Roaring Thirties, Part 1

A few years ago, I wrote a novella, something a little different for me. Light-hearted crime. In Leeds, of course, but not something anyone was likely to publish. It’s been sitting around my various hard drives ever since,  mostly forgotten.

However, I thought that, to fill the weeks between now and Christmas, I’d serialise it for you. But you have to promise to remember that both The Hanging Psalm and The Tin God made great gifts for people.

And so, ladies and gentleman, I give you the first episode. Johnny Williams, take a bow…

CHAPTER ONE

He parked the Austin Seven Swallow outside the Eagle on North Street. There’d been hardly any traffic on the drive up from London, just a few lorries, the cars bucketing along as fast as they could, the drivers’ faces fierce with concentration.

He buttoned his suit jacket and put on the hat, checking the brim in the wing mirror to see it was just so. A late May evening, some warmth still left in the air, and that feeling of dusk, with daylight starting to seep away and casting long shadows. 1934. The world might be poor, but there was still some beauty in it.

Only a few customers sat in the pub. An old husband and wife, holding hands and chattering away easily, halves of stout on the table in front of them, a dotting of ancient fellows, leftovers from Victorian times, gathered to play dominoes, a young couple out to do their courting, and a group of four middle-aged men, eyes like flints, standing in earnest discussion.

The landlord was cleaning the polished wood shelves, his back turned.

He saw her at the end of the bar, a glass of gin and tonic in front of her, a cigarette between her fingers. She was wearing a nubby tweed skirt and an ochre sweater, the sleeves rolled up on her red cardigan. There was a wedding ring on her finger, but she was on her own.

She’d glanced up when he walked in, then turned away again.

‘Can I buy you another?’ he asked as he stood beside her. She looked at him, eyes carefully appraising. Her hair was neatly set in waves, her lipstick bold red. In her early thirties and definitely pretty.

‘My mother always said I shouldn’t take drinks from strange men.’

‘We’re safe then. I’m not strange.’

She tightened her mouth as she arched her brows.

‘Who told you that? Your wife?’

He grinned. One of his front teeth was slightly chipped. Someone had told him once that it made him look irresistible. Dashing. Wolfish. A little like Ronald Colman.

‘Someone much more reliable.’ He cocked his head. ‘I have to ask, are those eyes of yours eyes blue or grey?’

She was staring at him now, and smiling.

‘Take a guess. If you’re right, you can take me home.’

‘Violet?’

She waited a moment, then started to gather her handbag off the bar.

‘Eyes and name,’ she told him, then asked, ‘Where should we go? Your house or mine?’

‘Oh, yours, I think,’ he answered without hesitation. ‘My wife’s a terrible housekeeper.’

Her elbow dug sharply into his ribs.

‘You’d best be careful, Johnny Williams, or you’ll be sleeping on the settee tonight. What kept you? I thought you’d be home this afternoon.’

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

He reported to the police station in his best double-breasted suit, navy blue with a pale pinstripe, his black brogues shining, the hat brim tipped just enough to put his eyes in shadow.

After a fortnight working with the Met in London it felt good to be home again. The capital had its charms, but Johnny Williams knew Leeds. He understood how the city worked without even having to consider it.

He wasn’t even sure why they’d wanted him down there. All he’d done was read the case file, go and talk to four people, then sit back and wait, time enough to tie up a couple of loose ends. Eight days later, they’d started making arrests and he was on his way back up the Great North Road.

Williams slapped the desk. There were files waiting for him. One thing about being a copper, he’d never be short of a job. Count your blessings, he thought, as he took a folder from the pile.

But he hadn’t even finished the first page before Superintendent Randall called his name. Detective Sergeant Williams straightened his tie, buttoned his jacket and walked through to the office.

‘Everything fine down South?’ Randall asked as he sat.

‘Went well, sir.’ He shrugged. They’d made the arrests easily.

‘Head not turned by the glamour?’

‘Well, the King invited me over, but I told him I needed to be back here by teatime…’ Williams grinned.

Randall picked up a piece of paper and pushed it across the desk. ‘Something to get your teeth into.’

