I’m thrilled that The First Film is coming out, making the case for Louis Le Prince making the first moving pictures in Leeds. That alone is wonderful, giving the man his due. But there’s another part to the tale – his mysterious disappearance in 1890. No trace of him has ever been found. And that’s how he comes into Two Bronze Pennies. Here are a couple of short extracts, just to give you the flavour of it…
In bed a little later, she lay in the crook of his arm, her hair spread out across the pillow.
‘I have to meet the French copper tomorrow,’ he said.
Annabelle stirred a little and placed a hand on his chest, right over his heart.
‘Is this that Le Prince thing?’ she asked.
‘For whatever it’s worth. I doubt there’s anything for him to find here.’ It was all going to be a waste of time, he felt sure of that.
‘I met him once, you know.’
Harper raised his head. ‘Le Prince? You never told me that.’
‘There’s plenty you don’t know about me yet, Tom Harper.’ She was lost in thought for a few moments. ‘It must have been four or five years back now. His wife was involved with some charity. They were having a do up at the cavalry barracks and I was invited.’
She shrugged. ‘I gave them a little money. Anyway, he was there with her.’
‘What was he like?’
‘Pleasant enough, I suppose. We only exchanged a couple of words. He was very French. I liked his wife, though. No side on her at all.’
‘Did you ever see the moving pictures he made?’
‘No. I wanted to. Old Charlie Turner – you know, the one who owns Hope Foundry – he offered to take me, but I don’t know, there must have been something else I had to do. He told me he couldn’t believe his eyes.’ She shifted slightly in the bed. ‘What time does this fellow get in tomorrow?’
‘Just after twelve.’
‘Why don’t you bring him back here for his dinner? I’ve got a nice piece of beef. I’ll give him some Leeds hospitality if you like.’
Couples and families moved away from the platform. A pair of businessmen with shiny top hats and determined frowns passed him. All that remained was a man on his own, carrying a valise and shambling along.
His hair was long, all the way to the collar of his heavy greatcoat, and a battered hat was pulled down tight on his head. He looked around, curiosity in his eyes. Harper lifted a hand in greeting and the man began to stride towards him.
‘You’re Inspector Harper?’
They shook hands, Muyrère’s as big as a bear’s paw. His moustache was shaggy, as unkempt as the rest of him. But he seemed perfectly comfortable with himself.
‘Call me Tom, please. I’m here to help you.’
‘Bertrand. Muyrère. From Dijon.’
He spoke English clearly and fluently, the accent no more than an undertone. He stood a good four inches taller than Harper and at least three stone heavier. But he carried himself well, his gaze seeking out all the sights around him.
‘I can take you to your hotel.’
‘Good.’ Muyrère smiled. ‘But first, please, a cup of tea. Train journeys always make me thirsty.’
Sitting in the Express Tea Room on Wellington Street he was surprised at the way the man seemed to relish the drink, sipping deeply then lighting a cigar. His eyes twinkled with amusement.
‘You’re wondering, Tom. I can see it on your face. All those questions. Why do I speak English well, why do I like tea?’
Harper laughed. ‘That obvious?’
Muyrère cocked his head. ‘We’re policemen, we read people, monsieur, it’s our job. I lived in London for three years after the war. I learned the language and I came to appreciate your drink.’ He raised the cup in a toast.
‘War?’ He couldn’t remember a war.
‘Twenty years ago, Inspector.’ He smiled kindly. ‘You were no more than a child then. I was in the French army. The Prussians beat us.’ His eyes clouded at the recollection. ‘So many men died. Good men, some of them. I decided it was best to leave France for a while.’ Muyrère shrugged. ‘I went back and became a policeman. And now I’m trying to find out what happened to Monsieur Le Prince.’ He finished the tea. ‘I’m in your hands, Inspector.’
Harper had booked the captain into the Old Hall Hotel on Woodhouse Lane. As they entered, he glanced back to look at the Cork and Bottle on the Headrow.
The hotel room was small but comfortable – a good mattress, clean, the bedding fresh and aired. Muyrère nodded his approval and left the case on the bed.
‘What now, Tom?’
‘My wife wondered if you’d like to join us for Sunday dinner. She thought you might not know England.’
The Frenchman bowed his head slightly.
