Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chapter 17

Oct. 19 – 9:30am

            “Alexandra. I’m sorry, ma petite, but your friend is already dead.”

            “But…” horrified, all the blood drained from Alex’s face. “But…no! That’s not true. They…they said she was still alive; they’d free her if I gave it to them.” Shaking her head, she stumbled back away from him and into the bookshelf behind her. She wanted to scream that he was a liar, that he was cruel to tell her such things when they simply couldn’t be true, that there was no way to know; but the look in Erik’s eyes, so sad and sympathetic, crushed her feeble attempts to avoid the truth. He knew them. If not these exact people, he knew their type and what they were capable of doing. Her friend had died for no reason other than they were friends. In that moment, a part of her innocence died and her faith in humanity suffered a near-fatal blow. Tears filled her eyes but she angrily wiped them away.
No more. No more tears, no more cowering in the background while others risk everything for her. She was through being the helpless damsel in distress, through being the victim of cruel fate. It was time to take back her life and if she had to crawl through the beaten and bloodied remains of the monsters who had repeatedly hurt her family, then so be it.
            Erik watched the riot of emotions play over Alex’s face, the hope fading to despair, despair changing to fear, then fear turning into anger. He could almost hear the thoughts that rushed through her mind and cursed those who had forced her to see just how terrible mankind could truly be. He watched as her naive belief in the innate goodness of people was crushed by the overwhelming evil of these murderers. He could see the advantages this could have in the days to come; it would drive her to keep going, keep fighting, and survive even when it seemed impossible. And yet…still, he mourned its loss for her sake even as he was confused as to why he cared.
            “So,” Alex was proud that her voice didn’t waver. “What do we do now? I think if we want to catch these bastards, we’ve got to get into their heads and figure out a way to beat them at their own game.” She stumbled to the chair on shaky legs while avoiding Erik’s steadying hand and watchful gaze. If she accepted his help now, she’d feel as if she’d failed before she’d even begun.
            “What did you have in mind, Alexandra?” Erik moved to the desk to perch upon the corner, every movement as graceful as a dancer’s.
            “Well…” she looked from her host to the detective, a bit nervous to have their full attention. “Granted, I don’t have the experience the two of you do in dealing with people like this, but I think they want to separate us. It’s a very effective battle strategy, to divide and conquer, since it’s a lot easier to pick us off while alone.” Erik nodded in agreement; she seemed to have a decent grasp of the situation. “Why not let them think they’ve succeeded?”
            “If they think you’re unprotected they’ll come for you, Alex, and it won’t be straight forward, but from the side or the rear when you least expect it.” The detective spoke up for the first time since calling for Erik. “Every time you walk out the door or pass by a window, you’ll be putting yourself into a sniper’s crosshairs.”
            “I know and I can’t live that that, always looking over my shoulder. That’s why we have to take the control from them! Why sit and wait for them to make the first move and dictate the rules? Why not draw them to us instead of constantly meeting them on their turf? I doubt they’re expecting me to agree to their terms and walk into a trap that’s so obvious even I can see it. Let’s suggest a new location that’s easier for us to secure. Then, when they come for the drive, we can take one of them and find out who’s holding their leash and where we can find them.”
            “Absolutely not!” Erik rose from the desk abruptly to glare down at her. “Have you lost your mind? This isn’t some game, child, or the movies. These are vicious professional killers who enjoy what they do. Setting yourself up as bait isn’t a plan, it’s suicide!” Alex stared wide-eyed at Erik, surprised to see the hard set to his jaw and anger in his eyes.
            “Well, it’s better than sitting around doing nothing…”
            “Nothing? Is that what you think we’re doing? Do you really think we’re just sitting around and amusing you while waiting for these people to give up and go away? Sometimes the world moves just a bit slower than a sound bite or 30 minute sit-com.” His once-angelic voice now echoed with demonic fury and was practically dripping in sarcasm and scorn. “But if you’re so ready to join your parents, brother, and friend on that slab at the morgue, I’m sure we can think of a more creative way to accommodate you.”
            “How dare you!” Furious, Alex stood and delivered a resounding slap to his bare cheek, unknowingly dislodging the already loosened adhesive that held the mask and sending it flying into the detective’s lap. When she lifted her hand to hit him a second time, he grabbed her wrist in a bruising grip then pushed her back into the chair. Before she could move, Erik had his hands on the arms of the chair, effectively trapping her in place. He leaned close, his golden eyes glowing and his deformed face twisted in rage, causing Alex to unconsciously cringe further into the chair.
            “I dare because I’m not some silly little chit who wants to play at cops and robbers. This little game you insist you want to play doesn’t follow civilized rules like in the movies. These people play to win at any cost. I know them, how they operate, how they think, because I’ve been one of them. I was the best, in fact. And I know you wouldn’t last 5 seconds against them.” Abruptly, he stood and stormed off to the Music Room leaving behind a very shaken Alex and a shocked detective.

Oct. 19 – 10:00am

            Loud, angry music echoed down the hallway into the stunned silence of the Library. Rubbing her wrist, Alex looked over at the detective and then back towards the thundering music with a frown. How did he manage to function in life with such a volatile temper? And the way he dismissed her idea as nothing short of laughable…she had half a mind to follow him to the Music Room and hit him again. A rustling sound from the sofa brought her attention back to the injured detective just as he was attempting to stand.
            “Da’ud, what do you think you’re doing?” Lingering anger made her tone sharper than she had intended and she winced in chagrin. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t take it out on you but really…where do you think you’re going?”
            “When his anger settles, Erik will need his mask.” The detective turned the mask over in his hands with a thoughtful expression. “Perhaps you didn’t have time to notice the side of his face that this normally covers; however, he would not wish to risk your getting a second look.”
            “Oh? Yes, I saw it. How could I have avoided it?” She chuckled humorlessly. “He was rather close after all. But I don’t see what the issue is. I mean, yeah, it looks like someone enthusiastically took a cheese grater to his face but it’s nothing compared to that temper of his.”
            The detective was at a loss for words. He’d known Erik for years and never had he heard anyone dismiss the affliction so casually. Some of the nitwits they’d run into had even screamed at seeing the man behind the mask. Hell, even the man’s own mother hadn’t been able to deal with it, abandoning the child at a church with nothing but a mask, blanket, and note imploring the priest to pray for the infant’s devil-touched soul. And yet, here was this girl who’d known them less than a week and she shrugged it off like it was nothing worse than a bad haircut. Perhaps…
            “Then, if you wouldn’t mind, would you take Erik his mask?”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Chapter 16

Oct. 19 – 3:30am

Alex listened to Erik’s story of what had happened in the warehouse as she gathered the medical supplies and other items he’d listed for her. She couldn’t help but feel guilty that yet another person was injured because of her and this time it was all for nothing. She had been so certain that she’d interpreted Sam’s notes correctly; now she wasn’t so sure. What did she know about unlocking codes or figuring out hidden messages? Hell, she couldn’t even finish a crossword puzzle without looking at the answers! After laying out the supplies and signing off the radio, Alex returned to the desk and pulled out the papers once more, determined to find where she’d gone wrong. She wasn’t letting someone else suffer because of her mistakes again. So engrossed was she in double and triple checking her notes that she didn’t hear the car pull up, the door open, or Erik’s approach. She shrieked and nearly jumped out of her skin when a gloved hand plucked the pen from her fingers.
            “Alexandra? Are you alright?” She looked up, a bit unnerved by the intimidating black mask, then over to the sofa where al-Zahir dozed peacefully.
            “Yes…I think so. When did you get back?” Exhaustion had come and gone several hours ago leaving her running on pure adrenaline. She stood, rubbing her tired, blood shot eyes, and moved to check on the detective.
            “About ten minutes ago.” He glanced down at the papers on the desk before following her movements with watchful eyes. “Da’ud will recover quickly; it was a clean break and he’s in good shape.”
            “That’s good.” Alex tried to smile but never quite succeeded as she busied herself by straightening and packing away the medical supplies. “And you? Are you in any pain or need help changing your bandage? Oh, but maybe you’re hungry. I’ll go and fix…”
            “I’m fine.” Erik interrupted and glided over to her to take her hands in his. “What’s troubling you, ma petite?”
            “Oh, Erik,” she sighed tearfully, staring at her hands enveloped by his elegant, leather covered ones. “I’m so sorry about all this. First you get shot helping me after I stupidly tried to run away, then…then I messed up with the notes, sending you and the detective off on a wild goose hunt, and now he’s injured too and it’s all my fault and…and…”
He pulled her gently against him, enfolding her in a comforting embrace while she sobbed against his chest. ‘Poor child,’ he thought. ‘She’s had to deal with more in the last few days than any normal person should have to in their lifetimes.’ He held her until her sobs faded into watery hiccups, whispering nonsense words to calm her, and was unsurprised when he felt her sag against him. Worry, guilt, grief, and fear combined with her exhaustion had finally sapped the last of her strength. Lifting her into his arms, he carried her into her room and laid her on the bed. Quietly, he removed her shoes, pulled the blankets over her, and switched off the light before closing the door softly behind him.

