Something Secret And New

The next Simon Westow novel, To The Dark, was due to come out in the UK at the end of September. Unsurprisingly, that’s now been pushed back to the end of December. Publishing is in a state of upheaval at the moment. The fact that it’s still on the schedule at all seems like a miracle.

However, while it lies in limbo, I can treat you to the opening of the book, as a thank you for buying The Molten City, or signing up for the Severn House newsletter, which lets you get the ebook of it free of charge until the end of April.

And as a special bonus, as part of the First in a Series promotion, Gods of Gold is available everywhere as an ebook for 99p/99c until the end of May. Not bad, huh?

But now, I’m going to whet your appetite for a few months in the future…not even available to pre-order yet. You’re the first to see it – shhh!

Leeds, November 1822

 

She sensed him there, behind her in the fog. Jane reached into the pocket of her skirt and took hold of the knife.

From Briggate to Wood Street, then all the turnings and twists through to Vicar Lane, he followed. Growing bolder and closer all the time.

She smiled. Good.

She could run; she knew that. Run so he wouldn’t be able to follow. The urge for safety filled her chest, to vanish through the cramped courts and yards.

But she didn’t. Jane wanted him to find her. She tugged her cloak closer to her body and stopped, listening.

A small cough. No more than five yards away now. The scuff of a heel on the cobbles. Four yards. Then three.

Jane took a breath and turned.

‘Well, well, well.’ He took two paces forward. A swagger in his step once he could see her face, his voice like oil. ‘Looks like it’s just you and me out in this, don’t it?’ He pulled something from his pocket. A silver sixpenny piece. ‘See that? It’s yours if you’re a good lass.’

Jane stared at him.

‘They all like it,’ he said. ‘Talk about Big Tom for days afterwards, they do.’

The coin danced across his knuckles, twirling from one finger to the next and next, then back again. A trick to mesmerize and distract the gaze.

This was the man she’d been told about. Always the same. She watched his free arm start to move, edging towards the blade in his belt.

One flash of her knife, over before he realized. The empty tinkling of the coin as it landed on the cobbles. He stared at the hand in horror. He only had two fingers left.

‘That’s for Bessie Colbert,’ she said.

Another flick and the blood began to run down his cheek. She leaned close and turned his head, waiting until he was looking into her eyes. ‘That’s what rapists get. If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you.’

She disappeared into the fog. He began to howl.

 

 

Leeds, February 1823

 

‘No, no.’ Alderman Ferguson shook his head as he walked, pushing his walking stick down into the packed snow with each step. He started to slip and grabbed the sleeve of Simon Westow’s greatcoat to keep his balance. ‘Damned weather. I wish it would all melt.’

‘It’s already started,’ Simon said. ‘It’ll be gone soon enough.’

The thaw had begun that morning. He could hear the slow drip of water from the eaves of buildings, leaving pock marks like smallpox scars in the snow below. After two weeks of being snowed in, things were finally changing. The roads had stayed open, the coaches still travelling between towns, but there had been plenty of accidents. Simon had heard of three horses breaking legs and having to be killed; a good coach horse was valuable property. The skies hung low and grey, but the air was warming. The worst was definitely over.

In Leeds, the snow had fallen a dirty grey colour. The factory smoke and soot that filled the air tainted it before it even reached the ground. Drifts that piled against buildings had a thin black crust, and every path remained treacherous; Simon was grateful for the hobnails on the soles of his boots.

‘Maybe it is,’ Ferguson grumbled. ‘Can’t come soon enough for me.’ He pulled the top hat down on his head and tried to burrow deeper into his coat. Tight trousers emphasized his spindly old man’s legs as he walked up Briggate, away from the Moot Hall. ‘I’m ready for spring and some warmth. Aren’t you?’

‘Always,’ Simon agreed. The only crimes since the snow had begun to fall were men stealing food or fuel to feed their families. Nothing there to bring any income to a thief-taker. He was ready to be busy and earning again. Still, he was better off than most; he had money in the bank. He’d enjoyed a good start to the year.

Sir Matthew Fullbrook had asked him to recover all the items stolen from his house while the family had been away over Christmas and New Year. When they returned, most of the family silver was missing.

It took Simon three days to track down the thief, hiding among the poor and desperate in one of the courts off Kirkgate. Laurence Poole. Simon and his assistant, Jane, had cornered him in his room at the top of a tumbledown house. The only way out was through the window, jumping twenty feet or more to the flagstones, and Poole wasn’t ready to die yet.

They found everything except a single spoon that Poole had sold to keep himself alive. When Simon returned it, he’d noticed the mix of gratitude and relief on Fullbrook’s face. The set was valuable, it was worth a fortune; far more than that, it was his history. An heirloom that had been in the family for generations. Fullbrook settled the bill promptly, in full, with no quibble. He chose not to prosecute, and Poole walked free.

They crossed the Head Row, Ferguson moving cautiously. It was curious how bad weather could age people, Simon thought. Back in the autumn, the man beside him had strode out, hale and full of life. Now he was frail and old. Cautious and fearful of broken bones that might never set properly.

