Dead as a Doornail

Page 8

But the thought of it just made me shudder. The windswept open fields, the powerful and ancient crossroads around which the little houses clustered... I didn't think I could handle the perpetual isolation from the rest of the world. My Gran would have urged me to accept Calvin's offer. He was a steady man, was a shift leader at Norcross, a job that came with good benefits. You might think that's laughable, but wait until you have to pay for your insurance all by yourself; then laugh.

It occurred to me (as it should have right away) that Calvin was in a perfect position to force my compliance - Jason's life for my companionship - and he hadn't taken advantage of it.

I leaned over and gave Calvin a kiss on the cheek. "I'll pray for your recovery," I said. "Thank you for giving Jason a chance." Maybe Calvin's nobility was partly due to the fact that he was in no shape to take advantage of me, but it was nobility, and I noted and appreciated it. "You're a good man," I said, and touched his face. The hair of his neat beard felt soft.

His eyes were steady as he said good-bye. "Watch out for that brother of yours, Sookie," he said. "Oh, and tell Dawson I don't want no more company tonight."

"He won't take my word for it," I said.

Calvin managed to smile. "Wouldn't be much of a bodyguard if he did, I guess."

I relayed the message to the Were. But sure enough, as Jason and I walked back to the stairs, Dawson was going into the room to check with Calvin.

I debated for a couple of minutes before I decided it would be better if Jason knew what he was up against. In the truck, as he drove home, I relayed my conversation with Calvin to my brother.

He was horrified that his new buddies in the werepanther world could believe such a thing of him. "If I'd thought of that before I changed for the first time, I can't say it wouldn't have been tempting," Jason said as we drove back to Bon Temps through the rain. "I was mad. Not just mad, furious. But now that I've changed, I see it different." He went on and on while my thoughts ran around inside my head in a circle, trying to think of a way out of this mess.

The sniping case had to be solved by the next full moon. If it wasn't, the others might tear Jason up when they changed. Maybe he could just roam the woods around his house when he turned into his panther-man form, or maybe he could hunt the woods around my place - but he wouldn't be safe out at Hotshot. And they might come looking for him. I couldn't defend him against them all.

By the next full moon, the shooter had to be in custody.

Until I was washing my few dishes that night, it didn't strike me as odd that though Jason was being accused by the werepanther community of being an assassin, I was the one who'd actually shot a shifter. I'd been thinking of the private detectives' appointment to meet me here the next morning. And, as I found myself doing out of habit, I'd been scanning the kitchen for signs of the death of Debbie Pelt. From watching the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel, I knew that there was no way I could completely eradicate the traces of blood and tissue that had spattered my kitchen, but I'd scrubbed and cleaned over and over. I was certain that no casual glance - in fact, no careful inspection by the na**d eye - could reveal anything amiss in this room.

I had done the only thing I could, short of standing there to be murdered. Was that what Jesus had meant by turning the other cheek? I hoped not, because every instinct in me had urged me to defend myself, and the means at hand had been a shotgun.

Of course, I should immediately have reported it. But by then, Eric's wound had healed, the one made when Debbie'd hit him while trying to shoot me. Aside from the testimony of a vampire and myself, there was no proof that she'd fired first, and Debbie's body would have been a powerful statement of our guilt. My first instinct had been to cover up her visit to my house. Eric hadn't given me any other advice, which also might have changed things.

No, I wasn't blaming my predicament on Eric. He hadn't even been in his right mind at the time. It was my own fault that I hadn't sat down to think things through. There would have been gunshot residue on Debbie's hand. Her gun had been fired. Some of Eric's dried blood would have been on the floor. She'd broken in through my front door, and the door had shown clear signs of her trespass. Her car was hidden across the road, and only her fingerprints would've been in it.

I'd panicked, and blown it.

I just had to live with that.

But I was very sorry about the uncertainty her family was suffering. I owed them certainty - which I couldn't deliver.

I wrung out the washcloth and hung it neatly over the sink divider. I dried off my hands and folded the dish towel. Okay, now I'd gotten my guilt straight. That was so much better! Not. Angry with myself, I stomped out to the living room and turned on the television: another mistake. There was a story about Heather's funeral; a news crew from Shreveport had come to cover the modest service this afternoon. Just think of the sensation it would cause if the media realized how the sniper was selecting his victims. The news anchor, a solemn African-American man, was saying that police in Renard Parish had discovered other clusters of apparently random shootings in small towns in Tennessee and Mississippi. I was startled. A serial shooter, here?

The phone rang. "Hello," I said, not expecting anything good.

"Sookie, hi, it's Alcide."

I found myself smiling. Alcide Herveaux, who worked in his father's surveying business in Shreveport, was one of my favorite people. He was a Were, he was both sexy and hardworking, and I liked him very much. He'd also been Debbie Pelt's fiancé. But Alcide had abjured her before she vanished, in a rite that made her invisible and inaudible to him - not literally, but in effect.

"Sookie, I'm at Merlotte's. I'd thought you might be working tonight, so I drove over. Can I come to the house? I need to talk to you."

"You know you're in danger, coming to Bon Temps."

"No, why?"

"Because of the sniper." I could hear the bar sounds in the background. There was no mistaking Arlene's laugh. I was betting the new bartender was charming one and all.

"Why would I worry about that?" Alcide hadn't been thinking about the news too hard, I decided.

"All the people who got shot? They were two-natured," I said. "Now they're saying on the news there've been a lot more across the south. Random shootings in small towns. Bullets that match the one recovered from Heather Kinman here. And I'm betting all the other victims were shape-shifters, too."

There was a thoughtful silence on the end of the line, if silence can be characterized.

"I hadn't realized," Alcide said. His deep, rumbly voice was even more deliberate than normal.

