There was zero light where the woman hung, arms chained high and head drooping like a tattered rag doll. Gravity bound her to the bricks, propping her up whenever her legs would give out.
Only the sounds of rats quickly scurrying across the muck covered floor and her shallow breathing filled the cloistering room, a sharp contrast to the piercing whine that had gotten worse as a result of her last thrashing with the guardsman in charge of her wing.
One noise within the darkness.
It was a noise in the back of her head that drove her to pieces, a sound stretched so thin, sharp, and inescapable that she had no idea if anyone but herself could hear it. She didn't have the strength to worry about it. During her tenure in her solitary cell, the only thought that ran like a strong mare through her tireless mind was that of Enid.
Always, the young girl would be there some way or the other.
Her small sister Enid, short, black hair coiled into docile curls, streams of tears falling down her face onto her blood-stained slippers. In her dreams, the running picture of Enid watching her getting dragged into the dark wagon did its best to reoccur as often as possible, rain that evening doing its best to wash the cracked scars on her face as she was thrown into the back of the vehicle, little Enid scampering to the departing wagon so fast and wailing as she witnessed her older sister getting carted away.
The memories of Enid were growing frighteningly dim, plain flashes that waned away with the passing years.
Time wasted away in the loony bin, hellish moments melting together with every tray of stale greens passed under her door, every treatment leaving her mind numb (save for the ice-cold tingling left between her fingers), and every hose down of frigid, dirty water that left her gasping and thrashing like a cod on the floor, asylum workers muffling their snickers behind their gloved claws.
Madness was not far. Any day now it would reach from beneath her bed and sink its bony fingers into her, taking her life before she could find something pointy enough to do it herself.
A faint voice in the back of her head decidedly shoved the perilous thought from her head, if only for a moment, instead choosing to beg for a cigarette.
Something warm and tangible that would distract her from the rats that were trying to pick at her bare feet as if she were already dead.
She told the voice to shut the hell up, as it had been asking the same thing from the beginning of her imprisonment. Ask for something more manageable, she told herself, perhaps a carriage ride with the king-
And then it came.
Something tangible, indeed.
A CLANG, a solid steel door being shoved open, screeching against the uneven floor.
Her head felt weighed down with stones, unable to move save for the cracking open of her hazy eyes in response to a shadow now resting on the ground, dark and tall, moving right towards her.
Suddenly the figure was beside her, looming over her and fiddling with her chains. They fell away, iron on iron upon the floor, and she quickly dropped onto the ground in a motionless heap.
She opened her mouth in an attempt to ask, What the hell is going on?
The only noise that came out was a low, rasping cough, one that hacked its way throughout her body, causing her to convulse on the floor. It seemed that the sudden drop was a mistake, quick movement the bain of her existence. The figure cursed beside her, acting quickly by placing their gloved hands underneath the woman and dragging her by the underarms out of the room.
Rude bastard, she thought, opening and closing her mouth in a 'fish out of water' manner, still trying to speak. Her lids felt like heavy curtains, held aside by the weakest string in the world, allowing only blurry figures and grey masses into her vision. She could not tell where she was being dragged and eventually stopped trying to make a sound, only coughing whenever she felt a bump underneath her back, tearing at the tender skin near her waist. The dragging felt to go on for forever.
Then the two stopped, and the woman felt herself being hoisted onto her own two feet, standing uneven on weak legs and breathing heavily. She finally lifted her head to look around and noticed the warmth of the sun, peaking its way through the silver clouds and landing on her trembling, bare arms.
Perhaps they were in the courtyard, the woman thought, preparing herself to be hosed down once more. She couldn't remember the last disrespectful move that she might have made against an asylum staff
"Feels good, does it?" The figure beside asked her, voice startling the woman.
It was the voice of a girl. Inquisitive and contained, well brought up, perhaps.
The woman tried her best to open her eyes, but they began to feel heavier by the minute, and all she could do was nod gently in response. She wondered why a girl was being allowed inside of a Birmingham asylum, but could not (to her frustration) voice her question, instead, lingering in the silence and rare warmth she had been granted.
Suddenly, a flask was being pressed into her own hands, cold and sloshing with liquid.
"Here," the girl said, helping the unsteady woman raise the container to her chapped lips, "Drink."
It was the final meal of Jesus, the plentiful feast of saints condensed into a pitiful half a cup of what might have been water taken from a horses trough.
She did so, however, cool liquid clearing a heavy fog that had been clogging her throat. Water spilled onto her clothing, wetting the front of her shirt, sticking onto her skin, and falling to the rough ground with a messy splash.
