REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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Mandatory rest an overdue luxuriating revitalisation commenced. I ate a late sugar-infused breakfast, listened to serene music, relaxed in a long bubble bath and put on my favourite pyjamas.

My in-house spa day had nothing to do with recent events or hiding.

I do the unthinkable and call in sick. "I need to speak with Mr Warren," I said, hand crushing the phone.

Since snagging a bar position at Club 11, I seldom get time to myself. Liam will be less than impressed by my tardiness, but I am sure he'll get over my impromptu decision to hibernate.

"Who is calling?" Natalie asked, pretending not to recognise my voice. "I can leave a message—"

"Alexa," I quip, hearing Chloe growling in the kitchen. "And I don't want to leave a message. I need to speak to him."

"He's not in the office," she claimed, and I doubted her. "Perhaps—"

"Just tell him I am unwell," I lied, watching the rain beat against the living room window. "Hopefully, I'll be okay for tomorrow night." A drawn-out ping rattled into the receiver, verifying she'd hung up on me. "Okay, then."

I studied the cracked phone screen and fired the browser. For the third time today, I searched for Flamur Bajramovic. In the words of Wikipedia, he's raised an estimated twenty million for charities, and he is extensively praised for his personal qualities, often regarded as an eccentric adornment and a ubiquitous face to the British public.

Muffling tears and revulsion, I locked my phone screen and stuffed it under the pillow. I don't know why I continue to torture myself or what to do with this newfound knowledge. My childhood captor lives a double life—an appraised public figure by day and a sickening paedophile by night. Of course, news coverage doesn't suggest this. According to the media, Bajramovic is practically a saint.

Why did it take seeing Flamur again to remember him?

I suppose if I had learnt and spoke of him sooner, it is counterfactual that he'd be rotting in prison, not prowling the streets of London, prying on his next victim.

It's never too late to rectify past inaccuracies, though. Now well-informed, I am fluctuating between raising alarms to the police department or telling Liam. I had almost confided in my boss this morning, but Natalie rudely jammed herself into our tense conversation.

Ignoring indisputable facts is idiotic, yet I did exactly that by not expressing concern to anyone subsequent to my unfortunate encounter at the charity dinner. I guess a significant fraction of me hoped the hellacious happenstance was another optical illusion; It's not the first time I imagined a faceless monster staring back at me.

Only it was real. And so was that man chasing me down this morning.

"I can't find tea bags," Chloe complains from the kitchen, slamming cupboards a little too harshly. "Are you sure there were some here?"

I lazily lift the television remote, changing channels. "I think so?"

She puffed out an audible breath. "Well, then, they're missing."

"Or I am wrong," I helpfully added. "Maybe we didn't buy any."

"No, I definitely purchased some," she continues, cutlery clanking in the drawer. "And where this hell is the coffee jar? This doesn't make sense."

I curled up onto my side, leg curling over the comforter.

"As it goes," she chimes, appearing in the doorway with a hand on her hip, "the milk is gone, too."

"Gone off?" I hummed, and her brow elevated. "Gone walkies...?"

"Gone missing." Chloe sagged against the doorframe, combing fingers through her unruly locks. "This is so weird." Scratching her forehead, she slanted a concerned look into the small kitchen area. "I'll go to the corner store and restock. Shall I grab takeout while I'm out?"

My stomach heard and growled. "Oh, yes."

"Indian or Chinese—"

"Chinese," I shout from the sofa, meshed between duvets and scatter cushions. "I am craving noodles."

Chloe steps into an unsightly pair of fur winter boots, tugging on a coat. "Anything else?"

"No," I murmured, ogling the movie's leading male actor. "Actually, grab some ice cream."

"No problem." Fisting her keys and purse, she goes down the hall, opening the front door. "I won't be too long."

I yawned into the pillow, resting my eyes, body relaxing into a light slumber. Merely a few minutes passed when I heard distant knocking. I cracked open one eye and fronted darkness. In my befuddled state, I highlighted my phone to check the time and almost fell off the sofa. It's been two hours since—"Chloe?" I called, rubbing my tired eyes, noticing a missed call from an unknown number. "Why didn't you wake me up?"

My bare feet touched the carpet, and I lethargically zoned in on the kitchen. It's liable Chloe felt disinclined to wake me, so left food in the microwave, only there are no leftovers in sight.

Pursing my lips, I scour the empty fridge and groan petulantly all the way to her bedroom. "What happened?" I asked, shoving open her bedroom door. "I didn't want to sleep. I needed food..." I stare at an immaculately presented bed, no roommate.

I tried to ignore growing tension and unease twisting in my stomach.

