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Red Herring

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It was always, thought Madam Anthea, a pleasure to meet a fellow enterprising businesswoman. Madam Julie, as she liked to be known, was new in town. She'd moved all her girls from Maine after a tip off about a police raid and set up a house across the street from Madam Anthea's establishment. It wasn't ideal - Anthea hadn't been pleased when she'd first heard about it - but a little competition never hurt anyone. Kept the girls on their toes, or on their stiletto heels, as it were.

It was a bright, sunny day in Washington DC, and Anthea and Julie looked every bit the respectable ladies as they sipped champagne beneath a white umbrella at an outdoor cafe. Perhaps slightly more becoming than the stuffy politicians wives, but ladies nonetheless.

"It was raining in Maine when I left," said Julie, spearing a bite of salad with her fork. "Absolutely miserable. This is much more pleasant."

Anthea laughed. "You just wait for winter. I don't think you'll be singing the same tune when there are seven inches of snow outside your front door."

The conversation was banal, but then, this was their first time having lunch together. Anthea was intrigued by this woman. She had fabulous taste in fashion, a luscious mane of blonde hair and interesting features - bright blue eyes and high cheekbones; perhaps a Lauren Bacall quality, if Anthea were to put a name to it - and she carried herself with a careless sort of grace. It was the kind of casual elegance that would have made her a prime pick for one of Anthea's girls, had she not been in charge of her own establishment, and that was a high compliment indeed. Anthea was used to looking at women as men did - appraising their looks and charm, admiring the curve of hip and breast. She knew what men wanted, what they liked. Selecting girls was something she was very good at, and she was certainly intrigued by everything about Madam Julie.

"Did you grow up in Maine?" Anthea asked, twisting the stem of her champagne glass between her fingers.

"No," Julie replied. "Connecticut. I moved to New York when I was seventeen, worked as a waitress and did a little modelling, then I met a boy from Portland and went there to be with him. The relationship didn't last, but I found other reasons to stay."

I'll bet, thought Anthea. She wondered how Julie had got her start in the oldest profession. She wondered if Julie's story was anything like her own. Not blessed with rich parents who could pay her way into society, nor inclined to marry straight out of high school and be confined to the kitchen, Anthea had started off serving drinks in bars and being paid a pittance for it. She had her looks, though, and her charm, and both of those things had caught the eye of a rich, powerful, married man who had given her pretty things in exchange for the pleasure of her company. When the guilt finally overcame him and he returned to his wife's bed, Anthea had learned quite a few things about men and their desires, and how she could lead a more comfortable life. She wasn't about to ask Julie, though. Although they had a mutual, unspoken understanding of what they both did, neither had yet mentioned it in so many words, and Anthea didn't intend to open up straight away. She might have learned to look in the way a man did, but she still thought like a woman, and all the good looks and grace in the world wouldn't make her trust someone on the first meeting. She had made errors of judgement before, and was still paying for them. Never again.

*

Madam Julie, it seemed, was not so cautious.

"I'm surprised by the number of politicians..." she said, the next time they dined together. "I've never had that before. I mean, aren't they concerned...?"

Anthea inclined her head, rolled a shoulder. "Obviously not," she replied.

Julie seemed to sense Anthea's reticence in speaking openly about the topic, and changed the subject of the conversation to something more benign.

After that, Anthea kept a discreet but close eye on the door of Madam Julie's establishment. There were indeed a number of familiar faces, even if they wore hats and kept their heads down as they approached the doors. Some of them were Anthea's clients as well - some that she hadn't seen in a while. Anthea noted it, but wasn't particularly concerned. It was only natural for men to want to try new things when they became available. She might lose one or two of them, but she was confident that many would return to her once they exhausted Madam Julie's supply of the new and exciting. Anthea had superior goods.

*

 

They got to know each other slowly. Anthea was cautious, Julie rather charmingly naive. She would mention names to Anthea, shocked at the people who walked through her door, and Anthea would smile and not respond. Obviously in Maine there were no famous faces, no people of importance. Once or twice, Julie said, during the summer vacation period, a Hollywood actor had come through her doors in Portland, but never people like the ones she was seeing in Washington - politicians, judges, all sorts of men in smart suits with official looking briefcases.

"It's good," Anthea told her, eventually, when there was no one around to hear. "The more, the better. If you have important clients, you have important friends. Politicians and police commissioners don't want to see anyone expose your business for what it is - they don't want to go down with you. Elections are lost on less all the time."

On Mondays Anthea and gave her girls the night off, and Julie soon adopted the practice. While the girls were out, or taking long baths, or getting much needed sleep, Julie would steal across the street with a bottle of brandy, and they would settle themselves in Anthea's private quarters and watch I Love Lucy.

It was on those nights that they really got to know each other. With complete privacy and the comfort and familiarity of her own rooms, and with a glass or two of scotch in her, Anthea let down her guard a little. It seemed right, with Julie. Anthea was surrounded by women all day - she had plenty of people to talk to - but all of them were her staff, and she was nothing if not a professional. A Madam had to be discreet, aloof. She was never too familiar with her girls, it put the punters off. And since most of Washington society had some idea what she did for a living, she tended to get along very well with men and not at all with their wives. So it was rather nice to finally have a woman to talk to.