Oct. 19 – 8:15am

            Soft, beautiful music gently pulled Alex from a dreamless sleep. Sitting up, she looked around the room in confusion; the last she remembered was poring over the calendar pages and waiting for Erik and the detective to return. And return they did, she knew, for no one other than her host could coax such sounds from a piano. She slid from the bed and noticed for the first time that she was still dressed in the clothes she had on the day before. Shaking her head, Alex grabbed fresh clothes and moved towards the bathroom; maybe a good shower would wake her up and chase away the cobwebs.
             While Alex and Da’ud had been sleeping, Erik had called in a few favors in search of information on the facility in Europe, the owner of the warehouse, as well as who was behind the deaths of Alex’s parents and brother. As it would be several hours to gather the necessary data, he returned to the Music Room in hopes of completing at least some of the score for his next Opera, Don Juan Triumphant. The current performances were scheduled to run until the week of Thanksgiving and he wanted to have the scripts available when everyone returned from the holiday break. By the time his guests had begun to stir, he had finished the rough draft of two songs from the final act. He wasn’t completely happy with them, they still needed to be refined a bit, but it was a good start. Satisfied that he had accomplished so much, Erik stood and stretched, wincing from the sharp pain in his shoulder. He needed a shower, a clean bandage, and to check on Da’ud’s leg.
            Entering the Library a half an hour later, he was surprised to find it empty. His golden eyes surveyed the room for signs of a struggle; his security was tight but there was always a chance… The faint murmur of voices, however, drew him to the small breakfast alcove off the kitchen where Alex and Da’ud were sharing a pot of coffee. The detective had his leg propped onto another chair with a cushion from the sofa to keep it off the hard wood of the seat. Alex, refreshed from her shower, had brewed the coffee and made some toast for the two of them and they were now sitting in cozy companionship. Erik leaned against the center island of the kitchen and listened to the two argue over everything from sports to fashion to politics. His guests appeared to be polar opposites on everything which only served to strengthen their camaraderie as they both enjoyed a good debate. He was about to grab a mug and join them when his friend said something to cause Alex to giggle and grab his hand. Scowling when her hand remained with the detective’s, Erik turned and left the room.

Oct. 19 – 9:00am

            Alex helped the detective hobble back to the Library after an enjoyable breakfast. Though Da’ud, as he’d asked to be called, shared none of her views on…well…anything, he enjoyed friendly debate as much as she. Their meal was one of the most enjoyable she’d had in some time. As she propped the detective’s leg on the footstool and brought him a couple of books, she was surprised to find the Library empty. She’d been expecting to find Erik there since she hadn’t heard anything from the Music Room in some time nor had he shown up for breakfast. Disappointment warred with relief when her host was nowhere in sight; she wasn’t entirely certain she could handle his unique intensity so early in the morning.
            Sitting at the desk, she booted up the laptop with plans to send a few emails to friends. If the press had reported that Sam’s death was murder, Lizzie would be going out of her mind wondering where Alex was; especially since they hadn’t spoken since that day. She pulled up a free email program and carefully wrote a message that she would, hopefully, reassure her friend without giving anything else away. Glancing at the inbox, she started deleting all the junk mail with a shake of her head. These companies really needed to get together; she deleted several emails that either wanted to give her bigger boobs or a bigger penis. Ah, spam. The one great constant in life, even moreso than death or taxes. Well, at least taxes. Before she finished clearing out all the junk, she received an email back from Lizzie. Eagerly, Alex opened the message from her friend and then froze in horror.
            You’re beginning to annoy us and that’s not healthy. Bring the package to the warehouse and we’ll make an exchange. Come alone. Failure to do either and we’ll get a lot more inventive with her than we did your brother. Friday night, midnight, don’t be late.
            Alex couldn’t move, could barely breathe; all she could think of were the pictures of Samuel lying in a pool of blood, beaten, shot, dead. The image shifted and it was Lizzie’s face she saw. Oh, God! She felt sick. What kind of monsters were these people? How did they even know about Lizzie? Frantically, she began looking through the drawers of the desk. She needed that drive! She couldn’t let another person get hurt because of her. Not Lizzie, she had done nothing to deserve this. So focused was she that she never heard the detective’s concerned inquiries nor his call for help. When Erik’s hands closed around her arms, she fought him in her desperation to find the small device that could save her friend. Erik frowned and lifted her from the chair, giving her a shake when she continued to struggle.
            “Let me go!” She yelled and jerked away from him, returning to the desk. “What did you do to the drive? Where is it?”
            “It’s safe,” he snapped. His patience with her emotional outbursts was beginning to wear thin. “Why?”
            “Give it to me.” Alex turned towards him once more and took a step forward with her hand held out, palm up. She prayed he wouldn’t be troublesome about this. From the arch of his brow and the set expression on his face, she knew that particular prayer would go unanswered.
            “No, not until you tell me what the hell is going on!”
            She glared at him fiercely before turning the laptop around for him to read the email she’d received. Alex made an impatient gesture towards the screen. “That is why! I’ll be damned if I’m going to be responsible for someone else getting hurt or killed when I can stop it. The drive is mine, sent to me by my brother, and I want it back.” In some part of her mind, she knew she sounded like a petulant child but it didn’t matter; not if there was a chance she could save Lizzie.
            Erik felt some of his anger drain away as he read the message. Rubbing the edge of the mask where it had begun to itch, he wondered if it would be best to tell her the truth or let her hold onto her hope. But no, she deserved to know what kind of people they were up against.
            “Alexandra. I’m sorry, ma petite, but your friend is already dead.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chapter 15

Oct. 19 – 12:25am

            The dark, filthy alley was silent; the guard’s stammering attempts to save his own skin fading into nothingness under the glare of the hypnotic golden eyes. He’d told them all he knew, of that the black-clad men were certain, but now the question was what to do with him while they infiltrated the warehouse. Erik looked to al-Zahir with one brow raised in question; reluctantly, the detective gave a nearly imperceptible nod and turned towards the door. They couldn’t afford to have the man catching them off guard or raising the alarm but that didn’t mean al-Zahir had to like it. The sharp snap echoed in the night making him flinch; he wasn’t looking forward to the paperwork for that one. Erik unceremoniously dumped the body in a large industrial dumpster and rejoined his partner at the door.
            Since the door opened into the alley, it was easy enough to block the meager light that might have filtered through when they eased it open. Erik, being the taller of the two, placed himself between the door and the dim streetlight as al-Zahir slipped in. Once he was given the all clear, the masked man slipped soundlessly into the room. The small chamber appeared to have once been an office of some sort, containing a beat up, rusty metal desk, a broken rolling chair, and toppled over filing cabinets. From the syringes and rubber hoses amongst the debris that had been swept to either side of the room, it had once been the hang out of drug users. Opposite the door they entered through was another that was barely hanging onto the frame by a single hinge. They both had crouched down to use the gaps to observe the room when the radio in Erik’s ear gave a crackle of static followed by Alex’s quiet voice.
            “Erik…police are responding to a domestic disturbance call two buildings north of you.”
            “Roger that.” At the detective’s nod, they both settled behind the door to wait. The sirens should be close enough to provide adequate distraction for them to enter the main section of the building.
            True to the curiosity intrinsic to human nature, the guards all turned to watch the police cruiser as it drove past the warehouse with lights and sirens; one even opened the front door to see where it was going. Like a pair of living shadows, Erik and al-Zahir slipped soundlessly into the room and made for cover on opposite sides. They hoped to make their way to the stairs on the southern wall unseen, but if that wasn’t possible, the cross-fire would give them an advantage over the greater number of guards. They were within twenty feet of the stairwell when one guard stepped out front to light up a cigarette. The light through the open door swallowed up the shadows hiding al-Zahir as he moved from pillar to desk to garbage pile. Before he could drop from view, the smoker directed the two at the stairs to investigate. With their cover blown, a soft entry and exit was no longer feasible.

