Polly Shelby was happy. It felt odd and she really wasn't sure how to deal with the feeling. That foul bastard Chester Campbell was dead at her hands and he could never hurt her or her family again. It was one hugely positive change in the Shelby Family's fortunes and something that Polly had never bothered to raise at confession. How could she when she really did not repent of it? She had also made the fond acquaintance of a compelling new man – a painter of all things – at Royal Ascot and he was presently working towards erasing all memories of that unpleasant time in Campbell's office.
Grace's brief return to the country had caused a momentary problem for the family; Tommy had been captivated by the bitch. Polly, however, had told her the truth – if she had remained in Birmingham then Polly would find a reason to destroy her. At one point Grace had tried to convince Tommy that she was carrying his child but fortunately the ruse had not worked. Eventually she had realised that she was better off with her current husband and buggered off back to America.
With help from Lizzy, the assassination of Field Marshall Russell had gone almost without a hitch. That said Lizzie was due some serious compensation for the wounds she had taken on behalf of the family and Tommy had only survived the resulting fall out thanks to some behind the scenes maneuvering by a fat little bureaucrat in Whitehall by the name of Churchill. The Peaky Blinders were now sitting pretty and, thanks to their new found earnings on the race course, along with a few other less legitimate income streams, they were making money hand over fist.
Tommy had recently taken possession of a country estate by the name of Arrow House, following a default on a gambling debt by a young lordling, and Small Heath would soon be a distant memory for the whole family. In fact the move was due to take place within a few weeks. Polly had already visited the new estate and, if she was honest, she wasn't really convinced that it was right for them. The only room in which she had felt comfortable was the kitchen and that had been filled with servants who had been irritated by the presence of their 'betters' and who had awkwardly tried to crowd them out. It was probably the one black spot on the horizon – at least from her personal point of view.
And so she sat in a quietly contemplative state in the house on Watery Lane sipping liquor and avoiding any confrontation that could knock her contented mood.
'I've been thinking', Tommy announced as he strode in to the kitchen.
'I thought I could smell burning', Polly retorted. 'Well go on then', she added impatiently when he gave no signs of continuing. 'Don't sit there like a pudding!' .
Snatching the bottle of whiskey from his aunt, he poured himself a generous measure. 'I think it's time I got wed.'
Whatever Polly had been expecting it wasn't that - and although she was relieved that he had finally acknowledge the potential issues resulting from his lack of a bride she was surprise that he had come to the conclusion by himself. She watched him steadily over the rim of her glass as he outlined his reasons. When he was finished she paused, considering.
'I agree that we've all benefited enormously from the alliance with the Lees.' she acknowleged. 'Thanks to them we can move our products easily and we have their soldiers on hand to back us when we need it.' She nodded to herself as if to underline the point. 'But that deal is already done. You might have options amongst the Italians, I suppose, but that would be a very hard sell given our history and I doubt that the Jews would consider it although it might be worth talking to Solomons. Honestly though, as far as I can see, your best option would be to marry either for wealth or for respectability.'
'I have money', Tommy said simply. 'But connections which can make the family respectable are harder to come by.'
'Respectability it is then', said Polly with a smile. 'Let's see what we can come up with.'
For three months Polly winnowed down possible aristocratic matches for Tommy using information gathered from her lover Ruben Oliver. Finding a member of the upper classes who was prepared to marry off a daughter to a man with Tommy's reputation was no mean feat and his insider knowledge of the vulnerable and desperate amongst that class was invaluable. In the end, as with so many things, it came down to money – or rather the lack of it.
'I have her!' Polly said triumphantly as she settled elegantly into the chair next to Tommy in the kitchens of Arrow House. 'Finally!'
He looked at her impassively. 'Well?'
Polly checked her notes and then smiled slightly. 'She's the only remaining child of Lord Anthony Fairfax. She lost three brothers during the war and she therefore inherits everything – such as it is – from both sides of her family. She's 27 years old, never been married nor is she ever likely to be since her father is all but bankrupt. Fortunately he owes a good percentage of his debts to the Shelby Family Company or one of its affiliates so we have a measure of control over what needs to be paid and when. There's some disgrace in the family too. Word is that even trade won't touch her. Still it's a long established family and when her father dies she'll become a Baroness. You could do a hell of a lot worse.'
'How big are his debts? Tommy asked levelly. At Polly's reply he whistled. '£50,000 not counting Shelby affiliates! Do we have enough to hand?' Polly nodded. 'OK. Set it up'.
'Don't you at least want to know her name or perhaps even see a picture of her?' She asked.
'Would it make a difference? He responded flatly.
'Well it might be a good idea', Polly said irritated. 'We don't want you refusing at the first fence!'
Polly handed over a photo of a handsome, strong faced young woman in formal court attire flanked by two sour faced attendants. Tommy reviewed the photo carefully for a moment, rubbing one long slender finger against his bottom lip. Then, without any change in his demeanour, he threw the picture back down in front of Polly and levered himself out of the chair.
'Like I said Polly, set it up. I've got business to do with Johnny Dogs over a horse. I'll be back tomorrow or maybe the next day. Any problems and you can let me know then.' At that he strode from the room. Polly watched him go in silence, a little perturbed by the fact that he proposed to spend more time considering the acquisition of a new race horse than he did the acquisition of a new wife.
Whilst preparations were being made to secure a new bride for Thomas Shelby the business – both legitimate and illegitimate wings - was going from strength to strength. Although Darby Sabini's men had recovered control of a number of businesses in the big smoke, including the infamous Eden club, gambling prospects in the south were multiplying profitably. Sabini's monumental treachery in forbidding Alfie Solomons' boys access to the Epsom race course had backfired against him and merely served to strengthen the bond between the Jews and the Blinders. Huge profits were also being made in respect of the movement of illicit booze. Although Alfie had claimed that rum was only for fun and fucking whilst whisky was for business they were making a tidy profit on sales of both particularly once income from the prohibition countries was considered.
In the end all that mattered now was to ensure that Lord Fairfax was suitably encouraged to part with his daughter in exchange for a suitable fee. Subtle and not so subtle measures were employed by the Blinders and their allies in order to ensure his agreement but in the end it was fairly certain that the cost would be substantial on both sides.
Lady Arabella Fairfax could trace her lineage back directly to not one but two of Charles II's royal bastards. Of course that was no great claim - Charles had produced bastards with the frequency other men produced farts and to about as great a purpose. Still, unlike 95% of his descendants, her family could at least prove the link which counted for something even if it didn't grant them the funds to back it up. Sadly it didn't provide Arabella with the slightest self confidence either and if asked to characterise her first meeting with the man who was to be her husband she would have been forced to fall back on extremes: terrifying, overwhelming, disturbing - but even those would have been an understatement. She had been totally unprepared.
Thomas Shelby and his Aunt Elizabeth called at Lockwood House promptly at 3pm. Lord Fairfax received them in the Chinese Drawing Room. He eyed Tommy carefully but Tommy gave no indication that he was going to raise His Lordship's unfortunate financial situation during the encounter or at least not whilst the ladies were present.
Arabella was putting the finishing touches to her toilette when her maid darted in to the room, a little breathless.
'Milady,' the girl gasped, trying to compose herself. 'They're here. You must come now.'
Arabella paused in the act of fastening her necklace, cheeks paling. 'Did you see him? What's he like?'
'So handsome, milady, and very well dressed. Now let me help you. It wouldn't do to insult him by being any later than you already are.'
Unable to put off the frightful moment any longer, Arabella allowed her maid to finish affixing her jewellery - her own hands were by now shaking frantically - and then descended the main staircase to make her way to join their guests, praying every step of the way. Please god let him not be disappointed! Please god let him be kind. Pausing before the threshold of the Drawing Room she took a deep calming breath and straightened her back. Whatever else they could find fault in it would not be her manner or her bearing.
Her first sight on entering the room was of her fiancé. He rose quickly to his feet as he saw her, unfolding his long lean body elegantly. He was of a good height and she was relieved to note that he was taller than her by a few inches. Men hated it when she was taller than them and she'd had some cruel comments as a younger woman. Likewise standing, her father moved to take her hand and draw her over to the small table around which the little party was gathered.
'My dear, you look wonderful', he said with mock heartiness. 'Please allow me to introduce Mr Thomas Shelby. Mr Shelby, this is my daughter, Arabella Fairfax.' Tommy nodded at her awkwardly and she inclined her head in return. Her father then turned to a well-dressed older lady. This was clearly Mr Shelby's aunt Elizabeth. The two women smiled at each other cautiously as Lord Fairfax made the introductions.
The next quarter hour was taken up with serving tea and making polite small talk. Arabella chanced a few tentative glances in Tommy's direction. He was staring at her, unsmiling, his cold eyes hooded. His face was beautiful no question, all planes and sharp angles, but there was no softness there, no kindness. This was the man to whom she would commit the rest of her life? She felt a frisson of fear.
After they had taken tea the ladies withdrew to allow the men to discuss business – or in other words agree Arabella's value as a bride. Arabella felt like a brood mare being walked around the ring at Tattersalls. As she shut the door she heard the chink of the whisky decanter being opened. She hoped that her father would not disgrace himself. The situation was already shameful enough.
'Since the weather is so very fine, Mrs Grey', she said politely, 'Perhaps we could take a turn about the garden? I think I have a spare parasol somewhere.'
The older woman nodded her acquiescence and then said 'Please, call me Polly. Everyone else does.'
Arabella smiled her thanks and led Polly outside. As they left the house she gave a sharp whistle. Within moments they were mobbed by a pack of happy and enthusiastic dogs. These were not the pampered pets of an upper class lady; instead they were all well trained working dogs of different kinds. Polly smiled inwardly at the sight of shaggy lurcher – a dog traditionally associated with gypsies – frolicking amongst the others. At a sharp command from their mistress the dogs ceased their eager circling and sat, each presenting a single paw as a greeting.
'Do you mind if they join us', Arabella asked as she greeted each of them in turn. 'They need a good romp.'
Polly happily nodded her agreement. 'Of course - I was raised with dogs. I love them. These seem particularly well trained.'
'When I was a child there was a poacher lad who lived nearby. He showed me how to raise them.' Arabella responded. Then her face darkened. 'He died in the war side by side with the gamekeeper who had spent years trying to stop his depredations – brothers in arms at the end.' Without meeting Polly's eyes she turned and began to lead the way through the gardens. The tension in her shoulders as she strode ahead spoke of suppressed grief. Polly had the distinct impression that the poacher boy had been one of her particular childhood friends - not something she would have expected in baroness-to-be.
As they walked out Polly took in the lack of care which had been taken over the estate. Everything was overgrown and looked in need of a firm hand – there were plainly far too few servants to take care of things. Arabella was similarly neglected. Her dress was a good 15 years out of fashion and had clearly been made for a slighter and much older woman – presumably her mother. Despite evidence that the dress had been let out at the seams Arabella had been forced to undergo strict corseting to fit in to it. Polly winced with remembered pain – her light stays had been bad enough – it was a wonder that the other woman could breathe at all let alone talk and walk at the same time. Her hair was also unfashionably long and pinned up in a formal style that would not have been out of place at the end of the preceding century.
Noting Polly's appraising looks, Arabella flushed. 'Things have been rather difficult since my mother died', she said softly. 'My father…', she tailed off helplessly.
'Don't worry, pet', Polly said sympathetically. 'I know what's been going on. It's over now'. The two women walked on in silence for a little while viewing the Japanese Garden (hopelessly in need of a clipping), the small Knot Garden (even worse), and finally the kitchen garden, in which a small boy was doing his best to keep back the weeds. Embarrassed by the silence and Polly's watchfulness Arabella felt compelled to speak.
'I know this is probably the moment when I should be trying to impress you with my love of watercolour painting or my fondness for pressing flowers, but I'm sorry, I can't. I was raised with three brothers so I'm afraid I grew up a little wild.' She chaffed her fingers nervously.
Polly snorted 'I don't give a damn about watercolours or flowers myself so why would I care if you do?' She paused and then said wickedly. 'Although just between us my lover does some fine work in oils which I quite enjoy posing for.' Arabella flushed. Taking pity on her, Polly added. 'Why don't you tell me what you do like to do and we can work from there.'
Arabella smiled and said in relief. 'I love to ride.' A look of joy suffused her face, lifting her strong though handsome face and making it really quite attractive. 'When we kept a better stables I rode to hounds every weekend. Now I only have my old mare left and she can't hunt anymore – although she misses it as much as I do the poor thing! Still we do enjoy a gentle hack around the grounds most days. I shoot too. My eldest brother taught me when I was very young'. She paused and Polly saw a shadow of sorrow pass behind her eyes. 'I can fish as well, although I haven't since I reached my majority.'
Polly felt a flash of relief – she may not be particularly beautiful but at least she wasn't a delicate hot house flower. Smiling she reached out and took Arabella's hand. 'Well that's a very good start. Tommy loves his horses and we have a very well-equipped stable at Arrow House. You'll find plenty to keep you entertained.'
'Will I be able to shoot too?' Arabella asked innocently.
Polly gave a slight smile. 'I think we may have a gun or two in the house. Now', she said briskly, changing the subject. 'Let me tell you about Tommy's racing interests.' Thus diverted the two women completed their tour of the gardens and went to examine the stables.
'This is Victrix,' said Arabella as she led out her bay mare. 'Her mother was a pure blood. You've never seen a horse so neat in her jumping - she turns on a penny and never backs down from a fence. I've had her since she was a foal; in fact I was there when she was born.' Her voice held a note of pride. Arabella rested her nose lightly against her horse's muzzle and exhaled gently. The horse nickered in response and began to check her all over for treats.
Polly was both pleased and relieved as she watched the girl interacting with the mare. Horses were excellent judges of character – better than dogs in fact who worshiped their masters no matter how cruelly they were treated. Looking around she noted that the stables were by far the best maintained area of the house and grounds, and Arabella's mare was clearly well cared for. If there was anything that would endear Arabella to her husband-to-be it was an understanding and love of horseflesh; perhaps the Romani and the gentry weren't so very different after all.
Noting Polly's looks, Arabella said. 'I spend a lot of time out here. We can't afford a groom anymore so I see to Victrix myself. Honestly though even when we had more staff I preferred to take care of her myself. How else could I learn exactly what she wanted or needed? When word came about my eldest brother's death this was the first place I came and the night before his memorial service I slept in her stall.' She rested her face against the mare's neck. 'There was quite a bit of trouble about that actually!'
Watching her intently, Polly said. 'Why don't you tell me about your brothers?'
'How much do you know?' Arabella asked tightly.
'Only that you had three and lost them all during the war.' Polly replied.
With a trembling hand Arabella opened the locket she wore at her throat and showed Polly the pictures of her brothers contained within it. As she explained how her family had been so cruelly destroyed Polly realised that this young woman might be well placed to provide comfort and help to Tommy as he recovered from his own war wounds.
The interview between Tommy Shelby and Lord Fairfax was scarcely less awkward. Fairfax downed his first whisky in one swallow and then poured a second before passing a generous measure to Tommy. He threw himself back in to his arm chair and looked over to where Tommy was pacing back and forth before the window. In the distance the two men could see Arabella and Polly walking slowly through an overgrown riot of colourful flowers.
'So will you take her?' Lord Fairfax asked crassly.
Tommy grunted his agreement. 'And in return I'll make full settlement of your debts.' he said coolly. 'Your overdue account with the Shelby Company with be written off and we'll make good on what you owe to other gambling establishments. We'll also settle the bill for your club, your tailor, and so on. The family will make you a stipend of £5,000 a year but make sure you live within your means from now on as there will be no more. From the date of our marriage I will also provide your daughter with a generous allowance - I don't want her having to beg from me every time she wants to buy a new dress. In the meantime Polly has suggested that we provide her with funds to buy whatever it is a new bride needs. Polly will call on her in a few days to take her down to London.'
Lord Fairfax considered bartering but he was desperate and Shelby was already being more generous than he had any right to expect. 'Agreed.' he said with relief. 'I'll have my lawyers draw up the agreement.'
'No need', Tommy responded. 'I've already seen to it. You just need to sign.' He presented Lord Fairfax with two copies of the betrothal contact. 'The wedding will take place as soon as the banns can be read.'
At no point did either man consider Arabella's feelings on the matter.
When they returned to the house, the two women were presented with a fait accompli and before Arabella had been able to do more than stammer her acceptance Tommy had slipped a sapphire engagement ring on to her finger and given her a rather perfunctory peck on the cheek. Business concluded, the Shelbys departed leaving Lord Fairfax to explain matters to his reeling daughter.
That night, as she prepared for bed, Arabella considered her options or rather her lack thereof. She had always known that she would be disposed of in a way that most benefitted her family but she had never expected to be given away in return for the settlement of her father's gambling debts. It was deeply shaming and to be given to such a cold, hard man about whom she knew so little was also frightening. If only her Season had gone better or one of her brothers had still been alive then she might have had other choices. Dully she resolved to do her duty as best she could. She was hardly the first woman of her age and class who had been forced into a loveless match.
The morning following her betrothal, Arabella rose early, dressed in some of her brothers' old clothes, and strode out across the estate to burn off a little of her nervous energy. With her she took two of her retrievers and her father's shot gun and. Rabbits were playing havoc with the lower paddock and she did not want Victrix to break a leg stepping in a warren so they needed to be dealt with before the problem got out of control.
Guns had never frightened her nor had hunting. Her eldest brother Rupert had taught her to shoot when she was barely six and he had blooded her at eight. Poor Rupert - he had marched off to war full of confidence along with most of the boys from his old school, swept up in the excitement of it all. He had come back on leave only once and she had been shocked at the change in him. The laughing, self-assured young man had returned a broken wreck. Still, he had followed his sense of duty back to his men at the front.
'Dulce et decorum est, little sister', he had said with mock cheer as he took his leave of them that final time but she had felt the frantic shivering of his painfully thin body when they embraced. If she had had any way to have stopped him then she would have done it whatever the cost - but there had been no way out for him then any more than there was a way out for her now.
Horace's words had never rung as hollow as they had done the day they received the news of Rupert's death. That night, her father had torn through their library like a hurricane, seizing up every scrap of Horace's poetry that he could find and burning it to ash. Elliot, her middle brother, had died a mere month later and then with cruel inevitability they received word that the youngest of them, sweet gentle William had been shot for cowardice at Bellwarde Ridge along with another lad. He had been just 18 years of age.
Arabella's mother had taken to her bed at this point and she had found first temporary, and then permanent, release in laudanum. Following her death, her father had taken to living life to the fullest: drinking to excess, spending money recklessly, and then gambling to try and recoup his losses. Unfortunately he wasn't very good at it. Arabella recalled sitting with him in his study as he taught her poker, baccarat and mahjong. With a good head for working out odds and an ability to see patterns in play she found that she could beat him with ease.
'I wish I could take you to the club with me', he said sadly one evening. 'I'd like to see their faces as you beat them all. If only you'd been born a boy!'
'If I'd been born a boy I probably would have died in Belgium or France like my brothers and you'd have been no better off.' She had replied coldly. He father had never mentioned it again but they continued to play together and she continued to beat him as, seemingly, did everyone else he played against.
Gradually the better quality paintings and furniture had begun to disappear, sold to service his mounting debts. Later most of the servants had been released from their employment and the horses had been sold off. In the early 1920's matters had finally come to a head. Lord Fairfax's debts to the Peaky Blinders - and some who were even worse - had become overwhelming and the only thing left for him to sell had been his remaining child.
Without giving his bride to be, or his impending nuptials, another thought Thomas Shelby threw himself into company business. After spending a few days conferring with Polly and Michael over the accounts he left for London to pay a visit to Alfie Solomons.
Solomons was his usual mercurial self. Waving away Tommy's attempts to talk about a potential new route for moving booze between Canada and the US, he had instead expounded his somewhat unorthodox views on marriage.
'I 'ear you've got some good news Thomas, yeah.' He said jovially instantly putting Tommy on edge. 'You've bought yourself a wife and I 'ear it's costing you a pretty penny. You should 'ave asked me to 'elp with the negotiations sweetie – I'd 'ave got you a much better deal.'
'Of that I have no doubt Mr Solomons. Unfortunately my aunt insisted on having her say and against that I had no defence.'
Alfie, who had heard many interesting things about Polly Grey, nodded in understanding. 'Men in our line of work can not afford to have strife at home as well as out in the world. It would be a foolish business man who went against his womenfolk. Now let me tell you somefin' about marriage mate. Marriage, right, is what 'appens when God decides that a man 'as 'ad too much fuckin' fun. Never mind though, eh, eh. You're always welcome down here if you need a change of scenery - if you give me a bit of fuckin' notice anyway.' He glowered at Tommy, suddenly serious. 'Jewish women are still off the table though, mate. Forget that and I'll fuckin' cut you and it will be a bit more serious than what's done to little Jewish boys.' Swinging instantly back to convivial again he pushed Tommy in to a seat next to his desk and then said. 'Now to business! Whisky, Thomas?'
For the next few hours they discussed their plans for a number of new shipments of illicit whisky, rum, and gin including a low key trial of some new smugglers working out of British Colombia. Then they had reviewed the pleasing increase in income from the on- and off-course bookmaking work that they had split between them. All in all business was booming and there seemed to be no major causes for concern on either side. Content with their arrangements, if not exactly comfortable, Tommy took his leave and returned to Birmingham. Although not before Alfie had gifted Tommy with an intricately carved mezuzah and finagled an invitation to the wedding. 'I know you ain't Jewish, Thomas, mate', he said. 'But every married fella needs a little help from the big man. When I come up for the ceremony I'll 'elp you put this 'fing up.'
Tommy headed back to Birmingham feeling like he'd somehow escaped with this life.
As a child Arabella had not really had much of a relationship with either of her parents. She had been raised first by a nurse, and then later by a governess. Until her first Season when she had been presented at court she had spent very little time either of them, even her mother.
Presentation at court traditionally marked the beginning of a young lady's formal entry in to society and allowed them to join the marriage market which enabled young aristocrats to select a suitable spouse from within their own narrow social circle. It was vital that a girl's first Season went well if she hoped to make a good marriage. Unfortunately for Arabella in the last years before the war money had been in relatively short supply and there had been little to spare on her court uniform of veil, train, and white gown, nor for the three curled ostrich feathers for her headdress all of which were required to be worn when a young lady was presented to the Sovereign.
Shamefully Arabella had therefore had to be presented in a reworked dress of her mother's which was monstrously out of fashion and which had needed the addition of copious amounts of machine made lace to hide the alterations which had been necessary for it to fit her. Since there had been no money available to send her abroad for 'finishing' she had also seemed a trifle coarse and uneducated in comparison to some of the other girls presented that year– particularly given her unfeminine height and her tendency to stride about as if she was still wearing her brothers' cast offs.
The whole humiliating experience of her presentation was seared in to Arabella's memory. A hundred or so young women and their chaperones had been crammed like cattle in to a small, overly warm room to await the arrival of Mary, the Queen Consort. They had stood around for hours without anything to eat or drink and with precious few chairs to take their ease in. The only nod to their personal comfort had been a single chamber pot behind a small screen in the corner of the room. Arabella had been too resilient to faint as some of the more delicate girls had done but, much worse, when the time had finally come for her to be presented she tripped during her curtsey and torn a huge hole in her train. By such a small error was a woman's prospects ruined. No sniff of a marriage proposal had been forthcoming during the Season and eventually what money they had set aside was exhausted and she had been obliged to retire from society. The horrific loss of life during the war had made bridegrooms an even rarer commodity and until Tommy's proposal she had assumed that she would become an old maid devoted to good works.
There were no such financial constraints in relation to the preparations for her trousseau. Polly and Arabella had taken the train to London and gone to stay with Thomas' sister Ada. The three women had then visited Selfridges and Harrods where it became apparent that there were few difficulties in relation to time and availability which could not be overcome with the judicious application of fistfuls of cash.
Ada and Arabella made an odd couple, Polly reflected. An ardent communist from the working classes and a member of the aristocracy should not have found much common ground but over the years Ada had come to terms with the knowledge that having a great deal of money made it easier to have principles. In return Arabella lacked most of the airs and graces that might have been expected of a young woman of her background and class and they both knew what it was like to be the only female child in a family full of boys. All told the trip to London was a great success and the three women had begun to put down the roots of a workable friendship.
A month later, Tommy and Arabella were married. As she was Church of England and he was nominally Catholic they opted for a simple registry office ceremony. The only representative of the Fairfax family to stand with Arabella was her father. However, the riotous Shelby clan more than made up for this lack. A party of biblical proportions then followed at Arrow House.
As was proper, Arabella went to her wedding night a virgin and almost entirely ignorant of what was in store for her. Where a mother might have told her what to expect Arabella had none and without any other female relatives to advise her she was left to her own fears. She knew it was supposed to hurt and that she wouldn't enjoy it but beyond that she was at a loss.
Their first night of married life was not a success to say the least. Tommy was used to partners who were willing, enthusiastic even - or at least paid to appear so. In his unthinking way he assumed that his new bride would be likewise. Instead, despite his best efforts, she had lain there rigid with her eyes tightly closed; her only sound had been a sharp cry of pain when he entered her and then muffled sobs. Horrified and confused, Tommy had withdrawn. This was beyond his experience and he had no words to comfort her.
Resting a gentle hand on her shoulder he said helplessly. 'I'll leave you alone now. Let you get your rest.' Then he had moved back to his old rooms.
It was the worst possible thing he could have done. Had he stayed and tried to talk to her they might have found a way through it together but by leaving he had left her convinced that that all there was to marital relations was pain, blood, and a few moments of humiliation.
The next day Arabella had refused to leave her rooms and it was nearly a week before she agreed to actually come downstairs; when she finally did so she avoided all contact with her husband. For his part, Tommy threw himself in to his work. He took to working late and sleeping in his office unwilling to come home to a wife who flinched when he approached her.
Polly was deeply confused by the coldness between the couple. If Tommy had taken to beating his wife then she could have understood it but she knew that was not the case yet still Arabella cringed every time he entered a room and never once looked him in the eye. Polly mused and fretted over the situation for nearly two months before she could take it no more. She was at Ruben's studio posing for yet another of the portraits that he loved to paint of her and the thoughts that were going round and round in her head in the silence were driving her mad. Eventually, needing a break, she reached over for a cigarette.
'I'm sorry my darling', he said ruefully, 'I was completely caught up in my work. I should have realized that you needed to rest.' He gave her one of his wicked grins letting her know that 'rest' was not exactly what was on his mind. Expressionlessly she crossed the room towards him. Pausing just outside of his reach she ran her eyes appraisingly up and down his lean body. Then with a wicked grin of her own she launched herself at him.
'Distract me Ruben, for god's sake', she said a little desperately.
As they lay together afterwards Polly explained her concern at the curious state of Tommy's marriage and the extreme fear shown of him by his new bride.
'As I recall', Ruben said musingly 'Her mother is dead and she has no sisters.' Polly nodded. 'What you have to understand', he said carefully, 'is that her life growing up was completely different from yours.'
Polly rolled her eyes. 'Do you think I don't know that?'
'I don't just mean the obvious things – the fact that she grew up with servants and a governess, or that she was presented at court, and so on – I mean the things that matter. She's been sheltered from reality for the whole of her life. A woman of her class would have been told since birth that her only worth came as a marriage piece and that that her final value would be entirely dependent on her virginity. Whereas her brothers would have been encouraged to gain experience with women, from her earliest days it would have been drummed in to her that men should always be resisted. Any young girl of her acquaintance who was found to have been dishonoured would have been instantly removed from her social circle and they would never have met again. Once married she would expect to feel no pleasure in the act of love. It would simply be her wifely duty; something to be endured until she gave her husband an heir.' Ruben paused to light a fresh cigarette. 'Unlike you she would never have lived in close enough proximity with other people to see them coupling. At best she may once have seen a stallion covering a mare and I think we can both agree that that isn't much preparation for your wedding night'.
Polly listened with growing concern, mind racing. She recalled Arabella's brittle smile as she had helped her pin on her veil the morning of the wedding; the girl's fierce grip on her hand as Polly had helped her to undress on her wedding night before Tommy's arrival. Although usually so perceptive Polly had simply not been able to comprehend the true reason for the girl's fragility.
'The night before her wedding', Ruben continued, 'a girl's mother, or perhaps an older sister, would usually give her a very brief idea of what to expect. As she had neither I expected that you would do it – although I see from your face that you did not.'
'I didn't even think of it,' she said, nibbling distractedly at one of her nails. 'How could I know?'
'In retrospect, you couldn't', he said stroking her cheek comfortingly. 'Perhaps I should have said something to you but it's really not something a man is usually involved in so I didn't give it much thought. I only heard all this from my wife after our wedding. Fortunately her sister was a very plain spoken woman so nothing came as too much of a shock for her. As it is poor Arabella probably went to her marriage bed in total ignorance and with nothing but old warnings of pain and debasement running through her mind. I doubt that's a situation that your nephew has ever encountered before – and probably not one he would have been equipped to handle without some prior warning. It's hardly surprising that things went badly and have been a little strained between them ever since.'
'Shit', said Polly roughly. 'Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!' She ground out her cigarette angrily and flopped back on to the divan. 'What the hell do I do now?'
Only two things saved Arabella's sanity during the first few months of her marriage: her animals, and the presence of Curly. Although Curly was initially ill at ease around her, their shared love of animals – particularly horses – gave them a deep connection and they were often to be found together discussing the best way to get horses used to being around a pack of dogs or what sort of bit might suit a particularly temperamental colt. Curly was particularly taken with Arabella's highly intelligent mare Victrix and he loved to spend time with her and her mistress teaching both horse and rider new tricks. It was probably the closest friendship with another human that either of them had had in years.
In contrast, the sight of Tommy always turned Arabella's stomach. She still found him beautiful but the pain and embarrassment of their wedding night was always in the back of her mind and this, combined with the lack of warmth and friendliness in his general demeanour, had turned any vaguely romantic notions that she might have had about him into genuine distress at his presence. Polly had tried to talk to her, to convince her that the pain was only momentary and that she could grow to enjoy nights with her husband but the phobia had now taken root and would not be dislodged. Polly had then tried to speak to Tommy who had been horrified by the revelation. He had tried briefly to make new overtures to his wife but this only seemed to make the situation worse and again he had retreated.
In desperation, Polly encouraged Arabella to find interests which would take her away from the isolation of Arrow House. Finding out that she liked to play cards, Polly took her to an illegal gambling den which had been set up in a back room at the Birmingham Palais. Polly knew that this was a risk given Lord Fairfax's problems with gambling but Arabella had taken to it like a Shelby to whiskey. She was totally ruthless at the table but where her father would have continued to bet heavily on the back of a weak hand Arabella usually knew exactly when to cut her losses.
As she became more well-known at the Palais, Arabella found it harder to find people who would play against her. Not only did men hate to lose to a woman they particularly hated to lose to the wife of a man they feared because they knew that they could never get away with cheating her to get their money back. After the fourth or fifth time a game had folded the moment she approached the table she realised that she was going to have to take desperate measures if she wanted to continue her new found fun.
Using information gathered from some of Tommy's men she identified a number of other venues at which illegal gambling took place. Then, having pretended that she was attending a charity function she had left the house and driven in to Birmingham. Veiling herself heavily she had dared to walk in to the China Town den alone. Mahjong was not her favourite game but the risk of being a lone woman in a dangerous place had given her an intense thrill. She had bet moderately and lost a similar amount but she knew immediately that she had found a place in which she could thrive. Under the pretence of doing good works in the community Arabella began to attend the Mahjong club regularly. On one occasion she had come face to face with her father. His playing was still appalling and despite her best efforts she had been unable to help him win. Fortunately he had not connected the confident lady gambler with his shy young daughter.
Polly was the first to notice the change in Arabella. She began to carry herself more confidently as if she was no longer embarrassed to be taking up so much space in the world and, although her relationship with Tommy had become no more intimate, she no longer flinched when he approached her. On occasions they had even shared short amicable conversations. Polly became convinced that things were changing for the better and, innocently, encouraged Arabella's apparent new found interest in charitable works.
As she became more involved in the Mahjong world Arabella was invited to join higher stakes games. This brought increased excitement but also additional risk. Although her credit was generally considered good enough for low stakes games, without the Shelby name to back her she knew that if she hit a losing streak at the top table she would be asked to leave – or worse. She therefore took to securing her credit by leaving an item of jewellery with the cashier at the beginning of every session redeeming it from her winnings as she left. As she could hardly wear her most expensive jewels to a 'charity event' she usually used her mother's locket for the purpose. It was a distinctive piece, delicately wrought in silver and decorated with rubies and pearls, but its most important characteristic was a personal one - it contained the pictures of her late brothers. She was seldom seen without it.
Arabella seldom lost more than she could afford and certainly never enough to risk the locket. However, even the most responsible gambler could get carried away. That August marked the 5th anniversary of her youngest brother's execution and the pain of it had caused her to drink – and therefore bet – more rashly than usual. She had lost heavily and the price had been her locket. It was a bitter blow and, too ashamed to admit what she had done to Polly or her husband, Arabella did not know where to turn. For two weeks she begged the locket's new owner to sell it back to her but he, irritated by the number of times she had beaten him in the past, refused her no matter what she offered him. Her opponent flaunted his ownership of it at every opportunity eventually gifting it to his lover who was the madam of the den's brothel. This was beyond Arabella's bearing. She stole a small pistol from a drawer in Tommy's office and the next day she returned to the club to regain what was hers. Storming into the madam's opulent rooms whilst she was entertaining her lover she had drawn the pistol, knocked out the man with a sharp rap of the handle, and then proceeded to rob the hysterical woman at gun point.
Flush with success at recovering her beloved locket Arabella scarcely considered the import of what she had done. She knew only that she had beaten a man who had tried to do her down. The feeling of power was almost overwhelming and she knew that she would never allow herself to feel weak again.
Tommy was in the study at Arrow House reviewing notes from his trainer when Curly came to find him. The man was awkward and out of place in the big house and held his cap nervously in his big meaty hands.
'What's wrong, Curly?' Tommy asked encouragingly.
'It's 'Ari's horse, Tommy.' He replied. 'I mean, it's the mistress' horse. You should come to the stables now. She needs you with her.'
'What can I do, Curly?' he said impatiently. 'The horse was old. If she needs some comfort then ask Polly to come with you.'
'Sir!' Curley said reproachfully. 'You need to come now. She's greetin'.'
Sighing, Tommy threw down his papers and slid on his jacket. 'Fine. I'll come'.
In the stables, Tommy found a distraught Arabella cradling the head of her beloved horse; the animal had clearly died only moments before. Tears streaked down the woman's face and her hair and clothes were covered in straw and muck - she looked more like a wild gypsy girl than an aristocrat. Tommy reached down and put his hand on her shoulder. She stiffened but did not pull away.
'Come on love', he said softly. 'She was a brave old girl but this was her time. It was good that she had you with her though. She loved you and it would have brought her comfort' He knelt down next to her and helped lift the dead weight of Victorix's head from her lap. Then he took his wife in his arms and rocked her against his chest all the while stroking her hair and crooning softly. With a deep sob, Arabella relaxed in to his arms and allowed him to comfort her. It was the first physical contact that they had shared since their disastrous wedding night nearly a year before. With a sigh Tommy realised that even the simple minded Curly knew what his wife needed better than he did.
With the loss of her horse Arabella's last link to her old life was cut and she grew both more confident and more reckless. Unable to return to the mahjong club she looked for other sources of excitement. At first she tried to return to the casino in the back room of the Palais but she found out almost instantly that the story of a veiled woman who was not above stealing back what she felt was hers had circulated rapidly amongst the owners of illicit gambling dens in the city. She had been forced to draw her gun once again and even so she had only just escaped without suffering, or causing, injury.
She was unwilling to go back to the safety of being able to gamble as the protected wife of a Peaky Blinder. However, her options were limited. Then she recalled how she had sometimes passed herself off as a boy when she had run about with her brothers before the war: dressing like them; swaggering about like them; even learning to spit and swear like them. With her unfeminine height and boyish figure she might still be able to pass – if she was careful and kept her voice pitched low. Without discussing it with Tommy or Polly she had her long hair reduced to a severe bob which she could brush forward in to a Blinders style fringe as required. She also returned to her childhood home to pick up some of her brothers' old clothes.
Going in to clubs in the guise of a man was risky, in some ways more risky than the gambling itself, and she could not allow anyone to get to know her too well lest she be discovered. She found it particularly hard to brush off the attentions of the young, and not so young, whores that were always keen to latch on to any well set up young man. In the end she realised that having a woman on her arm was probably the best possible disguise so she took one into her confidence and paid her well to act as a companion. The girl also bought her a small pistol which she could hide in a pocket or in her handbag; she took to carrying it everywhere. Exciting though it was, she only indulged herself in undercover trips occasionally. Between times she persuaded Tommy to take her to the races to see his horses run and placed outrageous bets on the outcome, she also developed a close friendship with Esme and allowed her to introduce her to all manner of drugs and vices, and perhaps worst of all she began to nose around the Shelby's businesses.
At the beginning of his marriage, Tommy had resolved to remain faithful to his wife. However, their lack of intimacy had soon begun to frustrate him and he had rapidly slipped back in to his old ways with Lizzie Stark. Lizzie knew what he liked, never turned him away, and seldom complained. He knew that she carried something of a torch for him. However, she was also a realistic woman. As long as he kept paying her she would not mistake it for anything more than a pleasant diversion. Obviously unable to invite Lizzie to the house, Tommy fucked her in his office once the rest of the staff had left for the day either bending her over his desk or taking her up against the wall. It was there that Arabella happened upon them.
Desperate for cocaine, Arabella had persuaded Esme to give her the combination to the safe in which it was stored. Letting herself in with a spare key she had made her way quietly to the back of the premises to help herself to what she needed. As she did so she heard muffled voices and sounds of intense activity coming from the office which she knew from a previous visit to be Tommy's. Concerned and intrigued she crept towards the noises being careful to keep herself hidden from view. What she saw in Tommy's office was both arousing and frightening. Tommy was making love to Lizzie but contrary to Arabella's expectations the woman was showing every sign of not just enjoying the experience but actively encouraging Tommy to penetrate her more deeply and more forcefully. Arabella knew she should leave but she was mesmerised by the sight of her husband's naked body entwined with Lizzie's. He was lean and pale and perfect, like a statue carved from marble, and the clear excitement in their cries of pleasure caused Arabella to feel things she could not even begin to put a name to. Could Polly have been telling her the truth when she had told her that a woman could learn to enjoy her husband's attentions? She had thought it was only a story intended to make her more compliant but from the evidence before her perhaps it was actually true. As she watched, Tommy and Lizzie's exertions appeared to reach a climax and they collapsed against one another gasping for breath. Arabella took the opportunity to retrace her steps and let herself out of the building locking up behind her. In a contemplative mood she headed off to speak to Polly.
When she got back to Arrow House Arabella found Polly in the kitchen with Esme engaged in their favourite pastime - discussing the myriad failures of their menfolk - and drinking whiskey. Still aroused and deeply confused Arabella poured herself a large glass of gin and joined them. Perhaps sensing her newfound interest the two women did not take the opportunity to change the subject as they usually would have done. Instead, Esme continued with a hilarious and detailed description of the positions that she and John had been forced to adopt in order to accommodate her advancing pregnancy. Each description was accompanied by an increasingly ribald commentary by Polly who appeared to have tried everything at least twice. As she listened, Arabella drank steadily. Eventually, Polly seemed to realised that something was up and, after asking Esme to give them some time alone, Polly demanded that Arabella told her what was on her mind.
At first Polly was mildly annoyed by the fact that Tommy had continued to take advantage of Lizzie Stark - it was not fair for him to use a girl who clearly loved him. That said she knew that it had probably been a better option than taking a mistress so given the circumstances she was prepared to let it slide. The important thing would be to manage what happened now. She had to encourage Arabella's new found interest in her husband whilst also ensuring that her nephew didn't blow the opportunity. This was going to require all of her not inconsiderable powers of manipulation.
Enlisting the aid of a goggling Esme and a new bottle of whiskey, Polly provided Arabella with a detailed and unexpurgated education into the arts of love including a graphic description of the workings of the male and female body. A giggling Esme helped out by giving them a list of Tommy's preferences as reported to her by Lizzie. Eventually, the two women were forced to put a reeling Arabella to bed where she drifted off to sleep in haze of alcohol fumes. Her hangover would be abysmal but a prolonged recovery would give at least Polly plenty of time to speak to Tommy.
Tommy finally came home totally unaware of the outrageous behaviour which had been taking place in his absence.
Sending a still giggling Esme off to the bedroom which she shared with John on the occasions that they stayed over, Polly went to find her nephew. She found him in his usual spot relaxing in the chair behind his desk, legs stretched out before him, and a large whiskey in his hand. He looked up when she entered the room.
'I've got a bone to pick with you', she said harshly.
'What now Pol', Tommy responded wearily.
'Your wife walked in on you and Lizzie Stark earlier on today'. Tommy sat up straight looking guilty. 'Apparently you put on quite a show. You already know my feelings about Lizzie', she continued coldly. 'So I'd be grateful if that ended right now.'
Tommy sighed and pinched his fingers at the bridge of his nose. 'Just leave it Polly. It's not like I have any other calls on my time.'
'Well that's about to change', said Polly settling down in the chair opposite him with a slight smile. 'Esme and I have just spent an instructive few hours with your wife planning the future direction of your love life. No need to thank us just yet though – your wife still needs to pluck up the courage to act on all the new feelings your little performance with Lizzie aroused in her. If you know what's good for you you'll spend the next few weeks close to home making yourself approachable. And you can damn well smile. Your normal expression makes it look like you're contemplating murder.' Since at that moment Tommy was very literally contemplating murder his expression did not change one whit.
It took just over a week for Arabella to finally gather the nerve to make love to her husband. She spent the time learning more about the workings of her own body and had eventually driven herself in to such a frenzy that she could fight against her desires no longer.
On Friday afternoon, some time before Tommy's usual return from the office, she took a long leisurely bath and then with Polly's help and advice - and a substantial dose of whiskey - she primped and preened herself until, shortly after nightfall, she felt ready to call on her husband. When she pushed open the door to his room she found him sat, bare footed and stripped to his shirt sleeves, in an easy chair reading an update from Michael and sipping his usual glass of whiskey. At her arrival he got slowly to his feet acting as if she was a skittish colt who might be frightened off by sudden movements; it was probably not that far from the truth. Remembering Polly's advice he gave her a sweet smile.
