“I’m sorry,” she whispered, placing her hand atop his in comfort. “Niall passed away.”
“Oh,” he swallowed audibly, any true emotional reaction delayed by the news as it settled in. “I mean he’s old, ancient, I mean was, he was-” His voice choked up then, leaving him incapable of sounding out any more, Sookie awkwardly taking him in her arms for a comforting hug. Her own feelings towards Niall were more unresolved, the news impacting her far harder than she would like to admit. Softly they both cried for the elderly man, Claude retelling her of the stories of his childhood, how Niall had intervened with his awful mother numerous times, offered him a home when he came out as gay, and his mother wanted nothing to do with him for years.
“He was a good person, wasn’t he?” Sookie asked in surprise. She’d contemplated rekindling the contact with her great-grandfather more than once, but the sight of Jason struggling to walk always killed any resolve. “At least he tried to be, right?”
“As best he could,” Claude nodded. “He was stubborn though, perhaps to a fault, more so when I was younger. Not a saint, but he tried to do the best by everyone, even if it came at the cost of him. What did Claudine say?”
“I don’t really feel like repeating that right now,” she replied, holding her lips tightly.
“She finally showed her claws then? Took her long enough.”
“She’s my sister, Sookie,” he chuckled. “I know her far better than anybody else. Don’t let that New Age, hippy bullshit fool you. She’s tough as nails.”
“Yeah,” Sookie sighed. “I found that out alright. Her exact words?” He nodded. “‘Fuck you, you little backwater bitch. How dare you, none of us will be taking this laying down! See you in court!’ It’s all she said, no ‘hello, guess what your great-granddaddy is dead’ or anything, just hung up. Uncle Des was the one who told me what happened, that he passed peacefully in his sleep, that I’m the executor of his will.”
Claude fell into hysterics with the last revelation, only explaining when the tears of laughter that had turned slightly melancholic in the process had been wiped away, “Niall always did want to have the last laugh, God, I loved that fucker.”
“I don’t get it,” Sookie replied, face scrunched up in confusion.
“Of course, you don’t,” he grinned. “Congratulations, you’re the new Niall.”
“This isn’t right,” Sookie huffed at the mirror.
“It’s fine!” Pam insisted. “Just like the 25 others were. It’s a black dress, just pick one already.”
Arms crossed, she collapsed on the bench in the fitting room with a scowl. “You pick one then!”
“Here,” she glared, shoving the first dress back at her again, “I can’t believe you’re making me hate shopping!”
“Let’s just go,” Sookie sighed, scrutinising the first dress, “It’ll work, right?”
“Well, it certainly isn’t going to make that funeral more enjoyable, one way or the other,” Pam pointed out, “but you’ll look stunning regardless.”
“Thanks,” she smiled weakly. “I’m just really nervous, I guess.”
“You guess?” Pam cackled. “You’re terrified, which is fine. Funerals are scary.” Sookie regarded her in question, forcing Pam to add, “Don’t want to talk about it.”
With a nod of understanding, she swished the curtain closed and redressed. After purchasing the contested dress, they soon set out to find Jason who insisted on coming along, but like Sookie, lacked the proper wardrobe to attend the funeral. Eric smiled gently at her while Jason attempted to put the charms on a giggly shop girl. Sookie had been quite the emotional mess since breaking the news of Niall’s death, but it was only ever in Eric’s presence that she seemed to weep nonsensically while no one else was looking.
“Ready?” he asked. In response, she held up her shopping bag while Pam fetched Jason under heavy protests. The closer the funeral was, the more anxious she was becoming over it all. Thankfully, her Uncle Des seemed to be helpful along the maze that was Niall’s legacy.
The law offices of Desmond Cataliades were surprisingly small, naturally they were luxurious and expansive, but there were just very little rooms and staff. Her Uncle Des didn’t make her wait long before beckoning in her and Eric. Pam and Jason, thankfully, were oblivious, and too occupied with the free pastries, tea, and coffee, and also there was a rather attractive secretary involved.
“Sit,” Cataliades requested, looking very much overworked. “We have much to go over.”
Sookie simply nodded. Before they’d even landed on American soil, the lawyer had already warded off a preliminary injunction on her behalf, returning the infamous lawyer who famously hadn’t set foot in court for the first time in many years.
