Twenty One Months Later
“Would you… would you like to go out with me sometime? To dinner?”
“Uhm,” Tessa said. She had a biting wit. She had snappy retorts. And for whatever reason, despite these things, she absolutely, without fail, could not string more than two words together when put on the spot. Jack blinked at her. “I… I… sure. Why not?”
He smiled. He had thin lips but nice teeth, straight and white, and eyes that were a honey brown, and he was really not terrible to look at, all things considered. Perhaps a bit plain for Tessa’s tastes, but she had decided that those had changed and plain was what she liked now. Plain as a cracker. Although she hadn’t done so much as nibbled on a saltine recently. Maybe that was part of the reason she had said yes, even if she wasn’t particularly attracted to Jack. She could make do. She realized she had been staring off to a spot past his shoulder while internally reviewing all of this, and snapped back to attention, hoping she wasn’t coming off as completely unstable.
“Great. I’ll find you after work and we’ll make dinner plans, yeah?”
“Sure,” Tessa said again, adding a smile in an attempt to cover for her earlier hesitation. Jack returned it, and then left, shrugging his brown overcoat on over his thin shoulders as he left the room. She shook her head a bit to clear it, and then continued on the path she had been following to the editor’s office. Her heeled boots clicked on the polished hardwood floors that blended into the smooth paneling on the walls, an attempt to modernize the worn stone of the old building. She lifted a hand to knock on the closed door, on which a shiny golden plaque proclaimed D. M. Sutherland, Editor in Chief.
“Enter,” a robust voice called from inside the room. She turned the handle of the heavy oak, shouldering her way in, adjusting her grip on the papers in her arms so she didn’t crease them. Sutherland was a large man, both in height and size, with a full beard and head of thick, dark brown, nearly auburn hair that was streaked with gray, long in length but smoothed back in a professional manner.
“Hello, Tessa, lovely dress. Do you have the mock-ups for tomorrow?”
“Thank you. Yes, sir, here.” She placed them on his sprawling desk. Her dress was white, under a muted teal peacoat. She was restricted to cool tones for her clothing, because reds and oranges and yellows clashed horribly with her hair.
“And the article on the trade embargos, is that ready?”
“It’s there as well, sir.”
“Also, you asked me to remind you that Fischer is meant to interview the Chief of Police for his piece on the increase in city crime rates, and that was meant to be tomorrow at noon, I don’t know if you had time to contact him about that-,” She continued.
“Shit.” Sutherland sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Tell him for me, would you? And remind him about that bonus I gave him last christmas if he makes a fuss.”
“Of course, sir,” Tessa said, unsurprised. Sutherland had much more on his mind than crime rates and, while he was an imposing political figure and central to the newspaper’s continued publication, the details often slipped his mind. Which was where Tessa came in.
Sutherland lit a cigarette, took a drag, and waved his large hand in the air to fan the smoke away from his face.
“Speaking of Fischer. Has he gotten the balls to ask you to dinner yet? I have a bet with Mary about it and I want my shilling.”
Tessa choked back a laugh. “He just did, actually, yes.”
Sutherland chucked and shook his head, sucking in another breath of smoke. “You watch out for that one. What he hasn’t got in guts he makes up for with cunning.”
Tessa’s smile faltered slightly. “Don’t sorry, sir. After my last, he’ll be like wrestling a duckling.”
Sutherland laughed at that, full-bodied like a good drink. “Well, I pity the man who thinks he could upstage you, at any rate. You’re free to go home, if you’d like, that’s all I have for you today.”
Tessa nodded at him and gave him one last smile, heaving her weight on the heavy door again as she bowed out of the room. “Have a good evening, sir.”
“Who is that?” Tommy asked, tossing his expensive coat onto an open chair, flicking open his cigarette case and not even bothering to look at the “who” in question.
“Our interim secretary,” Polly said, leaned over a desk, inspecting records and also not looking at the dark haired girl sat at the secretary’s desk.
“We need an interim secretary?” Tommy asked, around his cigarette.
“Lizzy will be gone to London three months. You think I have time to keep the books and manage the office all at once? Some of us need to sleep, Thomas.”
Tommy scoffed, but quietly. “What’s your name?” He called, finally, to the girl at the desk, who was watching the interaction like she wasn’t sure if, and when, she was supposed to interject.
“Lucille,” she said. “Most people call me Lucy.”
