A/N Well, here it is – finally! The last chapter of the story. To tell the truth it was hard to write this one, not just when I was trying to figure out what to include in the wrap-up, but I was sad to say goodbye to the characters and the story. It's been a great ride, and I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for joining me on it :D
Disclaimer: I promise I will hand them back, I just need them one more time.
The incident on Hummingbird Road, as everyone started calling it, was the best news the parish had for about a whole month. Maybe a little more. But then it got eclipsed by the fact that one of poor Maudette Pickens' sex videos ended up being watched by the little brother of a guy she'd slept with, and, even better, was the hasty engagement and wedding plans of Portia Bellefleur which led to speculation that she had got herself pregnant and it just went to show that no one was immune from making mistakes, were they?
I felt sorry for Maudette and for Portia, but glad I was yesterday's news all the same.
It did get the bar's name passed around though, and a lot of folk through the doors who were curious about the new owner who'd been shot that by that Native American guy because of…well, you could pick your reason from the several that were doing the rounds.
Sadly, they tended to be a little disappointed. Even if they did catch sight of Eric, he hardly looked like someone who'd be the target of an elaborate assassination plot or a sordid love triangle. At least, that was my opinion, anyway.
Still, we were lucky in that a few of those curious customers turned into regular customers. The customer numbers were also helped along by Pam's ongoing Facebook promotions; Flashback Fridays were a big hit even if Eric had been a little dubious about offering free drinks to those prepared to dress in outfits from the past. We did have put a limit on the free drinks though once we realised that Jane Bodehouse had kept every item of clothing she'd ever worn and was proud of the fact she could still squeeze into her bell-bottomed jeans. Squeeze was right, and the effect was a little over-whelming, to say the least.
But no matter how curious people were about Eric, he wasn't as much of a draw as the new bartender was. Of course, Eric had not been intending to hire a bartender. It was his first night back at the bar, the Sunday after the shooting, and mostly he was intent on finding a comfortable position for his leg while he sat at the desk in the office and complaining because he didn't.
I wasn't sure that his being at the bar was the best idea, but, as Pam said, it was better to get his complaints over with during the course of the night rather than have him save them all up for us to hear at a later time. I didn't know if I completely agreed with her, but then I wasn't the one living with him. So it was work for Eric and back to being behind the bar for Pam as it was Ginger's night off.
So far, so just like most other Sunday nights.
And then Claudine showed up. That in itself didn't seem all that odd. It was the first time I'd seen her since Eric had been shot and she made a bee-line for me and enveloped me in a hug. It was nice to have someone react by trying to comfort me rather than solicit a bunch of information from me. Plus, she smelt real good. I made a mental note to ask her what shampoo she used.
"Sookie, I just can't believe what happened to you!"
"Well. You know." I shrugged. I was kind of over talking about it.
"I felt real bad about it all," Claudine said.
That was a little different though. Not many people had had that response. "You did?"
"Mmm. Well…" Claudine looked down at her feet. I followed her gaze. She was wearing a pair of those shoe-boot things with the peep toes and her pedicure was an immaculate rose-red shade. I briefly wondered how she always managed to look so glossy and then I turned my attention back to what she was actually saying.
"Claude 'fessed up before he left," Claudine said, her large brown eyes wide and shiny.
"He…to what?" It wasn't that I didn't trust Claude to have told the truth, but, well, no. I didn't trust Claude to have told the truth. Not even to his own twin sister.
"To everything," Claudine said, as though it was obvious. "I know. That he was in cahoots with…the, uh, bartender. Who worked here. The guy that used to bother me at Hooligan's. I know he sent him. After you. Oh, Sookie! I'm so sorry!"
Claudine hugged me again and it was hard not to notice that a few of the customers, notably Jeff LaBeff and his cronies, were taking a good long look at Claudine and me. I had no doubt that all the nudging and whispering they were doing meant they thought we were there simply to fuel their own personal fantasies.
I stepped back from Claudine, uncomfortable with the scene we were creating for a bunch of guys who should have better things to think about. It didn't seem to bother Claudine, however, and I doubt she'd even registered their gaze. She still just seemed bothered by what had happened with Long Shadow.
"Please don't apologise, Claudine. I mean, you weren't to know what they were up to. You are not your brother's keeper." I was awful glad of that because, past Claudine, I could see my own brother playfully pulling on Dawn's apron to get her attention while she giggled. Some things never changed.
"Well. I do feel bad. And you were so nice to me too! Fucking Claude! He ruins everything."
I really wasn't sure how I was supposed to respond to that statement. Tempting as it might be to agree with Claudine wholeheartedly, there were just some things you didn't say about someone else's sibling. In the end I opted for, what I hoped was, a dignified and sympathetic silence, accompanied by a slight nod to show that I understood how she was feeling.
"At least it's over now," I said, and then I immediately regretted it, in case Claudine thought I was being overly callous about Long Shadow's demise. I wanted to back-track, but wasn't sure how.
I gave up. It was all too hard. Time to change the subject. "So, you here to see Pam? Talk about the show?"
"Oh. No. We're here to see Eric."
And that was when I looked past Claudine and saw the two men who had entered behind her. It was hard not to miss them. For one thing, they were both wearing overcoats which seemed like overkill for the temperature at this time of year. Both seemed incredibly polished, from their shoes to their slicked back hair. The older of the two, whose hair had faded to a pale silver colour, wore it pulled back into a ponytail, but otherwise they looked like they could be captioned with the word businessmen.
They were not the kind of clientele we usually served in Vic's Redneck Roadhouse.
They took a few steps forward and flanked Claudine. "Um…I'll get Eric then," I said, although it came out sounding like a question I was asking them.
The younger of the two men didn't acknowledge me, but instead turned to a nearby table and pulled out a chair. "Father, won't you sit?" I watched as the older man sat down and then, realising they were going to be waiting on Eric's appearance, I high-tailed it out to the office.
