REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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Warning: 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 2018

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I hate the dreaded sound of his heavy-duty boots beating against the hard floor. Each determined, calculated step intensified innermost fears and anxieties. He was here this morning, his corpulent body on mine, his ravenous hands cleaved to my sweaty skin, his low, throaty voice hot to my ear. It’s unlike him to return twice in one day, demanding 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 hollow 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. Relieve me from a life of solitary darkness and inhumane shackles.

His footsteps stopped. I felt the intensity of his stare roaming over me and curled my toes, tucking my feet under the blanket, away from his evil, penetrating eyes.

A tired, breathless sigh blew from his mouth.

Praying he’ll demonstrate any form of leniency, or to forget I exist and move on, I closed my eyelids.

“Alexa, I know you are awake,” a familiar voice said, 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 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 devastating sob in my hand. “Where were you?” Bolting upright, I swiped sweat-slicked hair from my face and threw my arms around her, sniffling into the groove of her neck. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I missed you, too.” Tucking hair behind my ears, she kissed my cheek. “We’re getting out of here.”

“What?” Staring into her hazel-coloured eyes, the ones that mirrored mine, I cagily lowered my arms, unease clambering my chest. “How?”

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

“How did you get down here?” I asked, eyeing the steel door that I loathe. “Does he know?”

“No.” She pressed two rough fingers to 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.

Suddenly self-conscious, I ran my sweaty palms over the stained nightgown he forced me to wear. I had bedtime toenails, and my hair reeked of stale vomit and other bodily odours. “We can’t leave.” I use the back of my hand to remove consistent ooze trickling from my nose. “I have tried, Kathy, but never make it past the hallway before one of them catches me and drags me back down.”

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

“They are asleep,” she confirmed, her hopeful eyes flickering to the stairs. “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.

Shadowing in her footsteps, I latched onto the back of her jumper, a lump lodging in my throat as I watched my bare feet ascend each concrete step.

At the top of the stairwell, Kathy worked the handle, the door groaning as she gradually eased it open. “Stay close.”

Unable to formulate words, I nodded again.

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

Body aquiver with fear, I slipped out of the basement and settled my back to the smoke-stained wall. Cigarette stench wafted through the humid air, tickling my nose, indicating that someone’s near, lurking the halls.

I fumbled another cautious step, and the floorboard creaked. My eyes jerked up, and Kathy shot me a condemning glare. Eyebrows cinching disapprovingly, she put a finger to her lips.

Holding my breath, I moved again, not stopping until we entered the small box kitchen at the end of the hall. When she reached the back door, I clung to her with urgency. “I’m scared,” I murmured into her back, my body shaking from head-to-toe.

“We got this,” she said irresolutely, her fingers jittering with keys as she individually inserted them into the lock. “Come on.” She frantically 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,” she muttered, her eyes heavenward. Dread etched to 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 slipped, my body launching across muddy grounds. I am not on the floor for long, though. Staggering to my feet, I gripped the bottom of my 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’s 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 has taken its toll on my limbs—however, emotionally, I’m unaffected. I welcome the rain and embrace the chilly night air. Savour the fresh, earthy smell as my lips instinctively part to taste downpour on my tongue, moisturising my parched throat.

“Keep running!” Kathy yelled over her shoulder.

My breathing becomes burdensome—mist formed in front of me as I panted for breath. My feet sink into sodden grounds, and mud squelched between my toes; I lethargically trailed behind her.

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

Parched, I came to an abrupt stop and followed her horror-stricken line of vision. “Why did you...?” Impenetrable and insurmountable, the still lake taunted us with its vast waters and eerie ambience. “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, the sound of angry dogs shrilled into the night. Flinching, I worked on a tight swallow. “He knows,” I cried, my legs impulsively wading into the frigid water, the thunderous storms above wreaking havoc on our horizon. “They sent the dogs, Kathy. What are we going to do?”

Kathy clutched my wrist. “We swim,” she said, coaxing me deeper, farther. “We need to go, Alexa. Now.”

Moving cautiously, I lowered myself into the water and progressively steered ahead. Polluted waste and filamentous algae had me squirming as my chin floated, but I ignore 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.” Arms shakily propelling, I withered from unidentifiable objects floating between us. “It’s too cold.” Something slimy unexpectedly glided across my foot. I panicked, my arms and legs thrashing hysterically to bolt forward.

“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 flinging back on a refuelling gasp, I braced my hands on her shoulders, my mouth sticky and salty. 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 I nodded regardless of incomprehension, my teeth clattering together.

Her eyes veered past my head at the sound of advancing, animalistic howling. “Now is not the time to panic.”

Kathy carefully uncurled my body from hers. Tapping a finger on her lips, she trod forward.

