Now this lovely story/beast of a tale is not only a surprise to the readers of our blog but also to the contributors of the blog. The Queen of all that is Delicious and I (hisviks) have been secretly plotting away to surprise them since it is the season of giving and after all the hard work they’ve put in on this blog we felt they deserved a little moment in the spotlight and get some recognition for a change. Our contributors work tirelessly each and every week getting the right stories in for the recommendations as well as write all the reviews while scouring for those missing story request.
With a little help from a few of our writing friends we present the first of our short stories dedicated to the contributors who keep this site running that will be exclusively on our blog till the 25th. First up to receive a tale of her own is RedJane12, I call her the devil’s advocate since she keeps me in check and knows where to signal strengths and weak spots like it’s nobody’s business, asking the right questions at the right time. Always enthusiastic and involved I can’t be more grateful for RJ’s involvement in the Directory. Enjoy the holiday flavored Sooric as the writer has termed it, in her mind it tastes like chocolate.
Day 2: a gift for redjane12 from kjwrit
Eric Northman has spent the last decade singularly focused on finding those responsible for his parents’ murders. But when he unexpectedly comes across another person from his past, it could undo more than just his life’s mission.
Rated M; AH/AU; All Eric POV
South Beach, Miami Florida
“I can’t believe you got me doin’ this.”
Glancing over at my CI, I gave him my best narrow-eyed cop stare and said, “For your sake, you’d better hope he believes it.”
Lafayette Reynolds was barely midway up the food chain, when it came to fencing stolen art. Normally I would’ve used other methods to try and ingratiate myself with the target, but – in this particular instance – Reynolds was the best man for the job.
Because the target made no secret he preferred men – in every way – in spite of being married to a woman for the last twenty years.
But Russell Edgington’s marriage to Betty Jo Pickard had been a business merger, combining two of the oldest and wealthiest families in the U.S., which had then given birth to a worldwide conglomerate.
Although, I had my doubts they’d actually consummated their marriage even now, twenty years later.
However, what the Wall Street watchers didn’t know was that Edgington wasn’t just a savvy businessman.
He was also a collector.
And – I suspected – the more rare and illicit the item – the better.
I’d been working on the FBI’s Art Crime Team for seven years now, but I’d spent my childhood immersed in the subject. My father – the son of an American businessman who had spent the majority of his career in Japan – and my mother – the daughter of a Swedish diplomat stationed in Tokyo during her formative years – had each grown up with a love of Japanese culture and history. They eventually turned their mutual love into a business, working as antiques dealers who specialized in Japanese pieces.
By the time I was fifteen, I could tell the difference between Imari and Kutani ceramics.
But their passion for art is what ultimately drove me to rebel against it and landed me with the FBI. Only now could I appreciate everything they had taught me.
Everything they had tried to instill in me from the time I was a little boy.
Only now, when it was too late for me to tell them, it was only because of them that I had gotten as far as I had within the Bureau.
Because both of them had been killed – murdered – by an unknown assailant on the streets of Tokyo before I’d barely gotten my training under way at Quantico.
They died on their thirtieth wedding anniversary.
They’d just sold their business and retired a couple of months earlier, but I hadn’t been surprised when they’d told me they were returning to Japan for a while. It was where they had first met, when they were both still students.
But it was what I found amongst their belongings, when everything had been shipped to me after their deaths that had clued me in to what they really may have been doing there.
For as long as I could remember, my parents had always talked about the legend of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan.
Kusanagi – the sword. It represented the virtue, valor.
Yata no Kagami – the mirror. It represented the virtue, wisdom.
And Yasakani no Magatama – the jewel. It represented the virtue, benevolence.
Legend had it these items were brought to earth by Ninigi-no-Mikoto, legendary ancestor of the Japanese Imperial Line, at the behest of his grandmother, the sun goddess Amaterasu, to pacify Japan. The items were said to be passed down to Emperor Jimmu – the first Emperor of Japan – and who was also Ninigi’s great-grandson, with the treasures eventually being passed down to his direct descendants. They were a symbol of the reigning Emperor’s divinity as a descendant of Amaterasu.
There were many tales surrounding the treasures, but one had always intrigued my parents.
The sword – Kusanagi – was said to have been lost at sea at the conclusion of the Genpei War in 1185. The then eight year old Emperor Antoku and the Regalia were under the control of the Taira clan. During the Battle of Dan-no-ura, fought on boats in the shallow waters of the Kanmon Straits, the Taira had been defeated by the rival Minamoto clan.
Antoku’s grandmother was said to have thrown herself, her grandson, and the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan into the sea to avoid capture. The mirror had been recovered, as had the jewel, but the sword was said to have been lost at sea.
There were a number of medieval texts concerning the loss of the sword, some of which conjectured a replica was forged afterward or the lost sword itself had been a replica. Another tale said that the sword had been returned to land by supernatural forces.
To this day Japan claims to have retained possession of all three items, but only the reigning Emperor has access to them and won’t allow any outside verification to take place.
There were groups on both sides of the fence as to whether or not their claims were true.
My parents used to have heated discussions with each other over the texts concerning the supposedly lost sword. Educated arguments based on both fact and lore as to what may have really happened to it. On some nights they would set out on elaborate treasure hunts in search of it, using nothing more than their knowledge of its history, their suspicions, and their imaginations.
But back then, the entirety of their adventures on a hunt for the lost sword had been made without ever having left the comfort of our living room.
Those nights had always ended in laughter and musings of one day.
But going through their things, I had come to suspect that one day had finally come for them.
I’d been able to track their most recent movements easily enough, thanks to their passports and receipts. My mother had always kept a journal for as long as I could remember, but she’d always used her own kind of shorthand, which was difficult for me to decipher.
At first I thought maybe she’d begun writing a mystery novel. After having grown up as a minor participant in their ‘adventures’, it seemed a likely conclusion. Only what didn’t make sense were the names she’d jotted down. Names that weren’t fictional and in fact belonged to some of the most recognizable one-percenters across the globe.
At the time, the only things connecting them were their sizable bank accounts and my mother’s notes.
Still in training at Quantico at the time, I could only do so much. They had been killed on foreign soil and there was only so much research I could do via the internet and the FBI database. There were only so many leads I could follow to dead ends from the other side of the world. But after months of doing not much else during my free time, I had come to another conclusion.
My parents had likely stumbled across something that they hadn’t any idea could get them killed for it.
In their profession they had both met and heard of less reputable dealers, so they had some knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes.
But it was the insider knowledge I had access to, both in the form of other agents and case files on the movements of the underground world of stolen art, that had pointed me towards what had then been a somewhat likely, but at the same time unlikely, event.
There had been whispers going all the way back to the formation of the Bureau and beyond of a private auction. One where the sellers and buyers alike were cloaked in shadows and the goods for sale were just as secret.
But that was all they had been.
The auction was just as folklore as a unicorn or winged dragons.
Like the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, there were groups on both sides of the fence that both championed and disavowed its existence.
But within my mother’s neat and yet nearly indecipherable shorthand was the thinnest of lines connecting the possible whereabouts of Kusanagi to the Japanese Yakuza.
Merely hinting at such a thing on the streets in downtown Tokyo would have gotten them killed.
The current boss of the criminal organization was a man who went by the name of Chow.
No last name.
He was undoubtedly a violent killer, but he liked to project himself as being a refined gentleman. One who regularly hobnobbed with the wealthy and had an appreciation for the finer things in life.
But it was his known association to Edgington that led me to the man himself.
And if this auction really did exist, those two would undoubtedly have front row seats.
However, both men were smart enough and slick enough to not get their hands dirty enough for any criminal charges to stick to them. But I knew it would only take one thing – granted, one very large thing – to nail them down.
Just being present at the auction – if the legends were true – would be enough to get them talking.
Whether or not Chow had ordered my parents’ murders, I had no doubt he knew who had pulled the trigger. I honestly didn’t care if their suspicions were correct and he actually had Kusanagi. I just wanted the name of their killer.
I wanted justice.
It was the only way they – and I – would ever get any peace.
But the only way to get that was to bide my time and work hard. With my aptitude for art, it hadn’t been very hard to get a slot on the FBI’s Art Crime Team within three years of becoming an agent. But even with my background, I still had to go through the same extensive training all of the agents on the team received.
Curators, art dealers, and collectors alike taught us the art of art and how to recognize the real thing from a forgery. But it was what one of my FBI instructors had said to our class that had really stuck with me.
When you can discuss what makes a Cezanne and Cezanne, you can move in the art underworld.
Art theft isn’t as sexy as hunting down terrorists on our soil or chasing bank robbers and kidnappers across the country. The penalties were relatively minor for those who were caught, but stolen art could be connected to every kind of criminal imaginable, ranging from drug lords to the mafia because not only was it valuable, it was portable.
It would take suitcase after suitcase to carry around a hundred million in cash, but you could hold a fifty million dollar piece of art in one hand.
The majority of the black market was filled with prints and collectibles. Non-unique items were more easily concealed and put back onto the open market.
But in the decade I’d been keeping tabs on Russell Edgington that thin line connecting him to the underground world of stolen goods had grown in both strength and conviction.
Outwardly, he maintained the appearance of a shrewd businessman. His sometimes outlandish personal dealings were overlooked by the other one-percenters because the fact was the man knew what he was doing when it came to making money.
He almost seemed to mint it, like the US Treasury.
His obvious and numerous affairs, with men young enough to be his sons – despite being married to Betty Jo Pickard for the last two decades – didn’t detract Wall Street from backing the man. But it was those same lascivious qualities that had attracted all types of people into the ‘quirky and eccentric’ billionaire’s orbit.
The party crowd, who had no loyalty to anyone but themselves, and who had ultimately given him away.
And given me a way in.
Because it was from them we had gathered the intel that had shone a light on the darker and seedier side deals he conducted, from the dark corners of VIP sections in trendy nightclubs across the globe. It was they who had spilled his secrets and had given voice to the rumors of Russell Edgington’s true desires.
He wanted to own the unattainable.
He’d supposedly been amassing his collection for years. Only the most unique items would do for him and his whispered name had come up time and again, when his not so loyal followers were trying to get themselves a plea deal for whatever crimes they’d been arrested for committing.
I suspected his collection included numerous rare – and more importantly, stolen – works of art, both famous and not.
I’d even imagined him standing in the middle of a locked bunker, miles underground, jerking off to Rembrandt’s ‘Storm on the Sea of Galilee.’
But none of them had actual firsthand knowledge. Their accusations had been based on rumors.
Because the fact was Russell Edgington hadn’t been stupid enough to entrust any damning evidence with just anyone.
There were very few in his inner circle. I had my doubts even his wife knew of his secret passion for stolen art, but he obviously paid well enough that we had yet to come across anyone willing to admit to knowing anything of value.
It had taken me ten years and chasing down more leads than Cesar Milan for me to finally convince the higher ups that he should even be looked at.
However, it was my unwilling way into his fold – one Lafayette Reynolds – that had sealed the deal.
Thankfully, Reynolds had been even less willing to do the two years in a prison jumpsuit, for getting busted with the stolen art he’d been caught red-handed with.
Apparently – for him, anyway – orange isn’t the new black.
