The shard of winter sun burst through the mass of black cloud like an archangel’s lance. The heavy snow that had fallen overnight, enveloped the thick layer that already covered the town, making the roads and verges indistinguishable from the pavements. January, 1939 had announced itself in spectacular style.
Amy Rowlings shielded her eyes as she trudged through the thick, white blanket, stepping into footprints made by earlier travellers in an attempt to keep the snow out of her ankle-high winter boots. Another day spent at her machine at Grayson’s Garments factory wearing cold, soggy, woollen socks, was something she could well do without. Locals called the factory, The Mill, because it produced cotton fabric back in the 1800s, nowadays the workforce spent their days manufacturing women’s clothing; anything from underwear to winter coats. Ahead, Mildred, a fellow machinist, tripped on a hidden kerbstone and fell headlong into a drift that had covered the short privet hedge that lined the pavement. Before Amy could reach her, she picked herself up, and cursing, turned through the huge, wrought-iron, gates into the factory yard, where the snow had already turned into a slushy mess by the hundred pairs of feet that had tramped over it when the night and day shifts changed over.
As Amy approached the gates, a car pulled up on the opposite side of the road, and a late-twenties, man, wearing a grey mackintosh, and a black fedora, opened the rear door and slid out in one movement.
He swore as he realised, too late, that the snow would cover his patent leather, brogue shoes, and looking up to the heavens, trudged around the front of the car before nodding to a uniformed policeman standing at the ornate, snow-tipped, iron gates that guarded the forecourt of Wainwright and Sons Builders Merchant. The policeman wiped his runny nose on his sleeve, shuffled his booted feet, and blew into his hands.
‘Cold one today, Sir.’
The man in the mac nodded and examined the police constable as he would an object left behind at the scene of a crime. The uniformed colleague stamped incessantly in the snow, his bright red cheeks and chapped lips told him he’d been there for some time.
‘Report, Davies, and make it snappy.’ He pulled his unbuttoned mackintosh tightly around himself and tied off the belt.
‘Reported robbery, Sir. Estimated at three o’clock this morning. No suspects. We don’t even know how they got in. Two men attacked the watchman, tied him up and took away the cash tin. We don’t know exactly how much was in it, but apparently, the company takes about a hundred pounds every day. Because they don’t close until after the banks, the money is kept on the premises. They bank it every morning.’
The officer stamped his feet again and blew into his hands.
‘What do you mean, we don’t know how they got in?’
‘Well, Sir, there were no footprints.’ He turned to the gates and pointed. ‘The two pairs of prints, you can see, belong to myself and PC Watkins.’
The detective rolled his eyes to the dark sky. ‘What about round the back?’
‘They can’t have got in that way, Sir. The building is tied to a twenty-foot wall that separates it from the railway. There are only two ways in and out of the premises, and they are both accessed from here.’ He pointed across the yard to a red-painted door at the front of the building. ‘That one, and the side door where the goods are delivered and collected. But, as you can see, they would have to get through the gates to reach either one, and, as I said, there are no footprints. Apart from ours, that is. Two sets going in and one set, mine, coming back out.’
‘Where is the night watchman now?’
‘He’s inside with PC Watkins, the lucky so and… Sorry, Sir. Watkins is St John’s Ambulance trained, so he’s provided a little bit of first aid. The watchman wasn’t badly injured. He’s got a black eye and split lip. He managed to free himself and ring the police at about six o’clock. Do you think he might be in on it, Sir?’
The detective sighed.
‘I have no idea, Constable. I haven’t spoken to him yet.’
‘No, Sir, of course you haven’t. Sorry, Sir.’
He stamped his feet again and shivered under his heavy navy overcoat.
‘Oh, for God’s sake man. Go and sit in the car. Tell the driver to come out to take your place for half an hour. His name is Hodges.’
The policeman nodded gratefully and scurried around to the black Ford as Amy carefully crossed the road.
‘Has there been a burglary?’ she asked.
‘The detective swivelled on his heels to face her.
‘I’m not at liberty divulge that, Mrs…Miss.’