They parted by George Mudie’s print shop. The alderman still had to walk along North Street to his house near the Harrogate Road in Sheepscar. He’d manage, and in a few days the warmer weather would revive him. By spring he’d seem ten years younger again.

Mudie was fitting type into a block. His fingers moved deftly, eyes flickering to acknowledge Simon before returning to his task. The air was heavy with the smell of ink.

‘I want to get this set and printed today. Out on the streets first thing tomorrow. A new ballad about a coach disaster on the turnpike where a brave young man saves some of the passengers and wins the heart of a girl.’

Simon laughed. ‘And when did this tragedy happen?’

He shrugged. ‘Yesterday. Last week. Never. Who cares? It’s got death and romance. That’s what people want. Once a few of the patterers begin singing it, it should sell.’

‘A racket.’

Mudie shrugged once more. ‘Show me something in this life that isn’t. We’re all just trying to make a living.’

He finished and stood straight, pressing his hands into the small of his back, then pushed a pair of spectacles up his nose.

‘What brings you here, Simon? Boredom?’

‘Waiting for the snow to melt. As soon as that happens, we’ll have more crime.’ He smiled. ‘After all, we’re all just trying to make a living.’

Mudie snorted. ‘Some enjoy a better one than others.’

It was true enough. Being a thief-taker could pay well, better than he’d ever imagined when he began. But in those days he knew nothing. He was still a youth, barely older than the boy who’d walked out of the workhouse at thirteen to find his own life. All he had was his size and a quick brain. They’d both served him well over the years, the foundation of everything he did. In the early days, he and his wife Rosie had worked together. Then she had their twin boys, Richard and Amos, and stopped taking risks. Most of the time.

Now he had Jane to help. When she first came to him she’d been a feral girl, living on the streets. Someone who possessed the rare gift to follow without being seen, who could vanish in plain sight. But she was a girl who kept the world at a distance. She built walls around her thoughts and cut herself off. For two years she’d lived with him and Rosie, sharing their meals and sleeping in their attic, but they’d still hardly known her. Since the autumn she’d made her home with an old woman, Catherine Shields, and for the first time, she seemed content.

George was right. He was bored. Two weeks without a stroke of work had left him restless and searching for ways to fill his days. He’d walked around town. He’d taken his sons out sledging in Holbeck and Beeston. Snowball fights on the little scraps of tenter ground that remained as the new factories ate up the land. But they had their tutor each morning.

Simon read the Mercury and the Intelligencer eagerly, hoping someone had put in an advertisement offering a reward for the return of lost goods. But there was nothing, and he was cast back on his own devices. He didn’t read books, he didn’t play chess or backgammon. He had nothing but work and his family to fill his life. Twice this week Rosie had chased him out of the kitchen for disturbing her while she was busy.

‘You’re pacing,’ Mudie told him. ‘And you’re bothering me.’

It was easier to leave. As Simon strolled back down Briggate, he jammed his hands deep in the pockets of his greatcoat and stared at the faces he passed. Some hopeful, most downcast, intent on simply surviving. A man coughed deep and spat to clear his lungs. The air was foul. It had been for years, ever since the factories started spewing their smoke. But the factories made money and plenty of it, at least for a few. For many of the others they meant jobs, the cash each week to keep body and soul together. And every week more and more people arrived in Leeds to seek work. It was as if they truly believed the streets were paved with gold.

But the only things the cobbles here held was a struggle.

‘People are going over to Flay Cross Mill.’

He hadn’t seen Jane arrive. But there she was, at his side, matching his pace as he walked. Since winter began she’d taken to wearing an old cloak of faded green wool. With the hood pulled up, no one ever noticed her.

‘What’s going on there?’

‘I don’t know.’

Something, Simon thought. It had to be something. And that was better than nothing.

The mill stood down by the bend in the river, out on Cynder Island. It had been there for generations, maybe even centuries, with its hammers for pounding and fulling good Leeds cloth. No one knew how it had come by the name, but the building had been empty and gradually sinking into ruin for a long time. The wooden scoops of the water wheel that powered it had rotted away to nothing. Beyond the shell of the mill the river lapped against the shore, cold and dark.

A crowd had gathered, twenty or thirty people. The usual gaggle of boys and girls, hoping for something gruesome, and men and women with nothing else to fill their days. Simon pushed his way to the front, squeezing into the gaps between people. Jane stayed close to the back, listening for gossip and news.

The best he could make out, melting snow had revealed the body. He could see a pair of trousers and some leather boots. The rest was still covered. Simon held his breath as the coroner brushed slush away from the corpse’s face.

For a moment, Simon couldn’t believe what was in front of him. He knew this man with his pale skin and serene expression. He’d last seen him a few weeks ago, not long before the snow arrived. Laurence Poole hadn’t been so peaceful then. He’d begged and tried to fight to hold on to his loot from the Fullbrook robbery. By the time Simon left, the man was close to tears of desperation.

 

Apologies, But…

I owe you an apology. I haven’t been blogging. I’ve been lost in myself, probably just like everyone else. Spending time at my allotment, enjoying simply being in the moment there and not having to think about how awful everything is right now.

Next week I’ll do a little short fiction (I’m actually working on a new Tom Harper, so it’s not all laziness, okay?)

