I hate it when fairies come into the bar. They don't tip you worth a toot - not because they're stingy, but because they just forget. Take Claudine, the fairy who was walking in the door. Six feet tall, long black hair, gorgeous; Claudine seemed to have no shortage of cash or clothing (and she entranced men the way a watermelon draws flies). But Claudine hardly ever remembered to leave you even a dollar. And if it's lunchtime, you have to take the bowl of lemon slices off the table. Fairies are allergic to lemons and limes, like vamps are allergic to silver and garlic.
That spring night when Claudine came in I was in a bad mood already. I was angry with my ex-boyfriend, Bill Compton, a.k.a. Vampire Bill; my brother, Jason, had again postponed helping me shift an armoire; and I'd gotten my property tax notice in the mail.
So when Claudine sat at one of my tables, I stalked over to her with no very happy feelings.
"No vamps around?" she asked straightaway. "Even Bill?"
Vamps like fairies the way dogs like bones: great toys, good food. "Not tonight," I said. "Bill's down in New Orleans. I'm picking up his mail for him." Just call me sucker.
Claudine relaxed. "Dearest Sookie," she said.
"You want what?"
"Oh, one of those nasty beers, I guess," she said, making a face. Claudine didn't really like to drink, though she did like bars. Like most fairies, she loved attention and admiration: my boss, Sam, said that was a fairy characteristic.
I brought her the beer. "You got a minute?" she asked. I frowned. Claudine didn't look as cheerful as usual.
"Just." The table by the door was hooting and hollering at me.
"I have a job for you."
Though it called for dealing with Claudine, whom I liked but didn't trust, I was interested. I sure needed some cash. "What do you need me to do?"
"I need you to come listen to some humans."
"Are these humans willing?"
Claudine gave me innocent eyes. "What do you mean, Precious?"
I hated this song and dance. "Do they want to be, ah, listened to?"
"They're guests of my brother, Claude."
I hadn't known Claudine had a brother. I don't know much about fairies; Claudine was the only one I'd met. If she was typical, I wasn't sure how the race had survived eradication. I wouldn't have thought northern Louisiana was very hospitable toward beings of the fairy persuasion, anyway. This part of the state is largely rural, very Bible Belt. My small town of Bon Temps, barely big enough to have its own Wal-Mart, didn't even see a vampire for two years after they'd announced their existence and their intention to live peaceably amongst us. Maybe that delay was good, since local folks had had a chance to get used to the idea by the time Bill showed up.
But I had a feeling that this PC vamp tolerance would vanish if my fellow townsfolk knew about Weres, and shifters, and fairies. And who knows what all else.
"Okay, Claudine. When?"
The rowdy table was hooting, "Crazy Sookie! Crazy Sookie!" People only did that when they'd had too much to drink. I was used to it, but it still hurt.
"When do you get off tonight?"
We fixed it that Claudine would pick me up at my house fifteen minutes after I got off work. She left without finishing her beer. Or tipping.
My boss, Sam Merlotte, nodded a head toward the door through which she'd just exited. "What'd the fairy want?" Sam's a shifter himself.
"She needs me to do a job for her."
"Wherever she lives, I guess. She has a brother, did you know?"
"Want me to come with you?" Sam is a friend, the kind of friend you sometimes have fantasies about.
"Thanks, but I think I can handle Claudine."
"You haven't met the brother."
"I'll be okay."
I'm used to being up at night, not only because I'm a barmaid, but also because I had dated Bill for a long time. When Claudine picked me up at my old house in the woods, I'd had time to change from my Merlotte's outfit into some black jeans and a sage green twinset (JCPenney on sale), since the night was chilly. I'd let my hair down from its ponytail.
"You should wear blue instead of green," Claudine said, "to go with your eyes."
"Thanks for the fashion tip."
"You're welcome." Claudine sounded happy to share her style sense with me. But her smile, usually so radiant, seemed tinged with sadness.
"What do you want me to find out from these people?" I asked.
"We'll talk about it when we get there," she said, and after that she wouldn't tell me anything else as we drove east. Ordinarily Claudine babbles. I was beginning to feel it wasn't smart of me to have accepted this job.
Claudine and her brother lived in a big ranch-style house in suburban Monroe, a town that not only had a Wal-Mart, but a whole mall. She knocked on the front door in a pattern. After a minute, the door opened. My eyes widened. Claudine hadn't mentioned that her brother was her twin.
If Claude had put on his sister's clothes, he could have passed for her; it was eerie. His hair was shorter, but not by a lot; he had it pulled back to the nape of his neck, but his ears were covered. His shoulders were broader, but I couldn't see a trace of a beard, even this late at night. Maybe male fairies don't have body hair? Claude looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model; in fact, if the designer had been there, he'd have signed the twins on the spot, and there'd have been drool all over the contract.
Claude stepped back to let us enter. "This is the one?" he said to Claudine.
She nodded. "Sookie, my brother, Claude."
"A pleasure," I said. I extended my hand. With some surprise, he took it and shook. He looked at his sister. "She's a trusting one."
"Humans," Claudine said, and shrugged.
Claude led me through a very conventional living room, down a paneled hall to the family room. A man was sitting in a chair, because he had no choice. He was tied to it with what looked like nylon cord. He was a small man, buff, blond, and brown-eyed. He looked about my age, twenty-six.
"Hey," I said, not liking the squeak in my voice, "why is that man tied?"
"Otherwise, he'd run away," Claude said, surprised.
I covered my face with my hands for a second. "Listen, you two, I don't mind looking at this guy if he's done something wrong, or if you want to eliminate him as a suspect in a crime committed against you. But if you just want to find out if he really loves you, or something silly like that ... What's your purpose?"
"We think he killed our triplet, Claudette."
