Five days later…
For someone who owned a casino, Russell Edgington wasn’t a gambler. Gambling, for him, meant taking chances. He didn’t want to be at the mercy of anything. He wanted to operate under calculated risks, things he could control. However, as he sat in the corner of his Mandalay office, he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was no longer the one calling the shots.
Russell was always guarded, barely lost his temper. The few times that he did lose control did not bode well for his audience. He took a breath as he studied two of his primary advisers marching toward him with careful strides. They really should be careful especially with the day – no, week – Russell was having.
William Compton and Cassandra Sechrest took their posts across him as he gauged them from behind his desk. He had called an urgent meeting that day after his MGM and Mandalay casinos started coughing up money from their slot machines like a tuberculosis patient.
“Mr. Edgington,” Bill started with a cautious nod. “Unfortunately, I only have bad news. Javier, the head of our tech staff, still had no luck tracking the glitch in our system. The person who managed to override our software had built a firewall around it. Javier was trying to decipher the code to crack open the fortress the hacker erected. He said it would be easier if he knew where the bug had been installed.”
Russell pressed his lips together. He knew exactly where it started. The computer analyst had been reporting to Russell directly after the system broke down.
Russell stayed silent as he turned to Sandy, the tall woman in her early forties with long brown hair – which she always kept in a tight bun – and deep hazel eyes.
“What’s the damage?” Russell asked her.
“As of last night, it’s a little over twenty mil, including the winnings from the tables.”
He clenched his jaw. That was twenty-fucking-million of his hard-earned money.
“Shut down the entire slot area. I want all the machines replaced.” He reached for the heavy crystal glass in front of him. The strong liquor was bad for his already frail liver, but desperate times called for a numbing drink.
“Actually, Mr. Edgington, that might not be possible anymore,” Sandy interrupted, raising her silver pen to him.
He shot her a glare. “What do you mean?”
“We have no money left. The bank called this morning; the cheque you issued Mr. Northman bounced,” she kept her voice low and timid. His glare tightened as he leaned forward, urging her to elaborate the fuckery she was rambling about. “I dropped by the bank before I came here. It appears that we have no sufficient fund to cover the withdrawal. In fact we have no fund to keep the casino running anymore.”
His fingers coiled around the glass and before he could stop himself, he hurled the crystal at the woman, who had the presence of mind to jerk her head to the side to dodge the glass.
“How the fuck is that possible?” he bellowed, springing out of his chair and slamming his palms on the table.
Sandy bolted out of her seat as she brushed off droplets of amber-colored liquor from her crisp charcoal blazer. Bill, ever the gentleman, slipped out of his chair and handed Sandy a white handkerchief he plucked out of his blazer pocket.
Sandy slid back to her seat, reaching for her leather attaché case that was leaning against the foot of her upholstered chair. She cleared her throat, darting wary glances at Russell, who was still glowering down at her. “I went through our ledger. A total of ninety-eight million dollars seemed to be missing from your account in Nevada.” She fished for a thick black plastic folder and laid it in front of the seething mogul.
Russell’s eyes fell to the folder but he didn’t pick it up. He sank back to his chair, clasping his fingers in front of him. “William,” he started, his tone melodious, deadly, “would you mind telling me what happened to my money?”
Bill snapped his head to Sandy for help, who only answered him with a cocked brow.
“I-I have no idea, Mr. Edgington. There must be some mistake, let me go through the record again,” Bill stammered, already reaching for the folder.
Russell jabbed his finger on top of the folder to keep it in place.
“I knew you were a thief, but I never thought you’d be so brazen to pull the same bullshit on me like you did with Godric.”
Bill jumped forward, gripping the edge of the wooden desk. “No! Mr. Edgington, no!” He was shaking his head over and over like a caged animal staring at the man who wouldn’t hesitate to put him down. “Sandy, please, help me here. I have nothing to do with this.”
Three fluid knocks made Bill’s head spin to the door. Then without waiting for permission, two brawny men in suit-and-tie came in. They were Palomino and Mickey, two of Russell’s security detail.
With an almost indiscernible nod from Russell, the two men marched to Bill’s side. Sandy visibly stiffened at the presence of the sentries as she squeezed into her chair.