Oct. 19 – 1:15am

            Alex moved from the desk to pour yet another cup of coffee. It had been a long day and she was struggling to stay awake. The police radio crackled with non-stop chatter but nothing was within a two block radius of the warehouse since that initial call. She hadn’t heard anything from the detective or Erik since then either and hoped the silence on the earpiece meant everything was going smoothly. She was standing in kitchen preparing a fresh pot of coffee when both the police band radio and the earpiece exploded with noise and caused her to drop the carafe on the slate floor. Letting loose a string of curses that would embarrass the most hardened of sailors, Alex returned to the Library and tried to sort through the information coming through. The glass would have to be cleaned up later.
            Turning down the police chatter, she concentrated on Erik first; even through the tinny earpiece his voice was supernal. There had been problems which made a ground floor exit impossible. They needed a quick exit from the second floor.  Quickly poring over the blueprints, she found two possible means of escape though one was far riskier than the other.
            “Ok…the police traffic has increased exponentially so you’ll probably be hearing sirens soon. If I’m reading this thing right, I found only one exit from the second floor; however, there’s another on the roof. The second floor has access to the stairwell on the western side of the building facing a small alley.”
            “Right, we saw it on the way in and should be able to gain access to it. What about the roof?” Erik’s voice was hushed but she could hear what sounded like gunshots in the background.
            “How far can you jump?”
            “What?!” This time it was the detective who broke in. “What does that have to do with anything?”
            “The building to the south of you is approximately the same height with a narrow alley separating them; maybe five-six feet wide at the most.  From what I’m seeing on the satellite maps, they both have flat roofs which means you could jump to the next building and exit onto the street from there.”
            “You’re crazy.” Al-Zahir stated flatly.
            “Perhaps but those are the only exits I see unless you’ve suddenly sprouted wings or can shimmy down the walls like Spiderman.”
            “Great job, Alexandra.” Erik’s smooth tones broke in. “We’ll try for the fire escape at first and use the roof as a back up plan. If I’m not back by 6:00am…”
            “You’ll be back.” Her voice shook; she didn’t want to even contemplate facing alone the person who could get the drop on Erik Devereaux.
            “But if I’m not,” his voice was gentle yet firm, “there’s a key in my bedroom that goes to the basement. Take the photos, flash drive, papers, and yourself down there and lock the door. There’s a phone that has a direct line to someone who will take care of things from there. Understand?”
            “Do you understand?” The question was both impatient and annoyed; she was wasting time he didn’t have. Resigned, all she could do is answer quietly in the affirmative and pray they’d both return safely.

Oct. 19 – 2:45am
            Erik supported al-Zahir back to his vehicle, placing him in the passenger seat while he drove towards the Estate. He’d have to come back for the bike later if it wasn’t stolen by then. There were policemen surrounding the warehouse already; it had been a close one. They had managed to get to the window that opened onto the fire escape without incident; however, there were iron bars over the glass. Cornered and on the opposite end of the roof access stairs, the two advanced slowly. As one moved to the next pile of debris or abandoned furniture, the other provided cover fire. By the time they’d made it to the stairs, Erik had only four rounds left and al-Zahir had none. Bodies lay strewn along their path like abandoned toys but they could hear more arriving.
            The stairs no longer had a door so they couldn’t bar it behind them but there was one from the stairwell to the roof. While the detective checked the distance and plausibility of the jump, Erik kept watch over the door. If anyone opened that door, he’d be able to take the first four with him at least. Since there didn’t appear to be a ledge on the other building and there wasn’t on the warehouse they currently occupied, they decided to make the jump. As Erik was the more agile and strong of the two, he would go first in case al-Zahir fell short of the mark and needed a helping hand. Before jumping, he walked to the edge to gauge the distance then gave his weapon to the detective in case someone tried to come through the door. A quick run up, a jump, and the masked man landed on the other roof and fell into a roll to ease the impact on his knees as well as slow his momentum. Al-Zahir tossed him his weapon and then followed suit. His landing wasn’t quite as graceful, however, and both men heard the snap that signaled a broken bone. Erik half carried, half dragged his friend into the building to splint the detective’s leg and wait for things to calm down a bit. This was a complication they did not need.
            Unfortunately, the only thing they’d found in the warehouse had been gunmen. Either there had never been anything there to begin with…or it had been moved already.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Chapter 14

Oct. 18 – 10:00pm

            For the rest of the day, Erik passed the time calling in favors to obtain the blueprints of the warehouse, information on the last known owners, and police reports on any arrests made there in the past month. He also talked to the detective and arranged to meet him at midnight a block away from the building. During his planning, he could see that his lovely house guest was growing restless, resentful of being kept out of the loop. He knew Alex was going to want to go but he couldn’t risk it. They were planning a silent entry under the cover of darkness and she would be a liability. He had no information on what, if any, security measures were in place or if anyone was watching or guarding the building. There were simply too many unknown variables; he refused to add another.
            As night fell, he cleaned and dressed his shoulder and then donned an outfit he thought never to wear again. The body hugging material was matte black and moved with him like a second skin. There was nothing hanging off to get caught on barbs or other protrusions that could make noise and alert those within. Carefully, Erik removed the flesh colored latex from his face, grimacing at the red, raw patches on the mangled flesh beneath the mask. Even if it did rub his skin raw in places, the latex mask was ingenious; few even noticed it existed so completely it blended with his skin tone. However, the material was porous and would absorb the body paint he’d use to camouflage his face and never come clean. As he rubbed a soothing cream onto the abrasions, his eyes remained glued to his reflection in the mirror. His lip curled in a sneer as he traced the many scars from the surgeries that he’d hoped would make him look like everyone else. While he reluctantly admitted that they were successful to a degree, enabling him to use a smaller mask than in his younger days, he’d given up on ever looking normal. Turning away from the monster in the mirror, Erik slid the matte black half mask over his deformity and left his room in a foul mood.
            Alex had been pacing the hallway at the bottom of the stairs waiting for him. She wanted so desperately to go with him but logic stated that she’d be more hindrance than help. When Erik appeared at the top of the stairs, it was like seeing a dark angel fallen to earth. He had a weapon in a holster strapped under his left arm, a knife in a boot sheath, and what looked to be a thin rope hanging from his right hip. His was a deadly, terrible beauty and she shivered with both dread and excitement as she watched him stalk down the stairs. He was the Angel of Death and she was eternally grateful that, for now, he was on her side. She felt her cheeks burn when her eyes met his golden ones and realized she’d been staring at him in open admiration.
            “Do I meet with your approval, Alexandra?” His low murmur full of amusement and unholy beauty wrapped around her and stole her breath. She took an involuntary step back and clasped her hands tightly in front of her to keep them from reaching for him.
            “Um…” Her brain had gone on holiday and appeared to have taken her tongue with it. “Oh. Yes, of course, Mr. Devereaux.” He just chuckled, a soft rumble of musical notes.
            “Erik, please.” He rested a hip against the baluster, arms crossed; the relaxed pose betrayed none of his impatience to leave for the warehouse. “Now, did you wish to speak to me?”
            “Yes,” Alex tore her eyes from his and forced her brain cells to resume proper function, “I want to go with you…” When he made to interrupt, she raised a hand to stop him. “Please, hear me out. I want to go but I understand that I can’t enter the warehouse with you. I’d only be a liability. But can I at least ride with you? I’ll stay in the car to provide look out, a quick get away, moral support, something, anything? I hate feeling so useless and dependent on others to do everything for me.”
            Erik tilted his head slightly in thought. He was both surprised, and yet not, that her common sense and logic had overruled her natural inclination to want to be a part of the operation. Though she could prove an asset if she stayed in the car on radio, he was hesitant to allow her anywhere near those who wanted her captured or dead. No, she needed to stay here.
            “I need you to stay here, Alexandra,” he noted the disappointment in her eyes as well as stubborn determination. “I need you somewhere safe and alone in a car in the middle of the industrial block definitely does not meet that criteria. However, you won’t be idle.” He led her to the Library and wrote down the login and password for his laptop, brought the police band scanner to the desk, as well as handing her a small 2-way radio earpiece. “What I need you to do is monitor the police frequency and notify me if there are any calls in the block around the warehouse. Also, pull up the blueprints of the building in case we have to make a hard exit.” Catching the expression on her face, he trailed a gloved finger along her jaw line then nudged her chin so he could look into her eyes. “This isn’t just busy work, Alexandra, but I can’t deny I want you to remain here. I can’t concentrate on the operation if I’m worrying about your safety.”
At her nod, Erik stepped away and brought from a locked drawer a duplicate of the Beretta she’d seen in his car. He laid it on the desk as well as a spare magazine then left for the garage. Alex moved to the window to watch as he sped away on an eerily quiet motorcycle. With a sigh, she sat at the desk, placed the small device over her ear, and turned on the police band radio. It was going to be a long, slow night.

