The Hanging Psalm, Part 2

When I put the opening to The Hanging Psalm on here (the previous blog entry – scroll down to read), it brought some interesting reactions.

It’s still moving ahead, and looking a bit more like a book – although that always remains to be seen. I start many more things than I complete.

But I thought I’d give you one more taste of it, as the plot and characters open out a little. So, please, tell me what you think.

 

As he left the Moot Hall, Simon curled his hands into fists and pushed them into the pockets of his trousers. Briggate was thick with carts and people. He moved between them without noticing. His head was filled with the faces from the past. The children who fainted after working for twelve hours without food or water, because the overseer wanted the most from them. The boy who lost three fingers in a machine, just standing and staring at the stumps, not able to say a word.

And finally, the day he carried a girl back to the workhouse, the bloody patch steadily growing on her skirt after two men had their pleasure with her during their dinner break. Catherine, just turned eleven the week before; that was the all he ever knew about her. She moaned in his arms, in too much pain to cry.

He was thirteen, grown big and strong and defiant. He pushed the door of the matron’s office wide, and gently lay Catherine on her desk. The woman was protesting, shouting, but he didn’t want to hear anything she had to say. Simply turned on his heel. He was never going back.

 

There was still an April chill in the air as he stood and gazed down on the river. The water moved slowly, stinking and dirty. Swirls of red and ochre and blue eddied on the surface, waste from the dyeworks. The body of a dead dog bobbed lazily up and down in the current.

Simon took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. He needed to let his thoughts ebb away. He needed to forget. To let the fire burn down to embers again.

From the corner of his eye he noticed a movement, a shadow.

‘It’s only me.’ The girl kept a wary distance, eyes on him. She was thirteen, older perhaps, maybe even younger. As invisible as any of the children who roamed the streets in Leeds. An old, patched dress that was too small for her. Stockings that were more holes than wool, battered clogs on her feet. Dirty face and hands and a grubby cap covering blonde hair. ‘The missus sent me after you. I saw you leave the Moot Hall and followed you down. You’re all dressed up today.’

Simon had worn his good suit, the short, double-breasted jacket in fine worsted with long swallowtails and tight, narrow trousers. A ruffle at the front of his shirt and a tall-crowned hat with its curled brim on his head. He’d wanted to make an impression, to show that a boy from the workhouse could be a success. But by now he probably didn’t even exist for them.

‘What does she want?’ He took a breath, tasting the soot that spewed from the factory chimneys. Slowly, he felt the anger recede.

‘Someone’s waiting to see you. Looks like a servant, I caught a glimpse before she sent me out.’ She waited a moment. ‘Are you coming?’

‘Tell her I’ll be there soon.’

He watched her move, melting into the press of people. Who noticed a child? Who noticed a girl? That was what made Jane so useful. She could follow without being seen, she could overhear a conversation without anyone realising she was close.

Simon gazed around. Grim faces everywhere. People who looked as if they were just clinging on to life. He began to walk.

 

The house stood on Swinegate, right on the curve of the street. He could hear Rosie in the kitchen, talking to the twins as she worked. She raised her head as he entered, pushing a lock of hair away from her cheek. An apron covered her muslin dress. She brought the knife down sharply on a piece of meat.

‘Jane found you?’

‘She did. Where is he?’

‘I gave him a cup of ale and left him in the front room. Arrived about half an hour ago.’

Simon nodded.

‘How was it?’ she asked.

‘Give them three lifetimes and they’d never understand. All it did was drag up the past.’

She gave him a tender smile.

‘It’ll fade again. It always does, Simon.’

‘I suppose it will.’ She was right; it always had before. His sons peered at him around the corner of the table, two identical heads. He stuck out his tongue and they began to laugh. They were the best medicine he knew.

 

The smile vanished as he opened the door and walked into the front room. The man in the chair jerked his head up at the sound as if he’d been sleeping.

‘I’m Simon Westow. You wanted to see me?’

‘My master does.’

Jane was right. He was a servant. But a trusted one, if they were sending him here. Older, with sparse grey hair and a grave, formal manner to match his dark clothes.

People didn’t seek Simon out. They placed a notice in the Mercury or Intelligencer for their stolen property. He found it, returned it, and gave them the name of the thief. In exchange, he received the reward. If they chose to prosecute, they could take their chances in court.

That was how a thief taker worked. No one came here for his services.

‘Who’s your master?’

‘He’d rather not be identified yet.’ The man gave a forbidding smile. ‘But he’d like to meet you today.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s a delicate matter. He’d prefer to tell you himself.’ The man reached into his waistcoat pocket with two long fingers and drew out a sovereign. ‘He believed this might convince you.’

The gold felt heavy in his palm. Solid. Real.

‘Where and when?’

‘Three o’clock. Do you know Drony Laith?’

