Friday 16 September. Kent
Lolly Bruce reached out from the passenger seat and angled the rear-view mirror so she could study her face, peering at her reflection with a combination of intensity and disappointment. Grey eyes, small pink mouth, brown hair swept into a topknot. She sighed. Even with all the effort she made, her make-up carefully applied, she felt she never quite pulled it off. There was something in her features that betrayed her, something more East End than West, more Kellston than Mayfair. She had learned how to imitate sophistication but not how to inhabit it.
‘Do you have to do that?’ Vinnie asked.
‘How else am I supposed to see what I look like?’
‘You look the same as the last time you checked.’
Lolly gave a snort. ‘That was over an hour ago. Women of substance have to pay attention to their appearance.’ She applied more lipstick and dabbed at her lips with a tissue. ‘All right. I’m ready.’
Vinnie rolled his eyes and then moved the mirror back to where it belonged.
Lolly checked her fake Hermes handbag, made sure the goods were still inside and got out of the car. She took a deep breath and pushed back her shoulders. Posture was everything in this game. Well, that and confidence. She had done this same thing so often but the nerves still got to her.
As she walked towards the shop, Lolly tried to tune in to that sense of entitlement which the monied possessed. I have every right to be here, every right to be the owner of some very classy jewellery. The trick was to look the part – cashmere twinset, pearls, heels – and to sound it too. She could manage the latter without any difficulty. Five years at Daynor Bridge, a public school for girls, had taught her how to speak with a silver spoon in her gob. What it hadn’t done, however, was to wipe away all traces of her working-class origins. Acting in a superior fashion didn’t come naturally to her and nor did the art of disdain.
Today her name was Anna Carter-West and she had a driving licence to prove it. The licence was as genuine as her handbag. Sometimes they asked for ID and sometimes they didn’t, but she always came prepared. Stopping outside the jeweller’s, she took a moment to steady herself whilst pretending to study the window display. It didn’t do to linger for too long; courage had a habit of draining away.
Inside, the shop glittered with its fancy lighting and pricey displays. Stepping up to the counter, with what she hoped would pass for blue-blooded nonchalance, she gave the man a pleasant smile. ‘Good morning.’
‘Good morning, miss. How can I help you?’
Lolly took one of the small velvet-lined boxes from her hand- bag. ‘I have a ring,’ she said. ‘It belonged to my grandmother.
I’m not sure if I want to sell it or not but . . . Perhaps you could tell me how much it’s worth.’
The man was in his forties, small and dapper with a thin face and narrow moustache. He took the box and opened it, his gaze flicking between the ring and Lolly. ‘Antique,’ he said, removing the ring and examining it. ‘A ruby. Very nice.’ He put a tiny magnifying glass to his eye and examined the hallmark.
‘Eighteen carat gold.’
Lolly knew all this already but nodded anyway. ‘And its value?’
The man hesitated. ‘Your grandmother’s, you say?’
‘That’s right. She passed away a few years ago. As I mentioned, I don’t really want to sell it but . . .’ Lolly assumed a suitably sad expression. She knew from experience that it was wise to keep things simple and not embroider the story.
‘If you could just give me a couple of minutes, I’ll get my colleague. He’s the expert on precious gems.’
As he withdrew into the rear of the shop, ring in hand, Lolly had one of those alarm bell moments. Had he looked at her oddly? Why hadn’t he left the ring on the counter? Why was her heart beating like a jackhammer? None of this felt right, and if it felt wrong it probably was. The final confirmation of this came when she thought she heard the ting of a phone being lifted. Had she? She wasn’t sure. Damn it! The bastard could be calling the law.
She had to make a quick decision. If she did a runner, she’d have to leave the ring behind, but if she stayed he might try and keep her talking until the police arrived. How long would that take? Five minutes? Ten? Unless there was a patrol car in the district, in which case . . .
Lolly looked over her shoulder and out of the window. It was a busy road with lots of traffic. Vinnie was parked around the
corner, out of sight. She was reluctant to abandon the ring – it was worth a few hundred – and Terry Street wouldn’t be happy if she came back empty handed, but she didn’t fancy getting nicked.
Stay or go? She had a bad feeling, chill fingers running down her spine. Perhaps it was best to cut her losses. At least she hadn’t handed over both the rings. The more expensive one, a large diamond, was still in her bag. She was always cautious when she was flogging dodgy gear, testing the waters with a less valuable item first in case the buyer became suspicious.
