She could feel goosebumps crawling up her skin. The small hair at the back of her neck bristled when the ice-cold wind from the air conditioner hit her direction. She wished they would turn up the thermostat but she knew they wouldn’t grant her any kind of comfort. At least the fan was vacillating, she thought appreciatively.
Sookie kept her eyes locked on her reflection through the mirror in front of her – a few feet from where she was sitting. Pam was right all along, orange wasn’t her color. It made her look like she had jaundiced skin rather than a healthy tan.
Repressing a shiver when the cold air struck her back again, she stared at her hands that were palms down on the metal table in front of her.
Aside from her appalling clothing and new accessories, this, right here, was giving her a strong sense of déjà vu.
Now, if only Eric would come bustling through that door.
Eighteen hours ago…
It started like any other ordinary day. Only that it wasn’t.
She gritted her teeth as she released her grip on the pull-tab of the black luggage that was lying on the foot of her old four-poster single mattress bed. Slumping on the floor, she glared at the hard-shell suitcase before she began yanking at the pull-tab one more time.
“You need help with that?”
It was Pam, standing with one hand at the spine of the door.
Sookie didn’t look up as she continued wrestling with the small metallic pull-tab. “I can do it.”
Pam marched to her side, kneeling in front of the suitcase. “Here, let me help you,” she offered, reaching for the tab.
With a sharp turn to the side and a yank of her hand Sookie glowered at the leggy blonde. “I said I can do it,” she snapped.
Pam flinched and pulled away. She met the Southerner’s seizing stare for a moment until they fell into a charged stalemate. Pam blinked first and Sookie lowered her eyes back to the recalcitrant baggage. The leggy blonde hoisted herself up and sat at the edge of the creaky bed, tracing her finger at the flower stitching on the bedspread.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with this stupid zipper,” Sookie grumbled almost inaudibly. “I did everything right. I folded the clothes neatly. I arranged them so everything fits perfectly but it still wouldn’t budge.”
Shifting in her seat, Pam glanced at the blonde on the floor. They both knew the zipper wasn’t the problem.
“For the record, I tried to stop him,” Pam whispered, inspecting the threadcount of the floral quilt to avoid Sookie’s scathing glare.
Sookie replied with silence.
“It’s okay to cry, y’know?” said Pam after a while, trying to sound offhanded. “I’ll even drink cheap margaritas with you while we listen to Adele and talk about what an asshole Eric was.”
Sookie let out a bitter chuckle, pressing her palm on top of the suitcase while her other hand kept gripping the tab. Biting her lower lip to stop it from quivering, she inhaled sharply through her nose while shaking her head from side to side.
All this time Sookie thought Eric had her all figured out. Flaws and all, including her huge abandonment issue.
“You see the thing is – I’m not really mad. I’m just…” Sookie hushed, drawing her brows closer together, “disappointed.”
“I know whatever his emergency in Macau is has something to do with Russell,” Sookie cut Pam off. She didn’t want to hear anymore apologies or excuses. “I’m just so pissed that I’m always the last to know.”
Once the words came tumbling out there was no more stopping her. “He’s the one who keeps tellin’ me we’re a team. What kind of fucked up team are we if he can’t even tell me what the hell is wrong? It’s always like this with him. When things go down the crapper, he’d cast me aside like I can’t handle the heat. It makes me feel like I’m such a liability.”
“You’re his asset, Sookie. You know better than to doubt that.” Pam looked as though she wanted to say something else as her lips opened and closed. Lowering her chin, she went back to studying the quilt pattern before she added, “He only wants to protect you.”
“That’s just it, Pam. I don’t need a hero. My dad tried to be a hero. He wanted to rescue us from this slum. And look where it got him.” Sookie callously brushed the unwelcome tears that streamed down her cheek. “Y’know, every time Eric races off to god knows where to fix something for me? I get this knot in my stomach. I can’t help but think – what if that was the last time I’d see him?”
The leggy blonde got off the bed and sidled up next to Sookie, folding her long legs under her. Reaching for a silk handkerchief inside her purse, her hand slid back and forth toward the weeping Southerner.
Pam must not have been inured to emotional women or tears in general. Finally deciding to tuck the hanky under Sookie’s hand on top of the luggage, she reached out to brush stray hair that clung to the Southerner’s damp face.
For what seemed like hours they just sat there, finding reprieve in the silence that was only interrupted by Sookie’s sporadic and muffled sniffling.
“He’ll be fine,” Pam hushed, breaking the impasse. “Give him some credit. Eric’s smart. He knows what he’s doing.”
Sookie found no comfort in Pam’s reassurance.
Straightening her back, the leggy blonde clapped her hands together and pulled herself up. “Why don’t we finish packing here so we can go back to Vegas before sundown? I am not spending another night in this town. Jason and Michele are already on their way to Nola. It’s almost noon, if we leave now, we can make it back to Nevada before six. I need my power nap before I work the casinos tonight.”
Sookie recognized that tone. It was Pam’s way of telling her to get off the emo-juice and start focusing on the bigger picture:Operation Raven.
Taking a deep breath, she tried closing the luggage again. Sixth time seemed to be the charm.
Standing up from the polished hardwood floor, she yanked the metal handle that slid upward smoothly and rolled the luggage out of her bedroom. Jake, who met Pam at the front door, climbed the stairs when he saw Sookie emerge and took the baggage from the tear-stricken Southerner.
Casting one last look at her old bedroom, Sookie started dragging her feet one step at a time and followed Jake downstairs. Grazing the polished surface of the oak stair railing, she felt a surge of nostalgia that seemed to make her lungs constrict. She had so much to show Eric. So many stories to share.
