Forty-eight

No one could live in the City of Sin for a long time without committing one. And fifty years in the desert made Russell Edgington a faithful sinner.

The body count under his name had piled up like sand dunes in the Mojave. Vindictive as he was, he could name each and every one of them along with their crimes.

Especially his first.

He was seven then. Too naive for such violence but still too young to have an opinion. He was a boorish lad in dire need of guidance. His grandfather, Appius, a man of few words and mean glares jolted him from his sleep with the butt of a double barrel against his shin one very early Sunday morning in March, nearly sixty-four years ago.

“Get your jacket,” the old man commanded with a throaty growl. “We’re goin’ huntin.”

Russell rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, knowing it was futile to argue with the brute patriarch.

Appius and Russell, accompanied by two burly male servants, made their way to Booneville in a red flat fender jeep. It was a painstakingly long drive filled with strained silence and tacit commands. The sun was starting to peer over the horizon when they finally reached Prentiss County, his grandfather’s favorite hunting spot.

Massive trees surrounded the ground, with streaks of sunlight filtering through the leaves. Crouching on one knee behind a thick bush, Russell geared up for the hunt. It had been almost half an hour and the muscles in his legs were beginning to tighten and prickle. The air was heavy with some leftover winter chill but his forehead was getting clammy from the humidity.

“Stay down, boy,” his grandfather hissed beside him when he switched his weight to his other knee.

Russell could sense that they were not alone in the woods. Out of his periphery he spied a glint of red strapped around something that he assumed was a tree trunk. Jerking his head slightly to his right, he confirmed that the suspicious looking trunk was indeed another huntsman.

For a boy of his age, Russell’s memory was impeccable, especially when it came to people. He immediately recognized the gunman with the red sash as Fintan Brigant, the recluse who owned the small broiler farm that was competing with the Edgingtons in supplying poultry products in Mississippi. Appius’s aversion toward Fintan was not something he kept to himself. He would drone on and on about Fintan’s eccentricity every possible chance he had. Mississippi belonged to the Edgingtons, their family should never allow some oddball from Nashville do business in their territory.

That probably explained why Appius had chosen a hiding spot perpendicular to Fintan’s. He must have spotted Fintan early on and he decided to turn Russell’s supposed first hunt into a shooting contest.

A scuffling sound in front of him shook Russell back into focus. With the questionable strength of his aching limbs, he tightened his grip around the barrel as he positioned it in the direction of the noise.

Well, hello there, Bambi,’ he mused as he locked in on the hefty, doe-eyed deer that was galloping toward them, blissfully oblivious to the predators aiming for its head.

From Russell’s position, he had a clear shot of the deer. The only problem was he didn’t have the best angle. Fintan did.

“If you miss this, boy, you’ll be walking back home, y’understand?” Appius muttered in his deep, tobacco-scratched voice. Russell gulped knowing all too well it wasn’t an empty threat. Empty threats were like blank bullets, they were useless to an Edgington.

He clenched his jaw, his cheek pressing hard against the smooth stock of the shotgun. He tipped his right shoulder forward to support the weight of the gun and to keep it from shaking.

“Not like that, boy,” Appius hissed – his stale breath making Russell’s nostrils flare. “You don’t aim, you point. With a target that big, you shoot with your instinct. And don’t hold your breath. It’ll weaken you. You gotta breathe as you squeeze.”

Russell wanted to nod his comprehension to silence the unbearable old man. But that would make him lose his perfect stance.

His chest heaved as he hooked his finger around the trigger. He spied Fintan soundlessly inching closer to the same target. Russell knew that when it boiled down to a single shot, he would be terribly outgunned.

With a pause too quick to time, Russell pulled the trigger. The thunderclap of the gunshot rang in his ear and for a moment the entire forest went mute. With the momentary loss of his auditory sense, he could only watch as one of their guards sprung out of the bush behind him and darted forward.

Appius grabbed him by the collar and shook him. The shotgun fell on the damp, verdant floor with a muffled thud as his grandfather stared at him in disbelief. For what seemed like a very long time Appius was rendered speechless. His grip around Russell’s shirt loosened and the old man tugged the frail young boy into a crushing embrace.

