Thomas Shelby hated to watch Oswald Mosley eat. Mosley was a self-considered gourmand, and, anyone who dined with him as much as Tommy did could hardly fail to notice, unsettlingly voracious for a man so thin. There was something repulsive about watching him, so restrained in other indulgences, normally so reserved, satisfy his prodigious appetite. It made something just beneath Tommy's voice box feel tense, as if he were about to retch.
The pounding headache and sensitive stomach of his hangover certainly didn't help either.
Tommy's own food lay nearly untouched though he was on his third cigarette since they'd sat down. He took a sip of black coffee and tried to reason with his aching head. He hadn't touched the opium pipe since that day in the field when he'd held a gun to his head and the vision of Grace had begged him to join her. The visions had receded slowly, Grace falling mute at first, then visiting less and less frequently. The booze did a worse job with the pain in his head and he still refused to see the doctor that Ada kept going on about though.
He'd been shaking when he came back into the house that morning, mud up to his knees having fallen twice in the field. But he'd sat with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey until the vision of Grace had finally vanished. Then he had picked up the phone and made arrangements for Aberama's funeral, for the money he had promised Barney to be sent to his mother, and finally, a meeting with Winston Churchill.
Back in his sunny tea room of their mutual club, Mosley finished the last bite of baked beans and wiped his lips delicately. “You look like hell Shelby.” He said.
“I feel like hell.”
“I recall telling you months ago to drink less.”
“I recall that too.”
“And yet you persist.”
“So it would seem.”
“You drink too much, don't eat, smoke like a chimney.” Mosley considered him for a long moment. “When was the last time you had a good fuck then, eh Shelby?”
Tommy laughed, then winced as the movement made pain shoot through his aching skull. “I'm not interested in your wife. Nor her sister or her mother. Much though I appreciate your concern.”
Mosley said nothing to that.
“I suppose you'll tell me in your own time why the fuck you've come to call on me this morning then?” Tommy said, suddenly feeling very tired.
“As ever, your decor leaves much to be desired.”
Tommy took a deep drag on his cigarette, but didn't refute it.
“I've asked our mutual friend Mr. McCavern to send something along with his next shipment to you. I would appreciate it if you would receive the cargo yourself, to make sure that no... damage is done to it.”
“Micheal deals with the business side of things now Mosley. Remember, I'm only the executive chair these days. I don't go to the fucking docks at midnight anymore. I hardly go to the fucking company meetings.” Tommy said.
That stipulation of the conversation with Churchill—that he allow Micheal to move forward as director of the company in his stead-- had been the most difficult for him to accept. There had been some long-winded metaphor drawn between what they were doing and baiting a fox but Tommy had barely listened to it. He had known before he was told that he wasn't at rock bottom yet, that Mosley was the kind of evil that he would be required to sink into fully before he could be defeated. The water had closed over his head, sure, but he was still falling through it, yet to reach the thud of the bottom yet.
Still, the step back from the business had been agony. The company was making money hand-over-fist in America with Micheal at the helm and Tommy's own political career had hardly suffered from his new attention to it. But Christ, he hated the work. Politics was not like business. There was no clean ledger to look at influence, favors, power. No way to know exactly where one stood. He missed the clean black and white of a betting book.
But those days were gone, for the moment.
“Besides, I trust my men, whatever it is that you're sending, you have no need to fear they'll take a cut of it.” He added.
“Consider it... a personal favor to me. The cargo inside is quite precious and, as you said, it wouldn't do for your men to take a share, as it were. “Mosley let a small, sardonic smile touching his lips. “Besides, it is a gift for you. One I would like you to receive personally.”
Tommy let out an incredulous noise. “A gift?”
“A tool of sorts. For you to further advance our cause.”
“What is it?”
“You'll understand when you see it.”
The pounding in his head made him want to punch Mosley for the stupid games he was playing but also filled him with an overwhelming sense of fatigue. He nodded. “Alright, then.”
“Thank you.” Mosley said. He tapped the paper with one spidery finger. “After all, in these heathen times, one can never be to careful, wouldn't you say?”
Tommy made a noncommittal noise. He hadn't read the article Mosley indicated. It had been front page news a week ago but now had fallen below the fold in the meantime, relegated now to some Omega opinion piece the title of which was 'Suffrage or Safety: What Would Annabelle Grant Want?'. He glanced at it now, anything to distract himself from the spectacle of Mosley starting in on the baked beans. It started with a rather hysterical description of the Annabelle Grant case, the now infamous disappearance of the Scottish girl.
Annabelle Elizabeth Grant, Omega, 19 years of age, lay in her childhood bed at in Scone Palace on the night of April the Forth of 1929. Her mother, Elizabeth Grant, Omega, Vicountess of Stormont looked in on her daughter at nine o'clock at night. Her precious daughter, home for the school holidays, was peacefully slumbering. How could the Vicountess know that she would be the last to see her precious child. When morning came her maid found the bed empty, and Annabelle Grant snatched away from her family.
If Annabelle Grant could be taken from under the nose of her Alpha brother, Viscount Patrick Grant, how can our own Omega daughters ever be safe? How can we let them out in the streets to be shoved and manhandled by the crowds that face and surround them, even think of letting them vote. Dear reader do not think that I am too dismissive. These hot-headed young Omegas demanding that they be allowed to vote are well-intentioned I'm sure but how in good conscious could any mother, any Alpha, even consider letting their children fly in the face of all biology. These girls and boys who go out in the streets to tussle with Alpha police officers risk sending themselves into Heat, sending our good boys in uniform into Rut...