She wanted to tell him how much she used to hate spring cleaning. How her grandmother would force her and Jason to scrub every surface of every room. She would tell him she didn’t hate it that much anymore. Because as she dusted off and waxed every inch of the house two days ago, she was also thinking of ways to ask him to stay. She decided she would start by saying that although the farmhouse wasn’t the North or the Luxor, it could still be their home. Their refuge. All the while wishing he would agree.
She would have to ask him some other time.
God, please let this day end quickly, she prayed. Little did she know that it would be one of those prayers that would be left unanswered.
Her wrists hurt. And her stomach churned and rumbled. She realized she hadn’t eaten anything aside from the small serving of Waldorf salad Pam forced her to eat during their flight.
She almost chuckled at the absurdity of her situation. How could someone who was working in a kitchen be so starved?
Never trust a thin chef, Marco would always remind her.
She heard her gut make that shameless growling once more and was glad her company had decided to leave her alone in the freezing room.
If Eric was here right now, he would give her a good berating for skipping meals.
She wondered if he would bring her Chinese food. She was suddenly in the mood for dim sum.
Ten hours ago…
“Sook! Phone call for you,” Holly called out from her office at the corner of the kitchen beside the pastry section.
The Southerner’s heart leaped up to her throat.
After four grueling hours of travel they finally arrived in Las Vegas shortly before sunset. She had dropped off Jason and Michele at the North where Pam ushered them in their assigned suite – a couple of levels down from Sookie and Eric’s suite. Pam had asked Sookie to stay at the North while Eric was in Macau for security purposes. Sookie didn’t object. She couldn’t imagine going home to an empty house, anyway.
Unable to keep her restless mind from wandering back to Eric, she opted to keep the other parts of her body occupied. Sookie decided to head to Fiordilatte to help with the dinner shift since Sam wouldn’t be at the North until much later in the evening.
She had left Eric a voicemail before she boarded the small aircraft. Six hours later, still no reply. And every minute of radio silence was torturous.
Wiping her hands clean with the apron that was tied around her waist, she ducked inside the executive chef’s office.
“It’s Miss Ravenscroft,” Holly said, tipping her head toward the cordless phone in front of her. “You can take it outside, hon, I don’t mind.”
Her shoulders sagged as she took the phone and mouthed a quick ‘thank you’ to her friend.
“Pam? Did he call?” Sookie asked in a hurried tone, forgoing phone courtesy altogether.
There was a brief pause on the other line.
“He hasn’t called. He’s probably still in the air,” Pam replied in a clinical tone. “It’s your sister-in-law.”
“Mitch?” Sookie asked. She heard Jason call his new wife Mitchi during their flight to Las Vegas. She thought it was an adorable nickname. Somehow Sookie didn’t feel comfortable addressing the new addition to their family by her full name. It reminded her so much of her mother. Jason must have felt the same way. “What about her? Is it the baby? Is she okay?”
“It’s best you come here,” Pam answered with a distinct sigh. “She’s throwing a hormonal fit.”
Sookie swore she could hear Pam rolling her eyes through the phone.
Damn it, what did Jason do now, Sookie thought with annoyance. “Where’s Jason?”
“That’s the problem. He’s not here. Your brother, who has been married in less than 24 hours, is in a strip club in Fremont with Rodney right now,” Pam declared. The leggy blonde went on to tell Sookie that after Jason sent Michele in the spa, he requested a town car and headed off to Stocks and Bonds – a gentleman’s bar at the Strip – with his guard.
“Michele’s threatening to go back to Louisiana tonight.”
Sookie ground her teeth. She couldn’t believe Jason would pull something like this. It was low even for him.
“I’ll get him. Stall her until we get back,” Sookie said, pressing the phone to her ear with her shoulder while she untied the knot of her apron. She wondered if she still had time to give Jason a bitch slap before she handed him over to his wife.
She fought the urge to tug at her sleeves as she felt another shudder threatening to give away her discomfort. She knew someone was watching her, looking for any signs of weakness. Ready to pounce the minute she showed them one.
No. She wouldn’t give them any.
Instead, she closed her eyes and let her mind paint a picture of a tropical place. Uganda sounded so lovely right now. She could imagine Eric smirking at her admission. ‘I knew you’d agree,’ he would tell her.
Another strong blast of chilly air grazed her back. Grinding her teeth to stop them from chattering, she thought of the blazing Ugandan sun frying the skin on her back. Damn, skin cancer. She would get her tan.
For the first time after she had read his note, she actually smiled.
Nine hours ago…
“Maybe you should just stay here, Sookie. It can be pretty scandalous inside,” Jake said, twisting toward the backseat of the dark SUV as he unbuckled his seatbelt. Stocks and Bonds, which had a big billboard of a voluptuous woman wearing fishnet stockings, black leather lingerie and a police cap, wasn’t difficult to find amid the sea of sleazy bars halfway down the red light district of Fremont. The woman on the board was holding a long whip that coiled around her long legs with one hand, while her other hand had a metal handcuff wrapped around her wrist. Apparently, Stocks and Bonds were short for Stockings and Bondage.
“I’ve seen worse,” Sookie replied from the backseat of the dark SUV as she clasped the top two buttons of her yellow cardigan. Images from her trip with Pam at the Red Cavern flashed in her head in lurid details. She pinched her eyes shut to shake the memories away before she opened her door and hopped off the car. She wanted this errand to be over and done with quickly.