Clearing her throat as if to test herself, she chuckled slightly.
"Thanks," the woman huffed, her own voice weak but producing sound at last.
"... Of course," the girl replied quietly, reaching her hand into her coat, walking behind the woman with slow and precisioned steps.
The cool metal of a gun was then jammed into the woman's back.
Another huff of warm air did the woman release, her short chuckle suddenly morphing into a full-blown, disbelieving laugh into the unresponding open. Good grief, she thought, knees buckling slightly, about damn time.
"So he sent a child to kill me, huh?" The woman smiled, dry laughter dying in her throat, testily leaning back into the pistol behind her. She spoke openly, not at the girl with the gun behind her, but to the bitter passing breeze. "Edwin Hollander can't kill his own cuckoo bird so he sends a little girl to do the job for him. Fitting, wormy bastard getting off scot-free, hands so clean that Churchill bends to spit and polish them hiself' till they fucking shine." Her voice darkened to a whisper as the words trailed off of her heavy tongue.
The girl didn't respond, gun trembling slightly against the woman's back.
"What's this?" the woman sneered, "You scared, little birdie?"
A stiffened, panicked jolt from the girl did not go unnoticed. "No," she muttered, adjusting her grip on the pistol, steadying herself as she brought up her arm to clasp the grip with both hands.
"Good," the woman muttered, slowly rubbing her thumbs across her raw wrists while staring out into complete nothing, still unable to discern her location. She could hear the horn of an automobile somewhere to her right and paused briefly. It would appear that she was to be shot outside of the asylum, somewhere in the back. How dignified.
A sparrow chirped as if to cut the heavy air between the females, and the woman silently cataloged the bird call as the last thing that she would hear on the face of this tumultuous earth. She supposed that it wouldn't be too bad of a final sound, and she hoped that the shot would be quick and clean, just the way she might have done it herself. Fucking sentimental, she deemed herself, feet now rooted firmly to the ground. A part of her wondered why she wasn't keeling over, where the unexpected strength she had towards the barrel of a gun came from (the last encounter she had with a warden's pocket pistol, nearly shitting herself with the thought of another bullet being put through her).
"Well then, you might as well get on with it," the woman rasped. Her hands had tied themselves behind her back. She did not kneel, refusing to die on anything besides her own two feet.
A small respite.
The cocking of the gun elicited nothing but silence, and a final saying from the female executioner.
"I... I'm sorry, Monty” the girl whispered, quickly shifting her aim slightly and firing a bullet into the woman's left shoulder. Everything went to shit at that very moment.
The woman fell on one bended knee with a gasp, tight pressure an explosion within her shoulder, bringing one hand to cradle her bullet wound and craning her neck to look at the girl.
THAT VOICE, Monroe thought, eyes finally adjusting from the ground.
Before she could fully turn around to look, a slice of a blade against her neck fell upon her. Monroe was choking on her own blood before she could get a clear view.
THAT FUCKING VOICE-
"Run," the girl said, picking up her bleeding prey and shoving her forward. "RUN!" she ordered, quivering voice shooting to the high heavens in alarm and desperation.
Monroe did not, clinging instead, to the coat of her would be killer with her recently shot arm. Pain flared all over Monroe's left side, but she pushed her way through, pulling on the girl until she could get a clear view of her face.
Coiled, pitch black locks against a grey sky were the first things that she saw. Then the dark, brown eyes, filled with horror and regret, staring down at Monroe. Freckles, then the damnable freckles, scattered across the girl's tanned skin.
Enid. All grown up now, probably taller than Monroe, though she couldn't tell bleeding out on the cobbled ground.
Her younger sister had just shot her.
And was letting her get away.
Monroe's breath caught in her throat, and she realized that Enid was trembling violently, Monroe's blood pooling onto her thick coat, staining it a darker shade. In Enid's right hand, a sharp blade dropped with a clank onto the floor, falling from her blood-slicked fingers.
Something akin to betrayal ran its course through Monroe's spine, burning through her like a rampant fever.
It wasn't betrayal, though. Years had passed, there was not a chance that they were still sisters, even through legality; there was a good chance Hollander had burned both girl files long ago, erasing any familial relations they might have ever had.
Not betrayal, just simple shock.
She wondered briefly if Enid knew what the hell she had just done.
No questions were asked, and instead, the woman wordlessly shoved Enid to the side, pulling herself up with her good arm and stumbling away. Enid stood there, weapons trembling in her wet gloves, frozen in place. Her mouth was open, and it seemed as if she wanted to say something, perhaps explain herself.
