“Can I help you?” Ben Anderson asked the tall, blond man who was waiting near the front desk. The young man looked extremely familiar to the perceptive chief of security, but he couldn’t quite place him.
“I hope so,” Eric said. “I’m looking for a woman.”
Immediately, mirth shone in Ben’s eyes. At fifty years old, he was in pretty good shape, and his wife Maria made sure that he ate well and exercised three times a week in order to keep what she called his “paunch” from turning into a potbelly hanging over his belt. However, at only 5’9” and of average looks—except for a few years back in his early twenties when women had found him “cute”—Ben had never been one to attrack a lot of female attention, except for his wife’s, of course. And since she was the only one who mattered, he’d always been okay with being rather run-of-the-mill in the looks department. By contrast, the man in front of Ben was almost six and a half feet tall and looked like the kind of man that Maria drooled over as she watched her “dramas.”
“So you’re looking for a woman?” Ben grinned.
Eric nodded, not yet understanding the root of the older man’s amusement.
“Forgive me for saying this, Sir,” Ben chuckled, “but you seem to be more qualified for that particular job than I am.”
Eric laughed and found himself liking the man—whose nametag read “Ben”—immediately. “Let me clarify,” he said, taking off his cap and pulling his ID out of his wallet. “My name is Eric Northman, and a woman came into this museum about five minutes ago. I was wondering if you could help me figure out where she is.”
Recognizing the young man now, Ben straightened his back and spoke more formally. “I’m sorry that I didn’t recognize you, Mr. Northman.”
With a wave of his hand, Eric indicated that an apology wasn’t needed. “You ran security last night too—didn’t you?” Eric asked as he remembered seeing the man at the entrance of the museum the night before.
“I recognize you,” Eric said. “I think you’ve run the security since I started coming to the NP parties.”
Ben nodded again. “Yeah—I’ve been running it for eight years now.”
Eric put out his hand. “Well—it’s nice to officially meet you. I’m afraid my father doesn’t really want me involved in the planning of the NP parties, which is why I’ve never introduced myself to you properly before.
Ben smiled a little. He was surprised by the sincerity and warmth in the young man’s expression. “Ben Anderson,” he said, shaking Eric Northman’s hand.
“Listen, Mr. Anderson,” Eric stammered a little, “I know that this is a little irregular, but the girl I want to find is an employee at Northman Publishing.”
“You can call me Ben,” the head of security said. “Can I ask why you want to find her?”
Eric sighed, opting to be honest with the man in front of him—at least to a certain extent. “Truthfully, she gave me some information last night that I need to find out about. And,” he stopped after only one word of his sentence, suddenly not knowing how to complete his thought.
“And?” Ben asked looking at Eric a bit warily.
“And I don’t know why else,” Eric said, nervously running his hand through his hair.
Ben’s lips twitched upwards into a little smile. “There was a time when my wife made me tongue-tied too. Hell—who am I kidding?” He laughed a little. “That woman still has the uncanny ability to make me about as articulate as a newborn when she wants to.”
“Um—it’s not like that,” Eric said frowning a little.
“Are you sure about that?” Ben asked with a grin.
“No,” Eric said after a moment’s hesitation. “It is like that,” he paused. “But it’s not,” he added, wondering why he was confessing his confusion over Sookie to a virtual stranger.
“The best women are always conundrums,” the older man said sagely.
“Can you help me find her?” Eric asked, trying to ignore the slightly desperate hitch in his voice.
“Follow me,” Ben said after a moment of contemplation. There was something about the young man that made Ben want to help him. And Ben’s first instincts about a person were almost always accurate. Eric Northman was kind and polite, but he also seemed like a man who had been knocked down a time or two and needed a hand up. Ben’s paternal instincts made the chief of security want to give him that hand.
“Thanks,” Eric said.
Ben nodded and led Eric into the security hub of the MET where a wall of monitors displayed an array of continuously changing views of the museum. In the room, there were six people in uniform, keeping an eye on the various monitors as they flashed from one gallery to another.
“So you’re looking for a woman who came in what—about ten minutes ago now?” Ben asked.
“Yes,” Eric confirmed. “A blonde. A beautiful one.”
Ben chuckled. “Tony,” the friendly older man said as he looked at one of the members of this team.
“Yeah, Boss?” a young man, who appeared to be about twenty-five answered.
“Come help this gentleman,” Ben requested.
Tony got up from his station and walked over to a large computer terminal, which was set somewhat apart from the others. “Sure,” he said good-naturedly in a very thick New Jersey accent.