Eric started talking pretty much as soon as I opened the door. "It's impossible to keep it elevated and get close enough to the desk to actually do anything. I don't know how this is supposed to work at all," he grumbled, and, tempting as it was to tell him it wasn't and he should just go home, I had business.
"There's someone to see you. In the bar," I told him, which made him look at me curiously.
"Um…Claudine's family…I think?"
"Why do they need to see me?"
"Oh." I realised I'd been so mesmerised by the presence of the strange men in the bar that I hadn't thought to ask for any details. They'd said they'd wanted to see Eric, I was going to bring them Eric.
Why was Eric being so difficult?
"Just come out and see. It'll give you something to do."
"Sookie, I have lots of things to do. I just can't do them right now."
"Uh-huh. Well, this'll give you a break from all that frustration then."
Eric eyed me coolly. "I really have to go out there?"
"They're waiting on you. I don't think it's anything bad. It's a business meeting." I mean, they looked like businessmen, so it was bound to be.
Eric sighed, and then slowly stood up. It was painful to watch and it was tempting to step in and help him, but I'd been burned with that before. Eric wasn't taking the fact he was recuperating at all well.
Mission accomplished, I held the office door open as Eric limped through it, and then did the same with the door to the bar. Once through I didn't even have to point out to Eric who was waiting for him. It was blindingly obvious.
He hesitated a little, however, and we exchanged a look. I think Eric's side of the look was meant to convey that he wasn't sure what he was getting into and wasn't Louisiana full of really odd people and I did know these odd people and what they wanted with him and if he disappeared he was leaving me and Pam in charge.
My side of the look was definitely meant to convey 'just get over there'.
Eric walked over, and curiosity got the better of me so I joined him as well. I figured whatever this was seemed to have been triggered by Claude's actions and they'd definitely involved me so it only seemed fitting I be included now.
At least, that was how I justified being a nosy parker.
The younger of the two men, who was still standing beside Claudine, extended his hand as Eric approached. "Mr Northman. I'm Dillon Crane."
Eric shook his hand and my eyes flicked from Dillon Crane to Claudine, and back again. That was her dad.
This was all very interesting. And a little weird.
Next, Eric was introduced to the older gentleman. "Niall Brigant," he said, and he sounded as though he came from some other time and place entirely.
"I believe you wanted to meet with me?" Eric asked, and Dillon gestured to a chair beside the other man, who I assumed was also some kind of relation, before sitting himself. Eric looked at it warily; it had been hard enough to get himself out of the chair in the office, getting back into one out here wasn't going to be much better.
He managed it, although his jaw was sure tense as he lowered himself down. Mr Crane and Mr Brigant watched him without speaking. Only when he was as comfortably situated as he could be, did they begin.
"We are here to make amends," Dillon Crane began, in a rather formal tone. "I believe that my son, Claude, has…something to do with the rather unfortunate business that occurred recently."
Eric didn't say anything to that. Claudine continued to stand behind her dad and she shot me a sympathetic smile. I edged closer to Eric's chair, feeling a little as though we were taking sides or something.
"Claude, unfortunately, doesn't have the best track record in picking his associates," Dillon Crane continued. "But we love him nonetheless." There was no mistaking the meaning behind those last words. Claude might be the black sheep of the family, but he was still part of it, and this visit was meant to dissuade Eric from considering any retribution.
This all seemed very deep and meaningful for a Sunday night.
"Well. We wish Claude all the best in his new venture. In Las Vegas," Eric replied, just as casually and with just as much meaning. He was really good at this. If we were picking sides, I was kinda glad I was with Eric.
"With your ex-business partner, I believe," Mr Crane said.
Eric shrugged. "It was Sookie's idea to introduce Claude to Victor. It's a good business arrangement for both of them, as far as I can see it."
"Ah, yes. Sookie," Niall Brigant said, suddenly joining in to the conversation and looking straight at me with his pale blue eyes. It was not an unkind look, but it was disconcerting all the same. "We have heard much about Claudine's friend, Sookie."
I waited to see if Claudine would introduce me properly, but she merely beamed at me. Perhaps they knew so much about me that introductions were considered unnecessary.
Maybe I should have paid more attention to that look Eric had given me earlier.
"I'm sure you are very glad that Sookie is safe, Mr Northman, considering what happened, and what you yourself have suffered," Mr Crane said.
"Indeed. I am." Eric sounded suspicious and I had to admit that I wished everyone would just get to the point.
"Therefore, in light of the fact that your business has been somewhat disadvantaged by recent events we offer you a replacement." Mr Crane looked over at Eric expectantly.
"Ah. OK." Eric considered that. It certainly hadn't been what I was expecting. After all, the police shot our last bartender and, while Long Shadow might have been on a path that Claude had started him on, I didn't think we needed to go so far as to blame Claude for the entire debacle.
Certainly not to the point that people were being exchanged as compensation.
"And this bartender…?" Eric asked.
"Is fully trained, and very competent. They just…don't necessarily work with the clientele at our establishment. The atmosphere can be a little tense. But here…" Mr Crane paused, and took a good look around the bar. "I think here will be a better fit."
"OK," Eric said, after a moment's thought. "We'll give this bartender of yours a trial. But I'm not making any promises. If anything goes wrong, they're out and that's that. I don't need someone who can't pull their weight."
Mr Crane smiled enigmatically at Eric. I glanced over at Mr Brigant and found that he was still looking at me curiously. That made me deeply uncomfortable, so I switched back to looking at Claudine, who was smiling as well.
They were a very smiley family.
"Excellent. And now that our meeting is concluded, we will leave you in peace and return to our own business." Dillon Crane stood up and then pulled out the chair for his father. I watched Eric's shoulders tense before he, too, got to his feet, leaning heavily on the table as he did so.
Eric shook hands, first with the younger man, and then with the elder, before they started to walk towards the door. "The bartender will be with you tomorrow night," Mr Crane said. "We bid you goodnight." His exit was a little dramatic, I thought, for the circumstances.
