Johnny kept a watchful eye on Sonny’s face, hoping that sleep had finally won its well-worn battle. The fireplace crackled, casting a warm reflection across the edge of the couch where Sonny had slumped down into the pillows. His breathing was slow and still as his eyes darted back and forth beneath closed lids. Johnny could only imagine where Sonny’s mind had wandered, what his restless eyes envisioned. He’d imagined things of his own.
He’d also caught Sonny staring at the blue scarf that belonged to her. He made no attempt to hide from Johnny. There was no point. The pain, the guilt that welled up in him was still fresh as Sonny pictured Alexis…what she was thinking, what she was feeling…wondering if she truly trusted him or was too much lost in fear. As was her way, she’d tried to make him laugh. It should have eased him, but it made him ache.
Sonny took a deep, noisy breath, exhaling with equal force. His eyes remained closed.
“Johnny, stop staring at me.”
Johnny looked away. “Sorry boss.” He paused, waiting for Sonny to move. Sonny stayed still. “You okay?”
Sonny raised his eyebrows, then slowly shook his head against the pillows.
“What time is it?”
Johnny checked his watch. “Just shy of midnight.”
“Well then. I guess I have Sorel’s answer.”
“Yeah, I guess you do. What now?”
Sonny’s eyes slowly opened, staring into the fire. “He was never going to take the deal. He just wanted to put me a slow burn. And Alexis pays for my sins.”
He sat up, turning his body to the flames. “That sick son of a bitch is hurting her. She couldn’t talk to me Johnny.” Sonny looked to Johnny’s face, which bore a sick pallor all its own.
“She was afraid to talk to me.”
Johnny turned away, a tingling chill spreading through him. His heart assumed an angry pounding inside his tightened chest as his mind spun a thousand ways to make Joseph Sorel pay, to put an end to him once and for all.
Reading Johnny’s mind, Sonny spoke it for him. “Sorel’s a dead man.”
Sonny abruptly pushed himself up off the couch. “And why the hell hasn’t Bennie called? All the money that’s been put out there, the field should be narrowed by now!”
“Bennie wants to be sure is all. He knows what’s at stake here. He wants to be sure.”
Johnny’s tone calmed him. It had that gift.
“Yeah, I know.” Sonny looked away, the loathsome helpless feeling creeping in again. Sorel’s mission had been undeniably accomplished.
“Get Taggert on the phone. Maybe he’s come up with SOMETHING useful, maybe something on those phone traces.” Sonny walked around the back of the couch, his hand absently reaching for Alexis’s scarf.
“Sonny, don’t.” Johnny admonished him.
“Get Taggert!” His fist clenched the cashmere tightly as he glared at Johnny. But Johnny stood firm, glaring right back.
“How the hell do you think this is helping her? Do you think she’d want you being like this, torturing yourself over her? You know what she’d say if she could see you right now?”
Sonny stared at him, mouth open but unable to respond. Johnny’s harsh words and angry face shocked him into silence. That Johnny would speak to him like this…his attention was won.
“She’d say, ‘For cryin’ out loud Sonny, get over it and get ON with it’…or something probably sounding a lot more intelligent but meaning the same thing.” His tone softened at the look on Sonny’s face. “Am I right or am I right?”
Sonny’s head lowered, a faint smile growing. “You’re right.” He looked up at Johnny, shaking his head.
“I’m just having a real hard time…I feel…I don’t understand what’s coming up in me.”
He looked down at his fist, then slowly brought it up, pressing it against his neck.
Johnny shifted his weight. “Yeah you do.” He shrugged. “What’s wrong with it?”
Sonny leaned his face into the softness one last time, breathing in the sweetness that still lingered there. Allowing a final memory of her face, her hair, her hands red and wet with his blood as they held onto his face. The thing that kept him breathing, kept him living, as he lie fading in the cold snow. His connection to life, to her, one and the same.