Meanwhile, I’m so happy that this appeared in the Yorkshire Post today. It made my week.

The ebook comes out May 1. But if you go to the Severn House website and sign up for their newsletter, you can get it free. You do have to sign up for NetGalley, which is a little bit of a faff. But worth it, I promise!

YP 2020

The Molten City Is Free – For Now

I know it’s very difficult for people to get hold of The Molten City at the moment. The big online retailers show it as temporarily out of stock – they have no new books, because their distributors have closed for the moment. Many smaller book shops are closed, one still doing mail order are dependent upon their distributors remaining open. It’s difficult. I’d recomment Fox Lane Books (foxlanebooks), which has the book, or Big Green Books (@biggreenbooks) or West End Lane Books (@welbooks) in London.

However, you can read it as an book now, for free, no matter where in the world you live. It’s due to come out that way on May 1, but get a jump and pay nothing. All perfectly legal, too. Simply sign up for their newsletter and you’ll be able to download it. A great deal, because they publish plenty of excellent authors.

All you have to do is go here. It’s only for a limited time, so I hope you’ll take advantage.

The only favour I’d ask is that you please leave a review somewhere. They honestly do help.

Thank you, and please, I hope you all stay well.

Molten City

Richard Nottingham: The Lost Girl

When the world fell apart I was working on the fourth Simon Westow book (the third is ready, out in six months). But those books run on anger, and it’s hard to feel that right now. Somehow, Richard Nottingham seems to make more sense in this world.

The Molten City is just out in the UK, and I’d love for you to buy it – Fox Lane Books (kirstie@foxlanebooks.co.uk) can obtain copies easily. But in the meantime, spend a little while with Richard.

10 years

 

Leeds, October, 1740

 

Today was a good day.

He’d woken and for once his knees didn’t hurt too sharply, he could walk comfortably without relying on a stick for his balance. It was a morning of spun softness; the sun was shining, he could feel the fleeting kiss of late autumn warmth on his face, and the falling leaves made lush patterns of reds and golds and greens on the ground.

Richard Nottingham stood by Timble Bridge, listening to the quiet music of Sheepscar Beck as it trickled over the rocks. For once he felt at peace with the world, at home in this bag of bones and flesh that was his body.

A deep breath and he marched on into Leeds. At the Parish Church made his way towards two graves. Places he visited almost every day, where his daughter and his wife lay. A chance to bow his head, to talk to them. A few words for Rosie, far more for Mary. Each morning when he woke, he still hoped to find her next to him, no matter that she was seven years gone.

Finally he turned away and found himself staring at a girl who had a round, frightened face and large eyes.

‘Well,’ he asked kindly, ‘who are you?’ He started to reach into the pocket of his breeches for a coin; these days more children were begging on the streets than ever before.

But he stopped; this one didn’t have that look. The clothes weren’t rags. Her face had smidges of dirt, but she was mostly clean. Her dress was made of good calico, with no rips or tears. Her stockings were coarse wool, yet they were whole and the shoes fitted her feet.

‘Someone said you were the constable, sir.’

He smiled. ‘I was, but that was a long time ago. Now, why would you need the constable?’

Nottingham could see where tears had made their tracks down the her cheeks. For a moment he felt the pain well up in the girl, then she forced it down again and made herself speak.

‘It’s my mother, sir. I can find her anywhere.’

‘What do you mean?’ He felt a stir, a sense of something awful.

‘I went to play yesterday and when I got home, nobody was there. I asked but no one knows where she is.’

A bonny girl. Seven, maybe eight years old. The look of someone who’d been cushioned from the very worst of life and never had the scramble of surviving on the streets. He straightened up and looked at her.

‘Why don’t we go and find out, eh?’

‘Can you help me find her?’

He held his tongue. Nottingham wanted to promise an answer, but he knew it was better to wait and discover the truth. Without thinking, the girl reached for his hand. He squeezed it lightly. Some assurance. The contact of another person. They were probably what she needed most just now.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

‘Sally,’ she told him. ‘Sally Virginia Arthur. What’s yours?’

‘Richard Nottingham,’ he replied. ‘Where did you spend last night?’

‘In my home. I kept thinking my mother would come back and everything would be all right’ Her voice faltered, fumbling and lost. ‘But she never did, so I came out to look again as soon as it was light.’

She was turning her head, peering at every face she saw, filled with the hope of spotting her mother.

The house was tucked at the very back of Turk’s Head Yard. The door opened under his touch. As soon as he entered he could feel the emptiness. The chill where no fire has been set that morning. A husk of silence covered the place.

The kitchen was clean. Nottingham ran his hand across the table; only a thin film of dust. The girl hadn’t lied. This time yesterday, people had lived here.

One room upstairs. A larger bed, and a small one for the girl. A woman’s dress hung from a nail, plain brown homespun. A clean apron. Stockings folded on a chair. She hadn’t run off.

‘Why don’t you tell me about your mother,’ Nottingham said. Anything to keep Sally’s mind busy. ‘And your pa.’

There was no father, none that the girl could remember. Only men who stayed a few nights then left again, but not many of those she could recall.

‘What’s your mother’s name?’