Jake followed suit but kept his hand on the door before he turned to Clancy in the driver’s seat. “Park near the side entrance –keep the engine running. Mr. Northman won’t like her to be spotted in a place like this.”
The slightly built Caucasian with a crew cut and a trimmed goatee bobbed his head as he gripped the handbrake and pushed it down. With a thud Jake slammed the door and tapped the roof of the vehicle. Adjusting the rearview mirror, Clancy spied Sookie’s knives’ roll in the backseat. He reached for it and put it under his seat before he twisted the wheel to get back to the main road.
“What brings you to our side of town, Jacky?” a big bald man with a Semper Fi tattoo around his wrist greeted the newcomers in front of the double glass doors of the bar.
Jake cocked his head and pried the toothpick that he was chewing on from the side of his mouth. “Just picking up a friend, Nick. You don’t mind, do you?”
“She with you?” Nick asked, pointing to Sookie with a nudge of his hairless head.
“Yup. And I’ll appreciate it if we can be real discreet ’bout her,” replied Jake casually, flicking the toothpick at the narrow gutter at the side of the bar.
Nick raked his heavy lidded eyes over Sookie, his thick caterpillar brows drawing together.
Jake cleared his throat loudly, drawing the bald guy’s attention back to him. “Nick?” he asked, taking half a step to the side to block Sookie from the bouncer’s lecherous gaze. “Are you gonna let us in or do we hafta use the back door?”
The deep crease on the bald guy’s forehead eased up. “Are you carrying?”
Dipping his head, Jake’s eyes darted to his boots and tugged the left part of his jeans to reveal the grip of the black .9mm semi-automatic pistol that was tucked inside his brown combat boot. What Jake didn’t disclose was the switchblade inside his other shoe. Just in case Nick wanted him to deposit his burner at the door. Jake didn’t care much for guns anyway. He worked well with knives – less scandalous.
“Just pickin’ up someone, huh?” Nick grumbled, eyeing Jake suspiciously.
“In and out, brother,” Jake quipped with a light shrug.
Nick turned away from the messy haired Jake and the blonde behind him, stepping forward to check the line of customers that were piling up at the side of the door. “Make it quick,” the bouncer said, giving Jake and Sookie wide berth at the glass doors. “Don’t make a mess, Jacky. I hate cleaning up.”
Jake smirked before he grabbed the door-pull and let Sookie in. They were blocked by a blackout curtain at the entrance. Raising his palm to stop Sookie, he swiped the heavy curtain and led the way.
The glare of the red strobe lights greeted them. It complimented the dark room that reeked of cigarettes. Wisps of smoke curled in the air, making their eyes water. There were at least three gilded cages suspended from the ceiling with topless women in leather thongs and fishnet stockings inside swaying to the beat of ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ by Guns ‘N Roses.
The cages were only side shows because the main attraction was at the sunken stage at the far end, which was diagonal from the liquor bar. Round see-through glass tables with stainless steel frames surrounded the stage occupied by patrons –mostly men – in different attires. Some were suit-and-tied while most wore casual jeans and shirts.
“Over there,” Jake whispered, leaning over to Sookie’s ear while pointing his head toward the bar.
Squinting her eyes as she inched her head forward, Sookie managed to spot Rodney. The black guy with a short afro and a full beard sat at one of the tall barstools, his dark round eyes fixed on one of the doors marked Wall Street.
Jake grabbed Sookie’s wrist as they made their way toward Rodney with cool, calculated steps. The first rule in a seedy place like this: Act like you belong. The staff and the regulars could smell shame and guilt from a mile away.
“Rodney,” Jake called out when they were just a few steps away from the medium built sentry. Rodney, who was about to take a swig of his beer, paused midway and swung off his high barstool. He gave Jake a mechanical nod before he turned his attention to Sookie with apprehensive eyes.
“Where is he?” Sookie asked a little more gruffly than she intended.
Pivoting his head back to the Wall Street door, Rodney raised his chin. “In there. One of the waitresses slipped him a note and the next thing I know he’s requesting a private show in that room. It’s been over half an hour since he went in,” he explained, raking his hand over his thick, curly hair as he swayed on his feet, obviously discomfited by Sookie’s presence.
“Why don’t I go in first?” Jake offered, looking at Sookie, a sly smirk crawling up lips. “Unless you’re ready to see your big brother in a compromising position.”
Rolling her eyes, Sookie took a deep breath before she grunted, “okay”. Jake sauntered toward the private rooms that were strategically positioned at the back of the main stage, hidden from plain view of the customers who were enjoying the cheap show.
Jake pressed his ear at the door and wasn’t surprised to find it soundproofed. Two waitresses waltzed toward him but the scruffy sentry shooed them away with the help of a couple of Benjamin Franklins. After a few minutes, he seized the knob and gave it a clockwise twist. He was taken aback when the brass knob didn’t offer any resistance. Ducking his head inside, he scanned the room. There was a red plush sofa that was customized to fit the padded walls. Led candles were hanging from the low ceiling giving the room a soft gleam. A small oval glass table was right smack at the middle of the cramped space. On top of it were unused black plastic ashtray and a half-filled glass of clear liquor with a wedge of lime floating inside. Gin and tonic, Jake assumed.
The entertainment area was small and seemingly unoccupied. Trying to get inside through the slim entrance, Jake pushed the door wide open but something was blocking it from swinging all the way in. He bowed his head down to look for the obstruction.
Jake’s tongue seemed to have swelled inside his mouth when he saw what was barricading the door.
