It took them years before they were any good at the trade; then, it only took them months to edge out all other competition.
Lord Fairfax, Sr. died of chronic liver failure two years before their control over the drug trade was absolute. Charles became the new Lord Fairfax, Baron of Berkeley, instead of Billy. In private, Charles had expressed outrage that the eldest son had been passed over. Billy, for his part, showed no concern for the slight at all.
“You’re his son,” Billy had said. “His legitimate son, I mean. If you ask me, it was always yours. Besides, I never wanted to be nobility.”
Charles had forced himself to express more indignation and issued several empty promises of ‘making things right,’ knowing full well that he had no intention of doing any such thing. It was his birthright, after all. He had been the one to survive under the tender ministrations of the Lady Fairfax…he had endured years of benign neglect from their father.
Billy had received love, affection, and understanding from the late Lord Fairfax. It seemed perfectly equitable that Charles should receive the title.
(He repeated that thought to himself, night after night, and it never felt equal to him.)
Life became nothing more than work, from that night. Occasional interlopers attempted to muscle in on their business. Billy identified the newcomers and Charles destroyed them, either through the force of law or through force of arms. They turned the drug trade from something that thrived only in the criminal underground into a business that turned over record profits, year after year. They used that money to hire or coerce others from overseas into streamlining the process, minimizing their operating costs, and flying in the best help that money could be.
Decades after they had started, the two brothers found themselves at the head of one of the profitable criminal enterprises in living memory. Their business included the production and sale of various illegal substances, shrouded in the auspices of otherwise legitimate industries. They worked with major gangs in Russia and South America, doing their best to stay on the cutting edge of the business. When difficulties arose, they dealt with them as a team, moving with synchronized efficiency to maintain their grip on their employees and the beast they had built.
Life was good. To Charles, however, a good life wasn’t enough.
On the night of his thirty-eighth birthday, Charles started the same argument that he’d been having with his brother for five years.
“We can do more,” Charles said. He kept his voice at an appropriate volume, even though there wasn’t anybody else in their private suite. “You know I’m right.”
“It isn’t as though we’re hurting for money or influence.”
“We don’t need the Russians, for one. The amount of money we pay them to handle the smuggling side of operations isn’t exactly insignificant.”
“Sure, we lose a chunk of profits to them. But allow me to present a couple of reasons why we don’t want to cut them out of things. One: they’re the best at this sort of thing. They’ve been doing it for years, and the Bratva are very proud of that.”
Charles downed the remainder of his Scotch in a single swallow and refilled the glass from a crystal decanter. “They’re the best now. What about that new technology from Brazil?”
“Untested and, therefore, unreliable. But let’s assume for the moment that the Brazilians got their act together and perfected the process. We’ve still got point number two: they are insane over there, Charles. Seriously. I’m not even talking about the stories I’ve heard, just the people I’ve actually spoken to. London is too profitable for them to let the entire city go without putting up a fight.”
A headache began building behind Charles’ temples. He took a deep breath before continuing. “What if I want a fight?”
“Then you’re an idiot,” Billy said and shrugged. “The Russians are…the Russians. We’ve been at this for a couple of decades. They’ve been elbow deep in crime since the Berlin Wall came down. We aren’t the first people who thought we might be able to wiggle out from underneath them and, after they’re finished burying our mutilated corpses, we won’t be the last.”
“And if I know someone who’d be willing to intercede on our behalf? Maybe they’d supplement our men with a little more firepower, in case the Russians decide to disagree with our business choices.”
Even that slight tentacle of conjecture was enough to jolt Billy out of his indolent, casual demeanor. He sat up straight and locked eyes with Charles. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s call them…possibilities.”
“And have you spoken to these possibilities?”
Charles said nothing.
Billy put his drink – a bottle of some Welsh beer that Charles couldn’t be bothered to remember the name of – down onto the table and leaned both elbows onto his knees. “I just want to make sure I understand what you’re talking about here. You want to cut ties with the fucking Russians, of all people, in favor of someone crazy enough to back that sort of play? Did you think that these ‘other parties’ aren’t going to be just as bad, if not even worse?”
“Of course I’ve thought about that,” Charles snapped. “But we’re never going to get any bigger than we are now, so long as we’re stuck to the Russians.”
“We won’t get any bigger if we’re killed, either. And why do we need to get bigger? We own London.”
“Because this is nothing compared to what’s out there. Think about what we could do with our influence, if we could actually put it to use, Billy.”
“And these ‘possibilities?’ You think they aren’t going to have their own restrictions to deal with?”
Charles shrugged, faking a bit more nonchalance than he actually felt. “We can deal with that problem when we come to it. First the Russians.”
