Billy wanted nothing so much as a few seconds of mobility. He found himself wishing fervently to move his legs again, to see the toes wiggle in response to his will, to stand to his full height once more and walk. He doubted that he had ever wanted anything more.
If he were able walk again, Billy reckoned that he could get the better of his younger brother. Charles had never been a fighter, even when Billy’s pride had dragged the pair of them into scuffles on a weekly basis. With his money, his criminal contacts, and the ability to simply hire muscle when necessary, Charles probably hadn’t gotten any better at plain old fisticuffs.
Even if the balance had shifted over the years, Billy had desperation on his side. He might not win, but he’d be able to do something, instead of watching passively at his friends, both new and old, fruitlessly risked their lives to save his. If only he could walk.
Billy was, at the moment, confined to a wheelchair and that wheelchair was bolted to the wall, through several hooks specifically constructed for the purpose. The keys to those locks lived on a necklace around Charles’ neck and, even if lock-picking had been one of Billy’s skills, the locks themselves were placed in an area that could only be reached by someone not confined to the chair. So long as he was seated, Billy was locked in place. If he made an effort to move, so that he could break or pick the locks, his own paralysis would see to his imprisonment.
“At first,” Charles said, as though he were speaking to himself, “I wasn’t entirely convinced that a complete jam of all communications into and out of my bedroom was necessary. Eventually, I came to accept that allowing your brash young friend to alert the others would cause more trouble than it could possibly be worth.”
Previously, one of the six screens spread across the far wall had shown a video of Devlin as he entered Charles’ bedroom. Unaware of the hidden camera, connected to a security system through a separate system, Devlin had located the safe and successfully broken into it. He’d barely been able to savor the glow of success before the feed turned to static.
“Truly, he is an impressive individual,” Charles continued. He didn’t look away from the screens as he spoke. “I was informed by several of the very best safecrackers in the business that the Fortress was all but invincible. I suppose nothing can stand against a suitably motivated individual, though.”
Hate filled Billy, molten hot and painful in its intensity. He ground his teeth together until his gums hurt and focused on the largest toe of his right root. It had been a long time since he’d tried to move his lower extremities. A fierce desire sparked to life in his gut.
Nothing happened. The flame of hope guttered out, dying as quickly as it had been born.
Charles turned away his bank of monitors. He saw the look on Billy’s face before it could be hidden away and smiled in response to it. “I really would have preferred a more dignified method of restraint,” he said. His tone was insultingly casual. “But then I realized that it would have been pure folly to start underestimating you at this point.”
“If you’re going to gloat,” Billy shot back, “you can at least have the courtesy to be honest about it.”
“Why would I need to gloat?” Charles extended his arms to either side and, behind him, the glowing screens of at least six different camera feeds provided a striking backdrop for his stance. “I am perhaps hours away from moving into the final stages of my plan. Each and every piece is in place, ready to be moved into their ultimate positions. My enemies are contained within the equivalent of a hamster’s wheel, trying their hardest to emerge victorious from a conflict that was rigged from the very beginning. Soon, I will have everything I am owed and there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to stop me. Honestly, William, gloating now seems a bit…gauche.”
The fact that Charles was right on every point stuck in Billy’s throat. He swallowed, hard, before speaking. “Why go through all of this, then? You don’t need to kill my men and you don’t need to do anything to Devlin and his friends. What’s the point, if you don’t need any of this theatre?” A note of pleading made its way into his voice and Billy made no effort to conceal it. The time for pride and posturing had ended several days ago.
For a moment, Billy didn’t think that his brother would answer. Then, Charles sighed and pulled up a chair, just outside of Billy’s reach. “Two reasons,” said. “First, I consider today’s circus to be something of a stress test. When I have eliminated, subjugated, or otherwise dispatched with all competition from my peers, I will need to be absolutely certain that I am not vulnerable to the tactics I personally employed. I would have preferred to hire your new friend as an employee, but it seems that he and his have chosen the noble, stupid path.” Charles shrugged. “At least their efforts here will prove instructional, in the event that anyone else attempts to steal from me.”
Billy glanced past Charles, at the monitors behind him. Displayed on three of the six monitors, Billy could see silent videos playing out in real time. On one, the short Hispanic woman who somehow served as Devlin’s bodyguard fought desperately against the tattooed and scarred man who worked for Charles. At this distance, he couldn’t make out specific details, but a sinking feeling in his stomach told him that the fight wasn’t going well for the woman. On another screen, he saw a familiar van, parked outside of a Beatles memorabilia store. The van had been one of his, before Devlin’s ex-wife had recommissioned it into a mobile command center of sorts. A third screen was filled with nothing but static. The other three screens changed at regular intervals to show parts of the estate and the horde of men swarming into each room, checking for any other intruders with obvious, lethal intention.
