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Authors: Jessie Keane

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Scarlet Women (2 page)

BOOK: Scarlet Women
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Chapter 2

Annie Carter was standing at the top of the stairs in the Palermo Lounge, looking down at the shell of the place that had once been her late husband Max’s favourite club. The builders were in—and running late. They were taking the curtains on the small stage area down. Huge red velvet drapes, a bit faded now, a bit tired-looking, like the rest of the club.

As she watched, a man up a ladder took out a hammer and chisel. He chipped loose the big gold letters ‘MC’ at the apex where the curtains joined together. He threw them down to his mate. The M hit the floor, and shattered.

And how’s that for an omen?
she thought with a pang of the old sadness.

There was so much to be done, so much to think about. The brewery had been in and agreed—after some hum-ing and ha-ing—that they would
continue to supply liquor to the club. The drinks licence was, after all, already in place. The dance floor—which was a total fucking mess at the moment, broken up and knocked all to hell—was going to be relaid, and there were going to be strobe lights, the works.

But first the red velvet curtains, the plaster cherubs, the flock wallpaper, all that old dated tat, had to go.

Sorry Max.

She’d hired a good accountant, set out her aims. She planned that this club—and eventually the two others, the Blue Parrot and the Shalimar, which were currently standing empty—were going to earn her a good living, support her and her small daughter in some style. That was the plan, anyway.

Of course, the first thing the accountant had done when he’d seen last year’s books, peering at her over his pince-nez spectacles, was to suck in his breath.

She got this all the time. From the brewery bosses. From the builders. Now from her accountant. She was a woman in a man’s world, and all the men in it thought she couldn’t cope.

‘It would appear the business has been running at quite a loss,’ he said, giving her a pitying glance.

‘Or could it just be that the profits haven’t
been finding their way into the accounts?’ she suggested.

He’d shrugged, nodded. ‘Certainly, that could be the case.’

Ha! Certainly, that
was
the case. He’d departed, leaving her sunk in gloom. But then she had a stern word with herself. Okay, she’d been shafted—royally worked over. But now she had to pull it all back together, even if the going was tough. Hell, she was
used
to tough.

She had lost her husband. She had loved gang lord Max Carter almost beyond life itself, and losing him had cut her to the heart. But she still had her daughter. She still had Layla. And that was in no small part due to American mob boss Constantine Barolli.

Annie frowned.

When they’d last spoken, Constantine had said he’d be back from his home in New York soon to see her. But three whole months had passed. Three
months
without a word, without a telephone call, with
nothing
. She felt furious, rejected, and she knew she’d made a bloody fool of herself into the bargain by asking him to call her. Because, guess what? He
hadn’t.

‘Fuck it,’ she muttered, her hands clenching around the wrought-iron banister. She closed her eyes for a second and instantly she could picture him—a smooth, slickly suited Mafia don, with
armour-piercing blue eyes and a commanding aura, a tan and startling silver hair.

The silver fox.

The rumour was that his hair had turned from black to silver overnight when he was in his twenties and had been told that his mother and brother were dead, victims of a deliberate hit by another Cosa Nostra family in his native Sicily. That’s what they called him on the streets of New York, the silver fox. And like a fox he’d slipped away.

Hell, she’d probably panicked the bastard, been too keen too soon. And, of course, he’d run straight for the hills. She’d blown it.
Fuck
it.

She went up the second flight of stairs to her office and slammed the door closed behind her. She slumped into her chair behind the desk. Once it had been her late husband’s chair; now it was hers. Now
she
was in charge of the East End manor that he had once ruled.

It was a very different manor now. A very different firm. Times had changed. Gone was the old respectful Kray and Carter style no-drugs-but-plenty-of-the-hard-game rule of the Sixties. Now there was an active—and often violent—drugs scene in London.

Annie had made it clear from the start that she wanted no part of that sort of trade—but she had been quick to see how the firm could profit from its impact. The Carter firm was all about legitimate
security now; the firm controlled an army of enforcers working all over London and Essex, keeping order at venues.

And shit, how it paid. The money was
rolling
in.

Even better, it was all above board. She’d come close once to going down, and she was never going to risk it again, not with Layla to consider.

