The Muffin Man’s Daughter – A Lottie Armstrong Story

Continuing these 10 years of publishing crime novels set in Leeds, I’m moving back in time a little to revisit WPC Lottie Armstrong, one of the first policewomen in Leeds. She featured in Modern Crimes, set in 1924, then again, 20 years later, in The Year of the Gun.

This little story takes place in 1923, a few months before Modern Crimes, and gives more background into how Lottie (whom I really do love) came to know Auntie Betty and the Royal Hotel.

10 years

 

Leeds, December 1923

 

December. One of those long winter days when the sun came out but hardly seem to rise in the sky. Lottie Armstrong’s breath had plumed in the air as she walked on patrol, and she’d been grateful for the heavy cape and leather gloves.

Now, sitting on the tram and it trundled up Chapeltown Road, she realised how much her feet ached. She wanted to peel off her scratchy woollen stockings and let her toes soak in a warm bath of Epsom salts. Still, it came with the job, and she’d wanted to be one of the first women police constables in Leeds. Today, she and Cathy Taylor, the other WPC, had covered the area around the railway stations, over to Holbeck, back through Hunslet, down to Kirkgate market and up through Quarry Hill. Some of the places where girls and young women might mix with low types, she’d been told.

They hadn’t seen any. Hardly any girls at all. They probably had more sense than to hang around in the cold.

The conductor rang the bell. Her stop.

The pavement felt very hard under her shoes. She had to stop at the butcher and the greengrocer on Reginald Parade to pick up something for tea; Geoff would be hungry when he came home from work. Sausages and mash. Quick, easy, warm and filling on a day like this. She’d just turned up Sholebroke Avenue when she heard someone call her name.

‘Mrs. Armstrong. Do you have a second?’

She turned and saw Tim the muffin man hurrying towards her. One handied stead the tray of muffins balanced on his head, while the other silenced the clapper of the bell he used to let people know he was selling by their house. He was wrapped up warm in the heavy greatcoat he’d worn during the war, a muffler tied around his throat and some knitted fingerless gloves.

muffin man 1

‘Of course you can, Mr Worthy.’ She stood and waited until he’d caught up with her. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘It’s our Nell,’ he began. She knew who he meant and her heart began to sink. His daughter, seventeen going on thirty. She worked in a mill, but the rest of the time she was part of a group of girls who haunted the dance halls in the city centre. Tim was a pleasant man, a hard worker who tried to do his best for his family. But Nell had been trouble since he’d returned from the fighting in France.

His wife had died on the Spanish flu a month after he’d come back, and he was left to bring up Nell and her older brother on his own. The boy was fine, settled in a good job. But Nell had turned wild.

Lottie tried to smile. ‘What’s she been up to now?’ she asked.

‘That’s the problem,’ he said. His face was creased with worry and his eyes filled with sadness. ‘I don’t know. She didn’t come home last night.’

This was serious, more than mischief. ‘Have you reported it? We can have the whole force searching for her.’

He shook his head. ‘I didn’t want to cause any fuss. At first I though she’d come home. She’d been out late and stayed at a pal’s house or something. Now…I’m worried that if I went in and told them, they’d think I’d done something to her.’

‘I can telephone and get things rolling.’

‘Would you?’ His eyes were pleading with her.

‘Of course.’ She gave him a warm smile. ‘Come on, you give me the details. I know what she looks like. And don’t worry, they come home when they get fed up.’

‘Do they?’ He needed hope. He needed something. Lottie knew that Nell had gone missing before, overnight on a few occasions.

‘Of course they do.’

 

The was a blue police box just down Chapeltown Road. She used the key to let herself in, identified herself and gave the dispatcher all she could.

It wasn’t much. Nell Worthy had left for work, the way she always did. But she’d never arrived; her father had checked with the mill owner.

‘She’s seventeen but she looks younger,’ Lottie said. ‘She could probably pass for fourteen. She has a wild side to her, thought. Likes to smoke and drink and she often spends her evenings down in those dance halls on Lower Briggate. Her father gave me the names of her friends and the addresses he knew.’

Another voice cut in, a man. She recognised the gruff tone. Sergeant Wilson.

‘Where are you now, Armstrong?’

‘Chapeltown Road, Sergeant. Mr Worthy just stopped me as I as walking home.’

‘And she’s been missing all night?’

‘Yes, Sergeant.’

‘We’ll send someone to talk to the father-’

‘He’s on his round. He’s a muffin man.’

A hand over the receiver, something that she couldn’t make out, then: ‘We’ll need you here to help look for the girl. There are other females to interview, is that right?’

‘Yes, sir. But I’m off duty.’

‘You’re back on as of now. I want you at Millgarth as soon as possible.’

A quick dash home with the shopping, scribbling a note for Geoff, then the tram back into town. It felt strange to be heading to work in the evening. The shops along Vicar Lane were a blaze of electric lights and there was a curious gaiety to the faces she saw. Work done for the day, an evening of pleasure ahead. Dinner somewhere, drinks, the cinema, dancing. Her police partner, Cathy Taylor, was probably out in it all. She was married, but her husband was in the merchant marine and she didn’t enjoy nights at home on her own. She wanted company and laughter and music.

Millgarth police station seemed to fizz with energy. Plain clothes officers were moving around, determination on their faces. She recognised a few of them, but far more were strangers. Drafted in from other divisions, she supposed; a missing girl would fire up the authorities.

‘There you are,’ Wilson said when she reported. ‘About time.’

‘I’m sorry, Serg-’

He waved her words aside. ‘I want you to talk to the men working on the case. You know the girl, don’t you?’