I knew he traveled in the same circles as a lot of Edgington’s hangers on and had ties going back several years to Edgington’s longstanding boyfriend, Talbot.
Always surrounding himself with the party crowd, not seeming to care they were only after his money and what he could buy for them, Reynolds was a usual fixture at their gatherings.
Edgington’s end of summer Labor Day parties were legendary. And while a party consisting of half-naked men – God willing, I hoped they would only be half naked – wasn’t the most ideal situation in which to meet him, it was better than going up to him at a nightclub where he would more than likely have his guard up or not meeting him at all.
Which was the mantra I’d been mentally chanting, when I’d gotten dressed earlier that morning in a t-shirt and jeans that were tighter than I normally wore.
I wasn’t a bad looking guy and thanks to my years of undercover work on the team, I didn’t look like the average FBI agent.
My blond hair hit my shoulders these days and I always had at least a couple of days’ worth of whiskers on my face. I spent a lot of my downtime in the gym, working off any frustrations I had on a weight bench or in a kickboxing ring, so – physically – I was in my prime.
I could only hope it would be enough to at least get his attention, so I would then get the opportunity to hold his attention with what I had to say.
Pulling into the parking lot, the Maserati we were in didn’t stand out at all in the sea of luxury cars parked at the marina. The party was being held on Edgington’s yacht, so we would be a captive audience until the ship’s captain brought us back into port.
But before we got out, I looked over at Reynolds and tried to calm his nerves by saying, “This isn’t a big deal. We’re old friends and we are just here to have a good time. I just so happen to be a procurer for the Russian mob.”
It was one of the legends I’d built for myself several years earlier and had painstakingly cultivated a history – both real and manufactured – with enough of the elite criminal underground that – should Edgington look into my background – would tell him I was exactly who I said I was.
“Whatever you say, Andre,” he scoffed. “But it ain’t your balls that’ll be on the chopping block if he don’t buy it.”
“What?” I smirked and hoped it would put him at ease.
Because if he didn’t calm the fuck down, our little charade would be over with before it even started.
“You don’t have any straight friends?”
Undercover or not – Edgington and any evidence leading to the existence and or location of the mystical auction or not – I just couldn’t bring myself to pretend I was gay.
There was no way in hell I would ever be able to follow through, if push came to shove.
So to speak.
“Sure’s I do,” he declared with an arched – and glittered – brow, when he haughtily added, “Girlfriends.”
Chuckling, I got out of the car and said, “Then feel free to introduce me to as many of them as you’d like.”
With my unorthodox line of work, I couldn’t be in a normal relationship. Working undercover meant that I could be gone for months at a time. I couldn’t tell anyone in my real life where I was going, where I had been, or what I did for a living.
The risk was too great.
The reward of putting away Russell Edgington and those like him was too great of a prize to risk it for something as trite as love.
The occasional one night stand was the biggest commitment I’d been willing to make nowadays. But it made no difference since I’d thrown away my only shot at happiness a decade earlier.
Sookie and I had been college sweethearts. Her sweet southern accent, coupled with her even sweeter shapely form, and I’d been hooked from the start.
But it was her inner beauty that made me fall in love with her.
She’d been an English major to my Poly-Sci at Northwestern and I’d even had plans on asking her to marry me once I’d completed my training at Quantico. But after my parents’ deaths, I’d descended into a dark hole that even her light couldn’t bring me out of.
I’d pushed her away. Ignored her to the point of no return.
But Sookie was never one to be ignored, so when she’d unexpectedly shown up at Quantico to confront me – only with hindsight did I realize, to comfort me – it had taken a blow up of epic proportions for her to finally see the light.
That there wasn’t any light left inside of me.
Not when I couldn’t see beyond the rage of my parents’ murders.
So I had looked into her eyes – those big blue eyes that had once sparkled whenever she looked at me, but then had only shone with tears – and I told her the biggest lie I’d ever told to date.
That I didn’t love her.
I didn’t care about her.
That I never had and that I never would.
Twisting that knife into both of our hearts, I’d ensured that whatever we’d had with one another was well and truly dead. But even then I’d known I wouldn’t have been able to hold onto my rage and get the justice for my parents’ deaths that they deserved, if I didn’t sever my ties to the only other person I’d ever loved.
I had regretted my actions a thousand times. Relived that moment a thousand times and tried to imagine choosing a different path.
Choosing a life with Sookie, over my rage that my parents’ lives had been ended, and wondering where I would be right now.
I even had my silly little fantasies that, once I got their killer behind bars, then we could pick up where we’d left off at.
But I knew that was all they were.
By now I was sure she was off somewhere living the American dream. She was probably a teacher and married to a man who didn’t come with the baggage I carried around, living in a house with a white picket fence and two or three kids circling her feet.
But I wouldn’t know.
I’d never checked up on her, in spite of having the resources available to stalk her life from anywhere in the world.
I didn’t want to know, nor did I want to see the proof that my fantasies would never come true.
But both Sookie and those probable kids would’ve been mine, had it not been for someone like Russell Edgington or maybe even, the man himself.
“You’s with me?”
Hearing Reynolds’ voice pulled me from my thoughts, so I took a second to pull my invisible mask into place.
By the time I looked back at him, it was no longer Eric Northman staring at the man, but Andre Fedorov.
Andre was a first generation American, born to working class parents who had immigrated to the United States from Russia a year before his birth. Growing up in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood – otherwise known as Little Odessa – he had an early appreciation for the finer things in life and an even higher aptitude for getting what he wanted by any means necessary.
At the age of fourteen he gained the notice of Vasily Sokolov, the head of New York’s Russian mafia syndicate based out of Brighton Beach at the time, and was taken under his wing. Through his association with Sokolov, Andre now had contacts in the mafia underworld that crossed oceans and spanned across the globe.
Andre Fedorov was someone Russell Edgington would want to know.
“Let’s do this,” I nodded to Reynolds, with his glittery eyes widening a tick hearing the mixture of the New York and Russian accent coming from my lips.
Edgington – I quickly learned – really liked to throw a party. Not only was there his yacht – which was more like a small cruise ship – but there were four other luxury liners that had left port with us and eventually moved to circle Edgington’s, when they dropped anchor a few miles off the coast.
The boat we were on was packed with enough people that we hadn’t spotted him right away and, seeing the smaller motorboats that were running groups of people from ship to ship, I started to worry that I might have to spend the day searching them all to sift him out.
But then we didn’t.
Because, as we were standing on the deck near the ship’s stern, none other than Russell Edgington himself came into view, from the cabins down below.
Slowly moving through the crowd, he stopped to greet whoever managed to catch his eye, with his lover Talbot in tow.
I’d seen pictures of him, of course, and I had watched countless hours of both surveillance and paparazzi videos of the man.
But none of them had managed to capture the aura of the man now approaching us.
He radiated evil, with a dash of pure insanity, and cloaked it all behind a bright smile and genteel southern accent.
“Lafayette!” he called out with a wide smile. Spreading his arms open wide, Reynolds moved into his embrace, just as Edgington said, “Darling, where have you been? It’s been ages!”
“I been around,” he replied and then turned towards me, seeing Edgington’s eyes trained my way, and said, “This here’s my friend, Andre.”
Putting my right hand out, I shook Edgington’s hand and added, “Andre Fedorov. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Fedorov?” Talbot smirked and then leaned towards Edgington, stage whispering, “It comes from the Greek name Feodor. It means ‘gift of god.’”
“Well, I can certainly see that,” he chuckled, with both of them eye fucking me.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been blatantly appreciated by the same sex and so long as they kept their hands – among other body parts – to themselves, we wouldn’t have a problem.
But neither Eric Northman nor Andre Fedorov possessed the ability to blush, so I stood tall and ignored their obvious ogling to gesture at our surroundings, as I said, “I’ve heard of your legendary parties, but the tales don’t do them justice.”
Justice – like I would get for my parents’ murders.
It was Talbot who replied, “Oh, we can’t take all the credit.”
Then looking around for a moment, he pointed towards the bow of the ship and added, “Our sweet Caroline has a gift when it comes to gatherings of this size.”
Acting like I was interested – and trying to kill the mental earworm his words had evoked – I let my eyes follow his towards the bow and I felt myself internally flinch, when I laid eyes on who he was pointing at.
And who was now staring back at all of us.
My mind immediately began racing, trying to figure out why she was there.
What I would say.
Why they knew her as Caroline and how I could even begin to try and keep my cover intact.
So it really didn’t help matters when she started heading our way and instead of worrying about any of that, all I could wonder was how the tiny scraps of fabric – masquerading themselves as a bikini – were keeping her other gifts covered.
She’d impossibly gotten even more beautiful in the ten years since I’d last seen her.
Gone were her glasses and signature ponytail, replaced with even longer blond locks falling over her tanned shoulders and a confident swagger she hadn’t possessed back then.
Forcing my eyes away from her, unable to keep the panic from welling in my chest, my eyes stared off towards the coast, while I tried to calculate my next move.
So it was disappointing to come to the conclusion I was going to have a long swim back when this all fell to shit.
“Russell,” she called out, with my eyes involuntarily closing upon hearing the sound of her voice again.
But I forced them open in time to see her lean forward and hug the man I believed to have had some connection to a very dark underworld – which connected him to my parents’ murders by association alone – before she turned and hugged the man at his side, adding with a smile, “Talbot. You both look positively radiant.”
“You’ve outdone yourself,” Talbot grinned, while keeping his arms around her.
Even knowing of his sexual orientation – even knowing I had absolutely no right to feel the way I did – I couldn’t help feeling jealous.
Nor could I help, wanting to rip his arms from their sockets, for the crime of touching her.
Waving him off, she laughed and gave him a saucy wink when she added, “Oh, this is nothing. Just wait and see what I have planned for Christmas.”
Quickly running through my mental file marked Russell Edgington, I couldn’t recall anyone named Caroline.
Not in his inner circle.
Not in his staff of personal assistants.
But I wasn’t left wondering for long, when Talbot finally tore his eyes away from her and looked to me explaining, “Our darling Caroline heads up Extremely Elegant Events. We discovered her talents on last New Year’s Eve and we’ve hogged her all to ourselves ever since.”
Flipping through that mental file, I knew Extremely Elegant Events – otherwise known as Triple E – was the catering service of the rich and famous.
But wondering how Sookie ended up working for them under a pseudonym wasn’t my business, much less my mission.
And yet I couldn’t focus on anything but.
When I had yet to say anything – because Andre Fedorov was just as stumped as Eric Northman – Talbot went on to say, “Oh, where are my manners? Caroline darling, you know Lafayette, of course. And this is his friend, Andre Fedorov. Andre, this is my right hand party planner, Caroline Compton.”
Thanks to my eidetic memory, I recognized the name from one of the grave markers in the cemetery next door to her grandmother’s house, from when she’d taken me home to meet her family over the Thanksgiving holiday during my senior year at Northwestern.
I knew Caroline Compton had lived and died during the Civil War era.
What I didn’t know was why Sookie would be using it as her identity.
Or why I was thinking about that, when my legend as Andre Fedorov was about to crash and burn.
Our breakup had been by no means amiable.
I had been an asshole. Sookie had been heartbroken.
I’d made sure of both.
