A Christmas Tale

I used to write a Christmas story every year. In 2020, I feel, we maybe need something like that more than before.

No apologies for being inspired for the details of a Saturday night market by Henry Mayhew’s superb book, London Labour and the London Poor.

This is the first time Simon Westow and Jane have featured in something short. But the new book, To The Dark, comes out on the 31st – go on, pre-order it for Xmas for yourself or someone else (best price here, with free postage!), please – but I’ve also just finished writing the next book, so they’re at the front of my mind.

I hope you enjoy. Be well, be happy. 2021 will be better.

He was surrounded by voices. A river of them – loud, soft, shrill, deep – carried him round. Candles guttered on some of the stalls, casting wild shadows against walls.

            A little after eleven, and the night market was thronged with people. Bodies pressed against him, thick with the smells of drink and dirt, sweat and hopelessness. Simon Westow kept one hand on his knife, the other guarding his purse as his eyes moved across the crowd.

            He made his living a thief-taker, finding property that had been stolen and returning it for a fee. The woman he was seeking was somewhere in the market, caught between the bodies, thinking she was free to spend the money she’d stolen.

            Marjorie Winter was here name. She’d been a good servant for over a year; that was what her employer, Mrs. Carson, claimed. Never even needed a warning. Then, the day before, she’d taken one pound, seven shilling and threepence from the dressing table and disappeared.

            ‘I don’t know what happened to her, Mr Westow.’ Mrs Carson shook her head. She was the widow of a merchant, a handsome woman in her fifties. ‘Just bring the money back and let her go. After all, it’s only a week until Christmas. Time to show a little charity.’

            That seemed unlike her; the woman was known for being vindictive. Still, it wasn’t his business. Simon and his assistant Jane, the feral girl who could follow anyone without being seen, had begun to search. Starting with nothing, asking questions until they discovered some answers.

            It was Jane who found the scent of Marjorie, following it around Leeds, growing closer, until someone passed word that the woman would be at the Saturday night market.

            It felt as if half of the people in town had come, Every Saturday was the same. The market opened at ten, after the men had waited in the beershops to be paid for their week of work. Wives took some of the money for rent and food before their husbands could drink and bet it away. The open space on Boar Lane, next to Holy Trinity Church, was packed.

            Someone lit a torch. It hissed and flared, brilliant orange sparks flying into the sky, and for a moment the cold air was filled with the scene of pine resin. In the flicker he caught sight of Jane, moving around in her old green cloak, shawl pulled over her head.

            No sign of Marjorie Winter. She was a stout young woman, only in her early twenties, with a dark red wine mark on her neck. That was how Mrs Carson had described her. But spotting anyone in this mass of people would pure luck. She was here somewhere; the information was good, from someone who knew her well.

            Voices rose and fell, calling out their wares, as he pushed his way between people

            ‘Eight a penny, grand pears! Come on and buy your pears here.’

‘Fine walnuts! Sixteen a penny, none better!’

‘Oysters from the coast. Fresh and tasty!’

The walnut girl hoisted her basket on to her shoulder to try and force a way through the mass. As Simon slid between two men, he heard a stationer yelling a half-quire of paper for a penny as lonely woman’s voice tried to stand out: ‘Won’t someone buy my bonnet for fourpence? Fourpence?’

On the other side of the stalls, a trio of street singers were attempting a folk song, competing against a blind fiddler whose fingers flew as he blazed through a jig. Just on the edge of the bobbing circle of light, a family stood. A man with his wife and three daughters. All of them clean, dressed in their Sunday church clothes. His head was bowed, and the females silently held out rush mats they’d woven. Poor, hoping for a few pennies, like so many here.

A woman had a row of old shoes lined up along the ground. Ann Carr, the woman preacher, passed out tracts to any soul who’d take one.

‘I’ve found her.’ Jane appeared beside him. She seemed to come from nowhere. ‘Over in the far corner.’

‘Let’s finish it.’

‘She has a little girl with her.’

That made him pause. He’d heard nothing about a child. ‘Are you sure it’s right person?’

A nod. ‘I heard someone call her name.’

He sighed. A girl. This was his job.

‘Come on,’ he said. But he could hear the reluctance in her voice.

Marjorie Winter came up to his shoulder as she stood beside him. She was scared, trying not to show it as she kept a gentle hold of the girl. The child looked to be four or five, Simon judged, no older than that, entranced by all the sights and sounds and smells of the night market.

            ‘Is she going to prosecute me?’ The woman was resigned. She knew she’d been caught, and with the girl here, she wasn’t going to try and run.

