Well, the global streamed launch for Two Bronze Pennies is two days away, and this is your final reminder (promiise!). All you need to do is click https://www.concertwindow.com/89118-chris-nickson to take part. No registration, no pack drill. 6 pm Sunday UK time, 1 pm Eastern US, 10 am West Coast, 7 or 8 pm in Europe. I hope you’ll log in, even if it’s just for five minutes – it’ll only be about 45 minutes in total.
To sweeten the deal, and try to persuade you, I’m going to tempt you with a brand new Tom Harper story. Can’t say fairer than that, can I? Call it something for the long weekend – and please, enjoy.
He finally found the woman at half-past five on a cold November evening. She was sitting on the pavement, knees clasped against her chest like a small child. Right there on Briggate, in the very centre of Leeds, people moved around her without noticing, without caring, just an impediment as they made their way home.
Detective Inspector Tom Harper bent down next to her.
‘Ada?’ he asked and she turned her head slowly, as if she’d been off and away, thinking of other things.
‘Hello luv,’ she said. ‘Do I know you?’
‘No,’ he told her with a smile, ‘but everyone’s been looking for you. Do you think you can stand up?’
It had started twelve hours before, when a woman had dashed out of her house off St. Peter’s Place. Not even light yet but she was yelling, ‘Mam! Mam! Where are you?’ until the copper on the beat came running.
‘You’ll have the whole street up,’ he told her. ‘What’s the matter? Where’s Ada gone?’
‘If I knew I wouldn’t be shouting for her, would I?’ She gave him a withering look and started to shiver. Just a thin dress with a shawl caught around her shoulders to keep out the winter cold. No stockings, just a pair of clogs on her bare feet. ‘I woke up and looked in on her and she’d gone.’
He looked at her. Constable Earnshaw had been fifteen years on the force, the last five of them around here. It was a poor area, no more than a loud shout from the nick down at Millgarth. Filled with rooming houses, the Mission, a run-down Turkish bathhouse in among the back-to-backs. Too many people crammed into houses that needed to be torn down. But it was what they could afford.
‘Outhouse?’ he asked.
‘I already looked,’ Millie Walker told him. She shook her head, wrapped her arms around herself, trying not to cry. ‘She’s gone again.’
The first time had been the year before. Ada Taylor was old, half-blind, spending more hours lost in the past than she did in the present. She talked to her husband, dead for nigh on twenty years, as if she could see him right there in the room, and to Dollie, Millie’s younger sister who hadn’t lived past the age of eight. Sometimes she was fine, making as much sense as anyone, cackling with the other women who gathered on the doorsteps and gossiped. But when her mind slipped, no one knew how long before it would return. Or even if it would come back.
Everyone in the area kept an eye out for her, leading her back home if she began to wander. One day, though, she managed to just disappear, gone for an hour as people searched, until they found her down by Marsh Lane, standing and talking to someone that no other person could see, calling him granddad, listening to the answers only she could hear.
There’d been two other occasions since. Once at the start of spring, when someone finally spotted her over on Kirkgate, so soaked after a heavy shower of rain that Millie was scared her mother would take a chill and die. Then in the summer when she ended up on the river bank – and God only knew how she’d walked so far with bad knees and swollen ankles – just sitting with her legs dangling and smiling up at the blue sky.
This time, though, there was no telling how long she’d been gone.
‘I felt the sheets in her bed,’ Millie said, ‘and they were cold. Like ice.’ She was trying to keep her face steady and her voice strong. The weather had been bitter the last few days, she could almost taste the snow in the air, along with all the soot and the stink.
‘You get the people out around here,’ Earnshaw told her. ‘Go all around. I’ll get the bobbies out.’ He waited until she gave him a short nod then turned on his heel and dashed away.
Harper was at the station just before the shift changed at six. All the night men looking ready for their beds, faces red with the cold. And the ones on days looking glum at the idea of twelve hours out in the weather.
He looked up, setting aside the report he was writing.
‘Morning, Victor. Time to go home for you, isn’t it?’
They knew each other; Earnshaw had shown him some of the ropes when he’d been a recruit, in the days when he’d been too eager to please and believed everything anyone told him. The older man had helped him quickly rub off some of the green and give him an edge.
‘Not this morning, sir. I’ve got something. And old woman who’s vanished in the night. She’s a bit, well, you know.’
‘How long’s she been gone?’
‘Anytime up to eight hours, sir. That’s the problem. She’s done it before, an’ all.’ He explained quickly, giving a short description of the woman. ‘I thought I’d go back and help out if I can.’
‘What do you need?’
