Some Bright News In Dark Times

Even in the brief flurry of sunshine and warmth we’re experiencing in Leeds right now, I know the days are dark. It doesn’t matter where you live. In Seattle, where I spent many years, it’s literally dark and choking with the smoke from the fires up and down the coast and father inland. You’ve probably seen the photos from California and Oregon, where the world looks like part of the apocalypse.

It’s hard not to be downhearted and depressed. I find solace in escaping to my allotment, where nothing else can touch me and I live simply doing the jobs in front of me (this week, stripping the borlotti beans – there are a lot this years, it seems!) and taking down the vice, before preparing that bed for winter. After that, pick blackberries and the rest of the apples. There’s a sense of order, of continuity in it all that makes me happy.

But I do have some more sunshine this week. First to bring you up to speed. The third Simon Westow novel will be published in the UK at the end of December. It’s called To The Dark, and yes, it’s dark indeed. For some reason, it’s not showing up to pre-order on Amazon. However, good independent shops will be glad to take your order, or there’s Speedy Hen, which has the lowest price I’ve seen and free postage. Look here.

What’s it about? I’m glad you asked: The city is in the grip of winter, but the chill deepens for thief-taker Simon Westow and his young assistant, Jane, when the body of Laurence Poole, a petty local thief, emerges from the melting snow by the river at Flay Cross Mill. A coded notebook found in Laurence’s room mentions Charlie Harker, the most notorious fence in Leeds who’s now running for his life, and the mysterious words: To the dark. What was Laurence hiding that caused his death? Simon’s hunt for the truth pits him against some dangerous, powerful enemies who’ll happily kill him in a heartbeat – if they can.

The middle of 2021 will bring Brass Lives, the ninth Tom Harper novel, set in 1913. It features a boy from Quarry Hill in Leeds who went to New York when he was 10 to join his mother. More than a decade on and he’s come back to see his father. Over in America he’s made a reputation as a gangster and a killer. The problem is that death has followed him to Leeds. It’s inspired by Owen ‘Owney’ Madden, whose true story is well worth reading. One of the few in his line of work who retired and lived to a ripe age.

And now….drum roll.

I’ve signed a deal for a fourth Simon Westow, tentatively titled The Blood Covenant, set in 1823. Very likely to appear at the end of 2021 in the UK. And also A Dark Steel Death, the 10th (!) Tom Harper novel, which is set in 1917, and probably out in the middle of 2022 – assuming we’re all alive them.

And no, I won’t tell you more about them. You’ll have to wait.

2022…I’m not even sure I can think that far ahead. But I have to now.

Already Here And Coming In The Next 12 Months.

Just this week, my publisher put up a blog interview with me about what these last 10 years of publishing books has been like. You can read it right here. It touched on a few things, book things, but to my amazement, the decade has stretched beyond that.

There have been a couple of plays, The Empress On The Corner, a one-women play about Annabelle Harper and her life, with scenes performed at various places in Leeds. One was filmed at the Hark To Rover pub in Abbey House Museum.

New Briggate Blues was commissioned by Leeds Jazz Fest in 2018. It featured Dan Markham (Dark Briggate Blues) and revolved around memories of Studio 20 Jazz Club in Leeds. Two characters plus a live jazz quintet, and both performances sold out.

 

The biggest thing, though, came with my involvement in The Vote Before The Vote, an exhibition at Leeds Libraries about the Victorian Leeds women who worked towards suffrage. It coincided with the publication of The Tin God, when Annabelle Harper runs to become a Poor Law Guardian. I wasn’t the historian who did most of the work, but I helped, and I’m hugely proud to be have been part of it – and that Annabelle wrote herself into Leeds history.

Of the books, perhaps the thing that truly blew me away happened in 2011, when Cold Cruel Winter, my second novel, was named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by Library Journal. I was quite literally speechless for a while.

So what lies ahead? Here’s a taster:

“The end of this year brings the third Simon Westow novel, To The Dark, then a new Tom Harper, Brass Lives, sometime next summer. I’ve just finished writing A Dark Steel Death, the tenth Harper mystery. I couldn’t comment on rumours that I’m making headway in the final Harper book…”

And here’s the cover for TO THE DARK. What do you think?

To The Dark 1

Finally, a bit of micro fiction.

He poured hot water into the bowl, watching the soap bubble. Pushed the masks down with a spoon. Once it cooled he’d rinse them off, wring them out and hang them to dry. This is how we live now, he thought. This is how we stay alive.

Let’s Go Back To…1645 In Leeds

There are so many awful things going on in the world right now, but this blog isn’t the place to comment on them. Writing about the past is one way to escape to something different. Not always kind or less brutal.

