Blaire screams and wanders in her sleep. Fortunately, I am almost never at the penthouse to experience her late-night hysteria and increasing paranoia propensity.
I cannot say the same for the lobby positioned security. It’s on them to intervene by distressing the overanxious girl who nakedly scuttles through the halls and return her to bed.
According to the men, It’s common for Blaire to undergo realistic nightmares and demonstrate unsuppressed misandry and venomous loathing when they strive to placate her.
I receive updates from the head of security via email, an endless list of grievances and failed assuaging regarding Blaire’s certifiably questionable behaviour.
Brad isn’t privy to my private life nowadays, which is unusual as I normally rely on his judgement when conflicted; however, considering his scarcity of patience regarding certain predicaments, Nate has momentarily adopted his role.
This doesn’t mean that Nate Alzaim has a softer side. No, he’s as ruthless as the best of them, but he shows more respect and trusts my judgement, whereas Brad Jones tends to be a royal pain in my ass.
“Why are we swinging by the penthouse?” Brad asked, arms crossing at his chest, a suspicious glimmer in his sliced eyes. “I am Hank fucking Marvin, Bossman. I didn’t agree to fawn over the psychotic mental case before our lads night out. Why not let the men deal with her fucked-up ass.”
Josh hides his mirth behind a closed fist.
“You got something to get off your chest, Josh?” He squirmed under my haughty glare.
“No, Sir,” he said, shooting Brad a double-take. “Quit trying to get inside my head, Brad.”
Brad holds up his hands in surrender, pretending he hadn’t encouraged or provoked Josh with that shit-eating grin. “Don’t blame me for your disrespect, Joshy Boy. I am just sitting here, minding my own business.”
Nate barked a laugh, buttoning his shirt sleeve. “You don’t know the meaning of keeping to yourself, Brad. You always put that poky nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Incorrigible curiosity comes hand in hand with Brad.
Offended, Brad touched the bridge between his eyes. “Poky nose? What are you saying, Nate? We are picking flaws now?”
Eyebrows dipping into a frown, Nate paused on his buttons. “Who’s picking flaws? You’re misconceiving a common metaphor, Brad. I am merely pointing out that you’re a nosey motherfucker.”
“I know what a bastard metaphor is, Nate,” he spits, teeth grinding, “but you slyly slipped in a nose-bump comment, thinking I wouldn’t notice.”
Face hidden behind inked hands, Nate chortles. “If you think that nose requires some plastic surgery that’s on you.”
“I don’t think that,” Brad retorts, fingertips contouring his faultless facial structure. “Have you fucking seen me?” He waves to himself. “Your insults are ineffectual, brother. I am Adonis reincarnated, and you are simply a jealous tool with shocking banter.”
Brad’s also narcissistic and boastful, I thought, glimpsing at my wristwatch. “Brad, stay with Josh.” Opening the Bentley door, I stepped onto the footpath. “Nate, come with me.”
“Yeah, Nate,” Brad chirps, waggling his mischievous eyebrows. “Go and have fun locking up the deranged madwoman upstairs.”
Nate walks alongside me, opens the building’s main door and follows me inside. I bypass the reception desk and take a lift to the top floor where Blair’s loud shrieks drone. I passed Nate an aggravated glance and entered the regal foyer, discerning the men’s exhausted, incensed countenances.
Security sidesteps for me to enter the penthouse.
Previously, Blaire roused to the sound of her master’s voice and freaked-out. She became explosively angry and uncontrollably inconsolable, trashed her impermanent bedroom, attacked three of the men and threatened suicide by holding a serrated kitchen knife to her throat. They managed to disarm and convey her kicking body back to the bedroom, but she’s been restless ever since.
Leaving Nate in the living quarter, I strode down the hall, shoved open Blaire’s bedroom door and conceptualised how to handle an unhinged female.
Blaire sits in the corner of the room, knees bent, head buried, rocking back and forth. I dodge strewn carnage, broken furniture, tossed clothing, fragmented glass and station at the foot of the bed. It’s unmade, sheets askew and crumpled. She’d torn the pillows and ripped out the feathers. It’s a preventable diabolical shambles that she’ll indisputably rectify once I calm her down. “Blaire,” I said, and she wilted, quivering all over. “I am not going to hurt you.”
“Everyone hurts me,” she whimpered, tear-streaked and melancholy. “I am beginning to wonder if I was put on this earth as a pleasurable plaything for men like you,” she spat, face screwing up, aversion emanating from her shaking body.
“Men like me?” I enquired, squatting in front of her. “I don’t recall harming you, Blaire.”
She peered up at me beneath fanned eyelashes, greasy hair tendrils pasted to her forehead.
