Coming in October – Free From All Danger

I hadn’t planned on another post quite so quickly. But I’ve received the cover for the seventh Richard Nottingham book (yes, it’s been over four years since the last one), and it’s wonderful – see the evil on that face.

So here it is, the cover, along with the blurb.

Free From All Danger 1

October, 1736. Lured out of retirement to serve as Constable once again, Richard Nottingham finds Leeds very different to the place he remembers. Many newcomers have been attracted by the town’s growing wealth – but although the faces have changed, the crimes remain the same, as Nottingham discovers when a body is found floating in the River Aire, its throat cut.

 

What has changed is the fear that pervades the town. With more bodies emerging and witnesses too frightened to talk, Nottingham realizes he’s dealing with a new kind of criminal, someone with no respect for anything or anyone. Someone who believes he’s beyond the law; someone willing to brutally destroy anyone who opposes him. To stop him, Nottingham will need to call in old favours, rely on trusted friendships, and seek help from some very unlikely sources.

An Old Man’s Knowledge

pen

 

The summer I turned eleven, before I started secondary school, my grandfather insisted on buying me a fountain pen. Not just any fountain pen, but one with a left-hand nib.

‘The boy’s going to need one,’ he told my mother. ‘Might as well get him one that suits.’

Like everyone else in my generation, I’d learned to write with a steel nib dipped in an inkwell at my scarred wooden school desk. It seemed completely normal at the time, just the way things were. Looking back through time, it seems ridiculously Victorian, as if learning had barely moved on in more than half a century.

We weren’t even allowed to write in ink until we were nine. Before that it was pencil. Perhaps they believed we’d make a mess and we weren’t to be trusted until we reached that age. More likely it had simply always been that way.

Writing in ink, joined-up letters in ink that sat on the paper and dried into the page, held terrors for me. As a left-hander, it was almost impossible to write without smudging my work. The only way was to curl my hand around like a crab’s claw and write upside down. I did that with pencil. It worked. But the term before we began using ink, the teacher told me I’d have to change, to write in the same way as normal children. Her words, and I never forgot them.

For the two weeks of the Easter holiday, I practised at home every day with a cheap fountain pen, grateful that I hadn’t been ordered to become a right-hander. I mastered it, after a fashion. It was awkward, I felt ungainly, cramped, and I went home from school every day with ink on my left hand. But I did it. It’s still the way I write today, although my script has become small and spidery, a mix of printing and cursive that developed when I was working in ballpoint and taking so many notes during my ‘A’ levels. Of course, these days I rarely pick up a pen of any kind. All ballpoints don’t come with left-hand nibs.

I wondered when my grandfather mentioned this special nib: could it be the answer to my problems? Would it mean my hand didn’t blot what I wrote? I had no idea if it worked, but why hadn’t anyone told me about this secret before?

How did my grandfather even know about it? Was it some special knowledge given to old men?

My grandfather was forbidding. He had gravity, a presence to cow a room. He was a man who believed in the old ideal that children should be seen and no heard. Rotund, with wisps of white hair, rarely smiling, and wearing the small glasses with oval metal frames that only old men wore, he looked a little like the illustrations of Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick.

He probably wasn’t even seventy, but to a boy that seemed like Methuselah, an unimaginable age. He’d been born when Victoria was on the throne, he’d seen two world wars, although he’d never fought; his eyesight was too weak to be a soldier and from 1914-18 he’d served as a Special Constable.

Perhaps I already knew that then. Perhaps I didn’t and it just accumulated with the detritus of facts I learned later. Either way, it wouldn’t have mattered. His life was so far removed from mine that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend it. He lived in Alwoodley, and expensive suburb on the fringes of Leeds, in a house with wooden panelling in the hall and heavy furniture that always smelt as if it had just been polished. Only later did I understand that he rented the place, although he could probably have afforded to buy it. But he came from a generation and background that didn’t own property.

It must have been a lonely life; my grandmother had died suddenly four years earlier. He wasn’t one to fend for himself, and I’ve no idea if he was comfortable with his own company or cooking. Probably not, because not too long after he performed the old widower’s trick and married his housekeeper, a woman my mother never approved of because the tea she made was only ‘wet and warm’.

He’d made the promise of the special pen, and my grandfather was a man of his word. Seven days later, when he came for his Sunday lunch, he handed me a small box once the meal was finished and the dishes piled away in the kitchen.

‘Thank you,’ I said, hope rising inside me, running my fingertips along the lid. It was plush, expensive, deep red, with a rough nap that felt somehow satisfying and right. I turned to my mother. ‘Can I…?’

Before she could answer, my grandfather spoke again.

‘I’ll show you how to fill it.’ There was no kindness in his tone, just straightforward, brusque words. Instructions, talking down to a child. He pulled the box back in front of him and opened it, taking out the pen, the cap still screwed on. I felt disappointed, cheated. I wanted to be the one who handled it first. It was my gift. ‘There’s a lever here. Put the nib in the ink, pull the lever down three or four times and it’ll fill the reservoir.’ He illustrated it for me then handed it back again. It was done now. He’d lost interest.

In my room I lifted the pen, feeling its smoothness, its heft. I removed the cap, thinking I was going to learn some special secret, some arcane magic to make left-handed life easier. What I saw was a nib whose tip curved to the left. That was it. Nothing more. Disappointment welled up inside. For a week I’d built up an idea in my head only to find…this.

I dipped the nib in a bottle of Quink and filled it the way my grandfather had shown me. Wiped it all clean with blotting paper and took out a lined exercise book. Bringing the pen down I held my breath, then write. One line, two, three.

It made no difference at all. The way I had to grip the pen meant that the back of my fingers still rubbed the fresh ink. The loops and swirls didn’t look any crisper or firmer. It was nothing. There was no magic. An old man’s knowledge couldn’t change my world at all.

I didn’t say that when I went back downstairs. I said it was great and thanked him again, trying to sound as if I meant it. But I used that fountain pen for a year after I started at the big school. A few months later it was in my hand as I wrote the story in three paragraphs we’d been ordered to compose and realised for the first time exactly how fiction was put together.

Sometime later I bought a Parker pen with a smaller, sleeker nib that worked better, and the special pen was retired. Then, when I hit the sixth form and we could use ballpoint, it went in the bin with all my other fountain pens, happily consigned to history.

After my grandfather remarried, my mother wouldn’t entertain his wife in our house, and we went rarely went to see him. Each visit felt like an endurance test rather than pleasure. By the time I reached eighteen, I’d stopped going.

In 1979 my mother sent me his obituary from the newspaper. Grand Master of his Masonic Lodge, secretary of his golf club, a few other local honours. I kept it in my wallet for a few years, until it fell apart.

 

****

 

There’s plenty of truth in this. All the facts are correct, although it’s strange to suddenly realise that more than fifty years have passed since my grandfather gave me that pen. It probably cost a fair amount; that was his way. He probably believed it would make a difference, and it was his gruff kindness.

And I did use that pen to write the three paragraphs (about someone defusing an unexploded bomb) that switched on a lightbulb and started me on the path to where I am today.

But there’s more, of course. I can only guess at my mother’s feelings; I never heard the conversations she and my father had about it. I can be certain, though, that she never raised the subject with her father. That simply wouldn’t have happened. We were all trapped inside our generations and behaviours.

For no obvious reason, the thought of the pen slipped into my mind a while ago. The tortoiseshell shininess of the barrel and cap, the gold colour of the clip, the awkward, ungainly curve of the nib itself, and it triggered a flood of things. Memories, feelings.

There’s no deep meaning to this beyond a few things that seem better out than in. But typed on a screen, not written in pen on paper. An old man’s knowledge might not always be worth a lot.

In 1815…

This Thursday, June 1, On Copper Street will finally be published in the US, and everywhere as an ebook. It’s been getting some lovely reviews, for which I’m very very grateful, and I’ll be even happier if you want to read it (purchasing or from the library) and leave your own review somewhere. But I’m not going to harp on about that…too much.

copperoldJune1

You’re back at work after the holiday, and you’d probably rather be somewhere else. So let me try and entertain you with something new. The book – if it continues – will be called The Rigs of the Time, and it takes place in Leeds in 1815, pretty much midway between the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper series. The threat from the Luddites has only recently passed in West Yorkshire, and in the wider world, Napoleon has escaped from Elba and is gathering forces in France.

