The radio was on. It was broadcasting some upbeat jazz tune to which Arthur couldn't help but tap his toes. He spun around once on his heels, distracted by the sound the soles of his shoes made on the hardwood. He didn't notice the black scuff it had left behind on the floor, but Uther would.
Uther would also roll his eyes at the music, and ask Arthur, "How many drinks is that today?" Arthur decided to save himself from that question by draining the remainder of his whiskey. He set the glass down on Uther's desk and puffed at the cigarette in his other hand.
The radio near the door kept him rocking on his feet.
And then the door opened.
"Arthur," came Uther's impatient tones. Arthur immediately stopped dancing, and the music was cut short. He spun around to find Uther's hand resting on the radio's off-dial.
"Father," Arthur said after clearing his throat. He straightened out his shoulders and made sure to keep his father's eyes as Uther closed the office door and paced toward the desk.
Uther didn't say anything for a long time, but his suit relayed his displeasure. The suit was pristine and immaculate and so black that it glistened. It seemed to have a life of its own. Uther leaned back into his cushioned chair and lit himself a cigarette. Finally, he motioned to the chair opposite him with the smoke. "Sit."
Arthur did as he was told. It was best to do so when Uther was in such a mood.
"Father, if this is about what happened in Soho—," Arthur began, ready to defend himself. Really, the happenings of the previous night weren't strictly his fault. Sure, he was in the Wolf Head Gang's territory, but they didn't have to make such a fuss about it. Odin's son started the fight; Arthur had tried to make him walk away. All he wanted was a night out.
Instead, he got a bruised head and a body for his boys to toss downriver.
"It isn't," Uther said through his teeth, in a tone that suggested it very much was.
Arthur shut up anyway.
"It's about New York," Uther went on, giving Arthur a hard stare.
Arthur didn't understand his meaning. He knitted his brows together and said, "We received a telegram from Leon yesterday morning. He says they've found a location in Chelsea—on the piers. I've already wired him the money to buy it."
"Yes, I've read the telegram," said Uther, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the desk. He waved around his cigarette as he spoke, making the curls of smoke dance feverishly as though the radio were still playing. "You understand the success of this endeavor is paramount, son. Since the passing of Volstead Act, the Americans have been paying top dollar for their alcohol. A city such as New York is a gold mine. It will generate a substantial amount of revenue for the Knights."
Arthur nodded his head in a lolling sort of way. He'd heard this all a thousand times. "Yes, yes, and it will be our gateway to expand our territory into the States. I know, Father. What's this all about?"
Uther paused again. He stared, sizing Arthur up. Arthur had seen many men in Uther's command falter under that stare.
Then, Uther stood up and walked around the desk to perch himself on the edge. "Leon and Percival have done a fine job at getting us started, but they cannot run the business. I need someone who won't just follow orders, but is willing to give them. Someone in my stead."
So, that's why Uther had requested this meeting. He wanted one of Arthur's boys to go to America to run the speakeasy. He wanted someone with authority to represent the interests of the Knights of the Round Table. A few names turned in Arthur's mind, but he couldn't come up with a definite answer right on the spot.
Perhaps Gwaine. He was intelligent, commanding, and brutal when he needed to be. And he was certainly imaginative, but he was also a drunkard, which meant he was sometimes unreliable. Well, he was reliable for a good time, but that wasn't what Uther was looking for.
Lancelot, then! Lance was likeable and smart as a whip. He was responsible, and the other Knights looked to him for guidance. He was just as good at making rules as he was following them. Plus, Gwen would be thrilled. She'd wanted to run off to the States for years to perform in clubs. With a voice like hers, she'd be a star in a month's time.
Arthur was just about to offer up Lance's name when Uther said, "You."
"Me?" Arthur was shocked. More than that, he was in denial. "You're joking." Uther's expression remained still, and Arthur's dropped along with his hope. "You're not joking."
He let out a frustrated breath, trying to keep his anger down. There had to be some way of talking Uther out of this. "Father, think about this. I can't go to America! It's—it's—I have a life here! My boys are here!"
"I've selected a handful of them to accompany you. All their papers are in order," Uther said, too calmly for the situation, Arthur thought. "You won't be able to run the business on your own. You'll need help, especially at first. The gangs currently in New York won't like the new competition, so expect some run-ins. Especially with the Black Kings. They're responsible for much of the narcotics trade in the city, amongst other things. They're said to hold enough municipal bonds to control New York, and they have sufficient stock to own half of Wall Street. They no doubt have the local politicians and the police in their back pockets. Keep your eyes on them."
Arthur let out some choking sounds. He'd barely heard any of what Uther was saying. "Father—!"
"Enough," Uther spat curtly. Arthur should have known. Once Uther's mind was made up, there was no changing it.
"Besides, it will be safer for you in New York than it will be here," Uther said under his breath, like an insult.
A look of realization passed over Arthur's face. "This is about Soho!"