He read it through quickly. While he was been gone there’d been two bank jobs, one in Horsforth, the other in Morley. Three men, one of them armed with a sawn-off shotgun. Quick, efficient, no violence, just threats and menace. In both cases, the getaway vehicles had been stolen and recovered about a mile away. There were descriptions, for whatever they were worth; none of the witnesses could agree on much. Violet had told him all about it last night. Lying on the bed after his welcome home, smoking cigarettes with the windows open, she’d brought him up to date on the happenings in Leeds. Working as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, she heard them all.

‘No clues?’ he asked, his arm around her bare shoulders. The slip and brassiere were long gone, tossed somewhere on the floor, and sweat was drying on her skin.

‘If they have, they’re not saying. The rumour is that they’ve nabbed over a thousand pounds.’

That was impressive. Carry on with that and they’d have a good little earner. He moved his hand a little. He needed to feel more welcome.

 

*******

‘Nasty,’ Williams said.

‘They’ve taken over twelve hundred so far. But keep that to yourself.’ Randall pulled a packet of Black Cats from his pocket and lit one.

‘What’s CID turned up?’

‘Not enough. None of the narks seem to know anything.’

‘I was hoping for a few days’ leave,’ Johnny said.

‘You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.’

But he would. He’d seen the sun shining through the curtains that morning, smelt spring warmth in the air and thought about Sandsend. He and Violet, a some time away, a decent hotel, Whitby just a stroll along the beach at low tide. Some walking, some fishing, plenty of fresh air.

‘Well…’ he began, but Randall shook his head.

‘I want you on this. If they get away with it, other people are going to get the same idea. Times are bad, Johnny, you know that. We don’t need folk thinking they can be Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. Not round here.’

Williams picked up the report as he stood. Before he could even take a pace the door flew open and the desk sergeant, old red-faced Murphy, announced,

‘There’s been another one, sir. The Midland Bank on City Square.’

Randall raised an eyebrow.

‘Looks like you know where to start, Johnny.’

 

He found a parking place on Boar Lane and walked to the building on the corner, solid stone staring out towards the statue of the Black Prince in the middle of the square. Wisps of smoke and the stink of the trains drifted out from the railway station across the street.

Williams nodded at the uniformed constables guarding the door of the bank and sauntered inside. Another bobby was questioning a distraught woman, while a pair of detectives looked around the building.

It was much like any other bank – high ceilings, a grandiose interior of marble and tile, varnished wood and glistening brass. And like the rest, easy enough to rob with plenty of determination and a little planning. The only problem would be getting away in the city traffic.

One of the CID men spotted him and walked slowly across with a rolling gait. He was tall, close to six-and-a-half feet, well into middle age, spectacles crowding a pinched face, most of his hair gone, just leaving a tonsure that was turning grey.

‘Might have known you’d find your way down here.’

‘Good morning, sir.’

Inspector Gibson had started his career with Leeds City Police well before the war. He’d served in the trenches and returned to the job, trudging up from rank to rank. ‘Going to have it solved by dinnertime?’

Johnny Williams gave a small sigh and turned his hat around in his hand.

‘I don’t know sir,’ he answered, voice serious. ‘Depends what time you want to eat.’

Gibson’s face reddened. He snorted and stalked away.

 

The girl sitting at the desk and cradling a cup of tea in her lap was smiling at him. It was a pert, inviting smile, full lips with bright red lipstick, under dark eyebrows and Carol Lombard blonde hair.

‘Will you?’ she asked.

‘Will I what?’

‘Catch them by dinnertime.’

‘Probably not.’ He grinned and shrugged. ‘Still, stranger things have happened. Do you work here?’

‘I do. I’m Mr. Osborne’s secretary.’ When he looked at her quizzically, she explained, ‘He’s the manager.’

‘Did you see the robbery, Miss…?’

‘Simpson,’ she answered. ‘Jane Simpson.’ He heard the light emphasis she put on her Christian name. ‘And yes. I was in the office. Over there.’ She pointed towards the corner and he saw two small offices of wood and glass. ‘It was like watching one of those films.’