‘A little. I’ve met her and spoken with her.’

‘You know what she’s like, where she goes.’

It was easier to simply agree. He didn’t want detail right now.

 

Some listened. Others didn’t want to hear a woman. Never mind. She carried on and told them all she knew about Nell Worthy. Lottie finished and looked hopefully around at the faces.

‘Do we have a photograph?’ Sergeant Wilson asked.

‘Not at the moment,’ she answered.

`’Description?’

‘She’s about five feet tall, quite skinny. No shape to her. Mousy brown hair in a short bob,’ Lottie said. ‘I’m not sure about the colour of her eyes. Whenever I’ve seen her she’s always worn a lot of blue.’

Wilson rolled his eyes.

‘Right, that’s enough to get you started,’ he told the men. ‘Get out there and find here.’

‘What about me, Sergeant?’ she asked once they’d gone. ‘I could help. I know her.’

‘Leave it to the proper coppers, luv. We know what we’re doing. If you want to be useful, you can make us a pot of tea.’

Her cheeks burned with anger and humiliation. She stalked off letting the toilet door slam behind her, folding her arms and staring at the mirror.

Policewomen were nowhere near the equals of the men. They could deal with women and girls, and they didn’t have the power to arrest anyone.

Maybe she should just go home. After all, her shift was long since over.

She’d been standing there for more than a minute when she heard the tap on the door. Cautiously, she opened it, knowing her eyes were red and she was still close to tears.

She’d seen the man in the briefing room, standing near the back. In plain clothes, a dark suit with a sensible blue tie and polished black shoes. He was old enough to have fought in the war, a good six inches taller than her, looking down and smiling gently.

‘He was wrong, you know. There’s plenty you can do to help.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ she asked acidly. ‘Fetch the biscuits as well?’

‘Maybe come out with me and we can look for her. You’ve seen her, you can recognise her.’

‘Why?’ Lottie asked. She could hear the harshness in her voice, but she didn’t care. ‘I’m not a proper copper. The sergeant said so.’

‘Well, I’m a detective sergeant and I think you have something to offer. What do you say?’

‘Yes.’ She suddenly felt calmer. And astonished. ‘Thank you. Can you give me a minute?’

She ran the cold water, splashing it over her face. Looked at herself again, patted her hair down. Better.

 

It wasn’t far from Millgarth to Lower Briggate, but warmer in a motor car. McMillan parked by the railway bridge and turned off the engine.

‘Where does this girl Nell like to go? Is there anywhere in particular?’

‘Dancehalls is all I know, Sergeant.’

‘The other officers will be covering those. Nothing else?

‘Most of the public houses won’t serve her. She looks far too young.’

‘That’s not very helpful, Armstrong.’

‘Sorry, Sarge. Maybe the best thing to do is go up and down and look into the little bars, see if we spot here.’

‘If you include all the courts, there must be more than a dozen.’ He looked at her. If you take off your cap and button your coat all the way up, no one will guess you’re wearing a uniform. ‘

‘I have a cloche in my pocket. I could put that on.’

She brought it out and patted it over her hair. It was a sweet, warm raspberry colour, a contrast to the dark blues and blacks.

‘Will that do, sir?’

‘Excellent.’

A chilly wind was blowing up from the river. No luck at the first place, a dismal little room hidden away in a railway arch, or at the second, a bustling club that played a succession of phonograph records, its bar nothing more than a door on sawhorses in them corner.

In both of them, McMillan knew people and stopped for a question or two.

‘She’s been in before, but not recently,’ he said as they came out into the cold night. He stopped and lit a Black Cat cigarette. ‘Why did you want to become a woman police constable, anyway?’

Lottie gave the same answer as always.

‘It was something different. Better than stopping at home, and it was a job that would take you if you were married.’

He nodded. ‘Do you enjoy it?’

‘Most of the time,’ she replied after a moment. ‘What about you, Sergeant?’

His face seemed to come alive. ‘I love the work. I’d been a bobby for a year when the war began, and I joined up in the first flush.’ He shrugged. ‘It seemed like a good idea. Patriotic. Was your husband over there?’

No need to say where he meant; everybody knew.

‘He was wounded. Invalided out.’ That was enough. Everyone knew a few men like that. ‘How did you end up in CID?’

McMillan nodded. ‘When I came back, I didn’t want to wear a uniform again. They took a chance on me wearing plain clothes. I suppose it’s paid off. They promoted me.’

An hour later and they’d covered almost all the bars; so many tiny places the Lottie never knew existed. Nell had been in a couple of them. The last sighting had been the evening before.

That was good, she decided. The girl had still been fine twenty-four hours earlier. She glanced up and down the street. She didn’t know what it was about the nightlife here that attracted Nell Worthy, but something made it seem much better than home. Maybe one of the other detectives had discovered her.

‘Just the Royal left,’ McMillan said with distaste.

Lottie had walked past the Royal Hotel often when she was on patrol. She knew the rumours, that the customers liked people of their own sex. There was one bar for men and another purely for women.

It was hard to imagine the girl in a place like that. Lottie had seen her with boys; she’d seemed interest in them.

‘We’ll check it, anyway,’ he told her. ‘You’ll need to go in by yourself. If I walked into the woman’s bar, they’d scatter like a flock of birds.’

‘All right.’ It didn’t worry her. What was they worst they could do, tell her to get out?

 

The bar was dimly lit. A few women sat that the tables, in couples or alone, caught in the shadows. A big woman stood behind the bar, her hair cut as short as a man’s, neatly parted and pomaded. She wore a pinstripe suit, with trousers, waistcoat, shirt and tie.

