Authors: Carol K. Carr
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Carol K. Carr
INDIA BLACK AND THE WIDOW OF WINDSOR
INDIA BLACK AND THE SHADOWS OF ANARCHY
INDIA BLACK AND THE RAJAH’S RUBY
INDIA BLACK AND THE RAJAH’S RUBY
Carol K. Carr
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INDIA BLACK AND THE RAJAH’S RUBY
A Berkley Prime Crime Special / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Prime Crime Special edition / January 2013
Copyright © 2012 by Carol K. Carr.
India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy
by Carol K. Carr copyright © 2012 by Carol K. Carr.
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Having acquired a reputation as one of London’s most successful madams, I’m frequently asked by young tarts for advice on plunging into the cutthroat world of brothel ownership. I assume a professorial air and give them a stern lecture on the virtues of thrift and sobriety, warning them of the incessant scrutiny of the local plod and the endless battles with drunken, thieving sluts. Halfway through my performance, I can see the doubt creeping into their eyes and before I’ve even gotten to the part about deviant customers, the girls are slinking off with their tails between their legs. Then I laugh and pour myself a glass of first-rate whisky and return to counting sovereigns.
You didn’t expect me to tell them the truth, did you? I wouldn’t dare reveal to these fillies how the Turkish rugs, the fine silver and the gleaming crystal that adorn my brothel, Lotus House, just fell into my lap. For one thing, I’ve a reputation to keep up and it would do it no good at all if word got around that it wasn’t India Black’s financial acumen and superb management skills that enabled her to purchase Lotus House and turn it into the preferred destination of the minor aristocracy, military officers and the senior civil servants who frequent the place. Let the girls think I’m a superior breed; it discourages competition.
Of course, it would be false modesty on my part to pretend that dexterity and daring didn’t enter into the matter. It most certainly did. A lesser woman than I might have quailed at the situation in which she found herself, but I
ed, so to speak, and wrapped old opportunity in a stranglehold before he could hie himself off to parts unknown. So for the benefit of the privileged few, here is the unvarnished truth about how I acquired the funds to purchase my fine Georgian house on St. Alban’s Street, not far from the fleshly delights of Haymarket, and filled it with the softest beds, the finest liquor and the comeliest wenches in all of London. I’m not the top rung of the ladder yet but I’m on my way, and someday soon Lotus House will be the preferred destination of the nobs and nabobs that govern our sceptred isle.
‘Twas the late spring of 1870, and I had a nice little billet in a house run by Mother Moore. She was a decent lot, treating her girls with more kindness than many of the other abbesses in London. Mother Moore had been a famous beauty in her day and courtesan to the Duke of Litherland. The Duke was a jolly, purple-hued fellow and well advanced in years when he stumbled upon young Agnes Moore, she of the swan-like neck, vacuous lavender eyes and a complexion like a sun-ripened peach. He was so smitten that he soon had her ensconced in a house in St. John’s Wood, where she waited for him every night until the day he died, whereupon she learned the depth of the old fellow’s affections: he’d left her the house. Agnes was a sensible soul and she quickly turned the house into one of London’s choicest brothels. She had a keen eye for talent, as well, which is how I came to be working there for her that summer.
Naturally, I had the basic attributes of any tart recruited to work in such an upmarket establishment. I had a mane of tumbling black curls, startling blue eyes and the Hirsute Fellow Upstairs had seen fit to grace me with an astonishing figure and a creamy complexion, which I maintained through a rigorous abstention from opium and gin. In addition, I possessed a bit of learning and a flair for witty conversation that exceeded the average whore’s, which is limited, on most occasions, to a cackling laugh, a poke in the customer’s ribs, and an exclamation of “Ooh, you’re a clever clogs, ain’t you?” As a result of this confluence of beauty and learning, Mother Moore often paired me off with those of her clients who were looking for a bit more in the way of conversational capability. One such chap was Philip Barrett, scion of a distinguished but now impoverished family from Lincolnshire. Due to his family’s fiscal situation, Philip had been forced to “enter the world of trade” as he would phrase it, ducking his head and smiling wryly. He’d taken a job as manager of a firm importing goods into England from around the world. I could see he wasn’t happy about joining the dubious world of mercantilism but as a working girl myself, I liked him all the better for not looking down his nose at commerce. Most toffs would rather have tea with a plague carrier than the chap who sells insurance.
