

Tara didn't come in, so I couldn't ask her about Mickey. But was it really any of my business? Probably not my business - but my concern, definitely.

Jeff LaBeff was back and sheepish about getting riled by the college kid the night before. Sam had learned about the incident thr ough a phone call fr om Terry, and he gave Jeff a word of warning.

Andy Bellefleur, a detective on the Renard parish force and Portia's brother, came in with the young woman he was dating, Halleigh Robinson. Andy was older than me, and I'm twenty-six. Halleigh was twenty-one - just old enoughto be in Merlotte's. Halleigh taught at the elementary school, she was right out of college, and she was real attractive, with short earlobe-length brown hair and huge brown eyes and a nicely rounded figure. Andy had been dating Halleigh for about two months, and from the little I saw of the couple, they seemed to be progressing in their relationship at a predictable rate.

Andy's true thoughts were that he liked Halleigh very much (though she was a tad boring), and he was really ready for her to give it up. Halleigh thought Andy was sexy and a real man of the world, and she really loved the newly restored Bellefleur family mansion, but she didn't believe he'd hang around long after she slept with him. I hate knowing more about relationships than the people in them know - but no matter how battened down I am, I pick up a trickle of stuff.

Claudine came in the bar that night, toward closing time. Claudine is six feet tall, with black hair that ripples down her back and bruised-looking white skin that looks thin and glossy like a plum's. Claudine dresses for attention. Tonight she was wearing a terra-cotta pants suit, cut very snug on her Amazonian body. She works in the complaint department of a big store at the mall in Ruston during the day. I wished she'd brought her brother, Claude, with her. He doesn't swing in my direction, but he's a treat for the eyes.

He's a fairy. I mean, literally. So's Claudine, of course.

She waved at me across the heads of the crowd. I waved back smiling. Everyone's happy around Claudine, who is always cheerful when there are no vampires in her vicinity. Claudine is unpredictable and a lot of fun, though like all fairies, she's as dangerous as a tiger when she's angry. Fortunately, that doesn't happen often.

Fairies occupy a special place in the hierarchy of magical creatures. I haven't figured out exactly what it is yet, but sooner or later I'll piece it together.

Every man in the bar was drooling over Claudine, and she was eating it up. She gave Andy Bellefleur a long, bigeyed look, and Halleigh Robinson glared, mad enough to spit, until she remembered she was a sweet southern girl. But Claudine abandoned all interest in Andy when she saw he was drinking ice tea with lemon. Fairies are even more violently allergic to lemon than vampires are to garlic.

Claudine worked her way over to me, and she gave me a big hug, to the envy of every male in the bar. She took my hand to pull me into Sam's office. I went with her out of sheer curiosity.

"Dear friend," Claudine said, "I have bad news for you."

"What?" I'd gone from bemused to scared in a heartbeat.

"There was a shooting early this morning. One of the werepanthers was hit."

"Oh, no! Jason!" But surely one of his friends would've called if he hadn't gone into work today?

"No, your brother is fine, Sookie. But Calvin Norris was shot."

I was stunned. Jason hadn't called to tell me this? I had to find out from someone else?

"Shot dead?" I asked, hearing my voice shake. Not that Calvin and I were close - far from it - but I was shocked. Heather Kinman, a teenager, had been fatally shot the week before. What was happening in Bon Temps?

"Shot in the chest. He's alive, but he's bad hurt."

"Is he in the hospital?"

"Yes, his nieces took him to Grainger Memorial."

Grainger was a town farther southeast than Hotshot, and a shorter drive from there than the parish hospital in Clarice.

"Who did it?"

"No one knows. Someone shot him early this morning, when Calvin was on his way to work. He'd come home from his, um, time of the month, changed, and started into town for his shift." Calvin worked at Norcross.

"How'd you come to know all this?"

"One of his cousins came into the store to buy some pajamas, since Calvin didn't have any. Guess he sleeps in the buff," Claudette said. "I don't know how they think they're going to get a pajama top on over the bandages. Maybe they just needed the pants? Calvin wouldn't like to be shuffling around the hospital with only one of those nasty gowns between him and the world."

Claudine often took long side trails in her conversation.

"Thanks for telling me," I said. I wondered how the cousin had known Claudine, but I wasn't going to ask.

"That's okay. I knew you'd want to know. Heather Kinman was a shape-shifter, too. Bet you didn't know that. Think about it."

Claudine gave me a kiss on the forehead - fairies are very touchy-feely - and we went back into the bar area. She'd stunned me into silence. Claudine herself was back to business as usual. The fairy ordered a 7-and-7 and was surrounded by suitors in about two minutes flat. She never left with anyone, but the men seemed to enjoy trying. I'd decided that Claudine fed off this admiration and attention.

Even Sam was beaming at her, and she didn't tip.

By the time we were closing the bar, Claudine had left to go back to Monroe, and I'd passed along her news to Sam. He was as appalled by the story as I was. Though Calvin Norris was the leader of the small shifter community of Hotshot, the rest of the world knew him as a steady, quiet bachelor who owned his own home and had a good job as crew foreman at the local lumber mill. It was hard to imagine either of his personas leading to an assassination attempt. Sam decided to send some flowers from the bar's staff.

I pulled on my coat and went out the bar's back door just ahead of Sam. I heard him locking the door behind me. Suddenly I remembered that we were getting low on bottled blood, and I turned to tell Sam this. He caught my movement and stopped, waiting for me to speak, his face expectant. In the length of time it takes to blink, his expression changed from expectant to shocked, dark red began to spread on his left leg, and I heard the sound of a shot.