And then Mr Brigant walked over to me, instead of Eric. "It was very good to meet you, Sookie," he said, although we had never been properly introduced. "You know, we always have a use for a girl with a good brain. I have…many businesses. Not just the club. If you can ever be tempted away from Mr Northman I would be delighted if you would consider helping me out." He winked at me and held something out.
I took the business card he offered and studied it. It was white, and thick, with simple gold script saying Niall Brigant, along with a telephone number. No other information was printed on it.
"Um. OK. I'll, uh…think about it." I looked sideways at Eric who was watching this exchange curiously, but without comment.
"I hope you do. I hope you do." And then he leaned over, and kissed me on the cheek, before taking his leave as well.
"That was mighty odd," I commented, still a little stunned by it all. "I mean, it felt like I was being recruited…for something."
"Yep," Eric agreed. "Also, we have a new bartender who I didn't get to hire."
"I think the worrying aspect is that Claudine's dad is giving you a live person so you won't implicate Claude." And then I thought about that. "A person who, if we're reading between the lines, scares the living daylights out of the customers at Hooligans. I just…don't know what to do with that information."
"No. I guess we just wait for tomorrow."
Eric started, slowly, to move back towards the back of the bar. "You will be here tomorrow?" he asked.
"Well I'm curious now, so yes. I told Alcide I'd start the next day, and I guess if you'll have a bartender that'll be good timing."
"I suppose so." Eric gave up the pretence of being able to hobble successfully and put a hand on my shoulder so I could help him. "And you're coming in the morning?"
"Yes." Eric was getting his first visit from the physical therapist. That was going to be an interesting morning.
The rest of the night was less than interesting. Claudine hung around for a while and chatted to Pam, who had watched the whole exchange with Claudine's family curiously from the bar. Eric tried, and failed to settle on a comfortable position so he could do some work, and I tried to avoid seeing too much of the Jason and Dawn show. It was nice they were on good terms again but I didn't need to know just how good those terms were.
The next day I arrived at Eric's house just before the physical therapist was due. I wasn't really sure what to expect and I don't think Eric was either. But when she arrived Heidi seemed nice. And patient. She was very, very patient. They should award medals to people who were as patient as she was with Eric.
And when she left it was the knowledge she'd have to do it all again the next day.
I didn't share my thoughts on Heidi's medal-deserving performance with Eric though, as he had other things on his mind. Mostly they had to do with the fact that this was the last Monday I wouldn't be working for Alcide and he had come up with a fabulous way for us to spend the afternoon.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "You know…your leg?"
"I've had my physical therapy. I'm fine."
"I don't know if one session really qualifies you as healed, Eric."
Eric shrugged. "I'm healed enough." He gave me a significant look.
"I don't know," I said, looking down at his leg. "I would hate to pop any stiches or anything."
"It would be worth it."
"I don't think anyone's ever offered to pop their stitches for me before." I stepped closer to Eric and put my hands on his arms. "It's certainly an offer I will have to consider."
"Would you like to consider it in bed?" Eric said in a low voice, bending down to kiss me below the ear.
"Um. That doesn't sound very professional."
"Fuck being professional." Eric kissed me hard, his hands flat against my back and the swell of my butt, pressing me up against him. Other things were hard, too.
"Fuck me," I replied.
We had to be a little creative, to protect Eric's injured leg, but it was a challenge we rose to. All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon. I was too well occupied to spend much time analysing how Eric and I had arrived at the position we had, but when I did, all I reflected on was that he still made me happy, just by being there, and by being Eric, and really that was all I could ask for.
I might never know whether things would have been different between us if we hadn't lived through the shooting. Call it survivor's guilt or survivor's happiness or just plain old surviving, whatever it was that made me content with what Eric had to offer, I wasn't going to question it. It wasn't something you could plan for, after all. It was just there, my own little personal bubble of happiness when I was with Eric.
I felt a little less happy that evening at the bar, while we were awaiting the new arrival. "So, we're getting a bartender from the strip club?" Lafayette asked. "Because the guy's son knew Long Shadow?"
"Yeah. Something like that." In deference to Claudine, and perhaps more in fear of what the unstated implications in Dillon Crane's little speech had been the night before, I decided not to go into too many details about Claude's involvement with Long Shadow. It led to a lot of confusion of though.
"Well, I could have kept on bartending," Ginger said. "I didn't mind."
"But you can't do that and waitress," Dawn pointed out. "And Sookie isn't going to be here after tonight."
"I know," Ginger said, a little sadly.
"I'll be back on Friday night. I'm not quitting altogether."
"But you will. Sometime. And it'll be sad, like when Belinda left." Ginger looked downcast.
"So…what actually happened to Belinda?" I asked.
"She was sleeping with Long Shadow. Her husband was an ass, but it's still no excuse. He found out and said she couldn't work here anymore, and then they moved away. It was real sad. She had some faults…her taste in men being a big one."
"Oh." Somehow that wasn't what I'd expected. It was odd to think that any woman would want to be with Long Shadow. I wondered if she'd read in the newspapers about him being killed, and I just felt a little melancholy all of a sudden. Whatever he'd been Long Shadow had had at least had one person who cared for him, and now he'd never see her again.
"I'm sorry," Ginger said. "I know you probably don't like to think about him."
"Oh no. I'm fine." I waved away her concerns.
"Any sign of our new employee?" Pam trilled from behind the bar. She was wearing a bright blue dress in a rather stiff and shiny fabric with embossed flowers, which stuck out from her waist almost as though as it was constructed from paper. The high, round neck was decorated with multi-coloured jewels that twinkled under the lights as she moved. It was quite a look. I wondered if our new bartender would have anything to match Pam's style.
Turns out that she did, and that was without dressing up. When she arrived in the bar Kennedy Keyes was dressed simply in a black t-shirt and jeans, with a pair of black wedge-heeled sneakers on her feet. Her hair and makeup looked immaculate, and spoke volumes about her past as a successful beauty queen.
