REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Liam

"Victims of modern slavery in Britain is five times greater than they were just six years ago. The law enforcement held out a colossal investigation after dawn, where they arrested nine men on suspicion of enslavement and human trafficking, including sexually exploited children."

Reginald appears on the screen, earpiece skewed on his ear. "This was a fantastic synergism," he said, too hyperexcitable to look at the cameraman. "The metropolitan police department takes all reports of modern slavery and sexual offences with extreme seriousness and is committed to prosecuting those who participate in this pernicious crime..."

"Turn it off," I said, and Brad aimed the remote at the television. "Updates."

"It was a dive bar," said Nate, dropping an envelope onto my desk. "As speculated, they're an all-white supremacist hate group with Nazi symbolism tattoos on their fists."

"Nate stayed in the car for me to scope the place first," Brad pipes up, perching onto the desk edge. "I ordered a drink, sat on a stool, pretended not to listen, but I think those dickheads recognised me. Before I left, I asked two guys if they heard of our Albanian; both looked me in the eye and lied. Apparently, they never heard of him. I know you ordered hostile vituperation and a human bonfire," he jerked a shoulder, "but I made a call. I walked out with my limbs intact and thrashed shit back and forth with Nate..."

"Sir, you're too impulsively incautious," Nate tells me, and my eyebrows jumped. "That's not to say that we don't trust your judgment, though. You're right. There's unarguably a connection between the Nazi party and the Albanian mafia; however, I think it's within our best interest to hang fire and wait for an opportunity in order to obtain Bajramovic."

"I suggest an intelligencer, to win over the Nazi brown-nosers and additional agents within their vicinage."

"In case Bajramovic decides to rear his head," Nate adds, tearing through a protein bar. "We'll be in more of an advantageous position to attack and bring him in."

"Reginald's operation saved thirty-eight young women," I said, and they nodded. "Some were younger than ten years old. It's an emotional day for London: partners welcoming back their loved ones, parents bringing their children home to safety. Conversely, this sense of bereavement and overwhelming public display is incompatible with Flamur's feasible dissatisfaction this evening as he believes he's unassailable. He'd have ordered his henchman to prowl for prospects the second he lost the others."

I consider their notion briefly. "Okay. Send someone in to investigate and keep the additional men on the outskirts. First, though, I need you," I point to Nate, "to collect the shipment from Gateway and drop them off to our gunrunners. Once you've finalised payment, I want you to visit this guy," I tossed him an envelope, "and lay into him a bit. He's profiting from my goods, or he's mathematically wired wrong. Either way, he owes me money."

Nate tucks the envelope into his suit pocket. "Sir."

I wait for him to vacate before addressing Brad. "Got a minute?"

"For you?" He winked, slipping a toothpick between his lips. "Always."

"I've been visiting Alexa recently," I said, and the perspicacious man hadn't flinched. "It's against the rules."

"Perks of being the boss." Brad's eyes twinkled. "You can do whatever you want." He sensed my conflicted state of mind. "What's going on, Bossman?"

"She loves me," I admit, but again, Brad hadn't looked surprised. "You know how much I tried to stay away—it's impossible. I am a twenty-nine-year-old man who's fucking obsessed with a young woman. I've fallen, Brad. I've fallen hard. Those," I point to the dancers through the window, "women do nothing for me. I don't want to touch anyone but her. If I had my way? She'd be back in the penthouse and behind the bar where I can keep an eye on her. I want it all—with her." I snatched the Jameson bottle, poured a large shot. "I have this intense need to protect her from anguish, yet I'll be the reason behind her demise. You know it; I know it."

He delivered an affirmative nod.

"Before you join Nate in Brixton, I need you to go inside Alexa's apartment building." I removed her front door key from my wallet, slid it across the table. "Bug everything."

"If it means anything," Brad takes the key, "I think she's worth it."

***

I do not recall my mother. I couldn't tell whether I inherited her black hair or unhinged tendencies. I don't know where she lived or if her parents were about. I don't know her name, nor do I care for interpretation or reckoning. I do, however, remember someone mentioning she'd died from a heroin overdose. The subconscious part of my mind apprises me of her former welfare.

A female voice insists my mother was an alcoholic, prostitute and drug addict. It was the social workers' statement. I sat outside her office on one of those tattered blue chairs, listening to her explain my background to the Irish couple that wanted to adopt me—I guarantee they'll file a petition to reverse parent rights within two months.

"Liam's a damaged little boy," she'd said. "But he only needs routine and love."

The plump receptionist looked at me over the monitor edge, and I shot her an ugly face.

"Perhaps we can offer temporary fostering," the man responded. "Until you find him permanent care."

I was six years old.

The impermanent Irish family returned their unwanted and unsatisfying merchandise to Briar House seven weeks later.

"You didn't tell us Liam was mute," the woman whisper-shouts at the caseworker. "He hasn't said one word since we kindly offered him a roof."

The plump receptionist offered me a sympathetic smile over the monitor edge, and I pinned her with a determined glower.

"He's upsettin' our children," the husband intervenes. "This has been a traumatic experience for them."

They made me sleep on the sofa.

"He tried to kill the dog!"

Their Rottweiler tried to eat me.