It was a pairs of legs lying on top of each other in an askew position on the black and white linoleum. And he knew exactly who they belonged to.
Shoving the door with his shoulder, Jake squeezed himself in to confirm his fear. It was indeed the older Stackhouse, jackknifed on the floor with his upper body leaning against the cushion of the upholstered sofa. Jake kicked the door shut behind him before he dove to the ground and pressed two fingers under Jason’s jawline. Jake let out a puff of breath when he felt Jason’s steady pulse palpitating against the pads of his index and middle fingers. A few seconds later he heard Sookie whisper-yell at the other side of the door, insisting he let her in.
‘Not yet.’ The last thing Jake needed was to make her more upset than she already was.
Keeping the heel of his boot firmly against the door to stop Sookie or Rodney from barging in, Jake examined Jason for wounds. Looking under his unbuttoned checked flannel shirt, he scanned his torso for injuries running his palm under Jason’s black wife beater. His palms ran up to Jason’s head, slowly raking the older Stackhouse’s hair from the nape to the forehead to check for skull fracture. He, thankfully, found none.
Turning to his left, Jake extended his arm to dip his little finger inside the sweating glass atop the table and then darted his tongue out to flick his pinky.
Salty. Too salty with a bitter aftertaste that wasn’t typical in a vodka or gin tonic. Jake knew enough about pharmaceutical to know when a drink was spiked with antipsychotic and sedatives. If he were to take a guess it would be a toss-up between Ketamine or Rohypnol. Date-rape drugs.
Jake found it curious since he didn’t think Jason was the kind of guy who needed a lot of persuasion into whipping his cock out. However, Jason was a married man now. So, Jake could be wrong.
Was it as simple as that? Some whore trying to force herself into Jason? A private show gone wrong? It didn’t make sense because the male Stackhouse had gone to the club and asked for some hanky panky in private out of his own volition.
“Jake!” he heard Sookie whisper-hiss one more time, followed by a couple of aggravated raps of her knuckles. She was getting antsy. “Is Jason there?”
Gripping the cold round door handle, Jake lifted himself up. Without taking his eyes off the unmoving Stackhouse, he stepped backward to let the other Stackhouse in. The knob clicked and the door yawned open just enough to let Sookie inside.
Her reaction was instantaneous, Sookie’s hand clapped over her mouth to stifle a surprised cry when she saw her brother on the floor, head drooping with his chin to his chest. Jake noticed her knees buckle and he reflexively clamped both hands over her upper arms to keep her from falling.
“He’s alive, Sookie. Just knocked out cold, but he’s stable,” Jake hushed as calmly as he could.
She wrestled out of Jake’s grip and lunged toward the sofa. Kneeling beside her sibling, she cupped his face and lifted it to level with hers. Stroking his cheek dotingly, she whispered his name over and over, begging him to wake up.
Stepping over Jason’s legs, Jake pulled the door open and called Rodney in. The dark sentry went in and his eyes darted from the Stackhouses to Jake, searching for answers he was supposed to have.
Rodney never got to utter a word when Jake grabbed the collar of his green golf shirt and slammed him against the door. “How the hell did this happen?” Jake hissed, his face inches away from Rodney’s.
“I-I-I don’t -” Rodney stuttered, choking against Jake’s hard knuckles that were squashing his Adam’s apple.
“You’re supposed to watch him,” snarled Jake, drops of spit flying out of his mouth.
Rodney made a hacking sound as he tried to pry Jake’s fingers off his shirt.
“Stop it!” Sookie cried, wrapping her fingers around Jason’s armpits as she tried to pull him up. “We need to get Jason to a hospital. He’s not wakin’ up!”
Releasing Rodney, Jake leaped toward the Stackhouses as Rodney bent over and cupped his throat, heaving short and shallow pants.
“We can’t get him outta here like this,” Jake said, helping Sookie carry Jason to the sofa.
“The back door,” Rodney stammered in a hoarse voice. “The bartender said the girls use a service door to enter the private rooms when I asked where Jason’s escort was.”
Eyebrows shooting up, Jake started scanning the small area. Yes, of course! That was common protocol in adult clubs in Vegas. The patrons – especially the first-timers, who didn’t have their ‘usual’ yet – would be handed a catalogue with the pictures of women that were classified by numbers. Once the number had been chosen, the moderator would usher the customer inside a specific room. The woman of their choosing would enter through a service door leading to her respective room to keep everything hugger-mugger. It was mainly for the benefit of the client. These men may be pigs but even pigs didn’t want to know whose asses went into in their mud bath.
There were no other visible entryways. But it didn’t mean there wasn’t any. Jake spied a small space at the corner – about 15 inches wide – where the customized couch ended.
Glancing back to Rodney, Jake gave out an instruction. “Call Clancy. Tell him to meet us behind the alley, two blocks from here.” He marched toward the padded wall with a small mounted butt-shaped lamp. He palmed the cushioned edge and gave it a gentle push. His lips curled into a smirk when the wall slid open with a soft creak.
The apologetic dark guard, who had fully recovered from Jake’s attack, went to the Stackhouse siblings’ side and hauled Jason off the couch.
Bending on one knee, Jake snatched the handgun inside his boot before he slithered his head into the next room to do his usual recon. He had been inside Stocks and Bonds once when it was still named Innuendo. Based on the location of the private rooms, Jake was certain the employees’ entrance and the kitchen pantry were behind the adjacent quarter that they were about to enter. If they were lucky enough to evade the staff, they could be out of the strip club in five minutes. Ten, tops. Using his free hand, he waded through racks after racks of fur, lacy and leathery undergarments that were lined up to cover the opposite side of the wall.
