There’s no doubt about who’s in charge around here. Anyone who fucks with the Dark Queen doesn’t just get executed – that’s just the beginning. But in certain communities around this city, there are some that think they’re the ones in charge. Not necessary above Her Eminence, just rubbing shoulders with her. And if you fuck with them, you might wish it was the Queen that was dishing out your punishment.
The black Carriage, the ‘For Hire’ sign mounted on its bonnet currently unlit, pulled up outside the Enchanted Tree Gentlemen’s Club just as the morning sun was peeking over its ornamental battlements. The building had never been designed to survive a siege – nor had any structure in the city, apart from the Palace and the Dungeons – but given the strength of the brick, the seemingly aesthetic arrow slits in the walls, and the remarkably realistic cannons on the roof, it did look like it could hold its own against any force.
A violet-uniformed valet ran down the marble steps to meet the approaching Carriage and opened the door as it pulled up. Tony Wolfe stepped out in a freshly pressed suit, grey this time, with a silk blue shirt and accompanying tie. He nodded politely to the valet as he walked past, and marched up the steps to the gilded doors that awaited at the top. These opened when he was only two steps away, and the valet dashed past to bow and sweep his arm in the direction of the elaborately decorated lobby as Tony walked in. The briefcase at Wolfe’s side didn’t swing so freely now, weighed down by its contents.
The room was filled with club staff and well dressed men, all in fine suits that were clearly far more expensive than Tony’s, with gleaming watches, necklaces, rings and monocles to match. All had the pinched face of someone who only dealt with other people when absolutely necessary, and none regarded Tony, which was fine by him. He marched determinedly passed them, keen to look as if he belonged there as much as these gentlemen, and headed for the stairs. The soft red carpet bounced under his feet as he ascended, and the air was filled with the perfume of exotic flowers and even more exotic cigars. At the top of the stairs, another employee of the club – a boy in a smart violet uniform, with a rigidly straight top hat atop his head – opened an ornate wooden door marked ‘Private’ and stepped back.
“Good morning, Mr Wolfe, sir,” the young man said. “They’re expecting you.”
“Cheers, Jack,” Tony called, not stopping as he walked past. “Hope all’s well.”
“Yes sir, very well sir, thank you,” he heard the boy reply as the door was closed behind him.
The room he now stood in was extraordinarily cosy. Heavy scarlet curtains had been drawn across the five floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite side of the room, while a glorious wood fire raged within the marble fireplace at the far end. In front of this stood three beautiful armchairs, each a different size and style but all big enough to hide the men that sat on them.
“Good morning, Mr Wolfe,” a voice from the left armchair called. “We trust you’ve had a productive night.”
Tony placed the briefcase on the long oak table that stretched down the length of the room and slid it casually towards the three armchairs. “You might say that,” he grinned, and began walking towards the fire.
Three men stood from the armchairs, casting long shadows that reached out for him like black ghostly hands. The left man was by far the widest of the three, but that didn’t make his silhouette any less intimidating. The firelight danced on the middle man’s bald head, though it did not make his stance seem any jollier. And the man on the right was folding a broad newspaper up immaculately, which he then tucked under his arm. Even after years of his employment, Wolfe never failed to marvel at how this man made the simplest of actions seems sinister.
The three men turned in unison and approached the briefcase. The bald man flicked the catches and opened it, and all three glanced inside. Their solemn faces erupted in vicious smiles.
“Good work, my boy,” the man on the right declared. “There must be close to twenty thousand Crowns in there.”
“Twenty five, Mr Piggott,” Tony replied. “Counted it myself. More if you count the street value of the Dust.”
“Twenty five,” the middle Piggott marvelled. “I had no idea our accountants were being that sloppy.”
“They weren’t, sir,” Tony said. “Two of them were holding onto about six thousand. Each. As you can see, I also relieved them of their funds. Warned them they might be subject to one of your, er, performance reviews soon.”
“Excellent work, Mr Wolfe,” the Piggott in the middle said.
The three men turned and sat back in their armchairs, inviting Tony to take a fourth, less refined seat by the fire. Tony did so, hoping the intense heat from the fire didn’t cause him to perspire in his smart suit.
“Did you have any trouble with any of them?” the nearest and fattest Piggott asked, not turning away from the fire.
“Not much,” Tony said. “The accountants tried to buy me off, but I made my views on such blatant bribery clear before I left.” The Piggotts have a knowing chuckle. “And Simmons the baker was rather impolite to me. I don’t think he’ll make the same mistake again.”
“So we heard,” the middle Piggott said. I imagine he’ll call on family and friends to lend a, heh, hand with meeting his next quota.”
The three men laughed and Tony chuckled with them. He’d long since learned not to show surprise when the Piggotts knew his every move – after all, they were watching the rest of their employees closely, and he was no exception.
“Hopefully word from tonight will spread, so you shouldn’t have to worry about shortfalls in your profits any more, sirs,” he said.
“Oh, come now, Mr Wolfe, we’re not worried about that,” the furthest Piggott said. “After all, it’s only money.”
“Mmmm,” the bald Piggott agreed. “Edgar’s right. It’s the lack of discipline and respect that needed the most attention. After all, this is a business – albeit one more widespread than any of the others we run. Why, if Piggott Agriculture, Timber or Construction suffered such disrespect from the bottom rung, severe restructuring would be needed. Jobs would be lost, families would go hungry, and we can’t have that.”
“Certainly not, Walter,” the fat Piggott said. “We’re servants to this great city, keeping the people employed, putting food on the table.”
Tony’s mind started to wander. The Piggotts often liked to wax lyrical to themselves, to remind themselves of their self-importance and reinforce the delusions of the work they did for this city. He highly doubted the police would see them as such humanitarians if they knew half of what the Piggotts’ real ‘businesses’ involved.
“You see, Mr Wolfe,” Carlton Piggott said, his voice calling Tony back to the conversation. “This is why we have need of your collection services. To maintain order and remind people of our hierarchy. I think you’ll agree we’re not unfair in the way we divide our profits – you yourself have benefitted greatly from working with us.”
“Yes, I have sir,” Tony said. “I have a lot to thank the three of you for.” And don’t you love to remind me of it, he thought.
“Good,” Walter Piggott said, “because we have another collection job for you. This one’s a little less straightforward. As much as we appreciate the initiative you take in your work, we’ll need you to follow our instructions rather more explicitly. Do you understand?”
“I think so, Mr Piggott,” Tony said. Which was to say no, he didn’t, but no doubt the trio would make their intentions known soon enough. It didn’t do well to question the Piggotts – he had personally reminded plenty of unfortunate people about that.
“Splendid,” Walter replied. “Why don’t you go home and see the family? We still have a few preparations to make, but we’ll contact you later today.”
Tony stood, sensing his imminent dismissal. “Certainly, Mr Piggott. You know where to find me.”
“Indeed we do,” Edgar Piggott smiled. “And well done again on a good night’s work. Where would we be without you, Mr Wolfe?”
Probably exactly where you are now, Tony thought, but with some other thug on your payroll.