Wearing a charcoal suit and a burgundy coloured silk shirt, Brad stands directly from my desk, toothpick in place. He runs me through this week’s cash takings at Club 11 and The Grape and Vine before our meticulous discussion regarding prohibited trade. I have reliant partners in France, Germany and Belgium, the nexus between the importation of illegal goods, drugs, weapons and alcohol cranes to avoid tax evasion.
“Belgium no longer wishes to do business with us.” Brad slides an email print out across the desk. “Leadership has decided to step down and emigrate to Australia with his family.”
“Close the account,” I ordered, knocking down a whiskey shot. “I don’t care for Belgium’s liquor trade and preposterous gangsterism anyway. Speak to headship in France to negotiate initial agreements. I want in on their counterfeit alcohol enterprise as a lucrative sideline. If they refuse to regularise commerce, I’ll cut ties and move all overseas business to Germany.” I tossed the email in the bin. “Updates.”
Nate popped open the button of his suit jacket and perched onto the desk edge. “I located Jace’s hideaway.” He passed me receipts from the Isle of Man Sea Terminal, printed surveillance footage and camera angles from convenient stores within the vicinage of Jace’s rented holiday home. “He boarded the Ferry and waited on the deck until disembarkment. He drove his vehicle eight miles to this place,” he points to a weather-beaten cottage overlooking coastal views, “and resided for almost two months.”
I thumbed through the images. “What’s this?”
“It is an underground living quarter,” he said, circling a manmade railed enclosure, separating the open-plan kitchen and reception room. “It kinda gave me the chills, so, after a thorough investigation, I spoke to a few locals and asked if ‘the subterrestrial cage was orthodox in Douglas’?”
Scratching his brow, Josh scoffed. “What did they say?”
“Apparently their forefathers built them back in the early 1940s for reassurance.” He pulled a face. “Confinement for when the Germans invaded.”
“What were they going to do?” Brad’s voice went up a notch. “Capture and starve any Wehrmacht that so happened to fall from the sky?” He snorted. “Savage.”
The corner of Nate’s mouth twitched. “Not everyone takes torture methods to the extreme, Brad.”
“I don’t know,” Josh winced, kneading his stomach. “Famishment can be pretty brutal.”
Nate folded his arms. “Yeah, well, for a fat cunt like you maybe.”
His comment offended Josh. The lad isn’t the bulkiest of men, but he’s lean, ripped and shredded. He doesn’t need to argue the obvious. “I hate Nate,” Josh informed me. “My diet consists of spinach and ginger protein shakes or those goddamn pennant butter Carb-Killa bars.”
Pride-filled, Nate grinned.
“He only authorises cheat-meals on a Friday, which is now my favourite day of the week.” Josh glared at Brad. “How come you get to eat whatever you want?”
“Quit complaining,” Brad defended Nate’s honour. “We all had gruelling training regimes at the beginning, Joshy boy. Nate will ease up when he’s satisfied with your progress.”
Resigned, Josh sank on the sofa.
Relaxing in my leather chair, I light a cigarette. “What else did you find at Jace’s holiday retreat?”
Clearing his throat, Nate fixed his glasses. “No,” he confirmed, and we all bore equally puzzled expressions. “Not even an empty beer bottle. It was dusty but uncluttered. No signs of temporary living or forgotten belongings. If it weren’t for receipts and surveillance, I’d of had trouble believing he even visited that place.”
Nothing about Jace’s behaviour made sense.
Where did he go the night I kicked him out of Club 11?
Why did he leave the Coffee House without notice?
Evidence suggests it was Flamur’s men who misinformed Grayson of Jace’s and Alexa’s death. Not Reginald Burton or the metropolitan. “It’s plausible Jace is one of Bajramovic’s allies,” I mused, respiring a slew of cigarette smoke. “Such strategic efforts on the Albanians behalf.”
Before I wiped out the white supremacists, a traitorous coward squealed one of Flamur’s sanctuaries. It was unfortunate that neither Bajramovic nor his wife, Zamira, reared their heads. Instead, I stumbled upon a chilling shrine he hoarded from past victims and a young woman.