‘Yes.’ Out beyond Gott’s big mill at Bean Ing. Just woods and fields, where the town ended and the countryside began.

The man stood and gave a small bow.

‘What would you have done if I’d refused?’ Simon asked.

‘My master gave me a second sovereign. He’ll see you at three.’

 

He tossed the coin. It skittered across the kitchen table. Rosie’s had moved swiftly and it vanished, disappearing into the pocket of her skirt.

‘Handsome money,’ she said. ‘What’s it for?’

‘I’ll find out this afternoon.’ He poured a mug of ale and drained half of it in a gulp. She kneaded the bread dough, fingers spread as she pushed it down. She’d given the boys a small scrap; they sat, stretching it between them until it snapped, then starting over again.

This was where he felt complete. This was home.

Rosie began to shape the loaves, concentrating on her work. She’d blossomed, he thought, so different from the girl he’d seen sitting at the side of the road twelve years before, staring helplessly at a mile marker.

‘Can you help me, mister?’ she’d asked. ‘Does it say which way to London? I can’t read it.’

He’d told her, but she didn’t start walking. Instead, he sat next to her and they began to talk. She was still here. Now, though, she knew her letters and her numbers. He’d taught her, the same way he’d taught himself after he left the workhouse. And she learned quickly. His pupil, after a while his lover, and finally his wife.

‘Do you have any idea who sent him?’ Deftly, she slid the loaves into the oven.

‘Not yet. Has Jane come back?’

‘I heard her go upstairs.’

 

He knocked quietly, waiting for her reply. The attic was almost bare, just a bed, a basin and jug on a small table, and a haze of ragged curtain covering the window.

She’d been here for two years, yet there was nothing of her in the room. As soon as she walked out, it was empty. But he understood. Own nothing you couldn’t carry. A portable life, always ready to move, to run. Until he met Rosie, he’d been exactly the same.

‘I saw him leave.’

‘Go out to Drony Laith,’ Simon said. ‘I’m meeting his master there at three.’

He didn’t need to tell her to keep out of sight. It was habit for her; she’d learned it on the streets. Don’t let anyone see you steal. Keep clear of authority. Get caught and you’d be in chains, waiting for Botany Bay or the noose.

‘I know his face. He works for John Milner.’

Interesting. Milner had property all over Leeds, and investments in two of the manufactories that had gone up since Napoleon’s defeat. They’d never spoken, but Simon seen him in town, a sour prig of a man with a miserly face.

But what property had he lost that needed to remain such a secret?

‘Let me know if anyone goes along with him or if anyone’s following.’

The girl nodded.

‘Dinner will be ready soon.’

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The Hanging Psalm

Leafing through a book a few days ago, I landed on the phrase ‘the hanging psalm’; it’s Psalm 51, intoned as a convict stood at the foot of the gallows, waiting to have the noose placed around his neck.

More than that, it was a wonderful title for a book.

And suddenly I had a story. How far it will go remains to be seen (of course). But for the moment, it’s roaring like a train. This is the beginning. I didn’t make up these facts. They’re from testimony to a commission, and they’re far more brutal than anything from my imagination.

What do you think?

Leeds, 1820

 

They were grave men. Sober men, neat in their black coats, white stocks snowy at the neck. Important people, businessmen, landowners who believed that wealth and position meant they knew about life. Three of them together at the polished table, papers arranged in piles before them. The one in the middle spoke.

‘Your name is Simon Wilson. Is that correct?’

He waited for a moment before he answered. Let them look at me. Let them see me.

‘That’s right.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Thirty in July. If I was told the truth.’ He wasn’t about to call them sir. If they wanted his respect, let them bloody earn it.

‘You were in the workhouse, I believe?’ The man kept his voice even, reading from the sheet in front of him.

‘Went when I was four, after my mam and dad died.’ He could hear the scratch of a pen as the clerk in the corner took down his answers.

‘How did they treat you? When did they put you out to work?’

‘Are you really sure you want to know that?’

It made them stop. Just for a second. But he had their attention. The man behind the desk smiled.

‘That’s why we’re here. Our aim is to find out about child labour.’ A slight pause. ‘But you must know that. It was made perfectly clear to you.’

Oh yes, he thought. Perfectly.

‘They set us on at the mill when we were six, and let the manufactories do their worst.’

‘And what might their worst be? How often were you beaten?’

‘Regularly,’ Simon said. ‘Boys and girls alike.’

The man looked down and shuffled a few of his papers.

‘More than once the overseer made us take off our shirt, climb into one of the bins on the floor, and he’d hit us with his stick until we were bloody.’ He let his words remain calm as the images raced through his mind. The facts could speak loudly enough.

‘What else?’

‘They’d tie a two-stone weight to our backs and make us work. Two of them for the bigger lads.’

‘I see.’ They looked a little uncomfortable now, all three of them shifting on their seats. Good.

