SACRIFICE (Book Two: The London Crime King)

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Ch 23


At a loss for words, Jace studied the insurmountable lake. It taunts us with its filamentous algae and blanketing fog. "How did you get out?" he asked, hitched defeatism in his low whisper. "Vick?"

"Alexa, don't panic."

Kathy's concerned voice failed to mollify my apprehensions. Water invades my throat. I coughed, spluttered, choking for breath. "Kathy!" My head dunked under the water, causing momentary deafness, blindness. For a split-second, while sinking into the unknown, I feared she'd leave me behind, forget about me, relieve herself from this encumbering indebtedness, but then her hand found mine, fingers tight on my skin, drawing me back to the surface.

Head flinging back on a refuelling gasp, I braced my hands on her shoulders, breathless, sticky and salty. I stared deep into her eyes, beads of water dancing on her lashes, blue, chafed lips slow-moving as she murmurs muffled words. "Understand?" she asked, and I nodded regardless of incomprehension, teeth clattering together. Her eyes veered past my head at the sound of advancing, animalistic howls. "Now is not the time to panic."

"We swam," I told him, and haunted eyes glared back at me.

"You and your sister?" he asked. I tipped my head. "You were a kid, though, right?"

"A determined teenager," I corrected, remembering the night like it was yesterday. "Besides, I had Kathy."

"Your sister?" He pinched the bridge of his nose. "How did she die, Vick? You told me she killed herself, but I could tell you were lying to me."

Excruciating pain zapped through my cheek, knees giving way. "Kathy, no." A sob heaved from my chest as her fingers twisted around my hair, dragging my thrashing body onto the bed. "Please don't hurt me."

My unheeded screams pierced and deafened me. I rasped, bones vibrating, a taste of metallic on my tongue. Light-headedness and nausea weakened my weightless form as she crawled above me, thighs astride my hips. I reached up to touch her chest. Her fingers tighten around my neck, strangling me with an iron grip.

I felt myself drifting into unconsciousness, arms losing the fight, sagging against my head. A heartbeat, a droned voice, a choking sound as pressure eased from my neck. I wheezed, touching my sore throat, hearing guttural shrieks. My sister struggles against someone, her head angrily whipping as she fights. "Don't hurt her!" A suited arm coil around her shoulders before he slashed the blade across her elongated throat. "No!" I shrieked, warm fluid splattering against my face and chest.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. I touch my skin and lift my hands, the sight of blood clinging to my fingers, sending me over the edge.

Her dead body sank back into the mattress, and a silent roar reiterated inside my head. "Kathy." Grasping her shoulders, I rested my forehead on her chest. Blood pressure increases with intense grief, the pain in my chest too much to endure.

I rolled onto my side, vomiting on the floor, body wrenching forward. Head buried into the mattress, I screamed, loud, painful, agonising screams. "No," I sobbed, staring at the wall, tears flowing down my cheeks. "No," I mumble, body numb, dead inside, feeling his hand on my head. "It's not real."

"Alexa," Liam's rough voice breathed in my ear. "Look at me."

I held Jace's hand, interlaced our fingers, equally benumbed. "Kathy was sick," I said, overwhelmed by ghastly, hair-raising flashbacks. "She developed Stockholm syndrome and battled alcoholism and heroin addiction." Amongst other drugs, I thought. "The girl I grew up with was not the same girl who left the compound that night. At first, I didn't see it—didn't notice. I had no reason to believe he'd gotten inside her head. But he did. And," I breathed, sickened by the notion, "Kathy started to resent me."

Eyes locked on mine, Jace put his back to the lake, thumb stroking my knuckles. "What did she do?"

"She wanted to 'eliminate the threat'," I quoted her final words, pointing to myself. "And she almost achieved it. The night my sister returned from months of disappearance, she beat me into semi-unconsciousness and wrapped her hands around my throat." I gave him a dull smile. "Fortunately for me, I had Liam on my side." Kathy's guttural shrieks resounded inside my ears. "He slit her throat and tossed her dead body into an unmarked grave."

