Once he knew what he was doing, Quinn was relentless. Since we couldn't be any more miserable than we already were, he decided we might as well be moving. While I did little more than follow him and stay out of his way, he began to scour the area for smells. Finally he got tired of crouching, and he said, "I'm going to change." He stripped quickly and efficiently, rolling the clothes into a compact (but sopping) bundle and handing them to me to carry. Every conjecture I'd had about Quinn's body was absolutely on target, I was pleased to note. He'd begun taking off his clothes without a single hesitation, but once he noticed I was looking, he held still and let me look. Even in the dark, dripping rain, he was worth it. Quinn's body was a work of art, though a scarred work of art. He was one large block of muscle, from his calves to his neck.
"Do you like what you see?" he asked.
"Oh, boy," I said. "You look better than a Happy Meal to a three-year-old."
Quinn gave me a broad, pleased smile. He bent to crouch on the ground. I knew what was coming. The air around Quinn began to shimmer and tremble, and then within that envelope Quinn began to change. Muscles rippled and flowed and reformed, bones reshaped, fur rolled out of somewhere inside him - though I knew that couldn't be, that was the illusion. The sound was dreadful. It was a kind of gloppy, sticky sound, but with hard notes in it, as if someone were stirring a pot of stiff glue that was full of sticks and rocks.
At the end of it, the tiger stood across from me.
If Quinn had been a gorgeous naked man, he was an equally beautiful tiger. His fur was a deep orange slashed with black stripes, and there were touches of white on his belly and face. His eyes slanted, and they were golden. He was maybe seven feet long and at least three feet tall at the shoulder. I was amazed at how big he was. His paws were fully developed and as big as some dinner plates. His rounded ears were just plain cute. He walked over to me silently, with a grace unusual in such a massive form. He rubbed his huge head against me, almost knocking me down, and he purred. He sounded like a happy Geiger counter.
His dense fur was oily to the touch, so I figured he was pretty well waterproofed. He gave a barking cough, and the swamp went silent. You wouldn't think Louisiana wildlife would recognize the sound of a tiger, right? But it did, and it shut its mouth and hid.
We don't have the same special space requirements with animals that we do with people. I knelt beside the tiger that had been Quinn, in some magical way was still Quinn, and I put my arms around his neck, and I hugged him. It was a little disturbing that he smelled so much like an actual tiger, and I forced my mind around the fact that he was a tiger, that Quinn was inside him. And we set out through the swamp.
It was a little startling to see the tiger mark his new territory - this is not something you expect to see your boyfriend do - but I decided it would just be ridiculous to mind the display. Besides, I had enough to think about, keeping up with the tiger. He was searching for scents, and we covered a lot of ground. I was growing more and more exhausted. My sense of wonder faded, and I was simply wet and chilly, hungry and grumpy. If someone had been thinking right under my feet, I'm not sure my mind would have picked the thoughts up.
Then the tiger froze, nose testing the air. His head moved, ears twitching, to search in a particular direction. He turned to look at me. Though tigers can't smile, I got the definite wave of triumph from the huge cat. The tiger turned his head back to the east, rotated his massive head to look at me, and turned his head to the east again. Follow me, clear as a bell.
"Okay," I said, and put my hand on his shoulder.
Off we went. The trip through the swamp lasted an eternity, though later I estimated that "eternity," in this case, was probably about thirty minutes. Gradually the ground grew firmer, the water scarcer. Now we were in forest, not swamp.
I'd figured we'd gotten close to our abductors' destination when the van had turned off onto the side road. I'd been right. When we came to the edge of the clearing surrounding the little house, we were to the west side of the north-facing house. We could see both front and back yards. The van that had held us captive was parked in the back. In the tiny clearing at the front was a car, some kind of GMC sedan.
The little house itself was like a million other houses in rural America. It was a box of a place: wooden, painted tan, with green shutters on the windows and green uprights to support the roof over the tiny front porch. The two men from the van, Clete and George, were huddled on the concrete square because of that bit of shelter, however inadequate it was.
