This is the final chapter. Thank you all for reading. I've had a lot of fun writing this.
There aren't any good guidelines to tell a person how to deal with a bathtub full of fairy ashes. Particularly when the ashes had formerly been a cousin who may or may not have aided the bad guys but certainly tried to come through with a warning.
I dried my hands and considered my options. The simplest thing to do would be to run the ashes down the drain. But that seemed akin to flushing a goldfish and remembering Claude's self-love and my own love for poor Claudine, I couldn't do it. I could let them dry and scoop them out. Or vacuum them but that didn't seem right either. Disrespectful. This was my cousin Claude (I assumed), not a dust bunny.
You think I might have given more thought to the nitty gritty details, such as how Claude ended up dying in my tub and who might have done him in. But in that minute, I was dealing with the present only. I think that was my self-preservation instinct kicking in. It had been one hell of a week.
After thinking things through for another minute, I decided that rinsing Claude's ashes down the drain was the best way to go after all. It was not easy to do. Picturing Claude's beautiful, haughty face, I held the shower head in my hand and sent up a prayer that was half-Christian and half-pagan. I hoped very much that the lord was listening… or that Claudine was, in the Summerlands, and that she and her little baby were happy to greet Claude when he got there.
Once the tub was clean, I dried my hands and wrapped my bathrobe around myself. It says something about my state of mind that I'd taken care of Claude's ashes before I remembered that I was nude. It was good that Eric was asleep, as much as I would have loved to have his help right then. He wouldn't like the way I felt and even though we'd gotten pretty good at blocking the bond, I was not capable of such shielding right then. I was so cold.
Someone had been in my home. They had murdered Claude, who had superhuman strength and was, though not indestructible, certainly difficult to kill. How they'd gotten him here to begin with was another puzzle. Why my house?
I wandered into the spare bedroom, not really thinking about being closer to Eric but that was definitely the impulse. I'd checked out the closet before he'd gone into the hidey hole for the day but hadn't really looked around the room. Only now did I notice the neatly folded pile of clothing on the end of the dresser. Black jeans. A white teeshirt in a silky material. Red silk boxers reminiscent of the ones Eric was wearing when I found him with amnesia that cold night. Black dress socks. Looking down, I saw a pair of expensive-looking black men's shoes.
They must have belonged to Claude. I perched on the edge of the bed, staring at the clothing. I guess he'd come by to take a bath? Huh? That made no sense. Why would he come to my house, of all places.
Because he'd been attacked in his own home and he knew mine was empty and, with Dermot headed for Las Vegas to find me, probably the safest house in town. And because, maybe, he felt bad for sending Dermot my way?
That might have been wishful thinking. But it could have been the truth. He could have felt badly about it all and been staying here so that he could tell me so. Or so that he could keep tabs on when I got back. Or something.
The thing was, I was no Velma. Not that I was stupid. Far from. But I could think up a million reasons for Claude to have been taking a bath at my house and none of them made any more sense than the others. It was so strange, there couldn't be a good answer, not for sure. At least, none I'd know without talking with Claude himself and that was not going to happen.
It was also vaguely possible that the ashes weren't Claude's. But they were definitely the same fairy ashes I'd seen in my driveway after killing the other fairy with my garden tool. Hard to mistake those. And I didn't know of any other fairies left on this side of the door.
Which didn't mean that none existed. But if Claude was the only fairy I knew here, it seemed pretty likely that those ashes belonged to him, not to some unknown fairy.
Ugh. I rubbed my eyes with my fists. This was getting me nowhere fast. I thought about phoning Claude's friend who I'd talked to the night before. But I didn't even know the guy's name.
I heard tires pull up in the driveway. Amelia, I guessed, and went to the front door, tightening the belt of my bathrobe as I walked. She was driving a new car, powder blue with tan interior and no top. It looked like a car you'd see in a commercial set on a beach somewhere, a car for having fun, for relaxing. Amelia, however, was neither relaxed nor having fun. In fact, she looked downright gloomy.
Uh-oh, I thought as I waited in the doorway for her. This better not be more bad news.
"Sookie!" She smiled when she saw me but there was something odd to it, like she was very glad to see me but not at the same time.
"Hey," I said, waiting for her to get out of her car. She held up one fingers and went to open the truck. She brought out an envelope, legal sized.
"Let's sit down inside," I suggested. I held open the door for her and after a brief hesitation, she came up to me and walked inside.
While she made herself at home in the living room, I detoured through the kitchen and brought her out a can of Coke. No glass because I knew she preferred to slum it and drink straight from the can. She didn't touch the soda at all, just left it on the coffee table where I'd set it. I'd never known Amelia to be hard up for words but she was searching for them. I could hear her searching but nothing I heard made sense. Just lots of "I hope she…" and "how do I…" thoughts that ended in "arrg!"
