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Lord of London Town
Author: Tillie Cole

Prologue

 

 

ARTHUR

 

 

Aged thirteen

 

I stared into the fire.

The flames grew higher and higher, crawling up the stone chimney. I felt the blistering heat on my forehead and cheeks, felt my eyebrows begin to singe. I leaned in even closer. I wanted to know what it felt like when the flames licked my skin.

I wanted to know what they had felt when they were trapped, when the fire had burned them alive. I reached out my hand, my fingers moving closer to the flames. Their dance was reflected in my glasses. All I could see was an aura of orange and red and yellow. My skin started to burn as my fingertips almost touched the flame. I smelled my arm hair burning. I moved closer and closer, almost touching it—

“Arthur!” Someone pulled on my shoulder, wrenching me back into the ancient wingback chair. “What the fuck, son?” My dad crouched before me. I looked into his eyes but could still see the flames beckoning me closer from the corner of my eye. “What the hell were you doing?” He took hold of my upper arms, then my throbbing hand. It was bright red where the flames had got too close. “Christ, Arthur! Look at the bloody state of your hand!”

“I wanted to know what they felt,” I said, staring at my red and bubbled skin. Dad got up and walked into the kitchen. When he came back, he was holding a bag of frozen peas. He pressed it to my palm. It hurt like a bitch, but I wouldn’t tell him that. I didn’t care if it hurt.

I wanted it to hurt.

“Keep that pressed on there,” Dad said, then moved to the bucket of water beside the fire and threw it on the raging flames. The fire instantly died down until it hissed as it lost its breath and black smoke raced up the chimney. I watched the blackness rush away. But the darkness in my heart and head never went away.

I saw our country cottage in my mind. Our family cottage when all that was left was burnt bricks and charred wood … and only the teeth of my mum and little sister. Bodies burnt to nothing. Fire had eaten their flesh like a demon from the depths of hell.

Dad crouched down again and held my chin. I met his eyes. “I know it’s hard, son. You lost your mum, you lost Pearl.” I thought of Mum and Pearl. Pearl annoyed me. Always a shadow behind me and my friends. Always wanting to be in my room, in my fucking life. She was only a year younger than me, but she was still my little sister. I always protected her. In our life, I had to. But I hadn’t protected her in the end. When she needed me most.

When I closed my eyes, I pictured her holding on to Mum in the middle of the living room in the cottage, the fire knocking the door down to get them, to consume them, to fucking burn them alive. I could hear their screams in my ears. Could hear Pearl calling for me to save her.

I’d failed her. Her and Mum.

“If you’d gone with them, I would’ve lost you too, son.” My dad’s voice was tight, low. He never showed emotion—he was an ice box when it came to his feelings. He was hard and brutal. Never spoke about love and shit. But when he mentioned Mum and Pearl, I heard the slight crack. Even though he hardly ever talked about them, I knew he missed them too.

His hand moved from my chin to the back of my head. He pulled me to his chest. He smelled of tobacco and mint. Dad had kept me from going to the cottage a month ago. He’d had business here in town. I’d just turned thirteen. He’d wanted me with him; my time had come to be shown the family business.

I could still feel the knife in my hand. Feel my fingers wrapped around its handle as I stood in front of our enemy in our deserted warehouse in Mile End. I didn’t even flinch as I rushed forward and plunged the knife straight into the fucker’s chest. He was one of the Yakuza. He’d ratted us out to an enemy. He’d deserved to die.

It was my introduction to our way of life.

I was a true Adley now, legitimately part of the firm.

As I’d killed the enemy, my baptism into our notorious crime family’s legacy, my mum and sister had breathed their last breath as our Cotswolds cottage fell down around them.

My dad pulled back from me, searching my face. I wouldn’t cry. I didn’t want to cry. I wasn’t sad; I was fucking enraged. Anger ran thick in my blood. I wanted to find whoever was responsible and kill them. Both the fire brigade and police investigation had said it was an electrical fault—a common issue with such old country cottages. Ours had been over five hundred years old.

It wasn’t enough. I didn’t care who, but someone needed to pay for my losing my mum and sister. I needed someone to blame. I couldn’t take it being an accident.

I needed someone to die … slowly … painfully.

“Arthur,” my dad said, pulling me back from darkness. “It’s only us now. Us and our firm—they’re our only family now. You’ve got Charlie, Vinnie, Eric and Freddie. They’re your brothers. Always have been. They’ll be with you all your life, just like their dads have been beside me in mine.”

Dad put his hand on my shoulder, clutching it tightly. “We’ve got to keep going, Arthur. No looking back. We’ve got a firm to run. We can’t afford anything to make us weak.” Dad got to his feet. I dropped the bag of frozen peas on the table beside me. I wanted to feel my scalding skin. I wanted the fire’s scars to remind me of what and who I’d lost. Dad looked at the discarded peas and his lips curled in a proud smile—my old man loved any display of strength, especially if it was from me. “Get your coat. I’ve got a meeting. You’re coming.”

I followed my dad to the hallway and grabbed my thick black overcoat. We stepped out of our old converted church in Bethnal Green and toward the car that waited for us. The night was freezing cold, my warm breath turning to white smoke as it hit the frigid air. I climbed into the back of the Rolls Royce. My dad sat beside me.

Wordlessly, we pulled out of our drive and onto the roads of our kingdom—East London. I stared out of the window as the streets that we owned passed by. I kept my focus outside, the views moving from battered warehouses with boarded-up windows, terraced council houses and run-down pubs to upscale restaurants and bars, mansions and one-hundred-thousand-pound cars.

Motherfucking Chelsea.

Jack, my dad’s personal driver, stopped in front of a mansion in SW3. Jack kept the engine running. Rain had started to pour outside, the heavy drops thundering on the car windows and roof like bombs. Jack got out of the car and opened my dad’s door. He opened a black golf umbrella to protect him from the rain. Alfie Adley always had to look pristine. I followed him from the car, and Dad took the umbrella off Jack. “We won’t be long,” he said to Jack.

We walked to the house, and Dad knocked on the door. A fucking butler of some type answered. Dad pushed past him, knocking him backwards into some no doubt expensive but ugly-as-fuck vase. “I’m here to see George.”

“But, sir, wait!” the butler argued. Dad opened the hallway door, and I shut the front door, locking us inside. A man about my dad’s age came rushing down a huge central staircase and stopped on a landing.

“Wait here, Arthur. I won’t be long,” Dad said, his eyes locking on the fucker who was glaring at him with wide and fearful eyes. My dad cut a deadly look to the butler. “Make sure Alfred here doesn’t do something stupid like call the Old Bill.” Dad cracked his neck, never taking his glare off the butler. “This is a friendly meeting, right, George? No need for things to go south.”

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