In a perfect world, Pam would be at the North’s penthouse suite by now, clutching a bottle of Dom, toasting everyone for a job well done. Weeks – nay, months – of preparation boiled down to a single night: The night of Russell Edgington’s eventual downfall.
It was over. Russell would be locked up for life. Bill would be bound to his bed for as long as he lived. Nora would be sent to a prison somewhere in Europe. The junkies would never get another liquid B fix. Jason would be reunited with his wife. And Corbett Stackhouse would, once again, be a free man.
Yes, they should be celebrating by now because the storm had passed. The dust had settled. Operation Raven was a mission accomplished.
But it wasn’t. Not entirely. Not even close. For the couple who had started it all, the fight did not end when the big bad was captured. At this point, their happy ending was punctuated with a big question mark instead of a resounding exclamation point.
Pam suddenly found herself wishing she had a religion. So a sinner like her could call on to the saints she didn’t believe in. God knowsthey could use a miracle right now. Because if one of them gave up, the other half wouldn’t stand a chance.
The sound of the glass door sliding behind her pulled her out of her thoughts. Shaking her head subtly, she picked up the mug in front of her and took a hit of caffeine.
“How’s your coffee?” The investigator with dark hair swept neatly to his forehead went for the casual approach. He plopped into the wingback chair across from Pam and set his own cup of steaming java on the coffee table between them.
“Surprisingly good,” she deadpanned then quickly added, “no offense.”
He smiled politely. “None taken. The two-grand espresso machine in the pantry is the LVPD’s best kept secret.”
She regarded the plain-clothed officer, who introduced himself earlier as Detective Sergeant Ray Lochlan.
“How long will this take?” She asked stealing a quick glance at her mobile phone on the tabletop. Its silence continued to terrorize her.
“I’ll be quick. I only need you to walk me through the events of the past three hours. It’s important for us to get all the details before the press gets here.” The inspector flipped his notepad open and took out a small recorder from his pocket. “Do you mind?” he asked Pam, his thumb hovering over the red ‘record’ button.
Pam shrugged. Whatever could expedite the entire procedure was fine with her.
“What were you doing at the Mandalay at around one?”
“We heard about the blitz in the basement; we were concerned about our friend.”
He bobbed his head and started scribbling something on his pad. “Miss Edgington, yes?”
“Stackhouse. She never took that motherfucker’s name.” The detective’s eyebrow hitched at the derogatory word but decided to keep his observation to himself.
“Miss Stackhouse,” he said, correcting his gaffe. “Can you describe the situation at the Mandalay when you arrived?”
“Sheer bedlam,” Pam recalled. “Although the SWAT team has cordoned off a section of the lobby, they were still having a hard time controlling the traffic of onlookers and concerned guests.”
Her stab at the tactical unit’s inefficiency to manage the situation was deliberate. Detective Lochlan shifted uneasily but decided to ignore the derisive comment.
“You were with Mr. Northman the whole time.” It was statement rather than a query.
The sound of Eric’s name made her chest tighten. She shouldn’t be here. She should be in the hospital right now.
“Yes. He was with me.”
“Can you describe his behavior during that time?”
She eyed him suspiciously. “Why?”
The detective put his pen down and set his palms flat on the table. “This might seem trivial to you, Miss Ravenscroft, considering all that had transpired. But we have five dead bodies and six seriously injured – including your friends. So do us both a favor and save your daggers for someone else.”
She thinned her lips, fighting the urge to refute him.
He picked up his pen again. “Miss Ravenscroft, will you describe Mr. Northman’s behavior when he arrived at the scene?”
She sighed. The accurate answer would be murderous but she decided against it as she whispered, “He was on a warpath.”
Eight minutes and seven seconds. That was how long it took Eric to get to the Mandalay from the Regent.
Eric was silent in the passenger seat during the entire ride. He was triple teamed by Roman, Felipe and Pam when he tried to take the wheel.
“You’re in no condition to drive, Eric!” Pam had protested. She was right. He couldn’t even sit still let alone commandeer a moving vehicle.
Eight minutes and seven seconds.
Sirens blared while the hotel alarm shrieked in the background. Fire engines and Emergency Medical Technician vehicles blocked the hotel’s front entrance.
Eric was running at full speed. He couldn’t breathe and yet he couldn’t stop as he fought his way through the throng of Vegas tourists who were trying to get closer to the epicenter of the crime scene. Roman and Felipe scuffled behind him as they reached the lobby doors. That was how far they could go. The yellow crime-scene tape surrounding the doors said so. Pam caught up to him, her stilettos discarded and forgotten somewhere along the paved driveway.
A line of men with helmets and body armor formed a human barricade at the entrance.
One of the uniformed officers held out his gloved palm to Eric. “We can’t let you pass.”
“My girlfriend’s down there,” Eric snarled, swatting the invasive hand away as he pushed forward.
“Sir! I’m ordering you stand back!” The officer moved in front of him, his fingers tightening around the automatic rifle in his hand.
Eric acted on pure instinct as he shoved at the officer.