“I just don’t understand why he did it,” Sookie sighed after he had finished regaling her with the latest details and terms of the will and trust as disclosed to him by Niall’s personal lawyer since they last spoke. “I’m the worst person for the job.”
“Perhaps that’s why,” Cataliades grinned, and handing over a letter in Niall’s handwriting, he added, “Perhaps this will explain more, but I know he admired your tenacity. Of all the Brigants, you’re the one most likely to keep them all in line.”
“What am I supposed to do, I mean, what does an executor actually do?” she asked, storing the thick envelope in her bag.
Diligently he’d explained the procedure several times now, but she was either unwilling to hear it, or it simply refused to resonate with her all at once. “You see to it the will is executed as intended. Handle the business affairs where necessary. Pretty standard stuff,” he smiled encouragingly.
“Business? The family company, I’m in charge of that now?” she asked in a mild panic. Surely this detail shouldn’t have escaped her.
“Of course not!” he scoffed. “There’s a living trust in place that manages all that is necessary, but you’ll oversee his interests on behalf of the heirs until the estate is settled, and appoint an interim to take his place until a suitable candidate is vetted.”
“Then why the hell are they so intent on fighting me on it?” she huffed petulantly, her arms crossing defensively over her chest. “If all I have to do is make sure everything is carried out as the will dictates, what is their issue?”
“You will have access to everything until they find a judge crazy enough to stop you. In their minds, you can skew everything in your favour, make funds disappear, or run their billion-dollar company into the ground simply by appointing the wrong person to run it-”
“I get it,” she interrupted. “They don’t like me and think I’m incompetent. They’re probably not far off. Why the hell did he leave me in charge?”
“You can refuse, of course,” he pointed out, ignoring the slight at herself. He knew by now no matter what he said of her competence, little of it was heard. “Niall expressly failed to name a substitute, so it’ll be up to the court to appoint another administrator, usually a willing relative. I assume that is what most of the Brigants are hoping for right now.”
“He couldn’t pick one of them, so he just burdened it on me then?”
Cataliades shook his head, “I know this is tough, Sookie. I think he anticipated there would be a scramble over his estate no matter what. No Brigant has died without significant arguments and some form of litigation, despite the iron clad trusts in place. The longer it takes to settle the estate, the longer the company is left effectively unmanned, which surely will influence its stock and shareholders. Any strife within the family surely will only further deteriorate already feuding factions. ”
“So they’re all united against me,” she wheezed out, Eric’s hand finding hers for a supportive squeeze. “Thanks a lot, Niall.”
“Northman,” the lawyer addressed, a paternal concern clearly palpable in his sudden change of tone, “My investigators looked into you, as any media outlet that will be watching the developments will, and there was little to find.”
“That’s good, right?” Sookie piped in optimistically.
“It’s suspicious,” Eric corrected. “It encourages them to dig further.”
“With the right connections,” Cataliades hinted. “There’s nothing to find I’m sure, but rumours talk more than paper ever does these days.”
“I understand,” Eric nodded, leaving Sookie in confusion.
“Well, I certainly don’t!” Sookie cried out when the men in the room remained demonstratively silent.
“It is for the best,” her Uncle Des started in that soothing tone again, “that Eric remain as far away from you. For now.”
“Absolutely not!” she protested, horrified by the mere thought. “We’re marr-, I mean we live together. We’re registered to the same address-”
“We’re not,” Eric intervened, carrying a look of guilt. “After Jason, it was safer that way.”
“They met you!” she cried out, angrily. “It’s not like those Brigants forgot they met you!”
“They won’t play this through the media,” the lawyer spoke with assurance. “Not their style.”
“Of course not!” Sookie snorted. “They’ll just point a gun to my head!”
“It’s really for the best, Sookie,” Eric sighed, knowing he was failing in convincing her. “Until the media storm dies out around Niall’s death, we shouldn’t be seen in public together. If words gets out you’re someone with connections to crime, they’ll surely leverage against you, dragging this out far longer than it should.”
“No,” she whimpered. “I don’t think I can. The funeral-”
“I will be there,” Cataliades offered gently. “I’ll be here to see you through every step of the way. Unless you don’t want me as your lawyer, I’ve sort of assumed, but I can happily recommend someone else who is capable. Perhaps you are better off with someone specialising in this particular field.”