As far as he could tell, it was a dressing room for the showgirls. He could see the top line of light bulbs that framed the wall mirror at the other half of the rather large room that was suspiciously quiet. The Wall Street area might be free of intrusive sounds, but the dressing room was not. Jake could practically feel the walls thumping with different kinds of music that was in harmony with some over-the-top sex noises.
Finding the lack of audience unsettling rather than encouraging, Jake raised his gun to level with his face and bent low to hide behind the racks. Granted it was peak hours for a joint like this, but for the vanity area to be totally empty? He didn’t think so.
Turning his head to check on his company, Jake saw Rodney’s large frame squeezing through the narrow entrance. He gestured for Rodney to keep his head low before he whipped his phone out of his pocket and dialed Pam’s number. As soon as they secured Jason in the car, Jake and Rodney would have to stay back to do some damage control. He would have to buy Nick’s silence, of course. And he would also need a clean-up crew. This was the kind of publicity Mr. Northman would not approve of. Especially with Sookie so closely involved.
“Yes?” he heard Pam’s bored tone through the other line. He could hear the chorus of bells and sirens of the slot machines at the background. The North’s deputy commander must be manning the floor at the casino.
“We have a problem,” Jake answered without preamble.
“You didn’t lose Jason, did you?” There was an immediate alarm in her tone.
Jake glanced over his shoulder. “We got him.”
There was a heavy sigh at the other end. “Please tell me Jason’s stupidly drunk and had his dick buried so deep you couldn’t pull it out.”
Jake wished that was the conundrum.
“I’m afraid the problem’s bigger than his dick,” Jake grumbled as he finally managed to push most of the clothes’ racks out of the way just as Rodney towed Jason halfway through the passageway as quietly as he could.
There was a pregnant pause on the other line and Jake could hear the sound of the slot machines fading out as Pam dashed out of the main floor.
“Is she alright?” he finally heard her ask, evidently worried.
There was only one she that was worth mentioning.
They both knew how important it was to keep her safe. Damn, anyone. If Eric Northman’s girl got in any kind of trouble, it would be their heads on the chopping board. The terrifying thing about that notion was, with Eric’s current state, it could easily mean literally.
“She’s fine,” Jake said quickly, pacifying the blonde back at the North. He still didn’t know how to explain their situation to Pam, though. How could he tell her that Jason seemed to be unharmed but unconscious?
“So. What the fuck is the problem?”
Jake’s fingers tightened around the grip of his nine mil – his thumb skating across the miniscule safety latch at the side. Using the last double-pipe steel clothes’ rack as cover, he aimed his gun straight. He wasn’t entirely sure they were the only people in the room but he was prepared to challenge anyone dumb enough to ambush them as he shoved the rack to the middle of the well-lighted space with a gentle kick.
However, as the other side of the room came into his full view, it was Jake who was caught off guard. The words in his head seemed to mash up in an incoherent jargon as he stared at one of the wooden high back chairs in front of the mirror against the wall.
In the chair was a middle-aged man with long jet-black hair that was tied up in a low ponytail with his back to Jake. His arms were slacking at both sides while his head was thrown backward as though he had fallen asleep.
But through the man’s reflection at the mirror, Jake certain it was the kind of slumber no one could wake up from. In his line of work, Jake knew a dead man when he saw one.
Turning sharply at both sides to survey the rest of the room for any more surprises, Jake walked toward the lifeless figure with a wide slit around his neck. His gun was in defensive mode while his phone was still pressed to his ear. As Jake stepped closer to assess the extent of the damage, he couldn’t help but wince at the reflection of the Colombian necktie that was bouncing off the mirror. Colombian necktie was a method of execution that could be traced back a hundred years ago to the Cosa Nostra in Italy, wherein the victim’s throat was slashed and the person’s tongue was pulled out through the wound.
A professional job.
As Jake got closer, the upper half of the man’s face was getting more discernible.
The man’s eyes were wide open, his pupils had dilated. He knew those empty eyes.
A sharp gasp behind him made Jake turn around.
“Oh my god!” Sookie exclaimed in a shaky voice as she stood beside Rodney, who was half-carrying, half-dragging the immobile Jason.
Jake could hear Pam’s demanding voice ringing in his ear as she repeated her question over and over again.
Meeting Sookie’s dreadful gaze, Jake lowered his gun and clutched the phone tighter.
“What the fuck is going on, Jake!” he could hear Pam demanding through the other line.
“Pam, I think it’s time to call Eric now,” he spoke through the receiver. “Someone pulled a mob job on Longshadow.”
“Look away, Sookie!” hissed Jake at her. But tried as she might she couldn’t tear her eyes off the mirror in front of her. She could hear Jake murmuring in his phone as he grasped the back of his head, as though prying his skull open.
Sookie could see red. Literally. It was a car wreck that she couldn’t look away from.
Longshadow was the name Jake had given Pam. Was it really Longshadow? The man who had tormented them for the past decade? He didn’t look so tough now with his tongue hanging out from his… neck?
She could feel the sour taste of acid stinging the inside of her mouth as it sprung from her throat. Without any more warning she bent over and hurled. She could feel Jake’s warm brown eyes boring into her as she clutched her stomach.
She would apologize for the mess later because right now all she wanted to do was to purge. To feel empty.
Jake’s strong hands grabbed her arms and kept her steady. She was thankful for that because she didn’t know if she had enough strength not to fall face flat in her own vomit.