“I think I may be in serious trouble…” he whispered. Without looking up, Sonny held his hand out to Johnny. “Put this somewhere will you?”
The phone rang. Sonny’s head snapped toward it. It rang again.
Sonny grabbed it. “Yeah. Where? And he’s sure it’s the guy on the lobby surveillance tape? Good. Good work Bennie. You too Johnny. That was good thinking.”
Johnny nodded, moving closer.
“I want someone on each block within a mile radius, no building unchecked, no proverbial stone unturned, and I want it done now. Again, no one sleeps. Anything solid, you call me and wait for me to get there. And Bennie – I want everyone to be very careful. Nobody makes a move without my say-so. You got it? Not a move. Taggert? Taggert’s doing his little detective thing, believing he’s actually being productive. He’ll know what I want him to know, IF I want him to know it. Right now he’s an annoyance, like a gnat that won’t be swatted away. He’ll come in handy when it’s time for someone official to haul Sorel off in a body bag.”
There was a soft knock on the door. Johnny checked his watch again. The door opened slightly, Francis’s head appearing through the crack.
“I know it’s late. Ned Ashton?”
Sonny’s eyes closed. “Oh God,” he whispered. “That big-mouth Taggert.”
“Want me to get rid of him,” Johnny offered.
The door suddenly pushed wide open. Ned stood in the doorway.
“Nobody’s getting rid of me.”
“Stay in touch.” Sonny put the phone down on the desk. He looked at Ned’s flushed face and ragged appearance. The desperation about him struck an achingly familiar chord.
“It’s alright Johnny. Why don’t you go check on Zander and…”
“Zander is fine! I wasn’t about to waste my time with him again.” Ned pushed past Francis and stood in front of Sonny, eyes blazing and tired.
As Johnny and Francis left them alone, the two men continued their silent stare-down. Ned’s breathing was labored, his jaw hard. Sonny betrayed nothing. Finally, Ned relented.
“Please…” His voice cracked against his will. “Tell me where she is.”
Sonny felt his muscles tightening. He refused to allow himself to feel for this man.
“We’ve done this once already today Ashton. I’m not going to do it again.”
Ned shook his head. “Neither am I. THIS time, I want the truth, and I will stand right here until I get it.”
His tone was simple, blunt. Sonny knew he meant it, but continued to stare at Ned without expression.
“Give it up Sonny. I know Alexis is missing, and Taggert knows she’s missing, and I know he’s been to see you about it! So why don’t you just fill me as to what the hell’s going on! I have a right to know!” Ned’s voice had rose sharply, his fists clenching as Sonny’s had done before.
Sonny turned and walked to the bar, pouring himself a glass of water.
“My God. How cold could you possible be? Alexis must mean SOMETHING to you, besides her role as your own personal get-out-of-jail-free card! You put yourself between her and a hail of bullets, you must feel enough for her as a person to at least, AT LEAST, tell me the truth.”
“Why? Why what?”
Sonny turned to him. “Why would my feelings about Alexis, whatever they may be, make me tell you anything regarding her that’s not your business?”
“Don’t give me that crap Sonny! You know damn good and well that I love Alexis, and I’ll do anything I have to do to…”
“To what?” Sonny spat.
“To save her from the snake-pit that you and your…associates have thrown her into! Don’t you have at least enough regard for her to cut her loose and leave her the hell alone? How many times can she ALMOST get killed before her luck runs out?”
Sonny tilted his head and narrowed his eyes, moving in for the jugular. “There are all kinds of ways to kill a woman, Ashton. You, of all people, shouldn’t be pointing any fingers.”
Ned paused, stunned by Sonny’s words. “What the hell is THAT supposed to mean?” His voice was measured, his gaze as hard as the one Sonny had fixed on him.
“You’re supposed to be a smart man Ashton. How come you’re so thick when it comes to the heart and soul of the woman you CLAIM to love?”
“I DO love her.” Ned’s voice started to break.