She certainly didn’t owe me any kind of loyalty.
Sookie knew my true identity, as well as what I had become. Even if she didn’t know whether or not I had completed my training at Quantico, the mere implication I was anyone other than who I claimed to be was enough.
Being outed as an FBI agent to Russell Edgington wasn’t a career ender, but it was close.
It could also end up costing me my life, if I was right about what I thought Russell was capable of, and if I couldn’t figure out a way to get back to the mainland on my own.
But then everything stopped – to include my heartbeat and my breathing – when she reached out and offered me her hand, neither giving me nor anyone else any indication she knew me and only greeted me with a polite, “Mr. Fedorov. I hope you enjoy yourself today.”
Taking her hand in mine, an electrical charge ran just underneath my skin at the contact, with the hairs on my arms standing on end.
There had always been an undeniable chemistry between us.
Apparently, not even ten years apart had done away with it.
Looking into her eyes, I tried to convey my thanks – my remorse for what I had done to both her and to us – all while keeping my mask in place and replied, “Ms. Compton. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Her eyes widened only slightly, hearing my adopted accent, but she recovered just as quickly and turned to face the man at my side that I’d forgotten all about.
A few words were exchanged between them and then two air kisses to Reynolds a second later, she was gone.
Watching her walking away, I only realized I’d been caught, when Edgington quietly chuckled, “It seems our Mr. Fedorov likes what he sees.”
“Yes,” I admitted, allowing Andre’s smirk to come onto my face. “I do.”
It wasn’t even a lie.
Both me and my legend Andre liked what we saw.
“You’ll have to get past Babe the Blue Ox,” Talbot added with amusement and nodded towards the man watching Sookie now walking towards him.
He was bald.
And obviously on steroids.
I hated him instantly.
“He is her boyfriend?” I questioned, letting the challenge I was more than willing to give him show in my tone.
Sookie wasn’t why I was there.
Russell Edgington was.
But Andre Fedorov was just here to have fun.
And Andre Fedorov went after what he wanted.
He wanted Caroline.
But it was the real me that just wanted Sookie.
I just didn’t know in what capacity.
“He thinks he is,” Talbot confided with a slight laugh. “But our Caroline belongs to no one man…other than us, of course. And I’m afraid we’re just not compatible in that way.”
Quirking my eyebrow up in his direction, the corner of my lips went up with it as I said, “Good to know.”
And – God help me – seeing her again, I realized I still had feelings for her.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised though.
She was the only woman I had ever loved.
But it was hearing Edgington’s voice that pulled me back from the man who had once loved a girl named Sookie and reminded me I was instead a man who worked for the Russian mafia, when he said, “Tell me, Mr. Fedorov. How do you know our dear Lafayette?”
Forcing my thoughts away from Sookie, I gave him one of Andre Fedorov’s patented smiles and clapped Reynolds on the back. Then laughing out, with just the right amount of mischief infused into my tone, I started off my tale with, “It all began with a bottle of vodka.”
Hiding in the shadows of the marina, I watched the mass exodus emerging from the boats, with tipsy men and women alike staggering towards their cars.
The law enforcement official in me wanted to put every one of them through a field sobriety test before they got behind the wheels of their luxury cars.
The Eric Northman in me just wanted to lay eyes on Sookie again.
Once I’d told my longwinded tale of how Reynolds and I had never met, I was at his side for even longer when that had led to Edgington learning of my connections and my dubious employers.
We’d remained side by side for hours, with me dropping hints of my access to some rare works that were difficult to move, as well as my employers’ wishes to expand their collections.
In reality, every bit of the rare works I had access to were stored in a secret FBI warehouse, having been recovered during various sting operations. Their original owners had either long since passed away with no heirs or the true owners of the works couldn’t be established. So the agency held onto them and used them to validate our undercover aliases and to broker deals with other criminals.
Criminals like Edgington.
But he wasn’t stupid enough to overtly engage in criminal activity with someone he’d just met.
Just like I wasn’t stupid enough to offer to sell stolen works of art to a man I had just met.
Even if that man’s name was Russell Edgington.
I was sure he’d had someone looking into my backstory the moment I walked away from him, but I had seen the interest in his eyes.
The fire building behind them, at the thought of adding to his collection.
It was only a matter of time before he would contact me.
So, for now, I would have to play the waiting game.
Which gave me the time to lie in wait for one Sookie Stackhouse.
Reynolds had gladly ditched me for some old flame of his named Jesus, so I didn’t have to ditch him or come up with an excuse to hang around the marina.
By the time I was done casting the bait towards Edgington, I’d made my way to the front of the ship in search of Sookie, but she was gone. With the smaller motorboats ferrying partygoers from one ship to another, she could’ve been on any one of them.
There was no way for me to know, without going from one boat to the next looking for her. And not wanting to seem suspicious, I didn’t.
Andre Fedorov didn’t chase after any woman.
But it would seem Eric Northman was pathetic enough to hide in the shadows, waiting for the one who hadn’t gotten away – but who he had thrown away – to stroll on by.
It felt like I’d been standing there forever, with a part of me wondering if I’d somehow missed her in the crowds that had long since died down, when I finally saw her.
Walking with purpose down the dock leading to the parking lot, I watched her, not quite sure what I was going to do.
But I knew what I should do.
I should walk away and hope like hell that I wouldn’t run into her again, when I was in character as Andre Fedorov.
My entire life’s mission was at risk, with her knowing who I was.
I’d purposely shunned her from my life, just so I could focus on bringing my parents’ murderer to justice.
Now, I was so close to doing just that. Closer than I’d ever been to getting the answers and the vengeance that I’d sought for so long.
I couldn’t risk it all, just because I still had feelings for a girl I didn’t really know anymore.
But even so, I had a feeling I would always love her.
Her name that wasn’t really her name came through my lips in a near whisper. But hearing my voice calling out to her, I knew we were both surprised by it, and her steps faltered with her head turning my way.
Narrowing her eyes, she focused on the shadows I was still cloaked in, so I stepped forward into a patch of light.
Raising her brow, she kept her voice lowered, as she took a step in my direction and replied, with both a bit of attitude and disbelief in her tone, “Mr. Fedorov.”
Her way of letting me know that she knew I was full of shit.
But when she came to a stop only inches in front of me, it took every ounce of willpower I possessed to not reach out and touch her.
I didn’t deserve to touch her.
I didn’t deserve her.
And I’d made sure we’d both known it ten years ago.
I wasn’t sure what I expected her to do or say, but even so I was surprised when she merely tilted her head to the side and politely asked, “Did you enjoy yourself at the party?”
Was she bugged?
It was the only explanation I could come up with for why she would continue with the charade, when it was just the two of us standing there.
Acting as though I was merely a guest of her client, instead of the idiot who had broken her heart – and my own in the process – once upon a time.
“Yes and no,” I answered honestly.
I’d been both ecstatic and filled with dread laying eyes on her again.
Even laying out the crumbs for Edgington to follow wasn’t enough for me to consider the day a good one.
Taking a moment to process my ambiguous answer, she replied just as vaguely, “Good.”
Then turning on her heel, she walked away from me, while casually throwing over her shoulder, “Have a good evening, Mr. Fedorov.”
Standing there, feeling just as dumbfounded as when I first saw her on Edgington’s yacht, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her.
I couldn’t find the words I wanted – needed – to say.
Nor could I fight off the sudden chill that seeped into my bones the moment she was no longer in sight.
I still didn’t have any answers. I still didn’t know what had become of her life or how she had come to be known as Caroline Compton.
I still didn’t think I deserved any answers from her.
But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t get them.
Andre Fedorov wasn’t the only one who went after what he wanted.
Los Angeles, California
“So, tell me Andre. What you think of my new club so far?”
If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all?
But telling Edgington my true thoughts on the matter didn’t seem like the smartest option, especially since I was his invited guest.
In the weeks following our initial meet, I’d stayed in character and continued to live the life of Andre Fedorov, knowing I now had Edgington’s attention.
And I knew my suspicions were founded when I’d flown to Moscow in the following days and discovered ‘my apartment’ had been discreetly searched.
Then – less subtly – I was followed by two goons on the streets of Paris.
Those two would’ve blended in better, perched on the eaves of Notre Dame.
When I’d ‘gone home’ to Brighton Beach for a visit, I’d sent the next two who’d been tailing me an order of blinis.
They were sitting two tables over for Christ’s sake and staring straight at me.
But the women he’d sent my way were more subtle in their approach, with some casually striking up a conversation with me in the most innocuous of places and others taking a more direct approach by hitting on me.
I assumed Edgington had hopes of getting them into my life and then into my bed, thinking I would be dumb enough to spill my secrets over pillow talk. Or perhaps he had hopes that they would be able to pick their way through my web of lies to get to the truth of who I was.
But it didn’t matter.
Subtle or not, they were just as easy to spot as the men.
Blondes, brunettes, and redheads alike seemed to turn up at every corner I turned.
Every table I sat at.
Every bar I bellied up to.
I’d turned it into a game, amusing myself by wondering what Edgington’s thoughts were, when I’d sent every one of them away.
Little did he know, he’d only had to send me his party planner and I would’ve been toast.
But it was a good thing that he didn’t know that. It meant that he didn’t know who I really was or who Sookie really was.
Or who she was to me.
Even if I still didn’t know why she was living a lie, of sorts.
With my constant ‘company’, I hadn’t been able to do much research into her background. I hadn’t dared to ask my handlers for any information on her, knowing she was a part of my file.
The FBI knew my entire history to include my failed relationship with one Sookie Stackhouse.
If they figured out Sookie was somehow connected to my current assignment, I would’ve been pulled from the case immediately.
It was too great of a risk.
For them and for me.
They would’ve never left me in place and I would’ve never willingly walked away from what I’d started with Edgington.
So it was better for everyone involved, if they never found out about Sookie’s presence at all.
I could just no longer tell what was more important to me.
Getting to the bottom of Sookie’s past and present or getting to the bottom of Edgington’s secret life and the secret society he belonged to.
I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her in the weeks that followed. She haunted my dreams each night and my thoughts all day long.
But seeing the man at my side was still waiting on me to say something more, I gave him a small nod and said, “The club is great, Russell. I’m sure Josephine’s will be a good moneymaker for you.”
“Oh, money isn’t everything,” he chuckled with a dismissive wave of his hand.
I was surprised he’d been able to form the words around the silver spoon he’d been born with in his mouth.
Then patting Talbot’s knee, he added, “Isn’t that right, Sugarplum?”
Sugarplum’s eyes widened just a tick – which was all I needed to see to know that Edgington’s money was everything, as far as he was concerned – before he schooled his features once more and lovingly squeezed Edgington’s hand, purring out, “Of course, darling.”
But hearing the word only reminded me that Christmas would be coming soon and Sookie – or rather, Caroline – had made mention that day on the yacht that she would be doing something for them around the holidays. It was my only lead on when and where I would be able to find her next.
Inconspicuously, at least.
A cursory check of Triple E’s website hadn’t revealed anything more than the fact a John Quinn was the sole proprietor.
They left out the part where he was a steroid abusing douchebag extraordinaire.
But I hadn’t seen any of Triple E’s personnel at the club to indicate they had any part in the grand opening of Edgington’s new club.
