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Authors: Jessie Keane

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BOOK: Scarlet Women
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Chapter 10

Next morning at eight there was a knock at the Palermo’s main door. Annie was up and dressed. She went down the stairs and opened up. The club was quiet for once, peaceful. Too early for the builders.

The bald, portly man standing there peered at her with watery blue eyes, squinting past a curl of cigarette smoke. He threw the stub on the pavement and ground it out with his heel.

‘Detective Sergeant Lane,’ said Annie, looking up and down the street. There was nobody about, but still…

‘We’ve charged him,’ said Lane.

Shit,
thought Annie.

‘Can I have a few words?’ he asked.

‘Sure,’ said Annie, and ushered him in, up the stairs, into the flat. She closed the door, indicated that he should take a seat. He did. He looked an
utter bloody mess, corpulent and red in the face, his stubby fingers stained with nicotine, his white nylon shirt yellowish and sweat-stained and straining over his belly. He didn’t smell exactly fresh. Annie sat as far away as she could get and thought about Chris, charged now. Poor bastard.

‘I thought the rule was that we were never seen together,’ she said irritably.

He shrugged. ‘You’re helping the police with their inquiries,’ he said.

‘Fair enough. What’s the new DI like?’

‘Like a bear with a sore arse. Just got divorced and transferred in and now I’m stuck with the picky bastard. I’m telling you, that sod’s suspicious by nature.’

‘But he’s got no reason to be suspicious of you, has he?’

‘None at all. I’m squeaky clean.’

Which was ironic, since DS Lane always smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a month.
If we have to have bent coppers on the firm, can’t we at least have clean ones?
she thought. But the boys had assured her that Lane was a very useful contact. She’d have to open a window the minute he’d gone. Either that or fumigate the fucking place.

‘What have you got?’ she asked.

‘She was at the Vista Hotel visiting a Mr Smith in room two-oh-six,’ said Lane.

‘I know that.’

‘But it fits the MO of the other two that got done.’

‘Not the same hotel?’

‘No, different hotels every time. This is the poshest one yet; our boy’s stepped up a notch on the social ladder. The other two got done outside three-star places in the East End. But same meat, different gravy. Prostitutes calling and getting killed for their trouble. Same pattern, same method. You
really
think Chris Brown didn’t do these?’

Annie swallowed a sharp stab of revulsion at his casual tone, his relaxed manner. He didn’t care that Aretha was dead. Or the other two. He didn’t care that Chris was innocent. He just had a curiosity about the case, an interest in the puzzle it represented. And he thought they’d already solved it.

‘Did you find any trace of him on the other women? Any reason to believe he did those two as well as Aretha?’ asked Annie coolly.

‘No. None.’

‘But he’s been charged for doing Aretha.’

‘Yeah. Look, I got to admire your loyalty, but let’s face it, the man’s going down.’

‘The wire could get lost,’ said Annie.

‘What?’

‘The cheese wire. Could go missing.’ Annie was staring at him.

‘And what difference would that make? There’re
still the cuts on his hands, there’s still his blood on the vic. Hunter’s on it and trust me he won’t let it go. You could lose the fucking
suspect
on this one, and everyone would still be one hundred per cent convinced that Chris Brown did it.’

‘He couldn’t kill Aretha,’ said Annie.

‘No?’ Lane gave an unpleasant smile. ‘If
my
old lady was out tomming—hell, even
I
could do it. Think you’ll find men don’t like that sort of thing.’

‘He knew Aretha was on the game before he married her.’

‘Yeah? I find that hard to believe.’

‘It’s true.’

‘Then he’s a tolerant bloke and my hat is off to him, it really is. I’m just saying,
most
men would consider offing the old woman if she was out porkswording the whole neighbourhood. Ew, think of the stuff you could catch off it. And it was fucking with knobs on, let’s not forget. When I saw the stuff in that bag of hers, I damn near blushed.’

‘He didn’t do it,’ said Annie. ‘I want you working hard on this, finding out who did. I want to know about these other two girls. I need to see copies of the case files.’

