Everything Safe: Urban Raven, 1939

 

10 years

Continuing these 10 years of publishing crime novels set in Leeds, I’m moving back in time a little to revisit Detective Sergeant Urban Raven, the main character in The Dead on Leave.

That book took place in 1936. We’ve moved on a bit, to 1939, with the shadow of war hanging very dark over Britain.

Leeds, April 1939

 

‘I’m coming in,’ Raven shouted. ‘Just me, I’m a policeman and I’m not armed. No need to take a pot shot at me, all right?’

He waited, but there was no reply. He’d never really excepted one. He tapped the trilby down on his head, tightened the belt on his gaberdine mackintosh and took a deep breath. Nothing to worry about. The lad would be too scared to fire again, and he certainly wouldn’t dare fire at a copper.

He turned and looked at the other. Detective Inspector Mortimer and DC Noble standing behind the black Humber Super Snipe, and the three constables waiting for orders.

A deep breath and he began to walk across the cobbles. At the top of the embankment a train hurried by in a flurry of steam and smoke. Detective Sergeant Urban Raven put his hand on the doorknob of the workshop under the railway arch, paused for a fraction of a section, then turned it.

He stood, silhouetted by the daylight on Kirkgate.

The gun boomed.

 

The world was damp. It seemed to cling to him. Rain had fallen every day since the beginning of the month, sometimes heavy, sometimes no more than a mist. But it was always there. Everything seemed brown or grey in the city centre. People moved purposefully heads down. Nobody idled or stared and smiled.

Urban Raven didn’t mind. If they never looked, he’d be perfectly happy. His face bore the thick scars and shiny skin of plastic surgery. In France, October 1918, he’d been badly burned when a German shell exploded in a fuel dump. Two decades on and he was still all too aware of the effect he had, the way people glanced at him, then hurriedly turned their heads away. Sometimes he even imagined he saw disgust on his wife’s face. Or it might have been pity. Hard to tell which was worse. It seemed easier to think about work. There was always plenty to do.

War was coming. Chamberlain had claimed he brought them all peace in his time, but everyone knew the truth. All the young men on the police force would go into the services. Everything would fall on the shoulders of old-timers like him, on the policewomen and Specials. The only question was when the axe would fall. Soon, people agreed, soon; it seemed they were holding their breath.

Raven knew about some of the preparations, the amount of re-armament, civil servants preparing for a flood of army volunteers. He’d helped with checking the records on aliens around Leeds; come the declaration of hostilities and they’d quietly visit some of them and send them off to internment camps.

But right now, as he walked through Harehills, up Hovingham Avenue to Dorset Road, it all felt a long way off. It might never happen.

He rapped on the door of number seventeen, one more terraced house in a long row of them. Nobody answered. But someone was inside. He felt sure of it; he could feel them there, hiding away until he left.

Raven knocked once more, then went back down the street, glancing over his shoulder. No one had appeared. No twitch on the curtains to show he was being watched.

Easy enough to slip down the ginnel. The wall at the back of the yards was tall enough to hide him. He counted his way along, then placed his hand on the latch of the gate he wanted.

Even before he could press down, someone pulled it open and he was face-to-face with Bert Dawson, watching the man’s jaw drop in astonishment. Collywobbles, that was his nickname. The slightest thing and he’d start shaking with worry.

‘Fancy meeting you here,’ Raven said with a smile. ‘You’re just who I wanted to see.’

‘You should have come to the front door, Sergeant Raven. I was just off to the shop.’ But he was already shaking like an old man.

‘Happen I can save you the trip. We’ll have a cup of tea down at headquarters and you can tell me about those robberies you’ve been on lately. You made off with a nice little haul, by the sound of it.’

 

The CID office was upstairs in the Central Library, and Raven marched Dawson up the wide tiled steps.

‘You see, Collywobbles, you’re moving up in the world. Getting yourself charged in a place like this, not the local nick. You should be pleased.’

He’d just finished taking the statement when Mortimer popped his head round the door.

‘Have a uniform take him down to the bridewell.’

By the time he reached the office, men were already shrugging into their overcoats and pushing their hats over their eyes.

‘What is it?’

‘Wages robbery,’ Mortimer said. ‘Down at Hope Foundry. Two thieves and a driver. They had a sawn-off shotgun. Fired it. A couple of clerks were hit, one’s in bad shape. They got away, but they’re in a workshop in the railway arches on The Calls.’

‘Are we signing out any weapons?’ DC Noble asked.

‘Already done, lad. We have a trained marksman down there.’

arches

Three of them in the plain black car, Mortimer driving. No bells ringing. Everything quiet. He weaved in and out of the traffic on the Headrow and Vicar Lane, halting by the police roadblock on Harper Street.

‘Are they all still in there?’ Raven asked the sergeant in charge.

‘Witnesses said one of them scarpered as soon as they pulled up. We’ve got a description and we’re hunting for him now. But the shooter’s still inside.

‘What do you want to do, sir?’ Raven asked Mortimer.

‘First of all we’re going to evacuate all those businesses other arches. We don’t want any civilians around if there are people with guns. Take care of it,’ he order the uniformed sergeant. ‘After that, about all we can do is tell them the police are here so they should come out and surrender.’ He lit a cigarette and shrugged. ‘It’s all rather like a gangster film, but I don’t see what choice we have.’

A train rattled along, gathering speed as it left the station and going east. Smuts of soot settled all around them.

‘Do we have any idea how much they took?’

‘Well over a thousand,’ Mortimer answered as he blew out smoke. ‘Hardly pocket money, is it?’ He glanced around. ‘The marksman is upstairs in the warehouse across the street. He’ll be ready if we need him.’

‘Let’s hope we don’t, sir.’ Raven stared at the door. Big and broad for a motor car to fit through. Made of corrugated iron, like the rest of the covering over the arch. Worn and rusted. A tiny window to let in a little light. A thought struck him. ‘Could we cut off their electricity? Do that and it’ll be pitch black in there.’

‘We will if they don’t surrender,’ Mortimer agreed. ‘We’ll get someone down here, just in case.’

A young constable ran up and spoke quietly to Noble. The man frowned.

‘One of the clerks who was shot at the foundry has died. A girl, not even twenty.’

‘They’ll hang for that.’

‘Tell them, sir?’

Mortimer shook his head. ‘Not until they’re out and we have the weapon. They won’t give up otherwise.’

The sergeant dashed up, face red from running. ‘All the other arches are empty, sir.’

Inspector Mortimer picked up a megaphone and began to speak. It made his voice ring around the street. They’d be able to hear him clearly in the arch. A simple offer, a promise of fair treatment if they gave themselves up.

The silence hung heavy when he finished. Nothing from inside.

‘Electricity, sir?’ Raven said after they’d heard no sound for two full minutes.

‘Yes,’ Mortimer replied. He kept his gaze on the arch, finishing one cigarette and replacing it immediately with another.

It didn’t take long. The man was up the pole and back down again in the blink of an eye.

‘It’ll be like the dead of night in there for them,’ he said as he hitched up his leather tool belt and pulled down his cap. ‘You need me for owt else?’

 

Over the next two hours, Mortimer used the megaphone twice more. But there never any answer from inside.

Raven began to walk, flowing the pavement around the embankment where the old gravestones from the Parish Church burial ground cover the grass. No way out on the other wide. The killers were trapped in there. But not in any hurry to come out.

‘I don’t know about you, sir, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the day here,’ he said.

‘Any good ideas?’ Mortimer asked.

‘March in and drag them out.’

The inspector shook his head. ‘They have a gun and not much to lose right now.’

‘We can take go in. It might take them by surprise.’ He glanced across the street to the marksman waiting in the window, his rifle tight against his shoulder. ‘Just make sure he’s ready.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘What’s the choice, sir?’ Raven said. ‘Go in mob-handed? We risk losing more men that way. If we try to wait them out, they’ll be firing when they open the door. And God knows when that might be.’

‘I can’t order you to do it, Sergeant.’

‘I know, sir. I’m volunteering.’

If they killed him, what would that matter? No more looking at the face in the mirror every morning. No more thinking that his wife couldn’t stand to see him. She’d be able to find herself someone who looked normal.

He liked his job, he enjoyed being a detective. But if this was it…at least he wouldn’t pass the young lads on the street and wonder which of them might end up like him after the next war. And it was coming soon enough…

Mortimer cocked his head, as if he could read all the thoughts in Raven’s head.

‘If that’s what you want.’

‘It is, sir.’

 

A deep breath and he began to walk across the cobbles. A train crossed overhead in a flurry of steam and smoke. Detective Sergeant Urban Raven put his hand on the doorknob of the workshop under the railway arch, paused for a fraction of a section, then turned it.

He stood, silhouetted by the light on Kirkgate.

The gun boomed.

A pause, then it fired again.

 

The smell of cordite. Thick smoke that made him cough. His ears rang; he couldn’t hear a thing.

But he wasn’t hit. No wounds at all.

As the air began to clear, he could see them. A pair of young men in cheap, flashy suits, gaudy Prince of Wales checks. They were lying on the floor, sprawled on their back and staring into eternity. They shotgun lay between them.

Christ, he thought. He’d expected the worst, but not that.

Christ.

‘It’s me,’ he called. ‘I’m coming out, Everything’s safe in here.’

The Dead on Leave is available in paperback and as an ebook.

The Dead on Leave (1)

More Old Leeds Footage (And A Leaden Heart Update)

As you all know by now, The Leaden Heart was published last Friday. However…if you’ve been trying to buy the hardback online, you may well have found a problem. There’s been a glitch with the wholesaler that supplies online retailers and the book is showing as not available. I’m told this should be fixed by the end of the week, so please be patient, and I thank you. That said, a bricks-and-mortar bookshop will be able to get you a copy, as it’s a different distributor. If you’ve already bought it or reserved it at the library, thank you so much. But please may I ask one more favour – cheeky, I know. Could you write a review of it somewhere, please. Reviews really do help. They’re the best word-of-mouth advertising.

 

Meanwhile, the old footage of Leeds that I’ve posted here and there has proved very popular, so here are a couple more pieces. Nothing quite as ancient, sadly, but the first piece was still filmed more than a century ago. A very large group of Special Constables in the early stages of training in Leeds during World War I. I watched this and then realised that my grandfather is probable among them. His eyesight was too poor for the army, so he became a Special instead.

The second piece seems to be mostly from the 1930s. The focus is far from perfect, but tre’s a royal visit in there, probably to open the new Civic Hall in 1933, and footage of City Square and the building of the new Queen’s Hotel.

Be glad that these glimpses into the history of our city, our own past, are available.

And I’ll finish with this, from the Yorkshire Post.

TLH_YP

Roaring Thirties, Part 3

CHAPTER SIX

 

At nine o’clock Johnny Williams was standing by the telephone box close to the bottom on East Parade. He’d hung an out of order sign on the receiver, and was standing close enough to grab it at the first ring. From the shadows he could see across City Square to the railway station. The rush hour crowd had passed, only a few people left on the dusty street.

The Austin Swallow was parked at the kerb, the Enfield rifle locked and secure in the boot. Over fifteen years had passed since he’d hefted one, but after signing the chit and picking up the weapon, time seemed to slip away.

Forbes and Gorman would be waiting, too, one on the Headrow, the other on Briggate. The banks would open in half an hour, and the wages would be collected by ten-thirty.

Now all he had to do was wait.

He was still missing something important. But for the life of him, he didn’t know what.

By ten o’clock he was checking his wristwatch every two minutes. The pile of cigarette butts around his feet kept growing.

At half-past ten, just as he was about to give up and remove the sign, the telephone rang.

‘Where?’ he asked.

‘Burton’s factory,’ Randall told him. ‘Wages office.’

 

He cursed the traffic by the market, cutting in between vehicles and sliding through gaps, pressing hard on the accelerator of the Austin, hand jammed on the horn.

He’d only thought about the bloody banks. He’d looked at one half of the equation. The money went to the factories. Thousands of pounds would be delivered to somewhere like Burton’s every Friday morning. The gang had done banks, and he’d been too blind to think beyond that.

Forbes was already there, his car jammed halfway on the pavement. The gang had long since gone. No point in chasing them, Johnny through. From York Road they could have gone anywhere. The needle in the proverbial haystack.

Inside, one woman was crying, her face buried in a handkerchief. Two older men looked stoic and defeated. The air stank of cordite and he could pick out three bullet holes in the wall.

‘Anyone hurt?’ he asked.

Forbes shook his head. ‘Just shocked and scared, by the look of it.’

