The Thief-Taker’s Tale

On September 27 my new book, The Hocus Girl, will be published in the UK. A month later it’ll be available everywhere as an ebook, and from January 1 in hardback in the US.

I think it’s one of the best books I’ve written, up there with four others. I hope you’ll find out. If you’re a blogger/reviewer, it’s now available on NetGalley. If you read it, well, I honestly hope you like it, and you’ll leave a review.

That’s for the end of the month. Right now, as something to whet your appetites, here are Simon Westow and Jane. But a warning: it’s not for the faint-hearted.

leeds 1830

Leeds, June 1822

 

‘Sir…sir!’

Simon Westow stopped suddenly and turned towards the voice. All around, people on Briggate pushed and jostled past him. The butchers’ shops at the bottom of the old Moot Hall were doing brisk business as servants began early errands for their mistresses.

The man who called out gathered his hat in his hands as he approached. He had the hangdog look of someone who’d been beaten down too many times, and thick, callused skin on his hands, fingernails rimed with grime, eyes looking down at the floor. Not starving, and his clothes weren’t in tatters. A machine operative, perhaps. Someone barely surviving.

‘What can I do for you?’ Simon asked.

‘I don’t mean to disturb you, sir, but are you the thief-taker?’

‘I am.’

He looked up, a helpless man with only slivers of hope left.

‘Then I hope you can help me, sir. Someone’s stolen my little girl.’

 

Simon sat at the long table in the kitchen.

‘His name’s William Wardell. His daughter’s name is Anne. He claims that someone snatched her from his lodgings the afternoon before last. He’s spent every waking moment since then looking for her. He doubts he has a job anymore, but this is more important.’

‘Was the girl on her own?’ Jane asked. She worked with Simon, somewhere close to fourteen years old now and a natural at the trade. With a shawl over her hair, she could follow without being seen, and she had a rare sense when someone was trailing her. She’d killed people, he knew that much. He’d never asked how many. But she’d survived five years on the street before she began working for him. That was no place to turn the other cheek like a Christian, not if you wanted to stay alive.

‘The girl was playing and her mother slipped out to the shop. It was just four doors away at the end of Copenhagen Street. I met her. She’s as distraught as her husband, she blames herself.’

‘How old is the girl?’ Simon’s wife, Rosie, asked.

‘She turned five last month.’ He frowned and stared at the table. ‘A thin child, very quiet. According to the mother, she’s pretty, everyone remarks on it, and her hair is so pale it’s almost white.’ He stared at them. ‘One of her eyes is blue and the other is violet.’

‘That should help,’ Jane said. She started to rise.

‘Where are you going?’

‘To ask questions.’

The door closed behind her. In the silence, Rosie said: ‘This Wardell man, do you believe him?’

‘Yes,’ Simon replied. ‘I do. Any man who’ll walk away from a job to try and find his daughter is telling the truth.

‘Can he afford to pay?’

‘No. But we’ve done well this spring. Perhaps we owe a good deed.’

 

Jane knew what happened to the little girls who were taken. So did Simon; there was no need to say it. Anne Wardell had been gone a day and a half. If they could find her quickly enough, they could bring her home before the damage took her somewhere beyond returning.

She knew. Her own father had raped her when she was eight and her mother had thrown her to the streets. Better to keep a man who could provide than a daughter who took and took, someone her husband preferred to her. Yes, she knew. Jane lifted the shawl over her hair. She’s be invisible now, just another figure in a tattered dress. Jane reached into her pocket and gripped her knife.

Anne’s father had been asking questions, but he didn’t know people who might have answers. She did. And she’d make sure they told her.

The man lived in one of the courts that ran of Wood Street, between Briggate and Vicar Lane. Inches of filth covered the flagstones, tossed out of windows every morning for years and never cleared.

His room stood near the top of the building, up three flights of stairs. Some of the treads were missing and the bannisters hung loose. It all needed to be torn down and rebuilt. But as long as people were willing to pay for a room in this place, nothing would happen. Not when there were profits to be made.

