The young woman waited beside the ruins in the freezing December night.
While she waited she smoked. To someone watching from a short distance, she would have presented a barely perceptible thickening in the unbroken darkness of the blackout. Anyone in the street—and there were few about at this late hour—would have seen nothing more than the red blinking demon eye at the end of her cigarette.
During the day Benwell’s Roman temple was not impressive. The remains of the walls were less than knee-high. Two carved altars sat at one end. That was all. Tonight, though she couldn’t see the ruins, the idea she was standing where the ancients had worshiped strange gods chilled the woman more than the biting wind off the River Tyne.
Why, she couldn’t say. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t loitered here before. The place was a customary place of business for professional women. Located in a green space between houses, it offered privacy, everyone knew where it was, and a copper couldn’t very well move you along if you were only admiring a local landmark.
Which, truth to tell, suited both working girls and over-worked coppers.
Where was he?
She checked her watch. The dial glimmered ghost-like in the smothering darkness.
It would be Christmas before long. Her mam had always taken her to church on Christmas Eve. What would she say if she saw her daughter now, waiting at a pagan temple for…?
But she couldn’t know. Her daughter had left home long before and never gone back.
Maybe next Christmas, if things worked out. Maybe she’d be able to return as a respectable woman, as her mam would put it. She could almost smell the turkey, taste the mince pies, see the Christmas pudding. She wouldn’t resist eating Brussels sprouts. Not that there’d be much of the traditional meal if rationing was still in effect.
Could you even find Christmas crackers these days? The family was always startled by the bangs when they pulled them, even though they knew what was coming. Her dad had always balked at putting on the paper hat from his cracker. Finally he’d agree and pull it down to his ears, looking silly. All for the amusement of the kids, as they realized when they were older.
When she left she hadn’t guessed she’d ever miss such ordinary things. She’d been wrong, especially when Christmas brought back memories.
A footstep crunched on frozen grass behind her.
“Welcome to Newcastle, Miss Baxter.” Sergeant Joe Baines sounded less than enthusiastic. “Come to bring the woman’s touch to our station, have you?”
It was not the sort of big-city police station Grace had expected. During peace time it had been a corner shop, some distance along Carter Street from the maisonette where she was lodging. The sergeant’s office had been the shopkeeper’s kitchen.
She hoped her duties did not involve the kettle on the cooker behind the table the sergeant was using for a desk.
Baines must have noticed her looking around. “We’re still in a bit of shambles,” he explained. “The authorities thought it safer to move the station further from the river and so here we are.”
He removed his spectacles, rubbed his reddened eyes, and then his wide forehead. He was prematurely balding. There was a doughy look to his features. Grace was used to men with weathered faces. She was dark-haired and dark-eyed with a broad face, the face of a country woman. She still had the rosy complexion of youth.
“Got a bit of a headache,” Baines continued. “And speaking of headaches, I want to make it plain right away I do not believe women should be involved in police work. It’s nothing personal, you understand.”
“But I was told—”
“Never mind what you were told. For a start you’re not strong enough to deal with violent drunks. As we would say in Glasgow, comes chucking out time and fights with broken bottles break out in the gutters—and that’s the women!”
Grace bit her tongue. Not strong enough? She’d grown up assisting in cleaning out barns and baling hay.
“However,” Baines continued, “if we must work with women, and it would appear that we must, I will admit they can deal with certain situations better than men. Apart from filing and answering the phone, your official duties will also involve assisting refugees, keeping an eye on young girls and kids likely to get into trouble, moving nymphs of the pavement along, and settling domestic disputes. You’ll be on the day shift, though with the manpower shortages our schedules are usually erratic. Any questions?”
“None, sir,” She had plenty of questions but was afraid of losing her temper at the answers she might get.
“Good. I hope you’re up to learning on the job. We can’t spare men for training. You have to get to know the locals, so today I’m sending you out to take statements about an incident last night. Women like to gossip and are more likely to talk to another woman. Constable Wallace will give you a tour of the neighborhood, show you where it took place, and leave you to it.” He got up, revealing himself to be shorter than Grace, who thought she could certainly handle him if he were an unruly drunk.
Which was not what she should be thinking about her commanding officer at their first meeting.
Baines poked his head around the kitchen door. “Wallace, a minute if you would.”
The white-haired officer who entered the kitchen looked well past retirement age.
“Wallace, show Miss Baxter the file on that dead woman, will you, and get me a headache powder.”
Grace followed the older man back into the former shop. The shelves held a wireless, stacks of forms, steel helmets, and gas masks rather than tinned food and jars of sweets. The young constable at the desk, once the shop counter, looked at Grace as if he’d never seen a woman in a police uniform before.
Perhaps he hadn’t.
“Constable Wallace, let me introduce myself properly. I’m Grace Baxter.”
“I’m Arthur Wallace. Do you mind if I call you Grace? We’re an informal lot here.”
