The sound of music bounced from the corridor walls as the man who would be Stag walked through them, his mask thankfully dampening the worst of the thumping beat. He moved with the illusion of confidence, head held high and back straight, only the slightest hint of the panic in his gut evident.
Thankfully for him, the long narrow service tunnel was uninhabited by men, and the opinions of cockroaches didn't bother him. As he walked he replayed the nights events in his mind, all the choices he had made that led him to this long lonely walk, to the future that lay beyond the door lit in the near distance. The music that assaulted his eardrums rang from the door, faint, yet loud enough to be heard. It's beat was fast and erratic, the composition of the song random and jagged, like something thrown together on an old computer. Stag frowned as it became clearer, the mask becoming less effective with each step. Whatever 'appened to the classics.
He stopped at the door, hand wrapped around the cool handle, thumping music causing the door itself to vibrate. In truth, he hadn't expected to come this far, to be stood at this gateway, fate had a cruel habit of crushing dreams after all. At his back lay the darkness of the past, in his hand the entryway to an unknown future, with a pained smirk he pulled the door ajar and stepped within.
An instant after the door was opened the music increased it's tempo, the door no longer hiding the worst of its melody. Whatever the sound was, it wasn't to Stag's liking, even more-so now.
The room beyond was relatively small, a windowed office no larger than a cupboard with a spartan desk and large leather-bound chair at it's centre, a champagne flute and ice chilled bottle of Arman Du Brinac sat upon the desk beside a tethered phone. Beyond the window a trio of young women contorted over one another, barely covered bodies writhing in concert with the beat. Their stage was flanked by three more of the offices, it was only by looking at them that Stag realised that the windows were mirrored, one-way mirrors was his assumption, the thought of who could be sat behind them ran a shiver up his spine.
Taking a seat Stag found himself enveloped in the fine cushioned leather of the chair, a contented smile formed under the mask as he revealed in his own comfort for a moment, before turning his mind back to business. Three green lights stared out at him from the phones receiver, a fourth red one was embedded besides a small button labelled “Conference”, tentatively, he depressed the button and raised the receiver to his ear, his eyes returning to gaze at the dancers.
Two low beeps signaled the line connecting.
“Line four, activated.” A robotic voice announced, before cutting off once more.
“Ah there you are Stag, I was starting to think you weren't going to show.” The voice was masked, but unmistakeably male, as it spoke the second light on the phone flickered.
“About time, can we send these women away now and get onto matters?” The second was female, also masked, but infinitely more familiar for it. There was little doubt that the voice belonged to Roach, the sole woman within the ranks of the Beetles, she was the third light.
“Let 'em finish at least, I'm enjoying the show.” The final of the three lit the first light, a rough accent audible behind the augmenter. A low growl of annoyance was audible in the brief moment of quiet, enough to show Roaches displeasure at the request and more than enough for the dancers to be dismissed via a single buzzer that lit up on one of the booths. As soon as the light burst into life the music stopped, lights flicked from a medley of brightly coloured strobes to a singular muted glow. The women knew their mark and rolled from one another and off of the stage, exiting the room shortly thereafter.
“Happy now?” Said the first light, “Never knew you were such a wet towel Roach.”
“Well I always knew you were a pig Bloody.” The voices confirmed Stags suspicions, the first and second lights were Bloody-Nose and Roach respectively, which could only mean that the third belonged to Cardinal. Behind the safety of the mirrored glass Stag removed his mask and sipped at the freshly poured drink, cool bubbles tickling the inside of his mouth.
“Now now,” Cardinal spoke, “Less of the childishness, we are here for a reason.”
“Quite.” Roach asserted, the anger in her voice melting away. “Firstly, I believe there was some talk to be had about our Dragon. Or more precisely, why he isn't already dead.”
“Have we confirmed who he is yet?” Stag interjected, the voice modulator in the phone immediately masking him.
“Yes, it looks like Roaches Intel was bang on the money, McKenzie is our man.” Cardinal continued, “Bloody-Nose was looking into the addresses we pulled, with luck, he has some good news for us.”
Bloody-Nose immediately stepped in, the modulators making it a little difficult to differentiate one from the next.
“Mixed rather than good. I had all three places checked out and didn't get much, 'is old 'ouse is still occupied. Brother, 'is kids, must be 'anging about for t'will or something” an audible intake of breath signaled Roach about to speak, her light flickering.
“And before anyone asks, no, I didn't beat that 'outta them. I 'ave some finesse when its needed.” No one rose to interrupt. “As for the other two places, 'is loft and fire station, one was torched from inside out and the other was useless.”
“Torched?” Stag enquired, his curiosity peaked. “What 'appened there?”
“Not too sure, the lads think it was done on purpose though. Maybe McKenzie was looking to cover 'is tracks after whatever 'append, if so, he's bloody good at it. Other than that though, he's a ghost.”
“There's some irony there as a man supposedly dead.” Roach mumbled, you could almost picture the wheels in her head falling into one another as she spoke, setting a dangerously intelligent mind into motion.
