When we pulled up the drive, there were more cars and trucks than I anticipated, even a Bon Temps patrol car. Apparently, I was going to have more than a few guards on hand.
I was about to ask Diantha to turn our car right on around, but thought the better of it. While I knew Gran had never anticipated throwing a “Welcome out on bail” party in my honor, I knew she wouldn’t stand for me not showing up to my own party. Even if I was fresh from jail. I glanced at myself in the rearview mirror and straightened my ponytail. Still dressed from my day in court, I looked presentable, but not much better.
As we pulled around back, I saw that Jason and Michelle had done me proud. They’d set out the picnic table with the red and white checked table cloth. There were casserole dishes galore and even a couple homemade pies. At the sight of Jason at the grill waving the tongs as a hello, I couldn’t be sore with him at all.
I put on my best smile and reminded myself that all these people in my yard had come to show their support. From the looks of it, most of Merlotte’s was in my yard – staff and customers alike. JB and Tara had the twins on a blanket under the tree. It warmed my heart to see two of my oldest friends discovering their new happiness and more than relieved that this latest drama in my life wasn’t going to be another thin time in my relationship with Tara. Like she was reading my mind this time, Tara gave me a huge smile and blew me a kiss.
I was surprised to see Calvin Norris and Tanya had made it out from Hotshot; I chalked it up to Jason running with the werepanthers from out that way. The Weres were standing at the edge of the woods, looking like bouncers. Andy and Halleigh Bellefleur were just setting out a beautiful chocolate cake that was sure to be Halleigh’s twist on the late Mrs. Caroline Bellefleur’s famous cake. Yes indeed. I was going to just settle in and enjoy this get together in short order.
I smiled and said my “how de do”s to everybody while I made my way to the grill. I made a special stop to thank Halleigh for coming out this way as far along as she was. Andy stood a little behind his wife, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground and clearly avoiding me. I nodded at Andy, still unsure where things stood with him. Andy returned my nod and sent me a little cue. Something about having something for my attorneys. I gave him a puzzled look, but didn’t find much more after a little rummaging around in his head.
I gave Jason and Michelle big hugs and thanked them. With his arms around Michelle and me, Jason turned us around to the little gathering. “Hey, y’all. Thanks for coming on out to our family home to welcome our Sookie back. She’s a heck of a sister and sure didn’t do any such thing. We appreciate your support.”
I got a little teary eyed at Jason’s show of support. I sure didn’t host a party when he was released on suspicion of murder, but back then it was pretty clear that many folks in Bon Temps thought there was a good chance Jason was guilty. Only Catfish Hennessey and Hoyt would’ve showed up. It would’ve been a pretty sad turnout. I would never have guessed that I would win in a popularity contest against Jason, but then I could hardly brag about being the most likeable suspected murderer in the family. Besides, it probably helped that I was only suspected of one murder and not a whole bunch in a row.
I felt a little uncharitable thinking back to that, but it sure felt good to be back out in the sunshine, smelling ribs finishing on the grill, and surrounded by my friends and family. Only Eric and Pam were missing from my little get together, but I was willing to bet they’d show up some time after dark.
Sam gave me a big smile from his spot at the smoker, which had been brought it for the occasion. He looked all lit up with the sun glinting on his hair, full of life. I thanked Gran again for the cluviel dor. I hadn’t paid the piper for using it yet, but I was going to celebrate the results.
As the ribs and chicken came off the grill, I filled plates for everybody, working hard to make everybody comfortable and grabbing a bite for myself here and there. Since I’d just gotten out of jail, no one was what you would say at ease, but they were rallying to put on a smile for me. There were plenty of “We know you didn’t do it” and “Can you believe Sheriff Dearborn?” and “We’re praying for you, dear.”
Throughout picnic, I kept my shield down and rummaged around for any thoughts that could help me track down Arlene’s murderer. As always, people are rarely thinking exactly what I’m looking for. I caught little snippets of their thoughts, but most everyone was just enjoying the afternoon and sending honeyed thoughts my way. It really was a bit magical in the garden with the sun filtering through the canopy provided by the woods and big fluffy clouds that just put a smile on my face.