“Tony’s the fastest with the computers,” Ben explained.
Eric nodded in understanding as he watched the young man get settled.
“Hey—aren’t you Eric Northman?” Tony asked.
Tony chuckled. “I guess I kinda work for you then.
Eric smiled sheepishly. “Not me. My father—maybe. He’s the one who can afford the big donations. But I do appreciate your help.”
“Not a problem,” Tony said. “So—uh—you need to see the feed from the main entrance from ten minutes ago?”
“Yeah,” Eric confirmed.
Tony nodded and pushed several buttons on the computer. It wasn’t long before Eric saw himself on the screen.
“A minute or so before that,” Eric requested.
“Sure,” Tony said, running the video back.
“There!” Eric said, pointing to the screen when Sookie entered the museum.
“Uh—you’re looking for Suzy?” Ben asked.
“You know her?” Eric responded with surprise; in fact, the only thing that didn’t surprise him was that Sookie had been addressed by yet another moniker.
“Suzy comes in every week to see a new gallery—Sundays like clockwork,” Tony supplied.
“She didn’t pay admission,” Eric observed with a raised eyebrow.
“She’s got one of those yearly memberships,” Tony informed him.
Eric chuckled. “I guess she didn’t bribe the guards with food, after all.”
Tony and Ben chuckled.
“No—but she always brings them something,” Tony said.
“So you know her?” Eric asked again, this time in Ben’s direction.
“Um—not really,” the head of security admitted. “But she’s been coming to the MET for about a year now—always the same routine, you know. We get a lot of regulars here, and we start to recognize them after a while.”
“Usually the regulars are students,” Tony said.
“Yeah, but they aren’t around for too long, and they generally frequent just one section of the museum during all of their visits, but Suzy’s different,” Ben added. “We never know where she’ll be going.”
“Suzy?” Eric asked.
“Uh—that’s just the nickname we gave her,” came a female voice from behind them.
Eric turned around to look at the new speaker, but he couldn’t see her face since her eyes were still glued on the monitors in front of her.
“Can we find out where she went by looking at the cameras?” Eric asked, turning back to Tony.
“Sure, but there’s a faster way,” Ben smiled, quickly pushing some numbers on his walkie-talkie.
“Hey, Milos?” Ben said into the receiver. “Where’s Suzy going today?” There was a pause. “Got it. Thanks.” He put his walkie-talkie back into his pocket. “111, Tony.”
Tony pushed some buttons on the computer, and soon images from Gallery 111 were on the screen.
“There,” Tony pointed at the figure of Sookie, who was studying something in one of the display cases.
“How is it that you recognize her?” Eric asked, already entranced by Sookie’s figure on the screen. “Even if she comes in once a week—surely the volume of people in and out of this place would make it difficult to notice just one person.”
“We always remember the strange ones,” the woman said with a smile in her voice.
“Doris was the first one to notice something was—uh—peculiar about Suzy,” Ben offered.
“It’s my eagle eyes,” the woman said with a chuckle.
“We spent quite a while trying to figure out what she was up to after we first noticed her,” Ben said, almost apologetically. “I even dedicated a guard to watch her specifically for a few weeks. As you can imagine, sometimes we get people in here that think they can tamper with or take.”
“It’s that goddamned movie: The Thomas Crown Affair,” Tony muttered.
“And the painting in the movie isn’t even at the MET,” Doris added.
“Though we get asked about it ten times a day,” Tony complained.
“Plus, I wasn’t working here when they filmed, so I missed Pierce Brosnan’s fine ass,” Doris grumbled.”
Ben chuckled. “Yeah. That movie definitely gave some of the crazies ideas. Course—it turned out that Suzy was harmless.”
“What makes her strange?” Eric asked after a few moments, truly curious about what the group would say.
“Well,” Ben started cautiously, “like I said, we get lots of students in here, and they’ll usually study certain pieces real close. But—after a couple of weeks—they won’t be back. We also get members that come several times a month; they visit different sections of the museum each time, but most of them are older. Regardless, they’ll browse around and then move on. But Suzy is a little different. Ya see?” he said motioning toward the monitor.
Eric studied the screen. Sookie was looking closely at the pieces and making notes in a small composition book.
“She’ll look around the gallery once and read everything about every single piece,” Ben said.
“That’s before lunch,” Tony offered.
“Yeah,” Doris picked up. “She looks at everything—sometimes a couple of times like she’s trying to memorize it. Then she leaves for a while.”
