Rousing to Brad's irritated voice, I licked the roof of my dry mouth, saw a myriad of leather shoes striding passed my head.
Disorientated and hungover, I conceptualised my surroundings, belatedly discerned passing out on the floor.
Glass embeds my cheek. I groaned, shifting into a sitting position, rubbed sleep from my eyes.
Inside the office, few soldiers operate collectively to replace the monitors and surveillance.
Nate's currently exchanging the shelving unit and Brad, the imperious curmudgeon, pelts orders while assembling a new high-gloss coffee table.
I climbed to my full height, dusted off my suit.
Nobody spared me a glance; they wouldn't dare. The men proceed, knowingly overlooking the fact I keeled over after trashing my office.
Dismissing my thumping headache, I picked up the damaged canvas from the sofa, inwardly chastised myself for recklessness.
Last night, I susceptibility lapsed, imbibed too much alcohol and drugs to numb my all-pervading bereavement. For the first time in my life, I found a love worth fighting for—worth dying for—and I lost her. Sure, we hadn't discussed future probabilities or possibilities, but I knew Alexa was the one—my one. The woman I'd permanently move into my home and facilitate our longevity together. Her premature death has left an agonising, gaping hole in my chest—a painful void no other woman can refill or salvage.
Tailored elegantly in his all-black three-piece, Josh dodges strewn vandalism, asking Brad to sign the furniture's delivery receipt.
I leave the men inside my office, lock myself away in the bathroom.
Losing the alcohol-infused suit, I relieved my bladder and then took a cold shower. I scrubbed yesterday's antics off my body, checked my reflection in the mirror and disapproved. My eyes were puffy and lachrymose. I brushed my teeth, styled my hair, freshened up with deodorant and cologne.
Clipped onto the door hook is a steamed, navy suit. I redressed, thanks to Brad's careful consideration, exchanged my watch for a gold Rolex and amended my jewellery.
Beneath the aloft lights, the chain around my neck glimmered. Alexa's tag sits proudly at my chest.
I return to the room. It's borderline empty, with the exception of my most trusted men. Brad, Nate and Josh sit comfortably around the sofa, deliberating this week's game plan. Licking a rizla deck, Brad rolled a joint with effortless finesse, ignited its haze and listened to Nate maunder possible whereabouts for Flamur.
Collapsing onto the leather chair behind my desk, I feigned indifference, pretended the constant encumbering pain was ineffectual.
Reaching for the desk drawer, I snagged a Jameson bottle, tossed the metal cap and poured myself a hefty dose. I lifted the drink to my lips, faltered, catching the men's immediate silence. I eyed them over the glass rim. My mocking expression derided their unspoken concerns. "Problem?"
Shaking their heads in response, they tapered down accumulating scepticisms and resume with their conversation.
Knocking back a burning shot, I sighed through well-needed influence, slid the glass toward stacked folders and noted an ornamental display on my desk. I could only see the particularly unattractive vase adorned with freshly delivered white lilies. Nothing else, in the room, existed. "What the fuck is that?"
Josh glanced at the horrid contraption. "Natalie wanted to help reconstruct the office."
I bet she fucking did.
Seizing the phone, I pressed option one for the bar, impatiently awaiting her annoying voice. "Liam, did you need something?" she purrs, making my dick shrivel-up.
"Office." I can't believe I used to fuck this bitch. "Now." Ending the call, I dismissed the men's curiosity, popped a cigarette between my lips and lit it. "Updates."
Nate stared at me, wary. "Our shipments arrived at Gateway," he verifies, exchanging a worried look with Brad. "Happy days. Club 11's renovations finalise tomorrow so that we can reopen for business."
Good, I thought, glimpsing at the emptiness through the window. I necessitate normality: uproarious dance room, intoxicated spendthrifts and bodacious dancers. I need a man restrained in the cellar, someone I can utilise to elevate pent-up anguish and tiresome infuriation.
Nate jerked a shoulder. "No complaints."
"On your behalf, I visited the victims' families at the crack of dawn." Brad stood, passed Nate the joint and towered before me. "I settled their grief with generous pay checks." He dropped a clear bag onto the desk. Its contents, countless military chains that formerly belonged to my men. "No complaints."