It’s quite long, but I’d be grateful to know what you think. Enjoy (I hope)!

 

 

Leeds, April 1815

 

He reached for the glass and drained the dregs, glancing up as the door opened. Kitty the servant. A day of work and her apron was still crisp and white. How did she manage it?

‘There’s a man asking to see you, Mr. Paget.’ A short, telling pause. ‘He came to the back door.’

‘He wants me?’ He wasn’t expecting anyone, certainly not at this time of the evening. And someone arriving like a tradesman?

‘Asked for you by name, sir. Insisted on it.’ She pursed her mouth. ‘He claims he’s a Bow Street runner.’

A Bow Street runner? What did some like that want in Leeds? And why would he come here, Paget wondered?

He inspected himself in the glass, tightening the stock at his neck into an even bow and smoothing down the lapels of his jacket. He never cut a handsome figure, he knew that; the women had made it clear since he began attending the assemblies in town. No matter how he tried to tame it, his dark hair flew hither and yon like a scarecrow, his nose was too long, and his chin was too weak. A catalogue of sins.

At one time the opinions had mattered so much like life and death. He’d fussed and fretted about them. Thank God that time had passed. But wow…now he was thirty, a married man with a wife. Appearance was nothing. He had far more important worries in his life.

The door opened, Kitty again, a man right behind her.

‘Mr. Hammond, sir.’

He was broad and imposing, with heavy shoulders that pressed tight against his coat.  He seemed to feel the room as he entered, carefully taking in all the furniture and the portrait over the fireplace as he gazed around. Tidy fair hair and questioning eyes, but a face that was curiously bland and unmemorable. He extended a large hand.

‘Ben Hammond, sir. Thank you for being willing to see me..’

‘George Paget. You must forgive me, I have absolutely no idea why you’re here. You’re one of the runners, Kitty said?’

‘That I am, sir. A Principal Officer.’ He drew a folded sheet of paper from his coat. ‘A letter from my magistrate to prove it. Sixteen years a runner and proud of it.’

Paget read the note; it looked official enough, everything dutifully signed and sealed. He shook his head. ‘I still don’t understand why you want to see me.’

‘You’re a magistrate in Leeds, sir,’ Hammond said. ‘Is that correct?’

‘No. I haven’t been for a while. I resigned two years ago.’

‘But you committed Paul Booth to the York Assizes in 1812?’

Now he understood.

 

It had been a dispiriting day. He’d gone into town on business. Only three miles from Chapel Allerton, but every time felt like a journey to another, darker country where the air was blighted by smoke from the factory chimneys. Half the children he saw appeared starved, the others as if they might slit your throat for a farthing. Men and women, dead-eyed and hopeless, as if the machines that kept grinding away had crushed all the spirit from them.

The news from his solicitor about his investments was poor, Dinner at the Old King’s Head and an afternoon of playing hazard had done little to make him smile. Walking to collect his horse from the ostler he passed a group of old soldiers, some missing arms and legs, begging for their bread. All this and the stink of battle in the air once more. Bonaparte had slipped out of Elba and now he was back in France, with thousands flocking to him every day, if the newspapers were honest. Just as they’d begun to grow used to a sense of peace after so many years of fighting, war had returned.

He stood by the window, cradling a glass of claret, and stared out towards Leeds. Dusk was growing, the sky glowing deep, burning red on the horizon.

‘You’re brooding again, George,’ Charlotte said.

Paget turned to smile at his wife. ‘A little, perhaps.’

She was perched on the small settee, needlework gathered on her lap as she stared at him. Her face was pale, drawn, the cheeks hollow. As her belly grew with the baby, it seemed to leech all the colour from her cheeks.

Still three months before the child was due. He’d spent money on physicians and midwives.  They’d come to see her and prescribed tonics full of this and that, but nothing had helped.

His wife seemed to be slowly fading before his eyes and it pierced his heart. They’d barely been married a year. He remembered how he thought he might yell with joy when she nervously told him about her condition. Now there was nothing but fear for mother and child.

‘You look exhausted’’ he said.

‘I’ll be fine.’ She considered her answer. ‘I’m only a little tired.’

‘Why don’t you go and rest for a while?’ Paget glanced at the clock. ‘There’s still an hour to supper. It might help. Please.’

‘All right.’ She pressed her lips together as she stood, one hand supporting her stomach as she rose. Quickly, she leant forward and kissed his cheek. ‘Maybe your mood will have brightened by then.’

Maybe. He spent too much time thinking, he knew that. But the world seemed a very fragile place these days.

 

Hammond offered a crooked smile.

‘Would you mind if I sit down, sir? It’s a long journey on the coach from London, and this isn’t a short tale.’

‘Yes. Of course.’ He pointed at a chair. ‘A glass of wine?’

‘I never say no if it’s offered.’ He grinned and settled on the seat, extended a long pair of legs, and waited as Paget uncorked a fresh bottle. ‘Your good health, sir, and I thank you.’

There was no point in small talk. Paget wanted to know the reason the runner had travelled so far. The case was three years old, the man was dead. It was history.

‘Booth, you said. What about him? He was executed. I saw him drop.’ He grimaced at the memory. Five minutes dangling until some soul grabbed his legs and pulled. A horrible, brutal death.

‘I know, sir. I’ve read the account of the trial, sir. But there are some things that have come to light recently. There’s a possibility that Booth might have been innocent.’

‘What?’ Paget sat up so sharply that wine slopped over the lip of his glass. ‘That’s impossible. Five men who gave evidence against him. Respectable men, too. They caught him trying to break into a cropping mill and break the machinery. That was why I sent him for trial.’

That didn’t seem to perturb the man.

‘Were there any witnesses on his behalf?’ he asked quietly, and Paget could feel the man’s stare.

‘No one came forward.’ And under law, the accused could not speak in his own defence.

‘Tell me, sir, did you ever wonder why no one spoke up for him?’

He hadn’t. It was only his second case as a magistrate, taking over on the bench after his father died. He was nervous, unfamiliar with the law. Five reputable men had given their testimony. They claimed they’d caught Booth with a hammer. Those with him had run off before they could be caught. Who was he to doubt them?

‘No,’ Paget said, ‘I didn’t. The times, the problems. If you lived in West Yorkshire then-’

‘I do understand, sir.’

  1. A riot in Leeds about food prices. The troops called out to keep order. Men destroying the cropping mills all across West Yorkshire. There was a growing sense of terror in the air, the feeling that any minute it could all turn to revolution. Machine-breaking had been declared a capital crime by the government. Other magistrates had their networks of spies and informers, claiming harshness was the only way to suppress the workers and their demands.

Yet Paget walked around Leeds and saw only poor, powerless people. Hungry people.

‘What’s this information you’ve received about Booth? I don’t see what it has to do with me.’

‘Well, sir…’ Hammond had barely begun when the door opened.

‘George, I-’ Charlotte stood, then blushed to find a stranger. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know someone had arrived to see you.’

‘I apologise, ma’am.’ The runner stood quickly, turning his hat in his hands. ‘I wasn’t expected.’

‘Why don’t you go ahead and eat supper,’ Paget said to her. ‘I’ve a feeling I might be a little while.’

She nodded and the door closed with a whisper and a long silence filled the room. Hammond still stood, looking embarrassed and uncertain.

‘You started, you might as well finish your story. You said you’ve come a long way to tell it.’

‘I have.’ He sat once more, picked up the wine glass and drained it in a gulp. ‘Did you know Booth had a sister?’

‘No.’

The only thing he knew about the lad was the fear on his young face. He was seventeen when he was brought into court in chains. An apprentice cropper, tall, with the thick muscles the job demanded to handle the shears.

The croppers were the aristocracy of cloth finishers. They could add to the value of a bolt or ruin it completely with a tiny slip of the hand as they cut off the nap with their heavy blades. It was skilled labour and they received a handsome wage for it. But they were losing their jobs to the new shearing machines.