“Love? I don’t think so. You may WANT her, and I’m sure that you do, but love? You need to go buy a dictionary, my friend.”
“I don’t need to explain my relationship with Alexis to YOU!”
“No, you don’t. Because I know all about how Alexis feels…and how YOU feel is irrelevant to me.”
Ned was silent, his face in disbelief. He couldn’t believe that Alexis would actually confide in this man. That she would share things so personal with him Sonny regarded Ned with an air of triumph.
“That’s right Ashton. The woman you love talks to ME. She talks to me, and I listen to her. And I don’t just listen to her words. Have you ever listened to her like that? Have you ever heard what she says with her eyes, her face, with the way she sits, or moves, or holds her arms?”
The way Sonny talked about her made Ned squirm. He was so personal, almost possessive, like he…like Sonny was her lover instead of him. Ned’s pulse began a jealous pounding in his temples.
“Alexis and I understand each other just fine.”
Sonny shrugged. “Whatever you say.”
Ned bristled at Sonny’s cockiness, at his implication that HE knew Alexis better.
“The worst thing in the world for her to have done was to enmesh herself in your sordid life. To let herself be dragged down professionally and put in danger physically. And now you claim to have influenced her personally? It certainly becomes clear how it all suddenly went so wrong between us.”
Sonny shook his head. It was all so simple to him.
“Alexis is, without a doubt, the most brilliant, confident, fiercely self-possessed attorney to ever grace a courtroom, and she KNOWS it. She REVELS in it. But Alexis is also the smallest child I have ever seen reside in an woman’s body. She doesn’t understand why the most normal of human emotions insist on doing battle within her. She doesn’t understand why her emotions confuse and overwhelm her to the point of panic, to the point of passing out, of running away. And for an admitted control-freak like Alexis, not being able to understand your own motivations, your own actions…it makes you want to bury yourself in the part of you that you DO understand. The part that makes sense, the part over which you DO have control. The part that doesn’t scare you to death for reasons unexplained. THAT is who she is. And I ask you, how can you love her when you can’t even ACCEPT who she is?”
Ned closed his eyes, rubbing at them with his open palm. Sonny’s words were burning in his ears. They were true. God help him, but they were true. He felt sick inside. He knew how much he loved Alexis, and he was scared to death he wouldn’t get the chance to make her know it too.
“How afraid do I need to be right now?” His voice was barely audible. His question was met with silence. He turned to face Sonny, his chin beginning to quiver.
“Do you want me to beg? For the love of God Sonny, don’t make me sit here with my hands tied, doing nothing…knowing nothing.” He drew a deep breath and held it, waiting.
Sonny’s resolve slowly morphed into - what, pity, for this man? For the emptiness in his eyes, the helplessness Sonny himself felt all too strongly.
Ned released his breath. Sonny used his given name. It scared the hell out of him. Sonny watched as the blood quickly drained from Ned’s face. He got it over with.
“Sorel’s got her.”
Ned’s knees buckled. His hand grabbed at the edge of the desk to steady himself.
“I’ve talked to her, she’s okay. I’m close to locating her, and Taggert’s doing his thing as well It’s almost over. There’s nothing you can do that isn’t being done already.”
Ned’s eyes blazed with a sudden realization. “He wants Zander!”
“Then why doesn’t he HAVE him! Why isn’t Alexis home, safe in her own bed, and ZANDER who cares where with Sorel?”
“It’s not that simple.” Sonny couldn’t explain that this was as much about Sorel’s revenge on him as it was about keeping Zander off the stand. How could he explain? Ashton would kill him on the spot.
Ned sensed his hesitation, that there was more to the story. “What? What aren’t you telling me?”
“There are things you don’t understand. It can only be me who does this. You’ve got to trust me on this, and you cannot interfere. I swore to Alexis and I swear to you, I will bring her back.”
Ned looked him dead in the eye. “You know what I’ll do to you if you don’t.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less.”