‘Hannah Elizabeth Arthur.’ She said it with pride, then looked around and the tears begin, as if the words had invoked a sense of finality. Nottingham put his arms around her and stroked her hair. He waited, letting it all flow out of her, until she was gulping for air and sniffling and rubbing at her eyes. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and put it in her tiny hands.

‘What does your mother do?’

She needed money to rent a house like this. It was a good court, artisans lived here, a large step up from the single room that was home to so many families. The clothes weren’t expensive or new, but they weren’t falling apart, either. There was food in the kitchen. Hannah Arthur was surviving well.

‘I don’t know.’ Her face was serious. ‘But she always spent a lot of time in the cellar. People would arrive and they’d go down there. She wouldn’t let me go down with them, and she kept the door locked.’

Curious. More than enough to leave him wondering.

‘Shall we go and take a look? You and me, together?’

Sally nodded and stayed close, as if she was terrified he might disappear in the same way as her mother. A simple lock in the cellar door, easy to pick with the tip of his knife. A candle and tinder at the top of the stairs. Nottingham waited until the flame took hold, bright and wide.

‘Be careful,’ he warned her. ‘Hold on to my coat as we go down.’

Nottingham kept one hand against the wall to steady himself and made sure of each step beneath his boots. This was no place to take a tumble. He held the candle high, letting the light pool, feeling the relief as his feet touched the hard earth of the cellar floor.

A bench with eight tall candles. A single chair. Strange enough. And tools of some kind. He moved closer, Sally’s hands keeping a firm grip on his coat. One short look was all he needed. Now he understood why the woman had money. And with the knowledge, his fear for her grew.

‘I think we should go and tell the constable about your mother, don’t you?’ He tried to keep his voice bright, not to scare her. ‘He might be able to find her.’ Hesitantly, she nodded her agreement, still staring at the table. However much she looked, Sally would know never know what her mother did.

‘He’s a good man,’ Nottingham continued. ‘I trust him. He’s married to my daughter.’

 

The coloured cloth sales were done for the morning, men grumbling and complaining as they noisily dismantled the trestles. Farther up Briggate, the Tuesday market vendors shouted their wares: fruit, butter, a chicken for your dinner to please your man, missus. With Sally holding tight to his hand and still examining every face, he crossed to Kirkgate and passed the White Swan, loud and hearty with the smell of hot meat and beer as weavers spent some of the profits from their sales. Nottingham ducked inside and bought a small pie.

The jail stood next door. Everything about it was so familiar: the way the door stuck as he pushed it open.  Inside, it was comforting, musty, the warmth from the iron stove spreading around the room. The young man sitting on the other side of the desk raised his eyebrows as he saw the girl.

‘This is Mr Lister,’ Nottingham told her. ‘He’s the Constable of Leeds. And this is Sally Arthur.’ He handed her the pie. ‘You sit down and eat this; you must be hungry by now. I’ll tell him about your mother. We’ll be just down there.’ He pointed towards the cells. Hois voice softened. ‘Not far, I promise.’

‘Boss…’ Lister began once they were alone. Nottingham had been in charge once, Rob a constable’s man at first and then the deputy. The old habit wouldn’t die.

With a finger to his lips, Nottingham spoke in a rushed whisper, explaining what had happened.

‘The mother’s a coin clipper,’ he said. ‘She has small, sharp shears and metal files in the cellar, and there’s a pot and small brazier for melting the silver.’

It was a hanging offence, the same as counterfeiting. Yet it was so easy. The clipper removed small pieces of silver coins with the shears and filed the edge smooth; once there was enough, melt them down. Work with enough people and it was a business that could turn a handsome profit.

‘Maybe…’ Lister began, but Nottingham shook his head.

‘It’s definite. She was making enough to live reasonably, and the girl said she didn’t have any other job.’

‘I’ll go and take a proper look at the house.’

‘Somewhere, you’re going to find her dead.’ His voice was filled with the sorrow of inevitability. ‘I can feel it.’

2

Lucy raised her eyebrows when he walked into the house on Marsh Lane with the girl holding tight to his hand. On the walk out here she’d searched fiercely around, hoping to find her mother somewhere in the crowds. Her free hand clutched a shawl around her shoulders.

‘This is Sally,’ Nottingham said. ‘She’ll be staying here for a little while.’

‘Only until you find my mother.’

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘After that you’ll be going home again.’

‘Let’s have a look at you,’ Lucy said. ‘You could use a good wash, that’s a fact, and I daresay you’d like something sweet. I just baked a cake yesterday.’

She took charge, the way she’d done with everything in the house since she first arrived. Lucy was part of the fabric of the building now, a stout, warm presence who took care of the family. Through the window he could see his granddaughter Mary in the garden. She was four now, another stray who’d found a home here. She’d arrived when she was no more than a baby, left outside St. John’s Church; she’d never known anywhere besides here. Now she stood with the tiny spade he’d paid the blacksmith for forge for her, tongue poking from her lips in concentration as she tried to dig a big hole in the ground; God only knew the reason, but it was occupying her. There had been one more lass for a while, but Annie had gone to live with Mrs Williamson as her servant.

‘I don’t know what Emily will say when she comes back,’ Lucy told him.

