Two Bronze Pennies – A Short Extract

You know – don’t you? – that my second Tom Harper novel, Two Bronze Pennies, comes out in the UK at the end of April (August/September elsewhere). Much of it is set in the Leylands, that area just north of the city centre where most of the Jewish immigrants settled when they came to Leeds.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s the opening few pages. Tom, Annabelle, Billy Reed, the Victoria – a dead body and men speaking in Yiddish. Go on, you know you want to….

One

‘Have you heard a word I said, Tom Harper?’

‘Of course I have.’ He stirred and stretched in the chair beside the fireplace. ‘You were talking about visiting your sister.’

Annabelle’s face softened. ‘It’ll only be for an hour. We can go in the afternoon, after we’ve eaten.’

‘Of course,’ he told her with a smile. He was happy, finally at home and warm for the first time since morning.

He’d spent the day chasing around Leeds on the trail of a burglar, no closer to catching him than he’d been a month before. He’d gone from Burley to Hunslet, and never a sniff of the man. But it was better than being in uniform; half the constables had been on patrol in the outdoor market, cut by the December wind as they tried to nab the pickpockets and sneak thieves. It was still blowing out there, howling and rattling the window frames. As a police inspector, at least he could take hackney cabs and omnibuses and dodge the weather for a while.

Tomorrow he was off duty. Christmas Day. For the last five years he’d worked it. Not this time, though. Christmas 1890, the first together with his wife. He turned his head to look at her and the wedding ring that glinted in the light. Five months married. Annabelle Harper. The words still made him smile.

‘What?’ she asked.

He shook his head. ‘Nothing.’

He often glanced at her when she was busy, working in the kitchen or at her desk, going through the figures for her businesses. Sometimes he could scarcely believe she’d married him. Annabelle had grown up in the slums of the Bank, another daughter in a poor Irish family. She’d started work here in the Victoria public house and eventually married the landlord. Six years later, after he died, everyone advised her to sell. But she’d held on and kept the place, trusting her instincts, and she’d built it into a healthy business. Then she’d seen an opportunity and opened bakeries in Sheepscar and Meanwood that were doing well. Annabelle Harper was a rich woman. Not that anyone round here called her Mrs Harper. To them she’d always be Mrs Atkinson, the name she’d carried for so long.

Whatever they called her, she was his.

‘You look all in,’ she told him.

Harper gave a contented sigh. Where they lived, in the rooms over the pub, felt perfectly comfortable, curtains drawn against the winter night, the fire in the hearth and the soft hiss of the gas lights. He didn’t want to move.

‘I’m cosy,’ he said. ‘Come and give me a cuddle.’

‘A cuddle? You’re lucky I put your supper on the table.’

She stuck out her tongue, her gown swishing as she came and settled in his arms. He could hear the voices in the bar downstairs. Laughter and a snatch of song from the music halls.

‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘I’ll send them on their way early tonight. They all have homes to go to. Then we can have some peace and quiet.’

But only for a few hours. Annabelle would be up before dawn, the way she always was, working next to the servants, stuffing the goose that was waiting in the kitchen, baking the bread and preparing the Christmas dinner. Dan the barman, the girls who worked for her, and God knew who else would join them at the table. They’d light candles on the tree, sing, laugh, exchange gifts and drink their way through the barrel of beer she’d set aside.

Then, after their bellies were full, the two of them would walk over to visit her sister, taking presents for Annabelle’s nieces and nephews. For one day, at least, he could forget all the crime in Leeds. Billy Reed, his sergeant, would cover the holiday. Then Harper would  return on Boxing Day, back to track down the damned burglar.

Annabelle stirred.

‘Did you hear that?’ she asked.

‘What?’

He gazed at her. He hadn’t heard a thing. Six years before, while he was still a constable, he’d taken a blow on the ear that left him partially deaf. The best the doctor could offer was that his hearing might return in time. But in the last few months, since autumn began, it had grown a little worse. Sometimes he missed entire sentences, not just words. His ear simply shut off for a few seconds. He’d never told anyone about the problem, scared that it would go on his record.

