Knaves over queens, p.12
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.12

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  ‘This is why I dumped you, Mick,’ Glory said tartly. She spun around and began taking pictures.

  Mick continued grinning at Constance, but he kept glancing at Glory’s back. The way he looked at Glory now that she wasn’t paying attention was all Constance needed to know about where his real desires lay.

  It was Mick who had made Glory’s career. She had snapped the iconic black-and-white photo of him mid-metamorphosis in concert, catching his lithe body as his feet turned to paws sporting razor-sharp claws and his jeans ripped open, exposing his fur-covered legs. His head had been thrown back as he howled the final verse of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, the cords in his neck straining and popping just before he became fully lycanthrope.

  Rolling Stone magazine had paid a small fortune for the photo and run it as their cover the next week. Glory, no fool, had reserved the rights to it and done limited edition runs of the image framed as if it were fine art. It was a smash and made her a tidy sum. She’d already treated all of her best photos this way, and after the cover everyone wanted her pictures. Some bands had even asked her to tour with them as their official photographer, but Glory declined. Like Constance, she had a weakness for musicians.

  ‘C’mon, Glory,’ Mick said. ‘Stop making me look at your bum, nice as it is.’

  Glory turned and glared at him. ‘You don’t deserve to look at any of me, you … you trollop.’ Constance and Mick both laughed, and Glory went bright red. ‘That isn’t funny and you both know it.’

  ‘Oh, Glory,’ Mick said. ‘Come with me and we’ll have more fun than either of us can stand.’

  ‘What have we here?’ A gruff voice interrupted.

  Reggie had come up without their realizing it. He was dressed in a flash three-piece suit of black worsted wool with narrow lapels and a black silk tie done up in a Windsor knot. His hair was slicked back. There were lines around his mouth; his nose was large and a little off-centre. Heavy-lidded dark-brown eyes were sunk into his face. He had brawler’s hands, meaty with big knuckles. Ronnie stood behind him, looking almost exactly the same, except for his thick black-framed spectacles.

  ‘’Ello, luv,’ Reggie said, leaning forward and kissing Glory’s cheek.

  ‘’Hello, Reg,’ she replied. She looked at Ronnie nervously. ‘Hello, Ronnie. Reggie, you remember Constance from the neighbourhood, yeah?’

  ‘No love for me then,’ Mick interrupted with a laugh. ‘And I thought we were going to be mates.’ He grinned at Reggie, but when his eyes slid towards Ronnie, they narrowed.

  Reggie stuck out his hand and Mick took it. ‘You won’t get all the attention tonight,’ Reggie said, smiling. ‘There are fish as big as you here.’ He turned towards Constance. ‘How’re you, luv? Haven’t seen you for a long time.’

  ‘I’m fine, Reg,’ she replied. It didn’t matter how often Constance saw the Kray brothers, they still made her uncomfortable. They dressed sharp, drove posh cars. And they had even been interviewed on the telly. Those things could make them seem glamorous if you forgot about the crimes they’d committed. And then there were the ones they’d been accused of but had never been caught at. Those were far scarier – like the story about Ronnie and Frances. But Constance knew if the coppers had anything on Ronnie, he’d be in custody.

  ‘Hello, Ronnie,’ Constance said.

  ‘Hello, Constance,’ he replied, but it was curt and certainly not friendly. Then he stared pointedly at Jagger. ‘Why are you here?’

  ‘Ronnie, old son, is that any way to confab?’ Mick said with a mocking smile. But his eyes remained yellow.

  ‘I told you last time I saw you, I wouldn’t be so kind,’ Ronnie said.

  The tension between Mick and Ronnie made Constance think the rumour about Mick rejecting Ronnie’s advances in a most humiliating way were true. Supposedly, the Krays had had to pay off the Daily Mirror not to run a story about the incident.

  Constance saw Jagger’s fingers and nails begin to turn into claws. His fingers elongated and silky brown hair covered them. Ronnie flexed his fingers.

  ‘Mick, it’s a real honour to see you again,’ Reggie said. ‘Ronnie and I are sorry about our last meeting. Some parties get out of hand.’

  ‘Don’t apologize to him,’ Ronnie said angrily.

  Reggie glanced at his brother. ‘No need for that, Ronnie. We’re all friends here, aren’t we, Glory?’ He put a protective hand on her elbow. ‘Mick, I think you know I’m mad about Glory. You don’t mind, do you?’