Still despondent from the shock, Sookie straightened her back to regain composure. To project a brave front. But it was useless because her knees were still buckling as her gut continued to twist. Taking a deep breath she blinked rapidly. She would not cry. Not a single tear would be shed for the man in front of her.
It was like watching a Hitchcock movie. But it wasn’t a movie. It was her life. And the dead man that was soaking in his own blood wasn’t the victim. He was one of the villains. She had to remind herself that over and over again to keep from breaking down.
Jake remained at her side, running his palms up and down her back soothingly. Rodney, on the other hand, was nowhere in sight.
She didn’t have the energy to ask Jake where Rodney was as she darted a glance at her brother who was lying on the floor beside one of the racks.
Jake turned toward the door as though he was waiting for something.
That something came in a form of a bell. A very loud and shrill bell.
The fire alarm.
It was disaster after disaster and Sookie wondered if she could survive the night. She recalled her conversation with Pam in the farmhouse, the one when she told her how she always feared it would be the last time she would she Eric. ‘No. God, please, no.’
Frenzied rumbling followed quickly across the hall from the adjacent rooms as frantic footsteps pounded against the walls. Ever so gently, Jake helped Sookie lean against one of the chairs before he dashed to the dressing room door. Rodney quietly slipped back inside the vanity area through the narrow entrance from the Wall Street. Giving Rodney a slight nod, Jake gripped the slender brass knob and pressed his ear against the hardwood. The minutes dragged on.
Then came the soft knocks at the door.
“Tony’s Pizza. Extra anchovies.”
Jake tugged the knob and tore the door open to let the cavalry in.
Four men in black firefighter suits made a beeline toward Sookie. Taking off their protective helmet, Sookie recognized one of them.
The familiar leggy blonde with an unfamiliar scowl rushed toward Sookie. Pam kept mum as she gave Sookie a once-over. “You okay?” she asked.
Sookie could only bob her head in assent. Satisfied, Pam handed her a set of bunker gear to wear, which the Southerner took without question.
The rest of Pam’s company started working the vicinity. The clean-up crew.
Sookie learned later on that it was Rodney who started the fire in the women’s toilet by tampering with the circuit of the hand dryer. It was isolated enough not to endanger anyone but the spark was big enough to trigger the fire alarm. Pam and Jake had deliberated between two options: fire alarm or fake raid. In the case of fire, a person’s survival instinct trumped everything else so as soon as the bell rang everyone would flee. In a fake raid, keeping up appearances was top priority, the first thing the girls and the horny patrons would do were to find a backdoor where they could sneak out or a secret room where they could hide.
They needed both the door and the room. So, fire alarm was it.
While the scene outside was chaotic and unruly, the atmosphere in the dressing room was methodical and quiet. The crew that came in with Pam erased every trace of evidence in the area with a concoction of strong cleaning solvents and latex gloves.
Pam barked out orders, never once complained about the stench of the vomit or the blood.
“Did you find it?” Pam asked Jake after a while.
Jake responded with a shake of his head. “I searched everywhere.”
“Then we have no choice, do we?” Pam said, pointing her gaze to the white elephant in the room: Longshadow.
“We have to get rid of him,” Jake replied, tucking his hands in his pocket. “Without the weapon there’s no way we can be sure if Jason killed the scumbag.”
Sookie snapped her head to Jake before her eyes flitted to Pam. The implication that Jason could be the person who murdered Longshadow plucked her out of her stupor. “He didn’t do it!” she said between gritted teeth.
“Jason didn’t do it,” Sookie repeated, enunciating every syllable. “Someone wants to frame my brother! That’s why they lured him here and drugged him. Jason couldn’t do this.” She stabbed a finger at the grotesque image of Longshadow through the mirror. “Look at him. My brother is not capable of this. I swear it.” Her eyes were brimming with unshed tears and she despised her own weakness.
“I know,” replied Pam, lowering her chin to meet Sookie’s beseeching eyes. “I know,” she echoed, firmly this time as though she had just accepted the fact that Jason wasn’t a murderer.
It was good enough for Sookie.
“All the more reason to make him disappear,” Jake interjected, cocking his head to the side. “How did he even know where to find this asshole?” The question was for Rodney, who had been extremely quiet, as he leaned at the door.
“I remember he was clutching a note when he asked me to bring him here. That might be it,” Rodney answered, shifting his weight to his other foot.
Jake shook his head. “I didn’t find any note on him when I checked him for wounds.”
“Sookie’s right. This is a set up. We must get rid of him before the cops get a whiff of this shit,” Pam butted in, placing a hand on her hip, which looked awkward on her given her attire. “We can’t take any chances. I say we dump him in the desert and let the coyotes have a feast.”
“No. Not the desert. That ain’t fast enough. Quicklime or sulfuric acid. They burn faster. Tony stocked up a few bags of SA near McCarran. I can do it,” Jake said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Sookie couldn’t help but shudder. What had her life become? How could she agree to something as depraved as covering up a murder?
Yes, Longshadow was despicable and Sookie knew that somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of her mind she had fantasized putting that man in a shallow grave. But there was a big difference between dreaming about it and actually doing it. That was the reason why she knew with every bone in her trembling body that Jason didn’t kill Longshadow. Their gran taught them better than that.
Jake turned his gaze back to the blondes, waiting for the greenlight. He wasn’t looking at Pam though. In lieu of Eric, it was Sookie who was burdened with the task of making the executive decision.
What if Longshadow has – had—a family? A wife? Children who would like to give him a proper burial, Sookie debated internally as she kept her gaze at the mirror, suppressing the urge to throw up again. If she were to decide the fate of this man, she should at least have the decency to look at him.
