REDEMPTION | MAFIA | THE LONDON CRIME KING | ONE

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Summary

This book contains adult language and subject matter, including graphic violence, drugs and explicit sex that may be disturbing to some readers. Wattpad’s Fiction Award Winner for The Best Protagonist, The Best Plot, The Best Supporting Character & The Best Friendship. It was just us, my sister and me. At age nineteen, I was content to live within Kathy's shadow to evade facing the demons of my past, where I felt safe, protected and blinded from everything I had run away from. But then Kathy left for work one night and never came home. Lost in hope and forced to leave the impenetrable shield I built around myself, I traipsed in my sister's footsteps, desperate to uncover the truth behind her disappearance. Not a clue left unturned, I grappled possibilities and found myself sat in a familiar spot, gazing out of the same window to watch the only person I knew had the answers, Kathy's former boss, Liam Warren, the most ruthless crime lord in all of London. You don't approach a man like him, or solicit favours from a renowned criminal. You didn't lie to get a job at his club, or portray to be someone you're not. And most importantly, you do not fall in love with him. Follow Alexa's journey of devastating love and emotional heartbreak, where she finds out everything she once knew turned out to be a lie. (Written in British English). Copyright © Lindsey Marie

Genre:
Romance / Mystery
Author:
Lindsey Marie
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
50
Rating:
5.0 115 reviews
Age Rating:
18+

PROLOGUE

Note from the writer: for some reason, when I copied these chapters from my wattpad account to paste onto Inkitt, the italicised scenes changed back into normal font. I am aware of the problem because a few readers brought it to my attention. With this error unfixed, you’ll stumble across the occasional chapter where certain scenes and paragraphs are confusing to follow. Please be patient with me. I’m going to fix the problem as soon as I get home from vacation. In a few weeks, all the necessary scenes will be italicised once more. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy the book either way. I’m sorry if it inconveniences the reading experience.

- Love, Lindsey Marie.

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I dreaded the sound of his heavy-duty boots on the hard floor. Each stealth-like step intensified innermost fears and anxieties. He was here this morning, his corpulent body on mine, his greedy hands cleaved to my skin, his low, throaty voice hot to my ear. It’s unlike him to return to the basement twice in one day to demand more.

Snatching the filthy threadbare blanket over my head, I laid motionless with bated breath, the thumping, muscular organ beneath my rib cage plunging to the depths of my empty stomach.

Please fall down the stairs, I thought, tasting salty tears on my dry lips. Let him miss a step and plummet to his death to relieve me from a life of solitary darkness and inhumane shackles.

His footsteps stopped. I felt his intense stare roam over me and curled my toes, tucking my feet under the blanket away from the evilness that glinted in his eyes.

A tired, breathless sigh blew from his mouth.

Praying that he will forget I exist and move on, I closed my eyelids.

“Alexa, I know you are awake,” said a familiar voice, and my pinched eyes snapped wide. “Please come out.”

For a long moment, I remained under the safety of the duvet, wondering if perhaps the sound of Kathy’s voice was a misconception. Her closeness, a mystifyingly phantasmagorical encounter, one that I had dreamt and wished to see for countless days, or has it been months? Years?

I had lost count a long time ago.

“What if you’re not real?” I whispered, chewing my fingernails. “What if I come out and you’re not there?”

“I’m real.” She settled beside me on the floor, the protruding mattress springs complaining as she shifted for comfort. “Alexa.” She gingerly eased the blanket from my iron grip. “I’m real.”

I caught a throaty sob in my hand. “Where were you?” Bolting upright, I swiped sweat-slicked hair from my face and, lowering the blanket to meet her soft gaze, threw my arms around her. I sniffled into the groove of her neck. “I have missed you so much.”

“I missed you, too.” Tucking hair behind my ears, she kissed my cheek. “Guess what?”

My hands clung to her back. “What?”

“We are getting out of here.”

“What?” I eased back and stared into her hazel-coloured eyes, the same eyes that mirrored mine. “How?”

It’s an impossible task. There is no way out of this horrible place. I have tried many times and repeatedly failed.

“How did you get down here?” At the top of the stairs, I eyed the steel door in loathing. “Does he know?”

“No.” Her two rough fingers pressed on my chapped lips. “We must be quiet.”