Oct. 19 – 12:10am

            Erik pulled alongside al-Zahir’s unmarked Monte Carlo. Quietly he explained Alex’s role for the night and the detective was glad she’d been convinced to remain in the safety of the Estate. The two men easily slid back into the roles they’d both given up five years ago; checking the radios, synchronizing their watches, and double checking their weapons. While they hoped to avoid contact that night, they weren’t crazy enough to enter the lion’s den unprepared. Signaling their readiness, the two men blended expertly into the shadows and stealthily made their way to the warehouse.
            Silently skirting the perimeter of the building, the former agents noted the lack of visible guards or patrols. Surely it hadn’t been left unattended? Suspecting a trap, Erik motioned for al-Zahir to find cover. For several minutes they watched the rear door facing a small alley until a brief flare of a match rewarded their patience. The guards were inside and not professionally trained. With a nod to his partner, the masked man glided to the door and unwrapped the cording at his hip. They needed answers and he planned on convincing one of the guards to be cooperative. Once he was in place, al-Zahir grabbed a bottle from the trash littering the alley and, staggering past the door, began singing a bawdy pub song. He was off key, off tempo, slurred the words, and generally mangling the song in so many ways as to make Erik cringe and swear never to allow his friend to sing again. However, it did accomplish its goal for the door opened and the smoking guard exited the building. The moment the door clicked shut, the thin cording tied into the intricate Punjab lasso flew across the distance to catch the man around his throat. With a tug, the guard was on his knees struggling for his every breath. Al-Zahir searched him quickly and removed the pistol and knife the man was carrying. Erik handed the lasso to the detective, allowing it to loosen a fraction, and moved in front of the helpless guard. At the sudden stench of ammonia from the dark patch growing on the guard’s trousers, Erik’s yellow eyes glowed with malicious glee while he explained in vivid detail the consequences of silence and loyalty.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chapter 13

Oct. 18 –8:30am

The next few days passed uneventfully and with little contact between the two residing at the estate. Alex spent most of her time in the Library while Erik composed in the Music Room. Though she actually read very little, the warm sun streaming through the windows and the deep, muted colors of the décor were soothing. She had hoped to use the laptop to work on her résumé and send a few emails out to friends and family to let them know she was well. She managed to get her résumé completed; however, both her host and the detective advised her against any contact with someone other than the two of them. Known friends would be monitored by those who were hunting her, they said, and it was best for them to believe her missing or even dead in order to keep them safe. Alex acknowledged the logic and understood their concern but she was frustrated at having to put her life on hold. She was certain she'd been fired from her job and was probably looking at eviction from her apartment. If she didn't make the payment at the end of the month, her car would be repossessed as well; not a good way to begin her post-university life. When she finally brought up her financial concerns with Erik and Da'ud, they assured her it was all being taken care of and not to worry. She wouldn't have been surprised if one of them had patted her on the head like an inquisitive child.
By the second day, when none of the many books could hold her attention, Alex removed the papers from the desk drawer to see if anything new would come to mind. She laid the calendar pages out on the desk in chronological order, setting the others aside. Just as she was about to close the drawer, she noticed the stack of photographs. Pulling them out, she was horrified to see her brother's body lying in a pool of his own blood in her apartment. She flipped through the pictures slowly and was amazed at the cruelty of Sam's attackers. His face was bruised and cut like he'd been in a fight. He had multiple gunshot wounds. Alex struggled against fresh tears at the realization that her brother had been tortured before he'd died. What kind of monsters could do such a thing to another human being? She had hoped it'd been quick, painless, but here was proof that Sam had suffered and horribly so. Wiping her eyes, she replaced the photographs and turned her attention to the papers. There had to be a reason these were kept and not newer ones as some were recent yet others were nearly a month old. Feeling useful for the first time since she'd been told of her brother's death, Alex searched for a paper and pencil and started making notes of possible connections.
While Alex puzzled over the discarded papers in the Library, Erik struggled to complete one of the final songs of his latest work. He never worked well when others were present and he was very aware of his guest's presence in his home. He freely acknowledged that he had been purposely avoiding her; neither of them needed to let the emotions of the situation coax them into doing something they'd both regret. Alex was terribly vulnerable at the moment, even if she'd never admit it, and he wasn't about to take advantage of that for his own lustful pleasures. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine her beneath him squirming in ecstasy as he let his lips and hands taste and touch every inch of her smooth, soft skin. He shuddered at the thought of being buried deep into her warm body, hearing her cries of pleasure, feeling her nails on his back…
Erik growled in frustration and threw yet another sheet of paper into the trash. That blasted woman was driving him mad! He rose so quickly the piano bench fell over with a loud bang. Prowling around the room like a lion caught in a cage, he tried to think of anything but Alex. Oh but she was such a delectable little thing; clever, strong, resourceful and yet soft, tender, vulnerable. He wanted to test her just to watch the fire dance in her pale green eyes, hold her close and vow to keep her safe from those who'd harm her, challenge her and watch her rise to the occasion. With a groan, he rested his forehead against the cool glass of the window, gazing out at the riot of autumn colors in the nearby wood. This lustful obsession had to stop before he ravished the chit. She didn't seem the type for casual sex with no strings; no, she was the 'bring home to meet the parents' forever type. Which translated to 'not his type' at all.

