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Roguish Women

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82 Boulevard de Clichy

Paris, France

1925

 

The Moulin Rouge.

 

            The city of love. A city of lights and illusions. A city where one could lose sight of their troubles. A city where one could hide in plain sight.

 

            “Monsieur Shelby!” A plump man with a red face greeted the men at the door. He was dressed in a scarlet-colored suit and Tommy couldn’t help but think how the man would stick out like a sore thumb in Birmingham. But in Paris, he fit in like he was one of the landmarks. “Bonjour, bonjour, welcome to the Moulin Rouge.”

            The Peaky Blinders were there for business. Not the cabaret, but Paris. A man had contacted Tommy some time ago, asking to negotiate about importing car parts and subsequently firearms with a little bit of cocaine to sweeten the deal.

            Conversations over the telephone were held until the man invited Tommy and his brothers to seal the deal in person. None of the Shelbys had been back in France since the War. It caused a knee-jerk reaction of disgust but it was a big deal that they couldn’t pass up.

            Paris was nothing like the countryside they fought on. The city was electric and it was hard to believe the city had faced the same war only a few years prior.

 

            “There is a table upstairs for you, Monsieur Dugas is waiting.” The man ushered the Blinders into the crowded venue. Tables crowded around a massive dance floor where a group of girls was putting on a show. Beautiful women wearing elaborate costumes covered in frills, gemstones, and feathers. Their outfits shimmered in the spotlights, a far cry from what would’ve been deemed appropriate only a few years ago. Shorthaired and hiking up their skirts, these girls captivated the audience, hypnotizing the men who dared glance their way. How could they look away from women dancing in such outfits?

            Arthur and John were positively chuffed at the display and jostled each other as they climbed the stairs to the second level. The promenade that overlooked the dance floor was a bit tamer. Tables were set up against the railing allowing people a good view of the stage below. A bit quieter than the main floor, it was the perfect place for their meeting.

            A man stood up when he saw the entourage approach. “Monsieur Shelby, thank you for joining me.”

            “Mr. Dugas.” Tommy nodded politely and shook hands with the businessman.

            “I trust you had a pleasant trip over from England?” The well-dressed man sat, gesturing for the rest to sit as well.

            John and Arthur took a seat, leaving Finn and Isaiah to stand as guard though the younger men were distracted by the women around them.

            Martin Dugas was a businessman to the core. Every drop of blood in his body was dedicated to the trade. Whether or not the things he did were legal wasn’t the issue.

            A waiter arrived with an ice-cold bottle of champagne, letting Dugas inspect the label. “Gentlemen, champagne? Then we can talk business.”

 

            A deal was settled within the hour. Although his brothers were keen to drink through the entire negotiation process, Tommy kept his wits about him. He wasn’t going to let a wild environment and French champagne cloud his judgment. But once the deal was made, the two men shook hands to confirm. Contracts would be signed the next morning.

            Once the ink on the contract began to dry, Finn and Isaiah to go mingle with the entertainment. Tommy waved them off with his hand, letting them have their fun. He wasn’t interested in the women at the cabaret, he was there purely on business and wasn't going to get caught up in the lights of the club. 

            “Whiskey, Tom. You can relax.” Arthur handed his brother a glass. “Got everything you want, din’t ya?”

            Tommy nodded but he couldn’t help but scan the scene around them. John already had a pretty brunette perched on his lap and was flagging a waiter down for another whiskey. A woman clad in a corset and fishnets was giggling at every word Finn and Isaiah had to say, causing the men to practically drool all over her.

            “Need to take a walk,” Tommy muttered. Standing up, he stubbed out his cigarette and went for the stairs. Pushing his way past a few partiers on the stairs, he made his way down to the first floor.

            There were about a dozen girls on the dance floor, dancing to the live music that was loud enough to make the venue tremble. Some of the women on the dance floor were beckoning to men, luring them out to dance with them. Tommy ignored a few propositions to dance and continued towards the exit.