Before Russell could return the gesture his grandfather shoved him away and propelled him to turn around and trudge back to the place where they had parked their jeep. Appius slapped his back like a stubborn horse when he paused to look over his shoulder.

A couple of gunshots reverberated through the trees and Russell almost jumped back if it weren’t for Appius’s yellowed nails, digging into his shoulder, compelling him to keep walking.

Steeling himself, he took one last look at his prey.

There he was – Russell’s first kill – jackknifed against the trunk of the tree with his head drooping to his chest. The middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a ridiculous red sash draped over his shoulder.

The red sash that was meant to warn other huntsmen of his presence had been the ring of bull’s eye that gave Russell a clean shot. Rich crimson blood gushed out of the hole in his chest where the bullet pierced him, claiming his life. The shots fired by one of their loyal servants were for the deer who tried to flee from the scene of the crime.

It had been a chaotic week for the Edgingtons after that fateful morning as Elrond and Appius worked hard to cover up the murder of Fintan Brigant and erase every record of the man’s existence. The eccentricity of the reclusive Fintan helped the Edgingtons cause. With Fintan out of the picture, the Edgingtons managed to monopolize the poultry business in Mississippi.

Little did they know that Russell, as a way of paying homage to his first victim, had named his alter ego after Fintan.

Russell’s life changed irrevocably after that day. He realized what kind of person he would be. He would be a hunter, who wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate the competition when it came to his prize. When his grandfather asked him why he killed the other huntsman, Russell stared at Appius without a trace of remorse on his unsmiling face.

“Why waste a bullet on a miserable prey when I can have it all by getting rid of the man who stands in my way?”

As Russell stared at the wide plasma screen hanging on the wall of his private office in his Carson City mansion, he couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride ballooning inside him. It took him a long time to recognize the emotion he saw on his grandfather that spring day of 1951.

It was unadulterated ecstasy. He should know because it was the kind of elation he was feeling while he watched Susannah orchestrate the murder of Thalia Romero.

After all the years wasted on Corbett, he finally found an heir worthy of his name. A hunter, just like him.


E/S

She knew it was rude to stare. Years of preaching from her gran taught her that.

A lady never stares.’

But she couldn’t help it. She had to stare. It was the only way she could memorize how he moves, how his lips curve, how his chest rise and fall with every breath, how soft strands of hair fall to the side of his face making him look less intense. He was still beautiful, though. That went without saying. The man could scrunch his nose in grimace and he would still be an exquisite specimen. It wasn’t really fair how she won him over without even trying. Well, who was she to question God’s intent. He was hers. No takesies, no backsies. Anyone who dared take him from her would have to scale the walls of one Sookie Stackhouse.

She reached for his hand and entwined her fingers with his. She was still staring at him while he was giving Thalia instructions on how to strike a deal with the DEA using their sample of the liquid B. He was in his zone and she couldn’t help but admire his Jedi mind tricks. (Damn it, she was such a nerd.) The skin on his forehead folded and she fought the urge to smooth them with a touch. His long fingers ran through his hair, pushing back the loose strands off his temple. She wished he didn’t do that. Because it was only when he wasn’t so perfect that she could forget all her imperfections. Only then she could comprehend the thought of actually having him. Or that he actually wanted her.

It didn’t matter how many times he would tell her – convince her – that he was hers for the taking.

“… you won’t be an Edgington anymore, or a Stackhouse. You’ll be a Northman. You’ll be mine, because in case you haven’t noticed, Sookie, I’m already yours.” Damn, he was good. He should never be allowed to speak in public.

I’m going to hold you to that,” had been her feeble reply. His lips hitched in the corner, suppressing a grin, and she knew she had to kiss him to hide the blazing of her cheeks or the tears pricking her eyes.

Yes. She had to stare. Because she didn’t know how long he could be with her this time. She knew she couldn’t stay long. Bill was waiting outside for her along with the rest of their fucked-up world. They would have to wait, though. A few more minutes would suffice. God, she wished Thalia would stop with her questions. For someone who was supposed to be dead she was very inquisitive.