Oct. 18 –11:00am

While Erik was struggling with his raging libido, Alex was also struggling. The calendar pages didn't seem to be related in any way. The dates seemed random; there were no notes or appointments written on any of them, no writing of any kind. There had to be a connection else they would have all been consecutive, recent dates. Crumpling a sheet of paper and tossing it in the trash, she stood and stretched before wandering into the kitchen. It was close enough to lunch time and maybe stepping away would help her think of something she'd missed or forgotten to check. Gathering the ingredients for a sandwich, Alex's thoughts wandered to her host. He'd been composing in the Music Room and the parts that had filtered in to her had brought her to tears several times. He was such a contradiction; gentle yet strong, violent yet tender, aloof yet hospitable. He was dark and dangerous and sexy as hell, the way he moved was so sinfully delicious it was probably illegal in some states, and those eyes...it was like he could look straight into your soul. Shuddering, she imagined those long musician's hands playing desire's melody across her skin. No, no, no. This had to stop! She wanted more than just sex from a relationship, no matter how much the man made her turn into a puddle of goo with just a look. And she was pretty certain Erik Devereaux wasn't the dinner and a movie type; oh no, he was more the 'Paris vacation fling' type. Definitely not her type at all.
With a sigh, she picked up her plate and moved to the small table to eat, trying to put her mind to something other than Erik. Nothing good could come of this fascination and if she let herself fall for the man, it'd be a total disaster. The papers. Yes, that's what she should be concentrating on, not her enigmatic, moody host. While she ate, Alex pulled her thoughts back to Sam and wondered just what was so important about those particular dates. He rarely left the apartment and she thought he'd told her about any doctor's appointments or meetings with the parole board. None of the dates were birthdays or anniversaries of any of their known family members, living or dead. Really, the only thing he'd ever used that calendar for was the trivia questions. Her sandwich was halfway to her mouth when it struck her: the trivia questions! That had to be it!
Abandoning her meal, Alex ran back to the Library to test her theory and collided with Erik's lean, muscled chest. His arms instinctively snaked around her waist to steady her. Looking up, she was struck mute at the warm glow of amusement in his golden eyes and the hint of a smile that played along his lips. Why did he have to be so damn gorgeous? Alex blushed and stammered an apology while stepping out of his loose embrace. With all her effort going towards not flinging herself right back into his arms, she didn't realize he'd spoken until he gently grasped her arm to halt her retreat.
"Are you alright, Alexandra? You look a bit flushed." His voice was silky smooth and caused her blush to deepen. Slowly she removed her arm from his hold.
"Y…yes," She stammered, looking anywhere but at him. "I'm fine, Mr. Devereaux, really…just…"
"What? Oh, ok, um, Erik. Anyway, I just thought of something and was trying to, you know, get back." Risking a glance at his face, she took a step back and motioned to the doorway. "To the Library."
"Very well," he motioned for her to lead the way. "What have you discovered?"
Alex took a deep breath as she returned to the Library, trying to steady her racing pulse. Her body still tingled everywhere it had touched his; she could still feel his heartbeat against her fingers. The arguments against crawling into Erik's bed and ravishing him until he kicked her back out were getting lost somewhere. She reminded herself that she wasn't one for casual sex and then immediately thought that there'd be nothing casual about sex with him. He was a musician after all; one who played many instruments with such beauty that she was certain he could play her just as expertly. Blushing, she risked a glance at him as she sat behind his desk and was caught in his golden orbs. The amused arch of his brow in question deepened the red on her cheeks until she feared they'd catch fire. Desperately, she tried to focus on the calendar pages instead of ripping off his clothing and having her wicked way with him. It was quite the struggle.
"I think we've been going about this the wrong way," she stared down at the papers, refusing to look at him and risk giving in to her baser urges. "For the past two days I've been looking at these papers with no luck but I wasn't looking at the right thing. I've been so focused on the dates, trying to understand their importance, when it's not the dates at all. Sam had little use for a calendar; he rarely went anywhere and I kept track of his medical and parole appointments." Alex risked a quick glance at him as she made notes on a fresh sheet of paper. Seeing that she had his attention, she turned the pages around so he could read them, arranging them in order. "I believe I told you how Sam loved to catch me on the trivia. It was part of our daily routine. Every morning, we'd eat breakfast, discuss the news, and plan dinner for that night. Just as I left for school or work, he'd ask that day's trivia; I'd give him my best guess when I got home that afternoon. The trivia is what's important about these pages, not the dates." She handed him her notes. "If you answer each question in order by date, it's an address."
Erik read over each question and answer, impressed with both the code and her ability to break it. Using something so personal was a stroke of genius on the boy's part. He moved around the desk to log into his laptop and type the address into a mapping program. The building was located in an industrial section of town that was run down and known for harboring all sorts of shady individuals. It appeared he needed return to town.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chapter 12

Oct. 15 –6:30pm

     "Have you discovered anything from the flash drive Sam sent me?"

     "No, but I'm hoping you will." When Alex looked surprised, he placed the laptop on the table beside her. "It's password protected. Do you think you can open it?" She looked up from the screen and was caught in Erik's amber gaze. It seemed like minutes but was no more than a few seconds when she remembered he'd asked her a question. Dragging her eyes back to the screen that patiently awaited a password before revealing its secrets, she frowned and shook her head.
     "I'm not sure. He never reused them like I do; most things I access online have some variation of the same password. It helps me remember." She drummed her fingers on the table as questions spun through her head. Questions only Sam could answer. "Why would you send me something that was locked, Sammy?" Alex murmured softly. "You should have told me the…wait! The letter!" She jumped up quickly and then regretted it as the room shifted under her feet and she stumbled. Erik caught her before she could fall, one brow quirked in inquisitive amusement.
     "If you will tell me where to find this letter, Alexandra, I will get it for you. You seem none too steady on your feet still." Nodding, cheeks on fire only partially from the embarrassment of nearly tumbling to the ground, Alex was frozen in his arms. With her hands pressed against his warm, hard chest, she could feel the steady beating of his heart against her fingertips. Her common sense wandered off in disgust as she marveled at the feel of him; he didn't seem to have an ounce of fat. She could feel his muscles flexing with even the slightest of movements and a shudder ran from the tips of her fingers to the tips of her toes and everywhere in between. "Alexandra?" Amusement tinted his angelic voice and she looked up at him in confusion. "The letter? From your brother?"
     Alex blinked; then blinked again before his words penetrated the fog in her brain. She backed away slowly and sat on the sofa before her shaking legs gave up the effort to keep her upright. Raising her hands to her cheeks, she didn't think it possible to blush so deeply that it hurt. Until now, that is. Dropping her eyes and hands to her lap, she was mortified at groping him like a hormone crazed school girl. Good Lord, she barely knew the man, wasn't too certain she even liked him very much, yet here she was slowly melting into a puddle at his feet. She really needed a boyfriend. Soon. Struggling to regain her composure, she quietly asked him for her purse. Erik handed her the bag but didn't release it immediately once she had taken it, speaking only once she'd dragged her eyes to his tender ones.
     "Do not be embarrassed, ma petite. It was a joy to hold you in my arms." He released the large bag in order to tuck an errant lock of hair behind her ear. As he pulled away, he slowly ran his finger along the edge of her jaw and up to trace her lips, lingering there for a second longer before moving to sit in the nearby armchair.
     Stunned, Alex didn't move for several minutes. Then, unconsciously, she raised a hand to trace the path of his caress, shivering at the fire he left upon her skin. Fire she still felt even after he moved away. Never had a simple touch reduced her to such a state of confusion and longing and sheer, unbridled hunger. She felt like one of the many instruments in his music room that he played to perfection and the intensity of her desire to see just how skilled those graceful fingers were frightened her to her very core.
     His golden eyes had turned a molten amber as Erik watched her drift along the edge of desire. He, too, could feel the tingling of his fingertips where he'd caressed her silken skin. Though he maintained his usual outer calm demeanor, inside he was on fire. He wanted to taste the nectar of her lips, glide his hands along every inch of her body, and bury himself deep inside her until they both found the pinnacle of ecstasy together. He shifted in the chair, growing increasingly uncomfortable in his fitted jeans. Becoming attached to this woman, any woman, was out of the question. Once more Erik hoped this situation would resolve itself soon so he could return to the theatre and the willing arms of an ambitious actress.
     As if emerging from a daze, Alex retrieved a folded sheet of paper from the bag in her lap and scanned its contents quickly. Chewing on her lower lip, she typed something in and pressed the Enter key. Erik's gaze darted between the monitor and her profile; anxious to see if what she'd typed was the correct password, yet also curious as to what she was feeling. She had yet to look at him since he'd touched her. When the laptop's screen shifted and displayed several folders instead of the password request, Alex smiled faintly and shook her head.
     "You always were the sentimental one, Sam," she whispered softly. "Now, let's see what you stumbled into."
     Erik moved to sit beside her on the sofa, ignoring the sudden tension in her shoulders and back as he leaned over her. As she cycled through the folders on the flash drive, he could see nothing that would have gotten the young man killed. Most were simple text documents in the crudest form, some appeared to be formulae, but they hit the jackpot in the folder containing nothing but photographs. Alex opened them up as a slide show and watched as they cycled by.
     "It looks like a military base…the types of buildings, the layout." She frowned as the pictures continued to change until she stopped it at a picture of what appeared to be a guard shack at a gate. There was a sign attached to the fence just under the concertina wire that contained what she assumed to be the name of the facility in Cyrillic letters.

