Knaves over queens, p.13
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.13

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

  Constance stared at him. She was bleeding through the hand towel while waiting for the surgeon to arrive, and Ronnie was intent on making tea. Now that the adrenalin was wearing off, she thought she might throw up. Again. She leaned over and put her head between her knees. It helped a little, but now there was a nauseating spinning. It had been a day of chundering. I would not recommend this, she thought hysterically. Not at all.

  ‘Where was I?’ Ronnie asked. ‘Oh, yes. And how have you managed to keep this secret?’

  ‘It’s not exactly something that anyone would notice,’ she replied. The spinning was going away, but the fear came slamming back. She sat up. ‘You can’t see it. It’s just there.’

  Ronnie cocked his head to one side. ‘You know, any number of aces would want to use your power,’ he said. ‘Any ace, anyone, could be as safe as houses. Just like Golden Boy.’

  ‘I don’t want to make clothes like that,’ Constance said softly. ‘I have things I want to do with my life

  Ronnie turned and started back towards the kitchen. ‘I should get the kettle,’ he said. ‘Don’t want to overboil the water.’ He whistled as he vanished again.

  There was a knock on the door, and Constance felt a wave of relief as Ronnie answered it. Standing in the hall was Frances’s brother Frankie, a skinny drink of water with the same cornflower-blue eyes and brown hair as Frances. He stood awkwardly by the door next to a bland-looking man who carried a brown surgeon’s bag.

  ‘I brought the surgeon just like you asked,’ Frankie said as they entered the flat. ‘Glory all right?’ Then he saw Constance. ‘What ’appened, Constance? Where’s Glory?’

  Despite the pain and the fear, Constance was suddenly furious. ‘Ronnie ’appened, you twit,’ she said hotly. ‘Look what he’s done to me.’ She pulled the towel away from the cuts down her arm, hissing as it stuck to the wound. Fresh bright blood began to flow and Frankie blanched.

  ‘Tea?’ Ronnie asked the surgeon. The surgeon looked at him with astonishment. Constance suspected this wasn’t the first time he’d had to sew someone up after Ronnie got through with them. Nor, likely, would it be the last.

  ‘Here,’ the surgeon said. He fished around in his bag and pulled out a bottle of pills and handed them to Constance. ‘This’ll help with the pain. Have Ronnie bring you around in a few days so I can see how you’re healing. Change the dressing once a day. If it starts looking red and puffy, ring me immediately.’

  ‘Thank you, Dr Smythe,’ Ronnie said, rising from the sofa. ‘You sure you don’t want tea?’

  The doctor shook his head and closed his bag. ‘Ronnie, take care of this girl. She’s not part of your business. Don’t treat her as if she is.’

  ‘Now, I don’t think you should be interfering in my business,’ Ronnie said.

  Constance shrank into her chair. She was beginning to know that voice. That soft, mad voice.

  ‘I suppose not,’ the doctor replied. ‘But Reggie wouldn’t like this. You know he wouldn’t.’

  Ronnie didn’t answer.

  ‘I have an idea,’ Ronnie said.

  Constance was still shivering occasionally now. The pills the surgeon had given her were dulling the pain and made her feel as if she was packed in cotton wool, but they only took a little of the edge off the gut-twisting fear of being alone with Ronnie and his madness again.

  ‘I think you should come to work for us.’

  ‘I can’t,’ she said softly, shaking her head. ‘I can’t.’ She started to cry. ‘I can’t.’

  ‘Are you worried about the pay?’ he asked, ignoring her tears. ‘We’ll pay you just fine. In fact, better than you’d make if you worked for them chaps down on Savile Row.’

  Constance shook her head.

  Ronnie stood up and in a flash grabbed her hair and yanked back her head. Then he leaned in close enough that she could feel the spittle as he snarled. ‘Well, it don’t matter what you want, now, does it?’ He released her and sat back down on the sofa and poured himself some more tea. ‘Where do you work? You’ll have to pack up your things. Let them know tomorrow. I can send someone around.’

  ‘I was sacked today,’ she replied.

  ‘Really?’ he said. ‘Who sacked you?’

  ‘Teddy Bravo,’ she replied.

  ‘His loss, innit?’

  Constance looked down at the floor. She knew now what Ronnie was capable of.

