Poppy Redfern is back on the case when two female fighter pilots take a fatal dive in an all-new Woman of World War II Mystery by Tessa Arlen.
It is the late autumn of 1942. Our indomitable heroine Poppy Redfern is thoroughly immersed in her new job as a scriptwriter at the London Crown Film Unit, which produces short films featuring British civilians who perform acts of valor and heroism in wartime. After weeks of typing copy and sharpening pencils, Poppy is thrilled to receive her first solo script project: a fifteen-minute film about the Air Transport Auxiliary, known as Attagirls, a group of female civilians who have been trained to pilot planes from factories to military airfields all over Britain.
Poppy could not be more excited to spend time with these amazing ladies, but she never expects to see one of the best pilots die in what is being labeled an accident. When another Attagirl meets a similar fate, Poppy and her American fighter-pilot boyfriend, Griff, believe foul play may be at work. They soon realize that a murderer with a desire for revenge is dead set on grounding the Attagirls for good. . . .
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Miss Redfern? For heaven’s sake, where is she?” A tall gray-haired woman was standing in the doorway to the Script Department of the Crown Film Unit. She lifted her voice over the clatter of a room full of typewriters. “Miss Redfern? Oh, there you are. Yes, well, will you join us for a meeting, please? Room four.” She lifted an impatient hand and waved me to her.
I picked up my notepad and leapt to my feet. A desk away in the tightly packed room my new friend, Clary, fed four sheets of foolscap, layered with carbon paper, into the platen of her typewriter. Her face was set with concentration. “Only production meetings are held in room four—you’re on your way, Poppy.” She didn’t lift her head as I squeezed past her desk. “I bet Fanny has an assignment for you!”
“Do you really think so?” I had waited for this moment for weeks, and now that it was here a feeling of dread had started in my stomach and was working its way upward, making it hard to breathe. I fumbled my notepad and dropped my pencil on the floor, breaking its magnificently sharp point. “Where’s room four?”
Clary carefully typed as she said the words, “Fifth Octo-ber nine-teen-for-ty-two,” and looked up at me. “Turn right out of here and go along the corridor to the back stairs all the way down to the basement. It’s on the left.” She waved her hand in dismissal of first-project nerves. “You’ll be fine—isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? You’re going to have a film with your name on it in tiny print at the end.” I set off for the door. “And don’t be intimidated by Fanny—he’s always tetchy after lunch,” she shouted after me.
I was intimidated by everyone in this shabby rambling brick building that housed the Crown Film Unit—even if our task is to keep British morale high. My mouth was chalk dry as I made my way along the cracked linoleum of the long basement corridor to a closed door with a crooked four painted on it. I wiped the palm of my hand down the side of my skirt and tapped so lightly on its dull gray wood that no one could have possibly heard me.
How long I stood there, uncertain and unsure, could only have been a matter of seconds, but I was simply paralyzed with anxiety at the thought of attending a production meeting.
I was rescued by the patrician voice of the main character of the book I had written: the heroine of my love story and murder mystery, who had helped me to win this wonderful new job as a scriptwriter. Her calm tones floated into my consciousness like a cooling breeze. The voice belonged to Ilona Linthwaite, girl-reporter extraordinaire and everything I was not: confident, worldly, and, sometimes, wise. Come on, ducky, pull yourself together. Remember that you have a lot to offer these wretched people.
I took a deep breath as I opened the door and peeked round it. The room was packed with the people I had seen racing past me, in corridors and hallways, all week. They looked up for the briefest moment and then carried on lighting up cigarettes and arguing. One of them waved a large pink hand.
“Yes, yes, come on in and find somewhere to sit.” The hand belonged to a big man with a round bald head sitting at the head of the table. He looked like an overgrown baby in a pin-striped suit. There appeared to be no empty chair, so I edged into the room and stood with my back against the wall.
“This week in postproduction,” the large pink man continued. “Nigel and Brian are working on a ten-minute short about the woman who trains dogs to search for unexploded bombs—for release next Tuesday. Who will edit this piece now that Cliff’s been transferred?” This had to be Mr. Fanshaw, the Crown Film Unit’s head of production. I tried not to catch his eye as he looked around the table at the faces of writers whose names I did not know; production managers I had heard terrifying stories about; unit directors who thought they were God; and a crew of round-shouldered film editors gathered at the far end of the cheap pine table.
Room four was large enough to hold ten at a pinch, and there were at least twenty puffing clouds of cigarette smoke at one another. My breath caught in my throat and I swallowed hard.
“Come on, come on, I need an editor. What about you, Roy?”