"Bajramovic?" I asked, blowing out a stream of smoke. "I want Bajramovic."
Understanding warped his amber-coloured eyes. "We're working on his location, Bossman—"
"No," I interject, ever-present rage festering inside me. "You're not looking hard enough. Use our contacts. Demand answers. Some motherfucker knows where he is," I add in a vehement tone. "Shackles." Outstretching my arms, I figuratively address the men. "I will forever bear restraints if I don't end him."
Brad dipped his head. "Boss—"
"It'd be for nothing," I ranted, matching his stance. "Alexa's death will be for nothing. I demand a reason. I need a goddamn reason. His death can give me a sense of closure. Do you understand?"
I round the desk, punch the code to my safe and comb through small leather boxes. I select one, toss it to Brad.
"Mr Warren?" Natalie knocks on the opened office door, smiling at the men. "You needed me?"
I have never needed this bitch. "What the fuck is that piece of shit on my desk?"
Affronted by my bitterness, she stared at the lilies. "I thought it was a nice touch to your new layout."
Brad returns to the sofa, falling into engrossed conversation with Nate and Josh, paying no heed to my conflict with Natalie.
I put my back to the wall, watch her hips sway as she saunters toward me. "Do I look like a man who wants fucking flowers?"
"I'm sorry, Liam," she whispered, stopping in front of me. "I was just trying to help."
My eyes roamed over her heart-shaped face. Natalie's a beautiful woman. Attractively tall, slim waist, voluptuous breasts and a killer sex drive. I'd be lying if I said, she was a lousy fuck. The woman knows how to ride a hard bargain, sucks cock better than most.
"I'll discard them," she assures, splaying her hands on my chest. "Anything else?" She deliberately bites her lower lip, a small indication that she believes I appreciate. "Ask them to leave."
She has blue eyes and blonde hair, the polar opposite of Alexa. She's everything I repudiate in a woman. "That sounded like an order, Natalie," I rasped in a cold, dangerous voice. "Since when did you," I purposely eyed her from head-to-toe, "earn such privileges."
Her mouth rounded in shock. "I thought—"
"Thought what?" I barked, and Brad threw me a double-take. "That I already required a replacement? I just lost the love of my fucking life," I spat, the muscles in my jaw tightening.
I felt the men's stunned demeanours and questioning glares. Yes, they knew how much Alexa Haines had affected me, but today, I admitted aloud how much I loved her.
Natalie flung sleek blonde hair over one shoulder. "What, so you're off the market?" She cracked up, and every bone in my body became granite. "Alexa is dead—"
I snatched her throat in a tight grip. "I dare you to finish that sentence," I warned, absentmindedly backing her toward the sofa. "You got it all figured out, huh?"
"Liam," she wheezed, fingernails pinching my wrist, watery eyes protruding. "You're hurting me."
"Don't confuse our history," I said, our noses virtually touching. "You were nothing but a hole to fill—a mouth to fuck."
A single tear rolled down her cheek. "I'm sorry."
Uncontrollable anger ignited impulsiveness. I whipped the Desert Eagle from the waistband of my trousers and, in unforgiving blindness, I wedged the barrel into her wailing mouth—pulled the trigger. Blood splattered as the bullet penetrated the back of her head. Her lifeless body sagged in my hold. I cursed, tossing her onto the coffee table with a loud thump.
"Boss." Brad slowly stood, arching an eyebrow. "Was that seriously necessary?"
"Necessary," Josh complains. "What's not necessary is having to wipe off that chick's brain that's plastered all over my bastard face." He snags a silk napkin from his suit pocket, furiously rubs gore from his cheek. "I can actually fucking taste it."
I stared at Natalie's twisted body, her blood, pooling beneath her head, staining my new furniture. "Dump the bitch."
Elbows resting to his knees, Nate grabs his phone and calls the clean-up crew to discard Natalie.
"Seriously, Bossman. What was that about?" Brad asked again, scratching his head as he watched blood dripping onto the floor. "She was only trying to help."