Family, she contemplated. Lifting her eyes to steal a glimpse on the floor, she stared at her brother. The only family she had left. Him and Eric.
There was nothing she wouldn’t do to protect them. This wasn’t the time to be righteous. It was no coincidence that Longshadow was found ten feet from where Jason was. Someone was out to get him, get them.
They had to pull a magic trick on Longshadow. They had to make him disappear. Longshadow was already dead, Sookie repeated in her head. ‘But by dissolving all traces of him, you’re also depriving him of justice,’ a voice in her head disputed. The same justice she was seeking for her father. Clenching her jaw, she trained her eyes on Jake. She was certain that one day she would pay for what she was about to do. But that day would have to wait, because tonight she would save her brother. Her gran would just have to forgive her for it.
With a simple nod she had given them the final order: burn Longshadow into oblivion.
Jake and Rodney, who had also changed into black and yellow turnout gears that Pam had brought in for them, took care of the dirty work. They hauled his body, both wincing at the dead weight, and sealed him inside the body bag.
They waited until the rumbling became faint outside before they snuck out through the backdoor with their fake uniforms on and protective gears that efficiently covered their faces. Clancy, who was waiting idly for them, gave the two clean-up guys a hand in lifting Longshadow into the white windowless van, that had Spic-and-Span Laundry scribbled in blue bold letters, while the three cleaners took charge of the rented fire truck. Clancy volunteered to dispose Longshadow’s remains as he sped off with the laundry van while Pam, Sookie, Jake, Rodney and Jason were aboard the black SUV that Sookie, Jake and Clancy used to drive to Stocks and Bonds.
Less than a minute later, another fire truck – sirens blazing – was scrambling to get through the packed street. Little did the firemen know that the real fire had already been extinguished.
She was no longer bothered by the cold. She had grown accustomed to it. It was a victory she would savor while she still could.
Replaying the events of the night and the night prior to that, she could only dig her nails hard against her palms as she thought of how her sheer, unparalleled bliss turned into an unforgiving and seemingly endless nightmare.
It was like an earthquake. No one could really predict when it would hit. You wouldn’t know it was coming until you feel the ground beneath your feet tremble and threaten to topple you down. You could only hope that when it was over you still had something to stand on.
But it really wasn’t the earthquake that frightened her, because everyone knew, it was the aftershock that could do the most damage.
Three hours ago…
Propping her elbows on top of the cushioned armrest, Sookie gripped both sides of her head as she watched a single drop of water build into a pregnant swell at the tip of her wet hair before it fell on the skirt of her white eyelet sundress.
She almost laughed at the absurdity of her choice of clothing. How dare she wear a Puritanical dress an hour after she ordered a man to be burned into ashes? Hypocrite.
She could hear Michele’s sniffling from the next room as her sister-in-law laid down with her husband who was still in a drug-induced coma. As soon as they came back to the North, Pam had called in Dr. Ludwig, the in-house physician, to diagnose Jason’s condition. Like Jake had predicted Jason had ingested a large quantity of sedative that would probably last for 10-12 hours. The miniscule doctor took a vial of Jason’s blood for testing to be certain what type of drug it was. Her theory was a high dose of Special K. Ketamine.
Stealing a glance at her lifeless phone on the center table, Sookie couldn’t help but curse it and its unbearable silence. If she could only hear his voice, she was sure it would calm her down.
As though sensing her distress, Pam decided to speak up, raising her head from her tablet. “I checked in with my contact in Macau. They’re still in the air. It’s a 15-hour flight from LAX. I’m sure he’d call as soon as they land.”
Sookie grabbed her phone off the table and checked the time. It was half past two. If Pam were right Eric should be landing in Macau in less than two hours.
The front door swung open and revealed a dishevelled Jake.
“Clancy’s back. He decided to burn the body in an abandoned warehouse beside McCarran. I sent someone to check on it to make sure it goes by unnoticed by roving police cars,” Jake said in his business tone.
“And the bouncer?” Pam asked, cocking a perfectly lined brow.
“Already paid for. Nick didn’t see any of us walk in his joint.”
Pam seemed satisfied as she leaned back on the couch.
“It’s time,” Jake stated, peering inside the adjacent bedroom where Jason and Michele were. “We don’t know how long we have before the cops find the blade that was used to gut Longshadow. And believe me if someone really wants to set Jason up, it willturn up soon.”
During their short drive to the North they had arrived to a decision that Jason must be transported out of Vegas as soon as possible. The closest and most feasible place to relocate her brother would be with Marco in Los Angeles. Jason and Michele would be in Marco’s Montecito townhouse before sunrise if they leave right now, Jake stressed.
They all agreed that it would be best if Sookie stayed in Las Vegas. It would look suspicious if all the Stackhouses flee together. The priority was to secure Jason.
Clancy also offered to drive the newlyweds to Los Angeles along with Michele’s assigned guard, Liam. Somehow, no one trusted Rodney to keep Jason safe anymore.
As soon as Sookie gave another executive command, Clancy, Liam and Rodney moved with surgeon-like precision and lugged Jason to one of the rented hybrid cars. Sookie went to the basement lot to see Jason and Michele off, all the while trying to appease her sister-in-law that everything would be fine. That Jason would wake up soon and that Sookie would follow them in California. She had no problem lying to Michele.
Lying seemed to be the theme of the day, and it all started with Eric.
‘It won’t be long now,’ she thought almost impatiently. A few more minutes and she would hear his voice again.
