Home > Dead as a Doornail (Sookie Stackhouse #5)(16)

Dead as a Doornail (Sookie Stackhouse #5)(16)
Author: Charlaine Harris

After that, Terry Bellefleur arrived. He offered to demolish the burned part for a very nominal sum, and for a little bit more he'd haul all the resultant trash to the parish dump. He'd start as soon as the police gave him the go-ahead, he said, and to my astonishment he gave me a little hug.

Sam came after that, driven by Arlene. He stood and looked at the back of the house for a few minutes. His lips were tightly compressed. Almost any man would have said, "Pretty lucky I sent the vampire home with you, huh?" But Sam didn't. "What can I do?" he said instead.

"Keep me working," I said, smiling. "Forgive me coming to work in something besides my actual work clothes." Arlene walked all around the house, and then hugged me wordlessly.

"That's easily done," he said. He still wasn't smiling. "I hear that the guy who started the fire was a Fellowship member, that this is some kind of payback for you dating Bill."

"He had the card in his wallet, and he had a gas can." I shrugged.

"But how'd he find you? I mean, no one around here..." Sam's voice trailed off as he considered the possibility more closely.

He was thinking, as I had, that though the arson could be just because I'd dated Bill, it seemed a drastic overreaction. A more typical retaliation was a Fellowship member throwing pig's blood on humans who dated, or had a work partnership with, a vampire. That had happened more than once, most notably to a designer from Dior who'd employed all vampire models for one spring show. Such incidents usually occurred in big cities, cities that hosted large Fellowship "churches" and a bigger vampire population.

What if the man had been hired to set fire to my house by someone else? What if the Fellowship card in his wallet was planted there for misdirection?

Any of these things could be true; or all of them, or none of them. I couldn't decide what I believed. So, was I the target of an assassin, like the shape-shifters? Should I, too, fear the shot from the dark, now that the fire had failed?

That was such a frightening prospect that I flinched from pursuing it. Those were waters too deep for me.

The state police arson investigator appeared while Sam and Arlene were there. I was eating a lunch plate Arlene had brought me. That Arlene was not much of a food person is the nicest way to put it, so my sandwich was made of cheap bologna and plastic cheese, and my canned drink was off-brand sugared tea. But she'd thought of me and she'd brought them to me, and her kids had drawn a picture for me. I would have been happy if she'd brought me just a slice of bread under those conditions.

Automatically, Arlene made eyes at the arson investigator. He was a lean man in his late forties named Dennis Pettibone. Dennis had a camera, a notebook, and a grim outlook. It took Arlene maybe two minutes of conversation to coax a little smile from Mr. Pettibone's lips, and his brown eyes were admiring her curves after two more minutes had passed. Before Arlene drove Sam home, she had a promise from the investigator that he'd drop by the bar that evening.

Also before she left, Arlene offered me the foldout couch in her trailer, which was sweet of her, but I knew it would crowd her and throw off her get-the-kids-to-school morning routine, so I told her I had a place to stay. I didn't think Bill would evict me. Jason had mentioned his house was open to me, and to my amazement, before he left, Sam said, "You can stay with me, Sookie. No strings. I have two empty bedrooms in the double-wide. There's actually a bed in one of them."

"That's so nice of you," I said, putting all my sincerity into my voice. "Every soul in Bon Temps would have us on the way to being married if I did that, but I sure do appreciate it."

"You don't think they won't make assumptions if you stay with Bill?"

"I can't marry Bill. Not legal," I replied, cutting off that argument. "Besides, Charles is there, too."

"Fuel to the fire," Sam pointed out. "That's even spicier."

"That's kind of flattering, crediting me with enough pizzazz to take care of two vampires at a go."

Sam grinned, which knocked about ten years off his age. He looked over my shoulder as we heard the sound of gravel crunching under yet another vehicle. "Look who's coming," he said.

A huge and ancient pickup lumbered to a stop. Out of it stepped Dawson, the huge Were who'd been acting as Calvin Norris's bodyguard.