"Oh, and have you talked to the private detectives?"

"What? What are you talking about?"

"If they see us talking together, it'll look very suspicious to Debbie's family."

"Debbie's family has hired private eyes to look for her?"

"That's what I'm saying."

"Listen, I'm coming to your house." He hung up the phone.

I didn't know why on earth the detectives would be watching my house, or where they'd watch it from, but if they saw Debbie's former fiancé tootling down my driveway, it would be easy to connect the dots and come up with a totally erroneous picture. They'd think Alcide killed Debbie to clear the way for me, and nothing could be more wrong. I hoped like hell that Jack Leeds and Lily Bard Leeds were sound asleep rather than staked out in the woods somewhere with a pair of binoculars.

Alcide hugged me. He always did. And once again I was overwhelmed by the size of him, the masculinity, the familiar smell. Despite the warning bell ringing in my head, I hugged him back.

We sat on the couch and half turned to face each other. Alcide was wearing work clothes, which in this weather consisted of a flannel shirt worn open over a T-shirt, heavy jeans, and thick socks under his work boots. His tangle of black hair had a crease in it from his hard hat, and he was beginning to look a little bristly.

"Tell me about the detectives," he said, and I described the couple and told him what they'd said.

"Debbie's family didn't say anything to me about it," Alcide said. He turned it over in his head for a minute. I could follow his thinking. "I think that means they're sure I made her vanish."

"Maybe not. Maybe they just think you're so grieved they don't want to bring it up."

"Grieved." Alcide mulled that over for a minute. "No. I spent all the..." He paused, grappling for words. "I used up all the energy I had to spare for her," he said finally. "I was so blind, I almost think she used some kind of magic on me. Her mother's a spellcaster and half shifter. Her dad's a full-blooded shifter."

"You think that's possible? Magic?" I wasn't questioning that magic existed, but that Debbie had used it.

"Why else would I stick with her for so long? Ever since she's gone missing, it's been like someone took a pair of dark glasses off my eyes. I was willing to forgive her so much, like when she pushed you into the trunk."

Debbie had taken an opportunity to push me in a car trunk with my vampire boyfriend, Bill, who'd been starved for blood for days. And she'd walked off and left me in the trunk with Bill, who was about to awake.

I looked down at my feet, pushing away the recollection of the desperation, the pain.

"She let you get raped," Alcide said harshly.

Him saying it like that, flat out, shocked me. "Hey, Bill didn't know it was me," I said. "He hadn't had anything to eat for days and days, and the impulses are so closely related. I mean, he stopped, you know? He stopped, when he knew it was me." I couldn't put it like that to myself; I couldn't say that word. I knew beyond a doubt that Bill would rather have chewed off his own hand than done that to me if he'd been in his right mind. At that time, he'd been the only sex partner I'd ever had. My feelings about the incident were so confused that I couldn't even bear to try to pick through them. When I'd thought of rape before, when other girls had told me what had happened to them or I'd read it in their brains, I hadn't had the ambiguity I felt over my own short, awful time in the trunk.

"He did something you didn't want him to do," Alcide said simply.

"He wasn't himself," I said.

"But he did it."

"Yes, he did, and I was awful scared." My voice began to shake. "But he came to his senses, and he stopped, and I was okay, and he was really, really sorry. He's never laid a finger on me since then, never asked me if we could have sex, never..." My voice trailed off. I stared down at my hands. "Yes, Debbie was responsible for that." Somehow, saying that out loud made me feel better. "She knew what would happen, or at least she didn't care what would happen."

"And even then," Alcide said, returning to his main point, "she kept coming back and I kept trying to rationalize her behavior. I can't believe I would do that if I wasn't under some kind of magical influence."

I wasn't about to try to make Alcide feel guiltier. I had my own load of guilt to carry. "Hey, it's over."

"You sound sure."

I looked Alcide directly in the eyes. His were narrow and green. "Do you think there's the slightest chance that Debbie's alive?" I asked.

"Her family..." Alcide stopped. "No, I don't."

I couldn't get rid of Debbie Pelt, dead or alive.

"Why'd you need to talk to me in the first place?" I asked. "You said over the phone you needed to tell me something."

"Colonel Flood died yesterday."

"Oh, I'm so sorry! What happened?"

"He was driving to the store when another driver hit him broadside."

"That's awful. Was anyone in the car with him?"

"No, he was by himself. His kids are coming back to Shreveport for the funeral, of course. I wondered if you'd come to the funeral with me."

"Of course. It's not private?"

"No. He knew so many people still stationed at the Air Force base, and he was head of his Neighborhood Watch group and the treasurer of his church, and of course he was the packmaster."

"He had a big life," I said. "Lots of responsibility."

"It's tomorrow at one. What's your work schedule?"

"If I can swap shifts with someone, I'd need to be back here at four thirty to change and go to work."

"That shouldn't be a problem."

"Who'll be packmaster now?"

"I don't know," Alcide said, but his voice wasn't as neutral as I'd expected.

"Do you want the job?"

"No." He seemed a little hesitant, I thought, and I felt the conflict in his head. "But my father does." He wasn't finished. I waited.

"Were funerals are pretty ceremonial," he said, and I realized he was trying to tell me something. I just wasn't sure what it was.

"Spit it out." Straightforward is always good, as far as I'm concerned.

"If you think you can overdress for this, you can't," he said. "I know the rest of the shifter world thinks Weres only go for leather and chains, but that's not true. For funerals, we go all out." He wanted to give me even more fashion tips, but he stopped there. I could see the thoughts crowding right behind his eyes, wanting to be let out.

"Every woman wants to know what's appropriate to wear," I said. "Thanks. I won't wear pants."