Blaire’s hospitalised. I paid for treatment at a private clinic to keep her name out of the papers. I have yet to pay her a visit, but Nate reassured her health and mental condition were stable. Doctors provided bloodstream malnourishment and administered intravenous antibiotics to treat severe bacterial infections, so she’s safe, stable and supervised.
While the men conjectured many theories, I turned in my seat to face the floor-to-ceiling window, overseeing the club’s active engagement.
If Jace worked alongside Flamur, it means he’s an accessory to Alexa’s death. “Any leads on the daughter?” I asked, rolling smoke around my mouth. “Staying with a friend?”
“Nada,” Nate said, and I grew restless. “Again, if it weren’t for her birth certificate and previous schooling confirmation, I’d argue he even had a child.”
I had dinner arrangements with Hellen.
Rubbing my eyes, I considered cancelling when my phone vibrated, and Hellen’s name flashed across the screen. I diverted the call and sent a text message, explaining that something came up.
Hellen: You cannot be serious?
Hellen: What’s more important than delicious steak and a good shag?
I had an endless list of better pastimes.
Me: I’ll make it up to you.
Hellen: Yes, you will. Why don’t I swing by in the morning? Nice and early. I think there is a spot between your thighs with my name on it.
Her flirtatiousness required serious work.
Me: Sounds delightful.
Kellie: We need to talk.
My hand crushing the phone, I inhaled a deep breath through my nose.
Kellie: Don’t ignore me, Warren. It shows when you read the message.
Me: What do you want?
Kellie: In person.
How did I end up here? I’m unaccustomed to women dramas. I haven’t experienced such hounding since Bronagh.
Me: I have nothing to say to you.
Kellie: Really? Well, I have plenty to say to you.
“I never thought I’d say this,” I hummed into my glass, and the men’s conversation diminished, “but I can’t think of anything worse than female attention and worthless fucking.”
Glaring at me in sheer horror, Brad rounded the desk. “Was that a joke?”
I ignored his question.
He sighed in exasperation. “What’s the problem?”
Kellie: It’s a priority, Warren.
I stood to refill my drink with Jameson. “I never lie to them,” I said, and the men listened. “I don’t need to. Honesty is the best policy. I live by that pithy. It’s easier and straightforward.” Putting my back to the minibar, crossing my ankles, I sipped my drink. “If you speak to women with candidness, they can’t accuse you of misconception.”
Nate closed collected evidence, storing them in a folder. “Sir?”
“I don’t even know Kellie that much,” I said, but they’re aware. “The majority of our time together was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Not an excuse. I’d have fucked her regardless. We stayed in here or one of the private rooms. She’d share a few lines with me or smoke a draw.” I leave out the miserable, depressing conversations about Alexa. “I explained the situation, told her I was looking for no more than sex, and she agreed.” I finished my drink, set the glass down. “Now Kellie’s pestering me. Missed calls, text messages and prattling voicemails.”
Hellen: I’ll wear your favourite colour.
Me: And what might that be?
Hellen: White, of course.
I am a man who appreciates all shades of lace on a woman, but only one colour comes to mind when envisioning a beauty beneath me and it’s not white.
I fired a response.
Me: You sure know how to please me.
Brad clicked his tongue. “Is there an order here, Bossman?”
“No.” My eyes darted to Brad. “If Kellie becomes problematic, I’ll order a hit.” I don’t need complications, not while striving to get in Hellen’s good books. “When will the hospital discharge Blaire?”
“Tomorrow morning.” Josh laid a deck on the coffee table, grinding a bud. “Where am I driving her? She got no family, right?”
How the fuck am I supposed to know?
I clicked my neck, releasing tension. “Did she say that?”
“Give her a guest room at the penthouse. I haven’t decided how to handle her, but she spent time with the Albanian, which means she’s our first, solid lead.”
Refraining from giving me his opinion, Brad tongued a toothpick to the corner of his lips.
Upon noticing “Breaking News” on the wall-mounted television, I ordered, “Hit up the TV volume.”
Sat on a blue high back chair in a news studio, the female presenter fixed her headpiece, reporting with a man to her right. “Detective, thank you for joining us this evening. Human trafficking in Britain is on the increase according to the new government’s qualitative retrospective. The study states organised criminal gangs are behind immigration, commercial sexual exploitation and domestic slavery. Tonight, there was a huge development for the metropolitan police.”