"Of course, it is!" Uther raged. He jumped up from the edge of the desk and towered over Arthur. Although he wasn't being touched, Uther's shadow alone pressed Arthur further into his chair like a weight. "Odin's men are furious! You could have started a war! Do you have any idea how long it will take me to make this right? You behaved rashly—like a fool."
Arthur swallowed hard. His cigarette had burned out. He couldn't look his father in the eyes. "I'm sorry," he muttered.
"It doesn't matter," Uther said in a stinging voice. He paced away from Arthur, towards the window, but he didn't looked outside. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, "They'll want revenge. I won't have your body wash up on the banks of the Thames, Arthur."
Arthur didn't say anything. He couldn't. Such moments of affection were rare for Uther, and Arthur learned long ago not to respond to them, or else the moment would pass more quickly. It hung in the air for a few moments before Uther took another drag of his cigarette. He turned around and commanded, "You will go to New York. You will run the speakeasy, and soon you will work on obtaining more property. You will not fail. That's final. Pack your things; you sail tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Arthur shouted, nearly jumping out of his seat.
"I suggest you pack quickly," Uther said, turning away again.
Arthur was fuming. He needed a drink, or twelve. He clamped his jaw tight, biting back all the abuses he wanted to sling at his father. None of this was fair.
He jumped to his feet and stormed towards the door, afraid of what he might do or say if he stayed in Uther's office any longer. However, when he tore open the door, Uther called his name. His voice was once again tender, and it was enough to stop Arthur.
Arthur's grip slackened on the knob as he looked over his shoulder. Uther didn't move to look back.
"I know you'll make me proud," he said.
Arthur didn't answer, but his hesitation spoke louder than words. He closed the door softly on his way out.
Of course, the sky was overcast. Of course, the morning carried with it biting cold winds that caused chopping waves to break against the ships. It was a suitable day, mirroring exactly what Arthur felt: brooding, miserable, glum, and entirely repulsed by the sun from too many drinks the night before.
It had been his last night on the town, so he and his boys had to do something special. After a while, Arthur lost count of how many pubs and parties they went to. It was all a bit of a blur, but he was pretty sure they lost Gwaine along the way to some pretty girl with a too-short skirt and feathers in her hair. Arthur was also fairly certain that he had gotten lost, too, with a girl of a similar description, along with her well-built boyfriend, and ended up at their place in Kensington.
How he got home, he hadn't the foggiest. All that mattered was, he was on the docks of the shipyard, ready for his weeklong journey to America.
"Oh, I'm just gonna miss you so much, baby," whined the pretty girl in front of him. Her arms were wrapped around his neck, much tighter than his were around her waist. Vivian, the daughter of one of Uther's allies. At least, there was one up side of moving away: he wouldn't have to deal with her anymore. "Are you gonna miss me?"
"Every day," he lied. She bought it and blushed.
"It's not fair. Why can't I come with you? Gwen gets to go!" Vivian pouted.
Arthur looked towards the Ocean Liner, which was puffing steam as the crew made ready to set sail. He caught sight of Gwen and Lance handing their luggage to one of the sailors. Elyan was close behind them.
"We need Gwen. Her voice will bring everyone in New York to our party," Arthur said, turning his eyes back to Vivian.
"And you don't need me?" she inferred, letting go of his neck. He assumed that meant he could take his hands off her, too.
"Don't be like that, doll," he told her. "I'll be back in no time."
He gave her a beaming grin and placed his hat on his head. "Cross my heart."
She giggled happily and leaned in close to kiss him.
"Arthur!" someone called.
He turned towards the shout, letting Vivian's lips catch air. Gwaine was calling from over the railing of the ship. "We're headin' out! Hurry up and kiss the bird and get up here!" His whooping laugh that no doubt followed was drowned out by the blaring horn of the ship, signaling its passengers to get on board.
Arthur tipped his hat to Vivian before hustling away.
"Make sure to write, baby!" he heard her shout tearfully before he got lost in the bustle around them.
Just as he reached the gangplank, he heard someone else holler his name. The voice was snide and mocking and oh-so familiar. He found himself smirking at it, but he tamed his face before turning around and greeting, "Morgana."
She gave him a cat-like smile in return. She was dressed in a raincoat, opened to reveal her glamorous, sparkly dress beneath. Her long hair, which she refused to cut into a bob despite the trend, was done up and held in place by a thick, blue headband. The color matched the make-up on her eyes. She always dressed as though she were ready for a wild night out, even in broad daylight.
"I wasn't expecting you to come say goodbye," Arthur teased her. "Miss me already?"
She laughed loftily. "Hardly, dear brother. It's difficult to miss someone when you're going with them."
Arthur gaped. All color drained from his face. "You're what?"
Her eyes flashed at the ship behind him and she said in a cavalier tone, "America. I'm going, too."
Arthur wanted to jump off the port and drown in the Atlantic. It was one thing to be banished to America, it was another thing entirely to be banished with Morgana as his babysitter. They'd kill each other before they even made port in New York.