It took two heavy built enforcers to tackle him and hold him back. He felt Pam’s palms against his chest as she yelled at him to calm the fuck down. To let the cops do their job.
“Their coming out! Make way!” Eric heard one of the officers yell. The Emergency SWAT Unit barricading the doors parted like the red sea to give wide berth to the EMTs, who were bringing out the first batch of casualties. Those who would need immediate medical attention. The ones who could still be saved.
He craned his neck as he searched for the one face he was dying to see. Two men donning Mandalay guard uniforms emerged, head drooping as they were being half-carried, half-dragged outside by the assisting medics. The blood on their light brown shirts was making Eric lightheaded.
‘Please, Sookie. Come out.’
“Three fatalities confirmed. Two male, one female.” He heard through one of the ESU radios.
Pam, who probably heard the same thing, was in front of him in an instant. She pinched his hand as she searched his face. He could feel himself shaking. His face was getting drenched with something cold. Sweat or tears, he didn’t give a damn.
He tried to remember the last time he saw her, preserving her image along with all the whispered words. How she asked him to be safe. He was a goddamned fool for not asking her to do the same. He should have. In her ethereal presence he had forgotten she was mortal.
Please, don’t let it be her, he prayed. He should be damned for wishing it was someone else lying under the white blanket. Then again, he was already in hell.
“Move! Move! Move!” someone yelled out as the first stretcher brushed past him. The crackling of walkie-talkies along with the squawking of the gurneys’ wheels blended with the murmurs of the gawkers.
“Eric,” Pam whispered, sweeping her thumb along the skin under his eyes. “They were asking if you’d like to identify the female victim.”
He blinked. Once. Twice. Three times. Until Pam was no longer a blurry vision.
“Female in her twenties. Caucasian. Single GSW to the head,” was the description he heard as the stretcher came into sight. She was killed execution style.
He didn’t make a move toward the gurney. He didn’t want to look. It couldn’t be her. It just couldn’t be. Denial was so much better than his other option. Than anything his fucked-up imagination could conjure.
“I’ll do it,” Pam said, turning to the EMT. He could see the quiet sympathy in her eyes. He should be offended. Instead he was grateful. At least one of them was strong enough.
Eight minutes and seven seconds.
It would have been shorter and it still would not have made a difference.
After a moment that seemed to take an eternity, he felt Pam’s hand on his arm again. “It wasn’t her.”
Just like that, his world tilted back on its axis.
“I know where she is!” Roman’s baritone voice boomed as he pushed his way through the growing number of onlookers.
The Grecian sentry, who did his own recon, was able to learn that the shooters opened fire shortly after the 911 call was made. By the time the ESU swarmed the basement, there was no more gunfire. Judging by the shell casings recovered by the forensic team, the shootout was isolated in the parking lot.
“She’s in the ambulance with Palomino. They managed to flee the scene before the shooting starts,” Roman declared, his usual flat tone taking an unusual pitch as he relayed the good news to Eric who met him halfway. “Thompson radioed Pally to warn them. When Thompson and Sophie-Anne arrived at the basement, the ambulance was already pulling out the parking lot. I already issued an APB for the ambulance.”
“What is Sophie-Anne doing in the basement?” Pam demanded as she materialized beside Eric.
“Apparently, she’s the one who tipped them off,” Roman replied. According to Thompson, a visibly distraught Sophie-Anne went to the casino earlier demanding to speak to Sookie privately. The redheaded heiress was refusing to divulge the nature of her unexpected visit. However, when she overheard Thompson making inquiries about a possible security breach at the basement Sophie-Anne panicked and decided to tell him about the impending attack.
Eric was confused. If Sophie-Anne was privy to the plot to kill Sookie, why would she warn her?
As though reading his thoughts, Roman continued relaying the information he had gathered. “I saw Sophie-Anne being wheeled into the back of the ambulance. She’s been shot too. She’s in and out when I got to her. Luckily another Leclerq was there to give me the details.”
“Russell called the Leclerqs early today to ask if they were also invited to the high stakes game at the Regent,” Roman started. “He promised the Leclerqs that he can force you to wager the Regent. In return, the Leclerqs must bribe the dealer and collude with him and Peter. Sophie-Anne doesn’t know much about poker so Andre went with Russell alone. When Andre was booted out, he went down to the casino and overheard Peter giving orders to infiltrate the Mandalay. He insisted that while he and his sister have no problem with cheating they draw the line at murder. He informed Sophie-Anne right away. That’s why she went to the Mandalay. To warn Sookie.”
“Bullshit! Why didn’t she just call any of us? Why did she have to wait until the last minute to tell JT?” Pam hissed.
“Asked him the same thing; he said he tried. But Peter cornered him in the casino. The spineless bastard can’t let Peter and Russell know that they were on to them. They suspected that it’s an inside job, which explains Sophie-Anne’s reluctance to tell Thompson.” Roman zeroed in on Eric. “Andre instructed his sister to talk only to Sookie or Eric in case Russell’s plan was more convoluted than it seemed.”
