Liam’s Suits followed me to the reggae bar. Beyond the euphonious toned wooden walls and aesthetically beautiful wall-mounted memorabilia, the loyal mob of men guard the perimeters. What’s laughable? They think I am none the wiser to their surreptitious arrival. I assume Liam hadn’t relayed our phone conversation to his men, so they pose obliviousness when I glance from my glass and see them amble through crowds for a bathroom break.
I am not the only person cognisant of their proximity. Local tipplers and alcoholics, although wearing bored expressions, watch the nameless, unspecifiable suited men, utilising the restroom and ordering cheap ales at the bar.
Sitting at a friendless table, drinking incognito, I sway to the rough sounding vocalist strumming his guitar, encircled by a drunken line of impressively dressed good-time girls and one-track minded males, not in control of their increasing testosterone levels.
I sensed eyes on me the entire time. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Suits, tracking my every move, relayed updates to their boss.
A small fraction of me felt downright defiant and rebellious. I missed Liam. I didn’t want his suffocating men acting on his behalf. Frankly, it took a lot of effort for me to not climb onto the table and flash my nipples sans breasts to punters. I am confident that’d be a remarkable update to Mr Warren.
I wonder how long it’d be before his furious-self bulldozed through the door and lambasted me for all to bear witness?
Laughter rippled out of me. God, if I were brave enough, I’d lose the clothes and dance nonsensically to prove myself right.
Liam, furious and sick with jealousy, makes me hot.
Oh, I needed sex, or another vodka to quench insatiable thirst. My wayward, petulant thought process was ridiculous, even for an idiosyncratically vocalising solivagant like myself.
I stumbled off the chair, giggling under my breath. Okay, the vodka is strong tonight.
How much did I have to drink?
Through blurred vision, I tried tallying the uncountable empty glasses ruining my table. “Two,” I lied aloud, overlooking the ones with shrivelling citrus fruits and melting ice blocks. “Those aren’t mine,” I told a passing male, who merely puckered an eyebrow in response. “I am not a lying drunk!”
In the distance, a glass fell from someone’s table, shattering on the floor. The room ruptured, applauding and serenading.
Well, that’s certainly new.
I was half-tempted to flick mine to see the outcome.
Zigzagging towards the bar, I slapped my clutch purse on the countertop, leaning forward and waving to the curmudgeon old bastard who seemingly hates my guts.
Sheathed in faded denim and restricting leather, the barman wiped his hands with a chequered tea towel, whipped it over one shoulder and, from memory, reached for a vodka bottle.
“No,” I ended his assumptions, signalling to the whiskey cabinet. “I’d like to try one of those.”
Wrinkles pulled taut around his narrowed eyes. The misanthropic brute selected the cheapest, almost empty bottle, unscrewed the cap and tossed it on the floor. He snatched the empty glass from my hand, sloshed amber liquid inside and slammed it down.
I glared, hard and impatient. “You can put that where the sun doesn’t shine, asshole.” I tipped my chin. “I want the Blue Label.”
He bestowed me a toothy grin. “That’s fifty pounds a pop, lady. You got the funds?”
Do not reach over and gauge him, Alexa. “How much for the bottle?”
His judgemental eyes wavered past my head. I felt a presence, tracked his vision streak, but everything looked the same, typical drunks and partygoers.
“You know what? Forget it.” Opening my purse, I counted change, dropped fifty pence pieces and copper onto the counter. “Just get me another vodka.”
The fool chortled, pouring my drink.
He’s lucky I don’t slush him the face.
What’s his problem?
This animosity between us felt personal, but I didn’t even know his name.
He totalled each penny, muttering profanity. Good. That’ll educate him; do not be unfriendly and rude to paying customers. I had money—enough to buy every bottle on that stand, but deliberate coin-counting proved to be effective, tedious and taxing for Mr Grump.
“Ha,” I laughed, and the guy flung me a double-take. “What?”