"Just spit it out," I said. It was rude but I was getting scared. "I think Claude might be … I mean, I think he is dead."
"You'd be right," she said. "I'm so sorry, Sookie."
I looked down at my lap where my hands were clasped hard together. "Yeah. Well. I thought so but… well." Then it occurred to me that Amelia had only the most basic of relationships with Claude. "How do you know?"
"You know how my dad was doing business with Felipe through Sandy?"
I gaped at her for a moment; it was almost hard to make sense of what she was saying, it seemed so unrelated. "Sandy. Yeah, I knew about that."
"Sandy dropped this off for you last night. She said that she'd be by to see Eric once you all got home."
She pushed the envelope towards me. When I opened it, I nearly dropped it back down, I was so shocked. "This is Claude's will. I didn't know fairies bothered with these things."
"I guess they do. And, you know, Claude put a lot of effort into passing for human and his club was worth a good chunk."
I could hear her wondering just how much the club might be worth. It made me a little queasy that she could think about business at a time like this.
It was also weird, the whole thing, just strange. "Why did Sandy, of all people, drop this off?"
Amelia got that nervous look back. "You should really ask her. I don't really know."
From her mind, I picked up that she was telling me the truth… mostly. She didn't really know but her dad had speculated that the vampires were involved in Claude's death. Then there was strangeness about her, especially considering she'd always been such a strong projector. I felt like I was hearing her thoughts through a screen. Maybe it was me, not her. Maybe it was grief.
And then I realized that Claude had called the vampire king's hotel, which probably had caller ID, knowing how Victor operated. And that they could have put two and two together to equal four just as I did, if they had known that Dermot the fairy had arrived in conjunction with the Fellowship's attack that harmed the king. King Victor. But I hadn't thought they'd know about Dermot.
Then I remembered Barry.
Never underestimate vampires. Never, never. I told this to myself in a bewildered way as realizations hit me, one after another, clunk, clunk, clunk. Maybe Claude had come here of his own free will or maybe he'd been coerced somehow. But either way, he'd ended up at my house and the vampires had done this. Sandy herself? Or had she sent someone else. One of the new Vegas vamps, probably, one she'd known from before and trusted as much as vampires ever trusted one another. Or maybe even Bubba. I hoped not. And hey, how come Eric hadn't mentioned smelling vampires or a fairy in the house last night?
"Please excuse me," I told Amelia. I went quickly to the bathroom and began to search. The last place I looked was the trash can and that is where I found it. A heavy, dull knife I would have bet my life was made out of iron.
After that, there was nothing left to do but wait for Eric to wake up and Sandy to arrive when she learned he was here. I didn't know Sandy well. She'd always given me the impression of incredible efficiency and Eric considered her formidable. That was enough for me to step warily around her.
I called Sam and left him a message, telling him I wouldn't be able to work quite yet. When Eric woke up, I let Amelia tell him what had happened. I just couldn't stand to think of it all again. While she talked, I made myself busy in the kitchen. By the time I'd put together a tray containing a mug of heated True Blood plus two sandwiches for Amelia and myself, she'd finished talking and Eric was leaning back in his chair with his calculating look.
Amelia picked up her sandwich and started on it but I just looked at mine. "What do you think?" I asked Eric, passing him the mug.
He took a drink and nodded thanks at me. "I think Victor should have mentioned this to me while we were still in Las Vegas. And I think that if I were in his shoes, I wouldn't have told us a thing either."
"Victor is a new king and very green for all his cleverness. Keeping this to himself serves several purposes. It places Sandy in a position above me, for she is handling something that would be the job of the highest ranking vampire. She is Victor's child and thus obedient to him."
Sandy was Victor's too? How many kids did this guy have?
Eric went on. "Victor has always been forward-thinking. He knew that returning home to this would unsettle you and thus me. He would have liked that. No king wants to be predictable."
I thought of the feeling of Claude's ashes between my toes and wanted to puke. "Well, it was definitely a surprise."
"And then, he also must have felt Claude deserved to die for his role in leading the Dermot- and the Fellowship- to Victor."
"But Dermot wouldn't have bothered with Victor, except that he was between Dermot and me."
"Dear one, why would Victor care? He ended up with his head dented in, remember? No king will stand for that. That and you belong to Victor in a way. Royalty serve two functions. We obey them and they protect us. By leading Dermot to attack you, his subject to whom he's sworn protection when Felipe was king, Claude got on Victor's bad side."