"He opened the front door, knowin' the dog has no road sense and left him out there all night."

"And it was rainin'," she adds. "The poor animal had to visit the vet."

"It is unhealthy for both us and Liam to take him home with us."

They left without a sideward glance.

My legs dangled off the chair. I alternatively kicked them, wishing I was taller—wishing I could touch the floor with my toes.

Three weeks later, the social worker addressed another couple. "Liam just needs routine," she informed them with her recitation and faux emotional peroration. "His distress and anxiety caused selective mutism."

The plump receptionist arched her eyebrow over the monitor edge, and I gave her a knowing grin.

"Why did Liam's previous foster parents withdraw the application? Is it common for susceptible children to develop reactive attachment disorder?"

I am not vulnerable.

"Like any child who has suffered an ordeal, Liam is fearful, sad and moderately irritable. He fails to smile. He doesn't seek consolation and shows little response when receiving comfort. You'll never find him seeking support or guidance, and he has no interest in engaging or social interaction or any interactive games rather."

Loving couples that already had children claimed they wanted to help me; however, those kids do not like me—believe I am going to steal their parents and cause problems, so they deliberately antagonise me and purposefully ensure my departure.

My foster parents never believed me.

My foster parents favoured their children.

My foster parents packed my suitcase.

My foster parents send me back.

I am ten years old now.

"There's great concern over Liam's wellbeing. Institutionalisation harms his physical, emotional and psychological development. Enough is enough," the caseworker stressed, addressing another co-worker. "We need to work towards a long-term process of deinstitutionalisation. I mean, has there been any development? Does he communicate with other children on his wing?"

The plump receptionist tossed me a hard-boiled mint over the monitor, and I unwrapped it and mouthed 'Thank you.'

"Liam likes music," the male social worker said, and I inwardly agreed. "He's shown an enthusiastic interest in cars, reading and fine motor skills. I have noticed how good he is with his hands, grafting and creatively pensive. He most certainly sets high standards among his peers. From my standpoint, yes, Liam's dour and uncommunicative and he's patently unsettled by loving absence, but that young man is an academic prodigy in the making. If you came to me in ten years and said Liam is unsuccessful, I will sell my backside."

"We should be careful what we discuss while he's sitting out there," she said. "He mightn't understand, but it's not worth risking."

I understood every word.

It's my birthday in two weeks; I am almost twelve years old.

I sit on the blue chair, and my feet touch the floor.

I started growing hair in my armpits, jaw and across my groin.

Speaking of groins—that muscle between my legs certainly got bigger over the last few months. One of the girls at the centre touched my shoulder last week, and that deceitful asswipe inconveniently came to life. It had a mind of its own. I wake up in the morning with a painful stick tenting my boxer briefs. It's quite embarrassing considering I share a room with eighteen other lads. I call it the "cup and duck" method. It entails me wading between metal bunk beds with a cushion over my dick, duck into the bathroom and stare down at the rod determined to gain attention. I didn't know a-stroke-here-and-a-stroke-there resulted in toe-curling euphoria. The white shit that flew out the other end disgusted me until I discerned I actually liked how good it felt.

A lad sat in the courtyard one morning, asking the other kids if they'd heard of masturbation. I was more than inclined to find my voice and tell them I did it all the time. I cannot differentiate whether I'd stunned them with my crass admittance or the fact I spoke for the first time made them speechless.

"Liam's twelve in two weeks," the ageing social worker said. "I am sure a permanent residence will be the best birthday gift."

I typically slump in this chair, admire the watercolour canvases on the stark white walls, count the green floor tiles and initiate the plump receptionist with my annoying tongue clicking—I know these visits never end well, so sneakily tuning into private conversations become cumbersome. Today, though, I sensed it was different. I leant forward, elbows to my knees, glimpsed through the cracked door and studied the middle-aged couple facing the caseworkers' desk.

Gillian and Trevor.

They didn't have children.

They owned an old-fashioned farmhouse.

"Trevor's always wanted a little boy," Gillian explained, tenderly touching her husband's shoulder. "Someone to assist with the animals and wheat fields."

The plump receptionist offered me a promising smile, and I gave her a disgruntled look.

'You'll be fine,' she mouthed.

"We'd love to offer Liam a forever loving home," said Trevor, smiling fondly at the caseworker. "God knows he deserves a little light in his life."

I'd stopped caring for families a long time ago. That day, though, I hadn't entirely hidden my soaring appreciation. I was leaving the system again, going to a nice couple where they'd promised baking days and a private bedroom.

I hugged the receptionist, and everyone seemed taken aback by my sentiments.

I packed my backpack with minimal belongings and prayed I'd never return to those precariously assembled bunk beds and fractured ceilings again.

In the juxtaposition of eerie woodlands and scenic cornfields, an idyllic farmhouse hunkered down behind cobbled walls and tussocks of tawny grass. According to Gillian, her grandfather built the house back in the 1950s, and the fighter jet pilots utilised the vast acres as a landing strip from time-to-time.

Gillian baked cookies and homemade pies. She also deafened me with her inharmonious vocal cords when sprucing at six o'clock in the morning.

