Sartorially tailored in a royal blue two-piece, I stand alongside fatigued commuters in the London Underground like a spare part, chest swelling on a turmoil of emotional riots.
It’s no secret that Alexa’s death affected me in more ways than one. I am not ashamed to admit as much, either. In saying that, granted I shall never overcome or move on with another, but I must find a resolution and learn to live with this insufferable ache in my chest.
Last night, after Brad’s determined lecture, I remained in the office until sunrise, pondering between intoxicated obliteration or a trip down memory lane. Once showered and overdosed on a concerning amount of caffeine, I chose the latter.
I stepped onto the train, sardined between strident gossipmongers and enlivened consumers. To my right, a blatant transsexual modelling a pale pink designer skirt suit and a straight, jet black synthetic hairpiece flagrantly appraising me.
I diverted my attention to the short blonde woman standing directly opposite me. Yes, she’s eye-catching, heart-shaped face and blue almond-shaped eyes. I’m not too sure about those beige winkle pickers, though. I love nothing more than a sophisticatedly beautiful woman gaiting and swaying her hips, elevated on six-inch heels. For me, a woman’s confident stride is utterly captivating, presentably attractive and boldly sexy.
Sensing a brazen admirer, she lifts her head and smiles meekly at me.
Her fondness is unreciprocated. Sure, I can appreciate a fine woman when I see one. Those flawless white teeth, catching smile, and dazzling eyes are undeniably praiseworthy features.
Yet I feel absolutely nothing. Even when I try to see past all the reasons why I need to move on, something screams inside the darkest valley of my head to hang fire, relax, take a breather and concentrate on the syndicate.
I struggle to lose myself In the arms of another woman. It puts the functionality of my cock to the test, and welcoming their lubricious sensuality proves to be complicated. I compare every touch, whispered moan and adeptly covetous desires to Alexa.
At this rate, the only satisfying dates I’ll be attending is with my right hand. Fuck, I’m not one to masturbate or pleasure myself. Since living up to the “Warren” title, women have dutifully thrown themselves at my feet. If I craved a release, alluring an eager conquest became a standardised way of living. And that unashamed lifestyle worked for me. Meaningless sex was uncomplicated, physically untaxing and consumingly rewarding. Now, though, a quick-release before work might be a safer option, or until I get my head straight.
I shouldn’t have looked at the blonde. Her unwavering gaze hasn’t deterred since I foolishly scrutinised her. I load my phone, pretend to read text messages when Kellie’s name flashes on my screen. Another problematic hindrance to my life. I am entirely blamable, though. I saw her the night she partied with friends at Club 11 and coaxed her to join me in the office. Our first time together is a blur. I sniffed and consumed too much intoxication to remember if I finished the deed or even returned summit carnality. Henceforth, she shifted into my go-to woman. No romantic dates. No reassuring promises. No passionate kissing. Just unadulterated fucking and someone surprisingly pleasant to fill the void in my life.
Kellie’s a nice woman, decent on the eye, but I voiced and stressed that our late-night clandestine sexual encounters wouldn’t surmount to anything. And this resolute declaration suited Kellie until this morning when she asked if I’d accompany her to a family party.
“Warren,” I answered flatly, the phone set to my ear.
“You didn’t respond to my messages,” Kellie purred, a futile attempt at flirting. “I was worried about you.”
“I’m a busy man.” I peered at the geezer over my shoulder, spurning his appraising stare with an arrogant look. “Besides, I already told you that dating isn’t on the table.”
She huffed out an exasperated breath. “Not even for one night?”
“No.” Occupying oneself is pointless. I cannot sustain the intensity of that man’s favourably approving gaze. As if focalising on my dead girlfriend’s ghost wasn’t vigorously enervating enough. Add unwanted male attention to my clusterfuck of rampaging indecisiveness. “Can I fucking help you?”
He bristled, slapping a Michael Kors purse to his chest. “Rude.”
I’ll give him fucking rude in a minute.
“Warren,” she warned, but I was still reeling from the guy gaping at my crotch. “Is that any way to speak to me?”
I don’t bother correcting her. “Listen, I am attending a meeting in five minutes,” I lied, relieved to see my stop is next. “I’m not accompanying you to family festivities. End of. If you want to see me later? You know where I am.” I ended the call, stuffed the phone in my pocket and squared up to the infuriated male. “If I ever catch you, obsessing over my cock again,” I threatened, curving a sardonic eyebrow, “you’ll be choking on yours.”
The blonde female from earlier choked on a shock-inhaled gasp. I adjusted my cufflink, shouldered past the staggering transsexual and welcomed the stuffy Underground.