Monroe didn't want to waste the limited time she had pooling out of her neck explaining that a family reunion might not have the best idea right then and there. She shook her head at the girl as if to prevent her from saying anything else, just to walk away; Enid's job was finished. With her new vision already waning around the edges, Monroe could feel that she was bleeding out, fast.
So she hobbled away, hands pressing against her throat and shoulder, quick as she could through the dusty Birmingham back alleys and away from Enid.
She did not look back to see her younger sister fall to the ground, tears in her eyes plopping onto her bloodied hands.
With this messy ordeal, their connection had been severed. All that was left was for Monroe to die amongst the Brummie filth that lived on the streets, choking on her own blood, gasping futilely in a wet pool of maroon red.
Fuck if she admitted to herself that she didn't want to die though. It was a last-ditch effort, cheap on the hope that perhaps if she admitted that she wanted to live, she just might.
Walking, stumbling, crawling, the alternation between these three for 'god knew how long' brought her to the doorstep of a dimly lit on the outside pub, the only place along what felt like possibly the longest street in England that was occupied at the time. Monroe could hear boisterous laughter coming from inside, the sight almost distracting her from the lightheaded feeling that was wrapping her head. It wasn't as if there were any hospitals nearby that she could drag herself to, a pub might as well be the next best place for her to die in.
Tripping over her feet some, she drifted towards the front, ornate doors of the establishment greeting her, slumping against the glass and pushing her way in. Immediately, a golden warmth enveloped her like a woolen blanket that had just been drying in front of the fireplace, and she blinked slowly to take it all in, unaware that she had been shivering cold in the first place. Men and women were dancing alongside each other, raucous jazz blaring in the background and drinks clinking all around. Monroe thought faintly that she must have looked out of place, blood-soaked shirt ripped all over slapped right into a whirlwind of a party.
The heavy music pounded against Monroe's head, and her glossed over eyes staggered their way back and forth between the undisturbed partygoers. Spotting an empty seat at the edge of a booth, she pushed past the revelers, head held down, and let herself fall onto the dark cushions.
Any moment now, Monroe thought, waiting for the warmth of the party to fade away and silence to finally envelope her. She was swimming on the land, any noises wading through a tunnel of cotton in her ears. Her eyes fluttered, and she saw a small shot glass on the table in front of her, untouched and filled to the brim with amber liquid. Monroe's hand reached out for it at the same time as another, bumping bloodied fingers and bandaged knuckles
She turned her head slightly to see that she had a seatmate, a man in a suit, staring at her with bright, blue eyes.
He glanced down at her sliced throat and bloodied clothing, face passive, before pulling his fingers away, looking Monroe dead in the eyes, and downing the shot himself.
Rude, Monroe wanted to say, the awful shouting match in her head winding itself down, Can't even get my final drink after getting sho-
Unfortunately, she had finally passed out from blood loss, head smacking rather ungracefully onto the sticky countertop.
The piercing whine had finally stopped.
Polly Gray wanted to say that nothing less than a tornado in the middle of Small Heath would faze her at this point.
The Shelby clan had seen it all when it came to people. They turned through a rotating door of deadbeat men and gritty women, all clambering at the heels of those had the fortune of relaxation up on the top shelf. The Garrison had surely seen it all, charming characters moping their way in with empty pockets and stumbling out with a new bill to pay for Blinder service and/or several bottles of heady liquor wasted during the long night.
Class acts, they were, dressed to the spades and congregating away from their poverty to the short sanctuary of The Garrison Pub, Birmingham's finest neighborhood establishment.
On that afternoon, right when the Peaky rabble had set down their caps for the time being to play around with upper-class ladies, Polly was sitting at the bar counter, right beside the band. The best view of the house could be found where she was located, hawk-like vision casually scanning the room while taking a frugal sip of her gin. Shelby Company Limited wouldn't hold up for an hour without a semi-sober woman, at the very least, manning the helm. Despite the constant vigilance, the pub was doing well, and the jolly mood of the room made its way into Polly, who had returned to the bar after flirting with two well-groomed young men.
Right as the music reached a high note, Polly noticed out of the corner of her eye a female, hunched over and entering from the front of the merry room. Long, knotted black hair covered the mystery woman's face, and Polly's gin began to burn the inside of her mouth, as she noticed with bated breath that the new woman was drenched in blood.
"Jesus Christ," Polly swore. Even on a holy Sunday, you couldn't keep The Garrison nice and well without a mad whore running around the parts.