She didn’t seem too upset or shocked, he thought. More like entertained.

‘Why don’t you tell me what happened?’ he suggested. ‘Weren’t you scared?’

‘Oh, no. They couldn’t really see me.’ She lowered her head a little, embarrassed. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’

‘Detective Sergeant Williams.’ He took out a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes and offered her one. ‘How many of them were there?’

‘Three.’ She closed her eyes to focus. ‘They were wearing jackets and trousers, and all of them had caps. They didn’t look like the kind of customers we usually have here.’

He smiled. They looked like ordinary working men, she meant, the kind who didn’t have bank accounts.

‘Did one of them have a gun?’

‘Yes. It was like a shotgun, but not as long.’ She cocked her head towards him. ‘Is that right?’

‘He’d sawed down the barrels,’ William explained. ‘Where was Mr. Osborne while all this was going on?’

He could see she didn’t want to answer, but after a few more words she admitted he’d been in the toilet when it happened.

The men had burst in just after the bank opened at half-past nine. There were only two customers in the place, and three staff behind the counter. The robbery was over in less than thirty seconds.

She gave him descriptions, but they could have fitted half the young men in Leeds. None of them more than twenty-five, dark hair, two tall, the one with the gun short and fatter.

‘How much did they take?’ he asked.

‘Oh.’ She paused, calculating. ‘It can’t have been more than three hundred pounds. Probably not even that. The cashiers only had their morning floats. None of the businesses had brought in their deposits yet. There’s more money here just before we close at three. Or on a Friday – we handle the wages for a number of factories.’

Today was Monday. Interesting, he thought. Whoever was behind the robbery wasn’t thinking ahead.

‘Had you seen any of them in here before?’

She shook her head. ‘I don’t see everyone who comes in. But dressed like that, they’d have stood out, if you know what I mean.’

He understood exactly. ‘How did they sound?’

‘Sound?’ she asked.

‘They must have shouted when they came in. Did they seem local?’

‘Oh.’ She pursed her lips for a moment. ‘I suppose so. I never really thought about it, so they must have.’

He thanked her and stood up to walk away.

‘Tell me something, Sergeant,’ Miss Simpson said, and he heard the rustle of silk stockings as she crossed her legs. ‘That other policeman didn’t seem to like you.’

‘I’m not sure he really likes anyone.’

‘But especially you?’ She was grinning now.

He gave her his best smile, showing the chipped tooth. ‘He thinks I’m cocky.’

‘And are you?’

‘You’d probably get the best answer from my wife.’ He hoped that was a small flutter of disappointment on her face. ‘Thank you, Miss Simpson. Jane.’

 

Outside, he looked at the streets. Boar Lane was as clogged with traffic as ever. People were coming and going in droves from the station.

‘Which way did the robbers’ car go?’ he asked one of the constables. ‘Someone must have seen.’

The copper pointed down the road.

‘Along there, sir. Past the Scarborough Taps and around the corner.’

‘Do we have a number plate?’

‘Yes, sir. Evidently it was a Crosley Aero. We have people out looking.’

‘Good. Thank you.’

He strolled along the street, following the route of the car. A short drive, turn over the bridge and they’d be lost in Hunslet or Holbeck. It wasn’t going to help much.

Three of them had held up the bank. But there were four in the gang; they must have had a driver waiting in the car, ready for a quick getaway. Local accents and very little planning. Well, he had somewhere to start now.

 

The garage on Meanwood Road looked like an old wooden shed, only a small, hand-painted sign over the door and a line of vehicles parked on the dirt outside to show what it might be.

Williams parked the Austin and waited until a heavily-built man wandered out, wiping grease off his hands with an old rag. He was in his early twenties, fair hair cut short. He walked with the kind of confidence that came from winning too many fights, his mouth curled in a sneer.

‘Johnny bloody Williams. They told me you’d gone to London.’

‘You know me, Colin,’ he replied airily. ‘I’m like the bad penny, I always come rolling home.’

