Short extract from The Thief of St Martins (due out later this year)

Dottie sat on the hard bench and made up her mind she would be here a while. She couldn’t give way now. To keep herself steady and her eyes dry, she fixed her attention on the cell itself.

First, she measured with her eyes the length and breadth. About eight feet by six or seven, she decided. About the size of the small cloakroom at the back of the scullery passage at her parents’ house, the one used by the staff. Then she looked at the way the benches were attached to the wall; presumably so no one could pick them up and throw them at anyone else, the jailer for example, or another inmate.

She glanced then quickly glanced away at the other two women in the cell. She risked a further, covert, look behind her hand as she raised it to scratch her temple.

The woman on the other bench was hunched up against the wall, concealed beneath a huge ragged shawl, apparently asleep. Her shoes—holed and heel-less—lay beneath the bench, one resting on top of the other. One bare grubby foot poked out from under a skirt or some other dark garment.

And on the end of Dottie’s bench, a red-faced greasy-looking creature leered at her, clearly amused at the idea of a young lady in jail with women of ill repute. She looked strong and aggressive. Dottie felt a knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach.

The outer door opened, and before she’d even begun to unlock the gate, the warder—a terrifying woman of almost six feet in height, and not much less in girth—was shouting orders at them. Dottie’s two companions took little notice; it was Dottie she’d come for:

‘Manley, get up. You’ve got a gentleman caller.’

The red-faced woman along Dottie’s bench laughed.

The ‘sleeping’ woman called out, ‘And not for the first time, neither!’ and cackled at her wit. Not asleep after all. The cackling gave way to a paroxysm of coughing.

Dottie approached the bars with caution, then seeing they were all laughing at her timidity, she straightened her back and lifted her chin.

‘It’s Manderson, thank you very much. Not Manley.’

But they only laughed harder. Dottie bit her lip. She would not cry.

The warder pinioned her by the arm and chivvied her out into the corridor, pausing to handcuff her. The corridor was dark, and Dottie was slow to understand where she was to go or what the warder wanted her to do. As a result, she got slapped twice by the warder, who clearly believed the adage that actions spoke louder than words.

A door on the right was thrown open, and Dottie was thrust, blinking, into a room brightly lit by sunshine. A figure across the room rose, but with the sun in her eyes it was a full minute before she found the chair and sat down, looking across the table into the eyes of Inspector Hardy.

It was so unexpected. It broke her. The tears ran down her face, and with no handkerchief to check them, the uniform rapidly became spotted with damp patches.

Hardy was aware of a rage greater than anything he’d ever felt in his life. He glared at the warder.

‘Get those handcuffs off her at once! Then get out. This is a private interview.’

The warder threw the keys onto the table and giving him a filthy look, banged out of the room.

He came around the table to unlock the cuffs. It concerned him to see bruises on Dottie’s wrists, and it made him feel ten times worse when she said very quietly, ‘Oh no, those aren’t from just now, those are from yesterday when they brought me in.’

He removed the handcuffs and threw them down on the table with a bang. He had to do that, or he would have taken each wrist in his hand, stroked the bruise then kissed it. he had to get his temper and his emotions under control. A loud noise and a swift action helped, though not by much. He took a deep breath, resumed his seat, and, not knowing what else to do, began to shuffle his papers.

When he glanced up, her lovely hazel eyes, with the dark smudges beneath then, were resting on his face. She’s stopped crying, but tears still streaked her cheeks. He was dismayed by how pale and fragile she looked. He looked down at his papers again, then cleared his throat.

‘S-so, it seems th-they’re charging you with the murder of your aunt, Mrs Cecilia Cowdrey, who apparently was really your mother.’

‘Yes,’ said Dottie Manderson.

*