Chapter 34: The Moment
“We all must live our lives always feeling, always thinking the moment has arrived.”—Tracy Chapman
“You’re late!” Pam yelled by way of phone greeting.
Eric leered at Sookie who was sitting next to him in Niall’s limo. “I thought that it was good to be fashionably late. And I have a very good reason for being late. In fact, I have two very good reasons.”
Sookie blushed and popped him on the arm.
“Just get here,” Pam snarked. “If I have to answer one more goddamned question about when you’re going to be here—for your own ‘coming out’ party, I might add—I’m going to go ballistic.”
“The limo just turned down Fifth,” Eric said. “We’ll be there soon.”
He hung up the phone when he realized that Pam had already disconnected the call.
Sookie giggled. “No one ever taught that girl phone manners.”
“Nope,” he chuckled, though Sookie could tell that he was nervous.
“You okay?” she asked quietly. “Are you ready for all of this?”
“Yeah,” he sighed, dragging his hand through his hair.
“‘Yeah’ to both questions?” she asked with a little smirk tugging at her lips.
“Yeah,” she grinned now. “Who would have thought it? You and me in the public eye?”
He smiled and squeezed her hand, more grateful for her and for Johan than he could say.
As if knowing that he was being thought about, their child stirring a little in his car seat. Immediately, Elsa reached out to put his pacifier back into his mouth, and he settled back into his sleep. Johan was quite fond of car rides—and his pacifier.
Eric smiled at his grandmother in thanks. Mormor winked at him and then went back to the quiet conversation that she had been having with Niall. The two were going to skip the party in favor of taking care of Johan. Ben had given them permission to come to the control room of the MET for the evening—just in case Johan got fussy and needed his parents for a while.
Certainly, Johan was a good baby, and he was generally social. But he was also quite stubborn, and when he wanted something—especially if that something was his parents—he made his “wishes” known. Loudly. Therefore, it was always best if one of his parents was close—just in case.
Of course, Ben and his crew didn’t mind the fact that Johan was visiting. They’d met him several Sundays before when Eric and Sookie had recommenced their trips to the MET. The only change to their previous routine had been the guard that Ben insisted stay in the room with the family at all times—in addition to Milos and Miranda, of course. So far, they’d not been bothered at the MET in any way, despite how often their pictures had been in the papers during the last several months. Of course, Eric and Sookie both still had the uncanny ability to stay “unseen” and inconspicuous when they wanted to. And Johan had been content to sleep against his father’s chest in the special carrier they’d gotten for Eric—at least through much of their visits to the MET. He always spent a little while awake, however. And his intelligent blue eyes seemed to assess the room in much the same way as his parents did before he would decide that a nap would be a preferable way to spend his time.
However, at lunchtime, when he’d get fussed over by Ben and the other members of their “family” at the MET, Johan would stay wide awake. Doris was a particular favorite of his.
The limo pulled over at the curb in the same place that Sookie had gotten out the year before since they didn’t want to take Johan in through the throng of reporters. Ben and Doris were waiting at the curb.
“Call us if he needs us—okay?” Sookie said, bending down to kiss Johan lightly on the forehead.
“Of course,” Elsa said with a soft pat to Sookie’s arm.
Milos opened the limo door, and Elsa, Niall, and Johan quickly exited the car—with Johan immediately reaching out for Doris. Milos made sure they were in the building safely before coming back to the car.
“Ready for the onslaught?” Eric asked as the limo moved forward again. “You know, we could have snuck in too.”
“Don’t think I didn’t think about that,” Sookie smiled. “But the Press needs to see you being all handsome and healthy and ready to take over NP.”
“Handsome—huh?” Eric asked with a little smirk.
“Very,” Sookie said with a blush.
He chuckled. “I love that you still blush around me.”
“I was just thinking about how I can’t wait to get that tux off of you—again,” she winked though her blush grew deeper.
Eric growled a little and kissed her neck so that he wouldn’t ruin her lipstick—again.
However, his ministrations were, unfortunately, short-lived, as the car stopped and then Milos opened the door. Henry and Bobby—who’d been made Johan’s official godfathers the week before—were waiting to help Eric and Sookie navigate through the press line. Miranda and Thalia were already in the MET in order to make sure that all was well for Eric and Sookie’s arrival.
And—of course—Ben had added quite a bit of security as well, given the fact that the press was rabid to hear from Eric and Sookie, who had yet to answer questions about their parents, their personal lives, or their child.