  ‘It’s her choice,’ Mick said. There was an artificial brightness in his voice. ‘Don’t need to force any bird to stay with me. Plenty of them out there.’

  ‘No need to be insulting,’ Reggie replied. Ronnie nodded in agreement.

  Glory pulled her arm out of Reggie’s grasp, then moved closer to Mick. An angry expression crossed Reggie’s face.

  It was then that Ronnie reached out to touch Glory.

  Later, Constance would wonder why she did it. What had prompted her? Was it the rumours about Frances’s death? Or was it the cold expression on his face? Whatever the reason, at the last moment, before Ronnie could touch Glory, Constance held out her empty glass between them, and said, ‘Oh, Mick, could you get me another pint?’

  And Ronnie’s fingers slid off the sleeve of her dress.

  Ronnie stared, a dumbfounded expression on his face.

  ‘Guess those rumours aren’t true, are they, Ronnie?’ Mick said as his hands reverted to their normal state. He took Constance’s glass and handed it to a passing waiter. ‘Thanks for the invite, Reg. Glory, always a pleasure. And you, my dear,’ he said to Constance, leaning in and whispering in her ear. ‘I can buy you that pint later. And if you decide you don’t mind sharing …’

  Constance laughed nervously. Mick gave them all a toothy smile, then sauntered out of the club letting a puff of cool, damp air inside.

  An uncomfortable silence stretched out between the four of them while the party swirled in the background. The doors to the club swung open and the glorious Barbara Windsor entered in a gold lamé dress.

  ‘Reggie! Glory! Ronnie! Glory, that dress is magnificent,’ she said with a delighted laugh. ‘Wherever did you find it?’

  ‘My friend Constance made it,’ Glory said as she and Babs hugged. ‘Isn’t it fab? Constance, I want you to meet Barbara Windsor.’

  ‘I can’t wait to see Carry On Doctor,’ Constance blurted out. Inwardly, she groaned.

  Glory, Constance, and Barbara began chatting excitedly about films and clothes. Constance was acting cool, but inside she was giddy. Even with the Krays standing by, she couldn’t help but be enchanted. The day had been a pendulum swing from disaster to glamour. Except for the Krays, it was everything she wanted.

  Reggie stood awkwardly next to Glory, staring at her as if transfixed when one of the Firm came over and whispered in his ear.

  ‘So sorry, girls,’ Reggie said as he checked his shirt cuffs, which were already displayed to the exact right length. ‘Must attend to something. Babs, Glory, Constance, I’ll be back later.’

  Ronnie stayed behind. He stepped closer to the women, lurking on the edge of the group, though not taking part in the conversation. Constance glanced up at him. He was staring at her and she didn’t like it. She was glad when he finally went away.

  Glory and Constance stood outside Esmeralda’s Barn around one in the morning. It was chilly outside and Glory shivered. After Glory had snapped pics of Babs, Sinatra and Monroe had come over wanting to be introduced to Glory. Barbara performed the introductions, then went off to talk to Dusty.

  ‘Have you ever thought about coming to Hollywood?’ Monroe asked in her breathy voice. Constance was pretty sure it was put on, since she hadn’t had it in Cleopatra.

  Sinatra nodded. ‘Marilyn is right,’ he said in his silky voice. He was the coolest thing in the room, ‘You got something. Looks. Those flowers. You’re a barn-burner, baby.’

  Glory started taking pictures again. ‘Mr Sinatra—’

/>   ‘Call me Frank,’ he interrupted.

  ‘All right … Frank. I’m a photographer, not an actress or a model. I can’t act and I can’t sit still. Can’t sing either. What I’m really good at is taking pictures. Now if you’d put your arm around Miss Monroe …’

  ‘Oh my goodness, call me Marilyn,’ Monroe said, winking at Glory. ‘I really love your photographs. I’m honoured that you’d like a picture.’

  ‘I’ll do my best,’ Glory said. Constance recognized Glory’s I’m-barely-keeping-my-excitement-under-wraps voice.

  ‘I’d expect nothing else,’ Marilyn replied. Then suddenly, like a light switch, she turned MARILYN on.

  Glory rapid-fired her camera, a huge grin stretched across her face.

  ‘I can’t believe she knew who I was!’ Glory said excitedly as they waited for their cab to arrive. ‘I mean, she doesn’t seem the type to know about … well, hip things.’

