No matter how sweet the salt
We push so hard we finally broke
Oh, no more apologies need be exchange
Oh, no words could ever help relieve this pain
-All the Things Lost
With most victories there is loss, and most losses, no matter how small, no matter the magnitude of the victory, made it feel like you shot for the moon but landed on the stars. Sometimes you get the moon, and if you're really lucky, you may even get the sun.
The Diamond Mafia would have to settle for stars this time around, but given what they were up against and the things that they risked losing, the stars were enough.
Dougie was retrieved in one piece and they'd gotten away. That was the victory. The loss that day had been much heavier than expected, from war-torn funerals to too many lives that found their ending that day whether deserved or not. But Dougie was alive and those who were left were still free.
But not all freedom tastes the same. Not all freedom carries the same privilege amongst its bearers. Freedom to the Diamond Mafia was not being incarcerated after all of the havoc wreaked upon South London at their mercurial hands.
Ava wasn't incarcerated, but the freedom of not being behind bars didn't mean anything when it wasn't bars that were keeping her in the first place.
They'd gathered their troops and made a swift getaway back to the compound with Ava's head tucked into Aiden's lap to keep her from seeing the route taken. She'd cried silently the whole way, through gritted teeth and clenched fists. Resentment and anger ebbed away at her sadness and built a path for something that she was unsure of. It was the equivalent of tasting something sour followed by a pungent, stomach turning aftertaste that hung around in your mouth well after and marred the flavour of everything else that followed.
Once inside the compound she was forced to do the thing she didn't want to. They made her repair Aiden and save Dougie, and this time no amount of defiance was going to get her off the hook. Denying Aiden had been easy enough. He'd growled and protested Ava's insolence but she'd been able to stand her ground, because a much as she knew he was a danger, he wasn't a danger to her. She quickly learned that those same tactics didn't work with the rest of his crew. They carried neither Aiden's guilt nor his affliction for her. After two shootouts and the disrespect displayed at the funeral, they were not in the mood for her defiance. They'd lost enough people that day and they weren't about to lose their leaders too.
The Diamond Mafia had stolen medical supplies on their way out of the chaos they'd aided in the hospital. They'd grabbed life support machines from patients who'd unfortunately been caught in the crossfire and were no longer in need of them and equipment from the operating theatre where Dougie was held. They gifted Ava the scrubs from one of the surgeons who'd laid dead at the foot of Dougie's operating table with a bullet in his aorta, courtesy of the Syndicate soldiers who'd wanted an immediate cease of saving his life.
Under the watchful eyes of Mighty and the cold barrel of Stone's gun, she did her best to clean and repair both Dougie and Aiden's bullet wounds. It wasn't the threat of death that made her comply; after all, what kind of life was this to live? No, it was the fear of enduring the pain that would wrack her body when the countdown to an eternity of peace began.
It had been trying and nerve-wracking, attempting to successfully operate on two undeserving humans in the basement of the compound where she'd endured her first torture at Aiden's hands. Covered in the dead surgeon's blood, her disdain multiplied with every swab and stitch. She found herself wishing them both dead and wishing that she could be cutthroat enough to take them out herself, but the chances of making it out alive after that was non-existent.
The spell was completely broken.
"Mullins has got us," Stone growled uncharacteristically. He took a hard pull of his blunt which was doing little to return him to his usual state of equanimity. Usually it would be Dougie that was the brash one, telling Aiden what was what, but he was laid up on the gurney in the basement, knocked out on pain killers, with thick folds of bandages wrapped around his elevated leg.
Three days had passed and all every media outlet, Member of Parliament, emergency service worker and law enforcer could talk about was the startling rise of criminal activity that had swept the city. Kidnappings, mass murders, bombings, grand theft auto –it was all over the place.
