SACRIFICE (Book Two: The London Crime King)

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Chapter 14

Liam

I am standing in the queue at the Coffee House, muting rushing commuters and dramatic conversationalists. Glimpsing at the time on my wristwatch, I stepped forward, sighed in frustration, too impatient for the over-talkative barista and lonely customers who seemingly have nothing better to do than discuss roasted beans.

On impulse, I looked around. Alexa’s not here, but I scoured regardless. I seldom visited the Coffee House when she laboriously occupied those machines or worked those tables for minimum wage. Her employment status infuriated me. I hated those long hours and demanding shifts—hated how she chose to be here, instead of returning to the club and earning a decent wage. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t frown upon common occupations. I did, however, repudiate her slaving away for a pittance.

Alexa deserved more, so much more.

Irrelevant to her stubborn tendencies and my blatant disapproval, I should’ve visited more.

Why didn’t I make an effort? I could have checked in from time-to-time, ordered a beverage and sat in one of those corner booths. I could have watched her work, or waited until she took a break and ordered us a late-lunch.

I missed too many opportunities to spend time with her—time I will never get back.

My phone vibrated in my pocket.

I checked Brad’s endless line of text messages.

Brad: Where are you?

Brad: Bossman, you didn’t come back to work last night.

Brad: Should I be worried? You’re seriously starting to piss me off.

Brad: Don’t kill me for that last one.

Brad: Do you want me to bring in some coffee?

Brad: I am inside your office. Where the fuck are you?

Delete.

Delete.

Delete.

Nate: I found something interesting. I think it’s best to show you in person, though.

My interest piqued. I dialled his number, set the phone to my ear.

“Sir,” Nate drawled, hushing the men in the background. “I see you received my message.”

A customer left with two coffees, so I took a step closer to the main counter. “What do you have for me?”

“Are you familiarised with the name Hellen Bennett?”

I stimulated past encounters. “No.”

Nate snorted. “Try again.”

Another step forward. “Nate, get to the goddamn point.”

“Approximately three years ago, you attended a charity event at—”

“Conway Hall,” I interject, hand crushing the phone. “Go on.”

“You met a feisty blonde? Left the function early and checked into a hotel...”

I rolled my eyes. “What about her?”

“Oh, so you do remember that disastrous night.”

I recall a statuesque blonde-haired woman with great tits whose libidinousness put the male population to shame. “Disastrous in what sense? The woman gave great head, let me fuck her and left my bed with no obligations. Sounds pretty fucking perfect to me.”

“She also stalked you for eight months.”

My eyebrows meshed in perplexity. Yes, Miss Bennett had expressed her fondness the night we slept together, but she hadn’t pestered to see me again, not after I made it abundantly clear to part ways. It’s not my style, rendezvousing with female encounters to pick up where we left off. No, I am a fuck-and-forget-about-them kind of man, or so I was until Alexa stumbled into my life.

Thoughts of Her caved my chest. I pressed a palm to my thudding heart, kneading the ever-present pain with the heel of my hand. “I wasn’t aware that Miss Bennett was a problem.”

“You pay us a significant amount of money to rid such taxing dilemmas,” he reminded me. “I had to blackmail her ass.”

“Why not a body bag?” I mused, next in line. “Since when was the syndicate so lenient?” In front of me, a curious female, listening to my conversation, passes me a disapproving glance across one shoulder. “Can I fucking help you?”

She bristled, derailing her discontentment.

“I can hear that you’re busy,” Nate said, muffling the receiver to assuage Brad in his rancour state. “Are you due back any time soon? I’d rather show you the documents.”

“Yes,” I assured, stationing before the cash register. “And tell Brad to pipe the fuck down.” Killing the call, I stuffed the phone in my pocket and waited patiently for Grayson to take my order.

He wipes spillage from the counter with a stained tea towel and grabs a black marker. “What can I get you...?” His cheerfulness plummeted. “Warren.”

I ignored his heated glare. “Black coffee.”