  ‘I think she’s full of surprises,’ Constance replied. ‘Where’s that taxi?’

  A cream-coloured Rolls-Royce pulled up in front of them. The back door opened, and Mick poked his head out. ‘I hear you birds need a lift home.’

  ‘Where did you get this car?’ Glory demanded.

  ‘It belongs to John,’ Mick replied. ‘Borrowed it after I left the party. He’s driving the psychedelic Rolls tonight.’

  ‘And you’ve been waiting all night for us to leave?’ Glory sounded dubious. ‘I thought you were off to shag someone.’

  Mick shrugged. ‘I’m feeling chivalrous. Don’t be cruel. Get in, please.’

  ‘Don’t think you’re going to have the two of us. Or even one of us.’

  He blushed, which amazed Constance. ‘Just let me give you a lift home.’

  ‘Very well,’ Glory said begrudgingly. ‘Constance, you get in first.’

  ‘Oh, no,’ Constance said, shaking her head. ‘I’m not getting in between the two of you.’

  Glory glared at Constance and then climbed into the car. Constance followed. It was gorgeous inside, far posher than anything Constance had ever been in, including Glory’s flat, which was as posh as any home Constance had ever been inside.

  There was silence as the car pulled away. Constance tried to do anything but look at Mick and Glory, until she smelled the perfume of roses. She looked over, and Glory’s head was covered in white roses. Then Constance saw Mick’s hand creeping towards Glory’s, taking it into his own.

  Shit, Constance thought.

  A few minutes later, Glory asked, ‘Do you mind staying at my flat tonight, Constance? It’s just up the road.’

  Constance sighed, but secretly she was thrilled. Glory’s flat was so nice it was like being on holiday. That’s what the whole day had been – a holiday from her life. She didn’t mind it continuing that way. Not even one bit.

  Constance slipped the key into the lock of Glory’s flat and opened the door. The aroma of incense, cinnamon potpourri, and hash met her. She dropped her handbag and Glory’s keys on the coffee table and began to unzip her dress.

  She’d always liked the lounge with its Milo Baughman settee and two low-slung chairs in the middle of the room. Large sitting cushions made of kilim rugs were piled in one corner. Next to the settee was a side table with two Royal Dalton teacups and a silver-plated cigarette lighter. One cup was filled with tobacco, the other with chunks of hash. Next to the table was a brass hookah embellished with garnets and quartz. On the walls were prints of Glory’s black-and-white photographs. The one of Mick took up one wall all by itself.

  She stepped out of her dress, folded it and laid it on the settee. Just then, there was a knock at the door. What the hell did Glory forget? she wondered as she went to answer it.

  ‘I’d’ve thought you and Mick would be screwing in the back of that Rolls already. Forgot the Pill?’ she said as she opened the door.

  ‘Hadn’t planned on screwing anyone,’ Ronnie said, reaching out and swiping his hand across the upper part of her left arm. The shock of the pain stifled any cry she might have made. He pushed her back and slammed the door shut behind him, locking it as he did so. Blood began running down Constance’s arm, staining her slip and dripping onto the floor.

  ‘Right,’ he said. ‘It’s not your skin what can’t be cut. So what happened at the party? Can you turn it off and on?’

  Constance stumbled backwards, staggered, and then fell down hard on the wooden floor. It made her bite her tongue and then she was crying.

  ‘Shut yer gob,’ he said, grabbing her right arm and yanking her to her feet. He was strong, and she gave a yelp. ‘Shut it, or I’ll cut yer face.’ He laid his fingers on her cheek. It felt like razors resting there just waiting to slice. ‘I guess you heard about me? ’Bout how I have a wild card. Well, they’re right. All I have to do is think about cutting, and my fingers do the rest.’

  Constance was trembling, but she tried to gently pull her face away. He let her. Her arm felt as if it was on fire where he’d cut her. She glanced down, and the amount of blood staining her slip made her woozy.

  ‘I w-w-w-w-won’t say anything,’ she stuttered. ‘I p-p-p-promise.’

  ‘Sit over there,’ he said, pointing to the settee.

  ‘But I’ll get blood all over it,’ she replied. Her vision was going grey and she felt dizzy.

  ‘Really? Seems sort of irrelevant at the moment.’

  Constance went to the settee and sat down. She cradled her left arm in her right and tried not to look at the wound. ‘This will need to be sewn up,’ she said, her voice sounding far away. ‘Soon.’

