Hunkered in sky-scraping commercial buildings, industrial units, departmental stores, theatres and bars and restaurants, I oscillated, hands clasped to the back of my head, scanning several departure routes.
Teeming with white-knuckled tourists, keen sightseers and aimless shoppers, London, the great city, all of a sudden, felt too small and discomforting.
Blood rushing in my ears, I lowered my arms, mentally lost in the bustling vicinage.
My heart beats so violently, so painfully.
I kneaded my chest with the heel of my hand, but the pulsation of my heart intensified.
The gravitational surge in my indistinct surroundings strengthened. I looked, hard, thoroughly. Although insurmountable and demanding, I listened to increasing intuition. It’s too powerful, enthralling and compulsive. Dissatisfaction and disillusionment arose, subjugating grounds for hope and optimistic belief, a logical voice inside my head, uncompromising with his unarguable facts.
I darkened my eyes, soft winds brushing hair strands across closed lids.
Alexa Haines is dead.
Why is my heart beating so fast?
Why do I feel her closeness?
The blonde damsel evoked me with pleasant yet heartrending memories. I see and feel Alexa, vividly exhausting. Fallen tears, unresolved arguments, and pointless separations. Beautiful smiles, stolen kisses and whispered sentiments. I still feel her body shattering beneath me. Her hand on my back, head on my shoulder, lips to my jawline. I touched my mouth with almost investigatory fingers, the vodka on her tongue, pungent to mine.
I am losing my mind. I am grieving.
No, I am in love.
The gyrating surveillance camera surveying the shopping centre’s layby square beckoned me. I don’t know who that woman is or why I am so insanely invested, but I want possession of that footage.
I force through the rotational doors in coinciding with Brad. He calls upon me, throws his hands in the air, frustrated. I fostered angered mutism, powered up the escalator and sprinted amid throngs of shoppers to inconvenience the centre’s security guards. I barged into the control room.
Seating and indulging pastries, three guards jerked gazes, one stood. “You’re not—”
“I need access to surveillance,” I interjected, pressing my palms on the partitioning desk. “All of it. Start from this morning too,” I glimpsed at my watch, “five-thirty. Give me access to the stores, elevators, facilities, restrooms and car parks.”
Momentarily stunned, the guard folded his arms, curving a thick eyebrow. “You do not have the jurisdiction for such imperious demands.”
I will murder him. “Wrong.” Fuming, I snatched the collar of his shirt, ripped him across the desk, his legs thrashing into monitors and telecommunication servers. “Do you know who the fuck I am?” His co-workers, frenetic yet slothful, jolted to their feet. “One more move,” I warned, cocking the Eagle, ramming the barrel under this geezer’s double-chin, “and I’ll blow his fucking brains out.”
Nate entered, closing and locking the door. He stationed himself like an impenetrable wall, black shirt tautening against his folded muscular arms.
I gave the guards a wicked smirk, fisted the guy’s shirt collar and smashed his face against the visitors’ desk.
Three minutes later, I walked away with cracked knuckles and two days worth of footage.
I alleviated myself from procrastinating shopping duties with Miss Bennett under the solid advice that I’d escort her to dinner sometime this week. I couldn’t think of anything worse, candlelit dinners, romanticism and false-hearted amorousness, especially with an uppish woman who believes her shit doesn’t stink.
Throned at the end of a conference table at Club 11, I nurse a whiskey-topped crystal glass, listening to the men, and Chief Superintendent Reginald Burton, hashing out theories regarding Jace Williams. To my left, Nate slaves away at the laptop, decrypting surveillance from the town’s shopping centre. He’s yet to deliver from studious investigating; however, I wait with nail-biting impatience, needing to know what today’s indecipherable encounter with the blonde means.
Reginald lights his cigar, hands me one. “There is no footage from the fire,” he explained, as I stroke the glass circumference, listening with razor-sharp attentiveness, “as surveillance went down before the arson attack.”
“And what of Jace?” asked Brad, pinching a toothpick, slipping it in his mouth. “Where does he stand in all this?”
“Nowhere,” Reginald said, puffing smoke. “He’s not a suspect, Warren. He was nowhere near the tenanted-building that night. In fact, your guy has an alibi. He was here when the fire started, enjoying your birthday celebrations.”
Don’t remind me. “Why did he board a ferry to the Isle of Man?” I tossed an envelope onto the desk, evidence he stole from Liverpool’s passenger terminal. Thanks to my most trusted men, a stockpile of gathered probabilities scattered among this private meeting.
