You’re ready for this.
At least that was what I kept telling myself when in reality I was nervous as hell and could only hope, that after spending my lifetime hiding my secret from the world, it wouldn’t show on my face.
Telepathy had been my first secret. I’d been miserable as a child thanks to what I’d thought of then as my curse, but now that I had better control of it I viewed it as my ace in the hole. It had been hell when I was younger. Hearing every thought going through everyone’s head and then realizing no one else could hear what I could, left me feeling frightened. I’d felt like a freak and back then my only option was to become introverted. Shy to the point of becoming practically mute, even around my family because I was never really sure the words I heard were spoken aloud unless I was staring at their faces. Even then it was sometimes difficult to understand what they were saying, hearing the echo of their thoughts combined with their spoken words. It wasn’t until Jason and I had gone to live with Gran after our parents’ untimely death that things began to change for me. Now that I was older I realize I must have dreamt it all, but be it an angel sent by God or just my subconscious mind, I would always be grateful to Claudine.
She’d started coming to me at night not long after we’d moved into the old farmhouse and told me she was my fairy godmother. I’d filled the time in my self-imposed seclusion reading books and as a child I didn’t think to question her claim.
If Cinderella could have one, then why couldn’t I?
She had an ethereal beauty not quite of this world and wore shimmery gowns that appeared to be straight out of a Disney film, but it was the love I felt in her presence and the lack of hearing her thoughts that made me believe back then that she truly was heaven sent. I missed my parents more than anything and other than my Gran, they had been the only ones who loved me and with whom I always felt protected. Claudine gave me that same feeling – like she was my kin and would keep me safe – so I latched onto her side every night when she showed up. At first she would only hug me and whisper soothing words as I cried – both for the grief I was still going through over losing my parents and for the guilt I felt over finding solace in her arms. After a time, she began telling me fantastical stories of fairies and elves – of hard fought battles with creatures like vampires – and even went so far as to include me in them telling me I was secretly a Princess of the Sky Fae.
I didn’t believe her of course. Even then I knew what I was – an orphan who was fortunate enough to have a loving grandmother to take me in, but I still enjoyed hearing I was something special.
I’d begun looking forward to her visits. She didn’t come to me every night, but on the days that were especially hard for me she was always there to wipe away my tears. On one night in particular I’d been very upset and even with all of her comforting words, it took me most of the night before I finally told her why in a whisper. I’d never told anyone this secret. It was my biggest and most guarded one, but it was also the one doing me the most harm – both physically and emotionally. I was afraid she would be angry. That she would think less of me. That she would tell me how awful I was and that it was all my fault. I feared hearing her say what I had done was bad – bad enough that she wouldn’t come to visit me anymore and when I told her of my Uncle Bartlett’s visit earlier that day, she was angry – lethally so, but I quickly learned her anger wasn’t directed at me. When I found out the very next day Uncle Bartlett had strangely been mauled to death by an animal in his own home the night before, I was relieved.
If not a little concerned I had somehow wished his death.
When Claudine came to me the following night, a part of me knew she had been responsible, although I couldn’t quite figure out how or why. But I didn’t ask for, nor did she offer, an explanation. It was enough for me to know in my heart she was my protector and on that night she began teaching me how to build up shields in my mind to shelter myself from everyone else’s thoughts. I found out I could hear her thoughts if she pushed them into my head, so we practiced every night for weeks. I barely slept at all in that time, but each morning before she would leave me she would give me a hug that infused me with energy, giving me the strength to be able to get through the coming day. Instead of feeling jittery like caffeine or sugar would have caused, it left me feeling like I’d just woken up from the most restful sleep and that, in combination with my new shields, helped me to begin to flourish. School was no longer a nightmare and I could finally concentrate in class. Hugging Gran would only give me comfort when I no longer had to hear the pity she felt for me every time I touched her.
It was nearly a year later when Claudine came to me for the very last time. Her visits had become fewer and far in between, but in that time I was thriving in school. I had more friends than I could count now that shielding my head had become almost second nature, but I was still sad to see her go. She told me that her work with me was done for now, but that she would always be keeping an eye on me. She’d said she would always come to me in times of trouble when I truly needed her, but she had taught me all that she could for now. And when she left me for the final time that night, the tears I shed were only because I knew she was right. I didn’t need her like I once had and even after she was gone it didn’t really feel like it because I didn’t have the same ache in my heart as when my parents had died.
And I truly believed she would always be there if I needed her.
The introverted little girl I had once been grew into a confident young woman. I drove myself – pushed my limits to succeed in every goal I set for myself to the point I felt there was nothing I couldn’t overcome on sheer determination alone. I still had my telepathy of course and Claudine had taught me to use it whenever I saw fit, but it was no longer a hindrance in my life. She taught me to view it as a gift and in my mind was no different than someone having a photographic memory, so why wouldn’t I use every advantage available to me?