After two weeks, Trevor taught me how to drive the tractor, but I wasn't permitted to use it unless he was with me. I had to earn my keep, he told me. The man handed me a toolbox and ordered me to fix the shed. I didn't mind, though. It was a scorcher of a day, and the blazing sun guaranteed a tan. I nailed planks onto the weather-beaten storage shelter, overheard Trevor arguing with Gillian in the kitchen. Her painful screams shortly followed. I knew he'd beaten her before, heard it when trying to sleep at night.

"Bitch," he mumbled, falling out the back door, beer bottle in hand. "Fucking useless." His knuckles were battered and bruised, and her blood marked his grey wife-beater.

I tossed the hammer into the rusted toolbox, wiped my hands with a damp cloth and feigned thirstiness.

In the kitchen, Gillian scraped potatoes in the sink, her split lips wobbling, tears leaking from her blemished eyes.

I almost asked if she was okay, but then remembered not to talk.

"Don't judge me," she said, dousing carrots with cold tap water. "It's none of your business, Liam."

I closed the fridge door after retrieving bottled water.

I returned to fields to finish my chores.

I showered that night.

I heard Trevor and Gillian laughing around the dinner table.

Shutting my bedroom door, I towel dried, winced as the rough cotton irritated sunburn, pulled on a grey tracksuit and fell into bed, felt the sunset illuminate through the window and dance on my face. When the door opened hours later, I laid motionless, wondering why Gillian insisted on checking I slept at night.

The door closed—the lock clicked into place.

The duvet lifted—the bed dipped.

I smelt sweat and alcohol as Trevor slipped his hand around my waist.

I must've been pretty hench for a twelve-year-old because the second his fingers dipped under my waistband; I summoned the strength to fight back. Trevor hadn't foreseen or anticipated my cruel blows. I beat the fucking shit out of him while Gillian pleaded with me to stop.

"I am calling your caseworker," she'd yelled at me, pathetically assisting her alcoholic, wife-beating husband. "No wonder everybody sends you away—you disgusting animal."

Jaw aching from Trevor's iron fist, I snatched my backpack and stumbled out of the bedroom, hearing Gillian shriek down the phone. I had less than ten minutes before authorities arrived.

I unlocked the backdoor.

I stole Trevor's pushbike.

I pedalled for hours beneath the starless sky with only the moon as my witness. For a young lad, you'd presume those dark corners and unknowingness would terrify me. It had the opposite effect. I felt safe—free. I welcomed the cold winds and unseeing adventure.

My bike journey lasted eight days with frequent pit stops to pilfer food from twenty-four-hour service stations, or to catch some shut-eye behind obscured overgrowth.

It was the day I found the big city—London. I smelt worse than a homeless person, and my feet had sore blisters, but when I stopped to admire the monumental buildings, I knew I was home.

I waited until nightfall, dragged my pushbike down the muddy bank, rested the handles against the moss-covered boulders and stripped the clothes from my body. I waded into the River Thames, scrubbed sweat from my skin and pores, listened to omnipresent cars flying across the Tower Bridge.

All I had in life was the clothes on my back and comforting thoughts.

Eating was straightforward and unproblematic. I might've been destitute, but those security guards covering corner stores hadn't deemed I was a threat. I'd even smile while entering through the main door, select my favourite goods, slip them in my pocket and be on my way. Sure, I sat opposite restaurants on occasion and imagined how good those spaghetti dishes tasted, or I'd linger near a burger van, inhaling pleasant meat aromas permeating the air, wanting to devour a hot dog.

Nonetheless, life treated me well. Days rolled into weeks, and weeks rolled into months. I found shelter at night, avoided blue coats like the plague to be sure authorities didn't discern I was a runaway child and haul me back to the system—another hindrance and unwanted, problematic number.

Living freely and taking care of myself gave me a sense of fulfilment or so I thought until the dynamics drastically changed for me.

It was the day I met Bill.

"If ye listen carefully now, ye will hear," a throaty voice echoed, and I stopped in my tracks, eyes darting across commuters. "This could be the first trumpet. Might as well be the last. Many more will have to suffer. Many more will have to die."

I backtracked, towing the bike with me. I followed the guitarist, the vocalist, dodged pedestrians and turned the street corner. Outside the Underground station in Victoria, a freakishly tall man with bum length dreads that he unquestionably dyed blond, strums a guitar, covers a familiar Bob Marley song. Judging by his appearance, it's safe to assume he's more than an enthusiast. His brown leather coat stops at the ankles, gold tooth glimmers against the sun's rays, silver chains dangling from his neck. He was the darkest shade of brown and, although he had an exceptional voice and the locals seemed to love him and the live entertainment, I could smell his stench from here. I eyed his split boots, belatedly realising the man's homeless—just like me.

Resting my pushbike against the railing, I sat on the bench, tore through a bag of peanuts, wasted the day away, listened as he poured his heart out to the streets of London.

I returned daily, parked the bike, opened snacks, venerated him from afar.

Bill sang the same songs, cracked the same jokes.

Straphangers dropped cash into his case.

Bill bellowed appreciation. "I can buy some lunch," he said, winking at the older female. "And maybe a pint."

Amused, I scarfed nuts, chewed in silence.

"Don't ask me why," he sang, swaying his shoulders. "Things aren't the way they used to be." His rough voice amazed me. "I won't tell no lie."

