Chapter 14: Shanks

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"Who is she?" Charlotte found herself gasping in admiration. The woman beside her did not move her eyes from the figure of the old woman. She was crying. "That's Shanks", the woman whispered.

"Shanks?" Charlotte repeated uncomprehendingly.

"Yes, Shanks – as in the Cruikshanks from Liverpool?"  The woman looked at her, exasperated.  "Gee, Shanks wasn't kidding, you are as green as green girl!" The tears were gone and two inquisitive eyes now gleamed at her with full attention. "Who are you?" the woman now asked incredulously.

"I'm Charlotte from Lincolnshire."

"In other words, you're from nowhere. That's good", she nodded. "In this place, you don't want a history. You got no enemies yet Charlotte – well", she corrected, "I don't think you've made a friend in Red – but you're alive."

"Red?" Charlotte queried absently.

"Bessie – the redhead Shanks saved you from." For a second time the woman looked at Charlotte as if she had rocks for brains. "Look Lottie . . . . " and for a moment, Charlotte wondered to whom the woman was speaking. Never, in her life had her name been abbreviated so. "Lottie, you got to wise up lass. Snap out of it!" she said, raising her voice and clicking her fingers in front of Charlotte's eyes. "Shanks has protected you for sure, but she don't put up with fools."

As if satisfied that she now had Charlotte's full attention, she held out her hand - "They call me 'Peg'."

"Oh, short for Margaret then?" she asked.

"No you daft girl, cos of this peg leg here". The woman thrust an appendage out from beneath a filthy skirt and with a definite wooden thud, tapped it on the floor of the ship's hull in front of Charlotte. The prisoners around the pair within earshot, cackled their appreciation.

"Oh, I am sorry", she murmured apologetically. Peg simply shook her head in amused resignation.

"Please can you tell me who is this 'Shanks'? Why do the women listen to her?"

"To Shanks? Well, she's the grand dame ain't she? She started the Liverpool Luvies, expanded the racket to London. Got a finger in every pie now – extortion, opium – though her son and daughters came to run a lot of the big stuff. Worth a fortune she is! She's got three or four of them in the Parliament in her back pocket, if you know wot I mean. And them's only the ones that's public knowledge."

"But surely, if she's so influential, why is she here?"

"Ah, that's one we'd all like to know a little more about Lottie. There was a falling out – 'tween her and the son. She didn't like the way he treated her girls."

"Her girls?"

"She's always looked after the girls working the streets. You know what I mean? She had rules – no girl to be forced if she didn't like the client – things like that. Her girls had the lowest rate of the pox going – they didn't have to do it with the sick desperate sleazebags or the thugs, that kind of thing. Well, Charlie didn't agree. He started edging her out of the management of the businesses didn't he. A few of her girls died badly. Word is, he somehow got the deeds to everything she owned. He was threatening to kick her out on the street. Can you believe that? Liverpool Shanks, back on the street? Unthinkable! What an ungrateful bastard son! Well, he was a bastard, but that's beside the point. He was a lousy man and a crumby son! And if she did it, I reckon, she had good cause."

"Did what?" Charlotte asked, fearful of the answer.

"Well, Charlie was found hacked to death. Murdered, in his own bathtub! Neck slashed from ear to ear", Peg said theatrically moving her hand across her own neck in demonstration.

Charlotte gulped so hard it hurt her throat. "But why did the police think his own mother was responsible?"

For the third time, Peg looked at Charlotte in a manner which left Charlotte in no doubt of her low opinion of Charlotte's intelligence. "Because she confessed."

Charlotte let out a lungful of pent up breath and fell back against the side of the ship.

"Old Shanksey should have got the noose, but those old fornicatin MPs were bullied by the daughters to get her sentence commuted to life. I wouldn't be surprised if Sarah and Josephine had something to do with their brother's murder, those sly vixen."

Charlotte looked again at Shanks, still standing before the cheering women, still smiling as their only beacon of hope in the desperate hole in which life had deposited them all. 'Hero or master criminal?' she wondered. She looked at Red, whispering with malcontent on her face to two disinterested women. As Charlotte's attention returned to Shanks, she realised that the old woman was staring at her in turn, as if reading her very thoughts.

****If you have enjoyed reading this chapter, please vote or comment.  All feedback will be gratefully received and acknowledged.  Thank you for reading Charlotte's story so far.  

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