Damn the man. If Amos Worthy hadn’t bought his debt, he wouldn’t be here now. But Josh had been so relieved when the man did it he was almost willing to give over his soul. Sometimes it felt as he’d done exactly that.
He’d gone up to the hanging on Chapeltown Moor, drunk more good ale than he should, and made a bet on the horse race afterwards with Moreland the Fence. In his stupor he’d wagered more than he had, certain the nag would win. It was the favourite, wearing a ribbon from Mrs. Farley, and Josh was sure he’d walk away with plenty of silver in his breeches. Then the animal galloped into a hole and broke its leg.
Josh didn’t have the money to cover what he owed, not even close, and soon Moreland became insistent. He took a beating one night from two men that left him in bed for two days before he could move properly. That was the threat. Next time would be worse. Broken bones, maybe a broken neck.
Then Worthy came to visit, solicitous as you like. Even brought one of his little whores to minister to Josh. He could buy the debt from Moreland, he suggested. Josh wouldn’t even need to give him the money. All he’d need to do was perform one or two services. He left the girl overnight. When he came back the next morning Josh was ready to agree to anything.
That was a year ago and still the ledger wasn’t clean. He knew what Worthy was like but he’d agreed anyway. What was the choice? At least he was still alive. Once, twice a month, he had to break into a house, under orders to steal this or that and take it to the man’s house on Swinegate. He tried to refuse once, to say he’d paid enough, and Worthy had slashed his face with that silver-topped cane he carried. It slashed his skin like a knife, enough to leave a pale scar. After that he’d agreed meekly and prayed he’d survive. Worthy was a big man, he was older. He was bound to keel over dead one of these days.
The months of 1731 had passed and he’d done as he was ordered. Now it was December, Christmas just three weeks away, and he was creeping round a merchant’s house in the middle of a frigid night.
Stealing was Josh’s trade. It had been since he was a boy, moving from picking pockets to snatching what he could through open windows, then learning the housebreaker’s art. He was good at it, never arrested. At twenty, though, he knew his luck couldn’t hold forever. He wanted away from the life. Something steady, where he could settle and dream there could be a future.
Back in October, still in his cups on a Sunday morning after a long night of drinking, he’d ended up in a Baptist service, not even sure how he’d stumbled in there. But he’d found something, some purity in its severity. He’d gone back every Sunday since then, wanting to repent but not certain he was able. He could almost smell the hope, but wasn’t sure he could reach it. He was ready to be immersed, to be baptised, to find that new life.
If Worthy would ever let him go.
Emil Frederiksson was one of a pair of Swedish merchants who’d arrived in Leeds two decades earlier and built a strong, profitable trade exporting cloth to the Baltic. He’d built his new house near to top of Kirkgate, no more than a stone’s throw from the jail. It was the type of place Josh always avoided. Too many rooms, too many servants. And if you stole from the very rich, the law came crashing down hard on your head; he’d seen that happen to men he’d known, transported to America or the Indies and lucky if they lasted long enough for passage back after seven years. But Worthy had ordered. He wanted the mirror that Fredriksson had bought from the silversmith who had his workshop behind the Shambles. And he didn’t accept failure.
Josh had tried to argue. He’d begged. He’d even cried. But Worthy didn’t give an inch. It was only at the end that the man made his promise: do this job and the debt would be forgotten.
Finally he had a ray of light in the distance, if he could reach it. He had to believe it was real.
It would be in the man’s bedroom, the worst place for stealing anything. On the ground floor, he had a chance. He knew how to move around an empty room without a sound. Up the stairs – that was a different matter. People stirred in their sleep. They woke. The servants were just up in the attic.
Josh had watched the house for a night, keeping out of sight in the shadows, standing until he felt frozen by the winter cold. He knew where Frederiksson slept, he spotted a window he could pry open in the larder.
Easily done. He felt the Turkey carpet under his feet in the hall, the slow, soft tick of the longclock. Warmth lingered in the house, enough to bring the feeling back to his fingers and legs after hours of standing and waiting for the town to quieten. Past midnight by the clock on the Parish Church when he made his move.
He stayed close to the edge of the staircase, where the treads would be less likely to squeak. He held his breath with each step, one hand on the polished bannister to steady himself. It was slow, but he knew it would be.
Josh was alert for any sound, any sense of movement around him. He’d broken into hundreds of houses in his life and knew the rule: always make sure you have a clear way out. It wouldn’t be so easy this time. But this time, more than ever, he need it. To put all this behind him and then wash away his sins in the freezing river.
Another Turkey carpet on the landing and Josh thank his luck; it would absorb the footfalls and let him move silently. Up here, though, he had his choice of doors. He had to imagine where he was in the house, which one led to Frederiksson’s chamber.
The man was a widower, he slept alone. That made things easier, only one person in the room who might wake. Gingerly, he felt his way along until he was at the right door. Josh stopped, held his breath, and listened. There right at the edge of his hearing, he caught the small snuffles and movements of someone asleep.
His palm was slick as he grasped the door knob. He drew it back and wiped it on his breeches, then gripped again and slowly turned it. Not a sound, no squeak or groan. His eyes were used to the gloom. Gently, inch by inch, he eased the door open, his feet not moving.
Then he was inside, easing across the floor. The shutters were closed, but a fire was banked in the hearth giving a faint glow. Josh remained still, letting his senses adjust. He could feel the man asleep, covers pulled up high. And there, on the table, the reflection of the silver mirror.
Easy, he told himself. Slow and careful. A few more minutes and he’d be gone, he’d be free. One pace and pause. Another. Then a third and fourth, each one seeming as if it might take forever, and he was close enough. Josh reached out, flexing his fingers, then taking hold of the mirror, lifting its weight and pulling it close to his body.
Josh retraced his steps, closing the door behind him without even a click. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, but he resisted the impulse to run. You made mistakes when you hurried, and this final time would be perfect.
The stairs took time. His throat felt dry, as if it would take an ocean of ale to quench his thirst. Then he felt the Turkey carpet of the hall under his shoes and he began to believe he would soon be free.
Into the kitchen, dark and shadowy, one hand reaching for the door of the larder with its open window, and someone opened a lantern.
‘There’s no point in trying to run. I have a man waiting outside.’
The speaker raised his arm and showed his face. Josh knew him. Every criminal in Leeds did. Richard Nottingham, the constable. The mirror slipped out of his hand and shattered on the flagstones.
‘Seven years of bad luck,’ Nottingham said. ‘That sounds right enough. Good job it wasn’t the silver mirror.’
Josh could feel himself starting to shake. Right at his core, then moving to his arms as if he was freezing.
‘You need to learn not to talk about your plans. Someone heard you and decided we ought to know. Maybe you’ll like the Indies. It’ll be warmer there.’
Amos Worthy. The bastard would never let him go. He’d been the one who peached. Josh would never be free now.
In November 2017 there will be a new Richard Nottingham novel, Free From All Danger. But I’ll be talking much more about it as the time approaches. Meanwhile, I’d be glad if you’d take a glance at my most recent books, The Iron Water and Modern Crimes. Christmas is coming, after all, and books make excellent presents.