‘She shared a house with him and claims some men came one night, pounding on the door. As soon as Booth answered, they dragged him out, and they warned her to run far away and keep her mouth shut if she wanted to stay alive.’

Hammond said it so matter-of-factly that for a moment Paget didn’t believe him. It seemed impossible, a ridiculous fiction. But his gaze was serious.

‘She came to London. Petrified, she said. Worked as a servant and tried to keep herself anonymous. Last year she married a shopkeeper. Mrs Thompson she is now. Two months ago she hired a thief-taker to come up here and bring the truth into the open.’

‘He never came to see me.’

‘The last anyone saw of him was when he climbed on the coach for Leeds.’ He took a few breaths. ‘He was my brother. So perhaps you understand why I’m here, sir.’

‘Yes,’ he answered. If it was true…it couldn’t be. Those men all lying on oath. Good men. Friends of his father, people he’d known his whole life. Wool merchants who’d all seen their fortunes tumble in the last ten years. ‘I don’t know what to say to you, Mr. Hammond.’

‘I came here because I wanted you to know that I’m in Leeds, sir. I made a few inquiries about you, and people say you’re honest. Reliable. A bit of a Radical, too, they told me.’ He smiled briefly. ‘The word is that’s why you resigned from the Bench. You didn’t like what you had to do.’

‘I left for my own reasons,’ Paget answered. It was all true, but he didn’t need to admit that to someone he didn’t know. ‘Are you here officially?’

‘Well, I’ve been given leave to look into my brother’s disappearance, and Mrs. Thompson is employing me. But I’ve handled enough investigations in my time to know the reason my brother vanished has to be linked to the Booth case.’

‘Then you ought to talk to the Constable in Leeds. He’s the man to help you. I don’t have any authority now. You must know that.’

‘Ah.’ Hammond said and paused thoughtfully. ‘My brother – Matty’s his name, Matthew Hammond – he planned to start with the constable. You can see why I’m a little reluctant to do the same. I only showed you that document so you’d know I am. It’ll be packed away tomorrow. I’d appreciate you keeping quiet about me.’

‘You still haven’t really explained why you turned up at my door.’ He could feel his irritation growing; he’d never liked any intrusion on his privacy. ‘If you’re asking me to help, there’s nothing I can do for you. I spend most of my time out here, not in Leeds. And my wife…’

‘Of course, sir. I have three little ones of my own. My sister has the looking-after of them since my wife died. Little terrors, the lot of them.’ But he beamed as he spoke, pride on his face. ‘I was hoping you might tell me who to trust.’ Another short, deliberate hesitation. ‘And if you might see your way to talking to the men who accused Booth, that would be very useful. They’re never going to speak to the likes of me. Not an outsider.’

Paget didn’t reply, looking down into the remains of the wine, a deep blood red at the bottom of the glass.

‘I appreciate it’s a lot to ask, sir,’ Hammond continued. ‘But Matty’s sent no word and he isn’t the kind to just disappear. He’s bigger than me and he know how to handle himself. He’d put up quite a fight if anyone started with him. Truth is, I’m certain as can be that something’s happened to him, and I’d appreciate any assistance in trying to find out what.’

He was clever, no doubt about that. The man’s concern was real, but he knew just how to phrase things, how to appeal without being sentimental.

‘Where are you staying?’

‘The Talbot Inn, sir. Can I-’

‘I’ll come and see you there in the morning,’ Paget told him. ‘I need to think about it all.’

 

‘You look a little better now.’

Charlotte was in bed reading one of her novels, her back propped up with pillow and a bolster. In the candlelight he could see more colour in her cheeks and the dullness gone from her eyes.

‘Supper helped, I think.’

The curtains were drawn, the windows tightly shut to keep out even the hint of a chill. Paget stroked the back of his wife’s hand.

‘I’m glad.’

‘Who was that man, George? He looked…strange. A bit fierce.’

‘Someone with a few questions about the past. Don’t worry, it’s nothing to affect us.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two

 

Hammond prowled up and down Briggate, moving from inn to beershop to tavern. He was quiet, listening, observing. After an hour his ear grew accustomed to the accent and the words that sounded curious and awkward in his London mind. He was a stranger here, and since the start of the French wars people had learned to be wary of them.

Maybe it had always been that way outside the capital, where people teemed in from all parts of the kingdom and beyond. He didn’t know. But safer for now to speak as little as possible, to stay as invisible as possible. That was something he’d learned on the job.

He’d started out on the foot patrols, down among the real rough and tumble. Worn the runner’s red waistcoat proudly and proved himself, before he was promoted to captain and finally Principal Agent. It was a very fair living, some years as much as many gentleman might earn. But he knew better than to flaunt it. A good house for Nancy – God rest her – and the children. Ample for their wants. More put by for the future. Nothing flash. Nothing to draw attention or resentment.

If not for Matty, he wouldn’t be in Leeds now. He’d have politely refused Mrs. Thompson. He owed her nothing. Paul Booth meant nothing to him. The man was mouldering in his grave, and nothing would change that. But this was his own blood, his kind. Poor Matty who always needed to prove himself, to show he was better than his older brother. Bring in the tougher felon, solve the trickier case. He was good. That didn’t matter when your luck ran out.

Matty was dead. He knew it as surely as if he’d seen the body.

Damn him. Damn him for not being good enough.

He’d discover who’d done it and take pleasure in watching them swing.

First, Hammond needed to find the right men, ones who’d trust him and give him the truth. Usually he could gauge a person from five minutes’ conversation. Sometimes his life depended on it. He’d learned to trust his judgment. That and the pistol, knife, and club he kept in his pockets. Never go anywhere unprepared, and be willing to use you weapons. An old runner taught him that when he started the job, and he knew it was true. This wasn’t a trade where hesitation paid if you wanted to stay alive.

What about Paget? Hammond wondered as he sat with his glass of beer. He seemed like an honest sort. Decent enough, but nervous as a colt. With that house, the good clothes and easy manner, had all the assurance of money, a man who’d never had to worry about his next meal. Still, it had been child’s play to prick his bubble and bring him bumping down to earth. A little more talk and he’d be able to make an ally of the man and take advantage of the guilt he sensed behind Paget’s eyes; he would be useful. Someone who knew this town. Someone with connections.

He stood and stretched. Too many days cramped in the coach coming up to this place. But a good night’s sleep and he’d be fine. Ready to begin.

 

Long before dawn, Paget lay awake listening to the familiar sounds of the house, all the usual creaks and small grumbles. But they couldn’t soothe his mind.

Thoughts kept tumbling through his head. Seeing Booth in court, trembling, looking so young and helpless as he glanced around all the faces. Watching him on the scaffold, almost collapsing as the hangman tried to place the noose around his neck.

Paget knew he’d done his duty from the evidence presented to him. He had no choice. The laws were clear. Guilty of machine-breaking and it meant death. But he could have asked more questions, probed the statements a little. No damage had been done; Booth hadn’t even entered the factory. Instead, he was too callow, too new as a magistrate, so he passed the responsibility to the Assizes, certain they’d discover the truth. Instead, they did little more than pronounce sentence. He’d pushed him down that path and seen the end on the gallows.

For a long time he’d managed to push it all away.

Now Paul Booth had come to plead with him. He knew he couldn’t refuse.

Very quietly, he slid out of bed and dressed.

No need for a light as he went down the stairs. He knew this place too well, which board to avoid because it creaked, where every table and chair blocked his path. He’d been born here, run around all the rooms with his brother and sisters. It was filled with memories, so many that they seemed to spill out from every room. And more to come once his own child was born.

Paget prowled through the garden, lost in the darkness and smelling the spring. In the distance he heard the rough bark of a fox, then another calling in answer. He ran his hand over a low tree branch, feeling the stickiness of new buds under his fingers. Life, growing, renewing.

 

At eight, Charlotte was still sleeping. Good, he thought, rest was what she needed, a chance to gain some strength. He told Kitty to give her a bowl of broth when she woke and walked up to the Bowling Green Inn. The house was too small for a stable, so he kept the horse here, stroking the animal’s muzzle as the groom tightened the girth under her belly.