He screwed up his face. ‘Tricky.’

‘I don’t care how fucking tricky it is, you do it.’ If there was any sort of link between the two other girls and Aretha, then maybe some sense could be made out of all this. Maybe they could
find not only Aretha’s killer but their killer too. Find the bastard who’d killed them, nail him good.
Or her.
Best not forget that. A woman could have done this too. By doing all that, maybe she could get Chris out of the frame.

‘Look, I’ll give it my best.’ Lane stood up.

‘Do that,’ said Annie, standing up too. Christ, she was going to have to air this place with a vengeance. ‘You’ll be well rewarded.’

‘That’s always nice to hear,’ he smirked, showing yellow tombstone teeth.

‘So you don’t rate the new DI?’ she asked.

‘Hunter?’ He shrugged. ‘He’s a pain in the arse, the miserable bastard, but he’s a good cop. And there ain’t many of
them
about, as you know.’ He gave her a lopsided smile.

God, he was repulsive. On balance Annie preferred hard-eyed and tight-lipped DI Hunter to this rancid tub of lard. The immaculate and sourfaced Hunter might look at her as if she was lowlife, but at least he was straightforward in his intentions and she felt he simply couldn’t be bought. You had to admire that. If you cut DI Hunter open, the words HONEST COP would run right through him like BLACKPOOL runs through a stick of rock. Slice DS Lane open and all you’d find would be the stench of corruption.

‘Hey,’ she said sharply. ‘Don’t take this lightly. And
don’t
let me down.’

The smirk vanished. ‘I said I’ll do my utmost. But I can’t part the fucking Red Sea or nothing. My name ain’t Moses.’

Annie stared at him. Then she crossed the room and opened the door. Tony was standing silently outside it, at the top of the stairs, waiting to usher the copper out. Neither of them had heard him come up. Tony could move like a ghost, and he could move fast too, for a big man. Lane looked at Tony’s huge bulk and swallowed hard.

‘Do your best, okay?’ Annie reminded him. ‘Let me down and you’ll be sorry.’

Annie cleared up, ushered in the builders for another day of hammering and banging, and gladly took her leave of the club. Tony drove her in the Jag over to where Gareth Fuller, the Vista’s former employee, lived. It was a dump in a block of flats. Washing flapped on badly strung clothes-lines. Rubbish swirled in the summer breeze on each of the outside landings as Annie and Tony walked up five flights of stairs.

The graffiti-strewn lift was working, but judging from the stink emanating from it, someone had been using it to piss in. So it was the stairs, or being lowered down off the roof with a fucking
rope
, Tony complained—could you believe people had to live this way?

‘Pardon my French, Boss,’ he added politely as
they hit the top landing. Then, ‘Oh fuck,’ he blurted as he looked ahead.

Annie looked ahead. DI Hunter was standing outside a battered-looking door halfway along the grimy landing, his arm raised to knock on it. His head turned in their direction. Distinctly, they saw him mutter something under his breath and then return his attention to the door.

‘Wait here, Tone,’ said Annie, and she left Tony by the top of the stairs and strolled off along the landing to where Hunter, the warm updraught riffling through his dark hair, was still tapping at the door. ‘Hello, Detective Inspector,’ she said when she got to the door. She looked at the peeling paint-work. ‘How’s tricks?’

He looked at her, his face pinched tight with disapproval. He looked away. Knocked again at the door.

He wouldn’t be half bad looking if only he didn’t scowl so much,
she thought.

A dog was barking in there. A high-pitched
yap yap yap.
It could drive you mad, a dog like that—pity the neighbours.

‘No one in?’ she asked. ‘Apart from Fido?’

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Same as you,’ said Annie. ‘Trying to find out what the hell’s been going on.’

He half turned towards her. Gave her the old beady brown eye again. ‘Don’t get smart with me,
Mrs Carter. I know what you are, I know about you.’

‘Oh?’ Annie looked at him.