Lottie took a deep breath and walked across he room. She could feel people watching her. At the bar she stopped.

The woman facing her spoke very quietly: ‘Now you can turn yourself around and leave again. I don’t want any coppers in here. You’re not welcome.’

‘I-’

‘Don’t try and say you’re not with the police. You don’t look like you’d be a good liar.’

Lottie felt herself starting to bristle. ‘I don’t lie,’ she said. ‘And I’m not about to start now.’

‘That’s settled, then. On your way before I come round there and throw you out.’

‘You don’t understand. I’m looking for someone. A girl who’s gone missing. Her father’s very worried about her.’ Maybe it was the tone of her voice. She knew she sounded earnest. But the woman didn’t move, just watching her. ‘Her name’s Nell Worthy. I know her a little, and I know she likes this area. I’ve been in every bar. Other people are trying the dancehalls.’

‘How old is she?’ the woman asked.

‘Seventeen.’

‘You said you know her. What’s her father’s name?’

It was a strange question. What did that have to do with it?

‘Tim,’ she replied. ‘He’s the muffin man near me. He’s the one who asked me to look for her.’

The woman chewed her lip as she looked at Lottie. ‘Come through to the back.’

Crates lined three of the walls. Full bottles and empties. But along the fourth was a camp bed, a few clothes bunched underneath, and a door.

‘What…’ Lottie began. She didn’t understand.

The woman tapped on the door. ‘It’s all right, you can come out now.’

A moment when nothing happened. The Lottie saw the handle turn and Nelly Worthy emerged into the light.

‘She’s police,’ the girl said. It was an accusation, not an observation.

‘I know who she is,’ the woman told her. ‘She might as well have had it tattooed on her head.’

‘She wants to take me home, Auntie Betty,’ Nell said.

‘Well,’ the woman said, ‘you can’t spend the rest of your life living back here, now can you?’

‘You left home when you were younger than me.’

The woman shook her head. For a second, her eyes flashed. ‘I had to go. I didn’t have a choice. My father threatened to whip me bloody. He didn’t like what I was.’

‘Your father wants you back,’ Lottie said. ‘Maybe it’s not perfect, but he’s tried, you know. He’s doing it on his own. He’s a man, they can’t understand girls.’

‘Listen to her,’ the woman said. ‘He’s a good man. If my sister was still alive, you wouldn’t have run, would you?’

‘I don’t know.’ A young, sullen response.

‘Well, I do. Look, I’ll come up and talk to your Dad. Me and him always got on well enough. How would you feel if he let you come and stay with me sometimes?’

‘Do you think..?’ Nell’s eyes widened. There was hope in her voice.

‘Maybe. But only sometimes. I have a life outside this place, too. Would that satisfy you?’

‘Yes,’ the girl agreed after a second.

‘You pack up your things and come through when you’re done.’

 

‘A woman copper, eh?’ Betty asked as they stood at the bar.

‘Yes. There are two of us.’ She paused for a second. ‘Only two of us. And a matron.’

‘You seem to care, at least. You came in here to look.’

‘I told you, I know Tim.’ She smiled. ‘I like his muffins.’

The woman glanced back towards the room. ‘I can’t guarantee she won’t run off again. But I’ll start to spend a little time with her.’

‘It can’t hurt.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘WPC Armstrong.’

‘Your Christian name.’

‘Lottie. Short for Charlotte.’

‘You can call me Auntie Betty. Sure you don’t feel uncomfortable in here?’

No,’ Lottie said. ‘Why would I? We’re all people, aren’t we?’

More Old Leeds Footage (And A Leaden Heart Update)

As you all know by now, The Leaden Heart was published last Friday. However…if you’ve been trying to buy the hardback online, you may well have found a problem. There’s been a glitch with the wholesaler that supplies online retailers and the book is showing as not available. I’m told this should be fixed by the end of the week, so please be patient, and I thank you. That said, a bricks-and-mortar bookshop will be able to get you a copy, as it’s a different distributor. If you’ve already bought it or reserved it at the library, thank you so much. But please may I ask one more favour – cheeky, I know. Could you write a review of it somewhere, please. Reviews really do help. They’re the best word-of-mouth advertising.

 

Meanwhile, the old footage of Leeds that I’ve posted here and there has proved very popular, so here are a couple more pieces. Nothing quite as ancient, sadly, but the first piece was still filmed more than a century ago. A very large group of Special Constables in the early stages of training in Leeds during World War I. I watched this and then realised that my grandfather is probable among them. His eyesight was too poor for the army, so he became a Special instead.

The second piece seems to be mostly from the 1930s. The focus is far from perfect, but tre’s a royal visit in there, probably to open the new Civic Hall in 1933, and footage of City Square and the building of the new Queen’s Hotel.

Be glad that these glimpses into the history of our city, our own past, are available.

And I’ll finish with this, from the Yorkshire Post.

TLH_YP

The Year of the Gun

For the last several weeks I’ve been going on about my most recent book, Modern Crimes. In part that’s because I want people to buy it, of course, but also because I love Lottie Armstrong, the main character. She’s extraordinary by being so ordinary, and she’s full of life. She fizzes – at least to me.

I liked her so much that I wasn’t ready to let her go. But the circumstances at the close of the book made that difficult (and yes, you’ll have to read it to find out). So I decided to bring her back 20 years later, not as a police constable, but in her mid-40s, as a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps in 1944, right in the middle of World War II, in a book titled The Year of the Gun, which will be published Autumn 2017 (and scroll down to the bottom for the spectacular cover).