“No,” she said with a shake of her head. “I trust you.”
“The funeral tomorrow then,” he nodded, gathering some more papers to hand over. “We’ll be meeting with the estate attorney on Friday. I’ve rented a house for you, plenty of privacy, wheelchair friendly. Best not share that particular address with the Brigants.”
Sookie nodded with a resigned smile, “Thank you.”
“I’ll meet you there in the morning. You’re driving up there tonight?”
“Yes,” Eric answered while Sookie gathered the heavy stack of papers and a set of keys. “Two cars.”
“You know what to do then.”
“Of course,” Eric nodded. Sookie was barely listening at this point, but he knew she’d be slightly unreasonable from the moment they’d have to separate. Pam and he would be continuing on to the rented house while she’d be checking in with Jason to a reputable hotel that night. Cameras would surely be snapping up the mystery heirs coming to the much respected Niall Brigant’s funeral.
“Are we megabucks rich, Sis?” Jason greeted eagerly, failing to recognise the deflated look she carried. “Pam thinks we should get a private jet.”
“Sure, whatever,” she responded with little acknowledgement, stabbing aggressively at the elevator button. “Sounds nice.”
To say Sookie had been displeased had been an understatement. In her opinion, Eric had taken their need for secrecy to an unnecessary extreme. For crying out loud, who was going to see them in a car together and know exactly who he was? Annoyingly, he had pointed out that’s exactly how they came to know of Claudine’s mystery man, a man who had been noticeably absent at the funeral, a tasteful and grandiose affair that had Sookie seated in the far back with Jason and Cataliades. Considering the open casket, it was a preferred distance. She’d been startled by the sight of her great-grandfather without the usual colour that sparked his eyes and cheeks, a shell of what he was. It only further established that he truly was dead, leaving any thought that this was some other faked death by another Brigant, resonating how final this truly was. The length of the heavily attended service allowed her a healthy perusal of all the different Brigants, seated as close to the coffin by order of importance though from their placid faces there really wasn’t much to tell.
Niall’s lengthy letter hadn’t told her much either. He’d drafted it days after Jason’s accident and dwelled mostly on that, apologetically and profusely for his failure to protect them. Reading between the lines, Sookie sensed this wasn’t the first time Niall had felt this guilty and remorseful over a series of events he had no control over that was directed at the Brigants. The decision to name her as the executor of his will was summarised in a short paragraph, the manner in which she had come to Jason’s side and protected him at all costs had esteemed her greatly in Niall’s eyes. She had reminded him of his first wife, thus the change to his will had been made with little thought. Somehow she knew that was not the full explanation, but it was flattering, nonetheless. A few derisive glances were tossed her way at the funeral, but nothing truly bad had happened as she had anticipated. Some of the Brigants had been cordial, others overly friendly, and some, well, Claude, were indifferent.
Claudette, surprisingly not under the influence, had been highly encouraging the Stackhouse siblings to join them at the reception that was to be held in Niall’s favourite club. Politely, Sookie had declined. Cataliades had noted that since all beneficiaries of Niall’s estate had already been given a copy of the will, much of their protests had died down. It had been fair to all as intended and it would be difficult to contest in a court of law, not that it would discourage some, but it had taken the fight out of the majority. Of course, the contents of the living trust were far more interesting to the lawyer than the will would ever be, and where he expected the true fight would emerge, especially since those details had not been disclosed to anyone yet. Niall was a wealthy man, indeed, but it was nothing in comparison to the share of the business he ran.
“What are you still doing here?” Sookie asked gently when she spotted Claude sucking away at a cigarette by the valet stand after all other Brigants had already left. Sookie had insisted on staying behind till the coffin was buried deep in the ground, leaving the modest bouquet of flowers she had brought on the fresh soil in among the giant wreaths that surrounded him.
“Didn’t want to be with them,” he shrugged, checking his watch. “Cab’s taking a little long.” She looked over at Cataliades who gave a silent nod before she offered to drop Claude at his home. “Just drop me downtown,” he replied when she asked for his address.
“It’s no trouble,” she replied, punching away at the navigation system.
