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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) can obtain copies easily. But in the meantime, spend a little while with Richard.
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.’
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.
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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
‘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.