I admired his work ethic.

I admired his jubilance under distressing circumstances.

The following day, I peddled back to Victoria, claimed my spot on the bench, waited for the live show—gone. I sat taller, scoured the area, searched for the man with dreads. Odd, I thought, shoulders drooping glumly. He was my favourite pastime.

"Where did ye come from?" A husky voice asked, and I jumped out of my skin. "Ye always out here, sittin' by yourself, piggin' on those damn nuts." Bill rounded the bench, loomed over me. He lifted his sunglasses, perched them atop his head. "Why?"

I felt star-struck. "You noticed me?" I asked quietly, sinking back, putting space between us. "Why?"

"Why did I notice a lad watchin' me play every day for the last eight weeks?" he mused, scratching his chin. "Let me consider the question for a moment to see if I can point out the obvious."

He had a strong accent. It made me smile. "I like your music."

"Aye," he agreed, nodding. "I like my music, too."

I opened my tight fist, offered him some peanuts. "Do you want some?"

His eyes lingered on my dirty palm. "What about a ma?"

"I don't got a mother," I admitted, gnawing my lower lip. "Look, do you wanna eat or not?"

"What about a father, then? Do ye got one of those?"

Crimson flooded my cheeks. "I don't know."

"Ye don't know?" he repeated, flabbergasted. "I guess some bastard just shit ye out, huh?"

"Something like that," I half-agree, not quite understanding his logic. "I never met him before—"

"What's ye name?" His face inched in, millimetres from mine, assessing me. "I assume ye got one of those?"

"Liam," I whispered, ignoring the cider stench on his breath. "Liam Warren."

"Warren," he emphasised, eyebrows curling into a stern frown. Something indecipherable flickered in his dark eyes. "The name is Bill. Tell me, Warren. Why are ye always alone?"

I studied him intently. "I got dealt shit cards, I guess."

Hiking his guitar strap over one shoulder, he breathed out a tired sigh. "Well, I think ye need to come with me. What do ye say?" He walked off, believing I'd follow. "I am hungry, Liam. Hurry up."

Decidedly nonplussed, I seized the handlebars and did the inconceivable; I followed Bill. The man was Jamaican, which explained his accent, but he moved to the United Kingdom at just eighteen-years-old to join the royal navy. "I studied at the Naval College," he told me. "Boarded my first warfare ship at twenty-two. I travelled all around the world." Ambling around a street corner, he led me toward an abandoned, derelict building where squatters rested with their carrier bags and unkempt dogs. "Everyone is harmless, especially with me keepin' an eye on ye."

I nod, sitting on an alcohol-stained green sofa. Bill overturned a steel bin, tore newspaper, and generated a small fire. "Ye should sleep, Liam." Sitting on a metal crane, he removed his leather gloves, balanced them on his knee. "I'll find us somewhere better tomorrow."

Cautiously curling up on the sofa, I closed my eyes, falling asleep to Bill strumming his guitar, singing Bob Marley's Redemption Song.

I wasn't alone anymore.

Bill took me under his wing, demonstrated the tricks-of-the-trade, and taught me how to survive. "Ye never get greedy," he warned one morning, tossing me a premade sandwich. "Only rob essentials. And don't steal from the decent folk, Liam. They don't deserve it. Target the big chains, money grabbers. Ye know?"

"Sure, Bill," I said, biting into chicken and mayo. "I hear you."

He maintained his spot at Victoria, earned enough pounds to buy his cider fix. "Why didn't child service help ye out?"

My Adam's apple shifted. "Where do you think I've been?" I asked, licking seasoning from my lips. "They don't help kids like me. They chuck us with all these different families who then decide they don't want you anymore. I ran from the last place," I admit, omitting Trevor sneaking into my bed that night. "I was tired, Bill. If I went back, it'd start all over again—I wanted freedom."

"Aye," he agrees, nodding in reflective thought. "Well, it's a good job ye found me, then. Ye can be free with me, Liam."

Bill said living on the streets was tedious, not to mention dangerous. For two weeks, he thumbed abandoned properties, ones with unsold or unrented placards on the metal gates and eventually found an old shed, staked claim. The timber four walls were unprepossessing but accommodating. Previous tenants left old paint tins, garden tools, smashed gnomes and forgotten memorabilia.

"I earned some extra dollar this afternoon." He closed the rickety door, shaking rain droplets from his hair. "Ye gonna be very happy, Liam."

I kicked the sleeping bag from my legs, stood, scratched my care chest. "What did you get, Bill." Over the last two years, I've grown exceptionally. I am taller than him and filled out in areas. My voice dropped to a deep level, and it's safe to admit that I love morning-glory when he makes himself scarce. It's become a ritual. I whack one-off before clambering off the makeshift bed on the floor—and don't even start me on girls. Yeah, I am pretty stoked out about those sleek legs and miniskirts this summer. Fucking. Damn. I mean, from a young age, I recognised that I had an interest in girls with pretty eyes. Now, though, I am fundamentally aware of the opposite sex and the possible fun we could share. Girls don't look at me, though—not the way I do them. "What's that smell?"

Bill unwrapped newspaper, gesturing to battered fish and chips. "Tell me. I did well, huh?"

