REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Liam

Ground-level at Club 11, after showering and selecting a tailored three-piece for my date with Alexa this evening, I joined the men around the polished mahogany conference table with our two guests, Chief Superintendent Reginald Burton and Gregory Millan. Greg's the man who specialises in exquisite jewellery: gemmologist, goldsmith, watchmaker, engraver and diamond settler. He's almost eighty years old, relies on a cane for mobility, yet the geezer, although tiresomely straggles, wayfarers everywhere.

"Warren," Greg said, unravelling black velvet from the invariable chain batch. "A hundred as ordered." He dips his finger under a white gold chain, lifts the tag and exhibits its engraved cut. "I assume you're hiring new men."

"The boss is always on the prowl," Nate drawls, relaxing back in his chair. "It's part and parcel of the job—recruiting and replacing."

"You-win-some-you-lose-some," Brad fills in the gaps, conveying the chains to me, presenting them on the table. "It's as simple as that."

"You've requested my services a lot lately, Warren." Reginald puffed his cigar, clouding himself in thick smog. "What can I do for you?"

"Flamur Bajramovic," I said, rotating my gold thumb ring. "What's taking so long?"

"I chased up leads," he confirms, tossing Nate a long look. "Your email claimed Mr Bajramovic returned to Albania, but there's no evidence to prove he boarded a flight. I got every reason to suspect he's still in London."

I removed the polaroid images from my inner suit jacket and alternately slid them down the table. "What can you see?"

When Alexa turned her back to me this morning, allowing me to change into my suit, I took advantage of her lowered guard and ransacked her drawer. Previously I noted a disturbing image while she searched for a T-shirt, knowing those twisted remembrances aided her recklessness the night prior. I left her building, drove off, parked around the corner and studiously examined each revolting photograph.

"Fuck no," Nate chirps, flinging the polaroid down. "Makes your skin crawl," he continues, passing me a sidelong grimace. "I'm a lot of things, but you don't fuck with no kids, man."

I sensed the gruesomeness summoned unpleasant memories for Nate. His sister was a product of child molestation.

Reginald sat taller, fixing his gold-framed bifocals. "How did you get these?"

"I believe Bajramovic sent them to Alexa," I mumbled, lighting a cigarette. "I found them in her bedside drawer this morning."

Brad becomes seated to my right, sharing a knowing glance with Nate. Both desire to ask questions but know better.

"I was one of the detectives leading the Haines case," Reginald informs me, and my interest piqued. "I had a feeling they weren't quite honest with us back then. The older Haines sister, in particular, was unforthcoming." He overturned the images. "To this day, I will never understand their reasoning."

"Kathy grew fond of her childhood captor. She'd warned Alexa to keep her mouth shut—claimed he'd come back for them if they spurted truths. It's understandable. Alexa was still a child. She didn't know any better."

"I believe Alexa wanted justice," Reginald said, respiring smoke, sipping his bourbon. "She unconsciously forgot most of her experience. Leading psychiatrists determined psychological trauma or some element of dissociative amnesia."

Nate's eyebrows met in a frown. "Alexa recalled nothing?"

"Aspects," he retorts, cigar balanced between two fingers. "Alexa told us where she slept, what she ate and what insects crawled the walls. She could not, however, give me names, descriptions or timeframes."

I didn't know Alexa back then, but I hate that I wasn't around to protect her.

Gregory turns his nose up at the polaroid's, sinking in his chair. "I'm just a goldsmith," he croaked, wrinkle lines cinching around his eyes. "This isn't my forte."

"You are free to leave," I said, and he gradually rose from his seat, delicate hand clinging to the wooden cane handle. "Your final purchase." He placed a small black leather box beside the military chains. Hand momentarily bolstered on my shoulder. "Am I right to presume she's special?"

Brad eyed the box with intense suspicion. "Who?"

"None of your fucking business." I snatched it before he got any ideas, tucking it in my trouser pocket. "Why are you sitting there looking at me? Pick up the pictures and do your job."

"I am not interested in staring at a kid pleasuring a fucking paedophile," he counters angrily, his temples thumping as he ground down his teeth.

Greg squeezed my shoulder. "Until the next time, Warren." He tipped his chequered cap to the others, exiting the room, two security members assisting his departure.

"On the evidence," I grab one, show the men, "forgo the captured intention and examine the background. In this one, you can see a backdrop through the window: greenery, woodlands, an archaic-looking Anderson shelter." I select another. "In the kitchen, on the table: foreign alcohol, card decks, takeaway containers—"

Brad snatched the image. "Personalised emblems," he said, highlighting the playing cards. "These belong to a club."

