Chapter 14: Benchmark, Part 1
February 5, 2012 (three weeks after the previous chapter)
Eric walked into Gallery 823 and looked at the position of the bench that had been added a little more than two weeks before. He took a seat on it and smiled, knowing that Sookie would be sitting just where he was in a few hours. The bench had been installed right where he wanted it—right in front of Wheat Field with Cypresses.
Eric closed his eyes and once more replayed the scene where he and Sookie stood in front of Van Gogh’s painting and kissed. The softness of her hair. The hesitation and then possessiveness of her lips. The questing of her tongue. Her hands pulling him closer. Closer. Closer.
Eric took a ragged breath and opened his eyes. In order to avoid becoming aroused in a public space in which kids might be milling around, he had to shut down his memory before letting himself get too lost in it. He looked around the room. The Northman Galleries were popular—most likely because they included pieces by artists with which many people were familiar. One did not need to be an art aficionado to have heard of Vincent Van Gogh or Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso. Plus, the Northman Galleries were next to a gallery that housed additional pieces by Picasso, and according to Ben, that room was among the most traveled in the museum.
However, despite its popularity and despite the fact that there were—even then—nine other people in the room with Eric, Gallery 823 felt like it belonged to Sookie and him. The floor where they had stood was their floor. The painting that they had stood in front of was their painting. The air in the room was theirs to breathe—only theirs.
He inhaled deeply and let that air fill his lungs. He’d always loved the smell of the MET. The museum was kept immaculately clean; however, the odor of cleansing products did not make up the dominant smell. On the contrary, the air filtering units in the museum, designed to limit the amount of dust and other substances that could potentially damage the priceless art, seemed to make the air crisper somehow—somehow more alive. Or maybe it was the art itself that enlivened everything else in the room. Eric didn’t know. All that he knew was that he liked the scent—and that it, too, was meant for Sookie and him.
He ran his hand over the smooth surface of the bench. When he’d spoken to one of the assistant directors of the MET the Monday after he’d met Sookie, he had been both vague and specific about his donation and what he wanted it to do. The specific part was easy; he needed for there to be a bench in Gallery 823, but that was too narrow of a request and might have made the assistant director suspicious about “why” he had asked for something so particular. And—though he trusted Ben and his crew because of their special connection to Sookie—others might ask questions that could get back to Appius. And Eric couldn’t risk that; he couldn’t risk Sookie.
Thus, Eric had been vague about the “why.” He’d simply stated that he thought it was odd that three of the ten Northman Galleries didn’t have benches so that patrons could enjoy the art better. Once he’d made this comment, the assistant director did the rest of the work, so to speak. As it had turned out, a cutback of funds had prevented the installation of quite a few things—including new benches—that had been earmarked for a number of galleries—including Gallery 823. A twenty thousand dollar donation later, and the funds were available for all the installations. Eric’s only request was that the benches for the Northman Galleries be installed first, and by that Thursday, they had been.
Eric did some mental math, deducting the twenty thousand from the money market account he’d set up so that he could eventually buy Bobby’s NP stock. Luckily, Bobby was not in a hurry to sell, and Eric didn’t want his father to know about his “extra” stock either. So there was time.
Though the whole world would have imagined that he was filthy rich, twenty thousand dollars out of his savings was not something Eric sneezed at, but he was good at saving money. And he still had plenty to live on.
His position as Deputy CEO earned him a large salary. Because of a contract he’d signed with his father, his salary was based on the average figure earned by Deputy CEOs in the publishing business—the industry standard, so to speak. That put him at $2.5 million a year—before taxes. Of course, NP was anything but “average”; as CEO, Appius earned 30 million a year, and he had a lot of lucrative real estate ventures and oil investments as well.
However, Eric didn’t mind the inequity, even though he was independently running the international division of NP, which accounted for about one-third of the company’s quarterly profits. Eric had not grown up in an entitled way; thus, he was extremely grateful for the money he earned and understood how much the $1.3 million he made after taxes was compared to what most people had. Plus, it was a lot more than he’d initially been paid at NP.
