First of all, thanks to everyone who entered the contest on the blog. A winner was drawn and informed, and the books are on their way.
It’s less than a month now until the third Simon Westow, To The Dark, novel appears. If you haven’t read any of them (you should!) he’s a thief-taker in 1820s Leeds. A man who finds and returns stolen items to their owners for a fee. He’s very good at his job; it’s made him well-off, with a house and ample money. Until his wife Rosie became pregnant with their twins sons, they worked together.
For the last few years, however, he’s had another assistant. Jane, a street girl who appeared out of nowhere. She’s observant, she possesses the ability to follow without being seen, blending into a crowd, or even an empty street simply by being female with a shawl over her head. Her time scrabbling to stay alive in Leeds has given her an absolute knowledge of every nook and cranny in the place, and she can sense when someone is trying to follow her. To top it all, her hard life has made her deadly and ruthless with her knife.
Jane was originally intended as a major but secondary character in the books. But the people who come to you can have a way of taking over – witness Annabelle Harper in the Tom Harper novels. Jane isn’t a forceful character; she actually doesn’t bother much with conversation. But her presence is all she needs.
As To The Dark shows, she’s at home in the places most people would never date go, and really never lets herself become distracted. Almost never, at least…
Jane kept to the shadows, treading carefully as she approached. There were about twenty people gathered round the blaze. One or two were very young, no more than four or five years old, their eyes alive with fear. They stayed huddled together for warmth and safety. The others were a little older. They’d survived on the streets long enough to have developed a shell. But it was all bravado. She knew that, she’d learned by spending five years out here herself. She’d lived. Half of those in this place wouldn’t last long.
Firelight flickered and picked out the boy’s face. Jane worked her way around, keeping out of sight until she was close enough to sit by him. His head turned sharply as she settled and he began to rise until he felt the ha’penny she placed in his hand.
‘Some questions,’ she whispered. He nodded and stood. Before she could move, he started to run. Just a few yards, then he tumbled on to his face. By the time Jane reached him, the children around the fire had scattered like birds. Into the night for safety. Except for one girl. She stood over the boy, staring at him as he whimpered.
‘You’re safe. I don’t want to hurt you,’ Jane told him. ‘Just questions, like I said.’
‘Got to watch him,’ the girl said. ‘He’s sly and he’s fast. I knew he’d run as soon as I saw you get close. I made sure he couldn’t get far.’
Clever and observant. A useful combination.
‘Thank you.’ Jane took hold of the boy’s arm and lifted him until he was sitting on the cold concrete of the floor. The flames picked out a fresh cut on his cheek and a scrape on his knee. Nothing serious.
‘You went to see a man on Paradise today.’
He nodded, bobbing his head quickly and rubbing his ankle.
‘Why did you do that?’
‘He pays me to bring him news. Anything interesting. A farthing a time.’
It would keep him fed for a day.
‘How long have you been doing that?’
‘A week?’ The boy shrugged. ‘Something like that.’
‘How many times have you been to see him?’
He looked up, his eyes wide and earnest. ‘Three times before today. Then I heard about that man at Flay Cross Mill.’
Jane added two pennies to the coin she’d given him; it was still clutched in his fist. He looked at her once more, then jumped to his feet and ran off.
‘You work with the thief-taker, don’t you?’ the girl said.
‘That’s right.’ She was surprised. It was strange enough that a child should have heard of Simon. Even more that the girl would recognize her. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Martha.’ She looked to be around eight or nine years old, almost too thin and hungry for this world, a small sack of flesh sewed tight over bones. Pale, dirty hair that hung long and curly around her face. A dress that was too short, only reaching halfway down her calves. Threadbare stockings and her shoes were a ruin of leather.
‘You did well.’ Jane took two pennies from her pocket and passed them over. She had money, plenty of it; more than she could ever spend. Simon always paid her half his fee and business was usually good.
‘I can help you again,’ the girl offered. She tried to sound as if the idea had just come to her. But Jane could hear the longing under it all and hid her smile.
‘Find me tomorrow if you know anything.’ That was as close to a promise as she was going to give.
Out in the night, Jane breathed. The air was heavy, leaving a bitter taste on her tongue as she began to walk. Up Briggate, Commercial Street, Lands Lane, towards home. Suddenly she sensed it again. Someone was behind her. She couldn’t hear any footsteps. But she was certain it was there. He. A man. It had to be a man.
She needed somewhere to hide.
To The Dark is published in the UK on December 31. The ebook appears everywhere Feb1, and the US publication is March 1.