Кировск химической и электронный центр развития оружия*

     "It's a research facility," Erik stood abruptly and ran a hand through his hair while he paced. "The location appears to match the coordinates your brother wrote on that piece of scrap paper but this," he gestured towards the monitor, "brings up even more questions."
     "Why?" Alex's eyes followed his nervous pacing. "Can you read – what is that? What does the sign say?" Erik moved to the desk and removed the papers he'd placed there the night before.
     "Your brother wasn't surfing the internet to play simple hacker games of tearing down security walls just because he could; he was looking into the deaths of your parents. Unfortunately for him, he was discovered obtaining this information and they had to remove him before he jeopardized them any more."
     "Them?" Alex's voice shook slightly. "Them…who?"
     "More than likely agents of or hired mercenaries for the GRU – Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate; the equivalent of our DIA. The Defense Intelligence Agency." He clarified when she still looked confused. "Intelligence gathering and monitoring is their primary mission. They may not have been the ones who physically neutralized your parents and brother but they would have been the ones providing information to whoever did. This," he waved a hand indicating the laptop, "is a weapons development facility whose focus is chemical and electronic research.
     "If I had to guess, it remained hidden from our satellites due to the high mountains surrounding it as well as the mining sites. Our satellites may have overlooked it as another mine shaft or mineral processing plant. They would not want this information in the wrong hands. I'll get Da'ud to contact a few friends in the Agency and see if they can uncover anything concerning the photos."
     "But what do we do until then?" Alex stood and began pacing in agitation. "Do we just sit here and hope for the best and that they don't find me? I have to do something, Erik! These people killed my brother; they killed my parents. Now, they're after me and I…I…" Tears filled her eyes and she wondered how she still had tears left to cry. It seemed that's all she'd been doing lately. Moving to the sofa, she sat heavily and took a deep, shuddering breath. "I'm scared."
     "I will protect you," his voice wrapped around her like a warm blanket, soft and beautiful. "I won't let anything or anyone hurt you while you are in my care."
     "It's never going to end," Alex wrapped her arms around her torso and looked up at him, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. "Is it?" Against his better judgment, Erik sat beside her on the sofa and took her gently into his arms. His fingers threaded through her hair as he stroked it and placed a kiss, soft as a butterfly's wing, on the top of her head.
     "It will. I promise."

A/N - * roughly translates to the Kirovsk Chemical and Electronic Warfare Facility (if my translator worked correctly).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Chapter 11

Oct. 15 –5:30pm
"You need to drive, Alexandra." She looked over at him in surprise and noticed the spreading stain on his left shoulder.
It took them longer to reach the estate than Alex would have liked. The drive was once again mostly quiet other than periodic inquiries concerning Erik's health or to verify directions. She gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white and tried to think of anything other than the sounds of gunshots or the smell of blood in the air. Knowing her passenger was injured, she felt uneasy talking to him when he should be resting and preserving his strength. He might be the most frightening, obstinate, ill-tempered, sexy man she'd ever met who had earlier sent her running from him like all the hounds of hell were after her, and yet he was injured now because of her. She couldn't shake that one thought. Hard on its heels was the additional realization that he had probably…no, definitely saved her life today. It was humbling. It was terrifying.
Erik felt only the slightest twinge of guilt at letting Alex think he was injured worse than he really was. The wound in his shoulder bled a lot, but preliminary assessment was that the bullet had passed straight through, missing bone. He doubted there would be another attack tonight and this gave him a legitimate excuse to study his lovely companion. Erik had shifted to lounge comfortably against the passenger door, his eyes open to mere slits so he could watch her undisturbed. She was such a confusing, exasperating female that he couldn't put her into any one category. He had frightened her earlier when she'd mentioned his mask; the damn thing always put him on the defensive and brought out his temper. Alex hadn't cowered long under the weight of his fury. No, instead, she had planned out a way to escape him and his abrupt anger. He was pleasantly surprised at her courage and resourcefulness; the plan was well conceived and nearly flawless in execution. Nearly. Unfortunately, the flaw was a major one: her destination. The very last place she should have gone was to her apartment as it was the most logical. It was easy enough to deduce that if she left, she'd need more clothing and her vehicle. He decided to humor her but, after waiting for several minutes for Alex to leave the building, he was forced to call in order to hasten her departure. He had seen a couple of shadows making their way to the complex and somehow he just knew they weren't residents or friendly visitors. Either they'd seen her go into the building or he hadn't been the only one who'd noticed her disappearing act from the post office. Again, she proved her intelligence by using the fire escape at the rear of the building instead of taking the risk of running into him and thus the watchers. These traits would help her in the days to come when things got even more dangerous.
Once they'd left the town behind, the traffic had begun to thin until the only lights to be seen were the moon overhead and the twin headlights of their car. As deserted as the road had become, he quickly and easily noticed the black SUV slowly gaining on them. He had decided not to mention it to Alex at first, hoping he could outpace them. That had almost proven to be a costly mistake when he'd barely gotten her head down before the first hail of bullets. Erik had expected her to go into hysterics or freeze up in fear; her frightened scream had backed that initial thought. But then he'd asked for the weapon he kept in the glove box…Where in hell had she learned to handle a pistol with such efficiency? There had been nothing in her file concerning any type of small weapons training. The way she checked the weapon and prepared it for use let him know she'd done it many times in the past; it had been so smooth, so instinctive. She had even loaded a fresh magazine in case he needed it. He made a mental note to inquire about that later when they were both better rested.
As the car pulled up to the gate, he quietly gave her the access code while noticing her pallor and how tightly she gripped the wheel. She had fought it the entire trip back but, now that the danger had passed and they were safe inside his estate, shock was beginning to set in. The lingering smells of blood and gunpowder weren't helping to keep the fear at bay. He directed her to park at the front door and moved around the car to help her inside. Once he'd seated her in the Library, something inside her broke and Alex began to shake all over, taking in great, gulping breaths of air and yet feeling like she was suffocating. Erik held her hands and spoke quietly in his most persuasive voice; he had to calm her or she'd never stop hyperventilating. As her breathing slowed, her eyes darted fearfully around the room seeing nothing until they fell on him, a beacon to guide her to safety. With a cry, she flung her arms around his waist and sobbed against his chest. She could feel his long, nimble musician's fingers stroking her hair and it was so calming, so soothing...so safe. The soft strokes of his fingers and the warmth of his angelic voice lulled her into a fitful sleep. Erik laid her gently on the sofa and covered her with a blanket before climbing the stairs to his room in order to tend to his shoulder.
In less than ten minutes, Erik had returned to the Library wearing a clean shirt over his bandaged wound. Moving silently to the desk, he pulled his laptop from the main drawer and watched Alex while it booted up. Her sleep was far from restful, however, plagued as it was with nightmares. There would be moments of peaceful slumber shattered by agitated tossing and turning and small whimpers of fear. He hoped she'd be able to handle the days to come; it would only get worse before it got better. Of that he was certain. As the muffled beep pulled his attention back to the computer, Erik quickly checked email. If al-Zahir had discovered any new information, he would have sent him a quick message to arrange a meet. Erik wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed to find his inbox empty; no news isn't always good news in this business. Knowing there was nothing to be gained in needless worry, he pulled the flash drive from his pocket and inserted it into the USB port. He only hoped what was on this small device had been worth young Samuel's death.