My stomach growled. "You've been banging on about this since I met you."

Passing me a plastic fork and ketchup sachet, he delved into his food with gusto, eyes rolling heavenward. "I love fish and chips."

I forked some batter in my mouth, taste buds approving. "Damn," I said, licking salt from my lips. "I'll want one of these bad boys every night, now."

"What?" He all but shrieked. "Man, how ye ain't sampled fish before? That shit ain't right."

I made a noncommittal noise.

The same night, Bill roused me from sleep, whispering departure. Groggily, I sat up, yawning, stretching my arms. "What's going on?"

He packed our backpacks, locked his guitar case. "Tenants," he mumbled, pointing toward the house. "Late night move, Liam. We gotta go."

I loomed near the door, watched a young couple unpack their car, and convey cardboard boxes indoors. "This sucks," I groaned, rubbing sleep from my eyes. "I like it here."

We trekked until sunrise, bike in hand, bags on our backs. Bill told me to bum some extra cash that morning, and then he returned to a bustling Victoria to play the guitar.

I dumped my pushbike, prying and prowling busy shopping centres, pondering ways to obtain money. For some unknown reason, I couldn't muster courage and beg people for a few quid. It felt degrading, embarrassing. Instead, I spotted a woman perched beneath a symbolic sculpture, phone to her ear, designer handbag at her feet. She gave me a warm smile as I strolled past, hadn't foreseen my wicked intentions—I snatched the bag handle and ran like a madman, hearing her yell for security as I bolted out the revolving doors.

Fuck, I don't think I'd even run so fast in my life. Adrenaline invaded my trembling limbs, powering me to surge ahead and not look back. By the time I reached my bike, sweat had doused my grey hoodie, and my heart almost collapsed. I peddled into the distance, hoping the contents consisted of more than perfume and cosmetics.

I abandoned the main road, rubber wheels snapping falling leaves and branches, and waded through dense, leafless trees and woodland propinquity.

"Holy shit," I breathed, pushbike shrieking on break, legs wobbling, jittery. Flailing and hyperventilating, I shoved aside the handlebars into the miry marsh ground, staggered toward the light, came to an abrupt stop—miniature waterfalls rivulet between treacherous mountainous terrains and grey rocks, joining the ornamental lake.

Jaw slackening, I yanked off my hoodie, waded into the cool water, tilting my head back in a euphoric haze. When I opened my eyes, I located a trilateral fissure penetrating the hillside. I breaststroke through heavenly bliss, pulled my body onto the embankment and scoured inside those stone walls.

"This is a gem," Bill said hours later, assembling fire necessities. "How did ye find this place?"

I swam until my muscles ached, emptied the handbag and dumped—after hiding eighty quid in my sock, of course. "I was bored," I lied, swigging from a lemonade can I purchased before meeting up with Bill. "Heard the water and ventured."

Bill wears shorts; clothes washed, slapped against the rocks to dry. "The Thames." He unscrews a cider flagon, drinks thirstily. "It unites many rivers. Tell me, Liam. Did ye manage to get some cash?"

I nod, peeled a twenty-pound note from my sock; I'll give him the rest in doses, so he doesn't become suspicious. "Some guy at the service station gave it to me."

"Well done, Lad." Folding the money, he stuffed it in his guitar case alongside his earnings. "I'll try and get ye a new hoodie and trunks this week. Ye are too big for that tracksuit. I'm savin' those pounds for trainers too, replace ye old ones."

Darkness befell on our serene horizon. Bill mastered a fire, even caught a trout from the river, and knocked together a decent meal. He was oddly quiet this evening, eyes focused on the starry sky, guitar untouched.

"You okay, Bill?" I asked, rolling out my sleeping bag. "You look a little lost."

"I been thinkin'," he said, and the hesitancy in his tone has my spine straightening. "It's no life for ye, Liam. All this movin' around, beggin' for leftovers and scraps from the common folk. I mean, did somethin' bad happen to ye while in the system? Is that why ye don't wanna go back? It's still a warm bed at night and decent fodder in ye stomach, right? Ye fourteen, lad. Survive another year, reach the legal requirement and the government will set ye up somewhere; a nice one-bedroom flat or bedsit. They'll give ye money, too, until ye get a well-paid job. Who knows? Ye might be able to work part-time and go to college and stuff and get a degree and sit in one of those top-notch offices someday."

I remained quiet, tears brimming my eyes. I knew his attentiveness was too good to be true. Bill doesn't want me—just like everybody else. "What did I do?" I asked, and he looked at me. "I didn't ask to be in this world, Bill. I didn't ask to fall into the hands of unloving parents. I didn't ask to grow up in the system, to be flung from family to family, wing to fucking wing." I stood, wiping a loan tear from my cheek. "I didn't ask for any of this!" I snapped, kicking his cider bottle into the lake. "Yet here I fucking am, clinging to a good for nothing homeless bum, so I don't have to sleep alone at night..." His eyes rounded, and I immediately regretted my cruel words. "I'm sorry," I whispered, knot shifting in my throat. "I didn't mean that, Bill. I am just..." Angry, sad, hurt. "I love you. You're the first person who treated me like I'm not some worthless burden..." Until tonight, I thought. "Don't worry, Bill. I should be thanking you for tolerating me for so long." I pulled on my hoodie, snatched my backpack. "I ain't going back to Briar House, though, Bill. You're right. One more year on these godforsaken streets and I'll get something stellar—"

"Don't do that," Bill scolds, seizing my wrist. "Ye took me incorrectly, Liam. It's not because I don't care about ye. If anythin', I care too much. I just feel for ye, lad. Ye don't deserve to live like this."

