The big topic of bar gossip was Halleigh Bellefleur fainting at the Rotary Club when she’d stood up to go to the bathroom. Since she was seven months pregnant, everyone was concerned. Terry, her husband’s cousin, came in to get some fried pickles, and he was able to reassure us that Halleigh was fine, that Andy had taken her right in to her doctor. According to Terry, the doctor had told Andy and Halleigh that the baby had been pressing against something, and when the baby shifted, Halleigh’s blood pressure had, too. Or something like that.
The lunch rush was moderate, which made sense since the Rotary was meeting at the Sizzler Steak House. When we were down to a light sprinkle of customers, I turned my tables over to An while I ran to the post office to pick up the bar mail. I was horrified to see how much had accumulated in the Merlotte’s box. Sam’s recovery took on a new urgency.
I brought the mail back to the bar and settled in Sam’s office to go through it. Sure, I’d been working at Merlotte’s for five years. I’d paid attention, and I knew a lot about how the business was run. Now I could write checks and sign them, but there were decisions that had to be made. Our cable contract for the bar was up for renewal, and Sam had talked about switching providers. Two charity fund-raisers had asked for expensive liquor to auction off. Five local charities just flat-out asked for money.
Most startling of all, we’d gotten a letter from a Clarice lawyer, a guy new to the area. He wanted to know if we were going to pay for the emergency room visit of Jane Clementine Bodehouse. The lawyer gently threatened to sue Merlotte’s for Jane’s mental and physical suffering if we didn’t cough up. I looked at the figure at the bottom of a copy of Jane’s bill. Damn. Jane had ridden in the ambulance and had an X-ray. She’d also required some stitches, which might as well have been of spun gold thread.
"Shepherd of Judea," I muttered. I reread the letter.
When Merlotte’s had been firebombed the previous May, Jane, one of our alcoholic customers, had been cut by flying glass. She’d been treated by the ambulance drivers, who’d taken her to the emergency room to be checked over. She’d had a few stitches. She’d been fine . . . drunk, but fine. All her injuries had been minor. Jane had been reminiscing about that night in the past week or two, recalling her own bravery and how good that had made her feel. Now she was sending us a huge bill and threatening to sue?
I scowled. This was way beyond Jane’s thinking capacity. I was willing to bet this new lawyer was trying to drum up some business. I figured he’d called Marvin, told him that his mom was due some money to compensate for all her suffering. Marvin, who was sick to death of hauling Jane away from Merlotte’s, must have been very open to the notion of getting some money back from Merlotte’s, after his mom had poured so much into it.
A knock at the door put an end to my speculations. I swung around in Sam’s swivel chair to see someone I’d never expected to see again. For a second, I thought I’d pass out, like Halleigh Bellefleur at the Rotary Club.
"Arlene," I said, and got stuck. That was all I could manage. My former coworker – my former good friend – seemed to be waiting for me to say something more. Finally, I thought of adding, "When did you get out?"
This moment was not only awkward in the extreme but completely unnerving. The last time I’d seen Arlene Fowler (aside from in a courtroom), she had been part of a conspiracy to murder me in a particularly horrible way. People had gotten shot that day. Some had died. Some had been wounded. Some of those had recovered in jail.
Oddly enough, considering I was facing a conspirator in my murder, I was not afraid of her.
All I could think about was how much Arlene had changed. She’d been a curvy woman a few months ago. Now she was thin. Her hair was still defiantly red, but it was shorter and drier, lank and lifeless. The wrinkles around her eyes and mouth were cruelly evident in the overhead light. Arlene’s time in jail hadn’t been that long, but it seemed to have aged her in dog years.
"I got out four days ago," she said. She’d been giving me the same kind of scrutiny I’d given her. "You’re looking good, Sookie. How’s Sam?"
"He’s sick today, Arlene," I said. I felt a little light-headed. "How are Lisa and Coby?"
"They’re confused," she said. "They asked me why Aunt Sookie hasn’t come by to see them."
"I thought it would be real weird if I visited them, all things considered." I held her eyes with my own until she nodded reluctantly and looked away. "Specially since I was sure you must have said some awful things about me. You know, when you decided to lure me to your place so your buddies could nail me to a cross."
Arlene flushed and looked down at her hands.
"Did they stay with Helen when you were away?" I asked, not knowing what else to talk about.
Arlene’s new best bigot buddy had promised to take care of the kids when she’d taken them from Arlene’s trailer before the shooting started.
"No. She got tired of ’em after a week. She took ’em to Chessie."
"She was Chessie Fowler before she married Brock," Arlene explained. "Chessie is – was – first cousin to my ex." (The ex whose name Arlene had kept, though she’d been married several times. Rick Fowler had perished in a motorcycle accident in Lawton, Oklahoma.) "When Jan Fowler died out at the lake in that fire, she left Chessie some money. Chessie ain’t hurting. She loves those kids. It could have been worse." Arlene didn’t sound angry with Helen, just resigned.
Frankly (and call me punitive), what I wanted to see was Arlene feeling angry with herself. Yet I didn’t detect anything like that, and I could see Arlene inside and outside. What I heard from her thoughts was a bright streak of malice, a lack of hope or enterprise, and a dull loathing of the world that had treated her so ill . . . in her estimation.
"Then I hope the kids are doing well with the Johnsons," I said. "I’m sure they’ve missed their mama." I’d found two true things to say. I wondered where Sam’s gun was. I wondered how fast I could get to it if it was in the right-hand drawer of his desk, as I suspected it was.
She looked as if she were about to cry, just for a second. "I think they have. I’ve got a lot of explaining to do to those two."
Gosh, I’d be glad when this conversation was over. At least there was one emotion I could recognize, and it was regret for what she’d done to her family. "You got out awful early, Arlene," I said, suddenly realizing what was most surprising about her presence in Sam’s office.
"I got me a new lawyer. He bonded me out on appeal," she said. "And my behavior in jail was good, naturally, since I had a lot of motivation. You know, Sookie, I never would have let them hurt you."