Oct. 15 –6:00pm

Alex slowly returned to wakefulness to the faint clicking of someone typing on a keyboard. Opening her eyes, she lay quietly and watched Erik at the computer. How could someone who was so frightening at the same time be so gentle and seem so safe? Her host was so complex and contradictory. And gorgeous and sexy, a little voice whispered in her head. Frowning, she pushed the thought away. There was no way she could fall for a man like him nor could he ever fall for her. They were entirely too dissimilar. After his anger in the car, she had expected him to be furious after grabbing her in the parking garage. However, he seemed to have taken her escape in stride, almost like he'd expected her to try to run from him. And then, after everything, there was the way he had protected her in the car.
Closing her eyes she could still feel Erik's hand on the back of her head as he pushed her into the seat, still see the glass shattering and falling around her in that first hail of bullets. Mere seconds had separated her from life and death. Mere seconds…and the reflexes of a man she was certain wished her anywhere but in that car beside him. In those few seconds, she'd gotten a quick look at the shooter and his look of unholy glee had shaken her to the core. It hadn't been a job for him. He wasn't trying to kill them for money or material gain though she was certain he wouldn't turn it down. No, he had enjoyed it, enjoyed inflicting pain and fear, causing death and destruction. In that one look, those few seconds, Alex knew they'd never stop until they had what they wanted. Only death satisfied men like that. Hot tears seeped from her closed eyelids; she had thought she was scared before but now she was truly terrified. If it hadn't been for Erik… He had protected her, killed for her, and taken a bullet for her. Even now, he was trying to help her. And for what? What reason could he have?
"Why?" Alex had whispered the question aloud without thinking. When Erik's head snapped up from the monitor and his golden eyes caught hers, she attempted to clarify. "Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?"
"Why? Because I was asked to as a favor for an old friend; because if the person behind this is who I think it is, then I feel partly responsible. And," he shrugged elegantly as he stood and began pacing, "because people like you should never have to deal with people like them."
"Oh." Alex followed his movements, reminded of a panther prowling his territory. "You saved my life." She sat up and folded the blanket to mask her shaking hands. "I know it's not nearly enough, but…thank you."
"Alexandra." Erik took the blanket from her hands and waited for her to look up at him. Slowly, light green eyes met amber and were captured in the tenderness of his gaze. "You did wonderfully today, my dear. There is no need to thank me."
Blushing at his praise and the soft glow of his eyes, Alex glanced around the room to find some way of changing the subject. When she saw the laptop open at the top of his desk, she remembered the package her brother had sent. Perhaps the small drive would provide some answers as to why all this was happening.
"Have you discovered anything from the flash drive Sam sent me?"

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chapter 10

Oct. 15 –3:00pm

The post office was mostly empty with only a few customers gathering needed forms, buying stamps, or picking up their mail from their boxes. Seeing Amanda Waterson at the counter, a classmate from college, Alex decided to put her plan in motion. With an apologetic smile at Erik, she made her excuses and stepped into the ladies room. Thankfully, it was empty and only had a single stall. She apologized silently to whomever was going to have to deal with this at closing, dropped an entire roll of paper into the toilet, and flushed. It rewarded her with a messy overflow. Now, to get to the back exit.
Alex left the restroom with a frown on her face and spent the short amount of time in line to complain to Erik about its condition. When they got to the counter, she chatted with Amanda for a time, signed for an oversized padded shipping envelope, and then asked if she could use the employee restroom in the back since the one in front was a disaster. Studiously ignoring Erik’s irate frown, she thanked her friend profusely and made her way to the employee lounge. Once she turned a corner and was out of the masked man’s sight, Alex bypassed the lounge and ran for the employee’s entrance in the back. She estimated she only had about five minutes before he’d start looking for her and didn’t want to waste any time. Slipping out the back door, she looked around cautiously but, seeing no one, walked quickly across the parking lot and into an alley she knew to be a short cut to her apartment.
Tearing open the padded envelope sent by her brother, Alex removed a flash drive and a letter and stuffed them into her purse. When she passed an industrial trash can, she tossed the envelope inside without stopping. It only took her fifteen minutes to get to her apartment and she waited for a group of businessmen to pass before slipping up the stairs. Once inside, she took a deep breath, locked the door behind her, and took one last look at the place she’d called home for the past three years. The police or the building manager must have had someone come in and clean up a bit as she didn’t think it was as ransacked as it had been when she came by before going to Devereaux’s. She pushed from the door and went into her bedroom to pack another set of clothing in a back pack. She also included the most treasured of her family photographs in case something happened while she was away. Alex also took the time to change clothes on the off-chance Erik was looking for her. She might as well make it as difficult as possible. She was on her way to the door when the shrill ring of the telephone nearly caused her to jump completely out of her skin. Caller ID showed only “Private” so she decided to ignore it and let the machine pick up. Her hand was on the door knob when the beep sounded followed by the silky smooth tones of Erik Devereaux.           
“Alexandra, you’re only putting yourself into more danger with this foolishness. I will be waiting downstairs. Don’t take too long and make me fetch you.” The abrupt message ended with the click of a phone hanging up. Damn, his voice was sexy even when pissed off. Shaking her head at that random thought, Alex tried to think of another way out of the building. There was no way she was going out the front where she knew he would be waiting.
            A sudden thought had her rushing up the stairs to the next floor. Her apartment was close enough to street level that there were no fire escapes; however, the next floor had one down the hall on the opposite end of the stairwell. Thankful that most of the building’s inhabitants were either at college or work at this time of day, Alex made it to the fire escape with no problems. Once she was climbing down the ladder to the alley, she breathed a small sigh of relief. Now she just had to make it to her car unseen and then she could drive to the lake house.
            Looking around somewhat nervously, Alex entered the parking garage and started towards her car. She’d been careful and didn’t think she’d been seen but still had the feeling she was being watched. She had almost put the key into the lock when a hand wrapped around her wrist and yanked her away from the car. Fear shot through her which only intensified when she looked up to see Erik’s smoldering golden eyes.
            “Just what in hell do you think you’re doing?” He shouted as he towered over her. The hand on her wrist tightened and he gave her a shake. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“Of course not,” Alex retorted while trying to pull her arm from his iron grip. “But I’m not sure I’d be any safer with you than on my own and I much prefer my own company.” She tugged at her arm again and wondered how a man who was so slim could be so strong; she might as well try to pull down one of the supports for the garage.
“Stupid little twit,” Erik sneered and pulled her closer to glare down at her. “You really don’t have any idea what you’ve stumbled into, do you? If you had succeeded in unlocking your car, it would have been the very last thing you’d have ever done. The damn car is rigged to blow.” Her eyes widened in shock and she glanced over at her car.
“You’re lying.” The strong words she’d planned to say died on her tongue and she slowly brought her eyes back to his. “That only happens in the movies, right?”
“If you don’t believe me, then go ahead.” Erik dropped her wrist and gestured towards her car. Alex looked between him and the car as she tried to return circulation to her fingers. The left side of his face was just as expressionless as the right and he arched a brow enquiringly. “Well? We’re rather exposed here so make your decision soon.” Alex shook her head and gave a defeated sigh.
“Yeah, ok fine. Whatever. Let’s just go.”
Erik nodded and took her upper arm in a firm grip, though one not so bruising as before. As he walked her to his car, she noticed his eyes darting around and could feel the tension in his body. Did he really expect someone to try something in the middle of the day? No one even knew she had gone to her apartment so how could they be watching her? When they reached the car without incident, she breathed easily once more. His tension was starting to affect her and she was glad to have the even the small space between them allowed by the gear shift. 
They rode in tense silence once more. Alex kept her eyes determinedly on the passing scenery while Erik concentrated solely on his driving. She refused to read the letter Sammy sent her while trapped in the car with him; if she fell apart again she didn’t want him to be a witness. She also didn’t know how she was going to access the information on the flash drive when her laptop was still sitting in the trunk of her car. Alex wasn’t sure she wanted to turn the drive over to Devereaux or even al-Zahir. While it may provide answers about Sammy’s death, it was still the last connection she had to her brother. Pulling her purse closer, she decided she’d wait until she read the letter before telling anyone about the flash drive.
“Can you see behind us without turning around, Miss Roberts?” Erik’s voice was quiet and his eyes were on the rear view mirror as much as on the road ahead. Alex looked at the side mirror but the angle was wrong so she pulled out her compact and dusted some powder over her face as she watched a black SUV draw closer. “He’s been following us since we left your parking garage. I only mention it now due to the fact that we’re on a long stretch of empty highway and he’s getting closer. He’ll make his move shortly. Where are the contents of the envelope?”
“I…in my purse. What do you think…”
“Give it to me,” Erik interrupted sharply. “If something happens, you do not need to be carrying it nor do you want to leave it in the car.”
“Now!” That honeyed voice was cold as ice as he held out his hand. Alex searched through her purse and brought out the small drive. She gripped it tightly in her hand as she stared at him, remembering his fury and threat from earlier and trying to decide if she should trust him. “Alexandra.” His voice was soft, persuasive, and caressed her name like a lover. It seemed to come from everywhere and no where; almost too low to hear and yet echoed in her mind like thunder. “Give it to me; I’ll keep it safe. Trust me.” Dazed, she placed the device into his hand and felt his fingers stroke hers as he pulled back. A shudder ran down her spine and she withdrew her hand quickly, placing it in her lap. Her fingers tingled from where they’d brushed against his and she forced herself not to rub them.
Confused and distracted, she didn’t notice that the other vehicle had closed the distance between them until Erik grabbed her and pushed her flat on the seat. Barely a second passed before they heard gunshots and the windows in the car shattered. With a scream, Alex covered her head with her hands as more shots were fired. Erik yanked the steering wheel causing the car to swerve suddenly and crash against the larger vehicle. The other driver desperately tried to maintain control as the SUV was forced onto the shoulder. Once it was back onto the road, it accelerated quickly to regain its lost speed and began to gain on the Taurus.
“Glove box! Give me the weapon and stay down.” He barked quickly, his eyes constantly darting between the road and the black SUV. After a short search, Alex pulled out a matte black M9A1 Baretta 9mm pistol. Quickly she checked the magazine, set it to double-action semiautomatic, slipped off the safety, and passed it over to Erik. She missed his speculative glance as she returned her attention to check for additional magazines. She pulled out a box of rounds and an empty magazine, loading it as quickly as her shaking hands were able.
“Hold the wheel; keep it straight.” Once she had control of the wheel, Erik took aim and fired into the SUV. When Alex rose slightly to check where the car was on the road, he swore and pushed her head back down, covering her with his body as more shots tore into the car. “Stay down, dammit!” he growled before sitting up and shooting into the SUV once more. Erik smiled in grim satisfaction at the spray of blood that hit the windshield. When the larger vehicle started to swerve wildly, he accelerated and took the wheel from Alex. He drove for several miles before he pulled onto the shoulder and allowed her to sit up.
“You need to drive, Alexandra.” She looked over at him in surprise and noticed the spreading stain on his left shoulder.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Chapter 9