The FBI recruited me during my senior year at Tulane. I’d been studying to become a lawyer – my gift would be a definite advantage in the courtroom – and while my stellar academic record was a motive for their interest, what I came to later find out was that wasn’t necessarily what they viewed to be my greatest asset.
It was my youth and physical appearance.
The only reason I even entertained their initial proposal was because of what I heard in their thoughts. They wanted me to go undercover to try and infiltrate Northman Enterprises and felt I was the perfect candidate. I was smart and had the educational background to back it up, but what tipped the scales most of all was that I fit Eric Northman’s type to a tee. I had nothing in my background to indicate I had connections to law enforcement of any kind, but just to be on the safe side they paid me off the books. Technically my name couldn’t be found in any payroll system of theirs and instead they set up payments through a shell company that went straight into another offshore account that couldn’t be traced back to me. I kept my part-time job working at the college library and lived within those means, so any investigation he did into my background would show I was just another college student on the verge of graduating.
His background prior to arriving in New Orleans from Europe years earlier was spotty, but everything that could be found checked out. He was an orphan who made his own way by making well-minded business choices and stock market predictions. Ten years earlier, at the age of twenty-seven, he invested that money into owning and operating what was now the most successful casino in the entire state, along with a few lesser known but profitable businesses, some of which specialized in technology. He paid his employees generously with great benefit packages, so they all loved him and were loyal to their core. He paid his taxes every year and donated millions to local charities, benefitting many in the surrounding area. He hosted benefits for cancer stricken children and even had a wing at the local hospital dedicated to him thanks to his efforts. He was known as Louisiana’s ‘hottest catch’ because of his wealth and good looks, but that was only the public’s perception.
Privately, the FBI believed him to be Louisiana’s most prolific serial killer.
Over the last several years multiple unsolved homicides began springing up in the southern part of the state. People from all walks of life, both men and women with seemingly nothing in common other than their untimely death, were being found in back alleys and bayous. The only thing they all seemed to have in common was the fact their bodies had been left drained of blood.
The FBI had unofficially dubbed the killer The Vampire for that very reason.
Seventeen had been found in all over the last four years which wasn’t very many homicides for an area that spanned roughly a hundred mile radius, but at the center of that circle of death was Northman’s casino, The House of the Rising Sun. Every employee had been checked out. Every alibi and every time clock punch was put up against each victims’ time of death, but no one employee stood out until an ATM camera had captured one of the victims’ final moments in the dead of night in downtown New Orleans. The killer’s movements were too quick and the time lapse camera’s footage too grainy to be definitive, but a single overly pixelated video still appeared to show none other than Eric Northman himself at the scene of the crime. There was no way to confirm if any of the victims had been guests at his casino thanks to the volume of tourists that streamed in and out of there on a daily basis, but it was certainly possible that was where he found them at.
Odder still, the man was only ever seen at night. Every appearance made by him was during the hours of darkness, with his upper echelon of employees tending to whatever business could only be conducted during the day. His private cell phone came from one of his own technology firms. It was encrypted and impossible to trace. The only way to contact him was through his office which was more secure than Fort Knox, so the bureau had yet to find a way to plant any listening devices where we could hear what was going on. When prodded by journalists as to his whereabouts whenever he’d skip attending luncheons held in his honor by prominent business men he’d jokingly, if not somewhat chagrinned, would explain he was a night owl and for him to try and get up while the sun was still in the sky was akin to waking the dead.
The newspapers jokingly called him The Vampire too.
It only added to his aura of mystique. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of him – to get close to him, but none so far had succeeded. The women he would be seen leaving with from the club in his casino were all beautiful; all blond; and all very much still alive the next day. He kept the top floor penthouse suite to use as his own private residence, but the agents sent into the casino to observe him reported he always took them to another room within the casino’s hotel. We assumed he would return to his floor sometime later, but the women were always seen by the next morning unharmed and they never returned. Even if he wasn’t all that great in the sack, I found it hard to believe that none of them hadn’t wanted a second shot at trying to land the man, but that seemed to be the case. The bureau always kept a tail on the women in the weeks that followed, but they merely returned to their normal lives having no contact with Northman again.
There were only two people who had gotten close to the man and were the only ones in his inner circle that we knew of. His lawyer, Desmond Cataliades, was one and was someone whom I admired thanks to his talent in the courtroom. Aside from dealing with whatever legal business that came up, he personally dealt with vetting all of Northman’s personal staff, which essentially only consisted of one person. He was the only other person who seemed closest to Northman – be it in a professional capacity versus personal – despite his title. That man was his personal assistant, Bobby Burnham.
Robert Francis Burnham was a graduate of Tulane University as well. His parents Martha and John Burnham still resided at his childhood home in a middle class suburb just outside of Shreveport, but the FBI’s research suggested he was estranged from them. Burnham lived alone in his own suite at the casino’s hotel provided by Northman as one of his job perks. He had no friends, no social media accounts, and no debt. He had no hobbies or known interests outside of his work for Northman Enterprises and was almost as much of an enigma as Eric Northman was himself.