As Eric and Sookie made their way up the steps of the MET, Eric stopped and responded to a couple of questions geared toward his taking over the running of NP and the future direction for the publishing giant. However, he answered no questions about other topics, and Sookie responded to no questions at all—except for one asking her who had designed her dress. Knowing that Pam would kill her if she didn’t answer that one, Sookie had smiled politely and announced, “vintage Chanel.”
Once inside the MET, Eric and Sookie were greeted by a smiling Amelia.
“What are you doing down here?” Sookie asked as she handed off her coat to Milos, who gave it to the guard who had taken his place on Ben’s crew.
“Pam sent me down so that you two didn’t get sidetracked,” she winked. “You look gorgeous—by the way!” she said, looking appreciatively at Sookie’s dress.
Sookie smiled at her friend. “Thanks. Pam did a good job.” In truth, the dress gave her a lot of confidence. Pam had done an excellent job picking out something that was flattering on Sookie but still modest. It reminded her of something that Audrey Hepburn would have worn: understated and elegant. It was Sookie to a “T.”
Eric and Sookie looked at each other and took deep breaths. They’d thought long and hard about whether to cancel the NP January party, but, in the end, it was the perfect opportunity for the family to present a united front to the Press. And the stockholders needed the reassurance that NP would go on as before—despite everything that Appius had done.
“Ready?” Eric asked.
Sookie nodded, tightening her hold on Eric’s hand.
“Two hours and then a break?” he asked, as he reached up to smooth a strand of her soft hair behind her ear.
“That’s a date,” she smiled.
Eric and Sookie drifted around the galleries hand-in-hand—neither one of them willing to let go of the other.
Given that connection, the NP party was very different than the others that they’d attended.
Certainly, a few things were the same for Eric. He worked the rooms as he always did, casually discussing potential deals with guests, talking to the authors who had received invitations, giving words of appreciation to his team at NP. The difference came in the feeling that those various conversations brought to him. In the past, he’d had agendas dictated to him by Appius. And he’d been required to talk to people he didn’t want to work with. However, people like that hadn’t been invited to the party.
Thus, the mood at the event was much less tense than usual, and the group more convivial. It was clear to all involved that Eric would run things differently from his father.
For her part, Sookie was having a better time than she thought she would. It helped that Eric always steered her toward a friend or family member after he’d had a conversation with a colleague. Sookie could tell that he was making sure they participated in conversations that she could be more a part of, and she loved him all the more for his efforts.
It also helped that she felt surrounded by friends. Holly had gotten Sookie caught up on all the news in the copy editing department. One piece of satisfying news was that Arlene, Dawn, and Maudette had been let go after they’d slandered Sookie in the Press. It seemed that their lies and gossiping ways had finally caught up with them, and the Press was unkind when it had been discovered that they had been making up most of their supposed “insider information” about Sookie. Pam had given them the choice of leaving on their own—with a week’s pay—or facing a lawsuit. They’d all chosen the first option.
Sam had taken over Pam’s job, and Holly, who had just finished her business degree, had stepped into Sam’s position on a trial basis. So far, things had gone very well, and she already had a new team of copy editors in place.
In addition to Holly, Sookie and Eric also had pleasant conversations with Pam and Amelia, Thalia and Bobby, Henry and Blake, Claudine, Alexei, and Tamara. Continuing to surprise Eric and Sookie a little, Sophie-Anne had also been quite congenial.
Andre—true to his word—hadn’t exacerbated the scandal surrounding the Northmans by spilling the beans about all he knew of Appius’s shady dealings. And—given that fact—as well as his cooperation in general, he had been offered a plea arrangement. He’d have to spend only three months in a minimum security facility for his role in trying to frame Eric and Guo Li for theft. When he got out of prison, there would be a restraining order on him so that he’d have to keep away from Sookie, Eric, and Johan, but given what had happened, Sophie-Anne didn’t seem to hold that against Eric and Sookie. As another term of his plea arrangement, Andre had agreed to surrender his Visa to be in the United States and to return to France following his sentence. He wouldn’t be allowed in the United States again, and he would have to check in weekly with the French police.
Pressured by his fellow U.S. Senators, Stan had ‘resigned’ from Congress, but it looked as if he was gearing up to fight the charges against him. Honestly, Eric didn’t care what happened to Stan Davis—as long as he was a nonentity in his family members’ lives from now on.
