Page 23

 Charlaine Harris

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Though before he'd begun work on the attic room he'd never caulked anything in his life, he'd watched a demonstration online and he was ready to work.
"You rock, Dermot," I said.
He grinned at me. He was really sticking to the attic renovation, despite what I felt was an increasingly weak chance that Claude would return to claim his bedroom. After he went upstairs, I cracked the kitchen window over the sink so I'd have a little breeze while I scrubbed the sink with some Bon Ami.
A mockingbird had perched outside in a photinia at the corner of the house. The stupid bird was singing to itself loud enough to wake the dead. I wished I had a slingshot.
Just as I thought that, I thought I heard a voice outside calling, "Sookie!"
I went out on the back porch. Sure enough, Bill was waiting in the backyard. "I can smell the fairy from here," he said. "I know I can't come in. Can you step out?"
"Hold on a minute." I rinsed out the sink, dried my hands on the dish towel, and shut the window to keep in the air-conditioning. Then, hoping my hair still looked decent, I went outside.
Bill had been having some vampire downtime. He was standing silent in the darkness, lost in his thoughts. When he heard me ap-proach, he stepped out into the bright security light, looking both intent and focused. It was easy to see that Bill had a list of things to tell me. "I'll start with the lesser things first," he said, rather stiffly. "I don't know if you've spared a moment to wonder about my efforts to find out who killed the young woman, but I assure you I'm trying to find out. She died while I was patrolling, and I won't be easy until I understand why it happened."
Taken aback, I could only nod slightly. "I don't know why you thought I ... oh, Eric. Well, never mind. Please tell me what you've discovered. Would you like to sit?"
We both sat in the lawn chairs. "Heidi and I went over Eric's backyard with great attention," Bill said. "You know it slopes down to a brick wall, the outer perimeter of the gated community."
"Right." I hadn't spent more than ten minutes total in Eric's backyard, but I knew its contours. "There's a gate in the brick wall."
"Yes, for the yard crew." Bill said this like having a yard crew was an exotic indulgence, like having a bunch of peacocks. "It's easier for the yard crew to gather all the yard debris and carry it out the back, rather than go uphill to the curb." His tone made it plain what he thought of people who liked to have a job made easier for them.
"It isn't kept locked?" I was startled at the idea that it might have been swinging open.
"Normally, yes. And normally, Mustapha is responsible for unlocking it for the yard crew on the day they're expected, and he's also responsible for locking it after they're done. But the lock was missing."
"A werewolf or vampire could have snapped it," I said. "So Mustapha's not necessarily guilty of opening the gate, anyway." He'd done something wrong, though. You don't vanish unless you've done something wrong. "What did you smell? Anything?"
"Even Heidi could not say for certain who'd been there," Bill said. "Many humans, sweaty humans ... the yard workers. A dash of fairy, but that could have been a very faint trace of the vial around the girl's neck. And a stronger trace of twoey. That could have been from the girl herself." He leaned back and looked up into the night sky ... the only sky he'd seen in more than a hundred and thirty years.
"What do you think happened?" I asked him, after we'd been quiet for a few calm moments. I'd been looking up, along with Bill. Though Bon Temps was close, it only cast a faint glow upward, especially this late. I could see the stars, vast and cold and distant. I shivered.
"Look, Sookie," he said, and held out something small. I took it and held it up to my nose to try to make it out in the patchy light.
"It's true, then," I said. It was a rubber stopper, the kind that would close a small vial. "Where did you find it?"
"In the living room. It rolled under the dining table and landed right by a chair leg. I think the woman Kym took out the stopper when she knew she was going to see Eric face-to-face," he said. "She dropped it while she drank the blood. She tucked the vial down into her bra in case the lingering scent would attract him further. And when I found her on the lawn, I could smell that she was two-natured. That would have added to her ... allure."
"The dad's two-natured, a Were, I think. The Rowes showed up here at my house yesterday with a reporter, to try to make something quotable happen."
Bill wanted to hear all about it. "You have the reporter's card?" he asked when I'd finished.
I went into the house and found it on the kitchen counter. Now that I took a moment to look at it, I discovered that Harp Powell was based in Terre Sauvage, a small town that lay north of the interstate between Bon Temps and Shreveport. "Huh," I said, handing it to Bill, "I assumed he was based in Shreveport or Baton Rouge or Monroe."
Bill said, "I met this man at Fangtasia. He's been published by a small regional press. He's written several books."
Bill sounded quite respectful; he had great admiration for the written word.
"What was he doing at Fangtasia?" I asked, diverted.
"He interviewed me and Maxwell Lee, since we're both native Louisianans. He was hoping to do a collection of Louisiana vampires' histories. He wanted to listen to our recollections of the times we grew up in, the historical events we'd witnessed. He thought that would be interesting."
"So, a ripoff of Christina Sobol?" I tried not to sound sarcastic. Sobol's Dead History I had been on all the best-seller lists a couple of years before. Amazon had sent me a notice to tell me that Dead History II would be out in a month. These books, as you may have guessed, were vampires' reminiscences about the times they'd lived in. Harp Powell was doing a regional twist on a national best seller.
Bill nodded. "I'm trying to remember if he asked questions about Eric. I believe that he wanted Eric's phone number in case he needed to get in touch with him.... I didn't give it to him, of course, but he could have discovered Eric's address online." Bill was one of the computer-savvy vampires.
"Okay, so he could have found out where Eric lives, but why would a writer have any reason to send Kym Rowe into the house, or to murder her afterward?"
"I don't have the slightest idea," Bill said. "But we can surely go ask him. I'm trying to think of some other avenue of investigation, one that doesn't lead back to someone in Eric's house."