‘How much did they get?’

‘The head clerk’s over there.’ He pointed at a gaunt older man with a bald head and a thin, grim mouth. Behind a pair of thick spectacles, his eyes stared into the distance.

‘Sir,’ Johnny said, and the man turned his eyes on him, suddenly aware of where he was. ‘I’m Detective Sergeant Williams, CID. Can you tell me what happened?’

They’d been crude and basic, but effective. Three of them had burst in, immediately firing shots into the walls and ceiling, enough to petrify the staff. A few barked orders and they were gone in thirty seconds.

‘How much did they get?’ Williams asked.

Shaking his head, the man opened a thick ledger, hands shaking slightly as a stubby fingertip ran down a line of numbers.

‘Seven thousand, three hundred and fourteen pounds,’ he said hoarsely. His face was still pale ‘And another hundred that we had in petty cash.’

That was it. They’d made the big score. Johnny let out a low whistle.

‘What about the workers here?’ the man asked plaintively. ‘They’ll need to be paid. It’s my responsibility, you see.’

‘Telephone the bank, sir. They’ll be able to arrange something.’ He walked over to Forbes. ‘Have some constables come and take statements. I’m going back to the station.’

 

Randall was pacing the floor of the CID office, stopping when Williams entered.

‘Well?’ he asked. ‘Anyone hurt?’

‘No. They just shot to scare.’

‘How much did they take?’

Johnny told him, then said, ‘They’ve just become the most notorious gang in England.’

‘I’ve had the chief constable on the blower,’ the superintendent told him. ‘No prizes for guessing what he said. And the bloody newspapers have already heard.’

‘It’s my fault. I never thought past banks.’

Randall shook his head. ‘None of us did. We couldn’t have guarded every factory in Leeds, anyway.’

‘It’s still galling.’

‘We need to catch them sharpish.’

‘We will.’ He lit a cigarette.

‘Then what are you waiting for?’ Randall asked. As Johnny turned away, he said, ‘Did you turn in the rifle?’

He had, watching it locked away in a cupboard at the station, still surprised at how natural it had felt when he held it.

 

By evening the robbery would be all over the front page. The robbers would be celebrating. Soon enough, though, they’d need to make fresh plans. They’d all told their parents they’d be home on Sunday, but he doubted that would happen now.

They were infamous. Young, rich, and dangerous. He thought. They’d be eager to spend some of that money, to show off. And now they were in the spotlight, they wouldn’t want to be anonymous much longer.

An hour later, he’d been to Alwoodley, Adel and Thorner, talking to the mothers to see if their sons had been in touch. So far there hadn’t been a single word.

‘When you hear from Asa, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention I was looking for him.’ He offered his best smile and returned the photograph; everyone on the force already had a copy. ‘After all, it was probably nothing.’

‘All right,’ she agreed. The other women did the same and he hoped they’d keep their word. It was the only advantage he possessed. He had their names and they didn’t know that. Yet.

 

Violet had a Scotch and soda and a copy of the Evening Post waiting on the table. The cocktail bar was busy with people, a buzz of conversation surrounding them.

‘I thought you could use that.’

He glanced at the headline – Thieves Grab Thousands In Factory Raid – tossed the newspaper aside and took a sip of the drink.

‘Better,’ he declared and smiled.

‘What are you going to do now?’

‘I was wondering if the power of prayer might help. What have they had you doing?’

‘I went out to interview one of the women at Burton’s. A little extra for the main story tomorrow. The poor woman looked like she was about to burst into tears.’

‘Did you see the bullet holes?’

‘I made sure the photographer took pictures.’

‘Do you fancy a night on the tiles?’ Johnny asked.

‘I won’t say no,’ she answered brightly. ‘What brings this on?’

‘I thought we’d have a bite to eat and go round the clubs.’

She cocked her head. ‘Is this work?’

‘And pleasure.’ He grinned.

‘What are we doing?’

‘Well…’ he began and she listened carefully, chin resting on the back of her hand.

‘What are you going to do if we find them?’

‘Arrest them, of course.’

Violet shook her head.

‘You know you’re mad, don’t you?’

‘I prefer to think of it as enthusiastic.’

She arched an eyebrow doubtfully.

‘Enthusiastic?’

‘Definitely.’

 

A drink in one club that looked little better than a pub with coloured lights and bad music. Then an hour spent dancing at the Kit Kat, foxtrots and Charlestons to the sound of a hot jazz band, Violet’s face flushed with pleasure.

The third place was a cellar on Wellington Street, half the bulbs on the sign burned out. A trio played listless music, and the waitresses all had hard, bored faces. He ordered a Scotch for himself, a gin and tonic for Violet, and glanced around the room.

The lights were dim and the place crowded. It took a while before his eyes settled on a face in the far corner.

‘You’re very quiet.’

‘Just looking,’ he replied with a smile. ‘Over in the far corner, sitting at a table with the redhead. That’s Asa Bradley.’

‘It could be,’ she agreed after a little while. ‘A lot like him, anyway.’

‘But if he’s here, where are the others?’ There were no other men at the table.

‘What are you going to do?’ Violet asked.

Johnny picked up the glass. ‘Have my drink, then arrest him.’

‘He could be armed.’

‘I don’t think so.’ He was studying the man. He seemed tipsy, his gestures exaggerated, the smile too broad. The redhead with him was hardly paying attention, watching a couple move in a slow drag around the dancefloor.

Johnny drained the whisky and stood.

‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we’ll have time for another.’

Up close, he was certain that the man was Bradley. But he was freshly barbered, hair slick and gleaming in the light. His suit looked new, but not expensive: a fifty-shilling job. The shirt collar still crisp and very white, the tie gaudy.

‘Asa?’ Johnny said. ‘Asa Bradley?’

The man turned. His eyes weren’t quite focused and his face looked slightly confused.

‘Yes,’ Bradley said doubtfully.

‘I thought it was you,’ Johnny said. ‘I told my wife it was, but she said it couldn’t be. Are you still racing those little cars?’

‘No,’ he began and squinted. ‘I’m sorry, I…’

‘Of course you do. It’s Johnny. Johnny Williams.’

‘I…’ He looked confused.

‘Come on. You must. The Midland Bank on Monday, Burton’s today.’

Bradley was on his feet, pushing Williams aside, lurching as he weaved between tables, crashing against things and toppling glasses. Johnny followed, amused. And then Bradley was face down on the floor.

‘I’m terribly sorry,’ Violet said with concern, as she rubbed her ankle. ‘You seem to have tripped over my leg. Are you all right?’

Johnny locked the handcuffs on the man’s wrists.

‘That was very neat,’ he said.

She frowned. ‘He laddered my stocking. It was a new pair, too.’

He hauled Bradley to his feet, a hand on his collar.

‘You should have remembered me,’ he said.

‘Don’t you have to say “You’re nicked” or something now?’ Violet asked.

‘No, it’s optional. Can you ring the police and have them send a Black Maria down for him?’ He pushed Bradley onto an empty chair. ‘Just stay there.’ There was no resistance in the man. The hubbub had settled, the band had stopped playing and everyone in the club was staring. ‘Sorry about that,’ Johnny announced, and nodded at the pianist on the stage. The music began again.

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

A bulky constable stood guard by the door after escorting Asa Bradley to the interview room. Johnny was sitting on the other side of the desk, neat and shaved in the morning sun through the windows.

After a night in the cells, Bradley looked worn. The new suit was rumpled and creased, a line of grime around his shirt collar. He’d washed and run a hand through his hair, but he still looked the worse for wear, his face bleary and bloated. There was fear in his eyes.

Johnny emptied the contents of a large envelope onto the wood. A wallet, keys, handkerchief, some coins, and a thick roll of bank notes.

‘You’ve done well for yourself, Asa,’ he said. ‘Two hundred and thirty-five pounds and some change.’ The man shrugged and gave a quick smile. ‘But you took more a lot of money in the robberies. It’s nice enough clobber you bought, but it wasn’t that expensive.’ Johnny waited, but there was no reply. ‘Or did they give you less because you were only the driver?’

‘We split it four ways.’

‘Really? They were the ones taking the risk. All you had to do was sit behind the wheel.’

‘It wasn’t like that.’

‘Of course not.’ He smiled. ‘All for one?’

‘How did you find out?’

‘About you?’ He saw Bradley nod. ‘I’m CID. It’s my job. We have all your names – Cogden, Boyd, Carey.’ He took out a packet of Gold Flake and offered Bradley one of the cigarettes. ‘Asa’s an unusual name.’

The man rolled his eyes. ‘It’s for my grandfather,’ he said glumly. ‘My middle name’s Ewart, after Gladstone.’

‘Asa Ewart Bradley.’ Johnny rolled the name around. ‘Still, it’ll sound good when you’re at His Majesty’s pleasure in jail. The other prisoners will like that.’ He paused. ‘What made you do it?’

It took him a while to reply. ‘Fun, really. Just to see if we could.’ He drew down a lungful of smoke and grinned as he blew it out. ‘We haven’t done too badly.’

‘Except for the fact that you’re looking at five years behind bars.’

Bradley shrugged, but his eyes were worried.

‘The days are very long in there. No fun at all. How old are you, Asa?’

‘Twenty.’

‘So you’ll be twenty-five when you get out.’

‘That’s not too bad.’ He could hear the bravado in the voice.

‘Of course, no one will hire you. And I daresay your family will disown you. Your father was the area manager for Dunlop, wasn’t he?’

‘Yes.’

Johnny let the silence build around them and ground out his cigarette butt in the ashtray.

‘You know…’he began tentatively.

‘What?’

‘It’s just an idea.’ Johnny waved his cigarette in the air. ‘No, you wouldn’t like it.’

‘What?’ Bradley repeated.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t.’

‘What is it?’

‘I was going to make you an offer. If you tell me where to find the others, I could see you get a shorter sentence. As long as we get the weapons and the money, too, of course.’ He looked at Bradley’s clothes, already looking cheap and dirty after a single night in custody. ‘Most of it, anyway. But you probably wouldn’t go for it. Loyalty and all that.’

‘They did pay me less since I was only driving,’ he admitted.

‘Whose idea was that?’

‘Charlie’s. He thought up the whole thing.’

‘The raid on the gunsmith, too?’

‘Yes. He thought it would be better if we all had guns.’

‘I see.’ Johnny looked down at the floor and pursed his lips. ‘Did you carry one?’

‘No. I don’t like them.’

‘But Charlie and the others did.’

‘Yes. He likes playing with that pistol. You know, quick draws and things.’

‘That’s something. Judges don’t like weapons.’

‘Will it help with my sentence?’ Bradley asked.

‘Probably. At least you won’t get more.’ He shrugged. Enough time had passed for the idea to take root. ‘Of course, you could get less.’

‘If I tell you where to find them?’

‘Yes.’ He let his gaze linger on the sunshine beyond the window. ‘Just think of all those summers you’ll miss.’ He paused for just a heartbeat. ‘All those girls you’ll never kiss.’

Johnny gave him take to absorb the thought. ‘Where are the others, Asa?’

 

The barn was a good ten miles outside Leeds. It was at the rear of a property owned by a friend of Cogden’s, away down a track, hidden by trees. Bradley had given it up easily enough. He’d even drawn a map, then looked up hopefully.

‘Thank you,’ Johnny told him. ‘We’ll have a word at your trial.’

And now Williams was crouched behind in the woods, staring at the building. There were twenty uniforms around, along with Forbes and Gorman, all of them waiting for his signal.

He’d been watching for a quarter of an hour, hoping for some sign of activity. The Enfield sniper rifle hung over his shoulder on its strap, ready to use. The three of them had signed out for weapons again, but the constables were unarmed.

So far he’d seen nothing. No sound except the birds overhead.

Finally he stood. Sooner or later they’d need to go in. Waiting had told him nothing. It was time. He felt the others rise around him, took a deep breath, then began to walk through the long grass.

Johnny kept his eyes on the barn. At the edge of the trees he paused for a few seconds before marching on. He was braced for a shot, ready to throw himself on the ground.

But with each yard, there was still nothing. Johnny didn’t look at any of the other men. His eyes were fixed firmly ahead, rifle held at port, sweat on his palms.

He broke into a trot, moving at a crouch, zig-zagging across the open ground before the barn, waiting for the first bullet.

It was cooler in the shadow of the building. He pressed himself against the wall, letting his eyes adjust to the shade after the bright sunshine.

Johnny edged to the door, scarcely daring to breathe.

It was unlocked, slightly ajar. He could see tyre tracks on the grass, leading in and out. Very slowly, he extended the barrel of the rifle inside the door and pushed it to widen the opening.