Sam kept his distance, manning the smoker and getting drinks for everyone. After a bit, he was at my side, clearing up plates, empty bottles, and half-finished jello salads. “Sookie, you look beat. You want me to clear everyone on out of here.”
My smile said it all. “Let’s pack everything up, but just leave me some chocolate cake and a slice of pecan pie.” Sam gave me a sweet kiss on the cheek and winked. As he was cleaning up, he took containers to all the ladies, signaling that this little party was over. Within no time, all my guests were headed to their cars.
Just a small group remained of Jason, Michelle, Sam and my daytime bodyguards. Weres and demons. I didn’t want to be rude, but I had a serious amount of research to do with my borrowed information. The guards could stay, but I needed the house to myself.
I made a special effort to thank Jason and Michelle, helping to carry things to his truck. Sam read my efforts just right and called Jason over to help load up the extra grill.
As Jason’s truck turned out of my driveway, I stopped waving and my smile faded just a bit. For a few moments during the picnic, I plum forgot about my new reputation as a murderer and my rivalry with the Queen of Oklahoma. That’s the magic of pecan pie. I looked at Sam, who seemed a bit forlorn himself.
As he headed over to the picnic table, Sam motioned the Weres over to join him. Mr. Cataliades and Diantha made their way out of the woods and sat on one of the benches. To my surprise, Diantha returned from her little recon mission with my shotgun. She laid it on the table with no comment, but it raised a few eyebrows.
Apparently, it was time for a little war committee. As my unofficial security team settled in, I gathered up the remaining dishes and put out another respectable spread for them.
Sam took charge. Since it was his home turf, he felt obligated to organize efforts. I sensed a mix of territorial thinking that applied not just to Bon Temps, but specifically to me. That brought me up short, but I decided not to press the point. Better to lock down the guard duty so that I could focus on my work for what remained of the afternoon.
By way of introduction, Sam made his way around the table, recognizing and thanking everyone. “Mr. Cataliades, Diantha – thanks making it back to Bon Temps. Just in time for the bail hearing.” My semi-demon sponsor and his niece just nodded, but looked more engaged in putting down ribs and sweet tea.
“We’re obliged that Alcide sent you over, Rusty and Blake. After the pack meeting a couple days back, I know there’s plenty of work for the Longtooth pack to do.”
I recognized these Weres from a few pack functions, but I hadn’t ever spent much time with either of them. Both Weres were tall, burly men that put off that animal signature that just screamed wild. They were sure something to appreciate. Just to look at them. I was hoping that their characters would be just as pleasing as their looks. As far as I was concerned, Alcide had been way too trusting of pack members in the past, and I had nearly paid for it with my life a time or two. I crossed my fingers and hoped his judgment would be on the money this time around.
“Got our orders, Sam. She’s a friend of the pack, so Rusty and me’ll be on hand in case.”
“In case what?” There was an edge to my voice. I couldn’t help it. All eyes were on me now, but I really didn’t appreciate them talking about me as if I wasn’t sitting right there. Sure, I was just a little human with telepathic powers, but I could hold my own. In case, my foot.
Sam took the reins again. “Sookie, you know Alcide is just looking out. With the protesters, it’s not a bad idea to have a few pairs of eyes around.”
“Alright, y’all. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. It’s just that I’ve only got two spare beds in the house and a lot on my plate.”
Sam took a deep breath. In the pause, I knew that he was weighing his words like I was some undone, emotional woman. Well, sure, I might very well be. You shouldn’t trifle with a suspected killer, especially one you’ve helped dispose a body with. “Sookie, you know that’s why we’re here. We can split up the guard duty after you leave, but we’ve got to discuss the investigation so far.”
I just nodded. While I was in jail, I hadn’t been privy to any of this so far. Apparently, that was the part of the need to know basis when I didn’t need to know. I tried not to be sore about it and reminded myself that my friends must have spent hours trying to track down the real killer.