‘I’d be honoured, of course.’ He patted his belly. ‘I have a rule, never refuse a meal.’
‘Have you just come over from Dijon?’
‘No.’ The man grinned. ‘I have friends in London. I spent Christmas with them. I needed to talk to Scotland Yard.’
‘Have you learned much yet?’
Muyrère shrugged once more, a gesture that seemed to say everything and nothing.
‘Time will tell.’ He pulled out his pocket watch. ‘And now… your wife will be expecting us?’
A hackney took them out along North Street. Muyrère stared with eager curiosity at the factories and the cramped back-to-back houses, saying nothing but taking it all in. He gave a quizzical look when the cab stopped outside the Victoria, then followed Harper inside and up the stairs.
Annabelle bustled out of the kitchen when she heard them, removing her apron and tossing it on the back of a chair. She was flushed with the heat of cooking, but dressed in her favourite gown, the dark red and blue that set off her features. Her hair was up, elaborately pinned, and she was wearing the jet pendant.
‘Madame Harper,’ Muyrère said, taking her hand between both of his and kissing her lightly on the cheek. ‘Thank you for your invitation. It smells delicious.’
She smiled. ‘Sit yourself down. The Yorkshires are almost done. Tom, take his coat and pour him a drink. I’ve even got a bottle of wine. I thought you might like that, being French.’
They talked about life, about France and Leeds. About everything but work. Muyrère was charming and funny, praising the food and the cook, clearing his plate of the Yorkshire pudding with onion gravy, then the beef, potatoes and vegetables. He only shook his head when Annabelle suggested pudding.
‘Madame, you’ve filled me. No more, but thank you.’
He drank slowly, savouring the wine and smoking another cigar as the others ate.
‘Annabelle met Le Prince,’ Harper said.
‘Really?’ He stared at her with interest. ‘I never had the chance. What did you think of him?’
She reddened a little. ‘About all we said was “How are you?”. He seemed nice enough. I liked his wife, though. Poor thing must be sick with worry.’
‘He really just vanished?’ Harper asked. ‘That’s what I read.’
Muyrère nodded and lit a thin cigar. ‘His brother claims he saw him on to the train in Dijon. When it arrived in Paris, no Le Prince, no luggage.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Other people saw someone board, too. I talked to porters at the stations on the line. No one remembers him getting off.’
‘Are you sure the brother’s telling the truth?’ Harper asked. It was the obvious place to start.
‘No one can say it was definitely Louis who boarded. No one else talked to him.’ The man chose his words carefully.
‘No sign of a body in Dijon?’
‘Nothing. We searched the brother’s house, his business. And no sign of the camera.’
‘Very strange,’ the inspector admitted. ‘Have you talked to the passengers on the train?’
Muyrère moved his head from side to side. ‘The ones I could find. No one saw anything.’ He gave a small, wry smile. ‘Of course.’
Harper understood. Finding witnesses was always difficult. Reliable ones were even rarer.
‘Was he on his way back here?’ Annabelle asked.
‘No, madame. To America.’ Muyrère sighed. ‘Now we come to the difficult part. Two years ago, Le Prince was granted patents on his moving picture camera over here and in America.’ He held up a single finger. ‘That was for his camera with sixteen lenses. But he’s developed a new camera with just one lens, and he wanted a patent on that.’
‘But if he’s invented it, what’s wrong with that?’ Annabelle asked with a frown.
‘Nothing,’ Muyrère agreed. ‘But there are others seeking a patent on cameras that do the same thing. Powerful men in France and America.’
‘That’s enough to make you wonder,’ Harper said.
‘It is, Inspector.’ The voice was slow. ‘I’ve never come across anything like this before. Have you?’
‘No.’ He didn’t envy the man his job. Three countries and business rivalries? How could anyone solve that? He was on a hiding to nothing.
‘And I hope you never will,’ Muyrère chuckled. ‘Believe me, monsieur, you don’t want it. Theft, burglary, murder. Those I understand. But this… I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth. Not the whole truth.’ He gave his shrug once more and stood. ‘Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m tired. Trains might be fast but they’re not so comfortable. Madame, thank you again. Tom, we’ll work tomorrow?’
‘I’ll come to the hotel at eight.’