Summary: Dire circumstances have forced Bella into a world of illegal alcohol smuggling and evil men. Luckily for her, that's the least of her problems.
Sensitive subject matter involves discussion of an attempted rape of a teenager and violence.
Beta: Belynda Smith, thank you for your amazing input. I heart you.
This first chapter was created for the "We 3 Mobward" contest. I can't even begin to express my gratitude to all the readers and reviewers. Thank you so much.
Disclaimer: All things Twilight belong solely to Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement is intended
It was an unusually hot spring in Chicago. Officials had issued a heat warning, advising everyone to drink as much water as possible. You would think that wouldn't be such a difficult thing, seeing as we were all officially under Prohibition, but it was only noon and I'd already witnessed several very happy associates full of giggle juice, staggering out of the building.
A bead of sweat ran down the back of my neck and pooled at the collar of my button-up dress as I shifted in my seat, trying to keep the afternoon sun from shining directly into my eyeballs. My stockings were sticking to my legs, and the new flowers that had appeared mysteriously on my desk were already beginning to wilt: white roses, my favorite.
The lone fan in the room was only serving to blow around heated, smoky air, leaving an acrid taste in my mouth that was making me feel nauseated. I coughed as softly as possible, struggling to focus on using the typewriter in front of me and cursing to myself silently as my damp fingers continually slipped off the keys. One of my jobs - other than asking no specific questions, taking coded notes, keeping my records neat and vague - was to not anger the Cullens' clients or associates. I wasn't certain if Mr. Torrin would be offended if I told him that I didn't like his cigar smoke, but I wasn't taking any chances.
A long, exasperated groan overpowered the background noise of the fan, and I glanced covertly at the man sitting a few feet away from my desk. Normally a cocky bastard - who spent his time waiting to be called into Mr. Cullen's office by lying on the plush sofa napping, leaving muddy footprints on the velvet - today he looked to be all nerves. His bright blue eyes were repeatedly scanning back and forth across the room and he kept fidgeting with his hands, moving his cigar from one palm to the next.
I'd always been very good at reading people; until this job, my ability had kept me out of trouble for a very long time. When I'd first met Edward Cullen, my boss, I could tell that he was dangerous and powerful, but the kindness that he'd shown me - a random nobody - made me feel an odd sense of security. I was somewhat fearful of him, but oddly, something inside me wanted to trust him.
From the first moment I'd set eyes on Mr. James Torrin, however, I knew that something about him was very off. Wrong. To be blunt, he made my skin crawl. Considering I worked with vagrants, thieves, murderers, liars, and sharks all day long, that was really saying something.
Being nearly homeless on the streets with nothing to show for your name tends to make a person less picky about the jobs they take.
When the stock market crashed two years ago, things went bad for everyone: from the banker, to the drug store clerk, to the farmer. Every day on my way to work, I passed people in the city who were begging for food, coins, anything to keep them going one more day. The only people who were doing well were very specific, powerful men who used the new laws to their advantage. As it turned out, Americans didn't want to be told that they couldn't drink.
I was never really told flat-out what type of business we ran here, but based on ledgers and forms from the Cullens' previous assistant (who I'd never had the courage to ask about, but kept very sloppy, incriminating notes), I knew that the Cullens specialized in transporting a certain Mr. John Barleycorn from the barrel house to his favorite gin mills and juice joints all over Chicago and the surrounding area. They'd been doing it a very long time, very successfully. The speakeasy properties that they held were thriving. The many restaurants that they owned in the city masked the illegal activity literally going on beneath the surface. Many of their establishments had hidden rooms and basements to keep their alcohol from nosy, prying eyes. It was how regular patrons could have something brown slipped into their iced teas and no one would know.
As the daughter of a former cop, my conscience nagged me daily, because my own moral code was slipping. As was part of my job description, I turned a blind eye to anything that I found that might look incriminating. And I was pleasant to the clients, even when I found them horribly revolting.
I was lucky that Mr. Cullen had found me that day; looking unkempt, bedraggled, desperately in need of a bath and food, and hopping from shop to shop begging for work.
He'd told me I had an honest face.
I was lucky.
I reminded myself of that fact all day long, every day: when I woke up in my nice apartment that had inexplicably come as one of the perks of the job, when I had food to eat, when I had clean clothes to put on, when I walked out of my house and could pay for a train ticket. I reminded myself of it most often, though, when I was at work.
When I had to write ledgers in code to protect my boss in the event that the police ever came in wanting to see the books.
When Mr. Cullen asked me to take a note that was clearly going to result in another person ending up dead before the end of the day.
When I let the fear take control, knowing that if I make a mistake it would likely result in my disappearance, and another young girl would take my place and my apartment and my job with my wilted flowers.
Despite the heat of the room, a cold chill ran down my spine.
"How much longer is he going to make me wait, doll? I been here for over an hour already. I have things to see, people to do." He leered at me, and I caught a glint of a gold tooth. I hid my disgust behind a wide smile and forced my voice to a light, pleasant tone.