‘On the stairs.’

He listened. Still nothing. Then someone was knocking on the door. Before he could move, she rose swiftly to answer it.

‘It’s for you.’ Her voice was dark.

He recognized the young constable from Millgarth station. One of the new intake, his uniform carefully pressed, cap pulled down smartly on his head and face eager with excitement. Had he ever looked as green as that?

‘I’m off duty—’ he began.

‘I know, sir.’ The man blushed. ‘But Superintendent Kendall told me to come and fetch you. There’s been a murder.’

Harper turned helplessly to Annabelle. There’d be no visit to her sister for him tomorrow.

‘You go, Tom.’ She kissed him on the cheek. ‘Just come home as soon as you can.’

Two

The cold clawed his breath away. Stars shone brilliantly in a clear sky. He huddled deeper into his overcoat and pulled the muffler tight around his neck.

‘What’s your name?’ Harper asked as they started down the road.

‘Stone, sir. Constable Stone. Started three month back.’

‘And where are we going, Mr Stone?’

‘The Leylands, sir.’

Harper frowned. ‘Whereabouts?’

‘Trafalgar Street.’

He knew the area very well. He’d grown up no more than a stone’s throw from there, up on Noble Street. All of it poverty-scented by the stink of malt and hops from the Brunswick Brewery up the road. Back-to-back houses as far as the eye could see. A place where the pawnbrokers did roaring business each Monday as housewives took anything valuable to exchange for the cash to last until Friday payday.

In the last few years the area had changed. It had filled with Jewish immigrants; almost every house was packed with them, from Russia and Poland and countries whose names he didn’t know, while the English moved out and scattered across the city. Yiddish had become the language of the Leylands. Only the smell of the brewery and the lack of money remained the same.

‘Step out,’ he told the constable. ‘We’ll freeze to the bloody spot if we stand still.’

Harper led the way, through the memory of the streets where he used to run as a boy. The gas lamps threw little circles of light but he hardly needed them; he could have found his way in pitch blackness. The streets were empty, curtains closed tight. People would be huddled together in their beds, trying to keep warm.

As they turned the corner into Trafalgar Street he caught the murmur of voices. Suddenly lights burned in the houses and figures gathered on their doorsteps. Harper raised his eyes questioningly at Stone.

‘The outhouses, sir. About halfway down.’

The cobbles were icy; Harper’s boots slipped as he walked. Conversation ended as they passed, men and women looking at them with fearful, suspicious eyes. They were goys. Worse, they were authority.

They passed two blocks of four houses before Stone turned and moved between a pair of coppers, their faces ruddy and chilled, keeping back a small press of people. Someone had placed a sheet over the body. Harper knelt and pulled it back for a moment. A young man, strangely serene in death. Straggly dark hair, white shirt without a collar, dark suit and overcoat. The inspector ran his hands over the clothes, feeling the blood crusted where the man had been stabbed. Slowly, he counted the wounds. Four of them. All on the chest. The corpse had been carefully arranged, he noticed. The body was straight, the arms out to the sides, making the shape of a cross. Two bronze pennies covered the dead man’s eyes, the face of Queen Victoria looking out.

Harper stood again and noticed Billy Reed talking to one of the uniforms and scribbling in his notebook. The sergeant nodded as he saw him.

‘Do we know who he was?’

‘Not yet.’ Reed rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth. ‘Best as I can make out, that one found him an hour ago. But I don’t speak the lingo.’ He nodded towards a middle-aged man in a dark coat, a black hat that was too large almost covering his eyes. ‘He started shouting and the beat bobby came along. They called me out.’ He shrugged. ‘I told the super I could take care of it but he wanted you.’ His voice was a mixture of apology and resentment.

‘It doesn’t matter.’

