Warning: Threat, Violence
‘How the hell did that cazzo find me?!’
Rossetti stabs a butter knife deep into the tablecloth, fuming with rage. Across from him, Alberto raises his hands, placatory. ‘We’re still searching, boss. We don’t know of – ’
‘Well clearly you don’t know everything, do you?’ Rossetti scowls at his pocket watch. ‘Where’s Starrick?’
Alberto wilts. ‘We told him it was urgent.’ Around them, the clink of cutlery, the low buzz of chatter.
Rossetti glares towards the foyer. ‘Where is that figlio di – ’
‘Speak of the devil…’ A warm voice, tinged with amusement. Rossetti whirls around. Starrick is standing right behind him, smiling, arms clasped behind his back.
‘…And he shall appear.’
Rossetti blinks. His skin prickles. Where the hell did he come from? How’s he gotten past this club’s supposedly first-rate security? He peers towards the entrance; Vieri and Nico are huddled together, staring tight-lipped at the floor.
Starrick gazes around the crowded room. ‘Fine choice, this place. The saddle of lamb is very good.’
Rossetti glares at him. ‘I called this meeting! My place, my rules.’
Starrick chuckles. ‘Really? Did you imagine, Mr Rossetti, that something would happen to you?’ His eyes rove over the chattering guests, the bustling tables. ‘Is that why you chose to meet here, in a public place? Your favourite restaurant?’ He nods beyond Rossetti. ‘Look around you.’
Rossetti glances around, sweating as Starrick continues, ‘You’ll see two councilmen.’ Two sharply-dressed men each with a fawning girl on their laps. ‘A couple of off-duty coppers.’ A table of three black-uniformed men in shiny capes. ‘And Judge Warrick.’ A middle-aged man with a seamed face eyes Rossetti nervously, fidgeting with his collar.
Starrick pulls a revolver from his jacket, laying it on the table. ‘Now I wouldn’t have a second’s hesitation in putting a bullet through your skull right here in front of ’em.’ His lip curls. ‘Y’see, money isn’t power down here…fear is.’ He twitches a finger. Three tables away, a gaunt-faced man with a ponytail picks up a teaspoon. Taps the crystal glass before him.
Silence clamps over the dining room. The waiters freeze. The buzz of chatter dies down.
No one breathes.
‘Everyone out,’ Starrick murmurs. ‘Now.’
And with a creaking of chairs and the rustle of clothing, the entire restaurant empties. Waiters stride purposefully towards the door. Elderly ladies gather their purses and shuffle out. Tuxedoed men fold their newspapers and trail out the room. Eyes down. Tight-lipped. Faces blank.
Rossetti gazes around in disbelief at the departing guests. Certain diners remain seated, openly staring back at him. Shaven head, thickset. Gaunt-faced, brown ponytail. Coarse red beard, chilly blue eyes. Greasy topknot, stubble. Sunken dead eyes. Shark smiles.
‘What. The hell. Is going on?’ he demands.
Starrick smiles. ‘The plan is proceeding as expected.’
‘Oh really?’ Rossetti’s lip curls. ‘Does it look like I have that stronzo’s head on a platter right now?’ Regaining his composure, he leans forwards, spitting with rage. ‘Your tip, on the White Lion: it didn’t work. We lost him. Now I have four soldiers and one capo in hospital. That Paddy’s in the wind. And now you have my men going around the docks, hauling crates off the boats at all hours. How exactly is that supposed to help me find this bastardo?’
Silence. Starrick’s flat eyes flicker towards Alberto.
Sweat prickles Rossetti’s brow. ‘No. You stay right there!’ he demands. ‘I’m in charge.’
A meaty hand rests lightly on Rossetti’s shoulder. A gentle caress. He forces himself to look. Shaved Head looms over his shoulder. A hint of amusement glimmers in Starrick’s dark eyes.
‘Do you feel in charge?’
