Rowena cut the cards as Sister Margaret stubbed out her cigar. 'You should stop that you know ... terrible for your skin.' The circle of women round the card table fell silent for a moment, before they burst out laughing.
'As if we have to worry about that,' she blew a final plume of blue smoke into the air. On Wednesday nights, Rowena dealt poker cards rather than tarot - it had become a good excuse for the women to get together in the back room of McGilligans, and the only place where Vi and Swotsy could openly show their love for one another.
Violet affectionately kissed the top of her head. 'I've got a surprise for you love,' she whispered, and she slipped her thumb and forefinger between her lips, letting out a low whistle. 'Happy Birthday,' she said as a well built guy strutted onto the dancefloor.
The women shrieked with laughter, and Sister Margaret clapped her hands in delight. 'A strippogram!'
'No - better than that,' Vi smiled as he began his routine.
'Your feet's too big ...' Swotsy laughed, her eyes dancing with love as she turned to Violet.
'Not for me,' her lips parted as she closed her eyes and kissed Swotsy.
'Get a room,' a low voice growled as a tiny woman approached the table.
Rowena looked up. 'Mum, where've you been? We started without you.'
'You have no idea ...' she shook her head and poured a shot of Schnapps from the bottle on the table. Lindisfarne had its mead, but Sister Margaret ran a nice sideline in Little Hamptonpoint Valley Schnapps - the nuns had become quite adept at distilling over the years, and the schnapps was a good front for what really went on in the distillery behind their convent near the school. They had been excommunicated years ago once the Church became suspicious, but no one in Suffolk seemed to care or even to have noticed that the links with Rome had been severed. Schnapps went out the front door, and the key ingredient for Creme de Nain out the back while successive generations of East Anglian children passed through the shady corridors of the school. She waved a surprisingly wrinkle free finger at her daughter. 'All day, the same card, every time I dealt. Death.' Everyone shifted uncomfortably. 'I told you, the moment that boy arrived back in town it would be trouble.'
'We'll sort it out,' Sister Margaret said firmly. 'We always do.'
'We were getting so close,' the old dwarf shook her head. 'What with Wilma and now Alice gone, I'm the last one left from the circus days. I miss them,' she wiped a tear from her eye.
'He wanted to know why I had his mother's ring ...' Swotsy said quietly. 'If CJ hadn't been looking out for me ... I think we threw him off the scent.'
'We have to get him out of here,' Violet's eyes glinted. 'Donohoe, Bill and Jack have made a fortune out of Wilma and Alice's discovery. Dad's always said they promised to go back to Ireland millionaires, but I'm damned if I'm going to let him corrupt my James.'
'And let's not forget it would have been too dangerous without your mother Bitsy's help,' Sister Margaret patted her niece's hand. 'If she hadn't suggested adding catnip to counteract some of the obvious problems of using dwarf cat instead of dwarf human in the recipe ...'
Rowena laughed. 'All these years, there was the men thinking Alice was the Sweeny Todd of Southwold, bumping off dwarves when they came to 'visit' ...'
'When we've been helping them escape over the channel to safety in Holland.'
'To the Dwarf Liberation Front!' Rowena's mother raised her glass. 'And happy birthday Swotsy, bravest of all our agents. That's why Alice loved you like the daughter she never had.'
'What are we going to do now?' Swotsy said quietly. 'It was only a matter of time before this French buyer - Monsieur ... No one knows his name do they?' she turned to Violet for confirmation. 'Bill and Jack have been whacking up the price of Creme de Nain for years. No wonder he's come looking to cut out the middle man ...'
'Greedy bastards,' Rowena's mother hissed. 'They'll get what's coming to them. Especially after they bumped off Sister Mary ...'
'She was the spitting image of Alice wasn't she?' Rowena said sadly. 'They got him to ...'
'The dwarf catcher?' Violet paled.
Rowena nodded mutely. 'He killed her as a warning to us. Just like he killed the love of my life, the fire of my loins, my Clive before he could tell Joe how brave dear Alice had been ...' she disolved into tears.
'All the women in this town are beautiful ... and long may it stay that way,' Sister Margaret looked at each woman in turn. 'The men will get what's coming to them, but Joe Sullivan is an innocent in this. This 'Monsieur' is using him to get to the secret, and we must remember Alice's dying words, the reason she left him Gideon Stone's estate ...'