A groan from under a mop of fair hair.
“Good, now we’re getting somewhere.”
“But I’ve already got . . .” said the overworked Roy.
Fanny waved a dismissive hand and sat forward in his chair. “Right then, what’s on the books for new and exciting projects?” His laugh was high-pitched as he looked around the table at lifted faces. “Ah yes, we all love something new.” His fixed his eye at the far end of the table. “Jim and Derek, I want you to go to Eastbourne to do a piece about the teenage girl who rescued three sailors from drowning using a boat she made herself. Shades of Grace Darling, what?” There was a ripple of obliging laughter. “That leaves Annabelle to write up a quick five minutes about the old-age pensioner who knitted a hundred and twenty pairs of socks in one month for soldiers. She runs a grocery shop in Cardiff when she’s not up to her eyes in yarn.”
An attractive girl in a yellow beret put out her cigarette and shrugged her shoulders.
“Sorry about that, Annabelle, but we are stretching staff as it is.” However fat and pink he was, Mr. Fanshaw’s voice was quiet and there was enough finality in his tone to silence any dissenters in his group.
“Which leaves us with—” He looked at his agenda and smiled. “Ah yes, the Air Transport Auxiliary pilots. Huntley, I’m giving this one to you. I want a fifteen-minute short on these ATA women flyers. Take Keith; he’s getting quite handy with a camera.” He sat back in his chair. “Should be fun—they are a pretty glamorous bunch apparently. We’ll send Miss Redmayne down ahead, so she can draft up a script for you—don’t want any of you boys getting into trouble.”
“Redmayne?” Huntley looked around the table. “Who’s he?”
Fanny lifted his arm and waved across at me. “Miss er . . . Redmayne, isn’t it?”
Somehow, I managed to get my tongue off the roof of my mouth. “Actually, it’s Redfern, sir.”
“So it is. Meet our new assistant scriptwriter, Miss Redfern, everyone. The ATA will be a good piece for her to cut her teeth on.” I could feel the color in my cheeks building to a full-strength blush as heads turned to look at me. “Pop along to Miss Murgatroyd’s office after the meeting and she’ll give you your brief, Miss Red . . . and get down to Didcote Airfield as soon as possible.”
I turned for the door.
“No need to run.” Fanny’s laugh was loud and inclusive, and I turned back to face him. His tongue was a startling raspberry pink. “Tomorrow morning will do.”
Alone in the safety of the empty corridor, I exhaled in triumph as I leaned my hot forehead against its wall.
He seems nice enough, Ilona said. Almost human, really, and he has a sense of humor. I think you are going to enjoy this job.
I didn’t care if Fanny ate assistant scriptwriters for breakfast. I was going on location—I was part of Crown Films’ production team.
Miss Murgatroyd was round and deceptively maternal-looking with fluffy white hair. “Didcote ATA, did you say?” She picked up a wire basket and took out a sheaf of papers. “Your room has been paid for at the Fisherman’s Lodge at Didcote for two nights, which includes a cooked breakfast. Don’t forget to take your ration book. You will not be reimbursed for any meals on either of your travel days, so there is no need to save any receipts. Neither will you be reimbursed for any lost personal items, and if your portable typewriter is damaged, stolen, or mislaid you will be liable for the cost of its replacement: one pound, ten shillings, and sixpence. Please sign here . . . and here . . . and initial here.” I obediently complied. “Rail passes—second class. Please don’t travel in third and try to recoup the price difference.” Three rapid applications with a smudgy blue rubber stamp and the passes were mine. “And someone rang this office at half past four. I did not take a message. This is not your personal telephone”—she tapped the instrument—“and I am not your secretary. Please remember that, Miss Redfern.” I started to stumble out an apology, but she wasn’t having it.
“He was an American.” Disdain for our allies and their friendly invasion was not disguised.
“I’m so terribly sorry, it won’t happen again,” I managed to get out.
“It had better not.” She sighed and pressed her lips together. A pause and another sigh. “He said he would pick you up outside your digs, I forget what time, and he mentioned someone called Bess.”
The last rays of the sun shone on a bright red Alvis drophead coupe parked outside 122 Elms Road. Leaning up against its long glossy bonnet was a man in American Army Air Force uniform. Sitting demurely at his feet was my little dog, Bess. Her bob of a tail stirred apologetically as she looked down her nose at me as if going for a walk on Clapham Common with Lieutenant Griff O’Neal was the event of the year. Then, remembering who fed her every day, she got to her feet and danced between us, yodeling with delight as I crossed the road to join them.
