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Authors: Jessie Keane

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BOOK: Scarlet Women
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Chapter 13

At the Palermo, the builders got back from lunch at their usual time of one, ready to start work after a brew and a glance at the day’s papers. They had left the place as a work in progress, had started whitewashing the cellar, stripping the old flock paper off the walls upstairs, knocked down the old plaster, repainted the ceiling, refurbished the bar, dumped all those tired old velvet drapes and soft furnishings. The job was coming along pretty well and they were pleased.

Now it wasn’t. And they weren’t.

‘Fuck it,’ said the foreman as he went down the cellar steps and found himself standing in several inches of icy wetness. One of the pipes on the wall by his head was spurting water out on to the floor. It was soaking down here; the water level was rising even as he watched; it was a mess and a half.

‘What happened?’ asked his mate, clattering down the stairs behind him and peering down.

‘Damned pipe’s fucked,’ said the foreman.

He looked at the pipe. It was old. These buildings were Victorian, beautifully built—he appreciated that because he was a craftsman, a master builder; he had an eye for a lovely old place like this, wished he could own such a place; no sodding chance.

An old lead pipe like that could easily weaken over many years and eventually spring a leak. A miracle it hadn’t happened before, really. He frowned at the pipe. Touched a finger to the edge where the breach was. His frown deepened.

‘These old pipes, they can go at any time,’ said Gordy, his mate. ‘Jeez, we’re going to have to get a pump down here now.’

‘Yeah,’ said the foreman, and made a mental note that he was going to speak to the Carter boys right now. He didn’t want to carry the can for this. This wasn’t his doing and he
hoped
it wasn’t his mate Gordy’s doing either. He’d known Gordy a lot of years and he didn’t think he was a fool. Not fool enough to start arsing about for a wedge of cash-in-hand, because the Carter firm were very strong on loyalty, and the lack of it would upset them. You didn’t want to upset the Carter boys, ever.

‘You locked up behind us, didn’t you?’ he asked Gordy. Gordy had been last out, after all. Tel had
strolled ahead to the pub, leaving his old trusted working mate to lock the door. But
had
he locked the door? That was the question.

‘Course I did. I always do, don’t I?’

And the lock hadn’t been breached. It had opened sweet as a nut when they’d come back from their pie and pint. Someone had a key, then—unless Gordy was lying through his yellow buck teeth. Either way, they were in the shit, and if this was Gordy’s doing, then he was going to beat the crap out of the stupid little git for landing him in it.

‘This pipe ain’t worn,’ he told Gordy, and he turned and grabbed Gordy by the front of his paint-stained boiler suit and shook him, hard. Gordy’s beery eyes were suddenly wild with alarm. He lost his footing, slipped down a step or two. Tel leaned over him, bigger and stronger than he was—his old mate, he’d always thought, his
friend,
but now he looked mad as a cut snake. ‘Did you do this, you silly bastard? Come on, own up.’

‘I didn’t do nothing, Tel,’ bleated Gordy, shocked at the change in his old pal and drinking mate. Fuck, what had got into the old fart? One minute he was normal, the next he’d gone berserk.

Tel shook him again. Gordy’s balding head clunked painfully against the cellar’s dank wall and he let out a holler of protest.

‘What happened, did the other lot slip you the
cash to cause trouble? That what happened?’ demanded Tel furiously. ‘You stupid sod, you don’t arse around with people like this. We’re responsible. We left this place and now we’ve got trouble and it’s down to us.’

‘I didn’t do nothing,’ said Gordy breathlessly. ‘Honest, Tel. I locked the cunting door, I swear it. I didn’t do nothing.’

Tel looked into Gordy’s eyes. If he was lying, he was a good liar.

‘I ‘spect the pipe just gave way, age and that,’ said Gordy hopefully.

‘It didn’t give way, you stupid fuck,’ said Tel morosely. He looked at the water gushing out, shook his head. He released Gordy. No good taking it out on him, whatever had happened here. It was his responsibility,
he
was the foreman,
his
arse was going to be chewed off, not Gordy’s.

Tel looked morosely at Gordy. ‘This pipe’s been cut through,’ he said. ‘And if
you
didn’t do it, then who the fuck did?’

Chapter 14

‘Somebody,’ said Gary Tooley, ‘is taking the piss.’