Lolly was counting off the seconds now. If the law did come, she’d be caught in possession of two stolen rings. Not so easy to explain. She peered towards the back of the shop – still noth- ing – and made a decision. Her gut was telling her to scarper and so that’s exactly what she did. Instinct was what propelled her out of the door and back onto the street, breaking into a run as soon as her feet hit the pavement.
Vinnie saw her coming and had the engine started when she was still twenty yards away. She jumped into the passenger seat and slammed shut the door. ‘Drive!’ she ordered, like some cliché of a bank robber fleeing the scene of the crime. ‘Let’s go! Get out of here!’
Vinnie took off with little regard for the cars behind and in front of him. He sped down the road, swung a right and was half a mile from the shop before he turned his head and said,
‘Take it that didn’t go too well, then?’
‘He knew something was off. Disappeared out back with the ring and the next thing I know he’s on the bleedin’ phone, isn’t he?’ Lolly had automatically dropped back into her everyday voice. ‘I didn’t hang around for the law to show up.’
‘They’ve got wise to you, love. Maybe word has got around.’ Lolly thought he could be right. She supposed she’d had a
good run, over a year now, but she couldn’t afford to lose the income. Once a month or so, she and Vinnie left London and travelled out to the surrounding counties to try and offload some of Terry’s more valuable acquisitions. For everything she shifted, she got ten per cent. Away from the capital, jewellers tended to be more trusting – or maybe just more gullible.
‘Could be a one-off. Perhaps he’s the suspicious sort.’
‘You want to try somewhere else?’
She shook her head. Sometimes, when luck wasn’t with you, you simply had to accept it. ‘No, not today. I don’t want to tempt providence.’
‘So the ruby’s gone for a burton?’
‘I could have lost them both if I’d stayed,’ she snapped defensively.
‘All right, no need to bite me head off. I’m sure Terry will understand. Easy come, easy go, right?’
Vinnie barked out a laugh. ‘Nah, he’ll be well pissed off.’ And she knew he was right. She would have to get her story
straight, perhaps embellish it a bit, before they got back to London. If Terry reckoned she’d panicked, overreacted, he might jump to the conclusion she was losing her nerve. Perhaps she was. Perhaps, at this very moment, the salesman and his colleague were standing behind the counter, ready to offer her a wad of cash and wondering where the hell she’d disappeared to. It wouldn’t take them long to put two and two together.
She wound down the window – it was a balmy autumn day – and thought some more about Terry. On the whole, their relationship was an amicable one. It went back six years to when she’d been a skinny thirteen-year-old, orphaned and living with Brenda Cecil at the pawnbroker’s. Terry had recruited Lolly to run errands for him. In those days he’d been working for the
gangland boss, Joe Quinn, but Joe was long gone. Terry was the boss now.
The air blew through the car, freeing fine strands of hair from her carefully constructed topknot. She watched the Kentish roads go by. From the moment she’d woken up this morning she’d had one of those dread feelings in the pit of her stomach, like something bad was going to happen. A premonition? She wasn’t sure if she believed in that kind of stuff. But perhaps that was why she’d reacted like she had in the shop, anticipating disaster even before it had occurred.
In all the time she’d been working with Vinnie, she’d never been caught. A few close shaves but nothing that came near to an arrest. She glanced over at him. Vinnie Keane was a great bear of a man, about six foot five, and built for intimidation. When it came to trouble, he didn’t have to lift a finger. One look was all it took to frighten off even the stupidest of people. She couldn’t claim they were friends, exactly – he was much older than her – but the two of them got along okay.
Her gaze flicked back to the road again, and it was then she saw the sign for West Henby.
On impulse, she said, ‘Turn right, here, at the junction.’
‘There’s something I want to see.’
‘It won’t take long. A quick detour. What’s the matter? You in a hurry to tell Terry the good news about how it all went wrong and we lost his ring?’
‘What’s with the “we”? I’m just the driver.’
Lolly pulled a face. ‘So much for solidarity. I thought you were supposed to have my back.’
Vinnie smirked, but did as he was asked and turned right onto the smaller road. It was another ten minutes before they
came to the village of West Henby. She looked out of the window at the place that had once been so familiar to her. In the year since she’d last been here, nothing much had changed. Why would it have done? There were the same bustling streets, pubs and shops.