His sister laughed again. "Oh, don't look like that. You need someone to watch you—make sure you don't fuck this up. Think of me as your partner."
Arthur blinked, searching for any reason for her not to go. "Does Father know about this?"
"As if Father would say no to me."
"Answer the question."
"Arthur, I'm hurt," she said, not sounding hurt at all. Her tone was lyrical. "Of course, he knows. I'm not a bohemian."
"Oh, but you'd like to be," he scoffed. Suddenly, he realized, "You're trying to be a Bright Young Thing!" She certainly had the drinking and socialite lifestyle down; now, all she needed was to become a vagabond.
Her playful expression slipped, and Arthur knew he'd caught her.
"Says you!" she argued.
"I told Father to keep you away from those tabloids," Arthur said, shaking his head in victory. He loved getting a one up on her. "You're too susceptible, Morgana."
"Oh, screw off!" she said heatedly. She held her head higher in a stunning display of self-importance. "I'm nothing like those tramps. I'm much smarter, which is exactly why you need me. You'll run this business into the ground without me to stop you."
Arthur ground his teeth. "I'll be fine on my own."
She laughed into a scoff. "Of course, you'd be fine." She reached up and placed her palm on his cheek tenderly, but her eyes were triumphant. "But, with me, you'll begreat."
Morgana released him and started up the gangplank. Arthur watched her go with fire in his chest.
The horn blasted again, going straight through him. It was time to go.
Kanen had ordered everyone to the garment factory in Alphabet City, an area in Manhattan's Lower East Side. It was the hub of the Black Kings' operation in New York. His office was perched high above the factory floor, it's wall of windows overlooking the looms and machinery. Usually, when Merlin was in the office, he could hear the shouts of the busy workmen and the hum of the machines. They sent out shipments to every corner of the city daily—the boxes lined with dresses that hid a pound of cocaine each, the suits used to hide the whiskey, the shirts that disguised the heroin.
However, everyone on the floor was silent. Work had stopped for last ten minutes as Kanen made his speech about the news from Chicago: The King is dead; long live the King.
Lot, their leader, had finally succumbed to his illness. His son, Cenred, would take over as head boss of the Black Kings. In truth, it wouldn't make very much of an impact on their day-to-day operations in New York. They were one of the most successful factions of the gang, nicknamed the King's Bandits by the locals. Cenred would leave them alone.
But, then again, Cenred would most likely leave everyone alone. He was nothing like Lot, a hard man who rules his empire by any means necessary. Cenred, or so Merlin heard by reputation, was a member of the lost generation. He didn't care for the products or the lifestyle. There was doubt he even cared for the money. He was a soldier, but he would fill his father's shoes well enough. Honor and duty and all that.
Merlin wasn't really listening to what Kanen was saying. He just stood there, holding his glass of moonshine like everyone else, patiently waiting for the toast to be made so they could all go about their day. Next to him, Will shuffled with boredom. Merlin looked around the circle of men, all with glazed over expressions.
The Bandits wouldn't be the only ones toasting Lot's passing. There would be speeches from all the lower bosses: Helios in Miami, Aulfric in Los Angeles, Ari in Boston, Alvarr in the Kings' original home of Cardiff, and of course Cenred in Chicago.
Merlin wondered how many people were actually mourning. He'd only met Lot once himself, when Balinor was still the boss of the Bandits. Before he died and Kanen took charge.
"Alright, I'll say it," Kanen said, his voice louder than before. It broke Merlin out of his thoughts. His attention snapped back to Kanen, to find the man scanning the room with hazel eyes. They were his only light feature (except perhaps the gray peppered into his hair and trimmed beard) and were a startling contrast to his perfectly caramel skin. However, if you asked Merlin, Kanen's eyes were the darkest things about him. They were as dull as stone, as sharp as a blade.
There was a pink, raised scar slashed across Kanen's right eye. A thin line with its starting point hidden in the beard on his cheek; it ended halfway up his forehead where it sprouted into offshoots. Like the branches on a tree. Like a nerve. It had been there for as long as Merlin could remember.
"You've all heard rumors about the Prince. That he's a weakling and dewdropper." Some of the men sniggered. "And we'd be better off with a woman in charge." More chuckles. They stopped when Kanen gave the circle the death stare. "Well, forget them. He's the King now, and he won't bother us any if we all keep to business. So, get your asses back to work!"
Just before the men could move, Kanen added, "Oh, and yeah, here's to Lot, the poor bastard." He gulped down the whiskey in his fist.
"To Lot," everyone, including Merlin, droned, and threw back their drinks.
The machines were already whirring by the time Merlin stepped out of the factory and started down the sidewalk. The normal bustle of mid-afternoon Alphabet City was upon them. A woman was shrieking as she threw men's clothes out of the second storey to the sad sap, pleading for forgiveness, on the street beneath the window. Kids with stolen apples from the street vendor were racing away with their spoils in fits of laughter. Car horns were blaring. Steam was rising out of manhole covers. A vagrant sat in a doorway, rattling his tin can for change. A dog was barking. A man hopped up on drugs stumbled around. A prostitute was earning her money in an alley.