Johnny ducked and entered. But there was nothing inside except silence and gloom.

It was easy to see where they’d been, depressions in the hay, the remains of a fire, a ten pound note blown into a corner. They must have left when Bradley didn’t return.

The men searched carefully, but there was little, and no indication of where they’d gone.

After half an hour, Johnny left them to their work and drove back into Leeds. The rifle was locked in the boot. This time he’d be happy to put it away. He could feel the quiet fury burning inside. The gang had stayed one step ahead.

 

‘How long had they been gone?’ Randall asked.

‘Hard to tell. But they hadn’t rushed. They’d taken everything except this.’ He produced the ten-pound note from his trouser pocket. ‘It’ll match the serial numbers from one of the robberies.’

‘Where do you think they went?’

Williams shrugged and nodded at three folders on the corner of the superintendent’s desk.

‘Are those the files on them?’

‘I’ve had men interviewing everyone we can find. That’s what we’ve come up with so far.’

Johnny spent the next two hours at his desk, reading through every word and making notes, smoking quietly. All around, the daily business of CID continued, but he didn’t notice or raise his head. He was absorbed in his work, constantly referring back to what he’d seen earlier.

By the time he put the folders aside, he knew much more about Cogden, Boyd and Carey. They’d all gone to Leeds Grammar School, friends for years. He took out the photographs and laid them side by side on the blotter. Young faces, smooth and without the experience of life. Cogden’s was full of arrogance, a sharpness in his eyes, the beginning of a smirk in his smile. The others didn’t have his confidence. They were more hesitant as they stared into the camera, not so sure about things; they’d be happy to have someone else lead them. Nature’s followers.

 

He was parked outside the Yorkshire Post building when Violet emerged at the end of her Saturday morning at work. She was wearing a cream dress with a wide belt of soft leather that accentuated her shape.

‘You look happy. A good morning?’

‘Very.’ She smiled wickedly. ‘Bill was so galled. He had to interview me. Did you know I was responsible for the capture of a dangerous criminal?’

‘Were you?’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘I thought that was me.’

‘It’s going to be in the late edition.’ She primped her hair. ‘Photograph, too.’

‘Did they get your good side?’

‘They’d better. I spent ten minutes posing. Did you get anything from Bradley?’

‘Where the gang was hiding.’

‘And?’

‘They’d gone by the time we arrived.’

‘So what now?’

He grinned. ‘I have a plan or two.’

‘Is taking me to the pictures among them?’

Johnny pursed his lips thoughtfully. ‘No, that’s not in there.’

‘It should be,’ she told him. ‘I think it’s a splendid plan.’

‘What’s playing?’

The Scarlet Pimpernel. Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon.’

‘Plenty of swashbuckling?’

‘Oodles of it,’ she assured him.

‘We could go this evening.’

‘It’s on at the Paramount,’ Violet told him. ‘There’s a matinee.’

He shook his head. ‘We’re busy this afternoon.’

‘Are we?’ Violet asked.

‘I went through the files. Cogden has a girlfriend.’

 

Anna Mowbray was a shy, tidy girl, just back from shopping in town, bags littering the hall of the detached house.

She was fashionably dressed in a pale pink silk dress that reached to her knees, her hair up against the heat, eyes large and dark. Her mother was out, and she led them through to the garden, to chairs in the shade of a copper beech tree.

‘Is this about Charlie?’ she asked after they were comfortable. A maid appeared from the house with three glasses of lemonade on a tray.

‘What makes you say that?’ Johnny wondered.

‘Well, I know I haven’t done anything wrong. And he…’

‘What?’

‘I don’t know. He’s always had that wild side, I suppose. It is about him, isn’t it?’

‘Have you read about the bank robberies, and the one at Burton’s yesterday?’

Anna’s hand came up to her mouth.

‘That’s Charlie?’ It was a very girlish gesture. But that’s what she was, he thought, no more than eighteen.

‘It is. Along with a chap called Tim Carey and his cousin.’

‘Kenny.’ She nodded, still looking astonished.

‘Yes.’

‘I haven’t seen Charlie lately, you know. He said they were all going on holiday…he’s supposed to be back tomorrow.’

‘I don’t think they’ll be returning, Miss Mowbray,’ Johnny told her and she nodded slowly.

Violet leaned forwards. ‘I know it must be a shock,’ she said quietly, ‘but do you know where they might have gone?’

‘There’s a barn somewhere,’ she said after some thought. ‘Charlie never took me, but they’d go out there sometimes. A chum of his lives out that way, I think.’

‘On the way to York?’ Johnny asked.

‘Yes.’

‘They were there, but they’ve gone now.’ She looked at him with curiosity. ‘We arrested the driver from the gang. He told us about it. Is there anywhere else you can think of?’

‘Even somewhere unlikely,’ Violet added.

‘Well,’ Anna replied eventually, ‘there might be one other place.’ Johnny waited, letting her take her time. ‘There’s a little cottage. It’s all rather tumbledown. Charlie took me out there a couple of times.’ She blushed, the colour rushing up her face.

‘Where is it?’ he asked softly.

‘Just off the road to Harrogate. In Pannal.’

He knew it, little more than a crossroads on the far side of Harewood, and listened as she described the building, asking a few questions. Violet sat, paying attention but saying nothing.

Finally he was done, standing with his hat in his hand.

‘What will happen to him?’ Anna asked. ‘When you catch him, I mean.’

‘He’ll go to prison. They have guns. If they kill someone, it’ll be worse.’

‘I see.’ She stood for a moment.

‘Do you have any idea what’s made him do this?’ Violet asked.

‘Not really,’ Anna answered, and for a moment she sounded like a little girl instead of a young woman. ‘He’s always had something. Like I said, a wild streak.’

‘How long have you been going out?’

‘Just over six months.’ She made a face. ‘Mummy and Daddy don’t like him.’

‘Do they stop you seeing him?’

She stood, one thin hand on the latch.

‘No. They thought I’d grow tired of him.’ Anna gave a sigh. ‘I suppose I have, really. He’s fun, but that’s not really enough, is it?’

‘No,’ Violet agreed, looking pointedly at Johnny. Her eyes twinkled. ‘A girl needs someone with some depth.’

 

‘Do you fancy a spin out to Pannal?’ he asked as they drove away.

‘I knew you’d say that. You’re not going to try and tackle them on your own, are you?’

‘Good God, no. Just a recce. Pass by the place. Maybe see if there are signs of life.’ She continued to look at him. ‘Honestly.’

The building was brick, standing a few yards back from the crossroads. It seemed derelict, a hole in the slates of the roof, the windows filled with cobwebs. Johnny turned onto a country lane and parked close to the top of the hill, by a large fishing pond that looked down on the back of the place.

‘Anything?’ she asked.

He shook his head. ‘Impossible to tell. No car, but they could have hidden it inside. The doors are big enough.’

It would wait until tomorrow. The gang had moved once; if they thought they were safe, they’d be in no hurry to do it again.

On the way home Johnny stopped at the newsagent for a copy of the Evening Post, started glancing at the front page as he walked back to the car, then halted to take it all in, scrabbling through to finish the story.

This reporter can exclusively reveal the names of the daring gang that has robbed banks, a gunsmith and, most recently, the wages department at Burton’s factory on York Road. The leader, Charles Cogden (20) of Leeds, telephoned the Yorkshire Evening Post to reveal their identities and challenge the police to stop them. Along with the young man are Timothy Carey and Kenneth Boyd, both also 20 and from Leeds. A fourth member, Asa Bradley, was apprehended last night, thanks to the intrepid assistance of Mrs. Violet Williams, who works for this newspaper.

            ‘It looks as if your friend Bill got a telephone call from our criminal friends after you left.’

‘What?’ She read furiously.

‘The cat’s well and truly among the pigeons now,’ Johnny said. ‘How long do I have left on that fortnight?’

‘A week and a bit,’ she answered absently. He could feel the fury coming off her in waves. ‘The bastard. He wouldn’t even say I was a reporter. Didn’t even use a quote and they cut the picture.’ She tossed the newspaper onto the back seat and folded her arms. ‘He’s bloody lucky I’m not the one with the gun.’

‘You’ve just reminded me…’

‘What?’ she barked.

‘There’s one in the boot. I forgot to turn it back in earlier.’

‘Men,’ Violet fumed. ‘You’re all useless.’

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

‘Who fancies a spot of fishing?’ Johnny asked Forbes and Gorman, seeing them glance at each other.

He explained the idea. One man to keep watch up at the pond as Johnny brought the others up around the building. It was so close to the main road that he’d need to be careful.

‘What if we see them coming out?’ Forbes asked.

‘Blow your police whistle. The sound will carry. I need someone up there I can trust.’

‘Are you sure they’re in this place?’ Randall asked. He was leaning against a wall, arms folded across his chest.

‘Well, no,’ Johnny admitted. ‘But it’s the only information we have.’

The superintendent rubbed his chin, then nodded.

‘It’s worth a shot,’ he agreed.

 

At least it was Sunday and hardly any traffic around. They closed the road either side of Pannal, out of sight of the building. Johnny led the uniforms through the woods, the Enfield slung over his shoulder. He glanced up the hill. Forbes look incongruous, sitting by the pond in his shirtsleeves and trilby, holding a bamboo fishing rod.

He dashed across some bare, open ground to a corner of the place, dust rising behind him. A heavy-footed constable with a Webley revolver in his large fist ran to the other end. Johnny nodded and they moved to a single door in the middle of the wall.

He was breathing hard, the rifle in his hands. This was becoming a habit. His hand rested on the doorknob, palm slippery with sweat. It turned in his fingers and he pushed it open, dashing through then kneeling, the weapon to his shoulder, ready to shoot.

The building was empty, and larger than it appeared from the outside. Hay bales were loosely stacked in a far corner. A perfect place to hide. Johnny moved, flattening himself against the brick and signalling the constable to give him some cover.

Stealthily, pace by slow pace, Johnny moved forwards. He kept his eyes on the bales, alert for any movement, any sound. Better safe than sorry. He had his finger on the trigger of the rife, ready to react.

He’d moved ten feet when it happened. The tip of a shotgun barrel poking through a gap between the bales.

Without even thinking, he yelled, ‘Down,’ and began to fire into the straw. The constable loosed off three shots and then there was silence. The air was heavy with cordite, the smell scraping against his throat, smoke rising to the ceiling.

‘There are plenty of police here,’ Johnny shouted. The gunfire had left his ears ringing, and the words sounded muted. ‘You might as well come out.”

No movement, no sound. He glanced over at the constable, who gave a thumbs up; he was fine.

Johnny was in no hurry. The man could be injured. He could be biding his time. During the war he’d spent plenty of time waiting and watching for the smallest movement. The constable was lying on the floor, the revolver braced on a piece of wood. He was another who’d been a Tommy. Patient and controlled. Ready for anything.

Five minutes passed, then ten. Johnny could feel the tension in his shoulders from holding the Enfield. After half an hour, his feet began to ache; brogues weren’t as comfortable as boots for this.

Very carefully, he began to inch forward again, trying to stay silent. But that was impossible on a concrete floor scattered with twigs and gravel. The room was hot and airless. His shirt was stuck against his back and drops of perspiration ran down his forehead, stinging in his eyes and making him blink.

The hay bales offered good protection. They’d absorb the impact of the bullets and slow them. For a moment, Johnny wondered why there was only one of the gang here – where were the others?

But those questions could wait. The man a few yards away with the gun was the immediate problem.

Don’t look at your watch. Don’t think about time. That’s what they’d taught him in sniper training. Be aware of things at the edge of your vision. It all flooded back. The words had been drummed into them, day after day.

Johnny raised his left arm, grabbing the brim of his hat, and sent it sailing across the brick room at head height. While it was suspended in the air, he ran forwards in a crouch until he was close enough to the hay to smell its dryness.

There had been no shots. He looked back at the constable, still lying on the floor. The man gave a tiny shake of his head.

No way through the bales; they were too heavy. And the way they were positioned, like a child’s fort, he couldn’t go around. The only option was over the top. Johnny spent a minute working out handholds. While he climbed he wouldn’t be able to hold the rifle. But that was how it would have to be.

And no point in wondering or worrying what might happen. He straightened up, took a breath, and began.

One second.

He had a grip, he was moving.

Two seconds.

Off the floor, pulling himself higher.

Three seconds.

The straw scratched his palms. He pushed, bringing his knees up.

Four seconds.

The gun was in his hands and he stared down.