Popping a jaw muscle, he snags a takeaway cup, scribbling my name onto the bright green cardboard. He frequently shoots lightning bolts in my direction, intense disapproval radiating off his shaking body.

It’s not fear, emitting from his protective bubble. It’s sheer hatred. “Is there something you’d like to get off your chest?” Out of respect for Alexa, I won’t reach over and stuff his hand in the fruit blender.

Coffee prepared, he slammed it down before me, swishing brown liquid across the counter.

I inhale a deep breath, respiring through my nose. I am trying exceptionally hard not to lose my cool.

“If it wasn’t for you,” he points the marker in my face, “kicking off and upsetting Alexa that night? She’d be alive right now—”

“You better shut your fucking mouth,” I snarled through gritted teeth, hands curling into fists inside my trouser pockets. “I appreciate that you’re upset. But if you dare insult me or insinuate that her death is on my shoulders, I’ll hack off your vindictive, wayward tongue and lodge it down your goddamn throat. You,” I barked, an angry flush clambering my neck, “got no right to stand there and fucking judge me. No fucking right.” I eyed the coffee cup with the words “wanker” scribbled in permanent black marker. “You ignorant cunt.”

Before Grayson could retract or apologise, I picked up the cardboard cup and lunged it at him, shrouding myself with theatrical inhalations from horrified spectators. He jumped back to evade dousing, the thoughtless act ruining his stark-white polo shirt and ostentatious apron.

“Good job it was fucking cold, huh?” Laughing dryly to myself, I shook my head in disdain, stormed past the long queue of thunderstruck customers and stumbled away from the building.

Although incomparable to what I am inured to, his insensitive words hit me straight in the chest. I love her, I thought, ambling around the street corner, putting my back to a wall for a momentary breather. I love her so fucking much and his cold-hearted, upbraiding shook me to the core.

Balancing a cigarette between my lips, I ignited a flame on the chrome Clipper, inhaling a soothing drag. I espied Grayson across the road, frantically searching—his eyes land on me, and he jogs over with determined strides.

For fuck’s sake. “Unless you’re seeking a premature death,” I warned, and paused, keeping a safe distance between us, “I’d be careful what you say to me.”

He thrust a hand through his blond, untamed hair. “My unprofessional behaviour was completely uncalled for,” he somewhat apologised, eyes cast to the floor. “I’m upset, hurt and angry at life. Nobody deserved to die like that.” He cupped his mouth. Eyes brimmed red and glassy. “Our Alexa didn’t deserve to die in a burning building.”

I looked away, concentrated on omnipresent traffic and eccentric commuters.

“Chloe’s still in bits,” he tells me, thinking I give a shit about the bodacious blonde. “She barely leaves the house and has lost too much weight. I am so worried about her, but I got the Coffee House to contend with and can’t afford to take any more time off work. I desperately need to hire new employees.” He groaned under his breath. “It’s inconsiderate, though, right?”

“I’m sure one death hasn’t improvised lucrativeness that much.” Sarcasm rolled off my tongue. “If you require new staff? Hire and be done with it.”

“Well, I lost them both—but that’s irrelevant,” he quickly adds, raising two hands. “Sorry, I’m just trying to apologise. I tend to become a motormouth when compromised.”

Smoke rolled around my mouth. I digested his one-way conversation, cocked my head, facing him. “What did you say?”

He sank his cheeks, rocking back on the heels of his leather shoes. “I tend to be a motormouth when compromised.”

“No, you said that you lost them both.” I tossed the cigarette, stuffing my hands inside my pockets to refrain from pummelling him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, Jace...” He ebbed, comprehending my confusion. “Why wouldn’t you know that?”

I saw red. I snatched his throat in an iron grip, shoving his back to the wall. “Are you mocking me?” I applied pressure, fingers pinching his reddened neck. “You are seriously testing my fucking patience, you son of a bitch—”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Eyes bulging from their sockets, he clawed at my wrist, eyes pleading with me to release him. “You’re hurting me!”

“Why was Jace inside her apartment building?” I asked, but he barely mustered a shrug, complexion turning beet-red. “Answer me!”