From across the room he watched her gather her courage and then she walked towards him padding softly across the rug in bare feet. She stopped just 8 or 9 inches from him and then raised her eyes slightly to meet his to his. Not breaking the connection she raised one hand to stroke his chest and stomach through his shirt. Her tentative caresses were surprisingly arousing. Tommy closed his eyes and tried to take slow even breaths; whatever happened now he knew that he had to let her take the lead. He'd never been a passive lover so this would take all of his self-control.
Gradually Arabella undressed him, as she did so she explored each new bit of uncovered flesh with her hands and then, daringly, with her mouth. She stroked, pinched, licked, and nibbled as the mood took her. She seemed particularly fascinated by his various tattoos and scars. Tommy was beginning to feel a deep ache of desire in his balls but although his breath came a little more raggedly now he continued to let her set the pace. Finally, to his great relief, she stopped her explorations but it turned out that she was offering him only a temporary respite. Turning her back to him and stepping away slightly she allowed her robe to slide to the floor giving him an uninterrupted view of her naked rear. She was tall and lean with a body made firm by a lifetime of riding. Glancing at him over her shoulder she smiled softly and then walked towards the bed before slipping in between the cool sheets. Already stretched to breaking point Tommy was almost undone at the sight. Making an inarticulate noise deep in his throat he went to join her.
They lay naked together in his big bed hardly touching. Arabella seemed uncertain once again.
'Would you like to touch me again?' Tommy asked roughly. 'Or perhaps you'd like me to do something for you?' Arabella met his eyes again and then nodded quickly.
'Could you please touch me?' She said softly.
Tommy knew that this now would be his greatest test. He must find a way to give her pleasure without her feeling that she was no longer in control of events. He began by kissing her gently and then, when she did not pull back, he probed more deeply. Then he ran his fingertips lightly over her breasts and stomach enjoying the responses this drew from her sensitive skin. When he thought that she was fully relaxed and settled he softly allowed his hand to drift between her legs. There was a moment when he thought he had pushed things too far too fast but it passed in seconds and he was able to use his talented fingers to drive Arabella to her first orgasm.
In a horrifying echo of their wedding night his wife began to cry softly but as he tried to remove his hand she pulled him back and writhed against him. A second orgasm followed hard on the heels of the first and he realised that her sobs were of release rather than fear or distress. Emotionally exhausted, and not a little bit drunk, Arabella wilted in his arms. Not wanting to risk the new trust between them, Tommy forbore from taking his own release. Instead he held her until she slept.
Once she was dead to the world, Tommy slid out from under the sheets and took himself off to his dressing room to find his own more efficient and prosaic release. For Thomas Shelby being seduced by his own wife had proved to be an almost unbearably erotic experience. If this was what Polly and Esme had taught her then he did not know whether to be grateful or scandalised.
Sex came as a total revelation to Arabella and she took to it with a will. She gave up on gambling and drug taking almost entirely and instead devoted herself to exploring the delights of her husband's body. She began visiting him at the Shelby Family offices and at their various businesses around the city whenever she felt like it. Tommy had been uncomfortable at first. Screwing a whore in his office had been one thing but it felt wrong to use his own wife in the same way when there were a dozen of his men sat outside his door. However, Arabella seemed to thrive on the impropriety of it all and would not be denied. Eventually he began to actively look forward to the illicit thrill he got when she strode confidently into his office, shut the door firmly behind her, and then gave him the benefit of her wicked little grin. The staff became used to Tommy being unavailable for an hour or so whenever his wife came to call and they would smile as they watched Arabella leave again afterwards with her head held high and a faint blush on her cheeks. These became popular times to ask Tommy for a favour or to give him bad news because, sated and content, he could usually be relied upon to react well.
The only person who did not enjoy the new closeness between Tommy and his wife was Lizzie Stark, who was understandably hurt about being cut out again. As a way of finding a measure of self-respect, and perhaps also of punishing Tommy, she set about finding a new relationship outside of the Peaky Blinders. Rashly she set her sights on Angel Changretta and in doing so she sowed the seeds of a violent future conflict.
Tommy was exhausted. Churchill, by now Chancellor of the Exchequer, was forcing him to help a party of exiled royalist Russians buy weapons for use in their fight against the Bolsheviks in Georgia. It was not his struggle but, although he knew in his heart that it was a lost cause, he was unable to extricate himself and his family from the situation. Churchill simply had too much power which he could bring to bear against the Shelby's interests. At the same time another crime family, the Changrettas, were starting to chafe at the boundaries that the Blinders had imposed upon them. The family had links with the Naples boys, who had crossed the Shelbys in the past, so this represented a worrying development in relation to the Blinders' Birmingham based interests.
In the middle of all this, his now entirely ungovernable wife had decided that this was the perfect time for the family to set up a charitable foundation in order to 'give back' to the poor of the city whilst also gaining the Shelbys a measure of respectability. Arabella was therefore driving him mad during the day with her exacting preparations for a massive charity dinner whilst also tormenting him every night with her even more exacting demands on his body. Despite everything he could not help but enjoy the experience. Their marriage had started out as one of convenience but over recent months it had evolved in to something much more rewarding; he was intrigued to see where it would take them in future. In the meantime he had managed to wean himself off the opium completely which had given him a clearer head and, thanks to Arabella's constant and compassionate presence in his bed, the intensity of his dreadful nightmares had lessened.
The first sign of an impending crisis came when John had learnt that Lizzie had been stepping out with one of the Changretta boys. John's relationship with Lizzie was intense and complicated. At one time he had believed himself in love with her. In reality he had simply been grateful that she had been prepared to take on the care of him and his four kids. Despite the idea of marriage to her dying an awkward death when he had found out that she was still working as a prostitute and numbered his brother Tommy as one of her regulars he had retained a not quite brotherly affection for her. On learning of her relationship with the son of a rival gang leader he had been torn between white hot rage at her foolishness and a rather childish jealousy.
The ever protective Shelby brothers had dug for dirt on Lizzie's new man and quickly discovered that Angel had gone by five different names in as many years. Along with his dodgy connections to enemies of the family this meant that he was a deeply undesirable suitor for an important piece of Shelby Family property like Lizzie. Standing her ground, Lizzie had refused to be bullied.
'You have no right to choose who I step out with in my own time.' she had screamed at John when he tried to lay down the law.
Frustrated John and Arthur had tried to dissuade Angel Changretta by burning down the Little Venice restaurant in Forge Street which served as his family's centre of operations. Unfortunately this had only stung his pride and caused Lizzie to become even more stubborn.
The official truce between the two families still held but low level aggro between their soldiers had become commonplace. In an effort to stave off a major war which would have caused too many distractions at a time when he needed his family focussed on the Russian problem Tommy called for a parley on neutral ground. Unfortunately on the day in question he had been 'kidnapped' by members of the Russian faction and John had taken charge of the negotiations. It had been a cock up from start to finish.
Vicente Changretta was a proud man. He had initially welcomed the invitation to talks from Thomas Shelby as he felt that at it represented an opportunity for two gentlemen of equal standing to attempt to repair the formerly cordial relationship between their two families. However, the reality had proved to be somewhat different. In fact being called to a piece of waste ground by two foul mouthed hoodlums and served cold English tea had been a profound insult. Nevertheless he had conducted himself with what he felt was the perfect level of politeness and propriety. Wary of the Shelby's burgeoning power he had made concession after concession but he had refused to budge on one simple point – his son's relationship Lizzie Stark.
'My son will walk out with any woman in this city.' He had said firmly. 'Any woman he chooses - even if that woman works for Mr Thomas Shelby.'
'He'll find it hard to walk anywhere with a bullet in both kneecaps', John had responded aggressively. Once uttered the threat could not be unsaid. The meeting ended with the truce between the gangs in tatters.
Polly's fury at the fall out resulting from John and Arthur's meeting with Vincente Changretta shook the Shelby brothers to their boots. They had seldom seen her so angry. Few in the inner circle escaped her wrath for she also blamed Lizzie for causing the problem in the first place and Tommy for leaving the problem up to John to resolve.
'How could you have been so bloody stupid', she raged at John. 'Angel's never been anything more than long streak of piss and now thanks to you he's storming all over Nechells Green telling everyone he's going to kill himself a Shelby.'
Outraged and humiliated by her response John refused to back down.
'We run this town,' he stormed. 'Hell we run the whole fucking country. Why do we need to be worried over some Nechells Green eyeties?'
For once Arthur found himself on the side of quiet reason as he, thanks to input from his ex-Quaker wife, was counselling John to apologise in order to avoid rebellion amongst the families that paid the Shelby's tribute. To avoid coming to blows he had sent his suggestion via Polly. However, this only served to irritate John more particularly as he perceived Linda's hand in the suggestion. For her part Polly was arguing for compromise.
'Lizzie's going to sort things out with Angel', she said. 'You don't have to do anything - no apology, no grovelling, nothing. Lizzie's just going to tell him that it's over and then everyone can back down without losing face. Just leave this for the women to sort out.' It was the worst argument she could have employed.
'No. I'm not going back down in front of some bloody eyeties', John roared back. 'If they want some, then let them come. We'll grind them in to the floor!'
The evening of the Shelby Foundation dinner started well. Everything was in hand downstairs: the band were playing; and the staff were already on hand to serve drinks and canapes. As they dressed for the event Arabella had taken her husband's unresisting hand and curled it against a slight bulge in her lower abdomen. Meeting his eye she had smiled softly. Immediately catching on Tommy had pulled her in for a deep and lingering kiss. Their marriage seemed to have finally received the ultimate seal of approval and they celebrated in the traditional Shelby manner. Who cared if they were late to their own party!
Downstairs the house was full of the great and the good of Birmingham society. They were drinking, laughing, dancing, and most importantly donating money all in aid of the school that Arabella was hoping to establish. Even the mayor had agreed to attend which had provided an aura of respectability to the whole event. Arabella was hoping to make an absolute killing in aid of a good cause that night
Tommy and Arabella were dancing – or at least they were trying too. Neither of them were very good at the steps at the best of times, and the frequent brushing of their bodies against one another was proving a constant distraction. They could hardly wait for the evening to be over. Because they were so wrapped up in each other they did not notice when the sea of dancers parted to reveal a young man holding a gun. As people in the crowed spotted the weapon there were exclamations of fear and shouted warnings. Looking up Tommy saw the assassin closing in; Changretta's doing no doubt. As he drew near the man seemed to become confused looking rapidly left and right between Tommy and Arabella as if trying two chose which one of them he was going to shoot. It was Arabella that seemed to be the final focus of his ire though.
'Thieving puttana!' he hissed. 'I'm going to take back what's mine.'
She looked back at him in confusion and then in dawning horror, finally recognising the man she had robbed in the mahjong den all those months before. She put one protective hand up to cover her locket and the other dropped to her bag. Tommy lunged for at the assassin trying to take him down but from that distance he couldn't do more than distract him for a moment. With a sick feeling in his stomach, Tommy realise that he had done no more than postpone the inevitable.
There were two shots in quick succession followed by a shocked silence. The assassin looked at Tommy quizzically as if someone had told him a tall tale which he didn't quite believe. He coughed softly and from the corner of his mouth a small trickle of blood began to run. He dropped the gun and fell to his knees in a single movement. He was no longer a danger to anyone there.
Unsure what had happened Tommy turned to his wife in confusion and he saw her standing stock-still a pistol hanging limply from her right hand. A bright rosette of blood red was blooming in her stomach. He ran forward to catch her before she collapsed.
Then all hell broke loose.
What do you think? Should Tommy's Wicked Lady live or die?
Tommy was in shock. He literally couldn't fathom what had happened. Arabella shot? Arabella shooting someone else! It was incomprehensible. As the doctor talked on at him all he could think was 'Oh god, oh god!' It was the closest that he'd come to praying since his first day on the battlefield. It was left to Polly to ask all the right questions and make all the important decisions. It was Polly who had stopped Arthur and John from beating the assassin to death in front of a room full of civilians – time enough for that she thought, assuming he doesn't hang - called the ambulance, dealt with the police, and generally held things together.
They'd been lucky that there had been a couple of doctors attending the dinner. They had stopped both Arabella and the Italian from dying on the dance floor. The Italian's lung had been pierced but he had rallied quickly once his wound had been sealed and his lung reinflated. However, their luck had stopped there. Arabella had been much more seriously injured. She had undergone hours of surgery to repair the extensive damage caused by the bullet to her internal organs and blood vessels. Now she hovered between life and death with the threat of infection ever present. Tommy, who had seen the aftermath of more bullet wounds than he could bear to remember, was convinced that she would die. By the look in Arthur and John's eyes, Polly could tell they felt much the same. Tommy was already mourning the loss of his unborn child. Now he was preparing to mourn his wife. It didn't stop him hoping, however.
'I need you to be all right,' he said brokenly, holding tightly on to her hand. 'I need you, Arabella. I need you.
But if Tommy was in shock then so too was the rest of the underworld. You might slap around another man's whore if you wanted to send a message but female relatives were sacrosanct, protected by both custom and a gangster's fears for his own family. There were some lines that you simply did not cross and shooting a man's wife in cold blood went miles beyond it. Protestations by Vicente Changretta that Tommy Shelby had been the intended target, and that the shooter had gone against instructions and instead used the opportunity to settle a personal score with Shelby's wife, had cut no ice. The assassin was the Changrettas' man; his actions were therefore theirs. There would be no shelter in the UK now not for any of the Changrettas.
After three days, Tommy was persuaded to let a devastated Lord Fairfax take over his vigil at Arabella's bedside. Tommy hadn't known what to say to the man. They had never become friends and he was horribly aware that if she had married in to any other family then she would probably have still been whole. That day Inspector Moss had told the family the outcome of the Italian's interrogation. The man had been furious to hear that Arabella was still breathing – however fragile her grip on life – and had spilled his guts in a flood of bile. He would be lucky to escape with his neck although his long term prospects were non-existent whatever the outcome of his trial. The news of Arabella's secret life had stunned the Shelbys - although Polly acknowledged shame-facedly that she had introduced her to gambling.
'Old man Changretta hired him to kill Tommy in revenge for your boys cutting Angel', Moss said. 'It was supposed to be a simple job – although I dare say that he didn't expect to come out alive at the other end - but when he got there he saw that locket that Mrs Shelby is always wearing. It's quite distinctive and he recognised it immediately. He'd won it from a veiled lady at that mah-jong place in China Town. She'd taken a fortune from him over the months and since she seemed to love it so much he was damn well going to keep it. Eventually she took it back at gun point and embarrassed him in front of his whore.' He gave them a small sad smile. 'Turns out that Mrs Shelby was quite the gambler… I mean is... was, sorry.' He tailed off awkwardly but Tommy did not react.
'For god's sake get a move on', Polly hissed.
'Well I did a bit of digging around. Apparently she tried to bet at the Palais not long after that, all covered up as she was wont to do, but the word had got out. There was a little bit of a gun fight but she got away. You might remember hearing about it - the renovations took weeks although no one was actually hurt. She didn't go back, at least not veiled. A young whore living in Summer Lane remembers a woman dressed as a man starting to win big all over the city at about that time. The girl was paid a percentage to act as a cover and stop other women getting too close. Said it was the easiest money she'd ever made – and the most fun. She recognised Arabella from her picture.' The room was silent for a moment as the news sank in. Then Moss added. 'You'll be pleased to know that there will be no charges levelled against Mrs Shelby - there were enought witnesses that there can be no doubt that she was acting in self-defence.'
With those final words he rose to go leaving the family reeling at the revelations; Arabella was definitely more than she had appeared to be.
The Peaky Blinder's vengeance was bloody and merciless. Angel Changretta had been killed before Tommy had even come to his senses. The Changrettas' men then were dragged from their hiding places all over the city and executed. Within a week all that remained of the Changretta crime family was old Vicente, his wife, and a whole parcel of grieving widows. Still Arabella lingered on.
Arabella briefly appeared to rally. Although still in a coma she was starting to respond to lights and sounds. The doctors began to make cautiously optimistic noises. However, it did not last. On the ninth day following the shooting infection set in.
Although appearing totally calm Tommy lost what little remained of his reason. Having given instructions to Polly and Michael in respect of the legitimate side of the family business he called an irritated Arthur and John into his office. Brushing aside John's angry demands to know why family meetings no long include the whole family he told them his plans for Vicente Changretta.
'You told me that the last of Changretta's men said that he was intending to take an immigrant ship to New York', he said coolly. Arthur and John nodded.
'Aye Tommy', said Arthur. 'We had it confirmed by at least two of them and Betty Kitchen said that her people had heard the same when they were chasing down the last of them in the Black Country.
'Well I have contacts', Tommy continued. 'People in Cunard based at Liverpool. The next ship for New York sails Saturday and they say Changretta's party is booked to travel. My contacts can get you up to the point of departure. I want you to go there and pick him up.' He ground out his cigarette 'Bring him to me - alive. I want to do it myself.'
You said the 'Changretta party'. Who's he got travelling with him?' Arthur asked.
'His wife.' Tommy replied tonelessly.
'You what?' John said in surprise. 'His wife? What do we do about her?'
'Just put a bullet in her and bring him to me.' Arthur and John exchanged horrified glances.
'Tommy, are you serious? John said shocked. 'We don't do women. You know that. This would make us no better than the eyeties. Anyway Mrs Changretta was a teacher at our school. She was kind to us when everybody else just treated us like Pikey bastards.'
'She's a good woman, Tom.' Arthur added heavily. 'A really good woman.'
'Arabella was a good woman… is a good woman.' Tommy hissed. 'That didn't stop one of the Changretta bastards from shooting her.' He rested his clenched fists on the desk in front of him and then gave a deep sigh. In a chillingly cold voice he continued. 'Anyway not to worry, if Audrey Changretta is such a good woman, then she'll go to Heaven won't she, eh, Arthur?'
'Tommy we can't just…', John tried again but Tommy cut him off with a wave of his hand. He passed over a list of instructions to Arthur.
'Just do what's on the list boys and nothing else. Then burn it.' He stood up, bringing the meeting to a close. 'Right, that's it. You can go.' As if they were no longer there he turned his back and strode over to the window.
Seeing that John was about lose his temper, Arthur laid a calming hand on his brother's shoulder. 'Come on, John. Let's go downstairs and get a drink.' Shaking him off, John stormed from the room. Giving Tommy a despairing glance Arthur followed him.
When the door closed, Tommy slowly turned and retook his seat. He rubbed his hands over his face trying to wipe away the fog of exhaustion. He felt heartsick and broken. He knew that Arabella would be horrified if she found out what he had done in her name. In his mind he could almost hear her denunciation of him as a monster but he didn't care. As long as she was alive to denounce him, and the world was rid of those that could try to harm her again, he would do whatever it took.
He knew he had to get back to the hospital but he could not bear to see his wife wasting away before his eyes; the fever was melting the flesh from her bones. He desperately needed sleep too but that had been hard to come by over the last few weeks – opium was the only thing that could give him the release he needed but he was terrified of the dreams that would come with it.
Polly entered the room a few moments later. She'd just fought down a rebellion in the kitchen using a call to family unity and was steaming for a fight but, taking in the sight of the broken man before her, the words died in her throat.
'For god's sake Tommy you need to take better care of yourself', she said instead, the concern evident in her voice. 'You'll do her no good if you end up in hospital yourself.'
Tommy looked up at her dazedly.
'I'll bring you some food', she said gently, resting a consoling hand on his cheek. 'Then you can clean yourself up and get your head down for a bit. You know the doctors said that they wouldn't have any news on the outcome of the phage treatment until tonight at the earliest and her father's with her. They'll call if there are any changes and there are plenty of people here to drive you whenever you need it.'
Tommy nodded his acquiescence dully, recognising the voice of authority. Sometime later he picked his way through a bowl of stew and then took a bath. He couldn't remember the last time he had changed his clothes let alone washed. Realising that he was on the verge of cracking up he decided that sleep was worth the risk of nightmares. He found his opium pipe and enough old resin to knock him out. As he drew in the smoke he felt sick. If Arabella died he knew that he would be at rock bottom again and this time he couldn't see a way back that left him with his soul intact.
When the nightmares came they were both horribly familiar and yet terribly changed. Again he was in the tunnels hearing the knocking of the German sappers. They finally broke through, as they almost always did, but this time they were led by Arabella terrified and confused to find herself in the hands of the enemy. She came for him gun drawn ready to shoot him down. He couldn't make her understand that he loved her and only wanted to help her. He forced her back. Then a spot of red bloomed on her belly. She looked up confused and met his eye; it was as if she saw him for the first time. He woke up crying.
Tommy was spinning between elation and despair. Arabella's fever had broken and she was slowly beginning to recover - in fact the doctors hoped that she would soon regain consciousness. The relief of it was almost overwhelming. However, now his blinding rage had dissipated he was starting to realise the extent of the horrors that he had perpetrated against the Changrettas.
Audrey Changretta had understandably tried everything she could to save the lives of her and her husband. First she had reminded John that she had smacked his arse for being naughty when he was just a little boy. Then she had told Arthur that she had looked the other way on more than one occasion on account of his sweet smile. But her attempts at emotional blackmail had failed. Finally she had tried to protect her man with her own body. In the end it had taken Vicente Changretta's decision to go with them to bring the whole sorry encounter to the end. John's last words to the grieving soon-to-be widow had been to beg her to travel to New York and hide herself there. The experience had been emotionally devastating for him and he was now barely talking to Tommy.
What had followed had scarcely been better. Tommy had intended to take his time killing Changretta so he and Arthur had taken the old man to a warehouse where they would not be disturbed. There had been no pity in him, not for Vicente Changretta, and no mercy either.
'It's just after seven in the evening', he'd told the bound man viciously. 'And I am going to keep you alive until the sun comes up. I'll not deliver the final cut until we can both hear the blackbirds singing outside.'
Then he had begun to list the terrible ways in which he'd take his vengeance out on Changretta's wrinkled flesh. He could hardly remember what he had said or done; he must have been in the grip of some awful madness. In the end Arthur had taken the decision out of his hands. As Tommy had started to make his first cut Arthur had calmly shot the man in the head.
'I heard the blackbird sing', he'd said softly. When Tommy had rounded on him furiously Arthur had simply added. 'We're not that kind of men',
It was then that Arthur had admitted that they had let Audrey Changretta board the immigrant boat to New York. Tommy did not show it but he was relieved; relieve that it was finally was over, relieved that an innocent woman had not lost her life, relieved that he had Arthur to watch his back and save him from himself. Arthur had been his best man on his wedding day and Tommy could hardly deny that he had been his best man every day before and since. Now Tommy could focus on dealing with the whole Russian nightmare and helping Arabella return to health.
Whilst Tommy returned to his exhausting vigil at Arabella's bedside, Arthur and John continued working on the jobs Tommy had put on their list. The principal one was to engineer a dispute at a number of major businesses across the city by forcing their foremen to sack key members of staff. Their old friend Connor Nutley had proved to be particularly recalcitrant.
'It won't work', he said simply. 'I told your brother. This whole fucking plan won't work. It's ridiculous. How can we keep it secret when there's some bloody Russian woman in a fur coat walking up and down the line in broad daylight like the Queen of fucking Sheba asking everyone she can find about armoured cars? Tommy's going to get us all shot!'
'Relax Connor', Arthur had replied calmly resting a consoling hand on the other man's shoulder. 'Tommy's been grieving and in the circumstances some things were allowed to slip. Things are under control again now. We know the woman and it's being handled. You don't need to worry that it will happen again.'
John passed over a list of names. 'Take a look', he said intensely. 'It's the names of all the men working the night shift here who are also members of the South Birmingham Communist Party. You need to sack them all and you have six weeks in which to do it.
Nutley rocked back on his heels in shock. 'Are you fucking mad? If I do this every factory in the city will come out on strike!'
'We don't care', Arthur said. 'Find a reason to get rid of them. Set them up if you have to. Just get them gone.'
When Connor had demurred once more the brothers had resorted to threats.
'But I've got kids.' Nutley's voice took on a desperate edge.
'We know', said John with a humourless grin. 'Edna and John – doing well at school I hear. You must be very proud of them.' Grin disappearing he added. 'Now just get the men sacked in the order that they appear on the list. No more than two a week with the last one just before the clocks go forward.'
In the face of these threats Nutley had agreed to do what they asked.
A few days later Arabella finally woke up. Tommy had been sitting dozing in chair next to her bed when she stirred.
'Tom?' She said hoarsely trying to turn her head to find him.
Instantly he was awake and at her side. The extent of his relief was almost overwhelming.
'You're in the hospital love but you're fine.' Tommy stroked her cheek softly. 'Please don't worry. I'm going to get a doctor. Just try not to move.'
He strode to the door where he began to yell for a doctor. Within moments a nursing sister had entered the room to see what the trouble was.
'Mrs Shelby', she said happily once she had taken in the scene. 'I'm very pleased to see that you're back with us. I'll have the doctor with you momentarily to talk through what has happened to you. In the meantime perhaps your husband will give you a small drink of water.' She passed Tommy a cup a quarter filled with water and asked him to give Arabella small sips a few moments apart. Then she bustled out of the room to find one of the consultants.
The interview with the doctor had been mercifully brief. After a short examination he had given Arabella an edited version of what had happened since she had been shot. Then, muttering about ordering some new tests, he had left her together with her husband allowing them to have the most difficult conversation privately.
Arabella was distraught to learn that she had lost their baby and her grief redoubled when she discovered that she would probably never bear another child. Tommy held her whilst she sobbed, grateful in some small measure that she was too weak to do any further damage to herself as she grieved. At the same time Arthur's wife Linda was telling him that he was going to be a father. As timing went it could hardly have been more unfortunate.
Over the next few days Polly regularly came to sit with Arabella. The older woman knew what it was to lose a child and Arabella was able to unburden herself to her in a way that she could never do with Tommy.
After a week Arabella was allowed home to recuperate. Tommy found a nurse from amongst the wives of his Blinders, one who had worked in a convalescent home during the war. Mabel was a forceful woman who didn't suffer fools – or malingerers – gladly. She reminded Arabella of a nursemaid she'd had when she was seven; her brand of bracing sympathy and good humour was exactly what she needed to stop her from wallowing in guilt.
'You'd best get out of your bed and get dressed miss', Mabel had said on the sixth day after Arabella returned home. 'There's all manner of things going on in this house that you should be aware of but you'll not learn of them if you lie around in this room all day.' The warning in her voice was unmistakeable and she backed it up by giving Arabella what could only be described as a 'significant look'.
Recognising the voice of authority Arabella had done as she was told. A little shakily she had washed and dressed and then headed downstairs knowing that if she wanted to find any of the family she would have to invade the servants' domain.
True to form Polly was in the kitchen gossiping with Esme and getting under the feet of Mrs Jones the cook. As she entered the room Arabella paid the cook the obeisance that was due to someone of her exalted station, tacitly acknowledging that she was trespassing where she did not belong. Jones gave her a grudging nod and bustled off to the still room to give her employers privacy; she hated the family being in her domain but she liked Arabella well enough. The mistress was the only one who ever behaved like she should and allowances could be made for one who had so recently come close to death.
Catching sight of Arabella, Polly gave her a broad smile and leapt up to pour another cup of tea. Esme then pulled out a chair so that she could sit down.
'Good to see you up and about, sister', she said with a cautious smile then passed her a heel of bread and a wedge of cheese from the common platter. 'You should eat. You need more meat on your bones.'
Returning to the table Polly handed Arabella a brimming cup of tea and urged her to get it down her whilst it was still hot. She had been a frequent visitor to Arabella's sick room during her first week home. The older woman had been friendly, garrulous even, and very solicitous of Arabella's welfare. However, she had not once mentioned the events leading up to the shooting nor had she given any information about what had happened since. Tommy had also been attentive both when she was in hospital and when she had come home but at the same time he had seemed tense and edgy and constantly deflected her questions by talking of inconsequential nonsense. His sole reference to the night of the disastrous charity dinner had been to assure her that she would face no charges for shooting the Italian.
Arabella was certain that there was something that they were hiding from her but she wasn't sure what. Perhaps, she reasoned, they were simply angry about her behaviour. She could hardly blame them – she was a liar, an inveterate gambler, she had shot a man, and worse, she had brought about the death of her baby. Her actions had brought shame on the entire family and she was not sure how to regain their trust - or if she even could.
In an effort to calm her roiling stomach, she sipped her tea and picked at the bread. Although she was nearly well her appetite was still poor and the guilt and fear she was wrestling with made her feel constantly sick. She couldn't stand the uncertainty any longer, she just couldn't. She had to know what they were thinking. Clenching her hands together so tightly that her knuckles turned white she began to speak.
'I want to talk to you both about what happened at the charity dinner and what led to it', she began nervously, focusing intently on her hands. 'I need to you to know how ashamed I am of what I did and of the trouble I brought into this house.' Polly and Esme exchanged bewildered looks.
'Ari, pet', Polly said in amusement. 'You've done nothing you need to be ashamed of. Actually, speaking for myself, I was rather impressed by your ability to aim straight under pressure – it was the talk of the family. You could probably teach our young ones something if you had the inclination.' Arabella looked up at her sharply.
'Are you teasing me?' She demanded fretfully. Please don't – I can't bear it!' Her voice cracked with the strain of keeping her emotions in check.
'After all these years do you really not know what kind of family you married in to?' Polly asked incredulously. 'Did your father not actually tell you?' At Arabella's confused look she threw back her head and roared with laughed. The laughter was clearly infectious - Esme began giggling too and then collapsed in to hysterics.
'Damn it', Arabella hissed, pushed beyond endurance. 'Why the hell are you laughing at me?'
Realising that the other woman was at the end of her tether, Polly sobered quickly. She then proceeded to lay out the truth about the history and doings of the Shelby family. Arabella sat there in silence, her head spinning. How could she have been so blind? What a fool she had been! Her own behaviour had seemed so daring, so reckless, when in fact, in comparison to the risks taken by her husband and his brothers, it had been almost childishly innocent; and yet still a man was likely to lose his life and her child had never had the chance to be born. How much greater must the stakes for Tommy and his brothers be?
'Well?' Polly said archly. 'Do you have any thoughts on the matter that you'd care to share?'
Honestly?' Arabella asked in a voice so calm it surprised even her. 'Given what my family has done over the centuries I don't think that I'm in any position to judge. One of my ancestors was a privateer; another was the official procurer for the king, I can't even remember how many were executed for treason or imprisoned for debt and I'm clearly no better. The only difference is that we had the connections and the titles to keep our position.' Understanding finally dawned. 'My god – that's why Tommy married me, isn't it. You needed someone to give the family a veneer of respectability.' She hung her head. 'What a disappointment I must be. Perhaps Tommy should divorce me and marry someone who will give him his money's worth.'
Polly looked at Esme questioningly, there was no humour in her gaze now; Esme shrugged. With a sigh Polly turned back to Arabella and laid a comforting hand on the younger woman's arm.
'Tommy isn't upset about your behaviour', she said slowly. 'It's much more complicated than that. When I tell you what I know you need to keep very calm. I want you to think things through thoroughly before you react.'
If anyone is interested I've just set up a Peaky Blinders discussion forum over at FF.net. (www.fanfiction.net/forum/Peaky-Blinders/214498/)
Come on in the water's lovely!
Tommy spent the day attending to business.
His first stop was at his sister Ada's place to see if she had gathered the information he'd requested on possible double agents in the Russian factions. As he'd asked, Ada had approached an old friend of her late husband Freddie. The man was now the Communist Party candidate for Balsall Heath and was therefore privy to a significant amount of information from Russian operatives in the UK and abroad as well as being in deep with the various unions in Birmingham.
'I asked him about the Birmingham branch of the National Vigilance Committee like you wanted.' Ada said heavily. 'He said he'd heard the Soviet Embassy was getting information from the inside White Russian camp.' She couldn't hide a small satisfaction at knowing that the anti-communist faction had traitors in its midst.
'And did you get a name?' Tommy demanded. Ada nodded
'Just promise me no one will get killed', she begged him. 'The way you've been recently… Didn't you see enough death in France?'
'Damn it Ada', Tommy said in irritation. 'If you don't give me the fucking name it'll be one of your brothers getting killed. There's something coming down on us all and I need to know who and I need to know when.'
Behind the annoyance Ada could see something else in his eyes. After the war her brother had seemed beyond fear but she was horrified to see that that was clearly not the case. Now she was truly worried.
'What's coming, Tommy?' She demanded. 'Tell me!'
'Just give me the fucking name!' There was a muscle ticking in his jaw which was never a good sign.
'Fine!' Ada threw up her hands in frustration. 'He's a Lloyd's underwriter working out of Curzon Street; goes by the name of James Monkland. That's all I could get.'
'I knew you come through for me, our Ada', he said with a smile of relief. Ada did not smile back.
Despite the tenseness of situation the news put Tommy in a good enough mood to tell his sister about a possible job opening for her at the new Shelby Family offices that he was planning on opening in the States. His sister had eyed him suspiciously not entirely distracted by the possibility of a change of scenery. Still, they parted on more friendly terms and, armed with the valuable intelligence Ada had provided, Tommy was to put the next stage of his plan into action.
Within an hour James Monkland had been picked up by the police and was being held ready for Tommy's interrogation. The man hadn't taken very long to break; Tommy had almost been disappointed. Still at least he had received the confirmation he had needed. The Russian exile's tame priest, Father Hugh, was definitely a traitor to their cause and was passing on information about the upcoming arms heist via Monkland to the Russian government. Tommy was relieved by the information but he wasn't yet ready to celebrate.
By the time Tommy returned home late that evening he was beginning to feel that the Russian business was finally coming together. It was still a shitty and dangerous situation, no question, but the Russian royals had seemed to approve of his plans to incite the unions in order to set off a citywide riot to cover the theft of the armoured cars and his side plan to ensure that they received prompt payment for their troubles was also coming along nicely. The only thing that was still nagging at him now was how to deal with the priest. He'd told the Russians that Father Hugh was selling them out and asked them for permission to put a bullet in his brain – he'd even offered to do it for free - but they'd refused. If the Russians let the priest know what he'd said then he would have made a very dangerous enemy. Permission or not he knew he'd have to take him out.
Sighing with exhaustion, Tommy headed to his study. He just needed 20 minutes of quiet in order to relax and have a drink or two before going up to see how his wife was doing. Having Arabella safely back at home and on the mend had been wonderful. She was still fragile but she was improving every day. He could not deny that her cleverness and daring excited him and he loved to hold her close whilst she told him all about her double life. Perhaps he could bring her in on the legitimate gambling work. She had a fantastic understanding of horseflesh and she could calculate odds like a born bookie. He knew Polly would be happy to have another strong woman on the board. He didn't get a chance to follow the thought through however. Polly came to meet him in his study a few moments after he had sat down. She looked at the end of her tether and she was drawing deeply on her cigarette like it was the only thing keeping her from losing control completely.
'Arabella knows', she said tersely. 'We couldn't hide it from her anymore.'
Tommy's stomach lurched unpleasantly. As he put down his whiskey glass he noted a slight tremor in his hand.
'How is she?' He asked a little unsteadily.
Polly pursed her lips and shook her head. Tommy stared at her numbly for a moment. Then with a grinding sense of dread he stood up and slowly made his way to his wife's room. He climbed the stairs with all the enthusiasm of a man going to his execution and when he reached her door he paused - he really had no idea what he was going to say to her.
Breathing deeply, Tommy turned the handle on his wife's bedroom door. Arabella was sat in the dark staring out over the moonlit rose garden. She didn't turn around when he entered the room nor even when he switched on the light.
'I think we need to talk', he said hoarsely. 'I have to explain.' He saw her shoulders tense. Then she turned towards him. Her eyes were red with tears and still deep set from the strain of her illness and recuperation.
'Just go away', Arabella responded thickly, her voice rough from crying. Turning towards him she said, 'I thought I was beyond redemption but what you did was monstrous. All those murdured men, those poor widows, those terrified children. What's wrong with you? You make me sick you twisted bastard. Get out!' She clenched her fists then turned back to her wretched deliberations.
Tommy looked at her in horror, bile rising in his throat. He paused, uncertain whether to approach or retreat. His wife spun round to face him again and a second later a bottle of perfume struck the wall next to his head and shattered.
'I said get out!'
Helplessly Tommy backed out of the room and shut the door softly behind him, resting his head against the coolness of the polished wood. When Arabella had been in a coma he had told himself that he could live with her disgust provided she was alive to show it. Now he wasn't so sure.
If anyone is interested I've just set up a Peaky Blinders discussion forum over at FF.net. (www.fanfiction.net/forum/Peaky-Blinders/214498/)
The first thing Polly did when Tommy came to join her in the kitchen was curse him for a fool. Then, seeing that he was at breaking point, she sat him down gently and poured him a large whiskey.
'Tell me everything she said and did and we'll try and find a way through it together.' Her voice was firm but encouraging. When he baulked she laid a comforting hand on his arm. 'Come on Tommy, love. There's only god and your Aunt Polly listening. It's safer here than the confessional and a damn sight more useful.'
Resigned, Tommy reported his encounter with his wife in a few terse sentences. Polly followed up with a few questions about how Arabella had sounded and how she had looked but there wasn't much more to add. It was clear that Tommy's marriage was in some serious shit.
For her part Arabella was in shock. She had felt extraordinarily guilty about nearly taking the life of another human being – even one who had been trying to kill her and Tommy – and the fact that her double life had set in motion the chain of events which had led to the death of her unborn child had made it far, far worse. But what Tommy had done in retaliation had been unconscionable. How could he have caused all that bloodshed and pain and yet still remained sane? No wonder he had been unable to meet her eyes.
In the first few months of their marriage Arabella had found Tommy harsh and cold – frightening even. He never smiled, he seldom joked - he was entirely focussed on business. On their wedding day she had known almost literally nothing about him other than the fact that he had paid her father handsomely for the dubious privilege of bedding her - and what a painful, humiliating, and unrewarding event that had been! If only she had known how to appreciate his loving when they had first married she would never have turned to alternative diversions and they could have avoided this whole hideous business. Perhaps, she reflected, all virgin brides should have the opportunity of a tutorial with someone like Lizzie Stark to help them understand where bodily pleasure could be found. In fact, perhaps all husbands to be should have one too. I would certainly make the wedding night a more pleasurable experience for both parties.
In an effort to understand more about her husband, Arabella had taken to snooping around the house whenever the family left her alone. The servants would not say anything to betray her. Although they were rather confused and frightened by the Shelbys, in Arabella they recognised an aristocrat born and bred. They were therefore disposed to do ignore or excuse what she did, or at least keep quiet about it. There had been very little to go on, however. As far as she had been able tell all the important (and therefore interesting) paperwork was hidden away under lock and key well away from prying eyes. There were a few documents written in some kind of code - she recognised the occasional word or phrase from discussions between the family that she heard around the house but not enough to make any sense of them. It was only in Polly's room that she found anything which gave her any insight in to her husband.
The letters were badly creased, often written in minute scribbles on tiny scraps of paper, watermarked and stained with mud or possibly blood. It took Arabella some time to decipher Tommy's scrawl but when she did she felt her heart fill with pity. Although obviously lacking in the details of the work her husband had undertaken it was clear that he had volunteered to be a sapper. She had heard a little of their work from her eldest brother when he had come home on leave; he'd had great admiration for their bravery. Although they did not have to charge out across No Man's Land in to the face of enemy fire like they infantry they had instead been set to sinking explosive-packed tunnels deep beneath the enemy.
Forced to work in complete silence up to 100ft below the surface, lest they alert the enemy to their presence, they had aimed to detonate mines beneath the enemy's trenches. At each step of the way they had been forced to seek out and destroy enemy tunnellers who were attempting to undermine the British positions in return. It was massively effective when it worked. In 1917, a series of blasts at Messines Ridge in Flanders had killed nearly 10,000 enemy troops instantly and the sound of the blast was reputed to have been heard by the Prime Minister in Downing Street. However, it was also desperate and dangerous work with a frighteningly high rate of attrition.
As the letters went on Arabella could see signs that Tommy was starting to fall apart. At times the handwriting became shaky, at others the sentences were disjointed, random, or focused on times past with a longing which was almost palpable. Names popped up frequently in a few letters and then were never mentioned again. As the months elapsed the correspondence became more and more heavily censored. It reminded Arabella painfully of her brothers' letters. When she closed her eyes she could imagine her husband as thin, fragile, and shaking as her poor brother Rupert had been on the last occasion that she had seen him. It had made her feel more well-disposed toward Tommy and the damaged man he was.
If her brothers' had lived she would have wanted them to find caring women who could help them to smile again. Attempting to build bridges with her husband was the least she could do in their memory.
Pinned to the last letter were a pair of clippings from the Birmingham Daily Gazette noting that Mr Thomas Michael Shelby, Sergeant Major with the Small Heath Rifles, had been awarded first the Military Medal for gallantry and devotion to duty when under fire and later the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his conduct on the field of battle. She had found no sign of the medals although she found an empty box which had held the DCM.
After that Arabella had made more of an effort to interact with her husband and she had gradually come to think of Tommy as an essentially gentle man despite his rough beginnings and equally rough manners. She had seen him by turns as a canny businessman, a gallant though damaged war hero, and, eventually, a caring husband and her feelings for him had turned from respect to desire and eventually to love. Now, however, her mind was overwhelmed with the vision of him as a man who could unleash bloody mayhem at will. How did one deal with a man like that? She couldn't imagine eating breakfast with him let alone sharing his bed. The very thought of him touching her chilled her blood.
When Tommy woke up the next day Arabella was gone.
Arabella went to stay with Ada.
Arabella and Ada's friendship had developed since that initial pre-wedding shopping trip. From the day that they met Ada had provided a constant source of ironic commentary on the family and been an unerring fount of common sense. She had never openly told Arabella the details behind the Shelby family's wealth but looking back she had given her plenty of clues. Perhaps now Ada would be persuaded to tell Arabella the full story. It was certainly worth a try.
Ada answered the door warily and for the first time Arabella noticed the extreme nature of the woman's reaction. She was much the same as Polly was when surprised late at night - tense and distrustful. Now Arabella saw if for what it truly was – an understanding that violence and death could arrive at any time, and in any form, and that they needed to be ever on their guard.
Ada had taken one look at Arabella, stood there on her doorstep with her suitcase, and wordlessly invited her in. Tommy's sister had a sharp mind and she knew when to speak and when to listen – even if she didn't always follow her own advice. Silently she had shown her sister in law to the spare room and helped her unpack her things. Then she'd taken her downstairs to the kitchen where they had shared first a cup of tea and then copious amounts of alcohol.
When Arabella had finished outlining the whole sorry situation Ada had slammed down her glass and made a daring proposal.
