“Two weeks. One month, tops.” The spoken promise still rang in his ears as he trudged back inside the North.
He plucked out a set of rules from memory: The rule of threes.
Three minutes without air. Three days without water. Three weeks without food. Certain death.
Sookie wasn’t his air or water or food. But she might as well be.
Not three minutes had passed since he watched a cab steal her away and he could already feel the coldness seep in his now empty palm where her hand had been.
“Come to think of it, you’d be able to see me and I won’t,” she husked, pouting her lips in that damning way that made him want to grab the back of her neck and kiss her senseless. “It’s not really fair.”
They stood side by side in the elevator that would take them to the back entrance of the North where her taxi was waiting to take her back to the Mandalay. He bit back the lump in his throat as he locked eyes with her through their reflection that bounced off the shiny metal plate of the elevator doors. “None of this is fair.”
She didn’t reply. What could she possibly say to make it a little less painful? Absolutely nothing.
With a ding and a soft thud, the elevator doors parted.
She turned to him, lifting their entwined hands to her lips and kissed the back of his hand. He wanted to pull her flush against his chest, tell her he wasn’t the damn Pope or the Queen of fucking England and give her the kiss he so rightfully deserved. He didn’t do it, though. It would only make their separation – no matter how temporary – harder than it already was.
“I’ll be back soon, I promise.”
He dipped his head and pressed his lips on her forehead. “Don’t take too long,” was his muffled reply. “I’m not as patient as you think.” Not when it comes to you, he added silently.
Lost in a fog of his own thoughts, he didn’t realize he was already inside the security center until he heard Sam cuss between his teeth.
Darting his eyes to the wide monitor in front of him, his gaze immediately darkened.
Showing on the screen was the woman that never wandered out of his head followed by the man who was giving Eric homicidal tendencies.
Eric didn’t say a word. No hiss of profanity. No clenched fists. No evil eye. But as Sam whisked his head to look up at Eric from his swivel chair, his skin instantly went cold. If Bill Compton loved his life he wouldn’t take another step toward Sookie.
“Walk away, dickhead,” Eric heard Sam whisper.
‘Yes, dickhead. Walk away,’ was Eric’s silent warning.
But it seemed dickheads didn’t have ears. Or any sense of self-preservation at all.
Bill didn’t turn around like he was supposed to when they reached her door. The fuckwad did the opposite as he leaned languidly at the wall beside her. As though Bill could sense Eric’s hateful glare, the bastard decided to taunt the Viking even more by taking a step closer to her. Bill’s crooked lips were moving, probably whispering the same old bullshit and Eric could see Sookie pressing herself to the door, hiding her face from the camera, knowing full well he would be watching.
She was hiding. From him!
Eric cursed under his breath. He had seen enough.
“Get the car,” Eric ordered Roman behind him without taking his eyes off the monitor. Fuck the mission. She would not spend another night within enemy lines.
The Grecian security’s hand was already clutching the door handle when Sam blurted, “Wait, Roman! Look!” Sam pointed at the screen. Sookie had already disappeared into her suite while Bill seemed to be deliberating whether to knock on her door or do the sensible thing and leave her alone.
Fortunately for everyone, Bill made the right choice as he walked back to the metal box that would take him back to wherever hellhole he belonged.
Sam heaved a sigh of relief. He twisted his chair around to face Eric and Roman. In one fleeting glance Sam and Roman exchanged a single thought: That was too damn close.
Eric stared blankly at the thick folder in front of him. A compilation of charts, graphs, numbers and texts did not make a lick of sense to him.
“The renovation in the Regent’s almost done. It’ll be ready for reopening next week,” Pam said trying to get his attention.
The days when he was lusting over Queen Regent seemed like two lifetimes ago. Who would need a Regent when he could have the real Queen?
He picked up the folder and passed it over to Pam, who was sitting across from him as he sat behind his desk in his office at the North. “Postpone the opening until Sookie returns.”
Because she would return. He hoped it would be sooner rather than later, though. This waiting game was wearing him down.
