"Sam," I said, keeping my voice low, "I need a few days off." When I'd knocked on his trailer door, I'd been surprised to find he had guests, though I'd seen the other vehicles parked by Sam's truck. JB du Rone and Andy Bellefleur were perched on Sam's couch, beer and potato chips set handily on the coffee table. Sam was engaging in a male bonding ritual. "Watching sports?" I added, trying not to sound astonished. I waved over Sam's shoulder to JB and Andy, and they waved back: JB enthusiastically, and Andy less happily. If you can be said to wave ambivalently, that was what he did.
"Uh, yeah, basketball. LSU's playing... oh, well. You need the time off right now?"
"Yes," I said. "There's kind of an emergency."
"Can you tell me about it?"
"I have to go to New Orleans to clean out my cousin Hadley's apartment," I said.
"And that has to be right now? You know Tanya is still new, and Charlsie just quit, she says for good. Arlene's not as reliable as she used to be, and Holly and Danielle are still pretty shaky since the school incident."
"I'm sorry," I said. "If you want to let me go and get someone else, I'll understand." It broke my heart to say that, but in fairness to Sam, I had to.
Sam shut the trailer door behind him and stepped out on the porch. He looked hurt. "Sookie," he said, after a second, "you've been completely reliable for at least five years. You've only asked for time off maybe two or three times total. I'm not going to fire you because you need a few days."
"Oh. Well, good." I could feel my face redden. I wasn't used to praise. "Liz's daughter might be able to come help."
"I'll call down the list," he said mildly. "How are you getting to New Orleans?"
"I have a ride."
"Who with?" he asked, his voice gentle. He didn't want me to get mad at his minding my business. (I could tell that much.)
"The queen's lawyer," I said, in an even quieter voice. Though tolerant of vampires in general, the citizens of Bon Temps might get a little excitable if they knew that their state had a vampire queen, and that her secret government affected them in many ways. On the other hand, given the disrepute of Louisiana politics, they might just think it was business as usual.
"You're going to clean out Hadley's apartment?"
I'd told Sam about my cousin's second, and final, death.
"Yes. And I need to find out about whatever she left me."
"This seems real sudden." Sam looked troubled. He ran a hand over his curly red-gold hair until it stood out from his head in a wild halo. He needed a haircut.
"Yes, to me, too. Mr. Cataliades tried to tell me earlier, but the messenger was killed."
I heard Andy yelling at the television as some big play roused his excitement. Strange, I'd never thought of Andy as a sports guy, or JB either, for that matter. I'd never added up all the time I'd heard men thinking about assists and three-pointers when the women with them were talking about the need for new kitchen drapes or Rudy's bad grade in algebra. When I did add it up, I wondered if the purpose of sports wasn't to give guys a safe alternative to thornier issues.
"You shouldn't go," Sam said instantly. "It sounds like it could be dangerous."
I shrugged. "I have to," I said. "Hadley left it to me; I have to do it." I was far from as calm as I was trying to look, but it didn't seem to me like it would do any good to kick and scream about it.
Sam began to speak, then reconsidered. Finally, he said, "Is this about money, Sook? Do you need the money she left you?"
"Sam, I don't know if Hadley had a penny to her name. She was my cousin, and I have to do this for her. Besides..." I was on the verge of telling him the trip to New Orleans had to be important in some way, since someone was trying so hard to keep me from going.
But Sam tended to be a worrier, especially if I was involved, and I didn't want to get him all worked up when nothing he could say would dissuade me from going. I don't think of myself as a stubborn person, but I figured this was the last service I could perform for my cousin.
"What about taking Jason?" Sam suggested, taking my hand. "He was Hadley's cousin, too."
"Evidently, he and Hadley were on the outs toward the end," I said. "That's why she left her stuff to me. Besides, Jason's got a lot on his plate right now."
"What, something besides bossing Hoyt around and screwing every woman who'll stand still long enough?"
I stared at Sam. I'd known he was not a big fan of my brother's, but I hadn't known his dislike went this deep.
"Yes, actually," I said, my voice as cold and frosty as a beer mug. I wasn't about to explain my brother's girlfriend's miscarriage while I was standing on a doorstep, especially given Sam's antagonism.
Sam looked away, shaking his head in disgust with himself. "I'm sorry, Sookie, I'm really sorry. I just think Jason should pay more attention to the only sister he's got. You're so loyal to him."
"Well, he wouldn't let anything happen to me," I said, bewildered. "Jason would stand up for me."
Before Sam said, "Of course," I caught the flicker of doubt in his mind.
"I have to go pack," I said. I hated to walk away. No matter his feelings about Jason, Sam was important to me, and leaving him with this unhappiness between us shook me a bit. But I could hear the men roaring at some play inside the trailer, and I knew I had to let him get back to his guests and his Sunday afternoon pleasure. He gave me a kiss on the cheek.
"Call me if you need me," he said, and he looked as if he wanted to say a lot more. I nodded, turned away, and went down the steps to my car.
"Bill, you said you wanted to go to New Orleans with me when I went to close out Hadley's estate?" Finally it was full dark, and I was able to call Bill. Selah Pumphrey had answered the phone and called Bill to talk to me in a very chilly voice.