Nate came to his side, slipped on his black-framed glasses. "I recognise that logo. There's a small pub down in Brixton with an organised hate club." His lip curled up in disgust. "Racist assholes."

"Yes," Reginald agrees, snubbing his cigar. "Speculative white supremacist hate group, advocating extremist reactionary positions—Nordicism and anti-immigration."

I shot him a deathly glare. "Why are they getting away with it?"

"An alleged secret," he uses air quotes, "society and lack of evidence. The misconceived organisation is legally unfounded and unsubstantiated."

"This ends today." I exhaled smoke, outed the cigarette. "Reginald are you familiar with the residential caretakers within the vicinity of Brixton, predominantly Cainsbury Highschool? And has there been a high-level of missing persons recently?"

He thought for a moment. "Yes to both."

"This caretaker who patrols Cainsbury is an accessory narcissist who's supposedly Bajramovic's partner in crime. I can only offer unfounded hearsay, but if you can submit an affidavit to the high courts and convince a judge to serve a warrant, you'll likely uncover victims of human trafficking." I stood, adjusting my cufflinks. "The odds are stacked against you, though. I hear the Albanians plan to smuggle those young girls to Tirana for auction."

"I am surprised you haven't taken it upon yourself to act, Warren." Reginald matched my stance, glimpsing at his gold wristwatch.

"I'm a busy man," I said, elevating an eyebrow. "Thank me for the heads up and be on your way."

"Thank you, Warren." He stifled an amused grin, marching toward the door. "A pleasure as always."

I wait until he's gone. "I have a date this evening," I informed the men, and both pinned me with questioning glints in their contrasting eyes. "I want you to find his white-supremacist club and ask questions—find out what the connection is between them and Bajramovic. Who knows? The Albanian might be squatting in the cellar, so turn the place upside down."

Nate stared at me, unblinking. "Have you forgotten that I'm mixed-race?"

"Since when did you care for welcoming privileges?" I asked, goading his inner demons. "You make sure those racist motherfuckers bend down and kiss your goddamn boot before you burn that hellhole to the fucking ground."

***

Alexa

As promised, Liam returned three hours later, parked the Bentley opposite the tenanted-building and, in true date fashion, knocked on my front door, waiting for me to make an appearance.

Not entirely containing my excitement, I stepped into a pair of gold heeled sandals, fixed the straps and tossed random items into a matching clutch purse.

He knocked on the door once more, harder, impatient.

In the hallway, I halted at the full-length mirror, fussed with loose strands framing my face, and quickly swept red matte lipstick to my lips.

The handle rattled.

"Just a second," I called, positioning to the side, convinced the red dress is too short. "Inner self—wish me luck."

Consciously composing myself, I twirled the key, unlocked the front door and smiled. "Hey." Oh, God. Too excitable, Alexa. Tone it down. "You're here." Of course, he's here. "I mean, you look good."

Hands clasped to frame above the door, Liam eyed me from head-to-toe, appreciation in those intense blue eyes. "And you look edible."

Do not blush, Alexa. I stepped out, but he didn't move back as I turned to lock the door. His arm curved around my waist, and my stomach dropped. "Where are we going?" I whispered, his lips pressing to the back of my neck. "Maybe I should grab a jacket—"

"No need." He held my hand, fingers intertwined with mine. "I hope you're hungry."

"I haven't eaten all day," I lied, omitting the strawberry ice cream I polished off while luxuriating in the bath. "Okay, maybe I ate a little."

Liam smirked, opening the communal door, exiting the building—all while holding my hand. I am ridiculously bursting at the seams, jubilance extending the pleased smile on my face. He opened the passenger side door, gesturing for me to climb in. "You look beautiful," he said throatily, kissing my cheek before I ducked inside.

I buckled up, waited for him to fall behind the wheel. "Thank you." It's common to see him in a quotidian customised suit, but I perceived the change in his cologne and jewellery. He thoughtfully selected an incense of vetiver, leather and cedar and exchanged the gold curb bracelets for authentic onyx beads.

Liam drove with poised finesse, fingers idly working the gearstick, eyes solely focused on the roads ahead. He paused near the traffic lights, and I leaned in to kiss his cheek. He looked at me, impassive, unsmiling, and then he claimed my hand once more and joined it with his, laying them on his thigh as he proceeded to drive.

Fifteen minutes later, he veers the Bentley toward his penthouse skyscraper and parks the vehicle underground. I flicked my gaze over the concrete vastness. "Did you forget something?"

"No," he said, and we soared from the car in tandem. "This is where I'm taking you."

I am somewhat dissatisfied. I love Liam's penthouse, but I was looking forward to going on a real date with him. Whether it be dining at a restaurant, the movies or a late-night stroll, I wanted a couple-like experience.