Oct. 15 –1:00pm

            The ride into town was mostly silent other than the soft music from the radio. At first, Alex attempted conversation by pointing out and asking questions about landmarks and other interesting bits of the passing scenery but was met with clipped responses at best or unintelligible grunts at worst. Though the side of his face that she could see showed no hint, she could tell he was annoyed. Was it the conversation in the Library this morning, the questions and small talk now, or was he simply annoyed in general? After nearly thirty minutes and being met with resistance at every turn, she gave in to his desire for silence and turned slightly to study her host once more.
            In the sunlight his features were more defined than she’d been able to make out earlier. Alex was surprised to note that his eyes were, indeed, a golden amber of a shade she’d never seen on a human. Fascinated, she watched as the light brought out dark auburn highlights in his black hair that was slicked back in his normal style. Briefly she wondered what it’d look like all mussed and falling over his eyes. Perhaps then he wouldn’t seem quite so intimidating?  Her eyes wandered along his smooth cheek and down to his strong jaw. Once more something struck her as being slightly…off and again she couldn’t identify why. It wasn’t until she noticed the faint stubble on his chin…but just on the left side. The right was perfectly smooth. Strange. Where the stubble ended, she finally noticed the slight ridge that bisected his chin. Hardly noticeable until it was known to be there, Alex could now follow it as it traveled along his jaw line, up the side of his face near his ear, to his hairline, then down the bridge of his nose to skirt his mouth. She noticed the slight shadowing of his right eye and was confused. It was almost like he was wearing…
            “A mask.” Alex was unaware she’d whispered the words aloud until Erik shot her a look full of malice.
            “Ah yes, the mask.” Erik’s quiet voice dripped with cold fury making her almost wish he’d yell instead. “I’d been wondering when you’d broach that particular subject.”
            He pulled the car onto the shoulder, placed it in park, and let it idle; Alex sat frozen in her seat as he turned to pin her into place with his gaze. Startled, she was reminded of the predatory eyes of a large cat while stalking its prey. A light shudder passed over her at the thought.
“Mr. Devereaux. I…I’m sorry…” her voice shook as she stammered an apology. “I didn’t mean…I didn’t even know I’d said anything.”
“Oh but you did mean to, my dear,” his anger rolled off him in waves and threatened to suffocate Alex where she cringed against the door. “You’ve been studying me like a bug under a microscope, first last night and just now. Are you happy now that you’ve satisfied your…curiosity?” Erik sneered on the last word and Alex shook her head violently in denial. “No, you say? So now you want to see beneath the mask, to find the monster who hides. Would that make you happy, Miss Roberts?”
“No, please, Mr. Devereaux,” she whimpered, finally breaking away from that intense glare to stare down at her hands. She noticed how they shook and clasped them together tightly. “I’m sorry, please. I didn’t mean…I was only….” She shook her head and fell silent; afraid she could say nothing that wouldn’t make him angrier than he was already.
“Know this, Miss Roberts. If you ever again mention or, God help you, touch the mask, those who killed your brother will be the very least of your worries.” Venom dripped from every word, his angel’s voice now echoing the cries of demons from the blackest depths of hell. At her terrified nod, Erik savagely threw the car back into gear and reentered the highway with a shower of dust and squealing tires.
Trembling, Alex stared out the window no longer seeing the scenery as it flew past. This was the man who was supposed to keep her safe? This was the man who would help her find the ones responsible for Sammy’s death? When he’d threatened her, she’d heard the awful sincerity in his voice. He’d kill her without any regrets and the detective would probably cover for him. Her hands tightened until her nails cut into her skin. She’d probably be safer with her brother’s killers; Good God, they couldn’t be any worse than Erik Devereaux! Stealing a surreptitious glance at his stony countenance, Alex began to plan how to get away from him and take her chances on her own. She had several acquaintances at the post office; perhaps they’d let her out the back? She could return to her apartment, pack, get her car, and drive to the lake house. Once she was gone, she was certain neither the detective nor Devereaux would come looking for her. What would they have to gain by it?

Erik silently fumed as he drove. He could tell he’d scared the girl, but dammit, why did she have to mention the mask? He’d thought he’d disguised it well, but obviously not well enough for such a slip of a girl to see it. Why did women always have to pry? From Eve to Pandora to the trembling child in his car, women constantly wanted to see, to know, to have those things that are forbidden. Hell, protecting the chit wasn’t even something he wanted to do. He was only doing it as a favor for Da’ud and due to the possible involvement of Christine. Christine. God, he loved her still but hated her at the same time. Her betrayal had cut him soul deep; moreso because she’d lied about her feelings for him and had another lover than even for trying to kill him. He wasn’t even sure what he’d do if he saw her again. If she tried to kill him a second time would he be able to stop her? Would he even want to? He hoped it wouldn’t come to that; any hesitation on his part might have disastrous results.
Pulling his thoughts from Christine, Erik glanced over at Alex and saw that she was deep in thought. Considering what had just occurred, she was no doubt planning something extremely foolish and he contemplated letting her succeed. At least then he could wash his hands of the whole affair and return to his music; favor be damned. And yet…the image of the crime scene photographs crept into his mind. Samuel Roberts lay in a pool of his own blood – beaten, tortured, then shot like an animal – and Erik could easily imagine Alexandra lying there instead. Dammit, why should he care anyway? She was just like all the others who see the mask and forget there’s a human being behind it. Erik glanced over at Alex once more, surprised to see the glittering trails on her cheeks left by silent tears. Perhaps he’d overreacted just a little. A very little.
“We should arrive in about twenty minutes,” His voice was quiet and calm as he reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. Laying it on the seat beside her, he returned his attention to the road.
“Thank you.” Alex’s whisper was barely audible and her hand shook as she wiped away her tears. She wondered if she should apologize again, she sincerely wanted to, but felt it might be best to simply let the subject drop entirely. In an effort to ease the tense silence, she asked him to explain the plan again. Erik nodded and walked her through the plan once more. This time, Alex had some questions and they spent the remainder of the trip discussing all the possibilities and potential problems. As they pulled into the lot and walked towards the front door, she took a deep breath to steady her nerves. It was time to find out what this was all about as well as escape her masked protector.