‘You know, I once worked for DCI Fielding, and do you know what his big ambition was? To nail Max Carter.’

‘Really,’ said Annie. ‘Well, he left that too late. Max is dead.’ She glanced at his left hand. He was wearing a gold wedding ring, but Lane had said he was divorced. ‘Hey, how’s
your
wife, DI Hunter?’ she asked him with deliberate cruelty.

His lips tightened. ‘In Manchester,’ he said. ‘The last I heard.’

‘Trouble on the domestic front?’

His eyes flared. ‘Just what the hell
are
you doing here?’

‘I told you, same as you. But in the meantime, we’re here outside this damned door. Which needs opening, by the way.’

‘Mrs Carter. This is police business, and best left to us.’ And he turned and knocked on the door again.

‘That lock don’t look up to much,’ said Annie. There was a pause. The dog barked on,
yap, yap, yap.
‘A good kick could probably sort that door out,’ she suggested helpfully.

‘That’s breaking and entering, Mrs Carter,’ he said, giving her the look again.

‘Well,’ said Annie, ‘I understand your reservations,
you being an officer of the law and all that stuff. But if you were to walk along to the end there, busy yourself in some way, my colleague there,’ she nodded to Tony, ‘could have it open in no time. And then we could move this along, because no one is going to answer this damned door. And that dog’s doing my head in.’

DI Hunter gave her an appraising stare. Looked at Tony, standing there all polite and besuited, big as a barn door with his bald head polished to the colour of oak from the summer sun, the gold crucifixes glittering in his ears. Looking as if he could demolish the building, never mind the door.

‘Don’t think I approve of this, because I don’t,’ said Hunter.

Annie nodded. Hunter walked off. Tony approached.

‘Open it, will you, Tone?’ she asked.

Tony pulled back and gave the door a kick just below the lock. It bounced open and the dog’s volume shot up by a few decibels. A Yorkshire terrier appeared in the doorway, yapping frantically but wagging his little stump of a tail. Tony observed the animal with disfavour.

‘God, I hate dogs.’

‘You a cat person, Tone?’ asked Annie. She could see DI Hunter coming back now, not hurrying.

‘Can’t stand them either. You know if you drop
down dead, they’ll eat you? How’s that for loyalty? Shows their true nature.’

‘Thanks, Tone,’ said Annie, and Tony went back along the landing to stand at the top of the stairs again.

‘Hiya,’ she said to the dog, whose tail went into overdrive.

She nudged the door further open with her foot, and wrinkled her nose as a waft of something unpleasant hit her from inside the flat. DI Hunter was back. There was a brief tussle over who should go through the door first, so they pushed into the flat’s lounge together, the dog backing up on its haunches and still doing that irritating high-pitched
yap-yap-yap
business.

The smell of shit was suddenly overwhelmingly strong. Urine was slowly dripping on to a faded, threadbare carpet in the centre of the room. Above it, there was a young man hanging from the light fitting, flex twisted tight around his neck, dead eyes bulging, his tongue lolling swollen and black from his mouth.

Chapter 11

Annie was sitting with her head in her hands at Dolly’s kitchen table. She still felt as though she was going to throw up. It was nearly lunchtime of the same day, the day on which she and Hunter had discovered that Gareth wouldn’t be providing any evidence this side of eternity.

Dolly was busy ferrying covered plates of sausage rolls, tuna vol-au-vents and sandwiches through from the kitchen to the front parlour, in readiness for the rush. This only ever used to happen on Fridays—party day—but now it was something she tended to do most days of the week. Along with the bar, it kept the punters happy and kept them coming back for more. Plus, it added a bit to the takings. Everyone was a winner. All except Annie, who took one look at the tuna vol-au-vents and had to take a hasty trip to the loo.

Mungo Jerry was belting out ‘In the Summertime’
from the little trannie over the sink. Dolly was hurrying about the place, absorbed in her various tasks. Annie sat down again, flinching at the smell of warm sausage rolls. She envied Dolly that facility, to be content in your own four walls and to shut out the chaos. She had seen Dolly perform this act of denial before; it seemed to come naturally to her.