Natalie disrespected Alexa in perpetual subjugation. I am only sorry that I didn't end her sooner. "She had it coming."
Nate stands to assist the cleaners. They unravelled tarpaulin and rolled Natalie's body into the plastic coverage.
Josh witnesses the display. His pallid expression bothers me. Operating alongside my men requires unperturbed conduct. He won't last two minutes if he doesn't supersede his inherited, irreproachable characteristics. "Josh?"
He blinked twice before looking at me. "Yes, sir?"
I slipped my hands into my trouser pockets. "Do I need to be concerned?"
"No." He shook his head for additional assurance. "I'm just getting used to everything. That's all."
"Nate," I called, and he snapped off his sterile gloves. "Josh's training starts today. Visit the barracks—show him the ropes." I extend my arm to Brad. He set the jewellery box onto my palm. "It's obligatory that you wear this at all times." Opening the clasp, I lift the chain with my finger, drape it before the newly hired. "It's part of your uniform."
Josh hadn't quite smothered his joyfulness. He smiled with a wicked spark in his eyes, hanging the military tags around his neck. "Why two hundred and thirty-three?"
"Keep safe." Brad seemed stoic, but I knew he was secretly thrilled to have Josh on-board. "We don't fancy replacing you with two-hundred and thirty-four."
"Get to work," I commanded, and the men fled the office; their raucous laughter echoed down the corridor.
My squalid bedsit fuelled me with pride. Sure, it's malodorous walls, and outdated furnishings weren't overly comforting, but décor and opulence was nothing money couldn't fix.
I spent two weeks eliminating moss from the walls. I hadn't bothered with paint or wallpaper, though.
What's the point?
This isn't my "forever" home. It's a pit-stop—a temporary circumstance until I reach a directional verdict.
I had, however, wasted five hours in a furniture store, buying a double-bed, mattress, sheets and coverlets. Nothing fancy. All-black cotton to match the scattered rugs, wardrobes and chest of drawers. Two men in a white van delivered my goods the following day, replacing the hazardous appliances for top-of-the-range equipment.
Last week, I rocked up in a corner store and bought a six-pack of beers. The plump woman operating the cash register didn't request identification. I got pissed—seriously inebriated. I laid in bed with a fuzzy head, the window open, listening to drunk folks ambling down the street, returning from a local pub.
The following morning, I awakened to a hangover from hell. I vomited until I passed out—swore I'd never touch alcohol again in my life.
That lasted until the next night.
Boredom. I was beyond bored. No family. No friends. No job. Nada.
I tried my first cigarette and choked. My tight throat and lungs failed to prevent me from experiencing it once more. In fact, within three weeks, I quite enjoyed a cigarette with my beverage each morning.
Sometimes, I ventured to Victoria, sat on the same bench sans peanuts, wishing Bill still claimed his spot.
I was lonely.
Each morning, I'd shower, down a protein shake and go for a winter jog. I loved the earthy, petrichor smell as hunkered glows danced across my face, relished cold winds blowing through my hair.
Bending over at the waist, I breathed in a lungful of air, wiped sweat dews from my brows.
Across the street, two young lads stand abreast a parked Golf. I followed their exchange, witnessed the older male slip something into his friend's closed fist. Drugs, I thought, settling my back to the bricked wall.
Rolling my lower lip between gritted teeth, I scoped the area, loitered until the younger lad jumped in his car. And then I advanced on the dealer.
Sensing a presence, the guy halted by the driver's side door and glared at me over the rim of his sunglasses. "What are you looking at?" He asked, nothing friendly about his fierce tone. "Keep walking, dick."
His disrespect irked me. I resisted the urge to deck him, fostered a smile instead. "I want in," I said, getting straight to the point. "No bullshit."
"I got a ten-bag," he explains, and I scoffed. "What? You're telling me it ain't enough to see you through until morning?"
He assumed I wished for a smoke. "Forget about it."
Stuffing my hands in my hoodie pocket, I shouldered past him, hearing him offer a twenty for an extra fiver.
That night, I sat behind a monitor in a nearby internet café, browsing the web. I scribbled down notes, ordered fluorescent grow lights and requirements online.