I rested my back to the bricked wall, demolishing a tray of fish and chips. I haven’t eaten one of these bad boys in many years. Nowadays, existence epitomises unrivalled extravagance, superfluous excessiveness and the finesse of nouvelle cuisine. Even sealed takeaway meals emanate from gourmet cuisines.
Chewing down battered fish, I watched boisterous lads light-heartedly shove into each other as they disperse down the alleyway. Beneath the red sporadic business sign, the fire exit door wavers almost invitingly.
Dabbing my lips with a silk napkin, discarding leftovers in the steel communal bin, I beeline toward the entrance and seal the door behind me.
Setting two palms on the wooden guardrails, I put one foot on the bottom step and grew restive. Overhearing nostalgic music and curmudgeon complaining, I found myself in an imbroglio.
What the fuck am I doing here?
I left this place, walked away and never looked back.
What good does trudging down memory lane do to one’s sanity?
I reviewed my decision and, slowly but surely, the unwavering anticipation trounced me. Climbing the steps two at a time, anticipating the uneven floorboard groaning under my weight, I entered the boxing gym.
Hands tucked inside my trouser pockets, I stepped onto a blue mat and stationed, scoping the outdated furnishings and time-worn equipment. It smells the same: frayed leather, permeated perspiration and emitting domestic chemicals, all cloaked with lingering colognes.
“We’re closed,” Rex yelled behind me. “Ye got an issue with readin’ signs, eejit?”
A ghost of a smile curved my lips. Upholding amusement, I turned to face him. “I’m hardly illiterate, Rex.”
Leaning onto his cane, Rex blinked at a rapid pace. Upon recognising me, his jaw slackened in sheer astonishment. “Holy shite,” he bellowed, rubbing his eyes as if to clear an imaginary presence. “Liam fuckin’ Warren. What the hell are ye doin’ back in the East Ends?”
I shrugged a shoulder.
Evidently speechless, he stared for a short while. “Aye,” he whispered, fixing his black fedora cap, tousling grey strands to cover his receding hairline. “Ye bigger on that television. Quite disappointin’, in person like.” Limping toward the benches, he balanced the cane to the wall and stumbled into a seated position. “Sorry, lad. I’m in shock.” Coughing into a tight fist, he pinched his tear brimmed eyes, sighing heavily to himself. “One moment.”
My nerves wreaked havoc. I took cautious steps in his direction and joined him on the bench. Thigh pressed up against his leg, elbows to the knees, I clasped my hands, weaving my fingers together. “I’ve been a little lost lately,” I admitted, rotating my gold thumb ring. “For some reason, aimless confusion brought me here.”
Eyes focusing on the chain dangling from my neck, Rex listened. “Ye still wear that, huh?”
He suppressed a pleased yet sad smile. “I wrote to ye once.”
Frowning, I dipped my head to look at him. “I never received any letters.”
He pulled a face. “Aye, that’s because I never fuckin’ sent ’em.”
Rough laughter vibrated in my throat. “Christ, you haven’t changed one bit.”
His chuckling segues with mine. “I am not much of a writer—couldn’t express what I needed to say with a pen.” Utilising my shoulder for support, he soared to his feet and snatched the cane. “I got a bottle of rum in the office with our name on it.”
Unbuttoning my suit jacket, I followed him into the office, draped it over the back of a chair and seated comfortably before his desk.
Rex sits opposite me, unscrewing a bottle of Captain Morgan. “That’s a fine suit ye wearin’,” he compliments, pouring a dangerous amount of alcohol into ceramic mugs. “How much paper do ye spend for one of those?”
The price of a Dormeuil Vanquish will render him in a state of cardiac arrest. “Only a few hundred.”
“Only a few hundred,” he mimicked in disbelief, sliding a mug across the desk. “I bet it’s worth more than my rent bill, huh?”
I suddenly regretted my attire choice. “I do well for myself,” I said as he lifted the drink to his lips. “Sue me.”
He cracked a toothy grin. “Aye, I always knew ye would. So,” he sighed, staring into his mug, “ye mentioned feelin’ lost. I assume ye came here for help?”
Truthfully, I don’t know why I returned. I miss Alexa. I miss my unproblematic life before her. “I’m in a rut and can’t shake it.”
Rex eyed me with a suspicious glint. “Who was she?”
The crazy old fool never ceased to amaze me. “What makes you think my problems stem from a woman?”
“Ye eyes,” he said, and my hues automatically darkened. “Ye eyes are empty.” Sipping rum, he leaned back in his chair, seeking relaxation. “I know a heartbroken face when I see one.”
Pointing to the makeshift bed on the tattered two-seater sofa, I prevaricate. “Why do you sleep here?”
“Don’t change the subject,” he berated, and my eyes shot to the ceiling. “And don’t roll those bastard eyes at me, lad. I don’t care how fuckin’ big ye are. I’ll still give ye a slap on the chin.”