Another day in paradise. Merlin watched it all from beneath the visor of his newsboy-style cap.
"Hey, Merlin! Wait up!" came a familiar voice.
Merlin stopped walking and looked over his shoulder to find Will rushing his way. A grin cracked his cheeks.
Will was out of breath when he caught up. Still, he panted, "Where are you off to in such a hurry?"
Merlin shrugged and shoved his hands into his pockets. Inside, he fingered the money he'd taken from Kanen's safe that morning. "Nowhere special. Thought I'd go into town, see a picture."
Will snorted as they walked. "How can you afford a picture?"
Merlin wriggled his brows mischievously.
"What have you done?" Will reproved.
"Catch me and I'll show you."
Merlin shot off down the street, ignoring Will's shouts. Will would follow him. He was too protective of Merlin not to.
He ran from street to street, dodging people and food carts whenever he could. Every now again, he cast a laugh over his shoulder to see how close Will was getting. Cars honked at Merlin when he ran across the avenue and into the entrance of Tompkins Square Park. That's where he decided to have mercy on Will and slow to a halt.
Will caught up to him shortly. He doubled over, his hands on his knees, and heaved. Merlin giggled in his victory before moving to their usual spot beneath a massive elm tree, whose branches were budding with color. He stretched out on the grass and let his own breath catch up with him.
"Are you going to tell me now?" Will asked in frustration. He plopped down heavily next to Merlin.
"If I must," said Merlin. He sat up and pulled the money out of his pocket. A five and a ten.
Will gasped and gaped. "Where did you get that?"
"I liberated it from Kanen's office."
"Oh, he won't miss it."
Will shot him a scolding glare, but Merlin knew he was secretly pleased.
"You need to stop snooping. Kanen's gonna catch you one day."
Merlin rolled his eyes and put the money away. "No, he won't." He put on his best New York accent, "They don't say I got magic fingers for nuttin'."
"More like sticky fingers," Will muttered.
"Oh, come on!" Merlin exclaimed, crossing his legs and leaning in closer to Will. "We've got fifteen dollars. How about we paint the town tonight?" He sang enticingly, "I know there are few girls who'd be impressed if you could buy them some pansies."
"Won't do any good for you," Will reminded him.
"Not the point! I'm only looking out for you. You need a good petting."
Will looked like he was seriously considering it, but then he shook his head. "Nah. I'm going to the den tonight."
Merlin's expression dropped instantly and he looked away.
"Don't give me the look," Will said impatiently.
"I will give you the look! You deserve the look," Merlin reprimanded. "Every once in a while is fine, but you go too much."
"Oh, yeah? When was the last time you went?"
Will looked down sheepishly and muttered, "Two days ago."
"Will!" Merlin gasped, his eyes wide.
"What? It's free!" Will said in ways of an excuse.
"Of course it's free for you; we run almost every den in the city!" Merlin shook his head and stared down at his lap. "You're gonna overdose one day. Leave the dying to paying customers."
They'd had this conversation dozens of times before, but Merlin still prayed that one day the message would get through Will's thick skull. Merlin couldn't lose him. Will was like a brother to him. They grew up together in Cardiff.
When Will's parents died, Balinor and Hunith took him in. They lived as a family with Merlin's Uncle Gaius and Aunt Alice. And then Lot took Balinor to America with the Kings. A year later, the war broke out and Hunith and Gaius were deployed with the Royal Army Medical Corps. They never made it home. When news of the ambush on their camp reached Wales, Alice sent Merlin and Will to live in New York with Balinor. They never heard from her again. And now even Balinor was gone; he had been for five years.
Will was all Merlin had left.
"Thanks, Mum," Will groaned.
"I'm not kidding!" Merlin shot back. "If you die, who do you think has to clean up your body? That's right, me!"
"Alright, fine! If it makes you feel any better, I won't go tonight," Will conceded.
It settled Merlin.
"It would," he pouted.
"Fine," Will said again. He sat forward and grinned. "Now, then. What were you saying about birds and booze?"
Arthur was never one for open water, with no land or escape in sight. The entire weeklong trip to America, and he never gained his sea legs. He was glad when they finally reached the New York Harbor, and he even let Morgana and Gwen drag him to the deck with the other passengers to gawk at Lady Liberty.
"Oh, she's lovely!" Gwen had cooed.
"You're lovelier, and soon all of New York will know it," Lance had whispered back before giving her a peck on the cheek.
Arthur wasn't sure what made him want to roll his eyes more: the pair of them or the giant green statue that, honestly, was more impressive in photographs.
Uther had purchased apartments for both Arthur and Morgana in the Upper West Side, while Leon and Percival had found living quarters for the rest of them around Chelsea. After docking, Arthur and Morgana shared a taxi to their new homes. It took them up Forty-Second Street and through Times Square. Morgana squealed happily at all the giant billboards, lights, and vendors like she was a tourist.