I didn't understand Bill's pained expression or why he looked conflicted when studying those still waters, but only weeks would pass before he'd sit me down one night and revisit our previous dispute.

"Where the hell have ye been?" Bill reprimands, half-cut, blundering out the cave. "I have been worried sick about ye, Liam! Ye left before the crack of dawn and didn't come home until the fuckin' moon bastard taunts me."

I like to watch people, I thought, utilising the river boulders to reach him. "I found another family," I said, and he rolled his eyes. "What? I don't talk to them. I just watch them interact and stuff."

"That's not crazy at all. Ye fuckin' batshit crazy, aye." He scoffed, pointing to the fire. "Park ye bottom, lad. I got somethin' to show ye."

Laughing, I slung my backpack aside, warmed up by the fire.

Bill reappears, hiding something behind his back. "Ye need to close ye eyes," he warned, and I reluctantly obliged. "And don't be peekin' or I'll slap ye."

I groaned, hearing him shuffle beside me. "You know I'm bigger than you, right?"

"Ain't too big for a slap," he said, his knee nudging mine as he sat down. "And quit gettin' chopsy; I don't like it." I heard a click. "Okay, lad. Ye can open ye eyes."

I slowly peeled my eyes open, watching the single flame flicker.

"Happy fifteenth birthday," he said, draping an arm around my shoulder. "My boy." I welded my tongue to my inner cheek. "Well, go ahead. Blow out the candle and make a wish."

I am paralysed. "You got me a birthday cake?"

"It's a cupcake," he corrects, and I cracked a lopsided grin. "Don't be makin' me cry, Liam. Just blow out the damn candle and make a wish."

He remembered my birthday. I leaned forward, whispered a wish across the flame, and asked the stars to keep us together. "Thank you, Bill." I removed the candle, sank my teeth into chocolate frosting. "Do you want to share?"

"Not after ye lapped it up like that," he joked. "So, I wanted to clear somethin' up. Since we never talked about it afterwards. I guess what I'm tryin' to say is that I never meant to upset ye that night, Liam." The fire crackled, smouldering embers keeping us warm. "I'm gettin' side-tracked. What I wanna say is that ye the son I never had," he whispered, avoiding my intense gaze. "And I love ye, my boy. I need ye to know that—forever."

My fifteenth birthday was one I'd never forget.

Bill told me he loved me.

Bill told me I was his son.

"It's not warm when she's away."

I heard Bill's husky singing, craned my neck and searched for him beyond the cave. Unscrambling myself from the sleeping bag, stretching my arms, I joined him outdoors, listened to his smooth vocals, contemporaneously harmonised with the waterfall cascade.

"Ain't no sunshine when she's gone. And she's always gone too long," he husked, fingers deftly strumming the guitar strings. "Anytime she goes away..."

"You're playing that song a lot recently, Bill," I said, hiking my knees, resting back on my elbows. "Why?"

"Mind ye business," he retorts, more cantankerous than usual.

My eyebrows met my hairline. "Someone's moody this morning." His glumness taunted my apprehensions. "What's wrong, Bill?"

He set his guitar to the floor, a slight tremble in his hand. "Bill got somethin' to tell ye, my boy."

I knew it was bad—felt it to the bone.

"Ye will be sixteen in seven months," he reminds me, chewing his thumbnail. "I guess ye came a long way from that little boy I found on the bench that day..." He hollowed his cheeks on a low inhale. "Bill's gonna die, Liam. The doctor said, I ain't seein' four months."

"Doctor?" I whispered, throat tightening. "What, doctor? You didn't tell me about no doctor. I don't understand—"

"Don't panic, Liam," he interjects, failing to mollify my anxieties. "It's all good. I got it figured out."

My heart stopped beating. "Why are you sick?"

Bill mulled over my direct question. "Cancer is a bitch, huh?"

"No." My entire world came crashing down on me. "You can't have cancer." I staggered to my feet, thrusting a hand through my hair. "That's not fair! You can't leave me, Bill! I don't want to be alone again—can't live without you!"

"Let me tell ye somethin'," he berates, matching my stance. "Ye were put on this earth with goddamn nothin', but that doesn't define ye, Liam. Ye don't need somebody to hold ye hand. Ye are a smart boy, and ye will figure it out." He grabbed my head, thumbs kneading my temples. "Don't be worryin' about old Bill, alright? Ye gonna sort ye life out."

A tear trickled down my cheek. "I don't know how."

Kissing my knuckles, Bill snivelled, released me, snatched his bag and thumbed through. "It's a Colt Government," he said, revealing an old firearm. "Got it when I was in the Royal Navy." He placed the cold metal on my palm. "It is for ye now."

