Reclined on the reverse facing leather seat, luxuriated by soft Italian leather, tinted black windows and walnut veneered interior, I ran a finger along the crystal glass circumference, considering scenarios.
My dependable security detail fenced off the casino’s alleyway with their Bentleys, obviating a possible ambuscade. Josh joined them while Brad and Nate presented themselves to Timothy Andino, the founder and chairman of The Cardinal Crown. From Greek origin, he’s one of London’s wealthiest tycoons and tight-fisted bachelors.
The doors opened in unison.
Flexing, shrieking and lambasting, Timothy, wearing navy chinos, brown leather loafers and a white shirt, lunged into position, courtesy of Nate’s impatient tolerance level, putting us face-to-face. “Warren,” he snarled, correcting his slanted, copper framed glasses, death-glare shielded by brown grad lenses. “What a pleasant surprise? How long has it been?” He weaved his fingers together, flinching as Brad and Nate slumped onto the seats beside him. “Five years?”
The last time I saw Andino was at the auction society of fundraising, a standalone event with grandiloquent auctioneer speeches and pompous plutocrats. He offered me a friendly handshake and a personal invite to his luxurious penthouse to enjoy a night of debauchery with glamorous women. I declined. His need to impress proved to be counterproductive as I loathe bogus lionising from perfidious, two-faced fools with ulterior motives.
Timothy thrives and prospers; however, his high-status and wealth has nothing on the syndicate or me.
After I rejected his invitation, he got straight to business. He wanted my constabularies and supreme court connections, Gateway and contraband trade participation in exchange for a beneficially rewarding alliance.
Unfortunately for Andino, I am a selfish, ungenerous man. You cannot buy or borrow my services.
“Who’s counting?” I quipped, ankle resting on my knee. “Drive.”
The Bentley Mulliner hummed to life, the driver steering us away from the casino.
Timothy looked frail and defenceless, sandwiched between two sinewy men. His gaze ping-ponged from Nate to Brad, shoulders slumping, wonder in his wary eyes. “Why, after all this time, have you come for me?”
I clicked my neck, releasing tension. “Friendly visit.”
“There is nothing friendly about you, Warren,” he sibilated, tousling his black, oily hair. He thanked Brad for the Jameson, fingers strumming the Royal Doulton crystal cut pattern. “I came into big money.” Despite investments, he’s loaded. “I can pay you.”
“Your nervousness concerns me, Tim,” I hummed, sipping Macallan. “Why so desperate? I haven’t made demands or threatened your life.”
His sharp eyes homed in on my blank face. “Then, do share the reason for this wonderful abduction.”
I laughed, amused by his chimed sarcasm. “What’s your involvement with Flamur Bajramovic?”
He smiled to hide displeasure. “Define involvement.”
Not reaching over and beating him within an inch of his life proved to be difficult. “Personal association or participation,” I drawled, schooling my features. “Abetting human trafficking, for example.”
Adam’s apple jiving in his throat, he gulped. “Obtaining and selling commodities can be remunerative.” Nate shifted, and Timothy flinched. “It’s not personal, Warren. It is business. Of all people, you understand the tricks of the underworld. You practically laid the foundations.”
“Sexual slavery has never appealed to me,” I mused, dropping two ice blocks into my glass. “Do you test the merchandise beforehand?”
“No,” he lies, feigning offence. “I find stock and arrange drop-offs with the Albanians. Once the...merchandise sells at auction, I receive a cut.”
“You and Bajramovic are business partners, not friends?” I asked, and he nods. “So, why is he borrowing your private jet to flee from London tonight?”
My question flummoxed him. “How do you...?” Mouth agape, he guzzled alcohol, quenching his parched throat. “Why don’t you get down to business, Warren? What do you really want?”
I knocked the passenger compartment, a silent order for the driver to accelerate, add some horsepower. “I want the Bajramovics’ whereabouts effective immediately,” I demand, the opposite of composed. “In case I don’t track him down in time, I am going to need his home location or possible hideouts. While on the subject of involuntary servitude, I’d like the address to undisclosed compounds operating or enslaving women and children, or any young males.”
Nate put a phone to his ear. “Reginald,” he said, and Tim squared his quivering posture. “Someone wishes to speak to you.”
Seizing Tim’s neck, Brad pinned the guy in his seat, flipping open a switchblade. “Resort to dilatory measures, and I’ll start with the ears.”
Making a strange noise, Tim snatched the phone from Nate. “Yes, hello,” he whispered, licking his dry lips. “I am sitting here with Warren...” He paled. “Oh, right. I wasn’t going to...” Sickly grey, he raised his glasses, rubbing his eyes. “I wasn’t aware of your alliance—not that it’s any of my business, of course.” Brad nicked his earlobe, and he squealed. “I am a punctual man, Mr Jones! Your promising violence is unnecessary!”