“Alright, Lucy,” he said, walked over and stuck out his hand. He had had a whore named Lucy for a while, but he didn’t tell her that. “I’m Thomas.” Her hand was smooth and cool like paper, and her eyes had a slight angle to them, but her voice was completely unaccented. She was looking at him intensely, but seemed too timid to say anything else, so he turned back to Polly, content that he had fulfilled his social responsibility as boss to greet the new hires and ready to discuss company matters he actually gave a shit about.
“The bookies at Epsom have been giving us trouble. Send Arthur down there tomorrow to sort it out, have him take Finn with him but leave him in the van. There’s a strike threatening at one of our factories in Cardiff, so I want a ten percent cut on all wages in the region until none of them so much as fucking think the word “union”. Michael gets back from New York next week with the proposition from the American buyers about our potential partnership, so we’ll have a family meeting then to discuss what we plan to do about sending them our supplies,” Tommy rattled off, keeping his wording as vague as possible with a relative stranger present. He would need to have a talk with Polly about hiring outside of the family without consulting him.
Polly nodded, a movement that would normally have sent her dark curls bobbing, but she had had them cut short recently, to keep up with the times.
“I have to make some calls, but I’ll need you in my office in an hour,” Tommy said, and added, “Please,” when he saw the look Polly shot him over his tone. She fluttered her hand.
“Fine, go.” He turned to leave, and she called to him, “Finn is out with Charlie, make them bring us some sandwiches from that shop I like!” Tommy didn’t respond, continuing into his office, the afternoon light glinting off his dark hair. “I’m fucking hungry, Thomas!” Polly shouted at the closing door. “That man,” she muttered under her breath, with a tight sigh, belatedly remembering that the new girl was still present and had overheard the entire conversation. Her dark eyes watched Polly like a bird in a tree taking in the scene underneath it’s perch. Polly had long since learned to subdue the anxiety that arose over opinions of her family’s interactions, but even still, it felt invasive to have a silent onlooker observe and dissect her and her nephew’s relationship like they were actors on a stage.
“Sorry about him,” she brushed off insouciantly. “You’ll get used to it.”
Lucy seemed unconvinced, but that wasn’t Polly’s problem. The girl was a temporary solution to a temporary problem, whereas Thomas Shelby was an eternal dilemma, an inexorable conundrum to which there never seemed to be an answer, even a provisional one. Polly cocked her head at the young girl sitting across from her. She had done well enough on her first day, and Polly had been told she would be able to handle the somewhat challenging atmosphere, but still. It was always best to know firsthand.
“He’ll probably try to fuck you, you know,” Polly said, guaging the reaction. As she expected, a warm flush rose high on the girl’s cheeks, giving her a pretty color. She really was very young. Lucy shook her head slightly like she was trying to clear out her ears.
“I’m sorry, I-,” She began.
“Don’t apologize,” Polly said. “Tommy hates it.” She sighed. “I suppose I’ll go get my own sandwiches.” She stood, and plucked her fur coat and purse off the rack. Lucy looked like she was trying to convince herself Polly had been joking, but looked too uncomfortable to really believe the platitude. “There’s letters that need addressing, Lizzy left them in the upper drawer. Go ahead and send them off once you’re done.” And she click-clacked out of the office in her thirty-pound heels.
Jack Fischer was waiting for her outside of the building when she left. Either that, or he had been accosted by someone to discuss Very Important Events, which seemed to happen to him with shocking frequency. Someone was always nearby, waiting to tell him some new tidbit, to get his perspective on the most recent happenings. Tessa appreciated his intelligence, but could never manage to be quite as invested in the daily workings of London as he was. The world was much bigger than this one grey city, but Jack appeared to have little interest in the rest of it. A Tory to the very end.
“Jack,” She called, and he turned, and his face lit up. That was charming, really, but she wasn’t ignorant enough to not have noticed it was something that tended to happen quite often when men saw her.
“Hullo, love. Have a good rest of your day? Sutherland let you out early, I see.”
“It was tolerable,” Tessa smiled. “Speaking of Sutherland, he forgot to tell you, but you’re meant to meet with the Chief down at the station tomorrow to discuss the article on crime increase.”
“Christ,” Jack said, rolling his eyes. “What time?”
“Noon,” she told him, shielding her eyes from the sun, which was making a brief but aggressive appearance from behind the unremitting clouds. The stone steps to the building reflected the increased brightness, their light wash harsh against Tessa’s unadjusted pupils.
Jack shook his head. “Alright, I’ll be there. How Sutherland ran this paper before you arrived is beyond me.” Tessa inclined her chin in a nod of gratitude, but found she didn’t have much else to say, and was a bit eager to be off.