Paget had bought the mare the day he turned twenty-one. Nine years later, they knew each other very well, almost as if they could read each other’s minds. she responded instantly to any slight pressure on the rein or stirrup, and he could sense every one of her moods, whether he’d pushed her a little too hard or she was eager to gallop.

Abbess, he’d named her. Now she nuzzled affectionately against his cheek, moving her legs eagerly as soon as he was in the saddle. He’d only intended to ride into town, but he could feel she needed exercise. There was time; another half-hour wouldn’t signify either way.

He cantered through Chapel Allerton village, letting her stretch, before digging in his heels as soon as he saw open country ahead. She changed her pace immediately and he let her run for a couple of miles, relishing the gallop, feeling the wind rushing into his face and the wondrous sense of the world opening up around him.

As soon as her pace changed, he slowed her to a canter, turning and heading towards Leeds as he patted the side of Abbess’s neck. He rode three or four times a week. This was his joy, his escape from life. In the saddle he felt free of everything. There were no cares, only the moment, the sense of life.

The mare pulled up a little as they approached town, the way she always did, as if she was as reluctant as Paget to be among the clamour and crush of the place. He left her with the ostler on Briggate, feeding her an old apple before he went.

The street was filled with carts and people. The fashionable in their fine clothes, women wearing dresses heavy with embroidery and neat, striped stockings staring in into shop windows talking as they leaned towards each other.  Men in tall-crowned hat with curled brims, carelessly tapping their walking canes as they moved. Servants rushed about their business. Everything was a blare, a noise of voices and movement. And caught in the middle of it all, the stillness of those who sat, a tin cup in front of them, hoping for charity with glazed eyes and broken limbs.

He eased through the crush of bodies, one hand tight over the money in his pocket, and slipped in to the Talbot Inn, waiting while a servant dashed upstairs with a message for Hammond. Already, people were drinking, gathered in small groups or on their own. Not an ounce of cheer between them. Some wore little more than rags, a few with an attempt at dignity in their stained clothes.

‘It’s like this everywhere in the country, sir.’

Paget turned, seeing the big man assessing the faces with a professional eye.

‘London, too?’

Hammond nodded. ‘Everywhere,’ he repeated. ‘Too many people and not enough work. Down there all the talk is Bonaparte and what might happen, though.’

‘People talk about him here, too, but they’re more worried about affording enough to feed themselves. More seem to arrive every week. The manufactories keep drawing them from all over the county.’

‘Progress, sir. You can’t stop it. It’d be like Cnut wanting to turn back the waves.’

Well, well, Paget thought. Apparently the man had enjoyed an education. He might appear ordinary, but there was much more lurking under the surface. He shouldn’t judge him too hastily.

‘And meanwhile, the craftsmen are out of jobs.’

‘Wasn’t that the heart of the problem a few years ago, sir?’ Hammond gave a quick smile. ‘Seems like it brings us back to Paul Booth.’

‘Yes, I suppose it does.’

 

They sat in a private parlour at the inn. Hammond listened closely as Paget told him about Leeds.

‘I could take you around,’ he offered. ‘That would be easier.’

‘It’s probably best if we’re not seen walking together, sir.’ He pushed away the empty plate, just bones left from the kippers. ‘A precaution, you understand. The less people notice, the better. Where are the low parts of town? The places respectable gentlemen wouldn’t go?’

‘The courts and alleys off Briggate. Behind the houses.’

Hammond nodded, took a small clay pipe from his pocket and lit it.

‘How long were you a magistrate, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?’

‘Six months.’

‘It’s curiosity speaking, but why did you become one? I’ve known plenty in my time, and you don’t seem the type, sir.’

‘No,’ he agreed. ‘I’m not. My father had just died. When they offered it to me I never thought I could refuse.’ He sighed. ‘I suppose I learned that I’m not one to sit in judgment.’

‘Too many seem to feel the opposite, I’ve noticed. What do you recall about Paul Booth?’

‘I remember his face. He was brawny, but croppers always are. He looked so young and helpless. I don’t think he really knew what was going on. It was my first day, I was overwhelmed…’

He’d believed he was doing his duty. His father would have committed the man without hesitation, in the name of law and order, so he’d done the same. Only later, after hearing dozens of cases, had Paget realised he felt more sympathy for most of the accused than the accusers. Men simply trying to feed their families in hard times.’

‘What’s done is done, sir. It was the same decision anyone would have reached at the time.’

‘Yes.’ That was true. Fires, riots, calling out the troops to keep order, mutterings about revolution and insurrection. Leeds was on the edge of chaos.

‘Have you given any more thought to helping me, sir?’ Hammond asked.

‘I still don’t believe I can be much use. I told you, I don’t spend much time in Leeds these days.’

‘But people know you. The men who arrested Booth, for instance.’

‘I suppose so.’ He been at the grammar school with some of their sons; the men had been friends of his father.

‘You’re the one sent Booth on to the Assizes. That would count for something.’

‘Do you really believe it was all a plot? That he was innocent?’

Hammond spread his large hands on the table. There were scars across his knuckles, one finger twisted as if it had been broken and never set properly.

‘That’s what I’m here to discover,’ he answered slowly. ‘Among other things.’

‘Even if I see them…I can’t just come out and ask if they lied.’

‘Subtlety, sir.’ He smiled, tapping a finger against the side of his nose. ‘That’s the trick. Gain their confidence. You never know what they’ll let slip. I’ve found that people love to boast. It’s remarkable what they’ll say. I’ve had a few admit murder to me before now.’

‘If I did it, how would we keep in touch?’

‘I’ll slip out to your house every few days, sir. Easily enough done after dark. Like I said, it’s safer if we’re not seen together in future.’

Paget nodded. He still wasn’t sure. But a question or two, how could that hurt?

 

Hammond watched the door close, leaned back in the chair and puffed at his pipe. The man would do it. A remark here and there, a conversation or two. Give him a little time, and Paget could be a valuable source of information. Maybe even draw a confession from one of Booth’s accusers, if he was very lucky.

But you never banked on fortune. You worked. You dug. You came at it from every side. And you were sly. That was the key. Sly, and thinking three steps ahead.

He stood and put the pipe back in his pocket. There was work to do.

 

The yards were like the London rookeries, Hammond decided after tramping up and down and seeing all the suspicious looks. Crammed with the poor. Honest men and thieves side by side in their misery. Leeds had its scent, the smoke and the stink from the chimneys, but it was nothing compared to the capital. He’d grown up near the Fleet River, filled with all the shit and piss people threw in, the dead dogs and cats, even a body or two sometimes. After living with that through childhood, anything else was like a duchess’s perfume.

 

Subtlety, the man said. Paget knew he’d never been a subtle man. It wasn’t in his blood. He wasn’t a dissembler; as a boy he’d always stumbled over words and blushed if he tried to lie, and every time his father would spot the truth on his face and thrash him.

He didn’t even know where to find the men he needed. He knew their names well enough, they’d often been his father’s dinner guests. They were men who’d stayed in the woollen trade, bracing out the ups and downs of business long after his father had sold up. He stood on Briggate and tried to think, pushed around like a piece of flotsam by the crowd that moved around him. Then he smiled and began to walk. There was one possibility.

The Cloth Hall was the biggest building in Leeds, as imposing as any castle and far more important. Millions of pounds’ worth of trade went on here each year. Some men made their fortunes. Others were ruined. His father had brought him here for the markets on Tuesday and Saturdays; it had been a ritual of his childhood. Always full of people, but so quiet, with deals made in whispers, as if every transaction was a prayer. More than a thousand stalls for the clothiers to display their way, stretching away almost as far as the eye could see.

There was no market today, but sometimes merchants came by, drawn to the place. For the sake of five minutes, he could look.

Through the broad stone entrance and under the grand cupola, then his footsteps echoed on the flagstones. Pale spring light poured through the windows, casting deep, dark shadows. Paget heard quiet voices back in the shade and strode out towards them.

‘George? George Paget? It can’t be you, can it?’

He had to blink to make out the figure. Henry Whitehead, dressed up in his finery – the well-brushed hat, tight, pale trousers, and a jacket cut to flatter his body. They were the same age, born just a month apart. Long ago they’d been good friends, but that felt like another lifetime. It was more than a year since he’d run into the man, and time had made its changes.

