Embittered and perturbed, I slump onto the chair behind my desk, a nagging feeling tugging my heartstrings.
Brad appears in the doorway, sagging a shoulder to the frame. "Bossman," he chimes, tongue sweeping a toothpick to the corner of his mouth. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Stiffly shaking my head, I raise the bottle to my lips, watching Alexa and Chloe exit the club via monitors. "No." The two women stop near the bricked wall, mouths and hands gesticulating wildly.
Alexa wiped her eyes, putting her back to Chloe, shoulders heaving as she sobbed.
"Fuck," I growled, killing the surveillance. I twisted in my seat to face the window, overseeing the emptying club. "Alexa was falling for me, Brad," I admit as he perched onto the desk. "It's not happening." She'll get over it; I'll get over it. "We had to break it off eventually."
Brad checked a message on his phone. "They just flagged a taxi to the penthouse," he tells me, replying to security detail. "Hate to be the bearer of bad news and all, but Alexa's kinda living with you."
"Alexa won't hang around," I said assuredly, draining the whiskey remainder. "She'll be gone before sunrise."
Slipping his phone away, Brad stood, observing employees cleaning the bar. "And work?"
I wasn't so sure. "What would you do?"
He snorted. "I'd get the hell out of dodge."
Affirmative. "While Flamur's yet to rear his fucking head, I want eyes on her at all time," I gave orders, absently rotating my thumb ring. "Ensure safety measures: twenty-four-hour security, apartment surveillance and get me background checks on impending employers and employees. She mightn't have a job or place yet, but both will occur shortly."
Nate joins us, passing me a brown envelope.
"Obtain her bank details," I proceed, tearing through the seal, "wire across funds."
"Boss," they said in unison.
"What is this?" I asked, studying a hotel archive.
Nate turns the page. "Flamur was using this joint to meet with his mistress," he tells me, pointing at highlighted payment transactions. "According to the hotel manager, Bajramovic checked in every Friday, spent the night with her," he dropped an image of Kathy Pearl onto the file, "and they'd depart Saturday morning separately."
I sat taller, swivelled in my chair, laid out the evidence across the desk. "Come again."
Nate popped the muscle in his jaw. "I think it's safe to assume Kathy and Bajramovic were sexually involved," he drawls, tapping a tattooed finger on the image. "To be quite honest, It's too unfathomable to decipher."
"That fucking smack rat." Brad snatched the image, tore it down the middle, "She came here for him. It's clear as fucking day how this story ends."
"So, Kathy voluntarily formed a bond with her childhood captor," I pondered, lighting a cigarette. "He convinced her to come here, pull the wool over my goddamn eyes and swipe shit right under my nose. And she succeeded. Took money from my safe alongside confidential clientele and handed him the goods. Meanwhile, Bajramovic brushed palms with Darren, offered him a sweet deal, persuaded him to deliver Gateway. Again, a victorious operation...Why did Kathy try to kill her sister, though? Moreover, why did Alexa hide this information from me?"
"How do you know Alexa kept anything from you?" Brad mused, sharing a questioning glance with Nate. "Perhaps she doesn't know about her sister's love affair. I think we can all agree that Kathy's violent act traumatised Alexa."
This knowledge sickens me. "Stockholm syndrome," I said, and they both nodded. "It's the only reasonable explanation." I tossed the evidence aside, leaned back in my chair. "I shouldn't have killed Kathy. That bitch should be downstairs, hanging from my fucking ceiling, brooking cycled torture." I regret my haste decision to kill on sight. "Reach out to Reginald, demand more intel. I need to find this son of a bitch and put an end to this nonsense."
The following night, I stood in my office, observed energetic customers enjoying boxing day festivities. I hadn't returned to the penthouse, but the men confirmed Alexa packed up and left, checked into a nearby hotel and ordered room service with Chloe.
Inclination told me she wouldn't reappear at work, but I still kept an eye on the bar, half-hoping she'd prove me wrong.
"She's viewing a property," Brad told me one afternoon, tossing emails onto the desk. "Confirmation."
Alexa accepted the squalid flat and said goodbye to her old life. Within two weeks, she applied at the Coffee House and got the job. One night, when both women ventured to a nearby movie theatre, Nate keyed the lock, granted himself entrance, installed hidden cameras. It's an invasion of privacy but necessitous for me to ensure her safety while Flamur roams the earth. If for any reason the brazen-faced Albanian audaciously enters her apartment building, I am on standby, waiting for him.