Pam nodded. She knew about Operation Raven 2.0 and like Eric she was always on edge as they waited for the white smoke from the Mandalay.
“What’s the update on Nora?” he asked Pam.
Her lips curved into a sly leer as she took her mobile tablet from the desk and started skating the pad of her index finger across the touchpad. “I have her flight details here. She’ll be in Vegas the day after tomorrow.”
As much as he disliked the idea of having Nora back in town, it was a necessary evil.
“Go through the script with Barry again. Tell him to ask Nora for money in exchange for the information.”
Barry Horowitz was the bellhop that Nora paid off to divulge Eric’s suite number when she was in the North a month ago. The insolent room attendant was still sweating a puddle every time he and Eric crossed paths in the North and the Viking was certain Barry would do anything humanly possible to get back in his good graces.
Pam gathered her things from the table and nodded before she spun on her heel and left the office.
With a jerk of his leg, he swiveled his chair around. Running his fingers through his hair, he sank into his black leather chair as his mind zoomed back to two nights ago.
“The key to a perfect bluff wasn’t from pretending you had a stronger hand. It was by showing your opponent your weakness,” he whispered conspiratorially while the pad of his thumb was busy tracing figure eights on her bare thighs under the blanket. “The trick lies on how you manipulate your own weakness to work in your favor.”
They were back on the bed. His back against the headrest, her back against his chest. He could see the top of her breasts heaving every time she breathed and the view was nothing short of magnificent.
Sookie tilted her head slightly to the side, giving him wide access to her neck. He ran the tip of his nose along her creamy skin as he memorized her scent. Her arms hooked around his biceps and for a minute he wondered who was holding who.
Corbett had the right idea ten years ago when he decided to let Russell take possession of him. It was a good idea with very bad execution. Unlike Sookie, Corbett didn’t have a clear endgame in mind. His only aim was to stay afloat for his children. Sookie, on the other hand, was aiming for the jugular. She had what her father never had: The perfect partner-in-crime.
“We know one thing. Russell is grooming his heir. He’s old school so even if you’re the one with the skills, you won’t be his first choice, which makes your dad and Jason safe at least for a while.”
“I know. That’s why I need to make myself indispensable. But we have to take Michele out first,” Sookie said, finishing his sentence.
Eric nodded. “She’s expendable. It’ll only be a matter of time before he uses her as bargaining chip. I know I would.”
“And Thalia too. Nora knows about her. Dad told me that Nora’s the one dealing for Russell in Europe after you sent Michael to prison.”
Eric caught her earlobe with his teeth and bit it softly. “How do you propose we do that?” he murmured.
“I need to get inside his circle. We know what that entails.”
It wasn’t science. Anyone who knew Russell well enough could tell them, the price of admission in Edgington’s inner circle was life itself. That was the one thing her father couldn’t do. He was righteous enough not to succumb to something that vile.
“I’ll give him Thalia in exchange for Michele. I’ll even offer to take her out myself,” Sookie stated matter-of-factly as her foot teased the length of Eric’s long leg. “But I’ll need your help to pull the Lazarus trick on Thalia, of course.”
Eric fell silent, even his teasing had ceased. Sookie tilted her head up to see if he had fallen asleep.
He hadn’t. His dark blond eyebrows merged as he bit his thumb. It was a classic Northman scheming look.
“No.” He shook his head after a while. “Don’t offer anything. It’ll make him suspicious. He’s way too paranoid to fall for it. He probably had you and Jason profiled for years. Your dad had fought him for a decade. He’ll be expecting the same resistance from you.”
Her lips parted then sealed again. That logic was difficult to negate.
“Let him come to you. Make him believe it was his idea to force you to take out Thalia. When he feels that he has you backed into a corner that’s when you start making demands for Michele,” he explained. “The snitch has to be someone on his payroll. Someone whose loyalty had already been bought and wouldn’t mind throwing you under the bus.”
She let out a grunt. “I hate that bitch!”
It was too late for him catch the smirk of satisfaction from his lips.