"Sookie," he rumbled, his voice so deep I expected the ground to vibrate.

"Hey, Dawson." I wanted to ask, "What are you doing here?" but I figured that would sound plain rude.

"Calvin heard about your fire," Dawson said, not wasting time with preliminaries. "He told me to come by here and see was you hurt, and to tell you that he is thinking about you and that if he were well, he would be here pounding nails already."

I saw from the corner of my eye that Dennis Pettibone was eyeing Dawson with interest. Dawson might as well have been wearing a sign that said DANGEROUS DUDE on it.

"You tell him I'm real grateful for the thought. I wish he were well, too. How's he doing, Dawson?"

"He got a couple of things unhooked this morning, and he's been walking a little. It was a bad wound," Dawson said. "It'll take a bit." He glanced over to see how far away the arson investigator was. "Even for one of us," he added.

"Of course," I said. "I appreciate your coming by."

"Also, Calvin says his house is empty while he's in the hospital, if you need a place to stay. He'd be glad to give you the use of it."

That, too, was kind, and I said so. But I would feel very awkward, being obliged to Calvin in such a significant way.

Dennis Pettibone called me over. "See, Ms. Stackhouse," he said. "You can see where he used the gasoline on your porch. See the way the fire ran out from the splash he made on the door?"

I gulped. "Yes, I see."

"You're lucky there wasn't any wind last night. And most of all, you're lucky that you had that door shut, the one between the kitchen and the rest of the house. The fire would have gone right down that hall if you hadn't shut the door. When the firefighters smashed that window on the north side, the fire ran that way looking for oxygen, instead of trying to make it into the rest of the house."

I remembered the impulse that had pushed me back into the house against all common sense, the last-minute slam of that door.

"After a couple of days, I don't think the bulk of the house will even smell as bad," the investigator told me. "Open the windows now, pray it don't rain, and fairly soon I don't think you'll have much problem. Course, you got to call the power company and talk to them about the electricity. And the propane company needs to take a look at the tank. So the house ain't livable, from that point of view."

The gist of what he was saying was, I could just sleep there to have a roof over my head. No electricity, no heat, no hot water, no cooking. I thanked Dennis Pettibone and excused myself to have a last word with Dawson, who'd been listening in.

"I'll try to come see Calvin in a day or two, once I get this straightened out," I said, nodding toward the blackened back of my house.

"Oh, yeah," the bodyguard said, one foot already in his pickup. "Calvin said let him know who done this, if it was ordered by someone besides the sumbitch dead at the scene."

I looked at what remained of my kitchen and could almost count the feet from the flames to my bedroom. "I appreciate that most of all," I said, before my Christian self could smother the thought. Dawson's brown eyes met mine in a moment of perfect accord.

Chapter 9

THANKS TO MAXINE, I had clean-smelling clothes to wear to work, but I had to go buy some footwear at Payless. Normally, I put a little money into my shoes since I have to stand up so much, but there was no time to go to Clarice to the one good shoe shop there or to drive over to Monroe to the mall. When I got to work, Sweetie Des Arts came out of the kitchen to hug me, her thin body wrapped in a white cook's apron. Even the boy who bussed the tables told me he was sorry. Holly and Danielle, who were switching off shifts, each gave me a pat on the shoulder and told me they hoped things got better for me.

Arlene asked me if I thought that handsome Dennis Pettibone would be coming by, and I told her I was sure he would.

"I guess he has to travel a lot," she said thoughtfully. "I wonder where he's based."

"I got his business card. He's based in Shreveport. He told me he bought himself a small farm right outside of Shreveport, now that I think about it."

Arlene's eyes narrowed. "Sounds like you and Dennis had a nice talk."

I started to protest that the arson investigator was a little long in the tooth for me, but since Arlene had stuck to saying she was thirty-six for the past three years, I figured that would be less than tactful. "He was just passing the time of day," I told her. "He asked me how long I'd worked with you, and did you have any kids."