Respiring a choppy breath, I rest my chin on the water and drown out the echoing barks, numbing all heightened senses until I reach the other side. It’s too soon to get excited, though. Plunging my fingers into the muddy bank with tree roots, I utilise the precariously low hanging branches to pull myself onto terra firma.

Kathy toppled and rolled onto her back beside me, choking up water. Lurching to her feet, she compelled me to stand, her wet clothes sodden to her pale skin.

Matted hair scraggly clings to my face, the raw night air tautening my ice-cold skin. Barely strong enough to hold my body weight, I crawled ahead, making a lackadaisical attempt to stand.

I tumbled and growled.

Inwardly berating myself, I soared above every obstacle, every tree, boulder and strewn debris, dragging my aching 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’d 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 stopped, 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 my erratic inhalation and sporadic heart rate, I put a palm to my chest. “This is the most exercise I’ve had in years,” I half-joked, but she doesn’t crack a smile.

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

My brows pinched in confusion. “You’re my sister.” I trust her with my life. “You know, I do.”

“Then trust your big sister.” She held out a hand to me once more. I wrapped my fingers around hers, and she squeezed. “Run, Alexa. And don’t look back.”

And don’t look back, she said, her words repeating inside my head.

Gown hoisted to my waist, I shouldered past her 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,” I whispered, eagle-eyed, detecting tremors under my feet. “Can you feel it?”

She bore an impatient expression. “What?”

Squatting, I splayed my fingers into brown-stained sludge, my head cocking to the side to listen. “Vibrations,” I said, a small smile twitching my lips. “Feel it, Kathy.”

Bewildered, 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 gallantly took the first step. Ambling around the trees, locating overgrown and unkempt hedges sprinkled with wild berries and climbing vine weeds, I brushed my fingers over a delicate white flower.

“There’s nothing here, Alexa.” Kathy tossed the stick aside, dusting off 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?”

While anxiously disassembling and eliminating the vines, thorns ripping across my arms, I paid no heed to Kathy’s lecturing rant of disapproval and focused entirely on shattering impediments.

Bathing myself in soft, warm light, I part the final hanging tendril, inches away from a metal barrier. Serpentine rocks nestled in the soil, deeply rusted old beer cans and shredded litter crushed under my footsteps. I paused at the fence, separating the woods—a vehicle sped past so fast that my hair blew across my face. “Cars,” I said, feeling Kathy’s closeness. “We found cars.”

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

Timid and cautious, I gently raise my shaky hand to feel the sunrise on my pale skin, expecting my flesh to singe and burn or for someone to jump out in front of me and drag me 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, “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.” Hesitating with my barefoot, I vigilantly touch the tarmac with my big toe before easing myself onto the other side.

An ear-splitting horn blared as a car sped past me, and I cowered behind my hands, my knees buckling. My backside greeted the floor, and a slight whimper fell from my lips. “Don’t be scared.”

Headlights illuminated my crouched form.

You’ve nothing to fear anymore.

“We did it.” A deranged laugh rattled in my throat. “We made it, Kathy.” Collapsing onto my back to study the night sky, I granted myself a breather, 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’d caused myself.

Bright beams temporarily 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?”

Mute, I laid motionless, my heart lunging to my throat. I peered through my fingers and stared up at the older man holding stark terror and fear in his eyes.

“I’ll get help,” he stuttered, uprooting a mobile phone and putting it to his ear. “I need the police.” He visibly swallowed, his Adam’s apple shifting in his throat. “I found a young girl—no, she needs help, ma’am.” His eyes landed on my face and lowered, silently marking 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 of what to do or how to help. He resulted in crouching next to me, being sure not to overstep when catching horror in my wide eyes. “We’re going to get you some help, kid, okay?”

I trust nobody, but he doesn’t seem threatening or harmful, so I nodded wordlessly, 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.” Gasping beside me, the nameless man ascended to his full height, slipping the cap from his head and holding it to his chest. “Please come out,” he said, outstretching an arm. “I won’t hurt you.”

Her gaze never strayed from him. She climbed over the small barrier and helped me stand, putting her body forward to shield me.

“What happened to you?” Worry lines formed above his knitted brows. I don’t know what filtered through his mind as his eyes rounded, but judging by his shocked expression, it’s safe to assume he recognised us. “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. “The missing Haines sisters.”

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

Kathy turned to face me and fussed with my appearance, wiping grime from my cheeks and attempting to comb her fingers through my ratty hair. “You know nothing,” she whispered, kissing my forehead. “You don’t know who took us or who held us captive.”

I eyed two suited detectives, the one seeking my eyes with his concerned ones. “Why?” I asked, not wanting to lie. “They will help us.”

Bringing me in for a tight hug, Kathy sniffled in my ear. “I don’t want him to get mad.”

I expected an ambush, but surprisingly, the detectives reduced their pace, raising their hands in surrendering gestures. “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 accelerating anger.