“I will only ask you once, William, where the hell is my money?” Russell asked in a low voice, gluing his eyes with Bill’s.
“Mr. Edgington, I swear -”
“Wrong answer.” He flicked his hand in the air and the two heavily-built men, grabbed Bill and hauled him out of his seat by his armpits.
“Get your hands off me!” Bill growled, spittle slinging out of his lips with every syllable. His arms flapped at his sides as he struggled.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, shut him up,” Russell drawled impassively as he started flipping the pages inside the black folder.
Palomino, the six-foot-one Mexican with a thick unibrow, gave Bill a sharp uppercut which sent Bill’s head jerking upward. Bill sagged from the intensity of the blow before he lost consciousness when Mickey’s elbow hit the back of his neck.
The door made a thunk sound when the lock snapped in place.
“Is that necessary, Mr. Edgington?” Sandy asked in a shaky voice.
Russell didn’t look up from the folder as he replied with a slow shrug. “He should have thought of that before he fiddled with my money.” He threw Sandy a fleeting glance. “I was going to invite you to watch when William gets the Chariot, but from your pasty complexion, I think it’s best if you sit that one out.”
The meeting had been a charade dedicated for William Compton. His fate had already been decided when Russell found out that he was the one hacking his system.
The computer technician managed to trace the IP address of the hacker yesterday and identified it as Bill’s. Russell ordered Javier to keep the information between them as Russell searched for more of Bill’s dirty laundry.
Bill’s deception was like a perfectly knitted fabric. Russell would have been impressed if he weren’t the one Bill was stealing from.
The bastard had been laundering cash in Macau, using Hong Kong and Guangzhou as entry points. That would not have been a problem for Russell since he wanted to circulate the drug money himself. Russell had no doubt Victor had a hand in all these. There was no way Bill could have pulled this big of a subterfuge under Russell’s nose without help. But like every woven cloth, a single loose thread could make it unravel.
With Victor gone, Bill must have gotten nervous and decided to stop the circulation and stash the loot as he timed his escape. After an extensive probing, Russell found out a couple of days ago that Bill had planned a trip to Andorra. The trip was booked the day after Victor Madden disappeared.
Everything screamed guilty for one William Compton.
That wasn’t even the worst part. The reason that Victor and Bill’s thieving ways never made a blip on Russell’s radar was because they had been cooking the books. Because of Fucked-up One and Fucked-up Two, he was in danger of going to jail for tax evasion.
In Sandy’s succinct phrasing last night during their emergency meeting with the board of directors: Russell was royally fucked.
The string of brittle profanities spewing out of Sandy’s mouth got his attention as he rolled his eyes to her, the skin on his forehead folding into horizontal slits.
“I got an email from my connection in the IRS,” Sandy started, while the pad of her slim fingers tapped wildly at the screen of her smartphone. “When your cheque didn’t clear, Mr. Northman started making his own inquiry through his contacts from the agency. You’ve been flagged, Mr. Edgington. The IRS is going to use a fine comb through your accounts.”
Russell stilled. This was possibly the worst time to get the IRS involved. They would find out about the missing money, the tax evasion, the rigging of the gaming machines. The gaming commission would be so far up his ass by the time the IRS was done with him.
“I suggest we declare bankruptcy now. Just like what Stan Davis did. He sold the Luxor and the Regent before the IRS could stick its finger in his assets,” Sandy offered. “That way we’ll have the chance to control the records that will go out in public. They’ll ask you to shut down operation during the liquidation but at least we’ll have a chance to salvage what little fund we have left to pay the creditors.”
Russell studied Sandy. He wondered why he didn’t choose her to lead his financial team from the get-go. She was always the smartest one with all her pragmatic solutions. However, there was something in her logic that didn’t sit right with his digestion. If he declared bankruptcy he would have to push back the unveiling of liquid B that was slated in a couple of days, the night of the boxing match in the MGM.
Russell shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Declaring bankruptcy is not an option to me,” he said in a low tone.