"Mr. Cataliades is here, and he wants to leave real shortly."
"You could have told me earlier, when you knew he was coming." But Bill didn't sound truly angry, or even surprised.
"He sent a messenger, but she was killed in my woods."
"You found the body?"
"No, a girl who came with him did. Her name's Diantha."
"Then it was Gladiola who died."
"Yes," I said, surprised. "How did you know?"
Bill said, "When you come into a state, it's only polite to check in with the queen or king if you're staying for any length of time. I saw the girls from time to time, since they function as the queen's messengers."
I looked at the telephone in my hands with as much thoughtfulness as if it'd been Bill's face. I couldn't help but think all these thoughts in quick succession. Bill wandered in my woods... Gladiola had been killed in my woods. She'd been killed without noise, efficiently and accurately, by someone well versed in the lore of the supernatural, someone who'd known to use a steel sword, someone who'd been strong enough to sweep a sword through Gladiola's entire body.
These were characteristics of a vampire - but any number of supernatural creatures could do the same.
To get close enough to wield the sword, the killer had been super quick or quite innocuous-looking. Gladiola hadn't suspected she was going to be killed.
Maybe she had known the murderer.
And the way Gladiola's little body had been left, tossed in the bushes carelessly... the killer hadn't cared if I found her body or not, though of course the demonic lack of putrefaction had played a role there. Her silence was all the killer had wanted. Why had she been killed? Her message, if I was getting the whole story from the heavy lawyer, had simply been for me to prepare for my trip to New Orleans. I was going, anyway, though she hadn't had a chance to deliver it. So what had been gained by silencing her? Two or three more days of ignorance on my part? It didn't seem to me that was much motivation.
Bill was waiting for me to end the long pause in our conversation, one of the things I'd always liked about him. He didn't feel the need to fill conversational pauses.
"They burned her in the driveway," I said.
"Of course. It's the only way to dispose of anything with demon blood," Bill said, but absently, as if he'd been thinking deep thoughts about something else.
" 'Of course? How was I supposed to know that?"
"At least you know now. Bugs won't bite them, their bodies won't corrupt, and sex with them is corrosive."
"Diantha seems so perky and obedient."
"Of course, when she's with her uncle."
"Mr. Cataliades is her uncle," I said. "Glad's uncle, too?"
"Oh, yes. Cataliades is mostly demon, but his half brother Nergal is a full demon. Nergal's had several half-human children. All by different mothers, obviously."
I wasn't sure why this was so obvious, and I wasn't about to ask him.
"You're letting Selah listen to all this?"
"No, she's in the bathroom showering."
Okay, still feeling jealous. And envious: Selah had the luxury of ignorance, while I did not. What a nicer world it was when you didn't know about the supernatural side of life.
Sure. Then you just had to worry about famine, war, serial killers, AIDS, tsunamis, old age, and the Ebola virus.
"Can it, Sookie," I said to myself, and Bill said, "Pardon me?"
I shook myself. "Listen, Bill, if you want to go to New Orleans with me and the lawyer, be over here in the next thirty minutes. Otherwise, I'll assume you have other fish to fry." I hung up. I would have a whole drive to the Big Easy to think about all this.
"He'll be here, or not, in the next thirty minutes," I called out the front door to the lawyer.
"Good to hear," Mr. Cataliades called back. He was standing by Diantha while she was hosing the black smudge off my gravel.
I trotted back to my room and packed my toothbrush. I ran down my mental checklist. I'd left a message on Jason's answering machine, I'd asked Tara if she'd mind running out to get my mail and my papers every day, I'd watered my few houseplants (my grandmother believed that plants, like birds and dogs, belonged outside; ironically enough, I'd gotten some houseplants when she died, and I was trying hard to keep them alive).
He wasn't with his cell phone, or wasn't answering it, at any rate. I left a voice mail message. Only our second date, and I had to cancel it.
I found it hard to figure out exactly how much to tell him. "I have to go to New Orleans to clean out my cousin's apartment," I said. "She lived in a place on Chloe Street, and I don't know if there's a phone or not. So I guess I'll just call you when I get back? I'm sorry our plans changed." I hoped he would at least be able to tell I was genuinely regretful that I wouldn't be able to eat dinner with him.
Bill arrived just as I was carrying my bag out to the car. He had a backpack, which struck me as funny. I suppressed my smile when I saw his face. Even for a vampire, Bill looked pale and drawn. He ignored me.
"Cataliades," he said, with a nod. "I'll hitch a ride with you, if that suits you. Sorry about your loss." He nodded to Diantha, who was alternating long, furious monologues in a language I didn't understand with the sort of frozen-faced stare I associated with deep shock.
"My niece died an untimely death," Cataliades said, in his deliberate way. "She will not go unavenged."
"Of course not," Bill said, in his cool voice. While Diantha reached in to pop the trunk, Bill moved to the back of the car to toss his backpack into its depths. I locked my front door behind me and hurried down the steps to put my bag in with his. I caught a glimpse of his face before he registered my approach, and that glimpse shook me.
Bill looked desperate.