Even when she wasn’t looking directly at him she could feel him basking in her jealousy toward the deplorable brunette. Pulling out of his grasp she twisted halfway to shoot daggers at him while clutching the beige silk blanket to cover her naked bosoms.
“What?” he asked innocently, tucking one hand under the back of his head.
“You know what.”
His smile grew wider.
“You’re enjoyin’ this, aren’t you?”
“Jealousy doesn’t really become you.” But I love to see it every once in a while, he mused.
“I’m not jealous!” she denied. “I just don’t trust her. Her obsession with you is bringin’ out the nasty in me.”
He was evil. Positively evil, for liking the way her nose wrinkle in disgust by the mere thought of another woman lusting over him. But times like these were too good and too rare to miss.
“Can you blame her?” he asked, running his fingers through his tousled hair. “Who wouldn’t be obsessed with me?”
She stared at him defiantly. “I’m not.”
He chortled. “Says the girl who sneaks in my room in the middle of the night.”
A dramatic gasp escaped her. “I’m not obsessed with you. I’m in love with you. There’s a difference.”
The smirk was still hanging at the corner of his mouth, revealing his perfect set of teeth.
“You,” she jabbed a finger at his bare chest, “on the other hand, are obsessed with me.”
He shrugged. “Baseless speculation.”
“Baseless?” She tapped a finger on her chin. “Let me see.” She raised her thumb. “You stalked me in my apartment.” Followed by her pointer-finger. “Then you bought the restaurant I was working in.” Her middle finger joined in. “You sent Victor to Sabaneta for threatening me.” Her ring finger was having a hard time aligning with the others so she quickly raised her pinkie as she finished with, “and you threw a deposed prince behind bars for trying to kiss me. If that’s not obsession I don’t know what is.”
All traces of arrogance on his face had been wiped clean.
“Do you want me to go through the entire list? Because I have more,” she cooed. He glowered and that was all the answer she needed.
“Fine. I’m obsessed with you,” he snapped which instantly made her beam victoriously. “Will you stop gloating?”
She didn’t. It was her turn to bask in the glory of being Eric Northman’s obsession.
He frowned. He realized he didn’t like this game. He didn’t like to be called out. He didn’t like the vulnerability that came along with admitting he loved her in way that could almost make him combust when she was this near.
Every now and then he would catch her looking at him with a kind of incredulity that he had seen from her in the past. It was her how-can-you-love-me-this-much look. He would catch her looking and sometimes he would even see the badly disguised girlish smile she didn’t want him to notice. What a lousy liar this one is, he thought. No matter how hard she tried to deny it, she was hooked on him, too.
This much obsession should be illegal.
“We might have caught a break with Victor,” Felipe started when Eric met with him at Tony’s townhouse in Summerville. “One of my contacts in Sabaneta overheard him talking to one of his inmates. He’s trying to strike a deal to help him break out. It seems our friend is richer than we thought. He had been stealing from Russell by putting the casino money in shadow accounts in Barcelona. The reason Russell hadn’t noticed the missing cash is because he was occupied managing his income from the farms.”
“Y’mean, Russell’s main source of income isn’t from his hotels anymore?” Tony slurred as he bit the tip of his unlit cigar before he flicked a long matchstick on the rough surface of the center table to light it.
It wasn’t news to Eric anymore. That was why the finale of Operation Raven was cutting off Russell’s power source. However if Victor indeed had all of Russell’s liquid cash stashed somewhere, it would make it easier for Sookie to go through phase two.
“You haven’t heard the best part yet.” Felipe let his words hang in the air, waiting for Tony’s impatient grunt.
“Go on with it, asshole,” Tony groaned.
Felipe grinned. “Bill is working with Victor.”
Tony’s lips also twisted into a Cheshire grin. “Ooh… Bill Compton just dug his own grave.”
“What do you think, Eric?” Tony turned to the Viking. “Shall we go and pick up our thieving friend?”
“His time will come,” Eric replied before he stood up from his chair and started buttoning his black blazer. “Have you called Sandy?”
Sandy Sechrest was Edgington’s secondary finance director. She was one of the country’s top financial analysts but because she was a woman, Russell didn’t give her the kind of authority Bill and Victor had over Russell’s money.