A chill shivers down Rossetti’s spine. He gulps as Alberto pushes back his chair and scuttles towards the door. Alone with Starrick. And his beefy men. He glances around, skin crawling. No escape. Starrick’s men sidle closer, surrounding him. Rough. Menacing. The flinty look of hardened killers.
What kind of monster is this?
‘But…I’ve paid you a small fortune…’ he mumbles. Sweat trickles down his neck.
Starrick frowns. ‘And this gives you…power, over me?’
The meaty hand weighs heavy on his shoulder. He swallows. Tugs at his collar.
‘What is this?’ he whispers.
‘Your money and influence have been important…’ Starrick smiles. His voice soft. Gentle. ‘…’Til now.’ His eyes are dark pitiless orbs. No mere soldier of fortune.
‘What are you?’
‘I’m London’s saviour,’ Starrick answers calmly. ‘Here to cleanse this filthy city.’
Icy dread washes over Rossetti. ‘I-I’m not afraid of you!’ he blusters.
Starrick shrugs. ‘Because you think you’ve got nothing to lose. But you haven’t thought it through. You haven’t thought about your lady friend back in Clerkenwell. You haven’t thought about your old gran, over in St. Bart’s.’ He levels the pistol at Rossetti’s chest. The hammer drops. Click. Rossetti jerks away. Starrick smiles.
‘How the hell did you even – ?’
Starrick raises a finger; Rossetti snaps his mouth shut with a click of teeth. Starrick shrugs. ‘You have the local police in your pocket.’ He smirks. ‘We have Scotland Yard. Contacts in the council, with the people who keep parish records. Amazing what you can find if you grease the right palms.’
Rossetti stares back, horrified. Starrick shakes his head. ‘People from your world…have so much to lose. Now you think because you’ve got hired muscle and carved up a few cheeks with razorblades you know about the ugly side of life, but you don’t. You’ve never tasted desperate.’ He waves a dismissive hand. ‘You’re Antonio Rossetti, the Prince of Clerkenwell; you’d have to go a hundred miles to meet someone who didn’t know your name. So don’t come in here with your anger, tryin’ to prove something to yourself. This is a world you’ll never understand.’ He glares icily at Rossetti. ‘And you’ll always fear…what you don’t understand.’
Rossetti bristles. ‘I’ve made you rich! I own you!’
Starrick scoffs. ‘Oh, please. All you people care about is money, and the power you think it buys.’ His voice hardens, eyes gleaming with anger. ‘You laze around in your fancy house, wrapped up in your silk sheets, letting your men plunge their hands deep into the filth so you never have to. Makes you idle. Makes you weak.’
Rossetti stares back, furious. ‘I have powerful friends!’ he splutters. ‘The courts, the police – you’ll never get away with this! I own this town!’
Starrick’s smirk stretches. ‘You really don’t.’ His face twists in disgust. ‘You think you’re rich. You’ve no idea what ‘rich’ means.’ He leans back in his chair. ‘‘‘Rich’’ is a fleet of private carriages filled with decoys to mask your scent. It’s a safe house in Fitzrovia and another in Bermondsey. It’s an ear in the council and eyes in the police. Anyone can be turned, given the right…persuasion. That’s how we operate.’ He gestures around at his smirking goons. ‘These are all two-quid suits. I wear a second-hand tie, I travel coach class.’ His flat unwavering gaze roots Rossetti to his seat. ‘Not because I can’t afford first – but because I’m smart.’ He steeples his fingers together. ‘The accumulation of wealth, and I mean wealth, not money.’
Rossetti stares back, trembling. ‘These men don’t work for you! They work for coin, same as anyone – they ain’t loyal!’
A long, dreadful pause. Starrick’s men edge closer, closing ranks. Starrick gazes around proudly. ‘Franklin C. Jones. How’s your father keeping?’
The gaunt-faced thug with the ponytail steps forward to Starrick’s side, like a faithful lieutenant. ‘Much better, sir. He thanks you for the doctor’s bill.’
Starrick’s eyes flicker onto the red-bearded thug. ‘Steven Carver. Your boy getting well?’
