“Does Thomas know you’re back yet?” Polly inquires, dipping her thin fingers into her cigarette case.
Groaning as I lower myself into the steaming tub I prepared, I begin adding petals of lavender, sage, and the poisonous amaryllis oil. “I’ve already sent a telegram right after, just like always,” I respond, scrubbing my bruised and battered body with soap.
She sits down on the stool next to the tub, somewhat behind me and begins watering my brunette hair with a jug. “I told him not to send you to that cutthroat; the Kimbers have been rueful since Tommy shot Billy Kimber.” Her expert hands add my heavily scented shampoo, the one I reserve the use for after a hit.
I close my eyes as she scrubs it into my scalp, being careful to avoid the laceration on the side of my head. “Will you hand me some gin, Polly? My head feels like it’s been hit by a bloody rhino.”
“More like Billy fuckin’ Kimber’s brother,” she mutters, but proceeds to get up and pour me a glass of the gin. “He could’ve sent John, or even Arthur to deal with him. But no, he sends the five foot two girl to kill a monster.” She sits back down and hands me the glass, as well as setting the bottle down next to me.
The burning of the alcohol is welcome flowing down my throat and warming my stomach. I normally don’t over-indulge myself in any kind of consumption, so I can already feel the relaxing effects of the drink dulling my pain. Taking out Robert Kimber was more daring than I originally thought. When Mr. Shelby had assigned me the task of finishing off the potentially dangerous brother, I thought it would be a breeze since the man had a wooden leg already from the war. But of course, I underestimated him and he got close. Too close. Until I lodged a frenzied bullet between his ribs in the corner of some fancy restaurant I “happened” to bump into him at. Luckily nobody noticed anything, including me leaving with a dress covered in blood spots.
“Polly, you know as well as I do that John has enough on his hands with his youngins’ and Arthur is too hooked on the drink for a discrete task as this.” Feeling her finishing rinsing my hair, I stand up and wrap myself in a towel. I squeeze the water out of my hair and pick up the bottle of gin on my way to collapsing on my creaky twin bed. “And who knows,” I say, taking a swig of gin and directing my glassy eyes to the cracked ceiling, “maybe there were two monsters tonight.”
“Oh, Lord,” I moan, quickly covering my eyes from the direct silver light hitting them.
“Get the fuck up, Amary,” I hear Mr. Shelby command quietly, probably after seeing the empty bottle laying next to me.
Removing my hands from my eyes and cracking them open, I yank a spare blanket over my body, having fallen asleep in the towel. “Yes, Mr. Shelby?”
He drags a beaten wooden chair over to sit by me, elbows on his knees, eyes focused and almost frantic. “A letter as arrived for you from Mr. Solomons’ bakery.” I jolt right up. “You are to meet with him this afternoon at three to discuss your position there.”
Nearly two months ago, Mr. Shelby had me send in a resume to apply for work at Mr. Solomons’ coveted bakery. Since them both meeting, he wants me to watch over the Jewish gang leader and report back everything I witness. It’s not the first time I’ve spied for the Shelby’s. It was actually the first ever assignment they gave me, to see if they could trust me after I appeared, twenty-three years old, a sack of bones with Polly pulling me off the streets. But after Billy Kimber was gone and the IRA have gone silent, it’s been months since I last did any surveying. The possibility electrified me.
“What time is it?” I grumble, standing up with the towel and blanket still protecting most of my modesty. Forcing my aching muscles to move, I grab my bottle of amaryllis oil on my beauty table and begin rubbing it everywhere it hurts. Normally the oil would either make someone violently ill or most likely kill them in a few hours, but my body thrives on its toxicity, somehow.
“Quarter past ten,” he replies, already standing up and taking his leave.
With him gone, I let the blanket and towel slip off me. I’ve already thought of my persona to be while I pursue the Jewish man. Picking out a satin, purple slip matching a purple knit dress reaching just below my knees, I start the process of becoming a wealthy woman wanting to find work for independence. Now, there’s obviously no baking of any kind of bread at his distillery, but a sweet, confident woman wouldn’t know that, would she? Word has it that with Sabini putting pressure on Mr. Solomons of late, he needs a distraction from his distillery, like actually showing he has a bakery. Who could be better than a petite woman like myself to be the front to that kind of operation going on behind the scenes?
I apply some light pink powder to my eyelids to compliment my brown eyes, rub my mascara brush into the block of black square in the tin and apply it to my lashes. For the past two months, ever since I’ve been assigned to Mr. Solomons’ case, I have learned numerous ways of manipulating bread in that time frame, wasting away my days in the kitchen, chucking burnt bread and giving away those that turned out to be edible. Along with baking, I’ll be posing as a single, Jewish woman which required extensive research on my part into everything that makes up a good Jewish woman.
“You got your fukin’ dress on, Mary?” I hear Arthur bellow right outside my door before letting himself in anyway as I’m hooking my garter into place. He covers his eyes mockingly, peeking around them. “All that for Alfie fuckin’ Solomons?”