There was no one there. Just an open trap door in the floor.

‘He’s gone,’ Johnny said.

‘Sir?’ The policeman rose to his feet, dusting down his trousers.

‘A trapdoor and a tunnel. Get me a torch.’

He climbed back down, waiting as the coppers came in and moved the bales aside. There was no rush now. The man had long since vanished. And it explained why there’d only been one of them waiting. They’d been prepared. Again.

The others had waited with the car at the other end of the tunnel. By now they’d be miles away.

Someone put a torch in his hand. He directed the beam into the hole and followed. It was cramped, the earth damp and cool, but firm. Johnny tried to measure the tunnel, pace by pace, but he couldn’t. He didn’t even know the direction. Finally, there was light ahead. He came out at the far side of some trees, close to a track.

Grazing around, he was able to make everything out. He was the best part of a quarter mile from the building, on the far side of the Harrogate Road and out of sight. The perfect bloody getaway.

 

‘They’re making us look like idiots,’ Randall said. ‘That’s twice they’ve got away now.’

‘This was something else,’ Johnny said, rolling a cigarette through his fingers. ‘This time they knew we were coming.’

He’d considered it on the drive back into Leeds. The gang had been prepared; they hadn’t left in a rush. There’d even been one man to shoot at them then vanish down the tunnel. Yesterday’s newspaper was still on the back seat of the Austin, Cogden challenging the police to find them. He was making a game of it all. And he was winning. For now.

‘How could they?’ the superintendent asked. ‘We only discussed it this morning. Just you, me, Forbes and Gorman.’

‘I know.’

‘You don’t think..?’

Johnny shook his head. ‘I think he ‘phoned his girlfriend last night and she told him she’d mentioned the place. Violet’s gone over to talk to her and find out. I thought she’d open up more to another woman.’

‘It doesn’t help us catch them.’

‘We need to interview Asa Bradley again,’ Johnny said. ‘Why not let Gorman have a go at him? He’s big, he intimidates people.’

Randall nodded his agreement.

‘What about you?’

‘I’m going to think.’

‘You’d better hurry up. I’ve heard about the book they’ve been making on you catching them.’ He smiled. ‘Just over a week left, isn’t there?’

‘Plenty of time yet,’ Johnny told him. ‘How much do you have on it?’

‘Just a shilling.’

‘I was hoping for more faith that that.’

‘And I’m hoping for some bloody results.’

 

He mowed the lawn, then sat in a deckchair with a bottle of beer. There was the soft drone of an aeroplane in the sky. Johnny shaded his eyes as he glanced up and saw the familiar shape of a Sopwith Camel.

The back door snicked closed and Violet lowered herself into the other chair.

‘She told him, didn’t she?’

‘Charlie telephoned her yesterday evening,’ she said. ‘He wanted to be sure she’d read the paper.’

‘She said we’d called on her.’

Violet nodded. ‘She wasn’t going to, but he’s evidently very charming.’

‘I hadn’t pictured him quite that way.’

‘You wouldn’t. Charm isn’t your long suit.’

‘Did he tell her much?’

‘No. She thinks he’s a hero, you know.’

Johnny sat up. ‘Why?’

‘A Robin Hood or something.’

‘Has he given any money to the poor? I hadn’t heard.’

‘Except for that part,’ Violet agreed. ‘But robbery does make him seem romantic. She’s still young and impressionable.’

‘Remember, if he hadn’t contacted Bill, your picture would have been on the front of the paper.’

She stared at him coolly.

‘Believe me, I’m not likely to forget.’ She waited the length of a heartbeat. ‘Or forgive.’

 

He’d been in the CID room for an hour, listening to Gorman go through all the details of his interview with Asa Bradley. There’d been no new information – the lad hadn’t even known about the place out in Pannal. The hands of the clock crawled along. Just after ten o’clock, the windows wide open, the day already hot and sticky.

‘Yorkshire Penny Bank in Chapel Allerton,’ Randall shouted from his office. ‘It sounds like they’ve been at it again.’

 

 

Roaring Thirties Part 2

Yes, the second episode of the novella set in Leeds. If you’re fresh to it, just scroll down for the opening…

CHAPTER FOUR

 

‘The guns aren’t locked up and out of sight?’

‘Well, no.’ The manager shook his head. ‘We’ve never had a problem before.’ He shuffled his feet. ‘There’s one other thing,’ he continued. Williams waited. ‘We also had a pistol in, just repaired. An American Colt automatic from the war.’

‘Can I use your telephone?’ Johnny asked. When Randall came on the line, he explained what had happened. ‘Now they’re dangerous criminals,’ he said.

‘You’d better find them before they have a chance to use those guns. Do you want anyone with you?’

‘Not yet,’ Johnny answered after a little thought. ‘I’ll let you know, sir.’

Before he left, he looked around the shop. The place smelt of gun oil and wood polish, shotguns upright in their racks along the walls behind the counter. Never mind four, they could have made off with a dozen.

‘Just a few last questions.’ He smiled.

‘Of course.’ He could see the relief on the manager’s face.

‘How many guns do you have here?’

‘I don’t know.’ He sounded surprised. ‘Twenty, perhaps.’

Williams waited a moment, pursing his lips.

‘Then why the hell didn’t you shoot the robbers as they were leaving?’ he asked.

 

Violet was already in the upstairs café of the Kardomah when he arrived in a rush. He’d stopped at the station on the way and been caught up writing a report.

‘Am I late?’ he asked.

‘Just fashionable. I ordered for you.’

He glanced at her as the waitress put the plate of liver and onions in front of him. Violet gave him her sweetest smile.

‘I was going to ask if you wanted to visit a couple celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary,’ he said later, drinking his tea and smoking a cigarette.

‘You really know how to show a girl a good time, don’t you?’

‘I try.’

‘Well, I’d love to, but I really need to wash my hair.’

‘You might like this.’

‘Oh?’

‘Do you remember Walter Bosley?’

‘Should I?’

‘You met him at a party once. In his forties, big bruiser of a man.’

‘So far he sounds like half your friends.’

‘He makes sure people stay in line.’

‘With his silver tongue?’

He gave her an enigmatic grin.

‘Something like that. He and his wife are celebrating their silver wedding today.’

‘That sounds lovely, but I’m not sure why you want me there.’

‘I thought it would be good for us to spend more time together.’

 

They stood at the entrance of the Royal in Hunslet. The place was packed, someone against the far wall banging out melodies on the out-of-tune piano. Williams looked around, seeing at least seven men he’d arrested over the years. Bosley, six feet two and eighteen stone, sat in the far corner, looking uncomfortable and cramped in a suit. Next to him, his wife was beaming, a new hat on her head, wearing a floral frock.

‘So why are we here?’ Violet asked quietly.

‘To talk to a few people. There are some who won’t speak to me.’

‘Did you offend them?’

‘They seem to resent going to jail.’

‘What do you want me to ask them? About that gun robbery?’

‘Whether they’ve heard anything about the people doing these bank jobs.’

She opened her mouth, closed it again and stared at him.

‘They’re connected, aren’t they? It was the same people at the gunsmith.’

He nodded.

‘Looks like it,’ Johnny admitted. ‘Come on, we’ll congratulate the happy couple, then we can circulate.’ He shuffled through the crowd to stand in front of Bosley and his wife.

‘Big day, Walter.’ He tipped his hat. ‘Mrs. Bosley, you look a picture.’

The woman blushed.

‘Thank you, love. You brought your wife, too. How are you, dear?’

‘Glad to be here.’ Violet smiled. ‘It’s a big turnout.’

‘A fuss about nowt,’ Walter muttered. ‘She’s making me pay for it all, an’ all.’

‘I’ll leave a drink behind the bar for you both,’ Johnny told him. He winked at Bosley. ‘Just make sure you behave yourselves.’

 

Outside, Violet fanned herself.

‘How did they cram so many people in there? I was starting to feel like a sardine.’

‘But a beautiful one.’

‘A sweaty sardine,’ she corrected him. ‘And flattery will get you absolutely nowhere.’

He glanced back at the pub, the noise of the people spilling out to the dusty street through the open windows.

‘Still, they’re enjoying themselves. With all that lot together, there’ll be a lull in crime this afternoon.’

‘Did you find anything?’ Violet asked.

‘Not unless you count the fact that Simon Bradley’s now wearing a truss for his hernia. You could almost see them shutting up as I approached. How about you? Any luck?’

‘Turns out Albert Riley couldn’t resist me. And he has that delicious Irish brogue.’

‘As well as two convictions for GBH.’

‘Lovely suit, though. I thought he was going to ask me out until I made sure he saw my wedding ring. Anyway, he think they’re from somewhere outside Leeds. Says no one local would dare muscle in on things that way.’ She took a breath. ‘But two of the others reckon they’re just amateurs. Either way, they’re already making a book on how soon you’ll catch them.’

‘Really?’ He turned to her with interest.

‘A fortnight, they think.’

‘A fortnight? That’s just insulting.’

‘You wanted to know.’ She shrugged as she leaned against the Austin and lit a cigarette, waiting for him to unlock the car. ‘And since I’m doing your work, you can pay me by taking me out to eat tonight.’

‘Where?’ he asked suspiciously.

‘Polwony’s.’

‘You drive a hard bargain, Mrs. Williams.’

‘If you’re going to hire the best, you’d better be prepared to pay, Mr. Williams.’

 

‘What do you make of this robbery at the gunsmith?’ Violet had finished the Beef Wellington and chosen a lemon tart from the sweet trolley. A wineglass stood half-empty on the table in front of her. She’d painted her nails bright vermilion to match her dress and curled her hair. ‘It’s a bit odd, isn’t it?’

‘Very,’ Johnny agreed slowly. He’d been gnawing at the problem most of the day. ‘They’re onto a good little earner with the banks. Now they’ve stolen enough guns to start a small war. They’re complicating things.’

‘Worried?’

‘A little.’ The steak had been perfect, still bloody in the middle, the potatoes crisp and tasty. But this business was too much on his mind to enjoy the food; he’d barely tasted the meal. Johnny stirred his coffee and shook a cigarette from the packet of Gold Flake. ‘I don’t understand what it gets them. They haven’t even fired the gun they have.’

‘Maybe they’re planning something big.’

He frowned, pushing the burning tip of the cigarette around in the ashtray. ‘They don’t seem to have done much planning so far.’

‘What now?’

Johnny raised his eyebrows. ‘I don’t know. But I suspect they have big ideas.’

‘Just be careful.’

‘Don’t you worry.’ He smiled, showing the chipped tooth. ‘I survived the war.’

‘You said that was because of your boyish charm.’

‘That only worked on our own side. The Germans weren’t too taken with it.’

‘I mean it, Johnny. Be careful.’

‘I will.’

‘What could be big enough for them?’

‘I’ve been trying to work that out. With just three men and a driver, there’s not much they can do.’

‘Another bank?’ Violet asked.

He shook his head.

‘They’re already doing well with those. They don’t need the extra weapons.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘I’ll carry on and see what happens.’ He finished the coffee and looked at her. ‘A fortnight? Is that really what they think?’

‘Look on the bright side. At least they’re sure you’ll catch the robbers.’

 

‘What you mean is that you have no idea what they’ll do next,’ Superintendent Randall said in exasperation.

‘More or less,’ Williams agreed.

‘There are coppers running all over Leeds looking for them. If this lot come out with shooters, someone’s going to get hurt.’

‘I know that,’ he said. Seeing the hard look on Randall’s face, he added, ‘Sir.’

‘You told me you like the tough jobs.’

‘I do.’

‘Then show me how well you can do with this one.’

He sat at his desk, eyes closed, thinking. Whether the gang was from Leeds or outside, they were young and unknown. And impetuous. They’d didn’t seem to make plans – going after the bank in the city centre showed that.

With professional career criminals he could predict their moves. They had a pattern, they thought in definite ways, and had pride in their work. This lot…he’d do as well sticking a pin in the map of Leeds.

Finally he picked up his hat and strolled out to the Austin and drove around town. He tried to think like the gang, to pick out places that might appeal to them. It was all guesswork, but he felt he was doing something. Starting to understand them.

Perhaps he’d been wrong on the planning, he thought. The banks in Morley and Horsforth had been an easy way to test themselves. The Midland Bank on Boar Lane had been harder, but they’d still been successful. What had looked so scattered might have been intended, after all.

Now they were ready to raise the stakes even higher. They were going for the big one, he decided as he waited for the car in front to turn. That could be the only reason for the guns. They’d proved they could hold up a place and now they were going to be ambitious.