I unravelled our fingers, dipped my head back and embraced the constellation of radiant stars above. "Sorry, give me a second," I snivelled, unshed tears depriving me of vision. "God, I don't even know why it upsets me. I hate her." No, I love her. I will always love her. "You must think less of me for letting her go to such a tragic death."

"No," he said, and I looked at him. "You're one of the toughest people I have ever met, Vick." He nudged my chin with his knuckles. "For what's it worth? I'm glad Warren took accountability. He freed you from guilt."

Liam's the centre of everything. "I'm not opposed to swimming again." It's freezing and the disturbing, unappealing water condition sheaths my body in goose-pimpled dread, but if Jace needs me to walk over hot coals tonight, I'll do it. I will undergo everything and anything to save Summer. "How do you want to do this?"

"There must be another way." His boots mined in the mud-spattered bank. He skirted the border coalescing onto a low, flat area of land. "Keep walking, Vick."

I contemplated removing my high-heeled shoes so that I didn't sink. I traced his footsteps, heels submerging, hampering the journey.

Latching onto a tree, Jace, indecisive, scowled at the floor as if offended him.

I cleared my throat. "Everything okay?"

He crouched, swept fallen leaves from the rusted-steel gateway-to-some-type-of-sewage.

"Is that a drain?" I wondered aloud, squatting beside him. "It smells like death..." Meshing my lips together, I scratched my upper brow, ready to rip out my wayward tongue. "Nath?"

"It's a ventilation shaft. London's best-kept secret," he jests, rolling up his shirt sleeves, leaving them at the elbows. "A 'hidden city' of tunnels, bunkers, sewers and subterranean spaces."

My ears perked up. "For real?"

He nods. "You'll find many clandestine shafts in London," he informs me, fingers gliding the grill-side for an opening. "Similar to this one." It screeched as he slid it across, ear-splitting and grating. "I'll go first."

I built a fortified wall around me, exhaling a long breath. "How do we get down?"

Perching onto the concrete ledge, he unlocked his phone, utilising the light as a torch. "Ladder." With gallant effort, he seized the metal handle and sloped underground, on occasion, whistling for me to trail.

"Okay," I talk to myself, a little pat on the back. "You can do this." Dropping a leg into the manhole, I fumbled around for a step, braced a foot and climbed down the ladder. "Where's your torch?"

"What?" Jace shouted, his voice echoing. "I can't hear you."

For the love of God. It's like experiencing a blackout. I cannot make out anything, which, in one regard, suits me fine. I mean, if I saw skulking bugs or disease-ridden parasites, I'll lose grip and plummet to my death. "Can you see anything with that torch?" I yelled a bit louder. "It's getting darker."

The light illuminated me. "I can see fine."

I stiffened, clinging to the rail, fingers whitening. "Can you not shine the light up here?"

"I can't win with you."

"I am wearing a dress, Nath."

"I have witnessed it all before, Vick."

I snorted, stepped down, repeated. "Not because I threw myself at you," I remind him. "You forced me to flash my bits."

I detected his stark exhale. "I asked if you wanted to talk about that and you said no. I apologise for seeing your...bits," he dwindled, and I grinned like a madwoman who looks possessed. "And for all the times I've seen them since."

My jaw loosened. "Perv."

"Are you sure you want to discuss the definition of a pervert, Vick? Considering you did nothing but 'perv' on my ass this morning."

Oh, how humiliating. I can't believe he caught me. "I wasn't ogling," I lied, another six steps. "I was admiring your tattoos."

"And Prince Albert?"

Is he flirting with me? "That so happened to slap me in the face." My cheeks were scorching, burning up. "Can we get off this topic, please? Are we there yet?"

"I've been standing here the whole time, Vick. It's you that's procrastinating." He flashes the torch, and I glimpsed over my shoulder. "Hey." Waving, he gestures to the obvious—land. "Fifteen minutes to climb down thirty steps. That has got to be a record."

