Fairies. Never simple. My grandmother, Adele, would definitely have agreed. She’d had a long affair with Dermot’s fraternal twin Fintan, and my aunt Linda and my father Corbett (both dead for years, now) had been the results.
“Maybe it’s time for some plain speaking,” I said, trying to look confident. “Niall, maybe you could tell us why you’re pretending Dermot isn’t standing right here. And why you put that crazy spell on him.” Dr. Phil to the fae –– that was me.
Or not. Niall gave me his most lordly look.
“This one defied me,” he said, tilting his head at his son.
Dermot bowed his head. I didn’t know if he was keeping his eyes down so he wouldn’t provoke Niall, or if he was concealing rage, or if he just couldn’t think of where to begin.
Being related to Niall, even at two removes, was not easy. I couldn’t imagine having a closer tie. If Niall’s beauty and power had been united with a coherent course of action and a nobleness of purpose, he would have been very like an angel.
This conviction could not have popped into my head at a more inconvenient moment.
“You’re looking at me strangely,” Niall said. “What’s wrong, dearest one?”
“In the time he’s spent here,” I said, “my great–uncle has been kind, hard–working, and smart. The only thing that’s been wrong with Dermot is a bit of mental fragility, a direct result from being made crazy for years. So, why’d you do that? ’He defied me’ isn’t really an answer.”
“You haven’t got the right to question me,” Niall said, in his most royal voice. “I am the only living prince of Faery.”
“I don’t know why that means I can’t ask you questions. I’m an American,” I said, standing tall.
The beautiful eyes examined me coldly. “I love you,” he said very unlovingly, “but you’re presuming too much.”
“If you love me, or even if you just respect me a little, you need to answer my question. I love Dermot, too.”
Claude was standing absolutely still, doing a great imitation of Switzerland. I knew he wasn’t going to chime in on my side, or Dermot’s side, or even Niall’s side. To Claude, the only side was his.
“You allied yourself with the water fairies,” Niall said to Dermot.
“After you cursed me,” Dermot protested, looking up at his father briefly.
“You helped them kill Sookie’s father,” Niall said.
“I did not,” Dermot said quietly. “And I’m not mistaken in this. Even Sookie believes this, and she lets me stay here.”
“You weren’t in your right mind. I know you would never do that if you hadn’t been cursed,” I said.
“You see her kindness, and yet you have none for me,” Dermot told Niall. “Why did you curse me? Why?” He was looking directly at his father, his distress was written all over his face.
“But I didn’t,” Niall said. He sounded genuinely surprised. Finally, he was addressing Dermot directly. “I wouldn’t addle the brains of my own son, half–human or not.”
“Claude told me it was you who bespelled me.” Dermot looked at Claude, who was still waiting to see which way the frog would jump.
“Claude,” Niall said, the power in his voice making my head pound, “Who told you this?”
“It’s common knowledge among the fae,” Claude said. He’d been preparing himself for this, was braced to make his answer.
“According to whom?” Niall was not going to give up.
“Murry told me this.”
“Murry told you I had cursed my son? Murry, the friend of my enemy Breandan?” Niall’s elegant face was incredulous.
The Murry I killed with Gran’s trowel? I thought, but I knew it was better not to interrupt.
“Murry told me this before he switched his allegiance,” Claude said defensively.
“And who had told Murry?” Niall said, an edge of exasperation in his voice.
“I don’t know.” Claude shrugged. “He sounded so certain, I never questioned him.”
“Claude, come with me,” Niall said, after a moment’s fraught silence. “We will talk to your father and to the rest of our people. We’ll discover who spread this rumor about me. And we’ll know who actually cursed Dermot, made him behave so.”
I would have thought Claude would be ecstatic, since he’d been ready to return to Faery ever since entrance had been denied him. But he looked absolutely vexed, just for a moment.
“What about Dermot?” I asked.
“It’s too dangerous for him now,” Niall said. “The one who cursed him may be waiting to take further action against him. I’ll take Claude with me . . . and Claude, if you cause any trouble with your human ways . . .”
“I understand. Dermot, will you take over at the club until I return?”