The missed call from Sophie-Anne seemed to support Andre’s claim but Eric refused to buy it.
“Eric!” came Felipe’s booming voice. The Spaniard was wading through the crowd to get to them, arms outstretched as he held his phone to the Viking.
Eric took the cell and checked the caller ID: North Tower.
“Tell me you found her.”
A strained pause at the other line sucked the air out of his chest. “Eric, we have a problem,” he heard Sam’s edgy voice. Sam’s opening line was an omen. The only time Sam addressed him by his first name was when he informed him that Godric had a relapse. “I called the paraplegic center in Carson to get the coordinates of the ambulance… they said they never sent one.”
Sookie and the nurse, Willa, were hunching side by side at the foot of the cot where Bill was lying, deader than a stone. It wasn’t really fair how the bastard had slept through the chaos.
“How long before we get to the North, Pally?” Sookie shouted to the driver.
“Almost there!” Pally yelled back without taking his eyes off the road as they sped off the busy streets of Fremont. They took the service road instead of the Strip to avoid running into the shooters or get caught in traffic. It was a longer route to the North but it was safer.
She should call Eric. She didn’t know if the hired men were planning to go after him too. That was a chance she couldn’t take.
“Pally I need your phone,” she asked, crawling forward to the driver’s seat on all fours. Palomino bent his arm awkwardly behind him, giving her the phone.
Her hands shuddered as she dialled Eric’s number. A set of digits she’d committed to memory.
“I can’t let you do that,” Willa drawled.
Sookie snapped her head to the soft-spoken nurse, wondering if she had heard her right. A muffled oomph came out of her lips as the nurse clapped a hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming. Then she felt a pinch on the side of her waist. She didn’t need to look down to know the bitch had stabbed her with hypodermic needle. She instantly felt woozy. Whatever the duplicitous nurse used to drug her with was wickedly strong. She fought the lethargy as she tried to fight her off. But although the nurse was the same size as Sookie, Willa was stronger – strength must be a requirement to be a professional hitman. Sookie’s muscles were starting to slacken and her eyes were getting heavy. Willa cradled Sookie’s head and lay it on Bill’s torso.
The last thing Sookie saw before she passed out is the gun pointed at the back of Pally’s neck when the nurse ordered him to pull over.
“What did you do when you found out Miss Stackhouse was in the ambulance with one of the suspects?” Detective Lochlan resumed, leaning forward, fingers splayed on the tabletop.
“We raced back to our cars. Eric thought that it’d be more efficient if we split up to cover more bases. I went to the precinct to listen in on Russell’s interrogation, hoping that he would somehow slip and reveal Sookie’s whereabouts, while Roman and Felipe-”
“You mean Felipe De Castro?”
“Yes. Felipe De Castro. Back from the dead. Long story.”
He nodded and wrote something on his notepad, then underlined whatever he wrote twice. “I like long stories. But I think we should stick to this one first. Please, continue.”
“Roman and Felipe went back to the North to round up the security details to join the manhunt for the ambulance.”
“How about Mr. Northman? Did he also join the hunt?”
Pam studied the detective for a second before she replied. “Not exactly.”
“What do you mean?”
“He went looking for Peter Threadgill.”
The slight tick on the detective’s jaw told Pam that he just dissembled something. Something she was trying to conceal.
“Why would he do that?” he asked, setting up the trap.
“Because everyone knew there’s only one person Russell would trust to carry out his plan.”
“I thought Russell’s plan was to stage a robbery in order to eliminate his granddaughter for insurance?”
“You’re underestimating that lunatic, Detective. Russell always has a plan B.”
The detective leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “And Peter Threadgill was the contingency plan,” he finished for her.
She bobbed her head in assent.
“So Mr. Northman separated himself from the group and drove around town based on a hunch?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Not on a hunch. Not when Sookie’s life is at stake.”
“Feel free to extrapolate.”
Pam took a breath. “I called Eric when Russell lawyered up. I asked if I should meet him back at the North or join the search. That’s when he told me he already knew where Peter would take Sookie.” She swallowed a knot in her throat, her mind flashing back to that phone call. The eerie calmness in Eric’s tone sent a shiver down her spine.
She was as confused as the detective at first. But that was the difference between her and Eric. Eric’s mind was like an endless labyrinth. A room full of lockers. The moment he found out Sookie was in danger, something had gone off inside him and all the lockers snapped open.
“Eric started thinking like Russell,” she answered in a clinical tone. “He knew Russell had planned this all the way to the finish line. But because Russell’s locked up, it was up to his best friend to carry it out.”
“It still doesn’t explain how Mr. Northman knew exactly where Peter Threadgill was heading. You only said he only knew how Mr. Edgington’s mind works. Mr. Threadgill, however, is a different ballgame.”
“Not really,” Pam retorted. “Y’see Russell is methodical and obsessive. And because Russell’s the alpha and Peter was the gopher, he’d follow Russell’s instructions right down to a tee. Eric knew Russell is a sadist. He didn’t just want to eliminate Sookie. He wants to do it in a way that will ultimately destroy Eric.”