I felt just as enthralled about seeing him as she obviously did, but I managed to greet him with the cool reserve we English practice at the best, and worst, of times. Unlike my prancing little dog, I kept my feet firmly planted on the ground.
“What on earth are you doing here—are you on leave?” No one could tell from my polite welcome that my heart was thumping like mad, and to my immense relief the old awkward schoolgirl shyness that always threatened when we first met only revealed itself in a slight blush.
He leaned down to spank dog hair off his immaculate trousers. “We’ve been a bit busy lately.” It was his term for flying missions. When he lifted his head, I saw that his face was thinner, the skin more tightly drawn around the eyes. I saw something else as well. There were two silver flashes on his shoulder.
“Captain? Oh, Griff, congratulations!”
“Yes, I told you we’d been busy.” He shrugged off his promotion from lieutenant to captain as if it might be more of a burden than an acknowledgment of skill and experience. “Our commanding officer has packed me off for seven days of what he describes as long-overdue rest and recreation. He sends his regards to you, by the way.” Like Griff, Colonel Duchovny had become a good friend of my family when the American Army Air Force had arrived to take possession of their new airfield earlier this year. It had been built for them on my grandfather’s farmland outside the village of Little Buffenden: a village our family have lived in for generations. “And your grandparents send their love too, of course. I had dinner with them yesterday evening.”
“Did you cook?” I laughed. “Or did Granny?” I could see Griff in our tiny kitchen contentedly sautéing mushrooms in half a pound of American military-issue butter. My grandmother is an authority on toast and jam. Griff is . . . well, let’s just say he is a man who takes pains with the things he likes to eat.
“They were our guests at the mess. Or I should say, they were our guests in their old dining room.” When the War Office had requisitioned our farmland for the airfield, our lovely old farmhouse had been turned into the headquarters and officers’ mess for the AAAF. My grandparents now lived in the lodge at the bottom of the drive to what was now known as Reaches Airfield.
“Your grandparents told me you had managed a visit, to pick up Bess. They miss you—but wouldn’t dream of saying so, of course. Your grandad talked about your new job, nonstop—you could have only topped it by joining the navy. But your grandmother is quite sure that after a couple of months of life in London, you will be desperate for the peace of the country.”
I laughed. My visit to my grandparents had been heaven: there is nothing like spending a weekend with those you love and allowing yourself to settle back into comfortable old habits, especially in these uncertain times, but the quiet village streets of Little Buffenden and the repetitive gossip of its inmates had palled after a day. I had adjusted to a faster pace of life since my arrival in London four weeks ago. The city with its bustling, crowded streets was gloriously anonymous; no one cared what you said or did or discussed it avidly with their next-door neighbor. I didn’t say that the one person I missed most from life in Little Buffenden was now standing in front of me.
Bess, fed up with being ignored, stood up on her hind legs and put her paws on my knees.
“Yes, I know, Bessie, I’m with you: I’m famished.” Griff folded his arms in a cloud of dog hair. “Why don’t you go and put on your hat, Poppy? I have reservations for dinner at the Savoy.”
“But I can’t! I’m leaving town tomorrow morning, early. I have to pack, and I have heaps to read.” The excitement of writing my first script was momentarily eclipsed at the thought of Griff here in London and me . . . where? On an airfield in Hampshire.
“I hope it’s somewhere exciting.”
I stopped behaving like my spinster aunt. “Oh, it is, Griff, it really is. It’s my first assignment—a fifteen-minute film about the Didcote Air Transport Auxiliary.”
The sun slipped below the horizon and he became a dark shadow by his car.
“Blimey!” It was clear that Griff’s infatuation with cockney slang was still with us. “That’s what I call good news. Now we have something to really celebrate!” The slightest pause. “Did you say the Didcote Attagirls?”
I nodded. How on earth had Griff heard about these astonishing women when I had only discovered them this afternoon? “The Attagirls? Is that what they are called?”
“Not sure if that’s what your guys in the Royal Air Force call them, but we do. They’ve delivered a couple of aircraft to us at Reaches.”
I might have known that American pilots would have a catchy name for a group of Englishwomen who thought nothing of taking off in a fighter plane and flying it to an airfield in far-flung Yorkshire or Scotland.
“Can I invite myself along? I’ll pick you both up after breakfast and we can have lunch on the way down to Didcote.”
I bent down to ruffle Bess’s ears as I considered what was turning out to be a splendid end to a perfect day. “You can come on one condition,” I said as I stood up. “That I drive to Didcote.”
He laughed. “Then we had better plan on having dinner on the road too.”