            Tommy passed by a group of young men, most likely a stag party. They were all sloshing drunk and hollering at one of their mates who was doing his best to keep up with one of the dancers. It briefly reminded him of how he and his brothers once were. When they were younger and hadn’t been broken by the war. They often spent long nights out, getting drunk and high. Trying their best to win over the prettiest women at the bar.

            Despite only walking past them, he caught a glimpse of one of the men grabbing roughly at the woman. A flash of discomfort crossed her face and she made a move away from him.

            The party booed and taunted their friend. The man on the dance floor egged on, kicked out one of her heels bringing the woman to her knees in front of him.

            Tommy heard her yelp of pain, a sharp contrast to the large brass section blaring away. The arrogance made something snap inside of Tommy and he wasn’t about to pretend he hadn’t seen anything.

            The Blinder pushed past the stag party and out onto the dance floor. “Oi!” He barked.

            The man who had grabbed a fistful of the woman’s hair, startled at his shout. A clueless look passed over his drunk, glazed eyes. He said something in French but it was lost to the music.

            Tommy grabbed him by the collar and spoke two words that he assumed the man would understand. If he didn’t know the words, he’d be able to translate the tone. “Fuck off.” He spat and shoved him back towards his friends.

            The stag party began to act up again, shouting some angry words in French and making steps towards Tommy. But the Blinder quickly squashed their outrage by flicking open his coat and showing them the pistol in his holster. The flash of a gun was enough to make the drunk men hastily retreat.

            The young woman was trying to get up off her knees. One of her hands went to her hair, the other resting on the filthy wood floor. She watched as a pair of shoes stopped in front of her. They were expensive, shined to perfection, and waited patiently.    

            The dancer looked up with tears in her eyes to see the man who saved her. Her knight in shining armor. Although he wore an expensive suit instead of armor. He had dark hair and stunningly cold blue eyes. He silently reached out a hand to her.

            Shaking, she took his hand and allowed him to help her stand. “Merci.” She whispered.

            “You’re welcome,” Tommy answered in English so she was aware he didn’t speak fluent French.

            “You’re British?”

            His forehead wrinkled in mild shock when he heard her accent. “You’re American?”

            She nodded and let her hand slip from his. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”

            “Are you hurt?” He asked.

            The dancer looked down at her heels. “I may have twisted my ankle but it’s nothing to fuss about.” She shrugged.

            “Can you walk?”

            She forced a smile. “Don’t need to walk. Just need to be able to dance.”

            “Can you dance?”

            “I have to unless I want to be fired.”

            He frowned and glanced around them. “Won’t be fired while I’m here. C’mon, there a room you can sit down? Somewhere quieter? Maybe get you some ice for your ankle.” There was no room for negotiation in his tone.

            Since he was a patron, she was supposed to give him what he wanted. And if he wanted her to go sit in the back room while he fetched her ice, then who was she to deny him?

            “We can use one of the dressing rooms.”

 

            After Tommy retrieved some ice from the bar, the dancer led him to the back hallway. Although the music could still be heard and felt through the walls, it was much quieter behind the scenes. There were many dressing rooms, able to hold about ten girls at a time, but there was only one that was empty. Costumes and props were scattered around cluttering the space. Women rushed around the mess trying to get ready for an upcoming act.

            Tommy helped the woman onto a chair and grabbed a towel left hanging by a mirror. He poured the ice into the towel and tied it up like a sack before pulling up a chair and setting it up in front of her. “Set it up here. Need to keep it elevated ‘fore it swells.”

            She obeyed quietly and let him gently place the fashioned ice pack onto her ankle. “Thank you…”

            “Shelby, Tommy Shelby.”

            “Thank you, Mr. Shelby. You’re much kinder than other men I’ve met.” She leaned down to remove her heels.

            “Are you going to tell me your name too or are you meant to keep that secret?” He pulled out his cigarette tin and offered one to her.

            “Some girls take aliases.” She admitted. “My name’s Kate though.” She let him light the cigarette.

            The two sat in silence for a moment, smoking and stuck in their own heads.