Considering our depressingly unfortunate circumstances, her decent appearance, warm knitted clothing, flushed cheeks, and braided hair surprised me. I ran my sweaty palms over the stained nightgown he forced me to wear. I had begrimed toenails, and my hair reeked of stale vomit and other bodily odours. “We can’t leave,” I croaked, using the back of my hand to remove the consistent ooze trickling from my nose. “I have tried, Kathy, but I never make it past the hallway before one of them catches me and drags me back down.”

Sometimes I wonder if those men, the monsters above, leave the door unlocked like a sick, twisted, misleading game, allowing me to believe freedom awaits when, in actuality, I entertain them with my desperate struggles because there isn’t a way out of this mess.

“They are asleep.” Her hopeful eyes flickered to the ajar door. “This might be our only shot, Alexa.” Soaring to her feet, she extended an arm, silently asking me to take her hand. I warily slipped my palm over hers, and she helped me stand. “We can do this,” she assured confidently, lingering a kiss on my forehead. “We can get out of here.”

Unconvinced, I nodded half-heartedly.

“We mustn’t make a sound,” she warned, creeping towards the stairs.

In her shadow, I latched onto the back of her jumper and watched as my bare feet ascended each concrete step.

Kathy worked the door handle, the hinges groaning as it eased it open. “Stay close.”

Unable to formulate words, I nodded again.

Kathy crept into the darkened hallway, sidestepped raised floorboards, and gesticulated for me to keep up.

Fear gripped my heart. I slipped out of the basement and settled my back to the smoke-stained wall, spurning the wafting cigarette stench in the humid air.

I braved another step.

The floorboard creaked.

Kathy shot me a condemning glare.

Holding my breath, I skulked, not stopping until we entered the small box kitchen at the end of the hall. When she reached the back door, I held onto her with urgency. My body shook from head to toe. I don’t want them to catch us. “I’m scared.”

“We got this.” Her fingers jittered with a set of keys and, one by one, she inserted them into the lock. “Come on.” In frantic nervousness, she rattled the handle and the back door unlocked. “Stay close.”

Torrential rain and dark, starless skies greeted us. I am underdressed, undoubtedly unwell and bear no footwear, but the soft breeze against my face and wet dews dusting my lips were what I imagined heaven felt like.

“Shit.” Dread etched her twisted features. “We’re going to get soaked.”

Eagerness urged my restless legs to give away the moment I rushed to descend the concrete steps. I lost my footing and slipped, my body launching across muddy grounds. I am not on the floor for long, though. Staggering to my feet, I grappled the bottom of the stained gown and chased behind Kathy, darting into thick shadows. I had no concept of what was beyond the dense meandering trees as we snaked into the obscure woodland area, but I pray there is another house, one where we can find help, a kind couple that’ll protect us or call the police.

“I can’t breathe.” Goosebumps sheathed my skin, and heat rippled through my body, causing my cold cheeks to burn and chest to cave. I might struggle to breathe, and my body might ache from the balls of my feet to the tightening in my stomach—years of captivity have taken a toll on my limbs—however, emotionally, I’m unaffected. I welcome the rain and embrace the chilly night air. I savour the fresh, earthy smell as my lips instinctively part to taste downpour on my tongue.

“Keep running!” Kathy yelled over her shoulder.

Mist formed in front of me while I wrestled for breath. My feet sank into sodden grounds, and mud squelched between my toes. I lethargically trailed behind Kathy, light-headed yet determined.

Wide-eyed and pallid, Kathy lurched into a tree, her hands fusing to the rough bark.

I came to an abrupt stop and followed her horror-stricken line of vision. “Why did you...?” An insurmountable lake, its waters eerily still and emitting fogs, taunted us. “What are we going to do?”

Deep in pensive thought, Kathy stepped back, her eyes downcast in defeat. “I don’t know.”

Over the sound of wailing winds, angry dogs shrieked into the night. Horripilation attacked my body. With parchedness of the throat, I worked on a tight swallow. “He knows.” I waded into the frigid water, the thunderous storms above wreaking havoc on our horizon. “They sent the dogs, Kathy.” Her fear matched mine. “What are we going to do?”

“We swim.” Shrouded in the murky fogs of darkness, her body disappeared into the water until her chin remained on the surface. “We need to go, Alexa. Now.”