The initial reports on McKenzie had shown he had burned to death in a warehouse fire, though no body was ever found several explosions had flung debris into the Thames, it was assumed his corpse had done the same. The Beetles now knew otherwise though, Conner McKenzie had since taken to covering himself in a fireproof suit and attacking their operations with a flamethrower. Initially the attacks were ignored as a some wack-job off his meds, but a few weeks in, survivor stories reached their ears through the corpses that whomever this man was, he was on the warpath.
“Then we are running low on options it would seem.” Cardinal offered. “Perhaps its time to call in a professional to help? The expense will be negligible next to our current losses.”
“Did you have anyone in mind” Bloody-Nose seemed excited by the prospect, or just happy to see and end to their Dragon problem.
“Sands? He's quick, effective and above all, discreet.” Cardinal offered.
“No.” Roach replied, in a distracted manner. “He refuses to work with us after the Oxford job, apparently it left a sour taste.”
“Pussy, I say we go with Cole then, he ain't the quietest but he gets it done, leaves a fucking message too when he does.” You could hear Bloody-Nose's grin as be spoke. Unlike Sands, Cole Black was a name that brought memories with it, of charnel houses and butchered bodies, if Sands was a scalpel Cole was a chainsaw. Stag shivered at the memory of cleaning up after Cole's last job.
“He does, but he also leaves a trail 'alf a mile wide.” Stag spoke, doing his best to convey authority. “We should deal with the issue in-'ouse, saves this leaking out to the other families as well, they 'ear we couldn't deal with 'im then we look weak.” Murmured agreement followed, he smiled at the success of his statement. “We might not know where he is, but we know where his blood is...”
“My thinking exactly.” Roach said, her mind back in the conversation. “Let me collect them, we'll have our Dragon running after them like a lost puppy in a day at most. Plus, if they have any idea where he could be, I'll find out.”
“You've already been told that won't work Roach.” Cardinal snapped, a little too quickly. “You've been pulled from this job for a reason, your ideas have a nasty habit of implicating the business. Stag and I will deal with this.” As he spoke Stag sat in quiet surprise, everything was as it should have been, Cardinals reaction may as well have been read from a script he didn't know he was reading. Now it was his line.
“Cardinal.” He paused allowing attention to be drawn back to him, “I believe that Roach's plan 'as merit. We've been playing the old game until this point and it's gotten us nowhere, it's time we adapted an' Roach knows the new rules better than we do.”
“But that's not the Gregories way.” Cardinal argued whilst both Roach and Bloody-Nose sat in silence, observing the changing tides.
“The Gregories way is to survive, no matter the threat we outlast it, before we grind it under our boots like every other opposer we've ever had.” Stag stood as he spoke, infusing his words with a well preformed anger. “That's the Gregories way.” Silence hung for a moment as he finished, bringing himself back to a cold demeanour and seating himself once more. Roach was the first to break the quiet, her smug tone impossible to mask.
“Well said Stag, I couldn't have said it better myself.” Cardinal's light flickered as he slurred to himself choking back any words he wanted to say. “I will have his wife and son in our care by the morning news.” Stag smiled, mirroring the expression he knew Roach would be wearing and relaxing into comfort once more. It seemed the gamble was paying off, now it was just a matter of keeping the odds in his favour.
“Well, if we're all done with that. We do 'ave another problem that's sprung up.” Bloody-Nose said reminding everyone of his presence. Stag raised an eyebrow in response, this was unexpected which in turn, meant it was bad.
“What problem?” He asked, leaning forward in his seat.
“Well one of my boys recently found out that the MET 'ave stumbled onto our dumpin' ring. Though they don't know it's us yet, it ain't an 'ard leap to make, we need'a nip it in the bud now.” He sounded casual as he spoke, as if what he said was a minor irritation to the Beetles rather than a potentially damning wrench in the machine. Stag shrugged to himself, one man was barely a problem that couldn't be resolved.
“Do you have a name?” He enquired.
“Yeah, Detective James Haynes South-gate division.” Bloody-Nose replied, “Only stumbled 'cross it by accident, but he's run it straight to the top o' the food chain. Shouldn't take much to rub 'im out.”
“We should have him killed.” Cardinal muttered coldly, his fouled temper clear. “Before he jeopardises more of our work.” Bloody-Nose grunted in agreement, it was only Roach cutting in that stopped Stag giving the order.
“No, we should leave him alone.” The interjection caught the assembled by surprise, if Roach was known for one thing, it was not her mercy.
“Why th' fuck would we do that?” Bloody-Nose asked mirroring the thoughts of each other member of the assembly.
“Because this could be a sign.” Roach stated, Stag turned his eyes to the heavens Hell of a time to get poetic. “I've been meaning to raise this issue for a while now and this seems the perfect time to do so. I believe that we should abandon the dumping, cut our ties with the Unshirri and move on, the risks are mounting day by day.”