When they went in they’d be nervous. That meant quick fingers on the trigger. Someone was definitely going to get hurt.

They wanted money. The central branches of the bank would have that, especially on Friday, wages day. But there were too many possible targets. Williams parked on Park Row and began to walk, looking at the streets, assessing how easy it would be to make a getaway. After an hour he decided that it was impossible to narrow it down to just one or two.

What would he do in their shoes?

He sat in a café at the railway station, trying to work it out. The tea was stewed and tasted bitter, the meat in the sandwich on the edge of turning. Through the window he could see a constant flow of people streaming to and from the platforms. A fine layer of dirt covered everything. Whistles blew and smoke rose to the grimy glass ceilings over the tracks.

He didn’t understand the robbers well enough yet. They were young, they were eager. And now they had the guns they’d want to flash them around. Ready for the next job. They wouldn’t wait too long; it was going to happen soon.

The afternoon didn’t bring any revelations. By five, as people poured out of the shops and offices, he gave up and went home.

The day was still full of May warmth, and the garden of their house in Chapeltown always caught the early evening sun. Johnny took off his jacket and tie and sat back in a deckchair with a bottle of beer. Time to take stock of what he knew.

Soon after he became a detective he’d understood that the best way to solve crimes was to stay one step ahead of the criminals. A little thought could save plenty of shoe leather.

He was still thinking, eyes closed, enjoying the weather and the lazy hum of a bee, when a shadow passed over him. Violet sighed and slumped into the other chair.

‘Penny for them?’ she said wearily.

‘Worth much more than that,’ he answered. ‘Definitely gold material.’

‘Better you than me, then. Does that mean you’ve found them?’

‘Not quite. Not yet.’

‘Still no idea?’

‘A few,’ he answered after a moment. ‘What was your day like?’

‘Full of action. The Middleton flower show’s going to be lovely,’ she said. ‘And if the weather holds, all the produce should be excellent this year.’

‘You were swept away, I take it.’

‘Rapt. Bill was still going on about the robbery at the gunsmith. No one’s admitting it’s the same lot who’ve been doing the banks.’

‘He hasn’t worked it out for himself yet?’

She sighed again. ‘I’m not even certain he knows how to tie his own shoelaces. But your lot are keeping schtum about it.’

‘I suppose we need our little secrets. Probably don’t want to scare people. If it came out, everyone would be expecting the Valentine’s Day massacre here.’

‘Are we going to have it?’

‘I hope not,’ Johnny said cautiously.

‘Will you stop them in time?’

‘I don’t know.’ He opened his eyes and glanced down at the lawn. ‘It might be worth looking for a four-leaf clover, just in case.’

 

‘Do you have any bright ideas?’ Randall asked. They were sitting in his office, the air stuffy and overheated, the window open wide to try and capture a breeze.

‘Friday,’ Williams told him.

‘Wages money?’

‘Exactly.’ All the firms would send vehicles to the banks to pick up the cash to pay their workers. Anyone robbing a bank just after it opened could get away with a fortune. ‘We need uniforms at each of the big branches. That’s where I think they’ll go. If I were them, that’s what I’d do.’ He paused and gave a small grimace. ‘I think I might have underestimated them.’

The superintendent looked thoughtful.

‘Why?’ he asked.

Williams listed the reasons on his fingers.

‘I thought they were selecting banks at random. They weren’t. They were putting in some practice, even down to getting away in town. Now they’re ready to make a big splash. And they have the guns to scare people.’

‘That makes sense,’ Randall admitted with a nod. ‘A splash?’

‘They’re young,’ Williams explained. ‘People like bank robbers. It’s like they’re striking a blow against the rich. That’s always popular, especially when there are so many unemployed around. Look at America; they’ve made heroes out of them.’

‘But we don’t even know who this lot are.’

‘Yet,’ Johnny pointed out. ‘If they pull this off, we will. They’ll be all over the newspapers. They’ll make sure everyone knows who they are, and they’ll be taunting us to catch them. As long as no one’s hurt, the public will be on their side. They’ll be making songs about them in the music halls.’

‘Then we’d better arrest them first,’ Randall told him. ‘I hope you have a good plan.’

‘Apart from what I suggested? I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that…’

 

‘There was a message for you, sir,’ the desk sergeant told him, a puzzled look on his face. ‘A bloke on the telephone.’

‘What did he say?’ Williams asked.

‘To tell you he knows what’s wrong with your car. I didn’t know you were having a problem with it. You should have said – my lad’s a mechanic.’

‘It’s nothing important. Did he say anything else?’

‘No, sir. I asked for his name, but he said you’d know.’

‘Yes. Thank you.’

The traffic heading out to Meanwood was stop and start. He drummed his fingertips on the steering wheel with impatience, waiting for the trams, buses and lorries to go faster than a crawl. It seemed that Colin Jordan’s pride had been pricked. He didn’t want to lose his title as the best getaway driver in Leeds.

The doors of the garage were open, an old Singer Ten jacked up. Inside, a voice was singing loudly and off-key, torturing Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.

‘’I’m surprised the neighbours haven’t complained, Colin. A voice like that is cruel and unusual punishment.’

Jordan dragged himself out from under the car and stood, a wide grin on his face.

‘You don’t think I’m the new Bing, then?’

‘More like the dying Bing. You’ve found something?’

‘A name. I asked around a little.’

Williams waited. Jordan was relishing his moment of anticipation. ‘And?’

‘Have you ever heard of Asa Bradley?’

‘No.’

‘What do you know about midget cars?’

‘You’d better not have got me out here for a joke, Colin. I’m not in the mood.’

‘No, honest, Mr. Williams. It’s real.’

‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘Midgets in cars? It’s not bloody funny.’

Jordan quickly shook his head. ‘It’s nothing like that. It started out as an American thing,’ he explained. ‘Normal people. It’s the cars that are little. Specially made small racing cars on a track. They’re very quick. Asa Bradley raced them. He won a few races when there was no real competition and he reckons he’s the bees’ knees. Someone mentioned he was driving for a gang now.’

Suddenly Johnny was attentive. ‘What gang? Did they say?’

‘No idea. The whole thing’s only a rumour. But I’ve seen him race.’ He sniffed. ‘He’s not that good.’

‘Is he local?’

‘Must be. He used to race out at Harewood. I don’t know anything else about him. Never paid much attention.’

Williams nodded. A name meant a place to start.

‘Thanks,’ he said. Before he turned away, he asked, ‘They really call them midget cars?’

‘That’s right. I tried one out. They’re small but I tell you what, Mr. Williams, they’re bloody nippy. 300 horsepower under the bonnet. Those things zip round the track. Put Bradley in a real car, though, and he wouldn’t stand a chance,’ Jordan said with pride.

 

The Yorkshire Post building stood on Albion Street, just on the corner with Bond Street. He pushed open the door under the clock and took the stairs three at a time to the second floor. Violet shared an office with two other female reporters, behind a polished wooden door with a frosted glass panel. Bright geraniums grew in a box outside the window.

She was staring at a blank piece of paper in her typewriter, the shorthand notebook with its curious squiggles propped beside the machine.

‘Please say you’ve come to save me from this.’

‘Hello to you, too.’ He bent and kissed her, smelling the powder on her skin. ‘And I have. I need a favour.’

‘Oh?’ She looked at him with interest. ‘It had better be something good.’

‘Midget car racing.’

She stared at him, trying to keep a straight face. But a giggle bubbled over into a laugh, until she had to cover her mouth.

‘Oh God, you can’t imagine the pictures in my mind now,’ she said finally.

‘I bet I can.’

‘What on earth is it?’

‘Normal people in small cars, apparently.’ He saw disappointment flicker across her face. ‘They do it at a track in Harewood. I need to see if you have any clippings.’ She stared at him, waiting for more, but he simply smiled. ‘I’ll buy you luncheon.’

‘Must be something important, then. I’ll have a look.’

She was back in five minutes, carrying a thin buff folder. He glanced through, copying information into his notebook.

‘Are you going to tell me what it’s about?’ she asked. ‘You’d better not be looking for a new hobby.’

‘All very hush-hush.’ He smiled. ‘But it might just be a lead.’

‘You can tell me all about it while we eat.’ Before he could protest, her eyes twinkled mischievously. ‘You might as well. You know full well I’ll just worm it out of you, anyway.’

 

By the time Johnny had eaten half the sandwich Violet knew it all.

‘He lives on Primley Park Drive?’ she asked.

‘That’s what it said in the newspaper report.’

‘It’s quite posh around there.’ She knew; Violet had grown up less than a quarter of a mile away, in a family with a maid and a chauffeur. Her father was the area manager for Dunlop, a rigid man who hadn’t approved of his daughter becoming a reporter, and even less when she married a policeman. ‘I thought the gang were supposed to be working men.’

‘They dress that way,’ he said. ‘People noticed that. Like people who didn’t belong in a bank.’

‘A disguise?’

‘I’m beginning to wonder about that,’ Johnny said.

‘When are we going out there?’

‘We?’ He lit a cigarette, blew out a plume of smoke, and cocked his head.

‘We,’ she insisted, her voice firm. ‘Someone has to make sure you don’t commit a faux pas among the middle classes.’

They found the address easily enough. Violet knocked on a door and asked a question. The maid pointed down the street, then Johnny joined her at number seven. A mousy women in her late forties answered when he rang the bell, staring at them with curiosity.

‘Mrs. Bradley?’ Williams asked.

‘That’s right.’ She had a voice like velvet and short, dark hair set in waves. Only the lines around her eyes and mouth gave away her age.

He produced his warrant card. ‘I’m Detective Sergeant Williams. Asa Bradley is your son?’

‘He is. What’s this about, Sergeant?’ She didn’t seem worried; most people would.

‘Is he at home?’

She folded her arms. ‘Might I ask why?’

‘I’m hoping he might be able to help us with some enquiries, that’s all, Mrs. Bradley.’ He smiled, showing the chipped tooth. Her expression didn’t change.

‘It’s nothing terribly big,’ Violet said. ‘Just a quick word, that’s all.’

‘Well, he’s not here.’

‘Is he at work?’ Johnny asked.

‘He’s gone away with some friends. He doesn’t have a job. He’d only be interested if it involves engines. He’s been potty about them since he was a boy.’

‘Did he say where he was going?’

‘Just that they’d be away for a week or two.’ A sad look filled her eyes. ‘He doesn’t really tell us his plans.’

‘He likes to drive, I believe,’ Williams continued. ‘Midget cars?’

‘That’s right. But it was a passing fad. He hasn’t done that in months. He spends all his time with his friends now.’

‘Do you know who they are?’ Violet asked her.

‘Not really.’ Mrs. Bradley looked uncomfortable, shifting lightly from foot to foot. ‘He’s never brought them here. There’s a Charlie and a Tim, but that’s all I know. But he’s changed since he met them.’

‘Changed how?’ Violet asked sympathetically.

‘He’s become coarser,’ the woman answered after a moment. She gave a sad shake of her head. ‘He was so well-behaved at school. I keep imagining it’ll pass. What’s he done, Sergeant?’

‘I don’t know that he’s done anything,’ Williams told her. ‘That’s why I’d like to talk to him. How old is he, Mrs. Bradley?’

‘Twenty. His birthday was last month.’ She hesitated, then set her mouth. ‘My husband died three years ago. I hoped Asa might become the man of the house, but he didn’t want that. He began that motor racing and didn’t want to do anything else.’

He didn’t ask if the family had money; a house out here was already an answer.

‘Do you have a photograph of him?’

‘Of course,’ she replied.

The Yale lock clicked softly behind her. He looked at Violet, saying nothing. Mrs. Bradley returned, holding out a small snapshot. Asa Bradley had dark hair swept back from his forehead, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

‘I took it last summer,’ she explained.

‘Might I borrow it?’ She hesitated, and he added, ‘I’ll make sure you get it back.’

‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘What do you think he’s done, Sergeant? He’s my son, I need to know.’

‘Honestly,’ he told her, ‘I don’t know that he’s done anything. That’s what I want to find out.’

She bit her lip, then nodded, accepting what he said.

‘All right.’

‘If he comes home, can you let me know?’

‘Yes.’ He could see the reluctance in her expression.

‘It’s for the best, honestly.’

 

‘Well,’ Violet asked as he took the Harrogate Road back into town. ‘What do you think?’

‘It’s a start. Now I just need to find him. It might all be a coincidence.’

‘I know that look on your face.’

‘What look?’

‘You don’t believe in coincidences.’

