I'm tearing up across your face
Move dust through the light
To find your name
It's something faint
This is not a place, not yet awake
I'm raised of make
There was a knock on the door.
Chris Mullins sat behind the large glass desk in Vince's lavish office over the Rococo Lounge and flicked his wrist, giving his guard the okay to open it. Max was escorted in by the guard on the other side of the door -Chris felt it was necessary to double up on security in these dark times -his glossy raven hair tousled and falling into his eyes giving him the broody romantic look of the lead singer of an indie rock band. His attire was as immaculate as ever, only because it was what was required of Syndicate soldiers. They couldn't look like criminals, Vince would never allow it. He'd had his rouse of the well-respected business man to uphold so anything that fell short of that image was a threat to his empire. In respect to the man that had taken him off the street and raised him (in his own way) as one of his own, Max upheld that rule of dressing as if he'd been employed by the man the public knew...but that was as far as it went. That was as much pretence as he could muster right now. If it hadn't been for that dark mop of hair, the starkness of his increasingly visible bone structure and those bruise coloured rings under his almond eyes, no one would be any the wiser to guess that Max had been going through hell and was determined to keep going.
His life since her disappearance weighed heavily on his heart and mind, each day passing without her becoming more unbearable than the last. He was a part of the Syndicate and he knew that their problems were bigger than Ava's kidnapping alone, but he couldn't...he wouldn't prioritise anything else over her; to do so would be blasphemous. She was the reason he was here. She was the reason he wasn't stuck living hand to mouth, trying to get by with his family. If he'd never seen that young golden eyed girl that day in the back of her father's town car smiling at him with a smile that he had made his home in, he'd have nothing. He owed her everything.
Losing Vince was difficult for him too. Despite the old man's severity at times, he had been the closest thing Max had to a father in years. With both Vince and Ava out of reach, Max truly felt the emptiness of his aloneness. It was awful; like standing in a room full of people with a glass wall between him and them, and not bothering to break it down because even if he made it to the other side he knew that the 'glass' would still be there. Ava and Vince were the only ones who meant anything to him, they were his family. He'd failed his family. The people that had given him the most in this life, in his selfishness to have his lust abated, he'd stripped them of their lives, both figuratively and literally.
He never thought that watching them leave on the road to making things right again, would be the last time he'd see them together; Ava jaded, damaged and lost even though she'd been found, and Vince, tense yet filled with so much relief that it was palatable. It was the first time Max truly understood how much he'd loved his daughter. When she'd crossed the platform to him that fateful night, he became more man than the monster he'd displayed for so many years. That was what Ava did, she made you feel human, like no matter what you did she understood that you weren't perfect and she loved you anyway and it made you want to yield to that side of you, if only so she could love you more.
How could he have let this happen to her?
He didn't deserve to sleep through the night without her face plaguing his dreams. He didn't deserve to nourish himself without the food going down his throat feeling like a nuisance to swallow, like something to do only so he wouldn't perish. And he didn't deserve not to sink into the void in his chest or to be relieved of the hollow feeling that echoed with a deafening silence –he didn't deserve not to be swallowed by his loss, not until he made this right.
This hell he'd taken up residence in was exactly what he deserved.
He missed her terribly and he loved her so unequivocally, and if he ever saw her again –please god let him see her again -he would tell her so. If this experience had taught Max anything it was that being afraid to let someone know you loved them was a waste. He'd had ample opportunity to tell her all those days living in the background of her world at Excelsior University, and now there was a possibility that he would never get the chance again and he'd have to go the rest of his life wondering, 'what if?'
What if he hadn't let his fear rule him?
What if he'd let her know that she was his heart?
...What if she'd loved him back?
He looked at Chris's scuffed shoe bottom on top of Vince's desk, and the corners of his mouth tightened but he said nothing. Chris saw the subtle change in the young man's face and he almost wished that Max would tell him to get his feet off of HIS desk, but he knew that Max was too well trained to do such a thing. He knew his place.
"Can I 'elp you?" he asked in his husky cockney tone.
Max stepped forward, "It's about Ava-Marie."
"Of course it is," he tried not to make it sound like a sigh and failed. "You found anything yet, or you just tryna waste more of my time?"
