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Authors: Jessie Keane

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BOOK: Scarlet Women
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Chapter 6

Annie was in church. She never went to church except for the usual stuff—funerals, christenings and weddings. Apart from those, she normally wouldn’t have been seen dead in such a place. She hadn’t been raised that way.

Her mum, Connie Bailey, had never even sent her or her sister Ruthie to Sunday school. Other kids had attended, collected those neat little stamps with pictures of Jesus to stick in books and get a gold star, got those little raffia crosses from the vicar on Palm Sunday. Annie and Ruthie had spent Sundays wondering whether this was going to be the day when their mother finally up and died on them. Choked on vomit, drank herself into oblivion, take your pick. Their mother had been a drunk, and Dad was nothing but a faint memory.

So, no church. No giving thanks to the Lord,
because excuse me but what had there ever been to give thanks
for,
really? Annie and Max had been married in a no-fuss, no-frills ceremony in Majorca, and Layla had been christened there too. The Church of England, into which Annie had been born, was foreign to her.

But now here she was.

In church.

And a choir was lifting the roof off, singing ‘Praise the Lord,
hallelujah!
’ Twenty purple-clad black women were standing in front of the high altar, shafts of multicoloured sunlight illuminating them through the stained-glass window. They were moving rapturously to the beat. A dumpy, pop-eyed little man was at the organ, flapping one arm at the choir and mouthing along, obviously doubling up as choirmaster. The vicar was standing silently beside the lectern, listening and watching. The organ was belting out the backbeat, the beaming women giving it their all, the very rafters of the beautiful old building were vibrating with the power of the combined sound.

Annie sat in a pew and listened, feeling all the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Yeah, it was magic.

She’d called first at Louella’s address, expecting that a whole bunch of family would be gathered around to support her. But a neighbour told her
that Louella had gone to church. Said Louella
always
went to church this time every week for choir practice. So Tony had driven Annie over, and now here she was, listening to the choir pounding and clapping and swaying and singing to the rafters and wondering what good she could possibly do here. But she had to be here, had to say how sorry she was, had to ask if there was anything she could do to help, if only for Aretha’s sake. She didn’t even know what Aretha’s aunt looked like—but, as it happened, that proved no problem, because there, on the left-hand side of the group, bellowing out the words of praise and swaying in time to the beat, grinning and clapping with all the rest, was a woman whose eyes were full of tragedy and whose cheeks were wet with tears.

It had to be Louella, singing and sobbing at the same time.

Annie gulped as it hit her again. Aretha was gone. Had Aretha ever come here, with her Aunt Louella? Had she ever sat right here and listened to the choir? Before Aretha and Louella had fallen out over Aretha’s career choices, had they come here together to worship?

Annie didn’t know. There was so little that she really knew about Aretha Brown. All she did know was that she’d been a friend. All she knew beyond that was that she couldn’t let Chris get stitched up for something he didn’t—
couldn’t
—do.

The choir roared out one last, bell-like note, and it echoed all around the great vaulted ceiling before finally fading away. Their organist clapped madly. The vicar clapped politely too. Annie stood up and joined in. The choir started to disperse. Annie walked up the aisle. Some of the women were patting Louella’s shoulder, murmuring to her. The vicar came forward and talked quietly to her. Annie waited until he moved away, then she stepped up and said: ‘Louella?’

The woman looked at her blankly. Her eyes were swollen with all the tears she’d shed.

‘Louella, I’m a friend of Aretha’s. I’m Annie.’

Louella’s face closed down. She looked at Annie with suspicion.

‘You one of them Delaneys?’ she asked.

Annie shook her head.

‘Only she was workin’ at a Delaney place,’ said Louella.

‘I know.’

‘And you ain’t one of them? You ain’t one of them that preyed upon my little girl?’

My little girl.

But Aretha wasn’t Aunt Louella’s little girl: she was someone else’s. Someone thousands of miles away, toiling under the baking Rhodesian sun, had lost a daughter. The Africans had extended families; they shared their children,
their grandparents, their joys and their losses. The English did not.

‘I’m not a Delaney, Louella. I’m Annie Carter.’

Louella looked no happier. She rubbed a hand over her face, drying her tears.