Polluted waste and filamentous algae had me squirming as my chin floated. I ignored negative thoughts of diseases and what could be swimming around us. I’d rather filth on my skin to avoid one of those hounds mauling me to death. “Oh, my God.” Withering from the unidentifiable objects floating between us, I propelled forward. “It’s too cold.” Something slimy glided across my foot. “Kathy...” It touched me again, and I panicked, my arms and legs thrashing hysterically. “Kathy, what is it?”

“Alexa, don’t panic.” Kathy’s concerned voice failed to mollify my apprehensions.

Water invaded my throat. I coughed and spluttered. “Kathy!” My head dunked under the surface, causing momentary deafness, blindness. For a split second, while sinking into the dark, unknown, I feared that she’d leave me behind, forget about me. Relieve herself from this encumbering indebtedness. But then her hand found mine, her fingers tight on my skin, drawing me back to the surface.

My head flung back on a refuelling gasp. I braced my hands on her shoulders, salt sticking to my lips. I stared deep into her eyes, watching water beads dance on her lashes and her blue, chafed lips slow-moving as she murmured undetectable words. “Understand?” she mused, and, teeth clattering together, I nodded regardless of incomprehension.

Her eyes drifted over my head as animalistic howling amplified. “Now is not the time to panic.”

Respiring a choppy breath, I rested my chin on the water and drowned out the echoing barks, numbing all heightened senses until I reached the other side of the lake. Plunging my fingers into the muddy bank with tree roots, I utilised the precariously low hanging branches to pull myself onto terra firma.

Kathy, her wet clothes sodden to her pale skin, toppled onto her back beside me, choking up water, and then, lurching to her feet, she helped me to stand.

Matted hair stuck to my face, the raw night air tautening my ice-cold skin. Barely strong enough to uphold my weak limbs, I crawled ahead, making a lackadaisical attempt to stand.

I tumbled and growled.

I tumbled again.

Inwardly berating myself, I soared above every obstacle, every tree, boulder, and strewn debris, and dragged my sore feet back into the woods.

Branches snapping under her feet, Kathy, rubbing a chill from her arms, slowed to a calming pace.

Somewhere along our journey, the rain subsided. I looked up to the sky, but pea-souper smog blocked the views I had waited so long to see. “I never forgot,” I said, and Kathy glanced at me. “I still remember how wonderful freshly cut grass smells on a summer’s day and how mother’s baking lingered from the kitchen window when we played in the garden.” Out of breath, I paused, doubling over at the waist. “Do you remember?”

“Why have you stopped moving, Alexa?” Kathy placed a gentle hand on my lower back. “We need to keep going.”

“My lungs feel like they’re caving in.” Attempting to steady erratic inhalation and sporadic heart rate, I put a palm to my chest. “This is the most exercise I have done in years,” I half-joked, but she didn’t crack a smile.

“We can’t stop now, Alexa. I finally got you out of there.” She pinned me with a serious stare. “Do you trust me?”

“You’re my sister.” I trusted her with my life. “You know, I do.”

“Then trust your big sister.” She interlaced our fingers. “Run, Alexa. And don’t look back.”

Her motivating words repeated inside my head.

Gown hoisted to my waist, I shouldered past Kathy and broke into a jog, my feet striking the filthy floor. Everything encircling us became a passing blur, a heinously distant memory, a forgotten place that I never wish to revisit. I had no questions, no understanding, or explanations, but I knew this was our only shot, our final opportunity to salvation and freedom, a life beyond those prison walls in a place that never felt like home.

After what seemed like hours and miles of intermittent running, Kathy authorised an alleviating traverse through the forest. Woeful and uncommunicative, she toyed with a twig, whacking leafless branches aside as we strolled through trees—and then, amid the settled quietness between us, I heard a recognisable sound. “Kathy.” Eagle-eyed, I detected tremors under my feet. “Can you feel it?”

She bore an impatient expression. “Feel what?”

I squatted to splay my fingers into brown-stained sludge. “Vibrations,” I said, a small smile teasing my lips. “Feel it, Kathy.”

Kathy crouched beside me and put her hand atop mine. “I don’t feel anything.”

I listened to the quiet roar of elapsing cars and melodious songbirds in the distance. We stood in tandem, but it was me who took the gallant first step. Ambling around the trees, locating overgrown and unkempt hedges bespeckled in wild berries and climbing vine weeds, I brushed my fingers over a delicate white flower.