Pulling my dress hem back down, I face my mirror again to start on my hair. I made the mistake of just passing out last night without putting any pins in my hair so now I have to resort to using a lot more pomade than I wanted. “Arthur, I’m pretty sure Mr. Solomons has more business on his mind than a woman like me. Nobody has ever seen him with a woman, who knows if he even likes women?” My voice came out slightly hopeful at the end, it would certainly make it less stressful as long as the man doesn’t make any advances. Spineless men like Robert Kimber are easy to deal with, but Alfie Solomons? A gang leader ruling the whole part of Camden Town with a history of unpredictable violence? I’m not sure if I can keep the bear away if he decides it’s me he wants.
Arthur releases a loud bellow of a laugh, slumping down onto my messy bed, wincing a bit as he must have hit a spring. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, Mary, how do you sleep on this wonky thing?” He bounces a bit, testing the lack of quality.
I take my pins out after having applied the pomade, finally sticking two needles through my hat in my hair to keep it in place. “By closing my eyes and the help of a bottle of gin.”
He doesn’t seem satisfied with my answer, but lets it go. “Anyway, Alfie’s religion don’t allow no homosexual shit. He loves his Jewish women, so maybe give him a little taste, eh?” He chuckles at his own joke that only serves to make my cheeks burn.
“So are you going to escort me and ruin my alibi or did you just want a chance barging into my apartment to see me in a state of undress?” I slide on my coat, slip on my gloves, and gather my purse with a pistol inside. Nearly forgetting, I take a dagger out of my drawer and slide it blade first between my cleavage, hilt settling on my bra. Seeing as he’s just sitting there and grinning, I go with my second presumption. “You can see yourself out, Arthur. It takes hours to get to Camden Town by car and my meeting is in four hours.”
Just as I’m making my way out, I hear Arthur. “Good luck, lass! And remember, Jewish men don’t fuck their women on the rag!”
The way to Camden Town felt like an eternity, the driver silent the whole way. Mr. Shelby had paid him well, some common man who works at the coal factory so as not to arouse suspicion of a seen Peaky Blinder in London. Many still wonder why I refer to Thomas as Mr. Shelby, but it’s quite simple. I’ve formed a bond with his brothers and the people around him, but he’s always out of arm's reach from me, so I display my respect by calling him Mr. Shelby. Even though he’s tried to get me to call him Thomas over the two years I’ve known him, recently having given up and not mentioning it anymore.
I know we’re no longer in Birmingham when the stench of coal turns to petrol. There’s more people who can afford a car around here, but there’s still people begging in the streets for food and children naked, playing in puddles.
“‘Ere we are, miss,” my driver speaks, pulling in along the curb outside the “bakery”.
“Thank you,” I say and hand him a wad of pounds to keep him silent.
Stepping out of the car and watching it drive away, I look up into the belly of the monster: Alfie Solomons’ illegal rum factory. I walk up to the luminous doors, clear my dry throat, and knock lightly on the door. Checking to see that all my bruises and cuts are covered underneath my nylons, gloves, and hair, I fiddle with my purse before one of the doors opens slowly. Revealed by the door is a tall man with dark curly hair on top of his head, along with the standard black kippah. I recognize his face as Ollie, the right-hand man of Mr. Solomons and also his lawyer.
“Name?” he demands, looking me up and down as if it’s impossible that a lady looking like me is about to enter the brewery.
Clearing my throat again, I hold out my gloved hand and give him my best smile. “Hello, my name is Amaryllis Smith.” I use my real first name, but give a generic maiden name. He seems lost for a second and then shakes my hand. “You must be Mr. Solomons. I have to say, it is a pleasure to meet you, sir. I am just overjoyed that you responded to my letter, to be quaint with you.”
He becomes increasingly confused the longer I speak, but there’s a slight tint of pink in his cheeks now. “I’m not Mr. Solomons, Miss Smith.” I let him see my face turn up in confusion now. “I’m Ollie, his assistant and lawyer.”
I giggle behind my hand and he gives a quick open smile. “I must apologize then, Ollie. Something about you made me think you were him.”
“Oh, well, uh,” he stutters and scratches the back of his head. He checks his watch and then jolts back up and waves his hand inside, holding open the door. “Well, come along. Your meeting with Mr. Solomons is in just a few minutes. He doesn’t like it when his schedule is off.”
Giving him another warm smile, I step inside and immediately the smell of rum assaults my nostrils. Ignoring it the best I can, I follow Ollie to Mr. Solomons office, watching everything around me. There’s no other doors in sight for now, but there’s hundreds of barrels lined up along with at least a dozen men working. Ollie turns a corner and there’s a room, four walls put up in the middle of the warehouse with windows surrounding the upper walls of it. He motions for me to stay where I am so he can pop his head into the office, speaking a few words.
