Page 14

 Charlaine Harris

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By the time I'd dropped my hairbrush, opened my purse, and groped inside to extricate the phone, my caller had hung up. Frustrating. I checked the number, and to my astonishment I found that Mustapha Khan had been trying to get in touch with me. I called the number back as quickly as I could press the right buttons, but no one answered.
Crap. Well, if he wasn't picking up, there wasn't anything I could do about it. But I had other messages: one from Dermot, one from Alcide, and one from Tara.
Dermot's voice said, "Sookie? Where are you? You didn't come home last night. Everything okay?"
Alcide Herveaux said, "Sookie, we need to talk. Call me when you can."
Tara said, "Sookie, I think the babies are going to come pretty soon. I'm effacing and I'm starting to dilate. Get ready to become an aunt!" She sounded giddy with excitement.
I called her back first, but she didn't pick up.
Then I called Dermot, who actually answered. I gave him a condensed version of the night before. He asked me to come home immediately, but he didn't offer an explanation. I told him I'd start back within the hour unless the police arrived to delay me. What if they wanted to come into Eric's house? They couldn't just come in, right? They had to have a warrant. But the house was a crime scene. I was worried about them trying to get into Eric's downstairs bedroom, and I remembered that Bill was in the bedroom across the hall in a guest pod. What if the cops decided to open it? I needed a set of those "DO NOT ENTER VAMPIRE AT REST" coffin hangers I'd seen advertised in Eric's copy of American Vampire.
"I'll be there as soon as I can," I told Dermot. I hung up feeling a bit worried about Dermot's insistence that I return. What was happening at my house?
With great reluctance, I returned Alcide's call. He'd only try to get in touch about something pretty important, since we weren't exactly buddies anymore. We weren't exactly enemies, either. But we could never seem to be happy with each other at the same time.
"Sookie," Alcide said in his deep voice. "How you doing?"
"I'm okay. I don't know if you've heard what happened here at Eric's last night ..."
"Yeah, I heard something about it."
No surprise there. Who needed the Internet, when you had the supes around? "Then you know Mustapha is missing."
"Too bad he's not pack. We'd find him."
Pointed, much? "After all, he's a werewolf," I said briskly. "And the police do want him. I know he could explain everything if he'd just come in to talk to them. So maybe if someone in the pack sees him somewhere, you could let me know? He called me-or at least someone using his phone did. I missed the call, and I'm really worried about him."
"I'll let you know if I find out anything," Alcide promised. "I need to talk to you about something else, though."
I waited to hear what he had in mind.
"Sookie, you still there?"
"Yes, I'm just waiting."
"I'm hearing a complete lack of enthusiasm."
"Well, considering last time." I didn't even need to finish the sentence. Finding Alcide naked in my bed had not endeared him to me. There was a lot to like about the werewolf, but his timing had never matched mine and he'd taken some bad advice.
"Okay, I was wrong there. We had a good result from you acting as our shaman, but I was wrong to ask you to do it, and I freely acknowledge that." Alcide said that kind of proudly.
Had he joined Werewolf Manipulators Anonymous? I looked at myself in the mirror and widened my eyes, to let my reflection know what I thought about the conversation.
"Good to hear that," I said. "What's up?"
Rueful chuckle. Charming rueful chuckle. "Well, you're right, Sookie, I do have a favor to ask you."
I showed myself Amazed in the mirror. "Do tell," I said politely.
"You know my pack enforcer has been going out with your boss for a while."
"I know that." Cut to the chase.
"Well, she wants you to help her out with something, and since you two have had your differences ... for whatever reason ... she asked me if I'd call you."
Sneaky Jannalynn. This was like a double ... fake something. It was true I liked Jannalynn much less than I did Alcide. It was also true (though perhaps Alcide didn't know this) that Jannalynn suspected my relationship with Sam was far more than it should be between an employee and her boss. If this were the fifties, she'd be checking Sam's collars for lipstick stains. (Did people do that anymore? Why did women kiss collars, anyway? Besides, Sam almost always wore T-shirts.)