“Please,” he gasped, wrestling for breath. “It hurts—”

I thrust him aside, hearing his choked inhalation.

Positioning two hands to the wall, I lowered my head, quelling my frenetic heartbeat, fearing the worst. “Was she fucking him?” No, Alexa loved me—only me. She’d never let another man touch her. “Make me understand, Grayson.”

“I don’t think so,” he futilely reassured, massaging his sore throat. “I mean, I doubt it. Jace preferred men. I had more chance of getting him into bed.”

“His declared homosexuality is the biggest lie of the goddamn century,” I snapped, and he didn’t barter. “We both know that motherfucker wasn’t into cock.”

“Impossible.” He utilised his ruffled-up polo shirt to dab sweat from his forehead. “Alexa loved you.”

It doesn’t explain why Jace went down in that fire. “Not enough, apparently.”

“Don’t do that,” he said, and I shot him a murderous glare. “Alexa was pathetically in love with you. Truthfully, she made me want to hurl my breakfast whenever she doted on you. I know it might sound hard to believe, but she paid no attention to male proximity.” Hands to his hips, he rolled his bottom lip between his teeth. “I don’t know why Jace entered her flat that night. However, I have no reason to suspect or disbelieve that he only spent time with Alexa as a friend. Contrary to what you think, Jace was a decent guy.”

No, something wasn’t right. I felt it—something inside me screamed to ask more questions and unearth answers.

Alexa and I expressed our love and made unspoken promises.

Then why the fuck was she in her flat, spending the night with him?

***

I avoided Club 11 until I knew the men were out handling business. Nate had something important to discuss with me, but I needed some alone time, a whiskey bottle, cocaine, and darkness after today’s revelation.

Dragging on a half-smoked joint, I exhale smoke, listening to the club’s loud music, belting beneath me.

Clink. Clink. Clink

I tapped the Desert Eagle against the tiled floor in the bathroom, traced the trigger with my forefinger and made a popping sound with my tongue. I blinked to clear temporary blindness, finishing the euphoric haze and pulled a drink from the bottle.

I am lost, so fucking lost.

Stretching out my legs, back resting to the wall, I whistle tunes, blindly trace the engraving on my gun. I closed my eyes, searched for Her, needing one moment, needing to see her beautiful face. “Alexa,” I groaned, and two soft palms touched my cheeks. “Baby.”

“It’s okay, Liam,” she whispered, straddling my thighs, kissing the crease between my furrowed brows. “You need to stop drinking.”

“I can’t,” I mumbled, licking whiskey from my dry lips. “It’s the only time I get to see you.”

“You’re endangering yourself, the syndicate and your men.” Wrapping her arms around my neck, she brushed her lips across mine, teased the corner of my mouth. “People are talking—”

“Fuck hearsay,” I barked, and her spine straightened. “I’m sorry, baby.” I curled a protective arm around her slender waist. “I didn’t mean to scare you. You know that, right?”

“You always shout at me,” she breathes, forehead laid on my shoulder. “I hate it when you’re mad at me.”

“And I hate that you fear me,” I admit, kissing the spot beneath her ear. “Forgive me. I lose rationality when it comes to you.” Placing the gun down, I piano my fingertips along her thigh, her waistline, earning myself a stifled chuckle. “Are you ticklish, Alexa?”

“No,” she lies, capturing my wandering hand, interlacing our fingers. “Don’t you dare.”

“I can’t help it.” I smiled, wishing I could see her beautiful face midst our black sphere. “I love it when you laugh.” Lifting her hand to my mouth, I pressed a soft, lingering kiss to her wrist. “Your happiness soothes me.” I blinked, and her arcane form disappeared like an apparition, leaving me in a state of abandonment and unforgiving pain. “I miss you.”

Blurry-eyed, I downed enough alcohol to numb my body, licking rich flavours from my lips. I rolled a bullet between three fingers, clasped it with my thumb and forefinger. Loading the gun, cocking it, I gulped another gallant shot, positioned the barrel to my temple and closed my eyes. I can do it, I thought, finger tracing the trigger. One-shot and it’ll be over.