'Fuck Tommy and all the rest of the bloody Peaky Blinders. Why don't you and I go out and have some fun which doesn't revolve around being a sodding Shelby!'
Arabella was drunk enough to agree.
Tommy was surprised to find that Arabella's disappearance had removed a great weight from his shoulders. It wasn't that he didn't love his wife but rather that he loved her too much. Fear over what might happen to her or what she might find out about his past and ongoing business had almost crippled his ability to act. Polly had confirmed that his wife was living safely with Ada which meant she was under discrete but constant surveillance; without her to worry about he finally felt able to deal with business as required. Unfortunately the first issue that took his attention was something completely irrelevant – the death of his father – still at least the event could be turned to some useful purpose.
Arthur Selby Snr had been a part time father and a full time arsehole. He had always come and gone in their lives like a restless breeze but he had finally abandoned the Shelby siblings when the youngest, Finn, had only been a year or two old and he had scarcely been in touch since. Following their mother's death the children had been raised entirely by their Aunt Polly.
In an effort to draw a line under their father's sorry life, Tommy had taken his brothers, cousin, Tommy Dogs, Curly, and Jesus' son Isaiah off in to the woods near the estate. They'd hunted and killed a stag and then roasted a haunch of venison over a camp fire. Arthur Snr's woman, Rosie Rice, had claimed that he had repented of his treatment of his family on his deathbed but this had cut no ice with his sons. Instead of giving him their forgiveness they had agreed to let his name die and be forgotten by the family. It was the ultimate sanction.
That done Tommy felt able to enlighten the rest of them about the Russian business.
Polly meanwhile was outrageously drunk and having an unusual crisis of conscience. Tommy had told her of his plan to kill Father Hugh, the traitor in the Russian camp. It had brought backs memories of Polly's own slaying of the wicked Inspector Campbell. Rashly she had decided to go to confession to pour out her soul and seek absolution.
Breaking the sanctity of the confessional, the priest had gone straight to his superiors and informed them of the imminent threat to the life of a local priest by a member of the Peaky Blinders. The news had spread rapidly amongst the priesthood and Father Hugh had therefore received warning of his imminent death within hours of Polly's confession. Still reeling drunk, Polly had gone back to the betting shop little guessing the trouble which she had set in motion.
Tommy's revelation about the upcoming theft of two dozen armoured cars and associated weaponry from the BSA factory had caused a great deal of concern and discussion amongst the boys. Practical issues were weighed against more esoteric concerns but it was eventually agreed that the proposed benefits - £150,000 in cash, diamonds, and sapphires – would be adequate compensation for the dangers of the mission and the risks of doing a secret deal with the white Russians on behalf of the British government. The fact that Tommy had plans to increase the Blinders' profits was an added incentive.
In London, Arabella was learning to live again.
Ada was a modern and self-assured young woman and encouraged Arabella to behave in the same relaxed way. They hit clubs all over London flirting with unsuitable men, drinking, and snorting coke as the mood took them. Ada had even introduced Arabella to the mercurial Alfie Solomons who was apparently a colleague of Tommy's. Alfie had proceeded to get them very drunk on rum and then abandoned them in a dodgy pub in the East End whilst he'd gone off to have Friday night dinner with his elderly mother. He'd returned a few hours later as if nothing had happened then taken them dancing. For such a shambling man he had proved to be very light on his feet and it had been an exceptionally fun, and very late, night.
Later, when he had heard that Arabella wanted to sell some of her jewels for ready cash, he had offered to help her. She had expected him to pass them on to a specialist and was somewhat surprised to find that he was the genius with gemstones and was able to appraise them rapidly and with a practiced eye. He had offered her a fair if not over generous sum, partly because he was well aware that Tommy would not be impressed if he learnt that Alfie had taken advantage of his wife, and partly because he found that he genuinely liked her - which was something that didn't happen to him often.
Arabella was pleased to have the matter resolved so easily and filed the knowledge about Alfie away for future use. That seed money would grow rapidly once she hit the gambling dens of London, she reasoned, and she delighted in introducing Ada to the thrills of poker and mahjong. It was a lot easier to remain anonymous in London – even if you won regularly. However, to be safe, she was careful not to visit a single place more than once or twice and she took her small pistol with her at all times.
Ada was happy to play along for now, glad to see her sister in law becoming happier and more relaxed; Arabella's shock at learning of Tommy's murderous rampage seemed to be receding. If Ada was concerned that Arabella made no mention of her husband, nor showed any inclination to return to the marital home, she gave no sign of it. However, despite her apparently relaxed attitude, Ada was always careful to check that their attentive Blinders' guard was somewhere nearby. If anything bad happened to Arabella then Ada knew that her life would not be worth living. Tommy might not be the most demonstrative of men but Ada recognised that her sister in law had burrowed deep in to his heart. She believed – hoped – that Tommy had done the same to Arabella.
Thanks to everyone for their feedback and kudos. I hope that you continue to enjoy the story.
Tommy's behaviour over the next few weeks would have come as a great surprise to anyone that knew how he felt about his wife. However, he knew full well that there was only one way to get out from under the shit that Churchill was determined to pour down on the Shelby clan and that was by doing whatever the fuck it took to keep the Russians on side until the whole nightmare was over.
That was why, when the Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna had turned up on his doorstep to 'discuss business', he had done everything that he could to let her feel that she was in control. She had been quite open that she'd been sent there to have sex with him as a way of sealing the deal between the White Russian faction and the Peaky Blinders. Her matter-of-factness had been both exciting and repulsive.
Pushing back any feelings of guilt or regret by sheer force of will Tommy had let himself be seduced even going so far as to ask John to drive a nail in to one of the tyres on the Duchess' Bentley so that he would be obliged to let her spend the night. He'd then ensured that the rest of the family cleared out so that the two of them had no distractions. He couldn't deny that it had been a wild ride – but it was cold and hollow and had not touched the beauty of what he had with Arabella. Tatiana was not stupid. She had known instantly that the room in which he'd taken her had not been the one which he shared with his wife. It didn't seem to bother her though.
Tatiana was half way to insane and he found her behaviour incredibly disturbing - yet some how compelling. She found a part of him that he rarely allowed to surface. After they had had sex she had taken one of his partially loaded guns and begun pointing it about her randomly. It had been almost impossible for him to get her to stop – at one point she had even put the gun to her own temple and then pulled the trigger. She had then demanded to know why he behaved like a child who had broken in through the window rather than act as the master of his own house.
In trying to entice him to 'act like a man of status' Tatiana had humiliated Mary, his housekeeper, by demanding that the poor woman bring them drinks whilst she made love to Tommy in the entrance hall. He had told Mary to ignore the duchess' demand but it had been a close run thing as Mary's conditioning to obey had been so strong. In fact he'd struggled to refuse Tatiana himself.
Along with a healthy measure of self-disgust, Tommy had gained a number of useful facts from her visit, including the likely whereabouts of the exiled Russians' stash of treasure, and the fact that Tatiana Petrovna despised the strictures under which her family made her operate. The next day he had woken to find that the crazy bitch had driven off in his car and abandoned her own with the nailed tyre still in place. He could only laugh at her effrontery.
Later that day he had met with the boys to discuss a possible plant for the Russian's house. Arthur had good news.
'Moss gave me the name of a kid from Greet by the name of Stephan Radischevski', he said with a grin, stumbling over the strange syllables. 'His dad was a Russian so he speaks the lingo. He has dreams of owning a pub one day but he's got a record - breaking and entering and the like – so he hasn't much of a chance. If we offer him one of the pubs we took off the Italians then we might be able to persuade him to do a few weeks work in the Russian mad house and pass details back to us.
Tommy had nodded his approval and a week later the lad was in place thanks to a generous bribe to one of the Russian's existing household staff.
Back at Arrow House the Shelby womenfolk were becoming feisty. Arthur had become used to discussing all family business with his ex-Quaker wife Linda. She had, of course, reported everything back to Polly, Esme and Lizzy in a fit of sisterly affection. Tommy had rounded on them all but Linda, defending her man like a hungry lioness with her kill, had only backed down when he had agreed to favour Arthur with a greater share of the profits than intended. The money, she claimed, was needed to set Arthur up in running a general store on an Indian mission, whilst Linda taught in the school next door to it and also raised their child. In order to keep Arthur in the game Tommy had been forced to concede.
By this point Tommy had become convinced that the Russians had kept quiet about his intention to kill Father Hugh. However, he could not have been more wrong. When the priest and two of his bully boys picked him up he had been completely unprepared. Tommy had fought for his life but he had been unable to prevail against the three of them; his wounds had been severe.
Following the beating, along with a range of vicious insults, he had also been instructed to present himself at the Russian exile's house at Hampton Court and prostrate himself with the intention of undoing whatever harm he had cause to Father Hugh's reputation by his accusations of perfidy. If Tommy refused then action would be taken against his family, including Arabella. However, prior to making his way to dinner at the Russian's house, he had managed to call Ada and beg her to contact one of her comrades and get him a meeting with someone from the Soviet Embassy later that night.
The dinner with the White Russians was torture. Tommy's cracked head was swelling internally, it made it hard to focus, and his body was wracked with pain from the bruising, cracked ribs, and internal bleeding. Still, Father Hugh made him grovel before the Russian's, taking evident pleasure in Tommy's humiliation. He had forced him to perform an act of contrition substituting Father Hugh's name in place of all references to god. Tommy had somehow made it through the charade without vomiting or attempting to kill the priest but he had had to excuse himself immediately afterwards as he knew that he would lose consciousness soon.
Arriving at Ada's house sometime later he had dragged himself into her study to meet the Special Advisor to the Soviet Consul. To his horror the man had told him that they were already aware that the robbery was due to take place. In fact they wanted it to take place. Worse it was hoped that the event would lead to the destruction of a train carrying some to the armoured cars and the Shelby family were being set up to deal with it. The aim was to incite a violent act on British soil in order to force the British Government to break off diplomatic relations. Smirking, the man from the consulate had taken his leave. Tommy had managed to stagger half way down the stairs after him before collapsing. Ada rushed up to meet him closely followed by Arabella. He brushed off their twittering concerns.
'Stop ladies, just stop OK. Just drive me to a hospital, please. If I'm not conscious when I get there, tell them I have a fractured skull, concussion and internal bleeding.' Dimly he heard Arabella's gasp of horror as she bend down next to him.
'Please be quick', he gasped grabbing on to her hand desperately. 'Cos I can't see see a fucking thing anymore.' His voice took on a distant tone. 'Except for you, Dad. I can see you.'
Arabella had never thought of herself as a vengeful person. She'd faced all the knocks of her life, the little hurts, the moments of humiliation, even the deep losses, with a kind of calm resignation never letting it change her essentially sweet nature. That had all changed when Tommy had been beaten half to death. Now, with every moan of pain and every bitter tear, the urge to strike out at those that had caused this horror grew. She understood now what had driven Tommy to take such bloody revenge on the Changrettas – understood it and respected it; his actions no longer seemed disproportionate.
The journey from Ada's house to St Bartholomew's hospital had been hellish. Every jolt and turn had caused Tommy excruciating pain but the knowledge that he was concussed had meant that Ada and Arabella had been forced to do what they could to keep him awake. He had talked – sort of – but the rambling had been almost more of a concern than his periodic groans of pain. His moments of lucidity had been fleeting but afterwards, whilst he was in surgery, the two women had been able to put his story in to some kind of order. Ada, with her links to the Communist Party, was able to fill in a good deal of the blanks.
It had soon become clear that Tommy, and by extension the rest of the family, had been caught up in a dangerous web of international politics. A small cabal of highly place members of the British establishment, operating through the staunchly capitalist Economic League, was hoping to force the new Labour government to break off diplomatic relations with the Communist rulers of Russia. Labour were self-declared democratic socialists and were therefore inclined to negotiate with the Bolsheviks. The men pulling the strings of the Economic League knew that would take a profound change in the British government's attitude towards the other side to derail the talks.
Tommy had been approached initially to act on behalf of the White Russian faction that comprised a loose confederation of Anti-Communist groups including a number of exiled members of the royal family. Through a mixture of bribery and threats he had been forced to set up the theft of a large amount of weapons and armoured cars which would be shipped to Georgia for use by the Whites against the Bolsheviks. This much was already known by the wider family. What was new was the other side of the plot.
Using the network of contacts developed by Section D, which had been set up by elements within the British Intelligence Service to conduct political covert actions and paramilitary operations in times of war, the perfidious Father Hugh was feeding confidential information about the White's plans to the Russian Communists. This was not a simple matter of betrayal, however. The ultimate aim was to provoke the Russian government into attacking the shipment of weapons. A violent assault by the Communists on British soil would force the British government to break off negotiations.
Unaware of this second plot, Tommy, who had a sergeant's dislike of men who put the soldiers under his command at unnecessary risk, had warned the Whites of Father Hugh's treachery. Polly was horrified to realise that it was likely her lose tongue that had warned the vicious priest of Tommy's planned assassination attempt and this had precipitated an ultra-violent response. It was not an act which would or could go unanswered.
Arabella had met Father Hugh during the preparations for the opening of the charity school. He had been perfectly pleasant to her, helpful even, but something about him had made her skin crawl; she had taken an instant dislike to the man. She did not intend for him to walk away from their next encounter.
As soon as Tommy was stabilised enough to be moved, Polly and Arabella had made arrangements for him to be discharged from St Bart's and taken under an assumed name to a private clinic in Chelsea. Armed men were a constant presence which frightened the nurses who refused point blank to enter Tommy's room. Mabel had therefore been brought down from Birmingham and she had assisted Arabella in providing Tommy's daily care. The two women had worked well together but Mabel recognised the signs of a woman at the end of her tether and had therefore had a quiet word with Polly.
'Arabella', Polly said quietly, laying a gentle hand on the exhausted woman's shoulder. 'You need to come to Ada's and rest for a bit. Let Arthur and Mabel stay with Tommy tonight. One of them can ring us if there's any change.'
Arabella turned feverish eyes on Polly and shook her head emphatically.
'No. I shouldn't have left him before and I won't leave him now.' Arabella took hold of Tommy's unresisting hand. 'Tommy's mine: mine to love; mine to protect; and mine to avenge. I'm going to get hold of the cowardly bastards who did this', she hissed, turning back to face Polly. 'I'll cut their bloody balls off and then shove them down their throats. Long before they die they'll regret the day they ever thought about messing with the Shelbys!'
Polly was hard pressed not to recoil in the face of the other woman's intensity but she schooled her features carefully.
'You'll get no argument from me, love', she responded steadily. 'But you know it isn't that simple. We need to get Tommy well so that we can plan our revenge properly. I love all my nephews equally but only Tommy has the nous to figure a way out of this. If you won't leave then at least let the doctor give you a draught so that you can get some sleep.'
Polly's calm good sense seemed to get through to Arabella and the light of righteous fury in her eyes faded a little. She nodded faintly in acquiescence exhausted now that the adrenaline had left her. Eventually she allowed herself to be led to the small cot in the corner of the room and dosed with laudanum. This set the pattern for the remainder of Tommy's recovery. Arabella stayed by her husband's side, nursing him and feeding her hatred, sleeping only when Polly could persuade her to.
As he healed, Tommy was assailed by disturbing visions. Images drawn from his own personal hell flashed through his damaged brain – a confusing mixture of events that he had experienced during the war, images of his father, the violent deaths of those he loved, even images of gods and demons. The only thing that pierced through the terror of his nightmares was the sound of Arabella's voice, soft, loving, and endlessly comforting, drawing him back from the peace of death. He couldn't leave her. He clung on to her words following the sound back to the surface, back to life.
Tommy's recovery had been long and difficult. At first he had found it hard to remember things: faces; actions; events; even words. The medicine the doctor had prescribed him helped with the pain but left him confused. After a few weeks at home and desperately needing to find clarity, he had reduced his reliance upon it, taking it only at night. This had left him able to think more clearly during the day but given him hallucinatory dreams, the contents of which had disturbed him greatly. Arabella had been by his side constantly, helping him to shave and dress and sitting with him whilst he relearnt how to read and write. He'd been physically fragile too suffering severe headaches in bright sunlight or whenever he got tired. Eventually, painfully, he had begun to regain his strength and his focus and with this came his ability to plan.
One of his first actions had been to call the family together for a meeting. He had made his way to the study at Arrow House well before the meeting was due to start so that the clan had not seen how much the effort of walking a few hundred yards had cost him.
'I'd call this meeting of the Shelby Company Limited to order', he said formally once the family was arrayed before him. Lizzie sat with her pencil poised ready to take notes but Tommy shook his head. 'We'll want no record of this, Lizzie. Just listen.'
The first thing Tommy had insisted upon was that no one in the family should hunt down and kill Father Hugh and his men – at least for the present. However, it was clear from his tone and the look in his eye as he spoke that the focus of his comments had been Arabella; she had gritted his teeth in response. Polly had told Tommy of Arabella's words in the hospital and her determination to kill the men who had hurt him. He thought of the jubilation in her voice when she had told him that she had manage to identify the special branch officers who had been involved in his beating. She had grinned viciously when she had told him how she had made use of the contacts that she had amongst the friends of her brothers who had survived the war and now strode the corridors of power. He had been impressed by her resourcefulness and touched by her desire to protect him but he also recalled the emotional pain that wounding a man in self-defence had caused her. He therefore resolved to do everything he could to prevent her from becoming a murderer.
The second thing he had insisted upon was doing a deal with the Soviets to ensure that the guns and tanks being stolen for the uprising in Georgia would prove utterly worthless. By stealing the firing pins need to use the weapons he had negated the Bolshevik's need to destroy the shipment. At this point he had felt that the main danger to the Peaky Blinders was the initial robbery and that was something which could be planned for. Payment for the job was also an issue.
'The Russian's have offered to pay us for the robbery in gems and jewellery. We need someone we can trust to appraise the Russian's collection', Tommy said thoughtfully. 'We need to know what they have available. Then we can decide what we can ask from them up front and what we can take from them in the end.' He looked over his desk to the rest of the family.
'There are a couple of pawnbrokers here in Birmingham that owe us favours', Arthur said doubtfully 'But I'm not sure we can trust them to keep quiet.'
'Why not just ask Alfie?' Arabella asked, curiously. 'He knows his stuff and he's trustworthy – for a price.'
Tommy fixed her with his pale eyes, resting his chin on his steepled fingers. If anyone noticed the slight tremor in his hands they kept it to themselves.
'Continue', he said without inflection.
'When I was in London seeing Ada', she said neutrally meeting his cool gaze without demur. 'I found that I needed some ready cash. Alfie kindly helped me with the sale of some of my jewellery. He has a very good eye. You could do worse than to call on him.'
The family stirred uneasily at the mention of that unfortunate time. It was not generally referred to and they were unsure of how Tommy would react. Arabella raised her chin proudly and did not look away. Eventually Tommy nodded and the tension was broken.
'I'll contact him.' He looked towards Arthur who was growling with disgust. 'I know you hate the man', Tommy said warningly. 'And with good reason but we need someone who knows how to keep their gob shut. If Arabella is correct then Alfie might be our best bet.'
Closing the meeting he dismissed the family. Michael, however, stayed behind. Tommy was exhausted but seeing the serious look in the younger man's eyes he gestured to him to sit back down.
'I need to speak to you about the priest', Michael said staring fixedly at the floor. 'I know things about him.'
'Go on', Tommy urged.
'It's from when I was a… from when I was just a boy; when the Parish took me.' Michael gave an involuntary shudder then raised his eyes to meet Tommy's. What he saw there made Tommy feel sick. 'He's mine, Tommy. I will shoot him myself.'
'Polly won't like it', Tommy said. Michael bridled and Tommy raised his hands pacifyingly. 'When the time comes you can do it. You have my word. '
'Just teach me how. I'll deal with my mother'
'It's easy, Michael', Tommy said calmly. 'You just point the gun and pull the trigger.'
When Michael had gone Tommy rested his head in his hands and rubbed gently at his temples trying to stave off the pain that he knew was coming. He half hoped that it killed him before Polly found out what he had just agreed to let Michael do.
Apologies that the last few chapters have been a bit like a novelisation of Series 3. There will be more Arabella from this point on.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If Michael wanted to be the one to kill the twisted Father Hugh then he desperately needed to learn to shoot. He'd tried talking to John and Arthur about it in the past; it had not gone well. Before he approached them again he wanted to be more confident in handling a gun. The trouble was that everyone in the Blinders knew that his mother was dead set against him being involved in the dodgy side of the business so they would never agree to help him. Other than his cousins, the only person who might have the balls to go against his mother was Arabella – she hated the priest almost as much as he did. With a slow grin he headed off to find her.
Arabella was taking some time to decompress. Whistling up her dogs she had headed out across the grounds, skirting the pitch where some of the Lees had set up camp. The Romani's watch dogs had set up a furious barking as she passed to which her own animals had responded cautiously; they were too well trained to leave her side. The noise had caught the attention of a couple of the Lee women who were doing their washing in the river. They'd acknowledged her presence with polite nods then returned to their work.
Enjoying the feel of the sun on her skin after so long cooped up indoors, Arabella had continued on until she came to a small area of woodland. She had sat down on a rotting log in a clearing whilst her dogs gambled about her flushing out small game and playing mad games of chase. Michael found her there sometime later. She looked peaceful, he thought. Her eyes were closed and her face was turned up towards the sun. As he neared where she sat one of her dogs barked an alarm. Almost without seeing her move he found himself staring down the barrel of Arabella's gun.
'Jesus Michael', she hissed when she saw who it was. 'I could have fucking shot you!' She pointed the gun to the sky and slowly released the hammer. 'What the hell do you want?'
Michael shakily released the breath he'd been holding. He'd definitely come to the right person.
'Tommy's given me permission to be the one to put a bullet in that bastard Hugh's brain', he said with a touch of bravado; it didn't last long. 'The trouble is I've hardly ever fired a shot. '
'Why the hell would he do that?' Arabella demanded angrily. 'I wanted that pleasure myself but he said that he'd take care of it. '
'I have a prior claim from when I was a kid', Michael said. He met her gaze allowing her to see the pain in his eyes. It didn't take long for the astute woman to guess his meaning.
'Oh Michael, darling, I'm so sorry. I knew there was something off about him but I never guessed…' She ground to a halt realising that sympathy was not what he wanted from her. 'Tell me what you need.'
'I need you to teach me to shoot', he said simply. 'I can't ask my cousins and everyone else is too scared of Polly. Ari please help me kill this fucking bastard. In return I'll see what I can do to get you close to the men who cracked Tommy's skull.'
It had taken Arabella all of 10 seconds to agree. Then they'd sat down together and planned how it would all work. It had been immediately clear that they could not be shooting guns anywhere on the Arrow House estate, not without drawing attention to themselves. A trip to Arabella's childhood home was clearly going to be the best option. Michael was responsible for making the payments to Lord Fairfax and Arabella was the man's only remaining child; what could be more natural than the two of them visiting his estate and given the distance a stay of a few days would be completely reasonable.
Tommy's return to the world of business had brought him massive headaches – both metaphorical and literal. When he had first been in hospital, things had been allowed to slide somewhat. Polly had done her best but the boys had been stomping all over the place threatening people and making trouble and the more delicate stuff had been overlooked – including a problem with one of the casinos.
'What do you mean, 'it's losing money'?' Tommy asked Polly incredulously. 'How can a fucking casino lose money?'
'Not all of it', Polly replied calmly. 'Just the black jack tables – but we can't work out why.'
'How much?' Tommy asked rubbing at his temples in a vain attempt to stave of the headache that threatened to overwhelm him.
'We're £100 a day down on where we should be.' Polly grimaced at Tommy's look of outrage.
'Jesus Polly! How long's this been going on?'
Tommy listened with increasing irritation until Polly had finished the whole sorry tale. By the time she was finished his head felt ready to explode. Polly touched his hand with concern.
'Would you like me to get your medicine?' she asked.
'Just find Arabella please. And for god's sake shut the curtains.'
Ten minutes later Arabella hurtled into the darkened room clutching aspirins and a glass of water. She found Tommy laid out on his couch head in his hands. Moving quietly she gently stroked his forehead with fingers. He didn't open his eyes but he grabbed her hand and squeezed it in gratitude. She helped him sit and fed him the painkillers and water. Then she laid a gentle kiss on his forehead.
'Rest your head on me, my darling, and let me take away the pain.'
Tommy did as he was bid and Arabella spent the next ten minutes gently massaging his forehead, temples, and scalp with firm, cool fingers. When the pain had eased a little Tommy began to off load his concerns. When they reached the issue of the casino Arabella felt moved to ask questions.
'Many regulars at the tables?' She queried.
'A dozen or so according to Polly', Tommy responded, allowing himself to relax a little more under the delicate probing of her fingers. 'Including three or four new faces.'
Arabella stiffened slightly as she began to consider the problem and her rhythmic stroking of Tommy's forehead ceased. Tommy rubbed his aching head against her lap reminding her that he was still in need.
'Are any of them winning particularly big?' Arabella continued, resuming the massage distractedly.
'Nothing out of the ordinary. If someone's counting cards it's none of the regulars.'
'And the dealers?'
'Again, nothing that can be proved. Most of them have been with the family for years. Polly has tried moving them between venues unexpectedly or randomly swapping their shifts but the problem remains.' Tommy sighed with frustration and then again in bliss as Arabella's strong fingers loosened a particularly tight knot of tension at the nape of his neck.
'So probably not the dealers then,' Arabella agreed. 'Unless they're all in on it - which seems unlikely.' She nibbled on her top lip lost in though. 'You'll have to send someone in to watch the play. See if they can pick up something as it's happening.'
'This is one of our higher end places', Tommy remarked. 'That's why the losses are coming out so bad. I do not have anyone to send who wouldn't be made the moment they walked in.' He felt Arabella's hands still again.
'Thomas you are being particularly obtuse today.' She teased pulling gently on his fringe in mild reproof. 'Why not send me. Or rather 'Harry'.'
If anyone fancies it there is now a PB discussion forum running at 'the other place' (https://www.fanfiction.net/forum/Peaky-Blinders/214498/).
If anyone has any good Lizzie Stark fics I'd be really grateful if they could post links there.
Over the next few weeks a recovering Tommy began to put the next few steps of his plan to rook the Russians in to place - starting with Alfie Solomons.
To say that Alfie was unimpressed by being summoned by Tommy Shelby was an understatement. Arthur was equally unimpressed to learn that the man who had once sold him out to the police was on the premises. Tommy's best chance was to keep them apart, at least for a little while. He had told Mary to take his brothers to the kitchen and give them tea and rum. Alfie, the self-described 'Wandering Jew' he'd had shown into the drawing room. Joining him a little while later Tommy had found Alfie browsing amongst his booze collection.
'Good morning, Mr Solomons', he'd said politely.
'Yeah, it is', Alfie responded rather cryptically. 'Nice little place you've got here, Thomas', he added casting his eyes around the room. 'What is it? A foreclosure of a gambling debt from some poor young lord who you pumped full of opium in one of your casinos? Or is that just tittle-tattle?'
Alfie's words were deliberately chosen to be insulting but, smiling politely, Tommy refused to be riled. He offered his visitor a drink.
'Nah, I don't touch it, mate', Alfie lied. 'Mug's game. Makes men stupid.'
Tommy sipped his drink calmly and let the man ramble on. Clearly he needed to get all this off his chest before they could get down to business.
'Now word in London is that you can be found wandering the streets of Birmingham, stark bollock naked, throwing away money like the king of England. They say that you talk to dead people and see the ghosts of all those what you've killed. Also, that you believe that you are powerful enough to summon up Jews of a very particular standing up to the gentile wilderness wherein you live in order for them to do your fucking bidding, mate.'
Finally, there it was - the true cause of Alfie's irritation. Tommy allowed himself another small smile.
'And yet still, you came.'
'Yeah, well, I was passing, weren't I?
'And you should know that I'm grateful for it. Truly.'
Suddenly the unpredictable Alfie was all concern.
'You're fucking about with Russians, in't you? You silly boy', he grumbled. 'Why the bleedin' hell would you go and do something as stupid as that? Russian royalty are bad, bad, bad people. It's a good thing you've got one of god's chosen in the shape of yours truly to back you up or you might really be in the shit.' Alfie finally settled down in one of the easy chairs and stared at Tommy belligerently. 'Truth be told sweetie, I in't doing this for you. I'm doing it for your lovely lady wife what don't need to be made a widow so young. Is she here?'
Tommy stifled a grin. Trust Arabella to have made a conquest out of one of the most dangerous gangsters in Britain. Perhaps he should send her out to soften up all his potential business associates.
'Before we go any further Mr Solomons I'm going to need you to take a look at three items for me and give me your opinion.'
Alfie narrowed his eyes dangerously. 'I in't a performing monkey', he growled. 'What you can order about for your own edification and amusement.
'Please', Tommy said politely, laying out three pieces of jewellery. 'Arabella says you know what you're talking about and I would really appreciate your input.'
'Well since you asked so nicely!' Alfie picked up the first piece – an elegant diamond ring. Drawing a loupe from one of his hidden pockets he began his examination.
'Nice', he said after a few seconds. 'Present for the wife?'
Tommy looked at him steadily.
'Alright chief', Alfie grinned at him. 'A Golconda stone. One of the purest kind of diamonds you can get, old mine cut, the man who made this was quite a craftsman - shame about the mount. Its platinum but the working is crude. I'd get it reset if I was you. Tell you what, I'll give you a grand for the diamond and you can melt the metal down for scrap.' He looked dismissively down at the other two pieces. 'Don't even bother insulting me by asking me to look at the other two. Paste brings me out in a rash.'
'Right on all counts, Mr Solomons. Arabella was right to recommend you.' Tommy smiled in relief.
'Of course she bloody was', Alfie muttered. 'Good judge of character is Mrs Shelby.' He looked at Tommy. 'Mostly.'
Now all Tommy had to do was get Alfie and Arthur to play nicely together. With a sigh he'd sent one of the maids to bring his brothers up to the drawing room. The meeting had proceeded about as well as could be expected. Eventually to prevent bloodshed he had been forced to tell the truth.
'As Mr Solomons would no doubt be happy to confirm, the Russians cannot be trusted to pay us', he said calmly. 'So we are going to have to take what is ours. We need to see what's in their treasury and understand the value of it. And that's why we need Mr Solomons. Then we just need to find a way to break in.'
There were no further arguments.
Whilst Tommy was working on the Russian problem, Arabella was trying to get to the bottom of the blackjack scam which was happening at the Edgbaston casino. Her first step had been to contact Minnie the young whore who had acted as her cover the last time she had gone gambling whilst dressed as a man. Minnie had been glad to fall back into their old routine; the money was good and she got to keep her clothes on. Secretly Minnie had to admit that she also liked to see a woman getting one over on arrogant men who usually thought that they ruled the world. The family had also used their connections to hire the services of a woman who worked at the Prince of Wales Theatre in the city. She had joined Arabella in Minnie's room in Summer Lane and assisted with her transformation into 'Harry', even helping to apply a fake mustache which would have left Arthur feeling a little jealous. The new Harry was significantly more realistic than the old one.
Arabella's knowledge of blackjack had been rather rudimentary as she had always (erroneously it turned out) considered it a simple game of chance rather than a game of skill but she had memorised combinations of hard totals, soft totals, and splittable hands in preparation. She had also worked with one of the Blinders who had a reputation as a card sharp. The man had shown her multiple ways to palm cards and manipulate the deck then challenged her to identify when he was using his skills. She was enchanted by him. His was definitely a friendship that she wanted to cultivate long-term.
After a week of preparation Arabella had finally felt ready to begin her investigation. Dressed as Harry she had paid her way in to a blackjack game at the Edgbaston gambling den playing the role of a rather tipsy young gentleman with money to burn. She had bet with apparent recklessness in order to cover her covert surveillance of the other players and had then made notes of all that she had seen on her return home. Unfortunately that had not been much – no single person had won unreasonably and nothing obviously untoward had taken place. Nevertheless the table was down again and a chastened Arabella realised that discovering what was going on would take more than a single visit. She found it hard to disguise her happiness, however, for it was only once she was there that she had realised just how much she had missed her secret life. The constant risk of discovery, the opportunity to pit her wits against others, and even the simmering undercurrent of suppressed violence gave her an intense thrill; nothing else quite matched up.
It was not until her third visit that Arabella began to get an inkling as to how the con at the Shelby's casino was being managed. The pit boss had identified the regulars prior to Arabella joining the game and she had watched them carefully. Some of them exhibited a good level of skill but none of them achieved unreasonably high winnings – at most they came out slightly in profit. What did seem odd was that the spot next to one of the regulars always seemed to cash out more profitably and more frequently than usual and the players who occupied the place bet more heavily than most. These high-rolling 'whales' changed regularly but she watched the interaction between them and the regular. The signs were subtle but they were there and gradually a pattern began to emerge. After four move visits Arabella was sure. Grinning with glee she raced back to Arrow House to tell Tommy that she had solved the problem only to find that he had not yet returned from business in London. Biting back her frustration she knew her news would probably have to wait until morning.
Arabella awoke early the next day and was disappointed to find that she was alone. Tommy had presumable returned very late and had slept in his dressing room to avoid disturbing her. It was happening more and more lately. Emotionally they were closer than they had ever been but physically… At first she had put it down to his injury and then his medication but he was whole again now and nothing had changed. Every time she tried to make love to him he found a reason to divert her attention. However, she was determined to force a change. She washed and dressed quickly and then went downstairs to find her husband. As she headed towards the breakfast room she almost bumped in to Mary who looked absolutely mortified. The woman bobbed a curtsy but would not meet her eye. Arabella watched her leave in bemusement.
'What in god's name did you say to Mary?' She asked as she entered the room where Tommy was sat picking at his breakfast. 'The poor woman's gone the colour of strawberry jam!'
'She asked me about my medicine', Tommy replied with a faux air of innocence. 'So I told her.'
'Tommy! Arabella gasped, stifling a giggle. 'Did you tell her everything? About Leviticus and her being naked? How could you!' Arabella sat down next to him and helped herself to some tea torn between amusement at Tommy's bare faced cheek and pity for humiliation certainly being felt by the very prim and proper Mary.
'Not quite everything', he continued. 'I asked her if she wanted to find out what happened once she'd stopped reading but she didn't seem interested.' He nibbled primly on a tiny square of toast.
Arabella, who knew exactly what happened next, could no longer contain her mirth.
'Thank heavens that she didn't ask you to explain', she said through tears of laughter. 'She's already half in love with you. If she thought that it was even vaguely reciprocated it would have made her impossible!'
Tommy began to scoff at her. Then he remembered what Tatiana Petrovna had said to him about the maid who answered the bell after midnight being the one who was in love with the master. It was always Mary. Fucking hell - he really should take more notice of the women in his life!
Tommy's look of horror made his wife laugh all the harder. Her amusement was intoxicating and he could not help but join in. As he relaxed he noticed the wicked look in her eyes and the faint blush in her cheeks. The little witch was clearly remembering the details of his drug induced fantasies about Mary.
'Right', he said, pushing away the remains of his breakfast in disgust and turning to face her. 'There's only one way that I'm going to get that particular thought out of my head and yours and for that I'm going to need your undivided attention.' The look he gave her was so heated, so nakedly sexual that Arabella's laughter died abruptly. Lips parting with desire, she drew in a ragged breath. How was it that he could rouse her almost to fever pitch with a single word or glance? Please god let him not turn away again, she thought desperately. She wriggled in her chair enjoying the press of the firm cushion against her suddenly sensitized flesh.
Tommy watched her intently. He could read every thought and every desire in her beautiful eyes. He couldn't believe that he had nearly lost her. He reached out and caressed her cheek tenderly. Gasping she turned and kissed his palm then began to trace delicate patterns across it with her tongue. It had been so long since they'd made love. After the loss of their child and all that had happened in the aftermath he had been afraid to touch her, afraid that it would bring back memories of that terrible time. Now her eyes were filled with familiar passion and he could not help but find it arousing; it had been far too long since he's last seen her undone by desire. With a wicked grin, Arabella took one of his fingers in to her mouth sucking on it then teasing the tip with her tongue and teeth. She left him in no doubt of what she would rather be doing. Christ, he thought, she does love to torture me.
He stood abruptly and pulled her up to join him, grinding roughly against her. She could feel how aroused he was, how hard. They kissed fiercely reveling in the taste of each other. Lost in sensation they didn't hear the maid who had come in to clear the breakfast things until she dropped the sugar tongs. When they turned to look at her she gave a little gasp of embarrassment and froze.
'Get the fuck out!' Tommy roared at her hoarsely. 'And don't come back until you're called for.'
The terrified maid scampered from the room slamming the door closed behind her in her haste. This would probably earn her a reprimand from Mary on top of the fright Tommy had just given her and Arabella knew she would have to find a way to make it up to the girl. But not now. Not when she had much more interesting things on her mind.
'Well Mr Shelby', she drawled lasciviously running a finger delicately down his chest stopping just above the waistband of his suit trousers. 'Where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?' Looking up at him she ran a tongue suggestively along her upper lip.
'Jesus Arabella - do you have any idea what you fucking do to me?
With nimble fingers she unbuttoned his fly and slipped her hand inside his trousers. He grunted as she took him in her hand.
'There seems to be a small clue right here', she replied cheekily.
'Less of the 'small' woman - that sort of talk can put a man off his stride. Oh fuck!' He groaned as she began to run her hand along the length of his erection.
'There's only one sure way to distract me', she said a little breathlessly, continuing to torment him with the rough but steady pace she knew he loved. Excited beyond words Tommy reached for her and tried to pull her against him. Feigning shock she stopped what she was doing and danced back, eyes daring him to follow her. 'You'll have to come and get me, Mr Shelby!'
'Damn it Arabella', he hissed. 'No more!'
In a few quick strides he had her back in his arms. Kissing her fiercely he spun them both round and then backed her roughly up against the polished oak of the dining table so she could not escape him again. The impact set the tableware rattling.
'I'm going to take you now Arabella', he said seriously. 'It's going to be hard and rough and a little bit dirty. Just like me.'
'Well is that any way to speak to a lady?' She said opening her eyes wide in faux outrage.
Tommy laughed. 'Oh Arabella you haven't been a lady in anything but name for a good long while.' As if to prove his point he ground himself against her again and she all but purred.
Spinning her round he pushed her forward over the table so she was balancing on her palms. He hoicked the hem of her dress unceremoniously over her hips, tearing the fragile fabric. She hissed in annoyance.
She wasn't wearing underwear. Damn the woman, Tommy though - she had to have been planning something like this all along! With a knee he pressed her legs apart. Then, freeing his erection, he drove deeply in to her, the sharp pleasure of it drawing gasps from them both. He threaded his fingers through her hair and pulled on it roughly. She writhed back against him in ecstasy meeting him thrust for thrust.
Tommy was almost lost already; it felt so good. He'd missed her, missed this. He wanted to give her as much enjoyment as she gave him but he feared that he would not last much longer. One of his hands snaked between her legs and his questing fingers began to tease her towards her release. He felt her muscles beginning to clench around him. She was so close. He just needed to hold on for a little while longer. With his last moment of rational thought he pushed her over the edge to orgasm. Her cries of pleasure triggered his own release and he collapsed against her. Burying his face in her neck he struggled to come back in to himself.
'Shit', he said, once he had caught his breath. 'I can't feel my bloody legs!'
Arabella rested her forehead on the glossy wood of the table and began to giggle.
With a sinking heart, Tommy realised that he could no longer delay introducing Arthur and John to the Russians for whom they were nominally acting. With a wave of revulsion he remembered the exact nature of his 'interview' with Tatiana Petrovna. The idea of meeting up with her again, or of being obliged to do whatever he needed to pacify her or convince him of his dedication, appalled him. The idea of introducing his brothers to her and her family was an even bigger source of concern.
It was only after they had had sex that the Grand Duchess had revealed the real reason for her detailed examination of every square inch of his skin. Checking for gang tattoos she'd said - or at least seeking those that indicated membership of any of the groups which were dedicated to the destruction of the Russian royal family – but he'd known that at least some of it had been to demonstrate the extent of the power she had over him.
He knew that his brothers would need to go through a similar checking process. John would probably take it all in his stride, he thought, but Arthur? The man was pulled tauter than a bow string at the best of times. His wife Linda had made him calmer on a day to day basis but the pressure she had put on him to behave in a godly fashion was directly affecting his ability to operate effectively on behalf of the business. Tommy was concerned that he could no longer be relied upon to follow his orders.
For these reasons, along with many more, he had put off the meeting between the Whites and his brothers. However, the Russians wanted to meet the key players before things went any further so that was what had to happen. Now that Alfie had agreed to assist him in identifying the best and most saleable jewellery and trinkets in the Russian vault he had no further reason to delay. He resolved to keep his brothers in the dark for as long as possible in the hope that, when placed on the spot they would react like obedient little soldiers. Matters in the factories in Birmingham were also coming to a head. It would not take much more to bring the workers out on strike and from there inciting a riot would be easy. No, he knew that it had to be now. He made the required calls and set up the introduction.
There was one person that he couldn't keep the truth from, however – Arabella. She'd been so excited when she'd brought him her solution to the blackjack scam, overjoyed that she could help him in his business. He'd promised her that they would act on her discovery as soon as possible but her frustration had been palpable. If he didn't tell her the reason for the delay then he was worried that she might try to act alone. Heavy-hearted he headed off to find her.
Arabella was out in the stables getting to know her new mare, Wild Card. Tommy stood quietly by the entrance to the stable yard not wanting to interrupt the introductions. He loved to watch his wife around horses. She had all the instincts and skill of a Romani horse trader. Her approach to the mare was calm and measured but there was no question in her attitude and bearing that she was the head of the herd and that she expected obedience. Wild Card responded warily at first, flicking her ears back and stamping her feet a little but Arabella kept talking to her in a soothing and confident tone and then held out some pieces of apple for the mare to pick at. As the horse nibbled at the treats Arabella rested her other hand gently on its neck, then she began to rub down to its withers finding the mare's most sensitive spot. Under her gentle ministrations the mare visibly relaxed. Not wishing to push her too far, Arabella continued to scratch for a few moments more and then released her in to the paddock.
Noticing Tommy for the first time she smiled up at him. Then, seeing the tension in his face, she sluiced off her hands under the pump and came to join him. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close, burying his face in her hair and inhaling the familiar scents of soap and horse.
'You know that I'm meeting with the Russians today. It's going to be very… difficult and I need not to have to worry about what you're doing whilst I'm away. Please don't make a move against the scammers without me.' He rested his forehead gently against hers and sighed. 'Oh love these Russians are all crazy. They play mind games with people for fun – and the Peaky Blinders won't be any exception. I'm going to have to tread a very fine line in order to keep things moving in the right direction, maybe do things that I would rather not do.'