It didn’t hurt that Philip was a comely lad. We tarts have to take them as we find them, but it makes the burden considerably lighter if your customer would give Adonis a run for his money. And that Philip certainly did. His face could have been carved from marble by one of those Italian blokes; his nose was impossibly straight and his lips were as lush as a girl’s. But there was nothing effeminate about the man. His jaw was chiseled, his chin firm, his shoulders broad. His blond hair glinted in the sun like a field of wheat rippling in the breeze. There was a hint of mischief in his hazel eyes. He was a smooth chap, reducing Mother Moore to giggles with his outrageous flatteries. His lazy smile quite took your breath away if you were prone to the vapours, which I am most decidedly not. One can appreciate beauty without becoming a driveling idiot.
Well, I see that I have written an entire paragraph devoted to Philip’s attractions. I apologize; I shall not digress further about his manly chest or the charming pink hue that suffused his cheek when I made him laugh. I will say nothing more about his strong brown hands. And I will not mention the adorable blond stubble that graced his masculine jaw at dawn.
You can see that I was rather taken with the chap, so much so that Mother Moore noticed that her best earner would rather spend her time with Barrett than attend to her duties. I received a severe sermon on more than one occasion, telling me to lay off the flirtation. But I was young then and paid no heed to my elders (not, come to think of it, that I do so now). And Philip could always get round Mother Moore with a compliment and that sleepy smile of his. We took to walking out on Sunday, and while Mother Moore disapproved of any of her tarts having a beau, her censorious lectures merely whetted my appetite for the fellow.
Don’t misunderstand me; I never was one of those pitiable girls who dreamed of a handsome knight on a white horse sweeping me into the saddle and carrying me off to a castle. I had my feet firmly on the ground. Gentlemen only dally with whores; they don’t marry them. Oh, a few chaps like having their dolly at their beck and call, and there are women like Mother Moore who enjoy being kept like a favorite shotgun, trotted out for admiration when the owner’s friends are in town. But that wasn’t the life for me. Nor did I think it was the life for Philip. Sometimes, when he thought I wasn’t watching, a piratical gleam appeared in his eye and his mouth quirked in a private smile. I believe he had the potential to be a bit of a lad in the right circumstances, and that suited me just fine. I like a whiff of brimstone about a man.
One fine Sunday in late spring, Philip stopped by Mother Moore’s house and collected me for a stroll in Hyde Park. We ambled along Rotten Row with my arm tucked into his, dodging the piles of horse manure and laughing at the haughty young whores parading about in their paramours’ carriages and pretending to be ladies.
“Wouldn’t you like to be one of them, India?”
“Not in the least. Go home to a tottering old gent who leaves his teeth on the table while he beds you? No, thank you.”
Philip laughed. “You’re an odd one, my dear. Most women would jump at the chance for comfort and security.”
“As you have no doubt observed, I am not ‘most women.’ I’d rather take my chances out in the world. I’ve sharp elbows and a sharper wit.”
His hazel eyes sparked with gold. “We suit each other admirably then. I enjoy a bit of risk myself.”
“It’s well that you do. Commerce requires a gambler’s heart.”
“Indeed. All of life does, for that matter.”
We strolled along slowly for a bit, enjoying the May sunshine and the soft breezes.
Philip squeezed my elbow. “I shan’t be by next week, India. I’m going to the country to see a man about what I hope will turn out to be a profitable arrangement.”
Bit of a disappointment, that. Philip was a welcome relief from the daily drudgery. But it’s best to encourage customers in their endeavors and hope fervently that they succeed. If the married blokes don’t make money, they have to resort to sex with their wives and you won’t be seeing them at the brothel. So I squeezed Philip’s arm in return.
“I do hope it goes well for you,” I said.
“So do I. God knows, I need the money.” There was bitterness in Philip’s voice that I hadn’t heard before.
“Going through a rough patch?” The news was faintly alarming. Next thing you know, the poor chap would do a budget and conclude that bread took priority over whores.
Philip shook his head. “I shouldn’t have brought up the matter. A gentleman never discusses finances with a lady.”
“As I’m not a lady, that stricture does not apply.”
He chuckled. “And as I’m in trade, I can hardly be a gentleman, can I?”
“That’s settled it, then. Are things not going well at the firm?”
“Oh, yes, the company is doing nicely. In fact, I have a chance to become a partner.”
“That’s splendid,” I said. “Why the long face, then?”