  ‘You ought to get cleaned up,’ Ronnie said, wrinkling his nose. ‘You’ve got blood all over yerself. Might as well put that dress on again, seeing as how it won’t get stained if ya start bleeding. And those sleeves will hide the plaster.’

  ‘Okay,’ Constance said quietly. ‘Shouldn’t be here in my slip anyway. Looks bad, you know.’ She was too tired and hurt even to say it sarcastically.

  ‘I’m leavin’ now,’ Ronnie said, shaking Constance’s shoulder. She jerked awake. The codeine and fear had finally knocked her out while Ronnie drank tea and read one of Glory’s magazines, waiting for morning to come. ‘I’m off to talk to Reg. Frankie’s here and he’s going to stay with ya. Make sure she doesn’t leave,’ Ronnie said as he walked out of the door. ‘I’ll call round soon.’

  ‘Constance,’ Frankie said nervously as the door shut. Constance didn’t know why he should be nervous. She was the one Ronnie was keeping hostage. ‘Been a while.’

  ‘Since your sister’s funeral,’ Constance said, narrowing her eyes. She pushed herself up, wincing as her stitches pulled. ‘I rang you after the funeral to see how you were. I was one of her best friends and I thought you might want to talk.’

  ‘I’ve been busy,’ he replied. A flush blossomed over his neck and up his face. He walked over to one of the chairs.

  ‘No,’ Constance said. ‘No. Ya don’t get to sit with me like we’re friends. You keepin’ an eye on me like this, you can stand over there by the door.’

  ‘Ronnie here tells me you’ve got a special kind of wild card that could help us,’ Reggie said. Frankie had brought Constance to the Krays’ private club after a ring from Ronnie. ‘Why didn’t you come to us a long time ago?’

  ‘Because I didn’t want to be making clothes where I had to use my power,’ she replied. The codeine was wearing off and she was beginning to hurt again. ‘I want to be designing clothes, makin’ people look different. Makin’ them look like they didn’t know how they could look. Letting them see themselves in a different way.’ She was on the verge of tears. ‘Clothes says something about a person. You know that, look at yer suits. They’re saying something about who you are. It sounds shallow, but it ain’t.’ She leaned towards them, holding her hands out like a beggar. ‘If I make clothes with my power, it takes a long time. Longer than it does when I sew without it. I have to think about making my clothes with my wild card. And that doesn’t leave any time for what I want to do.’

  ‘Now that makes me sad, it does,’ Reggie said. He almost looked as if he was. Almost. ‘You’re a local girl. And we look after your parents when they need us. We look after the whole neighbourhood.’

  Constance wanted to shout at him: I know how you look after them: with bribery and sometimes fear! And pretending you care about them. They may be turning a blind eye to what you do, but I’m not.

  Instead, she repeated, ‘I don’t want to use it for anyone, Reg. I never would. Why would I?’

  Reggie and Ronnie shrugged in unison. It was creepy. ‘You could make a lot of dosh. Wouldn’t have to live in a nasty bedsit.’

  ‘I dunno what’s wrong with you two!’ she almost shouted. ‘I’m not gonna do it for anyone. Not now, not ever.’

  ‘Oh, luv,’ Reggie said, not unsympathetically. ‘Yes, you are. We’re going to give you everything you need and pay you more than you’d ever make working as a seamstress for anyone else. And you’re going to tell your mum and dad you’re moving back to Bethnal Green. And you’ll tell your friend Glory, too. Or maybe we’ll tell them if you won’t.’

  Ronnie stretched his fingers and wiggled the
m at Constance.

  And that was when she began to cry again.

  ‘Are you mad?’ Glory exclaimed. She stood in Constance’s bedsit while Constance methodically packed up her possessions. It had been two days since the Krays had found out about her wild card. ‘Ronnie killed Frances! And apparently Reg doesn’t care.’

  In the hall outside the bedsit, Frankie stood waiting to move Constance’s boxes. Earlier, he had tried to come in and help her pack, but she hadn’t let him.

  ‘Piss off, Frankie,’ she’d said. ‘You’re working for Ronnie, and he killed your sister. And that’s sick.’

  ‘Them’s just rumours, Constance, you know that,’ he spluttered. ‘Ronnie would never do something like that to Frances. You know she were troubled.’

  ‘Oh.’ She rolled up the sleeve on her blouse, exposing the bandage. ‘What about this? Ronnie did this.’

