REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Alexa

I survived an entire month working for Liam Warren. Excluding the Suits, everybody hates me. Okay, I am exaggerating. It's the women who hate me, loathe the sight of me. I've made no friends. Zero. Excluding the male barman, Josh. He seems pleasant and decent on the eye, so that's something.

Regarding my sister, I reached a stalemate. If I hadn't witnessed Kathy enter Club 11, in the past, I'd doubt whether she even worked there. I ransacked the changing room, searching for her belongings—discarded jewellery, makeup or cosmetics. She practically lived inside that building, so there must be traces she'd left behind, right? Wrong.

When on break, if the bar is quiet and the women stand around chin-wagging, I feign busy, preoccupied, tune into their conversations, ignore vulgarism and theatrical giggles, hoping one mentions Kathy. Nobody discusses her, yet she performed beside those people every day.

What am I missing here?

Since the majority of Club 11 is off-limits to lower ranks, I am unable to extend my investigation. I am in no safe position to question anyone, especially those ill-natured, rancorous women. In particular, Natalie and Cherry plan to corroborate their abhorrence, suspicion, circumspection, anticipating the second I unmask myself, so they can obsequiously run to our boss and crystalise my dismissal.

I became a team member under false pretences and verisimilitude. In saying that, I am not here to engender those scornful women or detrimentally prevail Liam. What he does in life is none of my business. As much as I adore my sister, if he uncovers the truth, it'll likely end badly for me.

My biggest problem, however, is Liam Warren himself.

God, why are you punishing me?

When that man makes an appearance, I spend most of my time studying the tiled floor so that he doesn't catch me drooling over him. He's agonisingly handsome and quite literally steals my breath away whenever we lock eyes. He seldom speaks to me. He's a temperamental asshole who objurgates anybody in his path, including his beloved Suits—those poor men. Considering his arrogance bouts and shameful pillories, I am still attracted to the incorrigible bastard. Hiding my ridiculous fascination is pointless. He knows I am somewhat obsessed. He's caught me perving and ineffectively ceases to laugh at my miserable expense.

Sometimes, the boss never leaves his office, spends the entire shift behind that steel door with his favourite Suits. Other times, he'll venture downstairs, engage with security, handle any riotous customer behaviour, help himself to a Jameson bottle from behind the bar, ask if I'm coping with customer demands—gone again. I think he's keeping me around because he feels sorry for me.

"Are you going to eat all that?" Chloe asked, chewing popcorn kernels.

"Uh, it's chocolate ice-cream." I scooped a spoonful in my mouth. "What do you think?"

"God, help your ass in the morning," she muttered, using the remote to change the television channel.

"That is disgusting." I rolled my eyes, handed her the bowl. I'm hardly going to finish eating it after that statement.

"How's the agent shit going?" She leaves a comedy on the box, switching between snacks and chugging beer. "Have you befriended anybody yet?"

"It's going nowhere. I haven't found anything on Kathy, and I don't think I will," I grumbled, resting my head on her shoulder. "What if I am wasting my time, Chloe? With each passing day, I feel less safe there." Liam's cautious for a reason: The Syndicate. Even if I hadn't learnt from Londoners what the Warren organisation entailed, I'd have uncovered crime eventually. It's palpable Club 11 only exists to mislead law enforcement.

"You can't give up, Hon." Chloe cracked open another beer. "Have you thought about asking Liam?"

I ponder questioning him every night. Even though my traitorous vagina seems to like Liam—my brain, the most complex yet loyal organ—stressed it's a bad idea. "All the time," I tell her, tucking hair behind my ear. "I'm scared to poke the bear. Liam and his men terrify me, Chloe. As opposed to misinformed bestiality theories, I haven't seen anything too shady—that's not to say everything is above board, either. The dancers are one hundred percent sleeping with customers for money. I mean, I knew they gave private sessions to clientele, but they definitely exchange cash for sexual favours. Then there are the drugs—"

"Drugs," she deadpans.

"Yes. Drugs, Chloe." I turned to face her, crossed my legs. "Twice a week, a lorry reverses into the alley, and the Suits convey large cranes to the cellar, leaving a faint trail of white substance on the floors. I am no drug expert, but I'm convinced it is cocaine—oh! And they own guns," I whisper-shouted as if someone could hear us gossiping in the vicinity of our squalid flat. "Real guns."

Chloe placed the ice cream onto the coffee table. "Guns?" she asked wry, curving an eyebrow at me. "Firearms are illegal, Alexa."

Does she think I'm not aware of this?