That evening, Annie sat at the head of the table in the upstairs room in Queenie’s house. Queenie had been Max’s mother. She’d been dead some years now, but Max had never got around to selling the place, so the Carter mob still met there, just as they had always done. It was mostly empty, full of ghosts rather than furniture. Only a spare bed in the back room and the large table and chairs in this one remained.

Ghosts.

Annie listened to what Gary was saying, feeling like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Didn’t she have enough going on, without this? For
instance
, there was Chris banged up and Aretha dead. For
instance,
there was Kath who’d given her a verbal arse-kicking over her tardiness in collecting Layla. And Kath was right, absolutely
right, but still the rebuke had stung her to the marrow. She’d left Layla now with Dolly and Ellie, left her in a fucking
whorehouse,
but what else could she do?

Was she a bad mother? Was she putting her business concerns, her friends, her own needs before Layla’s? And the thought of her
needs
led her mind straight to Constantine. She thought of her visit to see him, and his invite to lunch with the family. She’d wanted to refuse, but she’d accepted. Now she was having doubts. A lunch with him, fine. With his sons, though, and with Cara and maybe even snooty Gina too—total bloody
nightmare.

She ought to be putting Layla first and she knew it. Layla had been traumatized enough by all that had happened to her: didn’t she owe it to her daughter to be there for her as much as she possibly could be? There for her, as Constantine was for
his
kids, ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice and pitch in to help?

But Annie had all this other shit to get through, things that she couldn’t delegate, things that were taking up so much of her time, and how could she help that? There was, for instance, this latest thing, which was all she fucking well needed.

All the boys were in. Steve Taylor on her left hand, Gary Tooley on her right. Jackie Tulliver down at the bottom of the table like a sulky elf,
puffing on a large Cuban cigar. Deaf Derek was in. Tony was in. The gang was all here. All except Jonjo and Max.

Annie pushed all thoughts of that aside. Max and his brother Jonjo were gone. Now, she was in charge.
Yeah, right,
she thought.

Constantine was right, being a lady boss was hard. Because even when she felt like her head was coming off from all the stress, she had to hold it together, to be
seen
to be rock solid, or the boys would say, see, didn’t we say this would happen? You can’t expect a woman to be strong enough to run a firm, it just ain’t
natural.

And what would they think if she cosied up to Constantine? She knew he was right about that too. The boys were loyal to the Carters, but mostly to Max’s memory, not to the living, breathing Carter in front of them—because she was female. If they got wind of a sexual liaison between her and Constantine, they’d take a dim view of it, of course they would. What would they say about her then? That she liked the old pork sword too much, that she was a slag, that there was no way they could take orders from a tart like that.

So she had to keep her secrets.

Hold it together.
Dig deep and stand alone.
As per fucking usual. And now, this thing.

‘You say the pipe was
cut?
’ she asked Steve.

He nodded. Steve was just five feet eight inches
tall, and all muscle. He had a round, high-coloured face, hard mud-coloured eyes, dark hair and a permanent five-o’clock shadow. He could shave three times a day and still look like he could use another.

Steve had many talents, though. He could chop the air out of your lungs with a squeeze. He could clamp his fingers around your ankle and fell you in agony, like a cut oak. Get into a wrestling situation with him and he could get you in his infamous ‘grapevine’, wrapping his legs around yours with such force that he could snap your femurs like twigs. He was squat, powerful, and much feared on the manor. He was also fiercely loyal to the firm.

‘Cut right through. Nothing to do with Tel, though, I’d stake my life on that,’ Steve went on. ‘I asked him about it. Kicked his arse all around his kitchen. His old lady went wild, chucked a frying pan at me, grease and rashers and all sorts of shit all over the place, but Tel was sound. Apologized, said he’d get it repaired on him, give us a discount on the job even though it’s going to cost him more, you know, pumps and all that stuff—that’s dear shit we’re talking about.’

‘What about the one who was supposed to have locked up?’

‘Gordy? Not stupid enough to fuck us around.
I had a word. He swore he locked the door, wouldn’t budge on the story. Think it’s the truth.’

‘Then who got in? Who did it? The lock wasn’t breached,’ said Annie.

‘Ways and means to do that,’ said Gary, pushing back his chair and stretching out his stick-thin legs. If Steve was squat, Gary was long, like a crane. Blond and pallid and skinny, with eyes as vicious as a shit-house rat’s. ‘Place is wide open. Builders in and out all day like they are.’