The matching structure at the rear of the house was a little deck outside the back door, scarcely large enough to hold a gas grill and a mop. It was open to the elements. By the way, the elements were really going to town.
I stowed Quinn's clothes and shoes at the foot of a mimosa tree. The tiger's lips pulled back when he scented Clete. The long teeth were as frightening as a shark's.
The afternoon of rain had lowered the temperature. George and Clete were shivering in the damp cool of the evening. They were both smoking. The two Weres, in human form and smoking, would not have a better sense of smell than regular people. They showed no sign of being aware of Quinn at all. I figured they would react pretty dramatically if they caught the scent of tiger in southern Louisiana.
I worked my way through the trees around the clearing until I was very close to the van. I eased my way around it and crept up to the passenger side. The van was unlocked, and I could see the stun gun. That was my goal. I took a deep breath and opened the door, hoping the light that came on wasn't interesting to anyone who could see out the back window. I grabbed the stun gun from the jumble of stuff between the front seats. I shut the door as quietly as a van door can be shut. Luckily, the rain seemed to muffle the noise. I gave a shaky sigh of relief when nothing happened. Then I duckwalked back into the edge of the woods and knelt by Quinn.
He licked my cheek. I appreciated the affection in the gesture, if not the tiger breath, and I scratched his head.
(Somehow, kissing his fur had no appeal.) That done, I pointed to the left west window, which should belong to a living room. Quinn didn't nod or give me a high five, both of which would have been untigerlike gestures, but I guess I had expected him to give me some kind of green light. He just looked at me.
Picking up my feet carefully, I stepped out into the little open space between the forest and the house, and very carefully I made my way to the lit window.
I didn't want to pop into view like a jack-in-the-box, so I hugged the side of the house and inched sideways until I could peer in at the very corner of the glass. The older Pelts, Barbara and Gordon, were sitting on an "early American" loveseat dating from the sixties, and their body language clearly proclaimed their unhappiness. Their daughter Sandra paced back and forth in front of them, though there wasn't much room for such an exhibition. It was a very small family room, a room that would be comfortable only if you had a family of one. The older Pelts looked as if they were going to a Lands' End photo shoot, while Sandra was more adventurously clad in skintight stretch khakis and a bright striped short-sleeved sweater. Sandra was dressed for trolling for cute guys at the mall, rather than torturing a couple of people. But torturing was what she'd been planning to do. There was a straight-backed chair crammed into the room, too, and it had straps and handcuffs already attached.
On a familiar note, there was a roll of duct tape sitting ready beside it.
I'd been pretty calm until I saw the duct tape.
I didn't know if tigers could count, but I held up three fingers in case Quinn was watching. Moving slowly and carefully, I squatted down and moved south until I was below the second window. I was feeling pretty proud of my sneaking ability, which should have alerted me to potential disaster. Pride goeth before a fall.
Though the window was dark, when I eased up into position, I was looking through the glass right into the eyes of a small swarthy man with a mustache and goatee. He was sitting at a table right by the window, and he'd been holding a cup of coffee in his hand. In his shock, he let it drop to the table and the hot backsplash hit his hands and chest and chin.
He shrieked, though I wasn't sure he was using actual words. I heard a commotion at the front door and in the front room.
I was around the corner of the house and up the steps to the little deck faster than you could say Jack Robinson. I yanked open the screen door and pushed in the wooden door, and I leaped into the kitchen with the stun gun on. The small guy was still patting at his face with a towel while I zapped him, and he went down like a sack of bricks. Wow!
But the stun gun had to recharge, I discovered, when Sandra Pelt, who'd had the advantage of already being on her feet, charged into the kitchen, teeth bared. The stun gun didn't do a damn thing to her, and she was on me like an - well, like an enraged wolf.