The only family member that Eric and Sookie had a tepid conversation with at the party was Nora, but that was to be expected given the circumstances. All in all, Nora was making a major effort to adapt to the new structure of her family and NP. As expected, Grace Northman hadn’t been making things easy for Nora. She’d been trying to undermine Nora’s decision to split up Appius’s estate, and even receiving the deed to her home obviously hadn’t helped her attitude towards Eric. Needless to say, Grace had not been invited to the NP party.
“Good evening,” Guo Li said from behind Eric and Sookie.
The couple turned around. Eric gave a little bow to his colleague. “Thank you so much for coming all the way to the United States for this event, Guo.” He smiled at the striking woman by Guo’s side. “Good evening, Mrs. Lau. You look lovely tonight.”
The woman next to Guo smiled. “Thank you. I am glad to be here.”
“I’d like to present my wife to you,” Eric said with evident pride in his tone. “Sookie, this is Guo Li and his wife Chun-Hua Lau.”
“Please, call me Chun-Hua,” Mrs. Lau said to Sookie as the two women shook hands.
“It is so lovely to meet you both,” Sookie said as she gave Guo a little bow.
“Our pleasure,” Guo said with a smile before looking at Eric with a tinge of paternal concern. “You are—well? It was with much concern that we heard the news of your shooting.”
“Yes,” Eric answered, leaning toward Sookie a little. “I am very well.”
“You’ve had a son recently, Mrs. Northman?” Chun-Hua asked Sookie.
“Yes. And please call me Sookie,” she answered with a wide smile. “Our son’s name is Johan, and we’d love for you to meet him.”
“Our own daughter has traveled with us to this event,” Guo said, looking over Eric’s shoulder. “She is—I think—quite taken with your brother Alexei.”
Eric chuckled. “I will make sure he knows to treat your daughter with the respect she deserves.”
Guo chuckled as well. “Very good.”
“We are staying for a few weeks, and it will be nice for her to have a friend here,” Chun-Hua commented.
Eric tilted his head just a little. “I wasn’t aware that you were staying that long.”
“This is a vacation of sorts for us,” Guo said.
Chun-hua chuckled. “Of sorts.”
Guo smiled at his wife. “Yes. In addition to sight-seeing with my family, I had hoped to have some additional time with you to discuss expanding the partnership between our companies—now that all impediments are gone.”
Eric didn’t need to be told what the main impediment had been: Appius.
“That would please me very much,” Eric said.
“I have heard that your company is going to develop an electronic tablet for the distribution of your catalog,” Guo said.
“Yes. Perhaps, our companies could collaborate on its development,” Eric commented.
Guo nodded approvingly. “It would be quite something for two of the largest publishers in the world—one from the West and one from the East—to forge a partnership where materials could be exchanged on such a large scale.”
“I agree,” Eric said.
Guo smiled. “Well, we will not monopolize any more of your time this evening,” he said. “I will have my assistant call yours to make a meeting time.”
“Clancy will be waiting for the call,” Eric said.
“Would you like to come to our home for dinner this week?” Sookie asked the couple. “You could meet Johan and see the renovations that have been done.”
Guo bowed a little. “It would be our great pleasure.” He grinned. “And if you invite your brother, I imagine my daughter would be happy to come along as well.”
Eric chuckled. “Consider it done.”
Guo and Chun-Hua bowed their goodbyes, an action mirrored by Eric and Sookie.
Once they’d walked away, Sookie turned to Eric. “Did you just make a deal with him?”
Eric nodded. “Yep.”
“Is it going to make NP as much money as I think it will?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” he grinned boyishly.
Her own grin left her face as she looked up at him with a little awe. “I’m so proud of you, Eric.”
“Guo did most of the work. It is truly amazing that he still trusts me—after all that happened,” he said, caressing a piece of her hair over her ear.
She shook her head. “Any deal he makes is because he wants to work with you,” she emphasized. “So—again—I’m very proud of you.”
He bent down and kissed her on the forehead. “I’m proud of you too, Sookie. I’m proud of our life.”
She tilted her head up to capture his lips for a brief, chaste kiss. They were each struck when they realized that they were once again standing in front of The Four Trees.
Eric smiled. “You know—they were never really alone,” he said, looking at the trees in the painting. “They just needed to notice the others.”
Sookie nodded in agreement and then looked up at Eric. “This isn’t where I fell in love with you—you know,” she said with a coy smile.
He chuckled. “And where did you fall in love with me?” he asked.
“Has it been two hours yet?” she asked.
He looked down at his watch and nodded before she led them to Gallery 823 for their “break.” They sat down on the bench in front of “their” Van Gogh painting.
“Is this where you fell in love with me, Sookie?” Eric asked, the emotion welling into his voice.