It did, of course. He didn’t want to be out here with a corpse in the bitter night. He’d rather be at home with his wife, in bed and feeling the warmth of her skin. But Kendall had given his orders.

The man who’d found the body stood apart from the others, head bowed, muttering to himself. He scarcely glanced up as Harper approached, lips moving in undertone of words.

‘Do you know who the dead man is?’ he asked.

Er iz toyt.’ He’s dead.

‘English?’ the inspector asked hopefully, but the man just shook his head. He kept his gaze on the ground, too fearful to look directly at a policeman.

Velz is dayn nomen?’ The Yiddish made the man’s head jerk up. What’s your name?

‘Israel Liebermann, mayn ir,’ the man replied nervously. Sir. Growing up here it had been impossible not to absorb a little of the language. It floated in the shops and all around the boys that played in the road.

Ikh bin Inspector Harper.’

A hand tapped him on the shoulder and he turned quickly to see a pair of dark eyes staring at him.

‘What?’ He had the sense that the man had spoken; for that moment he hadn’t heard a word. He swallowed and the world came back into both ears.

‘I said it was a good try, Inspector Harper. But your accent needs work.’ The voice was warm, filled with kindness. He extended his hand and Harper took it.

‘I’m Rabbi Feldman.’

The man was dressed for the weather in a heavy overcoat that extended almost to his feet, thick boots, leather gloves and a hat pulled down to his ears. A wiry grey beard flowed down to his chest.

A gust of wind blew hard. Harper shivered, feeling the chill deep in his marrow.

‘If you think this is cold, you never had a winter in Odessa.’ The rabbi grinned, then his face grew serious. ‘Can I help at all?’

‘Someone’s been murdered. This gentleman found him.’

Feldman nodded then began a conversation in Yiddish with Liebermann. A pause, another question and a long answer.

He’d heard of the rabbi. Everyone had. Around the Leylands he was almost a hero. He was one of them; his family had taken the long march west, all the way to England, when the pogroms began. He understood their sorrows and their dreams. In his sixties now, walking with the help of a silver-topped stick, he’d been head of the Belgrave Street Synagogue for over ten years. He taught in the Hebrew school on Gower Street and met with councillors from the Town Hall. He was man of mitzvahs, good deeds. Portly and gentle, with quiet dignity, he was someone in the community, a man everybody respected.

‘He says he needed the outhouse just before ten – he’d looked at his watch in the house so he knew what time it was. He put on his coat and came down.’ Feldman smiled. ‘You understand, it’s cold in these places. You try to finish as soon as possible. When he was done he noticed the shape and went to look. That’s when he began to yell.’

‘Thank you,’ Harper said, although it was no more than they already knew.

‘Murder is a terrible business, Inspector.’ The man hesitated. ‘Is there anything else I can do?’

‘We still don’t know the name of the dead man.’

‘May I?’ Feldman gestured at the corpse. Harper nodded and one of the constables drew back the sheet again.

Mine Got.’ He drew in his breath sharply.

‘Do you know him?’

It was a few seconds before the rabbi answered, staring intently at the face on the ground. Slowly he took off the hat and tugged a hand through his ragged white hair.

‘Yes, Inspector,’ he said, and there was the sadness of lost years in his voice. ‘I know him. I know him very well. I gave him his bris and his bar mitzvah. He’s my sister’s son.’

His nephew. God, Harper thought, what a way to find out.

‘I’m sorry, sir. Truly.’

The man’s shoulders slumped.

‘He was seventeen.’ The rabbi shook his head in disbelief. ‘Just a boychik. He was going to be the one.’ Feldman tapped a finger against the side of his head. ‘He had the smarts, Inspector. His father, he was already training him to run the business.’

‘What was his name, sir? I need to know.’

‘Abraham. Abraham Levy.’ The rabbi rummaged in a trouser pocket, brought out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. ‘Why?’ he asked quietly. ‘Why would someone kill anyone who was so young?’

And Two Bronze Pennies is now available to order ahead of its publication on April 30. Follow this link.

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