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.

We Were Just Kids

I rarely put anything too personal on here, but for once I’m going to be different. I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence. I’m always better at explaining my feelings on paper than anywhere else.

One morning last week I woke to a private message on a friend’s social media account. It came from her daughter, to say that her mother was very ill and not expected to last the night. It was the first thing I saw when I woke up.

It shook me, and that shaking became a shattering when I learned that she’d died in the night. It sent me tumbling into the past.

We started out a pen pals when we were still at school, both 17. She in America, me in Leeds. You don’t need the whole tale. It’s probably enough to say that she ended up here, and we married a few weeks before we turned 20. Young, I know, but it didn’t seem that way to us. It seemed…right.

She loved music; the ad she’d placed for a pen pal was in the British music paper Melody Maker, one squarely aimed at fans of more progressive music. We bonded over Genesis’ Foxtrot. It was the first gift I gave her, carefully wrapped and sent to the US for her 18th birthday.

She loved books, too. She went to college to study library science, but dropped out. In Leeds she worked in a library (Headingley with some stints at Woodhouse, in case you’re curious).

headingley library 1931

Headingley library, back in 1931

In much of our 10 years together, especially living in England, we were just kids. Looking back, we were a pair of sort-of hippies. We had love. We didn’t have much money, but always enough. We never felt poor. There was ample for our needs, which weren’t large back then. Rent, food, books, LPs, the occasional gig. It probably helped that she was good at squirreling away money.

We moved to America, each of us with different reasons to propel us across the Atlantic. That was at the beginning of 1976.

The last time I saw her was in 1984. She stayed in the city where she’d grown up, and a year or so later, I moved to Seattle. A long time after that, I came back to England, ending in Leeds, the place where I’d begun. A nice symmetry there, a mirror to her.

Just a few years ago we became Facebook friends. We started to semi-regularly exchange messages. We talked a little about music, not too much about books. I have no idea if she’d read anything I’d published. She’d been there in the very early days, long before publication. When we were together I was writing each night, sending off completed books and stories and getting nowhere.

It didn’t matter if she read anything of mine or not, really. A few days before her death she’d messaged to say she needed to read a particular book on politics. She still listened to the folk music we’d enjoyed way back when. It was all still a part of her. She still had her passion for things. She remained an Anglophile, she missed the place.

Since her death, I’ve thought more about those old days than ever before. What it was like to be 19 and take off to visit a pen pal in a foreign country. No big preparation, no itinerary, nothing more a airmail letter to say she’d be there the following week. The younger me never appreciated what it took, that’s for damned sure.

I do now.

Until I learned she’d died, I hadn’t realised how intertwined our pasts were; after all, the marriage finished long ago and we went our separate ways. But it never fully ends, does it? And while there are plenty of things in my head, I’m not sure I have the right to feel all these things. The ones really grieving are her husband and daughter and the rest of her family, and my heart goes out to them. A part of me feels I’m impinging on their sorrow. I hope I’m not.

If we knew then what we do now…perhaps it’s as well that we don’t.

We were just kids then, back in the days when it was easy to be hopeful and joyous. Just kids.

I won’t say her name. There’s no need. But…everything we’ve been, all the people who’ve shared our lives have helped to shape us. They’re a part of who we are. We never shake off those bonds, even if we believe we have.

Leeds Past, Leeds Present, Leeds Future

Within the Leeds city centre, the oldest buildings are churches and pubs; somehow, those twin continuities say a lot about how we view our own history, and perhaps the people who lived here.

The burial ground at St Peter’s Church (the Parish Church, or Leeds Minster as it is now) was dug up and the headstones moved for a railway line. The dead shouldn’t stand in the way of progress, after all, and that piece of land was worth more developed into roads and track and buildings that as a home for old bones. For Leeds history.

burial ground

But there are other pieces of our history that have been quietly swept away. The oldest house in Leeds, which stood on Lower Briggate, went in the mid-1950s. For a while in the 1990s the council stood in favour of getting rid of Kirkgate Market.

kirkgate market

The same council that loudly trumpeted the Motorway City of the Seventies idea. A city centre full of cars and pedestrian on elevated walkways.

motorway city

These days that seems crazy. Back when it was mooted, it offered a science fiction future.