The first few pages of that book are at the end of Modern Crimes. However, to tempt you to discover Lottie in 1924 and look forward to 1944, here’s another small episode from The Year of the Gun.

 

Right on the dot of ten Helen rang through from the switchboard.

‘There’s an American here to see your boss. A Captain Ellison.’

‘Send him up, will you?’ Lottie said.

‘He’s on his way.’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘He’s very good looking. I could eat him for my tea.’

‘Get away with you,’ Lottie laughed. Never mind; she’d find out for herself in a moment.

Good looking, she wondered as he entered the room, cap under his arm and a diffident grin on his face. Maybe. At least he didn’t have that terrible cropped hair like the other Americans. His had a little style to it, dark, parted at the side, and his smile showed strong white teeth.

‘Hi. I’m Cliff Ellison, US Army CID. Looking for Detective Chief Superintendent McMillan?’ It came out as a question. Helen was right; there was something endearing about him, she decided. Lines around his eyes and mouth that showed he’d lived, but no real brashness to his manner.

‘I’m WAPC Armstrong. I’ll show you through.’

A knock on the door and she entered. ‘It’s Captain Ellison, sir.’ Her mouth twitched into a smile. ‘Here just as you requested.’

‘Could you find three cups of tea, please, then join us?’

‘Yes, sir.’

By the time she returned the men were talking earnestly. Any frostiness in the air had already vanished.

‘It’s not a trickle, Chief Superintendent, it’s a flood,’ Ellison said as he stubbed out a cigarette. ‘We’re never going to officially admit that, but it’s the truth. And before you say anything, it’s the same in your services. I’ve talked to those guys in the Special Investigation Branch and they say it’s pretty much impossible to stop. You arrest one thief and two more take his place.’

‘The only thing that concerns me right now is these hand guns,’ McMillan said. ‘One in particular and what it’s done.’ He pushed a file across the desk. ‘Take a look for yourself.’

He drank his tea and glanced at Lottie as Ellison skimmed the sheets.

‘Two common factors,’ the captain said when he’d finished. ‘Both in the service, both shot.’

‘Three. Both the bodies were at Kirkstall Abbey. It’s a ruin,’ he explained, ‘an old monastery. One was killed there, the other dumped in the grounds.’

‘Is that important, do you think?’ Ellison asked sharply.

‘I have no idea,’ McMillan told him.

‘Look, I was a cop before I joined the army. Back in Seattle. A lieutenant, detective.’ He gave a sad smile. ‘I’ve seen murders before.’

‘Anything like this?’

‘No, sir.’

He was trying, Lottie thought. And there was something about him; he seemed like a inherently decent man.

‘I have someone running round killing girls. Two of them in two days. The murderer could be anyone – British, American. I’ve got nothing to go on. Nothing at all.’ McMillan cocked his head. ‘You say were a copper. What would you do?’

‘Well…’ Ellison stroked his chin. ‘I’d be using my informers. And I guess I’d try and get someone on the American side to follow things from there.’

‘I have people talking to the snouts. Grasses, informers,’ he explained when the other man look confused.

‘I can try to help from our end,’ Ellison said.

‘I’ll take anything I can get at this stage.’

‘What would make sense is a co-ordinated operation, Chief Superintendent.’

‘John. I never liked being called by my rank.’

‘John.’ Ellison nodded and smiled. ‘I’m Cliff.’

Cliff, Lottie thought. Clifford. Why did Americans have such strange names? Bing. Clark. It sounded like they’d made them up on the spot.

‘If you can help me catch my killer, I’ll be grateful.’

‘No promises, but I’ll do what I can.’ He gestured at the file. ‘Is there any chance I can get a copy of that?’

‘I’ll have one sent to you.’

‘I saw something about a house in there. Where is it?’

‘My evidence people have gone over it.’ McMillan hesitated a moment. ‘I thought it had something to do with the murders, but it seems I was wrong.’

‘Hunch?’ He nodded. ‘We all have them. I’d still like to take a look at the place. It says in there that an American was looking at the place and there was one of our Jeeps.’

‘OK. Lottie can drive you. It’s easier than giving directions.’

She was taken by surprise. He’d never offered her services to anyone before; Ellison was honoured and he didn’t even know it.

‘Of course, sir,’ she said.

 

‘Lottie?’ he asked as she weaved through traffic on the Headrow, past the Town Hall steps where she’d heard Mr Churchill speak a couple of years before. ‘Is that short for something?’

‘Charlotte, sir.’

‘And WAPC?’ He read the letters off her shoulder flash. ‘What’s that?’

‘Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps.’ She glanced in the mirror and smiled. ‘Not a proper copper.’

‘So you’re his driver?’

‘And dogsbody. Conscience, too, if he needs one. We’ve actually known each other for years. It’s a bit of a long story.’ One she wasn’t about to spill to a complete stranger. ‘You said you’re from Seattle. Where’s that?’

‘Kind of the top left hand corner of the country.’ Ellison gazed out at the clouds and the green of Woodhouse Moor. ‘The climate’s pretty much like England, really.’

‘Is it really all cowboys out there?’

He began to laugh so hard Lottie thought she’d need to park and thump him on the back. Finally he stopped, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his eyes.

‘Sorry, but you Brits…’ He took a breath. ‘Really, that’s all history. Seattle’s a big city.’ He looked out of the car window. ‘More modern than this. Newer.’

‘We have history,’ she said defensively. ‘A lot of it.’

By the time she parked at the end of Shire Oak Road she’d learned that he was forty-three, had a degree in history and he’d spent eighteen years in the police. Divorced with a pair of children. Americans were always so open about themselves; she’d noticed that before.