She knocked on the door, hearing the sound of feet on the floorboards and watching the handle turn. As it began to open, she threw her weight against it.

Jane was slight, but it was still enough to send the man crashing back and catching him off guard. Before he could recover she held the blade against the side of his neck.

Simon had never killed anyone. It went against all he believed. He’d wound if he was attacked, but nothing more. Jane didn’t have those boundaries. She’d had to learn so she could stay alive.

And Ezekiel Harrison knew it.

‘Who’s taking young girls?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re lying.’ She could see it. He was desperate, but he’d still try and hide the truth from her. She pricked his skin with the knife, just enough to let a few drops of blood trickle down into his shirt collar and stain the cotton. The shirt was dirty. Nothing in the room was clean. ‘Who?’

He squirmed and tried to stay quiet. But the longer he looked into her eyes, the more he realized what would happen. No mercy for silence.

‘Marjorie Wilson and Elizabeth Wallace.’

‘Those names had better be right. If not, I’ll be back.’

She left him cowering on the floor.

 

‘I was given two names,’ she said.

‘Who?’ Simon asked. They stood by the old market cross at the top of Briggate, staring down the street towards the bridge and long slope down to the river. Two coaches set out within seconds of each other, one from the Talbot, another from the Rose and Crown, scattering people and barely avoiding a cart and its driver.

The air hung heavy, stinking of oil and soot, poisoned by the smoke that rose every day from the factory chimneys all around Leeds.

Jane told him.

‘I heard that Marjorie Wilson has been ill,’ he said.

‘I’ll go and find out,’ she said, but there was no trace of sympathy in her voice. ‘She might have recovered.’

 

Elizabeth Wallace. Simon had known her once. She’d been a matron at the workhouse when he grew up there. Not an ounce of kindness or compassion in her. She seemed to relish beating the girls for any little thing. Shutting them away in dark rooms, depriving them of food for the smallest offence. All to temper their wilfulness and wildness, she claimed. Finally the governors could take no more and she’d been dismissed.

She had a small house off York Street, quite new, not even ten years old. A young girl answered the door, wearing a dress made for someone older. There was fear in her eyes as she asked his name. She looked thoroughly cowed.

When she returned, she gave a small curtsey.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but Miss Wallace says she can’t see you right now.’

She tried to close the door, but Simon leaned against it.

‘I’m sorry. I know what she told you, but I’m afraid Miss Wallace will be disappointed today. I need to talk to her.’

She was in the parlour, working on a piece of embroidery. The woman looked up in annoyance as he entered with the servant trailing helplessly behind.

‘I told you not to let him in,’ she said to the girl.

Simon came close, towering over her. He was tall, broad, so different from the small child who’d entered the workhouse after his parents died.

‘I have a question for you.’

‘Run for the watch, girl,’ Miss Wallace shouted. ‘Tell them I’m being attacked.’

He heard the door to the parlour slam, then the front door.

‘It’s just you and me in here,’ he told her.

‘I know who you are. I’ll swear out a complaint against you for trespass.’

Simon bared his teeth in a smile. ‘You do that and the judge will hear how you snatch girls and sell them to the brothels,’ he said.

‘Prove it.’ But there was a tremor of fear in her voice.

‘That’s easily done,’ he warned. ‘But I still have to ask my question. I suggest you tell me the truth.

‘Why-’

His voice rose over hers.

‘You took a girl. One eye blue, the other violet. Don’t say it’s a lie, we both know it’s not. Who bought her?’

 

The room smelled of decay and death. Marjorie Wilson was just clinging to life. A neighbour fed her soup, changed her linen and the sheets on the bed. But the woman couldn’t even speak, let alone do anything more. It was an effort for her to even open her eyes.

 

She’s at Johnson’s,’ Simon said. ‘Elizabeth Wallace admitted it.’

They’d gathered round the kitchen table of the house in Swinegate. Simon, Rosie, and Jane.