“Destroy him how?”
“Her death had to be a spectacle. And it had to be in a place with the most personal significance to Eric.”
The first thought that came to mind when she woke up from her forced slumber was: She was better off unconscious.
Her wrists and ankles were both bound by zip ties making her seem like trussed poultry, ready for roasting. She tried to roll over but someone yanked her hair backward, pulling her up. She was forced on her knees as something hard and cold dug against her skull. A pistol.
A man in a tuxedo came into view. He looked almost the same age as Russell. He sneered when he saw Sookie.
“Well done, Willa,” he drawled before he raised his arm and pointed a gun at Sookie.
Fuck. She was definitely better off unconscious. That way she wouldn’t see the bullet coming.
There was a click then a muffled boom. Her eyes snapped shut purely out of reflex, waiting for the pain to come. But nothing came. It was either he was a lousy shot or she was jacked up on adrenaline to feel anything.
A loud thud made her open her eyes and look down on the floor only to find herself staring into the bloody hole between the nurse’s shell-shocked eyes.
She did the only thing she could do: she screamed. And then screamed some more.
“Shh..” The man in the tux put a silencing finger over his lips as he crossed to her and kicked his accomplice’s body to the side. “There, better? Don’t worry, Susannah, your time will come too.”
Her would-be killer’s hand trembled as he pressed the searing muzzle to her temple. It stung her skin. The smell of burnt matchstick made her nostrils flair and she wondered how many times that gun had been fired.
“Struggle is unnecessary,” her would-be assassin grumbled.
She looked away from him fixing her eyes on the lounge chair at the opposite end of the room. This, right here, was sick in so many ways. Killing her in this house. In this room. Beside this bed.
He kept staring at her with bloodshot eyes, picking her apart. Waiting for her to crack. To beg, perhaps?
‘No fucking way, asshole!’ The only thing she would be begging for was a clean shot to the chest.
She tried hard not to blink because the tears pooling in the rim of her eyes might fall. She didn’t want to give her killer the satisfaction. Most of all, she didn’t want the Medical Examiner who would process her remains to tell Eric she was crying when she died.
Poor girl. She must be so scared, the ME would murmur.
No. No, she wasn’t. Fear was a futile emotion. One she had no more room or tolerance for. For now, she only had regrets.
Regrets for the things she should have done. Words she should have said.
She should have returned her father’s embrace and told him she had forgiven him for leaving them. She should have told Jason to take care of his wife and their unborn child. To tell her niece or nephew stories about her and that Aunt Sookie would have been the Best. Aunt. Ever.
She should have kissed Pam on the lips so she could have that one lesbian experience to cross off her bucket list. She should have thanked Sam, Marco, Jake and Roman for looking after Eric.
Eric. Oh God.
She should have kissed him one more time before she left the Vista ballroom. She should have never teased him that she was only ‘fond’ of him because she didn’t want to sound sappy by saying ‘I love you’. If only she could tell him she loved him and that she was only sorry it took her a while to realize it.
She bit back a sob as she prayed for strength. Not for herself but for him. Strength so he could move on and live the life they had been planning together.
Her killer shifted, the gun still pointed at her. She wished her killer would just do it. Pull that damned trigger and end her misery. What the hell was he waiting for?
Then it struck her. He was waiting for something.
Someone. His target audience. To watch her die.
No one’s coming, she wanted to scream. But even she didn’t believe that. She knew he would come for her.
But the thing was… she hoped he wouldn’t.
The epiphany came with the kind of dread that threatened to paralyze him. In retrospect, it was too obvious.
The realization came after Sam reported that the ambulance had been spotted in the corner of Fremont and Charleston. Palomino was found bound, gagged and unconscious in the driver’s seat while Bill was still passed out cold in the back. Sookie and the assassin, who posed as a nurse, were gone.
Initially Eric thought Peter would take her to the North – Eric’s flagship hotel. But even a narcissist like Russell Edgington knew the North was an unassailable fortress. Which left Russell and Peter with only two viable options: the Luxor and the Regent. But with the heightened security in both hotels and the large number of occupants in the rooms those were also out of the question.
Eric knew Peter would finish the job somewhere isolated but accessible. He was still racking his brain as he drove like the fucking devil out of hell when he figured it out. Russell wouldn’t choose the hotels. They were mere respite, transitory. Russell would pick the one place that stood out among his properties. What could be more perfect than the house he asked Sookie to turn into a home.
His car screeched to a halt as he parked across the street from his – their – Spring Valley manor. He spotted a lone black Jaguar at the driveway. Peter Threadgill’s flashy vehicle.
It was almost two in the morning. One of the perks of living in an upscale community was the privacy. The cavernous houses were considerably spaced. And when they closed their doors, everything that happened inside, remained just that- in-fucking-side.