“Do you need a ride home? I have to stop to make, but I could drive you there after, if you don’t mind waiting.”
“I appreciate it, but it’s alright. My father insists on sending a driver,” Tessa said, as modestly as she could manage, which was not very.
“Rich girl,” Jack teased, and she gave him a small smile. “How is your father?”
“He’s adjusting, I think. The wheelchair was a big change.” Jack nodded like he knew, and he didn’t, but it was fine. Tessa didn’t want him to. She had told anyone who inquired that her father had been mugged, which was close enough to the truth that she wasn’t usually forced to elaborate on the details, including those surrounding her involvement.
“About dinner-,” He began, and she realized she had completely forgotten she had accepted his invitation. “I was thinking tomorrow, around eight? There’s a place called Francisco's, dunno if you’ve heard of it. Great Italian.”
Tessa grinned, and it was almost entirely genuine. “I love Italian,” she said, and gave him a quick peck on the cheek for his efforts. His five o’clock shadow was scratchy against her lips, and he looked inordinately pleased at his reward.
“Right. Eight, then.”
Tessa waved, and made a mental reminder to paint her fingernails before the dinner, as they were currently bare. “See you then,” she said, and then rounded the corner of the limestone to where her father’s car awaited her.
The door that read Shelby Company Limited burst open without so much as a preliminary creak as a warning, making Lucy jump in her hard, wooden chair.
“Where is Polly?” Thomas demanded, his bright eyes landing and fixing on her for the first time, his previous gazes only brief sweeps of blue. This, in comparison to the drizzle she had seen, was a flood.
“She went out for sandwiches,” Lucy said, wishing she didn’t have to be the one relaying that information. She was going to have a difficult job if she didn’t even want to tell her boss about inopportune sandwich fetching.
“Uh-huh,” Thomas said, still looking at her. “And did she happen to say when she would be back?”
“No,” Lucy half-whispered. Suddenly, Thomas seemed almost amused, pulling a cigarette case out of his expensive-looking vest, the back of which gleamed a tarnished silver like the spokes on a car’s wheels. She had seen it when he had walked into his office after meeting her, pulling tight across his shoulders. He brushed the cigarette across his lips, quickly, twice, and then lit it.
Lucy wondered whether he was about to barrate her, and considered briefly what she would do if he did, but she really wasn’t sure and he spoke again before she had a chance to decide.
“When she does come back, make her share with you. And then send her into my office.”
Lucy blinked. “Okay,” she said, and then he was turning again, vest flashing, cigarette smoke trailing behind him. He’ll probably try to fuck you, Polly had said. That didn’t sound so bad.
When his office door finally creaked open to admit Polly, it was quarter till four.
“The fuck have you been?” Tommy asked. Polly shed her coat like a snake sheds it’s skin, dropping it gracefully on a rack behind the door.
“Convincing the Epsom coppers to let Arthur do the job you gave him. They didn’t like the idea of blood being spilled on a legal track under their watch.”
“And no blood will be spilled,” she paused, pouring herself a glass of dark wine in a crystal glass from his station. “Under their watch.” She added.
“Good. Now. About the girl.” Tommy said, folding his hands in front of him and gazing at her pointedly. When she didn’t respond, just watched him back over the top of her glass as she sipped her wine, he unlinked his fingers and made a gesture and expression that said, “Well?”.
“I know her mother,” Polly said. “Lives down in the Chinese sector, worked for Zhang. She has too many children and no husband and not enough coming in, so she needs the money. Won’t let her daughter risk losing the income by opening her mouth.”
Tommy looked at her. “And?”
“You get antsy if you don’t get a fuck.”
“What?” Tommy said, sharply. Polly rolled her eyes.
“Lizzy’s gone. That’s what the girl’s for. I’ll not be in the same room with you past week two, otherwise.”
“The fuck, Polly?” Tommy said, angry. And surprised. And offended. “Fuck makes you think I need your help with that?”
Polly shrugged her lean shoulders. “I don’t. But she’s there now, if you want her.”
“All this means is that I would be paying twice,” Tommy said, his tone still biting.
“So don’t pay her. I’m betting on how she looked at you that she wouldn’t mind.” Polly said, focusing on reaching into a smooth black briefcase. “Now, can we talk business?”
Tommy half sighed, half scoffed, said, “And she wonders where I get it from,” but under his breath. If Polly heard him, she didn’t bother to respond with anything more than a flutter of papers as she handed them over and began reviewing the weekly expenses.