A month passed, and security doubled after we blew up another warehouse belonging to Flamur. "I want men on her at all times," I ordered, opening the Bentley boot. "How are you feeling, Behar?"
Eyes protruding and teary, Behar, tied and shackled, thrashes pointlessly, rupturing lacerations.
"Calm down." Balancing a cigarette between my lips, I fisted the roped knot around his midriff and forcefully dragged his body out of the car boot, chucking him onto miry marsh grounds. "The screaming," I continued, respiring smoke toward the night sky, "it's like music to my ears."
Behar, like many foot soldiers obliging Flamur, rebuffed ratting on his boss. I somewhat admire his loyalty, but more fool him. "Shpresoj që ai të vret ty, Warren!" he roars, spittle spraying from his mouth. "You are a dead man walking!"
"Yeah?" I cocked a brow, tying cement blocks to his ankles. "I hope you can swim."
"No, please!" His hips bucked off the ground. "I beg you! I'll talk. Please, I can talk—"
"Too late." I jerk my chin to Brad. "Finish it."
Popping a chewing gum bubble, Brad rolled the guys body off the cliffside, sending him to his premature death.
I didn't watch him sink.
I didn't look back.
Two weeks later, I soared from the Bentley near the River Thames and joined my men at the equidistant of the Tower Bridge, resting my back to the metal railing barrier.
"It's bastard freezing," Brad complains, blowing warm breath into his palms. "I'm a summer man myself."
"It's all about the tan," Nate agrees, and they chuckled, bumping each other's fists. "Though I am already good for colour. It's you that looks like a pasty motherfucker."
"Fucking too right," Brad said, dragging a hand through his growing hair. "At this rate, I'll be booking weekly sunbed visits."
A team member mumbled in my ear. I clicked the earpiece, adjusted the volume. "Repeat."
"It's done," he confirms, ordering two of my men to fall back in. "Final orders."
Pedestrians smiled as they passed, unfazed by the cold weather and blackening nightfall. "Burn it."
In the distance, a muffled explosion reiterates, sending calm yet deadly ripples across the river. People stopped to look around, confused by the indistinctive sound. Above, unsettled birds swept and squawked, dispersing in frantic directions. Between the towering mountainous woodland scenery, the varicoloured blast crackled into the dark heavens, angry flames and thick black smog licked the building alight. It's Flamur's most treasured establishment, a misleading banquet hall for his bogus charitable services.
"If that doesn't get the fucker to retaliate," Brad said, "nothing will."
"Fall back," I ordered, calmly returning to the Bentley. I slipped onto the backseats coinciding with Brad and Nate and ordered the driver to move ahead. "We should eat."
One Friday afternoon, I ventured to the restaurant with Nate. The Grape and Vine is yet another business venture I established back in my younger years. Inside the office, I relax in my chair, nursing a whiskey glass while Nate deals with Will, the manager, evoking me with a sense of nostalgia.
"Will," I shout, skimming through documents piled high on my desk. "Will – for fuck's sake. Get in my office."
Minutes later, Will is in my doorway, his chest heaving. "Sir?"
"What the fuck is this?" I hold this month's inventory record in my hand. "Did you evaluate these personally?"
He watches me intensely. "Would you like me to take another look?"
"I think you'd better."
Warily accepting the document, Will becomes seated on the leather chair opposite my desk. He lifted those black-framed bifocals to wipe his tired eyes, studied every detail, scanning for an error.
William has worked for me since day dot. In fact, he's the first man I hired when purchasing this building. Club 11 was in my possession for two prosperous years, and I was itching for new investment.
I remember the day well. At the club, Brad, spitting feathers, had sauntered into my office, downed too much whisky and clenched his jaw so tight, I feared his teeth would fragment. "What the fuck is your problem?"
He paced my office, steam blowing from his ears. "Gerald Sr approached me – he's asking all these questions." He clasped his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. "Searching for his daughter."
"Who?" I had no recollection of whom Brad blabbered about. He'd never mentioned that man's name before. In actual fact, Brad never disclosed anything from his past. Although I had my assumptions of his previous life, it's not something we often discussed; however, on numerous occasions, I encouraged Brad to open up and trust me.
"My ex's father," he cursed, gnawing his lower lip, hands balling into fists. "He wants to know where she is, Bossman. He thinks I had something to do with her disappearance. And he's called the cops and—"
"Stop. Fucking. Rambling," I cut him off. "This Gerald. Is he trying to get under your skin, or do you believe he's a threat?"