Tommy folded the paper back up. The writer of the column, Lady Marjorie Winderfield was a well known anti-suffragette activist. He'd seen her speak once before parliament and found her just as hysterical in person as she was on the page.
The hue and cry that had risen up over the girl's kidnapping had been predictable: a call for the return to traditional values. The swell of poisonous nostalgia for a theoretical time when Alphas had been Alphas and Omegas had been Omegas had already been rising, but the Grant case was a unique crystallization of it. An Omega of the aristocratic class taken for unknown reasons from her family felt unthinkable and destabilizing for the men and women of power. Mosley had of course made a rousing speech about the importance of keeping young girls safe in their beds. Tommy would have rather re-lived the time he'd made the ill-informed decision to serve him caviar than watch the speech again.
When Mosley had finished eating, they parted ways, Tommy making some excuse to return to his office in the House of Commons.
It was a weekend day and the building was mostly deserted, Tommy's own offices deserted of the few girls he usually employed. He let himself in and went to sit at his desk. He lit a cigarette and poured himself a little hair of the dog that bit him.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to focus on anything but the pounding in his head. When he opened his eyes again he wondered if he'd slept for a moment for he hadn't heard Polly Gray come in.
“You look like hell.”
“So I keep hearing.”
His aunt lit a cigarette. “When was the last time you had a good fuck?”
Tommy picked up his forgotten cigarette, examined the remnants, crushed it out and lit another. “There was a time, I recall, where you used to lecture me for going to whores, Poll.”
“Well that was before I found out what you do with yourself when there's no girl to stick your dick into. You'll kill yourself with drink, eh?”
“You're one to talk.”
“I keep my vices balanced. Not too much of any one thing.”
He hadn't told Polly about the vision of Grace. There was no way to explain how, before the specter had turned menacing, he had indulged himself. The whores he'd seen in those days... it had been so easy to let the familiar features of his wife slip over them, to hear his name on her breath again. He had forgotten what it was like to want someone in more than just the satiation of a biologic function, forgotten what it was to let his orgasm wash over him, wash him and his fears out like some great cleansing tide.
There had been no question of going back to the sterile, mechanical business of fucking a woman he paid by the half hour. And no question at all of risking the return of the phantom-Grace.
Instead he snorted, “you're a wealth of good advice as always. But you haven't come just to lecture me, I hope.”
Polly shook her head.
“There's trouble brewing, with those bastards from Scotland, and the Boswells too. Micheal is managing for now because the money is so good he's been able to pay them off. But he doesn't understand outlaws. Doesn't understand that you can't pay a wolf not to eat you.”
He widened his eyes at her. “And Pol? I'm strictly political now, remember?”
“He'll need you to deal with the Boswells Tommy, even if he doesn't know it yet. He's never been to war, so I'm not even sure he'll recognize when this one starts.”
“If Micheal wants my help, he'll need to ask for it himself. Not send his mother to do his begging for him.”
“He's too proud for that, and you know it.”
Tommy looked out the window. “Maybe I'm too proud for it too.”
“No. You're not. You've never been to proud to do what needs to be done. That's the difference between you and Micheal, isn't it. He never crawled through the mud in France, doesn't know what it's like.”
“I'll send Arthur up to advise him, if you like. But parliament isn't out of session for another month.”
His aunt snorted. “Arthur might be a mad enough dog to keep them at bay, until your blood parliament is over. But you'll have to come eventually Tommy, I'm telling you it's a matter of time.”
“I hate it when you talk like that, I really do.”
“Like a fucking gypsy queen. Like a fucking fortune teller.”
His aunt smiled. “It's what I am, isn't it?”
Tommy was surprised to find he still felt at home on the banks of the cut at Charlie Strong's scrapyard near midnight, watching his men unload the boats. He wondered if he had been so easy to convince because part of him missed this. He wouldn't have thought it would be possible for anyone to be sentimental about the smell of the Cut, late hours out under the moon, the monotonous work of unloading the narrow boats, much less himself. And yet.. he took a drag on his cigarette and glanced up at the open sky. A clear night though no stars were visible in the bright lights of Birmingham, just a sliver of a moon out as well.
So far there had been nothing unexpected: nothing but pounds and pounds of the Chinese opium and coal.
“This last crate is light as a feather Tom.” Charlie remarked as he and Curly hoisted it from the boat. “What do you suppose is in it?”
“Haven't got a fucking clue.” Tommy replied. “Only one way to find out though, pass the jimmy will you Curly.”
Curly passed him the metal file and hammer and Tommy wedged open the box. It fell open easily and as Charlie had said at first it appeared empty. It was almost tall enough that Tommy could stand. He ducked down only a little as he stepped in, hoisting up the lantern to peer into the depths. As he did he took a deep breath. He never knew which of his senses registered what was happening first but there were two simultaneous and instant pieces of information that he knew. The first was that he was profoundly fucked. The second was that the girl who was lying on the floor of the crate, hands and ankles bound, was surely Annabelle Grant.
It took him only a second more, another ill-advised deep breath, to realize that she was in Heat.