Wide-eyed, I gazed up at the manhole, belated awareness washing over me. "You have got to be shitting me." I am beyond melodramatic. I thought it was going to be a much bigger drop. "So," I return my feet to terra firma, dusting off my hands with a palm sweep, "what do we have?"

Jace zapped the light, highlighting stoned-alcoves, ashlar masonry moss-covered walls akin to an old architectural castle. On the floor, strewn debris and ruptured disintegrated stonework. "We'll head north," he said, bypassing east-and-west passages. "Come on, Vick. Keep up."

I wafted malodour and sewerage stench from my nose, scouring narrow tunnels, evading overhead drips and leakage. "Imagine if that lake inundated." I rub an icy chill from the backs of my thighs. "Sorry, I babble when nervous."

"It's cool, Vick." His tense shoulders and rigid spine deceived his confident equanimity. "Fuck. It really does smell down here."

Yes, it's frighteningly concerning. I don't express or dramatise innermost fears and rioting anxieties, though.

"What do you think it is?" he asked, crushing a hand to his nose. "Fuck."

"Clogged up excrement." I struggled with queasiness—each step, gruelling, laborious, forced and jittery. Increasing fear slithered in my veins and tension attacked my limbs, preventing dauntless strides.

Fogginess crept across the cracked stone and unshaped crevices, honing rising torment. My breathing became more rapid and shallow, making my heart thud at a sporadic speed.

"You okay?" asked Jace, glancing back to check on me. "Vick?"

"I'm fine," I promised, rubbing my sweaty palms together. "How much farther?" I scuffed and crushed something under my shoe, almost tripping in the process. Spinning on my heel, I examined the floor, the light fading as Jace retreats.

In the midst of stagnant sewage and weathered wreckage, the incontrovertible remains and impacted friable bones of someone's skull.

Acidic bile rose in my throat, putrid vomit induced a dry-heave. "Nath..." Stumbling sideways, I set off to run, bumped an ankle and rolled into a sea of shattering, fragile skeletons—decomposing-smelling and flesh-like objects.

Darkness became my friend. I screamed inside my head. Don't frighten, Jace. Don't frighten, Jace.

"Vick?" he called, thumping footsteps closing in. "Where the hell did you go?"

Knees grazed, torn and stinging with blood, I pushed myself up, cringing with each snap and disjointed crunch. "Oh, God," I whispered, shirking whatever unidentifiable fluids clung to my raw skin.

"Vick this isn't funny."

Locating the wall, I slapped a palm to the rough stonework, ignoring every snap under my weight. I slithered to the passage entrance, the dim light leading the way.

I don't call Jace. I wait until it's safe, not wanting him to see the gruesome massacre of fresh and putrefied corpses. I pray Summer isn't amongst those decaying bodies. My eyes welled up, just thinking about it. "I'm okay," I croaked, tumbling into his readied arms. "Sorry, I got side-tracked—"

He blinded me with the torch, eyes protruding. "What the fuck, Vick?" Taking my jaw, he inspected my scuffed cheek. "Is that blood?"

"I banged my head and grazed my knees," I deflected, grappling airless breaths. "I'm okay, Nath." Hugging his elbow, I moved him along. "We must be close."

I had unnerved Jace. He relents, eyes bouncing from me to the passageway.

Turning the corner, holding me upright, he splashed lighting, troubled by the low battery life. "Look," he jerked his chin, urging me to hurry. "This is it, Vick." Posted beneath a second hole, he grasped the wall ladder, tested resilience. "I'll go first to scope the perimeters and make sure it's safe. If we're good to go? We'll separate. Got it?"

"Hey," I whispered, gripping his T-shirt. "Ride-or-die, huh?"

Jace tilted his head to kiss my cheek, fixing his cap. "Cloak and dagger."

I giggled, teary-eyed, holding up a tight fist. "Once and for all."

"Odds and ends."

"Down and out."

He mirrored my smile, giving me a fist-pump. "One and the same."