"What the fuck, Bill?" I shoved the gun back. "I don't want no damn pistol. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Listen to me," he yelled, and I wired my mouth shut. "Ye need to listen as I'm only gonna tell ye this once. There's a nice little gated community down in Kingston. Ye won't miss it, Liam. Nice houses, the better half. Ye will be scared, but ye can't back out. Number nineteen. Don't be forgettin' that number, Lad. It's important ye find the right one. The owner leaves a key under the mat. Ye might notice some surveillance and dog warnin' signs, but that's bravado. Take the key, grant entrance and go into the office. Don't ask me how I know all this—just pay attention. Nothin' strenuous nor complicated. The code to his safe is four zeros—very fuckin' original. I want ye to unlock the safe and take everythin', and don't be leavin' scraps behind, Liam. Ye gonna need that money."

I was disordered, nauseated. "I thought we didn't steal from decent folks."

"That didn't stop ye snatchin' that handbag, Liam."

Oh fuck. "How did you know?"

He popped an eyebrow. "Ye left the evidence in a bush over there."

I dragged a hand over my features. "You want me to break into some random person's house and steal their money?" I asked in disbelief. "What about the cops? I'll get caught."

A dangerous glint flared in his eyes. "Redeem yourself."

Numb, I nodded.

"I got one wish, and that's for ye to be the best version of yourself. Ye will use your pain, anger and resentment to become a man." He carefully slid the gun into my bag. "If ye want somethin' bad enough, then ye take it. Don't accept nothin' but the best, Liam."

"Why do I need a gun?"

"Maybe ye won't." He shrugged. "But I get the feelin' ye will."

After that night, everything changed. Bill wanted to live the remainder of his life near the river, where he took great pleasure, reminding me what a lousy fisherman I was. He grew sombre, weak, tired. He stopped rousing and travelling to Victoria to play his guitar. I had to venture far to obtain extra supplies, and I upped the ante with pilfering. Each time I ran with a handbag or stole notes from someone withdrawing from a cashpoint, I became more and more indifferent, careless, withdrawn and unsympathetic.

The only person I've ever loved painfully deteriorated before my eyes. Bill sleeps a lot. He doesn't eat much anymore, either. I wish I knew how to play that guitar—I sensed he missed his music.

An owl glided above, wings murmuring upon darkness. I laid beside the fire, warm-skinned yet cold inside. I counted the stars through temporary vision impairment. "Bill," I whispered, knowing he wouldn't answer. "I am glad I found you." Daunting silence stretched between us. I tilted my head, looked at his back, noted his protruding spine, penetrating his dark yet translucent looking skin. "I'm going to miss you."

I hunkered forward, a sob ripping from my chest. I buried my head buried in my hands and mourned the man who gave me a chance in life—a man who gave me a reason to breathe and get up in the morning.

Immense grief sank deep to my core, chest tightening, constricting, heart aching to the point I couldn't catch my breath. I stood then, wiped my face, snagged and unzipped my sleeping bag, draped it over his lifeless body—I screamed, startling the birds, scattering, dispersing them across the overgrown woodlands. "I'll never forget," I sobbed, fisting my hair, tugging roots. "Never."

I peddled in slow-motion, witnessing the world go by, replaying the last few years in my mind—every laugh, every smile, every promised whisper. Upon travelling, I made another pit stop, bought myself a sandwich, rested against a wall, forced food in my stomach.

I'd never felt so alone like I did that night.

Uprooting Bill's gloves, I wiggled my fingers into the leather, found the key under the mat and unlocked the door. Greeted by luxurious furnishings, rich carpets, crystal chandeliers and marble floors, I admire the vast foyer, glanced at the wall-mounted portraits—a family. Husband and wife. Two daughters. Guilt struck my chest, and I almost backed out... "Fuck."

I individually crept doors open until I located the office. Glimpsing over my shoulder to ensure nobody was around, I entered, put the door ajar, eyed the four walls. I examined the large painting, curled my fingers around the gilded frame, and revealed the hidden safe.

How the fuck did Bill know all this?

I punched the code, hinges groaning, ducked my head, eyes widening. "Holy shit," I breathed, snagging wads of cash—pink. I don't think I've ever had the pleasure of seeing fifty-pound notes before. I daren't count these. I'll have a heart attack. While clumsily emptying the safe and filling my backpack, I knocked a vintage-looking box over, scattering jewellery and essential documentation on the floor. "Shit." I squat, toss the folders, steal the gold. I flipped open a passport, and light-headedness almost stole the air from my lungs.

Raymond Warren.

I scrutinised the mugshot.

Is this a coincidence? If so, why am I on the verge of vomiting?

I overturned an image. Bill stares back at me, his arm over another man's shoulder, the picturesque Caribbean island as their backdrop. "Brother from another mother," I read the penmanship, betrayed, confused, angry, hurt.

Nostrils flaring, I stood abruptly, rounded the desk, fired the laptop, roamed the internet.

Raymond (Ray) Warren, CEO of sales company, Telecomservices.co. Married to wife, Evelyn, two stepdaughters—I skimmed over unnecessary details, then paused—divorced. Previous wife, V. Jayne. "Come on," I complained, opening articles, hoping for more—anything more.

What more did I need, though?