"Yes, Chloe. Guns," I enunciated, huffing. "I've seen them. This Nate guy, he came behind the bar to empty the till. He bent down, and I saw the handle poking out from the inside of his jacket." True story. "I was so bloody shocked. I'm sure he noticed my reaction, too. He procrastinated, like, he wanted to get into a conversation, but I continued serving customers, feigned dumb."

"Who's Nate?"

My chest deflated. "Why do you always ask the most irrelevant questions?" I climbed to my feet, headed to the kitchen for a drink.

Chloe isn't taking me seriously, and it's infuriating. She's not even trying to hide her boredom. "Okay." Her feet scuffed along the floorboards as she shadowed behind me. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me." She took the bottled water from my hands and swigged. "Please, finish your story."

"Two nights ago, I witnessed the Suits drag a protesting man behind the bar and into the cellar. Twenty minutes later, Liam joined them." A cold chill danced along my spine. "That man never resurfaced. I'm certain that Liam murders people down there, and then the Suits are left to dismantle body parts."

She gave me a scathing laugh. "And what do you suppose Liam is doing with all these bodies?"

"How the fuck should I know?" I smiled impishly. "It's not the first time I've witnessed them haul someone downstairs. It's déjà vu every time. Those people never come back, Chloe. Once dragged away—that's the end of the road for them. Gone."

"Oh, come on, Alexa." She drew in a sharp breath. "You're paranoid."

"Paranoid? You've heard the rumours, Chloe. I know you have, so stop mugging me off. I'm serious. Club 11 is corrupt to shit, and so are the people working there." My eyes become wet. "So, the answer to your original question is no. I'll not be asking Liam if he knows where Kathy is as I'm starting to consider if he's the reason behind her disappearance."

"Hon, please don't get upset. I'm sorry, okay. You're right. I have heard the rumours about that man." She dipped her head, encouraging me to look her in the eyes. "Alexa, I don't want you getting roped in. If you witness anything untoward, turn a blind eye and look the other way. It's none of your business."

"I know," I whispered.

"Where Kathy is concerned, if you genuinely believe asking Liam outright is impossible, keep doing what you're doing and stay vigilant. If you don't get the answers you're looking for, walk away from that place and never look back."

Chloe's right, I'm there for one reason. My sister.

"Do you honestly think he might have..." Pallid, she visibly swallowed. "Do you believe Liam's the reason Kathy hasn't come home?"

There's an unspoken question lingering between—is my sister alive.

"I don't know for sure," I said grimly, chewing my thumbnail. "I'm starting to consider possibilities, though."

"It doesn't make any sense." She lifted herself onto the counter, legs dangling. "Does he seem to be missing his estranged girlfriend?"

Disbelieving laughter vibrated in my chest. "Liam Warren looks like the type of man who's never even dated, let alone commit himself to a significant other. I mean, I'm not saying Kathy misled us. Maybe she honestly thought their relationship was serious, but I don't think the feeling was mutual between them. He's not a grieving man. If anything, he's overcompensating with the dancers."

"You think the love was a fabrication of the truth," she says assuredly.

"Maybe? I don't believe Liam misses her. He's moved on pretty quickly. Those dancers are in and out of his office all damn day." I decided to face the elephant in the room. "I got this nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach that Liam...He might be behind Kathy's disappearance. What if she's not just missing Chloe...?"

Her eyes rounded. "You think she might be dead?"

"I don't want to consider the concept, but I'd be lying if I said it hadn't crossed my mind."

"Let's not think like that," she said, and I nod. "Let's imagine Kathy's fine, and she had reasons for leaving. She might've had a sexual relationship with Liam, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's the reason she's gone."

"You're right." I filled the sink with warm water, began washing the dishes. "I'll keep plodding along until I find something."

Kathy worked at the club full-time.

Somebody knows what happened to my sister.

I'm not giving up until I find out.

***

I received a phone call from Brad asking if I'd be inclined to work a double shift—extra pay. Two people had called in sick, which meant the bar was understaffed, so Josh and I were his first choice.

Even though I was a grump on arrival, I'm glad I'd agreed to extended hours. The ambience in the club had a much better feel. "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke plays, but the music is a helluva lot quieter than usual. No exotic dancers in cages. No swinging breasts. No twerking backsides and hardly any customers. Saving the best until last—drumroll please—Cherry and Natalie have left the building people.

It's beyond tranquil. "I love it."

The bar opened at ten a.m., and customers can order food from midday. Afternoon lunch was news to me. I had no idea there was a kitchen here, or the club metamorphosed into a restaurant by day.