Whitehead had grown stout, and most of the hair on his head had vanished. Now he resembled his father, nothing like the young man who loved a practical joke and a dare. He seemed old before his time.

‘Henry.’ They shook hands. ‘I hear you’re running the business these days.’

‘Some of it, at least.’ There was a swell of pride as he spoke. ‘As much as Father will allow.’

‘You’ll have it all in good time,’ another voice said, and a man moved forward into the light. ‘When he thinks you’re ready. Mr. Paget, good to see you. You’re a rare visitor here these days.’

‘Mr. Thornton, sir.’ Paget gave a small bow. ‘I don’t think we’ve met since-’

‘Since I was one of those who brought that damned machine breaker into your courtroom.’ He gave a satisfied smile. ‘A fine day’s work you did there, and a sweet hanging at the end of it. A pity the bench wasn’t to your taste.’

Will Thornton was well into his sixties, a small man who barely came up to Paget’s chin, wiry and still bristling with energy. He wore tall boots and an overcoat that stretched below his knees, wild hair grey barely contained under his hat.

‘We were just discussing next month’s assembly, George,’ Whitehead interrupted. ‘Plenty of toasts to the Prince Regent and the King, and dancing for the ladies. You should bring Charlotte.’

‘We can’t,’ he replied without taking his eyes off Thornton. ‘Perhaps you hadn’t heard: she’s indisposed these days.’

‘My congratulations to you both,’ Thornton said. He had a commanding tone, a bantam with a powerful personality, the kind of man who always drew eyes and attention. ‘I wish you well.’

‘Thank you.’

He clapped his hands together. ‘We should go and have a glass of wine to celebrate. What do you say, Henry?’

‘I can’t,’ Whitehead told him. ‘I’ve business waiting at the warehouse. Cloth to go to Spain, and God knows we’re happy to see those markets open again. Now we just need to knock Boney off his new perch-’

‘We’d better hope Wellington manages that quickly,’ Thornton said, ‘or we’ll all be facing rack and ruin again.’ He reached out and lightly took Paget’s elbow. ‘Just you and me, then. You’ll take a glass, I hope?’

‘Gladly.’ The opportunity had fallen into his lap, to have the man on his own and ready to talk, as if Providence was looking over his shoulder.

The Kernel of Truth

For a long time I was jealous of my friend Thom Atkinson (read about him here). His short stories and plays, justly award-winning, hit a kernel of truth that I couldn’t seem to reach in my own writing (you really should read his work. He’s honestly that good). What I produced was readable, but it was all surface, it didn’t resonate deeply.

Maybe I hadn’t lived enough. Maybe I just hadn’t reached far enough inside. I don’t know.

I had a stack of unpublished novels, six or seven of them. Fair enough.

Finally, though, I did manage to touch that core and find that elusive truth when I wrote The Broken Token. I like to feel that the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper books all manage that, to a greater or lesser degree. Some – At the Dying of the Year, for instance, or Gods of Gold and Skin Like Silver – have been very emotionally draining to write. When that happens, I feel fairly sure I’ve achieved work that’s the best I can do.

Some of my other books perhaps don’t delve quite as deep. But I hope that they each have their own truth that shines through.

This is a preface to saying I’ve just completed a book that was quite exhausting to write. Currently titled The Tin God, it’s the next in the Harper series, and Annabelle figures more largely than ever. Soon enough it will be with my agent and then, I hope, my publisher, who will give the thumbs up or down. If it’s success then I’ll let you know, of course. But the issues involved are timely. Women running for office – which they could in late Victorian Leeds, either for the School Board or as a Poor Law Guardian – and the problems they face from men.

My publisher will hopefully receive this new manuscript just after On Copper Street appears in hardback in the US, and everywhere as an ebook (obligatory ad!). I was a little stunned a couple of weeks ago when Booklist, an American publication, named it as one of the best crime novels of the last 12 months before its publication. That is heart-stopping and left me immensely proud.

Over lunch last week, a writer friend told me: ‘You own Leeds.’

I don’t (or if I do, where’s the rent?), but it’s lovely to be so associated with a city I care for so deeply, that’s helped me find the heart in my fiction.

I’ll be talking about that on June 8 with a great historical crime writer, Candace Robb, who feels about York the way I do about Leeds. Details are here – please come if you can.

A finally, I mentioned Richard Nottingham before. After four years away, he’s returning. Here’s a little teaser…

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A Journey Through The Past And Back Again

Sometimes life holds out a little magic, and all you have to do is grab it.

Looking back into my family history, I’d reached the late 1700s, and I seemed to be stuck there. Digging into a different family history site recently, I struck lucky. Suddenly I was tumbling back and back through time. All the way to 1545, in fact. 250 years in a day.  It felt like being the Doctor, but without the life-threatening adventures, Daleks, or sonic screwdriver.

I discovered that my family has in roots in Westow. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s a tiny village (current population 339) near Kirkham Priory, and five miles from Malton. 1545 was the first Nickson birth recorded there, but keeping births, marriages, and deaths in Parish Registers only became law in 1538; they could well have been there for centuries before that.

John Nickson was the first, then his son Thomas, born in 1587, and his son Thomas, who arrived in 1617. William came in 1660, Richard in 1692, another Richard in 1729, And then Isaac in 1752. One of his children – had had seven – was yet one more Isaac, who came squalling into the world in 1785, hanging around until 1857.

That Isaac is pivotal to the family tale. He certainly broke away from Westow. Around 1720 he ran an inn called the Golden Lion in Malton, five miles from home, and somewhere around the middle of the decade decided to try his luck in Leeds, taking his wife and children with him. That’s how we came to this town.

The descendants remained. Isaac himself went back to Westow to die in 1857, so the pull of the place and his forbears must have been strong. Or perhaps he’d simply had enough of life in a noisy, dirty town that was growing by the day, with its dark Satanic mills, industry, and crime.

On Saturday I visited Westow. A pilgrimage of sorts, if you like. I needed to see the place, to sense if there was any atavistic tug. It’s barely a village, really more a hamlet. There’s a pub, but no shop. Some old buildings along the main street, which is pretty much the only street. It’s peaceful, bucolic, surround by fields, deep in the heart of arable farming country.

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A number of the places look as if they were probably standing when Isaac struck out for Malton. Did he live in any of these houses? There’s no way to tell, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. Too many other generations of stories will have filled the stones since then.

And there’s an old hall, of course, as there should be in every village. Safe to say my family never lived there.

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The church is about a mile away, equidistant between the two villages it serves. The old Norman tower still stands, I’ve read, but the rest is newer, rebuilt from the original stones. It was locked, but what I wanted was outside: the graveyard.

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It was always hopeful thinking to imagine I’d see a Nickson headstone. Maybe Isaac’s after he returned to die. But no, not a single mention of Nickson. Yet, that was fine, I realised as we drove away. I’d seen the place, I’d walked some of the same earth they did all those centuries before. Now I knew.

From there, to Malton. The Golden Lion still stands in the marketplace. It’s been empty for a few years, apparently, but still in good condition. I stood across the street as I took a picture and looked up at the two floors above the bar, thinking that Isaac and his family lived and slept there. They had joy, they had pain there. That single upward glance seemed to cross 200 years in a heartbeat.

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That’s what I try to do as a writer. I try to bring the past alive, to make the people breathe in the here and now. It’s a way to try and commemorate people who would otherwise be unremembered. Many are fictional, of course, but some did live.

Like all writers, I love hearing from readers who enjoy the work, for whom the people who spring out of my head seem real (so please keep the emails coming). And good reviews are heartening. Two that arrived in the last week for On Copper Street, out in America as an ebook on June 1) made me happy. Booklist gave it a starred review and call the series “top-notch,” writing: “the story features meticulously researched period detail; a strong sense of the social, economic, and political situation at the time.” Publishers Weekly noted: “Nickson successfully creates an intimacy between the characters and the reader by showing, with each successive book, how his protagonists grow and change as they face life’s milestones: marriage, children, promotions at work, and the death of dear friends.” And past is place as well as people. The Fully Booked blog wrote: “When the sad time comes for Chris Nickson to shuffle off this mortal coil you will probably find the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. His knowledge of the city encompasses every nook and cranny, every church, chapel and graveyard, every legend, every tall tale, every dark hour and every moment of joy.” It’s not the first time someone has said I have Leeds in my core. But it’s probably true. I came back here after almost 40 years away. Isaac Nickson had his Westow, the place that called him home. I have Leeds.