Cities evolve. They have to, in order to meet the changing needs of their people and businesses. But looking ahead at the expense of the past isn’t a solution.

We’ve discovered that our parents and grandparents had solutions we were quick to ditch in the name of progress that have proved more sustainable than the things that replaced them. The reusable shopping bag, hanging washing on the line rather than using a tumble dryer…make your own list.

The point is that we’ve become too ready to jettison the past for the latest fad. And while this isn’t my bailiwick, it seems been the case in planning Leeds, too. Abandon manufacturing and jump on the retail bandwagon. Meanwhile, the Sheffield area has redefined what manufacturing can mean and is poised to move ahead on a sound financial footing.

I love Leeds. The city, the team (and yes, we are up!). I want the best for everything here. But the first step in running any city is to make it a good place for all the people who live there. A tricky balancing act, and one I wouldn’t want to have to administer.

Yet…are we asking the right questions about what we want and need in this place?

What do you think?

Imagining Leeds

The legends and tales and folklore of a place tend to depend on a deep connection with its past. Roots that go deep into the earth to create a sense of history, of being connected to that earth. That sense of place is vitally important. Go to York and history surrounds you. Reach out your hand and you can touch it. Walk along a green lane in the countryside and there’s still a sense of brooding mystery that seems to tumble through the years, the sense that a spirit might suddenly appear in front on you. Visit one of the old battlefields and you can almost hear the clash of weapons and the cries of the wounded and the dying.

Places have power.

Look for that in Leeds and you’ll be sorely disappointed. I say that as someone whose life involves conjuring up Leeds’ history. Our oldest real artefact is the Leeds Cross, and that a composite, the remnants of five Saxon crosses that once stood outside an early version of Leeds Parish Church, but were broken up and tossed into the walls as filler during a rebuilding. Quite deliberately, we vandalised our own history – and sacred history, at that. It was old, so it was no longer relevant.

leeds cross

Yet somehow that’s emblematic of a place that only began to truly flourish with the arrival of industry. The era of machines and power, water and steam and the manufactory and the mill. They stood tall, the modern equivalent of the castle or the cathedral as a symbol of subjugation of the people. And folk did flock here to live in the shadows of them. Yet while the past is very tangible in both cathedral and castle, the legends and supernatural close to hand,  it’s impossible to evoke any ancient magic inside the walls of a mall. It can’t.

Almost old folktales and songs we might have once had were lost. After I’d first published this, someone ,mentioned the apocryphal tale of merchant John Harrison sending Charles I a tankard filled with gold coins when he was being escorted south after being captured by Parliamentary forces. The event is commemorated in stained glass in St. john’s church – the one Harrison built with his own money before the Civil War. And it is a great story, no duobt about it.

But there could never be a Beowulf or Wayland the Smith in Leeds, because our roots to whatever we possessed long ago have long since been cut. Those bards we have – a Bennett, a Waterhouse, a Hoggart – are all recent, and can only touch the surface, because that’s all there is. They have no grand words or ideas, but their language reflects industry; practical and utilitarian. Notably, all three came from working-class beginnings.

With its factories, Leeds was very a society of immigrants. Not necessarily from other countries, although that happened soon enough, but from other regions. Although it has a history of things that are demonstrably older, it’s essentially people who define a town or a city. Their stamp moulds it more than it moulds them, especially when the influx is so quick and so large. In 1800, just after the start of the Industrial Revolution, 30,000 people lives in Leeds. In three decades that number tripled.