In fact, until he was 21, Eric had had very little experience with real money, though he had studied economics quite extensively.
Throughout his years at exclusive boarding schools, Eric had—of course—seen that the other kids had spending money. His first school, Murray Academy, was the hardest-to-get-into boarding school for elementary-aged children in the United States. All the kids there were from extremely wealthy families. And those kids tended to have large allowances. Eric had not.
When he and his classmates got older and could leave campus to go to movies or arcades or restaurants or stores, Eric would always claim that he had to study. In actuality, he would have liked to have gone with them, but he had no money to pay for even a single movie ticket or fast food hamburger.
Eric had found his recreation in other ways. He had borrowed a lot of books from the library, devouring them while the people around him played expensive video games on their expensive personal computers. When his classmates had gone out, he had gone to the stables and helped to brush out the horses that the school owned for polo and other sports. Students weren’t allowed to ride them for recreation, but Headmaster Burnham—Godric—had made an arrangement for him to help the stable hands.
And then Godric had talked to the headmaster at his second boarding school—Exeter Academy. Since Murray Academy only went through the eighth grade, Eric started ninth grade at Exeter. Luckily, the headmistress there, a woman named Dorothy Ripley, was open to letting Eric help in the stables too. In fact, after Eric turned 16, she even arranged that he earn a little money for his work, since she could employ students to do part-time tasks without parental permission once they were 16.
However, by then, other students had stopped asking Eric if he wanted to go out with them. So—he’d tucked the little bit of money he earned into his sock drawer.
After boarding school came college; he had scholarships for that, and those took care of both his room and board and his tuition. He drew up a careful budget for a few personal necessities that were not provided: soap, shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent, and quarters for the laundry machine. No longer able to rely on his school uniforms for his day-to-day wardrobe, he found a secondhand clothing store where he purchased enough clothing to get him through a week at a time.
Things didn’t become difficult for Eric until the first holiday came around: Thanksgiving. He’d been used to staying at boarding school during that short holiday. But even though the dorms at Harvard stayed open so that he had a place to stay, the cafeteria shut down for a few days. Luckily, Eric had enough money saved to buy food. However, he began to worry about where he would stay during the winter break since his father had already informed him that he would no longer be welcome to lodge in the family home during his school breaks now that he was in college. The dorms were closed for three weeks, and Eric had only limited funds. He had no idea how long he would have to make them last. For all he knew, he would have to stretch his meager savings until he was 21. He tried to get a job, but freshmen in his scholarship program were not allowed to have jobs—not even of the part-time variety—and the Dean had seen no reason to make an exception for him.
Eric had contemplated calling his mormor, but he didn’t want to be a burden; plus, he didn’t know how to explain to her just why he needed a plane ticket and a place to stay. Moreover, he had been informed by letter that he was required to go to Appius’s home in Manhattan for Christmas day, though he was not invited to spend the night. He was to arrive promptly at 9:00 a.m. for a meeting with Appius. For the meeting, he was to bring a file, which included his grades for the semester and a typed report “accounting for his time at Harvard.” At 11:00 a.m., he would be expected in the family room as presents were opened. He would be allowed to stay through Christmas dinner, but Appius warned that he was to “behave himself” and speak only when spoken to so that he wouldn’t “shame himself or the family.” He was to make his excuses and leave at 2:00 p.m. sharp. Eric figured the invitation to stay beyond his “meeting” with Appius had come from Tamara or was for the benefit of “appearances.” Either way, however, it wasn’t feasible for him to go to Sweden for the holiday since Christmas split the vacation time in two.
After several weeks of planning, Eric had found a cheap hotel near Jackson Square. He took exactly one-third of the money he had saved. With it, he paid for three weeks at the hotel and some cheap food he could store in the room. The only cash he had remaining after that was $35, more than enough for his bus ticket. However, on his way to buy his ticket, Eric had been mugged in the rough neighborhood that he was staying in, and his money had been stolen. He had no way to get back into the dorms to secure more money. So—in the end—it had been his $29 bus ticket that Eric hadn’t been able to afford. He had finally had to swallow his pride and call Godric—collect.
