The crack of breaking bone split the silence of a small, dim room. Three men occupied the space, one with a now-slack jaw. He sat duct taped to a folding chair, eyes swollen shut, molars plucked out and lip split open. The second man sported raw knuckles, his other fist clutching a serrated dagger. Casually he wiped the blade on the first man’s pant leg, ridding it of blood.
The third leaned his shoulder against the cool cinderblock wall, boredly tapping at his phone’s screen. He ignored the scene five feet from his person as his employee eased the knife between the ribs of the restrained man, instead checking the syndicate’s HSBC Bank accounts. The cartel transactions should’ve been complete and he set his jaw as he reviewed them. After a moment, he let out a subtle sigh. Despite the breach of information earlier that afternoon, their assets were secure and the arms payments had gone through.
Eyes flicking to the pair of men, the third blinked in question.
“I got the names, did we need anything else?”
“No, that will be all.” The third man regretfully nodded to the first. “Goodbye, Franklin.”
The restrained man lacked the awareness to plead for his life. His head merely dropped forward in resignation as the silencer pressed against his temple. The wet noise of a bullet penetrating flesh and bone sounded and he went limp.
Kicking a stray piece of matter from his gleaming Oxford, the third man turned and exited the tiny room. Scaling several flights of stairs, he emerged into a finely decorated conservatory, then made his way to a bald gentleman seated near the fireplace with a book spread over his lap.
“Sir,” he nodded, taking the chair next to him.
The older man glanced up and removed his glasses. “Thomas,” his eyes crinkled with a smile. “How was it?”
“Uneventful. He told us everything we needed to know. I’ll have my men clean up the loose ends tonight.”
“That’s my boy,” he patted the younger man’s shoulder.
Considering the reaction the praise garnered the elder man, he may as well have kicked Thomas in the teeth. Beyond stoic, Thomas merely bent his head in acknowledgement.
“Is there anything else you need from me?”
“There is, actually.”
Closing the book, the senior of the two waved his hand at the troupe of men and two women playing cards in the corner of the room.
“Out, all of you.”
The henchmen muttered their goodbyes, exiting as a pack as Thomas turned to the man in the chair. If possible, the younger gentleman looked even more severe.
“Ben, what’s happened?”
“Thomas,” Ben chuckled, “Relax. Can’t I speak to you privately without there being a pressing emergency or betrayal?”
Thomas forced the corners of his mouth to turn up. New job assignments were nothing, but this seemed different. Something about the sparkle in Ben’s eye indicated this was more than work. “Of course, I just—.”
Ben paused and frowned, taking notice of the purple smudges under Thomas’ eyes and his wan complexion. “Assuming my position as head of the organization is taking a toll on you,” he sighed.
Thomas’ spine stiffened.
Ben shook his head and held up a hand. “I’m not concerned. You’ll grow accustomed to it. It becomes easier to bear with time.”
“I—,” started Thomas, quick to defend his capabilities before his mentor until thinking better of contradicting him. Though they were alone and the two were close, he still treated Ben with respect. “Yes, sir.”
Ben laughed on an exhale. “Always so proper, Thomas.”
“You say that as if you didn’t put me through Eton,” Thomas said with a small smile.
“Well said,” chuckled the older man. “You can take the boy out of boarding school, but not boarding school out of the boy. Not that fine establishment. There you and Edmund were royalty. Mischievous, rambunctious royalty, but royalty. The memories you two made, the brotherhood you had…”
The men shared a melancholy smile.
After a moment, Thomas looked away and Ben cleared emotion from his throat. “We need to talk, you and I. I have a new assignment for you. A special one.”
Again, Thomas grew rigid.
“Relax,” Ben waved his hand. “Relax. There are aspects of this job you may… enjoy.”
Often more quiet than not, Thomas watched Ben carefully, waiting for him to continue.
The elder considered the younger for a minute. “I’m getting old, you know. And with my Edmund gone…,” he sighed, propping an elbow on the chair arm and resting his chin on his hand, “My line is finished.”
Thomas’ chest grew tight. Very few things affected the newly crowned King of the London Underworld, though the death of his dear friend still prompted a reaction.
“But my legacy isn’t over, not with you taking over.” Ben steepled his fingers and paused, examining the younger man.
Thomas fought to relax his brow as Ben watched him in silence.
“I want security. Insurance, in a way.”
The younger man cocked his head.
“Grandchildren, Thomas. I want to die knowing this organization has a future. I’ve worked my entire life for this organization. My son gave his life for this organization. We deserve to live on through our family, biological or not.”
When Thomas paled, the older man laughed. “Don’t look so glum! They’re just children. Father them and be finished with it. I want you to have a family to access down the line; heirs. You don’t have to marry the girl, whoever she ends up being. She can be a whore, for all I care. Just get her with child. We’ll find the best nanny in Europe to raise them here. It would do me good to have some young ones running around.”
Thomas fought to keep his groomed eyebrow from raising. A child? Brought up in this environment? Considering the nature of their work? He lied and killed for a living. He manipulated and stole and murdered.
“Ben, are you su—?”
“Positive. I’ve given this quite a bit of thought. Were Edmund alive, I’d be asking this of him. But he’s not. You’re just as much my son, and the responsibility falls on you. I know it’s not your choice, and I apologize for that.”
Thomas licked his lower lip and nodded, surveying the other man. Fighting for composure, he cleared his throat, “Is there a timeframe?”
"I think a year is reasonable A child in my arms in twelve months.”
Thomas bit the tip of his tongue and nodded. “Yes, sir. It’ll be done.”
Ben’s eyes shown with relieved satisfaction. “I believe it. Now, do you have a woman in mind?”
Taken aback, Thomas shook his head. “There have been a few over the years, some of whom you’ve known. None of them suitable. Marissa is a model, she’d rather consume butter than compromise her figure with a pregnancy. Elizabeth, the heiress, married two years ago and Nell, the actress, has several new contracts, the last I heard. She’ll be busy with projects for the next few years. As for the others, I don’t recall many names, if I’m honest…”
“I see. You’ll find someone, I’m sure of it. Like I said, there’s no need for marriage unless you desire it. Have the children and discard her, if you choose.” He rubbed his chin. “In fact, if you choose not to marry, perhaps a low profile, disposable girl is ideal. Someone you can easily control.”
Thomas nodded, rising to pour himself a finger of bourbon. He downed the beverage in one drink, the liquid courage providing him with the fortitude to meet Ben’s gaze. “I won’t let you down.”