Arabella pulled back a little and looked up at him. He could not meet her eyes. She reached out and tidied his fringe, then straightened his tie.
'I know about the Duchess', she said calmly.
Guilt and horror warred for supremacy in Tommy's face. In the end horror won out. Arabella took his hands in hers.
'Maids talk.' She said, biting her lip to keep from smiling at his stricken expression. 'I know they seem like part of the furniture and act like mobile statues but they have eyes and they definitely have ears. They also love to gossip.'
Tommy's face shut down entirely. To anyone who didn't know him he would have seemed cold, unapproachable and, frankly, rather frightening. To Arabella his expression – or lack thereof - only made him seem more vulnerable. It was the instinctive reaction of a maltreated child who had learned to close off his emotions to avoid incurring greater harm. Her heart lurched in sympathy.
'You did what you had to keep us all safe my love and today you have my permission to do the same', she said taking his face gently between the palms of her hands. 'The same goes for all of you. Together this family will bring their fucking world down around their ears. Nobody messes with the Peaky Blinders remember!' She kissed him fiercely, grinding her lips against his. Slightly dazed Tommy let her have at it. Whatever he had expected from his 'respectable' arranged marriage it hadn't been this. Good, he thought, responding to her embraces with a whole heart, respectability be damned!
True to her word, Arabella remained at Arrow House whilst the Shelby boys took their disturbing trip to see the Russian royals at Hampton Court Palace. To distract herself from what she feared was taking place down Richmond she spent the day drinking with Polly and dissecting the casino con.
'It's actually quite ingenious', she said with a wicked smile.
'It's been expensive, I know that', Polly responded sourly. She watched the younger woman jiggling in her seat like a child with a secret. Polly hadn't seen her so happy since the afternoon of the charity dinner; she wondered how long it would last. 'Oh go on I know you're dying to tell me how they've been getting away with it.'
'It was all based on card counting – the oldest trick in the book.'
'How can it be?' Polly was dismissive. 'None of the regulars won more than small amounts – certainly not enough to account for the losses. And amongst the big winners there were none who stayed anywhere near long enough to get a feel for what was left in the deck.'
'That was the clever part.' Arabella's smile broadened. 'The card counter bet small so that he didn't arouse the dealer's suspicions but he passed the information on to a succession of high-rolling plants. It wasn't perfect and the plants were interspersed with random fools looking to throw away more than they could afford so it was hard to see what was going on at first but once I knew what to look for the signs were all there. The question is – what do we do now?'
'I vote we shoot someone.' Polly wasn't smiling.
The least said about the 'meeting' with the Russians the better. Tommy was not proud of his actions that day but he knew that they had been necessary - mostly. Arthur was feeling equally ashamed. By common consent they had agreed not to mention what had taken place at the orgy ever again. The only one not feeling a little bit sensitive about events was John who had ever been a cocky bastard where women were concerned.
As promised by Arabella, Solomons had more than proved his worth with the Russian royals. Tommy was glad that he had known a little of Alfie's family history prior to the meeting as it had helped him conceal any evidence of surprise. Alfie's revelation that he spoke Russian – and that the Russian nobility had once hunted his mother through the snow with dogs - had caused an instant chilling of the atmosphere in the bunker under the grace and favour lodgings of Wilderness House but it had also put the Russian's on the back foot. Uncertain and uncomfortable, they had the allowed Tommy and Alfie to take control. It would prove to be an expensive mistake for the royals. Alfie had even managed to force them into showing him the whereabouts of the provenance for a Faberge egg. Tommy meanwhile had been able to take the measure of the Russian's secure vault and his experienced sapper's eye had allowed him to make a true map of the cellar's layout whilst underground.
Tommy now had a clear idea of how the robbery was going to work. The complexities were mind bending and there was very little margin for error but he believed that his plan was sound. In his mind he began to list the people with whom he needed to talk. What he needed to do first, however, was wash the taint of Tatiana Petrovna off his skin.
Returning home the next morning Tommy went directly to find Johnny Dogs. He found him down by the river. The man was relaxing in the sunshine, sipping tea and eating the remains of a trout that one of the Lee women had baked in the campfire the night before. At Tommy's approach he hailed him with a smile.
'You know, some mornings I wake up, I think I've died and this is heaven, Tom. I mean, camped out in the valley, with all the wives and kiddies about, plenty of fresh water and game, and no gamekeeper to tell us no.'
Tommy looked out on the beautiful countryside that surrounded them and knew that it was true. The place spoke to his Romani heart like few others but he could not deny the presence of the outside world.
'See that dark grey line over there?' He said, indicating the horizon. 'No? That's the edge of heaven; the border between paradise and the real world. And today, my friend, you're going to step back over that line, back into the world of settled men.'
Johnny regarded him steadily. 'You have something for me to do then, Tom?'
Drawing deeply on his cigarette, Tommy looked out across the estate. 'Have you ever heard of Hampton Court Palace, Johnny?'
Johnny shrugged carelessly. The world was full of places that he didn't know the name of but if there was a green space there he was prepared to visit it. Anyway, a palace sounded like something he should see.
Tommy took him through the plan, 'You and three families of the Lees are going to set up an encampment right near the gates of the palace opposite a place called Wilderness House. You won't be moved on because I now own that land. You'll be joined by some old pals of mine from my fighting days who are going to open a hole underneath your tents and caravans.'
For all that he had never been a soldier, Johnny Dogs recognised an order when he heard one. He asked the only question available to him.
Tommy smiled at the man's naked greed. 'For allowing the hole to be dug, you will get £5,000, which you will split fairly between the three Lee families and yourself.'
'That's a goodly sum, Tommy. I take it that a lot it has to do with not asking questions about the purpose of the hole or the men digging it.' Johnny said amiably, lifting his face to the sun.
'Spot on, Johnny. I knew I could rely on you. And when the big hole is filled in again, you can come back here to dwell in paradise for as long as you wish. That's my promise to you.'
Johnny Dogs waited all of five seconds before agreeing to do what Tommy asked. £5,000 was a lot of money, even allowing for it being split four ways. Daughters needed dowries and the Lees had a preponderance of them – each as wayward and headstrong as Esme. A good bridal portion would stiffen the backbones of a lot of potential bridegrooms and their cocks too come to that. Knowing the safe haven of the Arrow House estate would be available afterwards was an added bonus. The two men spat on their hands and shook to seal the deal.
Finally free for a time Tommy went back to Arrow House and sought out his wife. He needed a measure of the peace that only she could provide. He found her sat in the room that was to have been their child's nursery. Not much had been done to the space. The potential child had barely been acknowledged before the Changretta's assassin had taken its life but Arabella had still had time to quietly bring over her family's crib. The Fairfax christening gown was still hanging from the wardrobe door where she had placed it. When he entered the room she turned reddened eyes up to meet his. He saw a nearly empty bottle of whiskey at her feet. It was clear she needed him even more than he needed her.
'I know I shouldn't come in here', she said rubbing at her eyes. 'It does nothing but upset me. Yet still I find I need to spend time in the place where our child should be.'
Tommy drew her into his arms, inhaling the spicy aroma of her perfume, and the more prosaic scents of soap and whiskey. 'How long have you been in here?'
She shrugged numbly. 'About half a bottle.'
'Come to bed love', he said nuzzling gently against her neck. 'Let's you and me shut out the world for a little while.'
Obediently Arabella followed him.
I just wanted to say how appreciative I am of all your feedback and kudos so far. The feedback is particularly welcome as I'm really keen to improve my writing. Any input you are prepared to give (however critical) would be very gratefully received!
It took Tommy the best part of a day to talk Arabella out of her depression. At first he had whispered heartfelt words of love and desire into her ear, hoping to convince her of his utter dedication - if nothing else it helped to take away some of the guilt he felt for his recent escapades with the Russian bitch. Later he had told her carefully edited snippets about the meeting at Wilderness House. He focused on the parts with Alfie in them. Particularly the bits in which Alfie had tricked or overwhelmed the Russians. Arabella had perked up slightly at the mention of the charismatic Jew. If Tommy hadn't trusted her implicitly then he might have felt slightly concerned about her feelings towards him. Gradually he'd let her know the details of his plans to rook the Russians; the knowledge seemed to please and comfort her in equal measure.
Finally reaching equilibrium, she had eventually outlined the plans for the opening of the new Shelby Institute for non-insured children of the poor. The dramatic events of the charity diner had resulted in a huge increase in both interest and donations so the project had been able to advance far quicker than originally foreseen. It was therefore intended that the formal opening should take place within the next few weeks. The timing was inconvenient but that could not be helped. Arabella and the rest of the committee had put so much time it to it Tommy could hardly believe that he had failed to notice what had been going on. It only went to show how preoccupied he'd been with the Russian problem and how careful Arabella had been to give him space to deal with the complexities of the legitimate and illegitimate sides of the Shelby business. As he held her curled against him he marvelled once again at how lucky he had been in his marriage. They had had a rocky start but despite everything they had become closer than he had ever dare imagine. Now he could scarcely conceive of having a better partner in his endeavours.
Later, when the topic of the Shelby's charitable works had been exhausted, she had enthusiastically brought him up to speed with the plan that she and Polly had come up with to deal with the blackjack con. It became abundantly clear where her true interests lay. The plan itself was fairly straightforward but it would require a significant amount of manpower to carry out. Arabella would point out each of the high rollers in turn and Blinders' men would be set to follow them home. Eventually, once each man had been identified, the gamblers would be picked up simultaneously, and then interrogated with the hopes of identifying the mastermind behind the whole enterprise. The operation would then be shut down and any money or other valuable items confiscated. If necessary an example would be made of one or more of them to discourage others from following suit. Tommy found the simplicity of the plan a distinct relief after the complexities of dealings with the Russians although he was slightly surprised by Arabella's blood-thirstiness when it came to wrapping up the problem. When this was all over perhaps he could appoint an administrator to deal with the charitable aspects of the Shelby's affairs and instead ask Arabella to take over the running of the family's gambling interests. She certainly seemed to have a knack for dealing with the intricacies of casino work.
Eventually they had made love with a kind of quiet relief and then fallen asleep wrapped in each other's arms. A few hours later they had woken, eaten a light meal which the servants had helpfully left on a tray outside their bedroom door, and then made love again. This time there had been a healing element to it. Nestled together they had slept serenely through until morning.
Refreshed and invigorated, Tommy rose at dawn the next day, kissing a dozing Arabella lightly on the forehead before he washed and dressed. She smiled up at him sleepily and he felt his heart swell with contentment. He couldn't put a simple name to what he felt about Arabella but he knew that they had become each other's safe haven. He hoped that that would never change.
With a lightened heart he went down to his study and began to make calls. The next stage of his plan was critical and revolved around old friends from his service days. They were men that he had not imagined he would see again although they had never been far from his thoughts. Rough men, ones whom he had seen stripped to the skin, drowning in mud, and pissing themselves with fear. Men he had fought and bled with. Few though they were, they were men he could rely on to dig with a will when and where he said and betray no confidences. None of the remaining Tipton Clay Kickers had named a price before they had agreed to join him. He couldn't help but feel a small flash of relief when he knew that they were coming; he'd feel safer and more confident with them around him.
With everything set up Tommy had nothing to do but either fret over everything that could go wrong with his plans or relax and spend what could be his last moments with his family. With a supreme effort of will he chose to relax. He went riding with Arabella (peaceful), went drinking with his brothers at The Garrison (messy), and even took Polly out to tea at The Grand Hotel on Colmore Row (expensive). The only thing he hadn't been able to do was spend time with Ada; he hoped that he would have time to do so when this was all over. He swore to himself that whatever happened he would keep his promise to send her safely to New York.
A week later his former comrades had met him at his uncle Charlie's Yard. Despite their lack of uniform they had instinctively fallen back into their old, well-practiced patterns of behaviour coming to attention and saluting him as formally as if they were on the parade ground. William Letso, late of the South African Native Labour Corps, had been the first one to answer the call. Letso was a neat and attractive man, always a hit with the ladies wherever he'd wound up. He'd left the Bloemfontein diamond mines and been dumped in Flanders with hardly a chance to get his bearings. Nevertheless he'd taken to it with scarcely a qualm and rapidly proved himself to be the best tunneller that Tommy ever worked with. Tommy had greeted them all as soberly as a commanding officer should but in his heart he'd felt both relief and joy.
'Get 'em beer, Curly', he'd said, later. 'They used to run on it like cars on petrol. Give them the Black Country stuff.'
Charlie had chaffed at the expense. 'They're going to fucking clean me out', he'd argued, but Tommy had been obdurate.
'They're good men so give them the best.'
Tommy sent his men off in the company of the three Lee families and with his instructions ringing in their ears. They were to dig under the river towards the Russian's underground strong room. The room had originally been designed as the Palace treasury and it was therefore separated from the house by three iron doors with locks that could not be readily opened. A second tunnel was consequently needed to run from the Lee encampment to hit the strong room direct. The Clay Kickers nodded equably at the instructions and left with their store of beer to do Tommy's bidding.
Unfortunately, Tommy's preoccupation with his old comrades coincided with Arabella being tied up making the final arrangements for the opening of the Shelby Institute for the Non-insured Children of the Poor. This left Polly the free run of both Arrow House and the company offices. Working on a mother's intuition, or perhaps relying on some trace of Romani sight, she had taken the opportunity to trawl through Michael's private papers. It did not take her long to find something which made her stomach lurch although this was soon replaced with a deep pulsing anger. She had taken one look at the bullet and realised what Michael intended to do but she wouldn't have it. She wouldn't let this life take her son. Tommy was in for one hell of a fight – once she managed to find him.
Polly was a clever woman who could spot a man dissembling from a hundred yards. Tommy had been forced to admit that Michael had taken on the responsibility of killing Father Hughes but he had tried everything he could to prevent Polly finding out the reason why.
'The bullet was mine', he said softly. 'But I never got a chance to fire it.'
'And the gypsy rules say it must be passed on?' Polly's voice was thick with bitter sarcasm
'It's not about rules, Pol', Tommy had said heavily. 'It's about the fact that Michael asked me and it's about why he told me he wanted to do it.' His face shut down. 'If I tell you what he said then there's no way you can un-hear it. You don't need it echoing around in your head, believe me. You can't change anything now.'
'So this is about when he was with the parish? When he was in the care of the Holy Fathers?'
'You're better off without it, Pol. The knowledge will only hurt you. Listen to me. Michael wants it so you don't know. He doesn't want you to have to bear it too.'
Polly felt sick. 'That priest… That priest who was there when he was taken in and who is still walking the fucking earth. Fuck!' She began pacing agitatedly.
'Fuck.' Tommy echoed. 'He asked me, Pol, and I said yes. And I said, "You put a bullet in that fucker's brains by order of the Peaky Blinders". Now leave it, Pol. Michael is a man grown and he can make his own choices. He doesn't need a mother tying him to her apron strings.'
'No!' Polly said abruptly slamming her hand on the desk. 'Not my son. You don't get to have my son. He's not a part of this. I won't let him be. That priest'll be just as dead if Arthur does it so you give him the order. I swear to God above that if my son pulls the trigger on that bastard I will bring this whole fucking organisation down around your ears'.
There was no doubt in either of their minds that she was serious.
There was no time for any kind of resolution to the issue before the opening of the Shelby Institute, however. Arabella had swung in to full on 'Baroness-in-waiting' mode and had mobilised the biggest collection of the great and the good that the West Midlands had seen since the first Armistice Day celebrations. Tommy, mindful of what had taken place at the last public charity event had also decided to pack the room full of Peaky Blinders. The mix was therefore a strange one: respectable matrons from the Women's League rubbing shoulders with lords and ladies on the one hand and working class bookmakers, bagmen, and thugs on the other. Arabella would definitely have her work cut out ensuring that the day ran smoothly.
The day began beautifully. The building which had been chosen to house the school had been fully renovated and the great hall, which was to be used for assemblies and as a dining room, had been filled with rows of chairs and elaborate floral arrangements. The choir of grateful children had sung delightfully and a band was now playing to entertain people. In one corner of the hall an extensive buffet with little sandwiches and cakes had been set up to feed the guests. To keep problems to a minimum Tommy had read his men the Riot Act and the strongest drink on offer was tea.
Arabella had moved around the room pressing the flesh and stroking egos, thanking donors for their contributions and subtly asking for more; Tommy had done likewise although he sometimes struggled not to reach to some of the insults the wealthy seemed to like to shower on the formerly poor. The couple's eyes met frequently across the busy room as they circulated. Despite everything Tommy could hardly keep from smiling and Arabella flushed joyfully under his intense gaze.
Tommy had been obliged to make a speech. It was direct and unemotional as befitted the public persona of Thomas Shelby but there was no doubting its power and sincerity. For those in the know, the references to the abuse committed by men like Father Hughes was clear, as was the warning.
'I didn't come here today to make a speech, but I will say this, these children are now safe.
In our care, they will be safe because we are from the same cruel hard streets as they are.' He paused, remembering what had happened to his cousins. 'And, in our care, they won't be shipped away to strangers in Australia, or separated from their kith and kin. Nor will they made to work for men in their various sinful ways.' His voice throbbed with emotion. 'Instead they will grow up here, in a safe, secure, and loving home … in Birmingham. Because this is our city and we take care of our own.'
'By order of the Peaky Blinders!' Arthur had roared in response, leading to a massive cheer from the rest of the Blinders and a slightly embarrassed murmur from the more respectable guests.
After the speeches the guests had sung a number of hymns and listened to seemingly endless readings from the bible. Then they had begun to circulate again. In the whirling vortex of people Tommy and Arabella had lost sight of each other. Instead, Tommy had been shocked to notice the presence of a much more insidious and dangerous person – Hughes
'The absence of my invitation for this wonderful event was obviously an oversight on your part, Mr Shelby,' Father Hughes said with a sneer. 'But look, I have the keys so all's well that ends well.' He smiled, shaking the keys in Tommy's direction. 'You'll be please to know that I have allocated myself an office here right by the door so I can come along here regularly to give the children their religious instruction. Convenient, don't you think?'
Tommy feel sick. The perverted priest had secured unfettered access to a new building full of vulnerable children and the Shelbys had somehow made it possible. Tommy had talked to Arabella. She knew what Hughes was and she'd admitted helping Michael practice with a gun. Surely she hadn't knowingly allowed this to happen. Keeping his face as neutral as he could he listened to the man brag about his plans for the children but that was not all Hughes wanted. He also wanted to keep Tommy on the straight and narrow.
'You should understand that my keys to this building are simply a part of our broader arrangement with regards to the Russians. Since you've dissuaded the Soviets from blowing up the train as we had planned then you'll have to do it yourself.' His voice grew cruel. 'You'll not deviate from my instruction. You will not try to cheat me and my employers again. You will not fail. If you do I'll see to it that you, and your family, regret it. You have 24 hours.'
As Hughes strode off in pursuit of the children, Tommy felt his fists itch. He really needed a few moments with Arabella - just long enough to let her goodness wash over him. Forcing down his feelings of disgust and helplessness he hastened to find her only to be distracted by a cooing group of middle-aged matrons intent on good works. When he finally managed to extricate himself Arthur approached him with an update from the men digging at the Palace. They had apparently hit clay and were now going to need two days rather than one. Exasperated he reeled off some instructions and then continued on his way; Arabella was nowhere to be seen.
Arabella was terrified. She had been bundled into a car at the point of a gun, bound hand and foot, and then locked up in a grimy room watched over by two rough looking men. At first she had assumed that she was being held for ransom but then Father Hughes had come in to her cell. It was at that point that the true danger of her situation had hit her. Hughes was not interested in anything as simple or tawdry as wealth. He was a sadist who used his position as a cover for his own perverted desires so she knew that there would be no easy exchange of money in return for her freedom.
Arabella couldn't believe that she had been so stupid. A smartly dressed middle aged woman had approached her at the Institute with a question about the gardens. She had walked outside with her chatting happily about her plans to teach the children how to grow vegetables and flowers. As they reached a group of cars parked on the land where the playing fields were going to be they had been approached by a young man dressed as a chauffeur. He had greeted them with a broad smile and a tip of his cap. A second later he had taken hold of Arabella's arm in a vice like grip and in that same moment pressed a knife against her ribs firmly enough to draw blood. Gasping with pain and shock Arabella had turned to her female companion hoping for help but instead the other woman had simply smirked at her and then pulled a gun.
'If you don't come with us now', she had said calmly. 'I'll kill you where you stand. Now do be a love and get in to the car without making a fuss.'
Helplessly she had allowed the pair to push and pull her towards a waiting car. As they did so she pressed her silk clutch bag against her bloody side and then, as she was forced in to the back seat, she dropped it on the grass. She could only hope that someone would find it and correctly interpret the meaning.
'Good afternoon Mrs Shelby', Hughes said with a silky smile. 'I'm very pleased to have the pleasure of your company on this most important of days.' He leaned towards her and ran a single finger down the side of her neck. She couldn't supress a shiver of revulsion.
'Get your hands off me, you unnatural creature,' she hissed trying to pull away from his touch.
Hughes' smile turned vicious and his hand fastened cruelly around her throat. 'You have nothing I either want or need', he said coldly, squeezing until her vision blurred. 'But I could still put you to considerable trouble so I suggest you keep a civil tongue in your head.' He released her roughly; her breath came back in wheezing gasps.
Arabella had come a long way from the timid creature she had been at the beginning of her marriage and, even though she knew it was stupid, she could not - would not - allow this animal to see her fear. With righteous fury she struggled against her bonds. 'Come near me again and I will bite your throat out, you fucking pervert. You'd better hope I kill you quickly because if Tommy catches you he'll make you beg for mercy long before the end. And I assure you that I will watch every moment with a song in my heart!'
Almost casually, Hughes backhanded her. The force of it sent Arabella rocking back in her seat and the chair tipped over, throwing her to the floor. Unable to protect herself from the impact, her head and shoulder hit the ground with a resounding thud, sending jolts of pain through her. Disorientated and reeling she lolled on the floor desperately trying to gather her wits. Eventually she managed to focus on Hughes' face.
'Everything you do to me now will be visited on you tenfold so you might want to take more care.'
Hughes' only response had been a vicious kick to her belly which left her gasping and retching. Striding from the room he had left her to the tender mercies of his bully boys.
Tommy was frantic. He had searched the Institute from top to bottom and found no sign of his wife. Desperately he began to question party goers to see if they knew where she was. Eventually he found someone who had seen her leave the building in the company of a middle aged woman. It was the gambler who had taught Arabella to palm cards before she went undercover at the Shelby casino in Edgbaston. The man had noted her departure particularly because he had recently learnt a new card trick that he wanted to show her and he had hoped to catch up with her as soon as she was free.
Dragging Arthur and John with him, Tommy had raced off in the direction that the man had indicated. They had found little at first. Eventually though, amongst the dozens of parked cars, they had found a bloodied clutch bag which he knew for sure was Arabella's. Tommy felt the world lurch violently beneath his feet and only Arthur's firm hand on his shoulder steadied him. Through the sound of blood pounding in his ears, Tommy heard Arthur issuing orders. Then John had steered him back towards the Institute and into the waiting arms of Polly and Ada.
Without much helpful input from Tommy, the Blinder's machinery had spun seamlessly into action. Within the hour the car carrying Arabella had been identified and road blocks had been set up on all of the major junctions in the direction in which it had been seen heading. The organising committee had been left to entertain the guests at the opening whilst the family had repaired to Shelby Company offices on the grounds that a kidnapper was most likely to call there with any demands. If nothing else that was where most of the cash and a large amount of the weaponry was stored. Whatever response was required that was going to be a good place to start.
Hughes' men had been surprisingly gentle, Arabella reflected. Yes, they had undressed her down to her shift and laid their hands on her in ways that she refused to think about lest she cry from the shame of it, but they had not treated her as brutally as their master had. She had lain rigid whilst they stripped her and pawed at her vulnerable flesh - not resisting exactly, since she had known that it would be futile, but not making things easy for them either. In some respects it had brought back uncomfortable memories of the fear and humiliation of her wedding night but this time she would not look away not matter what they did – she would not give them the satisfaction.
In the end what she feared had not come to pass. The older of the two men seemed uncomfortable with the situation so Arabella took her chance. 'Imagine someone touching your mother this way', she had whispered to him softly as he grasped roughly at one of her breasts. With a horrified look he had pulled back. Then, ardour cooled and unable to continue, he had slunk off dragging his protesting colleague behind him. Safe for the time being, Arabella sagged against the ropes that bound her giving in, for one brief moment, to the feeling of utter despair. Please Tommy, she prayed, find me quickly.
It was Ada who had first noticed Father Hughes waiting in a sleek black Daimler on the street outside the offices. Clamping down firmly on his rage Tommy had steeled himself to go outside and meet the man. The priest's opening words had not been a surprise.
'As you've probably guessed we have your wife, Shelby. Now get in the car.'
'Is she safe?' Tommy demanded obstinately not moving an inch.
'Of course she's safe. I love all of god's precious creatures and would never harm one - unless I had absolutely no option.' The priest smirked and Tommy's fists itched in response. 'Now get in to the car.'
Tommy did as he was instructed. Settling back into his seat he said. 'You have all the cards, father. If you tell me exactly what you want me to do then I will surely do it.'
'We did warn you that your family would be in danger if you deviated from the plan. It was you who made a mistake, who forced our hand. You understand that?'
Tommy nodded. 'Yes. As you say it was my mistake.' A muscle ticked in his jaw betraying his tension.
'And what mistake did you make?' Hughes pressed. 'Do you even know?'
'Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it. All I care about is getting my wife back whole and healthy.'
Ignoring him Hughes pressed on. 'You made a deal with our enemies you gypsy cur. You went behind our backs to stop the Soviets from blowing up the train. But it's all right. Now you'll have a chance to rectify your mistake and save your family into the bargain.'
Tommy froze in his seat. Whatever was coming, it would not be good. He fought to control the rage which threatened to overwhelm him. In his mind's eye he could see himself beating the priest into a pulp and for once he could understand how his older brother was sometimes overwhelmed by the need to inflict brutal violence on another man with his bare fists.
Talking to him like he was a particularly obtuse child, Father Hughes said. 'This is where you ask me, "What do I need to do?".'
Father Hughes returned from his trip to see Thomas Shelby further convinced of his own innate superiority. For all his wealth, Shelby was a criminal and a gypsy and thus no more than the dirt on the soles of Hughes' well-polished boots. But even dirt had a use and so did the leader of the Peaky Blinders.
Unwilling to let the feeling of victory dissipate too quickly he ignored the greetings of his two henchmen and instead strode quickly through the warehouse towards the grimy room in which Arabella was being held. He despised Arabella as much as he did her husband, perhaps more. By throwing in her lot with someone of Shelby's ilk she was a traitor to her class and, by extension, to her country. He almost hoped that Shelby failed to show up on time. With a cruel smirk twisting his face he slid quietly through the door into her cell - one more chance to crow, he thought, one more chance to watch a Shelby swallow their pride.
Arabella was no longer in the chair in which he had left her. Instead she was huddled on a cot in the far corner of the room, wrapped in a filthy blanket, and with one wrist manacled to metal loop set into the wall. She was dozing lightly. Despite the discomfort of the manacle, stress, terror, and pain had combined to leave her muzzy headed and exhausted. However, the sound of the door clicking open roused her in an instant and she scrabbled back against the wall holding the rough blanket tight around her as if it was a shield. A vivid bruise was blooming across one cheekbone from where he had struck her and her eyes were stretched wide in her ashen face. Arabella raised her chin defiantly but he could see her breath coming in short, shallow gasps; her fear was delicious.
Striding over to the empty chair, Hughes sat down and made himself comfortable. Smoothing down the skirts of his cassock he smiled at her. 'I've just been talking to your mongrel of a husband', he said stretching luxuriously. 'He made a little mess on my carpet and needed his nose rubbing in it.'
Arabella narrowed her eyes but that was the extent of her reaction.
'You have no idea what your husband had become involved in, do you?' Hughes asked with a smirk. 'Well thanks to you and your naïveté I now have you to ensure that he does exactly what I want.' He savoured the guilt that he saw flash in Arabella's eyes.
'I… I… I don't understand', Arabella stammered. 'What are you talking about? Tommy has already agreed to steal the weapons and armoured cars for the Whites. It's all arranged and he has absolutely no intention of breaking the arrangement. What more can you want from him?'
'The robbery was never the point. What I want is a bloody great mess, in fact the bloodier the better. The aim of this whole enterprise was to entice the Bolsheviks into blowing up the train. Since your fucking cur of a husband has let them know that the armaments themselves will be useless when the Whites receive them there is no longer any point in them trying to stop the robbery.'
Father Hughes was no longer relaxed and, in his agitation, he stood and began to pace. Arabella pressed herself back against the wall endeavouring to get as far away from his as possible. She watched him in growing horror as she began to understand the full extent of his ambition.
'You want Tommy to blow up the train!'
'As I say, it has always been about the explosion. The bang! The innocent deaths!' Hughes assumed a pose of faux horror. 'The outrage!' He smirked. 'The group that I represent understands that it would be in the best interests of this country if we broke off relations with the Bolshevik administration. But with a socialist leaning government in power here there is little chance of quiet reason prevailing so we need to help the situation along. Once the train is derailed your husband and his men will be given various notes and fragments of documents to scatter in the wreckage implicating named officials from the Soviet embassy. After that sympathetic journalists at the Times and the Daily Mail will do the rest. Soon this country will once again be free to follow its rightful course.' Hughes turned his reptilian gaze on Arabella. 'Set against the destiny of this great country what price half a dozen deaths?'
Arabella regarded him in disgust – although she tried her best not to let it show. Tommy was no angel but he was a man of honour. He would never harm an innocent civilian if he could avoid it. Father Hughes, however, was truly was a monster and thanks to her Tommy would feel compelled to act in accordance with his dictates. Guilt and nausea threatened to overwhelm her.
Tommy was sat in his office, mind whirling. He desperately needed to think but he was constantly assailed by visions of both the innocent deaths he had been ordered to cause and also the horrors that Hughes and his friends would inflict on Arabella should he baulk. He sank back into his chair and began to rub at his eye sockets and temples in a vain attempt to ward off one of his increasingly frequent tension headaches.
The orders and subtle threat from Hughes had kept coming and coming. Not only was Tommy being forced to cause a train derailment involving at least six deaths at the priest's insistence – the man had coldly suggested rail workers or men from the factory – his profit from the jewel heist was threatened too. Hughes had refused to even discuss Arabella's release until Tommy had agreed to each and every one of his demands. He wasn't sure how but the man seemed to know everything that he had planned. There must be a traitor in his organisation but right now he could not focus of the problem sufficiently to identify any likely suspects.
'We also hear you're digging a tunnel', Hughes had said. 'Mining for precious stones in the grounds under Hampton Court Palace. I'm told the Russians have a Faberge piece in their strong room - the Lilies of the Valley egg created in 1898.'
Tommy met his eyes stonily, trying not to show the extent of his shock and confusion. 'What exactly do you want, Hughes?'
'One of the Odd Fellows has a wife who is obsessed with Faberge', the priest replied. 'He wants to give her the egg for her birthday and you will get it for him.'
Tommy relaxed imperceptibly. Perhaps that would be the extent of Hughes' additional demands. 'Far be it from me to disappoint a lady', he replied calmly. 'If that is what she wants then that is what she shall have.' Unfortunately it was not the end by any means.
'The Economic League will also take any of the jewels that you steal to cover our considerable expenses. The fight against Communism is not cheap, as you can imagine. If you want to see your wife again…'
'I will give you all the jewels - whatever you want. You have my word,' Tommy replied as evenly as he could. By his sides his fists were clenching.
'The explosion first', Hughes stressed. 'Then bring everything you have stolen to your office at dawn tomorrow.'
'No', Tommy said coolly.
'What do you mean 'no'?' Hughes hissed.
'It won't be possible to get the jewels to you by dawn. The tunnel has hit clay. We'll need at least two more days.'
Hughes was unmoved. 'If the St Andrew's clock strikes 5am tomorrow and we don't have everything we ask for, the bell will be tolling for your wife. Now get the fuck on with it.'
And just like that Tommy had been dismissed.
Tommy's frustration and anger knew no bounds. He tore through the family like a firestorm throwing out accusations and threats in all direction. No one escaped his doubts or his critical eye.
'Our enemies know everything', he growled to his assembled family. 'Everything. I need to know who spoke about business outside the family and who they spoke to - now!'
Arthur tried, ineffectually, to pacify him but Tommy was having none of it. He rounded on his eldest brother furiously.
'Is the problem your wife, Arthur? She hates the family business. Is she the one who betrayed us?'
'It's not Linda, Tommy. You know what kind of family she grew up in. She knows full well how to keep her mouth shut.' Arthur's fists clenched reflexively but he fought to keep his temper. 'I am going to tell myself that you're not thinking straight, right now - that your mind is not clear because of Arabella – so I'll it go. But don't you ever speak about Linda like that again or you and I will have a problem.' Arthur tried to keep his voice calm but his worry and uncertainty was clear. He depended on Tommy for cool logical thinking, for leadership. A panicked Tommy upset his composure.
Tommy dismissed him with an angry waive of his hand and turned to John. 'How about Esme then? What about her supposedly getting cash for cocaine, eh, John? Are you sure that's where her money's coming from? And where the hell is she now?'
'She's in labour', John responded, outraged. 'Linda's with her.'
'But she was just here!'
'Running around fucking broke her waters! And Esme's got no need for extra cash. I give her everything she needs.' He threw himself back in his seat and began to gnaw angrily on a fresh toothpick. 'And while we're talking about the trustworthiness of wives, it wasn't mine that was dressing like a bloke and getting up to all sorts in casinos all over the city. Who knows what Arabella got involved in, or who she got involved with, all those months she was running about behind your back.'
Tommy went dangerously still. 'Arabella is the one who has been taken. Arabella is the one whose life has been threatened. Her behaviour is not at issue here and I'll thank you to remember that.'
The two brothers glowered at one another; the tension in the room rose noticeably. Ada shifted in her seat uncomfortably and, unfortunately for her, that drew Tommy's attention.
Tommy turned to his sister. 'And what about you, Ada? All of a sudden you're back in the bosom of your family despite making it clear that you think we're scum. On whose orders is that, eh? Is one of your friends in the Communist Party calling the shots?'
'I came back for love, Tommy', his sister replied reproachfully. 'And common sense. Although right of this moment I am seriously reconsidering my decision.'
Irritated beyond measure Polly slammed her hand on the desk and leant over her nephew. 'Tommy, this is not helping find Arabella. We need to focus and stop wasting time!'
'And what about you and your painter?' He replied coldly. 'Your relationship developed very quickly. What could an educated man like that possibly see in a woman like you?'
Polly laughed in his face but it was a laugh totally devoid of humour. 'Tommy, I've been seeing him for years. We met long before you even thought of talking to the Russians. And he's never been interested in business – not ever. We don't speak of it. I could never bring myself to tell him even the slightest details for fear of seeing a look of disgust in his eyes.'
'So what do you talk of, Pol?' He sneered. All that time you're together. It can't just be sex and painting.' Polly flushed angrily. 'I bet he gets you nice and drunk on wine. You probably can't remember half of what he asks you or a quarter of what you tell him in return. And what about Michael, eh? What do we really know about him?'
Seeing that Polly was about to let rip, Ada lay a calming hand on her arm. Polly started back and their eyes met. Ada shook her head almost imperceptibly. 'Not now', she murmured.
'You can all stop messing me about', Tommy continued. His tone had evened out but the lust for vengeance which could be seen in his eyes was chilling. 'If anyone has talked about the tunnel to the Russian's strong room to anyone else then I need to know, and I need to know this second.'
'What about your clay kickers?' Arthur asked tentatively. 'What if they got roaring drunk in the pub? Who knows what they could have let slip.'
'I trust those men with my life, Arthur.'
'More than you trust us?'
'The only people I told about the Russians having a Faberge egg are here in this room. So as of an hour ago, yes, I trust them more than I trust any of you.'
'Oh I've had more than enough of this nonsense now, Tommy', Polly said. 'Either pull yourself together and come up with a workable plan. Or get out of the way and let someone else make the decisions.' Spinning on her heels she stormed from the room without a backward glance.
Continuing as if nothing had happened, Tommy said. 'John, Arthur, I need 50 sticks of BSA dynamite, 300 yards of cable and six detonators by midday tomorrow.' He passed over a pack of documents. 'This is evidence provided to me by the people who have Arabella. I need you to scatter the pieces in the wreckage.' His family looked at him in confusion. 'We're blowing up a train and people, innocent people, are going to die.'
'But Tommy…', started Arthur.
'Just do as I say, Arthur. This is no time to be having opinions of your own.' After a few moments of awkward silence, Tommy levered himself wearily to his feet and headed off after Polly.
Arabella had now passed beyond fear and exhaustion and had entered a state of heightened awareness. Her calculating eyes took in every inch of her surroundings, desperate to find a way to escape. She had to get to Tommy and stop him from blowing up the train. She had found it hard to accept when Tommy had ordered the Peaky Blinders to cut a bloody swathe through the Changretta crime family in retaliation for her shooting. The idea that he could soon be responsible for the cold blooded murder of six innocent men was almost too horrible to contemplate.
She saw the door of her cell swing open and crouched back against the wall defensively. She relaxed fractionally when she saw it was only Eddie, the elder of Father Hughes' two goons, with some food and water.
'I'm sorry miss - can't let you out', he said apologetically as he came in to the room. 'But I can at least let you be comfortable for a while. If my boss comes back I'll have to chain you up again. Promise you won't try to run?'
Arabella nodded obligingly and then, smiling rather shyly Eddie, unfastened the manacle which had attached her to the wall. She returned his smile gratefully as she rubbed life back in to her numb wrist and hand and then watched carefully as he left the room.
Wetting her parched mouth and throat with the rather musty water she smiled to herself. That she could work with.
Tommy followed Polly to the kitchen where she had hidden herself. She was sat at the kitchen table smoking furiously and contemplating having another whiskey. When he entered the room she all but snarled at him.
'I know you don't want to hear it', he said softly. 'But someone talked and finding out who is the quickest way to locate Arabella and stop all this shit from raining down on us.'
Polly ground out her cigarette and began to massage the tense muscles at the base of her skull. Eventually she sighed and turned to look at him. 'There's one person you haven't considered', she said stiffly. 'Someone who saw the egg for themselves.'
'Fucking bastard!' Tommy exploded.
Arabella had the basics of a plan worked out. She would use Eddie's tender feelings towards her to con her way, with hands unbound, out of her cell. She would nose around as much as she could in an effort to find a weapon, smack him round the head with whatever came to hand, and then run for her life hoping that she could avoid Joe, Eddie's sidekick. If she was honest it wasn't much of a plan and it left a huge amount to chance. However, as time ticked on she was becoming desperate enough to try anything in order to get to Tommy and stop him blowing up the train. Now all she had to do was find an opportune moment; an opportune moment and, ideally, a loaded gun.
Now he had a target for his rage and a trail to follow that might very possibly lead him to his wife, Tommy was back in control. He began making calls. An hour later, despite no further word on Arabella's whereabouts, he pulled on his coat, selected a second gun from his top draw and began firing out instructions in all directions. He wanted to be ready the moment the response came through from his man in the Jewllery Quarter.
'Put four cans of petrol in the boot of my car and bring it round', he ordered brusquely. 'And you - put cigarettes and a lamp in the box. Someone fetch Michael. I need him to come with me.'
The phone on his desk rang once and he answered it immediately. A few moments later, nodding in bitter satisfaction, he stormed out to where Michael and his car were waiting for him.
Michael's hadn't said a word since they'd left the house but he was clearly right on the edge. His face was set in a belligerent scowl and he was playing obsessively with the gun Tommy had given him. After 20 minutes Tommy pulled over and took the gun out of his hand.
'Michael, you need to calm down', he said patiently, securing the pistol in the glove compartment.
Michael was so keyed up that he as good as snarled back at him. 'The sooner this is done the sooner I can kill that fucking priest.' His fists clenched.
'I know and I've promised you that you can do the killing but we have to find him first. In the meantime you will be no good to me – or Arabella – if you've accidentally blown your own brains out before we even get to this meet. Could you imagine what your fucking mother would do to me? Her right hook is worse than Arthur's.' Michael gave a reflexive snort of shocked amusement and the tension was broken.
'OK Tommy', he said, settling back in his seat. 'Tell me what we're on our way to do.'
'We're going to see if we can catch a man in a lie.'
Arabella's chance had finally come. She felt sick with fear but she knew that if she did not make her move now she might never get another opportunity. In the last hour or two Eddie had become quite garrulous. He was a well brought up and well educated man who had been trapped by his sense of duty in a role for which he was unsuited much as he had been during the war. As they talked they discovered that they had acquaintances in common. He had attended the same public school as Arabella's eldest brother - although they hadn't been in the same year. He had also served in same regiment as her middle brother. His manner indicated that he was deeply uncomfortable with being obliged to hold a woman of his own class in close confinement and his shame at his earlier treatment of her – when he had thought she was a mere gangster's whore – was profound. Despite his evident compunction, Arabella could not find it in her heart to truly forgive him nor regret the punishment he was likely to suffer at Hughes' hands should she manage to escape and disrupt their plans. His companion, Joe, was of a different kind entirely. Vicious, arrogant, and with a lust for power and cruelty he was only kept in check by Eddie's presence and the promise of greater opportunities to indulge himself at a later date. She loathed him and actively hoped that Hughes took the full extent of his anger out on him.
So this then was her moment. Joe was making one of his periodic checks of the surrounding area leaving her alone with Eddie. She was sat on her cot leaning back against the wall; Eddie was sat close by trying to distract her with stories of his school days. She needed to find an excuse to leave the room. In the circumstances she had no difficulty in feigning sickness. Eddie took one look at her pallid, sweaty face and quickly agreed to escort her to the toilets.
As they walked through the warehouse Arabella began to look surreptitiously around her. She was comforted when she spotted at least one possible escape route. Even better Joe was still nowhere to be seen. Eddie indicated the short corridor leading to where the toilets were and then politely turned his back to allow her some privacy. She headed slowly in the direction he had indicated, mind whirring as she considered her options. She passed a couple of half open doors which potentially lead to places to hide but there were no obvious exits and she had still seen still nothing which could be used as a weapon.