Calling from a Western Union, Eric had asked Godric for thirty dollars, promising that he would pay the money back with interest as soon as he could.
Godric hadn’t sent the money. Instead, his former headmaster had demanded to know where Eric was staying and had driven to Boston that very night.
Not being able to afford to do laundry, Eric had worn the same clothes for several days, saving his clean items for Christmas. Thus, Godric had found him rather dirty and smelly. Eric had also been beaten up during the mugging. He’d suffered some cracked and bruised ribs when the mugger kicked him several times before running away with the $35 dollars in Eric’s pocket.
Godric had said nothing. He’d simply added the unopened cans of Vienna sausages Eric had on the dresser to Eric’s still-packed suitcase and led him out of the hotel where the population consisted of mostly drug users, pushers, prostitutes, and rodents.
The headmaster didn’t ask why Eric let out a painful groan when he got into the car, nor did he ask how Eric had ended up in the place he’d been. Godric already knew. He knew that Eric hadn’t fallen in with the wrong crowd; he knew that Eric hadn’t gotten involved with drugs. Godric knew that Eric wasn’t at the roach-infested motel to pick up prostitutes.
Godric had driven Eric to a hospital so that his ribs could be looked at. Two had hairline fractures, but mostly there was just bad bruising. His ribs were wrapped by the doctor as Eric shook on the exam table—not because of pain, but because he didn’t know how to pay for the treatment. In the end, Godric paid and then handed a copy of the bill to Eric.
Eric smiled a little as he looked up at the painting—his and Sookie’s painting. Godric had known that Eric would need to pay him back, and the two had never spoken of the matter—not even when Eric handed him an envelope with the full amount of the bill a week later.
After they had left the hospital, Godric drove Eric to Manhattan, asking him only about how his first semester at Harvard had gone. Eric liked studying at Harvard and planned to get a double major in business and architecture, though he hadn’t included the second part of his plan in his “report” to his father. Eric had made all A’s his first semester. When they got to Manhattan, Godric dropped Eric off at Bobby’s apartment near NYU. Eric hadn’t learned until his Christmas meeting with Appius two days later that Godric had gone straight to the Northman Mansion after that.
Appius had been furious about Godric’s visit and had spent much of his and Eric’s “meeting” telling Eric that it was his fault that he had no place to stay during the holidays. He made sure that Eric knew it was his own defects that kept others from befriending him or wanting him around. He claimed that Godric had demanded money—and a lot of it—for taking care of Eric and reminded the eighteen-year-old how much of an encumbrance he was to his family.
Appius did, however, hand Eric a check for forty thousand dollars at the end of the meeting. Appius explained that the money was all Eric would be receiving from him until he was hired at Northman Publishing after he finished school. With the money, Eric would be expected to buy clothing and other personal necessities. He was to use it to buy his yearly airplane ticket to Sweden, which Appius had bought up until that time. However, most of the money was to finance Eric joining the “right” fraternity and the “right” clubs. Appius gave Eric a list of the organizations that he was expected to be a part of and the achievements he was expected to earn.
The clubs and the fraternity were expensive, but Eric somehow managed to stretch the money until his twenty-first birthday when he got his inheritance from this grandfather John. He’d never had to ask for help again. The forty thousand dollars had paid back Godric for the hospital bill. It had financed his tickets to Sweden, it had covered the school books his scholarship didn’t, it had allowed him to purchase clothing at the secondhand shop when he needed it, and it had covered the added expenses he had during his winter breaks from school. But—as Appius had ordered—most of it had been spent on fraternity and club dues.
After Eric turned 21, his life certainly changed. His grandfather John had made him wealthy by giving him a substantial portion of NP stock and a large chunk of money. Eric’s business classes had taught him what to do with the wealth to help it to grow, and he had treated the inheritance almost as if it had belonged to someone else—not trusting that it was really his. Plus, his sparse life had taught him to live simply.