Hollowing my cheeks, panting for breath, I sank my teeth into my lower lip, blood shrieking in my ears. “Fuck.” Repositioning the gun, I tried again, convinced myself it’d end my suffering. “Ah, shit.” Craven, I respired a guttural sob, felt warm tears on my cheeks. I dropped my arm, released my tight grip around the handle. “Fucking hell.”

Torpid, I bring the bottle to my lips, shaking two droplets on my tongue. I need more. Eyeing the doorway, I contemplated how long it’d take me to venture inside my office. No, I am too tired. Setting the empty Jameson on the floor, I tapped the label with a pointer finger, listened to the glass roll across the tiles—it stopped too soon. I frowned, tilted my head, waiting for the glass to meet the wall or skirting board.

The office suddenly brightened. Brad’s tall frame filled the bathroom doorway, resplendent in his royal blue three-piece suit and embellished solid gold jewellery. I glanced at his leather shoe; the bottle captured beneath it. Breathing out a frustrated sigh, he collected my discarded waste, retreated inside the office and returned moments later with an unopened bottle of Macallan.

It’s still dark inside the en-suite, but the office’s soft light generates enough glow to make out his twisted features. He slipped down the wall opposite me, unscrewed the bottle, tossed the cap across the floor.

I wait for his vitriolic attack. Instead, he looked at me with genuine pathos and venerated me with ingenuous eyes. “Do you want to do the honours?” Extending an arm, he offers me the bottle. “After all, it is your stash.”

I warily curled my fingers around the bottleneck. “What’s the occasion?”

He shrugged a noncommittal shoulder.

“I think Alexa was fucking Jace.”

Brad regards me with a stoic expression, masking any unspoken questions. “She only had eyes for you,” he said, failing to assuage me. “And you know it.”

“I visited the Coffee House this morning,” I explain, picking the Macallan label. “Grayson claimed Jace went down in that fire. Tell me, Brad. Why weren’t I made aware of his death?”

Forehead furrowing, he diverted his bemused gaze. “His death wasn’t in the police reports from Reginald,” he stresses, scratching his jaw. “Trust, I’d have seen it—and told you instantly. Where did Grayson receive that information?”

Inarticulate, I blinked twice. “I never thought to ask.”

Brad’s eyes rounded. “Seriously, Bossman. Since when do we forgo interrogations? If that unhinged barista spouted off unsubstantiated statements, you should have questioned it.” I don’t respond. “You need to get your head back in the game—”

“And you need to watch the way you speak to me,” I cautioned, sipping from the bottle. “I am grieving, Brad. I didn’t lose my fucking balls. Run your mouth one more time, and I’ll be forced to do something about it.”

He rubbed a hand down his face, hiding his eye-roll. “I’ll call Reginald,” he assures, adjusting his wristwatch. “If Jace died in that fire, then we need to know why the metropolitan kept that information from us.”

“Why are you here?” I rudely asked. “Go downstairs with the men. I don’t need a fucking babysitter.”

It’s silent for a nanosecond. “Boss, do you remember what happened the first time we met?”

Yeah, I remember the night I met Brad Jones exceptionally well.

Inundated with reflective nostalgia, I returned to that cold, winters night. I was celebrating a successful year since opening Club 11, searching the streets of London for a light-night banquet; a decent burger or fish and chips, if I remember correctly. Rosie, a twenty-two-year-old college student, had been my flavour of the month. I liked her, I thought, envisioning her wild, untamed red hair and captivating green eyes. She often waited for me to finish at the office, inviting me back to her two-bedroom apartment for mind-blowing blowjobs and senseless fucking. The night in question, she escorted me to a local chip shop, declined fodder but opted for a cherry cola as I eagerly scarfed down battered produce while the chips fried.

“Why don’t we go to your place tonight?” Rosie asked, snaking her arms around my waist, resting her head on my back. “Three months, Warren, and I’ve yet to see this spectacular penthouse.”

I shared an amused look with the shop owner. “No.”