“Don’t want to be alone right now,” he muttered from beside her in the passenger’s seat. “A bar, something like that.”
“Sure,” she replied, driving off with a little wave to her Uncle Des.
Claude didn’t even bother to ask where they were going, heading in the opposite direction of downtown, only noting, ‘This isn’t funny,’ when they were nearing the reclusive property where Pam and Eric were hiding out, following Eric’s instruction to the latter to make sure they weren’t being followed.
“What isn’t funny?” Jason yawned. He was hungry and tired, but had yet to see a drive-thru where he could make Sookie stop. He was still a little annoyed that Sookie had rejected any invitation to the reception. Surely they’d have good grub there. He could have been napping by now!
“Taking me to Niall’s house,” Claude explained. “I’m not in the mood.”
“I’m not-” Sookie denied, only then realising why the address she had punched in had seemed vaguely familiar. Amending, she offered, “It’s not his house, only a few doors down, I guess. Uncle Des arranged it. Pam’s there with Eric.”
“Ah,” he answered with a sigh. “Alright, then.”
“So what’d you get?” Jason asked Claude eagerly, “We’re thinking of getting a plane.”
“Jas!” Sookie protested, apologising to Claude instantly on his behalf while wondering where her brother had gotten that idea.
Despite the rather rude inquest, Claude didn’t have many objections to sharing, “A few knick-knacks and a piece of art I always liked as a kid.”
“No cash?” Jason questioned with confusion. “How you gonna start Hooligans with a bunch of knick-knacks?”
“If I sell them, I can buy ten Hooligans, probably more,” Claude sighed. “But I won’t.”
“Hooters is better anyhow,” Jason added sagely while Sookie glared at him in the rear-view mirror to little effect. “Hey, some wings sound good about now! Punch Hooters into that fancy thing-a-ma-jig, will ya?”
“Jason!” Sookie hissed. “You’re being insensitive!”
“Actually,” Claude interrupted, “that does sound pretty good.”
“Fine,” Sookie agreed half-heartedly, rerouting the navigation system to find the nearest Hooters. Luckily it wasn’t far, and they were soon seated in a deserted Hooters, mid-afternoon, munching away at baskets of sticky chicken wings in their black mourning dress.
“I took Niall here once,” Claude noted mid-bite with a sly grin. “The ladies liked him very much. First time I ever saw him stammer over his own words or perplexed by what to do without a knife and fork. Claudine soon showed up to save him from all the debauchery. He never said, but I knew he called her for help.”
“What’s up with that chick, anyhow?” Jason mumbled, absently watching a game on one of the TV sets while pulling out a bone cleanly with expert precision from his mouth. “She all whiny and frigid because she lost her piece of the pie?”
“Something like that,” Claude shrugged.
“She’s not frigid,” Sookie pointed out. Claude merely raised his brow disbelievingly. “I saw her kiss that Coleman guy, and it was anything but frigid.”
“Coleman?” Claude said with confusion. “I sincerely doubt she’d be kissing a Coleman.”
“No, pretty sure it was … Eamon Coleman? Eric looked into him and everything.”
“Coleman as in Coleman & Coleman?”
She cleaned off her fingertips rather inelegantly before humming in reply, “That’s the one. Heir to the family fortune and everything. You know him?”
“They’re the company’s biggest rival. I never really paid attention to it. Got serious a couple of times in the past, I think,” he replied with some thought. “They’ve been trying to take us down for years and vice versa. Huh, Claudine never could let go of the Romeo & Juliet ideal.”
Sookie shrugged, “Guess I’m not the only one keeping a guy in the dark.”
“Thank God you’re here! He’s super grumpy!” Pam greeted as soon as they pulled in the drive. “You two better fuck soon or something!”
Sookie gave her a pointed look that miraculously seemed to resonate, causing Pam to voluntarily help Jason out of the car in a display of apology, cheerily greeting Claude in the process.
“Hey,” Sookie smiled when she finally found Eric in one of the many rooms of the expansive property. He hummed happily as soon as she was in his arms. Breathing out deeply, she started crying softly while his hand soothed her back. “It was a really tough day,” she finally managed to whimper out while he held her tightly to his chest. “He looked so strange. I never really thought of him as that old, but he was, you know?”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there,” he apologised. “What took you so long?”