The menu looks so delicious, extortionately priced, but delicious. With each passing plate leaving the kitchen, I find my eyes following, mouth salivating, nose twitching to the heady smells of vibrant meals and infused meats.

"I hate these blurred lines," I sing, lifting a crane of steamed glasses onto the bar. "I know you want it. But you're a good girl..." Brad, modelling a royal blue suit, stares back at me. "Have I done something wrong?"

"Are you a good girl, though?" he asks, positioning his hands onto the glass bar top. "That's what I need to know."

I blinked. "Yes..." He lifted his left brow, so I raised my right one. "No?"

"So, you admit this," he wildly gesticulated to my face, "purity about you is façade."

Confused, I cocked my head to the side. "What exactly are you asking me?"

"Okay." He leans closer, lowering his voice. "So, everybody needs to know if you're a virgin."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "You mean, you need to know."

He shrugged. "Same horse."

"Not that it's any of your business," I said, stacking the glasses. "No, I'm not—do I give off a vibe or something? That's the second time someone's asked me. Are there bold black letters plastered to my forehead? Alexa is dryer than a nun. It's ridiculous."

"Who else asked you?" he asked, a ghost of a smile dancing in his lips.

Our Boss. "Some random guy."

His look was sharp. "Where's Josh?"

"Is that the real reason you approached me?"

"Yeah." He beamed. "I got distracted."

"Any chance for some service?" a customer probed, motioning to his table. "The same round?"

"Give me a second." Remembering his previous order, I lifted two tumblers onto the bar, added ice and fresh fruits. "Uh, Josh was clearing tables down the back." I tapped the guy's order into the till. "Some young lads left it in a right state..."

Brad walks off to find Josh without a second glance. Honestly, what is it with this place? Everybody lacks necessary social skills, for example, manners.

I carried the cocktails to the customer, handed him and his date a menu and returned to the bar.

"How do you like days at the club?" Josh appeared at my side, folding his arms.

I like Josh. He's the barman that served Chloe and me alcohol the first time we came here. As I haven't made any friends, I've pretty much leached onto the poor sod. I don't think he minds, though. If anything, he enjoys the company. "I'm impressed. Is Mr Warren here now? I might see if I can switch altogether."

"No, he's at the restaurant with Nate today," he informs me while texting on his phone. "Besides, I wouldn't ask. Warren doesn't appreciate people messing with the rota. If he placed you on nights, then on nights, is where you stay."

"Well, we both work nights, and we're here now. So, what's the problem?"

"We're working now because that's what suited him. If he places you on nights? It's because that also suited him—end of."

My nose wrinkled. "I don't like that philosophy."

"Neither do I." He lifted a menu, briefly browsed the price list. "Are you hungry?"

"I'm starving." My stomach hasn't stopped grumbling since the first plate fled the kitchen. "Do you think Brad will let us slip out while it's quiet?"

"I already checked with Brad before coming over." He tossed his keys to another employee before saying, "Come on, Alexa. Let's find a feast."

***

Josh and I found a small café off one of the side streets near the club. With barely any customers, we had a variety of bistro tables to select. I liked the window spot, so I pulled out a white, wicker chair and became seated.

"What do you want?" Josh faffed with his brown hair for the tenth time since we walked in—which was precisely ten seconds ago. "I'm paying."

"I'll have a coffee and panini..." He's gone before I can add a salad bowl to the list.

As he's at the till flirting with the waitress, I stare out the window, listening to his cringe-worthy attempt of charming off her knickers. And she says his name, confirming they know each other.

She's pretty—beautiful, actually, molten grey eyes, waist-length blonde hair, lips I'd sell my ass to own. "And her," she hisses.

My wide eyes lowered to the artificial plant on the table.

"Why are you so quick to pick a fight with me?" I heard him say, and my curiosity skyrocketed. "I'm tired of this fucking bullshit," he added bitterly before returning to the table.

Josh yanked the chair back with such force the legs created a piercing shriek.

My brows jumped to my hairline. "Are you okay?"

He managed a bogus smile. "Food won't belong."

My eyes went back to the counter. The blonde pretends Josh's presence doesn't bother her, serving an older gentleman coffee, laughing and joking. However, her little argument had struck a nerve. She's hardly holding back those tears.

I pouted, toying with an empty breadbasket. "Do you know her?"

Hurt flashed in those deep-set brown eyes. "Her name is Perri," Josh murmured behind a closed fist. "We attended high school together, dated for a while, but nothing came of it."

I'm genuinely intrigued. "Why not?"