However, she was still in the form of a girl, and I was desperate and desperately angry.
I've seen at least two dozen bar fights, ranging from halfhearted punches to rolling-on-the-ground biting, and I know how to fight. Right now I was willing to do whatever it took. Sandra was mean, but she was lighter and less experienced, and after some wrestling and punching and hair pulling that went by in a flash, I was on top of her and had her pinned to the floor. She snarled and snapped but she couldn't reach my neck, and I was prepared to head-butt her if I had to.
A voice in the background bellowed, "Let me in!" and I assumed it was Quinn behind some door. "Come on now!" I yelled in answer. "I need help!"
She was squirming underneath me, and I dared not let go to shift my grip. "Listen, Sandra," I panted, "hold still, dammit!"
"Fuck you," she said bitterly, and her efforts redoubled.
"This is actually kind of exciting," a familiar voice said, and I glanced up to see Eric looking down at us with wide blue eyes. He looked immaculate: neat as a pin in blue jeans that had a crease and a starched blue-and-white striped dress shirt. His blond hair was shining clean and (here was the most enviable part) dry. I hated his guts. I felt nasty to the nth degree.
"I could use some help here," I snapped, and he said, "Of course, Sookie, though I'm enjoying the wiggling around. Let go of the girl and stand up."
"Only if you're ready for action," I said, my breathing ragged with the effort of holding Sandra down.
"I'm always ready for action," Eric said, with a glowing smile. "Sandra, look at me."
She was too smart for that. Sandra squeezed her eyes shut and fought even harder. In a second, she freed one of her arms and swung it back to get momentum for her punch. But Eric dropped to his knees and caught the hand before it could fly at my head.
"That's enough," he said in an entirely different tone, and her eyes flew open in surprise. Though he still couldn't catch her with his eyes, I figured he had charge of her now. I rolled off the Were to lie on my back in what remained of the floor in the tiny kitchen. Mr. Small and Dark (and Burned and Stunned), who I figured owned this house, was crumpled by the table.
Eric, who was having almost as much trouble with Sandra as I'd had, took up a lot more of the available space. Exasperated with the Were, he adopted a simple solution. He squeezed the fist he'd caught, and she screamed. And shut up - and quit struggling.
"That's just not fair," I said, fighting a wave of weariness and pain.
"All's fair," he said quietly.
I didn't like the sound of that. "What are you talking about?" I asked. He shook his head. I tried again. "Where's Quinn?"
"The tiger has taken care of your two abductors," Eric said, with an unpleasant smile. "Would you like to go see?"
"Not particularly," I said, and closed my eyes again. "I guess they're dead?"
"I'm sure they wish they were," Eric said. "What did you do to the little man on the floor?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," I said.
"I scared him so bad he spilled hot coffee on himself. Then I hit him with a stun gun that I got out of the van."
"Oh." There was a kind of breathy sound, and I opened my eyes to see that Eric was laughing silently.
"The Pelts?" I asked.
"Rasul has them covered," Eric said. "You have another fan, it seems."
"Oh, it's because of the fairy blood," I said irritably. "You know, it's not fair. Human guys don't like me. I know about two hundred of 'em who wouldn't want to date me if I came with a Chevy truck. But because supes are attracted to the fairy smell, I get accused of being a guy magnet. How wrong is that?"
"You have fairy blood," Eric said, as if his own lightbulb had just lit up. "That explains a lot."
That hurt my feelings. "Oh no, you couldn't just like me," I said, tired and hurting beyond coherence. "Oh no, gosh, there has to be a reason. And it's not gonna be my sparkling personality, oh no! It's gonna be my blood, because it's special. Not me, I'm not special..."
And I would have gone on and on, if Quinn hadn't said, "I don't give a damn about fairies, myself." Any available room left in the kitchen vanished.
I scrambled to my feet. "You okay?" I asked in a wobbly voice.
