SACRIFICE (Book Two: The London Crime King)

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CH 32

Alexa

I have a severe spending problem or perhaps an addiction. Yes, the latter seems more conceivable. I blame recent expenditure on utter boredom and uncharacteristic routine.

Before residing as Victoria, Alexa had traits. She loved lazy pyjama days on the sofa and eating her weight in ice cream. Cleaning her home was an enjoyable task when harmonious music accompanied. She’d eat high-calorie food and ingest cheap beer with her friend and roommate, Chloe. They’d spend hours conversing about work, life, co-workers and handsome actors following movie marathons or television series.

Now, though, Alexa is non-existent.

Sure, I still eat far too much ice cream; whipped, frozen deliciousness is the staff of life. But I had no reason to wake up in the morning, to shower early and prepare myself for the day ahead. Working for a pittance is a thing of the past. Slaving away behind a cash register is slowly becoming a distant memory and Jace, who’s absent due to visiting family, has no desire to watch old movies or discuss hot, carved, male goodness. He couldn’t think of anything worse than gushing for the likes of Brad Pitt or George Clooney.

Sigh...

Portraying Victoria is quite lonely. The dawn after Jace’s late-night departure, I concluded basic structure to be imperative. So, Saturday morning, I spruced our impermanent bedroom. Heather kindly offered domestic supplies and was fantastic with the kettle. She delivered warm coffees throughout the day, quenching moments of thirst. I vacuumed and dusted, scrubbed bathroom tiles and floors, changed the duvet cover and sheets—I stood in a window breezed, clean, lemon smelling room an hour later, with no further direction.

I cried a few tears, a little overly emotional or oversensitive. I have yet to decide, changed into unnecessarily glamorous attire and headed into town.

Presently, I stand inside an all-mirrored velour-curtained changing room, modelling dress after dress, designer shoes and ostentatious accessories.

Over the weeks, Jace handpicked suitable applicants for me to tempt into my web of sin and lies. It’s a straightforward, effectual strategy with plentiful benefits—money. I’m talking money in abundance, the type of cash you hide overseas or in phantom bank accounts. It’s also hidden in a knife-slashed mattress, beneath floorboards, nailed-vents and bursting the seams of my purse.

As I have nothing better to do, I use expensive retail therapy as a distraction.

Alexa spent many years window shopping, admiring high-priced glad rags and designer brands. While commuting, she’d stop on occasion, watching beautiful women venture in their six-inch Louboutin heels and fashionable Burberry trench coats explicitly bought for work. Such sophisticated ladies often visited the hair salon on Fridays for keratin smoothing treatments or dry styling ready for their evening dates or women’s night out.

Why hadn’t Alexa prioritised beautifying or specialised manicures?

Why hadn’t she treated herself to more than second-hand clothing or hand-me-down shoes that once belonged to her older sister, Kathy?

Alexa became too comfortable in her frugal existence. Wasting money on overpriced wardrobes and hair treatments seemed too perplexing and ludicrous when an overnight conditioning treatment and two-pound nail varnishes sufficed.

She was maybe a tad bit jealous of how the other half lived. Whether they’re a glitterati, a person of leisure, champagne socialist or millionaire tycoon, it is censoriously unreasonable for poverty-stricken or impoverished people to pass judgment based on bitterness envy.

See, I am learning and maturing.

I exited the changing room, determined purchases draped over one forearm, paid the friendly cashier and slipped sunglasses over my eyes to exit the centre.

It’s a scorcher of a day, cloudless skies and a glowing, radiating sun. I find an unoccupied table outside a packed tearoom, tuck my bags under the chair and become seated. A casually dressed gentleman noted my order; a two-sugared coffee and freshly prepared salad bowl.

I unbutton the sleeves of my silk blouse, roll them to the elbows and adjust my pencil skirt. It’s the opposite of quiet in the patio slabbed garden, but I try to ignore loud conversationalists and soak up the sun.

Sitting closely behind me, a middle-aged man talks in a hushed tone to his mistress. He’s a company director, and the young brunette happens to be his assistant. Fraternisation in the workplace is not uncommon. I feel sorry for them. Indisputably enamoured with her boss enamours her, but he’s married and, even though he’ll never leave his wife and children, it’s palpable his current love interest means more than sex. It’s the way he smiles when she talks and how he absently strokes her knuckles when taking calls.

The barista who delivered my coffee has a girlfriend. He’s mentioned her once or twice in the past, but his eyes brighten when his male co-worker arrives.

I blew the surface of my coffee, watching their flirtatious touches near the entranceway.