“In order to be considered for a partnership I’ll have to generate new business, find new customers. That’s why I’m off to Devon next week. There’s a chap named Harold White, an American, who’s bought a house down there near Ottery St. Mary. From St. Louis, originally, but he headed south after the war and has made a fortune in tobacco. He sells most of it to France and Germany, but I’m trying to persuade him to send some of his crop to England.”
“You’ll do it,” I said. “You’re a persuasive fellow. Mother Moore is practically down to her knickers by the time you say ‘hello.’”
“Such trust in my abilities.” He laughed. “I find you utterly charming, India.”
“As you should.” We sauntered on, around through perambulators and pedestrians.
“What’s this fellow like? Mr. White, I mean.”
“I’ve yet to meet him face to face, but I hear he’s a typical American. Rather crude and brash. Pumps your hand like a piston when you meet him and informs you of the state of his bowels immediately following the introductions.”
“You poor man. What a trial.”
“I’ve heard he sets a fine table, though, and the liquor is supposed to be first-rate.”
“That will be some compensation,” I murmured, sidestepping a youngster running pell-mell down the path, dragging a kite in his wake.
“Whatever compensations Mr. White provides will be insufficient to salve the sting of forgoing your company this week,” Philip murmured. I told you the man was smooth. At this point Mother Moore would have been wearing nothing but goose bumps. But I was made of sterner stuff.
“I shall see you when you return. You can take me out for a lovely dinner and a bottle of Madame Clicquot’s finest.”
“It’s a pity I can’t take you with me. Mr. White is rumoured to appreciate comely young wenches. You might improve the odds for me.”
“I’m sure I would. Very few men can resist the charms of India Black.” You’ll think me pompous, but I speak the truth. I usually do, unless there’s a good reason not to.
Philip smiled. “You’re a conceited wench, India.”
I patted his arm. “Give me an hour with Harold White and I’d have him barking like a dog.”
“I believe you would.”
We walked a few paces and then Philip halted suddenly, swinging me round to face him.
“Why don’t you come with me? You could butter up this White fellow while I put the squeeze on him for the tobacco business. We’d be a deadly combination.”
I admit I felt a warm glow at Philip’s use of the word “we.” I usually keep myself to myself and it was deuced odd to think of myself as part of a couple. Odd, but not unpleasant.
“Surely you’re not serious?”
“Of course I am. Why shouldn’t you come? White couldn’t possibly turn me down, not with you on my arm, playing the appealing little wife.”
“Naturally. We could hardly visit White together unless we were married.”
“You’re not suggesting—”
“God, no,” he said, with just a wee bit more force than necessary. He saw he’d touched a nerve and hastened to make amends. “I mean, I know what your independence means to you, India. I do understand how you feel about permanent entanglements. I just thought that it wouldn’t hurt . . . that a temporary arrangement would be . . . that you wouldn’t mind helping out a friend . . . that— Confound it, you know what I mean.”
“I’d be very glad to be of assistance, but I doubt Mother Moore will feel quite as charitable with my time.”
“Oh, hang Mother Moore.”
I shook my head. “I can’t botch things with her. She’s a decent old pussy and the house is grand. I’d be cutting my own throat if I gave up such a cushy position.”
“Can’t you think of an excuse to get away? A dying mother, perhaps? Or a sick child?”
I looked at him in horror. “A child? Good God, I’m not going to invent a little nipper just to go to Devon with you. I’d be stuck with the bloody imaginary thing for the rest of my life. Mother Moore would be asking after its health, and wondering if its milk teeth had fallen out yet.”
“The dying mother, then.” Philip said. He gave me an appealing look, like a child trying to wheedle another piece of toffee. “Please try, India. I know White will be bowled over by your beauty. Once I have that contract, my future is assured.” He raised a hand and caressed my cheek with the back of his glove. “We’ll have a good time then, India. Champagne and oysters every night. A box at the opera. Perfume from Paris.”
“I am fond of perfume,” I admitted. Actually, I was keen to help the chap. He treated me handsomely, when he was in funds, and if I could help him feather his nest I would. But I couldn’t foul my own in the process. I’d have to find a way round Mother Moore without risking my cozy setup. She was a fine bird in many ways, but if she caught me in a lie I’d be out on the streets. I contemplated the matter for a few moments, pondering the risks inherent in deceiving my abbess. In truth, I’d been champing at the bit lately at Mother Moore’s. The same old routine was beginning to pall. As I said, I like risk, and if I could help Philip in a pecuniary matter that might redound to my benefit, why shouldn’t I?