            “So, what’s a girl like you doing here in Paris, aye?” Tommy wondered.

            “I uh…” Kate made herself busy by fussing with the ice on her ankle and fixing her hair. “My father had debts and they were after my family. So I came here to get away from that life I was just a dancer at home. A ballet dancer.” Her green eyes lit up with joy when she mentioned her passion. The love she had to leave behind. Still, the joy was short-lived. “But I wasn’t making any money so I came here. They pay better and well…dreams aren’t meant to pay the bills, are they?”

            “Are you not just a dancer here?”

            She laughed bitterly, the joy instantly leaving her eyes and leaving behind a residue of bitter disappointment. “We aren’t dressed like this for fun, Mr. Shelby.”

            He nodded in understanding. “They made you a whore.”

            “I prefer the term courtesan but I suppose it’s no improvement.” Kate sighed and tilted forward. Twisting an arm back she tried to loosen the laces of her corset so she could breathe a little easier. “So, Mr. Shelby, if you’re British then what are you doing here?”

            “Business.” He replied. “Ordinary business.”

            Kate studied his appearance. The man clearly had wealth. He wore a three-piece suit that looked either nicely tailored or custom made. But there was something about the look in his eyes that gave off an air of danger. It was unlike Kate had ever seen in the eyes of a wealthy man. It was evident that he wasn’t someone who inherited his money or struck it rich by chance. He’d worked hard and it had paid off. It was still too early to tell how he’d acquired his wealth. “I meet a lot of businessmen in my line of work.”

            “I can imagine.” Tommy was sure that hole-in-the-wall brothels were much cheaper than the cabaret. “How about politicians?”

            She let out a nervous laugh and shrugged. “I’m not supposed to say. They expect confidentiality.”

            A glint of mischief formed in his blue eyes. The spark of youth that diminished the dark circles under his eyes. “Royalty?”

            “If you must know, there was a prince. But that’s all I’m able to say!”

            He chuckled and took another drag of his cigarette. “How long d’you think it’ll be before things die down with your family in America?” He wondered.

            Kate’s face fell. “I don’t know. My father didn’t tell me how much he owes. 'Sides I doubt he'll ever be able to pay it off.”

            Tommy had often been on the debtor’s end of things. Bars and businesses that were well behind what they owed to the Shelby Company. When it warranted a visit, he sent his brothers or sometimes went himself. If violence was necessary, then they could be violent. It didn’t bother them much.

            In a moment of weakness, Kate unleashed some pent up frustration. “I’m just sick of being here. I make more than I did at home but I’m still barely getting by. The city is so expensive. I feel like I ought to be living in a penthouse for the amount I’m paying for rent. And I can’t ask for help from anyone. I don’t have any family or friends here. They’re so awful to me here, call me stupid an-and worthless. I’m just so alone and I…” Her eyes met Tommy and she realized she was venting to a complete stranger. “I’m so sorry.” She snapped back into the calm demeanor she was meant to have in front of patrons. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

            It occurred to Tommy that he most definitely caused people to flee their homes. Whether it be because of their own mistakes or those of their family member’s, it didn’t matter. The Peaky Blinders had a violent reputation and it was enough to send people running for safety. Safety, but perhaps a worse off situation than before. Hearing Kate air her grievances made him step back and think about the people he’d displaced. “Will you return to America?” His voice quieted as if muted by the thoughts overwhelming his brain.

            “I’m not sure.” Kate tried not to think about the future. It did her no good to hope for something that might be so far away. “I’d like to return to a ballet company if I’m able to.”

            Tommy’s fingers tapped nervously at his knee. He was getting the urge to do something that was a little unorthodox even by his own standards. Guilt stirred up in his stomach as he thought about the families he might’ve separated in the past. “I may have connections in America. If I were to pay off your father’s debt, I could find you a place there.”

            Kate’s eyes widened. “Mr. Shelby that is…” What could the man possibly want in exchange? She couldn’t even imagine what he would proposition next. “I’m not sure what you’d like in return but I…I don’t know if…”

            “Nothing in return.” He promised coolly. “Consider it a favor to pay forward in the future.” He gestured with his cigarette.