So any Leeds we can imagine only goes back a little more than two centuries. Those roots are barely old enough to sink below the surface. We haven’t had time to create many folktales or songs. And those that have come about are of disappointment, of factory workers or grand Victorian buildings (Jenny White’s Hole, for example, or the Town Hall Lions). This is a place built of brick and smoke, on dirt and poverty. We don’t have a mythology.

And most of those factories and mills that were the foundation of industry have been demolished. The buildings proved as ephemeral as the lives of the people who worked there. They and their histories are erased. The history of Leeds is essentially the history of working people. But when their workplaces become rubble and their homes are torn down because they’re slums, where is the past for anyone to touch? There’s very little history for anyone to dream.

Even our parks are human constructs, where man has imposed himself on the countryside. Kirkstall Abbey was once in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s a tamed, picturesque ruin.

k abbey

It’s probably not just a Leeds phenomenon. Very likely it’s true across the north, in all those places that were built on different industries. And there’s a kick to finish it all off. Leeds was essentially created by industry. By pain and sweat, the riches of a few and the labour of so many. But industry has all but gone. And a city of finance and service industries doesn’t offer much in the way in inspiration.

We all need a spine of tales, of folklore, of songs that are us. And there are artists and writers, musicians and makers of theatre who are trying to do that. But these things need to grow from the bottom up, not be imposed upon a place.

At one point there was continuity. Now things are demolished, refashioned and repurposed every couple of generations. You can’t find any tradition in that. And that’s the pity. Humans need tradition. It’s part of belonging.

Yet a few faint tendrils do curl down and survive in our language. A few things that are uniquely Leeds. Ginnel. Loiner.

ginnel

There’s beauty in those and other words like them. It’s a dialect that’s largely dying and TV culture makes language homogenised. But it’s holding on. And those words do conjure up a fading Leeds of the imagination.

Possibly, just as Leeds is post-industrial, it’s also now post-mythology. But people will always need stories, songs and ballads to pass on. They always have. It’s part of being human. We need to create them, then nurture the flame and keep them alive.

The Anchoress Will Be Coming Soon – And Some Norman-Era Fiction

First of all, apologies. I’ve been quiet for a little while. Physically well, thankfully, but preoccupied with this and that. Writing the new Tom Harper, of course, but I was also asked to take part in another project called Street Stories, which will take place on Quarry Hill in Leeds. It’s the brainchild of Leeds City College and put together by #foundfiction. Small pieces of writing will be displayed as street art around various parts of Quarry Hill, and I’m one of four writers creating work for it. Mine will cover aspects of the area as it was: Quarry Hill flats, of course, but also the 1645 plague cabins, St. Peter’s Well, the death of Tom Maguire and more. It’s something different, every piece is very compressed, and it’s an interesting challenge.

Some of you will be wondering exactly when The Anchoress of Chesterfield is likely to appear, or even if it will appear. The initial publication date of June 1 is now a memory, and another date of the end of June isn’t going to happen. But it’s at the printer, and I’m told that it will be available in paperback and as an ebook from the end of July. Not exact date, I’m afraid, but this appears concrete. Thank you for being patient, but these have been very different times, as well all know.

anchoress comp 2 0993098

I showed you a little of my Civil War period novella, The Cloth Searcher. Before I began work on that, I revisited and picked up the threads and completed another story I began a few years ago, this one set in Norman-era Leeds, called Norman Blood. I’m now going back over it, slowly. Another novella. Here’s how it begins:

Note: Ledes was the name given to modern-day Leeds.

1

1092 AD

He rarely dreamed now. In the beginning the night mare had ridden every time he closed his eyes, slipping through the blackness like a cutthroat and gripping him so close he could smell its graveyard stench. Then, slowly, almost without him knowing, it had faded and become a fearful memory.

But last night it had returned, more powerful for having been away so long. Screaming, growing louder and louder before dropping into a single moment of dead, empty silence.