He flashed a glance at the mansion where he grew up. It used to be a welcome sight. Now it was darkened, ominous. A feeble light from a bedroom upstairs winked at him. He wasn’t certain but he was willing to bet the flickering glow he saw was from a lamp insidetheir room.
He bounded up the stone steps toward the gloomy patio, hoping that their housekeeper wasn’t home for the carnage that was about to happen.
He reached for the door handle and it budged as soon as he touched it. The security system had been disarmed. The lamps scattered across the street cast a faint glimmer behind him.
He crossed the threshold and the first thing he noticed was the trail of dried blood against the cream marble tiles.
“Let me get this straight,” the detective wagged his pen to her, “You said Mr. Northman knew where Mr. Threadgill would take Miss Stackhouse, correct?”
Pam nodded yes.
“Did he tell you where?”
“He didn’t have to. He knew I could easily track his phone or his car.”
“Why didn’t he alert the authorities or his security detail? Why didn’t he wait for backup?”
“I told you. He didn’t have to do all those things because he knew I have his back.”
“Still,” the detective kept prodding, eyeing her like she was hiding something from him. “It was imprudent of him to go there alone and unarmed. The best course of action would be to wait for a tactical team.”
Pam studied the investigator. “What are you implying, Detective?”
“I’m not implying anything, Miss Ravenscroft. I’m simply stating the facts here. And the fact is four people went inside that house and only two came out alive,” the detective leaned forward. “You said it yourself, Mr. Northman’s on a warpath. He went to Spring Valley to look for Miss Stackhouse and Mr. Threadgill, but in what capacity? As a negotiator or an executioner?”
Pam had walked this fucking tightrope long enough. She stole a glance at the detective’s left hand before she narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you married, Detective?”
The investigator crossed his arms against his chest, pushing himself back in his chair. “Not that it’s any of your business, but yes, I’ve been married to the same woman for twelve years.”
“Do you love her?”
He met Pam’s scrutinizing eyes and engaged her in a staring contest. He obviously had this kind of conversation before. “Twelve years, Miss Ravenscroft. I think it’s safe to say that I do love my wife.”
“Three seconds.” She held out three tapered fingers to him. “That’s how long it took you to answer a simple yes-or-no-question. And that three-second pause is what separates you from Eric. Because if you ask him if he loves Sookie, he’d say yes even before you can finish your sentence. He won’t pause to think because he already knows the answer. He won’t pause to dial nine-one-one. And he’ll sure as hell won’t pause just so you guys can catch up because he knows every damned second counts.”
It was as if she had summoned him.
Her eyes widened when she caught a tall silhouette rushing toward them. The sound of hurried footsteps had tripped her killer’s internal alarm as he turned around and jumped behind her, using her as a human shield. She would have leaped forward and flung herself at Eric if it weren’t for the gun pressing at the back of her head, keeping her grounded.
“That’s far enough, Northman!”
Eric’s hands stabbed the air in a sign of surrender. “I’m unarmed!” he yelled, braving one more step forward.
“I said that’s far enough! Take one more step or you’ll be mopping what’s left of her brain off the floor.”
Eric stilled. “It’s over Peter,” he murmured, hands still up, palms out. “You don’t need to do this. You don’t have to do anything for Russell anymore.”
‘Peter? Peter Threadgill?’
“This isn’t about him,” Peter spat, pushing his gun forward making her chin dip to her chest. “I know what you did to Russell and I’m not letting you do the same to me! I’m not going to jail, Northman. Not for the drugs! Not for her!”
“You don’t have to. You can still walk away, Peter. I’m alone. No one knows we’re here. So why don’t you just put the gun down and let her go. I’ll even help you escape. I did it for Felipe. I can do it for you.”
Struggling against the pressure of the pistol, she looked up to meet Eric’s eyes. She wondered if he could hear the battering of her heart against her ribs. He should, because it was echoing with his name.
‘You shouldn’t have come.’
Her killer, who was apparently the infamous Peter Threadgill, trembled making the pistol pulsate against her skull. She could hear him breathing through his nose, seemingly deliberating his options.
“You’re a fucking liar! You think you can manipulate me like everyone else? Well, newsflash: I’m the one calling the shots here! So spare me the bull, Northman!”
“I’m not lying. I swear to you I’m not. I can make this all go away, Peter. Just let her go. Please.” There was only desperation in his voice.
Her eyes stung. This wasn’t the way she pictured her death. Not with Eric watching. Pleading like a lowly beggar. ‘Don’t beg, goddammit! You’re Eric fucking Northman!’
“You’re bluffing,” Peter tested, his commanding screams reduced to a reluctant whisper.
“No.” Eric shook his head locking his eyes with hers. “Not when you have my life in your hand.”
She tucked her lip under her teeth to stop it from quivering. If this was her end then his face, his beautiful, damning face, would be the last thing she wanted to see. God, he never looked so helpless, so fragile. And it was tearing her apart.
She felt the muzzle glide from her skull to her nape. Eric flinched at the movement as though feeling the weight of what’s to come.