Amelia nodded along. "Victor's not a dumb guy at all. That makes a lot of sense."
"Yeah, if you are brutal." I nudged my sandwich closer to Amelia. There was no way I could eat right then. "Poor Claude. He didn't deserve that."
"You once said we vampires are like lions. Remember that, Sookie. We have our own laws, our own justice." Eric finished his True Blood with one big gulp. "And the fae are even less civilized than the vampires. I'm sure Claude would have done the same in Victor's position, had he the king's power."
Silly me. So human. I knew that wasn't what Eric meant but all I could think of was Claudine. This felt like losing her all over again. I stood up. "You know what, you guys? I'm really needing you both to go for a while."
Amelia picked up her sandwich and headed for the door without any hesitation. "I'm real sorry, Sookie, about your cousin." There was still something odd about her, besides her strangely uncaring reaction to Claude's death. She felt bad for my pain, I could read that clearly enough, but there was something she wasn't telling me, some gray area inside her mind. I could have probed more deeply but I didn't want to deal with whatever drama she'd fallen into while I was gone.
"Thanks," I said and watched her go.
When the door clicked shut, I considered Eric. He was considering me right back, his head tilted slightly to the side. "Ask," he said, like a challenge.
"What did you smell last night? Or sense. Or whatever." It wasn't that I didn't trust Eric, really. It was that I didn't always understand his reasons for doing things and I knew he was perfectly capable of hiding things from me if he thought it necessary.
He knew this was coming. "Fairy. But I figured that Dermot had come here looking for you before he went to Claude. Otherwise, how would he know you were not at home? I didn't tell you because you were about to go to sleep and knowing he had been in your home would have disturbed your rest. I'm not sorry for that." He swirled the last drops of True Blood around in the bottom of his mug. "I didn't look inside the bathtub. Bathroom, yes. Bathtub, no. For that, I am sorry and do apologize."
"Eric, I stepped in my cousin. I am tired and sad and confused and seriously in need of a wash that I can't get because there is still… residue… in my shower." I pushed my fist against my stomach, feeling queasy. "And I think Sandy will be here soon, once Pam tells her you're here."
In his quick, vampire way, Eric leapt to his feet. "Wait here."
I heard him fussing down the hallway. Cabinets opened and shut. Water ran in the bathroom. Curling up in my hair, I rested my cheek against the upholstered back.
When he came back, he wore only his jeans. The way he moved reminded me that he was a warrior but his face was gentle when he saw me. "Come here," he said, holding out a hand to lift me from my seat.
He led me down the hallway by the hand and then into the bathroom. Inside, he'd lit a candle. With a sweep of his arm, he brushed back the shower curtain. The smell of vinegar told me he'd found the homemade cleaner that Amelia had left behind when she moved out. "Not a smear," he said quietly. "And the candle is to honor his spirit."
Touched, I reached up my hand to cup his cheek. "I never would have thought you'd consider Claude's spirit."
His eyes were black in the candlelight. "Sookie, I know that you would."
With a single step forward, I
pressed against him and laid my head on his solid chest. "I want to
He stroked my hair. "Wash up. Sandy will be here soon."
I felt a lot better after my shower though I admit, stepping back into that tub was not as easy as it sounds. While I dressed, Eric sat on my bed, watching me. Fair enough, I figured, since I'd done my own share of ogling him.
I threw on an old sundress, long and worn, its cotton smelling of the sachet I kept in my closet. Then I started on my damp mass of hair but Eric took the brush from my hand. He worked gently but ably through the tangles. He even went into the bathroom for the spray detangler. It felt so good, I was practically purring by the time we heard Sandy's sharp rap on the front door.
I opened the door and was happy to see Pam had accompanied Sandy. "Hi," I said, feeling strangely shy. I remembered, at the last second, that I needed to invite her in with words. "Please do come inside."
Pam let Sandy walk in, in deference to her status, I assumed. That reminded me to be careful. Eric had stepped carefully around Sandy even before we'd gone to Vegas. I wondered what the latest regime change meant for Sandy- good things, apparently- and why, exactly, she was here.
I heated up True Blood for the vampires while they sat around the living room, chatting about things I couldn't hear. When I brought out the bottles on a tray, Eric smiled at me and said thank you. Pam nodded her head in thanks. Sandy didn't even look at me. If the couch had gotten up and made her a drink, she would have treated it as graciously as she treated me.
That's about when I figured out that I wasn't needed. It finally dawned on me that cousin or not, Claude had been responsible, in part, for Bill losing his leg, Victor's dented head and my own near-strangulation. Sandy wasn't there to tell me a damn thing. She was here to rub in Eric's face the fact that she'd taken care of the Claude business without any input from him. The only reason she'd even come out to my house was because Eric happened to be there.