‘Well…no.’ Johnny glanced across at her. ‘I don’t suppose you fancy a run out to Harewood this evening?’

‘Why?’ she asked suspiciously.

‘There’s a midget car race.’ He gestured over his shoulder at a copy of the Evening Post on the backseat of the Swallow. ‘Don’t you read your own paper?’

‘I avoid the boring bits.’ Violet sighed. ‘I suppose it’ll be all men talking about camshafts and pistons and things, won’t it?’

‘Probably.’

‘I’ll let you deal with that one, then.’ A moment later she said, ‘Do you think Asa Bradley might be there? His mother said he’d lost interest in the sport.’

He shrugged. ‘You never know. I should be able to get the names of his friends, anyway.’

‘Just watch yourself if he shows up,’ Violet warned. ‘If Bradley’s with this gang, they’re armed now.’

He grinned. ‘I’m sure I can persuade him to come down to the station.’

Violet shook her head. ‘You know, you need do something about this shocking lack of self-confidence you have, Johnny. It’s quite alarming.’

CHAPTER FIVE

 

The air was filled with the smoke and noise of engines. Johnny arrived a little after six, parking in a field with the other vehicles, the early evening sun still pleasant. He’d dressed in a houndstooth sports jacket and tweed trousers, his shirt collar open and tieless to enjoy the weather.

Now he watched men in shirtsleeves grimly tinker with the engines of the small cars as they listened to the crescendo of motors. There were perhaps fifty people around, from those who weren’t even old enough to shave to men with thick cavalry moustaches, resting on shooting sticks. But no Asa Bradley.

He showed the photograph to yet another figure, who pointed him across the paddock towards a group of men standing around a small blue racing car. The bonnet was open and someone had his head and shoulders inside.

Williams picked his way across the mud of the enclosure. The din was starting to recede. He found a sleek young man wearing thick brogues, standing impatiently by the car.

‘He used to drive for me,’ the man said irritably when Johnny showed him the photograph. ‘Let him go when he stopped winning.’

‘How long ago?’

‘Two months, I suppose.’ He turned to the mechanic. ‘Haven’t you bloody finished yet?’ He shook his head in frustration. ‘If you want to know about Bradley, go and talk to him.’ He pointed at a youth holding a set of spanners. ‘Who are you, anyway?’

‘Police.’ Johnny waved as he walked away.

The lad with the tools watched nervously as he approached. Probably no more than eighteen, he guessed, the faint bum fluff of a moustache on his upper lip to make him look older.

As he opened his mouth to speak, the youth threw the spanners at him and started to run. He raised his arm, feeling metal bang against bone, and started to sprint. He sensed people turning to watch. Someone cheered.

The treeline was a quarter of a mile distant, the hill climbing slowly towards it. The youth kept glancing back, already wheezing, as Williams steadily gained ground.

Just before the lip of the hill, he was close enough to tackle the boy. The lad fell like a sack of cement, the wind knocked out of him.

Johnny sat and lit a cigarette, gazing down at the track and sighing.

‘I suppose you’ve done something bad,’ he said.

 

It was nothing more than shoplifting. Arthur Harris has taken some sweets and a shirt from Woolworth’s. Williams passed him a cigarette.

‘That’s not exactly a major crime,’ he said.

Harris’ face reddened.

‘I thought you’d come to arrest me.’

Johnny rubbed his arm.

‘If I’d known you were so dangerous, I’d have asked for the Flying Squad.’

‘So what is it?’

Johnny brought out the photograph.

‘Him.’

‘Asa?’ Harris asked in surprise. ‘What’s he done?’

‘You’re friends?’

‘We used to be. He stopped coming here after Mac dropped him. I haven’t seen him since.’

‘What about other friends of his?’

‘There was a crowd,’ Harris said after a little thought. ‘They left when he did.’

‘Any names?’

‘Charlie Cogden and Tim Carey,’ he answered after a moment’s thought. ‘They were quite close.’

‘Did you know them?’

Harris shook his head. ‘Not really. They’re rich boys.’

‘Kept to themselves?’

‘More or less.’

‘What about you? A mechanic?’

‘I want to be,’ Harris said hopelessly. ‘No jobs out there.’

‘Where do you live, Arthur?’

‘Beeston. I get a lift up here.’ Harris sighed. ‘I don’t suppose Mac will keep me on now.’

‘Bit of a bastard, is he?’

‘A lot.’ The lad grinned.

‘Do you know Meanwood Road?’

‘I can find it. Why?’

‘There’s a garage out there, a chap called Colin Jordan. Tell him Detective Sergeant Williams sent you. No guarantees, but it’s worth a shot.’

‘Really?’ His voice was wary. ‘Why would you do that?’

‘Just trying to rehabilitate persistent offenders.’ Johnny stood, trying to brush grass stains off the knees of his trousers.

Charlie Cogden and Tim Carey, he thought. Now all he had to do was track them down.

 

But they were nowhere to be found. A quick search gave him addresses, big, detached houses in Thorner and Adel, but when he knocked on the doors, all their parents could tell him was that they’d gone away for a fortnight. The only titbit was that Carey’s cousin, Ken Boyd, had also gone with them.

And that made four. Hail, hail, the gang’s all here, he sang under his breath. They’d even come up with a disguise, dressing like working men. The type that people hardly ever noticed.

Williams sat in Lyon’s café on Briggate with a cup of tea, going over what he knew. It looked as if he’d definitely underestimated them.

Why they’d decided to become bank robbers didn’t matter. Maybe it was just for the thrill, maybe they wanted to become notorious. What bothered him was where they’d strike next. They’d told their families they’d be gone for two weeks. That ended on Sunday. Time was running out; Friday was just a day away.

‘I thought I’d find you here.’ Violet placed bags of shopping on the floor and eyed the chocolate éclair he hadn’t started yet. ‘Are you going to eat that?’

Before he could answer, she’d pulled the plate across and taken a bite.

‘Tasty?’ he asked.

‘Delicious,’ she told him, wiping crumbs from her mouth. ‘You don’t know what you’re missing.’

‘Worth ordering another?’

‘Oh no, one will be ample for me. Hips and thighs and all that. I could murder some tea, though. I’m parched.’

‘You look as if you’ve bought half of Leeds.’

‘Just bits and bobs. I’m covering the Lord Mayor’s dinner later, so I had to get a new dress. And shoes. I’m getting my hair done in-’ she checked her wristwatch ‘-half an hour. I’ve been thinking of doing something different with it.’

‘Like what?’

‘I’m not sure yet. You look rather gloomy, you know.’

‘Well, someone stole my pastry. And I spent half the morning with Randall trying to put together a plan for tomorrow.’

‘Any luck?’

Johnny shrugged. ‘It’s all guesswork. We’ll hope they’re going for a bank and be as ready as we can.’

‘Where will you be?’

‘Standing by a telephone box in the city centre. As soon as there’s any trouble, they’ll ring me.’

‘They’re going to have guns.’

His mouth tightened. ‘So will we,’ he said quietly.

Violet’s mouth opened in shock. ‘What?’

‘The chief constable’s authorised it. Three of us will be armed.’

‘Johnny…’

He grinned.

‘Don’t worry. It’s an Enfield sniper rifle, I’ll be well out of the way. And the orders are to shoot only if there’s no other choice.’

‘It doesn’t bloody matter,’ she fumed.

‘It won’t come to that.’ He stared at her. ‘Are you going to finish that éclair?’

‘For God’s sake, Johnny, be serious for once.’ She pushed it across to him and stood. ‘Do you know how frustrating you can be at times?’

He watched her stride angrily away. A man at the next table leaned over.

‘She doesn’t look too happy.’

‘No,’ Johnny agreed. ‘I think it must have been something I said.’

 

He spent the afternoon back in Randall’s office, a map of Leeds laid out on the desk. Forbes and Gorman, detectives from C Division were there, listening closely. Williams had worked with them before, burly, reliable men, both of them war veterans.

They’d be stationed in different parts of the city centre, waiting in telephone boxes, cars parked close by.

‘Remember,’ Randall finished, ‘You shoot only if it’s absolutely vital and no civilians are in danger.’ He’d taken off his jacket and half-moons of sweat dampened the armpits of his shirt. ‘Understood?’ Each of them nodded. ‘Weapons issued first thing in the morning. I want you all here at half-past seven.’

 

At four o’clock Johnny was heading up Harrogate Road. He had the car window down, the afternoon sun warm. Driving gave him time to think, to let ideas percolate to the surface and take shape. He’d been going over the plan for tomorrow. They were as ready as they could be, but a niggling feeling was growing in his stomach.

He’d forgotten something. But he couldn’t imagine quite what.

He steered and shifted through the gears, going over everything once again. The plan was jerry-built and slapped-together, but that was the best they could do with what they knew.

Still, the feeling wouldn’t vanish.

By the time he reached Chapel Allerton he’d given up worrying. It didn’t do any good. Things would happen and they’d need to think on their feet.

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw a familiar figure disappear into the post office. With a sigh, he parked the Austin, lit a cigarette and strolled across the road.

He hadn’t even realised that Danny McGregor was out of jail. It couldn’t have been long. A fortnight and he was usually back inside. Danny’s old bicycle was leaning against the front of a butcher’s shop. The only robber in Leeds who made his getaway on a bike; he was famous throughout the force for it. Johnny squatted, slipped the chain off the sprocket, walked a few steps to the corner and waited.

It only took thirty seconds. McGregor dashed out of the building and grabbed the handlebars, bank notes still clutched in his fist.

Williams shook his head as he stepped into the middle of the pavement.

‘Danny,’ he said slowly, ‘you’re never going to learn, are you?’

It took more than an hour to process the arrest. He escorted the man a block to the local station at the corner of Town Street and waited while McGregor was fingerprinted and measured. Johnny wrote out his statement and stuck around as a constable typed it with two fingers that had trouble mastering the alphabet. It would have been quicker to do it all himself.

He loved police work, it was the greatest fun he could imagine. But not the paperwork that went with it; that was pure tedium. Finally everything was complete, and McGregor escorted down to the cells, his bike on its side in the yard.

Johnny was home by six, parking on the road. Violet would be out, covering her do. He’d have a quiet evening, eat something cold. With luck there’d be someone entertaining on the wireless.

But she was in the lounge, hunched forward in the chair, a glass in her hand.

‘Did they cancel?’ he asked.

‘I pleaded a headache,’ Violet told him, looking up into his face. ‘I thought you’d be home earlier.’

‘Just solving crime.’ He smiled.

‘Have you found them?’

‘Not yet. Tomorrow.’

‘Johnny…’ she began. He sat on the chair arm and stroked her neck.

‘Your hair looks good.’

‘Thank you.’ She glared. ‘Don’t change the subject.’

‘We’ll catch them.’

‘And no one hurt?’

‘Hopefully,’ he answered after a small hesitation.

Violet shook her head. ‘That’s not exactly comforting.’

His fingertips traced her collarbone and he felt her body begin to stir.

‘It’ll be fine,’ he promised.

‘You’re trying to distract me.’ There was a small purr in her voice. She put her hand on top of his.

‘How bad is that headache?’

‘It could be starting to fade a little.’

He continued to stroke her skin, moving in slow circles.

‘And now?’ he asked.

She was breathing slowly, eyes closed, a smile on her lips. ‘You can be a bit of a bastard at times, can’t you, Johnny Williams?’

‘All part of my charm,’ he said softly into her ear and feeling her shiver.

‘Don’t think you’re getting off lightly.’

He leaned forward and kissed her lightly.

 

Roaring Thirties, Part 1

A few years ago, I wrote a novella, something a little different for me. Light-hearted crime. In Leeds, of course, but not something anyone was likely to publish. It’s been sitting around my various hard drives ever since,  mostly forgotten.

However, I thought that, to fill the weeks between now and Christmas, I’d serialise it for you. But you have to promise to remember that both The Hanging Psalm and The Tin God made great gifts for people.

And so, ladies and gentleman, I give you the first episode. Johnny Williams, take a bow…

CHAPTER ONE

He parked the Austin Seven Swallow outside the Eagle on North Street. There’d been hardly any traffic on the drive up from London, just a few lorries, the cars bucketing along as fast as they could, the drivers’ faces fierce with concentration.

He buttoned his suit jacket and put on the hat, checking the brim in the wing mirror to see it was just so. A late May evening, some warmth still left in the air, and that feeling of dusk, with daylight starting to seep away and casting long shadows. 1934. The world might be poor, but there was still some beauty in it.