Then something about his stance shifted. She spied him swaying lightly onto the balls of his feet. But instead of moving forward, he slowly, ever so subtly, glided to the side. Toward the side of the wall where the master switch was hidden just below the mounted lamp.
And just like the she knew: He was going for the lights!
Yes. Darkness would be their ally. It was their house, goddammit! Their turf! They knew every space, every nook, every little things hidden in plain sight. She once found a twenty-two caliber taped under the table where he kept his liquor. When she questioned him about it, he joked that it wasn’t for home invaders. It was for him. If he couldn’t solve his problems with alcohol, he’d go and swallow a bullet. She gave him a good berating for his twisted logic.
“I know you didn’t sign up for this, Peter,” Eric murmured, one hand still in the air while the other outstretched to them in a pacifying gesture. “You’re not Russell. You’re nothing like him.”
“Fuck you! Your psycho-analyzing bullshit doesn’t work on me! You don’t know a thing about me!” As though to drive his point home he dug the pistol to her skull with much more force, making her bow even lower.
She pushed herself up to look at Eric and blinked, releasing the tears she held so dearly. She prayed so hard for Eric to look away. But Eric would have none of her pleas as he continued to search her face, as though willing her to hold on for a little longer. To have a little faith.
He stared at her for a few more heartbeats before he turned his eyes back to the man with the gun.
“You’re right, Peter. I don’t know you,” Eric started his voice taking that unfamiliar tone: Desperation. “But I know me. And I know that I’d do everything humanly possible for her. So if you pull that trigger, you better have one more bullet for me because I swear to you, Peter, hell will be nothing compared to what I’ll do to you if you kill her.”
Shut up, she wanted to yell. Shut the fuck up!
Then just as she thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. She felt the pressure of the gun leave the back of her head only to be replaced with something much more terrifying as it dawned on her what Peter was about to do.
Her suspicion was confirmed when Peter raised the gun to the man begging for her life.
“Eric, look out!”
It only took a fraction of a second. Eric lunged backward to flip the switch as she slammed her head against Peter’s torso to knock him off balance. The room turned pitch black in an instant. There was a baritone thud as something hard fell on the carpet. The gun.
A chaotic rumbling followed as Eric and Peter dove for the weapon, knocking over pieces of furniture. This was the advantage she was talking about. Eric knew every inch of this room. Peter was the intruder and he should damn well feel like one.
Her eyes tried to adjust to the darkness. She could only make out faint shadows as she pressed herself harder against the frame of the bed to keep herself upright.
A deafening sound bounced through the walls like thunderclap as the gun went off. The search was over. The question was: Who was the lucky winner? Another shot was fired.
She screamed for Eric, blindly seeking affirmation that he was still alive.
Her head seemed to be on fire as the sound of the struggle continued to pummel her eardrums.
“Eric!” she called again.
One. Two. Three more gunshots. Then there was nothing but silence.
She squinted when light flooded her vision. Someone had flipped the switch back on.
Then she saw him. Eric.
Her knight. Her suicidal, disheveled and out-of-breath knight was standing in front of her. He dropped to his knees, hands shaking uncontrollably as he cupped her cheeks. She managed to flash him a weak smile before he wrapped his arms around her shoulder and pulled her flush against him. She pressed her cheek against his chest. She could literally hear his heart pounding. Funny, the beating seemed to echo her name, too.
He held her tight. Tighter than usual. A little too tight for comfort actually. But she wasn’t about to complain. She would have hugged him too if her hands weren’t bound behind her. In those few precious seconds her world stopped turning. She spotted Peter’s lower half by the lounge chair, not moving. Call her a bad Christian but she hoped for all their sakes that Peter would never move again.
She breathed in his scent. His familiar masculine scent. Then she felt something wet and sticky and warm seeping through the sheer fabric of her dress. Eric must have felt it too because his arms slackened around her. He drew back gingerly, just enough to create a space to peek at their drenched clothes.
Her eyes rounded in horror as she watched rich crimson liquid bloom across his white buttoned shirt. “No! Nononono!” she cried shaking her head over and over.
Eric patted his chest to search for the open wound.
There was none.
A rage-filled ‘NO!’ pierced the air and it took her a moment longer to realize the sound wasn’t coming from her anymore.
It was coming from Eric.
She stared at him, bewildered. That was when she felt it; the searing pain just below her left breast where blood gushed out like a faucet.
This wasn’t how she was supposed to die. But with Eric holding her, this was so much better.
Pam rushed inside the hospital, traversing the sinewy corridors that never seemed to end.
They let her go after their legal counsel, Luna Garza, arrived. The report from the ME’s office came in before she left, ruling Peter Threadgill’s death as self-defense. The heavy amount of gunpowder residue they found in his hands and the burn marks on his fingers told them that he was the one who pulled the trigger, clearing Eric from all charges.
Pam had done everything they had asked her to do. She did the whole song and dance with the LVPD just so they would leave Eric alone. It was the least she could do for him. God knows, there was only one person who could lift the dark cloud hovering above him. And last she heard that person was still in surgery.