His errant audacity inwardly humoured me. “I’ll slap back.”
“Good,” he quipped, and I stared at him dumbfounded. “‘Bout time ye stopped bein’ a pussy.”
“I was never a...” Am I seriously entertaining his foolishness? “Answer the question.”
“Answer mine,” he retorted.
I was seconds away from decking him.
“Yes,” I said affirmatively, downing rum in one shot. “Yes, I am goddamn heartbroken, alright? I buried the love of my life. It hurts me. Her demise has left a hollowness in my stomach, and it’s killing me.” I shoved the mug across the desk, and he caught it deftly. “My men admire me. Those loyal subjects depend on me to get up in the morning and lead, yet I cannot see beyond a bottle of Macallan and fucking blow.
“And what’s worse? When she was here, I treated her like shit. Do you know how much that’s fucking with my head? The last time I saw her, I chastised her for throwing me a surprise party. I had her in a state of tears just because she loved me. What kind of monster am I? I am an ungrateful asshole who hurt the only woman that’s ever genuinely cared about me—a woman who I’d quite literally die for if it meant restoring her breath.” My chest expanded on deep breaths. “A woman who never stood a chance against a man like me, yet I pursued her regardless.”
Rex looked expressionlessly inscrutable.
“I need to fix this,” I said fiercely, thrusting a hand through my hair. “I need to let go and rid myself of this harbouring guilt.”
He pondered. “Get ye head out of ye arse?”
I nodded grimly.
He refilled our drinks. “My Ma,” he begins, screwing up the bottle, “God rest her soul, was an odd old mare. She often chewed my ears off with a pearl of wisdom. One aphorism, in particular, resonated after Bronagh’s meltdown.”
I sank back in my chair, masquerading uneasiness.
“I love my grandbaby, but I spent more time here with the lads, trainin’ and whatnot. Let’s just say she never quite forgave me for neglectin’ her,” he adds, giving me a clear vision of B’s juvenile outburst.
I am all too familiar with how psychotic the Irish bird can be.
“Anyway, back to the point. My Ma used to say that the book of knowledge comes too late in life. Stupid, right? No,” he emphasised, igniting his pipe. “Truer words have never been spoken. Everyone reaches a point in life, wishin’ they could turn back the hands of time, wishin’ they could rectify past mistakes and meddle with fate. If we were fortunate enough to see into the future, we’d steer course and change direction.
“Unfortunately, no such cultivated book exists for the young and inexperienced. Ye need to meet a rotten egg to know when ye got a good one. Ye need to feel heartbreak to appreciate a second chance in life. Ye need to endure bereavement to solidify ye heart, learn, educate, remould and become the best version of yourself.
“Ye,” he points at me, “of all people know that I am right. Ye didn’t share or burden my shoulders, though, I know ye suffered an ordeal.” Holding my stoic gaze, he puffed clouds of smog around his face. “Ye hardened to pain a long time ago, Warren, and ye didn’t get thus far bein’ a fuckin’ pansy. Learn from this, close the book, open another and start again.”
Eyebrows snapping together, I cast my eyes to the mug, swirling amber liquid at the bottom. Tough love, I thought, downing another soothing shot. “So the letter?”
“Aye,” he sighed, respiring slews of smoke. “I wrote many a letter. Just sayin’ thank you for dealin’ with those loan sharks back all ’em years ago.”
I stayed impassive. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Rex hiked a bushy grey eyebrow. “The streets talk.”
“You mentioned Bronagh spat her dummy out,” I clipped, lighting a cigarette. “Are you going to listen to your own advice and show her the door?”
“I did, aye,” he confirmed, checking the time on the wall-mounted clock. “Told her to stop actin’ like a brat and to grow up. Ye know how much I love her, but that girl needs a serious wake-up call. Always frettin’ over Conor and his lyin’, cheatin’ arse.”
And B so passionately exclaimed it’d be me slumming and penny-pinching, and that I would never leave the East End and better my future. A good for nothing bum, she once called me. You will never, ever, get better than me, Liam. You are making a huge mistake.
I smirked to myself.
If only B could see me now. I wonder how she would react to my invigorating, prosperous lifestyle while she’s grappling with her cheating boyfriend.
“It infuriates me.” Rx relights his pipe. “I want Bronagh to concentrate on the little lad, not Conor the prostitute fuckin’ bellend.”
His innocuous comment had taken me aback. “Bronagh is a mother?”
“Aye, and a shite one at that. The poor whippersnapper spends more time at my daughter’s house than with his damn Ma. And Conor? Well, he is too busy squanderin’, instead of fundin’ his kid.” He wafted a faint veil from his face. “So, what do ye do when ye need to blow off some steam? Do ye still box?”