Reaching the privy door Arabella slipped inside. She almost laughed when she saw the window on the far side. It was small, yes, and set high in the wall but, if she was careful, she would be able to reach it. That way there would be no need for a weapon. For once she was glad of the height which had always marked her out as 'unfeminine'. Strength borne out by years of riding and horse breaking helped her clamber up to the opening and she slid through gingerly. When she dropped to the ground on the other side she quickly realised that she was far outside the city. Getting back to Tommy would take hours – perhaps more than she had to spare. She had to hope that she came across somewhere with a phone.
The warehouse was situated on a piece of scrubland bordering what seemed to be a small piece of ancient woodland. Keeping to whatever shelter presented itself Arabella crept quietly towards the tree line. She was fairly certain that if she reached the safety of the woods she could evade capture indefinitely. Her childhood friend, the poacher's boy, had taught her all manner of tricks which he used to evade her father's gamekeeper and she was certain that she still remembered most of them. Listening carefully she edged towards safety. Luck was not on her side however. She had taken too long. Eddie had become concerned and broken through the toilet door. Finding her gone he had raised the alarm. Focussed solely on her target and heedless of any danger, Arabella broke in to a headlong run… and barrelled straight into Joe's waiting arms.
Snarling, Joe grabbed her roughly by her hair and swung her round. Arabella felt a chunk of her scalp tear away and yelped at the pain of it. Then he pushed her full force into the solid wall of the warehouse. It happened so quickly that she had no time to raise her arms to cushion herself against the impact and she hit it face first. She felt a blinding pain as her nose shattered and then her mouth flooded with blood. Stunned and disorientated she fell to her knees. She tried to scrabble her way to safety but Joe's blood was up now and he thrilled at the chance to give full vent to his violent impulses. He kicked her viciously managing, by accident or design, to strike her in almost exactly the same spot as Hughes had done. The pain of it made her gag. He kicked her again and again, disparaging her in the basest of terms as he did so. An expression of intense joy suffused his face. Arabella cowered under force of his blows, her vision blurring. She could hear a voice begging him to stop. For a moment she thought it was hers but in reality she could not catch her breath long enough to scream let alone form words. There was a gun shot and the blows stopped. Was it Eddie? Tommy? Hughes? As long as the pain stopped she didn't really care. Then she felt herself being lifted up. The arms encircled her like barbed wire sending jolts of pain into her traumatised flesh and she whimpered piteously. Please god, she thought, please make it stop.
Michael was calm, cool. He had killed someone and it hadn't touched him. He'd just cocked his gun, put it against a man's head, and blown his brains out. No thought involved, just instinct. Arabella's lessons had gone in deep; he had pulled the pistol out and pulled the trigger in one smooth movement. It had been so ridiculously easy. You did well, Michael, Tommy had said clapping him on the back as they walked to the car after the meet with Alfie Solomons and his chest had puffed out a little in pride. He felt different now, like a god. He had the power of life and death over people. As they swept through the city in Tommy's expensive car he looked out at all the civilians going about their pointless, boring lives. I could kill you, he thought. I could kill any one of you for any reason and no one could stop me. Be grateful that you won't be crossing my path today. He felt a brief moment of disquiet that he didn't care a jot for the man whose life he had taken but the thought died as quickly as it had sparked. He was a new man but not necessarily a better one.
If Polly had been there when Michael got home then she would have seen instantly the change in her son - the look in his eyes, the way he carried himself – but she wasn't. Instead she was with Ruben trying desperately to believe in the sincerity of his protestations of love. Tommy's cold questioning of what a man of his quality was doing with a poorly educated, working class gypsy woman from a family of well-known gangsters had tapped in to fears that she too held. Where outwardly she appeared to be a calm, self-assured woman in total control of her life inside there remained more than a trace of the frightened and vulnerable woman who had been powerless to prevent the Parish from taking her children. She had told Tommy that she and Ruben had never talked about business but that was not strictly true. Although they had never discussed the finer details of the Shelby's criminal activities he knew exactly what kind of family she came from. She loved him and she thought he loved her too - enough to overlook to the violence and criminality. She asked him to come to the opening of the charity school intending to introduce him properly to the family as her prospective husband but he hadn't come. Then Arabella had been taken and Tommy's comments had only served to increase her fears
When Ruben finally found her, Polly had worked up a good head of whiskey. She was sat slumped on a sofa staring up at the first picture he had painted of her. She looked elegant, confident. Someone had slashed it with a knife.
'Good Lord Polly! Are you OK?' He asked. He tried to take her into his arms but she pulled back.
'Why didn't you come? I was waiting for you. It's all gone to hell and you didn't come!' Her voice was rough with whiskey and emotion.
'I was going to come up by train last night, but then I thought... well I simply wasn't ready to enter your world. Good God, look at me - I'm shaking with fear.' He held out his arms to her again.
'Good', she said, waving a half empty whiskey bottle at him dismissively. 'You should be scared. The Shelby's are poison. I'm poison!'
'But now I am ready, Polly', he continued. 'I have been searching all night for you, my love.' This time he managed to capture her in his arms. He felt her stiffen and then looked back towards the slashed painting. 'Polly, whatever you think, whatever you've been told, it's not true. You're mine and I'm yours; that all that matters. Who did that?'
She sagged in his arms, looking up to the picture but not really seeing it. 'The painting was wrong – all wrong. That woman was too sure of herself, too confident. I'm not sure of anything. Not even me.'
Ruben took hold of her chin between two slender fingers and gently turned her head to face him. 'Darling', he said. 'I can paint another, and another. I can paint you as many as you need until you're happy. Just please let me try.'
Tommy had been pleased with the way the meeting with Alfie Solomons' had gone. Well pleased was probably the wrong word but he had obtained the information he needed - both proof of Solomons' duplicity and also the name of the man to whom Hughes intended to give the Fabergé egg. The Jew had tried to dissemble, giving him a face full of patented Solomons' crazy, but that had only served to inflame Tommy's smouldering rage.
'They took Arabella', he'd roared, full of righteous anger. 'They fucking took my wife.' Alfie had frozen, eyes locked with Tommy's.
'Shit Tommy. I didn't know. You know how I feel about Ari.' He'd dragged his fingers through his rough beard and sighed. Seeing the look of guilt and regret in Alfie's his eyes made Tommy collapse in on himself and that was that.
'I know Alfie', he said softly. 'I know. I can see.'
Following the face to face with Alfie, Tommy had sent Michael off to call Inspector Moss and let him know to pick up Palmer. By the time they got back to town the man was in custody. He did not hold up well under questioning. From the moment they walked in to his cell he hadn't shut up.
'Hello? I demand to see my solicitor! You have no right to hold me here without representation!' But the man's bluster had dried up once Arthur slipped the noose around his neck.
'Gilbert Palmer, I want to talk to you about a missing woman', Tommy said coldly as Palmer was dragged up on to the tips of his toes. The man choked at the end of the rope and clawed desperately at his throat trying to relieve the pressure.
'We are the Peaky fucking Blinders', Arthur hissed softly into his ear before releasing his hold on the rope slightly allowing the man to drag in some desperately needed air.
'Deep breath, Mr Palmer,' Tommy said as the man gasped and gagged. 'Now, please tell me where my wife is being held or we'll have to try this all over again.'
Palmer told them everything. In fact it proved hard to shut him up. Eventually Arthur had been obliged to punch him repeatedly in the face so that they could get a little bit of peace.
'Keep hold of him until the morning, Moss', Tommy had instructed as they left. Moss nodded in agreement and then waved away the large wodge of cash that Arthur tried to give him without even looking at it.
'This was for Arabella', Moss said. 'No charge. You get these posh fuckers Tommy. Show them that they can't mess with Birmingham boys'
Tommy laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it briefly in gratitude. 'I won't forget this.'
She was in agony. Every inch of her skin was on fire. Arabella slumped on the camp bed, hands cruelly manacled. She could not move but her mind was racing: she had failed Tommy; failed the Blinders; and now innocent men were going to die. She wanted to cry with despair but she had no tears left.
Tommy sped down to Hampton Court Palace barely able to focus on keeping the car on the road but desperate to see what could be done to speed up the digging of the tunnel. He was greeted by a bewildered Johnny Dogs who'd been taking his ease in one of the tents.
'What the fuck are you doing here, Tommy?' The man said, tipping back his hat and scratching his thick black thatch in confusion. 'I thought you were dealing with business in Birmingham.' His usual brogue was thickened with sleep.
Tommy darted from the car, shedding his outer clothes as he made his way to the shelter hiding to the tunnel. 'They've taken my wife, Johnny. Everything's fucking changed.' Pausing at the entrance of the shelters he handed the other man his waistcoat, shirt, and tie. 'I have to get this hole dug before midnight or she's gone.'
Johnny watched as Tommy descended into his own personal hell. If Arabella was lost then that hell would follow Tommy wherever he went.
Tommy managed to get ten foot into the tunnel before the palpitations started. The closeness, the stink of nerves and sweat and clay, the pressure to keep moving forward - it was hard to separate the panic of today from the all-encompassing fear arising from his memories. Crawling through six inches or more of water he forced his way forward, snaking passed exhausted tunnellers stripped to the skin and toiling hard as they moved back bucket loads of the sodden clay they were hacking through. Tommy forced his way to the front, snatching a pick from the nearest man and beginning to dig as if his life depended on it. In many ways it did.
The men in the tunnel along with him met each other's eyes in the dim lantern light. Tommy was clearly not himself; clearly not thinking as a sergeant should. For the men who were risking their lives digging through the ground under the Thames towards the Russian's strong-rooms this uncertainty was worrying but such was their loyalty that they followed his lead nevertheless.
Michael was still on edge; reeling with the adrenalin born of killing his first man. He walked back into the kitchen at Arrow House like a man who'd woken to the world afresh; a world which was subtly changed. He bumped into Arthur and John as he eased into his usual seat at the kitchen table. Arthur was a very physical man. John however, was much more intuitive. His relationship with Esme had encouraged him to explore his gypsy inheritance and this included learning to read people. Now he thought that he could see an imbalance in the energy flowing through his nephew. He watched the lad with muffled concern.
'You know this morning, when I went off with Tommy? He needed me; there was no one else. You know that we went to see Alfie Solomons, right? And I… well, I killed a man. One shot, that's all it took.' Michael's voice was full of wonder. John continued to watch his nephew steadily, wondering what Esme would make of the colours seething and pulsing in his aura.
'So, what weapon did he give you? Arthur asked jovially, as if Michael's revelation was almost entirely unimportant. Michael passed his gun over silently.
'He said it was good choice for close range. Took the side of the man's head clean off'.
'Oh no Michael lad.' Arthur scoffed. 'You be much better off with something like my old Smith & Wesson.'
'Give me it back, Arthur. I've got the feel of it now: it's under my skin; in my head. It's part of me and I'll not accept any replacement.' Michael's aura settled.
Looking on, John nodded softly to himself. For good or ill his nephew was changed. He wished desperately that Esme was there to advise him but she was safe at home with Linda and the new baby. He felt a flush of pleasure when he thought of his new child. It felt good to have some new life in amongst all this death and violence; he wished he could be home with her not thinking on all of this horror.
'And how was you, when it was done?' Arthur asked.
'He said I did okay. I… well I don't really remember much. I didn't really have time to think about it. He was right. All you have to do is point the gun and pull the trigger.' Arthur slapped Michael on the back. The force of it made him wince but he gave his uncle a shy but happy grin in return.
'Good lad!' Arthur roared with a complacent smile on his face. 'Now we've managed to find the place where we think Arabella is being held - an abandoned warehouse out in the middle of fucking nowhere. Our source reckons that there's only two blokes there with her, armed for sure but they ain't expecting nobody. It should be an easy in and out job. Tommy wants you to lead the men.'
Michael felt the weight of his uncle's expectations pressing down on him but he managed to clamp down on the small part of him which was still liable to panic. His uncle gestured to two hard bitten men standing by the door'
'You see them two - they're good men. You can rely on them so when you get there you do what they tell you.'
'But I can fire the bullet, right? I can take out that fucking priest?' Michael was determined to get what Tommy had promised him.
'Look Michael, Tommy's said you should be there so there's no problem in it. But it's better if one of our guys pulls the trigger. They know exactly what they need to do. We need you to see that Arabella is ok. That's all that matters. When you find her safe you call Finn. We need to know the very minute that she's safe.' Arthur grabbed Michael by his shoulder and squeezed, forcing his nephew to meet his gaze. 'As soon as we know we can abort the whole fucking train thing.'
Back in the pits of hell things were reaching crisis point. Tommy was forcing the work forward far too fast. Men were starting to collapse under the pressure with old fears rearing their ugly heads. They begged him to stop, to wait until they could bring in more timber to make the tunnel safe, but nothing got through to him. Instead he drove forwards pushing himself even harder than he pushed the others. Unaccustomed now to manual labour his hands first blistered, then bled. He paused only to allow one of the Lee women to bind them up before forcing his way back to the head of the tunnel. Not much further now, he told himself, not much further. Only a dozen feet or so and then they would be through. Around him his men scrambled, carting the excavated clay and buckets of slimy water to the surface and desperately trying to shore up the tunnel roof and walls to prevent a collapse. And then, suddenly, came the welcome clink of metal on stone. They had reached the strong-rooms. Tommy rested back on his heels, too exhausted to feel more than passing relief. Letso eased his way to Tommy's side and took the pick from his old sergeant's numb hands.
'Rest now, Tom. Let Ned take over for a bit. He's a working as a brickie over in Nottingham now so he'll know what to do for the best.' Letso gently guided Tommy back to the crossing point where the other Clay Kicker was waiting with a wheeled box of masonry tools ready to take his place at the front.
'I've got this sarge', Ned said firmly. Give me 30 minutes and I'll get us through.
Arabella whimpered pathetically when Eddie tried to move her.
'Please Arabella, keep quiet', he whispered against her ear. 'If Hughes catches me in here we're both in trouble.
He manoeuvred her as gently as he could into a sitting position against the roughly rendered wall. Then he poured some stale but blissfully cool water between her broken lips. He poured too fast, however, and she began to choke. The violence of her coughing set off a burning fire in her damaged ribs and she gave a deep moan of pain. He hushed her consolingly and wiped her face with a clean handkerchief trying to avoid the worst of her cuts and bruises.
'I'm going to untie your hands to make you a bit more comfortable. If you don't try to run again then he won't notice until it's over and by then he'll be too happy to care.' His knife cut through her bonds. 'What on earth possessed you to try to run away? Why would you do something so foolish?'
'You must let me go', she begged. 'We have to stop the train. Please.' Her voice was hoarse, desperate. 'People are going to die!'
'But don't you see?' He replied earnestly. 'In death, these men, these valiant representatives of the lower orders, will be of much greater value to their country than they could ever have been in life.'
Arabella's eyes widened in shock. 'But these men are innocents. They have families who love them and depend upon them! How could you be so wicked?'
'As a woman you cannot be expected to know anything of international politics nor truly comprehend the full import of our situation but Arabella you must trust me. We know what we're doing. This truly is in the best interests of our great country. Once it's over, you'll see, I promise you.'
Gone was the young man who appeared trapped in a situation of someone else's making. In its place was a true believer, a zealot. But although his attitude was patronising he was clearly desperate for her to give him her approval; instead she was simply revolted.
'Please leave me alone now. I want to sleep.' Arabella turned her face to the wall, overwhelmed by the worst kind of lassitude and despair. As Eddie left the room silent tears began to fall.
At factories, workshops, and foundries all over the city men in the pay of the Peaky Blinders began to pass the word. 'Tools down lads, we're calling a wildcat strike. Everyone out now! Free beer for everyone.'
The bad feeling which the Blinder's had sowed amongst the workers with their coordinated citywide campaign of persecution and unfair dismissals meant that the men needed very little encouragement to walk out, and even those who were concerned about the loss of pay were persuaded by the offer of free drink. Men streamed out of their workplaces and into the local pubs where the owners had been paid well to keep the beer flowing. No one would notice anything tonight. Not the charges being laid, not the men dying, not even the sound of a train being derailed.
Along the spur line leading from the BSA factory where the loaded freight trucks were waiting, Arthur, John, and a small group of the most reliable Blinders' men were fixing explosives in key places. The tension in the group was palpable and Curly, loyal bagman though he was, was becoming visibly distressed, chaffing his hands together and muttering his usual half-soaked nonsense.
'There are good men on board, Arthur', Charlie said softly, his face pale and drawn by the lamp light. He was the only one who dared to voice his disquiet though it was clearly shared by all those present. 'We should warn them.'
'Six innocent men have to die tonight when we blow up this train.' Arthur's voice was heavy with guilt. 'No way around it, Charlie.' The men exchanged worried glances. They had all killed before, in war and in peace, but this was something else, this was betraying a brother in arms. 'This is all on me and John', he continued. 'We picked 'em out ourselves and we'll do what's needed so the rest of you men should to get going now. Lay low until we call on you. If you need anything send word to Polly via the Garrison.'
In silence, Arthur and John watched their colleagues file away, dark shadows against the night. They stood side by side too ashamed of what they were about to do to meet each other's eyes.
'What time is it?' John asked.
Arthur checked his pocket watch. 'Five and twenty to ten. The chosen men will couple the locomotive in 15 minutes.'
'And then we just need to wait and pray.' John took a deep, comforting draw on his hip flask.
'Yes brother. We wait and we pray.'
When Michael and his two companions reached the area where Arabella was being held they went on foot through the trees to an old sheep fold where their observer was waiting. The night was still, and close, and dark. The only sounds were their careful and muffled footsteps, and the calls of the nocturnal creatures disturbed by their passage. Sid, a Birmingham lad born and bred, was greatly relieved to see them.
'Thank god you've made it', he hissed. 'I was starting to go out of my head. We need to get her out of there right quick.'
'What's happened?' Michael demanded.
'I'm not sure. I heard shouting and a gunshot. Then nothing until Hughes came back Just before dusk.'
'You think she's been shot?'
'I don't know but I doubt it means anything good! There are three of them in there, best I can tell, and they're well-armed. Do you have the plans?'
Michael handed them over with a curt nod. 'We had to break in to the council offices to get them. That's what took us so long.'
Crouching down behind a half collapsed drystone wall to hide the light of their torches the men poured over the building layout. Sid pointed out the areas where he thought Arabella was most likely to be being held.
'I didn't dare get too close', he said softly. 'There's bugger all cover and I didn't want to tip them off but they're coming and going through this entrance here. Everywhere else looks blocked off except one possible place round the back. I heard some noises from over there earlier but I couldn't tell what the fuck was going on.'
Pressed for time, the group rapidly put together a plan. Before they moved out Michael reminded them that he wanted to be the one to kill Hughes. Grunting noncommittally the men headed off in to the darkness.
Deep below the claggy Richmond ground, Tommy was experiencing a glorious moment of triumph. They had made it through into the vaults. He stood, bone weary, in the middle of the room in which Alfie had first appraised the Russian jewels. Around him, in the light cast by his oil-lamp, glittered a king's ransom in jewels. More to the point, they represented a beloved wife's ransom. He was almost light-headed with relief. For the first time he could believe that things would be alright.
If anyone fancies it there is now a Peaky Blinders' discussion forum at www. fanfiction forum/Peaky-Blinders/214498/ (remove the spaces).
In the chill semi-darkness of her cell, Arabella was trying to force herself to stand. She knew that she no longer had any chance of getting to Tommy before he blew up the train - that hope had long since died - but perhaps, just perhaps, she could prevent Eddie and Hughes from enjoying their victory. Every element of her being was now focussed on doing whatever damage she could to them and to their plans, whatever the cost to her. Each incremental shift was agony and she was forced to stop frequently to quiet the pounding in her head or prevent her stomach from rebelling. Only the fierce purity of hatred allowed her to move at all.
She had just managed the herculean task of swinging her legs over the edge of the cot when she heard an abrupt commotion in the room beyond. Surely her captors were not fighting again, she thought dully. It was too much to hope for that they would kill each other and save her the job. After a moment there came the sweetest sound that she had ever heard – the broad round vowels and gentle rise and fall of Michael's Brummy accent now raised in furious anger. She dragged herself to her feet by sheer force of will, one hand pressed firmly against her lips in an effort to muffle her sobs of pain, and stumbled across the rough concrete floor to the door. Once there she leant against the peeling and cracked wood, grateful for its solidity and support; her head swam alarmingly. She peered through a crack in the damaged door to see into the room beyond. Father Hughes was stood about 10 feet from her cell with his back towards her. Beyond him was Michael, his usually composed face twisted in hatred. His gun was pointed at Hughes' head.
'Think you can kill me boy?' The priest said. 'You don't have the balls. You're a weak willed little pikey bastard that no one has ever given a damn about.' Hughes' voice dripped with disdain.
Michael seemed to shrink in on himself, the damaged child beginning to overwhelm the resolute man. Arabella watched as his the gun dipped lower and lower until it was down by his side. Please Michael, she whispered to herself, we practiced this. You can do it. I know you can. Please don't let him win.
'I can do whatever I want to you', Hughes continued. 'And you won't do a thing to stop me. Just like when you were a pathetic whining little child. And you know why?' The priest strode towards Michael, chin thrust forward aggressively, until his face was mere inches from the young man's. 'It's because without me and what I've given you, you're nothing.'
Arabella looked on in desperation as Michael gave way entirely to his fearful memories of his time with the Brotherhood. Then she saw Eddie creeping silently up behind him. Michael was entirely trapped in his childhood memories and didn't notice Eddie's presence until he smacked him over the head with the butt of his gun. Michael's own weapon skittered across the floor towards her.
'Where are the rest of them?' Hughes demanded.
'Working their way round from the back, sir', Eddie replied promptly. 'This one just didn't want to wait.'
'Stupid Pikey fuck.' Hughes looked down at Michael with disgust. 'Get him in to the back room where the woman is. Quickly'.
Eddie turned to pull a half-dazed Michael to his feet. At this point both Eddie and Hughes had their backs to Arabella. With their attention momentarily diverted Arabella knew she had to take her chance. She burst from her cell sliding painfully across the broken floor as she lunged for Michael's discarded gun. Cocking and raising the weapon in one smooth moment Arabella shot Eddie in the back of the head. She had no time for fear, no time for contemplation, and no time for a second shot but this last action at least proved unnecessary. The shock of the blast seemed to rouse Michael from his stupor. Pulling a flick knife from his jacket pocket, he launched himself at Father Hughes, screaming incoherently as he forced the priest to the ground and began to stab him repeatedly in the neck and chest. Eventually he drove the blade up through the prone man's throat and into his spine; the priest lay still.
For an endless moment there was nothing the ragged sounds of Michael and Arabella's breathing in the dimly lit, blood spattered room. Then the three Blinders burst through the door, guns drawn. They took in the sight in some confusion. Sid was the first to react.
'What the bloody fucking hell has been going in here?'
Ignoring the three men, Arabella half hopped, half staggered over to Michael and rested a hand gently on his shoulder. He started, as if noticing the presence of other people for the first time, and looked up at her. Beneath the gouts of blood spattered across his face his eyes were wide with shock and horror. He began shivering frantically as his body reacted to the massive adrenaline spike.
'It's over Michael. You've saved me and you've stopped Hughes from ever hurting anyone else again. You were very brave.' She spoke to him soothingly like a mother trying to comfort a child who had just awoken from a nightmare, stroking his blood soaked hair gently as she did so. Looking at the other men she added. 'We need to get to a phone. Please tell me you have a car nearby.'
One of them shrugged, trying to avoid looking at her bruised and swollen face. 'We left it back by the main road. Let's just take Hughes' car. I'll be quicker. There's a place with a phone about ten minutes away. Finn's waiting for our call.' He knelt down next to the priest's corpse and began to ferret around for his keys. 'Fucking hell mate', he said to Michael conversationally. 'You done a proper number on this bastard, didn't you!'
'Come on, Michael', Arabella said tugging weakly on his suit jacket. 'Help me get out to the car. We need to call the family.'
'It's nearly ten o'clock, Arthur.' John bounced restlessly on the balls of his feet like a boxer waiting for the bell.
'I know.' Arthur combed his fingers through his moustache, eyes fixed on the bulk on the steam engine looming through the darkness.
'We have to do it now, Arthur.'
'I said I know! Get going now John. I'll detonate the charges.'
John looked at his oldest brother half angry and half despairing. 'We do this together or not at all.'
When the call from Michael came, Finn dropped everything and ran as fast as he could to where his older brothers were waiting. He was close enough that when the blast happened he could feel the scorch of the flames across his face. As he stared at the scene of devastation, chucks of glowing metal and scraps of charred paper began to fall all around him. He wanted to cry. He'd been to Sunday school and he knew that this was the way the world ended.
Letso all but dragged Tommy from the tunnel and out into the cold night air. His old sergeant was so focussed on keeping hold of the heavy sacks in his hands that he could make almost no movements to help himself. Eventually, Tommy managed to brace one foot on a rung of the access ladder and propel himself upwards just as Letso gave one final mighty heave. Tommy shot from the tunnel mouth like a cork from a bottle and the two men collapsed in a tangled heap on the ground, gold and jewellery scattering in the mud around them like fat raindrops. In the torch light the gem stones glittered like fireflies.
'Permission to speak, sir?' Letso asked as formally as if he were on the parade ground rather than lying on his back half naked in the dirt.
'Permission granted', Tommy replied in the same rigid tone.
'I know that you said that we were mining for gemstones, sir. But I never did see anything like this in all my years in the Bloemfontein mines. I think we are all very, very rich. Now let us take our riches and ransom that woman of yours.'
'I need to get to a telephone. Could you drive me?'
'Yes sir. Your friend Johnny Dogs has given me the directions. As soon as we can both stand up we will leave.'
30 minutes later Tommy finally managed to get hold of one of his brothers.
'Tell me', he barked impatiently.
'We found Arabella, Tom! We've got her. Hughes and his men are dead. Michael took care of it. But we didn't hear until after we blew the train.' The stress and guilt in Arthur's voice was plain even through the telephone line. He sighed heavily but Tommy had no time to waste on his brother's distress.
'Let me speak to her.'
'You can't Tom. The doctor's been with her.'
'What the fuck's happened?' Tommy was frantic. 'Let me speak to her now!'
'Tom, I'm sorry. Just keep calm. She's fine.' Arthur's voice was as composed and soothing as he could make it. 'She just tried to escape through a window before Michael and the boys got there and she got a few bruises. She was a bit shook up from the excitement so the doctor's given her something to make her sleep.' Arthur just prayed that Tommy took his word for it. Time enough for him to learn the truth when he was safe at home.
Tommy was silent for a long moment, almost sick with relief. He allowed his forehead to rest briefly against the glass of the telephone box, glad of its coolness and solidity. 'I'm leaving the Lee camp now. I just need to make one stop on the way back. If she wakes up tell her I'll be there as soon as I can. Tell her I…' His voice faded into silence. There was so much he wanted to say but he had no idea how to even start.
'I know, Tom', Arthur said gruffly. 'I'll tell her.' There was a brief embarrassed silence and then Arthur cleared his throat. 'I'll see you later, brother.'
A few moments later Tommy was brusquely demanding that the operator put him through to Whitehall. At first the civil servant who finally answered his call was querulous, haughty, and obstructive but Tommy was in no mood to be brushed off by an arrogant public schoolboy.
'My name is Thomas Shelby and I have information for Mr Churchill, information that he will be very angry to learn was kept from him. I know that my name means something to you. You try to hide it but I can hear it in the way your breathing has changed since we began this call. Within 15 minutes you will have Mr Churchill ring me back on this number. If you do not then there will be consequences.' Without waiting for a response he replaced the receiver.
Tommy walked back to the car, swaying slightly in exhaustion. Collapsing into the passenger seat of the car he heaved a deep sigh of relief. An equally exhausted Letso grinned over at him.
'From the look on your face I think your woman is ok. That is good. So what do we do now?'
'Now we wait for a call from someone highly placed in government.' Tommy rested his head back against the leather of the seat and sighed once again. His sore and aching body demanded sleep but he dared not close his eyes. He was afraid that he would miss the call from Churchill if he dropped off for even a second.
'Look at you Tommy my friend', Letso said, allowing informality to take over now that business was done. 'Taking calls from lords and ministers. Who would have imagined that when we were scrabbling under the German lines in our rat holes?' He gave a full throated laugh, revelling in the absurdity of the notion. 'Saving that idiotic young captain at Mons had to come in useful for something, I suppose.'
Tommy grinned. 'I cannot deny that my war record has been useful, but my marriage has also opened doors'.
'Ah, yes. Your beautiful duchess! I cannot wait to make her acquaintance.'
An image of Arabella, awkward and covered in muck from the stables, floated through Tommy's mind and he smiled, feeling a moment's peace come over him.
Letso noticed the change and looked over at his friend curiously. 'Tell me of her.'
'I wish I could describe her to you but I just don't have the words', Tommy said in response. 'She was so shy when we first married, so innocent. She was mine - bought and paid for – but her background was so alien to mine that I had no idea how to talk to her, let alone be a husband to her.' He winced slightly at the memory of their wedding night and the coldness of the first year of their marriage. 'But she had something in her, some spark of devilry which not even her hidebound upbringing or an unwanted husband could snuff out. She tried to keep it hidden but it became a raging inferno and nearly killed her out - literally.' He looked over at his comrade smiling more fully than the other man had ever seen before. 'She's clever, brave, endlessly exciting. She accepts all the different parts of me both good and bad. She makes me want to be better…' He tailed off awkwardly as if being in love with his own wife was something to be embarrassed about.
'You make her sound like an angel', Letso said with a sidelong glance. 'But no one woman can be that perfect.'
Tommy gave a snort of laughter. 'She isn't perfect by any means. She's reckless, she's foolhardy, she's addicted to risk, and she has a blood-thirsty streak that I'm only just beginning catch a glimpse of but still… what we have feels right. With her in my bed I can finally sleep.'
Letso nodded in understanding. 'It is the same with my wife.' Tommy looked at this friend in surprise. 'Did I not tell you I married a miner's daughter down in Blaenavon?' Tommy shook his head and it was Letso's turn to laugh. 'Well we have been rather busy.' He took so long to continue speaking that Tommy thought he had fallen asleep.
'She's a loving woman but she has a tongue that can cut like a knife', he said eventually. She challenges me every day but she also keeps away the dead in the night. Men who have seen and done what we have need women who can look us in the eye without flinching. We have that and it is a rare and precious thing.' He was silent for a moment then he added in the voice of a man who could not quite believe his luck 'And the babies that she has given me are a constant blessing. Your Arabella will soon do the same for you my friend, I am sure.'
Tommy did not respond, but his eyes were suddenly full of shadows. The two men sank into a contemplative silence – Letso thinking on his children, Tommy thinking on his lack of them. When it came, the ringing of the telephone made them both jump.
If anyone fancies it there is now a Peaky Blinders' discussion forum at www. fanfiction forum/Peaky-Blinders/214498/ (remove the spaces).
The meeting with Churchill was mercifully brief. In photographs Churchill had always seemed a rather unprepossessing individual – middle aged with a heavily jowled, slightly smug face underneath a balding pate, he looked soft, profligate, weak. In the flesh, florid and well-upholstered though it was, he was far more impressive. He greeted Tommy like a long lost brother, gripping his proffered hand firmly and clapping him on the back almost hard enough to knock him to his knees. He walked him down to his office chatting amiably of this and that, asking after Arabella, whose family he knew well, and expressing his respect for Tommy's war service. If Tommy hadn't been so exhausted, he might have been suspicious about this level of flattery. As it was he was simply happy to let it wash over him as a kind of benign background noise as they made their way through the labyrinthine corridors of Whitehall.
Once they were seated in Churchill's surprisingly Spartan office the man had handed him a peppery Maduro cigar and an obscenely large glass of single malt. It was Scottish but Tommy was too tired to make an issue of it. Then the bonhomie vanished like morning mist over the cut and the older man became all business. He looked at him levelly over toppling piles of paperwork and newspapers.
'I have been very impressed with the level of discretion you have demonstrated these last few years when dealing with delicate matters on behalf of the government – particularly that awkward Fenian business. It is for that reason, as well as the respect I hold for you as a fellow soldier, that I agreed to your request to come to Whitehall in the middle of the night. However, you should know that neither my time, nor my patience, are without limits. I would therefore be grateful if you could clearly state your purpose in requesting this meeting. Once that is dealt with perhaps we can relax and do right by this rather excellent whisky.' He leant back in his chair expectantly, fleshy jowls waggling as he chomped on his cigar.
Tommy's head buzzed with fatigue but the whisky in his hand, Scottish though it was, grounded him. He forced his thoughts in to some kind of order and then briskly outlined the situation as if he was making a battlefield report to a superior officer.
When he was finished, Churchill was silent for a long moment. Tommy could almost see the man's excellent brain turning over as he ran though solutions to the problem that had been laid before him before discarding those for which the probability and cost of failure was too high. Finally, Churchill was ready to speak; Tommy could only hope that the man had reached the same conclusion as he had.
'I see only one way out of this… unfortunate situation, both for the country and for you and your family. I suspect that you will not be overjoyed by my suggestion but nevertheless I think you must comply if you ever wish to extricate yourselves.'
Churchill's plan was exactly the same as the one Tommy had devised whilst he was digging – costly to the family in the short-term but ultimately the only way to protect them with any certainty. Tommy was relieved that he had not underestimated the man's intelligence, nor his need to keep a lid on issues which could prove politically damaging to the government. In fact, dissipated and complacent though he appeared to be at first glance, Churchill had far exceeded his expectations. Tommy had not even needed to mention a certain piece of private royal correspondence which he now had in his possession. He could therefore keep it in reserve should the man prove less amenable in future.
Seeing that Tommy was so exhausted that he could barely put one foot in front of another, and realising that his man was probably no less spent, Churchill kindly lent the two men his personal chauffeur, telling the unperturbed driver to return to London on the first train. He then dismissed Tommy with a distracted wave of his hand and turned back to his papers as if had not just had an illicit meeting with a known gangster in the early hours of the morning in order to make a secret deal in relation to acts of treason and conspiracy to murder. Despite himself Tommy was impressed at the man's audacity. He had done right to meet him face to face.
Business completed all that mattered now was getting back to Arabella and finding a way to make up for the ordeal she had undergone simply as a consequence of being his wife. Perhaps selfishly he also desperately longed for the comfort only her presence could bring him. He couldn't wait to curl himself up next to her in the peaceful darkness of their bedroom and bury his face in her hair, inhaling its delicate soapy scent as they exchanged soft words of love, and then drift off to sleep with her melded together in perfect safety. The mere thought of it was enough to send him off into some sort of blissful reverie. He could feel his soul leaving his body and travelling through the night air to where she lay sleeping peacefully, wrapping itself around her, burrowing into her. In his heightened state he could feel the hair on the back of her neck tickling the end of his nose, feel her firm smooth skin gliding beneath his fingertips, hear her soft breath as she whispered words of forgiveness. She was everything to him, his home, his peace, his joy. He needed her desperately. The last few days had been too much for him. Eventually, lulled by the movement of the car and the imagined sound of Arabella's heartbeat, he slept.
Just after dawn Tommy burst through the door at Arrow House shouting for Arabella. He was met by a silent and watchfully Polly and his eldest brother. As Tommy shed his outer clothes in the hallway, Arthur gripped his arm, face fixed and serious. Mazed as he was, it took Tommy some moments to register the look on his eldest brother's face.
'She's in bed Tommy but before you go up you need to hear something', Arthur said. Both he and Polly looked concerned and suddenly Tommy was as terrified as he had ever been in his life.
'You said everything was fine Arthur. What the fuck have you been hiding?' He glowered at his brother.
'The doctor says she's going to be alright', Arthur responded hurriedly, bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet as if he was anticipating a fight 'It's just… well, she got in to a spot of bother when she tried to escape. It's mostly just bruising and it looks a lot worse than it is… but, well... she's got a few broken bones.' He smoothed his moustache distractedly with his forefingers and sighed. 'And, well, the doctor thinks she might lose the sight in one eye.'
Tommy grabbed Arthur by his lapels and drove him roughly back against the wall. Polly winced at the sound of her eldest nephew's head thudding against the wall but neither man paid her any mind. 'Tell me what fucking happened', he hissed. 'Now!'
'It was one of Hughes' men – a real sick bastard by all accounts. But he's dead, Tommy and so's the priest. There was a third man too but Arabella blew his brains out when Michael was doing Hughes. It's over, brother.' Arthur laid a consoling hand on his brother's shoulder. 'It's over.'
Tommy suddenly subsided, all fight gone. He nodded distractedly as if he hadn't quite understood. 'Good, that's good. You've done well.' He smoothed down his brother's jacket. 'I'm going up to my wife now. I'll want some time with her alone. In the morning I'll decide if anyone else needs to die.' Without another word Tommy Shelby went to find his wife and beg her forgiveness.
Tommy woke at midday. Next to him, Arabella was still in a deep drug-induced sleep. Gently he slid to the edge of the mattress to switch on the bedside light, then lent over to examine his wife. What he saw horrified him. Her head was swathed bandages, that much he had noted when he'd crawled in to bed the night before – how could he not. Fortunately, he'd found a small curl at the nape of her neck and buried his face against it before passing out. It was everything else that was shocking. There was not an inch of bare skin which was not puffy and bruised. One eye was covered in a dressing but the other might as well have been too as it was highly unlikely that she would be able to open it wide enough to see with any time soon.
He pulled back the sheet, slowly revealing more of her. Arabella stirred restlessly in her sleep as the cool air touched her abused skin. If anything, this sight was worse. Her body was a patchwork of scrapes and bruises; some were regularly shaped – clearly made by a man's heavy shoe or boot, others looked like they had been made with fists or some kind of weapon. Beneath her nightgown her ribs were bound which suggested suspected broken ribs, and she was covered in adhesive bandages spotted with blood indicating stitches which had pulled during the night. This was all his fault, he knew. The guilt ate at him like a canker worm. He hated Hughes. Hated the Russians. Hated himself.
The man who had done this to Arabella was dead, apparently, but Tommy dearly wished that he wasn't so that he could have the pleasure of killing him himself – slowly. He remembered a story he'd heard at school about Charles II. How the man, once he'd had his arse firmly on the throne of England, had had the architect of his father's beheading exhumed and his corpse hung at Tyburn as a warning to potential regicides. Tommy had never had much truck with kings – for all he'd nearly died for one – but in this case he felt a degree of fellow feeling for the man. They would clearly both do anything to protect their families from future harm.
He sat frozen for a while unable to do anything more than watch Arabella breath. He realised that he had to get up and find out what was going on. He could not protect her if he did not know where the danger was coming from, but it was hard to drag himself away. Eventually he pulled on some clean clothes, dragging on new suit trousers over some pressed undergarments he unearthed from a dresser. Finally, he pulled his braces over his cotton vest and then headed for the door. Outside Mabel was waiting. He caught her in the act of pacing up and down. When he stepped into the hall she paused and turned to him keenly. Her words came out in a rush.
'Is Arabella awake yet? Can I go in now? I need to see her immediately!'
Tommy nodded, slightly perturbed by her urgency.
'Do you need my help?'
'Oh no sir. I just need to take care of her personal needs. That's nothing a husband needs to see. Now run along sir. Most of the family are in the kitchen.'
Mabel flapped her hands at him in irritation and without another word barged passed him in to the bedroom. Tommy could hear her talking to herself as she went, all aflutter with concern and excitement. Despite himself he could not help but smile slightly. If Mabel was involved then there was no way that Arabella would not recover, she would never dare refuse to respond to Mabel's nursing – none of the Blinders ever did.
A few minutes later Tommy found himself in the kitchens below stairs. Polly, dressed in an elegant chiffon gown, was laying down the law to Arthur, John and some of the younger Blinders; Esme, cradling her young baby, was looking on, clearly bored. When Tommy entered the room, everyone but the women leapt to their feet. After a moment's awkward silence, and some terse acknowledgements, Polly stood up and went to find Tommy a restorative cup of sweet black tea.
Tommy sat slumped in one of the spare kitchen chairs and a few moments later Polly slammed the tea down in front of him. Half of it spilled in to the saucer. Tommy ground his teeth silently. Evidently, he had done something to annoy his aunt. No doubt she would tell him exactly what it was in her own good time, but he suspected it was to do with Michael and the priest. In the meantime, he knew that he would have to suffer the effects of his ill-advised actions. He sipped his tea calmly and let her rage wash over him.
Tommy listened to his aunt's pointed lectures for as long as he could bear. After about 30 minutes, during which he had made not one single attempt to defend himself or his actions, he finally rose from his seat and gave her a flint-hard stare.
'A man has a right to make his own decisions and chose for himself what kind of person he will be', he said coldly. 'Even if that man is the son of Polly Grey. If you have issues with what Michael has done, then you should direct your comments to him. Otherwise, have over.' Carefully laying down his empty tea cup, and leaving a gaping Polly behind him, he strode from the room. He was aching to spend more time with Arabella.
Arabella was running for her life. The brick-walled maze seemed endless. She dashed from shadow to shadow, dead end to dead end, knowing that Hughes and his men were tracking her but unable to find an exit or any place to hide. She had to get away from them. She had to find Tommy. She couldn't quite remember why but she knew that it was important – lives depended on it. She heard footsteps closing behind her. Panic tore through her and she knew that it was time to run again.
Some endless time later Arabella was still running, but exhaustion was creeping up on her and she was almost out of places to hide. The stink of the crumbling plaster and decaying brick work filled her senses, overwhelmed only by the scent of her own panic; Hughes' men were nearly on top of her yet again. Then she heard Tommy calling her. Forcing her aching body to move she headed for the sound of his voice.
She had almost made it when she felt Eddie's hand descend on her shoulder. He pulled her roughly back into a tight embrace. She began to fight him desperately, writhing against him and landing blow after blow, trying everything to get away. She hoped that if she fought hard enough and long enough she would win her freedom and be able to get to Tommy, but even though the blood was now streaming from Eddie's face and body he would not go down, would not let go. She began to scream her anger, frustration, and hatred at the top of her voice.
She knew now that it was hopeless.
This may be my last update on this for a little while. My computer died earlier this month and this is the last of the work that I could salvage (thanks to emailing part of it to myself). I`ll try to update as soon as I can but I essentially need to rewrite everything. :-(
Remember people - external backups are your friend!
Arabella continued to fight against Hugh's overpowering grasp, despite knowing that it was futile. Stop the train, stop the train, stop the train. The panicked words ran though her brain like a prayer. Then, just as she began to lose the last of her strength, she felt another presence nearby. Unlike the priest's malevolence this one was warm and comforting. Hughes stilled and his grip on Arabella relaxed slightly, but her face was still crushed against the man's shoulder and she could not turn her head to see who it was. Nevertheless, she knew in her heart of hearts that it was Tommy. Only his presence could bring her this immediate sense of security and relief.