Although, with mostly everyone in costume for Halloween night, I supposed I could’ve been wrong.
And perhaps Talbot was secretly a telepath because he took that moment to say, “I love your costume, Andre. Neo, from The Matrix?”
Scoffing, I smirked, “Hardly. I’m Blade.”
I figured dressing as the half-mortal half-immortal being hell bent on avenging his mother’s death and ridding the world of vampires was apropos.
Edgington was a soulless soul sucking leach if there ever was one.
But I didn’t bother to ask what they were dressed as. It was obvious Edgington was supposed to be a king of some kind, what with the crown he was wearing on top of his head.
It looked real enough that I planned on doing some research later on, on missing artifacts from the Viking Age to see if I could find anything resembling it.
But if he was a king, then I guessed that made Talbot his concubine.
Not that I was going to say it out loud.
Patting Talbot’s knee, I only figured out it was Edgington’s way of silencing his lover, when he leaned toward me and said in a low voice, “Your employers…you mentioned they were interested in doing a little spring cleaning and redecorating.”
“I did,” I nodded, not giving any outward indication of the slight quickening I felt inside.
The seed I’d planted on his yacht had obviously taken root. A seed I’d nourished in the following weeks by both procuring and offloading a couple of lesser known pieces to some minor players I’d suspected had ties to Edgington’s circle.
Word of my work had obviously traveled back to him, like I had hoped.
The pieces I’d sold underground weren’t as valuable as the Rembrandt I’d imagined locked away in his underground spank bank, but they had been stolen works of art.
They just weren’t stolen by me.
Pulled from the dusty shelves of an FBI warehouse, they’d lent credence to my legend as Andre Fedorov, in a world where credibility was everything.
“I’ve done my homework, Mr. Fedorov,” Edgington drawled out in a way that was perfectly polite and yet had dangerous undertones.
But the challenge of what he was saying – and, more importantly, what he wasn’t saying – was in his eyes.
So I met them head on and acknowledged them, with my reply of, “You would be a fool not to. And having done my homework as well, I know you are no fool Russell.”
Purposely using his first name let him know I wasn’t afraid of him. That I didn’t play in the world he secretly dipped his toes into when no one was watching.
I lived in it.
Andre Fedorov respected men like Russell Edgington, but he did not fear them.
Neither one of us blinked for several long moments, but eventually the cynicism clouding his eyes cleared away and gave way to mirth, when he asked, “What are your plans for the holidays?”
Shrugging, I honestly answered, “I have none.”
Andre Fedorov didn’t have a family to spend them with either.
“You do now,” he responded with finality before his expression morphed back into the carefree ‘quirky and eccentric’ mogul. “You’ll be contacted with the details, but tonight I just want you to enjoy yourself and our hospitality.”
His dismissal was obvious, even if his holiday invitation wasn’t as clear, so with a nod of acknowledgement I left them in the VIP section and made my way through the packed club.
No matter Russell’s preferences, he was a shrewd enough business man to not cut his profits in half by only catering to gay men, so the club was filled with men and women alike.
Between the flashing LED lights, glowing necklaces and black light on the dance floor, it was enough to give anyone a headache.
Or an epileptic seizure.
So I’d had no plans on lingering beyond an acceptable half hour or so, but on my way to the bar my eyes caught a flash of blond.
A blond I would recognize anywhere.
Dressed in costume as some sort of cross between a princess and a stripper, Sookie was dancing off to one side of the dance floor, with no one in particular.
Not that there weren’t several men and women alike trying to keep up, with her in particular.
The shrewd move would have been to keep going. To act like I hadn’t noticed her or, even if I had, to act like I wasn’t interested.
Showing my interest would only end up putting us both in danger.
If only my feet had gotten the warning signal my brain was sending out.
Because instead of moving away, they had carried me closer to her. Close enough to reach out and touch her.
Which I did.
So I guessed my hands hadn’t heard the warning signal either.
Her back had been to me, but the moment I put my hands on her waist and drew her body back into mine, she somehow seemed to know it was me without ever turning around.
It probably had to do with that charge I felt running underneath my skin at the contact with hers again.
Something she proved to be true, when she shivered in my hold and barely turned her head, before she acknowledged me with, “Mr. Fedorov.”
“Ms. Compton,” I automatically replied.
Even dressed as we were, our names were more of a costume than the ones we were actually wearing.
I had no idea of what I was doing. Where this would lead or how it couldn’t possibly end up blowing up in my face and destroying everything I’d built my legend on up until now.
But touching her again – being near her again – I couldn’t seem to make myself care.
It was a problem.
One I might actually give a fuck about later on.
Not now, though.
Because in the next second, she spun around to face me, rubbing her body against mine in way that had my heart pounding in my chest. My breathing picked up in pace, with it feeling like I was running a marathon instead of the reality of just sliding my body against hers to the beat of the music blaring around us.
It was a problem.
A problem that only had one solution.
According to the brain that resided south of my waist.
But at least the one north of my shoulders had the wherewithal to drag her off of the dance floor and into a dark corner before I gave in to attacking her mouth with my own.
Her gasp of surprise was all I needed to deepen the kiss I still had no right to force on her. But just as quickly her hands reached up and wove their way into my hair, using it as her handhold to keep me there as she returned my kiss.
It was everything I remembered it to be.
It was everything I’d forgotten it could be.
It took everything in me to not take it further.
But I wanted to.
Feeling her hands leave my hair to blaze a trail down my back threatened what little hold I had left of my sanity. But feeling those same hands grip my ass and pull me even closer to her body was my undoing.
Lifting her up, her legs automatically encircled my waist, with her hips grinding against the straining erection in my pants.
But being in a packed nightclub – one that was owned and occupied by the target of an FBI sting operation no less – meant our options weren’t just limited.
They were nonexistent.
There was nowhere to go to finish what I’d had no right to start. Leaving together could raise questions. Leaving without one another could raise suspicions since it would be obvious to a blind man that we would have unfinished business with one another.
Short of turning back time or teleporting us from the room, there was no good way to end this.
Ironic, all things considered.
Things between us hadn’t ended in a good way the last time either.
And once again, it was my fault.
With all of the dangers – quite literally – lurking in the dark corners surrounding us, some of the urgency I’d felt had given way to caution.
No matter how much I wanted her – no matter how much I both wanted and needed to make things right between us – I couldn’t endanger her because I was simply too selfish to let her go.
I’d done it once before.
I could do it again.
So perhaps it was both the past and present that had me pulling away and breathing out against her lips, “I’m sorry.”
For what I’d done before.
For what I was doing now.
But staring into her eyes, I saw a bit of Sookie in there right before she sadly replied, “You are.”
Then slapping me across the face, it was Caroline Compton’s eyes staring back at me before she turned and stalked away from me.
Brooklyn, New York
Returning to Brighton Beach for the Thanksgiving holiday was something Andre Fedorov would have done. In spite of his parents’ death (both killed in the same car accident, involving a drunk driver) and despite his Russian heritage, he was American born.
The majority of Americans spent that holiday at home.
Eric Northman would’ve gone home too.
If he wasn’t on assignment and had one to go home to.
But neither Andre nor I were prepared to be ambushed at our front door.
I’d barely turned the key into the lock when I was shoved into from behind and forced through the doorway into the apartment. But it was more my subconscious mind than anything else that told me not to strike back.
Because imprinted into my memories was a scent that could belong to no other. And that scent was surrounding me now.
Turning around, as the door slammed shut behind her, I only got a glimpse of her coat sliding down her arms and hitting the floor before she was on me. While her attack was aggressive in nature, it wasn’t violent.
Instead it was passionate, with her body pushing mine against the wall, while her hands brought my head down to meet hers, so our lips could meet somewhere in the middle.
My arms had already snaked around her body and pulled her closer, all the while knowing it would never be close enough.
I had no idea of how she had found me.
I didn’t know why she was there.
Her very presence could destroy all of the work I’d put into my legend over the last few months – the last decade – and yet, here and now, I couldn’t bring myself to care.
The only thing I cared about in that moment was that I had her in my grasp again.
So I decided to make the most of it.
Lifting her up – she would never be tall enough, no matter how high her heels were – I spun us around and pressed her against the wall. It seemed appropriate since that was the last position we’d been in before reality had intruded into our little fantasy encounter in the nightclub a month earlier.
Now there was no one to witness what I’d been longing to do for ten long years, so there was nothing to stop me from running my hands up her sides and taking her shirt with them.
We’d both still been young when everything had fallen apart. Sookie had barely been old enough to drink by the time I’d begun my training at Quantico.
But over the years her body had matured. The softness she’d carried in her youth had given way to lean muscle cloaked by a feminine suppleness that I couldn’t stop myself from exploring.
But by keeping her pressed against the wall with my own body, I didn’t have the freedom to do it thoroughly.
So I rectified that issue.
Pulling her away from the wall, I kept her body pressed to mine and devoured her mouth, while I stumbled into the bedroom.
Before then, the room had been nothing more than a prop.
The clothes hanging in the closet were the costumes of an American born Russian procurer who worked for the mafia.
The pictures on the dresser of a young smiling family were nothing more than lines on a canvas painting a picture of Andre Fedorov’s life.
Only when I set her down onto her feet at the foot of the bed did the room actually come alive.
With every exhale she breathed out, it breathed new life into the space surrounding her.
Her hands had already gone to work on working my t-shirt up my torso before I ever set her down, so it had been lost somewhere along the way. The shirt she’d worn had been left in a pile on the floor, just inside my front door, so now she was left in nothing more than her bra, skirt, and heels.
She had my pants pushed down to my ankles at the same time I pushed her down onto the mattress, so she didn’t have to reach out very far to pull me down on top of her.
Kicking my pants off the rest of the way, she wrapped her legs back around my middle, while my hands went to work on ridding her of the bra she was still wearing.
My lips and tongue trailed a path over every inch of skin my hands had uncovered, with her back arching into me and the most enticing sounds leaving her lips.
My Sookie had always been a screamer.
And while I might not have been able to truthfully call her mine anymore – while she might not even be Sookie Stackhouse anymore – that didn’t make me any less inclined to see if I could get her to scream for me again.
Having found the zipper to her skirt, I pulled it down, taking every bit of fabric covering the lower half of her body the rest of the way down, until she was left in nothing but her high heels.
Those, I left on.
And I used them as my starting point.
Sitting up on my heels, I brought her right ankle up with me and ghosted an upwards path with my mouth.
Kissing. Licking. Biting.
Tonguing away the sting left behind by my blunt teeth.
When I reached the apex of her thighs, I only pressed my lips against her center for the briefest of moments.
It was a promise to return.
It was a tease that she would have to wait for it.
Both were equally as true for me.
Then pulling away, before she could get a grip on my head to try and keep me there, I sat up once more and started the process all over again by repeating my actions with her left leg.
But when I found myself at the top of her thighs that time, I didn’t hesitate to fulfill the unspoken promise I’d made to her.
Sookie had been a virgin when we’d first met one another and my level of experience at the time wasn’t that much further along than hers. So we had explored together. Learned one another’s bodies in a way that no one else had ever known.
And I liked to fool myself into believing that we would be the only ones to ever know one another in that way.