Brad pondered for a moment. "He loved his daughter—never approved our relationship. He has connections. Bigwigs, too. I got to handle him, or he'll have me rotting in a cell for fucking murder. I can't even fucking blame him after what I did."
I'd never let that happen. I picked up my phone and made an overdue call.
He answered on the fifth ring. "Burton."
"Reginald," I said, pouring myself a neat whiskey.
The line remained quiet for a minute. "Warren?"
"Indeed." I clicked my fingers, telling Brad to sit. "How's the force treating you?"
Reginald shifted, and the chair beneath him complained. "It's everything and more, Warren. I'll never be able to thank you enough for what you did for me back then. I've every intention to pay you back."
"Payment is not necessary," I sincerely state as it wasn't money I was looking for. "However, I do believe it's time you returned the favour."
He sighed exasperatingly. He understood this day was coming but hadn't prepared for it. Reginald Burton sold his soul to the devil when he'd accepted his new life. Now he's at the top of the ladder, he wants no part of corruption, and he certainly doesn't want the dreaded reminder of how he got there, or better yet, who put him there. "What do you need?"
I motioned for Brad to give me a full name. He scribbled the details over the notepad, and stepped away, running his hands through his hair, frustrated. "Gerald Fisher. The owner of—"
"The Grape and Vine," Reginald finished. "He's a friend of mine."
Interesting. "Then, we have a conflict of interest."
Another pause. "I see."
"You understand my predicament?"
"Loud and clear," he unclogs his throat. He's probably sitting at his desk sweating, loosening his tie. "I've no interest in knowing your motives, Warren. I am merely your scapegoat. If your name arises, I'll be sure to squash it."
"That's all I ask." I hang up the phone and shoot Nate a quick message.
"So," Brad visibly swallows, "what are we gonna do?"
"I'm going to pay Gerald Sr a friendly visit."
That night, Brad killed the engine outside Gerald's restaurant, running his clammy hands down his trousers. I had never witnessed such panic and unease from my right-hand man.
We open the car doors and climb out in unison. I pop open the button of my suit jacket, striding toward the alleyway, knowing Nate is there waiting.
On our arrival, Nate emerges from the shadows, jerking his chin. "Sir."
Pulling out my gloves, I stretched the leather over my hands and wiggled my fingers, grabbed my trusty Desert Eagle and yanked the hammer back. I aim the barrel to lock and shoot, dismantling the padlock.
Brad closed the door behind us. I move down the dimly lit hallway, searching for Gerald Sr. If the owner values his work as much as I do mine, he'll still be sitting in his office, immaterial to unsociable hours.
Inside the main room, I stopped to admire the vast space, floor-to-ceiling windows, thick red carpet, bistro tables, wooden chairs and, In the corner, a small adequate bar, walls scattered in artificial vines and plastic fruit. It's a remarkable layout but doesn't achieve full potential.
"What do you reckon he has down there?" Nate asks, cracking open another door, gazing into the dark cellar. "Storage?"
I turned on the light and descended underground, a small smile cracking my features. Floor-to-ceiling oak veneered shelving, showcasing a myriad of wine bottles.
Brad pulls one out, reading the label. "1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild."
I extend a low whistle, stepping alongside him. "He has an exorbitant taste." I take the bottle from him, remove the dust layer. "Nice."
"I wouldn't trade in my Jim for that shit," Brad mutters.
I carried the bottle upstairs and continued search. It's not hard to find Gerald as the pleasurable grunts lead the way. I stand outside his office door, count to three and boot it open, intending to make an entrance; however, the unfolding scene had taken me aback. Gerald relaxes behind his desk, head lolled back, mouth agape while a young male kneels between his parted thighs, going to town on his cock.
I cleared my throat.
Gerald's eyes popped open, cheeks hollowing in mortification. "Fucking shit!" He slapped the boy away from his lap, swiftly tucking his shaft away.
The lad scampered to his feet in panic, wiping semen from his lips. A handsome young man, I thought, marvelling at his grey pinstripe suit and reading glasses. I guesstimate we're similar in age and had wondered why he'd pursue Garland; it's not as though the old geezer epitomises a dashing silver fox. The restaurant owner is overweight, unattractive and annoyingly rattled phlegm.
"Who the hell are you?" Gerald barked, belatedly noticing Brad at my side. "You!"
Brad was starstruck. "You're fucking married—to a woman."