"What does she want me to help her with?" I asked, hoping my voice was suitably neutral.
"She's going to propose to Sam, and she wants you to help her set the stage."
I sat down on the end of the bed. I didn't want to make faces in the mirror anymore. "She wants me to help her ask Sam to marry her?" I said slowly. I'd helped Andy Bellefleur propose to Halleigh, but I couldn't imagine Jannalynn wanting me to hide an engagement ring in a basket of French fries.
"She wants you to get Sam to drive down to Mimosa Lake," Alcide said. "She's borrowed a cottage down there, and she wants to surprise Sam with a dinner, kind of romantic, you know. I guess she'd spring the question there." Alcide sounded oddly unenthusiastic or perhaps unconvinced that he should be relaying this request.
"No," I said immediately. "I won't do it. She'll have to get Sam there on her own." I could just envision Sam imagining that I wanted him to go out to the lake with me, only to be confronted by Jannalynn and whatever she thought of as a romantic dinner-live rabbits they could chase together, maybe. The whole scenario made me acutely uncomfortable. I could feel a flush of anger creeping up my neck.
Alcide said, "Sookie, that's not ..."
"Not helpful or obliging? I don't want to be, Alcide. There's just too much room for disaster in that plan. Plus, I don't think you understand Jannalynn too well." What I wanted to say was, "I think she's trying to get me somewhere alone to kill me, or to stage some scene to make me look guilty." But I didn't.
There was a long silence.
"I guess Jannalynn was right," he said, letting his dismay into his voice. "You do have it in for her. What, you don't think she's good enough for Sam?"
"No. As a matter of fact, I don't. Tell her I ..." I automatically started to say I was sorry I couldn't oblige her, and then I realized that would be a big fat lie. "I'm just ... unable to be of assistance. She can do her own proposing. Good-bye, Alcide." Without waiting to hear his response, I hung up.
Had his enforcer wrapped Alcide around her little finger, or what?
"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," I said. I wasn't sure if I meant Alcide or Jannalynn or both of them.
I fumed as I gathered my few things together. Help that bitch propose to Sam? When Hell froze over. When pigs flew! Plus, as I'd told Alcide, if I'd been fool enough to go out to Mimosa Lake, she'd have staged some drama, for sure.
As I locked Eric's kitchen door behind me and stomped out to my car in my now-painful high heels, I said words that had seldom crossed my lips before. I slammed my car door shut behind me, earning a sharp look from a sleek, well-groomed neighbor of Eric's who was weeding the flower bed around her mailbox.
"Next people will be asking me to be a surrogate mom for their babies, cause it would be inconvenient for them to carry their own," I said, sneering in an unattractive way into my rearview mirror. That reminded me of Tara, and I tried her number again, but with no better result.
I pulled in behind my house about two o'clock. Dermot's car was still there. When I saw home, it was like I gave myself permission to run into a wall of weariness. It felt good that my great-uncle would be waiting for me. I grabbed my little bag of dirty clothes and my purse and trudged to the back door.
Tossing the clothes bag on the top of the washer on the back porch, I put my hand on the knob of the kitchen door, registering as I did so that two people were waiting inside.
Maybe Claude was back? Maybe all the problems in Faery had been solved, and everyone at Hooligans would be returning to the wonderful world of the fae. How many problems would that leave me with? Maybe only three or four big ones.
I was feeling honestly optimistic when I pushed the door open and registered the identity of the two men seated at the table.
Definitely an OSM. One man was Dermot, whom I'd expected. The other was Mustapha, whom I hadn't.
"Geez Louise, where have you been?" I thought I was going to yell, but it came out as a startled wheeze.
"Sookie," he said, in his deep voice.
"We thought you were dead! We were scared sick about you! What happened?"