  ‘I suppose it will,’ he said curtly. ‘And I can’t let you bleed unconscious before I get some answers.’ He went to the phone, picked up the receiver, and dialled a number. There was a pause, and then he said, ‘Ring the surgeon and send him round to Glory’s. You know the place. Reg’s been having it watched. What? Well, wake him up.’

  He hung up. Then he went into the bathroom and came back out with a hand towel. He started to wrap it around her arm, but then he stopped and stared at the floor.

  Constance followed his gaze and saw him looking at her dress. There was blood on the floor under the dress, but none on it.

  ‘What’s this, then?’ he asked softly.

  ‘It’s nothing,’ she said, edging away.

  He tossed the towel on the settee and then reached down and ran his fingers over the dress. It didn’t rip. He picked it up and jabbed at it repeatedly. ‘So, it’s the dress!’ he said, shaking it at her. ‘Where did you get it?’

  ‘How did you know I was here?’ she asked, trying to change the subject even as her pain increased. ‘Don’t live here.’

  ‘I followed ya after you got into that Rolls with Jagger,’ he replied. ‘Now where did ya get the dress?’ He dropped the dress and reached for her and she shied back again. ‘I can do the other arm.’

  ‘No,’ she said, hating the way her voice sounded. ‘Please don’t.’

  There was a horrible moment when a completely mad expression flickered across his face. Then he said all too calmly, ‘C’mon, luv, give it up.’ He sat down beside her, and flexed his fingers again before laying them on her good arm.

  ‘I-i-i-it’s my wild card,’ Constance admitted. ‘Even your p-p-p-power can’t affect the clothes I can make.’ She was shaking hard enough it was making her teeth chatter. ‘N-n-n-nothing can.’

  ‘Interesting,’ Ronnie said. He considered the dress and then got up, grabbed the cigarette lighter, flicked it on, and held it to the hem. The chemical smell of lighter fluid filled the air as he held it there. ‘Fucking hell,’ he said. After a minute or so, he dropped the lighter and shook his hand. ‘Thing got ’ot.’

  The blood was getting sticky under Constance’s hand. She grabbed the hand towel and wrapped it around her upper arm, and hoped the surgeon would get there soon. It was terrifying being alone with Ronnie. Oh God! she thought, sweat running down her back. Oh my God. He did kill Frances! Oh, Jesus. He’s going to kill me now. Did
he slit her wrists and watch her die with those cold shark-like eyes? His own sister-in-law – how could he? And what am I to him? Nothing. Killing me would mean nothing to him.

  ‘Hmm, it really doesn’t catch fire now, does it?’ He gave her a cunning, sidelong glance. ‘What else can’t harm it?’

  ‘I don’t know exactly,’ she said, trying to stop her teeth from chattering. ‘I j-j-j-just know it doesn’t stain, and knives and f-f-f-f-fire can’t hurt it.’

  ‘What about bullets?’

  ‘Lord, h-h-h-how would I know that? I d-d-d-don’t know anyone who has a gun. Wouldn’t want to know anyone.’

  Ronnie opened his jacket and Constance saw a holstered gun under his arm. ‘Well, you do now. Does anyone else know about this?’

  ‘No,’ she lied. Glory and Frances knew. They had known about it since they were in primary school together.

  There hadn’t been a big incident that had made Constance’s card turn. One day when her mother was teaching her to sew, she just … knew what she could do. If she concentrated, she could make clothing that couldn’t be harmed – at least not by anyone other than herself. Glory said she should keep her power secret, and Frances had agreed. And so she had.

  But before long, Glory had gone off to be … well, Glory. And Frances had succumbed to the charms of Reggie Kray. So Constance felt as if she was lagging behind. Lagging behind in the greyness of the East End, with the glitter of the West End so close. And she desperately wanted to be part of the things that were changing there. It meant everything to her.

  ‘What difference does it make to you, anyway?’ she asked. The pain in her arm had settled into a throbbing ache.

  Ronnie vanished into the kitchen. He banged around. Then she heard him running water. It sounded for all the world as if he was putting the kettle on.

  ‘Making some tea,’ he said, coming back into the room. ‘Honestly, that Glory don’t have much in the way of tea in the house, just some Lapsang souchong and I don’t care for them smoky teas. I bet she makes tea as bad as Frances did.’

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