“I will,” said Dermot, but he looked so dazed by the sudden turn of events that I wasn’t sure he knew what he was saying.
Niall bent to kiss me on the mouth, and the subtle smell of fairy filled my nose. Then he and Claude flowed out the back door and into the woods. Walking is simply too jerky a word to describe their progress.
Dermot and I were left alone in my shabby living room. To my consternation, my great–uncle (who looked a tiny bit younger than me) began to weep. His knees crumpled, his whole body shook, and he pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.
I covered the few feet between us and sank to the floor beside him. I put my arm around him and said, “I sure didn’t expect any of that.” I surprised a laugh out of him. He hiccupped, raising reddened eyes to meet mine. I stretched my free arm to reach the box of tissues on the table by the recliner. I extracted one and used it to pat Dermot’s wet cheeks.
“I can’t believe you’re being so nice to me,” he said. “It’s seemed incredible to me from the beginning, considering what Claude told you.”
I had been a little surprised myself, to tell you the truth.
I spoke from my heart. “I’m not convinced you were even there the night my parents died. If you were, I think you were under a compulsion. In my experience of you, you’ve been a total sweetie.”
He leaned against me like a tired child. By now, a human guy would have made a huge effort to pull himself together. He’d be embarrassed at displaying vulnerability. Dermot seemed quite willing to let me comfort him.
“Are you feeling better now?” I asked, after a couple of minutes.
He inhaled deeply. I knew he was drawing in my fairy scent and that it would help him. “Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
“You probably need to get a shower and have a good night’s sleep,” I advised him, floundering for something to say that wouldn’t sound totally lame, like I was coddling a toddler. “I bet Niall and Claude’ll be back in no time, and you’ll get to . . .” Then I had to trail off, since I didn’t know what it was Dermot truly wanted. Claude, who’d been desperate to find a way to enter Faery, had gotten his wish. I’d assumed that had been Dermot’s goal, too. After Claude and I had broken the spell on Dermot, I’d never asked him.
As Dermot trudged off to the bathroom, I went around the house checking all the windows and doors, part of my nightly ritual. I loaded a couple of dishes into the dishwasher while I tried to imagine what Claude and Niall might be doing at this moment. What could Faery look like? Like Oz, in the movie?
“Sookie,” said Dermot, and I jerked myself into the here and now. He was standing in the kitchen wearing plaid sleep pants, his normal night gear. His golden hair was still damp from the shower.
“Feeling better?” I smiled at him.
“Yes. Could we sleep together tonight?”
It was as though he’d asked, “Can we catch a camel and keep it as a pet?” Because of Niall’s questions about Claude and me, Dermot’s request struck me kind of weird. I just wasn’t in a fairy–loving mood, no matter how innocently he intended it. And truthfully, I wasn’t sure he hadn’t meant we should do more than sleep. “Ahhhhh . . . . no.”
Dermot looked so disappointed that I caught myself feeling guilty. I couldn’t stand it, I had to explain
“Listen, I understand that you don’t intend that we have sex together, and I know that a couple of times in the past we’ve all slept in the same bed and we all slept like rocks . . . it was a good thing, a healing thing. But there are maybe ten reasons I don’t want to do that again. Number One, it’s just really peculiar, to a human. Two, I love Eric and I should only bunk down with him. Three, you’re related to me, so sleeping in the same bed should make me feel really squicky inside. Also, you look enough like my brother to pass for him, which makes any kind of vaguely sexual situation double squicky. I know that’s not ten, but I think that’s enough.”
“You don’t find me attractive?”
“Completely beside the point!” My voice was rising, and I paused to give myself a second. I continued in a quieter tone. “It doesn’t make any difference how attractive I find you. Of course you’re handsome. Just like my brother. But I have no sex feelings about you, and I’ve come to realize the whole idea’s just odd. So we’re not doing the fairy sleep–a–thon of comfort any more.”
“I’m sorry I’ve upset you,” he said, even more miserably.
I felt guilty again. But I made myself suppress the twinge. “I don’t think anyone in the world has a great–uncle like you,” I said, but my voice was fond.