Sookie, who was still perched on top of the tiled countertop, crossed her dangling legs. Eric reflexively clamped a hand on her knee and she repressed a shudder at the contact. Her eyes landed on his when he shot her a fleeting glance.

She loved his eyes most of all. They reminded her of the light blue dress she was wearing when they first met at the North. And the clear blue sky that welcomed her in her first and only trip to the Grand Canyon.

She almost sighed. That trip was one for the books. She could still recall how she gushed like a kid, admiring the view from such height.

The forecast was actually cloudy with a chance of rain.” His tone was light and teasing. Then he leaned in added, “I only parted the clouds for you.” She looked away and cursed the blush that had taken residence on her cheeks that blistering, sunny day.

She must have been telegraphing her thoughts when all of a sudden his eyes were glued on hers as he asked, “You okay?” And just like that she was snapped out of her trance.

Sookie blinked rapidly, surprised to find two concerned faces staring back at her.

Oh, fudge.’

“Beg pardon?” she feigned ignorance.

“You’re staring,” Eric pointed out, a phantom smile touching his lips.

She jutted her chin. “So? Don’t tell me you’re not used to being gawked at by women.” She was defensive and she hated her lack of guile.

He chuckled, turning to face her, his hands snaking around her waist. “Women, yes. You, no,” he quipped with a childlike delight as he leaned in closer, the tip of his nose almost touching hers.

She huffed dismissively to save face. She writhed out of his grasp but Eric locked his hands on her hips before he slanted his head to seize her lips. Her arms, acting purely out of instinct, found their way around his neck to pull him closer. Arching her back, she molded her body into his and his groan of approval made her shiver. Finally, she thought, I have your attention.

His hands scanned the topography of her back and she could feel the shallow lines on the map of his palm against her skin. One hand slid to her nape, long fingers disappearing into her hair, holding her in place. A stern warning that he would never let go. Not anytime soon. She had no problem with that.

Eric nipped her lip when she tried to pull away.

“Not – So – Fast,” he mumbled in her mouth, making her smile against his lips.

A delicious tremor ran through her body, her skin tingling from the contact, and she couldn’t help but sigh.

I missed you so, so much,’ she wanted to tell him. But that would be a waste of time. She was certain he already knew. And this wasn’t the time for mush. There would be plenty for that later after they dealt with the nuisance that was Russell Edgington.

The gentle shudder inside Eric’s pants made her yelp. It was his phone, silently vibrating in his pocket, and it was like a douse of ice cold water, kicking Sookie back to the reality curb.

Her head rolled back in muted frustration. Eric, on the other hand, had no intention of disguising his annoyance with a barely repressed growl. He fished for his phone as she pushed him away gently, resting her head on his shoulder. Clasping her fingers over her wrist, she caged him, keeping her arms around his neck. Like him, she wasn’t ready to detach herself from him completely. She doubted if she ever could. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he pressed his lips together into a thin line. She caught a glimpse of the caller ID. Pam’s image popped on the screen and she heard him curse under his breath. There was only one reason why Pam would call: Bill.

“I should go,” she whispered begrudgingly, lifting her head to look him square in the eyes. “Russell will want update from the morgue.”

His jaw twitched. She took his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “We’re almost at the homestretch. One last push,” she reminded him. Eric remained sullen and she decided it was time to segue. “Anything on Jase and Mitch?”

The darkness lifted at once and Sookie wondered if she had missed something. He straightened up and pulled out a neatly folded stack of white tissue papers from his pocket. She threw him a quizzical look.

“Open it,” he said with an excited grin. She hurriedly unfolded the tissue squares as carefully as her trembling fingers would allow. Her heart skipped when she immediately recognized Jason’s sloppy handwriting on the thin squares.

COUNT ME IN.”

I CAN DO IT.”

CHEEKS, OK?”

They were all written in bold letters. That was why she was certain they were from Jason. He always used upper casing when writing notes. It was Jason’s way of bidding for attention. Her eyes lingered on Jason’s last message. ‘Cheeks, OK?’ He had never used that nickname in almost a decade. An unseen string pulled at something inside her, making her heart swell with myriad emotions. She bit back the thought and swallowed it hard. She had no time for melancholia.