“For lunch in the park—if it’s not raining,” another guard said.
“Or snowing,” Tony added.
“If the weather is bad, she eats in the cafeteria,” Doris said.
“She always gets the soup and a water if she eats at the MET,” Ben said quietly.
“And always a hotdog from the truck outside if she goes to the park,” Doris said. “But she’ll try different kinds.”
“Well—food is really expensive in our cafeteria,” Ben said.
“Which is ridiculous since it’s not that good,” Doris added.
“Suzy usually takes about two hours for lunch,” Tony contributed.
“When she’s in the cafeteria, she writes more in her book,” Doris said.
“If it’s a warm day outside, she sometimes spends more than two hours in the park,” Ben volunteered. “I’ve seen her walking around when I’ve taken my own lunch out there.”
“And then she comes back,” Tony said, “and she always goes to the same gallery she went to that morning. And then she walks around the gallery some more.”
“She always leaves right around 5:15,” another guard—whose name Eric hadn’t caught—added. “We close at 5:30.”
“But at 4:00,” Tony continued, “the betting pool closes.”
“Betting pool?” Eric asked.
“Tony!” Ben said warningly.
“It’s just good-natured fun,” Tony said apologetically—and a bit guiltily. “The bets are just a way to pass our Sundays—really. It gets kind of boring hearing about the Boss’s wife’s cooking, Doris’s kids, and Mark’s boat all the time.”
“Well I don’t hear you contributing more than long homilies about your games,” Doris said, sending him a glare over her shoulder.
“My boat’s the bomb,” another guard mumbled under his breath. Eric figured that one must be Mark.
“What bets?” Eric asked.
“Bets on the picture she’ll take,” Ben admitted with a sigh. “She always takes one and only one picture in each gallery she visits.”
“Doris over there is the best at guessing,” Tony said, pointing to the female guard.
Eric finally got a better look at Doris when she turned around to address them. The African American woman, who looked to be in her early 40’s, smiled. Eric immediately noticed that her eyes were kind and playful. “Woman’s intuition,” she said with a wink in Eric’s direction.
Eric looked back at Sookie in the monitor. She seemed oblivious to everything else in the gallery as she stared at a case containing ancient Egyptian jewelry.
“Were the cameras on last night? During my father’s party?” Eric asked in barely a whisper.
“The cameras are always on,” Ben said.
Eric looked at a large map of all the galleries which took up part of the wall opposite the monitors. “Will you show me Gallery 823—at around 11:15 last night?”
Ben sighed. “We really shouldn’t be doing this, Mr. Northman, but since your family practically owns this place,” his voice trailed off as he nodded to Tony.
“Eric—call me Eric,” he said, something hopeful in his voice.
Once again, Ben’s instincts were to help Eric Northman. The head of security gave the young man a little smile and a nod. He had to stop himself from giving him a hug; the blonde looked like he could use it.
Tony pulled up all the cameras from Gallery 823 for the time Eric had indicated. “There’s nothing at 11:15, and the cameras are motion-activated. I’ll search for any feeds from around that time,” he said.
Eric nodded and watched as a recording reading 11:21 p.m. began.
“Wow—is that you with Suzy?” Tony asked, leaning in to look at the video feed. “She cleans up real nice.”
Several other guards in the room looked toward the screen and mumbled something along the same lines. Meanwhile, Eric just watched the video of Sookie and himself, feeling almost as affected by the recording as he had felt in front of her the night before. It wasn’t long before he was kissing her.
“Damn,” Doris said. “Da-yum!” she repeated emphatically as the kiss went on.
“Nice,” Tony muttered.
Eric ignored them and watched as the Sookie in the video gripped him tighter and tighter. Then he watched himself seeming to sputter as he looked for words to say to follow up that kiss. He saw her back away from him, and even though he couldn’t see her eyes in the video, he vividly remembered the moment her blue orbs had moved from passion and surprise to insecurity and uncertainty. However—now he remembered what he had not seen in them: guilt. And in that moment, he knew that she couldn’t be a spy sent by de Castro or Appius.
She hadn’t betrayed him!
His heart leapt.
He didn’t know how Sookie had known what she did about de Castro, but he knew that it wasn’t because of something illegal on her part. Yes. That he did know—somehow.
However—why it was so important to him that she wasn’t working against him was a mystery to him.
“Are you with our Suzy then?” Ben asked softly.
“Sookie,” Eric said softly. “She likes for her friends to call her Sookie.”