“I’ll never bring it up again. I only sought comfort.” He gave me Big Eyes. There was a hint of laughter turning up the corners of his mouth.
“You’ll just have to comfort yourself,” I said tartly.
He was smiling as he left the kitchen.
That night, for the first time in forever, I locked my bedroom door. I felt bad when I turned the latch, like I was dishonoring Dermot with my suspicions. But the last few years had taught me that one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings was true. An ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure.
If Dermot turned my doorknob during the night, I was too soundly asleep to hear it. And maybe my ability to drop off that deeply meant that on a basic level I trusted my great–uncle. Or trusted the lock. When I woke the next day, I could hear him working upstairs in the attic. His footsteps sounded right above my head.
“I made some coffee,” I called up the stairs. He was down in a minute. Somewhere he’d acquired a pair of denim overalls, and since he wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath he looked like he was about to take his place in the stripper lineup from the night before as The Sexy Farmer with the Big Pitchfork. I asked Sexy Farmer with a silent gesture if he wanted any toast, and he nodded, happy as a kid. Dermot loved plum jam, and I had a jar made by Maxine Fortenberry, Holly’s future mother–in–law. His smile widened when he saw it.
“I was trying to get as much work finished as I could while it wasn’t so hot,” he explained. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“Nope. I slept like a rock. What are you doing up there today?” Dermot had been inspired by HGTV to hang some doors in the walk–in attic to block off a part of the big room for storage, and he was turning the rest of the floored space into a bedroom for himself. He and Claude had been more or less bunking together in the small bedroom and sitting room up there. When we’d cleared out the attic, Dermot had decided to “repurpose” the space. He’d already painted the walls and refinished and resealed the plank floor. I believe he’d recaulked the windows, too.
“The floor is dry now, so I built the walls. Now I’m actually putting in the hardware to hang the doors. I’m hoping to get that done today and tomorrow. So if you have anything you want to store, the space will be ready.”
When Dermot and Claude had helped me carry everything down from the packed attic, I’d gotten rid of the accumulated Stackhouse debris –– generations of discarded trash and treasures. I was practical enough to know that moldering things untouched for decades really weren’t doing anyone any good, and the trash had gone in a large burn pile. The nice items had gone to an antique store in Shreveport. A few of the smaller items had already sold; I’d gotten a check from Brenda Hesterman and Donald Callaway at Splendide.
While the two dealers were at the house looking through the possibilities, Donald had discovered a secret drawer in one of the old pieces of furniture, a desk. In it, I’d found a treasure: a letter from my Gran to me, and a unique keepsake.
Dermot’s head turned at some noise I couldn’t yet hear. “Motorcycle coming,” he said around a mouthful of toast and jelly, sounding almost eerily like Jason. I jerked myself back into the here and now.
I knew only one person who regularly travelled by motorcycle.
A moment after I heard the motor cut off, there was a knock at the front door. I sighed, reminding myself to remember days like this the next time I felt lonely. I was wearing sleep shorts and a big old T shirt, and I was a mess, but that would have to be the problem of my uninvited guest.
Mustapha Khan, Eric’s daytime guy, was standing on the front porch. Since it was way too hot to wear leather, his “Blade” impersonation had suffered. But he managed to look plenty tough in a sleeveless denim shirt and jeans and his ever–present shades. He wore his hair in a geometric burr, a la the Wesley Snipes look in the movies, and I was sure he would have strapped huge weapons to his legs if the police would have let him.
“Good morning,” I said, with moderate sincerity. “You want a cup of coffee? Or some lemonade?” I tacked on the lemonade because he was looking at me like I was crazy.
He shook his head in disgust. “I don’t take stimulants,” he said, and I remembered — too late — that he’d told me that before. “Some people just sleep their lives away,” he remarked after glancing at the clock on the mantel. We walked back to the kitchen.
“Some people work late at night,” I said, as Mustapha —who was a werewolf — stiffened at the sight and scent of Farmer Dermot.
“I see what kind of work you been doing late,” Mustapha said.