But it was both from and with her that I learned how to make love to the woman I loved.
It was both from and with her that I learned how to fuck the woman that drove me insane with desire.
And it was because of her that I learned what distinguished the two.
I knew because, while I may have fucked other women since her, I hadn’t made love to another woman since her.
But I didn’t need an eidetic memory to fall back on to know what to do to get her to see stars.
Pushing her thighs to each side with my hands, she cried out when my tongue parted her folds and I fought against my want to smile, relishing in the sound.
It was music to my ears.
And just like the Neil Diamond earworm she was going by these days, I hadn’t forgotten the lyrics, no matter how much time had passed by.
There were so many things we needed to talk about. So many questions I needed answers to. We would both be in danger if our secrets were discovered.
But I couldn’t be sure without asking her why she was going under an assumed identity.
It was one of those many questions I needed an answer to.
So the last thing I should have been doing was exactly what we were doing right then.
But – right then – I couldn’t think of a single thing that was more important to me than getting her to fall apart around my tongue.
Sealing my lips around her clit, her hips bucked up at the first flick of my tongue, but I was already one step ahead of her. Sliding my right hand further up her body, I pinned her lower half in place with my forearm spread across her hips, while moving my left hand over and sliding the first of two fingers inside of her.
Her own fingers slid into my hair and gripped the strands caught in her hands, holding my head in place, while I went to work on getting her to scream my name.
But she didn’t.
Because when she finally tipped over the edge of ecstasy, a slew of indecipherable sounds fell through her lips, but my name hadn’t been one of them.
It bothered me more than I could have ever imagined.
Was it payback?
Had she done it on purpose?
Did it really matter?
With those three questions added to the infinite list in my mind, I wasn’t bothered enough to stop myself from kissing and licking my way back up her body, until I was hovering over her again.
Staring down into her eyes, the light behind them I remembered from a decade earlier was still there.
Dimmer, but it was still there.
Silencing me with a single finger pressed over my lips, before I could say her name out loud for the first time in what felt like forever, she then pressed her lips to mine and I was soon lost in her kiss.
Wrapping her body around mine, it only took the slightest shift of her hips for me to be sliding inside of her.
It was everything I remembered it to be.
It was everything I’d forgotten it could be.
But unlike the last time I’d found myself having those same thoughts, this time I could take it further.
So I did.
Moving on top of her with a kind of desperation brought about by ten years of denial – of fooling myself into believing that I could have lived the rest of my life without ever being with her again – my entire body was on sensory overload.
Touch. Taste. Scent. Sight. Sound.
They were all teeming from the same central theme.
And she met my desperation with her own kind of urgency, moving both with and against me to push us higher and higher, until there was no turning back.
There was no stopping it.
For either one of us.
Feeling her inner walls clamp down around me and her attempt to muffle her own screams by clamping her blunt teeth into the skin at the base of my neck was all it took for me to explode inside of her with a strangled cry of my own.
The aftershocks had my body jerking on top of hers, with the sweat coating the both of us only adding to the shiver going down my spine, now that the surrounding air had a chance to cool our overheated bodies.
I should have moved off of her.
I should have pressed her for answers.
But when my eyes finally managed to focus on hers again I had another realization.
I was never able to do what I should have done when it came to her.
So it was no surprise when instead of moving off of her or pressing her for answers, I pressed my lips, along with the rest of my body, to hers and stayed right where I was.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Christmas time on the Vegas strip was nothing like a Norman Rockwell portrait. But it was where I was told to go.
Living up to his word, I’d been contacted by Edgington’s people a week after Thanksgiving. But rather than just being given an invitation to the party he was throwing, I was also given a list of instructions.
Which, in all reality, were more like demands.
Offshore bank records had to be forwarded and verified. The assets had to meet the minimum threshold of twenty-five million dollars.
Any pieces which were up for sale needed to be sent ahead of my arrival for independent authentication.
Over the years the FBI had confiscated several pieces that were near-perfect forgeries. Only a lab filled with the most up-to-date equipment would be able to tell with any certainty they weren’t the real thing.
But knowing Edgington had the resources to own a nuclear arsenal, having an advanced laboratory with the necessary tools to ferret out forgeries wasn’t out of the question.
Which was why I’d had no choice but to send him the real deal.
A Rodin sculpture that had been ‘missing’ for decades.
A fifty pound crystal ball stolen from Beijing’s Forbidden City.
A few Native American artifacts and the diary of a key Nazi operative rounded out my offerings, but the magnum opus of my submissions would be hand carried there by me.
Because it wasn’t the real deal, but a masterfully crafted forgery.
Painstakingly recreated to mimic one of the eight lost Faberge eggs, the only thing truly fake about it was the master who’d crafted it.
The jewels and precious metals used to do it were one hundred percent real and the paint used to create it was repurposed from other works dated in the same time period to pass any tests used to determine its age.
It had passed the inspections of several – fully vetted and sworn to secrecy on pain of death – experts in the field, so I wasn’t too worried about it being discovered to be a forgery.
And even if it was, I could always fall back on claiming ignorance due to its craftsmanship.
But it was being given those demands that led me and the Bureau to believe in unicorns and winged dragons because they were willing to temporarily part with their most expensive pawn to date in order to infiltrate something as priceless as taking down the auction.
The only purpose behind those kinds of demands had to be the auction.
It was real.
Edgington himself could very well be the Auctioneer.
The tales of a mysterious auction being held in various locations throughout the world were legendary in both the underground world and amongst the law enforcement special ops groups tasked with rooting them out.
The auction had been the white whale for agents and criminals alike, with all of them salivating at the thought of it actually existing.
The thought of getting invited to one was nearly too much to hope for on either side.
But considering the demands, there wasn’t a more plausible explanation and thanks to the resources of the United States government, I was able to fulfill them.
But what the United States government didn’t know – what I had kept to myself and failed to report – was the identity of Edgington’s party planner.
Neither Caroline Compton’s nor Sookie Stackhouse’s name had been included in any briefing on the operation.
I didn’t know what – exactly – her involvement was. Why she was living her life under a false identity.
How she had become involved with Edgington at all or if her involvement extended beyond planning parties and went in to more nefarious deeds.
All I knew for sure was that she was involved in his planned holiday party.
I hoped like hell her involvement didn’t go further than hung mistletoe and spiked eggnog.
But I had no way of knowing.
She had been gone by the time I’d woken up the next morning. The only sign she’d been there at all, and that it all hadn’t just been a dream, was a note she’d left on the pillow beside mine.
Nothing more than those two words, not that I deserved even that much from her.
No further explanation. No clue as to whether they were words from our past.
Words of warning from our present.
Words she could have very well plucked out of my sleeping mind, lying beside her.
Without tipping my hand to my handlers, I had no way of finding out more information on Caroline Compton.
Without showing my interest in her to Edgington and his crew, I wouldn’t have the first clue as to where to begin to look for her.
I was screwed.
And it didn’t help to soften the blow at all that I’d actually been able to follow through on the more literal interpretation where she was concerned.
But the fact I’d been extended a demand filled invitation to Edgington’s soirée had me believing, whatever her motives, she hadn’t given mine away.
Sookie had no idea of what I suspected – of Edgington’s involvement in the underground world of stolen art or his possible connection in some way to the deaths of my parents – so I had no idea what she might possibly think my motives could be.
And I had absolutely no clue as to what hers were.
I only knew we were both walking a fine line between fact and fiction.
So I could only hope we would both be able to teeter on that edge together, until it was all said and done.
The instructions I’d been given told me to arrive no later than seven o’clock the night before the party. I was to check into the designated hotel – one of the more upscale casinos owned by Felipe de Castro (well-known casino mogul/lesser known suspected Mexican drug lord).
So I walked up to the counter and replied to the desk clerk’s inquiry, that I was checking in and after giving them the false name I was using – a legend within my legend – I uttered the phrase I was told to use.
“I would like a room with an eastern exposure to view the sunrise.”
“Of course, Mr. Madden,” the clerk responded without any hint of awareness as to the meaning behind my words.
Handing over a card key, she merely smiled and said, “The elevator on the far left will take you to your room. I hope you enjoy your stay with us.”
No one seemed to blink at the specially crafted carbon fiber attache secured to my wrist with handcuffs. Lined with bulletproof Kevlar, it could withstand a direct blast of C4 and remain secured, its contents intact.
Inside the case was the forged Faberge egg and the only way to get to it would be through me.
The case was secured, needing my thumbprint, retinal scan, and a pin code in order to be opened.
In that order.
But there were two pin codes that could open it.
One would automatically trigger a hidden GPS signal that my team was waiting on and when they received the signal from it they would slowly converge on my location, but they would wait on me to send a second signal that would indicate the time was right to make their entry.
The other would not only activate the GPS, but it would alert my team that they needed to converge immediately.
It was a failsafe on the off-chance I was in trouble and needed their assistance.
One I hoped I wouldn’t need to use.
I needed to be able to wait for all of the key players to arrive. To have them all in place so they could all go down for everything they’d been up to, but had been able to get away with due to their power, influence, and money.
I needed it to be done and over with.
It was the only way I would ever be able to get my life back.
Knowing Sookie was still out there and that maybe I still had a chance at being with her again, only drove me harder to get everything that had been keeping us apart resolved.
Seeing her again had made me realize justice wasn’t the only thing I needed.
In fact, seeing her again – being with her again – had tipped the scales in her favor.
That thought alone had caused me even more guilt – more anguish – over everything that had led me to where I was now.
All because someone had murdered my parents.
I knew most of the blame for my current situation was on me, but the only way to get back to where I wanted to be was to follow through on the path that had led me there.
So I stepped into the designated elevator and inserted the card key given to me by the hotel clerk. There weren’t any buttons for the floors, so I assumed the key itself would bring me to the right floor.
Only instead of going up, the elevator began to descend the moment the doors sealed shut.
When they opened again I found myself in what I at first thought was an underground parking garage.
At a second glance I realized it was a tunnel, wide enough for a large truck or two smaller cars to pass through side by side.
With the case secured to my left wrist, I pulled my gun from the concealed holster using my right hand and stepped into what could end up being my final concrete resting place.
The elevator doors slid shut behind me, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t have opened again if I’d tried. Instead I turned right and walked further down the barely lit cavern, until I came to another juncture.
The Bentley I found occupying the spot just around the corner had tinted windows, but I could see the driver through the windshield right before he exited the car and opened the backdoor, gesturing for me to get in.
Seeing the car was empty, I eyed the driver for a moment – built like a small mountain, gun holstered on his left side, a smaller pistol tucked into an ankle holster on his right leg, genetics hadn’t been kind – before climbing inside.
The gun was still in my hand when he retook the driver’s seat and he looked at me through the rearview mirror saying, “Before we go any further, Mr. Fedorov. You’ll need to have a drink.”
It was only then that I noticed the crystal tumbler filled with two fingers of clear liquid sitting in the cup holder, but meeting the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror again I realized we wouldn’t be going anywhere until I complied.
Picking up the glass, I swallowed the contents in one gulp before looking back at the driver and said, “Just call me Alice.”
Because I had no doubt that I was about to go down the rabbit hole.
My consciousness slowly crept up on me, with touch being the first sense to return to me.