Then a welter of noise filled the space. Sounds he hadn’t noticed before. Shouting, hooves. The metal rasp of weapons drawn. The crackle as a thatched roof caught fire and the night flamed.

He was hobbling through the darkness, desperate to keep out of sight. But even when he was a mile away and more, he could still hear the soldiers shouting in their foreign tongue; no doubting the meaning and their hatred. Killing, rape, the devils in hell let loose to roam, all the order and the law gone from the earth. Blades hacking at flesh and tearing at souls.

Somewhere, someone must be alive. They must be, or all the world would be blood.

When he woke, he was breathing so hard that his chest hurt, hands clenched tight into fists, the t tears tumbling down his cheeks.

Trembling, Erik had to ease himself out of the bed, careful not to wake Inga, then paced up and down on the earth floor of the house, letting its cold hardness, its realness, into his body, until the demons danced away. Hours later, in full daylight, he could still taste the smoke and death on his tongue, a poison no gulp of ale could take away.

For the dream to come back after all this time…it had to mean something.

 

The villagers always closed their doors as the soldiers passed. It was safer, like a cantrip to keep evil at bay. There were only ten men this time, churning up the mud as they marched rapidly along the road. Beyond the houses and the church, their feet clattered as they crossed the bridge over the beck until the hard beat of marching softened into the distance.

Every week it was the same, a patrol sent out, as if the Normans were fearful that people might flare up and oppose them again. But who was left to fight or forge the weapons? Who had the will? The army had conquered, it had destroyed the land far and wide. The soldiers had used their iron and steel to choke away hope.

The Harrying. That was what they called it.

Death was the word he used. That was the truth of it.

All across Yorkshire, manors had burned. Animals butchered in the fields and left to rot. Not only the stock: people were killed, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, unshriven and unburied. Those still alive fled, praying for safety, begging for deliverance. But God had turned His face away, unhearing, unforgiving. No food, no shelter. No hope. No life. They died beyond counting during the winter, children and parents withered to sacks of bone and heart and flesh until they barely made a meal for the wolves.

But Ledes…Ledes was spared. A miracle, that was what the people here believed. God’s blessing. But he knew that the reality spoke far less of heaven and much more of power. It was a military decision, nothing more than that. A finger stabbed down on a rough-drawn map. Keep this place with the ford over the river. We can station our men there.

Erik brushed the wood shavings from his lap and put the knife back in his belt. He’d whittled the end of the post to a sharp point that would go easily into the ground. Since Sunday, his wife had been reminding him that the gate between their toft and the pasture needed repair.

The job was there in his head, but every hour of daylight had been filled. He was the reeve, elected by the others when the manor became property of the monks in York. Each dispute about the size of a villager’s planting strips, who should do what, when they should do it, ended with him.

Erik sighed. Since the spring ploughing and planting began, it had been one task after another. Decide this, measure that, give an order, settle an argument. Finally, last night, the procession of people hammering on the door stopped.

Then the night mare visited. But it had ridden on again, thank God. No one had needed him this morning. And now he finally had time to do something for himself. He hoisted the post on to his shoulder and limped to the end of the garden. When he was young he’d jumped from a tree and broken a bone on his thigh. It was never set properly, leaving him to walk like this.

On the horizon, ravens swooped down on something, then scattered high into the air as a buzzard dived. The first fingers of spring and the ground was beginning to soften after the long winter. Pray for a warm summer and a good harvest.

The scents of life drifted on the air. Off in the distance he could see lambs, newborn and tentative, discovering the astonishment of movement. Every year it was the same, and every year it enchanted him and made his heart soar.

He loved this ville. It was home, it was comfort. He cherished the people here, even when their voices and demand and questions wearied him. Erik had been surprised when they put him forward as reeve, grateful when they voted for him.

In return he took all his responsibilities seriously, sitting and making his judgements at the manor court, tallying harvests, making sure the priest received his tithe and the monks had all they were owed.