  ‘Well, Ronnie’s mad, Constance, everyone knows that. You just don’t cross him. He wants you to make them clothes, you make them clothes. And look, they’re going to give you a place to work and live. And you’ll get a lot of money. You can help out your mum and da. What else do you want? You’re set for life!’

  ‘And you are a stupid git if you can’t figure out what’s wrong with that,’ she snarled. Being mean to Frankie suited her just fine now. She remembered when he’d been a boy a few years older than her, Glory, and Frances, a sweet lad who doted on his sister. But when he was in his teens and working for the Krays, he’d introduced Frances to Reggie and for that she couldn’t forgive him.

  Neither could Glory. ‘Why are you going back to live at home?’ she demanded. ‘And to work for the Krays?’

  Constance didn’t answer and continued packing boxes.

  ‘Constance, why?’

  ‘For the love of all that’s holy, Glory, why d’ya think?’ Constance threw a jumper on the bed and put her hands on her hips.

  For a moment, Glory looked at her blankly. Then her eyes widened. ‘How’d they find out?’

  ‘The grey dress. The one I wore to the party. When I made the dress, I used my power. No one but me would’ve ever known. No one but me was ever going to wear it, but when Ronnie went to touch you …’

  ‘His hand slid off the dress,’ Glory said, finishing Constance’s sentence. ‘How’d you know? How’d you know what he was going to do? That he could even …’

  ‘I dunno. A feeling, I guess. All those rumours.’ She shook her head, then bent over, picked up the jumper and began folding it. ‘Doesn’t matter anyway. What’s done is done. And he did this to me.’ She showed Glory her bandaged arm.

  ‘Oh Lord. What did he do to you? No, I can see well enough. But, you can’t just go and do nothing but make them bespoke suits! You’ll be giving up on everything you want to do with your life!’ Glory’s hands were balled up in fists, and her head sprouted thorny, angry-looking charcoal-coloured climbing roses. They tangled as they rose above her head, eventually looking like a demented Marie Antoinette wig. ‘Go to the police! They’re always trying to get something on the Krays!’

  ‘I can’t,’ Constance said miserably. ‘Mum and Dad, well, they wouldn’t be safe.’ She didn’t mention that Glory was in danger too. ‘And what am I going to do? Tell the detectives the Krays are forcing me to make clothes for them?’

  ‘You could tell them about your power.’

  ‘Absolutely not,’ Constance said, shaking her head. ‘That’s what got me in trouble in the first place.’

  ‘You can’t do this!’

  ‘Stop it,’ Constance said, holding back tears. ‘I can’t bear this if you’re angry at me. You have to be my friend now more than ever.’ But Constance knew she was being selfish. It would always be dangerous for Glory to be around her. It was dangerous for Glory even to know her.

  ‘Of course I’m not!’ Glory cried as she came and hugged Constance. Constance held on to her so tightly some of the thorns scratched her forehead. ‘We’ll be friends forever.’

  Constance had to admit, Reggie was true to his word. The Krays gave her everything she could have wanted. Except for clients and the ability to do her own work. They gave her two flats over their private club – one as her sewing workshop, the other for her to live in.

  The only clients she saw were Reggie and Ronnie, but they were demanding. Their suits had to be as sharp as possible and every bit as perfect as any from Savile Row. And of course, she had to use her wild card ability. They even tested the suits to make certain she was doing as she was told.

  ‘You finished with that one?’ Ronnie said, pointing at her most recent work. It was a little more flamboyant than the suits they normally wore, which were usually in dark navy or black. But this suit was grey and single-breasted with a windowpane check and a narrow lapel. The colour and pattern were different from the American Mob style they normally sported. Though the cut wasn’t as slim as Constance would have made it, because both carried holstered guns nestled under their armpits.

  ‘Frankie,’ Ronnie called. ‘Come in ’ere.’ Frankie slunk in, giving Constance a hangdog expression. She was unmoved. ‘Put that jacket on.’ Frankie did so, but he looked miserable. Both he and Constance knew what was coming next.

  Ronnie took out his pistol and fired at Frankie’s chest. The bullet hit the jacket and Frankie groaned as the impact sent him stumbling backwards. The bullet fell to the floor.

  ‘Lord, Ronnie, why do I have ta wear it when you shoot it?’ Frankie asked as he took off the jacket and held it out to Constance.