She was all smiles when she saw me standing there, in my t-shirt emblazoned with the Vic's Redneck Roadhouse logo. "Sookie Stackhouse!" she cried. "I'm so glad to see a friendly face here."
Friendly faces were probably not something that Kennedy saw a lot of. She hustled over to me and gave me a hug as though we had always been friends, not merely girls who knew each other by sight at high school. More to the point she acted as though she had never spent time in jail for killing her fiancé in their home.
Although I had no idea what people convicted of manslaughter were supposed to act like. Maybe none of them wanted to be defined by their past crimes.
Dawn was staring open-mouthed at Kennedy, and I frowned in her direction, hoping she'd quit looking like the village idiot. "Oh, Dawn Green! This is just a like high school reunion, isn't it?" Kennedy asked, and Dawn looked ashen.
"Oh, I…uh. Yeah." Dawn was less than eloquent and I now understood what Claudine's dad had been saying the night before about Kennedy intimidating his customers.
"I gotta…go get…stuff," Dawn said, quickly, and then she skedaddled. I introduced Kennedy to Ginger, who was as friendly to Kennedy as Kennedy was to her, and then, when I could see Pam's enthusiasm for the mutual love-fest was wearing thin, I introduced her to Pam who said she'd show Kennedy the ropes. Mostly, I think, that meant laying down the law about what Jane Bodehouse was and was not allowed to do, but that was after all an important part of being a bartender here at the Roadhouse, so it wasn't something Pam could neglect.
Monday nights are slow and this one was no exception. Kennedy though kept herself busy by re-organising the way the liquor bottles were lined up and chatting to Jane. I'm not sure what part of her past was the most useful in maintaining good humour as Jane repeated stories, demanded refills and occasionally forgot where the bathroom was, but Kennedy excelled at it nonetheless.
When I went to take a food order to the kitchen, Lafayette was leaning through the hatch, looking like he was itching to talk. "So that's the infamous Kennedy Keyes?" he asked me, before I could even slide the piece of paper on which I'd written 'chicken basket' across to him.
"Uh-huh." He seemed deep in thought. "Eric know who he's got working for him now?"
"Not yet." I'd persuaded Eric to come in a little later tonight, on account of his leg. I liked to think that my awesome powers of persuasion combined with a solid rational argument had swayed him, but, to be honest, it was probably a combination of pain meds and post-orgasmic drowsiness that made him receptive to my suggestion. At any rate, he had done as I had suggested and stayed at home for a while to rest.
I felt real sorry for Kennedy. I had, after all, been in her position less than a couple of days earlier and even though we might only have a handful of customers, they were all looking her way.
"You got a new bartender!" Amelia informed me, when I stopped by her table to take an order. She was sitting with Tray Dawson and Danny Prideaux, and seemed to be quite enjoying all the male attention. I didn't know what was up with her and Pam these days. More to the point, I didn't want to know. What was between consenting adults stayed between them, as far as I was concerned.
"We did. Well, we'd have to eventually."
"I guess you're pleased, huh?" Amelia said brightly, and then her face crumpled as she realised she'd said the wrong thing entirely. "Oh. I didn't mean. You know, that you were happy happy. Just that you didn't like him all that much…before. So…a change is always nice!" Amelia looked hopeful that she'd repaired any damage she might have done with her previous statements.
By this time my skin was probably nearly as thick as Kennedy's was going to have to be. "I know. And you're right. We're glad to have her."
"What's her name?" Danny suddenly asked me, staring at Kennedy over the rim of the glass he was drinking from.
"Kennedy. Kennedy Keyes." I waited to see if that provoked any reaction from him, but all he did was smile a little. "OK. Thanks, Sookie." It seemed like Kennedy had at least one admirer.
I continued on my way around the bar. Dawn was giving Kennedy as wide a berth as she could in the circumstances. It was a little tricky for her to totally avoid getting her customers any drinks, but I noticed that she would yell an order at Kennedy before heading straight to the kitchen, even if she didn't have a food order in, and only come back once the drinks were sitting there ready for her.
I wondered how long she was going to be able to keep that up. She'd be exhausted by Wednesday at this rate.
Ginger wasn't from around here originally, so she'd probably missed the months when Kennedy had been the best gossip around, but she could tell that something was up from the way Dawn was behaving. "What's the deal with the new bartender? She and Dawn have some history?" Ginger whispered to me when we were both waiting at the kitchen hatch.
"Oh. Well. Not so much. Not between the two of them. It's, uh…"
"It's what I did that's the problem," Kennedy said. I hadn't heard her walking up behind me and I jumped a little when she suddenly spoke, and then immediately cursed myself for doing so because I didn't want her to think that I was afraid of her. Because I wasn't. At all.
She just had really quiet shoes.
Ginger eyed Kennedy warily, trying to size her up. Her mouth pursed, and then relaxed again, as though she wanted to ask what exactly it was that Kennedy had done but didn't know quite how.
Kennedy fixed her with a smile that could probably be measured in watts. I half-expected someone to hand her a bouquet and a tiara. She stood up tall and she gave her glossy chestnut hair an almost imperceptible shake, just allowing it to settle in a slightly more flattering arrangement. "I killed my fiancé," she said. "I went to prison for it."
Ginger was clearly lost for words, and I did not blame her one iota. I was mostly glad that I wasn't an active participant in the conversation myself.
"He was abusive. He always was, I see that now. I shouldn't have let him get away with it for so long," Kennedy continued. "I was young though, and I thought he knew better when he said I shouldn't be running with my old friends, or that I was giving men at the country club the wrong idea when I chatted with them. Anyway, I just let it slide. And then he started getting physical…he was always real careful to make sure he hurt me where people couldn't see. And he was, you know? Real smart, and handsome and who'd believe me anyway?" Kennedy's speech had started off as clear as if she were back up on stage talking about her wish for world peace or a cure for cancer, but now it was starting to crack, and the shininess of her eyes was no longer due to just her beautifully applied eye makeup. "And I killed someone, and none of what happened before that really excuses it. But I did my time, and I paid for it, and I just want to make a fresh start."