‘Oh, I wasn’t trying to get any information that might help a criminal.’ She smiled again, showing off a perfect set of teeth. A whisp of blonde hair loosened itself from beneath her hat and wafted in front of her eyes. She brushed it away with the back of her gloved hand. ‘My name is Amy Rowlings and I work at Grayson’s over the road.’ She pulled up her sleeve and looked at her men’s style, leather-strapped wristwatch. ‘And, if I don’t hurry, they’ll dock me a quarter of an hour’s wages.’
Amy turned away from the detective and began to make her way back, treading carefully in the footprints that she had made originally.
‘I didn’t think you were attempting to assist a criminal, Amy Rowlings,’ the policeman called after her. ‘I’m Detective Sergeant, Bodkin. I’m sorry I was a little abrupt just then.’
Amy stopped and looked back over her shoulder. The man was in his late twenties and handsome in a rugged sort of way. He took off his hat and gave her a curt nod. His hair was thick, dark and was in need of a good cut. He had two days’ worth of stubble on his chin and the bags under his brown eyes, told her that he hadn’t been sleeping well, or for long enough. His coat had fallen open revealing a creased, white shirt with a badly starched collar, a pair of wide, striped braces, held up his baggy, black trousers that bunched around his ankles.
Unmistakeably a single man, said Amy to herself.
He smiled and his tired face lit up.
‘Don’t worry about being a few minute’s late… Miss, erm… Rowlings, was it? I’ll tell your boss you were helping me with my inquiries.’
‘I’d get more than fifteen minutes docked if they thought you’d been questioning me, Detective. I’d be given my cards. They’re a suspicious lot over there. They think everyone is stealing from them.’ She thought for a moment. ‘A lot of them are, as it happens.’
‘No need for the formalities,’ he said, smiling again. ‘Everyone calls me Bodkin.’
She raised a gloved hand and waggled her fingers at him.
‘Well, Mr… sorry… Bodkin, it’s been nice chatting but I really should be going in.’
‘Please don’t rush away. I’ll tell them you’re helping me with this case. I’ll say you’re a vital witness.’
‘Ooh, that will get them all talking in the canteen,’ replied Amy. She brushed the errant hairs away again. ‘As it happens, I can help you with the case.’
‘You can?’ Bodkin took a step towards her. He smiled again. ‘And what would you know about my crime scene, Miss Rowlings?’
‘They got in via a skylight.’ Amy pointed to the snow-covered roof where footprints were clearly visible across the gently sloping, snow-covered roof.
Bodkin swivelled around in the snow, stared at the roof with his mouth wide open and shouted to the policeman sitting in the back of the car.
‘Davies!’ he yelled.
‘It’s not his fault,’ Amy said to the back of Bodkin’s head. ‘You can’t see the roof from that side of the road and it would still have been dark when he arrived.’
Bodkin turned back towards her.
‘There are no street lights,’ she pointed out, quietly.
Bodkin appraised the roof again. The trail of footprints led across the roof from the still-open skylight, to the adjacent building.
‘Looks like they got to the roof via the fire escape,’ said Amy, pointing out the obvious.
Together, they walked the thirty yards to the entrance of Harrington’s timber yard. Any footprints made on the forecourt had been wiped out by the twenty or so staff that worked there.
‘Stay back, please, Miss. This is a crime scene; I have to protect the evidence.’
Amy ignored him. ‘I’m not going to steal your precious footprints, am I?’
She marched onto the forecourt and crouched down at the bottom step of the fire escape. Bodkin leaned over her to examine the steps himself. Two separate sets of prints were clearly visible, one much larger than the other.
‘Blimey, those are big feet,’ she said.
Bodkin laughed. ‘That’s a hell of a clue. There can’t be too many men in this town with feet that size. They must be a size twelve.’
‘True,’ replied Amy. ‘But that is assuming the criminals live locally.’
‘All right, Miss Marple. It’s time you were at work. I’ll get Davies to guard the evidence.’
The detective gave orders to Davies and the policeman muttered to himself as he trapsed through the snow to take up his position guarding the fire escape.
Bodkin walked Amy over to the factory, they came to a halt at the staff entrance.
‘Could you tell your foreman I’d like a word please, Miss Rowlings? I’ll explain the situation to him.’
‘Call me Amy,’ she replied with a quick smile. ‘And, it won’t make any difference, they’ll still stop me the quarter hour.’