‘I know you get out and about. If you can pass the word, please, sir. I’ve let Sergeant Tollman know. Everyone’s going to be watching for her.’
‘I will,’ Harper promised.
‘Bless you, sir. A few of the lads are going to come with me. Happen we’ll find her soon.’
By dinnertime there was no sign of her.
Harper had had a full morning trying to track a thief who’d broken into at least twenty houses. He had the man’s name, but he’d gone to ground somewhere, nowhere to be found. It was a time to go around the pubs and corners, to ask his quiet questions and mention Ada Taylor as he was leaving. Half the men he talked to couldn’t care – they could trip over her and not give a damn – but others nodded with serious eyes. They their mams and their nanas.
To mke it worse, he was working alone; Sergeant Reed was in court, giving evidence in a fraud case and likely to be there all day and half the next.
At three the word reached him. The man he wanted was hiding in an empty cellar on Commercial Street. Sold out for three shillings, and the inspector paid it gladly.
The only way in was a set of steps off Packhorse Yard. At the top he took a deep breath and moved as quietly as possible, keeping one hand against the wall to steady himself. Under his boots he could feel the stone, greasy and slick. One slip and he’d tumble all the way down.
The door at the bottom was pulled to, but gave when he pushed lightly on it. The day was already near dusk, the light dim. Inside it would be black.
God alone knew what the man had in there to protect himself. And all detectives carried were their police whistles. It was going to be bluff.
With a kick, he rattled the door back off the wall.
‘Police, Jem.’ He let his voice ring out. ‘I’ve got three coppers out here who are cold and angry. They wouldn’t mind warming themselves up on you. It’s your choice.’
If he’d been given the wrong information he’d look a right bloody fool. And he’d be getting his money back from someone, no mistake on that.
He waited, flexing his hands into fists. Ready. Harper knew his hearing was poor, all down to a blow six years before. The man could be creeping across the floor right now and he might not even know it.
Then the face was there in the doorway. Dirty, hair ragged, a weeping sore filling one cheek. The inspector grabbed him, turned the man against the wall and snapped on the handcuffs on tight.
One thing done, at least.
Writing out the report took an hour, but at least there was a good coal fire burning in the office. No sign of Ada Taylor, though. The word that she was still missing had rippled through the station. He could only imagine the thoughts going through her daughter’s mind.
Ten past five and the door opened suddenly, Tollman peering through.
‘Disturbance, sir. Corner of Briggate and Boar Lane. Sounds like they need all the help they can get.’
Harper ran, panting, but it was still three full minutes to reach the scene. Traffic was stopped, omnibuses, carts, and trams all one behind the other. There had to be fifteen coppers already there, truncheons out, herding two groups of youths apart and cracking a head or two. All over bar the shouting and the arrests.
In the November darkness it was time to call it a night. And that was when he saw Ada Taylor.
He helped her up. She was cold, shaky, but she could shuffle along if she clung tight to his arm.
‘You’re like Bert,’ she told him with a coy expression. For a moment the years parted and he could see the pretty young girl she’d been so long ago. ‘You should have seen Bert. He was good-looking, too. I should never have turned him away for Eddie. I’d have had handsome children then.’
The cocoa house was nearby. He helped her inside and bought her a cup, watching as she gazed around the place, not saying a word, drinking with dainty sips.
‘Come on, we’d better get you home,’ he said finally. ‘Your daughter must be beside herself with worry.’
‘I can see your fortune,’ Ada said. It came out of the blue and took him by surprise. The voice didn’t even sound like hers. It was darker, graver, something he couldn’t quite pinpoint. Her eyes seemed to be staring at something far away. ‘You’re never going to be a rich man unless you do one thing.’
He’d play along, he thought. Who knew what was going on inside her head?
‘What’s that?’ he asked.
But as quickly as it arrive, the moment passed. The confusion had returned to her face.
‘Who are you again?’ she asked, sounding like an old woman once more.
‘Someone who’s getting you home. There’s bound to be a hackney outside. You fancy a ride in that, Mrs. Taylor?’
It was the best part of seven o’clock before he climbed the stairs at the Victoria. A long day, but then they all were. Still, he had a thief ready to go to trial and there was someone back with her family. He’d experienced worse.
‘Tom?’ Annabelle called from the kitchen as he opened the door.
He walked in and put his arms around her.
‘Busy day?’ he asked.
‘No more than usual. You look all in.’ She stroked his hair.
‘It was interesting,’ he said. ‘I almost found out how to be rich.’
‘What?’ Her eyes widened. ‘Don’t be so daft. What on earth are you talking about?’
‘Honestly,’ he told here, ‘I wish I knew.’