People were scared to leave their homes; they cried terrorism (which ultimately led fingers to be pointed in the wrong places). Social media was in a frenzy, floating the hashtag #SaveOurCity, urging communities to come forward and speak up about those who endangered them and their families. And people came forward, people who thought they knew but in reality had no idea. All their snitching got them were the arrest of petty thieves and low end drug dealers who lived damn near hand to mouth on pushing £20 bags of weed to the locals and a few pills for the ravers because for some reason or another they struggled to secure employment or the kind of employment that didn't leave them living like they were still as broke as they were when they were not working.
Those who really knew, knew better than to open their mouths and call out the Diamond Mafia or the Syndicate. It wasn't like they needed to anyway; the police knew full well that the disruption to the city was due to it being the main arena of a mob war that was just getting started. They needed people with real evidence so that they could grab these men.
The city always had its good share of unfortunate incidents, but not packed so closely together and in such a grand fashion. The once historical site of the Stand station was a jagged black hole in the ground that made the surrounding area reek of sulphur, smoke and death. Services on London underground had been disrupted ever since, which the city's inhabitants hated even more than the loss of a landmark. The graveyard had been cleared of dead bodies, but the grass and gravestones were still painted with blood and in the middle of it all, two unmarked graves with fragments of dead flowers surrounding them. The hospital had done it's best to accommodate its patients, but with a saddening shortage of staff and a crime scene in the A&E bay and across four wings, it was difficult to function as normal.
London hadn't seen crime on this scale before and if a stop wasn't put to it soon, this standoff would exceed expectations.
Aiden pressed his finger to his temple, his dark eyes fixed on a spot on the meeting room table, refusing to look elsewhere in case he caught sight of his arm, bandaged and resting in a sling.
"No, he doesn't," Mighty said as he studied the further tensing of Aiden's form. Things were in such disarray and as much as a part of him shared Stone's frustrations, it wasn't his place to berate their boss.
"Fuck you mean he don't, bruv? He's taken out a third of the man dem, trashed all of our fronts so we can't flip our shit clean like we need to, the feds on his side more than triple ours so they're all out looking for us, and now cause of this fuckery we can't even roll up on all dem man like we was plannin' to and reclaim our corners cause we ain't in control of our shit no more. So you tell me how the fuck he ain't got us!"
Mighty opened his mouth with a finger lifted in the air ready to punctuate a counter argument...then closed it.
"He hasn't got us because we aren't dead," Aiden said evenly, "And as long as we're not dead, we're cool."
"Nah bruv, we ain't been cool for a hot minute. Shit's just getting more fucked up and real talk, I don't see how were gonna get out of it. We've never had beef on this level before. Fam, we're fucking hiding in this place like a bunch of wasteman pussy'oles cause we know we can't do shit! Your arm is in a sling, Dougie's on bed rest, Trish and Jamie had to ghost again, nuff of the man dem are gone...brudda, we can't even finish burying Keegan and Ash_"
Aiden slammed his palm down on the desk, "I KNOW THAT!" He'd gone over the catastrophe enough to know how dire the situation was. He didn't need Stone to relay their failings. His failings.
"Okay..." Mighty breathed, splaying his arms between them, "Let's just all calm down and figure out what we're gonna do about it."
"We're going to lay low_"
"We've been layin' low," Stone mumbled.
Aiden drew up his eyes to glare at him, "Listen, when I'm talking, shut your fuckin' mouth."
Stone clenched his jaw but stayed silent. He dragged his blunt twice.
"We started with nothing and we built this," Aiden gestured around him at the deluxe compound they inhabited, "Because we're made of stronger shit than the rest of them. Things setback doesn't stop us from being a threat. That's why they're trying to kill us. That's why so many want to see us fall, because they know if they don't get each and every one of us that we'll do what we always do," he got to his feet, hiding the urge to wince as his shoulder wound stretched and moved with him. He looked at Stone, "We'll win."
At eight o'clock that night, Aiden knocked on Ava's door, waited for reply that he knew wouldn't come, and then walked in. She was exactly where she had been for the past three days when he'd come to check on her around this time; sat in the desk chair, staring at the grey wall where a window should be.