He’d been on God’s Earth for almost forty years, as close as he could guess; an old man now, with all the pains and failings of age. But he tried to do his duty by everyone.

And he put them all in front of himself. That was his wife’s complaint. Inga was right. But what could he do? He could hardly turn them away or make them wait. So jobs like this were tucked into odd, quiet hours when the chance arose.

Erik dug into the soil with the tip of his knife and set with post in place. He’d set a rock aside, heavy enough to need two hands. The dull sound of stone on wood, over and over and over, until it was seated straight and secure. Now the gate would close properly; no animals would wander into the garden and eat what his wife grew. Inga would be happy.

The manor had improved since it became the property of the monks. They paid rents every quarter day now instead of giving their labour, and what man wouldn’t work harder for himself than for a lord? But the monks had also taken the best pasture to graze their sheep. The best pasture, of course, and the villagers had to tend them. Less ground for fallow or farming.

His eyes followed the line of low trees that grew along the stream that marked the northern boundary of the manor. The villagers were busy with ploughing and sowing and digging. At least if they were occupied, he’d have some time. And he still needed to plant early seeds in his own strips.

He stretched, an ache of satisfaction in his arms, then turned towards the house. For a moment the clouds parted and the sun shone, the glimpse of colour and brightness welcome against the grey. Erik smiled, then caught a glint of metal from the corner of his eye. Two of the soldiers were running back along the road to their palisade.

Suddenly every sense of pleasure vanished. He was alert, a prickle of fear running down his back.

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 Anchoress Of Chesterfield – A Taste

As most of you know, I write about Leeds. I bloody love Leeds. But I like NE Derbyshire too; I spent a few years living there, and I have a series set in medieval Chesterfield, featuring John the Carpenter. The fourth The Anchoress of Chesterfield, comes out June 1 (that’s the plan, anyway). Fancy a little bit of it? Oh, it’s available to order, and the ebook is cheap.

Chesterfield, September 1370

 

John felt the axe bite into the wood, deep enough for it to stay. He straightened up and stretched, then wiped the sweat from his face with an old piece of linen. Chopping the branches from a fallen tree was labour to make the muscles ache and moan in protest.

It had come down during the night, blocking the road that led north from Chesterfield to Sheffield. At first light the town bailiffs were out knocking on the doors, begging all the craftsmen and labourers in town for their help. Everyone with tools and a strong back. John the Carpenter had been one of the first, bringing his mute assistant, Alan. Soon a dozen men and more were working on the tree with axes and saws. It was an old, thick elm that had rotted at its core until the weight became too much and it had toppled.

Now the trunk lay in sections the height of a man, each one pushed to the side of the road. The only task remaining was to strip the branches, and they were almost done with that. John told Alan to fetch them ale from the jug a kindly goodwife had left. Only six men were still working. Themselves, three foresters who seemed locked into their labour, never joking or gossiping, and a farmhand, a sullen man sent along by his master who kept pausing to grumble.

The sun sat high in the sky. But it was September now, with none of the fierce heat that had burned his skin all summer and turned it the colour of tanned leather. A pleasant day, with the high clouds flitting and dancing above the fields.

At least he’d be paid for this, John thought. Fourpence, a full day’s wage. And there were one or two pieces of wood he might be able to scavenge and shape into things later, once business has ceased for the winter.

Truth be told, he was grateful for any money at all. It had been a meagre year. The only good thing was that the prayers of all in the town had been answered; no cases of plague in the heat of summer gave them all the hope that it might never return. He crossed himself at the thought.

For him, though, things had been hard. Two more joiners had moved to town and brought competition. Their work was rough and ready, they weren’t proper craftsmen; still, they were able to handle most jobs that had been his. Men who charged less than he did and took much of his business. Incomers. Silently, he laughed at himself.

John had been here for ten years now. He was married, he had three children. Much of the time he felt part of the fabric of Chesterfield. Still, to some who’d been born and raised here, he was as much an outsider as someone who’d arrived just the week before. Another decade and he still wouldn’t be a native to people like that.

