Two whole days had passed since Alex had disappeared; two days and three nights of sheer hell for the masked composer. Two days for him to realize just how much his jealousy, his temper, and his insecurities had cost him. He’d forced himself to watch the film with an artist’s critical eye instead of allowing his emotions to overrule him; it was then that he’d noticed the stark differences between the females on the screen and his Alexandra. Unless he was mistaken, there were at least four different women involved who were built enough like Alex for the mind to fill in what the eyes didn’t see. Whoever had made the film – however they’d made it – knew Erik well enough to know which buttons to push to upset him. Like a fool, he’d fallen neatly into the trap set for him. Damn his temper and insecurities!
Feeling helpless, Erik had called Lizzie shortly after his fiancée had fled the opera house, hoping beyond hope that Alex had run to her friend for comfort. Every day, he would call her again for news and every day he was disappointed. The police and his friends in the Agency were searching for her as well but had no leads, which didn’t really surprise him. If Zakharov had her, as he suspected, he wouldn’t be foolish enough to let her be seen. It bothered him greatly that he’d heard no word from the Russian and he feared for his Alexandra.
The DVD, which Erik discovered did not belong to any video store, was sent to professionals for analysis. They confirmed what he should have known all along: none of the women were his fiancée. Someone very skilled in video manipulation had worked hard to replace the porn stars’ faces with Alex’s. They were not as skilled, however, with covering their tracks and the Agency’s experts were confident they’d have some information on the computer that had been used within the next day or so. In this way, they hoped to track the machine and find the ones responsible. Erik chafed at the delay but knew that rushing things would only cause mistakes to be made; mistakes they could ill afford. What he could do in the mean time was confront Carla Goldman and convince her that it would be in the best interest of her continued good health to cooperate. That Monday morning, he left word with the management that he wished to see Ms. Goldman in his office the moment she arrived and that they were not to be interrupted under any circumstances. Try as he might, he couldn’t conceal the malicious and somewhat maniacal gleam in his golden eyes when she knocked and entered his office.
“Erik, I was told you…wanted me?” Carla placed as much sultry innuendo in her question as her acting skills allowed. She’d heard the gossip already about the disappearance of the Roberts bitch and strove to keep from her face her smug satisfaction at the success of her plan. Now to close the deal and make him hers.
“Oh yes, Carla, I most certainly do. First, however, I have something special I wished to show you. Will you accompany me?” Dressed all in black, even down to his supple leather gloves, Erik was an imposing, dangerous figure. When he held his hand out to her, the soprano shivered in delighted fear and took his hand. Finally, she was to get what she deserved!
Triggering a hidden switch, Erik opened a section of the wall that led into a dim passageway. The evidence of such a tunnel made many things click into place for the singer that had baffled her over the years; mainly, how the composer managed to move about the theater with no one ever seeing him in the halls. The further from the office they walked, the dimmer the light became until they were surrounded by total darkness. Only then did she start to wonder where, exactly, he was leading her.
“Not too much further, I promise.” Erik’s soft murmur calmed her fears though she couldn’t fathom how he was aware of them.
After what seemed like hours, though was more like a mere ten minutes or so, Erik stopped and Carla could hear a metallic click. A door opened to reveal a room lit only with candles and a fire burning merrily in the hearth. Smiling at the romantic gesture, Carla eagerly followed the maestro into the room. The door clicked shut behind them, molding seamlessly with the wall, and something about the whole situation was beginning to unnerve the singer. First, there was the lack of furniture. The room was delightfully bathed in candlelight but there appeared to be no chairs, no sofas or chaises, no beds with which to enjoy the mood it set. Then there were the windows; more precisely, the fact that the entire room had none which allowed the shadows to swallow up the corners where the candlelight could not reach. Finally, there was Erik himself. His golden eyes, always his most striking feature, glowed eerily in the dim light and she wasn’t too certain she liked the look in them.
“What a…um, charming room to be sure, Erik.” Regardless of her efforts, Carla’s voice shook slightly in nervousness. As silent as the shadows from the flickering flames, Erik slowly circled his prey. “Is something wrong?” Nervousness was easing into fear as she wondered if he’d discovered the video was a fake.
“I’m not certain, Ms. Goldman, but I’m sure you will enlighten me.” He circled the trembling woman once more before stopping in front of her. The flames from the surrounding candles were reflected in his golden eyes giving them a hellish appearance as they bore implacably into hers. “You see, you brought a film to me on Friday that you claimed to have found at the video store down the street. When I visited that self same store, I was informed that the disc did not belong to them. Will you explain that to me, please?”
“Oh, did I tell you it was from that one?” Carla very nearly sagged in relief that he merely wanted to know where she’d found the DVD. “I’m sorry, Erik, I go to so many stores, you know. I believe that particular movie was from that truck stop on I85. You know the one? Right off exit 382. If you’d like, I could return it for you?” She cursed the hopeful tone that crept into her voice.