            ‘No,’ he told her, and saw the relief spread across her face. The birth mark stood out livid on her neck. ‘How much of the money do you still have?’

            She opened her hand to show the bright coins. ‘Almost one pound and seven shillings, sir. I was going to give most of it to my mother and buy some things for my Sarah here.’ She smiled as she said the name and gently rubbed the girl’s head.

            ‘If you give me the money you have, you can go,’ Simon told her.

            She shook her head, sorrow and confusion showing in her eyes. ‘Mrs Carson owes me that money. She hasn’t paid me for three months. Didn’t she tell you that?’

            ‘So you thought it was right to take her money?’

            ‘Me mother looks after Sarah. I go and see them on my days off and give her money to help pay for things. But I haven’t had any. Do you see, sir?’

            ‘Did you ask her for your pay?’ Simon wasn’t certain he believed her; a thief-taker met too many liars who could twist the truth into impossible shapes.

            ‘At first I thought she’d forgotten. I know she’s had a lot on her mind. She’s spent a lot of time talking to the man who looks after her business. When I did ask, she said she didn’t have any money in the house, to remind her later.’ She looked up at him. ‘I did, sir. I kept mentioning it, and she gave me one excuse after another.’ Marjorie Winter took a breath and shook her head. ‘I didn’t have any choice. My mother needs the money. I saw it lying there. She owes me more than this, sir.’

            It all sounded plausible. She had the edge of desperation in her voice. If she really hadn’t been paid for three months, if it was true, then she was right; she was owed more than she’d taken. From nowhere, a fleeting rumour he’d heard a few weeks before came into his head. A whisper that Mrs Carson had problems; half the shops in Leeds were preparing to dun her, and the bankers weren’t willing to extend any more credit. At the time he’d paid it no mind. Now, though, it made sense.

He stared at Marjorie again. Hopelessness on her face, that sense of being beaten down and defeated once more, the look so many wore.

Simon glanced at Jane. She’d been watching and listening to it all. She gave him the smallest nod of her head: let her go. Her hand snaked from her pocket, opening up the little girl’s fist and placing something inside it. As she looked up in astonishment, Jane put a finger to her lips.

            She believed the servant. That was enough for him.

            ‘Go and spend your money,’ he said, and Marjorie Winter’s eyes widened in disbelief. ‘I won’t be coming after you again. No one else will, either.’ He’d make sure of that.

            ‘Sir…’ she stumbled over the word, not sure how to reply. ‘I told my mother I’ll go for a mill girl. I’m not going back to service. At least I’ll see this one every night.’

            ‘You’re safe.’

            ‘Thank you, sir. I don’t know what else to say. Thank the man, Sarah.’ The little girl bobbed a small curtsey and the pair of them began to move away. Marjorie kept glancing over her shoulder, close to tears, until they were swallowed by the crowd.

            They wouldn’t be paid. But it wasn’t a job where they’d have earned much. If the rumour about Mrs Carson was true, he wouldn’t have ended up with a penny, anyway.

            No matter.

           A week to Christmas. Maybe he’d done his good deed.

Jane, Jane…An Extract From To The Dark

First of all, thanks to everyone who entered the contest on the blog. A winner was drawn and informed, and the books are on their way.

It’s less than a month now until the third Simon Westow, To The Dark, novel appears. If you haven’t read any of them (you should!) he’s a thief-taker in 1820s Leeds. A man who finds and returns stolen items to their owners for a fee. He’s very good at his job; it’s made him well-off, with a house and ample money. Until his wife Rosie became pregnant with their twins sons, they worked together.

For the last few years, however, he’s had another assistant. Jane, a street girl who appeared out of nowhere. She’s observant, she possesses the ability to follow without being seen, blending into a crowd, or even an empty street simply by being female with a shawl over her head. Her time scrabbling to stay alive in Leeds has given her an absolute knowledge of every nook and cranny in the place, and she can sense when someone is trying to follow her. To top it all, her hard life has made her deadly and ruthless with her knife.

Jane was originally intended as a major but secondary character in the books. But the people who come to you can have a way of taking over – witness Annabelle Harper in the Tom Harper novels. Jane isn’t a forceful character; she actually doesn’t bother much with conversation. But her presence is all she needs.

As To The Dark shows, she’s at home in the places most people would never date go, and really never lets herself become distracted. Almost never, at least…

Jane kept to the shadows, treading carefully as she approached. There were about twenty people gathered round the blaze. One or two were very young, no more than four or five years old, their eyes alive with fear. They stayed huddled together for warmth and safety. The others were a little older. They’d survived on the streets long enough to have developed a shell. But it was all bravado. She knew that, she’d learned by spending five years out here herself. She’d lived. Half of those in this place wouldn’t last long.