Tearing through printed documentation, Reginald fixed his reading glasses and sliced his eyes. “Again, this means nothing. So, the man took a trip, visited friends and family. It doesn’t make him a suspect. It certainly doesn’t suggest he’s the man responsible for Miss Haines’ death.”
My heart ached at the sheer mention of her name. Cigar wedged between my teeth, igniting a matched flame, I leaned back in my chair. “How long have you known me, Reginald?”
He pondered my question. “Since that day, your younger self, so generously offered me a lifeline.”
“And in all the years you’ve worked for me,” I continued, respiring a veil of smoke, “when has my gut ever failed me?”
Pressing his lips into a grim line, he set the notes aside. “Never.”
“Never,” I repeated with an arrogant shrug. “Yet you question my judgement. You are not attending a meeting with peers or inferiors. Leave that law book at the door and get down to business. Man-to-man, Reginald. What do you speculate happened the night London’s fire commenced?”
“The Albanian mafia is solely responsible,” he stands by previous speculations. “I do not, however, think Jace acted as an accomplice during the time in question. Don’t waste valuable time looking into unsubstantiated evidence based on anecdotal research, Warren. I understand,” he enunciated, pinching the bridge between his eyes. “You need a reason for Miss Haines’ death, someone blameworthy to alleviate distress, but It is discreditable and counterproductive to go after the wrong guy.”
“I don’t care for credibility,” I snapped, blowing smoke to the ceiling. “And I don’t care what you say—that man knows something. Why didn’t he return to work the following morning, huh? Why did that son of a bitch flee London at the crack of dawn to avoid the aftermath of that fateful night? It’s senseless—or is it clever? I am yet to understand, of course.” I glanced at Brad. “What do we know about him?”
“Twenty-three-year-old Jace Williams relocated to London two years ago,” he gives me a run down, reading from a folder Nate put together. “Previous addresses fluctuate from Liverpool, Manchester and Scotland. It seems our vagabond almost never sets roots. At sixteen, Jace lost his girlfriend, Lucy O’Riley,” he slid an image down the table, “at childbirth due to severe bleeding and obstructed labour when delivering their daughter, Summer Williams.”
Frowning, I examined the image of a Jace kissing the top of a newborn baby’s head. “How old is the girl?”
“She’d be seven,” Josh added, highlighting passages with a green marker. “Did she board the ferry with her father?”
“No,” said Nate, passing me Jace’s one-way ticket receipt. “He made the trip alone.”
“Where’s the girl?” I asked, and everyone shared a dubious look. “And what of Grayson? What did he have to say about Jace’s bogus death?”
“My question floored him.” Brad raked a hand through his hair. “He claimed two officers visited the Coffee House after the fire and offered sincere condolences for his loss.”
Reginald eased back in his seat. “I didn’t send officials to the Coffee House. Whoever approached Mr Turner wasn’t law enforcement.”
Josh refilled everyone’s glasses with Macallan, a neat gin for Nate. “So, Bajramovic sent his men to the Coffee House, two guys portraying to be officers, to ensure Grayson didn’t raise awareness or become anxious and suspicious. Meanwhile, Jace, who seemingly has nothing to do with Alexa’s death, departs London at sunrise. He’s currently lying low, or hiding so that Warren doesn’t smell bullshit.” Loading a laptop, he taps the keyboard and searches primary schools within our vicinity. “Let’s start with Summer’s school.”
Impressed by Josh’s conscientious work ethic, I hiked a surprised eyebrow.
“It’s too late to call the reception desk,” he hummed, finding an alternative landline number. “I’ll try the headmasters mobile.” Clearing his throat, he put the phone to his ear. “Apologies for calling at unsociable hours. Joshua Fitzpatrick here, a homicide detective from the metropolitan police station in the Victoria Embankment, Westminster, London, regarding one of your pupils, seven-year-old Summer Williams.”
Reginald stared at him slack-jawed. “I reckon he’s working in the wrong field.”
Curbing a gloating grin, Josh listened to the headmaster’s response. “When was the last time she attended?” He paused, scribbling notes with a parker pen. “And did Mr Williams explain his reasoning?” Another scribbled line. “Yes, of course. Thank you for your time. I will be in touch if necessary.” He ended the call. “Get this. Summer hasn’t attended school for over two months. Jace pulled her out, claiming they were moving back to Scotland. Obviously, the education board didn’t question his decision. But,” he tapped the keyboard, sending information to the print, “Jace hasn’t enrolled Summer to another school. We know he never returned to Scotland, either.”