She had pulled in at the mansion just in time to see the EMTs wheel Sookie out. She heard a paramedic inside the ambulance beg Eric to let go of Sookie’s hand so they could strap her to the gurney. He didn’t. Instead he rode with them in the ambulance while Pam and Roman followed them in her car.
Their fingers were still woven together when Pam got to the emergency room as they prepped Sookie for surgery. He stubbornly held onto her that one of the nurses had to pry his fingers from hers to take her to the operating room.
“She’s gonna be okay,” she had told him with forced optimism.
He didn’t say a word as he lingered outside the OR. An hour or so later, and after much prodding from the medical staff, he finally retreated to a quiet corner in the waiting area. Pam did her best to scare the shit out of the gawkers with her signature glare.
But not everyone could easily be scared off as Detective Lochlan along with a forensic expert came in and disturbed their volatile peace.
Now as she marched back to the same spot where she had left Eric, she couldn’t quite shake off the dread. It was like a wafting chill in the air. She couldn’t see it but she could feel its presence.
‘Damn fuck it, Sookie. Don’t you dare do this to him.’
She saw him before he could see her. He was looking straight ahead, arms crossed against his chest, shuttered and distant. His usual vibrant face had taken a ghostly pallor. She doubted if he would notice her if she were standing right in front of him. He simply wasn’t there anymore.
She noticed he had changed into a blue plaid shirt and dark jeans. Roman probably fetched him a change of clothes when the forensic team collected the tux he was wearing that night. Did he ask Roman to pick the checkered shirt for him? It was Sookie’s favorite after all.
She spied Jason sitting across from Eric. His hands gripped his face as he bounced his knees in a constant rhythm. He looked terrible. Maybe not as bad as Eric.
If Jason looked like a ticking time bomb ready to explode, Eric was a hand grenade daring anyone to pull the pin.
She took the seat beside Roman, whose features became even more intense than usual. “Any news?”
“They fished out the bullet out from her spleen. Missed her liver by an inch. She’s in the ICU; still under observation.”
“How ’bout him?” she tilted subtly toward Eric.
“Haven’t said a single word.” Roman nudged his chin to Jason. “That one’s no better. Been bugging everyone for updates. They banned him from the nurses’ station.”
Pam allowed herself to sigh before she squared her shoulders and trudged to Eric’s side, taking the vacant seat to his right.
“She’ll get through this,” she whispered after letting an awkward lull hung in the air.
He shot her a look that would have beheaded her in a single blow.
Suppressing a shiver, she swiveled to face him and clamped on his thigh. “She’ll get through this,” she repeated with more conviction this time.
“How can you possibly know that?” he snarled, barely containing his temper.
“How can you not?” she countered. “You, of all people, should know that Sookie’s someone who can take a punch and deliver in kind. And don’t get me started on her stubbornness. She’s probably the kind of person who’d give Death the middle finger and say, ‘fuck off!’.”
Her outburst floored him temporarily. His face softened and then slowly his lips tugged into the smallest of smiles. She considered that a win.
“She really is stubborn as fuck,” he mumbled in agreement.
“Just like someone I know,” she chimed giving him a pointed look. “Really, Eric, you two have never been more compatible.”
She detected another faint smile on his face before it defaulted back to blank.
“She asked me to propose,” he whispered after a while, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.
“Yeah, you told me that. The night you came back from Macau.”
He shook his head. “No. Last night. Back in the house. Before she passed out. She asked me to ask her.”
She regarded him thoughtfully. “Did you?”
“I told her that I’ll ask her later,” he rasped, turning his head to lock gazes with her. “What if I’ve made a mistake? What if I’ve run out of laters?”
She was rendered speechless. What could she possibly say to refute that? She scanned her mental vault for a new kind of pep talk. Luckily, she was saved by the arrival of the nurse with the most wonderful news.
“You can see her now. But I can only allow one visitor in the ICU.”
Jason sprang out of the bench. “I’ll go! I’m her brother.”
“Yeah. You might have mentioned that the first ten times you went to the station,” the nurse with a horn-rimmed glasses countered in a flat tone. Pam liked her at once.
Eric glared at Jason before he stood up and loomed over the male Stackhouse.
“Sit. Down,” Eric gritted. And just for good measure, Roman swept behind Jason and put a restraining hand on his shoulder, pushing him back to his seat.
The push wasn’t necessary as Jason shrank under Eric’s penetrating squint. He waved his hand with grudging respect before he forced a grin, “You go first. You’re practically family anyway.”
Pam saw the nurse roll her eyes before she turned her attention to Eric.
“She’s still in and out but pretty much stable. She’s under heavy medication so don’t be surprised if she’s zonked out of her head.”
“I don’t care if she’s as high as the fucking Empire State. I just want to see her.”
He feathered back wispy blonde hair off her forehead. Under the wash of the fluorescent lights he was able to spot the purple bruises along her neck, and the underside of her jaw and on the skin of her left eye.
His fingers twitched, itching to form a fist. ‘What did they do to you?’