Had it really been three months? Shit, I need to let this one go before she gets all clinger on my ass.

Rosie growled, dropping her arms, stepping away from me. “You have to let me visit at some point.”

I don’t have to do anything. “No.”

Setting her back to the counter, she crossed her arms, craning her neck to look at me. “You got tomato sauce,” she tapped the corner of her mouth, “right there.”

I licked my lips, biting into a potato fritter.

Smiling fondly, she wrapped her hand around my wrist. “Please.” Her pouted lips and puerile begging only irritated me. “Just one night?”

No amount of sex is worth petulance demands. “No.”

“No,” she mimicked sarcastically. “You need to work on that vocabulary, Warren. Your one word, brainless responses concern me.”

“Under no circumstances,” I said, dipping my head so that we’re eye-level, “do I require a feebleminded, imbecilic red-head in her tawdry attire and tasteless lingerie sprawled across my expensive silk sheets, nor do I require an egocentric, patronising, supercilious inferior ruining my three thousand pound suit jacket with her chipped polished fingernails.” I uncurled her hand from my sleeve. “Was my response adequate for you, Rosie? Do I need to use many sesquipedalian words in my daily terminology to compare and compete with such a resourceful intellectualist?”

Her mouth opened and closed. “You conceited prick!”

I dropped change into the shop owners hand, accepting a tray of freshly cooked fish and chips. “I never claimed to be a saint.”

“You’re no better than me,” she argues, following me outside in those damn fuck-me high-heeled shoes. “You’re just a bully, Warren. Without those guns and your army of goons,” she waved a flippant hand behind us, gesturing to the camouflaged men who regularly patrol my whereabouts, “you’d be nothing but a jobless, lowlife bum.”

I paused with a chip near my lips. “Careful, Rosie. I don’t take kindly to insults.”

She witnessed the murderous glint in my eyes. “Get someone else to suck your dick,” she stutters, the heels of her shoes scraping across the floor as she rushes across the street. “I am over this, Warren. You’re dead to me.”

Returning to my food, I stuffed my face with famished delight, contemplating between a wank before bed or alluring another conquest.

“Fucking scumbag,” someone yelled, and I glanced around the barren streets. “If I ever catch you here again, I’ll spark you clean out.”

“Screw your fucking mother,” another male retorted, and I turned the street corner to see a tall drunk fall backwards from a pub, flipping two burly bouncers the bird. “You fat motherfuckers, boning the back arse off of their mothers—and probably their sisters,” he adds, hands to his hips, nodding vigorously. “Disgusting.”

His incomprehensible drunken slurs and nonsensical comeback humoured me. I chucked my half-eaten food in the bin, lit a cigarette and observed their argumentative and truculent exchange with genuine interest.

Drunken fool stumbles across the street, almost losing his footing. He stuffs his hands inside his jeans pockets, whistling annoying tunes as he ventured down the road.

I pulled the zipper of my coat to my chin, briefly checked for oncoming traffic, crossed the road and serendipitously followed his footsteps. I never understand why I make such random decisions, but I am somewhat nosey and curious.

Twenty minutes later and the stupid fucker has yet to notice another person traipses behind him. He’s too busy serenading to the black heavens. “Go toora loora, toora loo-rye-aye,” he sings, wobbling on his feet. “And we can sing just like our fathers. Come on, Eileen. Oh, I swear what he means—you mean everything.”

He vocalised that exact song for the entire duration.

What the fuck am I doing?

“But I would walk five hundred miles. And I would walk five hundred more.”

I shake my head in bewilderment. At least he knows more than one tune.

“Da da da,” he bellows in a homeless man’s face, bending at the waist to converse.

I stopped, considered turning around and going home.

Wiring his mouth shut, the idiot proceeds ahead, singing and dancing.