Back at the bedsit, I unhatched the loft, climbed heavenward, prepared space for deliveries and began conducting homegrown marijuana.
The internet failed to mention cultivation challenges. I lost my first batch, forgoing nutrient-water solution, repeating the process all over again. "Beauty," I murmur to myself, examining the perfectly ripened pots.
I had to find a lucrative round, somewhere to deal surreptitiously. Four days later, with weed-stuffed bags in my slack pockets, I finally got my first customer. Dealing was never about money. I had funds, but I yearned for something, knew that making a name for myself was a start in the right direction.
The bell above chimed as I entered the antique store. I tousled rain droplets from my hair, waded between customers, admiring vintage-looking furniture.
I waited by the brass stools, pondered buying them for the kitchen when a retro turntable caught my attention.
Lowering the volume on my headphones, I admired the scratched mahogany wood, fumbled with the faux gold buttons.
"Can I help you?"
I glance at the shopkeeper. "I'm good, thanks." While inspecting my possible possession, I felt his judgemental eyes drilling into me. "I don't need assistance."
"It is a lot of money, " he asserted patronisingly, and I grimaced. "Perhaps you might want to look at the VHS section."
His condemnatory comment stirred my inner contempt. "How much?"
Lips twitching into a knowing grin, he cleared his throat behind a closed fist. "Five hundred for the turntable. The vinyl records start from thirty—"
"I'll take it all," I said smugly, snatching the gym bag from my shoulder. "Chuck the LP's in this, and I'll carry the turntable."
He snickered, fixing his gold-framed glasses. "You need money for such purchases."
I snatched enough cash to fill his trap. "Here." Slapping the notes on his chest, I shoved past him, packing my bag. "Keep the change."
"Do you need anything else? A television perhaps?" He gestured to a six-seater dining table. "I can deduct the price if you buy that today."
Desperate, judgemental twat.
I claimed the goods and exited the shop with my head held high.
Taking ownership of the wooden dresser, the turntable, immersed me with harmonious chords. It's an unfamiliar song choice, but I enjoyed it regardless.
I perched my backside onto the windowsill, tucked the floral net around the curtain pole, pulled a swig from the beer bottle.
Outside, beneath the dark, starless sky, two silhouettes progressively stroll down the street. A couple, I wondered, seeing the man claim the woman's hand. I think they're inebriated. Their drunken slurs suggest as much. She swivelled in her black dress, oblivious to my watchful eyes, and then fell into his longing arms for a steamy kiss.
I looked away, cheeks flaring red.
Knocking back the rest of my beer, I lunged the empty bottle in the bin, stomped into trainers and tugged on a hoodie.
Keys in hand, I locked the front door behind me, descended the stairs, left the tenanted-building and broke into a brisk jog.
I ran, fast, trainers belting against the footpath. I had no sense of direction, no understanding or concept of existence. Bill said money made the world go round. Then why do I feel defeated? Why am I so miserable, depressed and disappointed? Goddamn lonely.
Jogging around a street corner, I panted for breath, sweat drenching my grey hoodie, the muscles in my body, taut, ripped— "Fuck," I groaned, unexpectedly colliding into someone's chest, body spearing across the concrete. "Ah, shit."
A crescendo of male chuckles waved through my ears. I rolled onto my side, blinked through momentary vision impediment and rose to my feet. "Sorry about that—"
"You fucking better be," one of five lads chimed, teeth sinking into a burger. "Come at me again, and I'll spark you out."
I recoiled, not with fear but ire. "Hey, I apologised," I rasped, lips twisting in repugnance. "No, need for hostility." I made a lackadaisical attempt to sidestep the tall guy. He impeded the escape route, arms folded at his chest, indomitable. "You're in my way."
Again, they laughed with faux humour, egging each other on. "What's the matter, fuck face," one chimed, and I side-eyed him. "You're looking a little flustered."
"Yeah," the one munching a burger agreed. "Pussio."