"Take a deep breath," Mustapha said. "Sit down and just ... take a breath. I got some things to tell you. I can't give you a full answer. It's not that I don't want to. It's really a life or a death."
His statement cut off the next seven questions poised to pour off my tongue. Tossing my purse on the counter, I pulled out a chair, sat, and took a deep breath as he'd advised me. I gave him all my attention. For the first time, I absorbed his ragged appearance. Mustapha's grooming had always been meticulous. It was a shock to see him rumpled, his precise haircut uneven, his boots scuffed. "Did you see who killed that girl?" I asked. I had to.
He looked at me, looked hard. He didn't answer.
"Did you kill that girl?" I tried again.
"I did not."
"And because of this situation you referred to, you can't tell me who did."
I was sickeningly afraid that Mustapha was trying to tell me, without spelling it out, that Eric had killed her-had ducked out of the house after I'd shut myself in the bathroom. Eric could have lost his temper, projected his anger with himself onto Kym Rowe, and tried to make things right between him and me by snapping her neck. No matter how many times during the previous night I'd told myself such a premise was ridiculous-Eric had great control and was very intelligent, he was simply too aware of his neighbors and the police to do such a lawless thing, and such an act would simply be irrational-I'd never been able to tell myself that Eric wouldn't have killed her simply because doing so was wrong.
This afternoon, all those bad thoughts I had entertained came crashing back as I stared at Mustapha.
If Mustapha had not been a Were, I would have sat on his chest until I read the answer in his brain. As it was, I could only get an impression of the turmoil in his head, and his grim resolution that he would survive no matter what. And he was consumed with worry for someone else. A name crossed his mind.
"Where's Warren, Mustapha?" I asked. I leaned forward, trying to get a clearer read. I even reached toward him, but he flinched back.
Mustapha shook his head angrily. "Don't even try, Sookie Stackhouse. That's one of the things I can't talk about. I didn't have to come here at all. But I think you're getting a raw deal, and you're caught up in the middle of stuff you don't know about."
Like that was a new situation for me.
Dermot was looking back and forth between us. He couldn't decide how to act or what I wanted him to do.
Join the club, Dermot.
"You tell me what's going on, and then I'd know what to be careful of," I suggested.
"This was a mistake," he said, looking down and shaking his head. "I'm going to find somewhere to hide while I look for Warren."
I thought of calling Eric, leaving a message telling him his day man was here. I'd keep Mustapha a prisoner until Eric could come fetch him. Or I could phone the police and tell them a material witness to a murder was sitting in my kitchen.
These plans passed through my head with great rapidity, and I considered each of them for a second. Then I thought, Who am I kidding? I'm not going to do any of those things. "You should go to Alcide," I said. "He'll keep you safe if you pledge to the pack."
"But I'd have to face ..."
"Jannalynn. I know. But that'll be later. Alcide'll keep you safe for now. I can call him." I held up my little phone.
"You got his cell number?"
"I do."
"You call him, Sookie. You tell him I'm trying to meet with him. You give him my cell number, and you tell him to call me when he's by himself. And that's a big thing. He has to be by himself."
"Why can't you call him?"
"It'd be better if it came from you," he said, and that was all I could get him to say. "You got my cell number, right?"
"I'm leaving now."
"Tell me who killed that girl!" If I could have yanked the answer out of him with tweezers, I would have.
"You'd just be in more danger than you are now," he said, and then he was out of the room and onto his bike, and then he was gone.
This had all occurred with such speed that I felt as though the room were shivering after he left. Dermot and I stared at each other.
"I have no idea why he was here instead of in Shreveport where he belongs. I could have held him," Dermot said. "I was just waiting for a signal from you, Great-Niece."
"I appreciate that, Great-Uncle. I guess I felt like that just wasn't the right thing to do," I muttered.
We sat there in silence for a moment. But I had to explain to Dermot about the night before.
"You want to know why Mustapha showed up here?" I asked, and he nodded, looking much more cheerful now that he was going to get some background. I launched into my narrative.