“That will not be necessary, Ms. Goldman. You see, I know for a fact that the disc did not come from the truck stop, or the video store, or any other place your mind is scrambling to conjure up at this moment. What you are going to do for me now is tell me where you really obtained it.” Closing his hands into fists, he repeated to himself his vow never to kill a woman unless absolutely necessary. It had eaten at his soul that he’d been forced to deal with Christine; he was uncertain it would bother him in the least to do the same to the woman before him now. “Do not think to lie to me for I shall know.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Erik, but the joke’s worn thin. I’d like to return to the stage now.” Seeking comfort in indignation, Carla moved towards the wall she was certain they’d entered through only to find no sign of a door. She shrieked slightly when a gloved hand clamped around her upper arm like a steel band and dragged her to a chair that’d been hidden in the gloom. Before she was aware of what was happening, metal shackles closed over her wrists and ankles to effectively hold her in place. Carla struggled against the bonds only to discover that, not only were they secure, but also that the chair appeared to be latched to the floor. Terror was beginning to set in as she realized the seriousness of the repercussions that her actions were now bringing upon her.
“Let me clue you in on something, Ms. Goldman.” Erik removed a folded chair from its place against the wall and sat in front of his captive. “No one knows that this room even exists; it’s not on the blueprints or documented on any building records. How do I know this? I designed this theater and the blueprints submitted to the necessary authorities included only what I wished for them to know. Therefore, I feel it is my duty to warn you that no one will be searching for you and, if they were to do so, they will not find you here. As of noon today, you see, you quit your position of lead soprano at the Metropolitan due to artistic differences with the composer of the latest opera.” Erik pulled an envelope from his pocket and Carla’s eyes widened as she recognized what appeared to be her handwriting on the outside. “Since I already knew you had been unhappy with things here, I’d begun to train your understudy just last week. I suppose that was what finally convinced you to quit.” The smile on his face unnerved her more than the glint in his golden eyes, if that was possible.
“You can’t do this! I have friends; people will be looking for me and they’ll…”
“…do absolutely nothing,” he smoothly interrupted as he put the envelope back into a hidden pocket. “You shouldn’t overestimate either your value to them or their reliance on you. Blankenship is a vile man who rose to power on the body of his own father. Chaney, a Russian drug runner and sex slave trader, would kill his own mother in order to save his own hide if she were not already dead.”
“Michael wouldn’t abandon me! He told me Robert was powerful and would keep me safe…” Carla’s eyes widened at the victorious gleam in his eyes and the cruel smile that graced his handsome face; she had just confirmed her association with the two men.
“Thank you for that, Ms. Goldman. I wasn’t entirely certain you’d involved yourself with such despicable characters but you have set my mind at ease.” All pretenses of charm and politeness fled his voice and his eyes. “Where is Chaney and how do you contact him?” The warm, golden voice was a honey coated razor slicing at her will and she desperately tried to pull her eyes from his hypnotic gaze. “Carla. I need to talk to Chaney. Where is he, Carla?”
The singer couldn’t turn away, didn’t want to turn away. That voice pulled at her like a dozen gentle hands, caressing her with the promise of ecstasy if only she’d answer him. Shivering in anticipated bliss, Carla let herself float along the erotic pull of his words. Nothing could hurt her here; here, she was beautiful, charming, rich, and powerful. The soft echoes in her head told her that all she had to do to remain there forever was to answer his questions. A smile flitted about her lips as she nodded slightly. Yes. She’d stay and be beautiful and young forever.
“Chaney has a private jet. He was going to take the Roberts slut away with him. Away with him…away from you…” Her voice drifted along the waves of her hypnosis-induced fantasy.
“Carla, lovely Carla. Where has he taken her, my dear?” Erik kept a firm grip on both his temper and her mind. She’d break eventually; he’d never known the person who could resist his will.
“Away, away…” Carla giggled softly before sobering. “He won’t hurt her, you know. He only wants to keep her from you. He knows you belong to me.” A dreamy smile tugged at her lips as her eyes fluttered shut. “You belong to me, my Erik. You always have, you know.”
“But I cannot be with you, my dearest Carla, while she is out there somewhere. I need to be certain she won’t come take me from you. So, you see, I must find her in order to keep us safe.” He felt the bile rise as he spoke the words to the hateful woman before him. That’s what this was all about? She risked Alexandra’s life and their engagement out of hurt pride and jealousy?
“Oh very well, my love,” his captive pouted in what he believed was supposed to be an endearingly cute manner, “if you must in order for us to be together. He said he was taking her home to his family’s villa to meet his parents.”
“Very good, thank you, Carla. You’ve been most helpful. Now, I need you to do something for me; can you do that?” Oh God, he had to reach his Alexandra in time!
“Anything for you!” Again, she giggled girlishly. Erik leaned forward and spoke quietly to the singer, never once letting up on the firm hold he had on her will.
Once more Alex woke to unceasing darkness. It took several deep breaths to subdue her rising terror but she knew she’d accomplish little if she acted precipitously. Since she couldn’t see anyway, she closed her eyes and felt her environment. Unlike the cold, damp cell she was once held in, this seemed smaller, drier, and made of wood. A crate, perhaps? Wiggling slightly in the confined space, Alex attempted to trace its shape and felt her heart lodge in her throat even as she clamped her lips to keep from screaming at the discovery. Hyperventilating, she felt the darkness closing in on her even more and, before she succumbed to the peace of unconsciousness, she had but one thought: she was in a coffin.