A single tear rolled down my cheek. He swept it away with his thumb, respired a shivered breath and clambered the ladder.

I gripped the rails and soared in his shadow.

At the summit point, he pushed the metal slide across the floor, granting our intrusion. "Don't forget, Vick. If anything happens to me, grab Summer and get to safety." He pulls himself up, disappears.

My perfume mingled with sweat. I owned reckless courage, scaled the final stage, glided over the threshold and crawled on my hands and knees.

Jace helped me stand, his chest heaving. He tapped a finger to his lips, an order of silence.

I nod, wiping ever-present dampness from my forehead.

Pointing to the right, he missions me in one direction and then falls into the opposite.

I stand, frozen, watching him vanish into blackness. Keeping my back to the wall, I stepped sideways, retrieving the Colt, locking the handle in a stable grip.

My shoulder hit something hard. A turning point, I thought, transferring my back to another solid partition. I must get a hold of my frantic breathing. It's too loud, jarring and thick.

In the dark, I found a door, checked the handle and cracked it open. I entered a corridor, undecorated with smoke-stained walls, dusty floorboard and boarded up windows, sifting soft, natural moonlight between the wooden cracks.

Relief administered oxygen. I drew in a revitalising breath, lowered my guard, tiptoed into the next door. I peered into the small window, checking the other side—a brighter hallway.

I stole a moment to assuage myself, alternatively wiped my sweaty palms on my dress skirt and proceeded with painstaking diligence.

Extending my arms, I point the gun from door-to-door, marking vacant, desolate rooms. In a state of claustrophobia, I rise to the next floor, wondering how far we had travelled below the surface.

I stumbled upon a kitchen. It's not the same kitchen from when Kathy and I fled this place. It's newer, modernised with top-of-the-range appliances, filthy yet expensive-looking floor tiles and a large, eight-seater cherry-wood table. Two ceramic mugs on the granite counter evaporated coffee stains and a newspaper.

As I wandered, I considered Jace. I pray he killed besieging enemies and found his baby girl. I pray he reappears soon and gets us the hell out of this place.

In the living quarters, an L-shaped sofa, coffee table, magazines and wall-mounted televisions, or, so I thought, until examining closely.

I picked up the remote, clicked random buttons. Two men prowl, armed, suited and booted, mouths moving in rapid haste as they spoke.

"Where are you?" I watched them stroll, heart thrashing against my ribcage. I pressed the blue button, and I stared at myself, stood inside this room, vulnerable, alone. Behind me, in the doorway, a tall silhouette.

I worked on a tight gulp, insidious rage intensifying. I grew restive, watched him creep behind me, remote control slipping through my clammy fingers. "Get away from me," I screamed, spinning and impaling his face with the gun.

Groaning on impact, he capitalised on my mechanical rashness, seized my wrist, knocked the Colt from my hand and spear tackled me to the ground.

I whacked my head on the coffee table leg, body sprawled on the ground in transient feverishness. His weight crushed my frame, breath warm to my cheek, stale cigarettes. "Ai do të jetë i kënaqur," he groaned in my ear, locking a meaty hand around my throat. "Por është shumë shpejt." He disarmed me, tossing the spare Colt on the sofa. "Alexa Haines. It's been too long."

Salvation and mitigation were virtually non-existent here. I gasped, bucking beneath him in a useless attempt to gain the upper hand.

Bleary-eyed and frozen in fear, I heard the familiar sound of a clanking belt buckle and violently thrashed my head. The room span and darkness ...

"What's happening to me?"

Liam used force to untangle my fingers. I clung to him, hands to his forearms, fingernails pinching his skin. "Breathe, Alexa," he said, but all I heard was Him. "Slowly. In and out." His eyes focus on mine, not breaking contact. "Deep breaths. Bring yourself back, Alexa." He held my jaw in one hand, his ice-cold blues searing through me. "Don't allow yourself to go there. It's you and me," he rasped, fisting my hair, causing a sharp sting. "You and me."