Tapping the phone, I loaded her number and placed it to my ear. It called until voicemail. "Shit," I blew out a panicked breath, praying something bad hasn't happened to her—the floorboard inside my bedroom groaned, and a tingling sensation clambered over my form. I stood still, perspiration slicking to my palms and neck.

Seized by spine-splitting fear, I gingerly crept to the front door which, under normal circumstances, stands merely two metres from Chloe's room. Now, though, each cautious step seemed insurmountably far.

A hollow puff of breath fell from my lips as I touched the brass handle, jerking once, locked.

It's all in your head, Alexa.

None of this is real.

It is not real...

The floorboard creaked behind me.

Body bathed in sweat, I impulsively yelled for help, throwing myself into the door, thoughtlessly lunging my phone into nothingness. I saw a looming shadow and sagged against the wall, body curling up on the floor, somewhat futilely protecting myself...someone started chuckling softly and it crescendos into maniacal laughter, resonating through the dark, ominous air.

Behind my trembling hands, I closed my eyes. "Bluebirds fly," I whisper, envisioning the sun—always the sun. "Someday I'll wish upon a star."

I felt a warm breath against my fingers. "And wake up where the clouds are far behind me," an eerie yet familiar voice softly mimicked. "That's'"

My heavy panting increased. "What if you're not real?" I asked, a single tear trickling down my cheek. "What if I come out and you're not there?"

"I'm real." Kathy curled her hand around my wrist, urging me to drop guard. "I'm real, Alexa."

Immense grief shattered me. I broke into hysteria, sobbing inconsolably into my palms.

Caught between relieved happiness and devastating heartbreak, I wiped tears from my cheeks and glared at her through teary eyes.

An unrecognisable cadaverous figure squats in front of me. Those hazel-coloured eyes are her only prominent feature. The faux fur coat buries her skeletally frame. Her scarred face was thin and shockingly gaunt, dark circles mar her sunken eyes. Scraggly blonde hair framed her pallid, pimply face and blue-tinted chapped lips. "You don't look pleased to see me, baby sister." Her harsh, throaty voice shrills through me. "Did I do something wrong?"

Spine ramrod to the door, I eased my shoulders back, too aware of her proximity. "You dyed your hair." My sister had waist-length ebony hair, unmanageably wild yet strikingly differentiating. "Are you sick?" My question was barely a whisper.

"No." Kathy raked her begrimed fingernails across her chest, rupturing encrusted scabs. "Why? Are you saying I look like shit?"

Her junkie image quite literally devastated me. "No," I smile sadly. "No, you're beautiful, Kathy."

"Yeah," she reluctantly agreed while pulling a disagreeing face. "I guess." She rose to her full height, and I silently examined her bruised knees. "You gonna get me a beer or what?"

Fighting back undesired tears, I stood, using my pyjama sleeves to dab my cheeks. "Sure." I warily traipse in her wake. "Actually, I am a little worried about Chloe." I glance at the front door. "She left ages ago to grab food and hasn't come back."

"I'm sure she's fine." Kathy gave me a flippant wave, eliminating her coat, flinging it on the sofa. "Get me that beer, Alexa."

I lingered in the kitchen doorway, scrutinising her gangly physique—head disproportionate to her corpse-like body, tight-fitting sweater and black leather skirt, too big and hanging.

Nodding numbly, I went into the kitchen, picked a beer from the fridge.

She utilises her lower canine as a bottle opener, spitting the cap on the floor. "You didn't want one?"

"No." My gaze alternated between her and the front door. "No, I'm good."

"I hope she pays her way." She pouted at a wall-mounted photo of Chloe and me. "The bills and stuff."

"Why are you covered in track marks?" I asked, and she didn't even flinch. "Are you...?" I struggled to say the words aloud. "What happened, Kathy?"

She was slightly glum, eyes bloodshot with immense sadness.

"Kathy, where have you been? You can't just waltz back in here and pretend everything is okay. I grieved you," I emphasise, and she jerked her eyes to me. "Losing you quite literally broke my heart. I thought you were dead—"

"Quit being melodramatic, Alexa," she rudely interrupted, sagging onto the coffee table. "I had shit to do."

"You had shit to do," I repeated in disbelief. "What, and you didn't have the sense to enlighten me before you up and vanished, huh? Just like that," I clicked my fingers, "you walked out of my life and never came back." She stared blankly at me. "That's a fucking copout, Kathy."

Her eyebrows shot up to her hairline. My expletive drop confounded her. "Someone grew up," she murmurs into the bottle, pulling a swig. "Go, you." She itched her neck once more, unsettling the rhinestone droplet in her ear.