Lucky cow,
thought Annie, wishing she could do the same.

Annie knew that this capacity for turning a blind eye to trouble came from Dolly having been kicked out of the family home in disgrace and left to suffer alone through a really bad backstreet abortion. Under circumstances like that, you’d have to build stout barricades in your brain to stop yourself from going mad, and this was obviously exactly what Dolly had done.

Ellie was mopping the floor and giving Dolly dirty looks because she’d just
done
that bit, for Chrissakes, and here was Dolly trotting around on her clean floor like a ruddy racehorse.

‘Someone certainly got out of bed the wrong side this morning,’ observed Dolly as Ellie irritably redid her work on the floor.

Annie looked up at Ellie. Ellie had been at Dolly’s place a long time, since before it had been Dolly’s place at all. She’d been there when it had been Annie’s, and there before that, when Aunt
Celia had been running the show. It was no secret among them that the knocking-shop paid protection to the Delaneys, because the Delaneys ran Limehouse. It was no secret either that Ellie was the Delaney insider, which had caused them all a problem or two over the years, but Ellie had come to know which side she was batting for.

Annie knew Ellie was loyal to the house now before all else. She’d been on the game for years, the chubby-chasers had loved her ample curves, but she had not long since started displaying all the worrying signs of someone who couldn’t hack fucking for a living after all. Scrubbing herself, trying to get the scent of sex off her. So now she cleaned houses. She cleaned here, and she cleaned at Kath’s place. Made a really good job of it too. Liked to see a place all spick and span.

‘Jesus, you look just about ready to hurl,’ said Dolly to Annie as she passed by. She stopped and stared at Ellie too. ‘
And
you. What a face on you. You miserable mares.’

‘Doll, I
have
hurled,’ said Annie. ‘And if you’d seen what I’ve seen this morning, so would you.’

Rosie, one of Dolly’s new working girls, wandered into the kitchen in a transparent powder-blue peignoir and fluffy slippers
.
She was a small, pretty blonde with dynamite curves and a relaxed attitude. Yawning, she filled the kettle and switched it on, jigging sleepily away to the beat. She sent Annie a vague smile.

‘Oh for fuck’s
sake
,’ said Ellie loudly, slapping the mop back into the bucket. Rosie stifled another smile.

Annie could understand Ellie’s bad mood. Ellie had carried a torch for Chris for years. To see him banged up and about to be sent down for a long stretch was upsetting her badly. And now Annie had to tell her even more bad news.

‘They’ve charged him,’ she told her bluntly.

‘Oh no.’ Ellie looked devastated.

‘Sorry, Ellie, I really am.’

Dolly came hurrying down the hall and into the kitchen to butter more bread on the worktop.

‘Rosie, for fuck’s sake will you get tidied up?’ said Dolly.

‘I
am
tidied up,’ protested Rosie. ‘All I want’s a cup of tea, for God’s sake.’

‘Well take it up to your room; we’re up to our arses down here. Poor Ellie’s trying to get the floor done. Stop winding her up.’

Grumbling good-naturedly, Rosie made her mug of tea and departed.

Dolly paused. Her face clouded as she looked at Annie. ‘Did I hear you right? They’ve charged him?’

Annie nodded and glanced at Ellie, seeing the pain on her plump, pretty face. She’d scraped her long dark hair back into a ponytail and she was wearing a pale blue overall that gave the effect of
an overstuffed sausage. She looked hot, irritable, and above all, worried. But then she would be. She’d always adored Chris.

‘Oh no, it looks bloody marvellous,’ said Annie tiredly, ticking off facts on her fingers. ‘His wife’s dead. And if that ain’t bad enough, his blood’s on her body and on the murder weapon. Our only possible lead’s her last client, who nobody knows a damned thing about except that he’s calling himself “Smith”, and the only person who might have actually noticed this Smith bloke has decided to top himself. Or at least, that’s the story.’