Yes, those reviews make me feel I’m doing something right in my writing.

As I said at the start, sometimes life holds out a little magic.

Looking for the Essence of Leeds

One of the questions I come back to time after time is what makes Leeds Leeds? What sets it apart, not just from the rest of Yorkshire, but the world? Why is it unique? I don’t ask if it’s unique; to me it is.

It doesn’t have the deep historical roots of York, perhaps. It only truly began to develop its proper character with the arrival industry in the late 18th century, not too long before my ancestors arrived here from Malton.

kirkstall abbey

Leeds is a fragmented place. Each neighbourhood has its own character, possibly largely moulder by the villages they once were before the town swallowed them. It was said that, a bit over a century ago, the dialect of each neighbourhood was slightly different, so an experienced ear could tell to within a quarter of a mile where someone lived.

That’s probably an exaggeration, of course, and yet there’s some truth in it. It was a place of tightly-wrapped communities, even if many of those arrived from elsewhere at the start of the 19th century, hoping factories would make them the fortunes they’d never see out in the countryside.

They came, and they keep on coming, often with the same dreams. They immigrants here, like my own family, like the Irish who began arriving in the 1820s and 30s, the Jews coming from Poland and Russia 50 years and more later, the Caribbean influx of the 1950s, followed quickly by Indian and Pakistani immigrants, and then, and then…you get the picture. They’ve been absorbed into the city without having to lose their own cultures.

Leeds is a mutable city.

Even much of its early population were lured in by the promise of no service to their Lord, and simply paying rent on their properties on the new street named Briggate in 1207. They were craftsmen looking for a better life.

But that doesn’t get to the heart of the character of Leeds, does it?

Well, in a way, maybe it does.

That first kickstart of Leeds’ growth as a village, the start of its slow change into a town – the planning of Briggate – was the result of financial desperation. The lord of the manor needed money. Rents. It was an opportunity. Benjamin Gott saw an opportunity with Bean Ing Mill in 1792. John Barran saw an opportunity is making tailoring into mass production, just as the people behind Trinity and Victoria Gate see opportunity. Money is a great motivator. Leeds isn’t a place where invention and innovation happen for their own sake. There has to be a commercial reason, money to be made. But as generations have found, that doesn’t trickle down.

Perhaps that’s why we’re Bolshie. It’s a trait that’s grown over the centuries. There have been riots of turnpikes, law, even dripping, and a strong sense of justice for the working man. Sometimes there are wins (the Leeds Gas Strike, for instance), enough to them to sustain the losses. But part of the Leeds character is to speak out, and to act. It was active very early on in the fight for women’s rights. It almost became home to the founding of the Independent Labour Party.

The city is changing. It’s never been sentimental about its past. Those grand Victorian buildings remain for a reason, in some cases because the council isn’t allowed to pull them down.

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The population of Leeds has altered a great deal, and the life expectancy is more than the 27 years it was for the poor in the middle of the 19th century. We still have the back-to-back houses Engels observed (described in the Artisan as: “An ordinary cottage, in Leeds, extends over no more than about five yards square, and consists usually of a cellar, a sitting-room, and a sleeping chamber. This small size of the houses crammed with human beings both day and night, is another point dangerous alike to the morals and the health of the inhabitants.”), because it’s cheaper to keep them. Never mind that they were only intended to last for 70 years. But alongside them we have luxurious student residences, because studying is big business now. Some part of this city will always cater to people with money.

But maybe the real essence of Leeds, at least to me, is knowing that the goose is laying the golden egg for someone else, not for you. And having the ability to laugh at the world that does that. If you want a modern example, talk to anyone who’s spent a lifetime supporting Leeds United. It’s right there. It’s the ability to chuckle at the very worst, say ‘Is that all you can do?’ and raise two fingers at the world.

I haven’t caught it completely, I know that. I’m not sure it’s even possible to define or capture. But in my books, I try. That essence of the Leeds character has changed very little from the 1730s to the 1890s to the 1950s, I believe.

But I’ll put the ball in your court: what do you think is the essence of Leeds?

New Tom Harper

It’s definitely spring out there. The kids are enjoying their holidays, the weather is growing balmier. I’ve been able to get things planted at my allotment, and it’s beginning to take shape for the season.

But life wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t writing, and I have my head deep into what I hope will become the sixth Tom Harper novel, although Annabelle proves to be a very big part of this one. Now I just have to hope that my publisher wants it.

This extract is fairly lengthy and is still in a fairly raw state, so I hope you’ll bear with me on that. More importantly, I hope you like it. Please, seriously, tell me what you think, okay?

 

Late September, 1897

 

Tom Harper stared in the mirror.

‘What do you think?’ he asked doubtfully.

He felt ridiculous in a swallowtail coat and stiff, starched shirt. But the invitation had made it clear: this was an official dinner, formal dress required. The fourth time this year and the suit wasn’t any more comfortable than the first time he’d worn it. He’d never expected that rank would include parading round like a butler.

‘Let’s have a gander at you.’ Annabelle said and he turned for inspection. ‘Like a real police superintendent,’ she told him with a nod. ‘Just one thing.’ A few deft movements and she adjusted the bow tie. ‘Never met a man who could do a dicky bow properly. Now you’re the real dog’s dinner.’

She brought her face close to his. For a moment he expected a kiss. But her eyes narrowed and she whispered, ‘I’ve had another letter. Came in the second post. May Bolland’s had one, too.’

His face hardened. He’d expected some outrage when Annabelle announced she was running to be elected to the Board of Poor Law Guardians. A few comments. Plenty of objections. He was even willing to dismiss one anonymous, rambling letter as the work of a crank. But two of them? He couldn’t ignore that.

‘What did it say?’

She turned her head away. ‘What you’d expect.’

‘The same person?’ he asked and she nodded. ‘What did you do with it?’

‘I burned it.’ Her voice was tight.

‘What?’ He pulled back in disbelief. ‘It’s evidence.’

‘Little eyes,’ she hissed. ‘You know Mary’s reading has come on leaps and bounds since she started school. Safer out of the way.’

He breathed slowly, pushing down his anger. For a long time he said nothing. What could he do? It was dust now. Maybe Mrs. Bolland had kept hers; he’d send Ash round to see her in the morning.

‘Button me up and we’d better get a move on.’ Deftly, she changed the subject. ‘That hackney’s already been waiting for five minutes.’

Annabelle was wearing a new gown, dark blue silk, no bustle, high at the neck with lace trim and full leg-of-mutton sleeves, the pale silk shawl he’d bought her over her shoulders. Her hair was elaborately swept up and pinned. She was every bit as lovely as the first day he’d seen her.

There were calls and whistles as they walked through the Victoria pub downstairs. Her pub. She laughed and twirled around the room. He was happy to keep in the background, to try and slink out without being noticed. People didn’t dress like this in Sheepscar. They owned work clothes and a good suit for funerals; that was it.

‘What is this do, anyway?’ she asked as the cab jounced along North Street.

‘The Lord Mayor’s Fund,’ he replied. ‘Charity.’

The Mayor’s office had finally become the Lord Mayor’s office that summer, Leeds honoured by Queen Victoria to mark her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty years on the throne, Harper thought, going back long before he was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, before his parents had even met. There had been parties and civic events around the city all summer, and hardly any problems, as if everyone just wanted to celebrate the occasion with plenty of joy.

The Chief Constable had been pleased, and even happier when the crime figures came out: down everywhere. The biggest drop was in Harper’s division. God only knew why; he didn’t have an explanation. He’d praised his men then held his tongue, not wanting to tempt fate.

Annabelle’s elbow poked him in the ribs.

‘You’re miles away.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Is it a sit-down affair tonight?

‘Three courses, then the speeches.’

She groaned and he turned to smile at her.