I’d been about to explain that Dermot had been the one who’d worked late, while I’d only watched him work, but at Mustapha’s tone I cancelled that plan. He didn’t deserve an explanation. “Oh, don’t be an idiot, you know this is my great–uncle,” I said. “Dermot, you’ve met Mustapha Khan before. Eric’s daytime guy.” I thought it more tactful not to bring up the fact that Mustapha’s real name was KeShawn Johnson.
“He doesn’t look like anyone’s great uncle,” Mustapha snarled.
“But he is, and it’s none of your business anyway.”
Dermot hiked a blond eyebrow. “Do you want to make my presence an issue?” he asked. “I’m sitting here eating breakfast with my great niece. I have no problem with you.”
Mustapha seemed to gather up his stoic Zen–like impassivity, part of his Blade persona, and within a few seconds he was his cool self. “If Eric don’t have a problem with it, why should I?” he said. (It would have been nice if he had realized that earlier.) “I’m here to tell you a few things, Sookie.”
“Sure. Have a seat.”
“No thanks. Won’t be here long enough.”
“Warren didn’t come with you?” Warren was most often on the back of Mustapha’s motorcycle. Warren was a skinny little ex–con with pale skin and straggly blond hair and some gaps in his teeth, but he was a great shooter, according to Mustapha.
“Didn’t figure I’d need a gun here.” Mustapha looked away. He seemed really jangled. Odd. Werewolves were hard to read, but it didn’t take a telepath to know that something was up with Mustapha Khan.
“Let’s hope no one needs a gun. What’s happening in Shreveport that you couldn’t tell me over the phone?”
I sat down myself and waited for Mustapha to deliver his message. Eric could have left one on my answering machine or even sent me an emai,l rather than sending Mustapha –– but like most vamps, he didn’t really have a rock–solid trust in electronics, especially if the news was important.
“You want him to hear this?” Mustapha tilted his head toward Dermot.
“You might be better off not knowing,” I told Dermot. He gave the daytime man a level blue stare which warned Mustapha to be on his best behavior and rose, taking his mug with him. We heard the stairs creak as he mounted them. When Mustapha’s Were hearing told him Dermot was out of earshot, he sat down opposite me and placed his hands side by side on the table very precisely. Style and attitude.
“Okay, I’m waiting,” I said.
“Felipe de Castro is coming to Shreveport to talk about the disappearance of his buddy Victor.”
“Oh, shit,” I said.
“Say it, sister. We’re in for it now.” He smiled.
“That’s it? That’s the message?”
“Eric would like to you to come to Shreveport tomorrow night to greet Felipe.”
“I won’t see Eric till then?” I could feel my face narrow in a suspicious squint. That didn’t suit me at all. The thin cracks in our relationship would only spread wider if we didn’t get to spend time together.
“He has to get ready,” Mustapha said, shrugging. “I don’t know if he got to clean out his bathroom cabinets or change the sheets, or what. ’Has to get ready’ is what he told me.”
“Right,” I said. “And that’s it, that’s the whole message?”
Mustapha hesitated. “I got some other things to tell you, not from Eric. Two things.” He took off his sunglasses. His chocolate–chip eyes were downcast; Mustapha was not a happy camper.
“Okay, I’m ready.” I was biting the inside of my mouth. If Mustapha could be stoical about Felipe’s impending visit, I could too. We were at great risk. We had both participated in the plan to trap Victor Madden, regent of the state of Louisiana, put in place by King Felipe of Nevada; and we had helped to kill Victor and his entourage. What was more, I was pretty sure Felipe de Castro suspected all this with a high degree of certainty.
“First thing, from Pam.”
Blonde and sardonic, Eric’s child Pam was as close to a friend as I had among the vamps. I nodded, signaling Mustapha to deliver the message.
“She says, ’Tell Sookie that this is the hard time that will show what she is made of.’”
I cocked my head. “No advice other than that? Not too helpful. I figured as much.” I’d pretty much assumed Felipe’s post–Victor visit would be a very touchy one. But that Pam would warn me . . . seemed a bit odd.