"It will just be another moment, I'm sure, Mr. Torrin. Would you like a glass of water while you wait?"
He grinned wickedly and my smile faltered. "I'll take whatever you want to offer, Baby."
As gracefully as I could, and doing my best to not give Torrin a full view of my rear, I grabbed a glass from the table nearby and filled it with water. He grabbed my wrist as I handed it to him.
"Listen, I'm having a really bad day." He yanked me closer to him and his coat fell open. The handle of a gun gleamed in the bright sunlight coming through the windows. "How's about you and me scram and go have some fun somewhere else?" He reached around me and grabbed my backside.
I jerked back quickly, nearly falling over on my stupid high heels, making me even more furious at the shocking situation that I was suddenly in. My actions resulted in laughter from the goon in front of me. I wanted to rear back and slug him. I wanted to go find a place to hide and have a good cry. I knew that either of those reactions would end my job here at Cullen Corporation - and possibly my life - so I forced my feelings deep and planted a fake smile on my face instead, telling myself that if a random grab was offensive, that I'd still been living a very sheltered life, indeed.
I could have found a much worse job than this. I could be working the streets, lying flat on my back with someone like Torrin on top of me.
I was lucky.
Creating as much distance as possible, I politely extricated myself from his reach and sat back down in my chair, welcoming the bright sun over the darkness that I'd just been far too close to. I thought it odd, though, once I'd finally situated myself again at my desk, that he'd never tried anything like that before.
"I guess I must not be in as much hot water as I thought," he said, seemingly to himself.
I gave a puzzled look to the keys of my typewriter, but said nothing to him. I continued to transcribe the shorthand dictation that I'd taken earlier in the day, careful to keep each stray number and symbol that Mr. Cullen had spoken incorporated. I found myself hoping that he would dictate a letter regarding Mr. Torrin no longer being in his employ, and immediately worried that my soul was becoming as corrupt as the business that I worked for.
The intercommunication phone on my desk rang loudly, making me jump. I picked it up quickly. "You can bring Mr. Torrin in now, Bella," said the smooth, deep voice on the other end. My face flushed at his informal use of my name. "Please bring a notepad and pen in with you."
James Torrin came in to speak to Mr. Cullen every other Friday, but this was the first time I'd been asked to join them.
"Yes, Mr. Cullen. Right away. Mr. Torrin, he'll see you now," I said as I quickly grabbed my things, held open the door, and filed into the office behind him.
The office of Mr. Edward Cullen was very small and inauspicious. The bare wooden floors, furnishings, and even the photos on the wall looked to belong to an everyday, middle-class man. Nothing was so nice it appeared odd. Nothing was so shabby it appeared a farce. To the random, untrained eye, there would be no sign anywhere that would cause anyone to see anything other than an ordinary businessman, in an ordinary office, in an ordinary building. I had often wondered if there was a swanky office somewhere else, or if his apartment was a ritzy penthouse full of baubles and art pieces, with plush wall-to-wall carpeting.
I nodded briefly at the two other men in the room; Mr. Cullen's bodyguards. Described as "handyworkers," they wore normal laborer's clothes and stayed around the office all day, every day. Occasionally, they'd actually repair things, but normally they stayed in Mr. Cullen's office. On one occasion, when his door wasn't properly closed, I could hear them insulting each other and laughing. I'd taken a liking to them.
I'd caught Jasper following me home one dark evening that I'd been required to work late, presumably to keep me safe. I had a suspicion that he did it often, but that he was only seen when he wanted to be. On that particular evening, the sky was overcast and dark, and even though I'm a grown woman, I'm quite fearful of the dark.
Jasper frowned at me as I walked past him into the office, as if he could sense my upset. Of course he could; it was probably written all over my face.
Still reeling and angry from the audacity of the hoodlum in the room with us, I bit my bottom lip hard and sat down, quickly crossing my legs. I could feel eyes on me before Mr. Cullen began to speak, and I distracted myself with my notebook, flipping to a clean page, poised to write. It took me longer than it should have to notice the tension in the room.
"Mr. Torrin, from this moment forward, you are no longer in the service of our employment."
My pen slipped on the page and I fought to refrain from looking at either man, struggling to remain invisible.
Mr. Cullen's voice remained even as he spoke again, but I could feel a sense a wrongness about it. "Come on, James, you really don't want to do that."
I glanced up to see Torrin holding a pistol, aimed straight at Cullen's heart. My own heart started beating quickly as I held my breath. With wide eyes, I glanced from one man to the next and then to the bodyguards, who both had their pistols pointed at Torrin's head. Startled and afraid, my eyes sought out Mr. Cullen to my left who looked calm, as if this were a normal meeting. His lips even curled up in a slight smirk as he said, "Put the gun away and we'll just pretend that this didn't happen."