Already annoyed by Baines’ attitude, Grace looked at the man in bemusement. Didn’t he take her seriously either?
He went on, apparently oblivious. “I don’t belong here any more than you do. There I was, good and retired from police work and then the war broke out. All the young officers were being called up. So here I am again, doing my bit.”
“My father was the village constable before he joined up. That’s how I got involved in police work.”
“Where are you from?”
“Noddweir? Can’t say the name’s familiar.”
“I’m not surprised. It’s a tiny place in Shropshire, near the Welsh border.”
“Is that so? We have a different class of crime here in the city. No stolen cows. This is a working-class area. A lot of the residents are employed at the Vickers factory along Scotswood Road. They work hard and drink hard. Unfortunately, the blackout’s made Newcastle a playground for criminals. Now some have guns. Before the war it was knives, broken bottles, and lead pipes. And we’re relying on inexperienced officers and old-timers like myself. The war’s also given us a black market to deal with.”
“I’m here to help. If I’m allowed to.”
“Don’t worry, you will be. We need all the help we can get. Don’t let Sergeant Baines bother you. He’s been distracted. Going through a bad time. He’s a good sort, normally. But these headaches of his…” He rummaged in a drawer under the counter. “Where the hell are those powders?”
“Look on the shelf behind you,” Grace suggested.
“What? Oh, yes, I see them.” He straightened up with a grunt. “Bloody arthritis.” He found a folder on a shelf and handed it to her. “Glance over it while I have a couple of words with the sergeant. A woman was found dead earlier this morning in the ruins of the local Roman temple. An accident, apparently. Scanty details at present, of course, so we haven’t yet reached the point where we can claim, as Baines would no doubt say in his quaint Scottish way, many a mickle has made a muckle. Which translated means there are very few facts to be gathered together into a lump representing a definite solution.”
A Roman temple, here? That struck Grace as strange. She drew a stool up to the counter. The young officer manning it kept glancing at her from the corner of his eye. She turned slightly to show him her Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps badge and opened the folder.
The first item she saw was a rough sketch of a rectangular foundation. A pair of small squares labeled as altars stood inside the structure in front of a semi-circular wall at one end. The woman’s body was roughly sketched, arms and legs awkwardly positioned.
Grace read on. The cause of death appeared to be a severe injury caused by the woman falling and striking her head on the nearest altar. She carried no identity card or handbag and was described as dark-haired, slight of build, about five-feet-four, with an estimated age in the mid twenties. She wore a green skirt and overcoat, white blouse, low-heeled shoes, and what was described as the usual undergarments.
“I’ll bet you don’t find dead bodies beside ancient Roman temples in that little country village of yours,” the returning Wallace remarked.
She remembered the deaths associated with another ancient religious site—the stone circle on Guardians Hill overlooking Noddweir. She kept the thought to herself. “The dead woman is unidentified?”
“Aye, a mystery woman. Stu McPherson notified us. Lives in this street. He was on the way to school when he found her. She was probably a tart. That grassy bit where the ruins sit is well- known as a perfect place for such ladies to meet clients at night.”
“I wouldn’t expect to find a Roman temple sitting in the middle of houses on a city street.”
“There’s not much left of it, mind. Not surprising, seeing how it was built almost two thousand years ago, or so they told us at school. The altar she hit her head on isn’t the original, though. Apparently it’s a cast. Not that it mattered to the poor woman’s skull. If she wasn’t a tart, it may be she was drunk, wandering around in the blackout, tripped, and hit her head.”
“Might have been a robbery and the assailant knocked her down.”
“It’s possible.” Wallace shrugged. “All sorts of things could have happened, but until I have reason to think otherwise, my opinion is it was an accident.”
“It says here that judging from the body’s condition she died in the evening. That means she would have been lying out there all night.”
“It’s dark as the pit there with the blackout. Anyone crossing that open area would have had to trip over the body to notice it.”
Grace ran her gaze down the typed report. “What do you make of the comment of the boy who found her, about the way the woman was posed?”
“You mean like a swastika? Rubbish. She accidentally wound up sprawled that way when she fell. Kids that age have good imaginations.”
Grace examined the artist’s sketch again. “Was the body really lying there like this?”
“Oh, I didn’t notice anything so exaggerated. Artistic license.” He stood up. “Now I’m supposed to show you around the neighbourhood before you start your interviews.” He held the door open for her. “And, Miss Baxter, here in Newcastle we aren’t a superstitious lot. Don’t get carried away with any swastika nonsense.”
She said nothing, but as they left the station she thought it wasn’t simply that the sketch showed the woman’s limbs laid out in the shape of a swastika. Being a country woman, one filled by her grandmother with folk wisdom, she recognized the arrangement of the victim’s bent arms and legs into that of an ancient symbol of good fortune—and, incidentally, one that was the reverse of the Nazi swastika.