"Good evening, Ava-Marie." He closed the door behind him and stepped further into the room and eyed yet another plate of vegan cuisine gone cold, "You haven't touched your food." He perched on the edge of her desk and prodded the congealed gravy, rubbery tofu and greying potatoes with her spotless fork. "Shall I warm it up for you?"
She continued to stare at the wall.
"How long are you gonna keep this up for? Ava-Marie, I'm talking to you," he reached for her and she recoiled.
Images of his writhing body stretched out on the gurney as he screamed and bled all over her stolen scrubs while she grudgingly helped him flashed in her mind.
He bit his lip and grunted, "Do you want to die? Is that what this is about?" It was something he'd avoided saying out loud. The possibility of him being right made his throat swell and his heart quiver erratically, but it had been three days of this behaviour from her and whether he said it or not wouldn't stop it from being true.
The corner of her mouth twitched.
This was the most response he'd gotten from her in days and it further ignited a panic within him.
"Ava-Marie..." he put his fist to his mouth and spoke slowly, "After the lengths I've gone to, to keep you alive, you are ungrateful enough to throw it in my face? Everything I've done since that night I pulled you from that car, everything, has been for you. All of it. If I could go back in time to that moment, I'd save you all over again." He picked up the tray, "So I'm going to heat this up for you and you will eat. You are not going to die, not while I have breath in my lungs."
She looked at the spotless stainless steel fork still sitting on the table and focused on the glinting points of the prongs, and she wondered...wondered just exactly how much force it would take to stop the breath in his lungs.
She flexed her fingers.
He picked the fork up.
She frowned and clenched her fist in her lap. Theoretically thwarted, she abruptly relocated to the bed and pulled the sheets up to her chin.
Aiden sighed and shook his head. You'd think he'd be used to the women he loved wanting him dead by now. He moved to the door then paused, "I came in here to thank you. My arm is healing nicely and Dougie is coming around. You did good, Ava-Marie. You saved us, so thank you."
She yanked the sheets over her head and faced the wall.
Miles of open road stretched before the bulletproof truck, made visible only by its headlights, the waning half moonlight, and the sequential ice blue glow of cat eye reflectors embedded in the centre of the tarmac between short, white guidelines. Either side of the car were empty lanes, interrupted by the occasional sixteen-wheeler driven by doped up drivers, and seemingly endless expanse of a void that in the daytime revealed flush green meadows that stretched on for miles, peppered with horses, sheep and cows.
Ava's head was leant against the window of the passenger side, smushing her limp and brittle candy coloured curls. Her warm breath flowed through cracked lips and made pulsing clouds against the cool glass. A week had passed and still not a morsel of food or so much as a drop of water had made it into her mouth. Her skin was patchy, dry and discoloured, with burst of tiny pus filled spots across her cheeks, chin and forehead.
Aiden was on the brink of force feeding her, but he feared that the action probably wouldn't help his already failing case. He figured that she'd have come round by now, with every tantalising morsel he paraded in front of her starved body, but al it seemed to do was make her angrier with him. Anytime he brought a plate to her, her eyes focused feverishly on the cutlery and the soft spaces between his ribs.
It was just the two of them in the car, the silence filled with Raheem Devaughn, on their way into deeper hiding.
For all intents and purposes, the flame of the Diamond Mafia had been ousted by the violent blow of the Syndicate.
The compound, now completely abandoned, was cleared out and cleaned of all traces of humanity. The hair salon was boarded up with big white panels that left the question of its return hanging in the balance. Mafia soldiers were few and far between in the area, and even when spotted, weren't seen to be doing anything untoward that would make them stand out from the rest of the general public.
The difference in Brixton was felt by the local community. As much as the disappearance of a lethal gang should have positive connotations, the after effects were oddly adverse. For some reason it didn't feel safe anymore, even with the knowledge that the Mafia played a pivotal role in the surge of violence in the city.