‘She spoke about you,’ she said.

‘Did she?’ asked Annie.

‘Yeah, she said you was tight together. But you was involved with that place she worked, I know that. You and that Dolly woman, and there was a boy too who worked there…’

‘Darren,’ said Annie, swallowing hard. Darren was gone, and she still missed him.

‘He was homosexual, that’s against the word of the Lord,’ said Aunt Louella huffily.

‘He couldn’t help what he was,’ said Annie.

Louella looked at her. She shrugged. ‘Maybe. Anyway, the Lord says hate the sin, but love the sinner.’

‘Can we sit for a moment? Have a talk?’

‘They told you she’s gone, my baby?’ asked Louella, tears spilling over again.

Annie nodded sadly. She indicated one of the front pews. Louella heaved a sigh and sat down. Annie sat beside her.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.

‘Oh, I sorry too,’ said Louella, choking on a sob. ‘I’m sorrier than I can say. The police, they come to me and they tol’ me what happened,
they tol’ me they got the one who did it. I said to her so many times, don’t do that stuff, why you got to do that when you could get a nice job, be a good girl like I promised your mama you would be. How could I tell her that her little one was doin’ things like that when she sent her here to me, put her in my care, expected her to get a good life for herself?’

They tol’ me they got the one who did it.
Annie’s guts churned and her mind rebelled. They had Chris; they were convinced he was the murderer. Annie was equally convinced he wasn’t.

So prove it
, she thought. She had to, or Chris was fucked.

Louella was looking at her. ‘Yeah, she spoke about you,’ she said again. ‘You’re one of the bad people, the people my baby should never have got herself involved with. I know about the big gangs, the things they do. I
know.
You were with Max Carter.’

Annie took a breath. ‘I’m in charge now,’ she said.

‘Yeah, you’re bad people. I know that,’ said Louella.

‘I’m not a bad person, Louella. I was a good friend to Aretha. She was an even better one to me.’

‘Yeah, you say.’

‘Hate the sin, not the sinner?’

Louella looked at her sceptically.

‘That’s neat, turnin’ my own words back on me,’ she said.

‘We both loved her.
That’s
what matters. We both want to see who did this brought to justice.’

‘They got him, her husband, he done it.’

‘Did you know Chris?’
Because if you did, you’d know this is all bullshit.

Louella shook her head. ‘No, but I seen him at their wedding. He sure was frightening to look at.’

Being frightening to look at was going to prove a problem for Chris, and Annie knew it.

‘I was at the wedding, of course,’ Aunt Louella went on. ‘Even though I was angry with her for what she did to make a livin’. We’re talkin’ family. She was my
baby.
But we sort of drifted away from each other. I wanted her to change her ways; she wouldn’t. It made things…hard.’

Annie was silent. It was cool in the church, peaceful. Outside, traffic roared, people fought their corner in the heat and glare of the City. In here was tranquillity. Annie watched the vicar moving about at the altar, repositioning a highly polished candlestick, brushing a fleck of dust from the altar cloth. The dumpy little pop-eyed organist was gathering up his sheet music, fussily arranging the papers in order.

‘Do you need help? With the arrangements?’ she asked Louella.

Louella shook her head. She sighed.

‘They won’t release her body yet,’ she said. ‘I asked them. I said I wanted to lay my baby to rest, but they won’t do it, not yet.’

‘When they do, I can help.’

Louella shot her a scornful look.

‘You think I’d bury my baby with gang money?’

Annie looked at her steadily. Louella’s eyes dropped away.

‘It’s what we’re here for,’ said Annie. ‘To help our own.’

Louella shook her head. ‘I don’t want nothing to do with any of that.’

‘Well, think it over.’ Annie stood up. ‘Funerals are expensive. I know you can’t earn much…’

‘Whatever I earn, I earn by honest toil,’ said Louella sharply. ‘I’ll manage. Thank you.’

Annie nodded. The vicar had gone into the vestry; the organist was gone too. The church was empty, but for Annie and Aunt Louella. Their voices echoed when they spoke.

‘My door’s always open,’ said Annie. ‘If you should change your mind…’

‘I won’t.’ Louella’s face was closed off and truculent as she stood up too. ‘Goodbye, Mrs Carter.’