“You are so bloody strange,” he said, lips slanting into a grimace. “Do you need another one, or can I return to customers?”
I stared into my empty glass, lifted it, peered inside, dabbed droplets on my tongue. “I suppose another will suffice.”
Shaking his head, he uncapped a new, unopened bottle, slid it across. “Knock yourself out.”
His generosity wasn’t an act of kindness. No, Mr Grump wants me to fall on my ass, make a fool of myself and land like a cheap harlot in a dumpster.
I’ll show him tawdry. Omitting the glass, I bring the bottle to my lips and ingest until my throat burns.
A shadow fell over me. My gaze elevated, crashing into Adonis himself. Mr Smith. Well, I am hardly surprised to see him. He seems to pop up everywhere, lately. Only, Mr Smith believes I am uninformed. Not only at this particular bar, but when I numbly meandered thoroughfares of Central London, he’s exiting retail stores, soaring from expensive cars and dining inside those lavishly presented restaurants. “No female companion tonight?” I thought, recalling a vivacious, leggy red-head on his arm.
Under dark, knitted eyebrows, Mr Smith glared at the barman, who ducks and fumbles with restocking chillers, then he returns his impatient, cold blues to me.
I turned at the waist to face him, tapping a heeled foot against the floor.
He remained tight-lipped, dark and enigmatic.
“I love vodka,” I slurred, wielding my empty glass. “It helps numb everything. Its lethal substance solidifies me, makes me a better woman—gives me courage, strength and empowerment.” Sustaining his scowl, he watched me knock back one final shot. “What’s your poison?”
“Jameson,” he confirmed in a honeyed voice. “Amongst other varieties.”
“Ah,” I lengthened dramatically, tilting my head to win his imposing height. “Another whiskey aficionado. Tell me,” I sat for a moment, crossing my legs, “how does oneself decide whiskey is to be a man’s necessary prerequisite for world domination?”
His stern expression broke, laughter falling from his full lips. “Was your question a piss-poor attempt of disguising misandry?”
My eyes brightened in satisfaction. “I don’t understand the question.”
“If roles reversed, and I asked why vodka was a woman’s drink,” he cinched a snarky eyebrow, “or that whiskey was exclusively a man’s spirit, wouldn’t you be inclined to call me sexist?”
I considered his question, face morphing into the representation of a miffed duck. “Yes.”
Receiving a glass from Mr Grump, Mr Smith brought the rim to his lips, sipping gracefully. “It’s my preference.” His eyes lasered in on mine. “Who else were you referring to?”
Liam’s handsome face forced its way to the forefront of my mind. “Someone I used to know.”
Mr Smith seemed to read me as if I were an open book, spilling secrets. “Going by your grief-stricken features am I right to assume this man died.”
Oh, I pegged him wrong. He has no idea what’s transpiring and mulling over inside my head.
Stabilising a cigarette between his lips, he struck a zippo lighter, igniting a flame and inhaled a deep drag.
Entranced, I surveyed clouds of smoke drift above his head. “Can I try some?”
Respiring another drag, he extended his arm, offering me the cigarette. “Have at it.” I gripped the stub with pinched fingers, clumsily put it to my lips and puffed. “Not too much.”
I choked, smoke congesting at the back of my throat, making my eyes water. “Oh, God,” I wheezed, snatching the vodka bottle. “That burnt my chest.”
Why do people torture themselves?
What’s fun about clogging up your lungs?
I gulped remedying liquid, smeared my lips with a napkin. “Why would someone willingly do that?”
Mr Smith suppressed a humoured smile. “You just did.”
“Yeah, but...” Fuck, he’s right. I voluntarily asked a somewhat unfamiliar person if I could bum his nicotine addiction. “God, it’s awful.” My tongue licked the inner walls of my mouth, dry and parched. “I should go.”
Features hardening, he tucked his hands inside his trouser pockets, rocking back on the heels of his leather shoes. “Probably.”