"Oh. He did?" Arlene beamed. "Well, well." She went to check on her tables with a cheerful strut to her walk.

I set about my work, having to take longer than usual to do everything because of the constant interruptions. I knew some other town sensation would soon eclipse my house fire. Though I couldn't hope anyone else would experience a similar disaster, I would be glad when I wasn't the object of discussion of every single bar patron.

Terry hadn't been able to handle the light daytime bar duties today, so Arlene and I pitched in to cover it. Being busy helped me feel less self-conscious.

Though I was coasting on three hours of sleep, I managed okay until Sam called me from the hallway that led to his office and the public bathrooms.

Two people had come in earlier and gone up to his corner table to talk to him; I'd noted them only in passing. The woman was in her sixties, very round and short. She used a cane. The young man with her was brown haired, with a sharp nose and heavy brows to give his face some character. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn't make the reference pop to the top of my head. Sam had ushered them back into his office.

"Sookie," Sam said unhappily, "the people in my office want to talk to you."

"Who are they?"

"She's Jeff Marriot's mother. The man is his twin."

"Oh my God," I said, realizing the man reminded me of the corpse. "Why do they want to talk to me?"

"They don't think he ever had anything to do with the Fellowship. They don't understand anything about his death."

To say I dreaded this encounter was putting it mildly. "Why talk to me?" I said in a kind of subdued wail. I was nearly at the end of my emotional endurance.

"They just... want answers. They're grieving."

"So am I," I said. "My home."

"Their loved one."

I stared at Sam. "Why should I talk to them?" I asked. "What is it you want from me?"

"You need to hear what they have to say," Sam said with a note of finality in his voice. He wouldn't push any more, and he wouldn't explain any more. Now the decision was up to me.

Because I trusted Sam, I nodded. "I'll talk to them when I get off work," I said. I secretly hoped they'd leave by then. But when my shift was over, the two were still sitting in Sam's office. I took off my apron, tossed it in the big trash can labeled DIRTY LINEN (reflecting for the hundredth time that the trash can would probably implode if anyone put some actual linen in it), and plodded into the office.

I looked the Marriots over more carefully now that we were face-to-face. Mrs. Marriot (I assumed) was in bad shape. Her skin was grayish, and her whole body seemed to sag. Her glasses were smeared because she'd been weeping so much, and she was clutching damp tissues in her hands. Her son was shocked expressionless. He'd lost his twin, and he was sending me so much misery I could hardly absorb it.

"Thanks for talking to us," he said. He rose from his seat automatically and extended his hand. "I'm Jay Marriot, and this is my mother, Justine."

This was a family that found a letter of the alphabet it liked and stuck to it.

I didn't know what to say. Could I tell them I was sorry their loved one was dead, when he'd tried to kill me? There was no rule of etiquette for this; even my grandmother would have been stymied.

"Miss - Ms. - Stackhouse, had you ever met my brother before?"

"No," I said. Sam took my hand. Since the Marriots were seated in the only two chairs Sam's office could boast, he and I leaned against the front of his desk. I hoped his leg wasn't hurting.

"Why would he set fire to your house? He'd never been arrested before, for anything," Justine spoke for the first time. Her voice was rough and choked with tears; it had an undertone of pleading. She was asking me to let this not be true, this allegation about her son Jeff.

"I sure don't know."

"Could you tell us how this happened? His - death, I mean?"

I felt a flare of anger at being obliged to pity them - at the necessity for being delicate, for treating them specially. After all, who had almost died here? Who had lost part of her home? Who was facing a financial crunch that only chance had reduced from a disaster? Rage surged through me, and Sam let go of my hand and put his arm around me. He could feel the tension in my body. He was hoping I would control the impulse to lash out.

I held on to my better nature by my fingernails, but I held on.

"A friend woke me up," I said. "When we got outside, we found a vampire who is staying with my neighbor - also a vampire - standing by Mr. Marriot's body. There was a gasoline can near to the... nearby. The doctor who came said there was gas on his hands."

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