            Firelight flickered and picked out the boy’s face. Jane worked her way around, keeping out of sight until she was close enough to sit by him. His head turned sharply as she settled and he began to rise until he felt the ha’penny she placed in his hand.

            ‘Some questions,’ she whispered. He nodded and stood. Before she could move, he started to run. Just a few yards, then he tumbled on to his face. By the time Jane reached him, the children around the fire had scattered like birds. Into the night for safety. Except for one girl. She stood over the boy, staring at him as he whimpered.

            ‘You’re safe. I don’t want to hurt you,’ Jane told him. ‘Just questions, like I said.’

            ‘Got to watch him,’ the girl said. ‘He’s sly and he’s fast. I knew he’d run as soon as I saw you get close. I made sure he couldn’t get far.’

            Clever and observant. A useful combination.

            ‘Thank you.’ Jane took hold of the boy’s arm and lifted him until he was sitting on the cold concrete of the floor. The flames picked out a fresh cut on his cheek and a scrape on his knee. Nothing serious.

            ‘You went to see a man on Paradise today.’

            He nodded, bobbing his head quickly and rubbing his ankle.

            ‘Why did you do that?’

            ‘He pays me to bring him news. Anything interesting. A farthing a time.’

            It would keep him fed for a day.

            ‘How long have you been doing that?’

            ‘A week?’ The boy shrugged. ‘Something like that.’

            ‘How many times have you been to see him?’

            He looked up, his eyes wide and earnest. ‘Three times before today. Then I heard about that man at Flay Cross Mill.’

            Jane added two pennies to the coin she’d given him; it was still clutched in his fist. He looked at her once more, then jumped to his feet and ran off.

            ‘You work with the thief-taker, don’t you?’ the girl said.

            ‘That’s right.’ She was surprised. It was strange enough that a child should have heard of Simon. Even more that the girl would recognize her. ‘What’s your name?’

            ‘Martha.’ She looked to be around eight or nine years old, almost too thin and hungry for this world, a small sack of flesh sewed tight over bones. Pale, dirty hair that hung long and curly around her face. A dress that was too short, only reaching halfway down her calves. Threadbare stockings and her shoes were a ruin of leather.

            ‘You did well.’ Jane took two pennies from her pocket and passed them over. She had money, plenty of it; more than she could ever spend. Simon always paid her half his fee and business was usually good.

            ‘I can help you again,’ the girl offered. She tried to sound as if the idea had just come to her. But Jane could hear the longing under it all and hid her smile.

            ‘Find me tomorrow if you know anything.’ That was as close to a promise as she was going to give.

            Out in the night, Jane breathed. The air was heavy, leaving a bitter taste on her tongue as she began to walk. Up Briggate, Commercial Street, Lands Lane, towards home. Suddenly she sensed it again. Someone was behind her. She couldn’t hear any footsteps. But she was certain it was there. He. A man. It had to be a man.

            She needed somewhere to hide.

To The Dark is published in the UK on December 31. The ebook appears everywhere Feb1, and the US publication is March 1.

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.

 

A Taste Of The Hocus Girl

In a little more than a fortnight, The Hocus Girl will be out in the UK (Amazon is already sending copies to customers). If you’re a blogger or review, the book is available on NetGalley.

Yes, I really do want you to buy it. I’ll try to persuade you and twist your arm.

But perhaps a few short extracts might convince you. You can order from your local bookshop. Give them the business, keep them going. And if you can’t afford it, then please ask your local library to stock it. Libraries are vital to us all. We need to use them, to fight to keep them open.

I hope you enjoy this – please let me know.

 

Near the top of Kirkgate, Simon pushed open the heavy door of the gaol. The place was old now, mortar crumbling between the stones, cold even in the spring sun. The clerk at the desk raised his head.

‘Mr Westow,’ he said in surprise. ‘Have you brought someone for us?’

‘Davey Ashton. Do you have him in the cells?’

‘No, sir.’ The man frowned and pushed the spectacles up his nose. He put down his pen and rubbed the fingers of his right hand. ‘There’s no one by that name. When was he arrested?’

‘This morning.’

The clerk’s expression cleared and his mouth turned down. ‘Is this the sedition case?’

‘Yes.’

‘They’re questioning him at the Moot Hall. I’ll warn you now, though, they won’t let you in. It’s supposed to be secret, but I’ve heard there have been arrests all over the West Riding. Breaking up a rebellion, that’s what they’re saying.’

Simon felt a chill rise through his body. Rebellion was a capital crime. The death penalty. Hanging. In God’s name, what was going on?