I’m working on a new Tom Harper book which takes place in 1917 (this is a good place to mention that the ebook of Gods of Gold is still 82p/99c from all retailers for all platforms).

gods of gold cover

I’ve also finished a novella entitled Norman Blood, set in Leeds in 1092 CE. I’ll be self-publishing that this autumn, quite possible combined with this, if it works out. It’s called The Cloth Searcher, and it’s set in Leeds in during the Civil War 1645…just before plague broke out.

Here’s the opening. Please, drop me a line and tell me if you think it’s worth continuing. And please, all of you, stay safe and careful.

 

February 1645

 

With the new year, Leeds began to emerge from the winter. Under the rule of the Roundhead garrison, as kind of normality took hold. Like a patient too long in bed after an illness, the town took tentative, faltering steps. But with each week things improved, the invalid seemed a little more confident, even if its colours still seemed to be greys and blacks and browns.

At least the weather had been mild so far, Adam Wright thought. Granted, it was still February, but there’d been little snow to trouble and freeze them and enough days of chill, pale sunshine to give some hope to the heart.

He walked up Briggate, past the sorry ruin of lawyer Benson’s house. Once it had been a fine building; now the front door flapped on its hinges, all the windows were broken and so many slates missing from the roof that the ground floor was little better than a lake. The revenge of Cromwell’s Scottish soldiers for the man’s support of the King. Benson himself had long since fled Leeds to live who knew where.

It was impossible not to resent the troops stationed in the town, even if the Scots and their violence had been packed off home. Soldiers strutted with muskets and pikestaffs, their officers gave orders and ran the place now. Adam had only managed to avoid having a man billeted with him because he had three young children, and he thanked God for his fortune.

It was wrong for a town to be this way, to be occupied by their own countrymen, to be at the mercy of other Englishmen who were supposed to be their equals.

He had little interest in politics. That was something which happened in London. His only desire for a quiet life and to make his business as a wool merchant prosper. Leeds had been on the cusp of success before all this, order books full, trade growing. But over the last two years, as different sides took and retook the city, everything had fallen apart. The weavers started taking their cloth to Bradford and Wakefield, where things were calmer, and he couldn’t blame them. Only now, in the months since the big battle down on Marston Moor had the area begun to exhale again.

 

At the Moot Hall his boot heels clicked on the hard wood floor and he waited for the military clerk to lift his weary eyes.

‘Adam Wright, the Cloth Searcher, to see Captain Eyre.’

‘Go through,’ the man told him, jabbing a lazy finger along the corridor then pushing his head back down among his papers.

There was another guard in the hallway, this one with keen, assessing eyes, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword, his buff uniform scrupulously clean, leatherwork gleaming.

At the door Wright took a deep breath. The summons here had surprised him. He’d searched in his soul and found nothing that could give offence. He attended church each Sunday, paid what was due in taxes and gave deference to those who ordered his world.

He didn’t know why he was here and it scared him. Slowly he raised his hand and knocked on the door. At a sound from within he turned the handle and walked into Captain Eyre’s office. A few years before it had belonged to one of the aldermen, but these days the power in the city lay with Major-General Carter and his staff.

‘Mr Wright,’ the Captain said. To Adam’s surprise the man sounded grateful. ‘Thank you for coming so promptly. I thought you might have been busy.’

He’d been at home when the messenger arrived, entranced by his baby son, now just three months old, while his wife and the serving girl attended to the other two children. He knew he should have been at the warehouse in the yard behind his house, but there was precious little to do there these days.

‘I had the time,’ Adam replied carefully. ‘Your man made it sound important.’ He stared at the soldier, a man of about forty with shrewd eyes, his face lined, grey hair cropped short over his skull, a lean, hardened body inside a neat uniform.

‘How are the cloth markets these days?’ Eyre began.

‘Better than they were,’ Wright answered guardedly, surprised by the question, ‘but there’s still a long way to go for them to be what they were.’

The Captain nodded in understanding.

‘And the quality of the cloth?’

Adam shrugged, unsure of the meaning behind all this.

‘Excellent, on the whole. There are always one of two pieces that aren’t up to standard, and sometimes someone wants to cut corners.’

‘But you find them.’

‘I try,’ he said.

He’d been given the post of Cloth Searcher in 1642, before the conflict began. It paid nothing, meant as a tribute to a merchant’s honesty. It became his responsibility ensure all the cloth coming out of Leeds was the very best quality. To keep the town’s reputation high. But his tenure was only meant to last a year.

Then the war began. King against Parliament. The Corporation was in tatters, and there had been no one to name a replacement. And so, three years later Adam Wright was still the town’s Cloth Searcher He’d never wanted the title, but he couldn’t set aside until a new man was named.

‘How long will it take, do you think?’ Eyre asked.

‘For what?’ he asked.