‘We’re in for plenty more of these once you’re elected.’

‘If I’m elected,’ she warned. ‘Don’t be cocky.’

Seven women were standing to become Poor Law Guardians, their election costs paid by the Suffrage Society and the Women’s Co-op Guild. The campaign was no more than three days old, but already the Tories and the Liberals were deriding the women for trying to rise above their natural station. The Independent Labour Party had its eye on the posts, too, as stepping stones for their ambitious young men. And the newspapers had their knives out, pointedly advising people to vote for the gentlemen. He’d arrived home two days to find her pacing furiously around the living room, ready to spit fire, with the editorial in her hand.

‘Listen to this,’ Annabelle told him. ‘Apparently they think men “don’t possess the domestic embarrassments of women.” What does that mean? I could swing for the lot of them.’

She threw the paper on to a chair. But he could hear the hurt behind her words. It wasn’t going to be a fair fight.

The first letter arrived the same day. Second post, franked at the main post office in town, no signature or return address. It was a screed about how women should be guided by their husbands, live modestly and look to the welfare of their own families. Religious and condescending, everything written in a neat, practised hand. Senseless, Harper judged when he read it, but no real threat. All the women running for the Board had received one. He’d placed it in his desk drawer at Millgarth and forgotten about it. But another…that demanded attention.

 

‘Take a look at that,’ Harper said and tossed the letter across the desk. Inspector Ash raised an eyebrow as he read, then passed it on to Detective Sergeant Fowler.

‘Looks like he’s halfway round the bend, if you ask me, sir,’ Ash said. ‘I see he didn’t bother to sign it. Anything on the envelope?’

‘Nothing helpful.’ He sat back in the chair. For more than two years this had been his office, but Kendall’s ghost still seemed to linger; sometimes he even believed he could smell the shag tobacco the man used to stuff in his pipe. ‘All the women candidates running to be on the Board of Guardians received one.’

‘I see. That was Mrs. Harper’s, I take it?’

‘There was another yesterday. She burned it.’

‘Whoever wrote this was educated,’ Fowler said. ‘All the lines are even, everything spelled properly.’ He grinned. ‘Of course, that’s doesn’t mean he’s not barmy.’

He pushed the spectacles back up his nose. The sergeant had been recommended by a copper from Wakefield. He was moving back to Leeds to be closer to his ill mother. Harper had taken a chance on the man. Over the last twelve months it had paid off handsomely.

Fowler didn’t look like a policeman, more like a distracted clerk or a young professor. Twenty-five, hair already receding, he barely made the height requirement and couldn’t have weighed more than eleven stone. But he had one of the quickest minds Harper had ever met. He and Ash had clicked immediately, turning into a very fruitful partnership. One big, one smaller, they seemed to work intuitively together, knowing what each one would do without needing to speak.

‘This woman’s had another letter, too.’ He gave them the address. ‘Go and see her. I doubt we’ll track down the sender, but at least we can put out the word that we’re looking into it. That might scare him off.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Ash stood. ‘How’s Mrs. Harper’s campaign going?’

‘Early days yet.’

She’d only held small one meeting so far, in a church hall just up Roundhay Road from the Victoria. Their bedroom was filled with piles of leaflets read to be delivered and posters to plastered on the walls all over Sheepscar Ward.

‘I’m sure she’ll win, sir.’

He smiled. ‘From your lips to God’s ears.’

Once they’d gone he turned back to the rota for October, trying to recall when he’d once believed that coppering meant solving crimes.

 

Billy Reed drew back the curtains, pushed up the window sash, and breathed in the sharp salt air. After so many years of soot and dirt in Leeds, every day of this seemed like a tonic. He heard Elizabeth moving around downstairs, cooking his breakfast.

They’d been in Whitby since July, all settled now into the terraced house on Silver Street. The pair of them, and her two youngest children, Edward and Victoria. The older ones had stayed in Leeds, both in lodgings, with work, friends, and lives of their own.

Moving had been a big decision, an upheaval. He’d come to love Whitby on his first visit. He’d left the army, just home from the wars in Afghanistan and troubled in his mind. The water, the beach, the quiet of the place had brought him some peace, and he’d always wanted to live there. But when he’d seen the job for inspector of police and fire in the town, he’d hesitated.

‘Why not write?’ Elizabeth urged him. ‘The worst they can say is no.’

‘We’re settled. I’m doing well the with fire brigade. And you have the bakeries.’

She stared at him. ‘Do you think we’d be happy there?’

‘Yes,’ Reed answered after a moment. ‘I do.’

‘Then sit down and write to them.’

It had taken time. First the application, then an interview, Elizabeth travelling with him on the train and inspecting the town while he was questioned by the watch committee. Another wait until the answer arrived, offering him the position. After that, it was a scramble of arrangements. In the end he’d gone on ahead while she finished up the up sale of the bakeries, packed the rest of their possessions, and said goodbye to all the friends they’d made.

He had no regrets. He liked his job, but it was time for a move, for something new. And this was certainly different. He could make out the shouts of the fishermen at mooring points as they unloaded their boats, and hear the gulls calling.

‘You’d better come and get it while it’s hot,’ Elizabeth shouted up the stairs.

The children were already eating, ready to scramble off to their jobs. Soon enough, Elizabeth would march down Flowergate, across the bridge, and along Church Street to the shop she’d leased, ready to open her tea room and confectioner’s in the spring. She’d made the bakeries in Leeds turn a fair profit, and she wasn’t one to be content as a lady of leisure. She relished work.

‘It’s right by the market,’ she pointed out to him. ‘And all those folk going to the abbey in holiday season will pass by the door.’

She’d developed a good eye, he knew that, and she’d already managed to cultivate a few friends in town, like Mrs. Botham, who ran her bakery and the Inglenook Tea Room on Skinner Street. A formidable woman, Reed thought, but she and Elizabeth could natter on for hours.

He’d quickly settled into the rhythm of his job. During the summer it was mostly dealing with complaints from holidaymakers and breaking up fights once the pub closed. There had only been one fire, and that was easily doused.

He strolled over to the police station on Spring Hill and went through the log with the uniformed sergeant before setting off in the pony and trap. Sandsend and Staithes today. Both of them poor fishing villages, and little trouble to the law, but he still needed to put in a monthly appearance. Show the flag. He covered a large area, going all the way down to Robin Hood’s Bay, but on a day like this, with the sun shining and a gentle breeze blowing off the water, nothing could be a better job.

No, Reed thought with a smile as the horse clopped along the road, no regrets at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Two

 

‘I saw Mrs. Bolland, sir.’ Ash settled on to the chair in the superintendent’s office. ‘She’d kept the letter.’ He ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth. ‘It left her scared.’

‘What does it say?’ Harper put down the pen and sat back.

‘Read it for yourself, sir.’ The inspector pulled a folded sheet of notepaper from his inside pocket.

A woman’s place is in the home, tending to her family and being a graceful loving presence. It’s not to shriek in the hustings like a harridan or to display herself in front of the public like a painted whore.

The Good Lord created His order for a purpose. Man has the reason, the wisdom, and the judgement. He’s intended to use it, to exercise his will over women, not to be challenged by them, the weaker element. Eve was persuaded to eat the apple and tempted Adam, and since that time it has been her duty to pay for the sin.

It is time for you to withdraw your candidacy. Should you fail to do so, if you continue to talk and challenge men for what rightly belongs to them, we shall feel justified in taking whatever means necessary to silence you for breaking God’s profound will.

‘A death threat. No wonder it frightened her.’

‘Yes, sir. Funny what these types come up with in the name of religion, isn’t it? It was all love thy neighbour when I was at Sunday school.’ Ash gave a wry smile.

Harper took out the first letter from his drawer and compared them.

‘The same handwriting. Twice means he’s more than a crank. We’re going to follow up on this and make sure nothing happens to her.’ He thought about Annabelle. ‘To any of the women. Where’s Fowler?’

‘I sent him off to talk to the others, to see if they’d had anything like this.’

‘Odds are that they have. That “we” in there makes me wonder, too.’

‘I noticed that, sir.’ Ash pursed his lips. ‘If I had to guess, thought, I’d say it’s a man on his own.’