Ginger was silent for a moment, taking it all in. And then she turned away from Kennedy and put her tray down, carefully, on the serving hatch, before turning back again. "Oh," she said. "Oh. I'm so glad you're safe now." And she hugged Kennedy, who looked more than a little stunned. I guess this wasn't the reaction she normally got to her story.
"I realise you-all are having a moment," Lafayette said over the hatch, "But I got a basket of chicken strips here, and nowhere to put it because someone has left their damn tray right where it doesn't belong."
"Sorry," Ginger said sheepishly, picking up her tray again.
"That's better," Lafayette said, and then he looked over to Kennedy, who was dabbing her bottom lids with her middle fingers in a dainty attempt to preserve her eye makeup. "And the next round of hugs had better include me, you hear?" he said, pointing a finger to Kennedy.
"Uh-huh. Sure. I better get back to the bar." She smiled at Lafayette, and then left.
I loaded the chicken strips onto my own tray. "I doubt we'll get Dawn over here hugging anyone," Lafayette said, watching her still skirting around the bar as best she could.
"Oh. She'll come around," Ginger said, giving her own eyes a wipe. I wished I had her confidence, but she wasn't the one I needed to win over now. Eric had just come out from the back and was surveying his new bartender sceptically. It probably didn't help that she was currently leaning across the bar with a lock of Jane Bodehouse's hair in her hands as they discussed permanent versus semi-permanent hair colours.
Eric's eyes flicked to me, and then back towards the door and I held up my finger to tell him I'd be there in a minute. I delivered Catfish Hennessy his chicken basket, and then I went out the back where I found both Eric and Pam in the office.
"So?" Pam asked me. "Do we like Kennedy?"
"Personally, or professionally?" I asked cautiously. Eric was watching me closely and I felt a little uncomfortable about the whole thing.
"Well," Pam began. "She seems quite onto it, so I don't think the actual bartending is the problem. But we did notice that Dawn was giving her a wide berth, and that there seemed to be a little tension there. And we all know how, uh, territorial Dawn can be at times so I wondered if Kennedy had ever…with your brother?" She looked at me expectantly.
"Oh! Oh. Oh no. Not Jason. No, she isn't one of his…exes…" I took a deep breath. I hated to be the bearer of bad news, especially when it felt like it wasn't my news anyway. The last few days had given me a deep dislike of gossip and this felt like it was less information sharing and more spilling of juicy details.
Damn Eric and his decision to just accept a bartender as a gift.
"Kennedy Keyes did some time. In prison. For killing her fiancé, after he was abusive to her for a long time." I waited to see what Pam and Eric's reaction would be to that.
Eric looked thoughtful. Pam looked interested. "So she just did him in?" Pam asked.
"I guess. I mean…I'm not the person to ask for details."
Pam shrugged. "I've been tempted to do worse for less, I suppose." She turned to Eric, who was still staring into the middle distance.
"I bet when she was working at Hooligan's her wages were subsidised. Some kind of ex-prisoner assistance program or something. And now we have her, I have to pay the going rate. Bastards." Eric's opinion didn't seem to have much to do with Kennedy herself, but rather the fact that he'd been tricked somehow.
"So…what's the verdict?" I asked, a little worried about where this conversation was going. I was very fond of both Eric and Pam but every so often, even now, the way they both thought scared the bejesus out of me.
Eric shrugged. "We'll give her a trial I guess. And Dawn will just have to deal with it."
"I'll go out and give her the good news!" Pam trilled, and then she reached past Eric and grabbed one of the bar's t-shirts off the shelf. "I'll give her this so she'll feel like part of the team."
"Well…that'll make her day," I commented. I didn't think I was ever going to enjoy having the word 'Redneck' plastered across my bust quite so prominently.
"Oh, Sookie. It's all in the way you sell it!" Pam gave me a big smile as she crossed the floor towards the door.
"Send her back in here, and I'll talk with her," Eric said, as Pam was half-way out. She turned and with a "Rightio!" was out of sight.
"Do you think we're doing the right thing?" I asked Eric, moving over to the desk and perching on the edge of it, trying to avoid knocking into Eric so I didn't hurt him.
"In giving her a trial?"
"In taking her on full-stop. Do you think it's wise to accept a…a…person from someone else, when we know it's just because they don't want us to ever mention that Claude and Long Shadow were in it together. At some point, anyway. I just don't know." I looked at Eric helplessly.
"Sookie," Eric began, and then he stopped. "Who the fuck knows? But Long Shadow's dead, Claude is, hopefully, Victor's problem now and we have to get on and try to do the best we can. And the best thing I can do is try to keep this bar afloat. For that, I need good staff. So if she's willing to work here, and she's good at her job, I'm not going to question how she arrived here."
"I guess not."
We were silent for a moment. I wasn't completely sure what Eric was thinking about, but I was certainly contemplating how difficult it was to plan anything in this life when everyone kept throwing curveballs your way. Eric was probably right. We just had to keep on doing the best we could.
I leaned over and kissed the top of Eric's head.
"But we'll miss you, of course," he said, a little unexpectedly. The next day I started at Herveaux's and my hours at the bar were going to be limited.
"Well, I'll still be around. And I'll come and see…you. Won't I?"
"You will," Eric informed me, and then Kennedy knocked once on the door to the office and pushed it open. I took that as my cue to leave.
A little while later Kennedy re-appeared in the bar, looking mighty pleased with herself. She came straight over to me, hair bouncing as she walked. "I'm all official!" she trilled.
"Well, that's great," I said, and I meant it. I figured if Kennedy was happy about working here then that was probably half the battle.