‘For the weavers to return and sell here the way they used to.’

Wright shook his head sadly. ‘I don’t know. Another year, perhaps? They might never come back.’ The questions seemed pointless. If the man wanted to know about the cloth market he should come to Leeds Bridge on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, cloth for sale displayed on the parapets and the business conducted in quiet whispers.

‘Mr. Wright, do you know Ralph Whitelaw?’

He opened his eyes wide. ‘Of course.’ Whitelaw was one of the city’s leading wool merchants, one of the original burgesses when Leeds had received its charter from King Charles two decades before. More than that, Adam had served his merchant’s apprentice with him. He knew Ralph and all his family. The man was a Royalist, but wise enough to keep his loyalties to himself.

‘One of the patrols was out this morning. You must know the bell pits down past Vicar Lane?’

Wright nodded, confused by the strange, constant twists in the conversation.

‘People used to mine coal in them,’ he said. ‘But no one’s used them in years.’

‘Not quite,’ Eyre corrected him. ‘My sergeant found Whitelaw’s body in one today.’

‘What?’ He started to rise from his seat. ‘Ralph? Are you sure?’

‘I’m certain, Mr. Wright. I saw the corpse myself. I had a number of conversations with him. I’m sorry, Mr Wright.’

Adam ran a hand over his face, feeling the sharp stubble of his cheeks against his palm.

‘But..?’ he began, knowing he didn’t have the words to express all the things in his mind just them ‘But why? That doesn’t make any sense. What would he doing there?’

Eyre look directly at him, his eyes pale and serious.

‘Someone killed him,’ he announced finally. ‘And put his body in one of the bell pits.’

 

 

A Tale Begins…Some New Tom Harper

Stories…we’re humans, we need stories. And in uncertain, anxious times, something to take us away from our fears and ourselves is always welcome.

Here’s a brief exceprt from what will be the next Tom Harper novel. It’s called Brass Lives, and it’s set to appear sometime in 2021. Sorry, with publishing schedules all topsy-turvy, I can be more exact than that at the moment.

It takes place in 1913 and Tom is now the Deputy Chief Constable of Leeds, with an office at the Town Hall. Ash has become a Superintendent and taken over Millgarth.

Before we get to that, though: my publisher has Gods of Gold, the first Tom Harper novel, currently at 82p/99c an all ebook formats, everywhere in the world. But only until the end of May. You might enjoy it, and at that price you can take a risk.

Secondly, I’ve written a short history of Sheepscar. No fiction, all fact. If you’d like a copy, drop me a line and I’ll send it to you in a pdf file.

Now, would you like to catch up with Tom?

 

He’d been back in his office for an hour, sipping a mug of tea and reading the daily reports from the divisions when the telephone rang.

‘Morning, sir. It’s Superintendent Ash.’ The familiar voice made him smile. Until Harper’s promotion, the two of them had worked together every day. Then Ash had taken over A Division and moved up in rank to run the station.

He knew the man; Ash wouldn’t ring unless there was a good reason.

‘Good morning to you, too. What can I do for you?’

‘Something that might strike your fancy, sir,’ Ash replied after a moment. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like your dinner at the cafe in the market, would you?’

‘I imagine you could twist my arm,’ Harper said. ‘Your shout?’

‘Of course, sir. Between one thing and another, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a free lunch with you yet.’

He walked, glad of the exercise on a warm day. Briggate was thronged with Thursday shoppers crowding the pavements. Trams and lorries and carts bustled up and down the road. Harper cut through County Arcade, astonished as ever at its elaborate gilt and splendour, before crossing Vicar Lane, entering Kirkgate Market and climbing the stairs to the café on the balcony.

Ash was waiting at a table. He’d always been a big man, but now he looked broader than ever, the shaggy moustache over his top lip as grey as his hair. His face crinkled into a grin and he stood, hand extended.

‘Thank you for coming, sir. I hope you don’t mind, I went ahead and ordered; I know you like the cottage pie here.’

‘That’s fine,’ Harper said, and it was. ‘What’s so important? Something wrong at Millgarth?’

The station would always have a special place in his heart. It was home.

‘Nothing like that, sir. Something a little unusual, though.’

‘What is it?’

Ash held a letter in his hand, written on thin onionskin paper.

‘This arrived from America, sir. From the police in New York.’

That was enough to pique his curiosity.’ What do they want?’

‘It appears that one of their criminals is on his way here. I suppose he’s probably arrived now.’ Ash stopped and pinched his lips together. ‘He’s coming back here, that is. It seems he grew up in Leeds, moved to America when he was ten years old. Followed his mother. She went ahead and got herself settled.’

‘Go on,’ he said.