However, he had splurged a little. Instead of staying in the dorms, Eric had rented a tiny apartment near campus so that he could study more efficiently. By then, he’d also gotten a job at a coffee shop. He started buying the members of his family appropriate Christmas gifts that year. And he bought his first car: a crappy yellow Datsun that looked as if it was on its last legs every minute, but always managed to get him from point A to point B. But—for the most part—he let his inheritance grow as he put his acumen for investing to good use.
“Hey,” Bobby said from next to him. “Why are you smiling?”
“I was remembering the yellow Datsun,” Eric returned, looked up at his friend.
“That car was such a piece of shit,” Bobby laughed, sitting next to Eric on the bench.
“Eric, what’s all this about?” Bobby asked quietly after the two had stayed silent for a few minutes. “I mean—I understand why you wanted me to find out about her, given the fact that she told you about the de Castro thing, but you and I both know that the girl’s not involved with anything illegal.”
Eric nodded. “I know.”
“Then why—after three weeks—am I still following around the most boring individual on the planet?” Bobby asked.
“Boring?” Eric asked with surprise in his voice. She was anything but boring to him.
Bobby sighed. “Yes, Eric. Susanna Stackhouse is—perhaps—the most boring individual I’ve ever encountered.”
“Sookie,” Eric corrected. “She’s Sookie.”
Bobby shook his head with confusion and kept his voice low since more people had just wandered into the gallery. “What is she to you, Eric? I’ve certainly never seen you be interested in a woman for more than a quick fuck. You seem almost,” he paused, “protective of Susa—Sookie. Are you afraid that de Castro knows she supplied you with the information about the spies?”
“No,” Eric said.
“Then what is it?” Bobby asked.
“I,” Eric stopped for a moment. “I need to know her,” he shrugged. “I can’t tell you why that is. I don’t know myself.”
Bobby sighed. “Then why not just talk to her?” he asked.
“You know why,” Eric responded.
“No—I don’t. Why not pursue her if you are so infatuated with her?”
Eric shook his head. “You and I both know that would lead to nothing but pain for her.”
Bobby sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I’m worried about you.”
“I’m fine,” Eric said insistently.
“Are you?” Bobby asked. “You seem a little obsessed with this woman.”
Eric laughed ruefully. “I am—a little. Maybe more than a little, but I’ll get over it.”
Bobby sighed and shook his head. “Okay. Did you get my report?”
Eric nodded. He’d now had Bobby following Sookie for three weeks, and his friend was right. Most would consider Sookie’s life to be boring. She rode the subway to work and arrived in the office right on time every day. She left at the end of her workday and rode straight back to Brooklyn, except on Tuesdays when she went to Claudine Crane’s office, obviously for therapy. On Saturday mornings, she shopped at a grocery store in her neighborhood. On Saturday afternoons, she went to a public library. On Sundays, she came to the MET. According to Bobby, she interacted with very few people.
“Do you want me to keep following her?” Bobby asked after they had been quiet for a few minutes.
“No,” Eric sighed. “Not all the time—at least. But I want you to hire someone part-time to keep an eye on her.”
“How do you mean?”
Eric dragged his fingers through his hair. “It seems like she’s alone a lot in that house, especially on the weekends. I don’t like that. I just want to know that she’s,” he paused, “safe. So I want someone to watch over her from the time she gets home Friday night to the time she comes here on Sunday.”
“So you want a guard for her?” Bobby asked.
“Just someone watching out for her,” Eric sighed. “Just so she’s not alone so many nights,” he added quietly. “And her housemate tends to be home on weeknights.”
“I suppose you don’t want her to find out about this?” Bobby asked.
“No,” Eric responded. “And I don’t even want a report unless her routine changes.”
“Then why do all this?” Bobby asked.
“Because—I need to,” Eric returned.
“Eric, you know that I will help you in any way I can—right?”
Eric nodded. “It’s difficult to believe sometimes, but I do know it, Bobby.”