‘What do you mean, that’s the story? It was suicide.’

‘It
looked
like suicide. There was a chair kicked over, and the flex was tied up just right…poor bastard. The cop in charge told me that he’d heard things in the hotel about the boy. That he was a loser. Always stoned out of his head on pot. Couldn’t hold down a job for ten minutes before he started screwing up.’

‘Well then,’ said Dolly.

‘Yeah, but ain’t that bloody convenient? We’re all after this “Smith” person like longdogs—and there’s no saying he’s the one who did this to Aretha anyway. In fact
anyone
could have rushed up behind her in the street and done this; any sly bastard with a length of wire in his—or her—pocket.’

‘Fuck me, you think a
woman
could have done this?’ demanded Dolly. She was looking at Annie in exasperation. ‘You’re crazy.’

‘Who the hell knows? But still, we’re after Smith,’ she went on. ‘It’s all we’ve got. And our only link to him or her has just killed himself.’

‘Wait up,’ Dolly objected. ‘How’d this person who killed him—supposing that’s what happened—get into the flat?’

Annie shrugged. ‘Easy. Knock on the door, he opens it, they barge in, shut the door behind them, exit through the same door, no problems at all. No need to break in.’

‘What about the doormen at the hotel?’ asked Dolly.

Annie shook her head. ‘I had Jackie Tulliver talk to the doormen. They’ve got no recollection of the man, none at all.’

Jackie was an ugly, cigar-smoking little goblin who had been with the Carter firm forever. If Jackie said there was nothing, then there was nothing. End of.

‘So that’s that then,’ said Dolly firmly. ‘Now, will you just let it go, for the love of God? Chris did the deed. It’s bloody sad, but he did. I suppose she goaded him about how little he earned, she went back on the game, they argued—and he just snapped. So just let it go.’

There was a loud silence from Annie and Ellie.

‘Oh come
on
,’ protested Dolly.

They both ignored her.

‘What will you do now?’ asked Ellie, sitting down at the table across from Annie.

‘No idea.’ Annie stared at the table. Her brief Jerry Peters had phoned her early this morning saying that it looked very bad for Chris.

‘I fear for your friend, Annie,’ he had said gravely. ‘I really do.’

So do I
, thought Annie.

‘This must have hit Aretha’s Aunt Louella like a sack of shit,’ said Ellie. She looked at Annie. ‘I hope the firm’s going to take care of her.’

Dolly looked up. ‘That’s the first sensible thing either of you has said.’

‘Yeah, but she don’t want our help, Doll,’ said Annie.

‘Look, make her take it. She can’t afford funerals and such: she’s poor but she’s proud. She’d probably like to accept an offer of help but it’s beneath her dignity.’

‘I’ll try,’ said Annie with a sigh, standing up.

‘So what now?’ asked Dolly. ‘You seen that Barolli bloke yet?’

Oh yeah
, thought Annie.
And instead of calling me, he’s been calling Redmond Delaney. The bastard.

‘No,’ she said. She really didn’t want to get started on all that.

‘Well, you ought to catch up with him. Have
some fun, forget all this business.’ Dolly looked at her sharply. ‘You know what I’ve got to look forward to this afternoon? An assortment of fat naked arses and the frigging washing-up. Oh,
and
I’ve got to find a replacement dominatrix now that we’ve lost poor bloody Aretha. The silver fox, eh? Damn, that sure beats doing the dishes. Oh, and I forgot to say, your cousin Kath phoned. She was moaning about when were you coming over to get Layla, you said just overnight and she’s been there all morning. Kath says she don’t
mind
, but she’s got her hands full with her own two and you did promise Layla after breakfast at the latest, and Kath said where the fuck were you, in that charming way she has.’

Annie sighed again. Damn, it was true. She couldn’t keep dumping Layla on Kath like this while she addressed all sorts of business crap. She was going to have to sort out something more permanent, more settled, for Kath’s sake and for Layla’s. Within a few months she was going to have to think about schooling for Layla, too. But for now, she was going to sort out something else. Something she had already put off for too long.