*

 

It took a few months for the cop to come around. Anthea received a whispered phone call late one Wednesday afternoon.

"There's a policeman hanging around outside," said Julie. "He's scaring off the patrons. Can you see him?"

"Hang on a moment." Anthea set the phone down on the counter and walked to the mail slot at the front door, making a show of opening the box before she let her gaze sweep the street.

She returned to the phone. "I can see him. This is his beat. He'll come around like that every now and then."

"What should I do?"

Anthea smiled. "Well, you can let him stand around and scare away your clients if you like, or you could invite him in for a coffee and slip him a crisp hundred. That usually does the trick."

Julie laughed. "Thank you, I might try that." She hung up.

*

 

Occasionally, Anthea visited Julie's place. It was elegant, subtle, and very quiet. Anthea caught glimpses of the girls but never heard them. That was strange to her. She was used to the sound of female voices talking, of laughter and the clink of glass, the sound of showers running and washing machines humming, continually turning over lingerie and bed sheets. Julie's place was much quieter than hers. Perhaps she ran it differently. Perhaps girls from Maine were different than girls from Washington. Perhaps they didn't know each other as well as Anthea's girls did.

But Julie's rooms were very similar to her own, plush furniture and blue lampshades (no red lights in the Madam's suite, she did business of a different nature). They reclined on the sofa and sipped red wine and tapped the ends of their cigarettes into a crystal ashtray.

"So," Anthea asked Julie, "How did you end up here? Not in Washington, obviously, but in this business? In this position?"

Julie smiled and trailed a finger around the edge of her wine glass. "I had it easy, I think. Easier than some of the girls. I was serving a woman in the restaurant I worked in one night. She was on her own, but she'd come in dressed up like a movie star. Mink coat, diamonds, gloves. I thought it was strange that she wasn't with anyone. She barely looked at me when she ordered, or when I took her food to her table. But when I gave her the bill, she looked up at me, told me I was beautiful. Asked me if I'd ever considered modelling. I told her I'd done some, back in New York, and she gave me her card and told me she might have work for me. I called her the very next day and she invited me to a photo shoot." Julie smiled. "It wasn't quite the type of modelling I'd done before - far fewer clothes, but the money. I made more in one day than I made in a month waiting tables. I got evicted from my apartment, she offered me a place to sleep. I had no idea what kind of business she ran at first, but after a while, well, it seemed silly not to make a little more money doing what everyone else who lived there did. And she was... very fond of me. Took me under her wing, so to speak. I was her favourite. And when she retired, I inherited her business."

Anthea nodded. A woman, then. Not the way it had happened for her, but then not so different, either. One thing was obvious to Anthea - they both loved money, and pretty things. Kindred spirits, it seemed.

"What about you?" Julie asked, and Anthea told her.

*

 

It was on a Monday that Anthea received the letter. She was fanning herself with it, lost in thought, when Julie arrived with a bottle of brandy to share.

"What have you got there?" Julie asked, fixing them both a drink.

"I'm not sure, really. It's a bit strange." As Julie handed her the drink, Anthea offered her the letter. Julie read it, brow furrowing.

"What financial arrangement?" she asked.

"A painful one, honestly. More than I can afford in an envelope every month, sent to a post office box in New Hampshire.

"Blackmail?" Julie asked.

"You could call it that," Anthea said, taking a large sip of her drink.

"But how... Why? Police and judges and politicians must come to your place as often as they come to mine. Nobody talks about what we do, but everyone knows. What could anyone possibly have over you?"

Anthea sighed, sipped the drink again. "A couple of years ago, a girl came to my door looking for work. She'd been kicked out of home by her parents because of the boyfriend she had, and she had no money. She seemed honest. She didn't have a birth certificate, but she had a driving permit that looked real. She was underage, though. Somehow, someone found out. I don't know how. I fired her as soon as I found out. Maybe she was working for them, I don't know. Maybe she's getting a cut of the money. I don't even know who the person is. A letter just arrived one day, with all the details of what the person knew, demanding that I send money every month or the police and the press would be contacted. I couldn't afford to ignore it. This is my livelihood."

Julie looked perplexed, concerned. "So, this dinner party. Are you going to go?"

"What choice do I have?"

*

 

"Anthea Blake, you're under arrest for murder."

The rest of the words faded into a blur. The handcuffs were cold and bit into her wrists. It was still raining outside. Wet hair fell into her face and she shook it away. It was warm in the car, but nothing felt real. What a crazy night. What a bizarre, surreal gathering. How had it all happened?

Murder. She'd killed the cop. The same cop she used to bribe. But why?

Darkness. Opportunity. Suspicion.

"Did you enjoy the dinner party, Miss Scarlet?" asked a voice from the driver's seat.

Blonde hair. Sparkling blue eyes. Lauren Bacall cheekbones. Julie.

"Who are you?" Anthea asked.

"Agent Bell, FBI," she replied. "But you can call me Mrs. Green."