"I'm not saying that Harp Powell isn't fishy, showing up with Kym's parents. But it seems more likely that he's just riding the publicity train. To me, it appears a lot more likely that Mustapha let Kym Rowe in so she could find Eric and offer herself. I just don't know why. Why did someone prep her and send her in to do that? Why did they get Mustapha to delay my arrival? I guess so that she'd have time to hook Eric ... but then, why have me come in? Mustapha could have told me that the meeting had been canceled or that I should go to Fangtasia instead ... a hundred different things."
"His role in this is a mystery," Bill said, shrugging. "She was obviously bait for Eric, designed to arouse his lust." Bill looked at me and blinked. "His bloodlust," he added hastily. "But she must have had some piece of information, if only the name of who hired her to do this. When you argued with Eric and he sent the girl away, someone went after her and seized her head and twisted." Bill made a very graphic motion with his hands. No stranger to the seizing and twisting, he.
"Disregarding why she was killed," I said, "why was she sent there in the first place? Getting me mad at Eric doesn't seem to be much of a reason."
Bill looked down at his hands. "There are a couple of theories that fit the few facts we're sure of," he said slowly. "And these theories are what I'll tell Eric. The first is that Eric himself or Pam or Mustapha followed the Rowe woman out of the house and killed her out of sheer anger at the trouble she'd caused. Perhaps-if the killer was Eric- he wanted to erase the memory of the offense he'd committed against you."
I stiffened. This was nothing I hadn't thought of myself, but hearing it out loud made it seem more likely.
"The other theory ... well, that's more complex." Bill shifted his gaze to the dark woods. "Since a Were let the girl in, I have to assume she was part of some Were plot. I should suspect Alcide, since he's the packleader. But I don't believe that Alcide would plan such a convoluted method of discrediting Eric. Alcide's a relatively straightforward man and an intelligent one ... at least in some respects. Evidently, women are a huge blind spot for him." Bill raised an eyebrow.
That was a pretty good evaluation of Alcide's character. "But what Were would do this without Alcide's say-so?" I said.
"Mustapha is a lone wolf." Bill shrugged. Obvious.
"But Mustapha didn't bring Kym Rowe to the house," I argued. "You said the scent trail didn't tell you that."
"He must have known she was coming. Sookie, I know you like the man in some measure, but he knew about this in advance. Maybe he didn't know why she was coming to the house-but he knew if he let her in unchallenged, everyone in the house would assume she'd been invited. And he knew the girl wasn't there to scrub toilets or sing for the company. She was there to get Eric to drink from her. Since Mustapha was the one who called you and told you to come later, his purpose must have been to make sure you were not there to prevent Eric from being interested in her."
"But the only result was that I got mad at Eric. Bill, who cares that much about my love life?" Bill gave me a very direct look, and I could feel myself turning red.
But instead of making a personal reference, Bill said, "You had a visitor last night who cares very deeply."
I tried not to flinch too obviously. "You know she came to the house?"
"We all know about her presence in Area Five, Sookie. All of us who are sworn to Eric. It's hard to cover up the visit of a queen, especially one as well-known as Freyda. It's even harder to remain ignorant of exactly where she is. She went to the casino to confer with Felipe directly after she left your house, and Felipe summoned Eric there. He took Thalia with him-not Pam. Thalia said it was a very tense meeting."
That explained the delay in Eric's calling me ... but it didn't make me feel any better. "What makes Freyda so well-known?" I bypassed all the obvious conversational openings that Bill's little speech presented to lock in on what was most interesting to me. I was all too aware that Bill could see how desperate I was to know more about her, and I just didn't care.
Bill kindly looked down at his hands as he told me, "She's beautiful, of course. Ambitious. Young. She's not content to sit on her throne and let things hum along. By the way, she had to fight for that throne. She killed her predecessor, and he didn't make it easy. Freyda has worked hard to extend the business dealings of Oklahoma. The only thing slowing her progress is her lack of a strong and loyal second. If she acquires the strong vampire she needs to serve as her right hand, she'll always have to watch her back against that vampire's ambition. If she marries this right hand, he can't succeed her. His loyalty will be assured, because his fate is bound to hers."
I pondered this for a few minutes, while Bill sat in silence. Vampires are great at that. I caught his eyes on my face. I got the impression that Bill felt sorry for me. A worm of panic twisted in my stomach.
"Freyda's strong, active, and determined," I said. "Like Eric. And you say she needs a good fighter, a good second. Like Eric."
"Yes, like Eric," he said deliberately. "Freyda would be a great match for him. Practically speaking, he'd escape from the political situation created by his murder of Victor. The king's going to have to do something to Eric. Felipe really can't afford to be perceived as ignoring Victor's death."
"Why not?"
He looked at me blankly.
"Felipe let Victor get away with whatever the hell Victor wanted to do," I said. "Why shouldn't he be perceived that way?"
"He doesn't want to lose the loyalty of the vampires who serve him," Bill said.
"That's ridiculous!" I thought steam would come out of my ears. "You can't have it all different ways!"
"But he'll try. I don't think you're really angry about Felipe. You're really angry about the hard practicality of Eric marrying Freyda." I winced, but Bill continued ruthlessly. "You have to admit that her character is much like Eric's and that they'd make a good team."
"Eric's my team," I said. "He loves me. He wants to stay here." I realized that I was, so to speak, batting with another hand now. I'd been just as sure the night before that Eric would leave, that he loved power more than he loved me.
"But ... Sookie, you must see ... staying might be the death of him."
I could read a mixture of pity and tough love in Bill's attitude. "Bill, are you sure you're able to judge that?"
"I hope that I have your best interests in my heart, Sookie." He paused, as if considering whether he should go on. "I know you'll suspect everything I say about this situation-because I love you, and I don't love Eric. But truly, I want your happiness, above almost everything else."
Almost everything else. I found myself wondering what came ahead of that. His own survival?