Over the pounding of Hughes' heart and her own ragged breathing, Arabella could hear Tommy's sharp intake of breath as he took in the sight, followed by what could only be described as a wolf like snarl. Hughes pushed Arabella roughly away from him as he prepared to face Tommy. From her position on the ground Arabella looked up at the two men, heart pounding in anticipation. Without sparing his wife a second glance, Tommy launched himself at the priest.
It was over in seconds. With a few furious punches, Tommy had Hughes sprawled out on the floor, and then he pounded the man into the ground with his fists. When he was finished there was nothing left but shattered bone, blood, and cloth. Arabella felt sick at the sight but she was still overwhelmed with relief and gratitude when Tommy finally turned to her and said, in a strangely distant voice 'You're ok now, love. You're safe now.'
Arabella barrelled into his arms, allowing him to hold her tightly. The pain it caused her was exquisite but it was worth every ache and sting to finally be held securely in the embrace of the man she loved. She had known that he would come for her. She bowed her head briefly and allowed it to rest against his chest. She could feel her own panicky pulse slowing as his firm heartbeat throbbed through her. Eventually, still locked in his arms, she felt herself drifting away. The walled maze faded as she entered into some kind of dream-state; through it all the sound of Tommy's heart remained her anchor.
After an untold length of time, during which she had drifted weightlessly in Tommy's arms, Arabella finally began to regain her sense of time and place. It was not a process which she greatly enjoyed. Despite the feel of her husband's arms around her and the familiar scent of his habitual diet of whiskey and cigarettes, she was disturbed and confused, and it took some time for her to make sense of the pain which enveloped her. Other than the pain, when she began to come into herself, what she found most upsetting was her inability to see, and it took some time for Tommy to convince her that this was temporary.
A few hours later, Arabella was sat up in bed, propped against huge feather bolsters whilst the best ophthalmologist in the West Midlands examined her damaged eyes. He looked first at the left which he pronounced to be merely bruised, once the swelling had gone down it would function normally. However, from the set of the man's shoulders, Tommy could tell that things with the other eye were significantly more serious.
Muttering vaguely comforting words to Arabella, the doctor allowed Tommy to escort him out into the hallway. Once the bedroom door was closed the man gave Tommy the full benefit of his opinion – and it was plain he was furious.
'Damn it, Shelby. Your wife should be in hospital. God knows I try not to judge my patients, or the circumstances in which they find themselves, but it is plain to even the dullest man that your wife has been severely beaten. I know who and what you are and if it was not for the fact that she shows absolutely no fear in your presence I would call for a constable and have your arrested for it.'
Tommy was too exhausted and guilt-ridden to feel angry at the man's tone. He tried to defend himself though. 'The general practitioner from the village came last night not long after she was found. He said she probably just needed to keep her eyes rested and her head elevated until the swelling came down. But when he saw her again a few hours ago he insisted that we called you immediately'
The doctor was only partially mollified by Tommy's honesty. His anger drained slightly, but he didn't bother to moderate his brusque manner.
'The globe of your wife's left eye has been ruptured by one or more heavy blows. I would say by a strike from a man's shoe or boot. I will do my best to repair the damage in surgery but if there is no improvement within the week I would advise that an enucleation be performed.' Seeing Tommy's look of confusion, he added. 'The eyeball should be removed.'
Tommy blanched. 'Are you serious?'
'Indeed I am, Mr Shelby. Your wife is at great risk of infection in the damaged eyeball, and I need not tell you how serious that would be. Additionally, if treatment isn't undertaken soon her body could begin to attack the healthy eyeball. She would be at risk of losing sight in both eyes.
'What now?' Tommy asked, stomach roiling in horror.
'I'll arrange for an ambulance to collect Mrs Shelby within the hour. Between now and then you need to keep her as calm and relaxed as possible and ensure that her head is elevated. Give her no food or drink. I'll leave full instructions with your nurse – she seems competent enough.'
'But what do I tell her?' Tommy felt as helpless as a child, just as he had when his mother had died.
'Mr Shelby, women are emotional and fragile creatures at the best of times. Your wife cannot possibly be expected to deal with such difficult matters. I don't presume to tell you how to run your affairs but if my wife was in this situation then I would tell her as little as humanly possible.' With that the man turned on his heels and strode off to instruct Mabel on her duties, before disappearing through front door to where his car and driver awaited him.
For ten minutes, Tommy paced in the corridor outside his wife's bedroom, smoking furiously as his mind worked through his options. He dearly wanted to take the Doctor's advice, to tell Arabella nothing of the seriousness of her condition, to protect her from the truth. No woman should have to hear such news – they couldn't handle it! Lying would be easy. But then he thought about the women he knew - tough women all.
There was Polly, who had taken in her sister's children and raised them, despite having lost her own, and despite having little enough to share. She had run the Shelby family business whilst the men were at war and turned it from a shabby little low rent horse stealing protection outfit into a prosperous enterprise. If she had not been so strong then he and his brothers would have come back to dust and ashes and there would have been nothing for him to build on.
Equally proud and self-sufficient, his sister had defied convention – and her own brother – to make a life with the man she loved. He knew that she struggled daily for balance between her political beliefs and the opportunities afforded her by Shelby money, and yet despite her doubts she came through for her family when it mattered.
And lastly there was Lizzie, a woman who had lived an unbearably hard life and yet always retained her dignity and her pride. She had stayed loyal to him even though he had often used her badly, both for his own enjoyment and for the benefit of the Shelby Company. Just thinking of Lizzie made him feel slightly ashamed, so he brushed the thought away.
He realised that, although he desperately wanted to keep the truth from Arabella, it was not for her sake or because he thought that she could not handle it. Instead it was more because he did not want to admit that he had failed her yet again.
In reality, Tommy knew that he had no choice whatsoever.
Forcing down his fears and guilt, Tommy told his wife the whole unvarnished truth. He wasn’t sure quite what reaction he was expecting from her – hysterics, anger, reproof. How would any woman react to news of her probably disfigurement? But anything would have been better than what he got, which was total icy silence. Arabella turned her face from him and refused to speak or acknowledge him in any way. Wherever she had gone it was far, far away from him. He watched her numbly as the minutes ticked by, hoping that telling her had been the right thing.
When he saw Arabella’s shoulders shaking, Tommy thought, with some relief, that she had finally given way to tears but within moments he realised that she was simply shivering. Shock had set in. Tenderly he reached out to comfort her, laying his hand gently on her bare shoulder. Arabella reacted as if she had been struck. Lashing out violently, she tried to scramble away, whimpering as she forced her bruised and battered body to move.
‘For fuck’s sake Ari, it’s me. Calm down.’ Tommy grabbed her wrists in a fierce grip as she tried to scratch at his eyes. ‘You need to calm down love. You’ll make your eye worse - please!’
Arabella looked around her wildly, her one visible eye rolling beneath its bruised lids; she snarled at him. Tommy shook her gently murmuring words of comfort and love before drawing her into his arms. And then the storm broke and he was left holding the fragile shell of his sobbing wife.
Left to their own devices, Arthur and John were struggling to come to terms with their own overwhelming feelings of guilt. Arthur had drunk himself into a stupor the day after the derailing of the train and had later taken part in an ill-advised bare-knuckle brawl with a water gypsy down at uncle Charlie’s yard. Friendly hands had had brought him back to Arrow House ranting and raving, his face a bloody mess. No one, not even Polly, had dared call Linda until the following morning and the woman had come to the house, face stormy with anger and recrimination, one hand resting accusingly across her swollen belly. She had taken her husband from the house without a word and they had not been heard from since, although the word was that they had booked passage on a ship to the Americas with a party of Quakers.
John, by contrast, had taken Esme, a couple of bottles of whiskey, and his own bodyweight in snow off in to one of the many bedrooms. They had not been seen since but the alternating sounds of sex and arguing could be heard clearly from the floor below. The maids left trays of food outside their door, some of which were cleared, others ignored. The children had been left in the care of one of the Lee women. She was doing her best but the older ones were taking the opportunity to run riot around the grounds with Arabella’s pack of dogs; no one had the heart to stop them.
By evening, Arabella was out of surgery. Mr Tudor, exhausted but ebullient, clapped Thomas fiercely on the back. His manner was completely different to the one he had demonstrated when he had first examined Arabella at Arrow House.
‘The damage was perhaps not so great as I feared, Mr Shelby.’ He crowed, his broad Welsh accent giving his joy wings. ‘I’ve repaired the damage and, provided there is not infection, we should manage to save the eye. Whether you wife will regain much sight in it I can’t say, but she should at least be able to see some light and shade.’
Tommy felt light headed with relief. For a few seconds he stood stock still as if turned to stone. Then, thinking clearly for the first time in days he said. ‘Mr Tudor, I am very grateful for all your efforts. If you ever have need of anything, and I mean anything, you may call on me and be assured I will provide you with whatever assistance you require. In the meantime, I have one last favour to ask of you.’
Taking the ophthalmologist firmly by the elbow, Tommy steered him into a quiet corner where they could talk without being overheard.
A few days later, once healing had begun, Mr Tudor pronounced Arabella sufficiently recovered to return home. There was still no indication that vision was returning to the eye but no infection had set in which was a positive sign. The surgeon agreed to visit regularly to check on her progress on the understanding that if there were any issues he would remove the damaged eye as soon as possible.
Although Tommy knew that his wife’s most significant injuries were to her eyes and face he was also aware that she would be suffering from every scrape and bruise, and he was determined to save her from as much pain as he could. He resolved to personally oversee her recovery, even if it took months – provided Mabel let him with arms reach of her
If he was honest with himself, Tommy was glad to have a distraction from thinking about the dreadful crime that he had forced his brothers to commit, and the half-dozen innocent men who now lay dead. He found it hard to keep his mind on any one thing and he was constantly plagued by fears and night terrors. Fragments of his talk with Churchill flashed into mind in random order. He hoped desperately that he had done the right thing but he knew that his family had fractured in a way that even he, and a call to family unity, might be unable to resolve despite his best intentions.
So chaotic was his state of mind that he couldn’t even bring himself to make arrangements regarding the sale of the jewellery he had managed to liberate from the vault under Wilderness House; he knew that the true owner would not wait much longer. His mind was so full of horrors and his heart so full of guilt that only caring for Arabella stopped him from losing himself in opium dreams once again.
As the days passed, Tommy and Arabella remained all but oblivious to the chaos that had gripped the rest of the family. Constantly at her bedside, he listened broken hearted as she spilled her out her sorrow and her guilt, and no matter how much he protested she blamed herself entirely for the destruction of the train and the deaths of the six innocent men.
‘I tried, Tommy. I really tried. I wanted to get to you so badly but I just wasn’t strong enough.’ Her bruised hands grasped his almost hard enough to crack the bones. ‘I‘m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.’ Tears seeped through her swollen eyelids and the sting seemed to pacify her, as if she welcomed the pain.
He held her tight and rocked her against him as she sobbed. He knew that, eventually, exhaustion and laudanum would overtake her and she would fall into a fitful sleep. As soon as she dozed off he would kiss her hair and gently lay her down, knowing full well that she would wake within the hour and they would have to go through the whole sorry business again.
Eventually Tommy could no longer put off dealing with the Russian jewels. He made a single brief telephone call and then drove himself to the rendezvous point. When he arrived, the Princess was already there waiting for him, looking elegant, and dangerous, in a cocoon of silk and fur. Her musky perfume clogged his nostrils and turned his stomach. She had exercised an unpleasant hold over him over the last few months – as bad, in its way, as that of Hughes. His skin itched at the thought of the unholy night that they had spent together. He was not a religious man, but the stories of spirits and evil he imbibed at this mother's knee had gone deep and he could not help but remember a quote from the gospel of James that she had often quoted in relation to his father and his kin,
'… when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death'.
Whatever lusts there were in the world, he believed that the Princess had welcomed them in to her heart in full measure. He could hardly wait for their business to be done.
'Mr Shelby, this person is Monsieur Silk.' She gestured carelessly to a prissy looking man seated incongruously by the side of the road. 'He has come to verify the value of the goods on behalf of the buyers. Please show them to him.'
'Good morning, Mr Shelby', the man said from his uncomfortable perch. Not bothering to meet Tommy's eye he held out his hand, 'May I see the jewels?'
Taking possession of the stones, he rifled through them madly like a crazed magpie, pulling out piece after piece and holding them up to his loupe before scratching down approximate figures in his ledger.
Whilst the appraisal was being performed, Tatiana stepped closer to Tommy, invading his personal space. 'I must say, Shelby, that it was a true pleasure doing business with you over these past few months.' She ran her fingers suggestively from his chest down to his groin and smirked up at him.
'The pleasure was all mine', Tommy replied, but was all he could do to keep the disgust from his face. Despite all his efforts he could not fool the Princess however, although she mistook the reason for it.
'You would never be able to steal from your family in this way, would you?' Her amusement was clear. 'Well the collection was mostly my mother's anyhow. They would have sold it but never used the money for anything useful, merely wasted it all on trying to reclaim a country that never deserved us.' She tossed her head arrogantly.
Tommy clenched his teeth but tried to smile pleasantly. 'You needed a tunnel, Princess, and I need your signature to make the sale of these items legal. Let's not probe either of our motives any more closely.'
Leaning ever closer, Tatiana pressed her lips against his, forcing her tongue into his mouth. Tommy cringed internally as he felt his cock twitch like she had blown a whistle, but he made no move to return the kiss. Instead he remained impassive for a few seconds before pulling back.
'You will never forget me, will you Mr Shelby?' she asked, with a smirk.
'No Princess. That I will not.' Finally, a question he could respond to honestly.
After what felt like an eternity, the legal bill of sale for the Duke Alexander Petrovich collection was finally signed and the money handed over. Tommy and the Princess shared a few more moments of desultory conversation but he could not bear to meet her eyes and they soon took their leave of one another, although the Princess' last words were damning.
'At home, these jewels saw way worse than this betrayal, Mr Shelby. That's why they are all cursed – as are any who touch them.' She gave a thoughtless shrug. 'If you're ever in Vienna, look me up.'
Tommy made one final futile attempt at a smile but he hoped that he would not see her again this side of hell.
Buoyed up by tens of thousands of pounds in cash, and the blessed knowledge that he would never have to deal with Russians of any political stripe of any kind again, Tommy drove himself back to Arrow House. Arabella was having an important consultation with Mr Tudor that day - her bandages were due to come off and he was keen hoping to see whether the surgery had been successful.
Tommy had begged to be present during the unveiling but Arabella had stubbornly refused, arguing vociferously that Tommy should see to the family business first. When questioned, she was adamant that she determined to hear the truth of her recovery – or lack thereof - alone so that she could compose herself before facing the world. Tommy had been equally determined that he should be there to support her through the ordeal but the more he pressed her the more upset she got and he was frightened that she would cause herself further harm.
The house was in silence, when he finally arrived home. There was no one to be seen - even the widespread infestation of maid servants seemed to have died down. It did not bode well. The door to his study was ajar and he could see the warming glow from the fire within drawing him in to take his ease. He realised, finally, that he was exhausted. Taking a deep breath to steel himself, he went into the room, unsure of what or whom he would find awaiting him, but certain that, at the very least, there would be alcohol and a comfortable seat close within reach.
Tudor was seated in an easy chair near to the fire, sipping on a glass of what appeared to be Tommy's best brandy. He leapt up as soon as he heard the door swing open.
'Mr Shelby! I was awaiting your return with some… trepidation.' The man's normally subtle Welsh accent was thickened by stress and alcohol.
'Oh, I can see that, Mr Tudor', Tommy replied sardonically. Gesturing to the other man to reseat himself, Tommy poured himself a whiskey and sat in the chair opposite. 'Well?'
'I'm pleased to say that your lovely lady wife will be able to retain the eye but, unfortunately, it is unlikely that she will gain any further sight in it. There is some reaction to light there, although not much, and I would advise that she wears tinted lenses for the remainder of her life. You are welcome to ask for a second opinion, of course, but I assure you that no man could have done more.' There was tension in the doctor's voice, a slight nervousness as to how Tommy would respond, but he met Tommy's eyes with complete confidence in his own skills. Tommy tried to stare Tudor down but, although his eyes took on a slightly hunted look, he did not break.
'Did you bring it?' Tommy changed the subject abruptly, lifting another whiskey to his lips.
Tudor pointed towards the desk. Tommy drained his drink, stood up, and crossed to where Tudor had indicated. After a few moments he nodded in satisfaction.
'I assume that your family physician is of the same mind?' Tudor's lilting voice gained strength now they were on less risky ground.
'Indeed. I'm much obliged to you, Mr Tudor, for this and for your efforts in treating my wife. I will not forget it.' He gave a mirthless smile. 'And now I'm going to see my wife. Please feel free to drink as much of my brandy as you like before you see yourself out. You can submit you accounts to my aunt tomorrow.'
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Taking the steps up to their bedroom two at a time, Tommy hurried to comfort his wife. He paused outside the door and fought to calm himself. He knew that she was still fragile, that she would be frightened if he burst through the door in a panic, but it was still hard to resist the urge to storm into the room at full pelt.
Once he was calm, he knocked gently to warn her and the opened the door. He was not entire sure what to expect but he found the room cool, quiet, and illuminated by a soft, diffused light. Someone had been heating lavender oil over a burner and it had filled the room with a welcome calming scent. Arabella was sitting up in bed, sipping tea, apparently totally calm and self-possessed.
'I've spoken to Mr Tudur', he said, sitting down gently on the edge of the bed.
Arabella set down her tea, the delicate china cup rattling against its saucer. The shaking of her hand was the only outward sign of her distress. 'Then there's nothing more to be said.' She turned away, hiding her bandaged face in shadow.
'Ari, please.' Tommy's voice was rough. 'Look at me. Let me see you.'
Arabella seemed to shrink into herself, her hard won composure cracking under Tommy's intense gaze. She shook her head and nibbled at her cracked bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. Tommy caught her chin lightly between his thumb and forefinger and turned her head towards him.
'You don't need to hide from me.' He gently unwound her bandages and removed the casing which protected her damaged eye. The repair had caused further swelling and bleeding, and the remnants of the bruising had turned the sclera a revolting mix of yellow, brown and red. The pupil was massively misshapen and he could already see a milky white film across its surface where the trauma had caused a cataract to begin to form. He had seen similar injuries over the years, but he had never thought to see it in his own wife's beloved face. Clamping down tight on his feelings, he kept his face impassive.
'Well?' Arabella's voice was full of challenge, almost angry.
'You are still the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen.' He stroked her cheek delicately.
They both knew that it was a lie. Arabella had been many things – but never beautiful. Tommy watched as his wife's face hardened. She stared at him coldly and her good eye glittered in the dim light.
'Is it done?' She demanded. 'Do you have the money?'
Reeling slightly at the speed with which she had changed the topic, Tommy nodded almost imperceptibly. 'All of it. I wasn't sure, but in the end the bitc… in the end she did as she promised.'
'So, it's over?' Arabella sighed with relief, the tension in her shoulders loosening.
'Not yet. There are still some powerful and well-placed people in play who are hoping to erase any trace of their failure - and they won't baulk at destroying each and every one of us. I've set some things in motion but I need to know - do you trust me?' He watched her intently, desperately searching her still battered and swollen face for signs of doubt or mistrust.
Arabella was astonished. 'After all this, do you really need to ask?'
'You know that I do.' His was edgy. He feared her rejection above all.
'Tommy, I trust you with my life. Now show me that nothing has changed between us, please. Show me that you still love me despite...' She gestured despairingly towards her face. The pleading in her voice made his heart break.
Reaching out, she rested one hand lightly against the nape of his neck. Her cool fingers gently massaged his spine, then trailed up into the kitten-soft shaved hair at the base of his skull. Tommy felt the tension beginning to leave his body. Closing his eyes, he leant forward, and a shuddering breath escaped his lips. Arabella shifted closer and her lips found the sensitive spot behind his left ear before tracing down the line of his neck. Freeing her hands, she loosened his collar and tie, then nibbled lower. Tommy shivered as her sharp teeth began to scrape along his collarbone.
'Arabella – dear god!' He grabbed her by her shoulders and pushed her back against the bolsters, covering her body with his. He was hard as a rock already, desperate to be inside her, to fuck away the nightmares and doubts that held them both captive. He pressed fiercely against her, almost hard enough to hurt. The cry of excitement which it tore from her only aroused him further. He lifted himself off her briefly in order to unbutton his flies, which also allowed her to free her legs from the skirts of her nightgown.
Taking his weight on his forearms to protect his wife's bruised ribs, Tommy paused for a moment before he entered her, watching her surreptitiously through lowered lashes. Her head was thrown back and her lips were parted in anticipation. But she had also turned her damaged eye away from him… and he was glad of it. Not because it disgusted him but simply because the sight of it made him so extraordinarily and profoundly angry, and their marital bed was no place for such murderous rage. The sight of her other injuries was scarcely any better, so he buried his face in her neck, something which he had never done before.
He made love to her with a gentleness that belied his desperate need, fighting his own body for as long as he could in order to show her his utter devotion without causing her physical pain, but Arabella did not notice. All she saw was that Tommy could no longer bear to look at her whilst he was insider her, and that his usual desire for her had been replaced by passionless and mechanical duty. She felt so ashamed, so humiliated. To bring the ordeal to an end she was eventually obliged to fake an ecstatic release. For his part Tommy was just overwhelmingly relieved that he had given her an orgasm before he had lost the remains of his self-control.
Never one to snuggle after sex, Tommy contented himself with nuzzling briefly at Arabella's neck before drifting off to sleep, the scent of her soap filling his nostrils. If he had been less exhausted from the stress and exertion of the last few weeks, he might have remained awake long enough to notice his wife's distress, might have realised that she taken his rigid self-control as a lack of desire, and his fury at the harm done to her for disgust. If he had known the depth of her misconceptions, he would have told her the truth and saved them both a great deal of pain.
Later, whilst Tommy slept the healing sleep of a man reunited with his true love, Arabella went into his dressing room and cried out the crumbled remains of her heart.
With the morning, a simulacrum of life returned to Arrow House. Maids hurried about their work, cleaning, curtsying and chatting, creating a swell of noise that sometimes ebbed without warning into guarded silence. The men of the Peaky Blinders strutted about, openly armed and swathed in clouds of cigarette smoke. They still they carried with them the stink of violence and the memory of blood, but their usual dirty jokes and salty language were oddly curtailed. Left to their own devices, the children played silent games in distant corridors and behind the closed doors of unused rooms, as if afraid to draw the attention of a passing adult yet at the same time too uncertain to stray far from their elders; John and Esme were nowhere to be found. Even the pack of boisterous dogs that normally filled the house with their barking and capering now slunk about with their tails between their legs.
Through it all, Arabella floated like smoke buffeted by an ill wind. Drifting from room to room, touching nothing, interacting with no one, she seemed as insubstantial as a ghost. Her hair was perfectly dressed, the satin and silks of her clothing elegantly styled, her jewelry subtly expensive, but none of the selections were her own. Mabel, and Arabella’s maid, had done all they could but as shocking as an open wound, the patch covering her damaged eye stood out grimly against her pallid face. Her manner did not encourage interaction and she left silence and stillness in her wake; the maids crossed themselves as she disappeared from view.
Tommy was so busy setting his neglected business to rights over the coming days that he barely had time to notice his wife’s curious behavior. Other than the occasional negligent kiss as he left her sleeping in their bed, he had scarcely interacted with her since the night he examined her eye. Nothing escaped Polly’s perceptive gaze, however. Keeping to the shadows, she watched Arabella’s endless circuits of the house with her eyes narrowed and her lips pressed into a thin bloodless line. Uncertain how to act for the best, she kept her own counsel.
On the fourth day, Arabella woke up to find Tommy’s erection pressed firmly against her buttocks. He sent out a questing hand and took hold of one of her breasts, tweaking the nipple firmly enough to make her gasp with mingled pain and desire. Still half asleep, she wriggled back against him drawing a gasp from him in return. It was only when he was inside her that she woke up enough to realise that, once again, he was making love to her in a way that meant that he did not have to look her. Eyes tightly closed, she turned her face into the pillow and inhaled the calming scent of the lavender with which the linen had been stored.
Tommy nuzzled his face in loose curls at the nape of Arabella’s neck, much as he had done that first blissful night that she had been returned to him. He felt wild and out of control – he came within minutes, groaning in ecstasy as he buried himself deep inside her. Rolling away, his breath coming in heaving gasps, he lit a cigarette. His first drag caused a coughing fit. It was some minutes until he could speak.
Propping himself up on one arm, he said carelessly to Arabella’s naked back, ‘I’ve got something I have to see to in town this morning, but I’ll be back in time for dinner.’ Kissing her lightly on the temple, he slid out of bed and without another word he pulled on his clothes and left. It took some time for Arabella to come back into herself. What had once been a pleasure had felt like an assault and she was not sure how to handle it.
Later, sometime after the family had finished their midday meal, a man arrived from London to fit Arabella's tinted lenses. It was Alfie's personal eye-glass maker and, although he shared a surname – and indeed, blood - with the man who had sent him, he was as different to him as night from day. A twittering little sparrow of a man, he was exceptionally smartly dressed, with a fussy little pince-nez on a chain about his neck, and a strange hybrid Russian/East End accent. Bastard Russians, Tommy though sourly the moment he heard him speak, but this was Alfie's way of building bridges, and he knew that, for Arabella, the work would be nothing less than first rate.
It was Arabella's reaction to the man, or rather the lack of it, which gave Tommy his first inkling that there might be a serious problem with his wife. A man like this, with his amusing mannerisms and constant chatter, would usually have charmed her, and she would have charmed him in return, asking insightful questions and making thoughtful comments. Within 15 minutes she would have had his entire family history from him and made him a devoted friend for life. As it was, there was... nothing. No smiles, no comments other than the bare minimum required for politeness' sake, no reactions that were not forced from her by need. Tommy was both shocked and concerned, but the little man was unperturbed.
Finishing his work in silence, the old man drew Tommy aside once Arabella had left the room. 'It is shock, yes, Mr Shelby.’ He said gently. ‘I have seen this amongst those who have suffered trauma – my own dear wife was one such after we fled from Russia. I know from my nephew that you were in the war. You will have seen this too. It is fear of the world in which they find themselves, fear of the face that they now have to show to that world.’ The old man squeezed Tommy’s hand consolingly, the grip of his swollen fingers surprisingly strong.
‘I don’t know what to do to help her,’ Tommy said. He could not bear to meet the other man’s eye. ‘I could never help my men when the battle fatigue came upon them. I could barely help myself.'
‘You feel helpless now, but peace will come with time, my boy. My wife found great comfort in our children, and now their babies too.’ Tommy face shut down completely. With the practice of a man who has long been forced to read the mood of a room in order to survive, Solomons smoothly changed tack. ‘Most importantly, your dear wife will have the loving care of a husband and family. Your presence will bring her back.’ He gave a little bow that was almost comically old fashioned and then backed out of the room, promising to have two pairs of spectacles delivered within the week.
He left Tommy in a contemplative mood. Tommy had to concede that Solomons was right. Arabella was undoubtedly suffering from shock, and he could only put his failure to note this down to wishful thinking, and his preoccupation with his deal with Churchill. However, he also knew that it was too late to stop what was coming.
Arabella had sworn that she trusted him, and he had to hope that she had spoken truly but he could not guarantee it, not in her current, fragile, condition. He was sure the others would understand – it was an occupational hazard after all – but his wife had not been born to this life. She had been born into a world of privilege, albeit tainted by sadness, misfortune, and scandal. But still, she had been raised to expect certain things in life and they did not usually encompass kidnapping, extreme physical violence, or murder – or the possibility of imprisonment. Would she would be resilient enough to deal with it? He could not begin to guess.
The scene was set and all the major players were now in their appointed places; Tommy waited anxiously in the wings like an understudy's understudy forced into the leading role on opening night. He checked his pocket watch again. The minute hand was dragging its way reluctantly towards 11 o'clock. He felt like he had an appointment with the hangman – if it wasn't so near the knuckle he might have laughed. But there was no time to back out now.
Assuming an air of haughty confidence that he honestly did not feel, Tommy strode into his office and took his accustomed place behind the large polished desk. He found himself the focus of a variety of intense stares ranging from the confused to the baleful. The whole family were there, supplemented by a few hangers on like Curley who were loitering awkwardly at the back. His female relations were sour faced. Polly's lips had thinned more than he had ever seen before and he could almost hear Linda praying for strength as she held grimly onto Arthur's shoulder. The disapproval came off them in bitter waves like a perfume that had soured.
Arthur and John were no happier. Tommy's eldest brother was stroking his moustache with an intensity that suggested his was only minutes away from punching someone into a bloody pulp, and there was a fathomless shame in John's eyes. Only Arabella, huddled in the easy chair next to the fire, seemed unaware of the seething mass of anger and pain which pervaded the room. Tommy didn't spare her more than a brief glance. He couldn't afford to. There was far too much at stake.
Tommy focussed on Finn – and that nearly proved to be his undoing. His baby brother had been raised as an innocent. He had never starved as his siblings had, never known war up close, never seen a loved one die. His parents didn't count; he'd barely known either of them. Yet now, unprepared, he had been forced to watch six innocent men blown sky high, murdered callously by his own brothers. He'd been close enough to smell their burning flesh, to see scraps of their skin and bone and clothing falling down around him like flakes of snow in a maniac's nightmare. His still immature face was set, blank and moon white, with dark craters where his merry eyes should have been. All this for the politics of a country three and a half thousand miles away. Tommy's guilt threatened to overwhelm him and once again he felt a surge of anger towards Hughes and the Odd Fellows for their callous manipulation of the Shelbys. His feelings towards the Russians – of what ever stripe or persuasion – were equally vicious, old man Solomons notwithstanding.
He began the meeting by apologising profusely for his actions over the proceeding months, a confession which was greeted by a shocked and confused silence. They were used to a bombastic Tommy, a Tommy who could take on the world, but this man was clearly on the brink. He handed out money to them all in shares approximate to their efforts, some got a little more by way of apology for insults given, others a little more to smooth away Tommy's guilt and theirs. He followed up by painting a bleak future for the Shelby Company and its employees. But in the end, there was no more he could do to fend off the dreadful moment.
Tommy looked around the room at the haunted eyes and resentful faces and the room seemed to grow a little warmer. In times of stress, the pain from his old head injury seemed to swell to fill the world and now the flames of hell were licking at his temples. He remembered how, back when he was first recovering, Arabella had massaged his head and neck with her cool slender fingers and eased his terrible pains. There would be no more of that for a while. Hidden from view under the desk, his fists clenched so tight that his nails broke the skin on his palms.
Eventually Polly broke the silence. Her manner was unusually careful, her tone conciliatory, although the tension in her shoulders spoke to her general unease. 'Tommy, you've had a bad time. We understand. So, at an alternative time, when we have all recovered, I would like to put before the family an alternative view of the future of the Shelby Company Limited. A more hopeful view.'
Tommy watched, mute and expressionless, as the women of the family took up Polly's deftly thrown line. All except Linda.
'Come on, Arthur.' The woman said brusquely, standing firm with a hand spread across her huge swollen belly - she couldn't have more than a month left before the birth. As was so often the way, impending labour had made her fierce in defence of her family. 'The train for the dock leaves in one hour. Then we'll get the boat to New York and all this horror will be in the past.'
Awkward as a schooled child, Arthur approached his brother to say his farewells. 'I'll be off, then, Tom.' He shifted on his feet, clearly torn between his sense of family duty and his desire to put recent events behind him. Tommy didn't give him the chance.
'I spoke to our friend Moss last night', he said conversationally. 'He told me that the Chief Constable of Birmingham has issued a warrant for your arrest. Murder, sedition, and conspiracy to cause an explosion.' He turned to his younger brother, 'John, they're coming for you, as well. For murder and conspiracy to cause an explosion.' The family looked at each other in horror. 'Michael…'
'What the fuck?' One of his brothers finally found voice enough to respond. But he went on relentless.
'… for the murder of Hughes. Polly for the murder of Chief Inspector Chester Campbell at the races. Arabella for the murder of the Honourable Edward Simpson.'
'Wait a minute, what the fuck are you talking about? Why didn't you fucking tell us about this?' John, always quicker on the uptake was incensed. Half the room were now on their feet and Tommy could feel himself losing control. He tried to explain.
'The people we betrayed over this want to destroy us for it. They make us look like children playing games. You have to remember that they control the police, they control the judges, they control the juries, they control the jails.' His voice thickened under the stress. 'But they do not control our elected Government.' The declaration did not have the effect that he had intended. Panic was starting to take over the room.
'You're our fucking brother!' Arthur said despairingly. 'Why didn't you tell us as soon as you found out? Why didn't you give us time to escape?'
'He meant to do this', Linda stormed. 'This is his way of keeping us here. I said that he wouldn't let us go without a fight!'
Tommy tried to stand his ground, to explain to them all that they just needed to remain calm, to trust him. 'Listen to me. I've made a deal with Churchill. You have to trust that I know what I'm doing.' But it was a losing battle.
'They'll hang us all! Polly hissed desperately.
'It's all taken care of. In return for giving evidence against them you'll all be freed. Please believe me!'
The frisson of fear in the room did not dissipate in the slightest. If anything, it increased. Even Tommy began to feel the folly of his position but he could not take it back it was far too late. 'Lizzie' he said flatly 'collect up the money and take it down to the safe in the cellar.' Addressing the room at large, he added 'You will all get your money in due course. Now please, when the police arrive, do not resist – it will not be helpful.'
Frantically, Polly turned to Arabella. 'Did you know? Did you know what Tommy was going to do?' But one look at Arabella's ashen face and fear stretched eyes told Polly everything she needed to know. It was the first response that she had demonstrated in days and that was shocking in and of itself.
At the centre of the maelstrom, Tommy was standing stock still, eyes fixed on his wife. For a moment, Arabella made no movement nor uttered a single sound, then she slid out of the chair, stepped smartly forward, and slapped him across the face as hard as she could. The sharp crack silenced everyone momentarily.
'You said that you trusted me.' Tommy took her hand desperately. 'I need you to show me that trust now.'
Arabella began to giggle, on the verge of hysteria. 'That wasn't because I don't trust you. It was because you didn't trust me.'
A few moments later the house was overrun with policemen.
Arabella remembered next to nothing of her trip to the police station on Digbeth High Street. She could vaguely recall the sound of Polly praying in the back of the van and a litany of swearing from someone else. There had been some questions at one point which she must have answered to the questioner's satisfaction because they soon stopped and then she found herself alone in a small, cold cell. It had taken the sound of the heavy metal door slamming shut behind her to finally waken her from her trance.
Now she was perched uncomfortably on the low stone bench which, other than the small barred window above her head, was the sole feature of the room. Amongst the graffiti, both despairing and obscene, which littered the walls, some well-read prisoner had etched the words 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here' right where they could be seen by anyone who was shut up inside. Arabella gave a wan smile when she recognised the quote. More prosaically, another wag had contented himself by outlining, in pithy phrases, the parentage of some of the local constables.
Arabella shifted restlessly in her seat trying to ease the aches and pains in her still bruised body. The bench made an unforgiving place to rest but at least the discomfort kept her focussed and alert. This place was little better than the room in which her kidnappers had kept her. She let her head fall back against the peeling paint of the wall behind her. It seemed that she had simply exchanged one form of captivity for another. The brief respite at Arrow House seemed like a dream, but now she was fully awake. Awake and furious.
She had never wanted to marry Thomas Shelby. In fact, at the time their union had first been arranged, she would have happily chosen the life of an old maid instead. But she had not been free to choose, and her name and body had been given in exchange for her father's debts. The first eighteen months or so of their marriage had been characterised by coldness and detachment, but that very distance had given her the freedom to discover, and indulge, her own interests. And then she had discovered the wonder of her husband's body. The fierce heat of his kisses, the feel of this teeth scraping along her collarbone, the hardness of his body against her and inside her. It had enchanted her and overwhelmed her in equal measure.
Despite the passion they had come to share, it had taken time and work, not to mention a certain relaxation of her personal morals, before they became husband and wife in anything worth then name. Gradually, they had come to value each other's strengths and, thankfully, forgive their weaknesses. Almost without realising it, she had fallen in love with him and because she knew how hard he was working to better the family and protect them all, she had forgiven him for many things that she would once have found unconscionable. She had stood by his side through countless criminal endeavours, through his infidelity, through times of brutal violence and murder. She had stood beside him because she felt she knew his mind and his ambitions, and had felt buoyed up by his affection. But this… this was a great betrayal, far beyond anything she had experienced before. For not only did she feel that she no longer had his love, she felt that he no longer trusted her enough to tell her his plans.
An hour or two later the custody sergeant unlocked the cell door and told her that she was to be taken to see her solicitor. There was no kindness in his voice and his cold tone cut through her festering anger with ease. She felt her skin prickle, and a cold sweat begin to pool in the small of her back. She gritted her teeth and drew in a slow calming breath – she was getting sick of feeling fear at the hands of brutish men.
The policemen had been rough and crude on the journey to the police station. Although she had little memory of their individual actions, she knew that by morning she would have fresh bruises blooming on her skin alongside those given to her by Hughes' men and she suspected that things would be much worse for the Shelby men who had dared to fight back against their restraints. The coppers only deference to her injuries and her sex had been manacling her hands before her rather than in the small of her back. She had stumbled out of the house and towards the wagon like one in the grip of an opium dream. She had only reacted, and then but barely, when she stumbled painfully to her knees on the gravel of the driveway and they had been obliged to pull her roughly back on to her feet.
Her hands were once again shackled in front of her, and she was half pushed and half pulled along the corridor. As she was driven forward towards the steep stairs leading to the interview rooms, she heard sounds from some of the other cells. From one in particular she heard the rhythmic thudding of fist and boot against the door, and the muffled sound of anger being violently and volubly expressed. Arthur, she thought, strangely comforted. It was good to know that there was at least one person here who was able to fully articulate the extent of the rage she felt. She hoped that the dear, sweet man did not hurt himself – or get hurt any more.
Part of her even now feared ill treatment at the hands of the constabulary and so she was inordinately relieved to see Moss waiting for her at the top of the stairs. His face was serious, his manner distant and forbidding, but still she could not but be happy to see him there. If she didn't drop him in it, he could still be an ally.
In deference to her status, she was taken not to a normal interview room but instead into the station commander's office. Waiting for her in the snug little room was Joseph Bowman, one of the senior partners at the firm of Bowman, Bowman, and Keswick, the Shelby family's solicitors of choice. He was a large man, not fat exactly, but tall and broad and puffed up with his own importance. Arabella did not like him overly much. Behind the hail-fellow-well-met façade she thought he was cruel and sly, and she knew from Lizzie that he had trouble keeping his hands to himself. Still, he was exceptionally good at his job and so, when he took her hand and muttered some insincere words of comfort, she kept her face carefully neutral and allowed him to lead her to a comfortable chair and pass her a cup of tea.
'My dear, Mrs Shelby. I've taken the liberty of preparing a statement for you to sign. Usually you would then be sent for remand but given the rather unusual…' He allowed himself a small but expressive shrug. 'Well let's just say that the facts of the matter are somewhat complicated and, given your position, once your statement has been submitted you will be allowed to return to Arrow House until the trial.'
Arabella could not suppress a sudden intake of breath. 'A trial?' She set down her tea lest the rattle of the cup in its saucer gave away her stark terror.
Bowman gave a spiteful little smirk. 'Murder is a capital crime, Mrs Shelby. There is no avoiding a trial. Even for you.' He was enjoying her fear a little too much and her stomach nearly revolted.
'It was not murder, Mr Bowman', she said, with no little spirit. 'I assure you that I was in fear for my life and those of my rescuers!'
'As you say, Mrs Shelby.' He inclined his head a fraction in acknowledgement but Arabella could tell that he did not believe her. If her own legal representative was not convinced of the direness of the situation then how could she convince a jury.
Polly was right. Damn you Tommy – we're all going to hang!
It was dusk when Arabella got back to Arrow House. In the gathering gloom, the building seemed to squat in the landscape like a malignant toad, its fathomless, empty eyes staring directly at her. She entered the front door only reluctantly. Inside, all was quiet. Some lights had been left on but otherwise the house appeared lonely and deserted. Behind her she heard the chauffeur drive off, the rubber tyres of the Austin 12 making the gravel pop and spit as he pulled away. She felt vulnerable and alone in the cold entrance hall. An involuntary shiver of fear ran down her spine and then the anger rushed back and swept it away. She slammed the door angrily and waited for someone to acknowledge her arrival.
After a few frustrating minutes, during which she tried, and failed, to adequately enumerate the myriad ways in which Tommy had offended her during their marriage, she stalked down the corridor towards husband’s study. The door was firmly closed but she could see light escaping through the keyhole. Without pausing, or knocking, she stormed through the door only to find the room deserted. Snarling in frustration she headed first to their bedroom and from there down to the kitchen. Surely there would be someone down there. Even if it was only the scullery maid putting away the servants’ dinner or one of the Blinders sneaking in to steal some of the good whiskey the place was never deserted.
For once Arabella was disappointed in her assumption; the kitchen was in darkness. Without Polly’s forceful presence, or the watchful disapproval of the cook whose kingdom was constantly being invaded, the usually warm and welcoming room seemed more like a mortuary than the heart of the home. In desperation, she went to the attic where the maids slept. She had never been up there before and the poor state of repair of the hallway and the meanness of the accommodation embarrassed her. This was truly another world.
‘It’s Mrs Shelby’, she called, as she knocked on the first door. After a moment she opened it finding nothing more inside than a simple cot bed, a chest, and a table lamp. She moved to the second and knocked more forcefully. ‘Please, is there anyone here?’ There was a prolonged silence followed by a scraping sound as something heavy was dragged across wooden floorboards. Then a pale face peeked shyly around a door at the end of the corridor.
‘Oh, Mrs Shelby I’m so glad to see you!’ Tilly said with relief, throwing the door wide, although the accompanying curtsey was perfunctory at best. ‘After this morning, almost everyone has gone to stay with family. Me - I came from the workhouse.’ She ducked her head in embarrassment. ‘So, I didn’t have nowhere else to go. I just, well, I t-t-tidied up a bit and then came and hid up here.’
‘And where is Mr Shelby?’ Arabella asked. ‘Thomas, that is.’
‘I don’t know, madam. He stayed in his office for a bit making telephone calls. Then he just left. He didn’t say anything to me. Maybe Rob… Briggs would know – he’s the only other one here.’