I almost said, "There were three of you?" then realized that wasn't the most important part of the sentence.
"You think he murdered your sister."
Claudine and Claude nodded in unison. "Tonight," Claude said.
"Okeydokey," I muttered, and bent over the blond. "I'm taking the gag off."
They looked unhappy, but I slid the handkerchief down to his neck. The young man said, "I didn't do it."
"Good. Do you know what I am?"
"No. You're not a thing like them, are you?"
I don't know what he thought Claude and Claudine were, what little otherworldly attribute they'd sprung on him. I lifted my hair to show him that my ears were round, not pointed, but he still looked dissatisfied.
"Not a vamp?" he asked.
Showed him my teeth. The canines only extend when vamps are excited by blood, battle, or sex, but they're noticeably sharp even when they're retracted. My canines are quite normal.
"I'm just a regular human," I said. "Well, that's not quite true. I can read your thoughts."
He looked terrified.
"What are you scared for? If you didn't kill anybody, you have nothing to fear." I made my voice warm, like butter melting on corn on the cob.
"What will they do to me? What if you make a mistake and tell them I did it? What are they gonna do?"
Good question. I looked up at the two.
"We'll kill him and eat him," Claudine said, with a ravishing smile. When the blond man looked from her to Claude, his eyes wide with terror, she winked at me.
For all I knew, Claudine might be serious. I couldn't remember if I'd ever seen her eat or not. We were treading on dangerous ground. I try to support my own race when I can. Or at least get 'em out of situations alive.
I should have accepted Sam's offer.
"Is this man the only suspect?" I asked the twins. (Should I call them twins? I wondered. It was more accurate to think of them as two-thirds of triplets. Nah. Too complicated.)
"No, we have another man in the kitchen," Claude said.
"And a woman in the pantry."
Under other circumstances, I would've smiled. "Why are you sure Claudette is dead?"
"She came to us in spirit form and told us so." Claude looked surprised. "This is a death ritual for our race."
I sat back on my heels, trying to think of intelligent questions. "When this happens, does the spirit let you know any of the circumstances of the death?"
"No," Claudine said, shaking her head so her long black hair switched. "It's more like a final farewell."
"Have you found the body?"
They looked disgusted. "We fade," Claude explained, in a haughty way.
So much for examining the corpse.
"Can you tell me where Claudette was when she, ah, faded?" I asked. "The more I know, the better questions I can ask." Mind reading is not so simple. Asking the right questions is the key to eliciting the correct thought. The mouth can say anything. The head never lies. But if you don't ask the right question, the right thought won't pop up.
"Claudette and Claude are exotic dancers at Hooligans," Claudine said proudly, as if she was announcing they were on an Olympic team.
I'd never met strippers before, male or female. I found myself more than a little interested in seeing Claude strip, but I made myself focus on the deceased Claudette.
"So, Claudette worked last night?"
"She was scheduled to take the money at the door. It was ladies' night at Hooligans."
"Oh. Okay. So you were, ah, performing," I said to Claude.
"Yes. We do two shows on ladies' night. I was the Pirate."
I tried to suppress that mental image.
"And this man?" I tilted my head toward the blond, who was being very good about not pleading and begging.
"I'm a stripper, too," he said. "I was the Cop."
Okay. Just stuff that imagination in a box and sit on it.
"Your name is?"
"Barry Barber is my stage name. My real name is Ben Simpson."
"Barry Barber?" I was puzzled.
"I like to shave people."
I had a blank moment, then felt a red flush creep across my cheeks as I realized he didn't mean whis kery cheeks. Well, not facial cheeks. "And the other two people are?" I asked the twins.
"The woman in the pantry is Rita Child. She owns Hooligans," Claudine said. "And the man in the kitchen is Jeff Puckett. He's the bouncer."
"Why did you pick these three out of all the employees at Hooligans?"
"Because they had arguments with Claudette. She was a dynamic woman," Claude said seriously.
"Dynamic my ass," said Barry the Barber, proving that tact isn't a prerequisite for a stripping job. "That woman was hell on wheels."
"Her character isn't really important in determining who killed her," I pointed out, which shut him right up. "It just indicates why. Please go on," I said to Claude. "Where were the three of you? And where were the people you've held here?"
"Claudine was here, cooking supper for us. She works at Dillard's in customer service." She'd be great at that; her unrelenting cheer could pacify anyone. "As I said, Claudette was scheduled to take the cover charge at the door," Claude continued. "Barry and I were in both shows. Rita always puts the first show's take in the safe, so Claudette won't be sitting up there with a lot of cash. We've been robbed a couple of times. Jeff was mostly sitting behind Claudette, in a little booth right inside the main door."
"When did Claudette vanish?"
"Soon after the second show started. Rita says she got the first show's take from Claudette and took it back to her safe, and that Claudette was still sitting there when she left. But Rita hates Claudette, because Claudette was about to leave Hooligans for Foxes, and I was going with her."
"Foxes is another club?" Claude nodded. "Why were you leaving?"
"Better pay, larger dressing rooms."
"Okay, that would be Rita's motivation. What about Jeff 's?"
"Jeff and I had a thing," Claude said. (My pirate-ship fantasy sank.) "Claudette told me I had to break up with him, that I could do better."
"And you listened to her advice about your love life?"
"She was the oldest, by several minutes," he said simply. "But I lo - I am very fond of him."
"What about you, Barry?"
"She ruined my act," Barry said sullenly.
"How'd she do that?"
"She yelled, 'Too bad your nightstick's not bigger!' as I was finishing up."
It seemed that Claudette had been determined to die.
"Okay," I said, marshaling my plan of action. I knelt before Barry. I laid my hand on his arm, and he twitched. "How old are you?"