Annie Carter swept into the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly with a determined stride and a face like thunder. Heads turned and conversations stopped mid-sentence. She was wearing a black power suit, big gold earrings, shoulder pads out to here, and killer heels. She was tall anyway, but the heels took her up to six feet. Her thick chocolate-brown hair was bouncing loose on her shoulders and her eyes, dark green and flashing with barely repressed emotion, said Don’t fuck with me. Her red-painted lips were set in a grim, irritated line as she was led in under the high gilded cupola of the Palm Court by a doorman dressed in a brass-buttoned tailcoat and white tie.
Dolly Farrell, former Limehouse madam and currently manager of the Palermo, one of three clubs owned by Max Carter – Annie’s husband – was already waiting at their table. Dolly saw her old mate sweeping in like the wrath of God and thought that you would never know in a million years that Annie Carter had come from nothing. Now, she looked rich to the tips of her ﬁngers. She also looked seriously pissed off.
Uh-oh, thought Dolly. What now?
She half-rose from her dainty gold Dior chair, the words of greeting dying on her lips as Annie walked straight up to the table and slapped a brown envelope down upon the pristine napery, rattling the glasses and knocking the cutlery askew.
‘Well, there it is then,’ said Annie, planting her hands on her hips and glaring around as if she was mad at the entire world. Which she was. Mad enough to spit. ‘That’s it. Done. Finished. ’
Dolly looked from Annie’s face to the envelope and back again. Slowly, she sank into her chair.
‘The decree absolute?’ she guessed.
‘No, I’ve won the pools. Of course it’s the decree absolute. I am ofﬁcially, as of this moment, divorced from Max bloody Carter. ’
‘If madam would care to sit?’ asked the waiter, pulling out a chair for her.
Annie sat down. He placed a napkin in her lap and discreetly withdrew. The other diners averted their eyes, resumed their conversations.
‘Get me some champagne or something,’ moaned Annie, slumping with elbows on the table and head in hands. ‘Let’s celebrate. ’
Annie dragged her hands through her hair and looked up at her friend’s face. Her mouth was trembling. Dolly thought that if this was any other woman of her acquaintance, they would break down and cry their heart out at this point. But not Annie Carter. Tough as old boots, that was her. Impervious to hurt. Ex-madam, once ruler of the streets around the East End, once true Maﬁa queen. Now a divorcee.
Dolly gazed at her. ‘You don’t like champagne,’ she pointed out. She knew Annie didn’t drink alcohol or have any tolerance for it. And you know what? You don’t look much like celebrating, either.
‘No?’ Annie gave a harsh laugh. ‘Well, maybe it’s time I started. ’
The waiter returned.
‘Tea for us both,’ said Dolly, and he went off to fetch it.
Annie was staring at the envelope. ‘I can’t believe it,’ she said faintly.
‘I thought it was what you wanted,’ said Dolly.
No, what I wanted was for him to stop behaving like a jealous manipulative arsehole, thought Annie. And instead, I got this.
‘So what happens next?’ asked Dolly when Annie didn’t answer. She had watched this, the war between Annie and Max, escalating over several years. The arguments, the confrontations, then the courts, the decree nisi. Now it looked as though the ﬁnal shot had been fired.
‘He’s moving out,’ said Annie, struggling to keep her voice steady. ‘He’s at the Holland Park house as we speak, getting the last of his things together. ’
‘So you’re keeping the house?’
‘Of course I’m keeping the house. It’s my bloody house. ’
‘Where’s he going then?’
‘He’s got the place in Barbados, he’ll go there. ’
Dolly nodded. Their tea arrived, along with scones, jam, cream, tiny chocolate cakes, ﬁnger sandwiches and raspberry Bakewell tarts. Annie looked at it all, so lovely, so appetizing, and felt sick.
‘I never wanted this,’ she said, poking the envelope with her ﬁnger. ‘I just wanted . . . ’ She faltered to a halt.
‘What?’ prompted Dolly.