“How?” she asked, bewildered.

Eric shrugged nonchalantly as though the answer should be pretty obvious. “When you told me Jason and Michele were taken out of the Mandalay, I asked Sam to pull all surveillance on the Grand and the Aria for the past 24 hours.”

“Why Aria? Russell doesn’t own that hotel, does he?” Sookie asked as she started folding the tissue squares delicately.

It was Thalia who answered for Eric. “No, Sookie, Russell doesn’t own the Aria. But Peter Threadgill – one of Russell’s known associates – has an entire floor to his name.”

Sookie nodded at Thalia before turning her focus back to Eric. “So Jase and Mitch are there?”

Eric bobbed his head. “Russell isn’t keeping them in the same room, though,” he replied. Sookie lowered her gaze, feeling a pang of sympathy for her brother and his wife. There was no limit as to what Russell would do to shorten the lifespan of Jason and Michele’s union.

“I have a sleeper cell working the Aria. Pam managed to pull Jason’s billing records,” he declared. “Can you guess what your brother has been up to?”

Sookie was curious alright, but first things first. “How many sleeper cells do you have?”

“It’s essential for me to have eyes and ears everywhere,” was his cocky reply.

“What makes you so sure Russell doesn’t have moles planted in your hotels, too?” Sookie shot back.

Our hotels,” he corrected her, drilling her with a look that dared her to argue. Sookie dropped her eyes and bit her lips in chagrin. Eric smirked in satisfaction. “Oh, I know I’m being watched too. That’s why we keep Operation Raven as covert as possible. Everything is on a need-to-know basis.”

Sookie visibly relaxed. “Oh. Okay,” she conceded. “So, what about Jason?”

“You know he’s sexually active, yes?”

Her eyes widened. “Don’t tell me he’s gettin’ escorts!?”

Eric chuckled. “No. Give him some credit. In their current situation I don’t think he’ll be cheating on Michele anytime soon.”

Sookie breathed out an audible sigh. “Then what is it?”

“Porn,” Eric quipped, his smirk blooming into a mischievous grin. “Your horny sibling is ordering a bunch of pay-per-view porn.”

Thalia chortled and Sookie could feel her face getting flushed. Leave it to her brother to satisfy his primordial needs with visual aids.

“Sam tapped into Jason’s room and now Pam’s supplying him his daily porn.” Sookie winced as she imagined the kind of home movies Pam had at her disposal – some S&M action from the Red Cavern, perhaps?

Eric rushed in to fill her with all the minute details on how they were able to communicate with Jason through the smutty films. The first message was, “We have a plan, are you in? – Horny Matchstick.” Sookie chuckled as she recalled the night in Bon Temps when Jason tagged them as two horny matchsticks. The nickname was to make sure Jason would know it was from Eric in case his guards accidentally read the missive.

The string of words would run at the bottom of the screen every 30 minutes and once more in the middle of the credits, Eric explained. Along with the message was a detailed instruction on how Jason could send his response to Eric. Their initial attempt was a bust when they didn’t receive a reply from Jason the following day. So was their second try. Three proved to be Jason’s lucky number when he finally came through with a succinct, “Count me in,” on their third stab.

Russell, suffering from a major case of paranoia, didn’t trust anyone who wasn’t on his payroll to interact with Jason or Michele. Therefore, the guards tasked to keep watch on Jason would escort him out of the room at noon just in time for the young Asian woman with a waif-like figure to step in to change his sheets and toiletries.

The housekeeper, Quianna Wong, would march inside the bathroom and take the toilet paper roll and replace it with a new one. Before Quianna would leave the en-suite bath, she would spin the tissue roll around her hand until she reached the 23rd square where Jason had written his reply.

“If Russell honors his word and let Michele go in the next few days, we’ll send Jason another missive,” Eric finished with a smug expression. “I promised you we’ll get him out. And we will.”

All she could muster was a watery smile. Her vision was getting blurry and she could only blame the tears biting her eyes. The rush of relief and gratitude formed a tidal wave of emotion battering her chest and she could only blame the man standing in front of her. She was certain that if she opened her mouth no word would come out without sounding like a whimper.

