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

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

Meet Lottie Armstrong

It’s official. Contracts signed and returned. Lottie Armstrong will be going public.

Who?

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.

Something New, Something Different

Somehow the idea of 1920s Leeds has got under my skin lately, and the first policewomen we had here. so I began writing. Here’s a little bit of it, wherever it ends up going.

Who know, it might have been this way….

Leeds, 1924

Walking into Millgarth Police Station, Charlotte nodded to the desk sergeant and 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 a quick inspection. She was a pinch-faced woman in her late forties, her 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 about herself; 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, blonde, one of 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. 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 and address on a piece of paper. ‘Go and see her. She runs a boarding house for unmarried mothers. One of her guests has been acting strangely.’ She stared at the pair of them. ‘Well? 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 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 wished the force would let them do more, rather than treating them like delicate flowers with tender sensibilities.

Still, it was better than working in an office or being a housewife. She’d developed a taste for freedom when she worked during the war, like so many others. Getting the vote was something. Earning her own money was much more.

Lottie had worked as a clerk at the Barnbow munitions factory in Cross Gates. 1916 and she was twenty, fresh in the job with everything to learn, just 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 with a bad limp from a wound he’d suffered the year before in the Dardanelles. He had a modest charm about him, and in his uniform he looked quite dashing.

Charlotte was the one who’d made the running, someone had to and he wasn’t one to put himself forward. On his third visit 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 he’d returned to his job in the area Dunlop office

With the war over and the men coming home, factories began sacking the women. A wedding ring on her finger, Charlotte had tried to become a housewife. But life chafed around her. Other women were having babies but she never would, with Geoff’s injuries. She needed something, but there was nothing. Until the Leeds Police advertised for policewomen. And suddenly life excited her again.

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

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, with a husband gone most of the year in the merchant marine. No kids. No 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 out with her a couple of times after work, changing into civvies at the station then going 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 go on somewhere, 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 was still young, always getting looks from men. Pretty enough for a portrait, hair in a modern bob, with a pair of shapely legs and that bony, modern figure that always made Charlotte feel huge in comparison.

‘What are you going to do when your John 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 more 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 a right and a 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.’

The house seemed out of place. On a street of large terraced houses, it loomed on the corner, detached, standing apart at the back of a long, neat garden, look out over the Meanwood valley, with all its factories and chimneys. Hard an inspiring view, she thought.

Lottie 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?’

Charlotte 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…’ Charlotte 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 gone missing, is that right?’ She took the notebook and pencil from her pocket, read.

‘Yes. Didn’t come back last night and no word this morning.’

‘Could you tell us a little bit about her, Mrs. Allen? Her name, what she looks like, where she’s from.’ Lottie smiled. This was what she enjoyed, talking to people, teasing out the information.

‘She’s called Jocelyn Hill. Seventeen, but she could pass for younger. You know the type, like butter wouldn’t melt, but she’s a sly little thing. Always looking 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?’ Charlotte 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…’ Charlotte 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.’