The Fall Of Empire

It’s Valentine’s Day, I know, but this little story has nothing to do with romance. Sorry, hazard of the job for a crime writer.

 

Someone was coming for him.

He didn’t know who, he didn’t know exactly when, but he felt it. Over his shoulder like a creeping shadow.

That was how it went. You made a name for yourself, climb to the top of the pile, and you became a target. Someone eager to earn a reputation would want to take you down.

Dirty business, crime.

Peter Thorn smiled. The newspapers had done their damnedest and failed. They’d done everything but name him; the libel laws had stopped that. The coppers had tried, but the ones he hadn’t bought off weren’t clever enough.

But some things you couldn’t outrun.

Too many people back from the war, walking round with their demob suits and souvenir weapons from Germany or the Pacific. Some of them hungry for a little fame.

He’d give them a chance. And he’d beat them.

That was why he was sitting in this Sheepscar boozer long after time had been called. Door unlocked, landlord and his wife safely tucked away upside. Bodyguards told to wait in a club; he’d ring when he needed them. You didn’t remain boss by hiding. You faced up to trouble.

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Thorn had a glass of whisky on the bar, a Colt automatic beside it. Another weapon in the pocket of his suit.

He’d done well during the war. Staying out of the forces was too easy. A little money distributed here and there and he might as well have been invisible. Then it was black market petrol, coupons, this and that as he put together a small mob and made himself rich.

Now all those who’d been patriotic enough to do their bit were back and ready to stir things up.

He sipped the whisky and took a draw on the cigarette. He heard the door of the pub groan open and turned, ready.

‘Thank God it wasn’t locked,’ she said as she came in and gazed around. About thirty, he guessed, dark hair, looking scared and holding a handbag close. ‘I’m lost.’

‘Can I help you, love?’

‘A man was giving me a lift and he started…’ She blushed. ‘You know. So I got out and ran.’

‘He won’t try anything in here, believe me.’ Thorn smiled. He’d always liked a pretty face. ‘You’re safe enough.’ He raised the glass in a toast. ‘Help yourself if you want one.’

She stayed close to the door, undecided.

‘What’s your name, love?’

‘Peggy,’ she replied as he picked up the cigarette from the ashtray. ‘Peggy Walker.’

He stopped with the arm halfway to his mouth.

The woman dropped the handbag. She was holding a gun, her arm steady.

‘Tom was my brother.’

‘He had it coming.’

She ignored him.

‘Funny, the skills you pick up in the WAAFs. Never underestimate a woman.’

His hand began to move towards his pocket.

The blast was loud. He slid off the stool and on to the floor as the door creaked shut.

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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.’

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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.

A Generation Betwixt And Between

I’m currently at work on a book set during the Second World War at it’s bought home to me just how tangible that was when I was a child. Born in the mid 50s, the war – it was always The War, as if there could have been no other – was the defining event of my parents’ generation, understandably. It had been a global conflict, one that involved both sexes as women worked or served in the forces. In terms of damage, Leeds escaped relatively lightly, with just nine raids and a few dozen dead. We were lucky.

But the sense of the war was quite tangible to me. There was an air raid shelter at the bottom of our garden. Not the hump-backed Anderson shelter, but one dun into the earth, brick walls and a concrete roof that must have been a foot thick. Steps down, a trench running to the other fence, it had a corridor and a single dark room. It scared the hell out of me; my father used to throw the grass clippings in there.

It simply reinforced what was in the comics boys read. Not just the obvious war one like Commando (which appeared monthly, I think). It was there in the weeklies, too, our brave boys against them. The Jerries. The Nips. For someone born nine years after the Second World War ended, it seemed as if the idea of it would never vanished. Men still talk about the war they had, and ‘a good war’ was a fairly common phrase. We played with toy guns. We played war (although, to be fair, we also played Cowboys and Indians, Robin Hood, Crusades – but all imply that good guy/bad guy dynamic).

People say that the Baby Boomers were the luckiest generation. Maybe that’s true. In Britain, at least, my generation never had to go and fight somewhere. We had the benefits of the Welfare State and the opportunity of greater education than any before us.

Sometimes, though, it feels as if we were luckier in other ways. We’re the generation caught betwixt and between the way England was and the brave new world it’s still trying to be. I spent a fair bit of my childhood in a 1930s semi-detached house. Very comfortable, yes. But the only possible heat upstairs was a fireplace in my parent’s bedroom, and that was only lit when someone was ill. In a middle-class house I scraped frost off the inside of my bedroom window on a winter’s morning. Fireplace in the dining room that also served to heat the back burner in the kitchen, which probably hadn’t been updated since the house was built. One more fireplace in the front room. Lit for company or on Sundays when my father went in there to write.

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That wasn’t deprivation. It was perfectly normal, and better than the housing many families had. It’s only looking back that England seems like a country on the brink of poverty them. So much hadn’t changed over the decades that went before. Until the heights of secondary education, boys had to wear shorts to school, and the winter of 62’3 was one of the coldest on record. We did it; there was no choice. It didn’t make us harder or tougher. It was simply how things were.

There are plenty of other examples. This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, though, rather a realisation that when I write about Leeds in the 1940s, or in the 1890s for the Tom Harper books, they’re not as far away from my own young years as they probably should be. We moved on, and I’m very glad we did.

Yet at the same I’m somehow glad to be part of the bridge between then and now. It gives me an understanding of the past I might not have managed in the same way otherwise. That’s the real luck of it all. At least to me.