The blonde, Barbara Windsor lookalike smokes a cigarette to my left. She’s always here, drinking cups of tea and disassembled BLT sandwiches. On her finger, she wears a wedding band, but the sadness in her eyes suggests separation or possibly grief. Yes, I’ll go with bereavement. Twice, on separate occasions, I witnessed a suited male approach her table, asking ’is this seat taken?’, which was a blatant excuse to gain her awareness, considering the empty tables. She’d offer a fake smile and wouldn’t so much as batter an eyelid in his handsome direction.

Sigh...

Mrs Windsor wears Alexander McQueen and Prada to mask sadness.

Mr Infidelity models Valentino and Gucci to mask misery.

Mr Barista is the proud owner of the tearoom and sports a Rolex to mask sexuality.

You see, what I recently learnt, something that ignorant Alexa had not, is not to preconceive or presume financially stable people are immune to struggles, discomfort and heartbreak.

Much like my former self, they hide behind those big shades and prestigious fashion.

I sipped my coffee, the warm fluid soothing my aching chest. Picking up a fork, I scrape rocket leaves and cherry tomatoes aside, breathing out a tired sigh as I chew.

Alexa Haines was too modest, too trusting and dangerously careless.

Victoria Rose is too imperious, implicitly untrusting, unforgiving and freakishly cautious.

How do I find a balance?

How do I exclude the bad qualities of both women and merge their positive characteristics to become the best version of myself?

I am lost, miserable and grumpy today. I blame lack of sleep and this dismantled salad. I blame Jace’s departure and Heather’s bingo addiction for leaving me unattended. I blame fruitless expenses for failing to fill this tender hollowness in my stomach.

Tall, good looking and smartly dressed pulled out a chair opposite me. He sits, opens a leather-bound menu and hums an annoying tune while selecting from the lunch section.

Behind my shades, I scrutinise him from head to toe. His weather-worn leather shoes are fit for the bin. His creased jeans and shirt need ironing—is that a solid gold curb necklace sticking out beneath his collar? And his belt buckle, although scraped and time-worn, emblazoned Versace Barocco.

He sensed me watching him but didn’t pass a glance.

I place down the mug, collect my bags and stand—he peered at me out the corner of his eye. Bingo. Yes, overly cautious can be tiresome. It also means I’ll never fall into a victimisation trap once more. I don’t know him or the reason behind his calculated arrival, but everything inside me screams not to trust him.

I stride ahead and glimpse over my shoulder when reaching the street corner. He’s still sitting there, head down, reading a newspaper.

My eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Oh God, I am seriously losing my marbles, and rudely judging again. Did I not mentally converse with myself about such negative tendencies? Yet here I am, spurning his conflicting image, convincing myself he’s a villain.

I perambulate through side streets, passing small, family-run businesses and corner pubs. On my travels, I bought two vodka bottles and tucked them in my bag, for later. Before reaching the Underground, I notice a homeless man huddled and bedded beneath the shelter, a closed-down basement nightclub. Mounted on a sheet of cardboard, he watched people oscillate from one end of the alleyway to another, utilising the narrowed street to cut corners and reach shops at a quicker pace.

As if feeling my innocent curiosity, his round, piercing brown eyes crashed into mine. He stared at me, long and penetrating, pity, coldness and revulsion.

My lips parted in shock.

How did I offend him?

Dressed in numerous layers of musty smelling clothing, he snuggled deeper into his torn sleeping bag, breaking away from my intrigued glare.

He’s a young man, curly, dishevelled brown locks, striking yet filthy cheeks and an unruly beard. His knitted mittens stretch across large hands, highlighting begrimed fingernails and callous fingertips.

My chest caved.

I turned around and walked in the other direction.

How, in today’s world, is homelessness an issue? Nobody deserves to sleep on the streets, cold and alone, susceptible to assault or God knows whatever else occurs when monsters soar at night.

I pushed open the door to a bakery, ordered meat and vegan pasties and four beverages, hot chocolate, strong tea, black coffee and a cappuccino. I didn’t want to assume or select preferences on his behalf, so I settled for choices.

Moments later, I returned to the man, deliberately standing in his line of vision. “For you,” I promoted, prompting him to accept a warm meal.

His dark, hooded brows snapped together.

“You must be hungry,” I probed, but his sad eyes remained on his lap. “Do you often sleep here?” I asked, noting sewage smells and excessive urination, a drunken present left my passing drunks who pissed up the walls. “Isn’t there somewhere safer?”

He continues to ignore me.

I crouched, set the coffee tray on the floor, balanced the packaged pasties on top. “Well,” I said, blinking back tears, “I hope you eat or drink something; it’d be a shame for it to go to waste.”

Dusting off my hands, I stood and took three steps when he said, “Sometimes.”

My spine lengthened. Stifling relief, I faced him; the bag handles pinching my skin.