‘Then we’ll go there,’ Jane said. She started to rise, but he shook his head.

‘He has two guards. I’ve seen them. They’re the type who kill. We’re going to need a plan to get inside.’

‘Two guards?’ Rosie said. ‘I have an idea.’

 

Rosie dressed in her best gown. Expensive deep-blue silk with a high waist, cut low and trimmed with a froth of lace. A small hat, sky blue and decorated with plumes. People turned to stare as she walked. Jane was beside her, uncomfortably aware of everyone looking, and making sure no one was following.

Out to Long Balk Lane. This had been a place for men with deviant tastes until two years before, when the woman who owned it had been murdered. Now a man named Johnson had opened it once more, drawing the same clientele. Men with deep purses and twisted mind.

It was a large house, a darker shadow in the deep night, its stones blackened by the years. It stood alone, set back from the street. At the top of the drive, Rosie took a deep breath.

‘Ready?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ Jane answered.

 

The brick wall at the back had tumbled. He could walk over it and move quietly through the overgrown garden. Two years of neglect. So much the better, Simon thought.

Light leaked from the shutters, enough for him to find rocks the right size to throw. He was ready, in place. Now he just needed to wait for to right time.

 

‘Sir?’

The guard answered the door. A big man, his hair cropped short and a face filled with prize fighter’s scars. Heavily muscled in his black suit, neckcloth tied tight.

‘What is it?’ He was ready to dismiss them and close the door.

‘I hear the owner wants girls,’ Rosie said quickly. ‘My servant has been ill-behaved. She needs to learn her lesson in a place like this.’

His eyes moved to Jane, sliding away from Rosie. Suddenly he froze, the tip of a knife pressing into the flesh under his chin.

‘Move back,’ Rosie told him. ‘Very carefully.’

Jane closed the door and searched him. Two knives and a cudgel. He tried to stop her. Her knife flashed, slicing through the flesh of his palm. So sharp he didn’t know what had happened until he saw the blood flow.

After that he was docile, bound hand and foot and left in the hall.

Rosie put her fingers in her mouth at let out a long shriek of a whistle.

‘You know what to do.’

 

As soon as he heard, Simon threw one rock, then a second. The satisfaction of shattering glass. He brought his boot down hard against the lock on the back door. Once, twice, three time before it gave and swung wide.

The guard stood, smiling and waiting for him.

Simon had a knife in his hand. He took a second from his sleeve.

‘I’m giving you one chance to run. Once I’m done here, there won’t be anything left.’

The guard laughed.

‘Look behind you,’ Simon told him.

The man just shook his head. ‘Do you really think I’m that stupid?’

The next second he was on the floor, clutching at his leg. Jane stood over him, wiping the blood from her knife on his coat.

‘You’ll live,’ Simon told him. ‘But she’s cut the tendons. You’ll never walk properly again. Now you can crawl out of her.’ He kicked the man’s knife away and strode on.

They searched in every room, emptying girls and men from each as they went.

Jane spotted the small staircase. She crept up and eased open the door at the top. The room was lit by a single candle in a dresser. A girl lay on the bed in a nightgown, paralysed with fear. Hair so pale it glowed white. One eye blue, the other violet.

A man sat in the chair.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’

‘I’m taking her home. And all the others who’ve been stolen.’ She looked at the girl. ‘Your name’s Anne, isn’t it?’

No words, just a nod.

‘Hurry down the stairs. You’ll see a woman. She’ll look after you.’

The smallest hesitation, then the girl hurried off.

‘I know who you are. You work with Simon Westow. I have friends in Leeds. Important men. We’ll destroy you.’

 

The men had all vanished into the night, hiding their faces. Rosie gathered the girls around her, shepherding them back into town.

The blaze had begun at the top of the house. It had quickly taken hold, lighting up the night sky.

‘No one was left inside, were they?’ Simon asked.

‘No,’ Jane said. ‘There was no one alive inside.’

She turned away and began to walk.

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