Max put his hand behind his back and clenched his fist so as not to make any more of his irritation show on his face. How could Chris call anything to do with Ava a waste of his time? He'd played a big role in raising her and now he treated her absence like a nuisance, something that interrupted the sour victory of his new reign over the Syndicate. "Michael's is back in London."
Now Chris paid attention. He swept his feet off of the table and lent forward, "And?"
"The DM are burying their fallen tomorrow. His soldiers are on the streets right now requesting a ceasefire."
"Oh are they now?" Chris scoffed. After what Michaels did to Vince, plus the Diamond Mafia's little suicide squad killing over thirty of the Syndicate soldiers, he'd be lucky if they granted him such a request. Yes, there were rules to how these things went –when another crew was burying their dead you put your bad blood on hold left them in peace for the day -but on this particular occasion Chris decided that rules were made to be broken. Michaels didn't deserve the respect that he hadn't earned. He still remembered how that overgrown street rat had come in to the club, arrogant, like he could turn water into wine, so irritatingly sure of himself and his power for someone so relatively new to the game. He had proven his might, and that didn't sit well with Chris, just as it hadn't with Vince. This young buck was too powerful, too fast, being as much of a threat as he'd claimed to be. The Syndicate had never taken kindly to threats. "And where exactly are they doing this burial?"
"Streatham cemetery, at noon."
Chris rubbed his hands together, "Look likes I'll have to assemble the men to pay our respects," he grinned devilishly, his eyes bright with sparks as the cogs in his head turned, whizzed and whirred with ways that he could use this information to his advantage.
"We can get Ava back."
Chris looked up at him, "What? Oh Ava...yeah, yeah, of course."
Max furrowed his brow. If Chris hadn't seen this news as a way to get his goddaughter back then what was he using it for?
He realised then that any plan that Chris was going to make, his focus was not going to be saving Ava from Aiden, so Max knew that his had to be, as it had always been, because she was all that mattered. She alone would be his objective and nothing else. "So what's the plan?" he asked, curious to unveil Chris's true motive.
Chris lent back in the chair and laced his fingers together, "When I know, you'll know."
"But it's tomorrow. Shouldn't we_"
"I said," his voice came out sharper than before, like the equivalent of a blade suddenly pressed against a throat, "When I know, you'll know."
"Well, when you figure it out..."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Chris fanned him off as if he was an overexcited child that he was bored of entertaining. Max held his frown then with a jerk of his head, he left the room.
He hung out on the staircase out of sight to see what steps Chris would take. Within minutes his suspicions were confirmed when the lieutenants and a few freshly promoted capos gathered in the office to discuss what the plan was –without him.
That son of a bitch!
Had it not been for Max, Chris wouldn't even know that Michaels was around or that they had an opportunity to repay him for his massacre and mounting disrespect, so how could he cut him out of the equation like that?
The doors were too heavily guarded for him to get close enough to hear the plan, but the fact there was one, and with the reaction that Chris had given, Max knew that his new leader had known what he was going to do the moment the words fell from Max's mouth. His only interest had been that Michaels was back. It was no secret that the Syndicate was in a vulnerable position now that Vince was gone. Everybody wanted a piece and every crew with the balls enough to try, wanted the top spot. With the Diamond Mafia taking over thirty Syndicate soldiers out in such a ferocious fashion, only six men up, it was most likely that they would be gunning for it the most. Chris had waited too long to be the Syndicate Godfather to let the ghetto storm his kingdom.
Max waited until the meeting was over, and a few moments later he was back at Chris's door.
He re-entered without knocking.
Chris was pouring himself a glass of bourbon with a smug, slimy smile dripping from his face. His expression hardened when he saw Max. "Yes?" he hissed, the pads of his fingertips turning a shade whiter as he squeezed his annoyance against the crystal tumbler.
"I saw the men leave. What's the plan?" He tilted his head, "When you know, I know, right?"
"Don't you worry about the plan, mate. It's handled."
Chris fanned him off again but Max made no attempt to adhere to his dismissal. "I want to help."
"Did I ask for your help?"
"No, but I_"
"I said it's handled." He raised his drink to his lips to take a sip thinking that that was all he had to say to get the boy to leave, but this was Ava they were talking about and possibly his last chance to be the hero he was supposed to be for her, Max wasn't about to back down so easily.
"I'm one of the best," he said matter-of-factly, "And whatever you're doing, whatever it is that you have planned, you need me."