Hands clasping together, forearms resting to his knees, the Detective leans forward. “Yes, tonight has been a colossal breakthrough for law enforcement.” He motions to the screen behind them, where issued helicopters capture live footage of emergency services cordoned off a burnt building. “Officials overturned the crime scene following an anonymous tip-off. This find has, not only exposed us to the magnitude of human trafficking here in London, but it has reopened multiple unresolved historical cases.”
“Throughout the search,” the broadcaster said, “forensics discovered a significant amount of evidence that helped identify many, sadly, deceased victims. Those who have been missing for as much as fifteen years.”
“Christ,” Brad exhaled, parking beside me.
“Absolutely,” the Detective responded. “Of course, until pathologists confirm the victims’ identities, I am not authorised to represent or validate for the senior officer leading this case; however, I can confirm this investigation corroborates documented evidence regarding one particular case, and that’s of the missing Haines sisters.”
An image of Kathy and Alexa appeared on the screen, and the crystal glass slipped through my fingers, the broken glass scattering across the hardwood floor.
“The non-family abduction of Kathy and Alexa Haines shook leading officials,” he continued, and the broadcaster nodded. “The two girls disappeared from their family home in Newquay, Cornwall after their abductor murdered their mother, Adaline Haines.”
Behind the conversing duo, on the video monitor, photos of Alexa’s photos segue.
Unable to withstand her childhood, so innocent and unsuspecting, I dropped my eyes to the floor.
“Following a three-month intensive investigation of ground, air and water searches with no leads or substantial evidence, Chief Investigators enlisted Scotland Yard, who launched another extensive search.”
“And the Haines case remained unsolved until the two girls reappeared in London almost seven years later,” she stepped in, bewildered. “Surely, between the sisters, there was enough evidence to prevent future travesties.”
“Unfortunately not,” he said incredulously, and my jaw locked. “Due to years of confinement, abuse and sexual servitude, neither Kathy nor Alexa had the mental capacity to support the case farther.”
The woman crossed her legs. “Is there a prime suspect?”
“Yes, the metropolitan has concrete evidence and a primary witness. Suspects cannot be named for legal purposes; however, forensics confirmed one of which is a repeat sexual offender.”
“Turn it off.” Enraged, I palmed my phone and dialled Reginald’s number, chastising him the second he answered. “What the fuck am I paying you for? Why am I funding your gambling addiction and covering-up your affairs with overpriced harlots?”
Burton stuttered. “Warren—”
“I could take it from you in a fucking heartbeat,” I yelled, snatching a stiff drink from Nate. “Too comfortable, Reginald. That’s what you are. I shouldn’t have to find out that you located Bajramovic’s hidden compound by the goddamn television.”
“I am neck-deep in bastard homicides,” he barked, slamming a door in the background. “I was going to call you.”
I didn’t answer; I waited for elaboration.
“You already know the compound belongs to the Bajramovics. You also know I haven’t been able to find Mr and Mrs Bajramovic since the death of Alexa Haines. I am trying,” he emphasised, the chair he sits on creaking. “That son of a bitch knows people, Warren. I reckon he’s got allies in London and Albania.”
I chewed my inner cheek. “I know.”
My knowingness had caught him off guard. “You do?” He asked for validation. “Christ, Warren. And you didn’t think to share this knowledge with me?”
“I don’t answer to you, Reginald,” I remind him, loosening the collar of my shirt.
My phone vibrated. I checked the screen.
Kellie: I apologise for coming across too strong. I still need to see you, though.
Tapering down abhorrence, I set the phone back to my ear. “While we’re on the subject, Nate chased leads on Jace, and he overturned the guy’s safe haven but came unstuck—”
“We got him,” he interjected, and I felt a sharp twinge in my stomach. “Jace was the one who called. He’s given a full statement this evening.”
My blood heated. “Go on.”
“Bajramovic and his men kidnapped, molested and murdered his seven-year-old daughter, Summer Williams. Jace explained that Flamur promised to kill the girl if he involved the police. He was ordered to carry out many illegal dealings in exchange for his daughter’s safe return. Alas, it didn’t plan out.”
I had no words.
“He’s knocked for six, Warren. The guy raided the compound to save his girl—found her decomposed body in one of the slave chambers. He carried her outside and then burnt the building to the ground in a state of traumatised shock.”