‘Keep going,’ she said. ‘Straight through the village and then follow the road round.’
‘What are we doing here?’
‘Taking a trip down memory lane.’
Vinnie flicked the ash from his cigarette out of the window.
‘Always glad to oblige,’ he said drily. ‘Where do you fancy next, your ladyship – the Riviera, New York?’
Lolly ignored him. ‘Slow down. We’re almost there. Okay, just beyond that tree. On the left. The gates. Do you see them? You can stop there.’
Vinnie pulled up, keeping the engine running. Lolly wound down the window and gazed along the long curving drive. It wasn’t possible to see the house from here but she could see it in her mind’s eye: a grand, three-storey white building with a central flight of steps and two big flower pots like Ali Baba jars flanking either side. And behind it, the grounds, including the wide, cold lake with its bulrushes and weeping willows.
‘What are we looking at, exactly?’
‘The past,’ she said. ‘This is where I used to live.’
‘All right for some.’
Lolly could have told him that it hadn’t been an easy time, that it was never straightforward being the cuckoo in someone else’s nest, but it would have sounded self-pitying. Anyway, she wasn’t in the mood for confidences. Mal Fury had taken her in after her mother’s suicide, become her guardian when she was thirteen, and his wife had been less than happy about it. The only child Esther had wanted was her own, the baby that had
been abducted all those years before. No one knew whether Kay was still alive or if she’d drowned in the lake on the day she was snatched.
Lolly wasn’t sure how she felt about being back. Not nostal- gic so much as . . . as what? The emotions she felt were strange, ambivalent. She had grown to love Mal – the only father figure she’d ever known – but her relationship with Esther had always been strained. Lolly’s teenage years, enhanced by Mal’s kind- ness, had been simultaneously blighted by the dark shadow of Esther’s contempt.
‘We done here?’ Vinnie asked.
Lolly was about to nod when the thin wail of a baby’s cry, plaintive and piercing, floated through the air. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She sucked in a breath, her eyes widening. Where was it coming from? There were no other houses close by, and visitors never brought children here.
‘Do you hear that?’ she asked, turning to Vinnie.
‘A baby. A baby crying.’
Vinnie shook his head. ‘I didn’t hear nothin’.’
‘You must have. Turn the engine off.’
Vinnie obliged, and they both listened. Silence. He raised his eyebrows. Lolly frowned and got out of the car. She went up to the gates and pressed her face against the metal scrolls. She listened some more, straining her ears. Just the sound of the breeze rustling through the trees. Esther was the only person living here now, along with the staff. Mal’s current digs were less salubrious: a small cramped cell in a London prison.
She peered along the empty drive, shivering in spite of the sun. Had she heard it? Perhaps it had just been a figment of her imagination, something dredged up from her subconscious.
The locals said this place was haunted, but then the locals said a lot of things.
Lolly didn’t want to hang about in case Esther caught her. She retreated to the car, still none the wiser. ‘Okay, I’m done here.’
‘Feeling homesick?’ Vinnie asked as he set off again.
Lolly glanced over her shoulder. ‘No, just curious.’ If home was where the heart was, then Kellston was probably more home than here. But she didn’t really belong there either. She was one of those people caught between two worlds and at the moment both of them were rattling her nerves.
Stolen is available now in hardback, ebook and audio.
'A cracking good read' Jessie Keane
'Well into Martina Cole territory' Independent
'Great writing, gripping story, loved it' Mandasue Heller
Lolly Bruce spent several years in the lap of luxury, but now she's back in a world she knows: London's East End. Her guardian Mal Fury is doing time, so Lolly is working on the wrong side of the law to get by. She'll need to use all her street smarts to keep her safe in Kellston.
Then one day the Old Bill turn up on her doorstep. Mal is on the run, but why when he has only months left to serve? Lolly is convinced the only thing Mal would escape for is news about the daughter he lost nineteen years ago. She's the only thing he has left to lose.
Private Investigator Nick Trent knows better than to get involved with the Furys, but his better judgement doesn't count for much when it comes to Lolly. Before he knows it he's agreed to help her track down Mal, and take on whatever the East End underworld throws at them...
STOLEN is the sequel to Roberta's thirteenth novel SURVIVOR, but can also be read as a standalone.