A few months ago I posted the opening of an early draft of a book set in the 1920s, featuring WPC Lottie Armstrong. That novel – titled Modern Crimes – is going through revisions, but Lottie hadn’t had enough of me. She wanted a little more of the limelight. So I have it to her.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the background to the opening of The Year of the Gun.
And yes, I’d love to know what you think.
Leeds, February 1944
‘Why are there suddenly so many Americans around?’ Lottie asked as she parked the car on Albion Street. ‘You can hardly turn a corner without running into one.’
‘Are you sure that’s not just your driving?’ McMillan said.
She glanced into the mirror, seeing him sitting comfortably in the middle of the back seat, grinning.
‘You could always walk, sir.’ She kept her voice perfectly polite, a calm, sweet smile on her face. ‘It might shift a few of the inches around your waist.’
He closed the buff folder on his lap and sighed.
‘What did I do to deserve this?’
‘Don’t you know there’s a war on, sir?’ Her eyes twinkled. ‘Anyway, as I recall, you came and specifically requested me to join up and be your driver.’
‘A moment of madness.’ Detective Chief Superintendent McMillan grunted as he slid across the seat of the Humber and opened the door. ‘I shan’t be long.’
She turned off the engine, glanced at her reflection and took out her lipstick. Just because she was in uniform there was no reason not to look her best.
It felt strange to be a policewoman again after twenty years away from it. Granted, it was just the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps, not a real copper, but still…after they’d pitched her out on her ear it was still delicious. Every day she touched the badge of her shoulder to be sure it was real.
And it was perfectly true that McMillan had asked her. He’d turned up on her doorstep three months before, back in November 1943, looking bashful.
‘I need a driver, Lottie. Someone with a brain.’
‘That was why they got rid of me before,’ she reminded him. ‘Too independent, you remember?’ disobeying McMillan’s order had brought her before the disciplinary board. ‘Anyway, I’m past conscription age. Not by much,’ she added carefully, ‘but even so…’
‘I’ll arrange everything,’ he promised.
Hands on hips, she eyed him carefully.
‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Why now?’
They’d stayed in touch after she was bounced off the force – Christmas cards, an occasional luncheon in town – and he’d been thoughtful after her husband Geoff died. But none of that explained his request
‘Why now?’ he repeated. ‘Because I’ve just lost another driver. Pregnant. That’s the second one in two years.’
Lottie raised an eyebrow.
‘Oh, don’t be daft,’ he told her. He was in his middle fifties now, mostly bald, growing fat, the dashing dark moustache now white and his cheeks turned to jowls. By rights he should have retired, but with so many in the service he’d agreed to stay on for the duration.
He was a senior officer, effectively running CID in Leeds, answerable to the assistant chief constable. His detectives under him were mostly older or medically unfit for service. There were only two who’d stayed on the Home Front rather than put on a uniform.
But wartime hadn’t slowed crime down. Far from it. Black market, gangs, deserters, prostitution. No shortage of it. Robberies were becoming violent, rackets more deadly. Criminals had guns and they were using them.
And now Leeds had American troops all over the place.
‘Back to Millgarth,’ McMillan said when we returned, holding a brown paper bag carefully in one hand. ‘If nothing’s come up while we’ve been gone, you can call it a day and get off home.’
Good, Lottie thought. The Co-op might have some tea; she was almost out. She didn’t hold out much hope for the butcher by this time of day, though. At least it had been a good year in the garden: plenty of potatoes and carrots and a decent crop of courgettes and marrows. One thing about all this rationing, she hadn’t gained any weight since it started. If anything she’d lost a little; clothes she’d worn ten years before still fitted.
She followed McMillan into the station and up the rickety wooden staircase. His office was the second door along a corridor where the old linoleum curled at the edges and the paint flaked under the fingers.
‘Quiet for once,’ McMillan said as he inspected his desk. ‘Close the door.’
She did as he ordered, then watched as he reached into the paper bag and drew out two eggs. Real, fresh eggs. When was the last time she’d seen any of those?
‘Go on, take them. They’re for you. When I saw Timmy Houghton he gave me four. Or don’t you want them?’
Lottie scooped them up carefully, swaddling them in a handkerchief as she placed them in her handbag.
‘Of course. Thank you.’ She didn’t know what to say. He had a habit of doing things like this. A little something here and there. A pair of stockings, some chocolate. Even a quarter-pound of best steak once that tasted like a feast. In the two months she’d been working for him she felt spoilt. It was his way of thanking her, she knew that.
At the bus stop she cradled her bag close, miles away as she dreamed of eggs, maybe with a sausage and some fried bread. The kind of breakfasts they had before the war. So many things had changed when Chamberlain spoke on the radio. Most of all, her life: two days later Geoff was dead from a sudden heart attack at work.
He’d left good provision for her. The man from the Pru came and explained it all. Insurance would pay off the mortgage on the house in Chapel Allerton. There’d be an annuity, and a pension from his job at Dunlop. She’d never want for anything.
Lottie was…comfortable. Even Geoff’s death, even the war couldn’t seem to shake her out of it. Numb with comfort. She burrowed into it, hid in it. Everything seemed easier that way. Until McMillan knocked on her door and turning life upside down.
And she couldn’t remember when she’d been so grateful.
‘Don’t take your hat off,’ he said as she walked into the office. Half-past seven, still dark, with a bitter, miserable rain coming down. What she wanted was to sit somewhere warm for a few minutes and dry out. She wasn’t going to have the chance.
Lottie gathered up the car keys and followed him out of the door.
‘Kirkstall Abbey,’ he told as she started the engine and felt the power of the Super Snipe’s engine.
‘It seems we have a death.’