‘His name’s Davey Mullen. Born on Somerset Street.’ It was no more than three minutes’ walk from where they were sitting, a row of run-down, hopeless houses. ‘He’s twenty-one now.’

Harper rubbed his chin. ‘What’s he done to make them write to us?’

Ash grimaced and shifted on his seat. ‘It’s more like what hasn’t he done, sir. Quite a bit, given his age. It took me by surprise.’ He paused, just long enough to be sure of Harper’s attention. ‘They’re as certain as they can be that Mullen’s murdered at least six people.’ He let the sentence hang in between them in the air. ‘Four of them shot, the other two beaten to death. And two of those shootings were in broad daylight, with witnesses.’

‘Then surely-’ he began, then stopped when he saw the look in Ash’s eyes.

‘The witnesses decided to leave the city or refused to testify.’

Harper sighed. The old, old story. Fear and intimidation.

‘Why’s he coming here?’

‘Recuperation. That’s what he told people. He’s a member of a gang. It seems some people from another gang found him on his own outside a dancehall and shot him eleven times.’

‘Eleven?’ Harper said in disbelief. ‘Come on. Nobody can survive that.’

‘He did, and he made a full recovery. He refused to tell the police who did it, but not long after he was back on his feet the bodies of some of this other gang started turning up. Now he’s heading to Leeds until things cool down in New York.’

‘What do they want us to do?’ Harper asked. ‘They don’t have a warrant for him, do they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then unless he breaks any laws here, he’s a free man.’

‘They’re tipping us the wink so we can keep an eye on him. His other reason for being here is to see his father. It seems he never made the trip to America with the rest of the family. It was just Mullen and his brother who followed their mother over there.’

‘What’s the father’s name?’

‘Francis Mullen. Goes by Franny. I had Sergeant Mason dig out his file. There’s not much to him, really. Petty crook, in and out of jail. Loves his drink. Never held a proper job in his life. Parents came over from Ireland during the famine.’ He shrugged and took a photograph from his pocket. ‘The New York people included this, sir. It’s Mullen, from the last time they arrested him.’

Harper studied the picture. It showed the man’s head, viewed full on. Thick, dark hair, glistening with pomade. A smile of straight, white teeth and a face brimming with arrogance, a young man utterly certain that the world belonged to him. On the back, someone had scribbled a few details: Mullen was a big man: six feet one, weight two hundred and ten pounds – fifteen stone, he calculated – carrying sixteen scars all over his body from knives and bullets. The next of kin was his mother Maureen. Mullen still lived with her, an address on West 47th Street. Behind it, in brackets, someone had added Hell’s Kitchen. An apt name for any neighbourhood that was home to a man like him.

The waitress arrived with two full plates.

‘They’re hot, so don’t you be burning yourselves,’ she warned. ‘I’ll be back in a tick with your pot of tea.’

No talking shop while they ate; that was the rule. No spoiling the digestion. It allowed a few minutes for pleasure, a pause for thought. A constant roar of noise rose from the market, the conversation of shoppers, traders calling out their wares. Finally, Harper wiped a slice of bread around the plate to soak up the last of the juices, swallowed the final bite and washed it down with a swig of tea.

‘What did you have in mind for Mullen?’ he asked.

‘I thought Walsh and Galt could pay him a visit,’ Ash replied. ‘Just a quiet word, let him know his card is marked. Polite as a Sunday tea party.’

‘The slightest breath of trouble, haul him in,’ Harper ordered. ‘We don’t want any murderers walking round Leeds like they’re God’s gift. Keep a uniform on him too.’

‘Not plain clothes?’

‘No, let’s make it blatant. We’ll show him he’s not welcome here.’

‘I’ll take care of it, sir.’

‘Anything else worthwhile?’

‘Nothing much. Just the Boys of Erin trying to act up again.’

They’d been a growing thorn in the side of the police for a year, ever since Johnny Dempster became leader of the gang. Harper thought he’d crushed them more than twenty years ago, but they were slowly creeping back. They wanted to be a force again, to rule the Bank the way they had a generation before. It was the area of Leeds where the Irish had settled when they arrived. Back then it was desperately poor, dirty, a place where disease thrived. Even now it was bleak. Annabelle had grown up there, on Leather Street. Many still living on the Bank today could trace their ancestors back to Ireland.

‘What have they been doing this time?’

‘Tried a little protection on shopkeepers. We’ve taken care of it. I’m keeping a watch on them. Dempster’s ambitious. I’ve a feeling he has big plans.’

‘Time to stamp them down again?’ Harper asked.

‘Not just yet, sir,’ Ash replied thoughtfully. ‘I want to see what they have in mind.’

‘Keep me informed.’ He stood and patted his belly. They always served up big helpings in the cafe. ‘And make sure this Mullen knows he’s being followed.’

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

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