"Yes," he said, in his deepest rumble. He was altogether human again, and altogether naked. I would've hugged him, but I felt a little embarrassed about embracing him in the altogether, in front of Eric.
"I left your clothes out there in the woods," I said. "I'll go get 'em."
"No, I know where they are, and I couldn't get any wetter." Besides, I'm not sophisticated enough to be comfortable in a room with a naked guy, an unconscious guy, a real horrible girl, and another guy who's been my lover.
"Fuck you, bitch," the charming Sandra called after me, and shrieked again, as Eric made it clear he didn't care for name calling.
"Right back at you," I muttered, and trudged out into the rain.
Oh, yes, it was still raining.
I was still brooding over the fairy-blood thing as I scooped up the bundle of Quinn's sodden clothes. It would be easy to slide into a depressed trough if I thought the only reason anybody ever liked me was because I had fairy blood. Of course, there was always the odd vampire who had been ordered to seduce me... I was sure the fairy blood had just been a bonus, in that case... no, no, no, wasn't going there.
If I looked at it in a reasonable way, the blood was just as much a part of me as my eye color or the thickness of my hair. It hadn't done a thing for my half-fairy grandmother, assuming the gene had come to me through her and not one of my other grandparents. She'd married a human man who hadn't treated her any differently than he would have if her blood had been plain old grade A human. And she'd been killed by a human who hadn't known anything about her blood other than the color of it. Following the same assumption, fairy blood hadn't made a bit of difference to my father. He'd never in his life encountered a vampire who might be interested in him because of it - or if he had, he'd kept it mighty close. That didn't seem likely. And the fairy blood hadn't saved my father from the flash flood that had washed my parents' truck off the bridge and into the swollen stream. If the blood had come to me through my mother, well, she'd died in the truck, too. And Linda, my mother's sister, had died of cancer in her midforties, no matter what kind of heritage she had.
I didn't believe this wonderful fairy blood had done all that much for me, either. Maybe a few vampires had been a little more interested in me and friendly to me than they would have been otherwise, but I couldn't say that had been much of an advantage.
In fact, many people would say the vampire attention had been a big negative factor in my life. I might be one of those people. Especially since I was standing out here in the pouring rain holding someone else's wet clothes and wondering what the hell to do with them.
Having come full circle, I slogged back to the house. I could hear a lot of moaning coming from the front yard: Clete and George, presumably. I should have gone to check, but I couldn't muster up the energy.
Back in the kitchen, the small dark man was stirring a little, his eyes opening and shutting and his mouth twitching. His hands were tied behind him. Sandra was bound with duct tape, which cheered me up quite a bit. It seemed a neat piece of poetic justice. She even had a neat rectangle squarely over her mouth, which I presumed was Eric's work. Quinn had found a towel to secure around his waist, so he looked very... preppy.
"Thanks, babe," he said. He took his clothes and began squeezing them out over the sink. I dripped on the floor. "I wonder if there's a dryer?" he asked, and I opened another door to find a little pantry/utility room with shelves on one wall and on the other a water heater and a tiny washer and dryer.
"Pass 'em in here," I called, and Quinn came in with his clothes. "Yours need to go in there, too, babe," he said, and I noticed he sounded as tired as I felt. Changing into and out of tiger form without the full moon, in such a short space of time, must have been very difficult. "Maybe you can find me a towel?" I asked, pulling off the wet pants with great effort. Without a single joke or leer, he went to see what he could find. He returned with some clothes, I assumed from the small man's bedroom: a T-shirt, shorts, socks. "This is the best I could do," he said.
"It's better than I hoped for," I said. After I'd used the towel and I had pulled on the clean, dry clothes, I almost wept with gratitude. I gave Quinn a hug and then went to find out what we were going to do with our hostages.
The Pelts were sitting on the floor, securely handcuffed, in the living room, watched by Rasul. Barbara and Gordon had looked so mild when they'd come to Merlotte's to meet with me in Sam's office. They looked mild no longer. Rage and malice sat oddly on their suburban faces.