Colin Jordan was the best light-heavyweight boxer in the West Riding. He’d never lost a bout, and won most of them by knockouts. The purses from the fights were useful, but he made his living with the garage. He was also the best driver in Leeds. He’d already been behind the wheel for half the gangs in town. Everyone knew it, but there’d never been any proof; people were too afraid to grass him up. And he loved being just beyond the reach of the police.

Williams got out of the car. He was an inch taller than Jordan, but the boxer was a good two stone heavier, all of it muscle.

‘So what brings you round?’ Jordan stuck the dirty rag in his pocket and lit a cigarette.

‘It could be a social call.’

The boxer snorted.

‘And the moon’s made of green cheese.’

‘I’m just wondering why this gang robbing banks isn’t using the best driver in town.’ He stared at Jordan. ‘Any ideas?’

‘Maybe they are,’ the man answered with a smirk.

Johnny shook his head sadly. ‘Not this morning, unless you’ve discovered a way to get yourself that mucky in a quarter of an hour. Looks like you have competition.’

‘Is that what you think?’

‘Three robberies, plenty of cash and no one hurt. They’re making a splash. It’ll be the front page in the Evening Post. A few more and they’ll be folk heroes, Colin.’

‘And you coppers will look like idiots.’

‘Maybe. I just thought I’d come looking for you first. After all, you had the reputation.’ Williams nodded at the garage. ‘Never mind, the business will keep you ticking over.’ He opened the car door. ‘I’d best be on my way.’

 

He’d been back in the office for ten minutes, sitting and thinking, when the telephone rang.

‘Detective Sergeant Williams.’

A woman’s voice said, ‘Hello, handsome.’

He smiled. ‘Who is this?’

‘It’s your wife. How many women ring up and call you handsome?’

‘I’m not sure. I’ve got a list somewhere…’

‘How’s the investigation into the bank robbery?’

‘That’s impressive,’ he told her. ‘How did you know?’

‘Bill came back into the office and announced “that bloody Williams bloke is on it” while he looked straight at me.’

‘What did you say to him?’

‘That you’re a chap, not a bloke. Have you found anything yet?’

‘Possibly.’ He knew she was eager for any scrap she could hold over her colleagues. As a woman, the paper would only give her fluff to cover, golden weddings and church fetes. Stupid, when she could write rings around the men and had a better nose for a story. ‘Tell Bill he ought to include the fact that the gang has the best driver in Leeds.’

‘Do they?’ Violet asked in surprise. ‘I thought that was Colin Jordan.’

‘So does Colin. I dropped by for a word with him.’

‘And it’s not?’

‘No,’ Johnny told her. ‘But he’s not going to be happy at someone else getting his glory.’

‘Not bad,’ she said approvingly. ‘I’ll pass it on. What else?’

‘Nothing, really. Do you fancy a drink after work?’

‘Are you paying?’

‘Unless you’re feeling generous.’

‘You’re paying,’ Violet told him. ‘The Metropole at six. I want a cocktail. A Brandy Alexander.’

‘Your wish is my command.’

‘Just make sure you remember that,’ she said archly.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

The trip to Morley took him past Elland Road football ground. He’d never had much interest in the game, though; the closest he’d ever come was arresting one of the reserves for burglary two years before. The only reason the papers had made a fuss was because the young man had been tipped for great things in the team. Now he was in prison on a three-year stretch and the United were doing badly.

Morley had once been a big mill town. Since the depression began five years before, it wasn’t much of anything. The mills had closed, and there was nothing to replace them. Men gathered along Queen Street, unsure what to do with each day, waiting for a future that seem further away than ever.

He parked the Austin beside the Town Hall and walked along the block to the bank.

 

The manager eyed him nervously. They were alone in the office. A secretary had served tea and biscuits, then left as silently as she’d arrived.

‘It must have scared the staff,’ William suggested.

‘Of course.’ Mr. Micklethwaite bobbed his head in agreement. Thin-faced, the suit seemed to hang off his body. His hair was Brylcreemed, with a sharp, neat parting off to the side, carefully combed to hide the bald spot.