"When we started going out, she'd be all over me. After a while, though, I noticed she only showed affection when we were alone. She refused to get to know my friends, too. It took her months to even speak to me when passing through school halls." He shook his head. "Truthfully, she'd make me look like a right tit."

Judging by the heat between these two, I'd say there's still something going on between them. "And?"

"Her attitude peeved me." He tossed the menu aside. "I like her," he admitted, pale cheeks darkening. "I used to love her."

I'd say he still does. "Is that why you chose this café? You were hoping to bump into her?"

The honesty in his eyes clarified my assumption. "Okay, so I'm going to share some truths with you. Perri and I still have a thing."

"A thing?" I deadpanned.

"Yeah, like, we text all the time, speak on the phone every night." He checks she's not listening. "We still fuck, you know. When I'm lucky to get her alone—spend time together." His forehead creased into a frown. "Oh, and she's married."

"Josh," I admonished him, jaw slackening. "Why the hell are you pursuing a married woman?"

"It should've been me," he spat. "Not him. It's meant to be us."

There's so much more to this tragic love story.

A different waitress appears, setting down our plates. Josh's burger is humongous, double stacked meats, overflowing fries and heaps of onion rings.

Will he eat everything that's on his plate?

Deflated and jealous, I stare at my half-baked bap, flick a chip.

"Do you want to try some of mine," he half-jokes, pointing to his food. "Your eyes haven't left my plate."

"No, it's yours. I'll be ordering that next time though." I sipped coffee, bite into the panini. It's surprisingly good. "So, Josh. How long have you worked at the club?"

"Uh, about six years, I think?" He smothers his burger in ketchup, teeth sinking into juicy goodness. Yep. I'm still jealous.

Josh isn't close to the Suits or Liam. He's a debatable information option. I mean, we're becoming friends, getting on relatively well... "Can I ask you something?" He looked up from his food, licked sauce from his lips. "Do you happen to remember a woman named Kathy? She worked at the club—back last year." Keep calm and unobvious, Alexa. "She was quite tall, dark hair and busty."

"Why?" He throws five chips in his mouth. "You related or something?"

My blood turned to ice. "No—"

"There was a girl named Kathy Pearl." His questioning eyes had my stomach sinking. "What's it to you, though?"

"I heard whispers one night is all." Alexa, you need to breathe. "Did you guys hang out or anything?"

"No," he scoffed, face wrenching in contempt. "Kathy Pearl was a manipulative bitch. I don't associate with trash like that."

I bite my tongue.

"Kathy was fucking Warren. Well..." He ebbed, and I grasped the accusation in his tone. "All the girls do at some point..."

"I am not sleeping with him if that's what you're thinking." I don't know where the defensiveness came from. Anyone with a pair of eyes can see I'm swooning over my boss.

"Shit. I'm sorry." He rubbed a hand over his stubble. "I didn't mean to insinuate you were one of them."

He had considered that I might be sleeping with Liam. I decided to drop the subject though and continued with lunch. "I am not one of them."

"Anyway, why are you so interested in Kathy?" He ingested his milkshake. "Do you know her or something?"

"I don't know her personally. I overheard Natalie tell one of the dancers that Kathy ran off or something, so I was curious."

"I can't speak for Warren and his main men, but us lower ranks? None of us could understand why Kathy just up and left." He dabbed his mouth with a napkin. "I mean, she loved working there."

"You're confident she ran away," I probed, fumbling with cutlery. "Nobody thinks something bad happened to her?"

He wrestled my question. "I don't think anyone cared, Alexa. As I said, she was a vindictive bitch. Nobody liked her."

I am unimpressed by his vocabulary. How can everyone think Kathy's a vindictive bitch? Yes, my sister's bold, brash and has a bit of temper. Okay, that's an understatement. Kathy tends to be a viper but only when merited.

My sister is a loving and compassionate soul. I'm not in any position to challenge Josh's opinion. It doesn't mean I believe him, though.

"Natalie said she was nice." I shrugged my lie. "I think she misses her."

Josh choked on his drink, beating his chest with a closed fist. "Are you fucking serious?" he gasped, his eyes wide, glassy. "Those women despised each other. I mean, everyone disliked Kathy Pearl. She didn't get on with anyone apart from the boss. Even Brad hated her—that should tell you something, considering Brad will fuck anything with a pair of tits. Kathy rubbed people up the wrong way—thought the world and its brother owed her something. Plus, she believed herself better than the other women when she was nothing but lowlife scum. I've yet to determine why Warren even hired her." He takes another bite of his burger. "I'm shocked Natalie said she missed her. Those two were serpents together. The amount of scraps they had is no one's business."