“You set this up,” Billy whispered. Mounting horror and realization stole the breath from his lungs.
“Not all of it,” Charles corrected. “I couldn’t have anticipated that your new friend would be anywhere near as effective as he’s proven and I certainly didn’t realize that my own newest hire would be so cheerfully willing to sabotage my efforts in pursuit of his own revenge.” He tilted his head in thought. “That was a particular shame to discover. Asher made such a useful tool and I don’t know how long it would have taken me to arrange for the Book’s theft without his particular expertise. If only he’d been able to look past his own short term desires, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have to take care of him until much later.”
Billy laughed, and the sound was far too ugly to convey anything like actual amusement. “That’s rich, coming from you. The two of us had everything we ever wanted and you couldn’t get over your issues long enough to see that.” He gestured at his dead legs. “Or did you forget what you did to me?”
Charles shot out of his chair, with so much force that the chair was thrown backwards. The resulting bang was only made louder by the confined dimensions of the room. “It was not about that! We could have had more, but you…you only wanted to hold me back, William. And I refuse to be anything less than I am destined to be!”
Billy couldn’t get out of the chair to physically attack Charles, but there was nothing stopping him from striking emotional blows. In lieu of any other options, he could only hope that a slightly unbalanced Charles might make a mistake at a critical moment. “You can’t even admit it to yourself, can you? You really think that everything between us is because I was holding you back?” Billy forced himself to laugh again. “Everything you have now is because of me. You really think you could’ve built this without me, helping you every step of the way?”
“That is not true,” Charles hissed. “How would you have found the money to get started?”
“How would you have found the clients? Or dealt with competition? Do you have any idea how many upstart rivals I crushed before you even realized there was a problem?”
Charles was breathing heavily now. A possibility occurred to Billy; perhaps, if he were able to push exactly the right buttons, he might be able to goad Charles into physically attacking him. That opened up all sorts of possibilities.
Billy thought for less than a second – he couldn’t afford to lose momentum, or to allow Charles a chance to regain his composure – before he pressed his attack. “I had to grow up in a house a lot like this one,” he said, “and I did it with you cringing into a corner every single time Father was in a bad mood. You needed me to protect you then, and you needed me to watch out for you when we started up the business. You’re a bloody liar if you’re going to revise history now, just so that you come off looking better. Of all the people to tell your fictionalized backstory to, I am the absolute worst choice because I know when you’re full of shit.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Charles spat out. Even though he’d expected and had been actively courting a furious reaction, the sheer venom in Charles’ voice caught Billy off guard. “You protected me? You weren’t even here for the worst of it. Your mother loved you, at least. Mine thought of me as a necessary obligation, something that needed to be created so that she could solidify her grip on my father’s lands and finances. And every single time I so much as flirted with the idea of behaving in a manner not befitting someone of my birth…”
He trailed off, spinning away to hide his face from Billy. The movement wasn’t quite fast enough to conceal the moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes and the room was so small that the choked sounds of his strangled sobs were unmistakable.
Ever since moving in with his biological father, Billy had held secret suspicions about the late Lady Fairfax. There had been clues scattered around the estate, for one thing. While the older Fairfax tended towards explosive displays of temper, followed shortly by contrite and sincere apologies, the younger Fairfax cowed and hid when threatened. In fact, he hadn’t begun to join Billy in his schoolyard fights until they’d been living together for almost a full year.
He knew very little about regular familial relationships, but Billy could see, in a flashing glimpse, how Charles’ life must have felt. He was certain now that Charles’ mother had fundamentally damaged him from his earliest years. And then, after the Lady Fairfax died, Charles’ father had brought home another son, born by a woman who had actually held the man’s heart. For a child adrift, it would only be too easy to think that he was being replaced by a newer, unbroken model.
That didn’t excuse his actions, of course, but it might begin to explain them.
At the same time, Billy knew that he couldn’t allow himself to back down now. Whatever the reason, Charles had grown into a malicious human being. He had crippled his brother; he had manipulated, used, and discarded countless individuals in his pursuit of greater power and authority; and now, at this breaking point, he had every intention of eliminating a group of thieves who’d simply had the misfortune of stumbling into London at exactly the wrong moment.
Billy drew in a deep breath, hating himself for what he was about to do, and went on the attack again. “You know what, Charles? You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I don’t know what you went through, because my parents actually cared about me. Both of them. And all the power, all the money in the world isn’t going to be enough to change that.”