She had been praying so, so hard for it. Just a word, one word. God missed her first call when she asked for an uneventful evening. But it didn’t matter. God would grant her this one.
She wondered if she would pretend to be mad at first, just to tease him. Would she have enough time for such silly games? And more important, would he buy it? He knew her too goddamned well. He would be able to sense the elation in her tone.
Forever the fox, that one. Nothing could escape him.
Two hours ago…
Pam and Sookie were on their way back to Eric’s office when a couple of uniformed men caught up with them. Pam froze momentarily. She immediately recognized the khaki-colored uniform. Las Vegas Metropolitan District Police.
“Miss Ravenscroft?” the taller man with a crew cut asked, while keeping his hand at the side of the elevator, stopping the metal doors from sliding out.
Pam could sense Sookie tense up too. They could only hope that Clancy was a fast driver.
“Yes, officers?” Pam replied sweetly, batting her lashes for effect. “What can I do you for in this ungodly hour?”
Before the tall cop could reply, a pot-bellied man with balding gray hair in an ill-fitting black suit and tie appeared beside the two uniformed cops. Sheriff Bobby Burnham.
‘This can’t be good,’ the leggy blonde thought warily.
“Sheriff,” Pam exclaimed, plastering her saccharine smile on, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Miss Ravenscroft,” Sheriff Burnham nodded, tugging at his blazer that was clearly not his, “is Mr. Northman around?”
Tilting her head to the side, Pam shook her head. “I’m sorry, Sheriff, but Mr. Northman’s out on a business trip. Can I take a message?”
She knew she had to buy Jason and Michele a little more time.
Burnham flicked his dark green eyes from Pam to Sookie before they narrowed into slits.
“Are you Miss Sookie Stackhouse?” asked Burnham, his lips curling into a Schadenfreude smile.
Sookie straightened her back and forced herself to beam. “Yes, sir. I am.”
Sheriff Burnham took a step forward as he reached for a piece of paper inside his blazer. “Sookie Stackhouse, you are under arrest for the murder of Lussier Sampson also known as Longshadow.”
Pam felt her whole body shrinking as she stood inside the metal box, slack-jawed. She could hear Sookie call her name but Pam couldn’t move. She saw one of the officers pull Sookie out of the lift, grab both her hands and lock her wrists together with a handcuff. She could hear the Sheriff read Sookie her Miranda rights.
It was all too fast for Pam, who, for the first time in her life, was shocked to the point of inertia.
The tall officer released his grip on the elevator door. It was sliding shut when Pam managed to stab her hand in the air and stopped the metal doors from clamping together.
Stepping out of the lift she saw the tall cop place a restraining hand on Sookie’s nape. Sookie wasn’t resisting, though, as she marched out of the North’s lobby with her chin jutting up.
Pam ran after them, her five-inch heels clicking against the marble tiles of the hotel’s lobby. She managed to catch up to Sookie as they ushered her into the cop car.
“This is a mistake,” Pam yelled out running toward the Sheriff who was getting in his dark blue sedan.
“I hate to do this, Miss Ravenscroft, but my hands are tied,” Sheriff Burnham stated, spinning on his heel to face the disgruntled blonde. The leer that was fighting to creep out from the side of his face was saying otherwise. And Pam fought the urge to lash out on the deplorable officer.
“If you want to help her, I strongly suggest you call your lawyer,” the Sheriff offered before he slid inside his car and slammed the door on Pam.
Pam rushed to the cop car behind the Sheriff’s sedan and grabbed the door with both hands before the tall cop could slam it shut.
“It’ll be okay, Sookie. I promise,” Pam yelled. She spied a handful of gawkers making their way out of the lobby. She couldn’t give a flying fuck.
“Tell Eric, I’m sorry. I’ll have to take a raincheck on that trip,” Sookie replied, her voice was surprisingly calm, always with quiet dignity.
Her eyes darted to the side when the dark brown laminated door burst open for the second time. The tall uniformed officer, who was among the three men who had arrested her, came in followed by a plain clothed man and a suited woman with a beautiful olive complexion.
Sookie identified the girl in a pinstriped suit as Luna Garza, the North’s criminal attorney. Luna gave her a warm smile, one that Sookie returned without a second’s pause.
The officers had asked Sookie to change into the customary orange overalls as they confiscated the clothes she was wearing for processing. They matched well with her shiny handcuffs that kept chafing the thin skin on her wrists. Good luck getting evidence from that, Sookie had mused.
A forensic specialist, who introduced herself as Special Agent Lilian Neave had taken her fingerprints and swabbed the inside of her mouth for DNA. In less than an hour she was arrested and booked for a crime she did not commit. But still she complied. She had to cooperate, knowing she would call in a favor later. Because she knew Pam would arrange for her counsel she would not be allowed to make a phone call anymore. But she needed to call him. If only to say hi… or goodbye.
Luna and Pam came barging in the precint shortly after them but only Luna was allowed to see Sookie. Luna had promised Sookie that she would straighten it out or at the very least arrange for bail. Sookie nodded but knew deep inside it was futile. There was no bail for murder.
That was the time Luna left Sookie in the cold interrogation room.
“Time’s up, Miss Stackhouse,” said the man in plain clothes and neatly-styled black hair. She heard Luna address him as Detective Lochlan. “Are you ready to talk?”
Sookie glanced at the fake Rolex on Detective Lochlan’s wrist. 4:59am. Eric was scheduled to land at seven in the evening in Macau. Raising her head to look at the detective, Sookie spoke for the first time since she was taken into custody.
“Can I still make a phone call?”