Annie sighed. She looked up at the altar,
and then above to the glorious stained-glass windows. She stared at them and wondered where God had been when Aretha was fighting to stay alive.

Chapter 7

Tony drove her up West to the hotel where Aretha had met her last client. She was sure she was wasting her time, but if there was anything,
anything
, she could turn up by poking around, then she knew she had to try.

‘You want me to come in with you, Boss?’ asked Tony as they pulled up outside.

‘No, Tone. I won’t be long,’ she said, and jumped out of the back and trotted up the steps to the plush hotel. The doorman, resplendent in purple with gold braiding, tipped his hat to her.

‘Good morning, Madam,’ he said.

She nodded and pushed through the swing doors. She looked around as she crossed to the reception desk. It was
some
place. There was a lot of pink marble, a fountain in the centre of the lobby, big, cream, velvet-covered buttoned chairs and reading lights on console tables. She could see
a guest lounge through an open set of double doors to one side, two lifts on the other, beside a huge, gold-painted sweeping staircase.

At the reception desk, a purple-suited and smiling blonde whose name-badge said ‘Claire’ asked if she could help.

‘I hope you can,’ said Annie. ‘Two nights ago a friend of mine died not far from here. This was the last place she was seen alive. With a guest of yours.’

The smile vanished.

‘I’m not sure I can help you with that,’ she said.

‘I’m not sure you can either,’ said Annie. ‘That’s why I need to speak to the concierge who was on duty that night.’

The phone started ringing. The girl turned to it with obvious relief. ‘If you’ll excuse me…?’ she said.

‘Sure,’ said Annie, and waited while the girl took a booking for the following weekend.

Claire replaced the receiver and turned back to Annie.

‘As I said, I’m not sure we can help…’

And then the phone rang again, and Claire gave Annie an ‘oh, sorry’ smile as she picked it up. She took another booking. Annie waited.

‘So sorry about that,’ said Claire, and then the phone rang again. She picked up. Then her professional smile died on her lips as Annie snatched the
phone from her hand and replaced it on the base, cutting the call dead. Annie leaned over and pulled the phone jack out of its socket. Claire’s mouth dropped open. Annie gave her a tight smile.

‘The fact is,’ Annie said, pausing to glance at the girl’s badge, ‘Claire. The fact is that my friend is dead and I’m upset, so bear with me here and don’t even think about plugging that phone back in unless you want to be wearing it as a necklace, you got me? I need to speak to your concierge, preferably this year and not next. Preferably within the next five minutes. Preferably
now.
So call him up or have someone fetch him or whatever it is you have to do, and stop it with the fucking phone, please, because this is very, very important, do you understand?’

Claire nodded slowly. She’d gone pale.

‘That’s good,’ Annie congratulated her. ‘That’s very good, I can see we have an understanding here, Claire. Now, what’s his name, this concierge who would have been on duty two nights ago, at gone midnight?’

Claire fiddled about with some papers on the big curving desk. She found a list, and checked down it. She looked up at Annie.

‘That would be Ray Thompson,’ she said. ‘He’s on twelve to eight all this week. He’s not here right now.’

‘He’ll be here at twelve tonight?’ asked Annie.

Claire nodded, swallowing, her eyes wary.

‘Then I’ll be back to see him then. If he don’t come in for any reason, you call me, okay? I don’t want a wasted journey—that would upset me, do you understand what I’m saying?’ Annie took a notepad and pencil out of her pocket and jotted down her name and the Palermo’s number. She handed it to Claire. ‘My name’s Annie Carter, I’ve put it down right here so that you know. Reach me on this number, okay?’

Claire nodded.

‘I’ll be back at twelve if I don’t hear from you first. Oh, and can you tell me who was in room two-oh-six two nights ago?’

‘I shouldn’t…’ Claire started.

Then she looked at Annie’s face. She gulped and flicked back a page or two in the guest book, scanned down it. ‘A Mr Smith.’

Not exactly original
, thought Annie.

Dolly had told her that a woman had made the initial booking and that there was no contact number because Rosie—being Rosie—had taken the call, and hadn’t asked for one. Aretha had to meet a man named Mr Smith in room 206 at nine, that was all.