            Every bit of her body wanted to launch forward and seize the opportunity. But it seemed too good to be true. And she knew she couldn’t return to America. “I appreciate that, Mr. Shelby. But I’m afraid I won’t be able to go back to my home for quite some time. I’ve burned too many bridges and have too many enemies.”

            It was suspicious that a beautiful woman would possibly have one enemy let alone multiple ones. “What sort of enemies?”

            She peered at him with reservation. “Enemies of my father. Why do you ask?” When he simply shrugged, she began to pick up on his game. “You’re not just a normal businessman are you?”

            His facial expression didn’t flinch at all. “I assure you I meet the definition of a businessman.”

            His blunt response made her laugh. “I’ve met my share of gangsters, Mr. Shelby, you can’t fool me.”

            The corner of his lips turned up ever so slightly. “What sort of enemies, Kate?”

            She adjusted the ice on her ankle and tugged her knees closer to her chest. “Hand me that coat?” She requested instead of answering.

            Tommy glanced over his shoulder to where she was pointing. There was a rack of clothing that was waiting to be adorned for the enjoyment of men. Glitter outfits trimmed with fringe that went longer than the skirt hemlines. Elaborate garments with intricate beading and laced with feathers. A careful design that would be lost in the bright lights and under the stares of leering men. Tossed over the rack was a deep navy blue coat with gray fur lining the collar. He handed it over to her, watching as she draped it over her fishnet-covered legs.

            Kate finished her cigarette and instantly reached for another one. She needed to relax and the conversation they were having didn’t help. She held out the fresh cigarette for Tommy to light.

            He obliged, still awaiting her response.

            But she kept him in suspense, taking a few drags. The proper façade of a showgirl. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the Italians in Chicago.” She leaned an elbow on the back of her chair, reclining slightly like a centerfold flapper dream. Smoke curling around her bobbed blonde hair. Her eyes framed with kohl and lips painted a dark red.

            “I am.” He answered.

            “And the Irish in Boston.”

            Again, Tommy nodded.

            “Let’s just say I’ve had my run ins with them both.”

            “Enemies of your father.”

            “Correct. They like to use family members against you.” She smiled bitterly and shrugged.

            Tommy studied her face but she wasn’t letting much on. There was something unsettling about her backstory but who was he to question it? If anything, a possible informant could be useful if she knew more than she was letting on. “Anything damning you might know?”            

            She laughed and wagged a finger at him. “Are you trying to loosen my lips, Mr. Shelby?”

            He didn’t smile but instead nodded. “You don’t want to be here.” He waved a hand around the dressing room. “You know you deserve more respect than what you get here. If you’ve got information I can use, I’ll compensate you well.”

            Kate tilted forward as if her interest was piqued and narrowed her eyes. “What sort of compensation?”

            “You name the price.”

            There was a slight break in her calm demeanor. A tell of vulnerability. The prospect of leaving Paris with a substantial sum of money in her pocket was alluring. She wouldn’t have to spend each and every night trying to attract attention. Try to pretend she was in love with strangers just so they would pay her more. She chewed on her lip for a moment. There was a chance the information she gave would be traced back to her. The information Tommy wanted could possibly uproot her secrets so she needed to be cautious. A misstep could cause her the life she built in France to come tumbling down in an instant. “I know some names.”

            “Names aren’t good enough.”

            Kate wrung her hands together. To the average onlooker, it might appear that she was nervous about giving information because it could threaten her safety. Instead, she was nervous because she was lying about who she even was. “I know bootleggers. People my father pissed off.”

            If Tommy had been careful enough, he would question how the woman knew so much or who her father was. But he was drunk. Drunk on the possibility of information he could use to build his empire. Perhaps get more gin smuggled in. Buy more property. Expand the company worldwide. He pointed his cigarette at her, his lips turning up in a smile. “Now you’re talking.”