‘Were you out there?’

‘Oh, yes.’ His eyes widened. ‘I’d been sorting out a problem in Miss Monkton’s cash drawer when they came in.’

‘What time was it?’

‘About quarter to ten, we hadn’t been open long. I already told the police.’

Williams smiled. ‘Please, indulge me. When they talked, did you hear any names?’

‘No, I’m quite sure of that,’ Micklethwaite replied after a little thought.

‘They were dressed like working men?’

‘Yes.’ Another quick nod. ‘That’s what made me look in the first place. You know how it is, most of them don’t use banks.’

‘What about their accents?’ Johnny asked.

‘Accents?’

‘Did they sound local?

‘I…’ the manager began. ‘I don’t know. I never thought about it. They didn’t say much. Just “Give us the money” as they brought out the bag, and “We don’t want to hurt anyone.”’ He frowned. ‘It was hard to believe that when they were pointing the gun at us.’ He hesitated a moment. ‘I suppose if their voices didn’t sound odd, then they must have been local, mustn’t they? But I hadn’t seen any of them before, I’m sure of it. I didn’t know their faces.’

‘Two tall men in caps, and the one with the shotgun small and rounder?’

‘Yes, yes, that’s it.’

 

It was the same story in Horsforth. A small, local branch at the top of the hill. None of the people there had noticed anything remarkable about the men. There had been two customers inside, forced to stand against the wall. Old Mrs. Crane had been taken to the hospital afterwards, suffering from shock, but she was home again now, her daughter staying with her. Before he drove back into Leeds, Williams walked over to see her.

It was a well-appointed old house, set well back from Town Street, the garden carefully tended, borders in colourful bloom. Mrs. Crane hardly looked in shock as she sat in the easy chair, a compact woman with a walking stick at her side. If anything, it was her daughter, summoned down from Harrogate and ordered around by her mother, who seemed dazed.

Mrs. Crane eyed him carefully.

‘I suppose you’re one of those young men who thinks he’s good looking,’ she said.

He gave her a smile. ‘I don’t know. I never think about it.’

She snorted. ‘Were you in the war?’

He’d seen the photograph on the mantelpiece. A youth in an ill-fitting uniform.

‘I was.’ Williams wasn’t going to say more. He’d joined up at sixteen, at the start of the last year of the war, going into the Leeds Pals. He’d trained as a sniper and been good at his job. Seen men die and killed more than a few himself. With the Armistice, he’d been happy enough to put down the rifle, take off the khaki and wash away the mud of the trenches.

She stared at him again before nodding her approval.

‘What do you remember about the bank robbery?’ Johnny asked.

‘They looked scared,’ she said.

‘Who was in charge?’

‘The one doing the shouting.’ She sounded certain. ‘He was pointing, showing the others where to go.’

‘What about the one with the gun?’ Williams asked.

‘He didn’t even have a clue how to hold it properly.’ She made a sound that could have been a snort. ‘My husband used to shoot when he was alive. Taught me how to use a shotgun. The man in the bank held it like he was terrified it would go off.’

‘Too young to have fought, then?’

‘The lot of them barely looked out of nappies. If I see any of them again I’ll take my stick to them.’

‘Is there anything else you remember about them?’

‘The third one – not the leader or the one with the gun – had a scar across the back of his left hand. He was dark, like the one in charge. They might have been brothers. They had the same look around the mouth.’

‘Very observant.’

‘I’m old, I’m not blind, young man. And don’t go thinking you can soft-soap me.’

He grinned at her. ‘Never.’

‘Are you going to catch them?’

‘Yes. I have to say, you don’t look like you had a shock.’

‘Just a faint.’ She waved it away. ‘My daughter insisted I go to the hospital. Silly girl.”

 

He arrived at the Metropole a little before six, finding a table in the bar and ordering the drinks. When Violet finally arrived, weighed down by her heavy handbag, the Brandy Alexander was waiting for her, drops of condensation on the outside of the glass.

She was wearing a pale blue, knee-length silk dress that flattered her. He watched men’s eyes track her across the floor.

