Modern Crimes – A Taster

Out on September 7. Remember, since a study shows that reading can lengthen your life, reading this book might help you live longer. It’s a thought.

And maybe you’ll love Lottie. I do.

Oh, last thing. The publisher has decided to make the ebook version nice and cheap. I prefer a hard copy, but grab it while you can. Lottie’s depending on you, So is your life.

Here’s the book trailer and the start of the novel, just to whet your appetite.

Leeds, 1924

As she walked into Millgarth Police Station, Charlotte Armstrong nodded to the desk sergeant then strode back along the corridor to the matron’s office. The day shift of bobbies had already gone on patrol and the building was quiet. She rested her hand on the doorknob, took a deep breath and straightened her back.

‘Good morning, ma’am. WPC Armstrong reporting.’

Mrs Maitland looked up, giving her a quick inspection. She was a pinch-faced woman in her late forties, dark hair going grey and pulled back into a tight bun. She’d never mentioned Mr Maitland, but in two years the woman had never revealed anything personal; the job seemed to be her life. She was here first thing in the morning and long into the evening, as if she had no better place to be.

‘There’s a hair on your jacket, Armstrong.’

Lottie looked down. One hair, dark blonde, hers. She plucked it away, annoyed at herself and at the matron.

‘Sorry, ma’am.’ She stayed at attention.

Maitland returned to the letters on her desk. This was her way. Keeping someone waiting was the way to enforce discipline.

The door opened and Cathy Taylor marched in. She was late and she knew it. Lottie could see it in her eyes. But she just winked, stood to attention and said, ‘WPC Taylor reporting, ma’am.’

‘You were supposed to be here at eight, Taylor,’ Mrs Maitland said.

‘Sorry, ma’am, my watch must be running slow.’

The matron sniffed. There were only two women constables in Leeds and she had to keep them in order.

‘Well, since you’re finally here, I have a job for the pair of you.’ She scribbled an address on a piece of paper. ‘Go and see her. She runs a home for unmarried mothers. One of her girls has been acting strangely and causing a fuss.’ She stared at the pair of them. ‘What are you waiting for? Off you go.’

 

‘It’s in Woodhouse, we might as well walk,’ Cathy said as they set out up the Headrow. She folded the note and put it in her uniform pocket. Early September but it was already feeling like autumn, enough of a nip in the morning air for their breath to steam. ‘Bet you the girl’s just gone off to find some fun. It’s always old cows who run those places.’

‘At least it makes a change from talking to prossies or chasing lads playing truant.’ Lottie sighed. She loved the job, but she wished the force would let them do more, rather than treat them like delicate flowers with tender sensibilities.

Still, it was better than working in a mill or being a housewife. Like so many others, she’d developed a taste for freedom when she worked. Earning her own money, that was important. Stuff the vote. The government had only given it to women over thirty; she still had five years to go.

Lottie had been a clerk at the Barnbow munitions factory in Cross Gates during the war. 1916, she was just seventeen, fresh in the job with everything to learn, newly promoted from the factory. But she’d managed, even finding time to flirt with the procurement officers who came to check things.

Geoff had been one of them. Shy, diffident, still limping badly from a wound he’d suffered the year before at Gallipoli. He had a modest charm about him, like he had nothing to prove. In his uniform he looked quite dashing.

Lottie was the one who made the running. Someone had to and he wasn’t the type to put himself forward. On his third visit to the factory she’d suggested an outing to the pictures, watching him blush as she spoke. From there it had taken two years until they reached the altar. By then the fighting was over and he’d returned to his job in the Dunlop area office.

She tried to become a housewife, but life chafed around her. Other women were having babies but Geoff’s injuries meant she never would. Lottie needed something, but there was nothing that appealed, until the Leeds Police advertised for policewomen. They particularly wanted married women. And suddenly life excited her again.

 

‘You’ll be getting yourself shot if you keep coming in late,’ Lottie warned.

Cathy pouted. ‘It was only a couple of minutes. Anyway, Mrs Prissy wouldn’t know what to do if she didn’t have something to complain about.’ She stifled a yawn with the back of her hand.

‘Late night?’

‘I went to the pictures with my friends, then they wanted to go on dancing so I couldn’t say no.’

Cathy was twenty-four, a year younger than Lottie, with a husband who was gone most of the year in the merchant marine. No children. Hardly a wonder she liked to be out a few nights a week, dancing and flirting and enjoying herself. Married but single, she called it with a small laugh.

Lottie had gone with her a couple of times after work, changing into civvies at the station then on to a see a film at the Majestic. It had been fun, but not something she’d want to do often. Cathy had wanted to carry on, to have a cocktail. God only knew where she found the energy. By the end of a shift all Lottie wanted was to be at home and off her feet. When the working week was over, she was exhausted. She was lucky to stay up until ten, never mind the wee hours.