“I have thought about expanding,” Billy said, after a long, thoughtful pause. “And that would only be signing up for more trouble than we need. We got into this so that we could have money for medical treatments, Charles. Maybe a little bit extra spending money, I’m not going to lie. But we never planned on getting this big. I don’t even know what we’re going to do with all this when we’re gone, but I’m certainly not about to work on giving us both even more work to deal with.”
“Let the next guy concern himself with what comes after us.” Charles heard his volume increasing and couldn’t summon the concern to modulate his voice. “I’m bigger than this.”
Billy leaned back and looked at Charles for a long minute. He sighed, finally, and reached out for his beer. “That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?”
Charles blinked. “What? What are you talking about?”
“Being better than this,” Billy clarified. “Not that we’re better, though. That you’re better.”
“Billy, I don’t know what – “
“At least you can be honest with me!” Billy snapped, summoning palpable heat and willpower in the blink of an eye. Before he could help himself, Charles found himself recoiling into his own chair. “We’ve known each other for most of our lives, Charles; do you really think I can’t figure out when you’re hiding something from me?”
Charles took several seconds to think about what he should say next; those seconds proved to be too much for Billy to suffer through. The older man stood up, bumping one knee into a bucket filled with chilled champagne bottles, and began stalking out of the room.
“Wait!” Charles extended a hand and managed to make contact with Billy’s arm, before it was jerked out of his reach. “Wait, can we talk about this?”
Billy whirled around. “What exactly do you want to talk about, brother? Because you clearly don’t have any intention of telling me what this is really about.”
“I just…I just want to build something on my…on our own. I don’t know what’s wrong with that, and I don’t know what’s got you acting like this.”
“You just said it,” Billy replied. “Just now. You probably didn’t even hear it, did you? You want to build something on your own. Not together. Not the way we built this whole operation with our bare hands, starting from nothing except for our childish hopes and dreams. It doesn’t matter to you, unless you did it without me.”
“I don’t…I don’t even…”
“You don’t even know what to say? Yeah. I figured you’d say something like that.” Billy dug into his pocket and fished out a cell phone. He entered the necessary codes and threw it across the room, where it landed onto the couch cushion just to Charles’ right. “One of your lackies didn’t realize that we apparently aren’t working together anymore. Sent an email to the joint account instead of to whatever private account you have set up.”
The temperature of Charles’ blood dropped about a dozen degrees in a heartbeat. “Whatever you read, Billy, it isn’t…”
“It isn’t true? You’re really going to sit there, look me in my eyes, and lie to me? I’d rather you just shut up and not waste both of our times trying to dig your way out of this.”
As much as he wanted to find some way to defuse the situation, Charles wasn’t foolish enough to disregard good advice. If Billy had somehow intercepted any of the private messages that Charles had been sending, there really wasn’t any point in denying their contents. At the same time, nothing he’d sent recently had been of critical importance. The occasional disparaging comment, certainly; more than a few phrases he would have preferred his older brother not be aware of, absolutely; but nothing about the possible benefactors or the decision Charles had been forced to make in the past few days.
“Okay,” Charles said, while his thoughts continued to race. He couldn’t risk any more pauses. Not if he wanted a chance to talk Billy off of the ledge…or to cancel the plans that had already been set into motion. “Okay, I can explain.”
“I thought I understood you,” Billy said. “I thought we were brothers.”
“We obviously are not.” The intensity of Billy’s glare forced Charles a little deeper into his couch and a little farther away from his older brother. “Unless the definition has changed in the past few years, I don’t believe brothers would say the sort of things I read about one another.”
“It isn’t…it isn’t what you think it is,” Charles sputtered. “The men have certain ideas about things and it’s easier to just go along with them than to correct them.”
“Oh? That’s why you told them that you wished I hadn’t ever come to live with you and Father? That was their idea, was it?”
Charles winced. He’d written that particular message to one of his closer confidants – as close as he allowed the hired help to get, anyway – during a fit of irritation. “You…it wasn’t about you, Billy, it was about Father.”
“Please, enlighten me. What did Father have to do with any of the things you wrote?”
Thinking about what he’d written – recalling the exact state of mind he’d been in while he’d typed out the email – brought those feelings back to the forefront of his thoughts. He felt cornered by his older brother’s anger and that trapped feeling only amplified the anger that never simmered too far from the surface. “Because he forgot about me as soon as you got there, Billy. Or didn’t you notice that?”