"," I repeated, my voice breaking. "You...and me."

"That's right." He nods, inhale, exhale. "Just us."

My attacker ripped my thighs apart, nestling his waist between them. "Mëluftoni," he growled. "Eja!"

"I hate the darkness, Liam," I whispered, resting in the safety of his arms. His black silk sheets weaved between our tangled legs. "It's when everything comes back. It's when I see him or my mother." Pleasant reminiscences until she alters into something frightening, tormenting our happiness. "Maybe I need help."

"Don't do that," he berates, tracing my lips with the pads of his fingers. "I said it before, and I'll say it again. It's not real. Whatever invades your thoughts, isn't real."

I placed a hand to his bare chest. His thunderous heartbeat confused me. Why, if it's only sex between us, does he react so fervently under my touch? Why does he lose himself in me? Every breathless kiss, tender touch and whispered assurance seems like a promise. "I only feel safe with you."

Liam's arm beneath my neck tensed. "Fear life and death will come for you." He wrapped it around my shoulders, pulling my naked body across his chest. "Fear death," he said, kissing my bottom lip, "and you'll do anything to overcome it."

I pressed a kiss to his jawline. "You make everything sound so easy."

His dilated blue eyes were brighter against the magical lights of London's nightlife. He drew me beneath him, positioning his forearms on either side of my head.

I curled my fingers around his chain, pulled him down and kissed him. He entered me, and my breath hitched. "Liam," I moaned, wilting underneath him.

He ravished my neck with scorching kisses. "Baby." He moved back, drove forward. "Fight back."

I choked on a whimper, weighed down by the frantic lunatic hiking up my dress. I extended an arm, fingers trembling to reach the Colt. It's too far; I'll never obtain it. I seek an advantage, Jace's encouraging assurances relaying inside my head. I tried to pinch the guy, bite his moving arms and knee him between the legs. He evaded each hit, unzipping his jeans, tugging them mid-thigh.

No, I will never be someone's victim again. Survival instinct kicked in. He's a criminal and criminals carry weapons. I frisked him with frantic hands, throat searing in his unmerciful grip, and touched a cold object with my fingers. I snatched the handle of his gun, shoved the barrel into his side and pulled the trigger. One-shot. No second-guessing. Aim to kill.

His body slacked atop mine, boneless, lifeless, blood splurging down my fingers. His hold on my throat softened, and I refuelled my lungs. "Get off me," I groaned, using all my strength to roll him away. He thumped beside me, dead weight, a trail of gore splashed between us.

I yanked my dress down, twisted onto my side and crawled on my hands and knees. Reclaiming the Colt's, I re-equipped, pretending there wasn't a dead guy in the room or his vile blood dripping down my legs.

"Oh, God. I killed someone." Tumbling into a different room, I neatened my ball cap and stopped. I met a steel door, unbolted, unchained, left ajar. It seemed to retreat, walls elongating and closing in.

I heard my hysterical, muffled breaths and nervous snivels. It's all I can listen to amid deathly silence and unnerving eeriness. "I'm coming, Summer."

In a trance, I crept the door open and faced my greatest fear: my childhood. Dark and precipitous, the basement stored many painful secrets. It called me, allured me back with the soughing of coldness and distant wailing.

I descended one step at a time, heels grating on the concrete. "It's okay," I said, aquiver with trepidation. "It's okay. I'm here." I lingered on the bottom step, blinking rapidly to clear murky depths. I heard nothing—smelt everything. "Shit." Thrusting my back to the wall, I slapped a hand over my nose and mouth, eyes watering.

It's no good. The odoriferous decomposing stench surged a vicious upsurge of vomit. I retched vodka, the pungent taste sweltering inside my throat.

Spittle hung from my dry lips. I wiped it with the back of my hand, frisked the wall for the light switch. It's here. I know it's here because he used to blind me when visiting. "Summer," I called, listening for any sounds of movements or frightened tears. "Are you in here?"

