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.

The Year of the Gun

A few months ago I posted the opening of an early draft of a book set in the 1920s, featuring WPC Lottie Armstrong. That novel – titled Modern Crimes – is going through revisions, but Lottie hadn’t had enough of me. She wanted a little more of the limelight. So I have it to her.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the background to the opening of The Year of the Gun.

And yes, I’d love to know what you think.

 

 

Leeds, February 1944

‘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 into 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 the inches around your waist.’

He closed the buff folder on his lap and sighed.

‘What did I do to deserve this?’

‘Don’t you know there’s a war on, sir?’ Her eyes twinkled. ‘Anyway, as I recall, you came and specifically requested me to join up and be 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 took out her lipstick. Just because she was in uniform there was no reason not to look her best.

It felt strange to be a policewoman again after twenty years away from it. Granted, it was just the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps, not a real copper, but still…after they’d pitched her out on her ear it was still delicious. Every day she touched the badge of her shoulder to be sure it was real.

And it was perfectly true that McMillan had asked her. He’d turned up on her doorstep three months before, back in November 1943, looking bashful.

‘I need a driver, Lottie. Someone with a brain.’

‘That was why they got rid of me before,’ she reminded him. ‘Too independent, you remember?’ disobeying McMillan’s order had brought her before the disciplinary board. ‘Anyway, I’m past conscription age. Not by much,’ she added carefully, ‘but even so…’

‘I’ll arrange everything,’ he promised.

Hands on hips, she eyed him carefully.

‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Why now?’

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 his 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 now, mostly bald, growing fat, the dashing dark moustache now white and his cheeks turned to jowls. By rights he should have retired, but with so many in the service 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. His detectives under him were mostly older or medically unfit for service. There were only two who’d stayed on the Home Front rather than put on a uniform.

But wartime hadn’t slowed crime down. Far from it. Black market, gangs, deserters, prostitution. No shortage of it. 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.

 

‘Back to Millgarth,’ McMillan said when we returned, holding a brown paper bag carefully in one hand. ‘If nothing’s come up while we’ve been gone, you can call it a day and get off home.’

Good, Lottie thought. The Co-op might have some tea; she was almost out. She didn’t hold out much hope for the butcher by this time of day, though. At least it had been a good year in the garden: plenty of potatoes and carrots and a decent crop of courgettes and marrows. One thing about all this rationing, she hadn’t gained any weight since it started. If anything she’d lost a little; clothes she’d worn ten years before still fitted.

She followed McMillan into the station and up the rickety wooden staircase. His office was the second door along a corridor where the old linoleum curled at the edges and the paint flaked under the fingers.

‘Quiet for once,’ McMillan said as he inspected his desk. ‘Close the door.’

‘Sir?’

‘Chop chop.’

She did as he ordered, then watched as he reached into the paper bag and drew out two eggs. Real, fresh eggs. When was the last time she’d seen any of those?

‘Go on, take them. They’re for you. When I saw Timmy Houghton he gave me four. Or don’t you want them?’

Lottie scooped them up carefully, swaddling them in a handkerchief as she placed them in her handbag.

‘Of course. Thank you.’ She didn’t know what to say. He had a habit of doing things like this. A little something here and there. A pair of stockings, some chocolate. Even a quarter-pound of best steak once that tasted like a feast. In the two months she’d been working for him she felt spoilt. It was his way of thanking her, she knew that.

At the bus stop she cradled her bag close, miles away as she dreamed of eggs, maybe with a sausage and some fried bread. The kind of breakfasts they had before the war. So many things had changed when Chamberlain spoke on the radio. Most of all, her life: two days later Geoff was dead from a sudden heart attack at work.

He’d left good provision for her. The man from the Pru came and explained it all. Insurance would pay off the mortgage on the house in Chapel Allerton. There’d be an annuity, and a pension from his job at Dunlop. She’d never want for anything.

Lottie was…comfortable. Even Geoff’s death, even the war couldn’t seem to shake her out of it. Numb with comfort. She burrowed into it, hid in it. Everything seemed easier that way. Until McMillan knocked on her door and turning life upside down.

And she couldn’t remember when she’d been so grateful.

 

 

‘Don’t take your hat off,’ he said as she walked into the office. Half-past seven, still dark, with a bitter, miserable rain coming down. What she wanted was to sit somewhere warm for a few minutes and dry out. She wasn’t going to have the chance.

Lottie gathered up the car keys and followed him out of the door.

‘Kirkstall Abbey,’ he told as she started the engine and felt the power of the Super Snipe’s engine.

‘Yes sir.’

‘It seems we have a death.’