Humoured by Tim’s theatrical eccentricities, Nate chortled. “Oh, man—what the fuck?” He bucked his hips, evading a stream of urination. “Did you fucking piss yourself?”
Bashed and humiliated, Tim pinched his lips, the wrinkles around his eyes tightening. “This is so degrading,” he whimpered, on the verge of hyperventilating. “Fifteen stations from Croydon to Sutton, scattering off the A232.” He snivelled. “Fake names and private properties. Yes, Scylla Charybdis.” He holds out the phone to Nate. “He wants to speak to you.”
I wait with an impatient glare.
“Flamur changed the flight for six a.m., but he’s looking for...” Tim hesitated, itching his flushed chest. “I can write down the address.” Brad passed Tim his phone. He typed directions. “I’ll need your protection for ratting out. A lot of pissed off men will come looking for me after this.”
The Bentley waded and swerved between vehicles. I pressed the button, lowering the window, watching the tree-lined motorway intermix with bright headlights. “I don’t hate the man that I am,” I said, sweeping my thumb over my lower lip. “I condone lawbreaking for self-regarding purposes and kill for the simple fact that I can drain someone’s life and get away with it. Nefariousness gave me this suit, the diamonds and top-of-the-range vehicles. It gave me unlimited funds, infinite resources and omnipotent power to dictate and control.”
Timothy slivered his eyes to Brad, who fakes boredom, studying his fingernails.
“Most hate all that I am.” I polished off the remainder of my drink. “Like-minded people and organisations treat me like a deity. And why wouldn’t they? I am a man of my word. I get shit done and spawn hell on earth if serpents double-cross me or target the people I care about.”
“And I admire that about you,” said Tim, bopping his knee up and down.
“See, that’s what everyone claims in these situations.” I accept a pre-lit joint from Brad. “‘I prefer straight shooters’ and ’I’d rather you square up than talk jargon behind my back.’” I snorted a laugh, inhaling a lungful of haze. “Yet if I take the direct approach, society claims that I am a dishonourable man and they defame me. It’s quite insulting, actually.” I blew smoke out the window. “People forget and overlook my good qualities. The lives I restored. The people I salvaged and helped along the way. The generous financial handouts and crime concealments.” I leaned close, elbows on my knees. “Yet there are monsters like yourself—a fucking nonce and kiddy fiddler—roaming the world whose worshipped and treated with the utmost respect.”
His strained, hitched breathing filled my ears.
I removed Alexa’s chain from my pocket, thumbing the untarnished, glistening white gold and diamonds. “This belonged to Alexa Haines.” I peered up at him beneath a furrowed scowl. “You might have heard of her.”
Brad and Nate shared a concerned glance.
Dabbing sweat from his brows, Timothy budges in his seat to get comfortable. “No. I mean, I know of her because I hear names from time-to-time,” he stuttered, terror pooling in his wide eyes. “I saw her name splashed over the news recently, too.”
I outlined the engraving with my fingernail. “Did you know most house fires burn at less than one thousand, two hundred degrees Fahrenheit?” He shook his head. “It’s rare for gold to melt beyond repair.” I laced the chain through my fingers. “Diamonds are flammable, though, but can be re-polished and scorched.”
Brad cleared his throat.
I didn’t look at him.
“The last time I saw her,” I whispered, my calmness cloaking furiousness. “Tell me, Tim. If the woman I loved burnt in flames, how did this pristine chain fall in my possession when it was wrapped around her goddamn neck?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, truth painting his hopeless features. “Bajramovic hasn’t mentioned Alexa Haines for a long time. Only he can answer your questions.”
Bajramovic will squeal like a bitch by the time I finish with him. “Between Scylla and Charybdis,” I repeated the idiom, “to choose the lesser of two evils.”
Unblinking, Tim stared at me.
“For someone who had hardly any involvement with Bajramovic’s business deals, I find it rather odd that he named hidden compounds after Greek mythology.”
Discerning his mistake, he closed his eyes.
Alternating from nonchalance and uneasiness, I sat back, tucked the chain away. “I appreciate your bounteousness, Mr Andino. I never pictured myself operating a casino, but I assure you, it’s in good hands.”
“What?” His skin, pasty and sallow. “I never signed over the casino!”
“You signed it over before writing a suicide note,” I tell him arrogantly as Brad shoved and held open the car door, letting powerful winds storm inside. “Enjoy your trip.”
“No, please—no!” he screamed, lashing Nate with brutal kicks. “I beg you!”