Ten painful minutes later, he rounds a corner, entering a cul-de-sac of council houses. I lingered, furtively watching him misstep, open a waist-high garden gate. He pauses near the front door, fumbling with keys. His procrastinating had sparked my curiosity. It seems he’s in no rush to enter his unbecoming home. With what looked like great reluctance, he unlocked the door and dragged himself inside. I expected him to lock-up, but once more, the inebriated fool hesitated, head cocking to the side, listening, as it seems. He vanished, leaving the door wide open.

Seriously, Warren? What the fuck are you doing, following an unidentifiable, intoxicated fool to his house?

The gravitational pull, too immense, urged me closer. I guardedly pushed through the gate, stared at the discarded house keys in the hallway, peered into the shadows. Fuck it, I thought, closing the door behind me, mentally inventorying the commodious dwelling with impaired furnishings. Excluding the two-seater leather sofa in the living room, old-fashioned portable television balanced on a wooden coffee table and well-worn runners utilised as floor coverage, his cold living conditions left an unsettled knot in my stomach.

Inside the narrow kitchen, dirty dishes piled high in the sink, takeaway boxes and empty beer bottles on the counter. I picked up a metal grinder on the tray, smoothed dry buds between my fingers, flicked the half-smoked joint aside.

“Why?” He groans from upstairs. “How could you do this to me?” A loud bang followed his whimpered question. “I hate you!”

Above, the floorboards creaked, filtering dust particles. I remained poised as he wandered around. Another loud bang reiterated around the house, and an iron unexpectedly landed in the hallway. It’s shattered plastic casing was the least of my worries. I stood over it, examined the fresh blood splattered across the rug.

Eyeing the staircase with intense curiosity, I decided to welcome myself into their quarrelsome commotion. I only reached the fourth step when I spotted his crouched form atop the stairs, head buried in his hands, knees hiked to his chest.

He notably flinched, sensing a presence. Through parted fingers, he peered at me, licking tears from my lips. “Fucking hell.” Idly dropping his arms at his sides, he tilted his chin, almost goading me to do or say something. “The devil quite literally walked through my back door.”

I don’t respond.

“I went out on a bit of a bender tonight.” He chuckled, though, there’s nothing funny about the blood submerging his white polo shirt. “She wasn’t expecting my ass home yet.”

I stepped into the bedroom. On the once white bed, an unrecognisable male whose head meshes into the sheets, lifelessly drips with clotted crimson. The woman, her body, twisted on the floor, beaten gruesomely in a barbaric act of mercilessness. It’s a grotesque image, yet I smiled, admiring his handiwork. “Brutal.” I squat beside her naked body, lift blood-matted hair from her face. It’s hard to decipher her image, as he’s savagely disorganised her face with that iron, but her striking dead eyes stare back at me. Pretty, I thought, admiring her shimmering jade hues. “Did you love her?”

“Five years I was with the bitch,” he croaked, not looking at me. “I found her in bed, fucking my best mate.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I may as well call the police and hand myself in.” He soared to his feet, emphasising his tallness. “So, what brings Warren to my humble abode?”

I stood, kicked abandoned lace aside. “I followed your ass.”

“Why?” He narrowed his judgemental eyes. “Did someone put a hit on me or something?”

“I’m not a fucking hitman.” I despise people calling me a hired contract killer. I mean, sure, back in the day, before establishing myself, I’d accept dirty money to eliminate a problem. Usually, a female married to a sugar daddy that’s sick of waiting for him to pop, or a scorned husband who’s tired of his nagging wife and wants to settle with his young mistress. Now, though, I don’t need people to buy my services or line my pocket. I kill for no one but myself; I thrive for no one but myself. “Don’t fucking insult me,” I warned, and he squared his shoulders. “I got more money than sense.” His hopeful eyes lowered to the floor. “Moreover.” I raked my criticising eyes around his bedroom, “I don’t think you could afford me.”

“I wasn’t going to ask...” He paused, rubbing dry blood from his face.

I removed the leather gloves from my pocket. “Did anyone see you come home?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Go and find some petrol.”

“Petrol?” His eyebrows welded. “Why do I need petrol?”

“I don’t fucking have time for this,” I snarled, stepping over the dead woman. “Move it.”