Eric brought Sandra in, too, and dumped her by her parents. Eric stood in one doorway, Quinn in another (which a glance told me led into Small and Dark's bedroom). Rasul, gun in hand, relaxed his vigilance a little now that he had such formidable backup. "Where's the little guy?" he asked. "Sookie, I'm glad to see you looking so well, even though your ensemble falls below your usual standards."
The shorts were baggy cargo shorts, the shirt was big, and the white socks were the capper. "You really know how to make a girl feel beautiful, Rasul," I said, scraping together maybe half a smile to offer him. I sat down in the straight-backed chair and I asked Barbara Pelt, "What were you going to do with me?"
"Work on you until you told us the truth, and Sandra was satisfied," she said. "Our family couldn't be at peace until we knew the truth. And the truth lies in you, I just know it."
I was troubled. Well, beyond troubled. Because I didn't know what to say to her just yet, I looked from Eric to Rasul. "Just the two of you?" I asked.
"Any time two vampires can't handle a handful of Weres is the day I become human again," Rasul said, with an expression so snooty I was tempted to laugh. But he'd been exactly right (though of course he'd had a tiger who helped). Quinn was propped in the doorway looking picturesque, though just at the moment his great expanse of smooth skin didn't interest me at all.
"Eric," I said, "what should I do?"
I don't think I'd ever asked Eric for advice before. He was surprised. But the secret wasn't only mine.
After a moment, he nodded.
"I'll tell you what happened to Debbie," I said to the Pelts. I didn't ask Rasul and Quinn to leave the room. I was getting rid of this right now, both the lingering guilt and the hold Eric had on me.
I'd thought about that evening so often that my words came automatically. I didn't cry, because all my tears had been shed months ago, in private.
Once I'd finished the story, the Pelts sat and stared at me, and I stared back.
"That sounds like our Debbie," said Barbara Pelt. "This has the ring of truth."
"She did have a gun," said Gordon Pelt. "I gave it to her for Christmas two years ago." The two Weres looked at each other.
"She was... proactive," Barbara said, after a moment. She turned to Sandra. "Remember when we had to go to court, when she was in high school, because she put super-glue in that cheerleader's hairbrush? The one that was dating her ex-boyfriend? That does sound like Debbie, huh?"
Sandra nodded, but the duct tape wouldn't permit her speech. Sandra had tears rolling down her cheeks.
"You still don't remember where you put her?" Gordon asked Eric.
"I would tell you if I did," Eric said. Not that I care, his tone implied.
"You guys hired the two kids who attacked us in Shreveport," Quinn said.
"Sandra did," Gordon admitted. "We didn't know about it until Sandra had already bitten them. She'd promised them..." He shook his head. "She'd sent them to Shreveport on her errand, but they would have returned home to collect their reward. Our Jackson pack would have killed them. Mississippi doesn't permit bitten Weres. They kill them on sight. The boys would have named Sandra as their maker. The pack would have abjured her. Barbara's dabbled with witchcraft, but nothing of the level that would have sealed the boys' mouths. We hired an out-of-state Were to track them when we found out. He couldn't stop them, couldn't prevent their arrest, so he had to be arrested and go into the jail system with them, to take care of the problem." He looked up at us, shook his head sternly. "He bribed Cal Myers to put him in the cell with them. Of course, we punished Sandra for that."
"Oh, did you take away her cell phone for a week?" If I sounded sarcastic, I thought I had a right to be. Even cooperative, the Pelts were pretty horrible. "We were both hurt," I said, nodding toward Quinn, "and those two kids are dead now. Because of Sandra."
"She's our daughter," Barbara said. "And she believed she was avenging her murdered sister."
"And then you hired all the Weres that were in the second van, and the two Weres lying out in the front yard. Are they going to die, Quinn?"
"If the Pelts don't take them to a Were doctor, they may. And they sure can't go to any human hospital."