"I can't wait to see it at night!" she proclaimed, hitting Arthur's knee, before telling him not to spoil her fun by looking so glum. He didn't know what the big deal was. After all, Morgana had lived in London all her life. She'd seen a city at night before.
After dropping her off, the taxi took Arthur to his new home. The apartment on West End Avenue consisted of a large room that was fully furnished with a rod iron bed frame, a dresser with a mirror hanging over it, a work desk, and an armchair. A radio and a telephone sat on the bedside table. Two long windows were adorned with thick, designed drapes. Electrical sconces were hung on the walls, whose wallpaper was striped gold and red. Next to the entrance door, there was another door leading to a small, porcelain bathroom. The communal kitchen was located on the first floor of the building, but Arthur doubted he would use that much.
He put his luggage on the bed and washed his face in the bathroom sink. He stared at himself in the mirror over the basin, trying to convince himself he could get used to life in New York. After all, his closest friends had come with him, he had his own place to live away from the ever-watchful eyes of his father, and, as much as he hated to admit it, even Morgana's being there was a comfort. He could start fresh, be whoever he wanted to be—be the boss of his gang.
He tried to convince himself the homesickness would pass, but his complexion was still too green and his stomach was still queasy from the chopping waves of the Atlantic. The ocean had never been so vast. London—his city, his kingdom—had never been so far away.
Forcing himself to man-up, he left his apartment and got a taxi to the address Leon had given him to the home of their future center of operations. The others were to meet him there.
The building was an old, small warehouse a few blocks away from Chelsea Piers. With the Hudson River at its back, the brick building stood two stories tall, and the only windows were high up on the ceiling. It had been an old fishing house, and remnants of the smell still lingered.
Arthur inspected the first floor with his arms held behind his back. Morgana, Gwen, and Lance were doing the same across the room. By the entrance, Gwaine and Elyan were catching up with Percy. Leon was following Arthur around, waiting for a verdict. He was trying not to make it obvious, but it was.
"Good work, Leon, Percy," Arthur said at last, making all other conversation fall silent. Morgana, Gwen, and Lance stopped looking around, too.
Leon smiled happily. "I thought it would be the best location. It's on the beaten path, but out of the way of any police officers."
"Yes, it'll do nicely," said Arthur.
"Well, we'll have to give the place a good cleaning before opening night," Morgana piped up, placing her hands on her hips. "It smells like the catch of the day."
"We could pay some kids to come in an give it a good scrubbing," said Elyan.
Arthur nodded passively in agreement. He slowly began to circle the room again, but no one else moved. "There's a basement?"
"Yes," Leon told him. "That's where I thought the speakeasy could go."
"We'll make this floor a boxing ring," Arthur told them. The floor plan was big enough. They could fit in a ring with plenty of room for spectators. "I want a fight here tomorrow night. The more fights we have, the more people will know about the speakeasy opening."
"There's another ring a few miles up the Hudson," said Percy. "It's been here a long time. Word is, no one owns it." Meaning, none of the local gangs had their fingers in it.
"That only means there's no muscle backing it," Morgana said. "You should go tonight and talk to the boxers. Find out what the prize money is and tell them we'll double it."
"Agreed," said Arthur before facing his men at the door. "Percy, you go tonight. Tomorrow, you'll go to factories and workshops and spread word about the fights. Take Gwaine and Elyan with you."
"We should go to schools, too," Gwaine reasoned, his cigarette wagging between his lips as he spoke. "Students are always ready to get the shit kicked out of them. I think it's all the stress of book learning."
"Do whatever you have to. Just get people here, fighters and spectators. I want this place packed," Arthur told them. "We'll take bets at the door, but no one's to bid against the house on the first night. We won't know who's worth backing until we've seen a few fights."
"And Gwen can sing before we start off," Morgana offered, casting a grin towards Gwen, who blushed.
"Oh, I don't know. I—I don't even have a band yet," she said coyly.
Morgana hushed her and placed a satin-gloved hand on her cheek. "A voice like yours doesn't need a band, sweetie."
"And, if it makes you feel better, we'll find you the best band in New York," Lance promised.
Gwen beamed gratefully and wrapped her arms around Lance's. "Really, you two are too good to me."
"Well, if that's settled, let's see where Gwen will be performing normally," Arthur urged, and everyone got the hint. Leon led them to the stairwell and through the heavy steel door to the basement.
It was one large room mostly made out of cement and beams. A thick layer of dust sparkled in the sunlight coming through the high windows, placed just above the sidewalks outside. Leon and Percy already had a bar put in, and shelves for spirits were in the process of being constructed. Other than that, the place looked pretty abysmal in its current state.
"How rustic," Morgana voiced politely, reading Arthur's mind. He was happy she spoke up before he got the chance. Her words were a lot kinder than his would have been.
"It's um—," Arthur began, clearing his throat, "a start."