In his absence, I look around, open the canvas wardrobe, find a half-packed suitcase hidden at the back. I unzipped it, emptied her glad rags onto the floorboard. She was leaving him. I conclude, opening a box filled with old photos. I turn one over, read the date and penned names: Bradley, Brian and Tiffany. I study his younger self in the picture, notice Brian’s closeness to Tiffany. It’s unarguable evidence. His traitorous friend gazes at the woman like she’s his reason to breathe.

“I found these,” he said breathlessly. “What are you doing?”

I set the photos back without him noticing. “So, you never suspected their romance before?”

“No.” He placed two petrol canisters on the floor. “I don’t think it was serious or anything.” Regret flashed in his eyes. “Tonight was probably their first time. We haven’t been in a good place,” he looked at his former girlfriend, a lump shifting in his throat, “lately.”

Unscrewing the canisters, I passed him one. “Douse the room.”

He didn’t seem repulsed by the order. In actuality, Brad assisted, helping me drench the room, furniture, clothes, walls and bodies.

“It wasn’t a mistake,” I assured him, tossing the empty canister on the floor. “They’ve been at it for years.”

“How can you be so sure?”

I popped a cigarette between my lips, matched a flame and inhaled a deep drag. “I’m never wrong.”

He smothered a scoff.

Letting smoke roll around my mouth, I blew out a calming breath and chucked the cigarette onto the bed. The petrol caught, instantly spreading across the soaked material, flames licking Brian’s body, clambering the walls and ceiling.

I turned and walked away, descended the stairs and drifted to the back door.

Unsteady on his feet, Brad shadowed behind me, pulling his hoodie up, covering his face somewhat. “Where are we going?”

“I’m going home,” I confirmed, halting to face him head-on. “Fuck knows what’s in store for you.”

“What?” Horror-stricken, he glances back to the house where thick, black smoke leaks from open windows. “My house is seconds away from blowing up.”

“Correct.” I moved ahead. “So, fleeing is probably a sensible option.” Ducking into a gully, I sprinted throughout, entering the next street. “Why the fuck are you following me?”

He snatched my arm, bringing me to an abrupt stop. “What am I supposed to do?” He discerns my furious expression and releases me. “Come on, Warren. Help me out.”

Brad Jones played right into my hands. “Why would I help you?” I want him on-board. It’s not often I stumble into a ruthless killer who shows little or no remorse, all while bearing a cruel smile. He’s cold-hearted, recklessly unpredictable and insouciantly unperturbed.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked, spearing a hand through his dishevelled blond hair. “I got nowhere to go—nobody to turn to...”

His curriculum vitae becomes more appealing by the second. “Do you feel any remorse for what you did?”

“Nope,” he confesses, warily falling into step beside me. “I feel betrayed. In my defence, I am half-cut. I’m sure tonight’s actions will weigh heavily on me in the morning.”

No, he sobered up the moment he entered his home tonight. “You can work for me,” I acquiesced, and he shot me a questioning glance. “After we go over the rules, of course.”

Smiling gleefully, he offered me a fist to bump, which I spurned by turning my head. “Bradley Jones,” he introduces, rubbing his palms together. “Although, I don’t like it when people address me as Bradley. I prefer Brad, or sinfully fucking gorgeous will suffice. I’m not too picky.”

He’s bastard unhinged. “Let’s go.”

“Christ.” He draped an arm across my shoulders. “I always wanted a fucking brother.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Brad.” I whacked his arm away, strode past speeding emergency vehicles, marking security detail across the road. “I’m just helping out a loser, that’s all.”

“Whatever.” His arm returned to my shoulder, and this time, I didn’t chastise his overly friendly advances. “I wanted a brother, and now I got one.”

“Dexys midnight runners,” I rasped, smiling at the ludicrous memory.

“Ah, good old Eileen.” He burst out laughing, stealing the bottle of Macallan from me. “She never fucking failed me.” I know my right-hand man like the back of my hand, so when he thirsty downs buck courage, eyes trained on me, I recognise he’s building up to something. “You didn’t recognise me.”