"Perhaps I misheard," I whispered, conceptualising his unclear bluster. "So much gossip in that place. It's hard to keep up."

"You're right about that." He flashed me a warm smile. "Why do you think I've latched onto you? You're the realist thing the boss has hired in years."

I don't particularly like that he referred to me as a "thing", but I'm pleased to hear he approves. "So, nobody understood why Kathy left. She loved working there—"

"Yeah, she was raking in cash. I'm talking big sterling."

"What do you mean 'raking in cash'? Was she having sex for money?" Please say he wasn't insinuating that.

"Hell yeah," he exaggerated with a high pitch chime. "The dancers only cater to one punter a night. Kathy had no hard limits."

I am baffled. Not once, during our early morning chats, did Kathy mention she did more than exotic dancing. Of course, she was bringing home a helluva lot of money, but I never questioned her earnings. Why would I? Excuse my ignorance, but I don't know how much stripers financially require. Never in a million years had I thought my sister was selling herself. It sickens me. After everything we endured, how could she so willingly allow men to use her body for cash?

My question is simple: why? Sure, we don't have much, but we live accordingly. I assumed life contended her. We suffered an ordeal, and when I was struggling, she told me to appreciate the life we'd survived, not mope around—others suffered much worse.

As I watch Josh, carefree and oblivious, eating his lunch, acidic bile ruptured in my throat. Kathy lied to me. She was money-hungry, sleeping with men to earn extra cash—while fucking her boss? I mean, Kathy had brandished good earnings but nothing spectacular. Liam romanticising with someone who had no hard limits with others is unfathomable.

"Between us, Kathy was Warren's preferred girl," Josh proceeds, but I'm too nauseous to hear anymore. "She was handing over that much cash at the end of her shifts."

Knowing Kathy was Liam's favourite had me inappropriately jealous. "Josh, do you think Liam had something to do with her disappearing?" I regretted the words the moment they left my mouth.

All amusement diminished. His eyes are cold, deadly. "Alexa don't ever ask questions like that, especially to anyone else at the club, got it?"

I focused on him. "Can I ask why?"

"Questions like that one..." His Adam's apple bopped up and down. "It'll get us both killed."

"Of course," I whisper, losing my appetite and setting my plate aside.

Unaffected by our chilling conversation, Josh continued scarfing down calories.

Suspecting someone scrutinising me with honed interest, I divert my gaze. Josh's friend, Perri, clears tables abreast ours, pretending not to listen or take notice of our lunch conversation.

I had a brainwave. I stood, rounded the table, dragging my fingernail across that tartan cloth.

Josh hadn't twigged until I set a hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong?" He frowns, unmindful to my wicked plan. "Alexa?"

No backing down, Alexa. I lowered myself onto him, straddled his thighs, snaked my arms around his neck. He became a wall of solid muscle, rigid and shocked. "Just roll with it," I murmured in his ear, trailing feather-light kisses to his jaw.

"Fucking hell, Alexa." His hands captured my hips. "You're unpredictable." His lips brushed mine, soft, gentle, unsure.

I tickled the back of his neck with my fingernails while he peppered my lips. An innocent kiss, if you may, enough to ruffle some feathers.

Someone cleared their throat. I stifled my victorious smile. Perri has decided to join us. "Would you like me to clear your plates?" She asked, on the brink of tears.

"If you would," I said, not letting Josh entertain her crocodile tears. I returned my attention to him, lips to the corner of his mouth, "Josh," I breathed, hearing the dishes chime behind me. "You smell so good."

The racketing plates continued. "I smell good." He was all smiles, nudging my nose with his.

Perri makes herself scarce. Josh's chest rattled with heavy laughter.

"What?" I asked, edging back to look at him.

"You smell so good," he imitated, eyebrows waggling. "Your dirty talk sucks."

I smacked his chest playfully. "Ten out of ten for effort, Alexa."

He rolled his eyes, helped me stand. "I feel bad."

"Maybe, seeing you with someone else was the kick up the backside she needed, Josh. She's married and messing with your emotions." I zipped up my coat, beelining the exit. "She had to make a decision eventually."

Josh shadowed me outside. "So, if you want to do that again..."

"What?" We broke into a steady pace back to the club. "That act was to piss off your lady friend. I'm not interested in dating." I daren't tell him, I have a mega crush on our boss, so the thought of another man doesn't appeal to me.

"If your little stunt worked?" He throws an arm over my shoulder. "I'm buying you dinner."

"Asshole." I scoffed. "You're still buying dinner for my efforts."

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