I briefly marshal my surroundings. We stood in the belly of an alleyway, one sporadic red light above that steel door to my right. "I don't want any trouble," I said with genuine earnestness, but my body deceived me, hands tightening into fists, shoulders squaring, ready for defence. "I'll be on my way—"
Someone jaws me, hard. I dropped to the ground like dead-weight, cheek flared, aching.
Deriding chortles reverberated throughout, tantalising my escalating wrath. I knew I didn't stand a chance against five lads. I never got thus far in life by cowardice, though.
Jumping to my feet, whipping off my hoodie, I wiped trickling blood from my lips, stepped up to the tallest. "You wanna fuck with me?" Before he responded, I slammed him in the jaw with a brutal right hook.
Commotion commenced. I knew if they sucker-punched or jumped me, I'd lose the battle, which, at this point, was likely. I threw out combinations, watched my back, ducked, swung, sidestepped, impaled.
Someone caught me in the waist, and I spat through clenched teeth. Spear tackling the last man standing, I knocked the wind from his lungs, straddled his lap and beat into him with unmerciful fists.
By the time I realised I'd outmanoeuvred them, blood rivulets from my busted knuckles and catching my breath was too laborious.
Ignoring their rocking, groaning bodies on the ground, I snatched my hoodie, prepared to flee when I heard echoing applause.
I glimpse near the steel door where a tall, lean male, claps his hands unenthusiastically. I shot him a venomous look, flung the hoodie over one shoulder and walked off.
"That's a mean hook ye got, lad," he said in an Irish accent. "What's your name?"
I turned to face him, eyebrows meshing together. "Who's asking?"
Correcting his chequered flat cap, he pointed to the intermittent, flashing sign above—Rex's Gym. "Get inside," he rudely orders, putting his back to me. "It's cold out here like."
What the fuck?
"As if," I scoffed, striding down the alley.
What a nut job.
Halting, I looked back, studied the sign once more.
Do you have something better to do, Warren?
Call me curious, but I listened to the old geezer, sprinted to the entrance, closed the door behind me.
I ascended the staircase, entered a cavernous space offering blue floor mats, dangling punching bags, metal seating platforms and a tattered ring.
Hurling my hoodie on a chair, I raked my eyes over the wall-mounted framed photos, briefly read old newspaper articles, sniffing the chemical stench permeating the air. "Rex?" I called, gravitating toward a torn, red leather heavy bag. "I assume that's your name." Taking the bag in two hands, I checked the weight, examined the chain. "Judging by the sign and all."
Bouncing off the balls of my feet, I landed a left jab to the bag, sidestepped, slammed in with a right fist.
"Where did ye learn to fight like that?"
Rex stands beside, what looked like an office, glaring at me. "I'm not a fighter."
His grey brow curved. "Really?" Puffing smoke from his pipe, he pushed himself toward me. White T-shirt, loose on his lanky frame. "Ye just woke up one mornin' and thought, hey, I'll jump five lads tonight."
I steeled my jaw. "They jumped me, actually," I corrected, offended by his unsubtle accusation. "I stuck up for myself. Fucking sue me."
"Aye, aren't ye a chopsy fucker," he sniped, and the corner of my lip twitched. "And he knows it. Look at that smile." He pointed to my mouth, and I gently whacked his hand away. "Egotistical. I'll give ye that."
"Nothing wrong with loving yourself." My forced self-assurance fooled him. "I..." A young girl appeared near his office door. I closed my mouth, furtively skimmed my eyes over her pale legs and a figure-hugging jumper-dress. She had red, unruly hair and jade green eyes, an infectious smile that affected my heart somewhat.
"You're supposed to be studyin'," Rex admonished, and the girl's cheeks glowed crimson. "Quit nosin', Bronagh."
Bronagh, I mentally repeated, lowering my head.
"I thought somethin' was wrong, granddad," she said, her voice, soft, gentle, hypnotic. "I am just makin' sure ye alright."
"I am speakin' to the new cleaner," he tells her, folding his arms. "Ain't that right?" His face scrunched. "What's did ye tell me ye name was?"
"I didn't," I reminded him, and he lifted a shoulder. "Liam Warren." I found my gaze returning to the girl. "And I am nobody's cleaner."