He grinned. ‘She’ll probably take one look and wonder how much learning she can put into her.’ His daughter ran a dame school for poor children. Those families who could, paid a little. For the others, it was free. But the education never lasted long and it never could never go deep; too many needed to work as soon as they were old enough. He lowered his voice. ‘Be gentle with her. I think she’s going to need plenty of kindness.’

 

Rob Lister picked up the tools, the files and the shears. The pot was empty; maybe that meant something, maybe not. A small hand broom lay on the floor. He held it up and ran his finger along the bristles, watching one or two tiny particles of silver sparkle like dust motes as they fell. Everything was scrupulously clean, table and floor.

He’d found no sign of a struggle. He heard his deputy, Tommy Warner, clumping around as he searched the bedroom. The man was loud, with a face full of scars he’d never bothered to explain. But his mind was agile, he was loyal and honest, and his eyes picked up the smallest clue.

‘Anything?’ he called.

‘Not a damned thing. All her life is still here.’

Lister tensed and reach for his knife as the door opened. But it wasonly Richard Nottingham.

‘One of your men is looking for you. There’s a body.’ He stopped, took a slow breath and frowned. ‘A woman, he said. Over by the mill garth at Quarry Hill.’

‘Do you want to come with us?’ Rob asked.

‘Yes,’ he replied, not even thinking, then paused and added, ‘If you don’t mind.’ Four years had passed since he’d done any work like this. He’d felt no sadness when he finally left it behind. Instead, he relished a life that was his own, mingling solitude and family, a chance to walk and leave the world out of his thoughts. There, in his mind, he could travel the roads of the past, a green summer country where his wife and older daughter were still alive.

(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Nottingham stood and exhaled slowly as he looked down at the corpse. It was Hannah Arthur. Young Sally was the image of her, the same round cheeks and bushy fair hair. He turned away, not wanting to see the terror fixed on her face or the stab wound that had killed her.

‘I’m going to need to talk to the girl,’ Rob told him.

Of course. He needed all the information he could find. ‘She’s at the house.’

Lister issued his instructions, then the two of them set off together. No words, just uninterrupted sorrow and loss.

 

He sat by Sally, his arm around her shoulders for comfort, listening as Rob asked his questions. Was this how he’d been when he was constable? Relentless, burning with the need to know, to discover all the answers, whatever the coat?

‘Sir,’ she said when he’d finished, ‘What about my mother? Do you know when she’ll be back?’

The two men glanced at each other.

‘Sally…’ Nottingham began, and she turned her head to look up at him. Hopeful, wide brown eyes begged him for something good. But she deserved honesty, however much it hurt. ‘I’m sorry.’

Before he could say more, she broke away from him, wailing as she ran off into the kitchen.

‘Lucy will look after her.’

‘I had to do it, boss.’

He nodded. ‘I know. Maybe Warner and the others have come up with a name or two.’

‘She didn’t have any idea what her mother was doing,’ Lister said. ‘That was obvious.’

The poor child. Eight years old and her life had come unmoored. Suddenly alone, completely lost. She wasn’t the first, she wouldn’t be the last. He’d been that age when…no, no matter, that was in another time.

Rob could look after the crime; finding the killer was his job. Nottingham needed to discover if Sally had any relatives who could take her in. An aunt, perhaps, or an uncle.

The girl had thrown her arms around Lucy, as if she could stop her from being swept away. Sally’s head was buried in the woman’s apron as she cried. Lucy whispered and stroked the girl’s hair. She shook her head at Nottingham and waved him away, never pausing in her words.

There were a few useful things he could do. Go back to Turk’s Head Yard and talk to the neighbours, see if they knew of any relatives. And he could try to discover who else was clipping coins in Leeds.

Men came and went from the Arthur’s house. Some women, too. That was what the others in the yard told him. The death shocked them, scared them, too; it was always that way when murder arrived close to home for respectable folk. They’d heard no shouting or arguments. Yet while their mouths gave out condolences, their eyes said that it was no surprise. Any woman involved in crime had it coming.

None of them had really known Hannah Arthur well. She and the girl kept to themselves. No-one remembered a mention of family; it was always just two of them. An attentive mother, but, you know…

He left, discouraged. Later, when she was ready, he’d ask Sally. He’d offer her warmth and listen to her memories and grief.

By the time he walked back up Briggate, his knees were beginning to ache and he had to lean heavily on the stick. Too much walking and the day was far from over yet.

He found Tom Finer in Garroway’s coffee house. He spent most of his days here, breathing in the warm steam of the air; the dampness was kind to his lungs, he claimed. Finer was more than an old man now, his face as weathered and ancient as the grove of towering oaks that stood outside town. Each year he seemed to shrink inside the layer of heavy clothes he wore to keep himself warm.

But he knew more about crime in Leeds than anyone else. Finer listened, tilting his head to hear more clearly, asking Nottingham to repeat a word or two. Then he sat back, stroking his chin. On the table, a plate covered with breadcrumbs. Next to it, a saucer and a cup with the dark, thick remains of coffee.

‘I’ve never heard of the woman,’ Finer said eventually. Over the years his voice had developed into a deep rasp, that sounded curiously musical. ‘She can’t be anyone too important in the trade.’

‘She made a little money,’ Nottingham said.