"Yep. Your boyfriend's real nice, isn't he?" she replied and I got a little tongue-tied. My brain was saying I should maybe deny it, or act casual and ask what gave her that impression, but in the end all my mouth said was "Yeah." It was not my most eloquent response, but it seemed to please Kennedy, who gave me another big smile and took her post behind the bar back from Pam.
The end of my shift that night was a little more sombre than I would have liked, given I felt like I'd only just cheated death a few days earlier. Ginger clasped my hand and looked at me as though as I was about to leave home for the first time, and even Dawn, begrudgingly, said it would be different without me around. I couldn't really tell whether she meant bad different or good different, and I decided not to enquire.
The fact that she'd managed to pass a comment without an obvious sneer was enough for me.
Lafayette said it wouldn't be the same without my cheery little face, Pam said that Jane would be lonely, Eric avoided the moment entirely. It was all pretty much what I expected.
Sure enough, when I got out to my car in the parking lot, he was there, leaning against my car. "You managed to get away then?" he asked.
"Only just." I moved so I was standing right in front of him.
"I'll see you tomorrow." Eric had turned that into a statement rather than a question, but there was no mistaking that he wanted a small amount of reassurance that I wasn't going to abandon him altogether.
"You will," I said, standing on tip-toe to give him a small kiss. "You will."
Eric didn't say anything to that, he just nodded and moved aside so I could drive off.
By the next morning I had other things to think about that definitely weren't Eric. My re-introduction to the office at Herveaux's was a rude awakening. It was a mess, to state it plainly, and it wasn't just the state of the accounts that drew my attention. The office itself was littered with coffee cups and the detritus from various fast-food outlets, the pot-plants had all died, nothing had been filed in what appeared to be months, and from the amount of nail polish littering the top of Arlene's desk I could only gather that she was supplementing her income my performing manicures during her lunch hour.
I was not exactly thrilled to be back. And that was before I had even run into anyone else. I looked around and wondered whether this was really such a great idea. I had said that I wasn't going to return full-time, I had told Alcide, and Debbie, that I was here to do a job and only that job. But, my goodness, it was going to be tricky to manage if everything was in this state.
No wonder they'd lost track of what was going on.
I was contemplating whether I should try to find an empty desk, or what, when Debbie hustled in. "Oh, there you are Sookie!" she said, brightly, like I was the one who'd just arrived.
"I am. I am here." Maybe if I said it out loud it wouldn't feel so much like a bad dream I was stuck in. One of those recurring nightmares where no matter what you do you can't seem to find your way home.
Only my nightmare came with Debbie Pelt, filing and a bunch of McDonald's wrappers. Ugh.
"Great. Then let's get you to work."
It was a hard line to tread getting enough information from Debbie so that I could actually do the job I'd promised I'd do, and not getting bogged down in all the other stuff she thought she might be able to get me to do. Like get the filing up to date.
Sandra Pelt turned out to be another kettle of fish altogether. As soon as she arrived I understood where the problems in the office stemmed from. Not only did she seem to be the source of most of the garbage strewn around, but she refused, point-blank, to do any work, mainly on the principal that she didn't like working for her sister.
It was tempting to ask her why she was here then, but I didn't want to get involved in whatever family dynamic Sandra and Debbie had going on. I wanted to spend as little time with Sandra as I could, full-stop. Something about her gave me an uneasy feeling. Debbie was spoiled and nasty but Sandra was something else altogether.
I definitely began to wonder what I'd got myself into. But I refused to walk away now. This was supposed to be my chance to do something for myself, my chance to work on my own terms.
And I'd be damned if Sandra Pelt was going to ruin it for me.
It all came to a head in the afternoon of my first day. Arlene had left early, I think she found the atmosphere in the office difficult to deal with. I couldn't entirely blame her for taking such an interest in the state of her fingernails.
Debbie had called Sandra into her office, and, while I could not tell exactly what the pair had discussed, there was no mistaking Sandra's dislike of the conversation as she exited by slamming the door behind her. She glared at me, and then slumped into her chair.
"It must be nice to just be contracting here," she spat out and, for a brief moment, I remembered Jannalynn, almost fondly.
"Oh. It has its moments," I replied, trying desperately to get the invoices in front of me in any kind of date order so that I could see if they had been entered correctly into the system.
"I bet it does," Sandra spat back. "Especially when you get to do whatever the hell you want."
I looked over at Sandra, whose face wasn't far from being the petulant teenager she must have been just a couple of years earlier. In contrast to the smooth veneer that seemed to coat Debbie, Sandra was all rough edges, her mud-coloured hair stuck out behind her ears, escaping the rough ponytail she'd scraped it into, her mascara was smudged in one corner of her eye and her fingernails were bitten, almost down to the quick.
"Look," I said, going for a tone that oozed sympathy, while at the same time remaining matter-of-fact. "I can imagine it's no picnic being here." I nodded at Debbie's closed office door. "So I am not here to muscle in. Just think of me as your own helpful fairy."
Sandra looked perplexed, but no longer openly hostile, which was an improvement.
"I will just sit here," I continued. "And wave my magic…well, pencil. And figure out where all the problems are. Then I'll fix them. And leave. What that means for you, Sandra, is that you get to keep this job here, which, I know, you are not fond of. But it is far better than the other things you could be doing. Out in the real world, jobs are things where you spend the night on your feet having a bunch of men stare at the t-shirt you're wearing while you hope they're in a generous mood. Out there, well, you don't get the luxury of sitting on your ass and mouthing off about the boss. Out there it sucks."
Sandra rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything. "So, if you just let me carry on with what I came here to do, I'll go back to keeping you in a job you can afford to complain about."
I bent my head back down to the pile of paper in front of me and waited to see what Sandra would do. I could hear her moving things around on her desk, and there were some muttered words, but I couldn't tell if she was complaining about me or Debbie or both of us equally.