‘God, that was a day and a half. I’m sick of golden weddings. Do you think we’ll be married for fifty years?’

‘Depends if you kill me first.’

‘True.’ She gave a serious nod. ‘There’s always that.’ She look a long drink and sighed with pleasure.

‘I don’t know how you can drink that.’

‘Because I’m suave and sophisticated, why else?’ Violet paused. ‘Have you discovered anything yet?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Something we can publish? Bill’s going to use what you said. He was terribly grateful and grovelling. I loved it.’

‘Not yet. I’ll see how it all pans out. Do you want to eat somewhere?’

 

They ended up settling on fish and chips from Cantor’s. He parked at home and strolled over, chatting with Sid as the man worked the fryer. Violet had the plates warming in the oven, the salt and vinegar sitting on the table.

‘When I was down in London they took me out for jellied eels,’ Johnny told her.

She made a face. ‘That sounds disgusting.’

‘It explains a lot about Londoners, though. If I knew that was coming for supper, I’d be miserable, too.’

‘So what are you going to do about the bank job?’

‘Oh, that’ll sort itself out, give it a few days. Do you want me to make tea?’

 

‘I should go and talk to a few people,’ Williams said after they’d heard the news on the wireless.

Violet cocked her head. ‘Anywhere interesting?’

‘Just round and about. A pub or two.’

‘I’ll come along. There are some nasty types out there. You need someone to look after you.’

‘If you like.’

‘It’s better than sitting at home and listening to Ambrose and his band on the radio.’ She thought for a moment. ‘We could always go on to a club later. We haven’t been dancing in ages. I’ll go and change.’

 

The Market Tavern was crowded with people in the warm evening, the loud mutter of talk filling the air. Williams took a sip of the Scotch and grimaced.

‘I hope your gin’s better than this,’ he told Violet. ‘It tastes like they distilled it in the cellar.’

She took a cautious taste.

‘I think it’s more tonic than anything. Maybe they don’t like coppers or their wives.’

‘It’s a thieves’ den here. Only the best for you.’ He winked, then glanced around the room. ‘Do you see the man over in the corner? Fair hair and moustache? That’s George Marsden. We put him away five years ago for robbing a bank.’

Marsden was well-dressed in an expensive suit and colourful tie, two-tone brogues on his feet. There was space around him, a sign of respect. Only the girl at the table sat close, dressed in bright red silk, looking bored, her bright red lips pouting.

‘Good God, who is she?’ Violet asked.

‘Girlfriend, a tart. I don’t know.’

‘A tart?’ Her eyes widened. ‘Can we go over and talk to them?’

‘I was hoping you’d say that. Just watch your bag, they’re a light-fingered bunch in here.’

Marsden looked up as they approached, half a glance at first, then stopping as he recognised the face. He put the pint glass down on the table and lit a cigarette.

‘Detective Sergeant Williams.’

‘I heard you were out, George. Back to your old tricks already?’

Marsden chuckled. ‘These bank jobs?’ He tapped the evening paper in front of him. ‘Is this right? Early morning in the city centre on a day when there are no wages? They should be arrested for bloody stupidity.’ He looked at Violet and muttered, ‘Sorry, missus.’

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to have an attack of the vapours,’ she told him with a smile as she sat next to the girl.

‘Any idea who they are?’ Williams asked.

‘Bunch of amateurs,’ Marsden replied with a sneer. ‘Anyone can see that. Did they take a look at the place first, size it up?’

‘No one noticed them.’

‘See?’ Marsden said emphatically. ‘That’s my point. Not a clue what they’re doing. They’re going to panic and someone will get hurt.’

‘Not like you.’ Marsden had knocked out a man who didn’t want to hand over his money.

‘That was different. It was business. And I didn’t hurt him.’

‘He was in hospital overnight.’

‘And I was gone for five years. You’re the one who put me away.’

‘Just business, George.’ He lifted his glass in a small toast. ‘If you hear anything about this lot, let me know, will you?’

‘Course,’ Marsden agreed readily. ‘They’ll give us all a bad name.’