“What the fuck did he do with his kid?” Nate deliberated aloud. “No, man. Something is not right.” Tilting the laptop, he showed me the screen. “Your lady friend.”
I refrained from clipping him.
Zooming in on the woman, i watch the woman exiting a designer clothing store. It’s irrational and illogical, I thought, outlining her slender legs, paying great attention to her unsuspecting smile and waist-length blonde hair.
Brad bickered with Nate. Josh, on occasion, intervened. I, however, remained engrossed, clicking through various images and recordings. I paused the video. Inside a cosmetics store, opposite a makeup counter, the woman inhales fragrances, a tall male looming beside her. “Is he in the other shots?”
Nate drew a box around the guy’s head, clicked search and loaded additional footage. “Yes,” he confirmed as we watched the unknown man meander from shop-to-shop. “Interesting.”
“What?” I asked, glancing from him to the screen. “What am I missing?”
“He’s aware of the cameras,” Nate pointed out the guy’s surreptitious skulking. “Head lowered and eyes cast downward. His back to rotational camcorders and loitering security guards.” He unstiffened his spine, cracking his knuckles. “He’s crafty. I’ll give him that. What reason does he have to hide, though?”
Good question. “And their nearness,” I probed, showing him a close-up of the man’s hand on the woman’s lower back. “Their alliance is evident.”
Nate nodded in agreement. “I mean,” he winced, his gaze drifting to Brad, who’s drilling into me with a heated, cynical glare. “I don’t know, Sir. His shiftiness and lawlessness is questionable—he’s probably robbing those stores—but pilfering has nothing to do with us, right? I don’t even know why we’re looking into this.”
Resting an elbow on the table, I smoothed my thumb across my lower lip. Her image kindles something fierce and impossibly possessive inside me. “I want names,” I ordered, and Nate began to jot down notes. “I want to know who that man is.” I need to know who she is. “Where’s the footage of her absconding the centre?”
Nate mutes the volume Inserting another screen, and we watch her darting across the town square, the same woman I chased down with mechanical impulse. Guarded and unsteady on her shoes, she slips into the multi-storey car park—the screen glitched. Her still figure shelved next to the ticket station. “What happened?”
Nate contortions his puzzled features. He tapped his fingers on the keyboard, skimming surveillance, confused by the sudden technical difficulty. “Motherfucker,” he spat, and I sat straighter. “Someone’s hacked the organisation.” Jumping to his feet, he snatched Josh’s laptop, bashing the keyboard. “Shut everything down!” he barked, and the men stumbled into action, disengaging computer systems and software. “Shit.”
“What the hell is going on?” Reginald snubbed his cigar in the ceramic ashtray.
Unplugging the printer, Josh assessed print-outs, mirroring Nate’s puzzlement. “Printer jam,” he whispered, and I stood, fixing my cufflink. “Someone doesn’t want us sniffing around.”
I stared Nate down beneath gnarled eyebrows. “Do you still believe the lawless duo shouldn’t be on our radar?”
He’s flummoxed, tongue-tied.
My phone vibrated.
Kellie: Are you busy?
Kellie: I could swing by after work...?
My thumb hovered above the screen, Hellen’s face in mind.
Me: I don’t want to see you anymore.
Three dots danced across the screen.
Kellie: Are you dumping me over a text message?
Me: I can’t finish with a woman that I shared no commitments with.
Kellie: That’s a copout! What changed, Warren? We have a clear understanding, so why ruin it?
Me: I’m seeing someone else.
I awaited her response. Concluding she’d gotten my resolute, unarguable message, I put my phone away and slipped my arms into a coat. “Reginald,” I drawled, toking my cigar. “You can leave.”
“Thank you, Warren. A pleasure as always.” Accustomed to my rude and indifferent behaviour, he nodded, shook hands with the men and exited the conference room with two men escorting.
I wait until he’s gone to address my closest allies. “Josh, I want you to make restaurant reservations on my behalf; I am to accompany Miss Bennett to a romantic meal tomorrow night. In the meantime, I am to pay our white-supremacist hate group a friendly visit. It’s time somebody gave me Flamur Bajramovic’s whereabouts.” My hands fisting inside my trouser pockets, I smiled knowingly at my men. “I am more than capable of getting one of those bitches to squeal.”