The FBI had secretly been working on doctoring a more lascivious background for Mr. Burnham – one that would enable them to steal him away under the guise of The Patriot Act. He would’ve been kept in isolation long enough for Northman to have no choice but to fill Burnham’s position with another qualified candidate – me – but those plans were derailed when Burnham himself was killed in a car accident two weeks ago. A Mack truck had run a red light in broad daylight killing Burnham instantly, but now I was poised to step into his vacated position if all went ahead as planned after my final interview with Eric Northman himself tonight.
Mr. Cataliades had done the initial pre-screening, but I couldn’t get anything from his thoughts other than static. I’d run into similar situations before where some people’s thoughts were harder to read, but I still put on my best smile, incorporated the manners ingrained in me by my Gran, while maintaining a professional confidence that meant to portray me as the perfect candidate for the position. The bureau was able to find out who the other applicants were who had made the final cut, so after a few clicks of a mouse back in Quantico, I was ahead of the pack when their backgrounds were made just a little more tarnished.
A faulty credit rating or previous criminal history were definite no-no’s for Northman’s personal staff.
I was wearing a well-tailored red suit – intelligence suggested it was Northman’s favorite color on women – and my long blond hair was twisted into a sophisticated chignon on the back of my head. Every woman he selected from the club in his casino had the same physical appearance as me and I would use it to my advantage.
Just like my telepathy.
I would only use my looks so far of course – Mata Hari, I wasn’t, nor would I be having sex with the man – but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try and tempt him with something to look at while I watched his every move. Sex was a disaster for me anyway because my shields couldn’t hold out when my body wanted its release. The shields would go with it and I’d hear every thought going through their head and it wasn’t always flattering.
Of course I hadn’t told my new employers about my little quirk – no sense in getting locked away in a padded room, but I had every intention of using it to solve the mystery of Eric Northman. I’d just figure out some other way to explain how I’d come across the information.
I arrived fifteen minutes early for my interview, but Mr. Cataliades met me in the reception area just outside of Northman’s office at precisely five minutes to my scheduled 7:00pm appointment.
“Miss Stackhouse,” he greeted me with a smile. “You’re looking well. I hope you’re not too nervous about your final interview with Mr. Northman this evening.”
“No sir,” I smiled in return. “I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
And having a good dig inside of his head.
Even though we thought him to be a serial killer, I wasn’t concerned about my own personal safety. The bureau had trained me in hand to hand combat and I was an excellent marksman. Of course, I hadn’t brought my handgun with me for my interview – you never knew when you might be searched – but considering my scheduled appearance there was documented and not random, I wasn’t too worried.
He showed me into the office, telling me Mr. Northman would be in shortly, and left me alone again shutting the door behind him. My eyes took in the room and I was surprised seeing the décor. For some reason I’d imagined something similar to an investment banker or Wall Street broker’s office. Lots of metal and glass with sharp edges and screamed cold and uninviting. Instead what I found were floor to ceiling bookcases lining the walls, filled with what appeared to be first editions. The desk was huge, antique mahogany if I had to guess, and hand carved. A large leather sofa sat facing two matching conversational chairs, but what drew my eyes was the large sword hanging above the lit fireplace.
It didn’t look decorative.
The steel blade gleamed in the light of the room, but it had definitely been used in battle at some point in its history and a shiver ran down my spine while I tried to tell myself I was being ridiculous.
The victims had been drained of their blood, not beheaded or run through by a sword.
I eventually tore my eyes away from the weapon and tried to get my head back in the game, ignoring the itch I had to touch the spines of the books that were calling the bookworm in me, when my eyes glanced back at his desk. There were a few files stacked neatly in one corner and some loose papers in the center, so my ‘itch’ changed directions with me wanting to rifle through them. I was almost certain I’d be able to hear anyone’s footsteps approaching – the marble floors would give them away in a heartbeat – but something inside told me not to.
And thank god I listened to my inner voice.
I was still standing in the center of the room, exactly where Mr. Cataliades had left me, when the hairs on the back of my neck had just begun to rise and I jumped a mile high hearing a voice right behind me saying, “Miss Stackhouse, I presume?”
So much for the marble floors giving someone away.
On reflex I automatically jutted my elbow into the body behind me that was way too close in my personal space and whipped around in a defensive stance prepared to kick some ass, only to see the surprised – if not amused – expression on my would be boss/target.
“I’m so sorry,” I exclaimed while my hands automatically fluttered over his previously starched and now rumpled thanks to my elbow in his sternum button up shirt. “You surprised me. I didn’t hear you come in.”
The apologetic look on my face was genuine when I finally looked into his eyes. He appeared unharmed – the same couldn’t be said for my bruised elbow – but when I tried to reach into his mind to see what he must think of me, it hit me.
I couldn’t ‘hear’ him at all.