He carefully pulled out his axe, wiped it with an oily rag and inspected the edge, running it along his thumb, before putting it back in the leather satchel. The tools he owned had once belonged to his father. They’d served the man well until he died in the Great Pestilence. God’s blood, that was more than twenty years ago now. A lifetime and more.

The hammer, the saw, the awl and everything else had kept John alive as he wandered from place to place, growing from a boy to a young man and learning to harness his natural feel for wood. Life on the roads had taken him to York; for several years he’d honed his craft there, constantly employed in the frenzy of church building until circumstances forced him to leave. Only after that had he ended up in Chesterfield.

This was home now. He was settled, he’d lived here longer than anywhere else. To anyone looking at his life, he was a success. He’d become a family man with all the responsibilities that brought. He had his business as a carpenter, he owned two houses, he employed one man. But he knew how readily appearances could deceive.

One of the properties, on Saltergate, had been in his wife Katherine’s family; she was the oldest child, she’d inherited it when her mother died. The other, around the corner on Knifesmithgate, had belonged to Martha, the old woman who was friend to them both. She’d willed him her house when she died two years before. By then John and his family were already living there, caring for the woman in her old age. Martha had stood godmother to two of their children and they’d named their younger daughter after her; her memory would live on in his family.

Both houses desperately needed work. They’d been ignored for too long. John had done what he could, but so much was beyond him. The roof at Martha’s old house leaked into the solar. It was going to need new slates before winter set in. If he left it for yet another year, the beams would begin to rot and it would be a much bigger, harder job. But a tiler would cost money he didn’t have in his coffer.

He rented out the Saltergate house. The amount it brought barely covered all the never-ending list of repairs.

The constant worry about money grew more pressing every month. It kept him awake long into the night and gnawed at his heart. No peace. The other day he’d seen his reflection in a pond, shocked at the way his hair was turning grey and the lines that furrowed his face.

This year it was coming to a head. He was going to have to make a choice. Unless something happened and a fortune tumbled into his lap, he’d have no choice but to sell one of the houses. And he had no faith in miracles. Not for a man like him.

He loved Katherine’s brother and sisters, but he was glad they were no longer part of the household. Fewer mouths to feed was a blessing when he had three children of his own. His brother-in-law Walter and his young bride were settled with her parents in Bolsover, while Katherine’s two sisters were in service on a farm near Holymoorside.

He sighed and began the walk back towards Chesterfield. It wasn’t far, no more than a few minutes away. The spire of the church soared high into the sky, visible for miles around, as clear and welcoming as any beacon.

He’d worked on that when he first arrived in the town. Only for a short time, though. After a few days John had found himself a suspect in a murder in the church tower, a stranger who needed to clear his name.

That had happened ten years ago. Where had the time gone? It happened when he first knew Katherine, before he’d become a husband and a father and all the things that had happened since. John felt the weight of his own history pressing down on his shoulders. What could he do except carry on? With God’s blessing, everything would be fine. He had to believe that. They’d all survive and prosper in His grace.

‘Who knows, maybe we’ll have work waiting for us in town,’ he told Alan, with the kind of hope he didn’t feel.

The lad was twelve now, as much a natural as a carpenter as John had been himself. He carried his own leather satchel of tools that banged against his back as he walked. He was growing into a tall young man with broad shoulders, his hands rough and thick with calluses from the work they did. Alan was old enough and certainly skilled enough to strike out on his own. But he was mute and he didn’t know how to write. His fingers were quick to make signs, but most people would never understand them. It was impossible for him to obtain work himself, and he needed to be with someone who wouldn’t take advantage of him. Six years before, the boy had started out as John’s apprentice and bit by bit the lad had learned everything he had to teach. Now he was… what could he call him, John wondered? An assistant? An equal? He clapped a hand down on the boy’s shoulder and watched the tiny flakes of wood rise from his battered tunic.