The Holland Park mansion was just the same—it was a large and imposing William and Mary house with beautiful proportions, standing full square in an elegantly shaded plot. Lollipop bay trees adorned
either side of the vast pillared doorway. It was the very picture of prosperous English gentility, probably owned by a banker who was something big in the City—which just went to show how far you could rely on appearances.

The mansion was in fact owned by the don of an Italian-American mob ‘
famiglia
’, greatly to be feared, who loaned money at ridiculous rates then had people apply baseball bats to clients who were slow to pay. Who practised the ancient arts of loan-sharking and extortion. Who ran all-night poker games for high stakes. Who paid off bent cops—just like the Carters did, Annie reminded herself.

Annie walked up the steps with the strangest feeling that someone was watching her. She paused midway, looked around. She’d sent Tony home; said she’d get a cab back to the club. She looked up and down the quiet, sedate street. There was a brief flare from a doorway about a hundred yards up the road, as someone lit a cigarette.

Hey, is that all it takes to spook you now?
she wondered.
Someone standing in a doorway taking a smoke?

Exasperated with herself, Annie went on up the steps. She was getting jumpy and she didn’t even know why—except maybe she did. Her friend had been killed. Another friend had been arrested. And then the horror in the flat today. Trouble,
every way she looked, and it was putting her on edge.

And now she was remembering the last time she’d come here, distraught, almost senseless with grief and worry, her daughter missing, her husband gone, money to find and nowhere to find it. This time was different, but still she felt her stomach churn with nerves.

She knocked at the glossy navy-blue painted door. The door opened. A large mound of muscle stood there, looking at her expectantly.

Annie moistened her dry mouth. ‘Is he in?’ she asked. ‘I’m—’

‘You’re Mrs Carter. Yes, he’s in. Come in please.’

And now it was too late to do a runner like she wanted to. She looked around the hall, marble everywhere, discreet and tasteful flower arrangements set up on pale stone plinths. Long mirrors: those were new. She saw herself in them, dark clothes, dark hair, blank face. That was good, the blank face. At least if she felt terrified, she didn’t actually
look
it.

The heavy was knocking at the study door. Faintly she heard the familiar American voice call out, ‘Come,’ and then the door was opened.

‘Mrs Carter for you, Boss,’ said the heavy, and ushered Annie inside and shut the door behind her.

Annie told herself firmly that it was childish to want to wrench it open and bolt straight back out.
She thought of Max, and fuck it, this wasn’t the time at all to be thinking about him, but there he was in her mind: Max, all piratical charm and black hair and steely blue eyes. Her late husband, Max.

And now here she was. Picking up where she had left off with Constantine Barolli. Another powerful, ruthless man. She never could resist the allure of bad boys. And she feared that this could only end the same way, in death and disaster—perhaps it was stupid, but she
did
fear the consequences: the whole thing was fraught with danger, littered with hurdles.

His damned children, for instance. His son Lucco had hated her on sight. His other son Alberto she didn’t yet know about, but she felt sure he was going to hate her too. Cara, Constantine’s daughter, who was newly married, was sure to see her as a rival for Daddy’s affection, and
already
Constantine’s sister Gina had looked at her like she was a turd on the pavement.

‘Well, are you going to come in, or go out again?’ asked Constantine from behind the desk.

The study was the same as she remembered. Big tan-coloured Chesterfields, rows of books, a big desk with a buttoned leather chair behind it and a yellow banker’s light casting a warm glow upon its tooled-leather top. There was a marble fireplace with a decorated screen in front of it. This was a
clubby, masculine room, and she felt out of place in it, just as she had last time she was here.

‘I’m not sure,’ she said.

He stood up and came around the desk and over to where Annie stood against the door. He held out his hand, palm down.
Expecting her to kiss his hand,
she thought. Annie looked at it, then at his face, then shook his hand briefly. Constantine gave a slight smile.

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