"What's wrong, Alexa?" He guides me to the main foyer, paused by the lift, called down the elevator. "You look disappointed."

"No, I'm fine," I lied, entering the lift with him. "Honestly."

"Good, I was starting to think your age was showing." He pushed the button to his floor. "I can't handle brats."

I decided to ignore that snarky remark. "Duly noted." The doors chimed open, and I exited before he responded, waving to armed security as I passed.

Liam codes his front door and addresses a hired chef labouring in his kitchen. "Alexa, this is Pete," he introduces us, setting my clutch purse onto the coffee table. "He is our chef for this evening."

"Bonjour," said Pete, hurrying toward me with a spoon. "You must taste the soup."

I glance from him to Liam. "Yes, sure—" He lodged the vegetable broth into my mouth, and I gave him a thumbs up. "Wonderful. Thank you."

Pete wears all-white and gold embroidered apron, scraggly grey hair sticking out beneath the cloth knot wrapped around his head. "Do you have any allergies?"

I shook my head. "No—"

"Good," he interjects, returning to his station. "I don't cater to fuss pots." He picks up a meat cleaver. "I will prepare shortly, Mr Warren."

"Take your time." Liam's hand falls to my lower back, coercing me toward the balcony. "We're eating outside."

With the London skyline as a picturesque backdrop, a round bistro table sits before the wrought-iron balustrade, sheathed in white silk, an antique-looking candelabra and tall pre-lit candles, flames flickering along with the stars. "Liam, it's perfect," I whisper as he pulls out a chair. "I love it." And I love you, I thought, watching him uncork a champagne bottle. "Thank you."

"Stop thanking me, Alexa." He removes the napkin from the wine glasses and pours our drinks. "You're too modest—polite. You have beautiful tendencies and inherently unassuming characteristics but know that politeness and sentiments get you nowhere in this world." I frowned, not quite sure if he's complimenting or insulting me. "I don't express gratitude to people because I don't need to; I don't express regret or ask forgiveness—"

"Because you don't need to," I finished his lecture, reaching for the wine glass.

He reclined in his chair, deep in reflective thought. "Where does it get you?"

"I don't understand the question."

"You are the embodiment of perfection. You're too modest and polite for your own good. You're kind and generous to a fault, yet somehow, the laws of attraction work against you. What is it they say? It is believed that we're all susceptible to the laws which govern the universe. The power of mind translates your thought process and materialises them into reality. You are optimistic, yet receive nothing but negativity and misfortune. I only care about myself and achieve in ten folds." He downed his drink, set the empty glass down. "It seems those metaphoric laws do not work in your favour."

"What are you saying? I shouldn't be polite or nice to people?" This man is deranged. "What do you want me to do? Get a personality transplant?"

"I said it before, and I'll say it again: know your worth. You are your best advocate, saviour, defender and executer. You rely on nobody but yourself to achieve and overcome." He pops a cigarette between his lips. "You don't thank me for asking you on a date because you're worth romanticism and expensive champagne. You don't thank someone for holding open a door for you to pass because you're worth chivalrousness and respect."

I twirled the wine stem with pinched fingers. "I guess I need to re-evaluate the way I see myself."

"I guess you do," he said, finding my leg under the table. He drags my ankle to his thigh, fingers kneading, massaging my skin. "It's taking a lot of restraint for me not to fuck you on this table."

Heat rose to my cheeks. "And ruin the dinner setting."

"Fuck the china plates," he said, a touch of playfulness in his rough voice. "I want you bent over so that I can brand that ass of yours."

My thighs clenched together. "I am not ready to sleep with you again."

"You keep saying that," he hoarsely teased, unclasping my shoe. "But I can smell your desire from me here."

I downed the champagne in one gulp, quenching my dry throat. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You deliberately excluded underwear," he points out, and I wanted to slap myself. "Why?"

I plan to act on something this evening when the opportunity arises. "A woman forgoing lace is not a sexual indication, Liam."

"Touché." He removed my other shoe, sliding both sandals to the floor. "Tell me, though, if I put my fingers between your thighs, will I find a soaked cunt?"

Jesus Christ. "Why are you so crass?" He gave me a wicked smirk. "No," I fibbed, wanting all these lascivious innuendos to become a reality. "I am dryer than a nun."

"You can't lie to me, Alexa."

I busted out laughing.

"Why are you laughing?"

I bit down on my lower lip. "I just am, Liam."

Pete, our hired chef, appears, presenting our first course. "French-onion-soup," he clarified, setting a portioned bowl in front of me. "Enjoy."