‘Were you on duty that night?’ asked Annie.

Claire shook her head.

‘Write down the name of whoever
was
on duty,’ said Annie.

Claire wrote down a name and handed the headed compliment slip to Annie.

‘Thanks for that,’ said Annie, pocketing it. ‘And is this person going to be back on duty tonight?’

Claire nodded. ‘I think so.’

‘That’s good, I’ll see him too. Have you heard anything about what happened?’ she asked. ‘Anything that might interest, for instance, the police…maybe help them with their inquiries?’

‘I don’t know anything about it,’ said Claire, shaking her head nervously. ‘I just saw the police out there when I came in next morning, and people were talking about it. They said it was the third murder in as many months. I’m just really glad I don’t do nights.’

‘Okay. If I don’t hear from you first, I’ll be back at twelve to see Ray and the receptionist.’

Claire nodded. ‘That’s Gareth…Gareth Fuller,’ she said.

‘Gareth Fuller. Thanks Claire.’

Annie turned away from the desk and started to walk back across the reception area to the door. It spooked her, that feeling that she was walking in Aretha’s footsteps, tracing the path the dead woman had taken on her last night on earth.

For a heart-stopping moment she felt she could almost
see
Aretha up ahead, swinging through the doors into the night, her feather boa trailing behind her, the smell of that horrible hairy Afghan coat
she always wore clinging to the air, mixed with the attar of rose scent she favoured, dreads bouncing as she went, flashing a broad grin back at Annie.

Bye girlfriend, catch ya later.

And then the vision was gone, and it was daylight, and Aretha was dead.

It was too late now to bring her back. But not too late to find out who had taken her from them.

There were voices coming from the lounge, male voices, people moving on the edge of her vision. She’d paused there in the middle of reception, but now she moved again, heading for the door just like Aretha had done two nights ago. And then one of the men emerging from the guest lounge called out her name, and she turned and to her shock saw Redmond Delaney standing there—with Constantine Barolli.

They fell silent and stared at her. Shocked, Annie stared right back. Yeah, it was him. She couldn’t believe it. Smooth bloody American, standing there as bold as brass with Redmond Delaney, boss of the Delaney mob and—because she was a Carter—her enemy.

Antagonism between a Delaney and a Carter was not in any way new. This particular fight went
way
back to the Fifties, to when Davey Delaney had come over from Ireland and tried to muscle
in on Max’s father’s patch. Some things were set in stone. All through the Sixties the Richardsons and the Frasers had the South, the Regans the West, the Nashes had The Angel, the Delaneys held Battersea—and a small pocket in Limehouse, down by the docks, often disputed over—the Krays had Bethnal Green and the Carters had Bow.

Now it was the Seventies, and
still
the Delaneys had to keep pushing their luck, and when they pushed, the Carter mob pushed back. There had been all sorts of disputes over the years between the two warring clans. Sometimes it had turned downright nasty. Major gang fights broke out; serious damage was inflicted. And earlier this year, Billy Black, Annie’s gofer—who for years had walked the Limehouse streets unmolested—had been killed, dissolving any illusion that there might be peace like flesh in quicklime.

For Annie, it was war.

Once, she had done business with Redmond and his twin sister, Orla. Once, she had even pitied them for their miserable backgrounds. Now, she looked at Redmond—tall, effete, red hair swept back from his white skin, his pale green eyes watching her, dressed in his usual sober black—and felt only hatred.

And what the
hell
was Constantine Barolli, who had for years been tight in business with the Carters, doing—having a private meet in a plush West End hotel with their worst enemy?

‘Annie?’

It was Constantine who called her name, not Redmond. Redmond had always called her Miss Bailey or Mrs Carter. Always very formal, that was Redmond. Cold as black ice and twice as deadly.

Constantine
bloody
Barolli.

Annie forced herself to look at him with cool dispassion. And that was hard. Because—damn it—he looked good.

In fact, he looked just the same as when she had last seen him—a stunning man in his early forties, tall and silver-haired, with vivid blue eyes and an all-American tan, wearing a beautifully cut grey suit. Exactly the same as when she had chased after him like an over-keen schoolgirl to Heathrow and told him to call her.