So, heck, if Eric wanted to deal with this business, that was fine by me. I'd had enough vampire crap for one month, thank you very much. "I'm just gonna go take care of some stuff in the bedroom," I said, patting Eric's hand. "Y'all make yourselves at home. Eric, let me know if you need me for anything at all."
"Are you sure, Sookie?" Eric turned his hand over to clasp mine. "You could stay."
I grinned at him, my nervous one, and shook my head. "Honest, I'm fine."
Sandy waved a hand at me. Dismissed! She didn't really even look my way. "Eric," she said, "Let's get on to business." I noticed she'd left her True Blood untouched. She didn't trust us.
Pam raised one eyebrow at me. I knew she thought Sandy walked around with a stick up her you-know-what. So when Pam raised her index finger and shot a side-glance in Sandy's direction, I knew exactly what she meant and had to hurry from the room in order not to laugh. That Pam, wicked in more ways than one.
I know eavesdropping is rude but hey, Sandy had been rude first. I left the bedroom door open and sat just inside, listening with all my might.
Sandy cleared her throat. "You know of the death of the fairy Claude."
"Yes, the witch brought my wife his paperwork." Eric sounded so formal. I wasn't sure calling me his wife was so bad when it came to Victor's people. It might save me from any return trips to Vegas.
"Here is what happened. Victor gave me the order for the fairy's death after the fairy caused the king to become injured. I sent Rasul and Indira to complete the execution." She paused. "Oh, and Bubba asked to help."
"Bubba has a fondness for Sookie," Pam said.
"I'm told the fairy was disposed of. As a favor to you, Eric, I saw to the delivery of his papers myself. Mr. Cataliades was quite helpful."
Yeah, he knows who butters his bread. Mr. Cataliades was like Eric in this one way: pragmatic to a fault. He'd weathered the regime change like a pro- of course, he probably was. I had no idea how old he might be or how many regime changes he might have gone through.
There was a long moment of silence in the living room. Then Eric spoke. "You were told the fairy was executed. You didn't see it yourself?"
"Do you have reason to doubt your underlings?" Sandy shot back.
"Absolutely not." But he was surprised that Sandy trusted them. I wasn't surprised at all. Sandy was used to being obeyed as smartly as she obeyed Victor.
Another silence fell. I fidgeted with the hem of my sleeve. Finally, Pam broke what seemed from my perspective to be an awkward moment. "If that is all, my master needs to rest. He is still healing from his ordeal in Nevada."
Whoo boy, I could feel Eric's irritation loud and clear at Pam's words. If I were her, I'd duck the minute Sandy was out the door. But I heard the last pleasantries exchanged and the door shut and locked and not only did Eric not say a word, the feeling I got from him through the bond was strange. He felt preoccupied.
But I was curious. I came out to the living room and sat next to Eric on the couch. Pam reclined in the armchair, looking like she was thinking hard.
"Why did you say that about Eric?" I asked her, leaning a little against Eric's arm. He, too, looked pensive.
"I needed her to leave and I thought it would benefit us if she underestimated Eric for a while." Pam shrugged. "It seemed like the right thing to do. Never show your fangs until you're ready to bite."
"So it was Rasul and Indira and Bubba who killed Claude?" It was hard to imagine Elvis killing my cousin but I'd seen more surprising things in my time.
"It does appear that way," Eric said. But the preoccupied feeling remained with me when I focused on our bond and there was a little vertical crease between his eyebrows that told me there was more going on inside his head than he was ready to share.
I didn't want to think that Rasul and Bubba had played a part in Claude's murder. I liked them. And I liked Indira though I didn't know her well.
"So," I said, feeling like the dummy in the classroom, saying what must be obvious to everyone else, "How did Claude's ashes get in my bathtub?"
"I did not smell vampire in your house last night," Eric said. "I suppose I could have missed it. I am not yet fully back to myself."
The vampires both perked up suddenly and a few moments later, I heard what they heard: a car was coming up the drive. A moment later, Amelia came in through the door. I think we were all two parts wary and one part exhausted because none of us moved. She came in with a bounce in her step, seeming much happier than she had just a little while earlier.
"Sookie, I have to tell you something," she said, beaming from ear to ear. "I'm so sorry that this got so crazy but I had to keep it a secret from you until after you talked to Sandy… and you know how hard that is for me to do!"
Considering I could tell what she'd had for breakfast due to her mental broadcasting, I agreed.
"So Octavia and I did a spell to keep my thoughts shielded. I think it must have worked?"
"I guess it did… considering I haven't got a clue what it is you're talking about." Eric threaded his arm through mine. I think he felt my nervousness.