What most people didn’t know was, she was also Felipe’s first wife.
“Si. Did you know that she threw a cross at me when I went to see her last night?” Felipe relayed, which made Tony chuckle as they both recalled Sandy’s reaction after seeing her supposedly dead ex rise from the grave.
Eric waited for the laughter to taper off without cracking a smile. “So. Is she in?” he asked Felipe.
Felipe took a sip of his red wine. “Si, si. Sandy’s tired of dumbing herself down just so those incompetent bastards don’t look like babbling morons. She’s in.”
“I’ll call you when Russell gives me my cheque.”
Tony waved his newly lit tobacco above his head, sending wisps of come-hither smoke in the air. “How will you get Edgington to write you a cheque?”
Eric smirked. “Because Sookie will be asking for cash. Russell’s first instinct will be to say no to whatever she asks. Especially when it comes to me.”
Eric hated Algebra. When he was in boarding school he couldn’t be bothered with the X’s and Y’s. He even joked that whoever came up with Algebra was a sadist with no life, who was punishing students by mixing letters with numbers.
So he did what every seventh grader with enough resources would do. He cheated. He came up with ways on how to buy and smuggle answers from the resident nerds. That was when he became accustomed to steganography. The art of hiding a message in plain view where only the recipient and the sender would know how to find it.
Since then Algebra (and sometimes Physics, too) was no longer a threat to his social life. Examination days would come and the answers were already etched on his papers, he only had to trace over it.
As he stared at the neatly laid out square paper coasters on his table, he couldn’t help but appreciate the variables that led him to teach Sookie the beauty of steganography.
“CJ&M were relocated,” she sent him when her father was sent back to Macau.
He answered it with, “Found J&M. Will prepare their travel documents ASAP.”
The missives were concise. They would appear twice a day because she could only request for her bar to be refilled twice before Russell would start suspecting her.
“Green at 12. Alert T. Will get sample of B,” was her first message for this day.
Nora and Russell had walked right into their trap. He summoned Pam and Sam into his office. Today would be the day they had been preparing for. Thalia would be forced into retirement at midnight with the use of Russell’s designer untraceable drug: The liquid B.
It was time to call in the moles. Yes. He had more than one mole holed up in Russell’s hotels. They were small-time employees who had been dormant for years, working under the radar. It was time to reboot them.
Malcolm was the first to spring back to life. He was the room service attendant in-charge of checking and replenishing Sookie’s bar, who was delivering the paper coasters back and forth to Eric and Sookie. Diane, who worked in the housekeeping section, would also be utilized tonight after Sookie had thrashed Bill’s office, she would make sure Sookie did not leave any evidence behind.
And John Thompson, the night guard, who would keep an eye on Thalia before Jake and the clean-up crew could arrive at the Mandalay posing as paramedics. Jake would be the one tasked to haul Thalia out of the hotel and into the hospital.
If Russell or even Bill had only did their research they would have found out that Eric owned one of the wings in St. Mary’s hospital. He had an entire cancer ward built in Godric’s memoriam after he died seven years ago. It only took one call for Eric to secure a small section of the hospital to help him orchestrate Thalia’s supposed death.
“Look for KOH,” was her last message.
“I don’t understand this?” Sam asked, flipping the coaster. “What does KOH mean?”
Eric knew what KOH stood for. It stood for him. The King of Hearts.
Even in black she was the brightest thing in a room that practically glittered in every corner.
Even in black she was his beacon, directing him which way to go.
She sat in the table under the spy dome where Eric could see her and her cards. His heart skipped to his throat when he saw her steal a glance at the camera at the ceiling. His cruel spy had been intentionally avoiding the cameras all week. And this was the first time she allowed him a clear view.
“There’s Bill.” Sam pointed at the shadow behind her.
It reminded him of the first time he saw her. Similarly, she would be working alongside Compton while Eric would be stuck inside his fortress watching her.
It was a gutting experience.
She was tapping her coffee, sending Thalia the message that it was time to play dead. He couldn’t help but smile when she bit her lip excitedly when she drew the King of Hearts.