Charles balled the fingers on both hands into tight fists by his side. Unconsciously, Billy mirrored the gesture. Charles took two deliberate steps forward and then…stopped. He lingered, just a step or two outside of Billy’s reach, before he shook his head slowly. Billy could actually watch the anger drain out of his face.
A smile crept across Charles’ lips. “No,” he said, “it won’t, will it? But I’ll at least be alive and able to walk. I guess that will have to be enough.”
Billy’s heart sank. “Think about what you’re doing,” he said. “Honestly, stop and think about it. Whatever you take now, you won’t be able to hold. It might not be too late to stop all of this before it spins too far out of control.”
Charles carefully bent and retrieved his chair. He set it back down on the floor and took his seat once more. “Correct. As it stands, the…individuals who assisted me in reaching my current position would only sweep in to set things back to the status quo. That’s what they do, of course: maintain a steady, unchanging grip over their territory, expanding only when the landscape is suitable for such a move. If it ever came to light that I was responsible for the upheaval here, even in the most indirect fashion, they would not hesitate to have me eliminated.”
“If you know that,” Billy asked, “why are you hell-bent on committing suicide?”
The smile deepened and turned more sinister. “Because they aren’t going to learn that I was the one responsible. Why would they, when there are such excellent patsies already in position to take the blame?”
Billy stared at Charles, aghast and shocked, while understanding dawned on him. Charles was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. He had to have known that any sort of aggressive move would draw attention from other interested parties: rivals, competitors, suppliers, as well as the mysterious backers who everyone seemed too terrified to directly name. That must have been why he’d hired Devlin’s former partner in the first place. And when Devlin, Sarah, and the rest of his team showed up in London, it wouldn’t have required too much of an effort to shift things so that they could be held responsible.
“You wanted someone to take the heat for you,” Billy said. “Someone you could claim was acting on their own. Then, when your backers show up demanding their pound of flesh, you’ll just hand over your own employees and deny any knowledge of their activities.”
“I don’t know very much about my silent partners, I freely admit,” Charles replied. “But I do know that their problem solving techniques tend towards the immediately fatal. I suppose that delivering the bodies of several individuals who have been known to disrupt operations and wreak havoc would suffice, in place of a living witness who could potentially paint a different picture.”
From its place in his stomach, Billy’s heart found a hole and sank even further down into the soles of his feet.
None of it had mattered. No matter how hard he’d worked the downtrodden poor of London, no matter how hard he’d worked himself, Charles’ plan had accounted for their activities. Even the arrival of Devlin had only served to provide him with additional options. Everything the Irish thief and his team had accomplished over the past few weeks would only serve to solidify whatever story Charles spun later.
“Why are you telling me this?” Billy asked. He didn’t mean to speak the question out loud; his mouth moved of its own accord.
“Because you aren’t going to be able to tell anyone else,” Charles replied immediately.
“So you’re going to finally kill me too?”
Charles leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows drew slightly closer together. “Of course I’m not going to kill you,” he said. “You’re my brother, even if only through a technicality. But you have people you care about: all those wretched people who take shelter in that house you set up, for instance. You are far too noble to let any harm come to them, even if it meant sacrificing your sense of honor in the bargain.”
“If I tell anyone what actually happened,” Billy said, speaking the words as an odd detachment came over him, “you’ll go after them?”
“I won’t have to go after them. I can simply keep you here, a recipient of my hospitality, until they collapse on their own. I know who would take control of your organization in your absence and I have…well, let us simply say that I have suborned key individuals already. It will only be a matter of time before everything you have built falls apart under its own weight.” Charles stood up and walked back over the monitors. “Or you could allow things to proceed, without interference. The responsibility for the Book’s theft will fall on these newcomers who failed to see the value in my offer. I will use the information contained within to claim control over vast swaths of the European drug market and I will graciously allow you to continue your operations, so long as you agree to cease these sporadic attacks on my interests.”
Billy pressed his lips together until they became a thin line of frustration.
“What do you say, brother?” Charles asked. “We won’t be partners again – I’ve learned that you lack the vision necessary to do what is required – but we can at least be colleagues.”
Billy said nothing. He knew that it didn’t matter if he said nothing. Charles held all of the cards and he always had, since the beginning of this conflict and probably before that. The choice had to make – Devlin and his crew weighed against the entirety of the community that Billy had built amongst the poorest citizens in London – was brutally simple.
So, instead of saying anything at all, Billy turned his attention away from his brother – his half brother – and began looking at the screens behind Charles. There, captured by a half dozen cameras hidden so well that no one who didn’t know about them would ever find them, he could see his group of new friends struggling vainly against impossible odds. Everything they did only played into Charles’ hands.
Billy couldn’t speak. Instead, silent and defeated, he could only watch. So, with a heart as heavy as lead, watching is what he did.