Her grey heels clicked onto the wooden floor where she stood at attention, carefully inspecting the other woman's action. Polly watched with disdain as the teetering woman stumbled around, finding a spot slightly away from the congregation and seating herself without fuss next to Tommy Shelby.
Another rash customer.
The matriarch watched with a sigh and returned to her own bar counter seat, not interested in the next deals of a whore and her nephew. She nursed her gin for a short while more, pulling out a cigarette case from her pocket and popping a new one between her lips. Just as the last notes of the trumpet were blared out and silence cleared the room, a sudden thud, and a quick motion out of the corner of her eye called Polly's attention back to the woman in the corner booth with Tommy.
The whore had passed out, head slamming onto the oak tabletop, throat dripping out onto the floor.
"Jesus fucking Christ-" Polly spat, pushing away from her chair and through the raging crowd. Reaching the circular booth, she could see up close the extent of the damage. It was a massacre, what was presumably a once white shirt stained dark red on the girl. "Jesus fucking Christ," she repeated, staring down at the near exsanguinated woman, "We aren't allowed one day of the week without someone bleeding over our counters?"
Tommy looked faintly amused at the prospect, tilting his head towards the girl. "You'll be grateful to hear that I had nothing to do with this," he rasped, leaning in to get a better look at the girl's face. It was a new sight for Thomas, a woman coming into the Garrison, asking for a deal half dead. She hadn't even gotten a word out before passing out, seemingly malnourished, face covered in bruises, stone cold and raggedy, almost as if she had just been dragged from the bottom of a wharf.
Polly was slightly disturbed at how unnerved Tommy was at the sight.
"Well, are you planning on doing anything Tommy, or are you going to just sit there with your head up your arse? Doesn't matter if you pumped a bastard into her last week or you met her today, get someone to take her out back, people are starting to notice." And they were. A few revelers had turned their heads to glance at the bizarre scene, snapping their heads away when they were caught watching by Polly.
Tommy chuckled, face devoid of mirth. "They've seen worse Pol," he murmured, before calling his brother who was dancing with half a glass of rum to the table. "We all have."
John Shelby turned his head and exited from the floor, walking with a stagger and bumping into a few different women with a big grin over to Tommy and Polly. He paused right as the girl at the table came into view, smile fading. "What the hell is this, Tommy?" he asked, slurring his words some and speaking much louder than necessary. Polly wacked the tall man in the side, hissing for him to shut the hell up.
"Take her out to the back, anywhere away from the Garrison. She's making a mess of our floors," Polly said under her breath, tilting her chin at the conductor of the threesome band playing up front, indicating another song in order.
John grimaced, mechanically dragging the limp girl from the booth, both quickly and tragically falling to the ground in a spectacular heap, John's heel slipping over an emptied glass of spirits that had been left rather hazardously on the worn down hardwood.
"Ah, hell," the man cursed violently, legs tangled with the unconscious woman who was now lying on the floor, half of her shirt fallen off and uncovering her left shoulder.
Polly's eyes glanced at the pathetic sight before suddenly honing in on the girl once more and bulging right out of her sockets. Without hesitation, she dropped to the floor herself and began roughly pulling John off of the woman and cursing him out, John himself grumbling with confusion and rubbing what was certainly going to be a sore spot on his arse tomorrow.
Without words, stoic bastard of a nephew #1 and complaining louse of a nephew #2 as well as the restless party behind the Shelby corner all just a background nuisance, ticks on a hound, Polly Gray knew that the Shelby's were fucked.
On the back of the woman's shoulder, almost obscured by dried blood was a scar. A brand. Just above the exit wound of a recent bullet was a mark, burned directly onto the girl. It was small and awfully distorted, but it was noticeable, letters still able to have been made out.
Blood began to drain out of Polly's weathered face, and she realized that she hadn't a clue what to do with her fucking hands, both hovering in agony just above the body on the ground. Tommy stood up out of the booth to take a look at what was wrong.
When his own blue eyes focused onto the scar, Tommy stared it down for a moment, before looking away and reaching into his pocket, taking a cigarette out of its case and lighting up in one fluid motion. His original gaze of slight amusement slowly morphed into one of casual annoyance as he processed the information. John and Pol looked up at him, Thomas Shelby inhaled deeply and exhaled just as heavily.
"Fuck," he offered, adjusting his hat and standing above what could only have been classified as, "new trouble."
On that night in the 1900s of Birmingham, England, Monroe Crestwell and Thomas Shelby finally met.