“Harder than you know,” Mustapha said intently.
I stared at him, waiting for more.
Maddeningly, he did not elaborate. I knew better than to ask him to. “The other thing is from me,” he continued.
Only the fact that I’d had to control my face all my life kept me from giving him major Doubtful. Mustapha? Giving me advice?
“I’m a lone wolf,” he said, by way of preamble.
I nodded. He hadn’t affiliated with the Shreveport werewolves, all members of the Long Tooth pack.
“When I first blew into Shreveport, I looked into joining. I even went to a pack gathering,” Mustapha said.
It was the first chink I’d seen in his “I’m badass and I don’t need anyone” armor. I was startled that he’d even tried. Alcide Herveaux, the packleader in Shreveport, would have been glad to gain a strong wolf like Mustapha.
“The reason I didn’t even consider it is because of Jannalynn,” he said. Jannalynn Hopper was Alcide’s enforcer. She was about as big as a wasp, and she had the same nature.
“Because Jannalynn’s really tough and she would challenge someone as alpha as you?” I said.
He inclined his head. “She wouldn’t leave me standing. She would push and push until we fought.”
“You think she could win? Over you.” I made it not quite a question. With Mustapha’s size advantage and his greater experience, I could not fathom why Mustapha had a doubt he would be the victor.
He inclined his head again. “I do. Her spirit is big.”
“She likes to feel in charge? She has to be the baddest bitch in the fight?”
“I was in the Hair of the Dog yesterday, early evening. Just to spend some time with the other Weres after I got through working for the vamps, get the smell of Eric’s house out of my nose . . . though we got a deader hanging around at the Hair, lately. Anyway, Jannalynn was talking to Alcide while she was serving him a drink. She knows you loaned Merlotte some money to keep his bar afloat.”
I shifted in my chair, suddenly uneasy. “I’m a little surprised Sam told her, but I didn’t ask him to keep it a secret.”
“I’m not so sure he did tell her. Jannalynn’s not above snooping when she thinks she ought to know something, and she doesn’t even think of it as snooping. She thinks of it as fact–gathering. Here’s the bottom line . . . don’t cross that bitch. You’re on the borderline with her.”
“Because I helped Sam? That doesn’t make any sense.” Though my sinking heart told me it did.
“Doesn’t need to. You helped him when she couldn’t. And that galls her. You ever seen her when she’s got a mad on?”
“I’ve seen her in action.” Sam always liked such challenging women. I could only conclude that she saved her softer, gentler side for him.
“Then you know how she treats people she sees as a threat.”
“I wonder why Alcide hasn’t picked Jannalynn as his first lady, or whatever the term is,” I said, just to veer away from the subject for a moment. “He made her pack enforcer, but I would have thought he would pick the strongest female wolf as his mate.”
“She’d love that,” Mustapha said. “I can smell that on her. He can smell that on her. But she don’t love Alcide, and he don’t love her. She’s not the kind of woman he likes. He likes women his own age, women with a little curve to ’em. Women like you.”
“But she told Alcide . . .” I had to stop, because I was hopelessly confused. “A few weeks ago, she advised Alcide he should try to seduce me,” I said awkwardly. “She thought I would be an asset to the pack.”
“If you’re confused, think how Jannalynn’s feeling.” Mustapha’s face might have been carved in stone. “She’s got a relationship with Sam, but you were able to save him when she wasn’t. She halfway wants Alcide, but she knows he wanted you, too. She’s big in the pack, and she knows you have pack protection. You know what she can do to people who don’t.”
I shuddered. “She does enjoy the enforcement,” I said. “I’ve watched her. Thanks for the heads–up, Mustapha. If you’d like a drink or something to eat, the offer still stands.”
“I’ll take a glass of water,” he said, and I got it in short order. I could hear one of Dermot’s rented power tools going above our head in the attic, and though Mustapha cocked an eye toward the ceiling he didn’t comment until he’d finished his drink. “Too bad he can’t come with you to Shreveport,” he said then. “Fairies are good fighters.” Mustapha handed me his empty glass. “Thanks,” he said. And then he was out the door.