She smiled. “Yeah—but it wasn’t that first night—when you kissed me for the first time.”
“When I saw this bench,” she said, patting the wood. “Before then, I think I was just in awe of you. And my emotions were all jumbled together.”
“Mine too,” Eric said. “I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that I fell in love with you at the same moment you fell in love with me—though I was watching you through a camera at the time.” His expression awestruck, he shook his head. “Your face lit up so much the first time you saw this bench, and I knew that I would never see anything else as beautiful as your smile.”
She sighed and was about to kiss him when her phone vibrated. Quickly, she took it out of her small clutch and saw that Niall had texted. She giggled as she looked at the phone and then showed Eric.
It was a picture of Johan sitting on Tony’s lap in front of his computer screen. He was pointing at the screen excitedly. The caption indicated that the monitor was trained on Gallery 823. Eric and Sookie both turned toward one of the cameras in the room and waved.
In the next moment, Eric’s phone rang, and thinking it must be Niall or Mormor, he picked it up without looking at the caller ID.
The smile dropped off of his face as soon as he heard the voice on the line. He listened for a while as Sookie’s own smile dropped and concern clouded her eyes.
“Where is he?” Eric asked. He looked at Sookie and squeezed her hand. “Get here as soon as you can,” he said before hanging up.
“What is it?” Sookie asked.
Eric held up his finger and quickly dialed his phone.
“Ben?” he said. “There’s a potential issue. Bill Compton was spotted in Central Park about a half hour ago.”
There was a pause as Sookie held her breath.
“Toward the southeast side, but still too close to here,” Eric said stiffly. “Is everything okay there?”
There was another pause.
“Thank you,” Eric said before hanging up.
“Bill’s been spotted near here,” Sookie said with concern.
Eric nodded. “There’s a holding room right off of the control room that is completely secure. Ben is moving Johan, Mormor, and Niall into there until Agent Batanya gets here.”
Sookie sighed with relief. “Why is Bill doing all this?”
“Have you not met my beautiful wife?” Eric asked, trying to add a little levity to the situation.
Sookie smacked his arm, but gave him a soft smile. “Yeah—but surely she’s not worth all this.”
Eric smirked. “Well—even I stalked you for a while. Remember?”
She chuckled. “No more than I stalked you the first year I was at NP.”
Eric took her other hand and turned to fully face her. “Everything will be fine, Sookie. I swear. Ben, Tony, Doris, and Jack and all of the others are keeping a close watch. And I pity any fool that tries to hurt Johan while he’s with Mormor and Niall.”
Sookie looked up at the camera and gave it a little smile. She nodded.
“Ben has extra security at the front entrance. And Tony is reviewing the footage from the last half hour. Agent Batanya will be here soon, and since the party is scheduled to end in half an hour anyway, we’ll start herding people out quietly.”
Sookie took a deep breath. “If you are trying to make me feel better, it’s working,” she said with a little smile.
“Good,” he said, leaning in to kiss her forehead. “Then I don’t need to remind you that Milos, Bobby, Miranda, Thalia, Henry, and Blake are all close too.”
“Actually, we sent Blake down to sit with Niall, Elsa, and our godson,” Bobby said from the doorway. Henry was standing next to him. “Agent Batanya called me. So we know what’s up.”
Eric kept his eyes on Sookie and raised her hand to his lips. “You okay?” he asked her.
“Yeah—you?” she asked.
He bent down and kissed her on the forehead before looking up at Bobby and Henry. “What did Batanya tell you?”
“What did she tell you?” Bobby asked, coming into the gallery, Henry following.
“Just that Compton was spotted and that she was on her way here,” Eric said. “But I could tell there was more. I would have pushed, but I wanted to call Ben and make sure that Johan was secure.”
Bobby dragged his hand through his hair. “Yeah. There’s more. About fifty minutes ago, two people witnessed an altercation and then heard two gunshots near Umpire Rock in the southwest corner of the park.”
“Gunshots?” Sookie asked, her voice conveying her fear.
“Yes,” Henry said. “Two Parks Enforcement Patrolmen heard the shots too and spotted the gunman running away toward the Carousel, and the witnesses called the Central Park precinct. A dead woman was found, and one of the policemen thought he recognized the woman as . . . .” He stopped and took a breath.
“As whom?” Eric asked.
Bobby glanced at Sookie and sighed. “One of the patrolmen saw the gunman, and he was sure it was Bill Compton. Once they got to the body, he thought it was Sookie at first.”