‘There was one boy who could never work fast enough. He tried hard, but he couldn’t manage it. Every week the overseer hung him from a beam by his wrists and beaten with a strap on his back to try and teach him a lesson.’

‘Did he improve?’

‘He died. He was seven years old.’

‘I see.’ The men were staring now. The clerk had stopped his writing. The only sound in the room was the soft tick of the clock. But he hadn’t finished yet.

‘Once they took a vise, a pair of them, and screwed one to each of my ears. Then they had me work half the day with them in place.’

‘Why would they do that?’

‘For their own amusement. I still have the scars.’

But they wouldn’t want to see, he knew that. He’d leave this room and they’d try to forget everything he told them. Maybe it would come back in their dreams tonight. Every night. Exactly the way it had for him.

‘Don’t you want to know where it happened?’ Wilson asked.

‘That’s not part of this inquiry. We’re here to discover, not blame people for things that happened in the past.’ His voice changed, becoming gentler, trying to appease. ‘How long did you work there?’

‘Until I was thirteen. Seven years.’

‘Thank you, Mr. Wilson.’

He stood, back straight, and walked to the door. A final question stopped him.

‘What is your occupation now?’

He turned to stare at them. ‘I’m a thief taker.’

1820

 

A Holiday, A Holiday

A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year…

If you know the traditional song, you’ll know that poor Matty Groves met a bad end because of the holiday.

My first (and only) holiday this year was far less bloody, a weekend in rural Suffolk as a participant in Mekonville, the celebration of 40 years of the Mekons, probably my favourite band in the world, one I’ve interviewed and seen many times, and one that started in Leeds.

For me, it was a huge honour and joy to be invited to appear, both with my own set about my books and as part of What Happened At Leeds, about the Leeds Convention of 1917 – Google it, it’s fascinating. Plus, of course, a chance to see the Mekons, both the current band and the 1977 version.

And a chance to stay in a wonderful B&B, an old Victorian rectory set in 10 acres, with its own lake, including a pair of black swans, peacocks, guinea fowl, hens, and sheep. We had some time to explore, walk a little, see old churches. The days were warm and sunny. Until late afternoon – which happened to include my set, which contributed to only a few souls braving the rain to see me. But just being there was enough, to feel part of a family, a community, and see plenty of friends, some of whom I hadn’t had chance to meet in years. A little bit of Leeds in Suffolk.

 

But the holiday is over now. Back to work. And early next month, The Year of the Gun will be published. It’s the second outing for Lottie Armstrong, set 20 years after Modern Crimes. The big news is that I’ll be doing a blog tour to promote it, thanks to a friend of mine. There will be a book giveaway, so if you want a free copy, it’ll be worth keeping track and entering. Also some special blog posts and more.

Here are the details.

Lottie2ad2

 

And to round out your day, a blast of the Mekons.

May You Live In Interesting Times

There appear to be some mighty things afoot. Autumn is going to be very busy. Three – yes, three! – books coming out, although the real highlight is going to be Free From All Danger, the first Richard Nottingham novel in over four years. The proofs have been completed and it’s with the printer, due out in October.

Richard and his family have always had a place deep in my heart, so it’s only right that the book launch should be a celebration. It’s going to be at the Leeds Library on Commercial Street on Thursday, November 9, at 7 pm (free, of course, but please contact them and book a place). It’s going to be an event, with a script and a specially-composed soundtrack by Chris Emmerson. There may also be some live music.

To start the ball rolling, here’s the first trailer for the book

May 2018 will see the publication of The Tin God, the sixth Tom Harper novel. My publisher said this about it: “…this latest entry continues the ongoing series themes of social change and progress, tradition vs modernisation, female emancipation, the grinding poverty and social injustice of the times, to superb effect, highlighting all too vividly the tensions caused by such rapid social change: what is highly welcome for some being anathema to others.  (Such tensions being all too evident in politics today).

 

Once again, devoted family man Tom Harper and his spirited wife Annabelle, battling passionately for the causes she believes in as an early pioneer on the long march towards women’s equality, make for thoroughly likeable lead protagonists, and the plot skips along at an impressive pace, conjuring up a compelling sense of rising tension as the election approaches.”

 

The launch event for this one will be a little different; it will be folded into an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote at Leeds Central Library (2018, of course, marks the centenary of some women receiving the vote, although the exhibition highlights that many could vote in local elections before that. It will be curated by independent academic Vine Pemberton Joss, whose suggestion sparked the book.

 

Lastly, it looks as if Dan Markham from Dark Briggate Blues will star in a play. And a play with live jazz, at that. Nothing’s set in stone, but it seems likely to happen at Leeds Jazz Fest next July, and will mostly be a celebration of Studio 20, Leeds’ pioneering jazz club ibn the 1950s. No title yet, but the next 12 months promise to be very exciting.

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.