Redbeard grins. ‘Off the crutches, Mr Starrick. Cheers.’
Starrick turns his head. ‘Edward Wicks. How’re things down in Blackwall? Your nephew still hauling crates?’
Shaved Head shrugs. ‘Just finished stockin’ up the Reliance, boss. Foreman says he ain’t needed no more.’
‘I’ll put in a word for him,’ Starrick promises. He glances left. Smiles. ‘William Shank.’
Topknot nods in gratitude. ‘Mum’s real grateful for the chicken, sir.’
Rossetti gazes around, blood draining from his sallow face. Starrick’s eyes darken. ‘You see? My crew follow me, to the last man, to the last blade, to the last bullet. I lost a good man last night, following my orders. Because of that Paddy bastard, his niece lost her main breadwinner. Because of that, his brother doesn’t have a body to bury. Where will his family get their justice, if not from me? I gave my word.’ His lip curls. ‘So don’t sit there in your fancy three-piece suit, and dare lecture me about loyalty.’ He leans forward, voice crackling with menace. ‘You say we’re scum of the earth. You look down your nose at us. Pour scorn on us. Call us uncivilised thugs. Gutter rats. Filthy animals. Savages. But we earned our place. The blood we spilled, the sweat off our backs. We bleed red, but you…you bleed green. You’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter. From your cousins, your uncles, your family connections back home. Pathetic. You’ve never clawed your way out the dregs of Pentonville, pulled yourself up from the Shoreditch rookeries.’ He nods towards the door, Nico and Vieri skulking in the shadows. ‘Your wops are fierce. Skilled. Vicious. But when the chips are down…’
He spreads his arms wide. Smiles.
‘Are they killers? More importantly…are they yours?’
Ice sears up Rossetti’s spine. Starrick peers at his nails. ‘You ever wonder what it’s like, to feel a man’s windpipe crack under your hands? To squeeze the life from someone who’s clawing at your eyes, watch him gurgle his last even as he fights to the end? The blood under your fingernails…’ he smirks across the table, ‘…takes forever to wash out.’
Terrified, Rossetti’s eyes dart around. Starrick’s men meet his gaze. Shark eyes. Cold and merciless.
‘They can’t…you can’t threaten me! M-my men can’t be bought!’
‘Well…’ Starrick sucks his teeth. ‘See, all the blood relatives you brought with you…they’re indisposed, Mr Rossetti.’ He nods towards the Italians clustered by the door. ‘And these men, you reward them handsomely for their services.’ He pauses.
‘But not enough.’
Rossetti stares in disbelief towards the huddled group. ‘Is that right? Vieri?…Nico?’ His men lower their eyes. Look away.
Starrick’s smile widens. ‘Everyone has their weakness, and weaknesses can be leveraged. Nico’s grandmother in St John’s. Her breathing problems – so unfortunate. Vieri’s nephew at St Luke’s Primary. Irons on his legs, poor kid. Comes last in every race.’ His voice lowers. ‘Think your men are truly loyal? When their loved ones are on the line, people show you who they really are. So in a way…I know your men better than you ever will.’
He leans forward, conspiratorial.
‘Want to know which of them were cowards?’
Rossetti springs upright, lunging forward with a howl of outrage-
Pain explodes behind his eyes. He sprawls onto the rug, groaning. Dimly sees the gaunt-faced man lower a cosh.
Unperturbed, Starrick nods curtly. ‘Thank you, Frank.’
Rossetti drools blood onto the floor. ‘Y – you’re insane!’ he croaks.
Starrick shrugs. ‘Maybe. You think you’re strong, but you’re vulnerable. A lifetime of riches and privilege has left you blind in one eye. You think you could sleep safe on a bed of money, you think that protects you, gives you power, makes you untouchable…but a washed-up poet and a second-rate journalist wrote a small pamphlet in a dingy attic, that set the world on fire. All they had was pen, paper…and an idea. Against that, all the money in the world doesn’t mean shit.’