Well, I figured. If my little speech hadn't done the trick I could always mention, casually, how the last person to cross me at work had ended up being shot by the police.
I winced a little, realising that wasn't a joke I wanted to make even to myself just yet. Hopefully Sandra would take the hint and that would be that.
As far as I could tell without looking at her directly Sandra continued in her own little world, which seemed to involve a lot of banging of objects and not much work. And then after perhaps half an hour or so, she suddenly spoke. "If I get coffee for me, do you want one?"
I was going to take that as success.
I was weary by the time I reached the bar that night. I had thought that waitressing was a hard task, but I had forgotten, temporarily at least, the fine line that had to be tread in an office of competing personalities. That and the focus required to stare at rows and rows of numbers and find the ones that should not be there. Sandra's penchant for reconciling random amounts with invoices just added to the complexity of what I was dealing with.
I walked in the front door of the bar and was almost nostalgic for the simplicity of it all, but then I shook myself out of that mood. I hadn't been lying to Sandra when I'd told her that the world outside the office was a tough one.
I could see that Eric was attempting to extricate himself from a conversation with Catfish Hennessy. He was probably trying to buy Eric a drink, again. He had it in his mind that Eric was some kind of hero since he'd been wounded while protecting 'Jason's sister' as I was known in his version of the story. Eric didn't look like he was particularly interested in being lauded right at that moment. When he spied me he stepped away from Catfish's table, leaving him talking to thin air.
Well I knew he was using me as an excuse, but I'd probably let him have this one.
"Hi," I said, as Eric and I met, face to face, in the middle of the bar. I wasn't used to wearing high heels around Eric and I was closer to his height, although there was still quite a difference.
"You're here. Thank God," Eric replied. Although I knew that a lot of his relief was due to the fact he now had a good reason for not talking to anyone else, it was still nice to get such a welcome. I felt infused with all sorts of good things at the sight of Eric. I was pleased that I had made it through my first day at Herveaux's, I was really happy to see Eric, and I was, I had to admit, a little proud of the fact that Eric was, for once, seeing me in my nicer work clothes. Without thinking about it, I stretched up, a much easier task due to my heels and Eric's slight slump where he was keeping the weight off his bad leg, and I kissed him, full on the mouth.
It wasn't until we broke apart that I remembered where we were and who might have seen. Catfish's wolf-whistles made it apparent that they had seen, too. My face felt a little hot and I was tempted to bolt from the bar.
"Sorry," I whispered to Eric. I knew that he was not one to enjoy the attention of a bunch of bystanders.
"Don't be," Eric said, not looking too bothered. "I'm not." He gave me a smile. "You can give me another kiss if you want. Or maybe we could adjourn to my office?" He gestured to the door with his arm.
"OK," I said. "But I'd kind of like some dinner. And Lafayette said tonight was pork chops…" The sandwich I had eaten quickly at lunchtime had not filled me up completely.
"I think that can be arranged," Eric said smoothly. He led me to a seat in Dawn's section, which caused a little friction when she realised she actually had to come over, and wait on me, and could hardly refuse when her boss was sitting right next to me. It wasn't the most comfortable I'd ever been placing an order, but we got through it.
I was going to have to tip her well though.
"So is this a date?" I asked Eric, after Dawn had brought our meals.
"I don't know what it is," Eric said. "I thought it was just dinner."
"I like dinner." I took a bite of the pork chop and it was delicious. "I definitely like this dinner."
"Me too," Eric agreed, and I stopped worrying about who else was in the bar, and who might be looking at us. It wasn't so bad, really, being Eric's…whatever I was. I could get used to it, I decided.
Two weeks later, during which time I had eaten nearly ever dinner at the bar, with Eric, had nearly beaten Sandra Pelt to death with a stapler seven times, and Debbie Pelt at least three, had learned how to get in and out of the cafeteria at Herveaux's so quickly I wouldn't run into Alcide, and had dealt with Eric's puzzlement when Pam took his physical therapist, Heidi, out on a date, I received something unexpected in the mail.
The stiff, white envelope marked it out as something other than the bills and junk mail I usually received. The contents were even more surprising.
Portia Bellefleur had invited me to her wedding.
I sat at my kitchen table, examining the thick paper invitation with the ornate black writing on it. I could not for the life of me understand why I had been included in such a gathering. I briefly wondered if Portia had done it at Bill's behest, but it seemed unlikely. For one thing I had barely seen him lately, and for another…well, she didn't like me. She definitely didn't like me enough to want me to date her cousin.
The whole thing was puzzling to say the least.
The invitation might have been unexpected, but I was not about to turn it down. Especially not when it was addressed to Sookie Stackhouse and guest. I had a pretty good idea who I wanted that guest to be.
Eric looked rather dashing in a dark suit, although I did feel for him in the heat as we sat, in a row of beribboned chairs, in the garden of Belle Rive, awaiting the bride's entrance. By rights fall was on the way, but summer had a last blast of heat to share with us, and we were all feeling it.
My own dress had been purchased with the help of Claudine, who had insisted it was heavily discounted. It was a pink and green floral, with a deep V neck and a full skirt and, combined with the fact that Claudine had helped wrestle my hair into a chignon that was so smooth that I doubted for a moment that it was actually created from my, usually wayward, curls, I felt very sophisticated.
At least, I would have, if there hadn't been sweat trickling down my back and between my breasts at that point in time.
"Do you think she'll be here soon?" Eric whispered to me, shifting a little uncomfortably in his seat.
"I have no idea. Weddings are not my specialty subject." Eric looked at me sideways, and I wondered if he thought I meant something by that comment. I did not. I was happy with things the way they were, with spending a few nights a week at Eric's place, and he staying at mine every so often. Pam was thinking of moving out, she said it was because she needed more closet space for the rest of her wardrobe, which she'd finally shipped from New York, but I suspected it was because she wanted to woo Heidi in a space that wasn't, well, tainted by Heidi's sessions with Eric.