No longer sitting, I could feel that I was laid out on something soft.
Sound came next, when I heard the faint strains of classical music filtering in through my ears, but there was a not quite percussive beat along with it that wasn’t keeping time with the rest of the music.
Forcing my eyes open before they were ready, they slammed shut again at the bright light surrounding me from nearly all sides.
It had been dark when I first walked into the hotel, but there was no doubt it was now daytime, seeing the sunlight filtering in through the windows of the room I was in, once I was able to open my eyes again.
I couldn’t see anything else though. No landmarks to give me any hints as to where I might be.
My head was still woozy from whatever my drink had been laced with, but I managed to sit up and instantly regretted it.
The room felt like it was spinning – or rocking – and it took me another moment to get my bearings, when I noticed the attache was no longer attached to my wrist.
Panic over losing it welled in my chest more than the situation I’d risen in and I threw my feet over the side of the bed, nearly toppling over again when the nausea I’d managed to swallow down threatened to make its way out.
Whatever they’d given me was potent.
So I couldn’t be sure if what I saw next was real or imagined when Sookie appeared in the doorway.
I only realized it was in all actuality Caroline Compton I was looking at, when she addressed me in a business-like tone with, “Mr. Fedorov. I hope you had a good night’s rest.”
“I’ve had better,” I glared back at her, forcing myself to remain in character, while hoping she knew my better nights had always included her.
But I had taken my lead from her by the fact she was doing the same.
Acting as though we were virtual strangers.
Ignoring my attitude, she stepped into the room and pointed off to one side, showing me where the missing briefcase was now sitting, as she explained, “Your attache was removed for your comfort, but I’m afraid your other items won’t be returned to you until the conclusion of tonight’s event.”
My other items.
A quick mental inventory made me aware I would be without my gun and cell phone.
Given the night’s event, I would need at least one, if not both.
The second signal I was supposed to send my team was in the form of an icon on my phone that, when pressed, would tell them to come running.
Now the only way to get them there would be to put in the second pin code.
Swallowing down the bile that was still threatening to come up, I pushed myself to my feet and my eyebrow pushed towards my hairline seeing I’d been stripped down to my boxer briefs.
Hoping like hell it had been Sookie and not Talbot who’d undressed me, I smirked at her and gestured to my nearly naked body asking, “Was it good for you?”
It was something Andre would have done.
And Eric too, if I was being honest.
“I’ve had better,” she smirked in return.
My brow managed to nudge upwards a notch more in silent question, but before I could give voice to it – and potentially out us in a very dangerous way – a flash of white caught my eye.
Turning to face the window at my left, I locked down my facial expression and waited until I knew I had my voice under control before asking, “Where are we?”
The white that had caught my eye was a wave cap, one of what looked to be hundreds, filtering across the blue expanse of water reaching out as far as I could see.
I felt more than saw her come to stand beside me, as she calmly – but warningly – replied, “The Gulf of Mexico.”
Admittedly, I wasn’t up on maritime law. Eidetic memory or not, there hadn’t been a need until now. But I knew as long as we were within twelve miles of the coast, we would still be within U.S. territory.
Then I tried to reason, even if we were in Mexican waters, the United States government had a mutually beneficial – if not sometimes tenuous – relationship when working with our allies at our southern border.
So I wasn’t screwed.
But I had to second guess my assessment when she went on to add, “There’s a continental shelf sitting between the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba where no boundaries are fixed.”
What she didn’t add was that was likely where we were.
Floating in a virtual Bermuda’s Triangle where no one country had any jurisdiction.
So I really was screwed.
But as much as I knew I should walk over and enter what equated to the panic pin code into the case that would activate the GPS and simultaneously call my brothers in arms to my location, I didn’t.
I needed to see – to be absolutely certain – that all of the major players were actually on board. Otherwise the last ten years of my life would have been wasted.
I’d already wasted ten years of the life I could have had with Sookie.
I would be damned if I didn’t get something for my sacrifice.
But since it was Caroline Compton standing at Andre Fedorov’s side, I had to suspect the room we were in was bugged.
She hadn’t given me any kind of silent signal either, indicating that we could charade our way into giving the other an idea of what we were doing there, so I took that to mean there were probably hidden cameras watching our every move as well.
With all of that in mind, I turned to her and shrugged my indifference, asking, “So, when is this party starting?”
Meeting my eyes, there was a hint of worry behind hers, but a grim determination soon came over her face when she nodded and walked towards another door within the room, while saying, “Dinner will be served at six o’clock sharp, with the event following at eight.”
Following behind her, she opened a door and stepped into what I soon saw was a walk-in closet that contained a tuxedo that wasn’t mine – but I somehow suspected would fit me perfectly – as she explained, “Formal wear is required.”
Then snapping her eyes up to meet mine, she dropped to her knees and began pulling up a section of carpet, while she went on to casually say, “Tonight’s menu consists of multiple options, which I’m sure will please the most discerning palate.”
She began listing dishes, ranging from salmon to braised lamb, and described in detail how it would all be prepared, as though she was merely a server at a high end restaurant.
And not somehow involved in a highly illegal criminal plot.
All throughout her explanation, she pulled several handguns, extra clips, and what appeared to be a satellite phone from a secret compartment she’d uncovered beneath the floorboards.
Stepping into the closet myself, I brushed past the door in a way that brought it in on us, but I internally stuttered seeing the concern back in her eyes when they met mine again.
Even so, I forced myself to silently acknowledge that we were more than likely being monitored in some way that obviously didn’t include cameras in the closet, given what she was uncovering, by asking, “Are you a tailor as well? What if the tuxedo doesn’t fit?”
Standing up, she put the guns in my hands and pressed her body against mine, with her cool façade only showing in her voice when she answered, “I assure you, it will fit. But feel free to try it on.”
Outwardly, she was terrified. Something she clued me in to by leaning up and whispering, “I told you not to come.”
She’d told me, ‘Don’t go.’
Had she stuck around that morning, she would have heard me telling her the exact same thing.
But now wasn’t the time for that, so I only whispered in return, “You weren’t complaining about that when you were in my bed.”
It obviously wasn’t the time for that either.
I obviously had no control when it came to her.
“Eric,” she whispered barely loud enough for me to hear.
But I did hear it.
And with it a kind of warmth spread through my body that I hadn’t known I was capable of feeling, hearing her say my name again.
But it left me just as quickly when she added, “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into. These people are dangerous. They won’t hesitate to kill you if they find out you’re not who you say you are.”
My mind flitted back to the case sitting on the table. All I had to do was enter in the panic code and my team would be on their way to rescue us.
But everything she’d just said applied to her as well.
Sookie wasn’t who she said she was either. Therefore she was in danger too.
Suddenly, making sure the other players were on board by now didn’t seem as important.
Not when my hesitation could lead to me losing Sookie in a way that I would have no chance at being with her again.
But I still didn’t know why she was there. I didn’t think she could be playing me – or more like, I didn’t want to believe she was – so while I had some small measure of confidence Sookie would do no such thing, the reality was that I had no idea of what Caroline Compton was capable of.
So I took a leap of faith and exhaled a truth that could see me in a watery grave by admitting, “I have a team in place. All I have to do is summon them and they’ll converge on the ship.”
Granted, it would take them a while and necessitate helicopters that I had no idea how long it would take them to get into the air, but they would be there.
“No!” she exhaled sharply, with her eyes darting at the nearly closed closet door in a panic. Then reining in her voice, she added, “You can’t. All of the pieces aren’t in place yet.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked automatically, with my next question coming through my lips a second later. “And what are you doing here?”
I could have lived for a thousand years and I still never would have expected to hear what she went on to say.
Dinner was finally winding down, but being forced to sit still through the five course meal was a torture in and of itself, in spite of how delicious the food was.
But it was difficult to sit at a banquet table across from the man you suspected had a hand in your parents’ murders and keep your appetite.
If there was such a thing as telekinetic powers, I likely would have developed it through sheer willpower alone and choked him to death with the dinner roll he’d been eating, with nothing more than my stare.
To his right sat Felipe de Castro, but his presence wasn’t all that surprising, considering his connections to the Mexican drug cartel and the fact one of his casinos had been the staging area at the start of this auction.
To the left of Chow sat a man whose presence did surprise me, but more so because he was a well-known recluse.
Appius Livius Ocella purportedly didn’t leave his palatial grounds, located in the countryside just outside of Rome. But the fact he was there told me whatever would be on auction was something big enough to garner his presence.
But sitting just behind him on his left was a boy. No more than fourteen years old, he sat perfectly still with his eyes trained on his clasped hands in his lap.
I didn’t know Ocella to have a son, but the entire night was bizarre, so it was no wonder the word ‘pet’ flitted through my mind.
There was something about him that struck me as familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
While my mind worked through that little puzzle, I took note of the others at the table.
Mustapha Khan, purported second in command of one of the most feared Islamic terrorist organizations, sat having an idle conversation with Freyda Christiansen, heiress to a billion dollar hotel empire.
The irony of the root of her last name wasn’t lost on me, even if it may have been lost on him.
There were a little less than two dozen others at the table, consisting of both the real world elite and the elite criminal underground. Those of old and new money alike sat side by side, their sizable bank accounts and closets full of skeletons uniting them on this one night.
It was a who’s who that would have both the paparazzi and the attorney general salivating if they’d known what was about to go down.
The case was still sitting at my feet.
The panic code was still waiting to be entered into the pin pad.
Sookie was nowhere to be seen.
The only reason why I hadn’t called in the Calvary yet was because the most unique – and illicit – items had yet to be brought onto the ship. I learned from my whispered closet conversation with Sookie that it was a failsafe measure.
The less time those items remained onboard, the less likely any of the people in the room would be caught red-handed on the off-chance the ship was boarded by the authorities.
Even if we were currently sitting in an area where there weren’t any defined boundaries for the authorities of any nation to act within their jurisdiction.
Edgington was a paranoid megalomaniac.
But his paranoia was why Sookie hadn’t said a word out loud when she’d shown up at my Brighton Beach apartment. She’d known he was prone to spying on his new potential contacts and that his method of choice was by bugging their homes.
I normally swept any apartment of ‘mine’ for listening devices every time I entered it, after a long stay away. But even if I’d found any – and I’d found several over the years – I never removed them during an active investigation.
Because I always remained in character while I was there.
Andre Fedorov made calls and conducted deals for his bosses, within those four walls, but not Eric Northman.
When Sookie had ambushed me at my front door, it had been my first trip back to Brighton Beach after I’d last acknowledged my tail with an order of blinis sent to their table. Any plans I’d had to search for listening devices at the time had disappeared, having been replaced by the only search I found meaningful in that moment.
Finding her G-spot.
But having some insight on how Edgington operated, thanks to her friendship with his lover Talbot, was why Sookie had stopped me from saying her name out loud.
I decided on my own it was also why she hadn’t said – or screamed – my name out loud.
In fact, over those few hours we’d spent together in my bed, Sookie hadn’t uttered a single intelligible word.
Anyone listening in likely thought I’d spent those few hours fucking Helen Keller.
But we had communicated in other ways.
But rather than reverting to an insecure teenager – asking why she’d literally come and gone that night – after hearing her reason for assuming a false identity and infiltrating Edington’s inner circle, I only had one thought.