“There is nothing here, Alexa.” Kathy tossed the stick aside, dusting dirt from her hands. “I think we should climb up one of those trees to get a better view of our surroundings.” While she prattled on, I seized the vines, snapping and untangling them. “I mean, who knows? There’s probably a farm close...What are you doing?”

Ignoring Kathy’s lecturing rant of disapproval, I anxiously disassembled and eliminated the vines, thorns ripping across my arms, in search of an escape route. I parted the final hanging tendril, inches away from a metal barrier, and soft, warm light appeared. Serpentine rocks nestled in the soil, deeply rusted old beer cans, and shredded litter crushed under my footsteps. I stared at the fence and, seconds later, a vehicle sped past, the strong gust of wind blowing hair strands across my face. “We found cars.”

Amid omnipresent traffic, unbeknownst to the drivers speeding without a care in the world, stood two young girls, terrified, confused, unwell and heartbroken.

I raised a trembling hand to feel the warm sunrise on my fingertips, expecting flesh to burn, singe, or for someone to jump out and drag us back to the eternal fires of hell. I have dreamt of this moment too many times to enumerate, imagining what freedom entailed with each restless nightmare.

“Alexa,” Kathy seized my nightgown, halting my next step. “Please, don’t go out there.”

“There isn’t a force on this earth that could stop me now,” I said fiercely, tilting a defiant chin and hiking a leg over the waist-high barrier. “Not even you.” I hesitated, my barefoot almost touching the ground, and then, one toe at a time, I made it onto the other side. An ear-splitting horn blared as a car dashed past. I cowered behind my hands and recoiled to the ground, a slight whimper falling from my lips. “Don’t be scared.”

Headlights raced past in colourful patterns.

“We did it.” Deranged laughter rattled in my throat. “We made it, Kathy.” I studied the night sky, a stray tear creeping from my eye, rolling down my cheek.

I fight the urge to slap myself to ensure our escape isn’t a cruel dream or a ridiculous yet realistic fantasy, one with intensified emotions that’ll awaken me at any given moment to return me to those four imprisoning walls. Needing reassurance, I sink my fingernails into my forearm, hissing through the stinging pain I had caused myself.

Bright beams blinded me. I squinted, shielding my eyes with a draped arm. Hearing a door slam, followed by feet shuffling towards me, I awaited whoever gravitated. “Dear,” a soft yet throaty voice croaked, “are you alright?”

I laid motionless and peered through my fingers to see an older man holding stark terror and fear in his eyes.

“I’ll get help.” He fumbled with a mobile phone, putting it to his ear. “I need the police.” He visibly swallowed, Adam’s apple shifting in his throat. “I found a young girl—no, she needs help, ma’am.” His sadness coasted to the bruises on my exposed legs, the filth and blood on my once white sleepwear. “We’re on the hard shoulder of the motorway, ma’am—not an accident. Yes, I can wait.” Ending the call, he whipped his head from side to side, unsure what to do or how to help. “We’re going to get you some help, kid, okay?”

I trust nobody, but he doesn’t seem threatening or harmful, so I nodded, embarrassed and ashamed.

Immobilised in the bushes, Kathy stood taller, her eyes never leaving me. “Kathy,” I said quietly, and her shoulders drooped timidly. “Don’t leave me.”

“Good God.” The nameless man stood to his full height, the cap from his head held to his chest. “Please come out. I won’t hurt you.”

Kathy climbed over the small barrier. “Stand up,” she said quietly, and I listened. Her back shielded me from the male.

“What happened to you?” He asked. “No. It can’t be.”

Pressing my chest against Kathy’s back, I glimpsed over her shoulder.

“You’re the...” His mouth opened and then shut. “I recognise you...”

Impossible, I thought.

Nobody knows we exist anymore.

The distant sound of sirens intruded my ears, slicing through our awkward exchange and approaching emergency vehicles began to corner us. Flashing blue beacons illuminated alongside an ambulance. Police officers reared first, decreasing the volume of their crackling radios.

Kathy fussed with my appearance, effacing dirt from my cheeks, her fingers unsuccessfully combing through the ends of my ratty hair. “You know nothing,” she said in a low, thick voice. “You don’t know who took us or why.”