There was a silence. The club refurb was another bone of contention. It wasn’t going to be the Palermo Lounge any more, it was being renamed ‘Annie’s’
.
Nothing had been said, but she felt the boys were resistant to the change. They had resisted the dropping of the dodgy stuff and the expansion of the security business, too. They resisted, in fact, any fucking thing she cared to suggest and she was getting sick of it.

Security! What a laugh. They were in the security business, and someone had easily breached the club, cut the pipe and flooded the cellars.

Fuck
it.

‘Can we spare some muscle to keep an eye on things?’ she asked.

‘What, just the Palermo?’ asked Jackie.

‘All three clubs.’ Better to be safe than sorry.

‘Yeah, just.’

‘Okay, do that. You all know about what’s
happened with Chris Brown and his wife Aretha?’ asked Annie.

‘Yeah, Boss, we know,’ said Deaf Derek. He shrugged. ‘You marry that sort of trouble, you’re going to get
more
trouble, am I right?’

He looked around the table. They all looked back at him blankly.

‘I’m just sayin’,’ he said, reddening.

‘Well
don’t
just say, cunt,’ advised Jackie, puffing vigorously.

Annie shot a freezing glance at Derek. If it wasn’t for his usefulness in keeping contact with all the grubby little lowlife bastards that crawled around this area, milking them for information about anything that was going down, Annie would have gladly seen him out the door.

‘I want someone keeping an eye on Aretha’s Aunt Louella,’ she said. ‘Make sure she’s okay for money, but take it easy. She’s a proud woman.’

All the boys nodded. This was the way the firm was run, since way back before Max was in charge, since the days when his dad had held pole position. The boys looked after their own. Widows were cared for, and orphans. Guys who came out of nick and were known to them were looked after, set back up on their feet. Pensioners were helped out all around the East End. Kids’ hospitals and even boxing charities profited from the firm’s business—Max and his brother Jonjo had been keen sportsmen in their
youth, and Annie saw no reason to stop any of that. It kept youngsters in the East End on the right path to get a bit of boxing in.

There was still, despite the growing influx of drugs on to the streets, a strong code of ethics among the various firms who did business around the City—despite any villainy they might perpetrate. The rules were still clear-cut. You didn’t steal off your own, you
never
interfered with other men’s wives, ponces and dealers were treated with contempt, sex offenders were the lowest of the low and to be seen off with a good kicking.

‘That’s all for tonight, then,’ said Annie.

Jackie took a folder out from under his coat and pushed it towards her. ‘Laney gave me this for you. Said it was a bitch to get hold of,’ he said.

Annie nodded. DS Lane had done a blinding job, and that was good. ‘Okay then. I’ll see you all later.’

One by one they filed out.

‘Want me to wait in the car, Boss?’ asked Tony.

‘No, Tone.’ She stood up, picked up the file. It wasn’t going to make very pleasant reading, but it had to be done. ‘Come on Tone. Let’s go home.’

Annie sat up late into the night at the kitchen table in the flat over the club, reading about the other two murdered girls from the case notes that
DS Lane had filched from the police collating department, photocopied, and delivered to her through Jackie Tulliver.

Layla slept peacefully in the next room. The building was silent, empty of all life but them. Because of the sabotage on the building work, there was a guard outside the main door of the club now, sitting in his car, watching. Knowing he was out there made Annie feel just a bit more secure.

Just a bit.

Because here she was, reading about these two women who had once lived, laughed, loved,
breathed
. And then looking at photos of them, dead. Teresa Walker and Val Delacourt.

It was enough to make the hardest person on the planet shiver. Both white, whereas Aretha was black. Both based in the East End, like Aretha. Both garrotted. Like Aretha.

She read on, looking for anything that could link the three killings—anything other than the same method; knowing the police would already have done this, and done it far better too. But still, she had to look, she had to
try,
tired as she was, or Chris was stuffed.

They were prostitutes, all three of them. Working girls.
Tarts.
And maybe plod didn’t care too much if three tarts got the chop. She, however, did. So she had to keep looking, even though the
pictures made her gag and made her heart wrench with pity; even though she felt she was probably wasting her time.

A tiny part of her knew there was no hope, that Chris was finished. She ought to admit it. But she couldn’t. It was as simple as that.

BOOK: Scarlet Women
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