"Do I now?" Chris set his glass down and slipped his hands into the pockets of his suit pants. He swaggered over to Max with a grimace contorting his features into something more sinister, "I'm the boss round 'ere and I'll say who I need. It's a new era, Maxi boy," he slapped Max on his back too heavily for it to be received in good spirit, "You're not my little lap dog. I'm not Vinny."
Max shrugged him off, "What's your problem?"
"I'm not the one with the problem lad, I think you are." His eyes tightened making his crow's feet more defined, "So tell me, do you have a problem with the way I conduct my business?" Chris was about a head shorter than Max but his build was stocky, solid, and he had a mean face, a face you had to see in the throes of happiness before you decided to approach, sharp denim eyes that caught everything, and thin lips permanently set in a frown. His cockney twang was gravelly and brusque at all times, even when he wasn't being a self-entitled dick.
Max was everything Chris would never be. He was nothing like the old hat East end gangster that Chris was; Max was honest and honourable. Vince had taught him well; so much so that a part of him suspected that his stand in father figure had been grooming him to take over. He'd never know if he was right. If Vince had mentioned anything of the sort it would have been to Chris, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that Chris would never reveal any information that would jeopardise his position, so Max kept his fantasy to himself. He was wise enough to know not to pick battles that didn't need to be fought, even if his opponent deserved a kicking. After all there was a hierarchy, a set chain of command, and he wasn't about to shake the tree because he was getting frustrated. He was a solider; it was his duty to follow orders.
"If there is a chance that we can get Ava back then I want to do that, and you should too."
"What makes you think she's still alive?" Chris looked into his face, his dagger-like eyes piercing through the soul of Max to see the thing that was really propelling him to keep holding on to his faith, to keep searching, to keep hoping that he could get her back.
Love. Blessed, hopeless, lonely love.
Chris wanted to laugh in his face –as if this kid had a shot with a Lockewood. He sidled up to him, "Michaels made his intentions very clear; we kill 'is bruva, 'ee kills the girl."
I didn't sit well with Max how Chris was already disassociating himself with Ava, reducing her to a noun -the girl -making her lose meaning to him, making her less of a person.
"Ava lives." There was power in his statement, it sounded prophetic like he was speaking about a legend, a grand dream of a woman that only he'd had. "You saw the footage on the news, Michaels took her. If he wanted her dead he would've left her in the car with Vince. He didn't."
"You're forgetting, Maxi, that Michaels ain't right in the 'ead. He's a sick little fucker, 'ee is. You saw 'ow she looked when 'ee handed her back over; all them cuts and scars. He said 'ee was torturing 'er; what makes you think ee's stopped?"
"That's exactly why we need to get her back."
He shook his head, "You not getting it, Maxi? Blokes like Michaels, they don't think like we do. They don't do the 'ole in and out thing, especially if it's left down to Michaels himself. You remember what he did to that cholo fella..." Chris's face scrunched up in disgust at the memory.
Bloated, blackened, rotting flesh. The face disfigured beyond recognition.
It had been all over the news when the Hispanic gang member turned up dead on the stony bank of the river Thames. It wasn't just another body in the Thames, nor was it another dead gang member that caught the media's attention...it was the way the man had been killed. Bled out and each of his orifices split open and stuffed with busted scotch bonnet peppers that burned and ate away at the flesh which was then hacked limb from limb and deposited inside a fibre bag. It was sickening, perverse and cruel beyond measure. It had been one of the many acts that brought Aiden Michaels to the heads of the underworld's attention, one of many that had earned him such a formidable reputation. Only a truly twisted man could think of such a thing. Had they all agreed the cholo deserved it? Yes, but still, it was a thing of nightmares to see and it didn't make Max feel any better about Ava being with him.
The fact that it made Chris blanch was an even bigger testament. Regardless of the argument he put fourth, he was no 'in and out' sort of guy either. He liked to play with his victims too. It had been him who had initially beat K. Dot to the sorry state he'd been in before Vince finished him off. It had been him who'd gladly put on a disposable boiler suit and taken a chainsaw to the boy's dead body and hacked him up into pieces to deliver to their mother.
Max didn't mention this.
"He went and pissed off after what he did to Vinny and he took 'er with 'im, and now he's back, but there's been no word of Ava. He probably took her out there, did god knows what, and that's 'ow she died. No bullet to the 'ead like that smiley bloke he runs with, nope. She's probably lying in a ditch somewhere."