“In actuality, I saved and accommodated you. I put you under the fierce protection of my men, clothed and fed you. I haven’t touched you inappropriately or made lewd remarks. I imagine the men bestowed equal respect?”
Grimacing, she cowered away from me.
“I appreciate that you suffered an ordeal, Blaire. I offered to provide a therapist who has the expertise and knowledge to deal with traumatised patients and even administer aiding medication. You declined. You persuaded me into believing and accepting that you’d cope and put the past behind you. Flourishing isn’t the case, no?”
Bashed, Blaire chewed her lower lip. “I try, but it’s hard...”
I nod, understandable. “I won’t facilitate or mollycoddle you. It’s not my style. I will, however, extend generosity further under the stern warning that you accept medical assistance.” Her mouth quivered, and I held up a hand, silencing her. “If you’re not ready to confide in a therapist, I can be lenient providing you address post-traumatic stress disorder and improvise.”
“What must I do?” she whispered, easing back into her protective shell.
I sense Nate before he comes into my peripheral vision. He drops a holdall on the floor, crouches beside me and rummages through contents. He arranges a blister pack to leave with security, unscrews bottled water. “Two a day,” he explains, extending an open palm to the girl. “One every morning, and then another at noon.”
“One of the men will assist, Blaire.” I watch her fumble with a tablet. “I cannot trust that you won’t do something reckless if left unattended with medication. If you show any signs of unwillingness or suicidal behaviour again, I will have no choice but to send you to a loony asylum.”
Fear crippled her. She put the tablet on her tongue and washed it down with water.
“Your condition doesn’t excuse your outburst, either. You will shower,” I said, listening to Nate’s drifting footsteps as he returned to the men. “Once you represent a hygienic human again, I expect you to clean this room and remove any destruction. If you wish to replace certain furnishings for personal use, then you will earn your stay by cleaning the penthouse. It’s neither taxing nor draining, Blaire. You can start with the kitchen and work your way through.” It is never messy or cluttered, but chores will keep her busy. “You are not, however, permitted to enter the master suite. It’s strictly off-limits.”
We stood in tandem.
Nodding shamefacedly, she rubbed a chill from her bare arms.
“It’ll be good for you.” I tuck my hands in my suit jacket pockets, rocking back on the heels of my shoes. “Perhaps in a few weeks, I can ask Nate to escort you into town. I’m sure you’d enjoy retail therapy and a change of scenery.”
Doe-eyed and appreciative, she nodded again. And then surprised me, wrapping her arms around my waist, head nuzzled on my chest. “Thank you, Mr Warren.”
I pried her hands off me. “Go and shower, Blaire.”
It’s been too long since I treated the men to fine dining and celebratory drinks. They know how much I appreciate their dedicated loyalty and hard work, but I seldom express gratitude, so tonight, I guaranteed them a night off the job.
I head inside the bar and restaurant, a combination of jovial laughter, instrumental and vocal classical music, the conviviality ambience of rustic décor, dark wooden floors, elegant table cloths, muted lighting and remarkable vintage features.
Mario emigrated from Italy as a teenager. He’s an old gent, late-sixties, a diligent automaton who upholds Italian authenticity with his love for fine wines and traditional cuisine. He also hates my guts. “Warren,” he bellowed, snaking between superbly tailored employees. “I don’t want any trouble.”
I didn’t take umbrage at his bitterness and dislike. I do, however, find it comical that he bears grudges against the teenage version of myself.
In my youthful days, eighteen to be exact, I brought a date here to share bottled wine and calzone. Mario welcomed us in and offered a romantic table, delivered dishes fifteen minutes later—exceptional customer service.
The night started well, and then my date broached the relationship status topic. I had forewarned her of my distaste for serious companionship before we started fucking. I was a young lad, living the dream. I didn’t want to settle down or shackle myself to one woman. And she’d concurred, or so I thought until a bowl of ravioli landed on my lap, ruining a Tom Ford shirt in the process.
I was seething, considering lobbing the wine bottle at her head when Mario reappeared, yelling blasphemy in his spoken language. He’d told us to leave and pay for damages. I had questioned his demands as the only occurring destructions were on my bastard shirt. We’d gotten into a confrontation. He’d banned me for life.
Back to the present, It seems Mario remembers our churlish spat and chose this moment to draw unwanted attention from curious customers my way.
“Warren,” he stops dead in his tracks, sweat beading above his furrowed brow, “please. I am a good man. I work extremely hard for my business.”
I blinked, available, well-stuffed wallet in hand. I stand corrected.
He doesn’t remember our belligerent encounter. He’s mindful of my status and passing judgement.