But Cathy wanted to embrace life. She was pretty enough for a portrait, always getting looks from men. She wore her hair in a modern bob, and had a pair of shapely legs and that bony, modern figure that always made Lottie feel huge in comparison.

‘What are you going to do when your Jimmy comes home?’ Lottie had asked her. ‘You can’t go gadding about then.’

‘We’ll enjoy our time together. After a month he’ll ship out again. Don’t get me wrong: I love him and I’d never, you know… but I can’t sit at home every evening, can I? He wouldn’t want me to, anyway.’

They matched each other step for step along Woodhouse Lane and out past the university, going towards the Moor, with its library and police sub-station on the corner.

‘Down here,’ Cathy said, turning briskly along Raglan Road, followed by the first right and second left. She scratched at her calf through the skirt. ‘God, I wish they’d do something about this uniform. It’s not bad enough that it itches, it’s so heavy, too. Like wearing a battleship. This is it. Thirty-six.’

On a street of imposing terraced houses, this one loomed on the corner, detached, standing apart at the back of a long, neat garden and looking out over the Meanwood valley, with all the factories and chimneys spewing smoke into the air. Hardly an inspiring view, Lottie thought.

She knocked and waited. Some lovely stained glass in the window; she wouldn’t mind that at home. She was miles away when the knob turned and a small woman in an apron stared up at her.

‘I was wondering how long it would take the police to get here.’ There was no welcome in the voice. The woman raised an eyebrow and stood aside. ‘Well, are you coming in or do we do it all on the street?’

Lottie led the way, following an open door into a neat parlour. A Sunday room, still smelling of wax, the wood on the furniture gleaming.

‘Go on, sit yourselves down.’ The woman bustled around, flicking off some non-existent dust.

‘You run a home for unwed mothers here, Mrs…’ Lottie said.

‘Allen,’ she answered briskly. ‘Yes, I do. It’s a Christian thing to do, and I try to put on them on the right path.’ She sat very primly, back straight, her stare direct.

‘One of your girls has been causing problems, is that right?’ She took her notebook and pencil from her pocket.

‘She has. Then she went out and didn’t come back last night. No word this morning, either.’

That was bad; a missing girl. Lottie’s eyes flickered towards Cathy, and she felt a prickle of fear.

‘Could you tell us a little bit about her, Mrs Allen? Her name, what she looks like, where she’s from.’ Lottie smiled. She kept her voice calm and even. There was usually a simple explanation.

‘She’s called Jocelyn Hill. Seventeen, but she could easily pass for younger. You know the type, looks like butter wouldn’t melt, but she’s a sly little thing. Always out for a chance. A bit extra food, this and that.’ She shook her head in disgust. ‘Half of me wishes I’d never taken her in.’

‘What does she look like?’ Cathy asked. She liked facts, something solid.

‘Only about five feet tall, I suppose. Dark hair in one of those bobs they all seem to wear. Like yours,’ she added. ‘Thin as you like, no figure on her at all. Apart from the baby, of course.’

‘How far along is she?’ Lottie wondered.

‘Eight months,’ Mrs Allen replied, ‘so it’s not like she can hide it.’

‘Has she gone missing before?’

‘Of course not.’ She snorted. ‘They all know the rules when they arrive. No going out, only family to visit, in bed by ten. Break a rule once and they’re gone. I won’t stand for it otherwise. I give them a warm, clean place to have their children and I help find good homes for the little ones. I’m not about to let them take advantage of me.’

‘Have you had others disappear, Mrs Allen?’ Cathy asked quietly.

‘Only the one,’ the woman said after a while. ‘Three years ago. But she was a wild one, wouldn’t ever settle down here. Jocelyn liked to push things, but she was nothing like that.’

‘Where did she come from?’ Lottie had her pencil poised, ready to take down the address. Mrs Allen took a ledger from one of the empty bookshelves, found a pair of glasses in her pocket and began to search.

‘Here we are.’ She read out an address in Cross Green. Lottie glanced towards Cathy and saw a tiny shake of the head.

‘Thank you,’ she said, standing. ‘Is it possible to take a look in her room? Perhaps we could talk to some of the other girls who knew her?’

‘Nothing to see in the room,’ the woman told them. ‘I’ve already packed her case. If she shows up at the door she’s out on her ear. And she never really got along with the others. Kept herself to herself.’

‘Maybe a look in her case, then…’ Lottie suggested.

‘Two dresses and some underwear that’s as flimsy as nothing. Not hard to see how she ended up this way, is it?’

 

The door closed quickly behind them. As they walked back along the street Cathy looked over her shoulder.

‘She’s watching us from the front window.’ She shivered a little. ‘Blimey, I think I’d run off from that place, too. She’s…’

‘Strange?’ Lottie suggested.

‘Worse than that. Did you smell it in the hall?’

‘You mean the mothballs?’ She crinkled her nose. ‘She must have them everywhere.’