I stayed composed. “What are you talking about?”

He stared at me with intense pensiveness. “I half wondered if you came back to finish the job.”

“Quit the evasiveness,” I scolded, unease sprouting goosebumps to my skin. “Spit it out.”

“Twice,” he enunciated, tucking blonde tendrils behind his ears. “Twice you saved me from self-destruction. You didn’t have to help me cover those murders, Bossman.” His Adam’s apple jived in his throat. “You didn’t have to show leniency the night you turned over Jerry’s bar.”

His confession compelled me to sit taller. “That was you,” I whispered, rigidly shocked. “Brad?”

“The night you entered my home,” he continues, the muscle in his jaw pulsing, “I thought that perhaps you returned to finish the job. Let’s be real for a second. I witnessed everything you did to Jerry and his establishment. I could’ve snitched, ratted you out in a heartbeat. I guess I always thought you’d rectify your mistake. I did not, however, anticipate your services or lifeline.

“This silent truth encumbered me for many years,” he admits, cracking his knuckles. “I didn’t want any secrets between us, but I feared you’d see my previous actions as a betrayal. And, although death comes to us all eventually, I kind of like working alongside you and I’m not quite ready to give that up yet.

“You protected me from either suicide or life imprisonment. You took me into your fold, gave me the best life and a reason to live; I swore fealty to you and the syndicate; I bare your chain proudly; I am indebted to you, and that’ll never change; I am an active participant of The Brotherhood. But,” he adds, nodding to himself. “I called you my brother that night, and I meant it. So, I’ll answer your original question. No, I don’t want to be downstairs with the men or eating pussy.

“You need me right now,” he breathed, his eyes holding mine. “You need your brother.”

Brad’s words tugged on my heartstrings. He mightn’t express his concerns, but he recognises my despair and bereavement.

Tears threatened my eyes. “It’s killing me,” I tell him, and he nods. “Her death is fucking killing me, Brad.”

“I have sat back and allowed you time to mourn, drink yourself into a dark hole of self-destruction and fuck your way through a long-line of women—carelessly, and without non-disclosures, I might add, which was exceptionally taxing and infuriating for Nate—but enough is enough.” He stood, rocked back on the heels of his shoes. “Let Alexa’s death mean something. Don’t wallow away and let that son of a bitch get away with her murder. Nail him to the cross.”

I matched his stance, listening to his every word.

“Alexa’s gone,” he proceeds, and excruciating pain enwreathed my thunderous heartbeat. “And I know this hurts you. Christ, I ache for you, but sitting here, fucked off sniff and alcohol isn’t going to fix this.” He grasped my shoulders, fingers pinching my skin. “The city of vice belongs to one man and one man only. It’s time Liam Warren painted the town red.”

Desert Eagle clenched in one hand. I smoothed my thumb over the Warren engraving.

Acceptance is where I struggle. “I don’t want to say goodbye to her.” Shouldering past him, I entered the office, rounded my desk and collapsed onto the leather chair.

Brad remains in the doorway, shoulder resting on the doorframe.

I carefully set the gun onto the desk, uprooted my phone and opened the messenger folder.

Alexa: I can’t sleep.

Alexa: Fancy some company?

Alexa: I bought new lingerie...

Alexa: If you’re kind to me, I’ll wear it under my dress tonight.

Alexa: I miss you.

Alexa: Guess how much ice cream I polished off this morning? You’d be so proud!

Delete.

Delete.

Delete.

Delete.

Delete.

Delete.

Alexa: I love you so much.

My thumb hovered over the screen.

Delete.

I repeated the process, eliminated messages, voicemails and her social media account from my page. Before exiting her Instagram profile, I took a screenshot of my favourite image, the one where she stands on the balcony, overseeing the Thames.

Brad slides a crystal glass filled with amber liquid toward me. “Would you have really done it?”

“Always the perspicacious one,” I half-joked, eyeing the Desert Eagle. “If it meant seeing her again?” Leaning back in my chair, I kicked my feet onto the desk, downing Macallan in one. “Yes.”

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