Annie shrugged. How could she bear to go over it all again? To explain that her visits to Annie’s nightclub in Times Square, New York, had been viewed with extreme suspicion by Max. She’d been so proud of the club, so pleased with it, it was hers and hers alone. But he had killed her pleasure in it. Every time she went over there, he behaved as though she was betraying him in some way and was cold to her for days after. It was maddening. He travelled on business, and you didn’t catch her behaving like a moron.
‘You know what finally ﬁnished it for me? He had me followed,’ Annie said. ‘It was this time last year. ’
Dolly stared in surprise. ‘What? You didn’t tell me that.’
‘I’m telling you now. It was in New York. I had a feeling I was being watched. Then I caught this bloke trailing me. I grabbed him. It was a private detective, Max had hired him. He seriously thought I was having an affair. ’
‘For fuck’s sake,’ said Dolly, too fascinated to even start in on the cakes. Her eyes narrowed. ‘Oh, wait. Not . . . Alberto Barolli?’
Annie nodded and heaved a sigh. ‘Yeah. He thought I was having an affair with Alberto and he had some private dick trailing me, for God’s sake. I was that mad at him, Doll. I’m his wife. If he couldn’t trust me, what was the point? So when I got back to England, I faced him down about it. And I totally lost it. I said if he couldn’t take my word as the truth, we’d better end it.’
‘And you know what that son of a bitch said to me?’ Annie’s eyes were ﬂaring with temper. ‘He said, “Fine. Then you’ll be free to fuck whoever you damned well like.”’
Dolly winced in sympathy. ‘And what about Layla?’
Annie gulped hard. This was the most awful part. Layla was a daddy’s girl, she adored her father. She’d always run to Max rather than to Annie, which hurt. But Layla’s schooling at Westminster was at a crucial point and she couldn’t relocate to Barbados with her dad, it just wasn’t practical.
‘Layla’s staying with me,’ said Annie.
‘And how does she feel about all this?’
‘How do you think she feels?’ snapped Annie. Then she shook her head. ‘Sorry, Doll. Didn’t mean to take it out on you. It’s just been so hard. She’s devastated. Of course she is. And I’m public enemy number one as far as she’s concerned. Her dad can do no wrong. ’
‘She’ll come round,’ said Dolly, reaching across and patting Annie’s hand.
‘I don’t know. All I know is I couldn’t go on that way. What did he want to do, keep me in a cage or something? I have business in New York. ’
‘But Alberto’s there,’ said Dolly. And she knew – everyone knew – that Annie and the Mafia boss Alberto Barolli went way back. There had been times when Dolly herself had wondered about the closeness of their relationship. Not that she would ever tell Annie that. ‘Have some tea,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ asked Annie, although she thought it might choke her.
She had an hour to kill, and then he’d be gone. Then she’d go home, wait for Layla to come in from school, try and console her – if she could. And somehow, after that, she was going to have to carry on, to salvage something from the train wreck of her life.
Talk about the best-laid plans, though. Her plan had been to meet Dolly at the Ritz as arranged, give it at least an hour; that would be ample time for him to get the hell out of her house. But no. When she opened the front door at Holland Park, there was Max’s overnight bag and suitcase still in the hall – and from the study, there came the sound of Layla crying.
Annie closed her eyes and leaned against the door. Please, no more, she thought.
But she pushed herself upright and walked over to the study and eased the door open.
Max was there, leaning on the desk. Layla, wearing her school uniform of plain skirt and white blouse, her dark hair pulled back into a pleat, was holding on to him and sobbing.
Fourteen years old, thought Annie. God, what are we doing? What are we putting her through?
Max looked up at his ex-wife as she stood there. Annie felt her guts constrict as he stared at her. Her husband. Correction: ex-husband. He had chipped away at her love for him remorselessly, but still – even now – she found him physically almost irresistible with his black wavy hair, his tanned skin, his predatory hook of a nose, his dense, dark navy-blue eyes. Even if they were looking at her with something close to hatred, right this minute.
‘Layla?’ said Annie hoarsely. ‘What are you doing home? You’re meant to be in school. ’
Layla said nothing, just shot her a tear-stained glance and cuddled closer to Max.