“Not an option,” he gritted, pressing his palm against the hardwood table. Sandy wasn’t privy to his drug dealing, much less to the highly-anticipated reveal of his new designer drug. His partners, who were helping him bankroll the development and manufacturing of liquid B, would pull out their capital once the word got out that Russell was no longer financially stable.
He was Russell Edgington. No fucking soul would put him into Chapter 11. He would rather eat scum than become a pitiable beggar.
“Alright,” Sandy said in agreement, recognizing his tone. She tapped her pen against the mobile tablet on her lap. “What if you sign over the company to one of the board members?”
Russell lifted his chin and squinted at the brunette. She pointed her pen to him as though telling him to hold off the venom he was about to spew. “Just until we find out where Bill hid your money.”
Russell couldn’t –wouldn’t –trust anyone from his board. Each one of them was a bloodsucking leech. If he signed over his empire to any of them it wouldn’t be long before they conspired to depose him. If he were to relinquish the right to his company it would have to be someone he could easily control. Someone he could threaten not to betray him. Someone willing to strike a deal with the devil for a price.
Eric Northman sent the IRS on his doorstep. If Northman wanted to burn his empire to the ground, he would have to set fire on Susannah first.
Eric clipped the Bluetooth to his earlobe before he dialed a 14-digit number.
He waited for the familiar click, not ring. It was an exclusive line, after all. A drop phone that was secured at all times, reserved for special diplomats and aristocrats – kings and presidents. Or in this case, a prince.
After three sets of clicks the line buzzed and a faint male voice came in. “Oui?”
“Luca,” was the most convivial greeting Eric could muster, considering the nature of his call, “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
Of course he knew he roused him. That was his intention when he called Michael Warlow’s eldest brother at five in the afternoon in Las Vegas, knowing full well it would be two in the morning in Monaco. He wanted Luca to be as disoriented as possible.
A faint female voice came in background followed by a muffled whoosh and thud. He presumed Luca hopped off the bed and was now walking out of his room.
“Eric!” the voice sounded snappy once he recognized the Viking through the other line. “Eric, look. My mother’s little stunt in Vegas was -”
“- not smart.” Eric cut him off. “You should know better than to mess with me, Luca.”
“She wasn’t acting on our behalf, I swear to you. Father had no idea she would go that far for Michel,” Luca stammered.
Eric could understand Caroline’s motivation to save his son. What the sly monarch failed to factor in was the length Eric would go through to protect Sookie.
“Are you in Belle Epoque?” Eric interrupted his rambling. He had no time for lame excuses. “Can you go down to the living room?”
The hushed flapping of Luca’s bare feet against the marble floor was all Eric could hear as Luca made his way downstairs toward the receiving area of his apartment in Cap d’Ail. It was where Luca spent most of his weekends with his mistress whenever he was away from the family’s chateau. Only a handful knew of that property and the fact that Eric tracked him there made Luca instantly frantic.
“I left a package for you. Can you see it?”
Luca’s ragged breathing was music to his ear. Eric heard the crisp crinkling of paper as Luca opened the brown manila envelope.
“What is this?” Luca’s raspy voice came through the other line.
Eric smiled, crossing his legs. He was certain Luca was already sifting through the pages of the five-page file he sent him through hispersonal courier in Monte Carlo.
“That, my friend, is the copy of your brother’s little black book.” Eric started thumbing through Michael’s original ledger as he gave Luca time to skim the pages.
“Eric,” Luca’s tone sank to a defeated low. “S’il vous plait (Please)…” Luca was undoubtedly the sharpest tool in the Warlow shed, Eric thought.
“I was going to keep that as a souvenir but your mother was forcing my hand,” Eric drawled. “If you would be so kind to turn to page three, I’m sure you’ll be able to recognize the name your brother had written down quite generously.”
It was of a famous conservative oligarch, Alexei Romanov, who was running for a one of the legislative positions in Russia. Romanov’s zero tolerance movement against illicit drugs was the foundation of his campaign. If word leaked out that Romanov was a user himself, his hypocrisy would cost him a seat in Duma. And Luca was clever enough to know the repercussions should the list went public.