I had no idea why he felt that information was necessary, but this shit clearly offended him.
"Seriously?" Brad pinned the lad with a disgusted look. "Grey fucking balls? You're whacking off to wrinkly old man balls?"
I laughed. I couldn't help it.
Nate snorted behind a closed fist, tampering down hilarity.
The lad's face, beet red, embarrassment weighs heavily in his eyes.
"Fucking Christ." Brad's upper lip curled in distaste, and he shivered. "I am fucking blind after this."
Gerald foamed from the mouth. "Brad if you tell my wife..." I stepped forward, amusement taking a sharp turn. "I recognise you from somewhere."
"Warren," I introduced, extending a friendly hand. "In the flesh."
Gingerly shaking my hand, Gerald uncurled his spine, passing Brad a troubled glance. "What can I do for you, Mr Warren?"
"It has come to my understanding that we have encountered a problem." Passing the wine bottle to Nate, I clasped my hands together, perched my backside onto the desk edge. "I am old school, Gerald. I deal with problems head-on, face-to-face, man-to-man."
The calmness in my voice didn't fool Gerald. He eyed me sceptically, flung Brad another sidelong frown. "I know he killed her," he finally spoke, snarling in aversion. "I know what you did, Brad. And I won't rest until—"
"Until what?" I challenged, rage magnetising me toward him. "You think you can threaten one of my brothers." Towering over his podgy frame, I ruffled him with a murderous scowl, putting us toe-to-toe. "See, now, that's definitely a problem."
Before the man unleashed a loud harangue, I whipped out the Eagle and blew his kneecap.
"Argh!" he bellows, legs buckling under his weight. He sags to the ground on impact, clutching and screaming through painful intervals. "I don't want to go to war with you, Warren. I just want my daughter back."
Nauseated and pallid, the lad dashed across the room, ready to flee. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," I said, aiming the gun at his head. "I tend to fly off the handle."
"Please don't," he cries, hiccupping behind two hands. "I don't want to die."
"What's your name?"
He snivels, putting space between himself and the men. "William."
"William," I repeated, motioning for him to stand down. "If you try and run? You'll be forcing my hand." I give Nate a firm nod. "Move him."
"Let's stop squirming," Nate teased, grabbing Gerald by the scruff, dragging his heavy body to the office chair. "And play by the rules."
"I can pay," Gerald protests, eyes bouncing between the armed men. "I got money."
"Firstly, don't ever offer me money. It's rude and insulting." Pulling out another chair, I fall onto the cold leather, relaxing. "Do I look like a man who needs a cash fund?" He scanned my suit, shaking his head. "Exactly. I could buy your business. Your cars. Your house and lifestyle." I chuckled, exchanging an entertained glimpse with Brad. "You're small-time, Gerald. Even if I were feeble? You couldn't afford me."
Breathless, Gerald wipes sweat from his brow. "What do you want?"
"You threatened Brad," I said in a monotone voice. "I will not tolerate idle threats—inadequate, futile threats will not hurt us, Gerald. They simply give me a fucking headache."
His Adam's apple moved. "But Brad killed Tiffany—"
"No," I interject, "I did. Now, do you want me to spare details, or do you require peace of mind? I am happy to elucidate, though, quite willingly so. Tiffany had begged for her life and fought hard for salvation. She was a screamer," I lied, and a tear rolled down his cheek. "She begged thoroughly—"
"Stop," Gerald whispers, a sob tearing from his chest. He hunched forward, shoulders quaking, loud, inconsolable sounds reverberating around us.
I tap my knuckles on the desk, uninterested in his tears. If I had a heart? I'd feel bad for the guy.
Dabbing his cheeks, he unclogged his throat. "What are the negotiations?" He asked defeatedly—doesn't even put up a fight.
"The Grape and Vine," I said, not missing a beat. This place has great potential. I am already envisioning renovations. "I want it."
His mouth opened and shut. "Done."
Nate extracts a folder from his inner suit jacket, tossing it down for Gerald. "Sign."
Gerald hesitantly plucks up a pen, scribbling his signature, sliding the contract towards me.
He is a coward, pitiful. I told him I killed his daughter and, of course, he shed a few tears, but where's the fight? The defensiveness and retribution? I had no interest in fatherhood; however, if a man sat across my table and viciously relayed killing my daughter, I'd die fighting.
I hand the contract to Brad. "We have one more predicament to discuss."