I hear grumbling inside and a shiver runs down my spine. I’m about to meet my most dangerous target yet. The cold steel of my dagger pressing flush against my skin becomes more noticeable by the second.
Ollie opens the door wider and leads me inside, him closing the door behind himself and standing in the corner. I enter with a smile and get my first look at the Jewish gang leader of Camden Town. Mr. Solomons is sat in his chair behind his desk, shoulders hunched forward as he scribbles away on the paper in front of him, numerous rings around his fingers and golden half-moon glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. There’s no kippah on his short hair, I notice. His gruff beard doesn’t seem to cover some scars he got from the war, or so Mr. Shelby presumes. I’m surprised that even though he runs the second most successful gang in East End, that he’s wearing a worn shirt and pants.
“Alright, sit the fuck down. No need to stand there like a fuckin’ boy on the front lines,” he rumbles, still not looking up.
I quickly take the seat in front of him. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Solomons. Thank you very much for responding to my letter for work as a baker.”
He finally looks up and our eyes lock, stealing some of my breath away. It’s almost like his oceanic eyes are unraveling every secret I have, which is plenty. “Right, Miss . . .”
“Right, Miss Smith. Are you Jewish?”
My brain halts at his rough introduction. Blinking, I nod. “Yes, although I didn’t live around here. My family and I lived in Liverpool for the past-”
“A criminal record?” he interrupts, squinting his eyes at me, hands folded in front of his face.
Feigning surprise, I portray shock. “Uh, no. Not at all.”
He continues to squint at me, then turns his attention down to his desk. “Our day, right, starts at five o’ clock.” He nods, as if to get the point. “So you’ll ‘ave to get that pretty ‘ead up in time to get ‘ere by then, because I don’t hire fuckin’ waps, okay?”
“Of course, Mr. Solomons,” I reassure him, assuming my visage as spoiled rich girl again. “My jeweler was very busy from where I’m from and demanded that we wake up at the crack of dawn to wait for him every week. Poor man needed the time to assort gems for my mother’s exotic tastes.”
Giving Ollie an annoyed side eye, he tips back in his creaky chair and crosses his arms. “If you were gettin’ gems every week, why come here when you were playin’ fuckin’ dress up all your life?”
I give him a sheepish smile and tuck a lock of hair behind my ear, which doesn’t go unnoticed. “After my father tried to set me up with several suitors, I grew tired and saw no end in sight so I moved down here. It was time to; they’ve finally accepted my life of a spinster.”
He purses his lips and slams his hands on his desk, making both Ollie and I jump. “Eight pounds and seven quid a month, so don’t fuckin’ run that pretty fuckin’ mouth o’ yours about unfair payment. You will be ‘ere from five to six at night, dressed less like an ol’ cunt’s wife and more like a baker. No fraternizing with the men, yeah? So long as you wish to keep your legs closed, you’ll leave ‘em be. And uh, ‘ere’s your uniform.” He reaches into his drawer and my body immediately tenses, hand gripping my handbag. But he doesn’t reach for the whiskey or pistol I know he has in there, but for a worn apron.
Catching the apron that he throws, I almost can’t believe I’ve fooled a gangster leader. “Does this mean I have the job?”
“Yes, you do. Now I’ll be showin’ you around then you can fuck off.” Groaning as he stands, I notice him leaning heavily onto his simple, wooden cane with his right hand. At least if Mr. Shelby ever did order a hit on him, it wouldn’t be too difficult.
I follow behind him through the warehouse, thinking up a few ways he could go, just in case. There’s just under two dozen men working in the whole building, very few windows and the few are quite high, a few oddly-placed bread loaves around, and plenty of rum barrels.
We’re now in a nice-sized kitchen that looks to lead out into another room looking like a storefront. “This’ll be where you make the magic happen,” he says with a wide spread of his hands. “You make and sell the bread; if anyone asks for white or brown, you are to direct them to the other door ‘round back to speak with Ollie, alright? Now,” he spits in his hand and offers it to me.
Without removing my glove due to the scrapes still scattered on my knuckles, I shake his massive hand that just envelopes mine. His grip is firm, but not bone-crushing like I expected. It even sends a warm thrill through my body at the contact.
I give him another one of my big smiles. “I’ll you tomorrow then, boss!”
His intense gaze burns into the back of my head as I take my leave.
‘I have broken bread. Down to two dozen loaves, but rations in sight.’
Hopefully, the telegram will be able to reach Mr. Shelby by tomorrow morning, if not then afternoon. I’ve already cleaned up and am now laying awake in my slip, in yet another apartment paid by Polly under my name I gave Mr. Solomons. Just in case he ever got curious to where I live.
Tomorrow morning will be my first day at the Jewish gangster’s “bakery”. Just thinking those words sends a shiver down my spine. Never have I been this close to a potential threat like Mr. Solomons. I fall asleep dreaming of the simple days when all I had to do was eavesdrop on the IRA and maybe take a few of them out.