I spooned garnish aside, tasted richly tenderised caramelised onions. "This is delicious."

"Wait until you taste the dessert," Liam said in a calm but suggestive voice.

I know there is a hidden message in that statement. In the bedroom, Liam over-delivers with my sexual pleasure. I cannot enumerate the number of times that man has buried his head between my thighs and brought me to orgasm. However, even though I am no longer reserved or inexperienced, kneeling before him and offering oral has yet to occur. I want to please him, though. It's something I often considered when working at Club 11 and living here, but it's also an act I performed religiously for Flamur. After leaving those shackled walls, I promised myself I'd never kneel for a man again—never put my mouth there.

"What's wrong?" Liam set his finished dish aside. "You got that thinking look again."

I am not communicating my dark thoughts. "So," I changed the subject, "you know everything about me, Liam. I think it's time you opened up about yourself."

"What do you want to know?" He squared his shoulders, elongating his guarded wall. "I am a businessman and—"

"No," I cut him off, accepting a refilled glass. "I know about your business ventures and lifestyle, Liam. I meant your history. Where were you born? Are your parents around? Do you have any siblings?"

He cut me with a scathing glare. "No."

I blinked owlishly at him. "Oh, okay. Did you—"

"No." He snagged a Macallan bottle from beneath the table, snubbing the champagne.

"Okay." I wrinkled my nose. "Well, what about when you were—"

"No."

"Jesus Christ, Liam," I complained. "If you don't want to tell me anything? That's fine. You're rude—"

"I'm not rude, Alexa, but I don't care to talk about my past."

Pete reappears, exchanging the bowls for our second course. "Coq Au Vin."

I hold up until he returns to the kitchen. "It's a little unfair, don't you think? You know everything about me—"

"That's because I'm not a fucking Martyr," he quips, biting into his chicken. "Drop it, Alexa."

I want to throw my Coq Au fuck all over his head.

"What are you saying, Liam?" My nostrils flared. "That I'm a Martyr."

He cursed under his breath. "That's not what I meant."

"Really?" I probed, withdrawing my leg from his thigh. "You insinuated as much."

Pete poked his head outside. "Would you like your desserts, Mr Warren?"

"You're dismissed," Liam rudely responds, seemingly losing his appetite. "I grew up in the system."

I flung him a double-take, pinching my lips tight.

"I don't know my father," he said, avoiding my curious eyes. "I don't remember my mother. By all accounts, she was a heroin junkie—a prostitute. I recall someone telling me that she died before social services intervened." He topped up his glass, expression unreadable. "I bounced from pillar-to-post for a while, or until I knew better."

I struggled to read between the lines. "Where are your adoptive parents?"

"Which ones?" he asked, and my chest began to tighten. "I didn't hang around long enough to form bonds, Alexa. I learnt to fend for myself at a young age."

"How many foster parents were there?" I found myself asking, and he glared at me over the glass rim. "You speak as though there were many."

He remained passive while we spoke. "I lost count."

I suddenly perceived him differently. Today you see a grown man—successful, powerful, intimidating and dangerous—but he was once a little boy and, to all intents and purposes, a neglected, unloved child.

"Don't fucking do that," he scolds, furiously shaking his head.

"Do what?" I paled at his harshness. "I'm not doing anything."

"For fuck's sake," he snapped, tossing his fork onto the table. "I don't need or want your pity, Alexa."

"I wasn't pitying you, asshole—you know what?" Flinging the napkin, I abruptly stood. "I am calling it a night." I stormed past him, entering the living quarters. He's right. I do feel sorry for him, but he cannot bite off my head whenever I show emotion; It is unfair—he seized my elbow. "Liam, release me at once."

"I don't want to talk about that bullshit," he said, fingers clinging to my skin, angered vulnerability in those eyes. "We're having a nice night, right? It's our first date, Alexa, so why ruin it?"

"That wasn't my intention, Liam, but you can't force me to bare my soul when you're unprepared to reciprocate. And quit snapping all the time. If you don't wish to discuss something, then, well, ask me to drop it—nicely," I emphasised, and his hold on me softened. "You said, 'I should demand and make a stand', so here I am, telling you to stop shouting at me whenever you're angry or frustrated." I elevated my chin. "I am worth more than a man who fucking terrifies me."

His hand descends the length of my spine, fingers bunching up my dress. "I like this side of you," he whispers, pulling me to his chest. "Your feistiness turns me on." He kissed my cheek. "Stay."

I am foolish for this man. "Only if you ask nicely."

Liam lifts my hand to his lips, whispering kisses across my fingertips. "Please stay."

Two simple words that uncaged butterflies in my chest.

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