“What risks?” Cardinal piped up again, possibly eager for an opportunity to reassert his dominance over her. “Barring this incident the dumping has proven to be nothing less than a profitable venture.”
“Its not just profit Cardinal.” She hissed in retort. “Ever since the Unshirri stepped foot in our city things have taken a turn for the worse.” Stag readjusted the receiver on his ear, it was alien to hear Roach speak like this, she was normally more reserved, secretive. “You may not notice it but I have made it my business to see everything they do. Barring the Sedis distribution they have us handling are you aware of the abductions? Murders?”
“You're talking nonsense.” Cardinal said, his tone contemptuous. “Seeing threats where there are none. Our partnership with the Unshirri is one of our best alliances, without them our movement into China would have been impossible.”
“That's irrelevant!” Roach snapped, “Whatever they have planned is bigger than us and personally I feel we should distance ourselves from it, even if it costs us a little progress, better than being caught up in whatever they have planned.”
“Hold up, you said abductions?” Bloody-Nose weighed in, “Who have they taken?”
“No one of import, hobos mostly, but that's not the point is it. Regardless of who they are taking, its the fact they are and they are doing so without a single thought to the repercussions. Did you not wonder why police presence has increased? Because the Unshirri are making more ripples than we planned, frankly, the money isn't worth the increased risk. We should cut ties, let this Haynes character follow the trail back to the Unshirri, from there it's no longer our problem.”
“What about the money?” Stag queried. “Is the risk not worth it?”
“Risk is always more preferable when you know the risks outcome.” Roach began, “And we don't know the outcome of this one. We took the job for the money, now we have a good enough hold on the city to function without it.” Stag sniffed, he didn't know the exact numbers but chances are she was right she was rarely wrong about these things, however that didn't stop the whole discussion from being a bizarre one.
“Why the sudden concern?” Bloody-Nose asked. “If things go south we'll deal with it, stuck up pricks in suits ain't nothin' we ain't dealt with before.”
“Bloody-Nose is right.” Cardinal agreed. “The long term risks are mitigated by the short term gains, there's no point cutting such a valuable relationship on someones 'Hunch'.” Stag gritted his teeth as they spoke against Roach this would come down to a vote, no question about it, Time to play your hand.
“I agree with Roach.” He said, speaking as bluntly as he could manage. “We need to better consider our alliance w'the Unshirri, we should take a step back and wait, see what 'appens and then reassess.”
“What?” Cardinal asked irritation edging his aged voice. “Have you taken complete leave of your senses Stag? Or has Roach just wormed her way into your head? We cannot simply back out of this deal, the Unshirri are powerful people and I severely doubt they would look favourably on us for cutting and running.”
“Your utter cowardice is growing increasingly irritating Cardinal.” Roach hissed, “Grow some balls and realise when you're wrong.”
“Wrong?” He retorted, Stag remained silent, willing Bloody-Nose to do the same. “My ways haven't been wrong over the last 40 years, if it weren't for them...”
“We would have never taken a dime back in the day, yes yes Cardinal we understand. What you seem unable to understand is that unlike you, the world has changed and it doesn't run on good will and empty threats anymore. We're all part of a great all consuming machine now, one that is Fueled by carrion and blood, we simply shovel that fuel and make sure we don't get dragged in as well.” Stag curled a lip as she spoke, not sure where her fervour had been drawn but all too happy it was not directed at him.
“So Cardinal, if you want to play this game the old way go for it, but when you are dragged beneath the wheels of progress and ground into a mass of blood and shattered bone, remember I offered you an out.” Roach punctuated the end of her assault with her raised voice, Stag could picture her stood in her booth, receiver held out before her as she yelled her own bleak truths. Once more he considered his latest decisions.
It took several long seconds before Cardinal replied, his voice was a mix of defeat and exhaustion, a man who has just become aware that the world has moved on without him.
“Very well.” He said, plain as day. “Then you will forgive me if I take my leave. This has grown tiresome.” He didn't wait for a reply before he disconnected , his light on the phone flicking to a bright red in place of the green. The sullen silence lasted a significantly shorter time this time around, Bloody-Nose breaking the silence with an extended exhale.
“Well that got dramatic.”
“Indeed.” Roach agreed, “Regardless of the old mans change of heart we should continue. What's next Bloody?”
Bloody-Nose grunted in agreement and began to speak of recruiting numbers, of how the new family members were streaming from across the city looking for a piece of the action. As he spoke, Roach reclined in her lavish leather-back chair, her porcelain mask playing between her delicate fingers as she wore a smile as wide as a Cheshire cat. The meeting had gone exactly as she had expected, almost every single action falling into place as she had fore planned. Stag was playing the part admirably, Bloody-Nose had learned his place and soon Cardinal would know his.
She sipped on a flute of wine, ideally listening to Bloody-Nose prattle on about unimportant matters and reflecting on the newest news. If the police officer mentioned earlier was as close as Bloody-Nose suggested then she would have to waylay his efforts, last thing she wanted was for him to be hurt in the line of duty after-all. Especially when everything was going so marvelously well for her.