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 as me.

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 intriguing examinations.

All I wanted was my sister. She was close but not enough to touch or converse.

“Not yet,” a male doctor instructed the nurse, refusing my rights to shower. “Evidence.”

Standing in a stark white room, disrobed, red-faced and abashed, the quiet nurse slips my nightgown into a clear bag, seals it and continues to examine my body and jotting down notes. “Can you open your mouth for me, sweetheart?” She asked, and I parted my lips for her to swab my inner cheek. Repeating the process, she instructed me to lie on the bed.

As advised, I separated my thighs. Studying the national health poster on the wall, I wait for her to finish the swabs. “Let me know if you’re feeling any pain or discomfort.”

How can I feel pain when I’m already dead?

Assisting me into a sitting position, she used tools to scrape grime from under my fingernails, to cut strands of my hair and scrape skin cells before telling me to step into a small bathroom to collect a urine sample.

Once the examination ended, she handed me a white towel and asked me to shower. I never wanted to leave that 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,” a female detective said, asking me to turn to capture images of my naked back. “You must be hungry?” A flash danced off the wall, coinciding with another shot. “Turn for me.”

Cupping my small breasts, I turned, all sense of modesty out of the window. “Yes.”

At the sound of my voice, her eyes collided with mine, her finger paused above the camera button. “Do you have a sandwich preference?” I shook my head. “Soup, perhaps?” I nodded. “Can you confirm your name?” I stared unblinkingly. “Okay, 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.”

Pressing fingers along my protruding ribs, I numbly stared out of the window, recalling the pain, but not when it happened. Past beatings haven’t affected my mobility.

“We removed Nexplanon from her arm.”

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

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

The door opened, and the doctor walked out, leaving me alone with the male detective. 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.”

Presently, I stand inside a windowless room, pacing back and forth and counting floor tiles. My eyes landed on the table where a ceramic mug filled with coffee beckoned me. I pulled out a chair and perched onto the plastic seat. Lifting the coffee to my nose, I inhaled its pungent aroma and sipped a generous amount. I licked rich flavours from my lips, my mouth twisting in disdain. Okay, the taste doesn’t appeal to me as much as the smell, but maybe it’ll grow on me.

The room door unlocked.

My spine straightened, and I jerked coffee onto my rigid fingers.

Offering me another friendly smile, the male detective, who I assume is handling my case, takes a seat opposite me. “I heard you’re upset that we separated you from your friend, kid. Segregation is for your mental state. It’s not because you’re 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’ll never rest knowing that 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, he shot me a surprised look. “Okay.” Pleased by my cooperativeness, he spreads various case files across the table, exhibiting missing children.

Some as young as three years old stare back at me, crushing me. I focussed on the folder belonging to us for a while, sensing his intense inquisitiveness. Reaching for the stapled image, I unclipped it from the file, tracing my thumb over my mother’s beautiful face.

How did they obtain our family photo?

My father wasn’t around, which wasn’t abnormal. It was only the three of us. My mother put me in a flowing dress, decorated in red and green flowers, and knocked up a picnic for dinner. The three of us 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. My mother applied sun cream to our skin, ensuring we didn’t blister under those hot rays.

Kathy complained for hours, hating her dress, fussing with her hair while huffing at our mother.

Our age difference showed. Kathy didn’t want to be at the park with me, feigning to be enjoying herself, helping me play football. No, my sister wanted to be out with her friends, talking “boys”, road trips and camping.

“Kick the ball into the net, Alexa!” Kathy said.

I missed, the ball teasingly rolling in the other direction.

"You’re lucky I love you,” she muttered, rushing to the side to get the football.

“My feet are too little!” I’d protested in a tantrum. “I can’t do it!”

“There is no such word, Alexa!” She set the ball back onto the grass. “Now, kick.”

Pouting and stroppy, I unenthusiastically kicked the ball again, and this time it bounced straight into the net, shocking the breath out of me. “I did it, Kathy! I finally nailed the net.”

“Girls,” my mother yelled from our picnic blanket, elevating two cones. “Ice cream.”

My mother was a beautiful woman. She had lustrous back hair that sat just above her shoulders. Her lips painted red; cheekbones dusted in shimmer. She loved modelling long summer dresses, strappy sandals and bug-eyed sunglasses. Even on wintery days, she’d shield her eyes with those large frames. When I’d ask her why she’d tell me her eyes hurt as she was exhausted. As a clueless child, I believed her white lies.

“Can I go to the school disco tomorrow?” Kathy asked our mother.

“I don’t know, sweetie. I’ll speak to your father,” Mother returned.

Kathy groaned churlishly, falling onto her back and crushing wild daisies. “That’s going to be a ‘no’, then.”

“Kathy,” she whispered, understanding my sister’s annoyance. “What time is it?”