‘Have you been inside the house?’

‘With the superintendent. We did the first search.’

He looked at her more carefully. ‘You’re more than just an auxiliary, aren’t you?’

‘Not really.’ She smiled. ‘I was a real policewoman once. That’s all.’

Ellison gave her a curious look.

‘OK. So show me round.’

There really was nothing to see. Everything had been taken for examination, fingerprint dust over most of the surfaces. She pointed out where things had been as he listened attentively, then left him to poke around the place. Maybe he’d spot something they’d missed.

‘The old guy next door?’ Ellison asked when he’d finished.

‘You’ll need to talk to the Chief Super about him.’ She repeated the man’s claim.

‘Definitely an American star on the Jeep?’

‘That’s what he said.’

‘Hmm.’ He looked at his watch. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime. Is there somewhere we can eat?’

‘I think we can find a place,’ Lottie told him with a grin. ‘Come with me.’

Charlie Brett’s had been on North Lane for years, so long that the grease must have soaked into the walls. Fish and chips, about the only food that wasn’t rationed these days. And they did them well here. She and Geoff would cycle to Headingley to eat. Lean against the wall outside, enjoy the meal with a bottle of Tizer while they watched people go past.

‘You know,’ he said as she led him along the path to the old cottage that housed Brett’s, ‘I’ve been here six months and I’ve never eaten this stuff. We had a place back home selling fish and chips for a while but it closed down. Ivar’s’

‘Then it’s time you found out what the real thing is like.’

 

‘That’s not too bad.’ He sounded surprised. At least he’d been chivalrous enough to pay.

‘Well, if you want to understand the English, you’d better enjoy it,’ she said. ‘This is more or less our national dish. With lots of salt and vinegar.’

‘I can’t see it going over big in our mess, but it’s tasty,’ Ellison said. ‘What’s your take on these killings?’

‘Me?’ Lottie was astonished he wanted her opinion.

‘Yes, you.’ He grinned, showing those white teeth again. ‘Come on, you’re more than a driver, you’ve said that. You must have an opinion.’

She allowed herself a smile for a second, then her face turned serious.

‘Honestly, I don’t know.’ Lottie sighed. ‘And I’ve no idea if the Shire Oak Road house is even involved in anything. The boss thinks it is but there’s no real evidence.’

‘Hunches are important to cops.’

‘But they’re not infallible.’

‘No,’ he agreed. ‘But if he feels it that strongly…’

‘We’ll see.’ This conversation would just take them in a circle. Time to change the subject. ‘What’s Seattle like?’

‘Pretty,’ he told her after a moment. ‘There’s water on one side and mountains on the other.’ He scrambled in his pocket, brought out a wallet and dug through for photographs. ‘That’s my house.’

She’d never known anyone who carried a picture of his house. It seemed such a strange thing. People, event pets. But never a house. Still, he was far from home, divorced. Maybe it gave him a kind of anchor. It looked to be a pleasant enough place, a wooden bungalow, a large car sitting next to it in the drive.

‘I don’t live in Seattle itself,’ he explained. ‘I’m across Elliott Bay in West Seattle. Long drive round, but it’s nice and peaceful.’

But Lottie was looking at the two other photos that had come out.

‘Are those your children?’

He laid them out on the table and his voice softened. ‘Yeah. Jimmy’s in eighth grade. I’m just hoping all this is over before he’s old enough to be drafted.’

‘It will be,’ she said with certainty. ‘What’s your daughter’s name?’

‘Karen. After my mom. She’s in sixth grade. I get letters from them but it’s not the same. How about you, you have kids?’

‘No. My husband was wounded in the last war. We couldn’t.’

‘I’m sorry.’ He narrowed his eyes a little. ‘What does he do?’

‘He died five years ago. Heart attack.’ It didn’t feel so painful to say these days. Not when so many others had lost family to much worse.

‘That’s terrible.’

‘It happens.’ She pushed the empty plate away and drank the rest of her tea. ‘Come on, I’d better get back or he’ll have me before a firing squad.’

the-year-of-the-gun-new-fcp

 

Vibrant, Alive, and Out Today

For the last week I’ve been doing a lot of cleaning and digging. The house, the allotment. Writing, too, of course, but things like an overnight clean of the oven and recaulking the shower, because writers get to do all the glamorous jobs, you know. I even sang along to George Formby as I cleaned the inside of the windows. After all, what else would you sing, right?

Mostly, though, I’ve been waiting. Because today is when Modern Crimes is published. It’s a thrill whenever I have a book published, but this one seems a bit special. That’s because of Lottie. As a writer, you want the character to take over a book, and she did that. She’s alive, vibrant, and extraordinary by being quite ordinary.

It feels like it’s been a long waiting building up to publication day, and finally it’s here, and now Lottie gets the chance to be a proper 1920s Leeds copper.

The paperback is out in the UK (North American in December of January) and the ebook – which is available everywhere – is dead cheap.

If you’d like to help me welcome Lottie into the world, the real launch is on September 22 at Waterstones in Leeds. 7pm, and there will be wine. Lottie’s nervous about it, but she really hopes you can come along. All the details are right here.

Getting to this point has brought me into contact with some remarkable people I might never have met otherwise. Wonderful, supportive authors and publishers, books clubs, bloggers, for instance. Councillors and MPs. Or the woman whose father was an enquiry agent in 1950s Leeds. The man who played piano in the house band at Studio 20. The fellow who conducts tours at Beckett St. Cemetery and guide me to a grave belong to some ancestors. I don’t know who was happier when I turned over the fallen stone and saw the Nickson names there – him or me. That’s simply the tip of the iceberg. Writing books takes you into some odd places. It’s simply the most fun you can have, or that I can imagine. And I’ve had the privilege to tell the stories of people like Richard Nottingham, Tom and Annabelle Harper, Dan Markham, John the Carpenter, Laura Benton, and now Lottie Armstrong. They’re all every bit as alive to me as those I talk to regularly (in fact I do talk to them regularly…).