"The Grape and Vine have been in my family for generations. For the sake of survival, I cooperatively signed the dotted line without hesitation. Uncompassionate, you murdered my daughter, Tiffany, and show little remorse—"
"None," I correct him, sensing Brad's apprehension. "I have shown zero remorse for her." In actuality, it wasn't me who brutally spilt her blood. I just so happened to be passing by that night.
Brad's in a better place mentally, and I don't appreciate Gerald getting inside his head. My right-hand man doesn't need a reminder of what life he left behind. Tonight, I am putting an end to this harrowing bullshit.
Gerald loathed Brad and understandably so. "I will not contact the police—"
"Not good enough."
He bored into me with an impatient glare. "I will retract my previous statement—"
"Good man," I mocked, lip twitching. "Proceed."
"I'll leave Brad alone?" His puzzlement was manifest. "What more could you possibly want?"
"Your little boyfriend witnessed our altercation," I remind him. "I'm afraid he doesn't get to walk out of here with those limbs intact. I won't risk it."
Huffing out a painful breath, Gerald clenched his oozing knee. "Do what's mandatory."
"Please, no," cried William, shaking his head vehemently. "Gerald, don't do this to me! I love you—"
"Why are you begging him?" I raised the gun, and his mouth shut. "It's me who holds your lifeline."
A distraught whimper fell from his chattering lips. "Please," he murmured, tears flooding his eyes. "I won't talk, Mr Warren. I don't want to die."
My finger twitches over the trigger. "I believe you." I divert the gun, pull the trigger and send a bullet straight between Gerald's eyes.
He hadn't foreseen my unpredictable diversion or grasped his death in time to plead and protest. Blood and gore splattered behind his head, spraying the stark white wall in beautiful crimson, body dangling back, arms hanging lifelessly over the armrests.
"Holy fuck," William screams, vomiting over his shoes, back sliding down the wall.
I tucked the Eagle away, rose from the chair and mounted over his quivering frame, hands placed in my trouser pockets. I nudge the front of his shoe with mine. "Get up."
"I won't talk," he cries, pulling himself together, meeting my stance. His eyes land on Gerald, and another sob spews from his mouth. "You killed him."
I looked at my men and chuckled dryly. "And you care?"
He rubbed his eyes under steamed glasses. "I love him."
"Gerald didn't love you," I cruelly remind him. "He was prepared to let you die."
Using his shirt sleeve, he removed tears from his cheeks. "I don't want to die."
"How long have you worked here?"
Eyebrows meshing, he said, "Three years."
"What are your requirements?"
"This establishment belongs to me now. I am inclined to keep you on. If you're prepared to forget what you witnessed tonight, the manager position is yours, and I'll even give you a pay rise." I had no interest in scouting new employees. I'd instead pick up where Gerald left off.
"Okay." Will blows out an unsteady breath, gathering his scattered thoughts and temporary grief. "I want to work for you, Mr Warren."
Blinking away the memory, I glanced around the office that once belonged to Gerald Sr and smiled. After The Grape and Vine fell onto my lap, I renovated the outmoded furniture, exchanging threadbare carpets for black tiles, removed the wooden staircases for glass enclosures and crystal chandeliers hung from the tall ceilings. I modified everything with the exception of the wine cellar as it's a crucial selling point to customers.
"I don't see it." Will set the inventory down. "What have I missed."
Opening the drawer, I retrieved the 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild bottle and set it on my desk. I never placed it back in the cellar. "The record suggests you sold this bottle last week, but that's impossible as the only bottle I possess sits between us."
He blinked owlishly. "I wasn't aware of that."
"You understand my confusion?"
Will chewed his bottom lip nervously. "I had a date last Friday, and you declined my application to finish early, so I resourcefully asked someone to fill in for me."
"When Nate summarised this week's takings and enunciated that it was short by nine grand, I was extremely disappointed." I seize the document from him and continue, "Then I noticed it was simply an error and corrected it, but then we counted the takings again, and it still didn't add up."
He's growing paler by the second. "Sir, I'd never steal from you—"
"I believe you. However, you gave someone else the opportunity to do so."
He nods in agreement. "What can I do?"
"As expected," I tell him. "You get rid of the error, and I want payment back in full."
"Am I obligated to ask Brad for assistance."
William's involved in many unethical dealings but still struggles. "Nate will assist you."
"You're on your last legs, William. Any more fuck ups and I'll be obligated to bury you under this floor alongside your former lover."