‘Briggs just drove me home. If he knew where my husband was, surely he would have said something.’ A flash of something moved across the maid’s face. Doubt? Guilt? A trace of defiance? Suddenly Arabella realised that she was being deeply stupid. These were not her servants. They acted as if they were because she behaved as a lady should. They knew where they were with her and what was expected of them in return. But, ultimately, Tommy Shelby was their lord and master. Whether through fear, or a sense of duty, they answered to him even to the exclusion of her. How they must have laughed about it behind her back.
The maid’s eyes widened as if she could hear her mistress’s thoughts. ‘Oh Mrs Shelby, please! We love you, we really do. No one could have a kinder mistress than you. Please don’t make us leave, not me, not Robbie neither. Please!’
Suddenly Arabella felt very tired. She had never been comfortable having such control over the lives of others. It was a burden that she had assumed only because it was expected of her, and because she could shoulder it better than most. Perhaps this was how Tommy felt when arranging family business. It wasn’t a comfortable thought.
Taking the girl’s calloused hand gently in her own, Arabella said calmly. ‘Don’t worry, Tilly, you’re not in trouble. I don’t blame you for any of this. I’m just grateful that you and Robbie have stayed here with me. I won’t forget this, believe me. Now why don’t we go and see your man, and we can ask him what he knows.’
As watchful as a rabbit with a fox about, Tilly nodded. ‘Aye madam. I’ll take you to him.’ Wrapping her shawl tightly around her like armour, the maid led the way down the back stairs and out in to the courtyard where the chauffeur had his private rooms above the garage.
Arabella realised that not only had she never said more than half a dozen words to Robert Briggs, she had never even looked him in the face, being more used to seeing the back of his head. What she saw when she entered his rooms was a slender man of no more than 35, with slicked back black hair and a face that was, by nature or habit, guarded and watchful. The man’s face lit up when he saw Tilly and then froze when saw that she was followed by one of the Shelby family. To Arabella it seemed that he stood to attention, as if on the parade ground. He was of an age with John so it was likely that he had fought. Perhaps that was why Tommy felt that his female relations were safe in Briggs’ care.
Tilly took the lead. ‘Don’t take on, bab’, she said hurriedly squeezing his hand comfortingly. ‘The mistress only wants to see if you know where master Thomas went.’ The man shifted awkwardly and he dropped his gaze. ‘Bobby – tell her!’ Tilly insisted. She gave his arm a little shake.
Worrying at his lip, Bobby finally said, ‘He went off with Mr Dogs. Then the lawyer, Mr Bowman, he said I should wait whilst he did some work, and then I was to take him to Digbeth to pick you up. That’s all I know.’
‘And where did master Tomas go with Mr Dogs?’ Arabella asked with a patience that she did not feel. Bobby met her eye with a touch of defiance. ‘Tell me!’ There was steel in her voice now and no more dissembling from Briggs.
‘They went to Edgbaston. Something about a Welshman I think.’
‘A Welshman or whales?’ Arabella asked abruptly. Briggs shrugged in response. She felt the blood pounding in her ears. Tommy had abandoned her to go and resolve the dodgy business at the casino. He’d promised her that she could deal with that. Now she was really angry.
‘Tilly – you and I are going for a night on the town. Come with me and we’ll find you something nice to wear. Mr Briggs, if you’d be so good as to bring the car round in half an hour, I’d be ever so grateful.’
With that she swept from the room dragging a confused Tilly along in her wake.
In the end it took Arabella considerably longer than half an hour to get ready. Tilly was only a parlour maid and had no idea how to act as a lady's maid let alone how to help turn her into 'Harry'. At least the girl was a similar build to Polly so it had been easy to find something glamorous for her to wear. For her part Arabella's hands were shaking so much she could barely hold the glue pot let alone painstakingly add her alter ego's facial hair.
After 40 frustrating minutes, Arabella decided that she would have to do without the disguise afforded by male clothing. Instead she selected an evening gown in beaded black satin and topped it off with a low-brimmed hat with an ornate net veil. The hat was rather austere given that it had originally been bought for a funeral so she took a peacock feather clip from a jewelled headdress and fixed it to the side at a jaunty angle. The addition was surprisingly effective. The combination of the veil, cunningly applied face paints, and her new tinted lenses meant that the damage to her face was almost invisible. Satisfied she beckoned to Tilly and the two women headed for the car.
'Mistress?' Tilly asked timidly as the slid in to the back seat of the Austin 12.
'As I told you, Tilda', Arabella replied firmly. 'Tonight, it is very important that you call me Bella. No one must think we are anything other than two wealthy and modern young women who have daringly chosen to attend a casino for the purposes of drinking and gambling.'
'Yes, mi… Bella.'
'Good – now what did you want to ask?'
'You haven't told me what you mean us to do at the casino?'
'I'm going to find Tommy and endeavour to prevent him from making a very grave mistake.'
'But why do you need me with you at all? Don't think me ungrateful er… Bella. It's wonderful to have the chance to go out on a jaunt and wear such beautiful clothes but I'm not sure how I can help.'
'Two giggling girls looking about the place and taking in the atmosphere stand out a lot less than one angry woman hunting for her husband.' Tilly looked a little disappointed at her response. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, Arabella smiled properly. It felt strange, as if something on her face had cracked. 'Goodness, what were you expecting - something out of Underworld? I don't think either of us could convince as Feathers McCoy.'
Tilly giggled. 'Well I should certainly hope not. My mother would be horrified enough to hear that I'd visited a casino without me being mistaken for a good time girl as well.'
'Do you have the money I gave you?'
'Yes mi… Bella. But what should I do with it?'
Arabella smile again. This time it felt a little less unnatural. 'I'd stick to roulette, if I were you. All it requires is money and luck. Just pick a number or a colour that you like and put a few chips down. I'll show you the basics and once you're settled, I'll go and deal with Thomas. Keep your eye out for me though – we might need to leave in a bit of a hurry.'
For the rest of the trip to Birmingham, Arabella told Tilly heavily edited stories of her escapades in various gambling dens around the city. The girl giggled and gasped by turns but by the time they pulled up outside the casino she appeared much more relaxed. And she showed no concern about aping her betters either.
'Don't worry about me', she said with a grin. 'I've been around the gentry since I was but a girl of 13. I know their doings better than they do. Some of them are no better than they should be – especially the young ladies – but I'll not show you up.' With that her whole demeanour changed and she affected a haughty gaze that would not have seemed out of place on the face of a dowager duchess.
'I'm very glad to know that I can rely on you.' Arabella was relieved; she'd made the right choice to bring her along. 'Now remember, if you feel unsafe or unsure at any point, ask a member of staff for Mr Rivers and say that you would like to talk to him urgently about matters in the Blue Room. It's a code that he and I worked out. They will escort you to the back office immediately.'
When they arrived a party of bacchanalian proportions was full swing – not that you would know it from the soberly decorated façade. From the outside, the building looked more like a country house hotel than an illegal casino. Inside the house was divided up into distinct areas with each room dedicated to a different type of gambling or other amusement. The sumptuous decorations reflected the nature and purpose of each room and people flowed from place to drinking, flirting, and shrieking with laughter. In the left wing, overheated dancers mixed with the excited crowds around the two imported roulette tables. Next door, the 'Boardroom' was more sedately decorated with dark, highly polished wood and plenty of plush tinted leather. In the centre of the room was a vast gaming table at which serious men played Chemin de Fer or Punto banco for outrageous sums. Lastly there was the blackjack room where Harry had spent so much time.
Over in the left wing there was a library where gentlemen could retire to drink brandy and smoke cigars over sedate games of bridge, and a restaurant which fed the glittering throng with a mixture of French delicacies and stodgy public-school classics like jam roly-poly and custard. Upstairs, rooms were available to hire for private functions and places were set aside for high-stakes poker games, mah-jong and craps. Higher up still, in the attic, and accessible only by a well-hidden staircase, there were even a few suites available where particularly well-regarded customers could retire for the night with a favoured companion or two. The casino was renowned for its honesty, discretion and, amongst a certain set, its overnight hospitality.
For the first ten minutes, Tilly was like a child in a toy shop, eager to take in every sight and every sound. It was therefore easy for Arabella to pull her from room to room, but, predictably, Tommy and Johnny Dogs were nowhere to be seen. A subtle enquiry with a waiter as he brought them champagne and £300 in assorted value chips, confirmed that one of the Shelby brothers was indeed present but was tied up in a meeting. The waiter's otherwise handsome face had a sly and calculating look about it as he answered her as if wondering whether he might be in with a chance should his boss give her the brush off. With a faint sense of disquiet, she wondered how many willing women had waited for Tommy Shelby in this very room.
After a few confidence-boosting drinks, the two women went back in to the ballroom to get a place at the roulette table. Tilly was coping admirably, Arabella thought. If anything, once the initial wonder had passed, she had fitted more naturally into this world than Arabella had ever done. Had it not been totally alien to her nature, Arabella might have been rather jealous. She had watched as Tilly flirted easily with unsuitable men and exchanged arch comments with other giggling young women. All in all, the parlour maid seemed to be having a wonderful time of it. Perhaps poor Briggs was going to get a bit of a shock the next time he tried to take her for a port and lemon in the village pub.
Fighting their way through the crowds the two women managed to squeeze up to a place at the roulette wheel furthest from the dance floor. At the next table, men that she recognised from her visits as Harry were still playing; one had made significant gains. For the next several spins Arabella took the lead, explaining the rules to an eager Tilly in a quiet voice, and losing only modestly. It didn't take very long for Tilly to get the idea and find enough confidence to take over. Enjoining her to have fun, but to be ready to move at a moment's notice, Arabella slipped away.
Once she was certain that she was not being observed, Arabella walked briskly down the hallway leading away from the main function rooms. Freed from Tilly’s company, she could feel her anger at Tommy’s actions bubbling to the surface again but it was a relief, finally, to be on her way to confront him. Although she didn’t dare allow herself to contemplate what she would find when she found him, she felt the faint tugging of what could almost be excitement too. She let herself through an unobtrusive door marked Employees Only which opened on to a dimly lit flight of stairs leading to the casino’s vast labyrinth of cellars.
The brick-lined underground rooms were chill but dry, and the constant temperature made them perfect for the storage of comestibles – particularly the vast array of wines and spirits that the casino offered. But not all of the rooms were filled with bottles or crates. One, in the furthest reaches of the maze, was kept available for other purposes. Today the lonely room was definitely in use; two grim faced Blinders stood to attention outside. Their eyes widened in surprise as she stalked towards them. Even veiled they knew her too well to mistake her for anyone else.
‘I need to see Tommy urgently. Let me through.’ Her tone left no room for demurral. One tried though. Brave boy.
‘Mrs Shelby, I should probably go and…’
‘Get out of my way. Now!’ Her rage threatened to boil over. Smartly, if reluctantly, the two men stepped aside.
Adrenaline driving her onwards, Arabella pulled open the heavy wooden door and slipped through. Before her she found three men frozen in a disturbing tableau. An unknown man of no more than 25 was bound to a chair in the centre of the room, blood was oozing from dozens of scrapes and cuts across his face and chest, and he had pissed himself with fear. To one side, an expressionless Johnny Dogs lounged against a table on which was arrayed a variety of wicked looking blades and tools. Tommy stood behind the prisoner, his blood-spattered face illuminated by the light from the single bright bulb. Arabella swallowed a mouthful of bile.
She’d known that violence formed part of the Shelby’s working life - after all that had happened, how could she not? Her head pounded as she remembered the gleeful way that she had suggested that they ‘make an example’ of one of the men running the blackjack scam. At the time she had meant it but it had almost been like a game to her, being a gangster’s wife, but it wasn’t a game. Now that she had seen Tommy amidst the vicious, bone-cracking reality of his life, she could no longer pretend ignorance of the cost of doing business.
And when it came down to it, were the Shelbys really any different from the Changrettas, Solomons and his men, or even Hughes and the Odd Fellows? Their motivations (or their self-serving justifications, at least) may have differed somewhat but in the end, underneath the wealth and glamour and the talk of honour it always seemed to end with a terrified captive in a tiny room dying by inches.
Arabella’s family tree was full of the criminal, the depraved, and the merely infamous, and it seemed that the family line had once again bred true in her. This innocent young man was here because of her, because of what she had discovered, and because of what she had suggested. It was her who had put an innocent man in this room, and it was her who had put this dead look back into her husband’s eyes. It seemed that she was no better than any of them. It was not a happy realisation but it was, in some ways, comforting to recognise that there was a reason for some of the darker impulses that she had.
‘Thomas, a word if you please.’ Arabella’s voice was icily polite, her emotions locked tightly away.
Tommy neither spoke nor moved. Instead, he blinked owlishly at her like a man with concussion until Johnny jolted him back to his senses by clearing his throat loudly. Walking jerkily towards her, Tommy grabbed her roughly by the arm and dragged her out through the door. Dismissing the two guards with a jerk of his head, he demanded to know why she was there.
‘You have the wrong man’, she hissed. ‘You could torture that poor fellow from now until doomsday, but he’ll never give you what you want because he doesn’t know anything.’
‘But he was sitting where you said he would be and making money hand over first.’ Tommy was defensive, unwilling to believe that he had made such a fundamental error.
‘Well I’m sure the money will come as a great comfort to him.’ Arabella’s sarcasm was palpable. ‘The men you need are taking a break right now at one of your roulette tables. You should have waited for me like you bloody well promised.’ Throwing up her hands in exasperation she continued. ‘Well, word of this will surely get out so now we need to do the best we can to salvage the situation.’
Briskly, she took a handkerchief from her evening bag and began to dab away at the spots of blood on his hands and face. He let her clean him up as meekly as a child even when she dampened one corner of the handkerchief with her tongue in order to deal with a particularly stubborn streak. Eventually satisfied she said. ‘Now come upstairs with me and I will point out the ones you need to bring down here.’
Johnny slipped through the door behind them. ‘What shall we do with the lad?’
‘Pay the poor bastard off, threaten him if you need to, and for the love of god find him some other clothes to wear before you let him go’, Arabella replied smoothly.
It was little more than five minutes’ work to pull the two men away from the roulette table. Everyone knew the rules, and cheats were regularly removed. It did not disturb the other players, in fact it reassured them. They liked to know that the casino took the enjoyment of its honest patrons seriously. And they particularly liked the way the cheats winnings were used to buy champagne for everyone who had been at the table. But this time the guilty parties were not taken outside to have the usual beating applied. Instead, they were hustled unceremoniously down the little hidden staircase and along to the secluded room, their protestations going unheard over the music and chatter.
Whilst all this was going on, Arabella took a few moments to check that Tilly was OK. Through the crowd she could see that the girl had palled up with a garrulous couple who were seated next to her; all three were laughing happily as they collected their winnings. Arabella recognized the pair from Harry’s previous visits. They were the son and daughter of a self-made man who had started out in trade and, despite the family’s change in status, he had not permitted them to be raised with any airs and graces. Consequently, they were more good-hearted and reliable than most of those who frequented the casino. Tilly would be safe enough with them whilst we see to business downstairs, she thought. Although, judging by the increasing pile of chips in front of her, Tilly seemed to be well able to take care of herself.
As she went back to the cellar, Arabella wondered idly whether the parlour maid would be interested in learning how to play poker.
The two prisoners were stood side by side. Each man was held fast in the cruel grasp of a couple of grim-faced Blinders. They were facing the door but even so someone, probably Tommy, had made sure that they had a good view of the vicious implements laid out neatly on the rickety table to their left. Even in the poor light, there was no way that they could have missed the blood spatters on the concrete floor, nor the stink of piss and fear either - in the close quarters it was enough to make you gag. In case that was not enough drive home to them how precarious their position was, in the five minutes or so that they had been out of Arabella's sight they had taken some serious punishment. She gave them a cool once-over. They were bruised and bloody but, since they were both still alive and conscious, care had clearly been taken to ensure that they would still be able to answer the Blinders' questions. That was all to the good.
In a previous life, the sight of the battered captives, and the thought of what was likely to follow, would have upset her and she wondered slightly at her lack of reaction. Intellectually she knew that she should be shocked by this coldness but she again could not bring herself to care. Now she was simply grateful that she was not the one being beaten and impatient to get the information that they needed.
The younger of the two captives was outraged by caught. He struggled against his captors' grips, swearing and spitting threats as he did so. Next to him the older man seemed calm and unconcerned, and it was he that drew Arabella's focus. In the harsh light cast by the bare bulb, he reminded her a little of Father Hughes. His eyes were cruel and knowing, and his face carried the same air of superiority, the same false, perverted innocence. The resemblance made her skin crawl. Her pulse began to race and she felt her fingernails digging into the flesh of her thighs through the thin material of her gown. Under the veil her skin was as pale and cool as a corpse's.
'I see you brought your whore to watch, Shelby', the older man said mockingly. There was a hint of an Irish accent, another thing he shared with Hughes. Tommy punched him in the gut. The guards released their grip and he dropped to his knees gasping and retching, then forced out a choking laugh. 'Does violence turn her on?' This time he received a punch in the mouth. The younger captive recoiled almost as much as the victim did when Tommy's fist landed but the blow didn't stop the older man slinging further insults.
Arabella looked on dispassionately as the guards pulled the man back on to his feet and Tommy got to work again. Neither the violence nor the insults seemed to touch her at all. Instead, strange to say, she was slightly bored. It was as if she was watching a rather underwhelming play. Something dreary, with trite dialogue, a plodding plot, and characters you could not bring yourself to care about. She itched to go back upstairs to join Tilly at the roulette wheel. To leave the cold and the stink and the tedium behind, but she knew that she was stuck here until Tommy got the information that they needed.
Sighing slightly, she leant back against the cracked wood of the door, peering serenely though her tinted lenses and veil as fists and blood flew, and men's oaths and grunts warmed the frigid air. She was almost unnoticed now. All the action was taking place in the narrow circle of light thrown out by the solitary bulb, and no one there paid her any heed at all. They were all far too engrossed in their own bloody drama. She barely even featured in the insults anymore. Her mind drifted.
As the sense of isolation grew it gave her the chance to study the cast of this dull drama properly. The eldest of the captives had been thoroughly beaten but it was clear that this was not a new experience for him. He was riding with the blows and, though he bled and moaned when hit, he was clearly still in control of himself and his tongue. The younger of the two had taken less punishment, though not by much. He was more like a rabid dog than a man. Rather than cow him, every punch seemed to make him fiercer, more aggressive. Tommy, however, was starting to fray at the edges. His punches were sloppy, his shoulders drooped. Exhaustion was setting in and she could see that the situation was playing on his very last nerve.
To Arabella, less involved than the others and not flooded with testosterone or adrenaline, the captives' endpoint was clear. The eldest, at least, wanted to enrage Tommy so much that he lost concentration; at that point he would try to make his escape. She tried to attract Tommy and Johnny's attention but their blood was up. They probably wouldn't have noticed if she had stripped off and run around the room naked. She was obliged to wait, looking on helplessly, until Tommy was goaded passed his limits.
In the end, all it took was a series of offensive comments from the younger man about various female Shelby relatives and that was it. A reinvigorated Tommy cracked his bruised knuckles and went in with fists and boots flying. The Blinders backed up to give him room, grinning mirthlessly at their boss's viciousness. Johnny was eventually forced to intercede before Tommy could kill the man.
In the brief breathing space caused by Johnny's intervention, the oldest captive made his move. Despite Arabella anticipating it, it still came as a shock when it finally happened. She was still stood between him and the door and such was the speed of his break for freedom that she had no chance to step out of his way. He barrelled into her full on and reflexively she caught hold of him to stop herself from falling.
'Get off, you fucking whore!' He roared. His foul breath, tainted by cigar smoke, whiskey, and a row of rotten teeth, made her gag. His fingers bit cruelly into her arms as he tried to tear her off him but Arabella held on to him for dear life. For some reason she was more frightened of letting go than she was of holding on. She could feel her panicked pulse throbbing in her ears.
In an instant his hand came to Arabella's throat and gripped tight, pushing her up and away, adrenaline gifting him sufficient strength to lift her off her feet. Losing her grip, she kicked out violently but uselessly, like a child on the gallows. The pain was excruciating. Black spots dance in front of her eyes and she heard Hughes' callous laughter in the distance. With her last rational thought, she attempted to claw out his eyes.
An uneasy calm now pervaded the cellars below the Shelby casino, smothering the natural ebullience of the Blinders who lined the corridor. No one spoke. No one moved. At times it seemed that no one so much as breathed. They knew that behind the heavy wooden door two captives were hanging limply from ropes slung over the rafters. And they knew exactly what came next.
Above stairs Tommy had commandeered casino manager’s office, sending the man off to whip up the crowds on the main floor and ensure that, whatever happened next, the comings and goings below ground were not noted or commented upon. Having poured a gin for Arabella and large whiskeys for Johnny Dogs and himself, he sat back in the tatty leather office chair and rubbed his free hand roughly over his face. Through the door the sounds of upbeat music and screams of laughter could be heard but none of the three were in the mood for a party. They sat in silence for a long moment, each lost in their own thoughts.
Arabella took a deep swig of her drink, then began to choke as the alcohol burned her bruised throat. Tommy leapt up to help her, but she shook him off roughly. Eventually getting her breathing back under control she growled, ‘I think you’ve done quite enough already.’ Tommy recoiled. Arabella’s face was barely visible though her veil, but he could feel the anger and hurt coming off her in waves. He dropped back down in to his chair, a look of deep shame suffusing his face. Once again, he had failed her. What was wrong with him? He used to be better than this.
Johnny cleared his throat awkwardly and turned to him. ‘Well then now, Tommy. What next?’
An hour later Arabella found herself walking stiffly back down the stairs to the cellar. The corridor was warmer now but felt much, much narrower thanks to the massed ranks of the Blinders on guard from the bottom of the main staircase all the way to the dismal cell. She hadn’t seen so many of them in one place since the opening of the Shelby Institute; she hoped that they would be of more use today. Dismissing them from her mind, she walked onwards, back ram-rod straight and chin raised proudly. The armed men watched them pass without comment.
At the end of the corridor Tommy paused, one hand resting on bolt fastening the door. Arabella watched play of the lean muscles across his back through the fabric of his shirt as he shifted the weight of the box he was carrying against his chest. It was beautiful. He was beautiful. She fought the urge to run her fingers gently down the soft hair at the base of his skull and along the prominent bones of his spine, to wrap her arms around him and press herself up against the warmth of his fine, firm arse. But she knew that even if he’d accept her touch after all that had been said in the office above this was not the place and most definitely not the time.
‘Let me through’, she said softly. She saw Tommy’s shoulders tense.
‘You don’t have to do this.’ He turned to face her, but his eyes never got higher than the ground at her feet.
‘We discussed this. A man won’t break them, not without the risk of killing them before we find out what we need to know, but a woman might. And if this works, no one will think of me as vulnerable again - so let me through.’
When the door swung closed behind her, Arabella felt as though it was slamming shut on her old life. Her innocence was gone and only darkness and pain lay ahead. She could feel the frantic thudding of her heart, hear the roar of her blood in her ears, it was all but overwhelming, but she schooled herself to calmness.
Ignoring the bound men, she walked to the table and gently swept aside some of the instruments. A bloody hammer fell to the floor with a clang, drawing a whimper from one of the bound men. Without a word she dropped the box she had taken from Tommy in to the space she had made.
Roused by her arrival the two prisoners began to pay attention to their surroundings once again. Arabella stared at them coldly through her tinted lenses. The panicky pulse in her head had not yet ceased but she could feel the power of certainty flooding through her. Men, with their fists and blades, had had their chance. Now it was her turn.
It had taken some time to convince Tommy. He had been devastated that, once again, he had not been able to prevent her getting hurt, but she’d told him coldly not to be so foolish. Violence was part and parcel of the Shelby family’s business and as long as it was none of them would be safe. At least not whilst they presented such a tempting range of targets. Arabella was determined to take herself off that list.
They’d argued round and round for what seemed like hours, with Johnny Dogs acting as an unlikely voice of reason and, occasionally, a referee. But eventually matters had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Whilst Tommy had not been pleased, he had at least understood what she was trying to achieve, and so he had agreed to give her time alone with the well restrained prisoners.
She had to confess that here, in the semi-darkness, and with nothing between them and her bar a few fragile looking pieces of rope, her plan was looking more than a little ridiculous. But although her previous bravado had been stripped away, her anger at being a perpetual victim was more than enough to sustain her.
Standing directly below the single bulb for maximum effect, she asked politely. ‘Do you know me?’
The youngest of the two men sneered at her, then winced as the cold air hit one of his broken teeth. ‘One of Shelby’s sluts, are you? What you gonna do – fuck us to death?’ The older man gave a burbling snort of laughter in appreciation at his colleague’s witticism.
Arabella let out a slow calming breath. The insult was hurtful, but not surprising, and if anything, it made what she was about to do easier. Looking downwards so that her face was in shadow she deftly pulled the jewelled hat pin free and then removed her cloche hat and its veil. She then took off her tinted lenses and placed them briskly into her purse. After a few moments of silence, during which the tension in the room grew exponentially, she raised her gaze to theirs. The overhead light cast her face in an eerie glow and threw her injuries into horrible relief. The new swelling around her neck and throat added its own mute testimony. The youngest man lost his smug look.
‘You both know me now, I think.’ The two men nodded nervously. ‘And if you know me’, she continued. ‘Then you will know that I have suffered great personal harm from the enemies of my family over the last few years. I therefore have particular reason to hold a grudge against wicked men’. She smirked coldly. ‘So, it feels exceedingly good to have the two of you at my mercy.’
For the first time Arabella saw the two men look concerned. The youngest looked briefly towards his fellow prisoner as if seeking guidance, but the older man did not break eye contact with Arabella for a single moment.
Gliding towards the table Arabella picked up some of the tools at random and examined them slowly. Finally, she selected a cut throat razer and opened it gently, before turning the blade this way and that under the light to check its sharpness. Then she turned back to the men and smiled. With her damaged face, it was a terrible sight.
Sorry - this should really have a Proceed With Caution tag. It all gets a bit bloody.
Blade held out reverently before her, Arabella advanced slowly towards the men, a broken doll in delicate chiffon and silk, pulling the looming shadows behind her. The men, eyes stretched wide in the darkness, tensed against their bonds as they watched her approach.
Without comment she walked around the two prisoners and took up a position behind the eldest. Without a word she gripped his fringe tightly in her left hand, and then pulled his head back as far as it would go. Firmly bound, he was unable to do more than strain his neck and swallow awkwardly.
‘Miss, I’m sorry for hurting you earlier.’ The man prevaricated. ‘I was frightened. I just wanted to get away. Please let me go, miss, and I promise that I’ll never darken your door again.’ There was a wheedling edge to his voice which Arabella dismissed instantly.
As if he’d not spoken, she said conversationally, ‘I used to shave my father, you know. I wasn’t very good. I was always giving him little nicks.’ She paused, as if contemplating a happy memory, then shook it off merrily. ‘Perhaps I’ve improved somewhat over the years.’ She ran her fingers delicately over the man’s throat.
Her chosen target began to gabble more desperately now, arching his back and trying to move his head from side to side. Arabella ground her teeth and drew the blade roughly along the line of his jawbone splitting the skin and causing him to hiss and buck with pain. Blood oozed slowly down his neck and soaked in to his sweat-stained evening shirt.
Oops!’ She said with a girlish giggle. ‘It looks like I’m going to need lots of practice. How lucky it is that I have you both here to help me.’
The acrid stink of fresh urine filled the air and Arabella stepped back slightly to avoid staining her shoes.
Upstairs in the cramped opulence of the casino manager’s office, Tommy was trying to drink away his guilt. Nothing about what was happening at this moment sat well with him. He was the head of the family - the responsibility, the risks, were his to assume. Now two of his brothers, and his aunt who was like a mother to him, were in prison with their necks on the line, and his wife was doing god only knew what in the cellars below. His stomach roiled and threatened to rebel; acid burned in his throat. To distract himself, and to avoid Johnny Dog’s watchful eyes, he slammed down his glass and began to check his weapons. First the gun in his shoulder holster, rolling the barrel, replacing the bullets, then repeating it with his back up piece, before finally taking out the knife strapped to his ankle. Snarling to himself he began to twirl the blade, his slender fingers setting up a swift, steady rhythm.
Johnny Dogs maintained a watchful silence as Tommy fretted. Johnny liked the man but honestly sometimes he thought Shelby was a fool. Arabella was an unusual creature right enough, fragile seeming but with a core of steel which had only been revealed and quickened by the traumatic events she had experienced. She didn’t need the worry of a husband or lover now. Rather she needed the support, and the fists, of a strong and unwavering equal. If Tommy didn’t recognise that sharpish, Johnny would be forced to put in a fist or two of his own in order to get the message across. There was a small part of him that knew he’d enjoy it. He smiled to himself and took another swig of whiskey.
For 40 minutes or so, Arabella ‘practiced’ shaving on the two men. Although no single injury was sufficient to cause serious harm, or even intense pain, her erratic cutting, combined with her cheery and relentless chatter, kept them off balance. This was not the brutal impact of fist on vulnerable flesh, nor yet the deft use of weapons on fragile bones, both of which they were inured to. Instead she was taking a simple, familiar act and turning it into a mad and bloody pantomime. Their faces and throats became masks of raw flesh, sore and dripping with gore, and as the moments passed, they came to know the extremes of fear and doubt. Eventually the younger man could take no more. Shivering in pain and shock, he promised that he would tell her anything that she wanted provided only that she asked him an actual question.
Arabella paused, her cold fingers pressed against her lips as if to stop further laughter escaping. Her good eye was as dark and fathomless well set in a face as white as snow. Flecks of blood stained her skin.
‘Well since you want to be boring’, she whispered in his ear, as softly as a lover, ‘why don’t I call my husband here and he can ask you all his questions.’ Her voice took on a malicious edge. ‘Do tell him everything though or he’ll invite me back down her to play. Have I told you about how I used to help our stockman castrate cattle?’ Both men shivered.
Enough was enough. Never one to have patience with self-pity or melancholia, Johnny Dogs finally snapped. Standing up abruptly he knocked the spinning blade from Tommy’s fingers and grabbed him warmly by the throat. Pinning his struggling friend back against the wall he gave the man the full benefit of his opinions. Eyes fogging from the lack of oxygen, Tommy was forced to remain in place as Johnny laid out exactly where he felt Tommy was failing his wife and his family. It didn’t make pleasant listening.
Eventually Tommy managed to win his way free and the two men wrestled, punched, and kicked their way to a laughing, gasping truce. Friends again, they were just tending to their wounds when Arabella strode through the door, a stolen velvet coat with a sable fur collar wrapped tightly around her, and her veil and tinted lenses firmly in place. That they had been fighting was evident, but she gave no sign that it disturbed her in any way. Instead she relaxed the moment the door closed behind her and her coat splayed open to display an elegant evening dress liberally sprayed with fresh blood. Her eyes were hard, dismissive, and both men straightened under her gaze as if frightened to attract her ire.
Ignoring them as she would a couple of disobedient children, she moved to the drinks’ cabinet, and poured herself a restorative measure of gin. Sipping it, and wincing as it burned her damaged throat, she nodded to her husband.
‘They’re ready to tell you anything you want to know.’
When the night’s dark business was finally done, a grim-faced Tommy sent Tilly home in the care of Briggs. The girl noticed nothing as she brightly waved goodbye to all her new friends, clutching tipsily to the fistfuls of notes she had won, but Briggs, more attuned to his master’s moods, caught a hint of the man’s anger and despair and went home preparing for the worst.
Down in the casino’s cellars, the two captives, all fight now gone, had had their wounds roughly tended by Curley and his horse liniment. They were fed, given liberal quantities of alcohol, and left to cry themselves to sleep in the enveloping dark.
Leaving a small guard behind, Tommy drove his wife home. He had his answers now, thanks to the blood-spattered madcap sat next to him with her ready razor and her calculated cruelty. His hand flexed fiercely on the steering wheel. Whoever this creature was, she was not the sweet girl he had married. Was it his fault? He could not bring himself to probe the thought any further.
Next to him, Arabella fidgeted in the passenger seat and watched in bemused silence as the sleeping world span by. Her mind was fizzing. Drunk on adrenaline, blood, and gin, she felt totally detached from reality. Intellectually she knew that she should be horrified at what she had done but, despite the whimpers and pleas that still echoed in her brain, she could not bring herself to regret a single moment of it. Rather she was strangely thrilled. In that dark, fear-filled room she had had the power and she had exercised it. She was no man’s victim now and, once the word was out, she hoped she never would be again.
The days crept by and Arrow House was no longer full of life. With most of the Shelbys on remand, and Arabella released pending trial, a pall had descended over the remaining inhabitants – such as they were. The gang conning the casino had now been dealt with and a good proportion of the stolen money recovered. The two captives had been released and had been left to circulate tales of Thomas Shelby’s demon wife to anyone in the life who would listen, just as Arabella had intended. However, no one felt like celebrating.
A handful of men from the Blinders patrolled the corridors and drank endless cups of whiskey-spiked tea below stairs. Grim faced and silent, they watched as their boss, whom they respected above all, and his wife, whom they adored, moved through the house lost in a haze of mutual misapprehension – unable to escape each other’s orbit but never managing to quite bridge the distance between them.
Despite repeated attempts, Tommy had been unable to reach Churchill at the ministry. Something ‘political’ had occurred and the man seemed to have dropped out of favour once again. No one would take his call at Blenheim Palace either. With the family’s only chance at securing the promised pardons unavailable Tommy was forced to turn to more mainstream legal methods. He met with his solicitor, Joseph Bowman, and between them they instructed a barrister to act on behalf of the family.
The cab-rank rule, combined with their ability to pay a hefty fee, ensured that even members of a family with the Shelby’s reputation were able to secure excellent representation. Sir Edward Falk was an eminent lawyer who had first been called to the bar in 1903 and had later made a name for himself handling controversial criminal cases. After a distinguished war, he had been appointed King’s Counsel, and not long after that he had inherited his father’s title. Now, in his late 50s, he was energetic, incisive, and avuncular. Little phased him, but the Shelby’s situation was difficult and so he brought a string of juniors to every meeting to help him with the preparations of witness statements and lists of precedents.
After reviewing the details of the case with Thomas and his solicitor, the silk’s first act (or rather that of one of his juniors, because he hated to lose) was to request the dismissal of all charges. When that failed, Falk himself successfully argued that Polly, Michael, and Arabella should be to be sent to trial individually. Arthur and John, however, would be in the dock together. Until the trial all but Arabella would remain locked up. On paper, Arabella’s case was the easier to argue but still it was the one that worried him the most.
At Tommy’s insistence, Falk interviewed Arabella alone. The silk found their first meeting disturbing. Initially he had waited for her in the study at Arrow House but, when she had not appeared after 50 minutes, he rang the bell to summon one of the few remaining servants. Tilly, the sweet but excitable girl who answered, knew the Shelby family intimately, and she took him, unhesitatingly, to the stables where her mistress was hiding.
Arabella was loitering in the shadows of a loose box where a freshly-ridden filly was tied off awaiting currying. When Tilly finally persuaded her mistress to move to the door of the box, the woman appeared reluctantly, hiding her face behind her thick veil. Sir Edward stared down at her, eyes twinkling kindly.
‘You know why I’m here’, he said, gruffly. ‘Now show me your face.’
As if hypnotised, Arabella obediently uncovered her face and tilted back her head, exposing it to the soft afternoon sunlight. Her left eye socket had been crushed and was slightly distorted, the eye itself was still hidden behind swollen greenish-purple lids. Her cheekbone had been shattered and her split lips were still in the process of healing. She had been abominably treated and any well-bred man would have found the resulting sight unpleasant. The lawyer was no exception, but he had already read the detailed report provided by Mr Tudor the ophthalmologist, as well as the initial finding outlined by the family’s GP, so he forced himself not to recoil. He reached out and took Arabella’s hand gently.
‘Darling girl, I was in France with your brother Rupert and got to know him well. He was a brave and honourable man and he talked of you often. He would want me to help you now, so please let me do so.’
Something in Arabella unfroze and a single tear rolled down her undamaged cheek. She stared at him intently for a few moments and then seemed to fold in on herself. Turning her back to him she leant against the filly’s neck and sobbed as if her heart was broken.
Once the floodgates opened, Arabella found that she couldn’t stop. Everything poured out of her all at once. Feelings, fears, pain, here was no logical order to any of it. Her words bubbled over one another in their rush to escape and the filly, sensing her mistress’ distress, nickered and shifted her feet unhappily. Usually so attuned to her horse’s mood’s Arabella merely scratched the mare’s withers distractedly and carried on.
Falk watched her solemnly, one hand resting on the cigar case in his inside breast pocket. He desperately wanted to smoke but he didn’t dare risk a naked flame in the stables and nor did he want to step outside and miss anything she said. The poor dear girl had made very little sense thus far, her sentences were rambling and interrupted by sobs and sniffs, but he had caught a number of deeply worrying comments.
After twenty minutes or so, Arabella was cried out and her tears had reduced to little more than hiccupping gasps. As this point, Falk turned from avuncular uncle to loving father. He gently disengaged her fingers from where they were tangled roughly in the horse’s mane and pulled her into the security of his arms. He wondered what Shelby would make of it should he happen by, but then he realised that he was so angry with the man he truly could not give a damn.
Arabella let him escort her down through the meadow to the lake. Face hidden beneath smoked glass and black lace, she was once again aloof and distant. For all her height and the evident strength of her body, there was a sense of fragility about her, like she would shatter if someone so much as dropped her tea cup near her - but her grip on his arm was bruising.
They took a seat on a rough wooden bench that looked out over the water. It was a beautiful spot. The lake was bordered by trees on three sides and around the edges the slender fronds of weeping willows dabbled in the water. A gentle breeze blew fitfully from the south, raising up small glittering waves, and here and there ducks, grebes, and moorhens bobbed about, ducking their heads in an endless search for food. Even the gambolling mob of dogs which had followed them from the stables did not distract from the peace of the scene.
Falk and Arabella sat together companionably for some time, allowing the warmth of the sun to work its customary magic. Eventually Arabella gave a deep juddering sigh as if she was expelling the last of the dark spirits that had overwhelmed her. When Falk turned to look at her, she had removed the hat and veil once again, but she had left the glasses in place so that she could tilt her face up towards the sun. She looked peaceful now, her frame relaxed, her breathing even. There was even a slight smile on her lips which gave her damage face a less frightening cast.
Arabella belonged here, he thought, amongst the chattering of the birds and the humming of nectar-drunk bees, not like her brute of a husband. Thomas Shelby was better suited to the grime and filth of the slum in which he had been whelped. Falk's conversations with Mr Bowman, the family solicitor, had been deeply concerning but also instructive. He wondered whether it would be possible to obtain a divorce for her. It would require an act of Parliament but if it freed her from her husband then the shame and expense would surely be worth it.
‘I love this place’, Arabella said out of nowhere, her voice smoky from crying. ‘There’s a small sandy beach just over there, passed that patch of briars. Tommy and I come swimming here sometimes. I bring my horses down here too. When they’ve spent a long day hunting or on the gallops it does horses good to swim for a while. It aids their recovery. A lovely man called Curley told me that.’ She fell silent, as if embarrassed by the irrelevance of her comments.
He turned and took her hands in his. ‘Dear girl, we need to talk.’
‘About my case?’ The corner of her mouth twitched uncertainly.
‘Yes, that too. But we also need to talk about your future.’ Arabella tilted her head in confusion.
‘You can’t stay here, with this man. He’s dangerous. The life he leads, the life his family leads. He’s going to get you killed. I can help you petition for a divorce. With me representing you I’m sure we could find away for you too keep Arrow House. You would never have to be separated from you animals.
Arabella’s expression turned from confusion to outrage. She pulled her hand roughly from Falk’s firm grip and rounded on him fiercely.
‘Tommy has never been the cause of any of my misfortunes! How can you even suggest it? My father sold me to him, yet he’s never been anything but kind and protective of me.
‘But look at what harm he’s already caused you – the shooting, the… the child… and now this.’
‘I was kidnapped and beaten by men who claimed they were in the service of the Crown. Rather than leave my husband you would do better to demand I leave my country!’
Arabella was standing now, feet planted, fists clenched. Usually so good with words, Falk was left gaping up at this self-confident virago. He could not believe that he had thought her fragile only half an hour before.
‘Are you telling me that your husband’s story is true?’ He asked incredulously.
Falk was used to clients lying to him, and Thomas Shelby’s story of rogue members of the British establishment, acting through the Economic League, forcing his family to kill for them in order to cause a breach with Russia had been frankly… well, absurd was a polite way of putting it. His clerk had called it a laughable farrago of lies, but Falk preferred not to admit publicly to doubt.
Falk was a responsible and experienced silk. If the client admitted that they were lying then he could claim to be professionally embarrassed and therefore step down, until then he was firmly of the belief that a client – no matter how guilty seeming – deserved a robust defense. Looking at Arabella he felt instinctively that she was telling the truth, or at least the truth as far as she knew it. Sincerity oozed out of every pore. Perhaps there was something to Shelby’s story after all.
He reached out and took her hand. ‘Tell me everything.’
Arabella’s frank and fearless confession horrified Falk but, once he’d got over his shock, he could not fail to be convinced by her manifest sincerity. In combination with the information Tommy had provided, he now had a clear defence mapped out for her – even if he did not want to reveal most of what he had been told.
With Falk fully on board, Arabella’s case proceeded with alacrity. Barristers acting for the crown were swept away by the silk’s compelling arguments and disarmed by his witty repartee. Even more damagingly for the prosecution, the gentlemen of the jury were horrified to learn the details of the indignities to which the daughter of a peer of the realm had been subjected. There were audible gasps when first the family GP and then Mr Tudor the ophthalmic surgeon described her injuries and the prosecution’s cross examinations had done them more harm than good. The photographs showing the damage not only to her face but her torso, buttocks, and legs had caused such a stir that the courtroom had had to be cleared and the press forbidden from reporting on them.
Falk had also been lucky in being able to secure an early trial date. This meant that Arabella’s injuries were still fresh, and so he took the unusual step of putting his client on the stand. Photos were one thing but the sight of Arabella, tentative and frail seeming in the witness box, with her eyeball still bloody and the socket and cheek bone distorted by fractures and sporting a rainbow of garish colours, was another matter entirely. The mere thought of such a delicate flower of English womanhood being abused in such a brutal way was enough to raise fury in the heart of every man in the court room, including, it had to be said, that of the judge and the crown prosecutor.