“Accomplice?” I asked, and he verified Jace acted alone.
Rendered speechless, I cut the phone call short.
“What did he say?” Brad asked, his voice low, calm. “Bossman?”
“Get the hospital to discharge Blaire tonight. She and I need to have a chat.”
Blaire showered on arrival. She ate a midnight meal with the men at the dining room table but seldom involved herself while they joked and polished off Macallan.
Nate organised a guest room on the east wing, furthest from the master suite. Blaire’s not ready to face the outside world yet, so he ordered mandatory necessities online, cosmetics products, footwear, nightwear, casual and formal clothing and lace unmentionables. In the meantime, I’ll provide her respite, impermanent accommodation and a private therapist.
Surrounded by 360-degree panoramas of London’s iconic views at night, I am standing on the balcony, forearms braced on the balustrade, valuing the taste of spiced Cognac. City lights glittered between skyscrapers. Faint music sounded from the touristic streets, and a savoury aroma wafted through the air.
Unlocking my phone, I coded the password to a private folder and loaded the image of Alexa. She’d stood right here, hip to the railing, posing for the camera. She’d captioned her photo, an indication of visiting me.
I set a fist to my mouth with a contemplative frown.
Why did the Albanians delude Grayson into believing Jace and Alexa died that night? Wasn’t her death manifest subsequent to the fire? Hadn’t the police established the arson attack started in her flat?
Bajramovic’s ambiguous masterminding left a bad taste in my mouth. His risible over performance implicated transcended misapprehension, or am I living in fool’s paradise with a resurgence of denialism?
Cognac warmed my throat. I slowly licked its dark, rich, flavours from my lips, trying to assemble and piece together improbabilities.
“Sir?” Blaire whispered behind me.
I watched the omnipresent traffic motor across the London bridge. “Did you finish online shopping?”
“I did,” she said in a quiet, gentle voice. “Mr Alzaim left a moment ago to meet with...” She doesn’t know Brad’s name, which is probably for the best. “I can’t thank you enough for helping me.” Side-by-side we stood. Her head barely to my shoulder. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes,” I agreed, her jasmine scent drifting between us. “It’s the precision behind purchasing the penthouse.”
Her unwavering eyes and smile expressed admiration. “It smells good up here.” Holding onto the balustrade, she peered down below. “Restaurants?”
“Many.” I popped a cigarette in my mouth, inhaled when lighting.
Blaire moved to face me, hip to the rails. “Will he find me?”
Flamur Bajramovic. “Who?” I feigned unawareness.
“My mast...” Her lips thinned. “Mr Bajramovic.”
“No, you’re safe with me,” I reassured, blowing smoke toward the night sky. “How did you fall into the hands of that man?”
“Zamira.” Nate’s gym hoodie buried her petite frame. “I was walking somewhere when she drove past and offered me a ride. I thought she felt sorry for me because it was raining. I was upset from arguing with...”
I side-eyed her. “Arguing with whom?”
“An ex-boyfriend.” She chewed her thumbnail. “Zamira was kind and talkative. I sat beside her while she drove, discussing the weather, and that is when I felt something sharp on the side of my neck.” She touched the spot beneath her ear. “Everything was just dark after that.”
I wondered if she knew about the other victims and the compound. “Are you the only victim?”
“God, no.” She shook her head. “I saw so many young women and little...” Her eyes were glassy. “Little girls. But he didn’t keep them down there with me for too long—a few days, at best. I don’t know what he did with them, but I can only imagine how unbearable it’s been for them.”
“Why keep you at his retreat and not them?”
“He said, I reminded him of someone,” she confirmed my thoughts. “Lexi or something.”
Pent-up rage, burning me up inside, I crushed the glass in my hand. “Is that right?”
Nodding, she blinked up at me. “Your phone keeps ringing.”
Knocking back the reminder of Cognac, I put the glass on the bistro table and contoured the mosaic gems with my fingertips. “Do you have any idea where I might find him?”
Blaire stared into my eyes. I hated and loved those transfixing hazel-coloured hues. It’s no lie that I sought out females who reminded me of the woman I love, but not one, not even Kellie, resembles Alexa like Blaire.
It’s uncanny yet fascinating.