Only a few customers sat in the pub. An old husband and wife, holding hands and chattering away easily, halves of stout on the table in front of them, a dotting of ancient fellows, leftovers from Victorian times, gathered to play dominoes, a young couple out to do their courting, and a group of four middle-aged men, eyes like flints, standing in earnest discussion.

The landlord was cleaning the polished wood shelves, his back turned.

He saw her at the end of the bar, a glass of gin and tonic in front of her, a cigarette between her fingers. She was wearing a nubby tweed skirt and an ochre sweater, the sleeves rolled up on her red cardigan. There was a wedding ring on her finger, but she was on her own.

She’d glanced up when he walked in, then turned away again.

‘Can I buy you another?’ he asked as he stood beside her. She looked at him, eyes carefully appraising. Her hair was neatly set in waves, her lipstick bold red. In her early thirties and definitely pretty.

‘My mother always said I shouldn’t take drinks from strange men.’

‘We’re safe then. I’m not strange.’

She tightened her mouth as she arched her brows.

‘Who told you that? Your wife?’

He grinned. One of his front teeth was slightly chipped. Someone had told him once that it made him look irresistible. Dashing. Wolfish. A little like Ronald Colman.

‘Someone much more reliable.’ He cocked his head. ‘I have to ask, are those eyes of yours eyes blue or grey?’

She was staring at him now, and smiling.

‘Take a guess. If you’re right, you can take me home.’

‘Violet?’

She waited a moment, then started to gather her handbag off the bar.

‘Eyes and name,’ she told him, then asked, ‘Where should we go? Your house or mine?’

‘Oh, yours, I think,’ he answered without hesitation. ‘My wife’s a terrible housekeeper.’

Her elbow dug sharply into his ribs.

‘You’d best be careful, Johnny Williams, or you’ll be sleeping on the settee tonight. What kept you? I thought you’d be home this afternoon.’

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

He reported to the police station in his best double-breasted suit, navy blue with a pale pinstripe, his black brogues shining, the hat brim tipped just enough to put his eyes in shadow.

After a fortnight working with the Met in London it felt good to be home again. The capital had its charms, but Johnny Williams knew Leeds. He understood how the city worked without even having to consider it.

He wasn’t even sure why they’d wanted him down there. All he’d done was read the case file, go and talk to four people, then sit back and wait, time enough to tie up a couple of loose ends. Eight days later, they’d started making arrests and he was on his way back up the Great North Road.

Williams slapped the desk. There were files waiting for him. One thing about being a copper, he’d never be short of a job. Count your blessings, he thought, as he took a folder from the pile.

But he hadn’t even finished the first page before Superintendent Randall called his name. Detective Sergeant Williams straightened his tie, buttoned his jacket and walked through to the office.

‘Everything fine down South?’ Randall asked as he sat.

‘Went well, sir.’ He shrugged. They’d made the arrests easily.

‘Head not turned by the glamour?’

‘Well, the King invited me over, but I told him I needed to be back here by teatime…’ Williams grinned.

Randall picked up a piece of paper and pushed it across the desk. ‘Something to get your teeth into.’

He read it through quickly. While he was been gone there’d been two bank jobs, one in Horsforth, the other in Morley. Three men, one of them armed with a sawn-off shotgun. Quick, efficient, no violence, just threats and menace. In both cases, the getaway vehicles had been stolen and recovered about a mile away. There were descriptions, for whatever they were worth; none of the witnesses could agree on much. Violet had told him all about it last night. Lying on the bed after his welcome home, smoking cigarettes with the windows open, she’d brought him up to date on the happenings in Leeds. Working as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, she heard them all.

‘No clues?’ he asked, his arm around her bare shoulders. The slip and brassiere were long gone, tossed somewhere on the floor, and sweat was drying on her skin.

‘If they have, they’re not saying. The rumour is that they’ve nabbed over a thousand pounds.’

That was impressive. Carry on with that and they’d have a good little earner. He moved his hand a little. He needed to feel more welcome.

 

*******

‘Nasty,’ Williams said.

‘They’ve taken over twelve hundred so far. But keep that to yourself.’ Randall pulled a packet of Black Cats from his pocket and lit one.

‘What’s CID turned up?’

‘Not enough. None of the narks seem to know anything.’

‘I was hoping for a few days’ leave,’ Johnny said.

‘You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.’

But he would. He’d seen the sun shining through the curtains that morning, smelt spring warmth in the air and thought about Sandsend. He and Violet, a some time away, a decent hotel, Whitby just a stroll along the beach at low tide. Some walking, some fishing, plenty of fresh air.

‘Well…’ he began, but Randall shook his head.

‘I want you on this. If they get away with it, other people are going to get the same idea. Times are bad, Johnny, you know that. We don’t need folk thinking they can be Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. Not round here.’

Williams picked up the report as he stood. Before he could even take a pace the door flew open and the desk sergeant, old red-faced Murphy, announced,

‘There’s been another one, sir. The Midland Bank on City Square.’

Randall raised an eyebrow.

‘Looks like you know where to start, Johnny.’

 

He found a parking place on Boar Lane and walked to the building on the corner, solid stone staring out towards the statue of the Black Prince in the middle of the square. Wisps of smoke and the stink of the trains drifted out from the railway station across the street.

Williams nodded at the uniformed constables guarding the door of the bank and sauntered inside. Another bobby was questioning a distraught woman, while a pair of detectives looked around the building.

It was much like any other bank – high ceilings, a grandiose interior of marble and tile, varnished wood and glistening brass. And like the rest, easy enough to rob with plenty of determination and a little planning. The only problem would be getting away in the city traffic.

One of the CID men spotted him and walked slowly across with a rolling gait. He was tall, close to six-and-a-half feet, well into middle age, spectacles crowding a pinched face, most of his hair gone, just leaving a tonsure that was turning grey.

‘Might have known you’d find your way down here.’

‘Good morning, sir.’

Inspector Gibson had started his career with Leeds City Police well before the war. He’d served in the trenches and returned to the job, trudging up from rank to rank. ‘Going to have it solved by dinnertime?’

Johnny Williams gave a small sigh and turned his hat around in his hand.

‘I don’t know sir,’ he answered, voice serious. ‘Depends what time you want to eat.’

Gibson’s face reddened. He snorted and stalked away.

 

The girl sitting at the desk and cradling a cup of tea in her lap was smiling at him. It was a pert, inviting smile, full lips with bright red lipstick, under dark eyebrows and Carol Lombard blonde hair.

‘Will you?’ she asked.

‘Will I what?’

‘Catch them by dinnertime.’

‘Probably not.’ He grinned and shrugged. ‘Still, stranger things have happened. Do you work here?’

‘I do. I’m Mr. Osborne’s secretary.’ When he looked at her quizzically, she explained, ‘He’s the manager.’

‘Did you see the robbery, Miss…?’

‘Simpson,’ she answered. ‘Jane Simpson.’ He heard the light emphasis she put on her Christian name. ‘And yes. I was in the office. Over there.’ She pointed towards the corner and he saw two small offices of wood and glass. ‘It was like watching one of those films.’

She didn’t seem too upset or shocked, he thought. More like entertained.

‘Why don’t you tell me what happened?’ he suggested. ‘Weren’t you scared?’

‘Oh, no. They couldn’t really see me.’ She lowered her head a little, embarrassed. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’

‘Detective Sergeant Williams.’ He took out a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes and offered her one. ‘How many of them were there?’

‘Three.’ She closed her eyes to focus. ‘They were wearing jackets and trousers, and all of them had caps. They didn’t look like the kind of customers we usually have here.’

He smiled. They looked like ordinary working men, she meant, the kind who didn’t have bank accounts.

‘Did one of them have a gun?’

‘Yes. It was like a shotgun, but not as long.’ She cocked her head towards him. ‘Is that right?’

‘He’d sawed down the barrels,’ William explained. ‘Where was Mr. Osborne while all this was going on?’

He could see she didn’t want to answer, but after a few more words she admitted he’d been in the toilet when it happened.

The men had burst in just after the bank opened at half-past nine. There were only two customers in the place, and three staff behind the counter. The robbery was over in less than thirty seconds.

She gave him descriptions, but they could have fitted half the young men in Leeds. None of them more than twenty-five, dark hair, two tall, the one with the gun short and fatter.

‘How much did they take?’ he asked.

‘Oh.’ She paused, calculating. ‘It can’t have been more than three hundred pounds. Probably not even that. The cashiers only had their morning floats. None of the businesses had brought in their deposits yet. There’s more money here just before we close at three. Or on a Friday – we handle the wages for a number of factories.’

Today was Monday. Interesting, he thought. Whoever was behind the robbery wasn’t thinking ahead.

‘Had you seen any of them in here before?’

She shook her head. ‘I don’t see everyone who comes in. But dressed like that, they’d have stood out, if you know what I mean.’

He understood exactly. ‘How did they sound?’

‘Sound?’ she asked.

‘They must have shouted when they came in. Did they seem local?’

‘Oh.’ She pursed her lips for a moment. ‘I suppose so. I never really thought about it, so they must have.’

He thanked her and stood up to walk away.

‘Tell me something, Sergeant,’ Miss Simpson said, and he heard the rustle of silk stockings as she crossed her legs. ‘That other policeman didn’t seem to like you.’

‘I’m not sure he really likes anyone.’

‘But especially you?’ She was grinning now.

He gave her his best smile, showing the chipped tooth. ‘He thinks I’m cocky.’

‘And are you?’

‘You’d probably get the best answer from my wife.’ He hoped that was a small flutter of disappointment on her face. ‘Thank you, Miss Simpson. Jane.’

 

Outside, he looked at the streets. Boar Lane was as clogged with traffic as ever. People were coming and going in droves from the station.

‘Which way did the robbers’ car go?’ he asked one of the constables. ‘Someone must have seen.’

The copper pointed down the road.

‘Along there, sir. Past the Scarborough Taps and around the corner.’

‘Do we have a number plate?’

‘Yes, sir. Evidently it was a Crosley Aero. We have people out looking.’

‘Good. Thank you.’

He strolled along the street, following the route of the car. A short drive, turn over the bridge and they’d be lost in Hunslet or Holbeck. It wasn’t going to help much.

Three of them had held up the bank. But there were four in the gang; they must have had a driver waiting in the car, ready for a quick getaway. Local accents and very little planning. Well, he had somewhere to start now.

 

The garage on Meanwood Road looked like an old wooden shed, only a small, hand-painted sign over the door and a line of vehicles parked on the dirt outside to show what it might be.

Williams parked the Austin and waited until a heavily-built man wandered out, wiping grease off his hands with an old rag. He was in his early twenties, fair hair cut short. He walked with the kind of confidence that came from winning too many fights, his mouth curled in a sneer.

‘Johnny bloody Williams. They told me you’d gone to London.’

‘You know me, Colin,’ he replied airily. ‘I’m like the bad penny, I always come rolling home.’

Colin Jordan was the best light-heavyweight boxer in the West Riding. He’d never lost a bout, and won most of them by knockouts. The purses from the fights were useful, but he made his living with the garage. He was also the best driver in Leeds. He’d already been behind the wheel for half the gangs in town. Everyone knew it, but there’d never been any proof; people were too afraid to grass him up. And he loved being just beyond the reach of the police.

Williams got out of the car. He was an inch taller than Jordan, but the boxer was a good two stone heavier, all of it muscle.

‘So what brings you round?’ Jordan stuck the dirty rag in his pocket and lit a cigarette.

‘It could be a social call.’

The boxer snorted.

‘And the moon’s made of green cheese.’

‘I’m just wondering why this gang robbing banks isn’t using the best driver in town.’ He stared at Jordan. ‘Any ideas?’

‘Maybe they are,’ the man answered with a smirk.

Johnny shook his head sadly. ‘Not this morning, unless you’ve discovered a way to get yourself that mucky in a quarter of an hour. Looks like you have competition.’

‘Is that what you think?’

‘Three robberies, plenty of cash and no one hurt. They’re making a splash. It’ll be the front page in the Evening Post. A few more and they’ll be folk heroes, Colin.’

‘And you coppers will look like idiots.’

‘Maybe. I just thought I’d come looking for you first. After all, you had the reputation.’ Williams nodded at the garage. ‘Never mind, the business will keep you ticking over.’ He opened the car door. ‘I’d best be on my way.’

 

He’d been back in the office for ten minutes, sitting and thinking, when the telephone rang.

‘Detective Sergeant Williams.’

A woman’s voice said, ‘Hello, handsome.’

He smiled. ‘Who is this?’

‘It’s your wife. How many women ring up and call you handsome?’