“I sometimes find somewhere else to sleep.” He selects the black coffee, removing its spillage protective lid, blowing the steamy surface. “I am too tired to move today, but tomorrow, I will find a park bench.”

I pointed to the gap beside him. “Would you mind if I joined you?”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You want to sit with me?”

I nodded.

“Why?” he asked, suddenly nervous, on guard. “It’s not exceptionally clean on this step. I don’t want you to ruin your skirt.”

I can buy a new skirt.

Tucking the bags behind me, I squeeze in beside him, outstretching my legs. His tiers of padded duvets and sleeping bags soften the inhumane accommodation. “It’s shaded from the sun.” I push the sunglasses to the top of my head, nervously playing with my fingers. “I prefer the sun.”

He handed me the cappuccino. “You should drink, too, considering you paid for them.”

“Oh, no,” I protest, shaking my head. “I got those for you.”

“I am lactose intolerant,” he said, and my shoulders sank. He saw my defeated countenance and cursed. “I was joking—it was a bad joke. I just wanted you to drink with me.”

I laughed at the absurdity of his failed joke. “It was a little funny.” Curling my fingers around the paper cup, I popped off the lid and swigged. “What’s your name?”

His forehead creased. “My name?”

“Yes,” I said, cheeks aching from smiling. “I mean, people normally have names.”

He unwrapped vegan pastry, broke off small pieces and tossed flakes to scavenging pigeons. He bites into a meat pasty, chewing in silence. “Ewan.” The warm, earnestness in his doe eyes hit me hard in the chest. “Ewan Marshall.”

Pigeons swarm the discarded flakes, ruffling their wings, fighting and pecking for scraps.

“Alexa,” I whispered, curling a blonde strand behind my ear. “Alexa Haines.”

I had an overwhelming urge to cry.

What is wrong with me today?

I need to polish off this vodka and grow a backbone.

You are lonely, I thought, coffee cup grasped between two hands. “Will you find someplace safe to sleep tonight, Ewan? It must be terrifying down here at night.”

“It’s no bother,” he futilely tries to convince me. “If it gets too rowdy, I’ll search for a quieter spot.”

Nathan and Victoria upped the ante over the last few weeks, going to different bars, hotel lobbies and casinos with the intention of stealing someone else’s money. It tugged my conscience a few times, especially when an oblivious client leads me into a hotel bedroom.

I dislodged the lump in my throat, slipping the handbag handle from my shoulder. “Do you like pigeons?”

Ewan tasted gravy from his thumb. “Not so much pigeons,” he said, watching the birds traipse along. “I guess I like birds in general.”

Opening my bag, I tore the stitched seam with a pen. “Why?”

“Birds fly away from everything and anything—in all winds and weathers; in various directions.” A seagull plummeted, dispersing the pigeons into a scattered frenzy skyward. “It’s a fascinating type of freedom.”

My eyes watered. “Is that how you feel, Ewan? Trapped?”

He chucked his half-eaten food to the hungry birds; a starving man, making a small sacrifice. “Temporarily lost I guess.”

I palmed the hidden notes in my bag. It’d hardly make a dent in what we stole from Edward Galway, the sleazy, married man with greedy hands that I left comatose. “Find somewhere decent to sleep.” I took his hand, forcing him to accept the money. “Maybe a nice flat, overlooking one of those scenic parks you like.”

Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, he stared at his limp hand. “You are too kind, Alexa. But I cannot take your money.” He strived to hand it back, so I crossed my arms. “Alexa, please. It’s too much. Why?”

Because unlike me, you deserve it, I think to myself. “Find a permanent residence, Ewan. Furnish it and spend the week in a comfortable bed.” I stood, and he slowly matched my stance, the creased blanket pooling at his feet. “Luxuriate in a warm bubble bath and shave that handsome face. Eat your weight in fast food, or better yet, liquidised ice cream.”

Mouth agape, he blinked, hands crushing the notes.

“The next time I bump into you,” I gathered my purchases, “I want to see a spring in your step, a smart, tailored suit and a well-paid job.” I mustered a flat smile. “It’s never too late to change direction, right?”

I walked away, feeling his eyes on my back. the sun’s rays warm my face as I exit the sideway of towering buildings and— “Alexa?” Ewan called, but before I could face him, his arms went around my body, fusing my face to his chest. “I have no words,” he whispered in my ear, his tear landing on my forehead. “Thank you.” He reluctantly released me, rubbing his red brimmed eyes. “Here.” Plucking a pink rose from the shop’s hanging flower basket, he weaved the stem between my fingers. “I am sorry that judged you.” With those final words, he left me on the street corner, forging his tattered sleeping gear, backpack on his shoulder.

I lifted the rose to my nose, inhaling the victorious scent of fulfilment.

