Stephanie’s desk stood vacant when Nick arrived the following morning. He paced the waiting room until Ruby opened his door at precisely ten o’clock.
“Where’s Steph?” He tried to keep his tone neutral as he sat in the chair opposite Ruby.
“Downstairs in Publicity. We’re announcing Talon as the new lead singer for Blood Lust. I’m planning a world tour.” He slid a check across the desk to Nick. “Not bad, hey Nick? Half a million dollars for a couple of hours of signing girls’ tits. I knew the publicity would positively impact your sales.”
Nick slipped the check into his pocket without looking at it. “So, now what?”
Ruby clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned back in his chair. “Another book signing. Maybe some interviews. And, I have a surprise. I’m working on a movie deal for your trilogy series. Quite impressive, considering you’re a newbie on the horror scene.”
Nick nodded his head. He felt numb, empty. None of the news Ruby told him mattered. His thoughts centered around Katie. Ruby used her and his family as pawns to force him to do his bidding. Even if he broke up with Katie, Ruby knew he still loved her. She would always be in danger.
“You’re quiet today, Nick. Tell me, any ideas for future novels?”
Nick shook his head. He’d play along with the author charade so as not to anger Ruby and to buy time to figure out a way to get away from him. “I emailed your publisher about doing a book of short stories. He’s interested.”
“Short story collection? Hmm, yes, Cullen did a few of those. But you need to start working on your next best-selling novel, since Cullen won’t be publishing any more books.” Ruby stood and tapped his long nails on the desk. “Because of you, Cullen will spend the rest of his life locked up in a lunatic asylum. My demons are quite unhappy, they want to be free, not locked away in a padded room.”
“I had to try and stop him from murdering the girl.”
“Why? She was nothing to you. If you hadn’t interfered, ’ol Joe would still be pumping out books and providing a playground for a host of my deserving demons. His most important work.”
Nick stood and scowled at Ruby. “Murder is important work?”
“Murder without consequences. I protect my clients. One call, and much like that catchy television commercial, it’s like it never even happened.” Ruby flung his head back, laughing at his joke.
“You’re a liar. Cullen’s going to rot in a mental hospital. You’re not protecting him.”
“You called the police, what could I do? No time to spirit away the body, clean up the mess, or pay off witnesses.” Ruby sighed and waved his hands in the air. “I’ve lost count of the messes I’ve cleaned up for Joe. Starting with his wife’s sudden . . . disappearance.” The corners of Ruby’s mouth tugged up into a smug, evil smile. “Joe chose not to heed my advice. Much like you with Katie. The curse of love! No matter, Joe’s time is over. My demons crave a new host. Tell me Nick, have you had any visitors besides Artie?”
Nick looked away. Ruby’s glittering black eyes widened along with his malicious grin. “So, you have! Cullen’s a dead end. They’re always drawn to a newly opened portal.”
“What do I have to do to make it stop?” Nick slammed his fist down on the desk. “I refuse to end up like Cullen, do you hear me?” Shaking with rage, he grabbed Ruby’s jacket.
Ruby flicked his thumb and forefinger.
The force hurled Nick across the room. His body slammed into the wall next to the door and then slid onto the floor. Stunned by the sudden impact, he rubbed the back of his head and gaped at Ruby.
“You have no right of refusal in your contract, Nick. That frustrates you, doesn’t it? Standing here, muscles taut, veins bulging, panting through your mouth like a damn baboon. So predictable. When all else failed you before, you’ve always resorted to your fists, didn’t you? Now, run along. Go write a book. Or not. I have thousands of Cullen’s unpublished pages. Just think Nick, your idol’s stories published under your name. You said you wanted to be like Cullen. And now you shall be. Exactly like him.”
Nick scrambled to his feet, glared at Ruby. He stalked out and slammed the door.
Stephanie jumped in her chair. “Nick, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he grumbled. He focused on Stephanie’s wet, puffy eyes. “Why are you crying?”
She sniffed into a balled-up tissue clutched in her hand. “Ruby’s made Talon lead singer of Blood Lust. I–I hate her. She even can’t sing. It’s not fair. If only Chris. . ..”
Nick leaned across the desk and whispered. “Steph, I opened your demo CD last night and listened to it. Chris enclosed a letter. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snoop. But it was a suicide note.”
Stephanie gasped. “Suicide note?”
“Call me as soon as you get home tonight. We have to figure out a way to get the contracts—”
Stephanie’s gaze panned up and over Nick’s shoulder. Her mouth dropped open and her pink cheeks paled to a waxy white.
Nick followed her petrified stare. Ruby stood in his open doorway.
“Whispering secrets to my secretary, Mr. Tera?” His upper lip curled into a snarl, exposing his pointed, unnaturally white teeth. “Get out, Nick. And you,” he hissed, pointing a claw-like finger at Stephanie, “Get back to work.”
Nick called Stephanie at five fifteen that afternoon and continued to call on every half hour. His calls went straight to her mailbox. At seven o’clock he ran upstairs and knocked on her apartment door. No response. He went back downstairs to his apartment.
His own cell phone teemed with messages from Ray, Katie, and his family. Ray’s curt message reported he drove Katie home. Katie’s pleaded for Nick to call her. His grandmother ranted on about his book signing which she had seen on the news. Sal’s message warned him Nonna was pissed. Nick erased all of them and tried Stephanie again. Still, no answer and her mailbox was full. As he hung up, a text message from Katie displayed. I Luv U. Plz Call Me. He hesitated and then texted back I Luv U. Frustrated, he grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. Ruby had him trapped. Unless he and Stephanie could find and destroy the contracts in Ruby’s office, he’d end up like either Cullen or Chris. He didn’t know which would be worse. Five more beers smothered his fears under a murky blanket of alcohol-induced numbness.