Amelia perched on the coffee table, her knees nearly touching mine. "Bubba likes you, Sookie, a lot. Not like that, a lot, but a lot regardless. He didn't feel right about killing off your blood relative like that without even talking with you first. So he came here to find you. No one told him you were gone. I'd come over to collect my mail and a few other things-"
I got a clear mental picture of a necklace I knew Tray had given her. I winced.
She cleared her throat. "Anyway. I got him talking because I knew it wasn't likely he'd just dropped by for a visit, especially with you mysteriously gone. And he told me what his conflict was. Once I told him how fond you were of Claude and how you haven't got anyone else, basically, except your shiftless brother… sorry, but it's true! Bubba took matters into his own hands."
"Are you saying Bubba didn't kill Claude?"
"No, Claude's fine," Amelia said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "He's left town for good though. That's why he didn't mind you inheriting his strip club. I mean, it's way better for him if the vampires all think he's dead."
My mind was spinning. I hugged Eric's arm to me, trying to figure out what to think about first. Claude left town after helping to fake his own death. Claude was alive. Claude… left me a strip club? I owned a strip club? Me?
I must have looked at wide-eyed as I felt because Amelia patted my knee. "Don't worry, Sookie. Claude's fine and I'll help you figure out what to do with his club."
Pam shook her head. "The fairy dust in the bath tub?"
"Faked," Amelia said. "Octavia and I created it. We made a fake weapon too. Well, it's a real weapon but it's not iron. We just made it appear that way."
I imagined the two of them stirring fake fairy corpse dust in a big, black cauldron, cackling, wearing pointy, black hats. It made me smile.
Amelia took my smile for a good sign. "I'm so glad you're not mad at me!"
"I am mad at you!" I told her. "We've had a horrible time in Nevada, a horrible time before we went to Nevada and we came home to a horrible time just stepping in to take a shower! You couldn't have left them someplace else?"
She had the grace to look ashamed. "I know, I know, but I didn't know what to do. I had to stay in New Orleans because we were worried- Claude was worried- that too much commotion at your place would capture Sandy's attention. As it was, she considered all of this a minor matter. So Claude brought the fake ashes here himself, on his way out of town."
Read: Claude was pissed off with me and wanted to get back at me. I was betting that was the case. From the way Eric's lips tightened, I knew he thought so as well.
"And that was why the dust smelled of fairy," Eric surmised. "Because Claude handled them enough to put his own scent on them."
"Enough that when Bubba showed the ashes to Rasul and Indira in Shreveport before Claude brought them here, they had no doubts at all."
"And you were going to tell us this?" Pam asked, a definite edge to her tone.
Amelia scooted back a little so she could look Pam in the face. "Oh, yeah. But if you'd known before, then Sandy might not have been fooled. This was the plan that Claude and Bubba and I came up with."
I couldn't help feeling surprised. It seemed very clever for them to have thought up but then, Claude was never stupid (just shallow) and Bubba had surprising flashes of who he might have been, every now and then. Amelia wasn't a genius but she wasn't dumb either, just occasionally careless. But she was devious at the strangest moments. And she had put herself at risk of Sandy's ire in order to pull this whole thing off. Thank the lord for Bubba!
Rubbing my face with my palms, I sighed. And yawned. I had to give this all time to settle in.
Eric rose to his feet. He didn't mean to loom over us but it's hard not to when you're as tall as he and we were all sitting down. "Everyone but Sookie, out," he said, in a voice that tolerated no arguments.
Pam was up and tugging Amelia out of the front door by one wrist faster that I could say, "Bye."
I didn't get up. Pressing the heels of my hands into my eyes felt strangely good, as if the pressure could take me away from this whole mess for a minute. I felt Eric's large hand on the top of my head. "I'm fine," I told him but it came out sort of whiny.
"Sure you are," he said. With one fast movement, he swooped down and lifted me into his arms, cradle-style. "Come with me."
Like I had a lot of choice in the matter . "Eric," I said as he took me into my bedroom and set me carefully onto the bed. "What on earth am I going to do with a strip club?"
"Oh, I have one or two ideas," he said. He grabbed my ankles and tugged so I fell back onto the mattress. "Your hair looks like a golden frame," he said, his 'r' just a little accented. The sound of it made me close my eyes. It was sexy and more than that, it made me feel good, deep-down, that he was so affected by me.
"I need to think, Eric. Really. I need to… oh…" His hands tugged down my shorts.
"You don't need to do a single thing, Sookie. All is well with your world, and well enough with mine. You have done enough. Now it is time I say thank you."
I didn't think another useful thought that night.