Brad cracked a toothy grin. “The boss is back in the game.”
“Nate,” I clasped his shoulder, “I want you to take six men and fly to the Isle of Man tonight. Start with the sea terminal. See if there’s a link to Jace’s location and a possible hideout.”
“Sir,” he drawled, packing away his laptop. “Anything else?”
“Relay information when necessary.” I watch him leave and seek my right-hand man. “A moment alone, Brad.”
Comprehending requirements, obedient and poised, Josh dipped his head and ducked out the room with the security detail. “I believe Jace returned to London,” I voiced my concerns, and he rolled his shoulders back, a toothpick pinned at the corner of his mouth. “For peace of mind and irrefutable facts, I await Nate’s conformation.”
Occupying the minibar, Brad opened a crystal decanter to pour two stiff drinks. “So, you sent him on a wild goose chase?”
“No,” I clipped, inhaling and appreciating the whisky’s leather and wood aroma. “I appeased reservations. Yours, of course.”
Miffed, Brad ingested hard spirits with a sigh. “Mine?” he repeated, staring at me with a deadpan eyebrow curve. “You might need to spell it out for me, Bossman.”
I picked up one of the unspoilt print-outs, admiring the woman’s captivating smile. “For months, I have been dead inside. I am too familiar with grief and the destruction of guilt. Alexa’s death left me in a state of painful devastation. I knew she was different. When I lost her, though, such sentiments intensified—the love I have for that woman intensified, rather. And it hasn’t diminished, not once since her demise. Numb,” I continued, knocking back my drink. “Numbness became my best friend until this afternoon when this woman stared back at me.”
Brad took the image from my hand. “You think this woman can help you overcome bereavement? She looks nothing like Alexa. Kellie’s got more of a chance at winning your affections than this bird.” He chucked the image on the table. “What?”
I unclenched my jaw, the veins in my neck throbbing. “Her voice,” I whispered, staring into my empty glass. “She sounded like...” Alexa, I thought. I hated how the ridiculousness of my reservations. “Yes, I perceive their lack of resemblance...”
Brad provided silence.
I said the unthinkable. “I don’t think Alexa’s dead.”
“I knew it.” He huffed out a weary breath. “You’re losing your damn mind—”
“Shut up.” Settling my back to the sideboard, one hand in my pocket, I crossed my ankles. “I appreciate how ludicrous this may seem, but you didn’t see that woman, Brad.”
“I saw enough,” he said impatiently, fussing with his shirt collar. “One, that nut case is blonde, rake-thin and has blue eyes. Sure, let’s pretend there’s a chance that woman is Alexa. She dyed her hair and got some of those colour contact lenses to mask her appearance. And for argument’s sake, I suppose she went on a fad diet to lose weight. But,” he stressed, waggling three fingers, “Alexa would never wander past Liam Warren, never mind run from him.”
My chest caved. “She stayed,” I corrected, forgoing the part where she couldn’t wait to get away from me. “She made no effort to leave until Hellen arrived.”
Brad considered my comeback. “I don’t see it,” he answered honestly, extinguishing any slither of hope. “Listen, I get it, boss. You’d love nothing more than Alexa walking through those doors right now, putting the world to rights. Christ, I’d be fucking thrilled if she rocked up, too. But she’s dead, and tussling probabilities isn’t going to bring her back.” He motioned to the images. “If you’re searching for this unidentifiable woman in the hope she’s Alexa Haines? Leave it. You’re asking for further disappointment and heartbreak. If you’re keen to find her because you genuinely believe she’s a threat to you or the syndicate, I’ll track her down before the week is out.”
I rolled cigar smoke around my mouth, respiring a long veil. “You’re right,” I relented with reluctance. “Alexa would never run from me, not in this life or the next.”
Still, something didn’t feel right. That woman, whoever she may be, unearthed a dangerous, feral entity, one that’s on the brink of unleashing unavoidable genocide. I am angry, confused and unpredictable. I must know more about her. I must see and understand, for my sanity, why such intense gravity compelled our closeness and why her unassuming smile awakened the beast inside me.
“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.” He puffed clouds of smog around his face, holding my stoic gaze. “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.”
Rex’s lecture repeated inside my head. Perhaps this woman is my salvation. “Find her,” I ordered, and Brad dipped his head in grudging acknowledgement. “Let’s settle this dispute with the Nazi’s first.”
It’s time Flamur Bajromovic met his maker.