“Why?” I asked, not wanting to lie. “They will help us.”

Kathy held onto me. “I don’t want him to get mad.”

When the emergency services arrived, I expected an ambush, but surprisingly, the detectives reduced their pace. “What’s your name?” The question came from the younger male. He wriggled his fingers into sterile gloves, and I found myself oddly fixated on every movement, each step, the way he narrowed his eyes and how he sucked his upper teeth. “I am coming closer,” he continued, and Kathy’s protective grip on me tightened. “I am not going to hurt you, so please do not feel alarmed or do anything stupid. We only want to help you, okay?”

I forced my sister to let go and sidestepped her shaking body to meet the detectives halfway. Kathy hissed something I didn’t quite catch; however, I felt her anger.

“It’s okay,” the detective assured. “You are safe now.”

Paramedics opened the rear ambulance doors, preparing to drive us to the emergency unit. I welcomed the detective’s touch on my hand and listened when he instructed me to become seated.

I answered questions numbly while journeying to the hospital but declined water, wondering why they hadn’t let Kathy travel in the same vehicle. At least, I have her, the woman who smiles a lot.

On arrival, a team of doctors awaited, wheelchairs and nurses in tow, ushering me through the building into a private room where I felt like a caged animal undergoing scientific tests and examinations.

All I wanted was my sister.

Kathy was close but not close enough to touch or converse.

“Not yet,” the male doctor advised the female nurse, refusing my right to shower. “Evidence.”

He closed the door behind him.

I am standing in a stark white room, disrobed, red-faced and abashed. The quiet nurse slipped my nightgown into a clear bag, sealed it for evidence and examined my body while jotting down notes. “Can you open your mouth for me, sweetheart?” She asked, and my lips parted for her to swab my inner cheek. “Well done. Can you lie on the bed for me, please?”

Reading the national health poster on the wall, I laid on the bed. I waited for her to finish the swabs. “Let me know if you feel any pain or discomfort,” she said, her assessment between my legs proceeding. “Not much longer.” I continued to read the poster. “Can you read that, sweetheart?”

My brows drew in. Of course, I can read. I am not illiterate.

“Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Assisting me into a sitting position, she used tools to eliminate grime from under my fingernails, scraped skin cells, and then, after cutting strands of my hair, she led me to the small bathroom to collect a urine sample.

Once the examination ended, the nurse handed me a white towel and asked me to shower. I never wanted to leave the small cubicle. I stood under the warm spray, watching dirt dilute with water as it coiled around my feet. Gentle, she told me. Don’t scrub too hard—but her words had zero effect on me. I tore my flesh, cleansed my body, mind and soul, eliminating every vicious beating, unpleasant touch, and unwanted memory.

“Not much longer,” the female detective said, asking me to turn for her to capture images of the abrasions on my back. “You must be hungry?” A flash danced off the wall with another shot. “Turn for me.”

I cupped my breasts and turned. “Yes, I am hungry.”

Startled by my voice, her finger paused above the camera button and our eyes collided. “Do you have a sandwich preference?” I shook my head. “Soup, perhaps?” I nodded. “Can you confirm your name?” I stared unblinkingly. “Okay. You can get dressed.”

I changed into warm clothing, longed for my sister, and soon fell asleep on a comfortable bed.

“Malnourished,” the doctor told the male detective who helped me inside the ambulance three nights ago. “Infections and broken yet healed bone structure along the ribs...” He checked notes on a clipboard. “Clavicle damage, cranial fracture, arms and left elbow fractures.”

Past beatings unaffected mobility. I stroked my protruding ribs, recalling the pain, but not when it happened.

“We removed Nexplanon from her arm.”

Nexplanon, I thought, glimpsing at the purple bruising on my upper left arm.

“I am happy with her progress. I will sign her discharge papers.”

The doctor walked out of the hospital room, leaving me alone with the male detective and his female co-worker. He put us shoulder-to-shoulder, highlighting how tall I was for a twelve-year-old.

“What’s your name, kid?” he asked, and I shook my head again. “I need you to come down to the station with me for a short while so that I can ask some questions. Is that okay?”

I nodded.

I am only allowed to nod.