Quinn's claws would have left distinctive marks.
"Will you do that?" I asked skeptically. "Take Clete and George to a Were doctor?"
The Pelts looked at each other and shrugged. "We figured you were going to kill us," Gordon said. "Are you going to let us walk away? With what assurances?"
I'd never met anyone quite like the Pelts before, and it was easier and easier to see where Debbie had gotten her charming personality, adopted or not.
"With assurances that I never hear of this again," I said. "Neither I nor Eric."
Quinn and Rasul had been listening silently.
"Sookie is a friend of the Shreveport pack," Quinn said. "They are very upset she was attacked, in their own city, and now we know you're responsible for that attack."
"We heard she was no favorite of the new packleader." Barbara's voice held a trace of contempt. She was reverting to her own personality, since she no longer feared her own death. I liked them better when they were scared.
"He may not be packleader for long," Quinn said, his voice a quiet threat. "Even if he stays in office, he can't rescind the pack's protection, since it was guaranteed by the previous packleader. The honor of the pack would be destroyed."
"We'll make reparations to the Shreveport pack," Gordon said wearily.
"Did you send Tanya to Bon Temps?" I asked.
Barbara looked proud of herself. "Yes, I did that. You know our Debbie was adopted? She was a werefox."
I nodded. Eric looked quizzical; I didn't think he'd met Tanya.
"Tanya is a member of Debbie's birth family, and she wanted to do something to help. She thought if she went to Bon Temps and began working with you, you might let something spill. She said you were too suspicious to warm up to her offer of friendship. I think she might stay in Bon Temps. I understand finding the bar owner so attractive was an unexpected bonus."
It was kind of gratifying to discover Tanya was as untrustworthy as I'd suspected. I wondered if I had the right to tell Sam this whole story, by way of warning. I'd have to think about that later.
"And the man who owns this house?" I could hear him groaning and moaning from the kitchen.
"He's a former high school buddy of Debbie's," Gordon said. "We asked him if we could borrow his house for the afternoon. And we paid him. He won't talk after we leave."
"What about Gladiola?" I asked. I remembered the two burning body sections on my driveway. I remembered Mr. Cataliades's face, and Diantha's grief.
They all three stared at me blankly. "Gladiola? The flower?" Barbara said, looking genuinely puzzled. "It's not even the right season for glads, now."
That was a dead end.
"Do you agree we're square on this?" I asked baldly. "I've hurt you, you've hurt me. Even?"
Sandra shook her head from side to side, but her parents ignored her. Thank God for duct tape. Gordon and Barbara nodded at each other.
Gordon said, "You killed Debbie, but we do believe that you killed her in self-defense. And our living daughter took extreme and unlawful methods to attack you... It goes against my grain to say this, but I think we have to agree to leave you alone, after this day."
Sandra made a lot of weird noises.
"With these stipulations." Gordon's face suddenly looked hard as a rock. The yuppie man took a backseat to the Were. "You won't come after Sandra. And you stay out of Mississippi."
"Done," I said instantly. "Can you control Sandra enough to make her keep to this agreement?" It was a rude but valid question. Sandra had enough balls for an army, and I doubted very much if the Pelts had ever really had control over either of their daughters.
"Sandra," Gordon said to his daughter. Her eyes blazed at him from her forcibly mute face. "Sandra, this is law. We are giving our word to this woman, and our word is binding on you. If you defy me, I'll challenge you at the next full moon. I'll take you down in front of the pack."
Both mother and daughter looked shocked, Sandra more so than her mother. Sandra's eyes narrowed, and after a long moment, she nodded.
I hoped Gordon lived a long time and enjoyed good health while he lived. If he grew ill, or if he died, Sandra wouldn't feel bound by this agreement, I felt pretty darn sure. But as I walked out of the little house in the swamp, I thought I had a reasonable chance of not seeing the Pelts again in my life, and that was absolutely okay with me.