“Claude wanted to stop at Hooters,” she explained, remembering the bizarre ritual of the three of them eating chicken wings in their finest clothing. Strangely, it had been kind of nice. “Jason’s idea.”
“Ah,” he nodded, pulling her tighter against him, her body resting on his lap in the foetal position.
“You know Niall’s house is just a few doors down.”
“Figured it wouldn’t be far away,” he replied, “Cataliades is pragmatic like that. They’ll have thirty days to contest the will, and after that you can start selling everything off. It’s good to be nearby. We’ll be back home before you know it.”
“You’re awfully optimistic,” she noted, her finger trailing down his shirt with no clear destination. “I don’t even know where to start, it took me forever to sort through Gran’s stuff. Actually most of it is just in storage now since I never could decide what to do with most of it.”
“You didn’t really know him, so it should be easy enough. You can hire someone to do it for you.”
“No,” she stated firmly. “He meant something to others, to Claude. His things, they need to be treated with respect. Come with me so I know what I’m up against, later tonight?”
“Sure,” he agreed.
“What’s that noise?” she whispered into his t-shirt, faintly recognising Pam and Jason’s voices with a strange, echoing noise.
“Indoor pool,” he answered. “Pam’s been trying to get me to swim all day. By the sounds of it, she’s convinced Jason.”
She got up from her comfortable spot, “I should probably see to Claude. He’s doing worse than I am, I think. Those two will never take notice.”
“I’ll get us some food for dinner,” Eric offered, following her out and pointing in the direction of the pool.
“Just take them off,” Pam huffed, hands planted on her thighs, “I’ve seen your naked ass plenty. I help you dress all the time!”
“I don’t want Claude to see,” Jason mumbled quietly, trying desperately to keep standing with his poor newfound balance while Pam proceeded to yank down his trousers.
“There’s nothing special about that penis of yours,” she grit out while Jason continued to resist. “Nothing he hasn’t seen before.” Claude only managed a slight look of bemusement from the lounge bed he had plonked himself on while Jason protested that his penis was very special indeed.
“You’re wearing underwear!” Pam exclaimed, finally managing to wrestle his pants down to find the tight white fitting briefs he always wore. “What are you complaining about?”
“Jas,” Sookie yelled out in exasperation, taking the lounge bed beside Claude, “Rest assured, no one here is interested in your penis. Just get in the pool!” Reluctantly he allowed Pam to help him, after all she’d taken him to his hydrotherapy sessions often enough back in Stockholm, even joining in now and then. Soon they were splashing water in each other’s faces like long-lost siblings.
“Claude,” Sookie sighed, turning her body towards his, “Is it a bad idea to appoint you in charge of the business?”
“Yes,” he said, matter-of-fact. “I’m the last man on earth you’d want filling that position. I’m not with the rest of the Brigant Clan right now for many a reason. Don’t make me tell you them all one by one.”
“Who then? There isn’t a Brigant I know to trust besides you. Fintan and Dermot are doing their usual disappearing act with no return address, not that either of them is a good choice,” she replied in annoyance. “They’ll never approve of anyone I pick, and I don’t even know what to look for. Who would you pick?”
He regarded her thoughtfully before replying simply, “Claudine.”
“She’s been awful to me!” Sookie protested. “I can’t pick her!”
“This isn’t about niceties, dear Cousin. This is about putting the right person in charge. She’s been working with him for years. She knows what to do, and how things are done. You’ll be dealing with her regardless. Give the bitch a bone, and you’ll be surprised how agreeable she becomes.”
“I don’t trust her,” Sookie said with a shake of her head. “It doesn’t feel right.”
“Listen,” Claude started, sounding more serious than ever before. “It was a fun surprise when Niall named you executor to his estate and it’ll keep everyone on their toes and best behaviour, but a surprise, nonetheless, and the novelty of it will soon wear off. Everyone expected Claudine to be the one to oversee the transition, so if you don’t want to rock the boat, you pick Claudine and you wrap this up quick. Don’t make this harder on yourself than it needs to be.”
“But Niall didn’t pick her,” she pointed out. “There must have been a reason beyond the fact that he liked my tenacity. If Claudine was the person for the job, he would have named her executor of his estate.”