To the naked eye it was indeed safer, less gang activity would be ridiculous to be viewed as anything but, but Brixton was Mafia territory. It was their home so they protected it. Now that they appeared to be gone, there was no one looking out for the vibrant, bustling town. It felt open to invasion or even worse, being claimed by new management, probably by some two-bit crew of overhyped youths who cared more about petty power and engaging in experiences to transform into yet another lacklustre UK rap song about 'endz' and how 'bad' they were than keeping things in order. The Mafia were run like an old school collective of organised crime should be –humbly and respectfully, with hands in its community to make sure people outside of their organisation were taken care of. There was no guarantee that the new owners, if any, would do that. Luckily none were brave enough and sure enough that Aiden and his men and women in black would stay gone for good, to step up to the plate.
Alone in a void of black that would make way for more endless fields come dawn, circled by tarmac, stood a bungalow type building. Mounted on the edge of the roof, under lit by pumpkin hued spotlights that made it feel like casual Halloween, a sign displayed the name 'Buxton's Inn'. The car park was practically empty, save for the owner's car, one other guest. Aiden tucked his vehicle in the shadows around the back of the quiet motel.
He switched off the engine and looked at Ava, weak, with her head still slumped against the window. The moonlight exaggerated the developing sharper, angular planes of her heart shaped face. He missed the soft roundness it used to hold. It represented a different time; a time when she could still find a way to be happy with him, despite it all. Now all he saw was manifestation of his ruination. For a while, it was nice to pretend that he'd never have to see the toll that his presence in her world would take on her.
He should have let her go sooner. It was wrong to keep something so beautiful because there was only one way things could go.
Aiden Michaels shouldn't keep beautiful things.
He popped open the glove compartment and pulled out a clear Ziploc bag with a fake marriage certificate, passports, credit and debit cards, driving licences, and at the very bottom nestled in the corner, two plain gold wedding bands. He put the ring on.
"I'm going to check us in," he said.
She didn't respond.
At the desk an aging man sat alone watching the news on a small black and white television mounted on the wall. Or rather, the artefact watched him. His bushy eyebrows and thinning chestnut and silver streaked hair could be seen over the top of a specialist magazine about fishing.
Aiden removed his hat and smiled warmly. It didn't stop the man's wary expression from surfacing or deter him from laying down his magazine and sliding his hand closer to the edge of the table where there was undoubtedly an emerge alarm. Aiden told himself that this reaction had to better than the one that would have come had he not bothered smiling at all. He didn't imagine that the owner saw many people like him around these parts and that like most people way out here, all the owner really had to go off of was what he saw on television.
"Good night," he said softly in his most well-spoken British accent.
The owner relaxed a touch and took the time to curiously take in Aiden's all black attire. He scanned the thick wool double-breasted coat open over a shirt, slim fit jeans and Cuban heeled boots -something much too nice for a 'thug' to wear. Or so he thought. "Night," he replied in his clipped northern twang.
"I'd like to book a double room for the night. My wife is too tired to take over for the rest of the drive and I'm shattered so she suggested that we stop, so of course, we're stopping," he laughed heartily with an expression that communicated something that they man with his gold wedding band digging into his pudgy fingers would understand –'You know how wives are.'
The man tossed his eyes, "What they say goes," he agreed with a small smile, deciding that the well-dressed, well-spoken married man with the bossy wife couldn't be as bad as the 'rest of them'. That he had to be one of the 'good ones'. He opened a heavy hardback book with grids lining the pages and went to the newest page, "Yes, we have a room available, Mr...?"
"Stone," Aiden smiled.
"Okay, Mr Stone. It's £108 a night. Will you be paying by cash or card?"
"Cash." He produced a wad of notes from his inside pocket and counted £110 onto the counter.
The owner eyed the amount of money still in Aiden's hand after paying him out and narrowed his eyes. "Seems like you can afford to stay somewhere much nicer than this dump," he chuckled stiffly.
Aiden shrugged and laughed back.
"So what brings you and the misses up this way?" the owner said recounting the money Aiden gave him.
"I see," he held the £50 note Aiden had given him up into the light and seemed almost disappointed to see the queen's head appear. "You have family up this way?"
"She does. Her father's side of the family is Scottish."