Grabbing him by the back of his neck she pulled him in for another kiss. One that Eric had no trouble returning.

She didn’t care that Thalia was watching. She didn’t care that Bill was waiting. She didn’t care for all the imminent threat outside the four walls of the restroom as she poured everything she wanted to tell him in a single gesture.

Eric didn’t seem to mind that they had an audience either as he tried to keep up with the momentum she set.

Her mind was in a messy jumble. There were so many things she wanted to tell him. ‘Thank you for taking care of me and the people I love like no one else did,’ was off the top of her head.

This time, he was the first to pull away. He ran the pad of his thumb over her wet, swollen lip, while resting his forehead over hers. “If I had known you’d get this excited over porn, I would have used it on you sooner.”

She smiled. Oh, he got her message alright. And that was enough. “Is there anything you can’t do, Mr. Northman?” she asked with genuine admiration hidden under a thin veil of flippancy.

His lips curved into a haughty smirk. “You. Right now. I so want to do you right now, Stackhouse.”

She pinched the side of his waist playfully and she could practically hear Thalia rolling her eyes at them.

“I also have good news,” Sookie chirped, changing the topic before Thalia could point out the huge block of cheese in the room. “I cracked Russell’s tell. As expected he has a good poker face. He’s always composed. But like everyone else, he has a tick. You’ll be able to tell he’s lying when he tugs his ear.” She pinched her left earlobe. “Left is truth,” then touched the soft spine of her right ear, “right is bull.”

Eric seemed thoroughly fascinated as his smirk bloomed into a toothy grin. “Left is truth, right is bull,” he echoed. “Got it.”

“Why do you need to know if Russell has a tell?” Thalia asked, quirking her brow in befuddlement, leaning against the narrow column that separated the cubicle from the next one.

Eric and Sookie exchanged a look. It was one of those looks that Sookie was sure others found extremely irritating. Like they were sharing an inside joke while ostracizing other people from their bubble.

Thalia cursed in a foreign language as she waited for an answer.

Eric cocked his head to the side, glancing over his shoulder so he wouldn’t have to turn his body away from Sookie. “Because, Miss Romero,” he drawled, “we are going to pull another trick on Edgington.”

“And that is?” Impatience was thick in her tone.

Sookie smirked, throwing Eric another knowing glance, before she trained her eyes on the Latina. “For the final act, we will make Russell’s money disappear.”

Thalia lips parted in astonishment before she beamed at the insufferable couple. “That is one magic trick, I would pay to see.”

Sookie grinned before she wrapped her arms around Eric’s middle, clasping her fingers together. She leaned forward and gave his lips a chaste but lingering kiss. “I’ll see you soon, okay? And don’t you dare sleep with Nora,” she warned with a whisper of levity, knowing for a fact that it was an implausible notion.

Eric snorted derisively. “Why would I need Nora when I have Mrs. Palmer to keep me company?” He lifted his right hand and curled his fingers loosely.

Sookie and Thalia burst out laughing. Their laughter ceased abruptly when Thalia’s phone buzzed in her jacket pocket. Eric and Sookie stiffened at the subdued buzz.

“Uh-oh. Pam said Bill’s coming back inside,” Thalia relayed the text message as she stared at the screen.

Sookie let out a puff of air. If only she had the ability to freeze time. “Help me get down?” Her hands slid off his waist and gave his arms light taps.

His face softened as he gazed at her in a way that made her heart sink to her gut. He was giving her the kicked puppy dog’s eyes. The one look he wouldn’t show anyone but her. His lips thinned into a sad line and it was making her feel like the most nefarious villain on earth for making him miserable.

But he wasn’t done torturing her.

His thumb snuck beneath her chin, locking his eyes on hers. “I love you,” was his sucker punch. It was spoken so softly, barely audible, that if she wasn’t so close to him she would have missed it. It was so organic, so raw and it almost made her weep. She knew he wasn’t one for grand declarations. So was she.

She supposed that was their thing. Their relationship wasn’t an epic kind of love story that romance novels were made of. The grand love affair that started at first sight. The fairy tale that lulled children to sleep. The one with the spark and the fireworks that inspired country songs.

But it was damn close.


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