"I don't like it any more than you, but it's about time you forget her Maxi. She's gone and what we need to do right now, what's important is to make sure that the Diamond Mafia don't get on top of us, 'cause if they do, believe you me, Ava's not the only one that's gonna go missing. Now, c'mon, off with ya."
It took him a moment. He wasn't ready to stop fighting and the things that Chris had said only made his chagrin burn hotter. He needed to find Ava and he knew -he just knew that she wasn't dead. He couldn't put it into words that would make any sense to anyone, but he'd seen the way that she had looked at Michaels that night on the platform. There were scars around her wrists and a fresh wound on her face, but still there had been something in her eyes. She looked like she didn't want to say goodbye to him, like as she walked away from him she was leaving something of herself behind. As stoic as Aiden's face remained and as cruel as he was known to be, Max didn't want to believe that there was something else there –and then Aiden had rescued her from the car and reclaimed her for himself, and Max could deny it, and he couldn't ignore the roiling storm cloud that filled his gut with hate for this man. Aiden was the devil; he made Max look saint-like, and yet Ava had still looked at him like that, scars and all...
If there was even a slither of a chance that she was alive, which he bet that there was, he had to take it.
Chris's bushy brows knotted together, casting a malevolent shadow over his deep set eyes. His guards stepped forward to forcibly escort Max out but Chris raised his hand halting them in their footsteps and fetched his drink from his desk. He wanted to punish Max, but as much of a nuisance as the kid was being, he knew his heart was in the right place and he'd much rather have Max Yang under his thumb than against him.
He wasn't lying when he said he was one of the best.
"Say we do find her and we get her back...you still can't have her. She don't belong with the likes of you. That's not what Vinny would've wanted." Chris took a swig of his liquor to mask him amusement, enjoying the way Max's slanted eyes fell to the floor in humiliation because he knew he was right. It wasn't what Vince would have wanted. "Ee wanted Ava with one them fancy blokes from her fancy school."
Max clenched his jaw, "Well Vince isn't here anymore is he," he said boldly. He wasn't going to let his fear rule him. He wasn't going to wonder 'what if?'
Chris glared at him over the rim of his glass, "Ee ain't but I am, and 'ee was my mate so don't think that if we get her back you get your chance, 'cause you don't. You're still a little street urchin with nuffin' and no one. Now fuck off!" He nodded at the guards to proceed with throwing the insolent 'street urchin' out but Max shrugged off their touch and stormed out, muttering curses in Mandarin.
He sought out Rocky, one of Vince's trusted lieutenants who was now entrusted to Chris. They'd always had an all right relationship; Rocky was good peoples.
"Hey," he said when he found him outside the club smoking a cigarette.
"Maximillian, good to see you." Rocky spoke like and MI5 agent, all cool charm and the queen's English. He sounded like good upbringing even though he too had grown up in the east end, a stone throw from where Chris hailed from. "What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to double check what time we're supposed to be hitting up the cemetery tomorrow," Max broached. "I know the DM will be there at noon. We're going at eleven, right?"
Rocky cocked his eyebrow and took a drag of the cigarette with a bemused expression on his face, "I don't think that's entirely true now, do you? You want the mystery daughter Vince has been hiding all of these years, don't you?"
Was he that obvious?
Max pushed his curtain of hair away from his face, "I've looked everywhere," he said, figuring that there was no point on pretending that Chris had entrusted him with any sort of information. It was clear from the look on Rocky's face that their boss had told them not to tell him anything.
"Do you really think he'll bring here with him?"
The look in Ava's eyes when she'd glanced back at Michaels at the station sliced through Max's memory again. She'd never look at him like that. He nodded, "Yeah, I do. Even if she's not I still have to try."
"Mmm." Rocky took another drag.
"Look, whatever Chris has you lot doing you don't have to tell me, I don't care about that, I just really need to get Ava back. I was the one who lost her and if there's a chance that she'll be there tomorrow and I miss out on it... I can't let her slip through my fingers again."
Rocky looked off into the distance like he had shut Max off and was pretending they weren't having this conversation. Just as Max was close to getting down on his knees and begging, because that's how desperate he was, Rocky's plum-mouthed accent came wrapped in an exhalation of smoke, "Ten thirty. You should probably get there a little earlier."
"Don't mention it."
"You have my word."