Sookie had been right.
I’d had no idea of what I’d gotten myself into.
And now knowing what was truly at stake, I’d had no choice but to wait until all of the ‘pieces’ were in place to call for reinforcements.
“It would seem we have an imposter in our midst.”
My heart all but stopped at hearing the amused accusation I assumed was being aimed my way. But I’d had years of experience to rely on, which is what kept my mask in place when I turned towards my accuser and replied with nothing more than an arched brow.
“Your reputation doesn’t do you justice, Mr. Fedorov. You are much better looking than Talbot described.”
Allowing my eyes to warm a fraction, I gave the woman sitting on my right a flirtatious smile and replied, “While Talbot’s opinion doesn’t really matter to me, I am pleased to hear yours.”
While she was undoubtedly a beautiful woman, Sophie-Anne Leclerq’s reputation preceded her as well.
She was known in the press as the Black Widow for good cause.
A once upon a time Playboy centerfold turned high end escort, Leclerq had been married and widowed numerous times.
All of her husbands had been old and wealthy men in failing health.
The authorities had suspected more than once that she’d helped them along in finding death, but there had never been any concrete proof.
The fact she was present at the auction would be proof enough that she was up to something shady, but it was Sookie’s suspicions that led me to believe Leclerq was capable of something much more heinous than murder.
But I forced myself to not focus on what Sookie suspected or her reasons for being there because I couldn’t be sure I would be able to concentrate on being Andre Fedorov.
If I thought on it too much I could very well turn into Scarface’s Tony Montana at the Babylon Club.
Thankfully, it was only a moment later when Edgington’s version of Octavio the Clown stood up at the head of the table and clapped his hands together twice to get everyone’s attention, saying in a proud and yet ominous tone, “Attention, please.”
When the crowd quieted down, Talbot turned and nodded at Edgington who then stood up and spread his arms open wide, with a smile to match it as he said, “Friends. As you all know, you were each given hints at what would be on offer tonight, tailored to your specific desires. But we have many more surprises in store for you all and who knows, you might see something else that strikes your fancy.”
Chuckling at some sort of in-joke that I, at the very least, wasn’t privy to, he ended with, “So please, join me now in a little last minute holiday shopping.”
The sound of chairs being slid back echoed throughout the room, so I grabbed the case at my feet and stood up to follow the crowd.
Internally, I was twitching, itching to put the panic code into the case and hoping like hell my team would be able to reach us in time. We would be given an hour to ‘peruse the goods for sale’, so with the clock already ticking, it would likely be a photo finish on them reaching us before time ran out.
But even with everything I’d been working towards at stake, I found most of my concern was centered on Sookie.
Even if she somehow managed to stay out of the fray, she could very well be charged for her complicity in Edgington’s shady dealings. Her motives for being there didn’t matter, but her firsthand knowledge of everything she’d seen and heard would hopefully be her ticket to an immunity deal.
That didn’t make the thought of her being arrested any easier a pill to swallow.
I hated that I’d been so selfish as to not even consider what she could have possibly been going through over the years. In my apathy over my own lot in life, I’d been painting rainbows over her imagined life when in all reality there had been a dark cloud over her head.
I hated that I’d so thoroughly destroyed everything we’d once had together that she hadn’t even considered trying to contact me when she needed me.
I hated that she’d known me so thoroughly, even ten years later, to know that I would have moved heaven and earth to stop her from being there tonight had I known all along her reason for attending. It was that knowledge of me that had kept her mouth shut when she’d shown up at my apartment, more so than the bugs Edgington had planted inside.
I hated that I’d pushed her out of my life at all.
But I had hope that I could get her back. Salvage something of what we’d once had together.
I would say that I would try to make it all up to her, but I knew that was an impossible task.
There was no making it up.
All I could do was vow to do better.
I’d more than learned my lesson, so I hoped she would take another chance on us.
Hearing Edgington’s voice pulled me out of my thoughts and glancing over at the man, he looked positively giddy when he said, “I believe you still have one more item on offer?”
Acknowledging him with the barest hint of a smile, I nodded and placed the case onto the nearest table. We were just outside of the room where the other ‘items’ were being displayed, but a quick glance inside showed at least half a dozen armed guards.
I was sure there were at least twice that many unseen scattered across the ship.
Pressing my thumb onto the scanner, my mental ‘on your mark’ rang loudly in my mind.
Repeating the process with my right eye sounded off the ‘get set’.
So my internal countdown started as soon as I entered in the pin code that would call the elite of the elite, when it came to the FBI’s tactical response team, to my location.
Opening the case, even my breath caught in my throat staring down at what I knew to be a forgery. But it was damn good one.
Good enough for Edgington to sigh out, “My, my…aren’t you the goose with the golden egg.”
“I present you with The Alexander III Portraits egg,” I solemnly stated. “One of the eight missing Faberge eggs, it was made under the supervision of Peter Carl Faberge in 1896, for Nicholas II of Russia who then presented it to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.”
Recalling Talbot’s words at our first meet, I smirked at the coincidence and added, “No relation, I’m afraid.”
“Is it true?” he asked, ignoring everything but the egg.
A quick glance told me that he wasn’t asking if every word I’d just uttered was a lie.
He was questioning whether or not the legend of what the egg contained was true.
So I took the white cotton gloves from the pocket within the case and pulled them on before gently lifting the egg from where it had been securely nestled inside.
Then unclasping the egg, I smirked and said, “See for yourself.”
There had been a lot of back and forth as to whether or not to include the legendary tales of what the egg contained. Ultimately it was decided to go ahead with it, knowing to anyone in the market for it, they would only want it that much more finding out the legend was true.
Staring down into the egg, Edgington gasped seeing the six miniatures of Emperor Alexander III painted on an ivory background and mounted with sapphires.
It truly was a work of art.
After a few more moments of appreciating the exquisite detail that went into creating the egg – Peter Carl Faberge would be impressed too, if he were still alive – I secured the egg back inside of the case and turned to face Edgington as he said, “Very impressive, Mr. Fedorov.”
But his voice took on a more ominous tone, when he added, “If it passes the inspection of my specialists, then I’m sure you will be getting a very handsome finder’s fee.”
“Money isn’t everything,” I replied, repeating his words from that night in his club back to him, with a small upturn of my lips.
Then increasing my smile, I added, “But it certainly helps.”
“That it does, Mr. Fedorov,” he chuckled. “That it does.”
Handing off the case to an armed guard who seemed to materialize out of thin air at our side, Edgington gestured for me to enter the auction room, while saying, “The clock is ticking and I’m sure you would like to get a good look at what is on offer tonight before placing your bids.”
With those words, he disappeared into the room, so I casually strolled in after him. Mentally keeping track of how much time had passed, I slowly walked through the room to take everything in. But I stopped in my tracks when I came face to face with something I never thought I would see.
The sword my parents had longed to lay eyes on for themselves was right there in front of me.
Seeing the man who in all likelihood had them killed, standing right next to it, took every ounce of willpower I had to not reach out and grab it, using it to kill him.
It would be the very definition of poetic justice.
But as much as their deaths, that sword, and the Yakuza leader had brought me to that room ten years later, my reason for being there had changed thanks to a whispered conversation in a closet.
So rather than linger over it, I walked on.
No longer on mine or the FBI’s mission, but Sookie’s.
It was a surreal experience, passing by the Florentine Diamond, Van Eyck’s – either Jan’s or his brother Hubert’s work – The Just Judges, and the Crown Jewels of Ireland. But coming across some of the greatest missing treasures of all time didn’t compare to finding something much more priceless sitting in a corner of the room.
Dressed in a tuxedo made to fit his small size, the boy’s brown eyes were haunted. I could only assume he favored his father because I couldn’t find any visible trace of Sookie’s features in his face.
But then she wasn’t his mother.
She was his second cousin.
I’d heard some of the stories about her wayward cousin in our few short years together. A drug addicted party girl, Hadley Delahoussaye had so thoroughly pillaged her family’s meager savings, their shared grandmother had been forced to mortgage her home and return to the workforce in order to survive.
Sookie had hated her cousin for all that she’d done to financially destroy their family. So much that she’d nearly ignored her cousin’s plea to visit her a little less than two years earlier.
But she ultimately did go and it was then, in the prison infirmary on Hadley’s literal deathbed that Sookie learned of Hunter.
There hadn’t been time for Sookie to go into many details in our whispered closet confessional, but – in a nutshell – Hadley had been working for Leclerq as one of her high end escorts.
I didn’t even blink at finding out she hadn’t given up her former profession entirely, only now she was a madam of her own harem.
Hadley had been caught stealing something valuable from one of her clients. It was what had led to her ending up in prison.
But it was making her employer look bad to the rest of her clients that caused Leclerq to make an example of Hadley.
By taking something priceless from her, as a warning to the others in Sophie-Anne’s employ, to not follow in Hadley’s footsteps.
Hunter had barely been two years old at the time. Fathered by any one of a number of high ranking politicians and billionaires, he was born outside of a hospital, so his birth had never been registered with the state. Legally, he didn’t exist and Hadley had been warned he would be killed if she didn’t keep her mouth shut. It was why Sophie-Anne’s name had never been brought up in Hadley’s defense.
Not that there was much of a defense.
She’d pled guilty to the crimes she’d been charged with.
But as idiotic as Hadley could be, she’d been smart enough to keep a diary, detailing everything she’d ever seen and heard during her time working for Sophie-Anne.
Considered one of the servants, she was considered inconsequential enough to be completely ignored.
Be it from wisdom or just a sign of the times we now lived in, Hadley ignored putting pen to paper and instead kept her diary on a cloud.
A smartphone and WiFi was all she needed to document everything going on around her.
But it was from sifting through all of Hadley’s entries that Sookie was able to piece together what would likely happen to Hunter. She’d been too afraid to get the authorities involved, after reading the names of some of the most powerful people in the country had been clients of Leclerq’s.
So she did what she thought she had to.
With no regard for her own personal safety, Sookie created her own legend, picking the name out of the cemetery next to her grandmother’s house. She used her wiles and natural charisma to get hired by Triple E, which put her into the same circles as those Sophie-Anne traveled in. She charmed her way into their favor, using people like Talbot to get whatever information she could on their less reputable dealings.
She’d kept their secrets and had done god knows what, all to rescue a little boy whom she had never met, but loved with all of her heart.
A little boy who sat in front of me now, looking lost but too frightened to say anything.
Sookie had found pictures of Hunter uploaded to the cloud and while he’d obviously grown some since they had been taken, he was undoubtedly the same little boy she had shown me on her phone a few hours earlier.
The rescue itself wasn’t so much planned as it was she planned on doing whatever she had to in order to get him out of there.
Having reacted in that exact way before, I couldn’t really fault her for it.
Sometimes, there was no way to plan for something. You just used whatever you could in that particular situation to your advantage and hoped for the best.
This particular situation was one of those times.
But it was seeing the placard at his side, advertising him like a car for sale on Craigslist that made me realize why Sophie-Anne would have brought him there.
She had verified his paternity.
Possessing the son of the head of the United States National Security Council, that had oversight of covert operations taking place all over the world, was surely worth a lot.