"It's a fucking dirty basement," Gwaine said, holding nothing back.
Well, thank god someone said it.
"Uh, it needs a little work, but we're up for it," Lance said, stepping forward before tensions rose. "We don't open until Friday night. That's plenty of time to put in floors."
"And décor," Gwen added, and Lance gestured to her in solidarity.
"Fine. Morgana, I trust you'll be in charge of the décor," Arthur shot over his shoulder.
Morgana gave him a burning glare but said, "I'd like nothing more, dear brother."
"Uh, Arthur, I've been in touch with some bootleggers," Leon said hurriedly, following Arthur as he walked further into the room. "They're each sending a few bottles for us to sample."
"Good. We'll see which sells more before making a decision on who to use. Until then, my father's shipping over some crates of the real stuff. It should get us through our first few weeks."
"Leon, show him the storeroom," Percy reminded.
"Right, of course!" Leon bounded across the room towards the bar. On the side of it was another metal door. He opened it to reveal a short, wooden flight of stairs to a small cellar. It would be a good place to house the liquor each night. However, they would need to find a much bigger place for their full supply.
In the cellar, Arthur noticed a gas lamp hanging from the wall. He turned back around and surveyed the room, noticing similar sconces. "It's gas," he said. "We'll need to renovate for electric."
"Already taken care of," said Leon. "I found a man in Washington Heights who'll do it and keep quiet. But he'll cost us."
"I'll take a look at the books," Arthur told him, clapping a hand to Leon's shoulder. "There are few other things I'd like to go over. My office is on the top floor?"
"Good. You'll come with me. Everyone else," he addressed the room as a whole, ready to rally them, "we open for business in less than five days. Better get to work."
Everyone started back up the stairs.
The next day, across Manhattan, Merlin swung through the doors of the Essetir, the speakeasy on Avenue C that the Kings owned. It was always so sad seeing a bar in the light of day. No one was in it, and it still hadn't been cleaned from the previous night's debauchery. A few chairs were overturned, shot and highball glasses (some still with liquids in them) were littering the tabletops, and the dance floor was scuffed up from the soles of too many shoes. The balls from the billiards table were strewn around. Not a soul was in the room, which was odd.
Freya should have been there. She was the bartender, which meant she should have been stocking the shelves. Sometimes, Merlin came around to help her.
He'd only known Freya for a few years, but it felt like she'd been there his whole life. She was an Irish native whose family moved to New York to find work during the war. Her parents died of consumption not long after, leaving Freya alone and virtually penniless. She'd gotten a job as the Essetir's barmaid about six months after Balinor's death.
When he didn't see her at the bar, he stopped walking and his smile fell.
"Freya?" he called out, confused. It wasn't like her to be late.
Almost immediately, the small, pretty brunette whipped around the corner leading into a short corridor next to the bar. She furiously hissed, "Shh!"
Merlin threw his palms up in mock surrender.
"Didn't think we were in a library," he whispered, lowering his hands.
"Kanen's in the back," said Freya under her voice. She shot him a devious smile, which he returned, and they crept around the corner together.
Merlin loved it when Kanen conducted his meetings at the Essetir, which he sometimes did when he wanted a pint mid-day, and he loved it when Freya was working during these times. They would press their ears up to the door and listen in. It was the only way Merlin got to know what was really going on anymore. Balinor used to tell him all the gang's secrets and plans. These days, Merlin was as much kept out of the loop as anyone else.
"Turns out, some of them have been in town for months now." That had been Cornelius Sigan's voice. He was Kanen's rat, and he even looked like one, too. Sigan would scuttle around the city, listening to all the gossip and learning all the comings and goings of the other gangs. Merlin hated him and his beady little eyes, and the feeling was mutual. "They were working under the radar—kept to themselves. It's all different now that the Golden Knight's in town."
Merlin and Freya met each other's eyes, silently asking if the other knew whom Sigan was talking about. Neither of them did.
"These Red Knights, what are they known for in London?" asked Kanen, his deep voice muffled by the door. Merlin focused harder.
"Gambling—fixing races and fights," Sigan informed him. "Uther Pendragon's built a reputation for himself. People fear the Knights. I heard talk that Old Goldie took out a key player in the Wolf Head Gang not last week."
"Well, then they won't stop with the speakeasy. They'll try to do what they do best here."
Merlin didn't see why that was such a problem. The Kings didn't trouble themselves with gambling, and there were thousands of speakeasies in the city, so they were used to competition. Something else had Kanen spooked.
"Yeah, I'd say," said Sigan. "There's a ring not far from them. They'll try to buy it, no doubt."
"In the Caerleon Bunch's territory. On Eighteenth and Twelfth, close to one of our dens."
Merlin suddenly realized why Kanen was so nervous about this new gang, whoever they were.
Apparently, Sigan didn't understand. He snorted a laugh. "We'll see how Annis likes that."