But Falk was not finished there. An orator at the height of his powers, he turned Arabella’s shooting of one of her captors into the liberation of Britannia herself, and men who had served in the war stood and applauded her as she left the court room. The result, not guilty, was a foregone conclusion and the judge himself kissed Arabella’s hand and escorted her to freedom once the charges were dismissed. Falk bowed his way out of court hiding a grin of self-satisfaction. It caused a media sensation and there were toasts made in public houses up and down the land when the verdict was announced over the wireless.
A jubilant Tommy arranged for the Shelby party to be collected from the rear of the court. When they arrived back at Arrow House a party was in the offing. It was a small one – without Polly, and the boys it barely counted as a Blinder’s bash – but still it was a celebration. Arabella was surrounded by people who loved her. After a few drinks she removed her veil. A few drinks later she had forgotten that she even wanted to wear one, although the glasses remained firmly in place. It was the first step in the recovery of her equilibrium.
Since Arabella’s operation, Tommy had taken to sleeping in his dressing room; the same place he had retreated to after the abortive start to their marriage. Despite his relief over Arabella’s acquittal nothing changed. He said it was because he was working long hours to make up for the absence of his brothers and Michael and did not want to disturb her when he came to bed, but Arabella knew differently. The fact that he could still not look her in the face was mute testimony to the awful truth; Tommy could no longer bear the sight of her.
The thought upset Arabella terribly - though she tried not to let it show. She bore it for as long as she could but, eventually, she realised that she had to get him to admit the truth of it to her or she would run mad with doubt and confusion. At least if she had the truth she would know where she stood.
It was a week after the trial before she finally found the courage to force a confrontation. She heard him coming to bed late, his footsteps stumbling down the corridor passed her room. It was gone midnight and he was drunk again. He would be up at dawn as usual. No wonder he was always exhausted and angry. She allowed him a few moments of solitude to remove the face he always wore in public and then slipped out to let herself into his room.
Ever the watchful soldier, Tommy leapt up the moment she entered, but not before she had seen him slumped in his easy chair with his head in his hands.
‘What’s happened?’ he demanded brusquely, before adding more gently. ‘Are you alright?’
He reached out to her instinctively but then pulled back as if she was on fire. Arabella gasped – whether in disappointment or hurt she could not have said. And then, for the first time in what felt like a lifetime, Tommy looked at her directly.
It was night so she had not bothered with her glasses. Most of the swelling and bruising had gone now, but shadows caused by the reading lamp on the bedside table accentuated the denting around her cheek and eye socket. She did not flinch nor look away; neither did he.
Tommy himself was grey and shaking with the twin poisons fatigue and drink. He seemed to have aged ten years since the destruction of the train. Arabella felt her heart lurch in sympathy. How had she missed the depth of his pain? All thought of confronting him fled. She just wanted was to reach out and comfort him.
‘Tommy, you’re exhausted. Let me help you.’
‘No. Stay out of it.’ He was firm, angry almost. ‘I can’t face seeing you hurt again.’ He lurched towards her and reached up to gently stroke her damaged cheek. Arabella was torn between her instinct to shy away and the desire to rub up against his hand like a sun-warmed cat. ‘You were too innocent to marry a man like me. You had no idea what you were getting in to, no idea what my family was.’
‘This nonsense? Still!’ She hissed. ‘I know exactly what kind of man I’m married to. It’s one who would do anything and everything in his power to save his family. And it’s a family that I am proud to count myself a member of. This wasn’t your doing.’ She gestured helplessly to her face. ‘This was the fault of Hughes and his men. They, and only they, are to blame and now they are all rotting in their graves.’
‘Arabella – I can’t…’
And then she slapped him. As hard as she could. Even for a man as used to taking blows as Tommy was, it came as a shock.
‘I may have been an ignorant fool when we first married but my eyes are fully open now. And from what happened in the cellar you know that I have the stomach to be a full partner to you. With your brothers gone you need, Thomas Shelby, so don’t you dare try to cut me out.’
Tommy looked stunned, by the blow or by her words she couldn’t tell, but she didn’t dare waste the opportunity. She laid one hand against his chest. She could feel his heart racing thought the soft fabric of his undershirt. Her own was beating in time with his. Their stress and hurt had forged a link which mere words could not.
‘You’re mine Thomas Shelby and I’m yours – body and soul. If you don’t want me anymore then tell me but if you do then I’m not letting your scruples get between us any longer.’
Tommy made no moves at all but confusion and worry flashed across his face. Burying her fears, Arabella kissed him, hard and rough, pulling him firmly against her and using every trick that she had leant (including some of the things that Lizzie had told her) to break through his façade. Tommy resisted for a moment as if fighting against his own conscience but then, suddenly, she won through.
His response was desperate, visceral. She felt his desire flow over them like larva, furious and intense and destroying all their doubts as it passed. Within moments the were naked and interlocked. Their union lasted only minutes so desperate were they to find comfort in one another.
Afterwards Arabella held Tommy in her arms until his exhaustion carried him away to sleep. Then she allowed herself a few silent tears of relief.
At 50 something chapters this story has become much longer than intended but I’m really not ready to end it yet. Would it be easier to read if I split it here and posted any further chapters as Part 2? Let me know what you think.
Although Falk had used all his powers and connections to expedite Arabella’s case, the rest of the family’s trials were delayed by as much time as he could reasonably manage. Tommy had promised him pardons and, knowing how desperate their cases were, the silk was reluctant to proceed without them.
Given the evidence available, the trials were unlikely to take long and Falk knew that the outcomes were scarcely in doubt. Once convicted, death by hanging was the only possible sentence and there was likely to be less than a fortnight between verdict and execution of sentence, so he played for time for as long as he could.
Whilst the great man prevaricated, Polly, her nephews, and her son, were trapped in purgatory.
There was no respite for Tommy and Arabella on the outside either.
The Shelby family business continued apace and, even with the two of them sharing the load, there was scarcely enough hours in the day, or days in the week. Whilst Tommy dealt with the strategic activities, including the delicate business of repairing relations with Solomons’ gang in London, and developing the legal side of the business, Arabella took on more of the delicate day to day tasks. Robert Briggs became her dedicated driver and, when necessary, a watchful bodyguard. She appointed Matilda to be her lady’s companion.
As a lady’s companion, Tilly was supposed to provide her mistress with company and genteel conversation, whilst also helping her entertain guests and provide a suitable escort to social occasions. To maintain this facade, Arabella ensured that Tilly had all the training that she needed so that she could move comfortably in exalted circles. Unofficially, although they were of completely different classes, Arabella had quickly identified the girl as a kindred spirit.
Having been exposed to the harshness of the world a good deal earlier than her mistress, Matilda accepted the nature of the Blinder’s business quite readily, and her initial wariness had quickly turned to interest. Anything Arabella, or anyone else in the family, could teach her, she was keen to learn, and she had no qualms about putting them into practice.
The two women immediately began a tour of the Shelby family’s local business interests, assessing each one for vulnerabilities or corruption, and providing intelligent or damning feedback, as required. Arabella always went in first, silent and threatening, face hidden behind glasses and veil, using Tommy’s name and her newly won reputation to cow them into subservience. Tilly followed behind, sharp and watchful, a notebook permanently in hand to record her mistress’s findings.
It was not long before the illegal side of the Shelby family’s businesses were firmly within Arabella’s delicate but reliable grasp. Profits increased, employees fell into line, and the local police stopped trying to increase the level of their bribes. The Shelby’s casino and off-site gambling interests soon began running more smoothly than they had since Polly’s rule.
In her free time, Arabella visited Polly and the Shelby men in prison. Arthur, John, and Michael were all on remand at Winson Green in Birmingham, which was, at the very least, convenient for visiting. However, Polly was being held at Holloway prison which meant overnight stays with Ada in London. For Arabella, these were nothing like as amusing as her previous visits - instead they were tense and grim.
Keen to smooth the way, Arabella joined the Lady Visitors Association which had been established by the Duchess of Bedford some years previously. This gave her visits the gloss of respectability and allowed her more frequent access. In retrospect she was very glad that she had – and not just for the look of it. Gentlewomen who joined the association received detailed information on life in prison. The reports were graphic, even shocking for the most gently bred, but necessary for anyone who was hoping to communicate with people brutalised by life in the British criminal justice system.
Having spent some time in custody herself, and in the hands of brutal kidnappers, Arabella had thought she was unshockable – but that was far from the case. Prison life was degrading, intentionally so, and inmates were stripped of all humanity; fed slops, dressed in coarse rags, and forced to do tedious, repetitive tasks.
The Shelby boys laughed it off, even Michael who had come of age in relative comfort, but she could see through their macho posturing. But when she met with them after their committal, they could not hide the fact that the other inmates had taken against them as traitors; they had been beaten back and blue.
Beatings had not broken them, they contended. They had survived the trenches, and the harshness and poverty of a Small Heath childhood, so prison was nothing to them. But, despite their arrogance, they hung on every hopeful word she uttered and gripped her hands fiercely when she left. She resolved to do everything she could to help them.
If seeing them so vulnerable and frightened was hard, seeing Polly was far, far worse.
Holloway Women’s Prison was a grim and austere building. Originally built in the 1800s to house both male and female prisoners, it had been repurposed at the turn of the century to house women only. Visitors often remarked that the grand turreted gateway which served as the prison’s entrance was reminiscent of a castle. However, there were no princesses imprisoned within its walls.
Once through its heavy gates, prisoners were stripped to the skin, had their heads shaved, and were then forced to scrub themselves down with cold water and carbolic soap all under the merciless eyes of the wardresses. This was not simply done to humiliate new prisoners; it also had the benefit of killing off the lice and other vermin which preyed on the poverty-stricken creatures who usually passed through its gates.
Polly had been unusual amongst the prison’s latest intake. She had been clean, for a start, and decently fed. She had also been well dressed in silks and jewels – all the latest fashions. That had given her no protection, however.
The wardresses had sneered at her as she handed over her expensive, neatly folded clothes, glad to see one of their own brought low after rising so high. Polly had felt certain that she would ever see her things again. After she had washed, the nearest wardress pushed her, naked and shivering, into the next room.
So rough and unexpected was the shove that Polly had almost slipped on the cold, slick flagstones. The room was staffed by another cruel faced woman who handed her a pile of stiffly starched clothing including a coarse shift, a petticoat, and a single pair of knickers roughly formed out of calico, a grey flannel skirt and jacket, and stiff, poorly stitched canvas slippers.
Polly had dressed as quickly as possible, shamed by her nakedness under the cold eyes of the watching woman. The abrasiveness of the fabric against her skin was distinctly different from the gentle touch of the silk and rayon that she was used to and it stood in mute testimony to the cruel turn that her life had taken and the deprivation that she was now going to endure.
Arabella was horrified by her first glimpse of Polly through the gloomy and foetid air of the Holloway visiting room. This was a woman who had ruled the war-time Peaky Blinders with a rod of iron and Arabella had come to regard her with both respect and a certain amount of wariness. However, since her remand, Polly had visibly shrunk and aged. She was still a proud woman but she seemed to have retreated to a more superstitious period of her life.
The moment Arabella took Polly’s hand a stream of shelta poured forth. Despite Tommy’s patient tutelage it was almost incomprehensible but she tried her best to respond, to reach the old Polly behind this protective new front. However, no matter how many times she visited, Arabella was unable to break through this fey new persona.
Arabella and Tommy had taken to meeting for an hour every afternoon in his study at Arrow House. They would sit side by side at his desk, papers arrayed before them. Him in his comfortable old office chair, Arabella in a newer matching one that he had bought her when she officially joined the company.
This private time gave them a chance to bring each other up to date on the business of the day away from the constant need to present a confident front to the world. They could share their doubts and worries, chew over knotty problems, or even giggle childishly over petty little victories. It was where a relieved Tommy had announced that matters had now been resolved with the Jews and where Arabella showed had off the plans she had for a new dancehall and casino in Manchester. It was also where a line was finally drawn under the old part of her life.
'It was an apoplexy, love. I'm sorry.' Tommy didn't do comforting very well, but he'd tried his best – patting her hand awkwardly whilst he desperately wished that Polly was still around to do the emotional heavy lifting. 'It was quick at least.' He'd added, somewhat desperately.
Arabella's eyes had blurred momentarily. Her father was dead, slipping out of the world unnoticed in a quiet corner of his club, brandy glass in hand, lit cigar smouldering in an ashtray by his side. The last person connecting her to her past had gone.
In truth, since the war Lord Fairfax hadn't been much of a father. She'd spent most of her marriage trying to protect him from himself – the parent rather than the child – but she felt the loss, nevertheless. It was soul deep, almost overwhelming. She felt her heart pounding in her ears and the burn of tears pressing at her eyes.
No one would be able to share dear memories of her mother and brothers with her again. No one else would be able to empathise with her over Rupert's last harrowing visit home, nor laugh with her about the time Elliot had upturned a rowing boat on the lake and nearly made an end to them all. Worst of all, she was now the only one who remembered William as the sweet, gentle boy he had been, rather than a coward who had betrayed his comrades and been set before a firing squad at the age of 17.
She had wanted to scream out her pain and grief, but all the while she could feel the gentle caress of Tommy's thumb against the soft flesh of her index finger. It spoke to her in ways that mere words could not, transmitting love, and comfort, and support. She had focussed on it and as her breathing calmed and her mind cleared, she had begun to see herself for what she truly was.
Arabella was not a Fairfax cut off from the last of her family. Indeed, perhaps she had never truly been one of them. She was a Shelby – with all the baggage that entailed and now she could join them completely. She had no time for useless sentiment. Not when there was so much work to do and half the family remained under threat of a sentence of death.
Removing her hand from Tommy's, she had dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her handkerchief, finding strength in the soft scent of the lavender that it had been stored with. Everything was going to work be OK. Tommy would make it right. She had to believe in him.
'I take it that your solicitor is dealing with the reading of my father's will?' She asked.
'Yes – Joseph Bowman has been notified. And Lizzie's spoken to a funeral director in town. Unless you have any objection, your old man will be buried alongside your mother in your family's plot this coming Monday.'
'That's what he would have wanted, I suppose.' Arabella said distantly. Her eyes were focussed on her wedding ring, rolling it round and round on her finger as if hypnotised by its rotations. 'Have your man come and see me in a day or two. Other than my father's title, which is, of course, remaindered to me, I suspect there is very little of value left to inherit so there is no sense in prolonging matters unnecessarily.'
Tommy blinked slowly and then rocked back in his chair; his face took on the impassive beauty of a marble bust. Whatever reaction he had been expecting from Arabella it was not this… awful absence. She had undergone so many dreadful experiences in so short a time, he wondered if she had gone into shock once more.
In the stillness of the room, the ticking of the mantle clock echoed harshly. Flecks of dust, glittering gold, danced inappropriately in a beam of sunlight which fell across the desk between them, then disappeared again when a respectful cloud covered the sun. Tommy watched his wife carefully across the growing distance between them.
The cigarette drooped in his mouth forgotten as he checked her subtly for signs of grief or distress but all he could see was the top of her bowed head, every glossy hair immaculately coiffured. Even her fingers were still now, hands folded loosely in her lap. He felt his heart begin to shrivel. She was pulling away from him again; he could not bear it.
And then, wordlessly, she turned her face up to his. Her eyes were slightly puffy and reddened from suppressed tears but they were glittering like diamonds. She reached out and squeezed his hand, a small smile playing across her lips. Tommy felt himself tense slightly. Arabella appeared to be entirely herself – he just didn't know exactly what 'herself' now was.
'We'll need to sell the hall', she declared boldly. 'Whatever's left after estate duties we can put towards the Shelby/Grey defence fund. God knows were going to needed it given the combined fees of Bowman, Bowman, and Keswick and Sir Edward.
'Are you sure love?' Tommy asked. 'I don't want to deprive you of what's left of your family's inheritance.'
Arabella's eyes met his, searching them intently for signs of doubt or dissembling and she then took his hand once more, pulling him towards her.
'This is my family. It's the only place I've ever felt able to act in a way that suits my own preferences not someone else's ideas of how an upper-class lady should behave. The Shelby's are the only ones who have never judged me, never shamed me. Without Polly and the boys - I have no inheritance!'
Falk and his team did their best but Major Chester Campbell had died a loyal employee of the Crown and the jury’s verdict was unanimous. All that remained was the passing of sentence. High in his thronelike chair, the judge placed a square of black silk over his curled horsehair wig. A susurrus of shock flowed through the courtroom.
‘Elizabeth Gray, you will be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul’.
Tommy gave a sharp intake of breath and a thin, keening wail came from the dock. Almost too frightened to look, Arabella forced her eyes to where Polly was held in a cage of polished wood and brass. Hard, brave Aunt Polly had collapsed, white-faced, into the arms of a female wardress. She was looking about her wildly as if desperately seeking a way to freedom. Only when she found Tommy in the gallery did her eyes take on their customary fierceness; she began hurling vicious abuse at him in a mixture of English and Shelta.
Arabella’s heart broke and she couldn’t hold back a sob. After the guilty verdicts for Arthur, John, and Michael a few days before, she had though that she had no more tears left to cry but this was a final, monstrous horror. A capital verdict against a woman was rare in these more enlightened times. Currently only one other woman was awaiting execution and it seemed that Polly would now be joining her in the death cells at Holloway.
Excited whispers had broken out around the court room the moment the sentence was announced and, after a moment to take in the reaction of those present, journalists from the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Manchester Guardian rushed out to file their copy.
Arabella found their eagerness nauseating. Gripping ferociously on Tommy’s unresisting hand she hissed, ‘This has gone far enough. You have to resolve matters now.’
Eyes fixed on his aunt, who was now being half dragged, half carried back to the cells below, he nodded. ‘I’ll ring that bastard Churchill again as soon as we get out of here, remind him of his promise. If I get no answer in the next few days, I’ll tell the Home Office about the letters. In the meantime, Falk can lodge the appeals.’
An unresisting Polly was bundled back into a van and escorted back to Holloway. As a condemned prisoner she was entitled to certain privileges cold comfort though that was. She had a suite of rooms for her exclusive use – a bedroom, an exercise area, a room in which to eat, read, and receive visitors. Her food was prepared specially and brought to her on a tray.
Two warders were with her 24 hours a day in case she tried to cheat the hangman. They were all new women, ones she had never seen before. And they changed regularly and randomly so they could never get too close to Polly or each other. She saw a doctor to check that she was in good health – it would not do for a woman to go to the gallows pregnant or in ill-health.
Every day Polly was escorted along a cold, dark passageway to an outdoor yard to take the air. Immediately opposite the door to her rooms was a wooden wall. Each time they passed along the corridor warders hustled her past that wall, distracting her with pushes and brusque chatter so that she paid no attention to it. During the night before her execution carpenters, working in total silence, would remove that wall and replaced it with a door. That door would lead to a short corridor and then another door opening directly onto the floor of the hanging chamber. Mirrored on the other side was another suite of rooms where a second condemned woman was seeing out her last days.
Though it all Polly moved as if in a fog. She could simply not conceive of what had taken place. Anger at Tommy’s actions had turned to disbelief that he had not saved her as he had promised. He was Tommy Shelby. There was nothing he could not do. Arabella had sworn to her that he would not let her down but somehow, somehow, he had and thus Polly’s well-ordered world had crumbled. Locked away from all she knew she was faced with an uncommon sense of impotence. She hadn’t felt such powerlessness since she had been a young widow at the mercy of the parish.
‘Will Tommy come today?’ She begged her wardresses. ‘Will he come?’ And they would shake their heads in silent sympathy. She had visits from the lawyer Falk though. He sat with her in her day room and calmly laid out the details of her appeal. There was not much hope, he told her gently. The indictment had been correct. The judge’s direction to the jury had been harsh but had followed the law in all particulars. Her best chance was the possibility of a pardon and that rested entirely on Tommy’s powers of persuasion.
Terrified of letting her down, of letting his brothers and nephew down, Tommy refused to see any of them.
With their focus distracted by the upcoming trials, the Shelby company’s income had dipped dangerously. Falk and his stable of juniors attracted premium prices so even with their savings everything had ridden on the family’s ability to extract the maximum value from the Fairfax estate.
Thanks to the Shelby Company’s underwriting of his major expenses, and Arabella trying to fix any card game he joined, Lord Fairfax had died almost free of debts. With no sons to inherit, the main issue had been trying to sell his property for a price that would cover the estate duties and still provide a decent amount to cover expert witness statements and legal fees. Arabella had been determined, however. She had spoken to every family friend, pulled in every favour, and then, finally, the whole estate had been sold to a Hollywood star who had been keen to buy himself some old-world class. It had been enough – just – but Tommy felt a guilt-inducing level of relief when he found out that he would not have to try to fund any appeals.
‘My dear, as you know our request to lodge an appeal was rejected. However, I can confirm that Thomas has formally contacted the Home Office requesting a pardon for you, your son and your nephews. Execution of sentence will be delayed whilst this is given proper consideration. This will take at least three to four weeks.’ Falk reached over the scratched table and patted Polly’s hand sympathetically.
Where once she would have found this patronising, now Polly was simply glad to receive the warmth of sympathetic human contact. She could not deny that the relief of a temporary stay was overwhelming and allowed herself to breathe – and believe - again.
The next day Arabella visited and brought with her some items to make life in the condemned cells more pleasant – some silk underwear, a set of cotton sheets, some magazines, even a few bars of good French soap.
‘You need to trust him, Pol’, Arabella had begged, when they were given some time to talk. ‘I know it must be unbelievably difficult but he has a plan. He has leverage.’ The sincerity in Arabella’s eyes had given Polly courage, but if she had known the extent of the woman’s private terrors, she might have been less inclined to trust her.
To pass the time, Polly wrote letters to her son and nephews (all except Tommy) telling them how much she loved them and how proud she was of them. In the morning she walked around her small yard, glancing upwards to catch a glimpse of sky, or running her fingers over the lichen on the rough stone walls. In the afternoons she read her tarot cards, seeking information and consolation. She had found a routine within the madness and clung to it for dear life – and then, one desperate morning, things changed.
She was woken by screaming, desperate, hysterical. Dawn was just breaking through the bars of her cell. It was ‘her’. The other condemned woman. The poor bitch in the cells mirroring her own was being taken to her execution. Polly’s stomach turned and she began to hyperventilate. Suddenly her wardresses were around her, for once compassionate and consoling. They knew what was coming and, for all their apparent hardness and the distance they were forced to assume, they hated it too.
‘I should never have put my trust in a fucking toff’, Tommy raged. ‘Every day, and in every way, they remind us that we are nothing to them. They’ll take all that the common man has to give, cheer us on as we spill our guts and die in the mud on their say so - but when it comes to keeping their word to us, we’re not worth the muck off their boots.’
Had the situation been less serious Arabella would have been minded to tell him how much he sounded like his sister, but instead she kept her own counsel. Whilst Tommy stormed around his office at Arrow House, downing mouthfuls of whiskey and roaring with anger, she sat quietly sipping tea the colour of tar in Polly’s honour, face impassive. An almost empty bottle shattered against the fire back causing the flames to roar; she bit her lip.
For two days Tommy had thrown himself whole-heartedly into obtaining pardons for his family but Churchill hadn’t taken his calls. The man had never been at home nor had he ever appeared to be in his office. It had been quite some time since Tommy had not had his calls accepted or returned by anyone, and he really didn’t like it.
‘Bastard! Fucking lying, double-crossing bastard!’ This time Tommy’s fist thudded against the solid wood of the door. He hissed as he felt a couple of the smaller bones crack. Arabella winced.
‘Sit down, darling,’ she said firmly, setting down her cup and saucer. Tommy heaved a deep sigh and dropped onto the settee next to her, leaning exhaustedly against the padded back.
Arabella took his damaged hand in one of hers. Dipping her handkerchief in Tommy’s neglected glass of whiskey, she began to dab at his bloody knuckles. When he winced and tried to withdraw his hand, she squeezed his fingers tightly in hers. ‘Stay still, you bloody stupid arse. Let me tell you what is going to happen next. You will take one of the King’s letters and you will send it to the Home Office with a note saying ‘Do what I fucking want or I will send this, and the others that I hold, to the New York Post’ and then, one way or another, we will all be free.’
Tommy met her eyes and she could see how conflicted he was. How much he hated to go against King and country but she hardened her heart. ‘I’m an innocent woman. I was sold to you in exchange for my father’s debts, in order to protect my family. Then I was kidnapped and abused to force you to do an evil deed. You are a war hero. You were forced to kill innocent men you had no quarrel with on behalf of a foreign power also in order to protect your family. We’, she ground his damaged bones together again to ensure she had his attention. ‘Are honourable people but this is no longer an honourable country. You said we needed to act like them in order to protect our own and this is when we start.’
Tommy’s eyes bored into hers; guilt, pain, and drunkenness intermingled. ‘Fuck ‘em’, he growled.
‘Yes, darling.’ She kissed him. ‘Fuck them!’
Despite all good intentions, there was no hiding from Polly what had happened to the other condemned woman during her execution.
Officially it wasn’t to be spoken off - it was too gruesome. Warders left at short notice. The hangman retired. On the street, the hideous truth had spread quickly and had caused public demonstrations which were clearly audible to the prisoners. Eventually, from ignorance or horror, people talked – and there was no way Polly could avoid the truth.
Common wisdom suggested that the poor bitch had had to be carried to the scaffold by warders, who had then held her upright whilst the noose was hung around her neck. Others said that she had had to be strapped into a chair and hung sat down. Either would have been enough to cause a sensation but other rumours also said that her women’s parts had fallen out from between her legs when she dropped, or worse, that she had miscarried.
Whatever the cause, it was true that the hanged woman had bled massively causing horror in the morgue below the hanging room. Desperate to avoid further controversy the government had declared that any woman hanged after her would be made to wear special underclothes made of canvas.
Polly’s sentence had taken on a new – horrific – dimension which had only added to the anger Tommy felt towards Churchill.
Arabella visited Polly in Holloway the day after the execution. If she had ever seen a creature as disturbed or fey as her husband’s aunt, she couldn’t recall it. To be polite, the woman was away with the fairies, Half of what she said wasn’t even in English, being a hysterical mix of Shelta and cant; what she did say in English made absolutely no logical sense.
Arabella tried everything she could think off to get through to the Polly, to calm her down. Sadly, no matter what she did, nothing could make the other woman understand that Tommy had high hopes of obtaining pardons for her and the boys. Eventually Arabella excused herself and left. She made it all the way back to Ada’s house before the tears fell.
The hideous death described above is based on the hanging of Edith Thompson. She was executed for her part in the murder of her husband, Percy, who was stabbed and killed by her lover Frederick Bywaters. I have taken the liberty of moving the date of the execution from 1923 to 1925 so that she can be in the Holloway condemned cells at around the same time as Polly. Her death appears to have been at least a horrible as described here and it caused widespread condemnation – there were even public demonstrations against it. It marked the beginning of the end for the execution of women in the UK. An overview of the case can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Thompson_and_Frederick_Bywaters#Imprisonment_and_execution. The hangman, John Ellis, retired in 1923 and committed suicide in 1931.
It took three days for Tommy’s desperate, dangerous letter to be passed to someone who was senior enough to have the slightest inkling of the import of the message and its enclosure. Once identified as ‘of interest to a higher authority’, the missive was whisked along as if by Mercury’s wings until it landed on the desk of Anthony Sewell, the Home Secretary’s Principle Private Secretary.
It arrived in the early hours of an otherwise normal weekday when the man was toiling to catch up with a backlog of work that never seemed to get any smaller. Smirking inwardly, he made a few peremptory phone calls and a few hours before daybreak the Home Secretary was at his desk, sipping tea and suppressing a yawn that indicated that he had spent rather too long at his private club the night before.
‘Sir, I think you should see this.’ Sewell passed over a slim file of documents. ‘It’s a request for a pardon from a Mr Thomas Shelby.’ The civil servant gave the Minister what could only be described as a ‘significant look’. Behind the Private Secretary bobbed the nervous figure of one of the government’s retained barristers who had been dragged from his bed to proffer some off-the-cuff legal advice.
‘Shelby, the racketeer?’ The Minister demanded, looking at the two men incredulously. ‘But most of the family were found guilty of sedition and murder amongst other dreadful crimes - barely one step from treason some of them. Why in God’s name would the King intervene in such a clear-cut series of cases? You are wasting my time!’
The Private Secretary had not seen such a dismissive look on the Home Secretary’s face since the man had heard the demands of the leaders of the General Strike back in 1926. His body language indicated that he was already moving on to matters that he considered more important. Sewell was going to enjoy making him eat his own words.
‘He claims that his family was caught up in a wider conspiracy lead by representatives of the crown, sir’, he responded silkily. ‘He names Winston Churchill.’
The Minister sighed in irritation, rubbing roughly at his tired eyes. ‘And you woke me for this? Winnie is already out of favour. What do I care for one of his failed schemes?’
Smothering a smirk of triumph, the Private Secretary played his trump card. His manner was still diffident but there was a flourish when he handed over a final piece of paper, like a magician performing a card trick. ‘Shelby also sent us this.’
The Minister read the second letter in silence. He swallowed. He read the letter again. In a tone of cold fury, he said. ‘And how the fuck did a Birmingham gangster get his hands on a personal letter written by King George himself?
Smugly the PPS said, ‘You may have heard about the incident some months ago when certain valuable items were stolen from Russian exiles domiciled at Hampton Court. Shelby apparently discovered a box of private correspondence. Among the papers he removed was this letter from the King which indicates that His Majesty was involved in the conspiracy to derail a train in Birmingham. That same conspiracy for which the Shelby men were convicted.’
‘Oh, utter fuck…’
‘There were apparently other letters from the same source, sir. Perhaps yet more… inconvenient. If his family is pardoned, Mr Shelby has promised that he will burn the all the correspondence he holds in the presence of a government representative.’
The Home Secretary became very still. ‘And pray tell, when are they due to hang?’ He enquired with frozen politeness. The man’s face gave away nothing of the churning in his gut.
‘Today’, the barrister confirmed with another nervous bob. ‘The men at Winson Green and Mrs Grey at Holloway.’
Sewell cleared his throat and then paused, which lent extra weight to his following words. ‘Sir, If I might be allowed to venture an opinion, I think we should…’
The Minister ground his teeth, the sound of his pulse in his ears drowning out the sound of the other man’s voice. By god he hated the supercilious creature who acted as his PPS. Always so obsequious, always so diffident… always trying to hide how much he hated his betters and yet somehow failing spectacularly at every turn.
Disraeli had once said that ‘except the married state, there [was] none in which so great a confidence [was] involved, in which more forbearance ought to be exercised, or more sympathy ought to exist than that between a Minister and his Secretary’. It was unquestionably true but still the Home Secretary knew that he would never forgive his predecessor for saddling him with this worm.
Despite everything, the Home Secretary knew that Sewell was a superlative political operator and, like the rest of his breed, an excellent spy. The Home Secretary realised he should give due attention to the man’s words. What he heard irked him considerably.
‘Why the hell didn't you bring this up before?’ He snarled when Swell finished, irritation and tiredness finally getting the better of him.
‘This is the first that I heard of it. Sir, I can assure you. I spoke to some contacts in the Lord Chamberlain’s office whilst I was waiting for you to arrive to be sure’, the man sneered slightly at his superior’s dilatory habits and the Minister suppressed a sigh of irritation. ‘I suspect that this was a play by members of the Economic League.’
From the shadows, the barrister hurriedly added, ‘Apparently the original plan was for the Lord Chamberlain to intervene at the appeal but late last night a local judge was pressured to bring the executions forward.’
The Minister gave a heartfelt sigh and rubbed at his eyes, ‘Oh, my giddy aunt.’ Picking up the telephone receiver he barked, ‘Put me through to His Majesty!’ There was a muted sound of disapproval and denial at the other end and then the roared. ‘Well, wake him up!’
For once royal privilege was no defence against the imperatives of the real world.
In the grim fastness of Holloway prison, John Ellis, the hangman, was reviewing his two execution boxes as he had done only weeks before for Edith Thompson. He shivered with dread as he went through their grisly contents. Inside them were two of everything that an executioner would require to perform his duties - up to, and including, the hanging rope which had to be tested on site and measured for strength and resilience to ensure the perfect drop.
A silent wardress passed him details of Mrs Grey’s height and weight, taken only the day before to allow for changes in her eating habits and general health. He was then left alone to make his calculations using the Official Table of Drops which was produced by the Home Office to assist hangmen in their work. The table had been adjusted over the years to provide an effective, and merciful, manner of execution. However, mindful of the gruesome results of his last execution, he checked his results not twice but three times.
The certain knowledge that, despite any give in the rope, the woman’s neck would break almost instantly whilst leaving her head attached to her body should have been a comfort. Unfortunately, after the horror of the Thompson execution, it wasn’t.
Ellis could feel vomit rising in his throat as he thought of the dawn to come. No matter how much money he was promised, he was resolved that this would be the last execution he would ever undertake.
I've had the most outrageous writer's block. Thanks for bearing with me!
It was 8 in the morning and sentence was about to be carried out.
Priests intoned their bloodless verses as they escorted the prisoners on their final journey – cold comfort for the desperate and the helpless perhaps but it gave a gloss of propriety to what was essentially society exacting brutal revenge.
In Pentonville, where the men were now being held, the corridor eventually opened on to an airy room. Nooses loomed in the distance. Grim-faced guards waited alongside – compassionate but resolute. It would be a harsh full stop to the violence and pain of their lives so far. This then was the hanging floor.
Arthur broke a guard’s nose as he struggled to break free;
John swore up a storm but shit his pants when the rope dropped around his shoulders;
Michael begged and pleaded to speak to his solicitor.
The older men’s whispered ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ was only slightly more comforting than the priest’s careless wittering.
In Holloway women’s prison, less than a mile away, Polly Gray was praying frantically, the beads slipping and jumping through her trembling fingers as she tried to say her rosary. Her mind could not compass what was about to happen to her and she kept stalling part way through the familiar words of the Hail Mary.
Firm but gentle hands eventually removed the beads, and her wrists were tied behind her. She Closed her eyes and her world shrank to the dark space inside her own head, the feeling of her soured breath going in and out, ‘No heaven. No hell.’ forming unspoken in her dry mouth.
She wanted to curse Tommy, to rail against the fates that had brought her to this terrible end but she had nothing left to give, so she simply stood, her whole body quivering ready for the end. But when the noose was slipped around her neck and the knot tightened at the nape of her neck her eyes blazed open. She took on her power, the true sight that was her birth right. In that final moment of pure terror, as she went face to face with death, her inner eye finally opened.
Freedom was a strange word. Easy to say. Easy to spell. But very hard to achieve. And to many people who had been condemned to a trip across the hanging floor, the notion of a pardon had a mythic quality. The three men collapsed at the sound of it, bodies folding up and dropping to the floor, vomiting their fear and relief on to the ground.
Polly was different. Her fear had been no less great and yet her response to her freedom was a single slow blink as if she was awakening from a dream. She felt that she was no longer part of the world, instead she was a living conduit to the world of the spirits - and in that dreadful place they would talk to her constantly.
Realising that he might not currently be their favourite person, Tommy did not go to meet any of his family when they were released from prison, pathetic personal effects in hand. Instead he sent trusted Shelby Company staff. For the boys, this meant Jeremiah Jesus and his son. For Polly this meant Arabella and Lizzie. It was a long, quiet trip home for all of them.
The family (or the majority of it, at least) was reunited at Arrow House, where Arabella had planned a low-key celebration to mark their release. The money that had been put in trust for them all before their imprisonment was laid out in piles, ready for them to collect. Tommy was absent – a fact that escaped no one.
‘Thomas taking his OBE out on the town, is he?’ Polly asked archly, briefly silencing the room.
Arabella worded her reply carefully. ‘He thought that his presence might be – awkward’. There were a range of oaths and sneers in response, indicating that Tommy had been correct in staying away.
‘Funny’, Polly replied, her eyes narrowing. ‘For all his faults, I never took my nephew for a coward.’ Then she hugged her son and the moment passed.
The next few hours were rather a blur. Whiskey was drunk, china was snorted. Occasionally, morsels of the food that the servants had so carefully prepared were even eaten. But what occurred, at the most fundamental level, was that relationships, torn to breaking point by separation, began to be repaired.
Arthur and Linda were reunited with an embrace and one of her pious prayers, which set eyes rolling. He held his baby for the first time and cried tears of guilt and regret.
“I’m done Linda, I promise. No more working for Tommy, no more fighting. We’ll take this money and buy a place in the country. We’ll raise little William up right, away from all this violence. Get chickens maybe.” He was slurring but there was no doubt as to his sincerity.
Linda smiled and nodded, pressing her lips softly against one of his florid cheeks. She had won – finally! At some point they left, but no one noticed them go.
John and Esme’s reunion was altogether different. With the children in tow, Esme had tried to keep a lid on things but the moment that they had been put to bed upstairs she had launched herself at her husband with a fierce passion, determined to block out all thoughts of their prolonged separation with an expression of their love.
One of the maids had found them making love in Tommy’s office sometime later and, giggling under her breath, simply shut the door and left them to it. They weren’t seen again that night, and in the morning the whole family had vanished leaving nothing behind.
Other than hugging her son, Polly was almost silent for most of the evening but her dedication to finishing the bottle of whiskey in front of her was impressive. Michael was soon swept off by Isiah Jesus for a celebratory night on the town so in the end it was just Polly and Arabella left drinking at the kitchen table.
At some point the fortune telling cards came out, unearthed from a drawer in one of the guest rooms. Polly laughed grimly every time she turned up the ‘pride’ card and Arabella came to dread the sight of the beautifully coloured peacock. The next worse was ‘fidelity’ as it caused the older woman to spit curses.
At 2 in the morning Arabella put her to bed.
Tommy was having nightmares again. His screams and oaths disturbed the household at regular intervals. Or at least they did when he was at Arrow House. What was happening when he was away in London or elsewhere was a complete mystery to Arabella.
Since the family had received their pardons, Tommy had become increasingly distant from her. He would be missing for days at a time without a word of warning or explanation, and then crawl into their bed in the early hours of the morning, reeking of booze, tobacco and blood. Sometimes, on the worst nights, Arabella thought that she could also identify the heady scent of opium clinging to his hair and skin.
No matter the cause of his late arrival, he would bury his nose in the curve of her neck and press his lean body along the length of hers, and then sigh deeply.
'Hold me love', he would whisper. 'These people I have to work with… I need your goodness to wash their filth off me.'
Then she would pull him in closer and use her hands, mouth and body to comfort him. Sometimes he was so drunk or wired it took a while to coax an erection out of him but once he was inside her they would reach a semblance of their old intimacy. Somehow that made it worse.
When Tommy had spent himself in her and fallen asleep, she would creep into his dressing room so as not to wake him and sob as quietly as she could. She had usually barely gone back to sleep herself when his nightmares started, and it always took a long time to calm him back to restfulness once the screaming was over.
Mornings sadly never seemed to bring either of them any comfort. On most occasions, Tommy was gone by the time she awoke. On the rare occasions when he slept in, he was cold with her, evasive even when he woke. She never dared to try to seduce him over the breakfast table as she once had.
Isolated from Tommy's activities, Arabella continued to busy herself with the management of the clubs and casinos. They were running well and growing in popularity and she felt a small glow of pride when she reviewed the books. As far as she could tell, other than the on-track betting operation, they were the family's most profitable income stream.
She booked some of the biggest acts she could find to perform cabaret sessions and concerts at the Shelby Family's venues. She even managed to convince Charlie Chaplin to do a skit one night at their place in Edgbaston between a singer and a couple of dancing girls. There was no doubt that their venues now formed a significant part of the fashionable social life of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.
Trips to London became the highlight of Arabella's life.
She had a couple of rooms set aside for her and Tilda's use in Ada's large and well-appointed London home and she spent many happy afternoons there with her sister-in-law and nephew talking about politics, books, and music. As this was a nominally Communist house Tilly was invited to join the family as often as she wanted and her education as a lady's made continued apace.
Arabella's evenings were usually spent in various clubs and restaurants around town, sometimes accompanied by Ada, sometimes accompanied by Alfie Solomons, but always accompanied by Tilly.
In defiance of all logic, Alfie proved to be one of Arabella's most loyal and reliable friends during that time. Although he could be both erratic and violent, he nevertheless treated her and Tilly with an exaggerated level of courtesy which would not have seemed out of place in her mother's social circle. Yet at the same time he was not above providing them with plentiful quantities of drugs and alcohol.
'You will never find me wanting', he would often say. 'Not in word, not in deed, not in hospitality neither. Bread and salt will always be waiting for you in my house – even if the bread is liquid and cocaine does the job of salt.'
That would always set her to giggling. He was such a card! Even though she knew he was a dangerous man she could not truly see him as one and her relaxed towards him bled over to Tilly.
When Archie introduced her and Tilly around town, with a remarkable lack of interest in social class (his opinion being at all non-Jewish women were all of the same status) it made her giggle further. When he did indeed keep them filled with rum and china she simply allowed herself to feel grateful for his thoughtfulness. That his presence meant that Tommy was neglecting her was a fact she tried desperately to ignore.
Arthur had found his family a lovely red brick house just off the main road to Solihull, which had come parcelled with a good-sized plot of land. Bribing the previous owner with an obscene pile of cash, he had moved his family in in record time and then bought chickens, and a few goats, and then had the gardens laid out for fruit and vegetables.
Arthur had proved to be quite a natural worker of the land and, although his hands always itched for the axe and the saw to express his violent nature, he had taken surprisingly easily to the Quaker lifestyle. The lack of alcohol and drugs had been a distinct advantage in tempering both his mental health and his daily behaviour.
Linda, however, for all her demands for peace and the religious life, had not fitted in quite so well. This had surprised her, but they were both committed to providing little Billy with the life that they dreamed of for him, so she ducked her head and behaved. If Arabella saw them rarely, Tommy saw them not at all.
John had always been the most easy-going of the brothers and he had, despite his wife's annoyance with the family business, never truly tried to break off contact with Tommy and the others. That said, he had promised Esme that he would take her and the children to live in the countryside once the Russian business was over and he kept his word.
After his release from prison, John had taken his money and bought a fancy new vardo from Dunton and Sons down in Reading. Esme had been ecstatic when it had arrived. The ornate carving and fancy paintwork (not to mention the gold detailing) had done much honour to her family – but it had also confirmed to her that he respected the Romany way of life.
John had also bought a large estate to keep the wagon on, with fishing rights on a broad stream that ran through it, a small area of well-managed woodland, and a good-sized house they could use whenever they needed to impress someone. It was peaceful and beautiful and gave them all a chance to heal.
Then, to Esme's grave displeasure, John had a phone line installed so that he could keep in touch with Tommy.