Even if he didn’t acknowledge Hunter was his son or cared what happened to him, the scandal alone – if made public – would threaten his entire career.
Sophie-Anne wouldn’t have any practical need to have that kind of influence, but she’d certainly known the value Hunter would have to someone else.
Mustapha Khan’s presence immediately came to mind, but it wasn’t his voice that I heard next.
“What do you think, Alexei?”
The name didn’t ring any bells, nor did the voice. But I turned and saw Ocella casually strolling towards us, with his eyes trained on Hunter and – I assumed – Alexei trailing just behind him.
Not acknowledging me in the slightest, he came to a stop a few feet in front of Hunter and turned slightly towards the boy at his back, musing aloud, “He will make a fine brother for you, don’t you think?”
Over my dead body.
A shot of adrenaline coursed through my veins and my muscles tensed in preparation for a fight that I didn’t need and – more importantly – couldn’t win.
The room was filled with more than just guests. Edgington’s armed guards had taken up stations in every corner of the room, with two more flanking each exit.
But there was something sinister in Ocella’s voice that told me he wasn’t just avoiding the hassles of the red tape involved with adopting a child.
He was buying a child that – for all intents and purposes – didn’t exist.
There was only one reason in my mind for why that was and it had nothing to do with holding any kind of power over a sub-committee with oversight over the U.S. government’s secret operations carried out across the globe.
My fists clenched, but I kept my eyes forward, instead using my memory to recall every feature of the boy he called Alexei. But it wasn’t until what I heard next that the pieces all fell into place.
A slight clamor sounded near one of the doorways, with the guard who had initially taken the case containing the faux Faberge egg away from me now carrying it back into the room.
Placing it on an empty pedestal, he nodded at Edgington who then gleefully clapped his hands and turned back towards the crowd, calling out, “Friends! We have a last minute item on offer tonight. A treasure lost through time that has now found its way here into our midst. It is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Gather around and behold one of the eight lost Faberge eggs. I give you, Alexander III Portraits egg.”
I only had a moment to appreciate it had passed their inspection when I heard Ocella say at my side, “Do you hear that, Alexei? Let us go and take a look at a lost treasure of your heritage.”
Hearing Alexei hailed from Russia, my thoughts immediately zeroed in on that portion of the world. I’d spent a good amount of time there, building and then cultivating my legend as Andre Fedorov, so I was familiar with a lot of what would be considered local news.
But one story in particular had made the world’s news.
Ten years earlier, when I’d still been immersed in my parents’ deaths, a young boy had gone missing from his parents’ vacation home on Italy’s Lake Como.
Alexei Mikhailovich had been four years old at the time. The only son of Nicholas and Anastasia Mikhailovich, his ancestral line could be traced to the very people the real Alexander III Portraits egg had been created for.
The news of his disappearance had dominated the twenty-four hour news cycles for months. Specialists ranging from bounty hunters to supposed psychics had been called in to help find the boy, but he had truly disappeared without a trace.
Every once in a while there would be a ‘sighting’ of him somewhere in the world, but none of them had ever panned out.
No one had ever thought to check the residence of the reclusive Appius Livius Ocella.
The boy made no comment. No recognition of who he was or what that fake masterpiece should signify to him crossed his face.
He merely kept his head down and trailed along behind Ocella, tethered to him by an invisible leash.
Glancing back at Hunter, my resolve to get him out of there only strengthened.
But resolve would only get us so far. There were still far too many armed guards and far too little opportunities to make an escape.
My mental clock was still ticking down on the arrival of my team, but without any way of contacting them, it was only a supposition on my part. The fact was I could very well be in this on my own, so I couldn’t rely on them to get me out of it.
It would be impossible for me to take out all of the guards, singlehandedly. Acting aggressively at all would only lead to casualties.
Not that I cared about the wellbeing of the guests in the room, but I wanted them all to stand trial for their crimes.
The possibility of Hunter or Alexei being collateral damage only made me even more hesitant to use force and I was still sifting through my less than favorable options when I caught a flash of red in my peripheral.
Or rather, Caroline Compton strode into the room, wearing a red ball gown that hugged her every curve and carrying a silver tray filled with champagne flutes. Stewards carrying similar trays followed her into the room, with Sookie first approaching Edgington and offering him a glass.
She repeated the process with those standing closest to him and while the stewards took care of the rest of the room, I watched her approach the guards.
Smiling warmly in their direction, she gently cajoled each of them into taking a glass from her tray, before she discreetly made her way towards me.
Just as Edgington lifted his flute into the air, she took the flute that had been in mine – one I’d taken from one of the other stewards on their way by – and replaced it with a flute she’d been carrying in her hand.
“As is our tradition,” Edgington jovially called out into the room. “Before the bidding begins in earnest, a toast to our good fortunes.”
My teeth ground together and I nearly snapped the crystal flute in my hand, but I dutifully raised my glass along with the others in the room when he said, “Cheers!”
A chorus of voices repeated the salutation before everyone drank from their glasses.
Then – one by one – guests and guards alike, slowly crumpled to the floor where they stood.
I panicked for a brief second before it dawned on me that Sookie had replaced the flute I’d been holding with the one she’d been carrying.
And she proved she was better at flying by the seat of her pants than I ever was, when she darted from my side towards Hunter, while saying, “I don’t know how much time we have. There wasn’t a lot left of the magic carpet ride mojo they gave all of you to get you here, so I had to split it up between all of the glasses. The dose isn’t nearly as much, so I don’t know how long they’ll be out for and I had no way of giving it to the other guards on the ship without making them suspicious.”
It took a moment for my brain to catch up and in that moment I realized there was one other person left standing.
He hadn’t moved a muscle. Hadn’t uttered a single word.
Instead he stood there, silently staring down at his unconscious captor, with no emotion on his face.
I only realized I’d been holding my breath when it came out in a relieved exhale, watching him rear back and kick Ocella as hard as he could.
He would be alright.
But thinking of time and how little we had of it, I pulled out the satellite phone Sookie had given me earlier and called my team.
It turned out they were a lot closer than I had expected.
When I’d disappeared from the hotel, they’d given me twenty-four hours before taking a chance and remotely activating the case’s GPS transponder. The reason it hadn’t been active from the start was in case Edgington scanned it looking for a signal.
He was paranoid, after all.
But once they’d locked in on my location they’d begun making their way towards us. By putting the panic code into the pin pad it had upped the ante and increased the speed of their impending arrival.
We had five minutes.
Returning to my side by the time I’d ended the call, Sookie had a scared Hunter in her arms and looked at me saying, “If we can get past the guards, there’s a small motorboat moored to the back of the ship. It has enough gas we should be able to reach the Mexican mainland.”
“I can’t go.”
And I really shouldn’t let them go either.
Everything I’d ever been taught – everything I’d sworn to uphold – was screaming inside of me, telling me that I should keep her there.
Yes, she would be arrested for the part she played as one of Edgington’s employees.
But I was just as sure that she would get an immunity deal for everything she could testify too.
The reason she’d been there at all was clutched in her arms.
No jury in the world would ever convict her.
Even so, it wasn’t any surprise a few minutes later – after taking out three of the guards we’d come across along the way – when I was helping her and Hunter onto the small motorboat.
After all, I’d proven time and again I never could do what I should do when it came to her.
Staring into her eyes, I tried to convey every goddamn thing I’d ever wanted to tell her over the last ten years, but I only said, “Keep the lights off and head southwest as fast as you can. My team is coming by helicopters from the north, so they should miss you if you go now.”
Gratitude, among other things I refused to acknowledge, shone in her teary eyes and she visibly swallowed before saying, “Eric, I…”
Cutting her off because I honestly couldn’t deal with any more emotional upheavals in one night, I only shook my head once and said, “I’ll find you.”
Forcing her lower trembling lip into a small smile, she nodded and softly replied, “I’ll be waiting.”
My bleary eyes were starting to see double, so I rolled down the window and let the cold December air wash over me hoping it would wake me up.
In only a few short hours, it would by January air.
It had taken days to sort through all of the items recovered from Edgington’s ship. Both he and his guests had woken up to an FBI Tactical Response Team, with their weapons drawn and their smiles wide.
And now they were all guests of the United States federal government, while their lawyers sorted out what their defense would be in their upcoming trials.
I knew from the news reports that Alexei Mikhailovich had been evaluated and returned to his very grateful parents, but I hadn’t delved into any of the FBI reports surrounding his time in captivity.
Some things, I was better off not knowing, much less thinking about.
Various governments across the globe were currently petitioning the U.S. government for the return of their nation’s lost treasures that had been recovered in the FBI operation.
Japan, however, wasn’t one of them.
At least, not publically.
Their government couldn’t claim Kusanagi as theirs without revealing they hadn’t had it in their possession all along, as they had previously claimed throughout history.
It was a Catch 22 if there ever was one.
Of course I had no doubt a backdoor deal would be done behind the scenes and away from the public’s eye, but I’d had no qualms whatsoever of secretly taking a selfie with it grasped in my hands.
My parents would have loved it.
My love for them is what had started me out on the journey I’d taken over the last decade of my life.
And even though I had my doubts their murders would ever be addressed in any court, I had no doubts I had finally caught their killer.
But it was my love for someone else that had led me to where I was now.
With the high profile of my last FBI undercover assignment, my legend as Andre Fedorov had been busted wide open. The fact I would be made to testify in several trials of the century over the next few months and years meant I would never be able to do undercover work again.
But a lifetime of traveling in the shadows was a hard habit to break.
It was why I had chosen to drive to my destination, changing out cars three times along the way.
I’d been granted the next month off from work. Depending on how it went, I could very well choose to take the rest of my life off from FBI work too.
That mission had been completed.
I had a new mission now.
Making the turn up the gravel driveway, the farmhouse soon came into view and the tightness in my chest eased, seeing the light filtering through the windows.
I hadn’t called ahead.
I hadn’t done any digging for information.
I was merely flying by the seat of my pants and had taken a leap of faith that it was there I would find my heart’s desire.
Back when I’d still been a young man in love with a young woman and who had their entire lives stretched out in front of them, we’d talked of our future. A future where we might live anywhere in the country – in the world – but I had made her a promise that we would always keep her family’s homestead.
It would be our northern star.
Our one constant in a world that was constantly changing and that we would use it to find our way home again, no matter where we were.
Parking the car, I got out and stretched my legs for a moment before slowly climbing up the front steps.
But my fist hovered inches away from the door, knowing once I knocked there would be no turning back.
My dreams would either come true or they would come crashing down around me.
Either or, it was a hell of a way to start out the New Year.
And there was only one way to find out.
So I closed my eyes and made a silent wish that my New Year would indeed be a happy one.
Hearing the soft laughter of a woman and a child filtering through the door, a kind of warmth spread through my body and fought off the winter’s chill that had settled over me.
With it a small puff of air escaped through my lips before I inhaled deeply and held my breath.
Then I knocked.
*A SPECIAL THANKS TO KJWRIT FOR GIFTING REDJANE12 WITH THIS LOVELY GIFT. dO LEAVE YOUR LIKES AND COMMENTS LIKE YOU ALWAYS WOULD, THEY WILL END UP WITH KJWRIT.
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