Rossetti peers up through blurred eyes. ‘Y-you think you can take my crown…and just walk away?!’
Starrick smirks. ‘Yeah.’ He leans forward. ‘There’s a reckoning coming, Mr Rossetti. You see it, don’t you? Strikes. Riots. Bombings. Murders. Millions of starving nobodies left cold in the dirt, in pokey flats and muddy gutters and prison cells, wanting to take their slice of the pie.’ His eyes gleam with relish. ‘They’re coming for you, Mr Rossetti, and all your ilk. In your ivory towers, behind your high walls and golden gates. Pitchfork peasants with murder in their eyes, snarling: no more. That’s all it takes. One idea that lights a spark, that tells the huddled masses they can have it all, if they just believe. One idea, and everything you’ve built…’ he snaps his fingers. ‘Gone. Just like that. The old world crumbling to ash.’ He settles back, spreading his arms wide. ‘That’s where we come in.’
Rossetti stares back, shaking with dread. Starrick shrugs. ‘You are the few. We are the many. And when the many stop fearing the few…’ he smiles, his chilling words ringing in the deathly hush.
Rossetti huffs a ragged breath. ‘Y-you’ll never get away with this! I’ll stop you!’
Starrick laughs. ‘Really? Did you actually think I’d explain my plan if there remained even the slightest chance of you making a difference? Look around you. Your men have abandoned you. Scream, cry, beg all you want…nobody can hear you. Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this.’ He leans forward, eyes shining. ‘Even your family won’t ever know what happened to you.’ He shakes his head, smiling. ‘Just another forgotten body found on the Thames foreshore. So sad.’
Rossetti hangs his head, broken in despair. Starrick jerks his head towards the kitchens. ‘Get this carcass out of here.’
‘Sure thing, Boss.’ Rough hands haul Rossetti onto his knees, groaning. They drag him through the double doors as kitchen staff turn to watch them pass. Frank waves them away with a chuckle. ‘Had too much to drink, poor sod. Carry on, folks!’ The cooks shrug. Look away.
They spill out into the alley, dumping Rossetti in the gutter. He sprawls into the dirt, dazed and surrounded. A narrow brick alleyway, a small sliver of star-speckled night above. The drip, drip of rainwater.
Two more shadows at the mouth of the alley.
For a brief happy second, Rossetti thinks they’re here to witness. As a message. A courteous safeguard. Just a beating. Nothing worse.
Then the two shadows turn away. Facing the street. Blocking the scene from view.
Not witnesses. A smokescreen.
Ice shivers down his spine, dreadful prickling certainty. He was a risk. He knew their operation. A great struggle like theirs required great sacrifices. Clear minds. Cold hearts. No loose ends.
Rossetti glances helplessly from one to the other. Dark merciless eyes. Like wolves surrounding a helpless sheep. He would never talk. Not him. They must know that. Mustn’t they? After all he had done, all the money he had poured into this enterprise. He was different. He was safe.
No. These were men who’d ripped their way out of the worst prisons in London. Who survived on the streets by tooth and claw, ready to gut any who stood in their way. They had no room for mercy.
Frank gives him an apologetic shrug. ‘Sorry, sir. Orders are orders.’
Rossetti spits blood. Bares his throat. ‘I…I ain’t afraid of you.’
Ed sniggers. ‘Then you’ll die braver than most.’
Rossetti shuts his eyes tight. Not guns, he thinks desperately. Not here. Not in the back streets of Blackfriars. It would be knives.
Make it quick, he silently prays. It’ll be knives, please get it over with. Quick and painless. Let it be knives.
He looks up. Icy dread floods through his veins.
Ed looms over him, mouth stretched in a cruel smile.
And in his hand…a hammer.
© 2017 Tom Burton
Huge thank you to everyone who’s enjoyed my main story and left such encouraging feedback so far! Brand new short story on the way this Friday! A sequel to Tooth and Claw, dedicated to my fellow blogger and dear friend April Duncan of A Woman Is A Poem. Hope you enjoy it! 😀