‘I love you, too,’ he told her telepathically.
A few minutes later she started following Thalia to the café with Bill shadowing her yet again. ‘Bastard.’
His phone went off. He pressed it to his ear but never said a word. The caller wasn’t speaking either. At least not to him directly. He could hear a faint murmur of someone frantically barking…
“She’s not responsive.”
“I can’t feel any pulse.”
“What do I do?”
After a few more seconds, Thompson hung up and Eric did, too. Message received.
The red button on one of Sam’s control board lit up. The Hawk clipped a Bluetooth to his left ear and pressed the red flashing button.
“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?” Sam said and it almost made Pam snort out loud. “What’s your address?”
A pause. The dialogue was for the benefit of Russell’s security team who would be monitoring all outgoing and incoming calls made by the employees on duty.
“We’ll send paramedics immediately. Try not to move her body.”
A short call to Jake later and Tony’s second-in-command boarded their rented ambulance as they made their way to pick up Thalia.
“Here comes Sookie,” Sam hushed as he magnified one of the smaller screens that showed the part of the building that required class A keycards.
Eric felt something stir inside him as he watched Bill wrap his reptilian arm around Sookie as she staggered across the hall.
He didn’t even realize he was gripping the headrest of Sam’s swivel chair tightly until Pam tapped him on the back and whispered, “She’s a damn good actress, no?”
Yes. That was right. She was playing a part. But Bill wasn’t.
They went inside the office as planned. He counted the seconds. Thompson would call Compton soon.
It had been over five minutes. She couldn’t be stuck in that room with that asshat. Anything could happen in a matter of minutes. What if he was forcing himself on her? Touching her in places only Eric was allowed to touch. Kissing her the way only Eric could do. Holding her…
Before Eric could lose all rational thoughts, Bill strolled out of his office, shaking his head from side to side.
An audible sigh escaped Eric’s lips and Roman and Pam couldn’t help but exchange a look of amusement.
A full minute later, Sam threw both his fists over his head and yelled, “Yes! We’re in.”
Sookie completed the final phase for tonight’s mission. She had planted the microchip in Bill’s laptop that gave Sam access to Bill’s computer. It was a high-end device that could hack inside the software even if it wasn’t turned on. The same technology used by skilled hackers to log into a person’s computer to turn the the camera on without the owner’s approval.
Russell’s casinos were centralized. It was to enable Russell to remotely access and manipulate the turnovers of his gaming machines even when he was not in the country. In other words, Russell was using that technology to control the winnings handed out through his machines. He was robbing the unwitting gamblers who thought that they had a chance against the house.
Fools, Eric thought, the only way to beat the house was to rob it blind.
Sam’s fingers tapped the keyboard furiously. Bill’s laptop was methodically encrypted with intricate codes. Every file was a minefield. But he was Sam Merlotte. He wasn’t called the Hawk for nothing.
In less than five minutes he had Bill’s sensitive dossiers captured and filed away. He even had access to both the MGM and the Mandalay’s slot machines.
They saw a suited man went inside Bill’s office. Eric stiffened again. ‘Come on, Sookie, get the hell out of there.’
Like an answered prayer, Sookie sauntered out of the room with the guard Bill sent in. They made their way to the lift and Eric’s gaze quickly scanned the smaller screens in search for the camera assigned on the lift Sookie had occupied. He was holding his breath the entire ride to the 25th floor.
Sookie was bad for his health.
He saw Sam crack his knuckles and heard him yell a string of profanities out of sheer delight.
“Good work, Sam,” Eric said, patting Sam’s shoulder. It was done. “Start in the MGM. Pick five lucky gamblers and make them fucking millionaires tonight. It’s on Russell.”
“Shall I send Sookie a message?” Pam asked.
Eric bit his lip, a wicked thought crossing his mind. “Yes. Ask her to meet you in the hospital in an hour. And wear cheap mascara.”
He ran his fingers through his hair before he straightened his jacket. He was done watching her. He was going to see her tonight.
Nine days had been far too long.