His leg had improved a great deal, but he was still not a good patient.
If Eric had intended to make any comment, the fact that the music started up and the bride, flushed with love or heat or something that everyone suspected and no one was mentioning out of tact, started down the aisle laid out between the chairs, stopped him.
Portia was walked down the aisle by her brother Andy, who looked as proud as he could, although the fact that his suit looked a little loose on him told the story of how much he'd been through in the last few months. He had taken shooting Long Shadow hard for a while, and, although he was back to his job now, I wondered if he would stay a police officer for that much longer. His wife and child, who had no doubt comforted him during his darkest hours, must also weigh heavy in his mind when he thought of the dangers he faced.
But these were heavy, morbid thoughts which had no place at a wedding. So I turned my attention to a few rows ahead where I could see Bill sitting next to Judith Vardamon, Portia's wedding planner who had had to pull all of this together in a few short weeks.
He had given me a smile as I'd arrived but it was clear that it was more out of politeness than anything else. I missed him, a little. I had to admit that. Bill had always been a very calming presence, and, at one time, I'd needed that.
But it was time to move on.
I took a good look at Portia as she stood in front of the minister who performed the ceremony, so that I could describe her dress in detail to Tara later on. I had promised her that. She was feeling very miserable now that she was at the late stages of her pregnancy, and money was still an issue for her. I had no solution for any of that, and it wasn't my problem to fix anyhow.
But I did want to make sure that I got the description of the dress just right.
I was very much looking forward to the dancing at the wedding. To dancing with Eric, who had told me that he was sure his leg wasn't up to it. Heidi had told me a different tale altogether and Pam, I think, had given Eric a stern talking to.
The band started playing and I looked at Eric. "You ready?" I asked him.
"Maybe one more drink," he muttered.
I walked to the bar and ordered two more gin and tonics, waiting as the bartender, who looked smart in a black pants and a black bowtie, prepared them. "I don't think we've been introduced," a male voice said next to me, and I turned to find myself face to face with the groom, Glen Vick.
"Oh. How-de-do. Sookie. Stackhouse." I extended my hand Glen shook it. "I know who you are." I said, as though I was I letting him in on a great secret, and he laughed.
"It's so nice that so many of my wife's friends could come today," he said. He turned to smile at Portia, who was talking to her grandmother. Caroline Bellefleur was still very sick, but she'd made it to her granddaughter's wedding, with the help of a wheelchair. You had to admire her determination to enjoy the day.
"Yes," I said, not wanting to contradict him.
"And what is it that you do Miss Stackhouse?" he inquired, politeness personified. I could see, very clearly, just how he would fit into the Bellefleur family.
I hoped that he and Portia were going to be very, very happy.
I explained a little bit about what I was doing at Herveaux's. The work there was coming to an end now, and I was facing the fact that I was going to have to find something else, or go back to the bar full-time. I didn't want to admit defeat, not yet, so I'd been approaching the suppliers that I'd dealt with at Herveaux's. So far I hadn't had any success, but I had hope and, sometimes, that was enough.
I found it a lot easier to hope these days.
Glen listened to me talk, and, as I finished, I accepted the two drinks the bartender handed to me. "You know," he said. "I have my own accounting firm. I bet a lot of my clients would be interested in what you can offer. Contact my office sometime, give my secretary your details. I'll pass them along when I can."
I would have hugged him, if I hadn't been holding the gin and tonics. "I will certainly do that," I confirmed, trying not to bounce too much.
I returned to Eric and handed over his glass. "Was there a queue?" he asked, eyeing the couples who had begun dancing a little warily.
"Nope. I have been networking."
Eric raised an eyebrow at me. "At a wedding?"
I shrugged, a little. "Why not? Anyway, I learnt from the best. Never let a business opportunity pass you by."
Eric sipped his drink. "It's nice to see you're learning something from me."
"Oh no. That was from Karin. But, you know, sometimes you have good ideas too." I smirked at Eric and he just narrowed his eyes at me. "So did I miss anything?" I asked.
"No. Pam's been texting me name suggestions for the bar. I'm a little worried about how insistent she is at naming it after herself. I think we might go with just The Roadhouse, but Pam is talking about a customer competition to rename it. I don't know. I worry she'll stack the ballots. Oh, and she said to remind you that you have a rehearsal this week."
The fashion show was still going full steam ahead and was gathering pace all the time. The dance numbers were supposed to be incidental to the actual show, but, somewhere along the way, I had been talked into performing solo. Claudine had chosen Happy by Pharrell Williams for my song, and I thought it was a good choice, although I was still nervous about the actual performance.
Which was probably how Eric felt about now, I realised, watching him gulp the last of his drink.
"Well, I had meant I had I missed anything at the wedding, but that's all news I guess. Shall we?" I nodded towards the dance floor.
"I don't know…my leg…" Eric murmured, putting his drink on a nearby table. I placed mine there as well.
"Don't worry. I'm nearly an expert," I assured him, taking his hand in mine.
"You know, I've never seen you dance. Not really. Not the, uh, kind of dancing you do at the studio," Eric said, clearly trying to buy time.
"Well, you can come to the show. I'd like that." I pulled Eric onto the dance floor, with only the tiniest amount of difficulty. I put one hand on his shoulder.
"Just tell me when and where," he said. "I'll be there."
"Yeah. You will." Eric put his arms around me and kissed me, deeply, before we began to dance under the light of the lanterns strung up around the garden.
"I will," he confirmed, looking at me with his beautiful dark blue eyes.
"You can't seduce me out of dancing with you," I warned him.
"As long as I can seduce you later?"
"Yes. I would very much like that, Eric. Very much."
I had many things to look forward to, and a night with Eric Northman was only one of them. I was hoping for many nights with Eric Northman, and I was fairly sure that I was not going to be disappointed.
"Just tell me when and where," I whispered, just below his ear. "And I'll be there."
Once again, and for the final time for this story, thank you so very much for reading :D