I mauled the fractured wall with probing fingers, outlined plastic casing. I smiled, pushed the switch and fluorescent light tubes hummed above and, one by one, whitened the room...

A crescendo of gunfire thundered somewhere in the compound. I was too numb to care anymore. The gun glided through my fingers, hitting the ground, loud, resound.

Tear-streaked, I lowered to my knees in defeat, snaked an arm under her neck and brought her to my chest. "It's okay. Daddy's coming, baby." Fingers buried in her blood-streaked blonde hair, I lamented, guttural cries ripping from my throat.

I glued to her frail body, swaddling her body in a stained, fleece blanket, hiding emaciated, bruised skin and decomposition. "Somewhere over the rainbow," I whispered, tucking hair behind her ear, "way up high. There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby."

Disembodied footsteps advance. I slumped against the wall, refusing to let her go. "Someday I'll wish upon a star," I croaked, lifting the spare Colt, finger parked on the trigger. "And wake up where the clouds are far behind me."

The basement door crashed into the wall. Filthy trainers and denim jeans coming into my peripheral vision. I don't know the man—never seen him before—but he's one of them. He's a monster. "Where troubles melt like lemon drops." I aimed fire, shoulders fusing to the wall on impact.

"Shkërdhatë!" he roared, clasping his wounded thigh, body lurching back. He tumbled down the steps, crashing into the wall.

"If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow." I shoot again, blowing through ammunition, bullets ripping his flesh. He's dead. He died on the third bullet. I shoot until the gun clicks—until it's empty. "Why, can't I?"

Snivelling into her hair, I snuggled her in, to keep her warm, to keep her safe, protect her. "I'm sorry," I cried in a hollow voice. "I'm so sorry."

I still hadn't seen her face. I'm not sure I can.

Dead inside, I held her hand in mine, thumb circling her palm. "Mum," I whispered, closing my eyes, searching for her beautiful face. "She's alone." I can't find her. "I don't know what to do," I sobbed, lips wobbling. "He—"

"Vick?" Jace called, and my mouth opened and closed.

His footsteps, controlled and paced, loud on the ceiling. I felt his feverish panic and heard his laboured breathing as he gravitated to the basement.

"Vick?" he shouted down, hesitating near the door. "Are you down there?"

A lump knotted in my throat. I tried to respond, tried to tell him.

Jace hurries down the steps, arms raised, pointing his gun. "Vick...?" His eyebrows snapped together, confusion in his sliced green eyes. His gaze lowered to my lap, arms sagging to his side. "No," he rasped, shaking his head vehemently. He rushed over, lost the gun, fell to his knees. "Summer," he cooed, dragging her dead body into his arms, cupping her head. "Baby girl?" kissing her cheek, smoothing back her hair, lips trembling. "Wake up."

I hid behind my hands, his choked sob tearing my heart.

"Daddy's here." He shook her small body in a violent outburst. "I said, wake up!"

"Nath." I touched his shoulder, and he spurned me, jerking away, rocking her body with force. "Nathan, stop!" He ignored me. I can't take it. He's too brutal, too forceful. Her limp body like a rag doll in his arms. "That's enough!" I yelled, trying to pry her off him. "Jace!" I slapped him, hard.

His head whipped to the side. Pain and shock etched his twisted features, fingers tangled in his daughter's hair.

"Please stop shaking her." I held his mournful eyes, rubbing his back. "Please."

His bottom lip quivered. "Hmm," he mumbled, letting her body drop.

I caught her head under my palm before she landed on the ground.

Jace stood, hands clasped to the back of his head. His legs gave way, and he fell on his backside. Bemoaned, he sobbed into his hands, the most painful, gut-wrenching screams.

Tasting tears on my lips, I stared at his daughter, unable to drown out or lessen his heartbreak. Her dead, green eyes bore into mine. Her vivid diamonds mask her busted, chapped lips, decaying skin and sunken cheekbones.

Summer had her father's eyes. I kissed my fingertips and closed her lids, gentle touches.