It's evident why Bill sent me here—to Raymond's house. A man who was his friend? My alleged father? Or am I jumping to conclusions? Loads of people have similar surnames—the wife, though. The one he divorced. Could she be my mother? Do I care enough to find out?

Bill lied to me.

Why is life such a disappointment?

'No one wanted you, Liam," a tantalising voice hum in my ear. "You're just a nobody.'

'That's not true,' the softer voice rebuffed. 'You're better than this, Liam. You don't need to do something stupid. Leave everything and walk away.'

"No, my boy," Bill's throaty voice droned. 'Redeem yourself."

I carefully wrapped my hand around the gun, blood roaring in my ears, horripilation clinging to my searing flesh.

Raymond Warren left me to rot. He married another woman, left my mother behind, raised two girls that belonged to another man, lived amid affluence and lavishness.

He didn't want you.

Someone informed him of my mother's demise.

He still didn't want you.

You were put in the system.

He still didn't want you.

Bill's words repeated in my head.

"Maybe ye won't." He shrugged. "But I get the feelin' ye will."

Redeem yourself.

Become a man.

Rage took over my body; the demons in my head didn't need to tell me twice.

I opened the office door.

I ascended the stairs.

The floorboards groaned under my weight.

The darkness gave me peace.

I stepped into the master bedroom, roamed around the dominating four-poster king-sized bed, touched the silk coverlet with an investigatory hand, listening to their soft breathing, asleep, calm, peaceful, dreaming.

Raymond sensed an appearance, gingerly rolling onto his back, eyes widening in horror. "Wait," he whispers, dragging himself upright, hands raised in surrender. "Take whatever you want. Just don't hurt us."

He forced himself to remain stern, calm, unruffled, but his tone hitched, panic ablaze in his blue eyes—my eyes. We had the same colour eyes. "I emptied your safe," I said, and his Adam's apple jived. "You're a wealthy man, Ray."

"You're just a kid," he stressed, eyeing the gun in my hand. "Why would you throw your life away like this boy? Be sensible. I'll even help you."

He had no concept of who I was.

My eyes glazed over, and for a fleeting moment, emotional pain immobilised me. For years I watched families from afar, wishing my mother organised garden parties and picnics, wishing my father took me to those parks and taught me how to play football. Maybe I did jump to conclusions. Perhaps he wasn't aware of my existence.

Ray held my distressed gaze, witnessing my anguished melancholy. "Liam," he said, and my muscles tightened, fingers squeezing the firearm handle. "It can't be."

"Oh, Lord!" the wife shrieked, bolting upright, pink rollers skewed. "Who is that boy, Raymond? What is he doing in our house?"

"Shut the fuck up," I yelled, tersely aiming the gun in her direction. "Tell her to be quiet, or I shoot."

"Darling," he cooed, patting her thigh. "Please calm down. Stop crying." He flung me a long glare. "Son..."

"You left me to rot!" I snapped, shaking, his awareness awakening rage I hadn't known lived inside me. "You didn't care..."

He tried to stand but bristled when I jerked the pistol. "Son—"

"You don't get to call me that," I seethe, shoving the barrel onto his temple. "Tell me," I whisper, tasting salty tears on my lips. "You didn't know, Ray. You didn't know about me, right?"

The truth laid bare in his regretful eyes.

"You selfish bastard," I mumbled, wiping my cheeks, "My mother died—but you already know that, right? I had no family to step in, so I spent the last fifteen years in and out of the system. The last family to welcome me into their home ended no better, not after the alcoholic husband tried to make a move on me while I laid in bed one night—"

"I am calling the police," she shrieked, flinging over the covers.

And this bitch is getting on my nerves. I deterred the gun and pulled the trigger, bullet spearing into her chest. Raymond roared, his wife's lifeless body crumples onto the mattress, blood submerging her white nightgown.

I stopped breathing.

I couldn't think.

I killed someone.

I fucking killed someone.

"Liam," Ray bemoaned, his pain howling into the night. "You murdered my wife." He pulled her weightless body across his lap, striving to staunch blood loss. "You're the devil," he whispered grimly, eyeing me beneath thick, drawn eyebrows. "El Diablo."

"That I am," I said, suddenly calm, barrel pointed at his head. "Dad."

"—Bossman," Brad snapped, and my eyes flew open, a Jameson bottle slipping from my hand, shattering against the floor. "What, we sleep on the job now?" He crossed his arms, toothpick perched at the corner of his mouth. "You sick or something?"

"No." I rubbed a palm over my weary features. "Tired."

He sliced his eyes. "Who the fuck is Bill?"

I inwardly flinched. "How the hell should I know?"

"You said his name..."

I shook my head, playing it off. "Since when were you authorised to ask me questions?"

"Fair enough." He prepared to leave. "Just giving you an update. I secured Alexa's belongings with tracking devices. Now, I'm overdue some time off—not literally—but Cherry's waiting for me downstairs, so call me if you need anything. If not, I'd like to get my cock wet in peace."

I waited until he left, smiled to myself.

My eyes landed on the Tower Bridge painting, and nostalgia inflated my lungs. Opening the desk drawer, I reached for the old leather gloves, smoothed my thumb across faded grooves.

I voiced gratitude for divine redemption. "I never forgot, Bill."

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