I looked askance at her, recognising those pear-shaped diamonds. "Where did you get those?"

Slowly licking her lower lip, she flicked the white karat with a chipped fingernail. "Oh, these old things." Her devious smile twisted and deepened the fictive knife in my back. "I can't remember."

Chloe's rant this evening smacked me in the face like a sledgehammer. "How long have you been sneaking into our flat?" I asked, assured and atypically assertive. "I mean, were you making cups of tea and catching up on the box, or juvenilely playing hide and seek with my shit?"

She giggled to herself, gnawing her fingernails. "Chloe drinks too much tea."

"You're crazy," I said so quietly, she missed it. "I don't understand, Kathy. Something is wrong," I hugged myself, "with you. You're sick. And I don't know when that happened or how I missed it..." Her eyebrows bunched together. "But I want to help you." On instinct, I stepped forward to hold her, and then decided against it, guarded. "Please let me help."

"I don't need fixing," she protested calmly, finishing the rest of her beer. "I am happy—very happy, Alexa." Lips pursing into a tight frown, she mulled over something. "Well, I was until you butted in. I don't get it, baby sister. I left everything to you: flat, money, ugly roommate."

"Don't be bitchy." My nostrils flare on a deep inhale. "Chloe's a good friend to me."

As if marvelling at an inside joke, she cackled gleefully. And then her jubilance drastically turned into a grim sneer, arm twisting behind her back, obtaining—the diary. "Look what I found."

My heart leapt from my chest. "What is it?" I feigned unawareness, prickling anxiousness soaring to perilous heights.

"It was under your bed." Kathy clicked her tongue, combing through delicate pages. "How far did you get?"

I shook my head, tears threatening to break.

"Dear Diary," she said throatily, outlining the black scrawl. "I did a bad thing..."

"I don't want to hear this, Kathy." I turned my face, not wanting her to witness my devastation.

"What about this one?" She asked, elevating the tattered leather-bond. "Tonight, I fucked my boss."

Jealousy flooded my ice-cold veins. "I don't care."

"I am sore, Diary," she recited, churlish, unconcerned by my moroseness. "I think he loves me—" I snorted, and she pinned me with a murderous glare. "Got something you want to say, Alexa?"

"I think you should go." Pointing to the front door, I adopted fierceness and stared her down. "Before the man, you so animatedly brag about, amputates your head."

"Oh, yes," she scoffed, chucking the journal on the floor. "I forgot about that." Standing, she extended her arms into a stretch above her head, exhibiting protruding ribs. "He doesn't come here, though, Alexa. Am I right?" I didn't respond. "But you go to him," she whispers, cocking her head to the side. "You laid down for that monster."

"No more than you did," I fired back, the muscles in my jaw pulsing. "Besides, it seems you, and I have a predilection for those."

Her hazel eyes darkened. "Monstrous men?"

I hesitated. "It doesn't matter." My heart disintegrates in my chest. "Please just go, or I am calling the police."

"You'd do that to me?" she asked in a sullen voice. "I did nothing wrong."

"You lied to me, Kathy," I addressed the elephant in the room. "Working for Liam was never about our monster. You went there to screw him over—you succeeded. Bravo." I clapped a humdrum beat. "And then you left me, knowing how losing you would destroy me. Not once did you look back or regret your mistakes and decisions. You didn't even say goodbye," I rasp, tasting tears on my lips. "You broke our promise."

It's always been us against the world.

"Doesn't it bother you that Liam fucked me first, Alexa?" Her random question exemplifies a pointless and moot conversation. "You do realise, if I hadn't left, we'd still be fucking, right?"

I dropped my eyes to the carpet, partly believing those candid words. I'd be lying if I said Liam's involvement hadn't crossed my mind.

"Do you honestly think a man like Liam Warren would look sideways at you If I hung around?"

"Why did you pretend to love me?" I tilt my chin, teeth sinking into my lower lip. "You clearly hate my guts, Kathy, so why feign otherwise? You could have left me there to rot—rid yourself of that burden. That's what I am, right? A burden. A thorn in your side—"

"I tried to do right by you," she said, and tears brimmed her weary eyes. "I tried so hard, Alexa."

Her pained expression spurred me with hope. "It's not too late," I whisper, magnetised toward her, grasping her fragile wrists in my hands. "I know you don't want to hear it, but you're unwell." She dolefully shook her head. "We can stop this—together. You and me. Like always."

"There's nothing wrong with me—"

"You're an addict," I coldly remind her, fingernails embedded into her forearms. "My beautiful big sister is an addict, and she needs help." Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, I whispered a kiss to her cheek. "Please."