So now it was
her
who took payment from the halls and arcades and shops,
her
boys who gathered at Queenie’s—Max’s late mother’s—house, to meet with her and receive their orders.

As it turned out, everything had worked out pretty much okay. The boys had accepted her, and they had also accepted that Jimmy Bond—who had been Max’s number one back in the day—was history.

She thought about that.

Yeah, they had accepted her, but she was concerned that it wasn’t a full acceptance. It was an acceptance of her role as Max’s widow, that was all. She knew her position was tenuous. These were hard men, men who’d grown up on the wild side—out on the rob, out on the piss; they took no shit from anyone.
Legitimate
business had been a shock for them, but—so far—they’d swallowed it. Or had they? She was never sure.

She looked down at her thumb, where Max’s ring glinted. A square slab of royal blue lapis lazuli set upon a solid band of gold embellished with
Egyptian cartouches. Yes, he was long gone, but it calmed her to look at the ring, the symbol of his power and authority.

Only now, more and more, it was reminding her of another ring, the diamond-studded one that Constantine Barolli always wore.

Ah, what’s the use?,
she thought.
It’s done.

He’d gone, and he wasn’t coming back.

Now she had a job to do, and that was good. She had to lose herself in getting the clubs up and running again. She was lucky to have an interest, a business that demanded so much of her time, because, if you were busy, you couldn’t think too much of how you had fucked up your chance of a great love affair by playing it all so disastrously wrong.

There was a tap at the door and Tony, her driver and her minder, poked his bald head around it. The crucifixes in his cauliflower ears glistened bright gold in the summer sunlight streaming in through the office window.

‘First of the girls is here, Boss,’ he said.

She was interviewing staff now. Bar staff, kitchen staff, cleaners, dancers. Not the dancers that had been here before, swinging their enormous naked tits about for all to see. No, these would be discreet go-go dancers, twirling and whirling in fringed white bikinis on tiny strobe-lit podiums around the new dance floor.

She didn’t want the dirty-mac brigade coming back in here. She wanted a better class of clientele, and she was going to make sure she got it.

Annie sighed. Tucked all thoughts of Constantine away.

He’s gone for good,
she told herself.
So forget it, okay? Move on.

She got her mirrored compact out of her handbag and dabbed away the shine from her nose. Then she applied a slick of scarlet lipstick and paused, staring at the image reflected in the mirror; the steady dark green eyes, the arched black brows and thick black lashes, the good olive-toned skin, the straight fall of thick, cocoa-brown hair, the wide, sensuous, painted mouth. It was a face that could, in fact, be called beautiful.

Then why didn’t he call?

She let out an exasperated sigh and closed the compact with a snap. Dumped it back in the bag, gave Tony a brisk smile.

‘Right. Send her up, Tone.’ She had fifteen girls to see this afternoon and opening night was just three weeks away. Best to crack on. Distract herself. Get
on
with it.

Annie sat at the kitchen table at the Limehouse brothel later in the day, sipping hot strong tea and looking at her friend Dolly, who was madam there—Dolly with her blonde bubble perm,
her immaculate make-up and nails, wearing a neat lightweight powder-blue suit. Incredible to think that Dolly had once been the roughest brass in the place; now she was in charge and she looked the part.

‘Good trade today?’ asked Annie.

It was Friday—party day at the Limehouse knocking-shop. Drinks, nibbles, and floor shows on offer—everyone was happy. Young Ross was on the door to keep order, but mostly he didn’t need to—his sheer size and presence was all the deterrent to bad behaviour that was needed. There was music coming from the front parlour, and laughter coming from upstairs. The place was packed with eager punters getting massages, blow-jobs and other personal services. Annie thought this would be enough for anybody to contend with, but Dolly had started up an escort business too. It ran alongside her well-run brothel like a Swiss clock. Slotted in just nice.

‘Yeah, really good. Takings are holding steady.’

‘And the new girls?’

Dolly pulled a face. ‘Dunno yet. Rosie’s a good worker, when she can be arsed to bother. But Sharlene’s a bit of a bloody nightmare, the attitude on her. And Aretha didn’t show up.’

Annie looked at her. ‘Hasn’t she phoned?’

Dolly shook her head.