Nate slapped a hand over Tim’s wailing mouth, hauled him to the open door and tossed him straight into speeding, oncoming vehicles. Horns blared together with screeching tires. His body crashed into a windshield, rolled over the top of a car and plummeted beneath another.
“Close the door,” I ordered, pouring myself another drink. “And put some Sinatra on. I feel like celebrating.”
A private jet lingered on private lands, awaiting the Bajramovics’ arrival. The pilot rested in the cockpit, snoring after an early morning coffee and croissant feast. Brad snatched him out of slumber, beat him to a pulp and tossed him into the Bentley boot, battered, restrained and unconscious.
Since the pilot is no longer available to fly, Brad stole his uniform to impersonate. His longish hair pokes out beneath a white baseball cap, and he puts on the man’s aviator skytec sunglasses.
Brad, relaxed with his feet up, listens to music in the cockpit while I sit beside Nate in the Bentley. Nate parked further back, but it’s likely the Albanian might spot us. It’s too open, elongated asphalt concrete, the morning sun soaring across the horizon.
Nate fidgets. He taps the steering wheel, hums to whatever music plays inside his head, fiddles with the indicators.
I watched him with judgemental eyes, unamused. “Will you stop.”
“Sorry, Sir.” He coughed, stealing quizzical glances.
“What?” I bite, losing patience. “Spit it out, Nate.”
“I know I am not supposed to ask questions,” he said, shifting the steering wheel again, “but how did you get Alexa’s necklace? And why didn’t you bring this to our attention?”
I let my mind wander. She had blonde hair and blue eyes. Attractively tall but distastefully underweight, she smiled at me, coy and mute. Her clavicle protruded yet invited my lips. Flawed, I thought, remembering the fresh, pink scar beneath her eye, above her sunken cheekbone. And her gravitational pull, too powerful and irresistible. “My heart found hers,” I rasped, and I sensed his confusion. “It’s odd and hard to explain, but whenever Alexa called or texted me, or when she showed up for work and swung by my office before shift...my heart raced.”
His arms swaddled over his chest, Nate relaxed his back to the window.
“I tackled an emotion I never experienced before. I refused to believe or accept that she meant something until I no longer wished to fight it.”
Brad descends the jet, stations his back to us and alleviates his bladder.
“I can never take him seriously.” Nate’s lip curled at the corner. “He’s too much.”
Brad is my lethal weapon. “I recognised her voice—Alexa’s voice. And before you latch onto Brad’s disparaging parade, let me finish. I get how ridiculous it sounds. I appreciate that grief can trigger emotional, visual hallucinations and delusions, but I am no longer in a certain condition or under the influence. I am clear-headed and, day by day, overcoming her loss. It’s not easy. I hate that she’s not here, and I miss her to the point it hurts to think about her. Life moves on, though, right?”
Providing quietness, he twirled his thumb ring.
“And you guys made some valid points. Alexa loved me, so, hypothetically, let’s pretend she didn’t die that night and it was her standing directly from me in that store, it’s uncharacteristic for her to run from me. I am not saying this to sound boastful or conceited. It’s a fact. With this in mind, crossing paths is impossible because she’d have stayed.”
Relief honed his once tight features. “Exactly—”
“Unless she was hiding from something bigger than me.”
“I thought you were speaking from figurative authority,” he sighed, looking at me with unreserved concern. “Sir—”
“Don’t you dare insinuate that I am mentally unstable,” I spat, my muscles tense, searing. “When has my gut ever failed me?”
Nate doesn’t answer. He knows I am onto something.
“Add Alexa’s necklace that appeared around Blaire’s neck to Bajramovic’s unmitigated omnishambles and what have we learnt?”
Pressing a tattooed hand to his grim lips, Nate bore into me with worried eyes.
“Alexa is not dead,” I said gravely, ignoring the ache weighing down my thumping heart. “She is fucking hiding from me.” Extracting the Eagle, I pushed a magazine into the chamber. “I don’t know how to feel about it. I’m happy she’s alive, but I’m upset that she didn’t come to me.”
“If you believe her existence is so then I got no reason to doubt you, Sir.”
I spot an advancing vehicle. “I arranged with Reginald to sit in a room with Jace. If anyone knows why Alexa chooses to live in death, it’s him.” Him of all people, I thought. “I fear that I’ll kill him. In fact, the way I feel at this moment in time, I’ll hurt them both.”
Nate regarded me with disdain. “You are the boss,” he drawled, dipping his head, seeking my eyes. “Whatever you say? Its law. But I am going to request future intervening. You’ll regret it, Sir. Give me orders to prevent devastation.”