“Sookie, when I left here, um, the morning after the Shreveport get together…”
I snorted, and my eyebrows went up at that. If “get together” was a euphemism for a Were trial and violent fight to the death, followed by a life-saving magic trick, then I needed to broaden the definition on my Word of the Day calendar.
Sam looked down, clearly confused since we still hadn’t had The Talk about that night. Since it didn’t have anything to do with Arlene’s murder, we could just move right along. “Right, Sam. The morning I got arrested?”
“Exactly. When I made it back to the bar, there was one patrol car and the coroner’s van blocking the back lot. I paused for only a second and ducked back into the woods to borrow Terry’s truck. Then I headed straight back to you.”
I wasn’t aiming to rush him, but needed to get to the point. “So you didn’t get a chance to go over the crime scene yourself?”
“No, but Alcide sent Blake and Rusty here on over.”
Rusty nodded, and Blake did the talking again. “Yes, ma’am. We had to wait until the officials cleared on out, but then we shifted and had us a look around.”
“Humans everywhere,” Rusty chimed in, then looked back to his partner.
“Aside from Sam’s scent, there wasn’t the fresh smell of a supe behind the bar. Not a shifter, Were, or vampire.”
I nodded again. I wasn’t exactly Colombo, but I could see where this was heading. “A regular human killer then. It must’ve been someone from the Fellowship then.”
“That’s what I’ve been thinking too, Sook. But why go to the trouble of using your apron?”
That surprised me. I didn’t realize that the method of the murder was public. I had first picked that up from Sheriff Dearborn’s thoughts, then he confirmed it by showing me photos of the scene. As I remembered that series of photos, I felt my gorge rise and fought to keep the nausea at bay.
“Well, Sam, that’s pretty simple. The way they see it, I got two of their buddies killed by the FBI. Never mind that they had it in mind to kidnap and crucify me. They probably thought it would do you a bad turn to have another murder in Merlotte’s parking lot. After all, you’re a shifter, and you fired Arlene so there was a beef between you. Two birds with one stone.”
Mr. Cataliades cut in. “Miss Stackhouse, you’re always one to cut to the chase. I see the reasoning in this, but you have more than one enemy at present.”
Mr. Cataliades had a point there. The Fellowship was the obvious choice here. All human and nothing but trouble for the likes of me. (And they didn’t know the half of what I was.) The vampire monarchs of Nevada and Oklahoma certainly had human lackeys capable of taking out Arlene and framing me for it. There was something else paying in the back of my mind.
I thought on it a split second longer and saw a flash of the most recent body in my kitchen: Donald Callaway. Just before he met his end, Mr. Callaway tried to intimidate me into giving up the cluviel dor to very interested and highly powerful parties, which remained unnamed.
I wished (not for the first time) that Mr. Cataliades hadn’t acted quite so quickly. Getting the identity of everyone who knew I had the cluviel dor – likely the only one in the human and fae worlds – would have been very valuable.
I was pretty sure that my beautiful and plotting cousin Claude had been one of those parties. But Donald Callaway made it sound like there was more than one bidder. I remembered seeing the dollars adding up in his thoughts.
I looked to Mr. Cataliades and Diantha in turn. They both nodded, indicating that they had followed my silent runthrough of potential enemies. I nodded. “Well, let’s start with the Fellowship and work from there. Sam, can you coordinate with the Weres to track any Fellowship members who’ve been in the bar the last couple weeks?”
“Already done.” Sam smiled, looking proud of himself. I wanted to roll my eyes a bit, but returned the smile.
“Alright then. You all keep me posted. I just need to head inside and get some rest.”
I smiled again and thanked everyone for their help, then turned on my heel and headed in through the back door. As I crossed the kitchen, I grabbed my little notebook and pencil that I kept by the phone.
Once alone in my room, I sat down and started drawing a map of the United States, digging in my memory to recall a different set of boundaries that simply wouldn’t be taught in a human classroom.