So, to those who read any of these books, thank you. I hope you like Lottie. She’s pretty special.

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Just Over A Week…

Yesterday I did something I’ve never done before: started reading one of my own books. By the time they’ve been written, revised, edited and proofed, I’m usually heartily sick of them. I’ll pick out sections to read at appearances, but usually that’s as far as it goes.

But not yesterday.

I took my copy of Modern Crimes, spine still uncreased, off the shelf and began to read. I liked it. I got caught up in it, in Lottie and how she navigates all the uncertainty.

It’s not even out for just over a week but I believe in this book. I believe in them all, of course I do; each one has a certain quality. But somehow, this one has a certain intangible magic. I can’t describe that, only feel it. Maybe you will, too…here’s a little bit more.

 

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 heavyset 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, 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…’ 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 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 are 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 locked,’ 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.

‘Number seventeen,’ Lottie announced with a smile as she closed the door of the Peugeot. ‘I told you Betty would know.’

‘God, she’s an odd creature. Gave me the creeps, dressed like that.’

‘She’s lovely.’ Lottie turned on the seat to look at him. ‘Without her we’d be hunting around and trying to find Walker’s address. I hope you won’t forget that.’

‘I know,’ he said quietly as he wove through the traffic on the Headrow and Woodhouse Lane. ‘I know. It’s just… well, it doesn’t matter.’ He gave her a tight smile.

‘Isn’t that a Standard?’ She pointed at a parked car on Blackman Lane. There were no more than a handful of vehicles, along with a Matthias Robinson’s delivery lorry.

‘That’s the one,’ McMillan agreed. ‘Right outside the house, too. The attic, you said?’

‘That’s what Betty told me.’ She wanted to remind him who’d given them the information.

‘Let’s take a gander. If we’re lucky, your Miss Hill will be here and we can finish this right now.’

The front door of the house was unlocked. They climbed the stairs slowly, one flight, then pausing on the landing before taking the second. At the top, the door stood ajar.

Something felt very wrong.

‘Let me go first,’ the sergeant whispered. He trod carefully, barely making a sound. He hesitated for a fraction of a second before grabbing the door handle and easing it up. Lottie had barely started the climb when she heard him shout, ‘Get in here now.’

 

You can get both paperback (in the UK) and ebook (everywhere, and very cheap) from September 6. Or simply order it now. And I hope it has magic for you, too.

Lottie cover

 

 

Lottie at the Market Tavern

It’s not long until Modern Crimes is published and yes, I’m going to keep putting out teasers about it. I like Lottie Armstrong. She’s somewhat extraordinary by being ordinary – and you’ll have to read it to make sense of that. And so, here’s another short extract to hopefully whet your appetites.

For those who don’t know, the Market Tavern was Leeds institution, about 100 yards from Millgarth Police Station, and many of the city’s crooks gathered there. The force was happy to let them; it meant they knew where they were. But, at least in the 1920s, it wasn’t a place for a respectable woman, and definitely not for a woman police constable…

At the end you can find out more about Modern Crimes. The ebook comes out the same day as the UK paperback, and it’s decidedly cheap. I’ll just leave that thought in your head.

 

‘By God,’ Tennison said in admiration as they walked back down the street. ‘Where did you learn to do all that?’

‘What?’

‘Get them to talk. You should be a detective.’

She laughed. ‘And pigs will fly. Come on, he wanted to tell us, you could see it in his face. He loves her, he wants to see her safe as much as anyone.’

‘If you say so,’ he said doubtfully. ‘That touching his hand, what made you do it?’

‘I don’t know. It just seemed to be what he needed. Why? Was it bad?’

‘It was ruddy marvellous.’ He smiled at her and glanced at his wristwatch. ‘What time are you due back on patrol?’

She looked at him. ‘I don’t know. As soon as we’re done, I suppose. Why?’

‘Oh, I just thought we could drop in to the Market Tavern before you went back, that’s all.’ He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, a sly grin on his lips.

‘Go on, then,’ she agreed quickly. ‘As long as it stays quiet. Mrs Maitland will have me off the force if she finds out.’

‘I won’t say a word, cross my heart.’ He winked. ‘For a lass, you’re all right, you know that?’

She nudged him in the ribs, hard enough for him to feel. ‘And I’ve come across worse blokes than you.’ Her eyes were laughing. ‘So who’s this rich man, do you think?’

‘Haven’t a clue, but someone’s bound to know. You won’t find many Standards in Leeds, they’re not cheap. Whoever owns it has a bit of brass.’

She’d gone into pubs with Geoff, a few times with gaggles of girls from Barnbow when they enjoyed a night out. A cocktail bar with Cathy. But never anywhere like the Market Tavern. It was early enough in the day to stink of stale beer and old smoke, dust motes hanging in the air.

A few hardened drinkers slumped in the corners, shunning company; a man listlessly mopped the bar. The spittoons hadn’t been emptied and the brass needed a healthy polish.

‘Morning, Bill. Is Nancy about?’ Tennison said, looking around the faces in the place.

‘In the cellar, Henry. She’ll be back in a minute.’ He stared at Lottie, the look becoming a leer as he licked his lips. ‘Who’s the bird?’