“A wealthy politician was already dangerous. Try crossing a Russian politician with inexhaustible resources, who can easily silence your brother for good,” Eric voiced out Luca’s thoughts. “Not to mention the other names on that list.” He clicked his tongue condescendingly. “Your brother sure knows how to pick his clients.”
“S’il vous plait, Eric,” Luca pleaded one more time. “Let’s not do anything rash here.”
Eric sighed dramatically, weaving his fingers through his hair.
“You’re getting complacent, Luca. It’s not fitting for a man of your position to be this careless,” Eric chided derisively. “Maybe it’s time you keep everyone in your kingdom on a tight leash. Do you agree?”
“Oui, oui. I could not agree more,” Luca said hurriedly in his thick accent. Eric heard about Prince Albert’s declining health. Soon Luca would take his post in Monaco and a scandal of this proportion would not only threaten Luca’s throne but his entire family’s stand in Monte Carlo.
“The reason I’m calling you, Luca, is out of courtesy to you,” Eric dropped his tone to a lethal low. “I wouldn’t be so tolerant next time.”
“Je vais parler à la Mère (I will talk to Mother). She will have to understand that Michel is no longer our concern,” Luca stammered. Eric could almost visualize Luca sweating from relief. “We are good, oui?”
“Oh, we barely scratched the surface, my friend,” Eric cooed. “This doesn’t make us even. She spent a night in jail. It wasn’t something I’ll soon forget nor forgive.”
Eric didn’t need to drop Sookie’s name. She was the reason his brother was in prison. Eriic doubted any Warlow would forget Sookie’s name anytime soon.
“Eric, my friend, please. I’m willing to make amends. I’ll talk to her if you want.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he dismissed Luca’s offer. “There’s this small matter I want you to do.”
There was a brief pause on the other line. “Anything,” Luca hushed.
“Two days from now, someone will be landing on your dock in a private yacht. There will be a large shipment of heroine and a new drug called liquid B aboard. I want you to ambush it. And I want it to be a spectacle. Un-fucking-missable. This is not a favor to me as much as it is to you. Think about it, Luca, what better way to salvage your family’s name than to bust an international drug deal.” Eric let his words sink in. “Can you picture it? Michael’s incarceration for drug pushing surely made a distinct dent in your family’s reputation. You can fortify your claim to the throne by showing everyone you are not like your bastardous brother.”
Eric could almost hear the wheels turning in Luca’s head. He knew the Viking’s Faustian bargain wasn’t just a simple drug bust. But he also knew there was no way he could refuse Eric.
A subdued gurgling sound filled the strained silence with something other than strain. Luca must be pouring himself a stiff drink. Eric would too if he were in Luca’s position.
“Done,” was Luca’s reply after a momentary pause. “How do I know which ship to watch out for?”
“You’ll receive the details tomorrow,” Eric replied. “Oh, and Luca, in case you’ve forgotten, I always play with my cards close to my vest. The list that you have there is only a sneak peek of what your brother has provided in his ledger. I’ll keep the rest as insurance, if you don’t mind.” When Luca didn’t offer a rebuttal, Eric continued. “Funny thing is… Romanov is just the tip of the iceberg. He isn’t half as interesting as the other people on Michael’s catalogue.”
Eric was a businessman in every sense – he was certain he had the perfect pitch for the homerun.
“I will not forget,” Luca sounded beaten but relieved at the same time. “Thank you, Eric. Merci beaucoup,” the gratitude flooded and Eric couldn’t help but shake his head at how easy these monarchs were.
“Très bien (Very well),” Eric replied in his equally melodious French. “You better change your locks, too. You don’t know what kind of people can come and go into your house.”
Luca had four guards posted outside his door and the burglar alarms installed in all his private homes were top-of-the-line.
It only meant one thing, he wasn’t safe from the Viking.
Luca might have the best security only a monarch could afford, but Eric had the best larcenist money could buy. Eric lived by a certain set of rules and one of them was: If you wanted to catch a thief, hire one.
Before Eric could disconnect the line, Luca spoke again. “Again, my apologies for the trouble my mother caused you and your…” Luca’s voice hung in the air as though he was deliberating what appellation to give Sookie.
“Fiancée,” Eric finished for Luca. “She’s my fiancée.” He just had to pop the question.