***

“Did you enjoy shopping, darling?” Heather asked the second I entered the bed-and-breakfast.

I kicked off my heels, picked them up. “I did.” I pattered barefoot down the hallway, craving one of Heather’s famous lemonades. I opened the fridge freezer, my eyes lighting up. “Get in my belly.” Setting the glass jug on the kitchen counter, I poured a glass of chilled scrumptiousness, adding two vodka shots. “Do you want a drink, Heather?”

When she doesn’t respond, I look up, eyes popping wide. “Oh, well, don’t you look ravishing tonight.”

Heather wears a strapless, ankle-length, topical style floral dress and lace sandals. She braided her lustrous grey hair, adding a diamante clip for extra effect. The carefully applied makeup suggests a date is on the table. “Are you...?” I mean, Heather isn’t ready for a romantic tryst. Her words. Not mine.

“What do you think, Victoria?” She fussed with her hair. “It’s too much, isn’t it?”

“What? No,” I reassured, handing her my vodka inspired lemony cocktail. “Heather,” I sighed, marvelling at her beauty. “You look incredibly stunning.”

Her cheeks flushed. “Oh, I wouldn’t go as far as stunning...”

“I would.” Unzipping my bag, I fossick for a matte pink lipstick, nothing too loud, but enough to compliment her full lips. “Here.”

Smiling deviously, she opened the new packaging and painted her lips. “He’s an old friend, Ivor. He used to play golf with Henry...”

She’s having second thoughts. “Heather, I don’t think Henry wants you to live the rest of your life in solitary. From what you told me, he worshipped every hair on your head and only wanted the best for you. Do you honestly believe your lonely misery appeases him?”

“Everyone dies eventually,” she snivels, glancing out the window. “I miss him greatly, Victoria. I’d give anything to see him walk through the front door again, stomping those muddied boots on the welcome mat. But,” she pursed her lips, “it’s time for me to...”

“Move on,” I filled in, squeezing her hand, “but never forget.”

“Yes.” She gave me a woeful smile. “Ivor promises a walk on the beach after supper.”

“Will you be home tonight?” I hedged, curbing a teasing grin, “or shall I lock up?”

“Victoria,” she playfully scolds, flicking my shoulder with the back of her hand. “Only owls stay out at night.”

I swallowed a shot of vodka. “Hoot, hoot.”

“Youngsters,” she muttered, packing her black handbag with essentials, money, keys, perfume—a condom. “Always thinking about sex.”

I stared at her incredulously. “As long as its safe sex, though, right?”

“Well, of course.” Hand to her hip, she glared at me. “Do you practice safe sex, darling?”

“Why, yes,” I intentionally mimicked her authoritative tone, mirroring her stance with a puckered eyebrow. “Not that I am getting any.”

“Oh,” she snorted, wrinkling her nose. “I am not quite ready for this conversation, Victoria. Please, spare me details.”

I giggled, using a spoon to mix my cocktail. “Seriously, though, am I locking up tonight?”

A modest blush tinted her cheeks. “Oh, I suppose you better.”

I am genuinely happy for Heather. “I love having a free house,” I said, sauntering into the foyer. “It means I can walk around naked—”

" Absolutely not,” she chastised, and my laughter escalated. “What about the cameras?”

I eyed the rotating camera above the main door. “Only you check those.” I am not really going to flaunt my lady bits. “Did you bake this afternoon?”

“Afraid not.” Pulling on a light cardigan, she double-checked her image in the wall-mounted mirror. “There is some leftover shepherd’s pie in the fridge, though.” The front door knocked, and she leapt in panic. “Shit, Ivor’s here.”

“Don’t keep him waiting—Heather,” I whisper-shouted, and she stopped fretting with chandelier style earrings. “You look amazing. Now, open the door and knock him out.”

“Knock him out?” My encouragement took her aback. “Why on earth would I do that?”

“Not literally,” I whispered, gesturing to the door. “Stop procrastinating, or I’ll open the door and tell him you are stuck on the toilet.”

“Dear Lord.” Shaking her head, she inhaled an encouraging breath and opened the door to greet him. “Ivor.”

“Heather,” he said with a heavenly exhale. “My goodness. You look beautiful.”

I peered around the wall, giving myself sneaky snippets of their exchange. Ivor’s suave and handsome in his black trousers and cable knit jumper, silver hair slicked back, combed perfectly for his date tonight. He’s a tall and slightly plump, jovial-looking man, steel-grey eyes and gold-flamed spectacles.

“Thank you, Ivor.” Heather gushes, linking their elbows together. “Now...” The door closed, muting their conversation.

Immersed in tranquil silence, I sagged against the wall, licking lemon vodka from my lips.

Sigh...

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