"Ahh," the owner nodded. That made much more sense. He handed Aiden a key attached to a rectangle of cardboard with the number five scrawled on it in black felt marker.
Aiden winced as he lifted his arm to slip the key in his pocket, "What time is checkout?"
"Midday. Say, what happened to your arm?"
"Bit off more than I could chew at the gym," he mirrored the way the owner had tossed his eyes earlier, with a smile. "Well, thank you for your help. Goodnight." He excited the reception and reflected on why he hated leaving London.
He grabbed the luggage from the boot then opened the door for Ava, making sure to stand close enough to catch her in case she toppled out. "Can you walk?" He offered her his hand.
She made a low, irritable groaning sound and manoeuvred around him.
She followed a few steps behind Aiden to the room, noting how he kept his pace slow and the elbow of his injured arm jutted out enough for her to grab onto should she need it.
She didn't want to need it. She wanted whatever it was that she was trying to do to herself to hurry up and be over with. Trying to power through it and maintain her steely disconnect from him was a full time job.
She was so sad and so lonely, and though it was an infinite stream of these feelings, minus the internal conflict that should have never existed, it still took her under sometimes, like a choppy sea suddenly turned violent storm whenever the wind changed. This kind of life made the wind change a lot. It was an astoundingly surreal situation to be in, one that never failed to amaze her at the dramatism of it. This wasn't a normal storyline that had forced itself into her life; it was shocking, so much so that she'd forgiven herself (well...that part she was still working on) for the previous downright disillusionment of the situation...of him –to set in.
There's no set way to deal with being kidnapped and seduced by a captivatingly insane man, and having everything taken from her at his vengeful and mercurial hands. No, it was fine that it was really and truly hitting her now. She had been in shock. She reasoned that at least it had hit her -all of the horror and the hurt -at least she finally acknowledged it and discontinued trying to make rosy her reality. The feelings that came with this realisation were awful, like having a nipple clamp removed and realising that the pinch that it gave when secured to the body was nothing like the bruising burning that came afterwards -but at least they made sense.
Aiden glanced over his shoulder and checked that she was still mobile enough to keep up her stubbornness.
She grimaced at the sight of his once enchanting face and her stomach turned. Yes, this sickening feeling definitely made sense. It was odd how dislike for even the most beautiful people could do that. How it could make them look so ugly. Well, maybe not ugly, but their beauty most definitely fell flat, the effects of it dulled dramatically, and all you could see was that they were not good.
The room was fitting for the owner if the inn. Its décor hadn't been updated since the seventies. The dark floral wallpaper, pink crochet doyleys on the bedside table that housed tarnished and chipped porcelain ballerinas, and frilly bed topper made Ava nauseous. Aiden found it comforting. Elements of the outdated design reminded him of his grandmother's home.
She sat gingerly on the edge of the queen-sized bed and rolled her eyes at the crackle of the plastic still wrapped around the mattress beneath the sheets.
"We're only going to be here for the night. I thought you might like a bed instead of a car seat."
She looked around the room then at him. Her stomach turned again; he was not good. She hated the way he froze under her glare, how his breath caught in his chest the way hers used to for him, and how unguarded his usually empty eyes were, begging her to see beyond the surface, begging her to remember how she'd felt for him before... "Where will you be sleeping?" It was the first thing she'd said in over a week. Her throat was dry and it made her voice harsh. She found she liked it that way.
"I'll take the sofa."
She gave a sharp nod then disappeared back behind her wall, blocking him and his hopeful eyes and tightened chest out. She kicked off her shoes and crawled under the covers. The pillows smelt like flowery fabric softer and mildew, but she was too tired to care.
"There's some water and Nakd bars in the bag table if you want them."
She rolled over so her back was to him and fell asleep to the groaning bubble of her stomach.
What do you think about Ava's current state of mind?
And (out of sheer curiosity) if you were in her situation, what would you do?
Let me know in the comments below (and if you liked this chapter, please make sure to click the heart)
Love Scotty x