I slipped off the stool, opened my purse and double-checked my reflection in the compact mirror. “It was lovely meeting you...?”
He held my devious stare. “Greg.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention.
To be a good liar, you must possess a good memory. Mr Jackass over here once told me his name was John—the cliché, common British name—John Smith.
“Greg,” I repeated, hiding my concern. “I look like shit, Greg.” Really, Alexa? Is that the best you could marshal? Gawking in the mirror and pretending to self-critique. “Proper shit.”
“You look fine, Angel,” he whispers so quietly that I almost didn’t catch it. “How are you getting home?”
“I’ll moony a taxi,” I said nonchalantly, providing a flippant wave of the hand. “I am hard like that.”
He gulped another laugh, mildly nodding his head. “You shouldn’t flash your ass to strangers.”
“What ass?” I chimed, gesticulating to my rear end. “I don’t have one. Apparently,” I leaned closer, close enough for him to straighten, an unusual defence mechanism, “I am the unfortunate owner of a bony backside. Tell me, Gregory the third. Would you still bed a woman who sports bones for asses?”
I sensed that my drunken blathering rattled him. I was proud, but my pride shortly diminished when Mr Liar dipped his head and murmured, “If she has a face like yours, I’d tie her to my bed and fuck that bony ass unmercifully.”
My lips parted in utter shock.
Please, pray tell, what does unmerciful ass fucking entail?
Mechanically, my virginal cheeks clenched.
“Get that taxi, Angel,” he ordered, sweeping a strand of blonde hair behind my ear. “Monsters come out at night.”
“I give zero fucks about monsters.” I touched his chest, silently demanding he leaves my breathing area. “Not even ones with beguiling blue eyes.” His sinister smirk knotted my stomach. “Comprende?”
I hadn’t realised the door opened or that I hovered towards it until a cold breeze smacked me in the face. “Entiendo muy bien,” he said gravely, puckering my flesh with goosebumps. “Hermosa. Por favor, esté a salvo.”
“What you just said.” I pointed a red-polished nail in his face, awkwardly tapped his shoulder, and then squeezed between him and the doorway, eager to get far away from that spine-chilling conversation.
I walked ahead.
“Vincent,” someone mumbled in my wake, and my senses skyrocketed, exploded. “Yes, Boss.”
Across the street, two Suits stand with their backs to me, chatting up three females from the bar. I glanced to see if they noticed me leaving. Nope, they’re too busy trying to score, on the job. Oh, damn. Liam would lose a kidney if he knew they slacked. I mean, I could be a bitch and tell him, considering he pays them an extortionate amount of money, but I am no snitch.
I hesitated on the street corner, stared at the reggae bar. Vincent, someone said meekly. It was an automatic response to something I hadn’t caught. Mr Gregory, John, Smith, the lying, deceiving asshole had a real name—a name his employees, or minions used unbeknownst to my sharp hearing.
It’s also the name Liam mentioned yesterday.
What does this mean?
It means I am in trouble after all, yet I have no concept or understanding of why.
Palming my purse, checking the firearm’s nestled safely inside, I detoured into the next street, wishing I’d borrowed a phone from Jace.
I need to call Liam.
What are you doing, Alexa? Go back to the Suits and get them to escort you to Club 11. Why must you always wander alone and draw unwanted attention to yourself?
“Fucking lunatic,” I muttered, retracing my steps, searching for the famous Bentleys...“You have got to be shitting me.”
Gone. Disappeared. Vanished. Nothing but low hanging fogs and exhaust fumes in their absconding departure.
The three women stroll past me, sloshed and raucous, telling the entire wilderness an insightful story of their ghastly sexcapade last night, but the Suits left, panicked and jarred, I imagine. Well, that’ll teach them for demonstrating tardiness. They think I am lost. No, idiots. I ran away.
Down the alleyway, a cat shrieked, chasing its opponent beneath communal bins, the racket echoing and drumming off the walls.