Public hostility and disparagement from outsiders often occur for me. Tonight wouldn’t be the first time a business owner tried to shut the door in my face. They read a couple of shambolic, speculative, unsubstantiated newspaper articles defaming my character and think they know me.
“Who said I was looking for trouble?” I stood to an imperial height, rolling chewing gum under my tongue. “Cut me a fucking break, Mario. I just want a bite to eat with male associates.”
I heard his indrawn of breath. “Lo Scoglio,” he motions to his establishment, “is a family run business, Warren. The customers,” he leaned in, lowering his voice, “they won’t like you being here.”
He requires reassurance.
Brad, offended by Mario’s lack of respect, put us shoulder-to-shoulder, cocking his head. “We don’t care about you mindless gastronomes, Mario,” he said, tone riddled in sarcasm. “Bossman promises to be on his best behaviour.” I shot him the glare. “Plus, he is prodigal on the old wallet, so quit delaying and give us a table, or I’ll find one myself.”
Mario had a strong disinclination to offer us service. He flung a tea towel over one shoulder, waded between the occupied dinner setting and gestured to a four-seater beside the panoramic windows.
“Two bottles of Barbaresco.” I slip a card onto Mario’s open palm. “Start a tab.” Popping open the button of my suit jacket, I pull a chair back, wait for Brad to settle and sit beside him.
Situated directly from me, Nate rolled up his shirt sleeves, opens a leather-bound menu and scours appetisers.
“What are you ordering?” Josh wondered, peering at Nate’s menu when he has one in front of him. “Bruschetta?”
“Nah, I fancy the salsiccia,” he twangs, fixing his nose ring.
Josh hummed, scratching his jaw. “Same.”
“Actually,” Nate pinned Josh with a quizzical look, turning the pace, “the steamed mussels and pizza Bianca might work.”
“Oh, yeah,” Josh agreed, and Nate’s scathing scowl deepened. “I’ll order the same.”
“Joshy boy?” Brad’s eyes danced between them in wonder. “Get your head out of Nate’s ass.”
“It’s not in his ass,” he disputed, fingers disarranging his styled hair. “What, Brad? I’ll be jealous and want to share otherwise. It’s easier this way.”
I selected a dish, closed the menu. “You were late for this morning’s meeting, Nate,” I said, pinching and snubbing the tealight flame. “Tardiness is unlike you.”
“Ah,” Brad chimes, elbows crossing on the table, “Nate’s been busy eating out Cora—”
“Brad,” Nate admonished, his glare lethal. “What the fuck, man? Why not invite all these dinner guests to our table and tell them how she tastes, too?”
“Salty,” Josh winked, biting a breadstick. “And bitter.”
Nate stared deadpan at him. “Oh, and you’d know that how?”
“She rode my face last week,” he shares, unembarrassed and delusional to Nate’s liking for Cora.
I waited, perceiving the subdued perplexity in Nate’s eyes.
“What?” Josh asked, clueless. “You told me to sample the merchandise, Brad, so why are you shaking your head?”
Brad scratched the crease between his pinched eyes. “Quit running your gums, Josh.” He furtively indicated a side-eye glimpse to an enraged Nate
“Uh, Nate.” Josh paled, mouth forming a circle. “Fuck, I didn’t know you two were...”
“Nothing.” Nate received bottled wine from the waiter and poured our glasses. “Club whores,” he muttered under his breath, ignoring our watchfulness. “I don’t care for that bitch. She fucks punters anyhow, so you’re no different.”
No, it’s personal if a dancer entertains the syndicate men. It’s unpaid and pleasurable, not business. If Cora pledged Nate preferential treatment, in the mistaken belief that he’d be unknowledgeable to Josh, more fool her. He’s a warm-blooded male, loves women, but he’s no womanising Brad Jones. He’s deferential. Unequivocally, in secret, he’d put her on a pedestal.
“Are you ready to order?” The waiter opens a notepad, clicks a pen.
“Fettuccine,” I said, handing him the menu. “And bring me the Caprese salad.”
Brad reads an endless list of appetisers, the men shortly after.
I sat back, sipping red wine, savoured its fruity flavours.
Unlocking my phone and checking the messages, I deleted unopened sentiments from Hellen, clicked the number Alexa used to call me and sent a message.
Me: How did you sleep?
It didn’t deliver.
She’s either switched off her phone or extracted the sim card. Judging by her recent performance, I’d go with the latter. Our separation, although it’s not what I want, might be for the best. I am neck-deep with Hellen, too close to answers, salvation.
What if Alexa understands?
It’s implausible, but if I find her, explain the strategy, she may hang fire and trust me to pull through.