‘And keep your nose clean for a while. Next time it’ll be six years or more.’

‘You know what prison taught me? To be very careful.’ He gave a slow smile and tapped the side of his nose.

 

Away from the smoke and stink of stale beer, the night smelt sweet. Violet linked her arm through his as they strolled through County Arcade.

‘Did you learn anything?’

‘They’re either beginners or not from around here. One thing about George, he doesn’t like competition. If he knew, he’d tell me. What about you? Good chat?’

‘Not bad,’ she said thoughtfully.

‘Is she a tart?’

‘She works in a shop in Armley. Her name’s Honour.’

‘Really?’ He grinned. ‘Honour?’

‘That’s what she told me. She couldn’t afford those clothes on her wages, though. That dress was real silk and her shoes weren’t cheap.’

‘We never recovered the proceeds of George’s last robbery. With that suit of his, too, I think we can see where it’s going.’

‘She called herself his moll.’

He shook his head.

‘Too many American gangster films. I don’t know what the world’s coming to.’

 

They went on to two other places, both of them quiet, no one to pass on any information, and ended up at the Pink Ribbon Club on Lower Briggate. It was a sluggish night, hardly any customers and no energy to the small band that ran through their numbers, eager for the next break. At eleven Johnny looked at her.

‘Home?’ he asked.

‘God, yes,’ she said with relief. ‘Even Ambrose would have been better than this lot.’

 

He was up before her, shaved and dressed, dapper in a suit with a faint Prince of Wales check, long before she untangled herself from the sheets. By the time she’d struggled into a slip and started applying her makeup he’d left for the day, reporting to the station.

Superintendent Randall perched on the edge of his desk.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘They’re probably amateurs. Or from somewhere in the West Riding.’

‘Then what was all that guff in the paper about having the best driver in Leeds?’

Williams smiled. ‘Just shaking the tree and seeing what falls down.’

‘You’d better not take too long about it. Everyone’s getting nervous as it is.’

‘They were trying to get themselves noticed yesterday.’

‘Seems like they succeeded.’

‘But they didn’t think it through. There wasn’t going to be much cash there so early on a Monday. Did we find the car?’

‘Abandoned by a factory on the road to Middleton. No one saw them. According to Inspector Gibson, they’re very dangerous criminals.’

Johnny considered that for a few moments.

‘I think they’re probably petrified.’

 

Johnny Williams enjoyed police work. Most of it was simple enough, not even any real detection. But the tougher cases were his meat and drink. He’d joined the force when he was twenty-three, then come up quickly through the ranks, a year on the beat, then a couple more as a detective constable before they’d made him a sergeant. He was in no rush to go higher; rank brought too much responsibility for his liking.

Randall gave him plenty of freedom. Johnny had his own way of working and it brought results. He was good at putting criminals behind bars.

 

Williams spent part of the morning wondering where the robbers would strike next. He stared at the big map of Leeds on the wall. There was no pattern in what they’d done. But they were becoming more ambitious. There’d be a next time, he was certain of that.

Finally, he gave up. He didn’t know enough to predict. Most likely there’d be a few days before anything else. Time to learn a little more.

In the Austin he started the engine and let it idle, smoking a cigarette and watching people pass on the street. Finally, he put the car into gear, heading out beyond Harehills.

The Gipton estate was brand new, not even half-built yet. Some roads seemed to lead nowhere, others had builders’ vans parked, the men busy laying bricks and putting the roofs on houses. In time it would be huge, but for now most of it was mud with tufts of grass. There were no signs on the streets and he had to ask workmen for directions, waiting as they examined a map.

The brick was rosy red, fresh sod covering the small front garden. Williams stood and gazed at the place. Much better than Gabriel Pitt’s old house, an old ruin by the city centre that was now a pile of rubble.

He knocked on the door and waited, hearing a woman waddle along the hall and then Millie Pitt was standing there, a scarf covering her hair and a pinafore around her short, dumpy body. She sighed.

‘You’ve not come to arrest him, have you, Mr. Williams? I’ve not even got him started on the decorating yet and I’d like the bedroom distempered first.’

