It’s official. Contracts signed and returned. Lottie Armstrong will be going public.
Mrs. Charlotte Armstrong, but everyone calls her Lottie. During the First World War she’d been a Barnbow Canary. But in 1924 she’s become one of the first two policewomen in Leeds. The only problem for WPC Lottie Armstrong is that the very restricted duties – dealing only with women and children – don’t seem quite enough. She has a brain and she wants to use it. But the men in charge don’t seem willing to give her a chance.
Until a girl in a home for unmarried mothers goes missing. And suddenly Lottie Armstrong gets the chance to be a proper copper, a job that takes her into the shadowy world of lesbian Leeds, mixing with the poor, and then out to rub shoulders with the wealthy, the powerful – and the crooked. As well as doing her real job.
Can Lottie do it all? You’ll have to read Modern Crimes, out in September, to find out. But here’s a short extract (followed by a little about the sequel).
So here she is. Meet Lottie Armstrong
‘I told you, a hint’s as far as he’ll go. That’s his idea of co-operation. We need to go up there and look. Ask whoever’s on the beat.’
‘I might have a better idea, sir.’
The space behind the Royal Hotel stank. The bins overflowed and there was a strong stench of urine from somewhere. Lottie paced around, waiting and trying to be patient. The sound of traffic was muffled and distant. A train went by on the embankment, the second in ten minutes, making the earth under her shoes shake as it passed.
Finally the door at the back of the building squeaked open on rusty hinges and a heavy woman emerged. She was dressed in a man’s double-breasted suit, correct down to the collar and tie, shoes polished to a high gloss, her short hair in a brutal shingle cut and pomaded down. Blinking in the light, she lit one of her Turkish cigarettes.
‘Hello, Auntie Betty,’ Lottie said. ‘I haven’t seen you in a while.’
At first McMillan refused to go in. They sat in the car on Lower Briggate and looked across the street at the place.
‘They’ll know I’m a copper as soon as I walk through the door,’ McMillan objected.
‘Well, I can’t. I’m in uniform,’ Lottie reminded him.
He pushed the brim of his hat back.
‘It’s just…’ Then he shook his head and a look of distaste crossed his face.
‘Because they’re different, you mean?’ She chose her words very carefully.
‘Yes. It’s wrong, inverts and mannish girls. It’s not natural.’
‘Sarge,’ she began patiently. ‘John.’ What was the best way to put it? ‘This is the quickest way to get the information. Betty’s lived up on Blackman Lane for years. She knows the place inside and out. Two minutes and she can tell me where we can find Walker.’
‘How do you know her, anyway?’
‘Her niece had a few problems. WPC Taylor and I helped sort them out. Betty came to see us out on patrol and said how grateful she was.’
He glanced at the entrance to the Royal Hotel.
‘All right,’ he agreed reluctantly. ‘We’ll do it like this: you go to the ginnel at the back and wait. I’ll pop in, have a word with her, say you’re need to talk to her. Be as quick as you can. We’ll meet back here.’
‘You’re looking well, Lottie.’ Betty smiled. Everyone called her Auntie, a strangely sexless figure, more man than woman and ending up neither. She was a fixture behind the bar, serving drinks for the homosexuals and lesbians who spent their money there, always ready to advise them on their problems but never finding answers to her own.
‘So do you.’
‘That poor man you sent in looked terrified.’ She gave a chuckle. ‘Kept looking around like someone might eat him.’
‘He’s harmless, Auntie. Just scared, that’s all. Did he tell you I need your help?’
‘Yes.’ She stared at the cigarette as she turned it in her thick fingers. ‘Something about Blackman Lane.’
‘We’re looking for someone who has a place there,’ Lottie said. ‘I don’t know if it’s a flat or a room.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘Ronnie Walker. He’s in his early twenties.’
‘Doesn’t ring a bell,’ the woman answered slowly. ‘They come and go so fast these days.’
‘He drives a Standard sedan.’
‘Oh, him.’ Her face brightened. ‘Number seventeen. He has the attic. What’s he done? Why are you after him?’
‘I can’t tell you, Auntie. And please don’t say a word.’
‘Lips sealed,’ she promised. ‘And I’ll throw away the key.’
‘Thank you. For everything.’ She leaned forward and gave Betty a quick peck on the cheek, seeing the glimmer of loneliness in the woman’s eyes.
Modern Crimes indeed…
20 years on. 1944. The war continues but there’s the first scent of victory in the air. Sooner, rather than later, a second front has to open. Sergeant McMillan is now a Detective Chief Superintendent. He should have retired, but is staying on for the duration. And he’s persuaded Lottie to volunteer for the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps and become his driver. But either of them know that 1944 is poised to become The Year of the Gun…although it’ll be September 2017 before the book appears.
‘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 in 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 those inches around your waist.’
He closed the buff folder on his lap and sighed.
‘What did I do to deserve this?’
‘As I recall, you came and requested that I join up and become 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 smiled, straightening the dark blue cap on her head.
Three months back in uniform and it still felt strange to be a policewoman again after twenty years away from it. It was just the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps, not a proper copper, but still…after they’d pitched her out on her ear it tasted delicious. Every morning when she put on her jacket she had to touch the WAPC shoulder flash to assure herself it wasn’t all a dream.
And it was perfectly true that McMillan had asked her. He’d turned up on her doorstep at the beginning of November, looking bashful.
‘I need a driver, Lottie. Someone with a brain.’
‘That’s why they got rid of me before,’ she reminded him. ‘Too independent, you remember?’ McMillan had been a detective sergeant then: disobeying his order had brought her before the disciplinary board and dismissed from Leeds City Police. ‘Anyway, I’m past conscription age. Not by much,’ she added carefully, ‘but even so…’
‘Volunteer. I’ll arrange everything,’ he promised.
Hands on hips, she cocked her head and eyed him carefully.
‘Why?’ she asked suspiciously. ‘And why now?’
She’d never really blamed him for what happened before. Both of them had been in impossible positions. 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 this 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, mostly bald, growing fat, the dashing dark moustache now white and his cheeks turning to jowls. By rights he should have retired, but with so many away fighting for King and country 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. Most of the detectives under him were older or medically unfit for service. Only two had invoked reserved occupation and stayed on the Home Front rather than put on a uniform.
But wartime hadn’t slowed down crime. Far from it. Black market, gangs, deserters, prostitution. More of it than ever. 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.