All Finer did was shrug. ‘Hard not to do if you’re clipping coins. The big difference comes when you’re making a lot of money. You know what they say: the greater the risk, the larger the reward.’

And the risk was always there. He had no doubt that Hannah Arthur knew the penalty. But how else to support herself and her daughter?

‘Who’d murder a woman like that?’

Finer snorted, a wheezing noise more like a cough.

‘Don’t be an idiot, Richard. Plenty of people. Maybe she’d cheated someone. Perhaps one of the people bringing her coins to clip wanted more. It could be someone saw the chance of a quick profit. Or one of the people who bought the silver she melted down.’

‘It didn’t happen at home.’

Finer examined his fingernails. ‘Where was she?’

‘Quarry Hill, right on the mill garth.’

‘How?’

‘Stabbed in the back.’

‘Henry Wilson,’ Finer said. No hesitation. Then a faint smile. ‘Your son-in-law will have his name on a list.’

‘Who is he?’ Nottingham had never heard of him.

The man exhaled slowly. ‘He arrived, what, it must be three years ago now. After your last time as constable. Someone whose ambition exceeds his brain. That’s a dangerous combination. You know it as well as I do.’

Nottingham stared out of the window at the people passing on the Head Row. A cart trundled, pulled by a slow-moving, swayback old nag.

‘Is he violent?’

Finer nodded. ‘He can be, if it will get him what he wants.’

 

3

‘We’re already looking for him, boss.’

Nottingham recognized Rob’s smile. Indulgent. The man knew his job, he didn’t need help from someone whose days in the job were all behind him.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I should have guessed.’

‘Maybe you’d be better spending some time with Sally.’

A gentle nudge away from things. Let us get on with it. He understood, even if it made him feel old and irrelevant. But perhaps that was what he’d become. Keeping the law was a job for younger men.

‘You’re right,’ he agreed. Yet as he walked down Kirkgate, he could feel the tight knot of resentment in his belly. He was the one who’d taken a chance on hiring Lister in the first place. And now…

He stopped at the Parish Church, a chance to ease his legs. The day was turning brisk, the sun vanishing as deep autumn clouds rolled in and the wind tipped out of the north. By tonight the weather would turn cold, a reminder that winter was just around the corner. Time for a bigger fire in the evening and another blanket on the bed.

Nottingham paused at the graves. The carving remained still crisp on their stones, even as the years passed. He traced out the names. How long before his name appeared below his wife’s? Sometimes he wished life would rush by quickly so he could join her in the ground. Often, though, he felt peace enough simply coming to talk to her.

You’d like this girl, he said. She’s as lost as the rest of us, she seems so fragile and trusting. It might only be for a day or two; she may have relatives who’ll take her. He heard the faint echo of his wife’s response: what if there’s nobody? But they both knew the answer: Sally Arthur would become a part of the family. They were all waifs, orphans making their home together.

 

‘She’s sleeping,’ Lucy told him. ‘I gave her one of those old wives’ remedies that Hester Bailey up the road makes. Some rest is the best thing for her right now.’

The horror would still be there when she woke, but at least she’d have some time free of it.

‘Did she say much?’

‘No, poor little thing.’

Little Mary came over to him, looking up with wide, beseeching eyes. What choice did he have? Nottingham hoisted her on to his lap and listened carefully as she told him about her day. Then the front door opened and she was gone, siding down to the floor and scampering away as she called out, ‘Mama! Mama!’

‘I’ve already heard we have a guest,’ Emily said as she attended to her daughter. She shook her head as she hefted the basket of books on to the table.  ‘You know how they love their gossip. Three different people must have told me as I came home.’

They talked, picking over the supper Lucy served as darkness fell. Nottingham lit the candles and closed the shutters, piling more coal on the fire.

Emily tucked Mary into her small bed, then he told her a story. It was a ritual he’d begun when she first arrived, back when she was a tiny baby and filled with wonder at the world. He’d continued as habit and pleasure. The joy of words and weaving a world. Old Jem, the travelling storyteller, had often stayed in the house when he was still alive, and Nottingham remembered many of his tales. Where he lost the track, he discovered his own.

Once Mary’s eyes closed, he crept out of the room, pulling the door closed, and glanced in on Sally. Her head moved; she was awake, her face was streaked with tears

‘I didn’t dream all those bad things, did I?’ Her voice was tentative, the words feeling their way. He knew that a part of her didn’t want to hear the answer.

He settled on the edge of the bed, feeling his knees ache as they bent. Reaching out, he pushed a stray lock of the fair hair behind her ear.

‘No, you didn’t. I’m afraid they’re all real.’ He waited, watching her eyes in the remains of twilight beyond the window. The loss, the loneliness. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘My mother’s really dead?’

‘Yes, she is.’

The girl pushed her face into the pillow. Nothing would make the truth vanish. No wishing, no praying. But let her do what she could.

‘Do you have any family?’ he asked. A small shake of her head. ‘No uncles or aunts?’

‘No.’ Her voice was muffled, beyond hope. ‘Mama never mentioned any.’

‘Don’t you worry, you can stay here,’ Nottingham said. ‘We’ll look after you. At least you don’t need to think about that.’