"He'll kill me," she said, and I knew she meant Liam. "Warren will kill me, Alexa."

I failed to correct her as she's probably right. "We can run away, Kathy. Far away—wherever you want to go. It'll be tough, but once you rehabilitate and get clean, we can start a whole new life together—"

"I can't," she yelled, whacking my hands away. "I am not leaving him." Her lips wobbled into a grim line. "I hurt."

Inhaling behind my fingertips, I briefly closed my eyes. "Flamur," I breathed, and her forehead creased. "You'd risk everything for him—for that child-fucking monster!"

"Don't call him that," she reprimands, fists bunched at her sides. "He's not a monster, Alexa."

"He abducted us from our mother," I remind her, abhorrence surpassing wretchedness. "After he killed her. You don't love him, Kathy. It's not real. What you feel for him doesn't exist. It's a sick fantasy—a warped delusion. He forced that disgusting connection onto you—"

"No," she protested vehemently, grabbing a fistful of hair. "No, it's not like that. Flamur protects me. He always protected me."

"What about me?" The evil glint in her eyes sent shivers down my spine. "If he loved you so much, why did he ruin your sister? Think about that, for a moment." I calmly raised my hands. "An eight-year-old little girl shouldn't be physically and sexually abused. That man molested me the second he ripped me from my mother's lifeless body—"

"Stop it, Alexa," she cuts in, and I growled in exasperation. "You're just jealous. You were always jealous."

My ears deluded me. "What?"

"Oh, come on," she bogusly sympathised, jutting out her bottom lip. "You know exactly what I am talking about, Lexi."

I flinched on a choked whimper. "Get out!"

"Don't look at me like that." She pointed in my face, lip twitching into a smirk. "You loved it, didn't you? He has a great dick. Surely you can give credence to that?"

"You are revolting," I said fiercely, washing my hands of her. "Lies upon lies. Pretending you saved us from that hellhole. Pretending to hate him and that you wanted revenge and needed justice!" I shoved her chest, and she stumbled back. "You held me when I cried! You said you'd always protect me! Me, Kathy. Your sister," I slapped a hand to my beating chest, sob lodged at the back of my throat. "We were best friends."

"You wouldn't let go, Alexa! Preaching victimisation and how you wanted righteousness and vengeance," she spat, spittle flying from her mouth. "It was only a matter of time before you hunted him down and ruined everything for me!"

"No," I argued, wishing she'd listen. "Kathy, I—"

"I got you away, Alexa." She lunged the bottle at the wall, fragmenting green glass across the floor. "Was that not enough for you?"

"Yes," I whisper, dislodging the knot from my windpipe. "It was enough. Now please go." I jerk a hand to the door. "Go and be happy. I am not stopping you."

"It's too late," she rubbed her arms, smearing blood from scabs. "You involved Liam, and now Flamur has a bounty on his head."

My confusion heightened.

What is Kathy talking about?

"You didn't need to get him on your side—"

"Kathy, If Liam wants Flamur's head on a stick that's got nothing to do with me. It seems Flamur is doing a fine job of making enemies all by himself. Do not come in here, pointing fingers at me. Even if I did tell Liam about that vile monster, I would not apologise for it. After what he did to me, to us, to our family, he deserves everything that's coming for him. Besides," I crossed my arms, "I'd be more concerned about your head. Liam is quite eager to pin you down."

"Oh, money." She slipped a hand in her bra, removing a five-pound note. "That's long gone. Anyhow, the man practically owns London, so he can afford to be charitable."

"That's not a good enough reason to steal from him." Chiding irritation, I gesture to the door for the umpteenth time tonight. "Get out. Right now. We're done. No longer sisters."

"Well, the problem is Alexa. I can't leave yet." Reaching into her boot, she retrieved a blunt knife and this morning's attack flashed before my eyes. "I have to fix the problem."

"Kathy," I whimper, "please don't do this."

"He wants to bring you back." She weighed the knife in her hand. "I don't want you to ruin what we have—"

"I don't want to come back," I blurted, immobilised by engulfing fear. "You don't need to hurt me." Our eyes merged, and I knew I lost her. "Flamur will be angry." I tried reverse psychology. "If you hurt me, then you hurt him, too."

Crying obtuse words, she lowered her arm, knife handle hanging between boneless fingers.

I waited with bated breath.

"No," she mumbles, hand tightening around the brown handle. "I am prepared to risk it."

I bolted straight for the bedroom, knowing she locked the exit, and slammed the door in her face. The wood cracked amid her heavy blow, fists and knees determined to crash through.