The road was dusty; they’d had no rain for over a fortnight. A few horses and carts passed them, and he could hear the sounds of the weekday market on the north side of the church as they climbed the hill. A town of stone and slate, of timber and limewash. Beautiful, in its own coarse way. Home.

Not too much more than a week and the annual fair would begin. It would be eight days of feasting, noise and entertainment, with all manner of goods for sale. Music and players, tumblers and jugglers. It would all begin with a service and blessing in church on the day of the exaltation of the Holy Cross. Already he could sense the excitement around town. Every year it was exactly the same. The children caught it first, dancing through the days in anticipation, then the fever started to affect the adults.

For a brief while, Chesterfield would feel like the most important, magical place in the kingdom. People came from all over for the fair. Not just the North, nor even England, but everywhere. John had met many from beyond the borders: Welshmen, Irishmen, even a Dane once, with his happy, sing-song accent; a German and a man from the lowlands of Holland. An entire world came to Chesterfield, bringing things beyond the locals’ imagination. Goods to buy, foods to taste. Minstrels and clowns to entertain. There would be merchants and goodwives shouting out their wares and displaying all the luxuries on offer. Everything from the ordinary to the exotic. His children were counting down the days. Foolishly, he’d promised Martha a length of ribbon from the fair. She’d remember, of course, but he had no idea how he’d be able to afford it for her. The worry of an empty scrip crowded his mind.

Before he went home he’d stop at the Guildhall and pick up his wage for today’s work. Four good pennies to spend on food. Katherine would be glad to see that. The garden behind their house had been fruitful this year, but the season was coming to an end and it didn’t offer them bread or milk or meat. Only the occasional hen that had grown too old to lay eggs.

He looked as Alan nudged him and pointed towards a man hurrying along with a forceful stride and a determined look in his eye. He was wearing a dark green woollen tunic bearing the coroner’s badge, he had a sword hanging from his belt, and he was coming directly towards them.

Pray God the man wasn’t seeking him. It couldn’t be good news if someone like that wanted him. Either something awful had happened, or the coroner wanted his help. Six years had passed since the last time that had happened. That was when de Harville was still alive and held the office of King’s Coroner. Katherine had always hated the idea of him working for the man. Three times it had happened, and he’d always undertaken the work reluctantly, but what choice did anyone have when a rich man in authority demanded his services? The last time he’d almost been killed. Enough, his wife insisted, and he’d been quick to agree.

Then de Harville died, and John was thankful that his successor, Sir Mark Strong, had chosen to go his own way. He had no desire to be tangled up in any of that again.

‘Are you John the Carpenter?’ the man asked as he came closer.

‘I am.’ He felt his heart sink.

‘The coroner would like you to attend him.’

‘Me?’ John asked. ‘Are you sure you have the right man? Why would he want me? I’ve never done any work for Coroner Strong.’

He knew the words were hopeless, but he had to say them, to try and ward all this off.

The man shrugged. He was well-muscled, with fair hair and a ruddy complexion, a pair of smiling blue eyes.

‘Nay, Master, I’m not the one to ask. I’m just the messenger. All I do is what I’m told, and my order was to come and fetch you. I don’t know what he wants. But I can tell you this: there’s a body at Calow and he’d like you to see it. You’re welcome to walk out with me if you choose.’

Calow? It was nothing more than a hamlet half a mile from the town. He could picture it in his mind: just three or four tumbledown little cottages and a tiny church with an anchoress’s cell. What could have happened out there to draw the coroner’s attention?

‘Is it a murder?’

The man shook his head. ‘Couldn’t tell you, Master. He gave me my order, that’s it.’

‘Who is it?’

‘I can’t say that, either. Coroner Strong will tell you himself, Master.’ His face flickered with impatience. ‘We should set off.’

anchoress comp 2 0993098

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