In the midst of war, can they find a reason to celebrate?
1915. Patrolling is the last thing on the minds of Women’s Police Service recruits Annie, Maggie and Poppy right now, because Annie and her fiancé Richard are about to get married. She’s been waiting for this day her whole life, but when it finally comes it brings only heartache and Annie doesn’t know if she can go on.
The influx of soldiers to the capital means that the WPS’s work is more important than ever, though, and Annie’s country needs her. She and the girls are posted to the bustling heart of the city and she hopes the new job will distract her from her sorrow.
It certainly does that. Soon the biggest bombing raid of the war causes chaos on their patch. On top of that, Annie suspects that a group of men are forcing European refugees into prostitution and resolves to stop them by Christmas. But by the time she realises just how high up the scandal goes, she might be in too deep to get out . . .
London, September 1915
Annie Beckett felt a rush of wind as she and her colleagues started their descent down the steps. The warm air billowing over her told her that a tube train was about to make its way into Whitechapel Station. Sure enough, only seconds later she heard the familiar sounds of carriages pulling up and doors opening to spit out Londoners eager to get on with their journeys. Annie, Maggie and Poppy were halfway down the steps when the crowd surged around the corner and started clambering up the stairs towards them at speed.
Annie stopped and stepped to the side to let everyone past. She had learned the hard way that it wasn’t worth trying to fight your way through the hordes of passengers desperate to escape the stuffy station and get out into the fresh air. Maggie and Poppy followed suit and the three of them stood firm so as not to get knocked off their feet.
Once the worst of the crowd had passed, the girls made their way down the steps once more. Annie spotted a young lad in uniform loitering at the bottom of the stairwell. She slowed down and watched carefully as he looked shiftily around him and scratched his head nervously. She was about to mention him to her friends when he appeared to pull out an imaginary rifle and fix it into place. The second he started his advance up the staircase, Annie leapt into action. She had to do something before he hurt somebody. His mind had clearly transported him back to the battlefields and it was anyone’s guess what he would do if some poor blighter – a German to him – got in his way.
The soldier had only made it up a few of the steps when Annie, Maggie and Poppy sprung forwards in unison to block his path. As bemused members of the public veered to the side to watch the drama unfold, the girls braced themselves to take his weight. They made it into position just before the man reached them. He tried to charge through the human wall they had created but they stood firm. Annie was in the middle, so she took the brunt of the force, but she stood in a ju-jitsu pose with her hands and arms out protecting her body so that she wasn’t knocked off her feet. When the soldier bounced back off the trio, they all grabbed him, catching him before he fell back down the staircase. The movement seemed to jolt the man back to reality. Annie was relieved. Blinded by rage and fear, he could have hurt a lot of people by charging through the crowd at speed with all his force if they hadn’t stopped him. Not to mention how his actions would likely have caused a dangerous panic and crush.
‘I . . . I . . . where am I?’ the man stuttered. The girls loosened their grips on him and he looked around, dazed, as another surge of tube passengers made their way past them up the steps, unaware of what had just happened.
‘You’re back in London. You’re safe,’ Annie said firmly as the soldier leant against the wall for support. The relief that swept over his face as her words registered winded Annie like a punch to the stomach. She hated what this war was doing to men like this – like her fiancé, Richard. Would any of them ever be able to get over what they had seen and been forced to do to protect the country? Annie quickly pushed her anguish aside to deal with the matter in hand. She found that if she thought about things like this too much then she lost all focus, and she needed to get through this patrol as smoothly as possible.
‘Let’s get you out of here and into the air, and then we can help get you home,’ she offered, taking the soldier’s hand in hers as Poppy placed her own gently on his shoulder. Together, they guided him up the stairs. Out on the street, they all took a moment to adjust to the early September sunshine. Annie pulled her hefty jacket tighter around her – there was only a slight nip in the air but she always struggled switching from the warm and stuffy atmosphere in tube stations to the fresh air outside.
The soldier, however, seemed to be a lot more comfortable in his surroundings. He took some deep breaths before muttering, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened back there, but I felt like I was back in the trenches.’ The usual London hustle and bustle swept past them all, unaware of the major panic and crush that had been averted below them.
‘Don’t worry,’ Maggie said kindly. ‘It’s not the first time we’ve been in a situation like that. That’s why we stepped in to help you so quickly.’
In the early days of the war, there had been no organisation responsible for meeting leave trains at the mainline stations where they pulled in after transporting troops from the front, so a lot of the recruits had found themselves helping confused soldiers find their bearings. The onwards journey was tricky for a lot of them and busy, stifling tube stations were the worst places for the men to be when they were trying to get themselves home while at the same time dealing with what they had seen on the front line. Officials were meant to meet them off the trains at the main stations now and escort them on the rest of their journey but every now and then one slipped through the net and the girls found that they could spot the ones who were struggling with the transition a mile off. Just as they had done today.