"Alexa," he cried, and I suddenly hated my real name—hated everything about myself. "Fuck, Alexa. Please help her. Help my baby girl."

I was helpless. "She doesn't belong down here," I said, and his red-brimmed eyes implored me. "Call the police. You need to take her home."

"Yes," he ululated, agony in his hooded gaze. "I'll be outside."

I stood on unbalanced feet, lifting her. I kissed her forehead, wrapped her in the blanket and eased her into his waiting arms. I didn't look when he strode away. I stayed, collected the Colt's and headed to the kitchen.

Panting and sweating, I clung to the sink, turned on the tap and scrubbed the blood from my arms.

Chucking the ball cap on the counter, I dabbed mascara from my cheeks, wavering with no sense of direction.

I screamed, fisting my hair, paralysed and grief-stricken. I snatched a chair, shattered it up the wall. Wood splintered, and the legs disassembled. I picked one up and destroyed everything.

Sweeping dinnerware from the cupboards, I broke and fragmented glasses, tore the small appliances off the counters, hurled them across the room.

Enough, I thought, clicking open a beer, drinking for that burning sensation. Tilting the can, I poured a stream on the rug, soaking it.

Bursting at the seams, I unscrewed whisky bottles, doused the walls, furniture and floors. I open drawers, snatch a matchbox and stuff bottles in my waistband.

Scratching the match, I ignite a flame, drop it on the sofa. It catches, a blue and orange creek meanders between the cushions.

I light another, flames licking and whooshing. I swigged Jack Daniels, enough to make me light-headed and trickle liquid as I head out front.

Cold winds greet me. I shut the door, stabilised on the weather-worn veranda, looked heavenward, felt soft drizzles on my face.

"We're going to get soaked," Kathy sighed, interweaving our fingers. "Stay close."

Tears mingled with rain. I held onto the guardrail, saying goodbye to my nightmare.

I hurt more this time. I grieve for the little girl who lost her life. I ache for the man who has become a fundamental part of my existence...

But I am not scared anymore.

"Shh!" Kathy scolds, pressing two fingers to my lips. "We have to be quiet."

I nodded, holding teddy tight to my chest. "Where are you taking me?"

She crept toward the door, pointing to the loft. "It's a surprise."

"It's scary up here, Kathy," I whined, ducking from cobwebs. "And it's dark."

"Look," Kathy points near the roof window. "I can see the moon."

"You can?" I gripped her nightgown, craning my neck to see the dark sky. "Wow."

"Crazy, huh?" Banging a torch against her palm, she shone the light onto the makeshift bed on the floor. "It's bigger than the world."

"No way," I said in disbelief, slumping onto the beanbag. "Will mummy get mad?"

Kathy opened the window, snuggled in close and aimed the torch toward the sky. "Watch."

Fascinated, I curled an arm around her waist. "What are you doing?"

"Saying hello," she glimmered the torch to the sky, "to the stars."

"This is the best birthday ever." I watched the stars twinkle and smiled. "Thank you, Kathy."

"I'm your sister, Alexa." She laced our fingers together. "You don't have to thank me." She nudged my nose with hers. "How much do you love me?"

"Too much," I smiled a sad smile, meeting the distant flicker of stars. I cast my eyes to the floor, put my hand on Jace's shoulder. "I love you, Nath."

He's too deadened, his daughter embosomed in his protective arms.

Flamur Bajramovic's compound exploded. Flames billowed to the night sky, freeing trapped souls, including mine.

"I called the police," Jace said, unable to stand the sight of me. "Now is your chance, Vick. Hang around and return to your old life," he suggested, the fire blazing in his eyes, "or you can go can go back to hiding."

I parted my lips, hurt by his callousness. In the distance, a gyrating helicopter assaulted my ears. I drop back, arms lethargic at my sides. "There's nothing left for her."

His cold, murderous stare felt like a slap in the mouth.

Reduced to tears, I wiped my face and left him to find myself.
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