‘I agree. Still…’

‘Better safe than sorry, sir.’

‘Exactly.’ He wondered why his wife had destroyed the letter. Not to keep it away from Mary; she could manage that by hiding it in a drawer or on the mantelpiece. Had it terrified her? She was so strong that it seemed hard to believe. But this election campaign was already putting a strain on her and it had hardly begun. ‘No signature again. Handy, isn’t it? He can just pop it in the post, then sit back and stay anonymous behind the paper.’

‘Any ideas for catching him, sir?’

‘No,’ Harper said with a sigh. ‘We’ll just stay on our guard.’

‘How was your dinner last night, by the way, sir?’ The inspector smiled slyly. ‘Big do, from all I hear.’

‘Big?’ Harper asked. ‘Pointless, more like. Tasteless food that was barely warm by the time it reached the table, followed by an hour of mumbled speeches.’

‘The perks of rank, eh, sir?’ Ash’s eyes twinkled with amusement.

‘You’d better be careful, or I’ll start sending you in my place.’

‘My Nancy would probably enjoy that.’ He grinned, slapped his hands down on his knees and stood. ‘I’ll go out and ask a few questions. Who knows, maybe we’ll be lucky and our gentleman writer isn’t as discreet as he should be.’

‘If you really believe that, I’ll look out of the window for a herd of pigs flying over the market,’ Harper told him.

‘Stranger things have probably happened, sir.’

‘Not in Leeds, they haven’t.’

 

‘Was your letter like this?’ he asked. Mary was tucked up in bed, exhausted by a day of school and an evening of telling them every scrap of learning that had gone into her head since morning. Harper was weary from concentrating, trying to make out all the words with his poor hearing.

Annabelle read it. ‘Word for word,’ she said, quickly folded it and handed it back to him.

‘Ash and Fowler are after him.’

‘Doesn’t help if you don’t know who you’re chasing,’ she said. They were in the bedroom. He sat by the dressing table while she counted election leaflets into rough bundles, ready to be delivered tomorrow. She raised her head. ‘I’m not a fool, Tom. There’s not enough in that for you to find him.’

‘We can ask around. And I’ll make sure there’s a copper at the meetings.’

Annabelle stopped her work and stared at him. ‘Would you do that for the men?’

‘Yes,’ he told her. ‘If I believed things could get rowdy,’

‘Don’t you think it’s wrong that women should need special protection? We’re in England, for God’s sake.’

‘Of course it’s wrong. But when there are men like this poison pen writer, it’s better than something bad happening.’ He let the idea hang in the air. ‘To any of you.’

Her stare gradually softened to a curling, twinkling smile.

‘Well, if you really want to look after me, Superintendent, perhaps you could offer me some very close guarding of my body.’

He grinned and bowed. ‘My pleasure, madam.’

 

‘They all received identical letters,’ Fowler said. He pushed the glasses back up his nose and produced the papers from his pocket. ‘Three had burned them. But it’s the same wording and the same handwriting as Mrs. Bolland’s.’

‘And the one my wife received,’ Harper confirmed. ‘What do you two have on your plates are the moment?’ he asked Ash.

‘Next to nothing, sir. We’ve been too successful, that’s the problem.’ He smiled. ‘They’re all too scared to commit crimes these days.’

‘Better not get over-confident,’ the superintendent warned. ‘We might be up to our ears tomorrow. While you have the chance, spend some time with this. Do you have a list of where and when these women are holding meetings?’

‘I do,’ Fowler said. ‘There are four tonight.’

‘Make sure there’s a uniform at every one of them. And I want him very visible.’

That should deter any trouble, he thought. If it didn’t, the weeks until the election were going to be difficult.

‘Mr. Ash and I have been talking, sir,’ the sergeant began. ‘We thought perhaps we could each go to a meeting. You know, stay quiet and keep an eye out for anything suspicious.’

‘A very good idea. Not my wife’s, though,’ he added. ‘I’ll take care of that.’

 

He’d grown used to the routine of running a division, of being responsible for everything from men on the beat to the number of pencils in the store cupboard. But it still chafed. So much of the work was empty details and routine; a competent clerk could have managed it in a couple of hours.

Meetings were the worst times; every month, all the division heads with the chief constable. So far they’d never managed to resolve a single thing. Then there was the annual questioning by the Watch Committee, the council members who oversaw the force. Several of them had no love for him, but he’d managed to fox them. The crime figures kept falling, and he stayed well within his budget. He hadn’t walked away with their praise, but he’d been pleased to see that his success galled them.

Small, worthless victories. Had he really been reduced to that? Sometimes two or three days passed with him barely leaving Millgarth. It felt as if an age had gone by since he’d been a real detective. It was one reason he was looking forward to tonight. Standing at the back of the hall, watching the faces and the bodies, thinking, alert for any danger. At least he could feel like he was doing some real work. That made him smile.

 

One the stroke of five, Harper pulled on his mackintosh and hat and glanced out of the window. Blue skies, a few high clouds, and a lemon sun; a perfect autumn afternoon. Saturday, and a little time away from this place. Not free, though: he’d spend it walking round Sheepscar, delivering leaflets for Annabelle’s campaign.

Ash was at his desk in the detectives’ office, writing up a report.

‘Did you find anything?’

‘Not a dicky bird, sir.’ He sighed and scratched his chin. ‘You weren’t banking on it, were you?’

‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘If there’s anything tonight, make sure you let me know.’

‘I will, sir. Let’s hope it’s peaceful, eh?’

It was warm enough to walk back out to the Victoria. Even if the air was filled with all the soot and smoke of industry, so strong he could taste it on his tongue, it still felt good to breathe deep after a day in a stuffy office.

 

‘Do you think I look all right, Tom?’ Annabelle stood in front of the mirror. She was wearing a plain dress of dark blue wool. It was cut high, at the base of her throat, modest and serious. Her hair was up in some style he couldn’t name but had probably taken an hour to engineer so it looked nonchalant.

‘I think you look grand,’ he told her. ‘Like a member of the Poor Law Board.’ He nudged Mary, who was sitting on his lap, staring in awe at her mother.

‘Da’s right. You’re a bobby dazzler, mam,’ she said. ‘I’d vote for you if I could vote.’

‘That’ll do for me.’ Annabelle picked up her daughter and twirled in the air. ‘You’re absolutely sure?’

‘Positive,’ Harper replied. He pulled the watch from his waistcoat. ‘We’d better get going. That meeting starts in three-quarters of an hour.’ It wasn’t that far – the hall at the St. Clement’s just up Chapeltown Road– but he knew she’d want to arrive early, prepare herself, and put leaflets on all the chairs. Ellen would bring Mary shortly before the meeting started.

It was a fine evening for a stroll, still some sun and a note of warmth in the air. The factories had shut down until Monday morning, the constant hums and drones and bangs of the machinery all silenced. The chimneystacks stood like a forest, stretching off to the horizon, their dirt making its mark on every surface around Leeds.

Annabelle took his arm as they walked. He’d put on his best suit, the dove-grey one she’d had Moses Cohen tailor for him seven years before. It was still smart, but growing uncomfortably tight around the waist.

‘It’s going to be fine, isn’t it?’ she asked.

‘Of course it is.’ He glanced over at her. ‘It’s not like you to be so nervous. You usually dive right in.’

‘This is something new, that’s all. And if I fail, well, it’ll be obvious, won’t it? I’d be letting everyone down who’s helping.’ She nodded at the hall, just visible beyond the church, its low outline stark against the gasometers. ‘All of them who turn up tonight. If anyone does.’

‘You’ll be fine.’ He kissed her cheek. ‘That meeting two nights ago was packed.’ He grinned. ‘Trust me, I’m a policeman.’

‘I thought you lot were only good for telling the time.’

The words had hardly left her mouth when he heard the low roar. It grew louder, then a deep violent explosion ripped out of the ground. A column of smoke plumed up from the hall, throwing wood and roof and bricks high into the air.

‘Christ.’ They stared for a second, not knowing what to say. It was beyond words. ‘Stay here,’ he told her, then changed his mind. ‘No. Go home.’

Tom Harper was running towards the blast.