‘That’ll be Woman Police Constable Armstrong to you.’ There was an iron edge to his voice. ‘Unless you fancy a belting into next week. Not from me, from her. And don’t go thinking she wouldn’t dare.’

Bill bowed his head and seemed to deflate into himself,.

At Barnbow the men had flirted. Some of them had tried it on, hands free when they thought they could get away with it. But she’d been one girl among many, plenty of them prettier and more happy-go-lucky. Since she put on the uniform it had been worse, as if she was fair game. Plenty of comments, someone trying to grab her breasts on a crowded tram. Even one of the coppers at work had fancied his chances, thinking he could drag her into a cupboard. A sharp knee had ended that idea and kept him off work the next day. Since then they’d treated her warily around the station. Everyone knew what had happened; no-one ever spoke about it.

Footsteps echoed on stone stairs. A door opened and a woman filled the opening. She was large, tall with wide shoulders. Big-boned in every way, around forty, but she carried it handsomely, wearing expensive, stylish clothes, make-up carefully applied to hide the wrinkles, her hair cut to suit her broad face.

‘Well, well, well, look who’s blown in.’ She had a voice like a contented purr, low, pleasant, but with the edge of teasing. ‘Where have you been keeping yourself, Henry?’ Her eyes turned to Lottie. ‘This must be one of them WPCs.’ She nodded approval. ‘The uniform suits you, dear. And Henry wouldn’t be dragging you in here unless you could hold your own.’

‘I’ve got a question for you,’ Tennison said. The attention, and everything that lurked beneath it, didn’t seem to bother him. ‘About someone who drinks in here.’

Nancy took a Woodbine from a packet on the bar and lit it.

‘Well,’ she said finally. ‘Spit it out. I don’t have all day.’

‘He drives a Standard,’ Lottie said quickly. ‘Probably in his twenties or so. Very likely thinks he’s the bees’ knees.’

The woman laughed. ‘You’re not backwards about coming forwards, are you? You’re looking for Ronnie Walker. Comes in here a couple of times a week. Likes to think he’s hard stuff because he’s slumming it. What’s he done?’

‘Maybe nothing,’ Tennison said. ‘We need to talk to him and find out.’

‘You need to take a look in Headingley. Somewhere round there.’ She stared at Lottie. ‘What’s your name, luv?’

‘WPC Armstrong.’

Nancy sighed. ‘Your real name. Like he’s Henry and I’m Nancy.’

‘Lottie.’

The woman extended a large hand and Lottie shook it. ‘You’ll do. You need anything, come and ask for me.’ She nodded at Tennison. ‘You don’t need to wait for him. And no-one will hurt you in here. Not unless they want to answer to me.’ She grinned, showing a set of discoloured teeth. ‘And they don’t, believe you me.’

 

‘You went in the Market Tavern?’ Cathy put her hands on her hips. ‘Come on, tell me all about it. I keep hoping someone will take me in there.’

They were walking through County Arcade, all the old glamour looking a little faded and dreary, the black and white tiled floor sad and grubby.

‘There’s not much to tell,’ Lottie told her. ‘It’s a dreary place. We weren’t even inside for ten minutes.’

‘What about the woman?’ Cathy asked eagerly. ‘I’ve heard about her.’

‘Nancy? She’s lovely. Big, but… it suits her.’

‘Are they keeping you on the investigation? What did Mrs Maitland say?’

‘The case has gone to the detectives.’

She didn’t want to say more. After her hopes had been raised for a few hours, they’d been dashed again. Still, that was to be expected. Outside the matron’s office Henry had given her a sympathetic look and a shrug before heading back to his beat. It was the way of the world.

 

Evening report was almost complete when Mrs Maitland looked at her. Her next words seemed to come out grudgingly.

‘Inspector Carter wants you to report upstairs to CID before you leave.’

 

Want to know more about Lottie and Modern Crimes? Click here.

Lottie cover

Proper Coppers – A Brand New Story

It’s just under three weeks until Modern Crimes is published. You haven’t really had chance to get to know its heroine, Lottie Armstrong. What better way than in a new short story that gives you the opportunity to know a little more about WPC Lottie Armstrong, and how she wants to be a proper copper.

You can order the book. The paperback comes out on the 7 September, January 2017 in the US. But the ebook edition is published everywhere September 7, and it’s dead cheap (thank my publisher). Details after the story.

Proper Coppers

‘Come on.’ Lottie stopped and turned, hands on her hips. ‘It’ll take us an hour to get there at this rate.’

Cathy Taylor bent over and retied her laces. ‘You’re not the one breaking in new shoes. They’re killing my bunions’

‘Half a dozen men are craning their neck to look at you like that,’ Lottie hissed.

‘Let them.’ Cathy straightened and grinned. ‘I’m don’t mind being the centre of attention.’ She wiggled her toes. ‘That’s a little better. We’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.’ Cathy began to stride out across Woodhouse Moor and looked over her shoulder. ‘Well? Are you coming?’

1924, and they were the first two women police constables in Leeds, their first year on the beat. WPCs looked after the women and children; those were the orders. Shoplifters, truants, moving on the prostitutes. Not proper coppers, one officer had told them with a sneer.

Lottie Armstrong didn’t care. She’d heard worse when she’d worked out at Barnbow during the war. A fews insults ran off her like water from a duck’s bath. She was twenty-five, loved the work, and she had a husband who liked her to be happy. Cathy? Well, her husband spent most of his time away with the merchant marine. Work filled her days, brought in some money, and gave her the chance to flirt with anything in trousers. And she was right; she always liked being the centre of male attention. She didn’t even have to work with it. Skinny as a rail, one of those fashionable figures, and with her hair in a bob, men regularly gave her a second glance. Lottie was…rounder. Not that she really cared. Most of the time.