When Maggie started jumping up and down and gesticulating wildly, Annie realised she had spotted a police car. The officer pulled up beside them with a stern look on his face and Maggie stepped forward to speak to him.
‘He’ll take you home,’ Maggie declared, turning back around to face the group and wave the soldier over. He thanked the girls, took off his backpack and made his way to the car.
‘Make sure you get some rest,’ Poppy called out as he climbed into the back seat. ‘Let your mother look after you, won’t you?’
As the oldest of the three recruits, it was typical of Poppy to show this type of concern. The soldier looked back at her with tears in his eyes and nodded sadly. Annie felt a pang in her chest for this stranger and found herself wishing he could stay at home with his mother looking after him for as long as he needed, instead of having to go back out into the line of fire in a matter of days.
‘That policeman was a right miserable so-and-so. He didn’t even thank me for our help,’ sniffed Maggie as they watched the car drive away. ‘I would have given him a piece of my mind if I wasn’t so concerned about that poor lad getting home.’
Annie laughed to herself. She loved how feisty Maggie Smyth was. She didn’t stand for any nonsense from anybody – whether they were her superior or not. She had really helped Annie come out of her shell in the last year or so. Annie had been so timid when they had first met while training for the Women Police Service; so much so that at first Annie had been horrified by Maggie’s self-assured attitude and confidence. But they had been through an awful lot together during their training and subsequent placement together at Bethnal Green Police Station. Annie knew she had Maggie and their other friend and original patrol partner Irene Wilson to thank for the fact she was such a strong and independent woman now, even if she did go through occasional moments of self-doubt.
Although the threesome had patrolled together to begin with – and cracked the biggest burglary case the station had seen in years – Irene had been transferred to Grantham back in May and they both missed her dearly. The male officers hadn’t taken too kindly to their arrival in the beginning, but their success with the burglary had helped them to be accepted. There were still a few officers who made it clear they didn’t agree with women patrolling the streets and taking on ‘men’s work’, but as the war had raged on longer than anybody had expected and more men had signed up to fight, the WPS recruits across the country had become an ever more valuable resource for the struggling police service. Annie assumed the chap who had driven the soldier away wasn’t one of their biggest fans.
Poppy Davis had been sent to join Annie and Maggie on the beat when Irene had left for Grantham and, although being in her thirties made her quite a bit older than them both – Annie was twenty-three and Maggie just nineteen – she had fitted in well to their little set-up – even moving in to the flat they shared in Camberwell Green. She had already been patrolling in another part of London before she joined the girls and Annie had been relieved to have been sent someone with experience rather than a recruit fresh out of training. Maggie had been convinced Poppy would use her age to boss them both around, and Annie had been ready for the pair of them to clash. But it turned out that Poppy was young at heart, and she made sure her extra years of life-experience benefited the whole group. Now it was like she had always been a part of their life together, although Annie wished Irene could still be with them, too.
‘What were you thinking back there?’ Maggie asked suddenly.
Confused, Annie looked round at her to check who she was addressing.
‘What do you mean?’ Annie asked when she found Maggie staring at her expectantly.
‘I mean, how could you take such a big risk so close to the wedding? You leapt straight in there and plonked yourself in the middle, right in the line of fire. I wish you’d taken a step back and let me or Poppy do that.’
Annie blinked. She hadn’t thought before she had acted. It all came naturally now. ‘It happened so quickly,’ she explained. ‘I didn’t even get a chance to make sure you had both seen what I’d seen and were going to back me up.’
‘Well, thank goodness we did,’ Maggie sighed. ‘What if we hadn’t realised and left you to take him on alone? He could have knocked you straight off your feet. Your mother would kill me if I dragged you along to the dress fitting with a head wound, and don’t get me started on Richard’s reaction to a bruised and bloody bride!’
Annie could see now that Maggie was joking around with her. ‘Well, it’s a good job we’re all so in tune then, isn’t it?’ she said, smiling. ‘I know you’ve always got my back.’
She gave her friend a playful pat on her back and the three of them giggled. And that was the truth; she had dived straight in without checking Maggie and Poppy were behind her because she always trusted that they were. They had never once let her down, and she was confident they never would. Just like she knew she would always be there to help them, no matter what the situation was. That was one of the reasons their bond was so strong.
‘We’d better hurry back to the station,’ Maggie declared suddenly, checking her watch. ‘I don’t know where the afternoon has gone, but we’re cutting it fine to meet your mother at the dress shop and I don’t want to upset Mrs Beckett!’
Annie rolled her eyes playfully. Her mother was as relaxed as they come and certainly wouldn’t moan at them being late to meet her with such good reason. She wondered if Maggie had one of her grand plans in place and secretly hoped she didn’t. She didn’t want any big surprises over the next few days. All that mattered was that she got to see Richard again, and become his wife at last. He was due back on leave the next day and this final dress fitting was the last piece of wedding preparation she had left to do before the ceremony. She rushed along the street with Maggie and Poppy. She had to admit, she was rather desperate to try her dress on one last time before the big day.