“I kill people,” I answered in a bored voice. “Fighting is part and parcel.”
Rex’s tongue fused to the roof of his mouth. “Aye, well, I suspected as much. What, after witnessin’ ye blow holes in Jerry’s men that night, nothin’ stuns me, lad. Plus, gossip travels fast. Ye got quite an established name for yourself in London...” He wavered, a question dangling on the end of his tongue.
“Spit it out.” I set the mug onto the desk. “I can see those wheels turning inside your head.”
“Well if ye insist.” Opening the desk drawer, he pulled out an envelope and slid it to me. “I need a favour. If ye willin’, of course.”
Tearing through the envelope, expecting to see a debt letter, I unfolded the paper and briefly scanned an address. “What is it?”
“Ryan Scott,” he said, pinching his lips together. “He’s been with me for a few years; a good lad who works hard and trains harder. I see potential in him, Warren. With the right guidance, he’s goin’ somewhere.”
I eyed him blankly. “So, what’s the problem?”
“His Ma,” he spits, pouring another rum. “That junkie bitch will be the death of him. She makes him work part-time to fund her fix. She forces him to play house while she’s comatose in bed. Day and night, he’s seein’ random punters waltzin’ in and out of his house for sex. He told me once that he has to wear earphones to bed so that he can drown out moanin’ Minnie in the next bedroom.
“One afternoon, Scott came here earlier than usual. He does that sometimes. He’ll mop the floors and organise the locker rooms to keep busy. Anyway, he’s in the ring with another lad, trainin’ for a fight when his Ma rocks up—as if she owned the bastard place—yellin’ at him for not leavin’ any money on the kitchen counter. It’s bad enough that she gave him a black eye the night before. Now the irredeemable mutt thinks she got the right to come here, in my gym, and point an admonitory finger at one of my lads.” He growled, lips twisting in disgust. “He’s thirteen years old. How the hell does a minor get a cash-in-hand job, Warren? I mean, I am inclined to report it, but I know he slips a few sneaky notes in his boot for fodder. I can’t cripple him just to take her kneecaps.”
He stood then, unlocked the filing cabinet and conveyed a mason jar to the desk. “What I require is unjustifiable. If Scott finds out, well, he’ll never forgive me, Warren. But with a Ma like that, he doesn’t stand a chance in hell.” Unscrewing the cap, he retrieved rolled up notes and offered payment. “I’ll find the rest.”
“Put that away,” I snarled, whacking his hand from my face. “Don’t ever fucking insult me again. I do not accept cash from anybody. I don’t need people’s blood money or bribery tickets. Favour-for-favour, Rex. That’s how I operate.” Rising from the chair, I loomed over him, leaving my half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray. “I’ll see what I can do.”
He offered a flat smile, tightening the jar. “I owe ye so much.”
No, I am indebted to this man. He gave me a home after Bill died. I squeezed his shoulder and walked away, phone vibrating in my trouser pocket.
“Wait,” Rex called, and I paused near the exit door, not sparing him a second glance. “Times a healer, Warren. Take care of yourself.”
I digested his words, exited into the alleyway and stuffed the address in my pocket.
My phone continued to jitter.
“Fuck’s sake.” Unlocking the home screen, I accepted Nate’s call. “Warren.”
“Sir,” he drawled, lowering the clamorous music volume in the background. “I waited for you this morning to show you those documents...”
I rounded the street corner and flagged down a taxi. “I am not interested in Miss Bennett.” The black cab came to a stop. I opened the door and ducked into the backseats. “Take me here,” I ordered, handing the driver the address. “Cut corners, and I’ll double the fare price.”
“Are you hailing a cab? Where’s security? Actually, don’t answer that. I want to keep my balls. I sent an email,” Nate prattled one, talking over my garrulous taxi driver. “I advise you to open the attachment.”
Muting the call, I loaded the email and downloaded the attachment. I read the first three lines and impossible rage ignited something punishing and vicious inside me. “Nate,” I took him off mute, hand crushing the phone. Unfastening Alexa’s tag from my chain, I slipped it into the back of my wallet. “Invite Miss Bennett to the club tonight.”
I sensed his triumphant smile transmitting through the receiver. “Anything else, sir?”
“Yes, I want an update on Jace’s death.”
“Brad received information from Reginald this afternoon,” he said, and my interest heightened. “He looked into Brad’s claims, so he did a little digging. According to the Chief, Jace boarded a ferry the night in question. There’s no way he went down in that fire.”
My heart palpitated, and a red veil fell over my eyes. “I want you to pay Grayson a visit. Find out why he lied to me, or rather, who deceived him.”