Presently, I stand inside a small, windowless room, pacing back and forth and counting floor tiles. On the table, a ceramic mug filled with coffee beckoned me. I pulled out a chair, became seated and lifted the coffee to my nose to inhale its pungent aroma. I sipped a generous amount, licked the rich flavours from my lips. My mouth twisted in disapproval. Maybe it’ll grow on me. I heard the door unlock and straightened, the quick, panicked movement jerking coffee onto my rigid fingers.

Offering another friendly smile, the male detective, who I assume is handling my case, takes a seat opposite me. “I heard you’re upset because we separated you and your friend, kid. Separation is for your mental state. It’s not because you are in any trouble.”

Yes, I had screamed earlier when they locked me inside this room. I am worried about Kathy. I need to know if she’s okay.

“Now that you’ve had the chance to calm down. Are you prepared to answer some questions for me?”

Kathy told me not to breathe a word about our abductor. I should listen to her, but I want these officers to find him. I will never rest if he’s still out there, waiting for an opportunity to retake me, or worse, snatch another defenceless child from the safety of her home. “Yes.”

Eyebrows jumping to his hairline, the detective shot me a surprised look. “Okay.” Pleased by my cooperativeness, he placed various case files across the table, exhibiting missing children.

Some as young as three years old stare back at me. I focussed on the folder belonging to us, Kathy and me, for a while. Reaching for the stapled image, I unclipped it from the file and touched my mother’s beautiful face.

How did they obtain our family photo?

It was only the three of us. I wore a flowing dress decorated with red and green flowers. Mother made a picnic for dinner. We spent the entire afternoon at that park, playing, running, stopping for juice and the occasional snack, returning to the swings, and failing at headstands.

It was a scorching day. Mother applied sun cream to our skin to avoid burns and blisters. Kathy had complained for hours about the heat and how she wanted to be with friends, not at the park with her baby sister. But she had tried. She taught me how to kick a ball in the net, and when I missed, she encouraged me never to give up, and eventually, albeit unenthusiastically, I did nail the net. I kicked the ball straight and scored, and she was so proud. Mother soon bought us ice cream. They talked while I listened. Mother was a beautiful woman. She had lustrous back hair that sat just above her shoulders, red-painted lips, high cheekbones dusted in shimmer and modelled long summer dresses, strappy sandals and bug-eyed sunglasses. I recall their heated argument. Kathy promised not to stay out late if Mother let her attend a party, and mother worried our father might be angry if she allowed their eldest daughter to party with friends. In the end, Mother had agreed just as long as Kathy kept their secret. I am unsure of how the day ended. I do, however, recall our mother chasing us until we hid behind a tree...

I smiled at the memory.

The detective was still looking at me. “Is that particular photo familiar to you?”

I nodded.

“Can you confirm that you and your friend in the other room are the two sisters in the photo?” His broadened eyes pleaded with me to cooperate. “Kid?”

A string of silence stretched between us. “Yes,” I answered. “I’m Alexa Haines.”

“You are Alexa Haines?” he asked again as if he required reassurance. “And the other girl is Kathy Haines.”

I released my iron grip on the mug. “Yes.”

The detective glared at me in bewilderment and then jumped up so fast the chair beneath him crashed against the tiled floor. He rushed to the door, swung it open and yelled at anyone with a pair of ears.

In the wake of my confession, the hours went by in yet another blur. Despite the fact the police department trod cautiously around us, I sensed they silently celebrated our case. It’s not often incidents like ours, Kathy’s and mine, resulted in happy endings.

The following morning, they interrogated me again.

Where did you stay?

Do you remember any names?

Can you tell us what he looked like?

Were there others?

Familiarities? Disfigurements? Tattoos? Smells? Surroundings?

“Did you suffer from any sexual exploitation?” His gaze lingered on my frail frame. “Miss Haines?”

Mortification heated my face. Hands fumbling on my lap, I clenched my thighs together. “No.”

“Just for clarification,” he probed while scribbling notes. “No sexual assault or penetration took place.”

Odious flashbacks sprung tears to my eyes. “No.”

His lips thinned into a grim line. He peered over black-framed reading glasses, sympathy in his soft gaze. “Can you tell us where you slept?” He changed the subject. “Was there a routine? Were you authorised to leave the house?”