“Okay then. I’ll ask Alcide Herveaux to watch out for her. He’s ex-special forces and between jobs right now.”
Bobby sighed. “I do worry about you, Eric. Before he died, my father asked me to watch out for you.”
“You do,” Eric said a little gruffly. He shook his head a little as if to clear it. “Isabel is coming back to the city next week.”
“That’s good,” Bobby said with a little smile. “You like her.”
Eric nodded. “Yes.”
“Are you going to see her?”
“You could do a lot worse than Isabel Edgington,” Bobby added.
“I know,” Eric responded.
“And Sookie?” Bobby asked.
“Sookie is not for me,” Eric said evenly.
“You deserve to be happy, Eric.”
Eric said nothing to that.
“Alcide will start on Friday,” Bobby said as he patted his friend’s shoulder before leaving him alone to his thoughts.
In truth, the concept of happiness was a bit beyond Eric. Certainly, he was better off than he had been before. He made a good deal of money, enough to afford a huge home, though that home came with a big mortgage.
However, when Pam had asked Eric to get a house in the same building she was going to live in, Eric hadn’t been able to refuse the idea of living near a part of his family. He’d spent a large proportion of his inheritance from his grandfather John for his down payment. He’d used even more of that money to turn the house into a place that he truly loved—a place that was a sanctuary to him.
And his salary from NP covered his monthly expenses well enough. He was even able to reinvest the dividends he got from his NP stock. However, Eric was not one to trust that he’d have money forever, so he had saved as much as he could.
Unfortunately, the image he was expected to maintain “as a Northman” didn’t help him to save as much as he wanted to.
Right after Eric had graduated from business school, Appius surprised the hell out of him by actually hiring him at NP; though Appius had told Eric that was “the plan for his life” from the time he was ten years old, Eric hadn’t really believed it would happen until it did. Even more surprising was that Appius invited Eric to live in one of the apartments in Northman Tower. Though it wasn’t one of the two penthouses in the building, the apartment was much more luxurious than what Eric had been used to.
Most surprising of all was that Appius had treated Eric better—almost like a son—after he began working for the family company. Eric had felt hopeful; however, he’d also been suspicious—waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He was right to doubt Appius’s actions.
As it turned out, Appius had a reason for pretending to “accept” his son, and soon enough, the Northman patriarch told Eric that he was no longer welcome to live at Northman Tower. Eric was, however, ordered to use the apartment for his liaisons—but just so that he wouldn’t shame the family by being photographed with some “tart.” Appius gave him 48 hours to move his personal items out of Northman Tower.
Not in the position to be picky, Eric had rented a small, furnished apartment on the Lower East Side. Two days after he’d moved in, his grandmother Grace had “visited” him. As soon as she had entered the tiny apartment, she had crinkled up her nose with disgust and proclaimed that his living arrangements were not acceptable and that his choices were going to dishonor all Northmans.
After that, she had spent two hours dictating to Eric what kind of image he was required to project “as a Northman.” It had been the longest interaction he’d ever had with his paternal grandmother. She’d left him with a list of “appropriate addresses” and “mandatory social functions.” Since then, his grandmother’s secretary had emailed him once a month with a “social calendar” that he was expected to adhere to. And if Eric didn’t attend all required functions, there was hell to pay from both his grandmother and Appius.
Eric sighed. His grandmother’s demands weren’t so bad—not really. Many of the social events were also charity functions, and he enjoyed learning about ways he could help people. Plus, it was just better not to rock the boat too much. And he always had his home to give him respite.
Eric glanced at his watch and stood up, looking one last time at the golden wheat field in Van Gogh’s painting. It was almost time for Sookie to be done with her morning perusal of the gallery she’d chosen that day. He knew that she would stop by “their” gallery before leaving the museum for her lunch, so he slipped out of the room and went to the control center so that he could watch Sookie sit on the bench he’d been sitting on all morning—the bench he’d arranged as a gift for her.
He knew that seeing her there would make him feel something. Make him feel better.
A/N: Thanks so much for reading—as always.