It was Billy’s turn to blink. The heat of his glare died away, replaced by a puzzled expression. “He did not – “
Long buried heat bubbled up from some private room in Charles’ heart. He stood up and slashed a hand through the air like a knife, cutting his older brother off before Billy could begin to focus his own thoughts. “No, you wouldn’t have noticed it. Because you didn’t even think about it. As soon as you moved in, you just carried on, being whoever you wanted to be and it worked. You weren’t expected to conform or to change who you were friends with so that the family name wouldn’t be weakened.”
“I didn’t even have the family name!” Billy regained a measure of control and put it to work immediately. “You and Father agreed with me on that.”
“That isn’t the point, Billy!” For a single ludicrous moment, Charles wanted to sweep an arm across the table and scatter their bottles to the floor. That bone-deep sense of etiquette and proper decorum kept him from venting his frustration in a manner so loud and public. He loaded all of that frustration and vitriol into his voice, instead, and spoke without really thinking. “The point is that you’ve never understood what it’s like to be a Fairfax, because you weren’t one.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Charles knew he’d gone too far. Still, he was all too aware that he couldn’t take back what he’d said. The only thing worse than uttering those particular words would be cheapening them with a false apology.
Billy’s mouth dropped open and stayed there for five or six seconds before, slowly, he brought his teeth together with an audible click. Moving with excruciating care, he removed his wallet and peeled off several large notes. “If you want to do this so badly,” Billy said, “you go right ahead. But you do it without me. Since this apparently isn’t a family business anymore, it shouldn’t be a problem if I go off and do things on my own. Maybe I’ll do some traveling.”
“Billy, I…” Charles began, but no other words came out.
Billy nodded, as if that silence was confirmation of some question he hadn’t quite asked. “Be seeing you.” He let the notes fall from his hands, so that they fluttered down to the table. By the time the last piece of paper reached the table’s surface, Billy was gone.
Charles sat in the private room, still and silent, for one full minute. On the sixtieth second, he sighed and reached out for the nearest open container: Billy’s Welsh beer. He drank deeply from the bottle and decided, eventually, that it wasn’t entirely terrible.
When he’d finished with the beer and another glass of his preferred Scotch, Charles had managed to wrestle his emotions back down to a simmering rage. He used his phone to dial a number. He’d memorized the digits and, according to instructions, burned the paper they’d been written on.
“Mister Hill,” the robotic voice answered on the second ring. “We assume this is good news.”
Charles thought about what to say next. He knew that his words could, ultimately, decide the trajectory of the rest of his life. On the one hand, there was Billy. Infuriatingly charming, infallible Billy. On the other hand…
“Why should I do this?”
“Respect,” the voice said, as if it were the counterpoint to his own interior monologue. “Power. Wealth. All this and more. Everything that you deserve. Do we have a deal?”
Charles tapped a finger against the rim of his glass. They couldn’t have built the business without his contacts or his father’s money. As Lord Fairfax, he’d been able to open doors that illegitimate Billy hadn’t even known about. It was only right that he be able to decide where things went now that they’d reached the extent of his own web of influence.
“My business partner isn’t on board,” Charles said slowly into the phone. He hated to reveal even that much information, but the mysterious party had proven that they could find out whatever they wanted, should they be motivated to do so. “What will happen to him?”
“Removed from the field,” the voice said. “Anything else would leave a potential loose end.”
Ten seconds passed. “We have a deal,” Charles finally said, “under one condition.”
The robotic voice chuckled. “And that is?”
“Don’t kill him,” Charles blurted out. He felt ridiculous making demands at this late hour. It wasn’t as though he could really stop his unknown benefactors if they decided to ignore him.
“And why should we not eliminate potential complications?”
“Because…” Charles swallowed. “…because he’s my brother.”
Silence, stretching out for so long that Charles thought the voice at the other end of the line might have disconnected. Then, finally: “We have a deal.”
The line went dead.
Charles let the phone drop from his fingers to the couch, every drop of anger evaporated in that final perilous instant. Suddenly, what he’d chosen seemed monstrous. Billy was his last living family and Charles had just abandoned him.
He realized that it might not be too late. No matter how powerful the mysterious party was, they weren’t omnipotent. They couldn’t have made a move against Billy yet. Charles could still call him and…and what? Fight against them? Die together? What purpose would that serve?
“Billy made this choice,” Charles muttered out loud. “He did this to himself. Besides, it isn’t personal. It’s just business.”
Instead of reaching for the phone, Charles took the crystal decanter half-filled with Scotch and began to drink straight from the bottle. He did that until his mind was numb, his limbs uncoordinated, and his guilt submerged so deeply that he could barely find it anymore. By then, he almost believed the mantra he kept repeating to himself.
“It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. Just…it’s just business.”