Max cleared his throat. ‘She was afraid I’d be gone before she got home, so she told them she felt ill. ’
‘Well, she shouldn’t have done that.’ Annie’d had no education to speak of, and she was always determined that Layla, who was very bright, should not be raised the same way. Layla’s schooling was of the utmost importance.
‘I don’t want you to go!’ shouted Layla, and started sobbing again. ‘Please, Daddy, don’t go. ’
‘We’ll still see each other. As often as you want. I’ll come to London to see you, and you’ll come out to see me,’ said Max, rubbing his daughter’s back soothingly.
‘It’s not the same. ’
Annie could only stand there, feeling sickened and powerless. This was a bloody disaster. Max was supposed to have been gone before Layla got home – to avoid a scene. Only it was all going wrong, pulverizing her afresh with the pain. She hated what they were doing to Layla. But it was done. And it was best now – wasn’t it? – to just get this over with.
Max straightened, seeming almost to read her thoughts.
‘I’d better go,’ he said, easing Layla away from him.
‘No, Daddy, please don’t,’ she wailed.
As if she was four, not fourteen, thought Annie in anguish, feeling Layla’s torment as if it was her own.
‘I’ll call you,’ said Max, kissing Layla’s cheek. ‘Very soon. OK?’
Layla nodded dumbly, crying more quietly.
Max moved away from her, came towards the open door where Annie stood. He paused there, and their eyes met. If she reached out to him now, said, Let’s talk, let’s not do this, would he stay?
She almost did it, but her pride stopped her.
Then the moment was gone. Max brushed past her, walked across the hall, picked up his suitcase and bag, and left.
Annie gulped hard, trying to compose herself. It was finished. Leaving her with a heartbroken girl to look after. It didn’t matter how she felt, she had to focus on Layla. She walked towards her. Layla’s sobs had died away to hitching little gasps.
‘Honey, why don’t you go and ﬁnd Ros—’ she started.
‘Don’t you come near me,’ yelled Layla suddenly, stopping Annie in her tracks. ‘This is all your fault. All you had to do was be here, but you always had to be running around doing your stupid business. I hate you. ’
She ran past Annie, shoving her aside. She flew across the hall and up the stairs.
Annie stood there, feeling sick with hurt, and heard the door to Layla’s room slam shut. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. The silence of the house enveloped her. She was alone again.
On shaky legs she walked over to the leather-tooled desk and sat down behind it, slumping there in exhaustion and despair. She didn’t even know who she was any more. She took the decree absolute out of her pocket and put it on the desk and stared at it.
Well, I’m not Mrs Max Carter, that’s for sure.
God, she was tired. Too tired to think, but still it all spun around, unravelling in her tortured brain – losing Max in Majorca, believing him to be dead. Then her involvement with Constantine Barolli, Alberto’s father. All the troubles and the dangers she had endured to come to this point.
Was it worth it?
Ten years ago she had been an underworld power to be reckoned with, running the streets of Bow. Until Redmond and Orla Delaney, the psychotic twins who’d ruled Battersea with an iron ﬁst, tried to kill her. And that had ended in their deaths, organized by her Mafia contacts.
So much trouble.
So much pain.
The attempt on her life had caused her to step away from all that. She’d thought she could leave it behind her, sit back and enjoy the good life – but it hadn’t worked out that way.
Annie gazed around her at the empty, opulent study with its tan Chesterﬁeld sofas, its walls lined with books, the costly Aubusson rugs on the ﬂoor. She had everything . . . and she had nothing at all. She’d lost her husband, and her daughter hated her.
Raindrops pattered against the window panes. She stared out of the window at the darkening sky, and wondered how the hell she was going to come back from this. She’d fought so long and so hard, but all she felt was defeated. She was too worn out even to try any more.
Annie sat there and thought of old friends, old enemies, her weary mind a tangle of jumbled images. Two faces emerged from the fog in her brain and she shuddered.
The Delaney twins.
She could see their faces, their cold, pale green eyes, their red hair. Those twisted, horrible bastards.
It was raining harder now and she was dimly aware that she was crying. She never cried. Dig deep and stand alone, that was the motto she’d always lived by. And she’d never been more alone than she was right this minute.