I slipped into the shadows, seeing two men, unrecognisable men in denim jeans and black shirts, jogging towards the guesthouse. Those aren’t Liam’s men. They belong to Mr Jackass.
Why are they looking for me?
Why did I drink tonight?
I can’t make heads or tails of my situation.
All I can think about is that pleasant smelling kebab house around the corner.
Guarded and suspicious, I sauntered backwards, fusing the purse to my chest. I’ll order food and flag down a taxi, call Liam from a payphone and have him pick me up from somewhere.
What if he doesn’t want to see me?
It’s essential, though, right? He asked if I knew anyone by the name of Vincent, and less than twenty-four hours later, the said person appears like an apparition. That’s not entirely true. I spent many a night conversing with John Smith, and he seemed nice, friendly. If he wanted to harm me, wouldn’t he have pounced already?
In the belly of the alleyway, I paused, stared at the polychromatic bricked wall, espying a rising shadow. I neither turned nor lost control. It’s what villains anticipate, screams, running, trepidation. They thrive on your fear, relish in the hunt. No, I stayed sangfroid, composed, breathing paced and soundless.
The shadow crept closer. I felt its disembodied silhouette blanket my body. The second I distinguished shallow breathing, I rammed an elbow into his ribcage, whooshing the air from his lungs.
Vincent growled, doubled over at the waist and reached for my hand. He’s a big man, strong and intimidating, so I had seconds to flee before something unforgettable happened.
I shouldered past him, sprinted at a gruelling pace, praying my heels didn’t buckle and disjoint my legs.
Staggering into the adjoining passageway, panting and sweating, I gravitated towards the street lights, hearing his loud footsteps close but elevated. My head whipped from side to side, searching in confusion. “Vincent,” I called out, fierce and strong, feigning composure. “What do you want?”
Each entranceway welcomed me, but I trusted no path, no light or promising escape.
I knew better than that.
His laughter echoed into the night, ripping a muffled scream from my throat. I thrust my spine to the wall, giving myself all-encompassing vision, his droning voice filtering, fading above.
With my heart wedged in my throat, I looked up between gliding buildings while simultaneously unclipping my bag, obtaining the gun. “I’ll shoot,” I warned, flinching when metal stairs dragged and rattled somewhere in the darkness. “No second-guessing, you lying, deceiving, backstabbing asshole.”
“For what purpose?” he asked, and I sidestepped. “Was I not pleasant to you, Victoria?” He lengthened my name in a deriding tone. “Or is it Alexa? Do enlighten me.”
I chuckled to myself, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Why must everyone around me lie? Was I that much of an evil bitch in a previous life?”
He didn’t answer, but I felt his eyes on me the entire time.
“What do you want?” I met a corner, slipped into another urine-smelling lane. On shaky legs, I broke into a fast sprint, detecting a crescendo of laughter. My heel caught in the crevice of cracked concrete, disconnecting from my foot and sending my body across the floor. Gun toppling out of my hand, skidding beneath a dumpster, I ignored the burning graze on my knees and ruptured blood trickling down my legs, forced myself to stand, returned my shoe and ran straight into a blocked end. “No,” I whispered, the life draining from my body—a towering impenetrable bricked wall, fenced with barbed wire, broken glass and razor tape.
I spun around and faced him. “Well,” I yelled, flinging my arms in defeat, “what are you waiting for? Here I am, vulnerable and for the taking.” The fierceness in my voice masked accelerating fear. “Be warned, though, I bite, hard.”
The man fell from the sky like a deity of darkness, something akin to amusement aflame in his cold, searing gaze. Permeating my ensconced ambience, he soared from hunkering aloofness, his frozen, angered expression engendering rioting anxieties.
When he stepped closer, unshakable dread heightened. “Vincent,” I said, breathless and flushed. “Please don’t hurt me.”
Before me, he came to an abrupt stop, his closeness sending a shiver down my spine. I closed my eyes, basked in his unnerving presence. “Angel,” he whispered, stroking my jawline with the pad of his finger. “Look at me.”