“He was going to smuggle me into Tirana tomorrow,” she said, and every muscle in my body corded, bunched up. “I think it’s a private jet. I shouldn’t have listened to his telephone conversations.”
I masked fury and excitement. “Flying from where?”
She scratched the crease between her meshed eyebrows. “I don’t remember the name,” she whispered, and I sank my cheeks in annoyance. “His friend, Timothy, owns the jet, though. If that helps?”
“Is Timothy from London or Albania?”
“Neither,” she said, massaging her temples. “Sorry, my head hurts.”
I gripped the guard rail, de-stressing. “Do you know where I can find Timothy?”
“I don’t like him.” Her face twisted, distressed by thoughts of him. “Plus, he doesn’t speak English much, so I don’t understand half of what he says.”
“Appearance?” I prompted, lowering my voice. “Nationality?”
“Oh,” she said, fumbling with a chain around her neck. “Greek.”
“Timothy Andino?” I mused, and her frown sharpens. “A tall, lanky motherfucker with greasy hair—owns a casino near Leicester Square?”
“Yes,” she stuttered, yanking on the chain. “I’m not certain of the address, but he definitely owns a casino.”
I’m going to nail those bastards to the cross.
I grabbed my phone, deleted Kellie’s message thread and shot orders to Brad.
Me: I got a lead on Bajramovic.
While waiting for his response, my eyes magnetised to Blaire’s slender fingers as she rolled the chain between them, catching a glimpse of a rare but familiar rectangular set-cut ruby and intricate white diamonds. “Where the fuck did you get that necklace?” My low tone deceived bubbling rage. “Answer me, Blaire!”
Freeing the tag from her fingers, she jumped back. “I—”
I snatched the forty-two-inch chain, breaking the clasp. Anger flared an unapologetic snarl. “This doesn’t belong to you.” The diamonds pierced my palm. “Alexa...” My mouth dry, tongue cumbersome, I stumbled back. “Go to your room. Now.”
Blaire whimpered, dashing past me and into the penthouse.
I uncurled my rigid fingers and smoothed my thumb across the Warren engraving.
Holding Alexa’s waist in my hands, I lowered my forehead to her shoulder. “That is how much I care,” I whispered, my hearting beating so fast I feared she’d hear it. “That is how much I love you.”
An unrecognisable sound escaped her lips. She fisted my shirt, breathing heavily in my ear. “You can’t take it back.”
“I don’t plan to,” I said humorously, kissing the sweet spot beneath her ear. “I am taking the weekend off—spending it with you.” I neatened her dress strap, knuckles brushing across her collarbone. “What do you say? Nobody else. Just you and me.” Her in my arms, in my bed, all weekend, was my idea of perfect. “If you behave, I might even cook for you.”
She pretends to consider, tapping her chin with a pointer finger. “Will there be lots of sex?”
I smirked, rolling my lower lips between my teeth. “Of course.”
Resting her head against the door, she unclasped the emblem from her necklace and held it between us. “For you.”
My forehead wrinkled. “You got me a present.” I accepted her gift, admiring the white gold military-style tag where she engraved her name on the back. “You branding me, baby?”
She responded with a gleeful smile. “You bet, I am.” I leaned in to kiss to the corner of my mouth. “I mean, it’s only my name. I stopped myself from being too possessive and, I don’t know, claiming you as my property.”
“I’ll wear it proudly.” I fastened the link to my chain, above the tag Rex purchased all those years ago. “I’ll get one of my men to drive you home—”
“That’s not necessary, Liam,” she said, and I opened my mouth to argue. “I promised Chloe late-night noodles. And before you protest,” she lifted her slender leg to point to her shoe, “I’ll remind you that Brad bugged my favourite footwear, so I’ll be fine. Let me stuff my face, and then I’ll meet you back at the penthouse.”
Let her live, Warren. Haven’t you argued with her enough for one night? “Fine,” I gave in, unappeased. “Okay.”
“And Liam?” She lingered in the hallway, under securities scrutiny. “What you said earlier...” Her beautiful smile was soon to be a haunting image I’d never forget. “I feel the same way.”
Brad: I am on my way.
Trembling with impossible fury, I dialled Reginald’s number.
“Warren,” he sighed. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m going to need you to put me in a room with that motherfucker.”