What if Alexa doesn’t understand, though? Am I prepared to lose everything for her to come in at the end and ruin it?
“What are you thinking about, Bossman?” Brad draped an arm on the back of my chair.
“It’s good wine,” I lied, licking my lips. “I think—Get down!” Brad speared me onto the ground, coinciding with a crescendo of panicked screams and shattering windows.
I smashed onto the floor, face pressed to broken glass, his heavy body shielding mine. Oppressive, sporadic gunfire and clanking bullets erupt in the restaurant, slicing and chipping overturned furniture, blanketing us in darkness and ruptured dust.
Collapsed on the floor, a woman, open-mouthed and lifeless, stares into me with dead eyes. I extended an arm, closed her eyelids, inhaled a deep, encouraging breath. “Nate?”
“I’m good, Sir,” he responds, tone muffled. “Keep your head down.”
Empty bullet casings clattered across the floor, loud pops and gunshots lasered the rustic interior, deafening my ears. I covered them to extinguish the unremitting ringing, espying Josh crawling behind the bar, taking cover.
My men are safe, I thought, feeling Brad’s thunderous heartbeat on my back.
Retreading tyres shrieked out front, fleeing the crime scene.
Brad peeled himself from off my body, landing on his back. “Fuck,” he barked, flicking shards off his suit. “Boss...” His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “Christ that was close.”
I pushed myself off the floor, patted down my suit, clearing dirt. Countless dead bodies littered the floor; bullet punctures shredded their skin and clothes. I raked fingers through my hair, combing it off my wrinkled forehead. “Fucking hell.”
Mario carefully lifts his head from over the countertop. “Warren,” he blubbered, devastated by the carnage. “Why? I did nothing to you, yet you bring this trouble to my place...” His crinkled, tear-filled eyes fell on the dead bodies. “Li hai uccisi,” he snarled. “Cazzo Bastardo! Perche? You leave right now and never come back!”
I paid no heed to whatever insults he spewed, opened the hazardously hinged door and stepped outside. Bystanders and eyewitnesses amassed from other wine bars and brasseries, pointing or mouthing into phones.
Unwrapping a cigarette packet, I popped one in my mouth, needing more than nicotine to quench apprehension.
Glass crunched under Brad’s shoes. He snatched the cigarette from my mouth, replaced it with a joint. “Bajramovic died,” he said, and I scowled, rubbing blood from my cheek. “We overturned the Albanian mafia. Gone. Bye. Finito. So, why the fuck did I experience a drive-by in the middle of London? We got rid of the problem.”
A row of blue flashing emergency vehicles snaked between cars through the two-way street, a cacophony of wailing sirens ricocheted into the night.
I spotted a familiar CID car, respired smoke and dropped the joint down the drain.
Reginald soared, slamming the passenger door behind me. He orders the men to corner off the street, his fingers stretching into latex gloves.
Checking if it’s safe to cross, he ambled toward me, an unspoken question in his eyes. “Mr Warren,” he said, shaking my hand, a misleading show for fellow officers. “Do you require medical attention?”
“No,” I assured him, watching Nate and Josh head back to the Bentley. “It’s a slaughterhouse in there.” I toss a thumb over my shoulder. “Drive-by shooting.”
He steeled his jaw, tightening wrinkled skin around his lips. “Warren,” he dipped his mouth to my ear, “you know I can’t help if you withhold information from me.”
I growled under my breath. “I don’t know anything.”
“Come on,” he barked, realising his raised tone, correcting himself. “It’s a quiet neighbourhood. The crime rate around these ends is virtually non-existent. You show up for one night, and all hell breaks loose. Do you seriously expect me to believe you had no part to play in this?”
“I don’t know fucking shit,” I rebuffed, reeling in my rising aggression. “In case you missed the goddamn memo, Reginald, somebody took a hit at me tonight. Do you honestly think it’d gotten this far if I knew I had a fucking bounty on my head?” He sceptical eyes searched mine. “You know I am right. Trust me. When I find out who did this...?”
He nods, short and sharp. “Mr Jones.” He tapped Brad’s back, examined his scraped jaw. “You need stitches.”
“Motherfucker,” Brad spits, touching his lacerated skin. “Oh, I am not cool with this, Bossman. Not the face.”
I curbed a smirk.
Paramedics wheeled stretchers out of Mario’s restaurant while police officials evacuated the street.
Rubbing my eyes, I shouldered past Reginald, Brad in tow, heading to the humming Bentley. I drop onto the passenger seat, close the door and order Nate to drive.
While working the steering wheel, Nate secretively dropped his phone on my lap. I read the message he typed on notes.
I think I found Alexa.