‘Why? Has he been up to something?’

‘Oh,’ she said in surprise. ‘I thought he must have been for you to come calling.’

‘I just want a word with him, actually.’

‘Right.’ For a moment she seemed nonplussed, then smiled. ‘Come in. I’ll put the kettle on. He’s upstairs with the paintbrush. Just watch yourself in that good suit.’

No one could call Gabe Pitt handsome. His looks had been his downfall as a robber. With his bulbous nose and bulging eyes, witnesses had always been able to describe him. A day after any job and he’d be in jail.

Now, though, he was in the bedroom, standing on the stepladder, the bottom half of his face covered with a handkerchief as he worked, paint splattered in his thinning hair.

‘You look like one of those cowboys in the westerns,’ Williams told him. ‘All you need is a Stetson.’

‘Whatever it is, I didn’t do it,’ Pitt said. ‘Been too busy moving.’

He climbed down, setting the tools aside, and lowered the kerchief. Barely five and a half feet tall, and almost as round as his wife, he wasn’t quick on his feet. The only time Williams had been forced to chase him, the man had been panting hard after a hundred yards.

‘They’ve given you a nice place.’

‘Not bad,’ Pitt agreed with a nod. ‘I’ll tell you though, Mr. Williams, before they’d let us move in, we had to put all our stuff through the bug van. I said to the man, he’d have to be the one to tell my missus all our stuff had bugs. I’d pick him up off the floor afterwards.’ He looked around the room with satisfaction. One wall was painted, and part of the ceiling.

‘Have you heard about these bank robberies in town?’

‘From the newspapers. Why?’ He started to laugh. ‘You don’t think it was me, do you?’

‘We’d already have you in the cells if it was, Gabe. I just wondered if you’d any ideas who was behind it.’

Pitt shook his head. ‘I’m out of touch up here. There’s not even a decent boozer close by. Can you credit that? They’re building all these houses and not one good pub.’

‘It’s a crime,’ Johnny agreed. ‘So you don’t know who’s responsible?’

‘Amateurs, like as not. Sawn-off shotgun, is that right?’

‘Yes.’

‘Probably some lads with no jobs looking for easy money. They don’t see it as a craft.’

‘They’re taking honest crime away from the likes of you,’ Williams said.

‘They are,’ Pitt agreed seriously. He pulled the kerchief up over his face again. ‘What do you think? One of these and a hat next time?’

‘You do that, Gabe. Then come back here and wait for me. I’ll be over in an hour.’

 

Driving back into the city centre, he was pleased. A few conversations and some wounded pride. Everyone seemed to agree the robbers weren’t professionals. That would make them harder to find. But the real artists wouldn’t be happy at anyone coming on their turf. A day or two and the leads would start.

The police station was bustling as he walked in, uniforms muttering and frowning, the CID room empty except for Superintendent Randall pacing between the desks.

‘You go wandering off without a word…’ he began.

‘Just putting fleas in a few ears. Why, what’s all the fuss?’

‘Broughton’s.’

The name was familiar, but Williams has to think for a moment before he could place it.

‘The gunsmith on Woodhouse Lane?’

Randall nodded. ‘They’ve been robbed. Get over there and find out what’s happening. The last thing we want is a bunch of weapons floating around.’

 

‘What did they take?’ Johnny asked the manager again. The man, still living in the fashion of the 19th century with a wing collar and a frock coat, had evaded the answer the first time, taking a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbing sweat from his forehead.

‘Four shotguns and ammunition,’ he admitted reluctantly.

‘Tell me what happened.’

‘They just burst in through the door.’

‘Don’t you keep it locked?’ Williams asked in surprise.

‘Of course,’ the man replied, affronted. ‘But a customer had just gone out, and they were inside before it closed.’

‘How many?’

‘Three of them.’

He could feel a sudden chill climbing up his spine.

‘Tell me,’ Johnny asked with interest, ‘how were they dressed?’

 

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3 thoughts on “Roaring Thirties, Part 1

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