Well, that was one thing she no longer had to worry about. The Delaneys were gone. And she couldn’t help thinking that, perverted as they were, evil and vindictive and out for her blood as they had always been, the Delaney twins were the lucky ones. She was here, alone and suffering: Redmond and Orla Delaney had been fortunate in comparison. They were out of it. They were dead.
Over the Irish Sea . . . , 1970
Orla Delaney had always been a nervous ﬂyer. She was nervous anyway, on this ﬂight – for it was a ﬂight in every sense of the word. Along with her twin, Redmond, she was fleeing for her life in the Cessna 210, knowing that London was over as far as they were concerned. Orla’s only comfort was the knowledge that, before their crime empire had collapsed, they had ﬁnally got rid of Annie Carter.
The wind buffeted the small plane with a vicious swirl and she clutched harder at her seat, stifling a scream as the four-seater rocked from side to side and then plummeted, dropping like a stone, leaving her stomach somewhere up on the padded ceiling. She wondered if she was about to be sick.
‘Rough night,’ said Fergal the pilot, a big grey-haired Irishman who sat unperturbed at the controls.
Orla was reassured by Fergal. He’d worked for the Delaney ﬁrm for years, ferrying illicit cargoes – drugs, arms, people – in and out of Britain. He boasted he could land the Cessna on a gnat’s tit, he’d been ﬂying it for so long. Orla believed him. He’d been a British Airways pilot once, then he’d done a stint crop-dusting in Kenya before Redmond had recruited him into the far more lucrative family firm.
She glanced at Redmond. He seemed calm. He half-smiled, squeezed her hand brieﬂy. It was only she who was panicking.
It felt like an eternity since they’d left the airport. After a wild drive down to Cardiff in the dead of night, Fergal had ﬂown them into the tumultuous skies unauthorized, with no co-pilot, no mechanic, no clearance. They were in violation of air traffic safety guidelines and aircraft operation rules. But Fergal didn’t give a shit about any of that. Neither did either of his passengers.
Orla glanced at her watch and saw that they’d only been aloft for ten minutes.
Again the wind tossed the plane, batting it almost playfully around the blackening sky. Night was coming, the moon was up and full, scudding clouds drifting across its face. Even in big planes, she was nervous. In a miniscule Cessna, a fluttering stomach and a chest tight with fear took on a whole new level. She prayed for dry land, for the lights of the airport. Peering out of the window, she saw only the dark sea below them. No lights. No ships, even: in weather like this, any sane captain would put in to shore, ride out the storm.
But not them. If they’d delayed getting out of England by so much as an hour, the police would have shut down their escape.
They’d only just made it.
Orla stifled her nerves. It was OK. They’d got away. Soon they’d be in Limerick. She could see it now in her mind: the old farm on the banks of the Shannon, the Delaney family home. From there they could go anywhere, anywhere in the world. All would be well. She breathed deeply, told herself, calm, be calm.
‘What the f—’ said Fergal.
‘What is it?’ asked Redmond.
The pilot was tapping one of the dials in front of him.
‘Fuel reading’s low. ’ He tapped it again. ‘Should be showing nearly full. ’
Orla felt the fear erupt, break out of its cage. Suddenly she found it hard to catch her breath.
‘How low?’ asked Redmond.
‘Ah, don’t worry. Must be a malfunction, we’ve only just ﬁlled up,’ said the pilot comfortably, not answering the question. ‘It’s nothing. Ten minutes, we’ll be there. ’
Ten minutes, we’ll be there.
Fergal had hardly ﬁnished uttering the words when the engine started to sputter. Orla saw – she didn’t want to see but she couldn’t help it – she saw the damned propeller falter and stop turning.
No, this can’t be happening, she thought wildly, clutching at Redmond’s hand.
But it was.
She watched Fergal ﬁghting the controls, trying to keep the nose up when there was no power, nothing to stop the inevitable. And ﬁnally, horribly, it happened. The tiny plane stalled in mid-air. Then it plummeted like a stone into the cold embrace of the Irish Sea.