“In a room...” Four concrete walls. No windows. Clattering, rusted pipes and sewerage stench. “There was a mattress that I slept on. It was cold down there...” Freezing, I thought, revisiting its icy temperature. “I used to paint...” Yes, I painted, drew colours, flowers and happy memories. “I think—his voice. He had a strong accent. He frequently talked in his native language.”

The two co-workers shared an unreadable look. “Do you have any concept of what language he spoke?”

“Lexi.” My throat tightened. “He called me Lexi.” Overwhelmed by undesired emotions, I lowered my gaze, wishing the uptight female psychologist sitting next to the detective would stop trying to psychoanalyse me. “Sometimes, there was a chair in the room and bugs. Yes, bugs crawled on the concrete and...” My teeth sank into my lower lip. “I don’t know.” I closed my eyes again, searching for memories, failing at finding them. His face—he was much older, but what colour eyes did he have? What did he wear? Who were his friends? “What’s happening to me?” I asked in despair. “How can I not remember the most significant part of my childhood?”

He exchanged another illegible glance with the female before saying, “Trauma.”

“Trauma,” I repeated in frustration. “Do I have that?”

“Psychological trauma damages the mind.” Straightening her elegant posture, the therapist, who had barely said two words since joining the meeting, balanced a clipboard on her crossed legs. “Typically, trauma is the outcome of an overpowering quantity of stress which exceeds the mental capacity to cope with emotions associated with that experience.”

Baffled, I waited for her to finish.

“It may take weeks, years, or even decades for you to deal with trauma. Divulging can only relieve you, Miss Haines. Withdrawing and refusing help can be damaging to your mental health. It could lead to severe, long-term negative outcomes.”

My features hardened out of stubbornness. “I don’t want to live like that.”

“That’s why I’m here so that I can help you,” she said, the scribbling sound of her pen continuing. “Now, distress differs among individuals according to their personal experiences. People of victimisation react to similar distressing events differently. Not everyone who undergoes such incidents is psychologically traumatised, particularly if they address their problems and receive help.”

“Everything you say is significant,” the male detective explained. “Even the smallest of details has the potential to lead us somewhere.”

“He was older.” I picked imaginary lint from the oversized hoodie he’d given me to wear. “And he smelled disgusting—like stale cigarettes and something musky.” I grimaced, listening to the rain sprinkle on the window. “There were others.”

“Others?” His folded arms braced on the table. “What else?”

“Other girls. They never stayed long. Only a few days if I were lucky.” Lucky enough to have company, I thought. “I stopped befriending them.”

“Do you know where he kept you?”

“In a basement,” I replied, exasperation simmering inside me. “That’s all I remember. I slept in a basement, separated from everyone else who lived there.”

“Were there other adults accompanying your captor?” His lower lip rolled between clenched teeth. “Men or women?”

“Men...” I don’t think there were women. “They didn’t visit me, though. They brought other girls to where I stayed, but they’d be gone again—never looked or talked to me. It was only him. He was the only person who handled me.” Admitting his fondness aloud sickened me. I will never understand why he held onto me yet discarded the others. “Him.”

“You claimed that you and Kathy managed to run away.” He revised notes. “How long did it take you to find the motorway?”

“I already told you this.” Wearisome, I huffed out a breath. “I managed to escape and run. I did not look back or count steps or take any damn notes. I had one opportunity to regain freedom. I took it.”

He tossed the notes onto the table. “I am only trying to help you, kid.”

“I know that!” I yelled defensively. “But you ask me the same questions when I have already told you that I do not remember.”

“Our team has worked all night investigating the area we discovered you and Kathy. We are going to do everything we can to find this man.” He slipped the therapist a sad smile. “I think she’s suffered enough over the last two weeks.”

I frowned at his words. “Two weeks?”

Has it been that long?

Where did the time go?

Why am I losing all sense of awareness?

He gestured for me to follow. “Come on.”

Kathy was in the hallway, impatiently waiting for the interview to end. “Why did it take so long?” she asked him, holding my hand in fear they might separate us again. “Is it done? Can we go?”

“Yes.” After signing the final documentation, the detective brandished a set of keys and an envelope. “Let’s find somewhere safe for you girls to call home.”

Home, I thought.

I looked at my sister. “What happens now?”

“I’m twenty-one, Alexa.” Kathy entwined our fingers together. “I’m going to take care of you.”

I put my head on her shoulder. “You promise?”

Her lips pressed to my temple. “I promise.”

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