"Don't take this lightly," Kanen warned. "She's been trying to get her hands on our dens for years. If the Knights ally themselves with her—"
"They might just be enough to drive us out of the West Side," Sigan finally understood, his voice serious.
"And we can't let that happen." Merlin could almost hear the twisted smirk on Kanen's face as he said, "Send some of our boys to meet these Red Knights tonight. We'll welcome them to New York."
From inside the back room, a chair creaked and was scraped backwards on the floorboards. Merlin and Freya jumped up and rushed to the bar as quietly as they could. Merlin got there first. He grabbed two rags and tossed one to Freya, who immediately began scrubbing it in circles along the bar's polished wood. He picked up a rocks glass and pretended to polish it with the second rag.
Seconds later, the door to the back room opened and Sigan came through. He didn't cast Merlin or Freya a glance before exiting the speakeasy.
Freya let out a sigh of relief and stopped cleaning. Merlin looked at her heavily and blew out his cheeks.
"You better get out here. Kanen won't be in a good mood now," Freya told him. Merlin didn't want to leave her. Sometimes, if Kanen was angry enough, he would hit her, or whoever the nearest girl was. Still, even if he did stay, there was nothing Merlin could do to prevent it. Kanen was like an animal sometimes.
Freya pushed a brave smile on her face and reached under the bar for a Johnny Walker bottle. It was the real stuff. Only the best for Kanen. "I should go see if he wants another one of these."
"Wait, give him this one instead," Merlin said quickly. He picked up the bottle that had been next to it, another Johnny Walker label. The amber color of the liquid was barely a shade lighter than that of the bottle Freya was holding. Merlin handed her the second bottle and took the first from her. He hid it under his coat for himself.
"Why, what's the difference?" she wondered.
He winked at her before walking around the bar and towards the exit.
The first floor of the warehouse was standing room only. They had to stop letting people in. Percy was stationed at the front door, making sure no one could sneak inside.
Arthur did a few laps around the room, getting bumped and jostled by drunken men at every turn. He didn't mind it. It only meant business was already booming.
Of course, he couldn't hear himself think. There was too much cacophony, too much noise. The crowd was mostly men, but some had brought women along. They were all hollering and jeering and, above them, Arthur heard the sounds of fists on flesh and bones. Two men were in the ring, stripped down the nothing but their trousers as they ducked and punched and hit. It was only the third fight of the night and, already, one of the boxers was taken to a hospital.
Their reigning champion so far was a bald, muscular man named Orn. If he won, he'd be awarded fifty dollars that night.
Lance was in the ring refereeing. Before the fights started, Gwen sang. Her voice had made the room fall silent with reverence.
Arthur needed some air. The room was stifling from all the energy and the bodies packed in together, and sweat matted his hair. He made his way towards the stairs and descended into the speakeasy, where Gwaine, Elyan, and Leon were counting the bet money. Morgana was down there, too, not doing much of anything besides smoking at the bar.
They had set up a few tables, chairs, and barstools off Morgana's request. She said it would help her to better conceive of an ambiance for the speakeasy. However, they were currently being used to hold stacks of bills and mountains of coins.
"How much are we up to?" Arthur asked when he entered.
Gwaine gave a huff and complained, "You made me lose count!"
Leon and Elyan sniggered as Gwaine reached for the whiskey bottle in the middle of the table and took a swig from it. The ashtray in front of him was in a plume. Arthur took out his cigarette pack from his pocket and lit one up.
"We've still got a ways to go, Arthur," Elyan said, indicating another table of money behind them. "Some turn out."
"I suppose I have you fellas to thank," Arthur said, moving to stand between Elyan and Leon.
"Just doing our jobs," Gwaine said airily, which was fine with Arthur. They were good at their jobs.
Behind him, the door swung open again, and four men in suits and rimmed hats stepped in.
"We're not open until Friday," Arthur told them quickly.
"Well, we're not here for drinks," said one of the men. He must have been their leader. The others flanked him on either side. He was a dark-featured man with a sharply pointed nose. "Name's Jarl, of the Black Kings."
Immediately, Gwaine, Elyan, and Leon stood up. The three men next to Jarl pulled out their pistols in defense. Arthur's men did the same.
At the bar, Morgana continued to smoke. Arthur, too, took one last puff of his cigarette before flicking it to the concrete. He'd left his gun in his office two floors up.
"We're not open until Friday," he said again, his tone edgier than before.
"Yeah, we heard you the first time," Jarl said, and he had the audacity to take a few steps forward. "And, see, that doesn't work for Kanen. He'd prefer it if you stay closed indefinitely."
Jarl nodded backward to the door. "Nice fight you've got going up there." Even as he said it, the crowd erupted in gleeful cheers. "Why don't you boys run back home to London and keep your bets where they belong, eh?"
Arthur looked down at his shoes, pretending to consider it. He pulled an exaggerated frown, but his expression turned cold when he met Jarl's glare.
"I'll say this once," Arthur warned him, "get out of my club."
Jarl laughed and looked over either shoulder at his goons for support. They laughed, too.