‘I could feel the joy being sucked out of me as soon as I walked through the door.’

They didn’t even need to talk about where they were going next. Over to Cross Green to see if Jocelyn Hill had gone home. A tram back into the city centre, then a walk through the market and up the hill towards St Hilda’s and Cross Green.

Wherever they went, people stopped to look at them. Policewomen were still a novelty in Leeds. By now Lottie was used to it. If she had sixpence for every time someone had asked if she was a real rozzer, she’d be a rich woman. She was every bit as real as the beat bobbies out there. Probably better at her job than half of them, too.

Even Lottie’s mother had been doubtful about her taking the job. It wasn’t becoming, she said. Not like marrying a grocer three months after being widowed and upping sticks to Northallerton. That was perfectly acceptable.

 

There was nothing inspiring about Cross Green. Not even much that was green. Street after street of tired people and back-to-back houses. Small groups of men hung around on the street corners and outside the pubs. Far more than there should have been, Lottie thought. But what were they supposed to do when there weren’t any jobs?

The men who fought had been promised a home fit for heroes. Fine words, but if they’d built any homes it hadn’t been in Leeds. There had been jobs when the women were sacked, but not much of that work had lasted. According to the newspapers it was the same all over the country.

There was nothing she could do about that. Lottie was just glad Geoff’s position was secure. And that she had work of her own.

‘You’re miles away,’ Cathy said.

‘Sorry.’

They passed another group of men and she was aware of them watching her backside as she walked. Someone said something in a low voice and there was a flurry of laughter.

‘Ten to one that was a mucky remark.’

‘More like two to one.’ Cathy smiled. ‘Look on the bright side. At least they noticed.’

Lottie wasn’t too certain. Just because that was part of life she didn’t have to like it.

‘Charlton Street,’ she said. ‘Down here.’

It was close to the railway embankment. Number nine stood towards the far end, exactly like its neighbours on either side. She assessed it quickly: dirty windows, mud on the doorstep. No pride in the place.

‘Ready?’ she asked.

‘As I’ll ever be,’ Cathy said.

The woman who opened the door stared at them with folded arms and a glare on her face.

‘He can’t have done too much wrong if they’re sending the lasses out,’ she said with a sneer. ‘What is it this time?’

‘Jocelyn,’ Lottie said. ‘Is she here?’

‘Here?’ The woman’s expression moved from surprise to panic. ‘Why would she be here? Oh God, something’s happened, hasn’t it?’

‘Why don’t we talk inside?’ It was a gentle question, and Mrs Hill gave a short nod, leading them back to the scullery. A scarred wooden table, battered chairs. Stone sink and a blackleaded range. How many of these had she seen in the job?

‘Right.’ The woman had gathered herself. ‘You’d better tell me what’s going on. What’s happened to our Jocelyn?’

‘She left the home last night and hasn’t come back.’

‘Stupid little bitch.’ She spat out the words like venom. ‘I told her it were for her own good.’

‘Why don’t you tell me about it?’ Lottie suggested. ‘Then we can find her.’ She gave Cathy a look: make some tea. As she started to bustle around, Mrs Hill was looking down and biting her lip.

‘Why did you send Jocelyn over there?’ Lottie asked softly but the answer was obvious. Woodhouse was far enough away that no-one would recognise her.

‘She got herself in the family way. Why the bloody hell do you think?’ The woman sneered. ‘It weren’t for the fun of it. Didn’t want everyone round here talking about us like that.’

‘Have you talked to her since she went there?’ It had been a while; there must have been some contact.

‘Oh aye, I pick up the telephone every day and we have a natter.’ She snorted. ‘Course I haven’t. Don’t have time to write letters. She wouldn’t answer if I did, anyway.’

Lottie tightened her lips.  ‘Mrs Hill, do you have any idea why she might have run off, or where she might have gone?’

‘Not really. But once our Jos gets an idea in her head there’s no shifting it.’ She shrugged. ‘Been that way since she was little.’

‘Do you have any idea at allwhere she might have gone?’

‘Not really.’ She reached into the pocket of her apron, took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one, just as Cathy put three mugs of tea on the table. The woman heaped in two spoonfuls of sugar and took a long drink. ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll swing for her if she’s done owt daft.’

‘What about the baby’s father? Could she have gone to him?’

‘Possibly,’ Mrs Hill admitted. ‘She’d never say who it were, though, not even when her dad took a belt to her.’

‘No idea who it could be?’

‘One or two.’

And they could easily deny it, Lottie thought. Not much help at all.

‘What about her friends? Who are they?’

‘You’d do best talking to Elizabeth Townend and Eileen Donnelly, then. Thick as thieves, the three of them.’ She gave a dark glance. ‘I’ll warn you, though, they wouldn’t tell me owt.’

‘Where do I find them, Mrs Hill?’

Lottie cover

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