He left her. When she was ready, she’d come down. But he knew he was offering a small consolation. She’d be entering a different world, a place without her mother, where everything was familiar but strange, all the signposts of the past vanished.

 

The family had gone to bed. Lucy, Emily. He’d looked in Sally once more. She was turned away from him, impossible to tell if she was asleep or awake. Sleep, he hoped; some rest and escape.

Nottingham banked the fire. He had single candle on the table beside him, its flame flickering as he read the Leeds Mercury. Even with his spectacles, the print blurred a little after half an hour.

Rob returned just as he stirred himself. Lister shed the greatcoat, poured himself a mug of ale and downed it in a long, single swallow.

‘How’s the girl?’ he asked

‘The way you’d expect,’ Nottingham replied. ‘Did you find him?’

Rob nodded. His face was drawn and grim.

‘He killed her. Admitted it before he died.’ Nottingham said nothing, simply waited for the rest. ‘I didn’t have any choice, he refused to give up.’ A sad, eloquent shrug. ‘I didn’t have any choice. But he did give us something else.’

‘What?’ He had his murderer. How could there be more than that?

‘It turns out there’s another man running it all.’ A glint in his eyes, the anticipation of what lay ahead.

‘Who?’

‘Sir Walter Carew. We’re going for him at first light. And we’re going to take him alive.’ He placed the mug back on the table and sighed. ‘Sorry, boss. It’s been a long day and I need my rest.’

He heard the boots on the stair, a soft murmur of voices, then silence. Nottingham followed, washing in the ewer and settling between cold sheets, imagining his wife beside him, the warmth of her body for comfort through every night.

Carew tomorrow. But that wasn’t his battle; Rob was right. In any fight, he’d be too slow, too awkward. The men would have to look out for him. Besides, he had enough to do right here, to help Sally find her new life.

 

There are seven Richard Nottingham books – The Broken Token, Cold Cruel Winter, The Constant Lovers, Come The Fear, At The Dying Of The Year, Fair and Tender Ladies, and Free From All Danger, as well as a short story called Convalescence (which is only available for Kindle). The Broken Token has just been reissued in paperback to celebrate 10 years since its first publication. But all are very easily avaialbe as ebooks. He, his family, his friends and enemies, all keep a special place in my heart.

9781906790844

Free For You…

These are awful times, and we all feel powerless. There’s very little I can do as a writer, but…I can read the openings of my books and post them on Yu Tube, one or two of them a week. Maybe it’ll be a couple of minutes of stress-free time for you.

Here’s the first.

 

And from tomorrow, March 22, until Thursday (the maximum they allow), the Richard Nottingham short story Convalescene is free to download from Amazon. Find it here.

I know it’s not much, but perhaps I can take your mind of the world for a short time.

4 Things: 3 Great, 1 Incredible

Well, it’s certainly been quite a week. Not just one thing, but four, and all wonderful.

First of all, yesterday these arrived. Yes, The Molten City is in the wild, although it’s not officially published in the UK until the end of the month. But people who’ve ordered from online retailers – not just that one – have received their copies. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve published (this is my 28th in total, the 22nd novel set in Leeds) it remains a thrill to open that package.

Molten books

But so many things can be a thrill, even a simple piece of paper. Last week I went to Abbey House Museum at Kirkstall Abbey and to go hold this. It’s a bill, on letterhead, to the estate of a client for work done the year before, then signed on receipt of payment. It’s for £2, 5 shilling and sixpence. Doesn’t seem like much, but it’s about £275 in today’s money.

What makes it special? It was sent by my great-great-great uncle, George Nickson. In 1858. He’s reached across 162 years. What truly floored me was his signature. The way he signed Nickson was almost exactly the same as my father.

George Nickson 1858

Another piece of family history shook loose, too. In a newspaper archive, I discovered that my grandfather, then in his fifties, was arrested during World War II for stealing 99lbs of cloth from the mill where he was the assistant manager – and on a good salary, too. I have yet to track down the verdict of the trial. It was a time when clothing and material was rationed. However, my half-sister recalled that he had asked her aunt, who wasn’t a direct relation) to hide a bolt of cloth for him. When he came back for it, he gave her enough to make two suits and several skirts. So he got away with it at least once.

Harold Arrested

And finally, that big, BIG thing I promised in the title. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate 10 years of doing this novel writing lark.

I’m now the very first writer-in-residence at Abbey House Museum. It’s a huge honour to be a part of Leeds Museums, and we’re already making some plans for things I could do involving the collections and community involvement. It’s the perfect cap to what’s been a wonderful 2020 so far.

A New Book Trailer And More

Well, it’s been quite a week. Tonight I’m doing an In Conversation event as part of the wonder Leeds LitFest, which is roaring along in its second yeay, ambitious and energised.

I’ve also been digging into the history of Sheepscar. In part, of course, because where Tom and Annabelle Harper live, but also because my family has some roots there, at the Victoria public house (my great-grandfather ran it from the 1920s to the 1940s) and beyond (more to come on that).

Surprisingly, no one has studied the history of the area, which means a lot of digging and piecing things together from censuses, old plans, maps, anything I can find. It’s strictly for my own pleasure, really, although, since i’m a writer, I’m putting it all together – 7000 words so far, along with photos and so much more, almost 50 pages’ worth.