"What? You think I'm gonna be intimidated by some pretty boy gambler from London?" Jarl mocked. He stopped laughing abruptly and decided to show his strength by shoving Arthur with both hands.
It made Arthur stumble back a few steps. When he composed himself, he looked down at the front of his suit like it had just been ruined behind repair. Everyone froze. Even Morgana tensed.
"You Red Knights should stick to fixing races," said Jarl.
Arthur's lips twitched into a sneer. "It's the Knights of the Round Table," he said, and punched Jarl squarely in the jaw.
In a heartbeat, Leon kicked over the table, making the paper money fly up and the coins clunk to the floor and scatter. He, Elyan, and Gwaine took cover under it. A bullet from one of Jarl's men's guns hit the edge of the table. Elyan whipped his pistol around the table and fired. It hit the man right in heart and he dropped in a spray of red.
Meanwhile, Jarl tried to pull out his gun, too. Arthur launched himself forward and grabbed Jarl's wrists, struggling to get hold of the gun. Jarl accidentally fired a bullet up at the ceiling, making bits of dust rain down. Arthur slammed him against the wall and beat Jarl's hand against it until the gun fell out. Jarl crashed their foreheads together to make Arthur stumble back. It worked, causing Arthur a momentary rush of dizziness. However, he recovered just as Jarl was swooping down for his gun. Arthur kicked him in the nose before he could retrieve it.
Upstairs, the crowd rang out in hysterical applause.
Gwaine had rushed out from behind the table. Forgoing his weapon, he attacked one of the men with his fists, instead. Gwaine slung a few sarcastic remarks at the man as he beat him, but none of them ever processed in Arthur's mind.
Leon was in a fistfight with the third man, having somehow managed to knock the gun out of his hand. However, it seemed the Black King was getting the better of him. Elyan urged Morgana to take cover behind the bar before rushing to aid Leon.
Jarl threw a punch, which Arthur ducked. While he was down, he elbowed Jarl hard in the gut, causing the man to double over and gasp.
Arthur seized Jarl's shoulders to hold him down, and attempted to knee him in the face. Before he got the chance, Jarl stomped down hard on Arthur's foot. Arthur hadn't been expecting that. It made him shout and lose composure. It was just enough of a distraction for Jarl to push him back. Arthur slipped on some of the money and crumpled to floor against the overturned table. The back of his head knocked hard into the wood, dazing him.
The spectators upstairs roared and jeered with fury.
Jarl stood over Arthur. He had blood trickling out of his lips and staining his teeth. Out of nowhere, Morgana appeared behind him with Gwaine's whiskey bottle in her fist. She smashed it against the back of Jarl's head hard enough to shatter it. Only the neck remained closed tightly in her hand.
The blow caused Jarl to shout and waver, but apparently it wasn't enough. "Bitch!" he cursed and pushed Morgana down to the floor with one hand.
Arthur saw red.
He jumped to his feet and pounced at Jarl, bringing them both to the floor. The crowd above their heads were stomping its feet and chanting in song. Arthur straddled Jarl and punched him over and over again, relentlessly exchanging one fist for the other until all his knuckles were bloody and bruised.
Nearby, Gwaine was bashing his man's head into the concrete until the body slackened. A gunshot rang through the air, but Arthur didn't know whom the bullet hit. It was out of his line of sight.
Jarl was struggling, trying to force Arthur off of him.
"Arthur!" Morgana yelled. She tossed him the broken neck of the whiskey bottle, and he caught it.
He drove the shard into Jarl's neck. Blood sprayed Arthur's cheeks and freckled his white shirt.
And then the only sounds were the crowd upstairs whooping and celebrating. Arthur tuned them out.
He sat back heavily and let his breath catch up to him. He let the broken bottle roll out of his hand.
Soon, he stood up and flexed his hands. His knuckles were already stiff. His head was pounding, and he felt his blood and sweat mixing like grime on his cheeks. He rushed to Morgana, who was lifting herself up to her feet.
"Are you all right?" he worried, grabbing her shoulders and scanning her up and down for any injuries.
"Yes," she hastily answered, nodding furiously as she did so. She only sounded a little shaken.
"Everyone else?" Arthur looked around—to Gwaine, Leon, and Elyan. They were all still standing. The floor was slippery with blood. It pooled around the man at the door, and around the wide-eyed corpse at Leon and Elyan's feet. It splayed out from the open skull of the body Gwaine was responsible for. Jarl's neck had stopped gushing. The money underfoot was soiled.
"No bruise a raw steak can't fix," Gwaine joked, speaking for the other two.
Arthur nodded, able to breathe regularly now. "Good. Clean this up. I don't want any stains in the floor on opening night."
He wrapped his arm over Morgana's shoulder and held her closer to him. She didn't protest.
"Come on, we'll get you home," he told her. She nodded again, and they made for the exit.
Behind them, Arthur heard Gwaine say, "Well, hell, now I've really lost count!"