Then blood was everywhere, Sam crumpled to the ground, and I began to scream.

Chapter 3

I'D NEVER HAD to pay the cover charge at Fangtasia before. The few times I'd come through the public entrance, I'd been with a vampire. But now I was bymy self and feeling mightyconspicuous. I was exhausted from an especiallylong night. I'd been at the hospital until six in the morning, and I'd had onlya few hours' fitful sleep after I'd gotten home.

Pam was taking the cover charge and showing the customers to tables. She was wearing the long filmy black outfit she usually wore when she was on door duty. Pam never looked happy when she was dressed like a fictional vampire. She was the real thing and proud of it. Her personal taste leaned more toward slack sets in pastel colors and penny loafers. She looked as surprised as a vampire can look when she saw me.

"Sookie," she said, "do you have an appointment with Eric?" She took my money without a blink.

I was actually happy to see her: pathetic, huh? I don't have a lot of friends, and I value the ones I have, even if I suspect they dream about catching me in a dark alley and having their bloody way with me. "No, but I do need to talk to him. Business," I added hastily. I didn't want anyone thinking I was courting the romantic attention of the undead head honcho of Shreveport, a position called "sheriff" by the vamps. I shrugged off my new cranberry-colored coat and folded it carefully over my arm. WDED, the Baton Rouge-based all-vampire radio station, was being piped over the sound system. The smooth voice of the early night deejay, Connie the Corpse, said, "And here's a song for all you lowlifes who were outside howling earlier this week... 'Bad Moon Rising,' an old hit from Creedence Clearwater Revival." Connie the Corpse was giving a private tip of the hat to the shape-shifters.

"Wait at the bar while I tell him you're here," Pam said. "You'll enjoy the new bartender."

Bartenders at Fangtasia didn't tend to last long. Eric and Pam always tried to hire someone colorful - an exotic bartender drew in the human tourists who came by the busloads to take a walk on the wild side - and in this they were successful. But somehow the job had acquired a high attrition rate.

The new man gave me a white-toothed smile when I perched on one of the high stools. He was quite an eyeful. He had a head full of long, intensely curly hair, chestnut brown in color. It clustered thickly on his shoulders. He also sported a mustache and a Vandyke. Covering his left eye was a black eye patch. Since his face was narrow and the features on it sizable, his face was crowded. He was about my height, five foot six, and he was wearing a black poet shirt and black pants and high black boots. All he needed was a bandanna tied around his head and a pistol.

"Maybe a parrot on your shoulder?" I said.

"Aaargh, dear lady, you are not the first to suggest such a thing." He had a wonderful rich baritone voice. "But I understand there are health department regulations against having an uncaged bird in an establishment serving drinks." He bowed to me as deeply as the narrow area behind the bar permitted. "May I get you a drink and have the honor of your name?"

I had to smile. "Certainly, sir. I'm Sookie Stackhouse." He'd caught the whiff of otherness about me. Vampires almost always pick up on it. The undead usually note me; humans don't. It's kind of ironic that my mind reading doesn't work on the very creatures who believe it distinguishes me from the rest of the human race, while humans would rather believe I was mentally ill than credit me with an unusual ability.

The woman on the barstool next to me (credit cards maxed out, son with ADD) half turned to listen in. She was jealous, having been trying to entice the bartender into showing her some attention for the past thirty minutes. She eyed me, trying to figure out what had caused the vamp to choose to open a conversation with me. She wasn't impressed at all with what she saw.

"I am delighted to meet you, fair maiden," the new vampire said smoothly, and I grinned. Well, at least I was fair - in the blond-and-blue-eyed sense. His eyes took me in; of course, if you're a woman who works in a bar, you're used to that. At least he didn't look at me offensively; and believe me, if you're a woman who works in a bar, you can tell the difference between an evaluation and an eye f**k.

"I bet good money she's no maiden," said the woman next to me.

She was right, but that was beside the point.

"You must be polite to other guests," the vampire told her, with an altered version of his smile. Not only were his fangs slightly extended, but I also noticed he had crooked (though beautifully white) teeth. American standards of tooth straightness are very modern.

"No one tells me how to act," the woman said combatively. She was sullen because the evening wasn't going as she'd planned. She'd thought it would be easy to attract a vampire, that any vamp would think he was lucky to have her. She'd planned to let one bite her neck, if he'd just settle her credit card bills.

She was overestimating herself and underestimating vampires.

"I beg your pardon, madam, but while you are in Fangtasia, most definitely I shall tell you how to act," the bartender said.

She subsided after he fixed her with his quelling gaze, and I wondered if he hadn't given her a dose of glamour.

"My name," he said, returning his attention to me, "is Charles Twining."

"Pleased to meet you," I said.

"And the drink?"

"Yes, please. A ginger ale." I had to drive back to Bon Temps after I'd seen Eric.

He raised his arched brows but poured me the drink and placed it on a napkin in front of me. I paid him and deposited a good tip in the jar. The little white napkin had some fangs outlined in black, with a single drop of red falling from the right fang - custom-made napkins for the vampire bar. "Fangtasia" was printed in jazzy red script on the opposite corner of the napkin, duplicating the sign outside. Cute. There were T-shirts for sale in a case over in a corner, too, along with glasses decorated with the same logo. The legend underneath read, "Fangtasia - The Bar with a Bite." Eric's merchandising expertise had made great strides in the past few months.