But I haven’t forgotten that The Molten City arrives in three weeks. It’s available to bloggers and reviewers on NetGalley, so if you’re approved, get over there…if not, I’m afraid you’ll need to wait. But in the meantime, here’s a second trailer for the book.

The Molten City – An Extract

Five week now until The Molten City is published. To whet you’re appetite and get you ordering it (hopefully), here’s a very short extract from the book. It’s 1908, and Harper’s daughter, Mary, is 16 now, a Suffragette supporter; her mother, Annabelle, is a Suffragist, opposed to the violence Mrs Pankhurst’s women espouse. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minster, is about to arrive to give a speech in Leeds. The Suffragettes, led by a woman named Jennie Baines, are demonstarting at his opposition to women’s suffrage, and the unemployed men are holding their own rally in opposition to the government inaction on jobs.  If they come together outside the Coliseum, where the PM is giving his speech, there’s going to be a riot.

 

Harper looked around the railways station. It all seemed ordinary. No sign of anyone lurking. Just the everyday travellers and people waiting for arrivals. He let out a breath, then he was aware of someone running.

A constable in uniform, his face red as he gasped for breath, boots skidding over the tiles. A hasty salute.

‘I was looking for you up by the Coliseum, sir. Message for you from Millgarth. Sergeant Mason says to tell you it’s important.’

‘What does he want?’ He felt fear creeping up from his belly.

‘Don’t know, sir. He just told me to give you this and get back sharpish.’ He thrust a piece of paper in Harper’s hand and ran off.

Your wife telephoned. Vital you ring her as soon as possible.

He opened his watch. Twenty past four. God Almighty. The Prime Minister’s train was due in ten minutes.

‘You keep watch,’ he told Emerson. ‘If anything happens, come and get me immediately.’

In the station master’s office, he lifted the receiver, waiting impatiently for the connection.

‘What is it?’ he asked as soon as Annabelle was on the line. ‘The prime minister’s arriving any minute.’

‘It’s Mary,’ she said, and he stopped, unable to say a word. ‘She told me she was going to do some shopping after work this afternoon.’ Annabelle caught her breath. ‘She telephoned half an hour ago. She’s going to the demonstration, Tom. I’ll swing for the little madam, behaving like this.’

Christ, he thought. Bloody girl.

‘I can’t do anything now. Nothing.’ He tried to think. ‘I’ll tell Ash.’

‘I’m coming down there.’

‘Don’t—’ he began, but she’d already gone.

Damn the girl. They’d told her, but she had to go and bloody defy them. Now she was going to be trapped in the middle of a war and there was nothing he could do to help her. If she was hurt, injured . . . not just her. Annabelle, too.

He dared not let himself think about it. Not now. Not—

‘Sir,’ Emerson said, ‘the Chief Constable is looking for you.’

 

 

Harper hurried up the hill, crossing Great George Street, passing the Mechanics’ Institute. Ash stood in the middle of the road, tall, bulky in his overcoat and new bowler hat.

He nodded towards the Coliseum. ‘Almost full in there, sir. They’re just waiting for the guests of honour. Everything in order?’

‘No.’ He pointed at the suffragettes, close to a hundred of them now, penned in on Vernon Street. ‘My daughter’s in with them and Mrs Harper is on her way down here.’ He could hear how frantic he sounded. It didn’t matter. He didn’t care.

There was too much to juggle. The prime minister would arrive at any moment. The last of the audience was filing into the hall. Businessmen in expensive suits, tickets checked at the door before they could gain entry.

Mrs Baines was addressing the women, her voice loud and strident. And somewhere among them . . .

‘It’s probably just a matter of time before the unemployed men break out from that rally they’re holding,’ Harper said.

‘We have the reinforcements, sir.’

He shook his head. ‘I’m holding them back for when we really need them. We’d just better be prepared for the worst. It’s not far away.’

‘We’ll manage, sir. You leave things up here with me. I’ll have that lass of yours out of there.’ He marched away, shoulders back, shouting orders at the constables.

Harper stood. For a moment he felt utterly lost, out of his depth. Too much was happening, his head was on fire. This was like trying to keep a dozen balls in the air, knowing that if one fell, chaos would follow.

Suddenly, off in the distance, he made out a faint swell of cheering. He cocked his head, leaning his good ear towards the sound. It was definitely there. Asquith’s procession was drawing closer, all those people by the side of the road happy to have a sight of their prime minister. A tiny glimmer of sanity among the madness.

He ran his palms down his cheeks.

Everyone was relying on him to make sure the politicians were safe. Let the demonstrators bray all they liked, that wasn’t going to do any damage. Words might fill the air, but they couldn’t wound. Nobody would die from them. But if it went beyond that – when it did – he’d stop them.

A final breath and he was ready.

The first of the motor cars came in sight. A chorus of boos, a clamour of shouting from the women. He searched their faces for Mary. Couldn’t see her. A swift prayer to keep her safe. Her and Annabelle.

 

You can order from your favourite bookshop (or ask your library to get it in). This place has the cheapest price (currently £15.66, with free UK postage).

Molten City