The stunning, mind-numbing impact as the plane hit the water nose-first blew in the windscreen. Icy water instantly surged into the cockpit like a burst dam. The water enveloped Orla, whipping all the breath from her body with the intensity of its coldness. As the nose-cone dipped, she saw Fergal, still strapped into his seat at the controls, his arms ﬂailing against the force of the inrushing water.
As their pilot vanished beneath the churning foam, Orla felt movement beside her as Redmond tugged at his seat-belt release.
‘Christ!’ he was shouting as the sea battered them, swirling up around their chests, snatching the air from their lungs.
This couldn’t be happening, it was a nightmare. Reeling with shock, Orla reached down with rapidly numbing fingers and tried to free her own seat belt.
The water was rising fast, too fast.
She was ﬁghting against the strap, panicking. She couldn’t get it undone.
‘Don’t lean forward, you’re jamming it, try to relax . . . ’ Redmond yelled as waves rose up around his mouth.
Orla couldn’t. Had he got his free? She couldn’t tell, couldn’t see anything, couldn’t do anything above the hysterical fear that the water was coming in, pouring in, and they were going to drown. It was up around her neck now, and her ﬁngers were struggling, she couldn’t get the clasp free.
She was going to die.
Redmond was surging up out of the water, he was half-standing, getting above it, but it was still coming in, it was rising all the time and she couldn’t get free.
‘I can’t—’ she shouted, her teeth chattering with cold.
Redmond took a breath, and plunged down under the swirling waves.
Orla was alone with the rising sea. The airplane was groaning, the fuselage popping and shuddering with the pressure and weight of the sea water as its interior filled up.
‘Redmond!’ she shrieked.
There was no answer.
She was alone. She was going to die alone.
Then suddenly he appeared beside her, spluttering, coughing, his face shockingly pale in the half-light, his red hair ﬂat to his head.
Her belt was loose. He’d done it.
‘We have to get—’ he started.
His words were cut off as the plane lurched sideways.
Orla screamed. Redmond lost his footing and fell against the bulkhead, his forehead striking metal. His eyes rolled up. He collapsed into the water and disappeared from sight. Then the tiny battered plane gave one last deathly groan, and sank further beneath the waves.
‘Redmond! Redmond!’ Orla cried, frantically reaching out, trying to find him.
Her hands were numb, like her legs. She was freezing, she was dying. She knew it. She scrambled around, sobbing with terror. He was gone. He must have been swept out of the hole made by the blown-in windscreen and into the sea.
Then her hand touched cloth.
He was still in here, in this coffin that was now swirling downward, spiralling deeper into the icy waters, carrying them to their graves. She found a reserve of strength from somewhere and grabbed the cloth and hauled it up.
Redmond’s face appeared above the surging waters, his eyes ﬂickering open in panic, his mouth open too, whooping in a mouthful of air. He was shivering hard, and bleeding. Orla pulled him towards her.
‘Oh, holy Christ, Red—’ she sobbed.
The water was lapping over their mouths and they were slipping, sliding sideways as the plane descended into icy blackness. The aircraft tipped sharply again and Orla’s feet slid from under her. She tried to hold her breath, but her lungs were bursting with the effort and with the fear that at any moment she was going to die. She couldn’t get her balance. She ﬂoundered, stretched, grabbed Redmond’s arm and hauled herself up, coughing, choking.
The cockpit would soon be completely full of water, and what would they do then?
They would drown.
There was only a tiny air pocket left to breathe in, under the roof of the cockpit, and they were huddled there, gasping, as the waters rose and rose around them.
‘We have to get out,’ said Redmond.
Orla clutched at the roof and shook her head.
‘Before it sinks too far down,’ he insisted.
There were trenches in the Irish Sea thousands of feet deep. Long before they reached that depth, the water pressure would kill them. He was right. They had to get out.
‘Through the front. It’s the only way. The windscreen. Come on. ’
Not giving her time to answer, Redmond took a couple of deep breaths and plunged under the black churning water.
Orla was left there, alone, the water lapping around her face. Terriﬁed, she didn’t want to move. But she was alone here. She would die here. Redmond was gone.
She took a desperate, despairing breath and dived.
Excerpted from Ruthless by Jessie Keane. Copyright © 2013 by Jessie Keane.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.