“Four o’clock, mum. And my friend told me her dad would pick me up and drop me home safe.”

My mother considered for a moment. “Well, alright, then. Promise me you’ll be home before seven? I don’t need your daddy knowing about this.”

Kathy grinned, spearing my mother with an excited hug and catching both their cheeks with ice cream. “I promise.”

Mother wiped her face. “Now, look what you did!” We knew what was coming next, so we jumped to our feet, dashing off as our mother prepared to chase. “I’m gonna get you!”

“Mummy,” I shrieked, shadowing Kathy. “No!”

“Quick, Alexa!” Kathy grabbed my hand, dragging me behind a large tree. She gave me a mischievous grin. ”She won’t find us here.”

I smiled at the memory, laying the image down with an ache settling in my chest.

Pensive, the detective studied me. “Is that particular photo familiar to you?”

I nodded.

His eyes broadened a fraction. He shifted in his seat. “Can you confirm these two sisters in the photo,” he points to the image, “are of you and your friend in the other room?” Eyes pleading with me to cooperate, his head dropped a touch. “Kid?”

“Yes,” I answered unhesitatingly. “I’m Alexa Haines.”

His lips parted slightly. “You’re Alexa Haines?” he asked as if needing reassurance. “And your friend? Kathy Haines?”

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

He glared at me in bewilderment and jumped up so fast that the chair slides from under him, crashing onto the tiled floor. He rushed to the door and swung it open, yelling at anyone with a pair of ears.

In the wake of my confession, the hours went by in yet another blur. Despite the fact that the police department trod cautiously around us, I sensed they silently celebrated our case; it’s not often incidents like ours result in a happy ending.

I was authorised to see my sister. Thankfully, she was neither upset nor angry that I trusted the police department. Instead, she held me while we slept on the blue sofa in the detectives’ room and told me she loved me.

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, assurance in his piercing eyes.

Mortification heated my face. I clenched my thighs together, hands fumbling in my lap. “No.”

“Just for clarification,” he probed, scribbling notes, “you’re stating that no sexual assault or penetration took place.”

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

Lips thinning into a grim line, he peered at me over his 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 it’s icy temperature, my lips automatically wobbling. “Sometimes I’d paint...” Yes, I used to paint and draw colours, flowers and happy memories. “I think—his voice. He had a strong accent and would frequently speak in his language.”

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

“Lexi,” I whispered, throat tightening. “He called me Lexi.” Overwhelmed by undesired emotions, I lowered my gaze, wishing the uptight female psychologist would stop trying to read me. “Sometimes there was a chair in the room and bugs. Yes, bugs crawling on the concrete and...” My eyes watered, teeth sinking into my lower lip. “I don’t know.” I closed my eyes again, searching and failing to jog memories. 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, illiterateness stabbing me with an upsetting frustration. “Do I have that?”

“Psychological trauma damages the mind.” Straightening her elegant posture, the therapist 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 stared at them.

“It may take weeks, years, or even decades for you to deal with trauma. Opening up can only relieve you, Miss Haines. Withdrawing and refusing help can be damaging to your mental health, and 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 become psychologically traumatised, particularly if they address their problems and get help.”

“Everything you say is significant,” the male detective piped up again. “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, seeing the rain beat against the window. “There were others.”

“Others?” He braced his folded arms onto 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?” he asked, rolling his lower lip between clenched teeth. “Men or women?”

“Men...” I don’t think there were women. “They didn’t visit me, though. They’d bring other girls down 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.” That admittance sickened me. I hate that he kept me for so long. I’ll never understand why he held onto me yet discarded the others. “Him.”

“You claimed that you and Kathy managed to escape and run away.” He revised his 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 didn’t look back, count steps or take any damn notes. I had one opportunity to regain freedom, and I took it.”

Spearing a hand through his unruly hair, he tossed the notes onto the table. “I am only trying to help you, kid.”

“I know that,” I yelled defensively, “but you’re asking me the same questions when I’ve already told you, I don’t remember.”

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

I frowned at his words. “Two weeks?” Had it been that long? Where did the time go? Why am I losing all sense of awareness?

“We’re done here.” He tilted his head, ordering me to follow. “Come on.”

Out in the hallway stood my sister, Kathy, impatiently waiting for me. I moulded myself into her side and snatched her hand, fearing they’d separate us once more.

After signing the final documentation, the detective faced us, brandishing a set of keys and an envelope. “Are you girls ready?”

Kathy kept her hold on me as we exited the station. “Head up high,” she whispered, and I raised my chin, ignoring flashing cameras, shouting newscasters and swarming reporters.

Opening the backdoor to a police vehicle, the detective gestured for us to get inside while sumptuously ordering the insensitive mob to let us breathe.

Foggily settling onto the leather bench, I clipped my belt in place, thankful for tinted windows. “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?”

“I promise.”

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