Obsequious, I lifted my eyelids with bated breath. “I should bury you with lies.”
“I like subverting suppositions,” he said in a rough, baritone voice that made my blood hot. “It makes for an intriguing chase.”
I shirked away from his unwanted touch.
He gave me a wolfish smirk, dipping his head to brush his lips across my cheek. “You have something I want.”
“Really?” I asked, fearing the worst. “And what might that be?”
Hand to the wall above my head, he kissed the tender spot beneath my ear. “Warren.”
Dauntless ferocity enwreathed my pounding heart. “You so arrogantly presume I’d cheat Liam out of life.” I climbed the peak of raw indignation. “I’d kill you first.”
He glared at me, a feral glint in his ice-blue eyes. “Your impertinence offends me.”
I studied him, unblinking and disoriented. “I thought you were different.” I thought he was one of the good guys.
“Angel, so unassuming,” he rasped, putting us nose-to-nose. “I am a man without equal.”
I slapped him, hard, the sting vibrating my palm. “You lied to me!”
Vincent’s head hadn’t budged. He held my disgusted glare, slowly licking the blood from his lips, tasting the minor pain I caused. “Nobody puts their hand on me and lives to hear the end of it.”
“Tell someone who gives a flying fuck,” I spat, raising my hand to impale him once more. He snatched my wrist, bent my arm and wrenched my thrashing body to his chest. “Get off me!”
Arm locking around my upper body, he pinned me with robust strength, his unrelenting hold impossible to weaken. Capturing my throat, pressing a thumb to the column of my neck, he entertained my struggle, smiled, watched me wither and squirm. “Are you finished?” He mused, and I slackened, defeated and hopeless. “What’s that desolate look in your eyes, Angel?”
“Are you mentally unhinged?” I rammed my knee upwards, but he dodged cock slaughtering invasion. “If you want Liam so much, why are you pestering me? I don’t see him anywhere. Do you?”
“See, that’s the thing,” he said, steadying my movements. “I continuously reach out to the man, but he’s inaccessible and unapproachable. His men, though persistently loyal, fail to meet demands. Now, I am going to release you if you promise cooperation.” Luxuriant dark hell fell forward. “Do I have your word?”
“Good girl.” Releasing me, he stepped back, smoothed a hand down his shirt, the white gold cross draping from his earlobe, glimmering under the moon’s light. “I need you to convince him to sit with me—one meeting. If he’s not interested in my proposal, I will back off, and neither of you will see or hear from me again.”
I sliced my eyes in suspicion. “What’s the catch?”
He lifted an insouciant shoulder. “There aren’t any.”
Disbelief slithered across my tongue. “I don’t believe you. Plus, what makes you think I have that much power over Liam. He marches to no one’s drum, Vincent. If he doesn’t wish to sit with you, then anything I have to say will fall on deaf ears.”
“Negative,” he jests, wagging a finger in my face. “You mightn’t know me, Alexa Haines, but I know you rather well. Warren, to his dismay, for his beautiful Alexa, will move mountains, commence wars and shed the blood of every unfortunate bastard that dares look at her the wrong way. You know it. Warren knows it.” He stepped up to me. “I know it.”
I gave him a pointed look. “And if I don’t oblige?”
His grave expression upheld. “Warren’s death will be on your hands.”
My stomach sank at the sheer concept. “What’s the vendetta, Vincent?”
“I don’t have one.” He ebbed, retreating from me. “But I know somebody that does.”
I watched him disappear into the night, a frightful lump lodge in my chest. Respiring a shuddered breath, I dabbed sweat dews from my forehead, paced out of the alleyway, scanning for the nearest restaurant. I located a late-night burger joint, shoved open the door and demanded to use a telephone.
Jerked into consciousness, the weary shop assistant slid a mobile in my hands. I dialled a taxi service, provided them with the address to Club 11 and stood behind the window, impatiently waiting for the famous black cab to pull up.