"So you can ruin me? I don't think so. I want to speak to Carlisle."
Edward's smirk quickly turned into a sneer as he said, "If you were meeting with Carlisle, you'd be dead already."
My hand froze as I looked back and forth between both men, unsure of what my role was at this point. Was he going to kill my boss? Was he going to kill me? I briefly wondered, hysterically, if I should be writing all of this down. My hands and knees began to shake uncontrollably. Edward looked past Torrin to one of his men. "Emmett, will you please take Ms. Swan downstairs?"
"No one's going anywhere!" James screamed, waving the gun around at everyone and no one, his behavior quickly becoming volatile and erratic. "Especially not your little tomato. You know, I think she's stuck on me." Edward didn't react, but his eyes shifted over to me for a split second as James continued to yell.
"I don't know what your people think they saw, but you're not destroying my career! Do you hear me? I am not going down like this. I did everything you people ever asked me to do! I've played it straight!"
Edward's lips raised in a sneer, "Until you attacked my little sister."
"She's a liar. She went from being a baby vamp to being a bluenose in five seconds, but I never touched that little bitch."
Edward's glance changed from calm to murderous as it all became clear. My eyes flicked to my boss' desk and the photo that he kept there. I'd noticed it before as being a family photo, but in my effort to remain as uninvolved with my boss' personal life as possible, I'd never actually paid attention to it. The standard black-and-white portrait was of a smart-looking family, all dressed in white except for the men, who wore pinstripes and dark hats. There were two girls: Rose, his oldest sister who sometimes visited the office, and the younger one who was obviously little Mary Alice. I balked at the image of her. She was clearly still a child who couldn't be older than fourteen or fifteen. My nose wrinkled in disgust.
Emmett and Jasper glared at Torrin, their savage expressions marring their normally handsome features. In that instant they looked more like demons than men - but their reactions were nothing to Edward's quiet, deadly glare. He made no move. He seemed unnaturally calm, but his green eyes were terrifying. Torrin noticed it, and he began to sputter and back-peddle.
"You know Aro isn't gonna be very happy about this. Mr. Cullen - Edward, you know I'd never do anything to upset our arrangement. We have a sweet deal, you and me. Why would I mess it up on a piece of-"
A loud sound, like the crack of thunder encased the room, reverberating across the walls. I squealed, bringing my knees up against my chest, clamping my hands over my ears, the notepad and pen falling to the floor.
A dark spot of blood appeared on the chest of James Torrin, blooming ever larger against the white of his shirt. The hysterical thought that James Torrin would need to be fitted for his Chicago overcoat today after all went through my mind. Then the room lost its color in a seemingly unending moment of horror, as he finally lost his balance and fell face first onto the floor with a thud. I could no longer hear anything but the sound of ringing in my ears, my own heavy breathing and rapidly beating heart. Time seemed to stand still as the three other men in the room looked at the dying man in disgust. Emmett spat on his back.
Edward was standing now, a black revolver in his hand. His men quickly took it from him, using their handkerchiefs to wipe off the prints. When they were done, they threw it in a case along with Torrin's gun, and quickly moved into the waiting room, randomly throwing things into boxes. Jasper and Emmett rapidly emptied the office of specific paperwork: any evidence that would link them to the man now lying dead on the floor in front of me.
Some small part of my mind wanted to protest at the mess that they were making of my workspace. The vase of flowers was lying sideways across the desk, several were being crushed under the feet of the men who were making arrangements for the body and talking over police bribes with the normalcy of discussing the weather. White roses: the only pure thing left in the office. I heard a small PLOOF as a box of paper went up in flames. My chest and my stomach heaved as one, as though my body was fighting for air and also fighting to force up my lunch.
The sound of my name brought my brain somewhat into focus and I watched Mr. Cullen as he wiped the dark stain of gunpowder from his hands. He knelt before me, completely blocking my view of the body, his eyes looking up into mine. There was a weary sadness in them as he reached around his neck, pulling a silver chain that I had never noticed from beneath his white starched collar. He unclasped it and took my shaking hand in his, turning it upward. A small pendant and chain slowly pooled into my palm, the cold metal distracting and comforting me.
For the first time I noticed the feel of wetness on my cheeks and the heat of the air had returned to the room as I looked down at his gift. It was a small oval, bearing the Cullen crest which surrounded a small flower in bloom; a white rose.
"I'm sorry, Bella," he said, his voice steady and soft, and I suddenly recognized this for what it was: an initiation of sorts, my induction into a dark and deadly world. I blinked more tears from my eyes as I looked at him, the man I desperately wanted to trust but was also desperately terrified of. It was my choice now, to decide if I was going to continue to work for them, or if I was going to take the other option which would result in me never working again.
"One thing you need to understand is that in this family, we defend each other. We protect each other at all costs. Family is everything."
He removed his hand from mine and placed it on the arm of my chair. I was shocked when he leaned forward and kissed my forehead.
"Welcome to the family."