  She stared at him, then said, ‘Do I look like yer servant?’

  Sheepishly, he rehung it on the mannequin. ‘Just making sure,’ Ronnie replied. ‘Anyway, it’s more fun to shoot you.’ He walked to the mannequin and ran his hand down the front of the jacket. Nothing happened. Then he dipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a lighter.

  ‘Ronnie, don’t be daft,’ Constance said. She smoothed out a navy worsted on her cutting table. ‘If the bullet didn’t do anything, why would that lighter?’

  ‘I’m not daft,’ Ronnie replied angrily. ‘Thought I told you never to call me that again.’ His fingers wiggled as if he were loosening them up.

  A chill ran through Constance. It had been six months, but the scars left by Ronnie’s cuts were still an angry pink, and it hurt to touch them. She’d taken to wearing long sleeves. ‘It’s just a saying, Ronnie,’ she replied. ‘Just a sayin’ is all.’

  He snapped the lighter on and held it to the sleeve of the jacket. The flame licked at the sleeve, but nothing happened.

  ‘You see,’ she said. ‘You can trust me.’

  ‘Don’t trust no one,’ Ronnie said, looking at her with his cold dead-man’s eyes. ‘Except Reg.’

  ‘I’ve been thinking,’ Ronnie said. He and Constance were in her workroom so Constance could fit a jacket for yet another suit. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. Ronnie thinking was bad.

  ‘I’ve been thinking that we never made right what was done to you. You getting the sack and all. It was a good thing for us, but you weren’t treated fair, Constance. And I’d like to make that up to you. Come with me.’ He shrugged the jacket off, folded it, and laid it on her cutting table.

  Constance followed him down the stairs. It was still morning and the club wasn’t open yet. It felt strange without anyone in there and the strip lights off. The club smelled of stale cigarettes. A weak grey light came through the front windows.

  Teddy Bravo sat at one of the tables with Reggie across from him. Teddy Bravo shook a cigarette out of his pack and lit it with shaking hands.

  ‘Constance, luv!’ Reggie exclaimed as she came closer. ‘You know Teddy Bravo, don’t you? Right nice bloke. Came all the way here just to say ’ello.’

  Warily, Constance eyed Reggie. His voice was too bright. Ronnie passed her and sat down at the table. The Krays flanked Teddy Bravo, and he looked positively green.

  ‘Aren’t you going to say ’ello to Constance?’ Ronnie asked. He reached ou
t and touched the table top, his fingers leaving scratches in the wood. ‘I’m certain she’s hurt you haven’t been round to visit.’

  ‘I didn’t know where she went,’ Teddy Bravo said with a tremor in his voice. ‘There were rumours about her working for … well, you and Reggie, but I guess they weren’t just rumours.’

  A terrible smile cut across Ronnie’s face. ‘We wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about that,’ he said. ‘No one should know about Constance and us. It’s a private matter. But Constance here is a nice girl who worked for you a long time. And you gave her the sack without so much as a by-your-leave. Not well done of you, old son.’

  ‘I’m filled with regret, Constance,’ Teddy Bravo said. She knew he’d prided himself on his ability to rise above any situation, but she doubted he’d ever expected to be sitting between the Kray brothers being forced to apologize to her.

  ‘You know,’ Reggie said thoughtfully. ‘I don’t think that apology sounded sincere. Can’t you do better?’ Then he took the back of Teddy Bravo’s head in his hand and smashed his face into the table. Constance gave a shriek and covered her mouth with her hands.

  Reggie lifted Teddy Bravo’s head up. Blood dripped from his nose. He made a whimpering sound.

  ‘Constance,’ Reggie said in a calm voice. It was worse than if he’d been yelling. ‘What would you like me to do with ’im? We take care of our own here. You know that.’

  Constance shook her head. Teddy Bravo looked at her, his eyes dazed and scared. He’d definitely hurt her career, but he didn’t deserve this. The Krays were doing worse to her right now, making her watch what they were doing to him.

  ‘Nothing,’ she said, choking back tears. And she could feel the bile coming up. But there was no way she was going to vomit in front of them. Showing fear was a mistake, she’d learned. ‘You’re doing fine, but you should let him go,’ she said. ‘He’s not important. And if he hadn’t fired me, well, I wouldn’t be working for the two of you now, would I?’

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