‘Well she will,’ said Annie.

Aretha was Dolly’s S & M specialist, their resident dominatrix. Her room was kitted out with punishment chairs, whips, chains, any quirk or fetish the punter desired; she could cater to any individual’s particular perversion. She was tall, black and beautiful, strong as an ox and the best friend Dolly and Annie had ever had.

‘Probably got pissed last night,’ sighed Dolly. ‘She was working. Probably overdid it on the bubbly. Bet she’s sleeping it off. If she hasn’t called by eight, I’ll call her. Punters have been asking for her, it aint good.’

Annie stood up. ‘Well, I’m off to pick up Layla from Kath’s.’

‘And how
is
Kath?’

Annie couldn’t stifle a smile. Dolly had already passed judgement on Kath—declaring that she was a dirty mare, and beyond hope. But Annie didn’t think so. Kath was her cousin; they were
family
. She was prepared to give the poor cow a chance.

‘Kath’s fine. Starting to shape up,’ she lied. ‘Hasn’t Ellie kept you up to speed?’

Ellie had once been one of Dolly’s little band of sex workers. Now she was working as a cleaner here, and helping Kath out too. Kath had suffered depression after her mother’s death, and her husband had knocked her black and blue; she’d needed help. Ellie was busy providing it.
Whether Kath liked it or not—which mostly she didn’t.

‘Ellie tells me Kath’s place is getting tidy, but I think you’d have to explode a fucking bomb in there first to get anywhere near it,’ sniffed Dolly. ‘Hey—you heard from that hunky American yet?’

Annie stiffened. ‘No. And I’m not likely to.’

‘That’s a damned shame,’ said Dolly. ‘What happened?’

I killed it, that’s what happened,
thought Annie.

She was mad at herself, mad as hell. Because hadn’t she done something very similar with Max? She’d gone after him with no holds barred, full throttle, even though he belonged to someone else, even though the consequences had proved to be dire.

She had no subtlety, not an ounce in her entire body. Damn, why couldn’t she just hold back a bit?
Why
couldn’t she play those delicious, teasing cat-and-mouse games that other women played? No kissing on the first date. No groping above the waist until the third. No touching anywhere else until there was an engagement ring on her finger. No fucking under any circumstances until there was a wedding band right beside it. Was that so difficult?

But no. Not her.

She went at the damned thing like a bull at
a gate. She was either on or off. No half measures, no holding back. She was either totally committed, or utterly detached. There were no in-betweens—and she guessed that she scared men shitless.

‘Nothing happened,’ she told Dolly briskly. ‘Nothing at all. And it don’t matter. I’ve got the flat straight, the club’s being refurbed, I’ve got enough to think about.’

The flat was the one above the Palermo where she had first slept with Max. It seemed sort of fitting that she should be living there with Layla now.

‘You could have stayed here while the work’s going on,’ said Dolly. ‘You know it’s no trouble.’

‘Doll, ain’t we had this conversation? I can’t keep a child in a knocking-shop, it just ain’t right.’

‘Well,’ pouted Dolly.

‘It’s kind of you,’ said Annie firmly. ‘But no. And besides Layla, I’ve got to consider my position. This is Delaney turf, Doll. I can’t stay here.’

The Irish Delaney mob, who ran the streets of Limehouse and Battersea, were the Carter gang’s bitter enemies. And although Annie had once associated with them, and even formed a business relationship with the chilly and devious Delaney twins, Orla and Redmond, the things they had done had turned her against them.

However, Redmond still allowed her to visit Dolly here, turning a blind eye to the head of the Carter firm walking his streets, and that was good of him. But she knew that what Max had always told her about them was the truth. They were vipers, he’d said, and not to be trusted. She knew now that he was right.

‘Well, whatever you think best,’ said Dolly.

Annie stood up. ‘I’ll catch you later,’ she said, and went off down the hall, nodding to Ross. As a Delaney boy, it pissed him off to see a Carter here; but he’d had his orders from the top. Her presence was to be tolerated.

For now, anyway
, she thought.

Through the open front parlour door, she glimpsed half-naked tarts bouncing up and down on happy punters, and the sounds of sex drifted down the stairs.

BOOK: Scarlet Women
3.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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