He wished Peter Threadgill was still alive so he could drill bullets into his chest again. And this time it wouldn’t be an accident.
She moaned as her eyes fluttered. She tilted her head to his side as her hand flew up to cover her eyes, using it as blinders from the harsh light.
He stroked her cheek and felt her relaxing beneath his touch.
She blinked rapidly as she homed in on his face. “Eric?”
“Expecting someone else, sweetheart?” he teased, praying she wouldn’t detect the tremor in his voice.
She chuckled. It was a dry, throaty sound. Her hand went back to the side of the bed as she picked him apart. “You look awful,” was her greeting.
It was his turn to chuckle. “Why, thank you, dear. So do you.” She didn’t. Not at all. Even with those ugly bruises she was still so damned fetching.
“Well, I got shot. What’s your excuse?”
“My girlfriend got shot,” he volleyed back without missing a beat. Leave it to her to make light of the situation.
She replied with a smile. “How’s Pally?”
He resumed with his former task of sweeping stray hair off her face. “He had a concussion which earns him a few weeks off. Other than that, he’s fine. Thalia’s with him. She flew in as soon as she found out he was hurt. Must be love.”
“Must be love,” she echoed, eyeing him thoughtfully.
“Unfortunately, the nurse spared him too. There’s something unkillable with that fucktard.”
“I know! Right? I’m tellin’ you that bastard is a freakin’ cockroach. Cut off his head and he’ll still live for weeks.”
They shared a brief laugh. While his laughter was timid, hers was feeble. They complimented each other, a couple of deranged deadbeats with suicidal tendencies. They were compatible just like Pam deduced.
“How about Russell?” she asked as their laughter tapered off.
“He’s torn between forty-to-life in Nevada or face capital punishment in Louisiana. I heard they’re planning to revive Old Sparky just for him.”
She snorted. “What are the odds he’d take the chair?”
“Not that high.”
She sighed. And for a second, Eric could only hear the beeping of the machines around them.
“What happens now?” she asked after a considerable pause.
He dipped his head to kiss her forehead. His face hovered above hers as he cradled her cheek and whispered, “You are going to get well real quick because you owe me plenty a-fuckin’.”
He wondered how she could still blush that deeply after all the blood she had lost.
“You know…” she drawled, “I think I saw a broom closet just outside the door. If you can up my morphine and help me get rid of these damn wires, I’m good to go right now.”
‘Fuck me now.’ Talk about zonked.
Eric let out a groan then shook his head. “As much as I’d like to take you up on that offer, I’m afraid my desire to keep you alive overrides my desire to fuck you senseless.”
“Shame,” she whined with a pout.
“Do you know what happened to Sophie-Anne and Thompson? I know they were on their way to the basement after Thompson radioed Pally.”
He snorted out of exasperation. After everything she had been through, she was still worrying about someone else. “They both took hits during the shootout. But they only had flesh wounds.”
“Did you know why Sophie-Anne decided to go against Russell to warn me?”
‘Yes. Because she’s a greedy bitch who thinks that I’ll give her the Regent in return for being a good Samaritan.’ Truth be told, though, he’d surrender all his possessions to Sophie-Anne for Sookie’s life.
“I haven’t had the chance to ask her. I’ve been preoccupied – worried sick about my wounded girlfriend who just wouldn’t stop asking about every single person on the fucking planet.” He might have been snippier than he intended when he saw her expression change from curious to mortified.
“Sorry,” she mumbled with a self-deprecating smile that made his heart plummet to his stomach.
“Dammit, Sookie, I’m not mad at you…” he shushed. For all intents and purposes, he pressed his lips on hers and gave her a dry but lingering kiss. “You have to understand that I just spent the last few hours torturing myself thinking I’ve lost you. And if I’m being an asshole, I’m sorry. I just – I just…” His voice trailed off as he watched tears forming at the corners of her eyes.
He was really an asshole.
“I understand,” she hushed, bobbing her head. “You’re not an asshole. A cocky, short-tempered bastard, maybe. But not an asshole. And just so you know, I was torturing myself too.”
Their moment was interrupted when the nurse with the horn-rimmed glasses went in and announced, “Five minutes, Mr. Northman.”
Eric responded with a stiff nod without breaking eye contact with his lover. He saw Sookie’s eyes widen in protest.
He smirked as he pulled something from behind his jeans: a pair of handcuffs. Sookie drew her brows together as she eyed the handcuffs.
“I promised you a proposal and you’ll get one. But for now, you’ll have to settle for this.” He snapped the metal on his wrist. “I’ve asked Roman to keep the key. That man had survived waterboarding in Iraq, so they’d have a fucking field day persuading him to hand over the key.”
He took her hand and kissed her palm.
“You can’t be serious,” she rasped, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Oh, bet your sweet ass I am,” he purred as he gently wrapped the other ring around her wrist. “I’ve wanted to do this since the night you walked into my hotel. And after that emotional wringer you put me through, there’s no fucking way I’m letting you out of my sight. Because this, sweetheart, is how you catch a Stackhouse.”