“Oh,” Ben said. “We were just working off of her membership paperwork when we came up with her nickname. Are you with—uh—Sookie?” he asked again.
“No,” Eric said quietly. “As I told you, she works for me, and—as you said—she’s somewhat odd.”
“That kiss looked like you were with her,” Doris muttered under her breath.
Ben gave Doris a stern look, which she rolled her eyes at. Then he turned back toward Eric. “Do you—uh—need anything else, Sir? Uh—Eric?”
“Why does she bring in the pastries for the two guards at the front?” Eric asked.
“Milos and Jack? Who knows? She just started it one Sunday and never stopped,” Ben responded.
“It’s a good thing too,” Tony deadpanned.
“Why’s that?” Eric asked.
“Milos is always running late, so he never eats breakfast. Before Suz—Sookie—started bringing him something to eat, he used to complain nonstop about being hungry until lunch, and since I rotate in for him when he takes his lunch break, I always had to eat after him,” Tony complained.
Ben scoffed. “Yeah—Milos was always asking for his lunch break early too. It threw the whole schedule off.”
“Is she friends with either of the guards?” Eric asked.
“Nah,” Ben reported. “Not really. But she always stops and says hello to them. And they ask her what gallery she’s going to be in so that we can—uh—find her faster. By 4:00, a lot of people will come in to put five bucks into the betting pool and select their guess.” He gestured toward a clipboard and a jar on a table to the right. “On the weeks no one guesses what she’ll pick, we just keep the money in the kitty. The pot can get pretty high if she’s in the big galleries for a few weeks in a row, but Doris won it last week.”
“Yep,” the woman said. “Paid for my daughter’s college books too.”
Ben smiled, but then looked concerned. “We—uh—just do this for a little fun on Sundays. Most of us work the full day since the museum’s open for fewer hours. And we—uh—like Suzy; I mean Sookie. She’s interesting. We don’t do anything to bother her, and she doesn’t even know we’re here.”
“It’s fine,” Eric said quietly. “I wouldn’t ruin her time here by telling her, and it’s,” he paused, “nice to know someone’s keeping an eye on her.”
“We do keep an eye on her,” Ben assured quietly. “Sometimes, she gets so lost in herself in the galleries.” His tone became more serious. “A couple of times guys have started to take a little too much interest in her—if you know what I mean—but I send a guard in to scare them off.” He chuckled. “She doesn’t even know when it’s happening, but we are sort of her watchdogs in here.”
Eric nodded. “You say she stays here all morning?”
“Yeah. Since it’s a nice day, she’ll leave the museum between 12:00 and 1:00, and she’ll come back between 2:00 and 3:00.”
Eric nodded. “I’ll be back at 1:00.” He handed Ben his card. “Call me if she leaves before her usual time.”
Ben sighed and took the card. “Listen, Mr. Northman—Eric. As I said, we like Suz—Sookie—even if she’s a bit unusual and even if it’s sort of entertaining for us to watch her. You aren’t—uh—stalking her. Are you?”
Eric saw that several of the others were looking at him too—waiting for his response. It seemed as if Sookie had unknowingly cast a spell over them too. “Stalking her?” He shook his head. “No. Or—uh—I don’t know. I am following her today.” He looked around at the eyes of everyone in the room looking back at him. “I hope you can trust me when I say that I have a good reason for being here. And I don’t mean Sookie any harm.” He paused. “I don’t want to hurt her,” he said, his voice catching with sudden and unexpected emotion.
“Okay then. That’s good enough for us,” Ben said after a few seconds of studying the young man. He put Eric’s card in his pocket.
Eric nodded. “Thanks,” he paused and looked at everyone in the room. “Thanks for watching over her.”
Ben escorted Eric to the front of the museum.
“I need for my visit here to stay between you and your people—okay?” Eric asked.
“Sure,” Ben said. “But, if you don’t mind me saying, Eric, all this is a little odd.”
“Odd like Sookie?”
Ben nodded. “Yes. Just like that,” he said with a little smile.
“I’ll see you at 1:00,” Eric said before turning to leave.
A/ N: Thanks for all the comments about last week’s chapters. I’m sorry I haven’t gotten a chance to respond to them, but I’ve been swamped by work. I had feared that I wouldn’t even get you this chapter this week, but I’m glad this one didn’t take too long to edit so that I was able to.
Have a wonderful week. I’ll try to do better about responding to your kind reviews if you leave them. I DO APPRECIATE THEM ALL.