‘Who’s the magistrate?’

‘Mr Curzon.’

He knew all about Curzon. A mill owner, a rich man who paid his workers as little as he dared and worked them as hard as he could. A man who’d honed away his compassion and conscience and replaced them with gold.

He’d be putting his questions, damning Davey to hell and threatening him with transportation for life or the noose. Simon felt the desperation clawing in his belly. He had to do something. But he wouldn’t even be able to see Davey until Curzon was done. And he didn’t know how he could save his friend.

‘I see. Thank you.’ A nod and he left. At least he knew his enemy now.

 

‘The government’s spying on Englishmen?’ For a moment, Simon wasn’t sure he’d heard properly.

‘You make it sound as if that’s something shocking,’ Miller snorted. ‘They’ve been doing it for centuries. They’re petrified, Simon. Terrified. With the price of food so high and wages low, they’re afraid we’re going to rebel like the French did thirty years ago and send them all to the guillotine.’

‘More Peterloos.’

No one would ever forget the day when a Manchester magistrate sent the cavalry to break up a political meeting. Fifteen had died, hundreds were wounded.

‘Or worse,’ Miller continued. ‘They’re taking no chances. So they’re sending agents to spy on people.’ He shrugged and drank again.

A spy. Simon considered the idea.

‘What else do you know?’

The man shook his head as an answer. ‘That’s it, Simon. Little things I’ve heard and put together. It might not be true. But I’ll wager good money it is.’

It was. He could feel it in his bones. He took out another coin and slid it across the table.

‘I’d like to know more about this spy. If you can find anything. Anything at all…’

Miller rubbed the thumb and the stubs of two fingers together. Money. ‘I’ll let you know.’

 

 

With great care, Jane emptied the sack. Five pieces made from silver. Barstow had stolen eight. Simon had recovered the watch; two still missing, exactly as the man had said. She stacked everything in the corner, tucked out of sight behind the chair, wadded her shawl and pushed it deep into the sack. A moment later she emerged into the daylight, the fingers of her right hand curled tight around the knife.

Someone was behind her. She could hear him, the way the rhythm of footsteps matched her own. It wouldn’t be Barstow; he didn’t have the skill or the courage. Not that it mattered. Jane was going to lead him through the courts and yards and finish up behind him. Then she’d make him regret this.

She didn’t even need to think where she was going. Leeds was imprinted in her mind, in her feet. She’d walked every inch of the town time and again, she’d lived on its streets when she was a child. Sometimes knowing where to turn and how to hide could be the difference between staying alive and dying.

 

It only took five minutes before she came out of a tiny ginnel to see the figure ahead of her, gazing around, unsure which way to turn. Jane stopped, staring in disbelief. Not a man at all. A woman. Taller and heavier than her, several years older, with a tumble of thick dark hair that hung like a rat’s nest over her shoulders. She wore an old, patched cotton dress too short to reach her clogs, a threadbare shawl gathered on her shoulders.

For a second, Jane was too stunned to move. Then she breathed slowly. Man or woman, it didn’t matter. This was a threat.

The woman tensed as Jane pricked her back with the tip of her knife and whispered, ‘Why are you looking for me?’

‘He paid me. Two pennies.’ She opened her fist to show a pair of coins.

‘Who?’ Jane wanted to hear the name.

‘Him.’ That was her only response.

‘Why? What does he want?’

‘He said I had to see where you went then go back and tell him.’ Her voice shook. ‘Please… don’t hurt me.’

Jane took two steps back. Something was wrong. As soon as he heard her voice, Barstow would have known exactly who she was. Every crook in Leeds knew she worked with Simon, and the thief-taker didn’t hide his address. This woman came from someone else. Who?

‘Then you’d better tell him I managed to lose you.’

‘I can’t.’

Silently, Jane took another pace away from the woman, eyes fixed, knife ready for any movement.

The woman turned, lunging. Light glinted on the blade of a long dagger. But all she caught was air. Before she could recover, Jane was on her. A slash opened the girl’s arm and her knife clattered to the ground. Jane kicked it away.

‘Do you really want me to kill you?’

A shake of the head. The girl pressed the edge of her shawl down on the wound, trying to staunch the blood. Her face had turned pale.

‘Then don’t come after me again,’ Jane warned. ‘Ever.’

For a moment she stared, then turned and walked away. Even as she did it, Jane knew she was making a mistake. If this had been a man, she’d have killed him. She’d been too cautious. Too generous. Too stupid. Too weak. This wasn’t finished yet. As certain as morning, the woman would return.

Hocus Girl final