They knew exactly where they were going. It was May and already their third trip to the same address that year. Once in April, twice this month. Elsie Chalmers. Bold as brass, she nicked things from shops. Classy shops and good department stores. Matthias Robinson, Marks and Spencer, Schofield’s, the Pygmalion, Marshall and Snelgrove – none of them were safe from her. Knickers, gloves, a blouse or two. Everyone knew she did it; they’d simply never managed to catch her with the goods. It had been going on for five years, always in the spring and summer, as if she took winter off.

‘It’s like cricket,’ the desk sergeant said. ‘April rolls around and it’s the start of Elsie’s shoplifting season.’ But no matter how often they searched her house, they’d never found the items she’d taken.

This time, though, she’d outdone herself. Elsie stolen an expensive coat, on sale after the winter season. Heavy wool, with a fox collar. It wasn’t something she could slip into her handbag as she passed. She’d tried it on, admired the fit in the mirror and waltzed out still wearing it. By the time the shop assistant realised, Elsie had vanished into the crowds on Briggate.

That had been two hours before.

Now they had their orders. Go and search Elsie Chalmers’ house. Again. The way she kept coming back here, Lottie thought, she might as well rent a room from the woman. She already knew the layout as well as she knew her own home on Oak Road.

It was a decent three-storey terrace with a front garden no bigger than a postage stamp. A tiny spot of lawn that could be clipped with a pair of nail scissors and a rose bush that climbed awkwardly towards the neighbour’s hedge.

Cathy knocked on the door. They waited a moment then heard footsteps clicking down the hall. Then, finally, Elsie herself.

‘Hello.’ She managed to sound surprised. ‘What brings you two here? Why don’t you come in?’ She stepped aside to let them through.

‘Elsie,’ Lottie began, ‘you’ve been at it again, haven’t you?’

‘At what, dear? What do you mean?’ She was fifty if she was a day, but she tried her best to hide it, always beautifully turned out. A strong girdle to keep her figure under control, neat, stylish clothes, a hair style that hadn’t come from the shop on the parade down the road. And plenty of make-up to hide the wrinkles. ‘Would you like some tea?’

Every visit here meant tea and cake. It was a ritual, part of the game for the woman. Lottie looked at her, wondering what was going on in her head. Why did she do this? What did she gain from it?

‘Where’s the coat, Elise?’ Cathy asked.

‘What coat is that, dear?’

‘The one you stole this afternoon.’

Elsie gave a sweet smile. ‘But I haven’t stolen anything.’ She waved a hand. ‘Take a look around.’

She still wore the wedding ring, although her husband had been dead since the Somme. He’d left her a little, enough to get by. Lottie knew that much from talking to her. She could afford the clothes she took. Maybe stealing brought a little thrill into her life.

Never mind, she thought. Maybe this time they’d catch her.

Cathy was in the bedroom, moving clothes along the rail.

‘She’s got enough dresses to fit an army. I bet she never paid for half of them, either.’ She held one out. ‘Feel that. Real silk. She couldn’t afford that.’

Lottie knelt and checked under the bed, then in the box room, the empty spare bedroom, and finally the attic. She pushed the cobwebs away with her hand, looking for feet marks on the dirty floor. Not a thing.

They marched back downstairs, feeling the frustration. Wherever it was, Elsie had a good hiding place. The best. But this time, Lottie decided, this time she’d find it, even if she had to tear the place apart brick by brick.

The parlour, the kitchen: no coat. That left the cellar. Lottie raised an eyebrow. Cathy sighed. They’d been down there before. Last time they’d found a huge spider over the sink and a rat had scuttled across the floor before vanishing into a hole. But they had to do it. Lottie gritted her teeth.

Five minutes of searching everywhere. They moved old furniture that had been left here, coughing as dust rose into their faces. By the time they climbed back up to the kitchen, their uniforms were filthy. They patted themselves and each other. Best to be immaculate before they reported back in to Millgarth police station or Mrs. Maitland, the matron, would be tearing strips of them both.

Lottie stared out of the windows at the yard.

‘Just wait a minute,’ she said.

It was no more than six steps across the yard to the coal shed up against the back wall. There’d be an opening on the other side, so the coalman could deliver from the ginnel.

Lottie opened the door. She expected a small dark cloud to rise as she stepped inside. Instead the small space was swept spotlessly clean.

A long bag hung from a nail on the wall. A few carefully sealed boxes were stacked on the floor. Lottie began to smile.

‘Elsie,’ she called once she was in the kitchen again, her arms full, ‘Could you come here a moment?’

‘What is it?’ She heard the small sigh of the chair as the woman rose. As soon as she entered the room, her face fell. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘Oh dear.’

 

‘How did you know?’ Cathy asked. They stood in the ladies’ at Millgarth Police station, washing off the day’s grime after their shift. Elsie Chalmers was down in the cells, waiting for her solicitor. ‘None of the blokes who’d searched the place before ever thought of it. We didn’t, either. What made you look there?’

‘I’m not sure.’ She studied her reflection. It was true. She’d had a sudden flash, that was all. Seeing the coal shed, remembering that there hadn’t been a fire in the grate, that day or the month before, that the woman only shoplifted when the weather grew warmer. In a moment, everything seemed to fit together. ‘It doesn’t matter. We got her.’ She smiled. ‘Just like proper coppers.’

Want to know more about Modern Crimes? Click here.

Lottie cover