"Nonsense," he exclaims, snatching a mop from the wall. "There's a domestic cupboard out the back. Fill a bucket and glimmer these floors."
I held the wooden stick in my hand. I didn't need money, didn't need a job, but I was bored at home.
How hard can scrubbing a floor be?
"Bronagh," said Rex, clicking his fingers. "Show Warren around while I finish sendin' emails, then get back in that office and finish your studies."
Ruffling her tight-coiled locks, she smiled meekly at me, gesturing for me to follow. I did, too, more than eagerly. I hadn't had the luxury of female closeness before, and she was pretty, certainly had blood rushing south.
"So," Bronagh chimed, toying with her jumper knot, "ye wanna work?"
I nod my lie.
"What happened to ye knuckles, Liam?"
I made a noncommittal noise.
Stopping at the cleaning closet, she opened the door, railed off products. "You don't talk very much."
That's because I'm nervous. "You won't be saying that in a few weeks, Bronagh."
Resting a shoulder to the wall, she craned her neck to look at me. "I like ye eyes."
Christ, she was forward. Her compliment was unexpected. "Thanks, I guess." Don't fucking blush, Warren. "Your eyes are better."
Her lips widened into a pleased smile. "Thank you, Liam."
I love the sound of my name rolling off her tongue. "Well," I unclogged my throat, obtained cleaning supplies, "I'll see you around."
Her mouth opens and shuts. "I don't visit here often." I was secretly disappointed. "Maybe that changed tonight?"
Fuck. Bronagh's flirting, right? I do not imagine her subtle coquettishness.
I gave her a lopsided smirk, heat clambering my neck. "No protesting from me."
"Bossman," Brad barked in my ear, slapping a hand on my back. "Wake up."
My forehead furrowed, too painful to open my eyes.
"I called you right away, Brad," I overheard a female voice. "He's been here all day, drinking. I started getting worried because he's alone."
I mumbled, striving to lift my head from the table.
"Fucking Christ," Brad scolds, yelling at the men. "Help me get him up."
Snarling, I jerked my head up, thrust him aside and practically fell from behind the table. "Don't fucking touch me," I ordered, perceiving a slight slur in my voice. "I am Liam fucking Warren." Squaring up to my right-hand man, seeing two of him, I pointed in his face. "I run this bitch."
"Shit," Nate cursed, warily coming to my side. "Sir, you lost security detail."
I blinked to regain full awareness, but it was fruitless. "I don't need them," I mumbled, licking my dry lips. "Contrariwise, Nathanial Alzaim. You motherfuckers need my help. My assistance—don't forget your place." I jostled my way through the horde of men, and they permitted, stepping back with great reluctance. "Worthless."
Managing to exit the pub in one piece, I stepped out into a cold, winters night, the strong winds almost knocking me off my feet. "Fuck." Frisking myself, I searched for cigarettes, hearing the men protest behind me. "What's so funny?"
Brad folded his arms, shaking his head. "No one's laughing, Bossman."
Paranoia infested my head. "Did you find him?" I asked, lips mashing together. "Tell me that you located the Albanian cunt."
"Not yet, sir," Nate cursed, bewildered by my recent behaviour. "Let's get you in the car."
"Quit ordering me around," I snapped, ebbing away from the men, murdering a young recruit with scorn-filled eyes. "What the fuck did you say to me?"
He whitened, uncurling his spine. "Nothing."
"What?" I stepped into his personal space, a hand behind my ear. "Try that again, inbred. I am your goddamn boss. You'll address me so."
"I didn't say anything, boss," he rectified his mistake. Adam's apple lodged in his throat. "I'm sorry—"
"You're sorry?" I imitated, chuckling darkly. "Who the fuck hired this bitch? Weak." I gripped his shirt, and he whimpered. "Pathetic. Useless." I felt a quake in his stance. "Kill him. He's a pointless asset."
"Christ, he's wasted." Brad's hand fell to my shoulder, and I saw red. He's not an elite for nothing. He mastered my combinations many years ago.
Before I achieved a right hook, Brad evaded my flying fist, punched me square in the face and knocked me straight into unconsciousness.