Eric tensed. “Why?” he asked, his jaw clenching.
“Well,” Bobby said. “Bill’s picture is out to all law agencies and he’s been associated with Sookie. When the patrolman saw blond hair and blue eyes, his initial thought was that it might be her. That’s why he immediately called Agent Batanya.”
“Do they know who was shot?” Eric asked.
“Lorena Krasiki,” Kate Batanya said from the door of the gallery.
“Oh my God,” Sookie said, sinking into Eric’s body.
“And the patrolman who was tracking Bill lost him in the Ramble,” Agent Batanya informed with a sigh. “I was nearby because we got a tip that Krasiki was spotted on the Lower East Side earlier today, and I was doing a sweep of nearby rooftops.”
“Why wasn’t I informed?” Eric growled a little.
“Because,” the agent said sternly, “the lead hadn’t been verified.” She softened her tone a little. “And because I’ve still got my agents watching over you and Sookie and Johan from a distance.”
“We’re not bait,” Eric said, his voice still gruff.
“No—you aren’t,” Agent Batanya agreed. “But you are protected, so there are things that you don’t need to know until they are verified. If you were on your own, I would have let you know sooner. But I have three agents assigned to you. You aren’t alone, Eric.”
“You two knew about the possible Lorena sighting?” Eric looked to Bobby and then Henry, who both nodded in confirmation. “How come you didn’t tell us?” Eric asked.
Bobby sighed. “We didn’t want to concern you if it was nothing. You two are just getting back to normal.”
“What’s normal?” Sookie asked with a little chuckle.
Eric looked at his amazing wife and couldn’t hold in his surprised smile at her resilience. He knew he shouldn’t have been surprised though. She’d become so much more certain of herself. He might be bigger—and more physically strong. But Sookie was the rock of their relationship, and he couldn’t have been prouder and more grateful for that rock.
“Not us, min vackra fru.” He smiled at her and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead.
Agent Batanya sighed. “We get tips all the time regarding Compton and Krasiki, and most of them are in the tri-state area. There was no need for you to worry about all of them. But last week, we got a lead placing them in Alice Springs in central Australia. Authorities were able to confirm their fingerprints in a rented room there. And we found evidence that New York might be their next destination.”
“What now?” Sookie asked.
“Well,” Batanya said, “thanks to Ben’s efficiency, this museum is actually very secure. I suggest you go back to your party. Guests are already leaving, and we are keeping an eye out for Compton. I have sent an agent to the control room where I’ve been told Johan is—just to make sure all is well. And several other agents are augmenting Ben’s guards. They are stationed at the staircases and the elevators.”
“Thanks,” Eric said.
“So—you should feel free to finish your party,” Batanya smiled sincerely. “And then we will get you two and Johan home safely. Meanwhile, my agents and I will be on the lookout for Compton. After the possible sighting this morning, I’ve had people monitoring the surrounding buildings anyway—since Bill is a trained sniper. And they have stepped things up since the shooting in the park.”
“I don’t want Sookie and Johan out in the open at all,” Eric said.
Sookie squeezed his arm. “And I don’t want Eric out in the open.” She gave him a warning look. “If you get yourself shot again, you are in big trouble, buster.”
“Buster?” he asked a little playfully.
“Yeah!” she said with a little giggle. “And if you do get shot again, you are moving in with Pam!”
Agent Batanya chuckled at the couple in front of her. She couldn’t help but to like them. She just wished she could make Compton disappear so that they could live their lives in peace. They certainly deserved that. “How about neither of you gets shot,” she said. “Ben will—I’m sure—allow your limo to come in through one of the delivery ports, which lead right into the building, and we’ll get you out that way. None of you will have to be in the open.”
“I’ve already talked to Kate about how to make the security at Carmichael Tower even better,” Henry volunteered.
“And now that Bill has been confirmed in Manhattan, I can ask for more resources in order to keep an eye on the buildings surrounding your home. Also—if you will allow it—I’d like to speak with your head of security at NP. And you,” she said looking at Sookie, “should stay close to home for the time being.”
Neither Sookie nor Eric argued with Agent Batanya. They weren’t about to let someone like Bill Compton ruin their happiness—not after they’d spent so long finding it.
A/N: I hope you liked this chapter. Thanks so much to all of you who are still reading and commenting! I’ll be posting one more chapter of this one before going back to Uncharted for a chapter or two. However, this week is going to be very busy for me, so I’m not sure when you’ll get it.
P.S. You will learn who’s working w/ Bill in the next chapter!