“He was probably trying to pull you back in, to make you part of this family,” he replied. “Niall liked you a lot, more than he expected to, I think. Who knows really, maybe it was that he knew about the Coleman connection.”
“Why would that matter?”
“We’re in the pharmaceutical business, Sookie,” he replied with a roll of his eyes, as if that explained everything.
“I don’t understand.”
“Right,” Claude sighed. “We’re drug peddlers, always have been, always will be. Our company’s largest growth was during the Prohibition Era. As dignified as we all pretend to be, we haven’t moved on much from our origins.”
“The Brigants are illegal drug dealers?”
“Were, now we just sell the legal stuff, though one could argue that’s worse these days,” Claude corrected. “The Colemans started around the same time as us, same place. It got pretty bloody in the past, long before any of us really. Niall wasn’t even a blip in the ether. The rivalry, though, it’s always remained.”
“So Claudine really is dating a Capulet,” Sookie mused. “Not even you knew?” Claude shook his head. “Would the rest of the family be as supportive of her if they knew?”
Claude grinned, “You’re getting good at this, Stackhouse! Might need to call you Brigant soon. No, they wouldn’t. Leverage it against her, and she’ll be a good little puppy while you sort everything out.”
“Just watch out for the inevitable bite,” Sookie concluded, and the grin on her cousin’s face broadened appreciatively. “Want to stay here tonight?”
“Yeah,” he yawned in reply, even though it was far from night. “That’d be nice.”
It continued to rack Sookie’s mind who to appoint as interim CEO. Cataliades had given her a list of candidates from within the company, placing an asterisk beside strongly suited candidates. Again, Claudine’s name circulated to the top. While picking absently at her dinner and eating none of it, Sookie wondered if the photos Eric had taken of Claudine and the Coleman heir would be enough to make her sit and play nice. Somehow she sincerely doubted it, but the evidence would be good to have nonetheless.
“Ready to go?” Eric asked, darkness already starting to set in around them. She regarded him with some confusion before he reminded, “To Niall’s?”
“Sure,” she replied, gathering up the set of keys and alarm codes. Since it wasn’t far, they walked quietly down the deserted road. Halfway she stopped dead in her tracks, her hand reaching for Eric, halting them both. He regarded her with confusion, on alert instantly until she tugged him towards her, reaching up on her toes to kiss him in the relative dark. “I hate hiding you,” she whispered. “Had to sneak it in while I could.”
He smiled, caressing her cheek tenderly, leading her along to the house after a moment. The double set of gates took excessively long to open and close before they could set off down the long drive to the darkened home, lit only by a few garden lights in the distance. It was far more ostentatious than the home on Lake Geneva and in the waning light, it looked far more ominous than it really should.
She was about to punch in the alarm code once the front door was open only to be held back by Eric, indicating she be quiet with his index finger pressed against his lips. A loaded gun appeared in his hands that she wasn’t even aware he was carrying or had brought. He indicated she should stay put and despite wanting to protest wildly, his warning glance made her realise he was deadly serious. She was about to point out the alarm, only to find it deactivated. Treading carefully, Eric moved soundlessly through the home while her heart pounded erratically. The longer it was taking, time seeming to move slower than ever before, worrying her to no end. After holding her breath for who knows how long, suddenly the lights switched on, with Eric yelling, “Sookie, get over here! You might want to see this.”
With a quickened step she followed the direction of his voice, praying to God he hadn’t found a corpse, and ended up in Niall’s study where she found Eric tucking his gun back in its holster, a pointed glance directing her towards the desk.
“Well, hello, Dear,” Fintan greeted cheerfully amidst a giant pile of documents that he and Dermot were ploughing through with a now-redundant set of torches. “We didn’t think you’d mind.”
A/N: I hope you all enjoyed this ‘chunky’ chapter, the Brigants take up a lot of space… for those wondering this story is slowly creeping to its end but it requires a bit of unravelling as opposed to a single quick reveal. Another few chapters at most.
So, yes, Sookie’s in a tough spot and having to hide Eric surely isn’t helping but hurray the Hardy Boys have arrived to help her… although going by their conduct perhaps hinder is more accurate… more next time!
Much thanks to msbuffy as ever.