“I love Alexa, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her right now.” I clasped his shoulder, squeezed. “Knowing she’s out there unencumbered me. I can sleep peacefully at night and finish what I set out to do with Hellen. For the time being, I want you to follow Jace and see if he leads you to her. Don’t reveal yourself or allow his arrogance to provoke impetuousness.”
The jaguar parked beside the private jet, and Flamur’s driver soared to assist with luggage. Zamira, our modern-day Myra Hindley, gesticulated to her designer suitcase, sunglasses perched atop her head.
Flamur laid a palm on the other man’s shoulder, mouthing something in his ear. He’s an overweight bastard in a pinstripe suit and shiny loafers. Hand to his wife’s lower back, he steered her to the jet, each footstep blundered, panicked and unstable.
“He’s terrified,” I said, lips stretching into a devious smirk. “I wonder why.”
Nate extends his arm through the cracked window, hand tight to his Glock as he marked aim.
“Our conversation will remain confidential. I don’t need Brad and his opinions getting inside my head.”
Ready to aim fire, Nate closed one eye. “Of course, Sir.”
Waving to the pilot, not knowing it’s Brad, Zamira ascends the steps. He returned with a shoulder roll, whipped out his firearm and fired a close-range shot simultaneous to Nate’s gunfire. Zamira’s head snapped back on an echoing crack, the two snipes reflecting. The driver dropped to his knees, chest levelling to the ground. Flamur roared and, in slow motion, moved to save his wife, who seemed to fall to her death in a graceful manner, arms wide, pleated skirt blowing in the wind.
“What is it that Brad says?” Nate blew smoke from the barrel of his gun. “Fucking blissful.”
Zamira trundled to her husband’s feet, disjointed and spasmodic. He didn’t watch Brad close in. He captured her face, bellowing pathetic tears on her chest.
I climbed out of the car, buttoning my suit jacket and slipping on a pair of sunglasses. Hands nestling in my trouser pockets, I walked together with Nate until I towered above Flamur and his dead wife. He knows I am here, hasn’t glanced, though. Face scrunched up, heartbroken, he stared at his bloodied hands, heaving on throat-tearing sobs—all for a depraved, diabolic woman unworthy of mourning.
“You know,” I crouched beside him, cocking an eyebrow, “I am somewhat surprised to see a man like yourself in such a distressing state given the fact you predilections lean more toward five-year-old little girls.” I took out a silk napkin and dabbed blood from the bullet hole between Zamira’s eyes. “Nice shot, Brad.”
“Obviously.” He winked, tipping his pilot hat.
“Kill me,” Flamur whispered, accepting defeat. Looking to the heavens, he collapsed on his haunches. “Rid yourself.”
I put my mouth to his ear. “You’re not my burden to rid. Although I promise to take good care of you until judgment day.” I stood, tossing the soiled napkin. “Put him to sleep.”
Nate landed a brutal punch to Flamur’s jaw, knocking the man into peaceful submission. His weighty body scraped across the floor, a beautiful image.
“Brad, chuck the bitch inside the jet and burn it.”
I stride to our vehicle and send Reginald a text message, cancelling prior arrangements to sit with Jace. I want to end him—I will end him, but I am to bide some time for now.
Unlocking the car boot, I smiled at the bounded, thrashing pilot. “Nice of you to join us.” I tore duct tape from his lips, and spittle flew out. “Now, I am in a good mood, so I’ll let you hop along. How lucky for you?”
Eyes bulging out of his head, he murmured expletives, pleading with some sort of God in his foreign language.
“What’s your name?” I grabbed ahold of the rope that’s fastened around his arms and waistline, hauling him out of the boot. “I don’t like repeating myself.”
“Rezart,” he cried, watching Nate toss Flamur into the vehicle. “Ju e vrau.”
He’s with the Albanians. “Brad,” I called, jerking the guy forward, the restraints to his ankles, assisting his dramatic fall. “I changed my mind. Put this motherfucker on board.”
“Ju nuk mund ta bëni këtë!” Rezart yelled, flapping on the ground like a fish. “Where is your humanity?” Brad snatched his ankles. “No, I beg you! I don’t want to die...”
I ignored his shrieks and dialled Hellen.
“Liam?” she yawned, the coverlets rustling as she repositioned in bed. “Is something wrong? It’s six o’clock in the morning.”
“I’m free for a few hours if you want some company.”
“Really?” Her excitement piqued. “Where shall I meet you?”
I want her to invite me to her place. “Why don’t I come to yours?”
She considered. “No, you can’t. Larry’s home. How about I buy us some breakfast and meet you at the office?”
You would assume I am fucking a married woman. “Sure.”