"Kathy, stop!" I screamed, keeping myself to the thudding door, trying to yank the dresser across—the wood suddenly splintered against my back, sending my body across the carpet. "Kathy, please." I stumbled to my feet as she jerked her way inside, the bottom hinge unbolted, door precariously holding up. "I beg you."

Flinging hair from her face, she entered the room, dodging whatever I lunged at her. "Stop that!"

I picked up a lamp, ready to throw. Her hand impaled my face. Excruciating pain zapped through my cheek, knees giving way. "Kathy, no." A sob heaved from my chest as her fingers twisted around my hair, dragging my thrashing body onto the bed. "Please don't hurt me."

My unheeded screams pierced and deafened me. I rasped raucously, bones vibrating, a taste of metallic on my tongue. Light-headedness and nausea weakened my weightless form as she crawled above me, thighs astride my hips. I reached up to touch her chest, belatedly discerning her fingers tight around my neck, strangling me with an iron grip.

I felt myself drifting into unconsciousness, arms losing the fight, sagging against my head. A heartbeat, a droned voice, a choking sound as pressure unexpectedly eased from my neck. I inhaled sharply, seeing a foggy scuffled through weary eyes. "Kathy," I wheezed, touching my sore throat, hearing guttural shrieks.

Blinking rapidly to clear momentary vision impediment, I see my sister struggling against someone, her head angrily whipping as she fought. "Don't hurt her!" I saw a suited arm coil around her shoulders before he slashed the blade across her elongated throat. "No!" I shrieked, warm fluid splattering against my face and chest.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. I touch my skin and lift my hands, the sight of deathly crimson clinging to my fingers, sending me over the edge.

Her dead body sank back into the mattress, and a silent roar reiterated inside my head. "Kathy." Grasping her shoulders, I rested my forehead on her chest. Blood pressure increases with intense grief, the pain in my chest too much to endure.

I rolled onto my side, vomiting violently on the floor, body wrenching forward.

Head buried into the mattress, I screamed, loud, painful, agonising screams. "No," I sobbed, staring at the bedroom wall, tears flowing freely down my cheeks.

"Shh!" Kathy whispered, pressing two fingers to my lips. "We have to be quiet."

I nodded, holding teddy tight to my chest. "Where are you taking me?"

She crept toward the door, pointing to the loft. "It's a surprise."

"No," I mumble, body numb, dead inside, feeling his hand on my head. "It's not real."

"It's scary up here, Kathy," I whined, ducking from cobwebs. "And it's dark."

"Look," Kathy points near the roof window. "I can see the moon."

"You can?" I gripped her nightgown, craning my neck to see the dark sky. "Wow."

"Crazy, huh?" Banging a torch against her palm, she shone the light onto the makeshift bed on the floor. "It's bigger than the world."

"No way," I said in disbelief, slumping onto the beanbag. "Will mummy get mad?"

She lifts a dissmisive shoulder, opening the window.

"Alexa," Liam's rough voice breathed against my ear. "Look at me."

Kathy snuggled in close, aiming the torch toward the sky. "Watch."

Fascinated, I curled an arm around her waist. "What are you doing?"

"Saying hello," the torch intermittently glimmered heavenward, "to the stars."

"This is the best birthday ever." I watched the stars twinkle and smiled. "Thank you, Kathy."

"I'm your sister, Alexa." Her hand found mine, and she laced our fingers together. "You don't have to thank me." She nudged my nose with hers. "How much do you love me?"

"Too much," I whisper as a blurry Liam casually rounds the bed, hands stuffed in his trouser pockets. I shrank from him, mouth concealed behind a clenched fist.

"Stand up," he ordered, and I shook my head. "Stand, or I'll put you over my shoulder."

"No." He advanced. "I hate you," I spat as he seized my arm, yanking me off the bed. "I hate you, Liam! I fucking hate you!" Aimlessly slapping, I catch his jaw once before he spins me around, snaking his arms around my lashing body. My gaze settled on Kathy's disjointed frame, blood pooled beneath her, drenching the covers. "Liam!"

His hand covered my eyes as he lifted my kicking body off the ground, carrying me into the hallway.

"No, Liam," I begged, thwarting his movements. "I can't leave her! Don't make me leave her!" He transferred me into Nate's arms. "Nate, please," I fisted his chest, his arm coiling around my waist. "Liam's not thinking clearly! I can't leave her!"

"It's all good, Alexa," Nate drawled, jerking his chin to Brad.

"Your roommate is freaking out," Brad said, clasping the back of my neck in his hand. "Tell her you're okay."

I opened my mouth to respond when something sharp pricked my neck, and everything went black.

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