And—
oh yeah—
he hadn’t. He had called the
Delaneys.

She looked at him, looked at Redmond—and walked on. She was down the steps and out on the pavement when Constantine caught up with her.

‘What, are you ignoring me now?’ he asked, catching her arm, and his voice was pure New York, just like she remembered.

Annie stared at his hand on her arm. He was very close, very overwhelming—even more physically imposing than she remembered. She could
smell his Acqua di Parma cologne, she was dazzled anew by those intensely probing blue eyes, and she knew that she could all too easily fall under his spell again. If she let herself.

‘It looks like it,’ she said, voice cool, face blank. ‘Don’t it?’

‘You got my note?’ he asked.

‘Yeah. I got it.’

‘You didn’t come over,’ he said.

‘You’re right, I didn’t,’ said Annie as Tony pulled up in the Jag. ‘Will you excuse me? I’ve got a lot of business today.’

‘Why the big chill?’ asked Constantine. She could see a flicker of amusement playing around his mouth. Fuck it, she was angry and that amused him. As usual.

‘What big chill?’

‘All right, put it another way, why have you got that stick up your ass? What’s up with you?’

‘What’s up with
me
?’ Annie opened her eyes wide and stared at him. ‘What’s up with
you
, arsehole?’

Probably Constantine had done her a favour, leaving her out in the cold for three long months. It had brought her to her senses, made her rethink. Yeah, she was well out of this.
Well
out.

‘Excuse me, but people don’t generally talk to me like that,’ said Constantine, grabbing her arm again.

Annie saw Tony’s attention sharpen, and he started to get out from behind the driver’s seat. She shook her head quickly. She didn’t want him starting anything up with
this
one; he’d be placing himself in more danger than any of them could handle. She couldn’t
see
Constantine’s minders anywhere, but she knew damned well that they were there, watching. Tony stopped moving.

‘Excuse
me
, but I think you’ll find I just did,’ said Annie, and got in the car. ‘The Palermo, Tone,’ she said.

But Constantine still had the door open. He hunkered down and looked at her. He still looked as though he was finding this whole thing the biggest joke in the world.

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘I’m not going to let this go.’

‘Well, good luck with that,’ she said.

‘You asked me to call you.’

‘Yes I did. Stupid of me. Hey, you’d better get back to your meeting. Redmond Delaney’s a big noise around here, you don’t want to go pissing him off. And if he sees you running after a
Carter
, that’ll do it every time.’

Constantine stood up. ‘Look, it was a business lunch. We met, discussed things, ate a little, drank a little, now I’m going home.’

‘Home to Holland Park? Or home to New York?’

Constantine pursed his lips and stared at her.

‘Is that what all this is for: you’re sore because I didn’t call sooner?’

‘I don’t know
what
you’re talking about.’

‘Yes you do. And okay, guilty, and you called me on it. But you know what? If I can finally find the guts to face this thing, then so can you.’

‘So you were just having lunch with Redmond Delaney?’ she asked.

‘Is there a law against that, two businessmen having lunch?’

‘Who invited who?’ asked Annie.

‘He invited me,’ said Constantine.

‘I knew it. He wants the contracts on your clubs up West. The Carter firm—
my
firm—has always held those contracts.’

Constantine nodded. ‘Yeah, well. Maybe he was making a better offer.’

‘Was he?’

‘I didn’t say that. And anyway, a deal’s a deal. I was happy to work with Max, and I am now happy to work with you.’

‘Big of you.’

Constantine paused for a beat. ‘You know, I’d forgotten what a complete pain in the ass you could be.’

‘Well, I’m glad I’ve refreshed your memory,’ said Annie, and pulled the door shut.

Tony put the car in gear and they moved off.

I’m not going to look back
, thought Annie.
But she did. Constantine was standing there, gazing after the car, shaking his head and grinning. When he saw her looking back, he waved.

Damn, he
did
look good.

Her heart was beating fast and hard. Her face felt hot. She was having a lot of trouble stopping herself from smiling.

Fuck it
, she thought.

BOOK: Scarlet Women
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