‘I’m not sure. I’ve got a list somewhere…’

‘How’s the investigation into the bank robbery?’

‘That’s impressive,’ he told her. ‘How did you know?’

‘Bill came back into the office and announced “that bloody Williams bloke is on it” while he looked straight at me.’

‘What did you say to him?’

‘That you’re a chap, not a bloke. Have you found anything yet?’

‘Possibly.’ He knew she was eager for any scrap she could hold over her colleagues. As a woman, the paper would only give her fluff to cover, golden weddings and church fetes. Stupid, when she could write rings around the men and had a better nose for a story. ‘Tell Bill he ought to include the fact that the gang has the best driver in Leeds.’

‘Do they?’ Violet asked in surprise. ‘I thought that was Colin Jordan.’

‘So does Colin. I dropped by for a word with him.’

‘And it’s not?’

‘No,’ Johnny told her. ‘But he’s not going to be happy at someone else getting his glory.’

‘Not bad,’ she said approvingly. ‘I’ll pass it on. What else?’

‘Nothing, really. Do you fancy a drink after work?’

‘Are you paying?’

‘Unless you’re feeling generous.’

‘You’re paying,’ Violet told him. ‘The Metropole at six. I want a cocktail. A Brandy Alexander.’

‘Your wish is my command.’

‘Just make sure you remember that,’ she said archly.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

The trip to Morley took him past Elland Road football ground. He’d never had much interest in the game, though; the closest he’d ever come was arresting one of the reserves for burglary two years before. The only reason the papers had made a fuss was because the young man had been tipped for great things in the team. Now he was in prison on a three-year stretch and the United were doing badly.

Morley had once been a big mill town. Since the depression began five years before, it wasn’t much of anything. The mills had closed, and there was nothing to replace them. Men gathered along Queen Street, unsure what to do with each day, waiting for a future that seem further away than ever.

He parked the Austin beside the Town Hall and walked along the block to the bank.

 

The manager eyed him nervously. They were alone in the office. A secretary had served tea and biscuits, then left as silently as she’d arrived.

‘It must have scared the staff,’ William suggested.

‘Of course.’ Mr. Micklethwaite bobbed his head in agreement. Thin-faced, the suit seemed to hang off his body. His hair was Brylcreemed, with a sharp, neat parting off to the side, carefully combed to hide the bald spot.

‘Were you out there?’

‘Oh, yes.’ His eyes widened. ‘I’d been sorting out a problem in Miss Monkton’s cash drawer when they came in.’

‘What time was it?’

‘About quarter to ten, we hadn’t been open long. I already told the police.’

Williams smiled. ‘Please, indulge me. When they talked, did you hear any names?’

‘No, I’m quite sure of that,’ Micklethwaite replied after a little thought.

‘They were dressed like working men?’

‘Yes.’ Another quick nod. ‘That’s what made me look in the first place. You know how it is, most of them don’t use banks.’

‘What about their accents?’ Johnny asked.

‘Accents?’

‘Did they sound local?

‘I…’ the manager began. ‘I don’t know. I never thought about it. They didn’t say much. Just “Give us the money” as they brought out the bag, and “We don’t want to hurt anyone.”’ He frowned. ‘It was hard to believe that when they were pointing the gun at us.’ He hesitated a moment. ‘I suppose if their voices didn’t sound odd, then they must have been local, mustn’t they? But I hadn’t seen any of them before, I’m sure of it. I didn’t know their faces.’

‘Two tall men in caps, and the one with the shotgun small and rounder?’

‘Yes, yes, that’s it.’

 

It was the same story in Horsforth. A small, local branch at the top of the hill. None of the people there had noticed anything remarkable about the men. There had been two customers inside, forced to stand against the wall. Old Mrs. Crane had been taken to the hospital afterwards, suffering from shock, but she was home again now, her daughter staying with her. Before he drove back into Leeds, Williams walked over to see her.

It was a well-appointed old house, set well back from Town Street, the garden carefully tended, borders in colourful bloom. Mrs. Crane hardly looked in shock as she sat in the easy chair, a compact woman with a walking stick at her side. If anything, it was her daughter, summoned down from Harrogate and ordered around by her mother, who seemed dazed.

Mrs. Crane eyed him carefully.

‘I suppose you’re one of those young men who thinks he’s good looking,’ she said.

He gave her a smile. ‘I don’t know. I never think about it.’

She snorted. ‘Were you in the war?’

He’d seen the photograph on the mantelpiece. A youth in an ill-fitting uniform.

‘I was.’ Williams wasn’t going to say more. He’d joined up at sixteen, at the start of the last year of the war, going into the Leeds Pals. He’d trained as a sniper and been good at his job. Seen men die and killed more than a few himself. With the Armistice, he’d been happy enough to put down the rifle, take off the khaki and wash away the mud of the trenches.

She stared at him again before nodding her approval.

‘What do you remember about the bank robbery?’ Johnny asked.

‘They looked scared,’ she said.

‘Who was in charge?’

‘The one doing the shouting.’ She sounded certain. ‘He was pointing, showing the others where to go.’

‘What about the one with the gun?’ Williams asked.

‘He didn’t even have a clue how to hold it properly.’ She made a sound that could have been a snort. ‘My husband used to shoot when he was alive. Taught me how to use a shotgun. The man in the bank held it like he was terrified it would go off.’

‘Too young to have fought, then?’

‘The lot of them barely looked out of nappies. If I see any of them again I’ll take my stick to them.’

‘Is there anything else you remember about them?’

‘The third one – not the leader or the one with the gun – had a scar across the back of his left hand. He was dark, like the one in charge. They might have been brothers. They had the same look around the mouth.’

‘Very observant.’

‘I’m old, I’m not blind, young man. And don’t go thinking you can soft-soap me.’

He grinned at her. ‘Never.’

‘Are you going to catch them?’

‘Yes. I have to say, you don’t look like you had a shock.’

‘Just a faint.’ She waved it away. ‘My daughter insisted I go to the hospital. Silly girl.”

 

He arrived at the Metropole a little before six, finding a table in the bar and ordering the drinks. When Violet finally arrived, weighed down by her heavy handbag, the Brandy Alexander was waiting for her, drops of condensation on the outside of the glass.

She was wearing a pale blue, knee-length silk dress that flattered her. He watched men’s eyes track her across the floor.

‘God, that was a day and a half. I’m sick of golden weddings. Do you think we’ll be married for fifty years?’

‘Depends if you kill me first.’

‘True.’ She gave a serious nod. ‘There’s always that.’ She look a long drink and sighed with pleasure.

‘I don’t know how you can drink that.’

‘Because I’m suave and sophisticated, why else?’ Violet paused. ‘Have you discovered anything yet?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Something we can publish? Bill’s going to use what you said. He was terribly grateful and grovelling. I loved it.’

‘Not yet. I’ll see how it all pans out. Do you want to eat somewhere?’

 

They ended up settling on fish and chips from Cantor’s. He parked at home and strolled over, chatting with Sid as the man worked the fryer. Violet had the plates warming in the oven, the salt and vinegar sitting on the table.

‘When I was down in London they took me out for jellied eels,’ Johnny told her.

She made a face. ‘That sounds disgusting.’

‘It explains a lot about Londoners, though. If I knew that was coming for supper, I’d be miserable, too.’

‘So what are you going to do about the bank job?’

‘Oh, that’ll sort itself out, give it a few days. Do you want me to make tea?’

 

‘I should go and talk to a few people,’ Williams said after they’d heard the news on the wireless.

Violet cocked her head. ‘Anywhere interesting?’

‘Just round and about. A pub or two.’

‘I’ll come along. There are some nasty types out there. You need someone to look after you.’

‘If you like.’

‘It’s better than sitting at home and listening to Ambrose and his band on the radio.’ She thought for a moment. ‘We could always go on to a club later. We haven’t been dancing in ages. I’ll go and change.’

 

The Market Tavern was crowded with people in the warm evening, the loud mutter of talk filling the air. Williams took a sip of the Scotch and grimaced.

‘I hope your gin’s better than this,’ he told Violet. ‘It tastes like they distilled it in the cellar.’

She took a cautious taste.

‘I think it’s more tonic than anything. Maybe they don’t like coppers or their wives.’

‘It’s a thieves’ den here. Only the best for you.’ He winked, then glanced around the room. ‘Do you see the man over in the corner? Fair hair and moustache? That’s George Marsden. We put him away five years ago for robbing a bank.’

Marsden was well-dressed in an expensive suit and colourful tie, two-tone brogues on his feet. There was space around him, a sign of respect. Only the girl at the table sat close, dressed in bright red silk, looking bored, her bright red lips pouting.

‘Good God, who is she?’ Violet asked.

‘Girlfriend, a tart. I don’t know.’

‘A tart?’ Her eyes widened. ‘Can we go over and talk to them?’

‘I was hoping you’d say that. Just watch your bag, they’re a light-fingered bunch in here.’

Marsden looked up as they approached, half a glance at first, then stopping as he recognised the face. He put the pint glass down on the table and lit a cigarette.

‘Detective Sergeant Williams.’

‘I heard you were out, George. Back to your old tricks already?’

Marsden chuckled. ‘These bank jobs?’ He tapped the evening paper in front of him. ‘Is this right? Early morning in the city centre on a day when there are no wages? They should be arrested for bloody stupidity.’ He looked at Violet and muttered, ‘Sorry, missus.’

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to have an attack of the vapours,’ she told him with a smile as she sat next to the girl.

‘Any idea who they are?’ Williams asked.

‘Bunch of amateurs,’ Marsden replied with a sneer. ‘Anyone can see that. Did they take a look at the place first, size it up?’

‘No one noticed them.’

‘See?’ Marsden said emphatically. ‘That’s my point. Not a clue what they’re doing. They’re going to panic and someone will get hurt.’

‘Not like you.’ Marsden had knocked out a man who didn’t want to hand over his money.

‘That was different. It was business. And I didn’t hurt him.’

‘He was in hospital overnight.’

‘And I was gone for five years. You’re the one who put me away.’

‘Just business, George.’ He lifted his glass in a small toast. ‘If you hear anything about this lot, let me know, will you?’

‘Course,’ Marsden agreed readily. ‘They’ll give us all a bad name.’

‘And keep your nose clean for a while. Next time it’ll be six years or more.’

‘You know what prison taught me? To be very careful.’ He gave a slow smile and tapped the side of his nose.

 

Away from the smoke and stink of stale beer, the night smelt sweet. Violet linked her arm through his as they strolled through County Arcade.

‘Did you learn anything?’

‘They’re either beginners or not from around here. One thing about George, he doesn’t like competition. If he knew, he’d tell me. What about you? Good chat?’

‘Not bad,’ she said thoughtfully.

‘Is she a tart?’

‘She works in a shop in Armley. Her name’s Honour.’

‘Really?’ He grinned. ‘Honour?’

‘That’s what she told me. She couldn’t afford those clothes on her wages, though. That dress was real silk and her shoes weren’t cheap.’

‘We never recovered the proceeds of George’s last robbery. With that suit of his, too, I think we can see where it’s going.’

‘She called herself his moll.’

He shook his head.

‘Too many American gangster films. I don’t know what the world’s coming to.’

 

They went on to two other places, both of them quiet, no one to pass on any information, and ended up at the Pink Ribbon Club on Lower Briggate. It was a sluggish night, hardly any customers and no energy to the small band that ran through their numbers, eager for the next break. At eleven Johnny looked at her.

‘Home?’ he asked.

‘God, yes,’ she said with relief. ‘Even Ambrose would have been better than this lot.’

 

He was up before her, shaved and dressed, dapper in a suit with a faint Prince of Wales check, long before she untangled herself from the sheets. By the time she’d struggled into a slip and started applying her makeup he’d left for the day, reporting to the station.

Superintendent Randall perched on the edge of his desk.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘They’re probably amateurs. Or from somewhere in the West Riding.’

‘Then what was all that guff in the paper about having the best driver in Leeds?’

Williams smiled. ‘Just shaking the tree and seeing what falls down.’

‘You’d better not take too long about it. Everyone’s getting nervous as it is.’

‘They were trying to get themselves noticed yesterday.’

‘Seems like they succeeded.’

‘But they didn’t think it through. There wasn’t going to be much cash there so early on a Monday. Did we find the car?’

‘Abandoned by a factory on the road to Middleton. No one saw them. According to Inspector Gibson, they’re very dangerous criminals.’

Johnny considered that for a few moments.

‘I think they’re probably petrified.’

 

Johnny Williams enjoyed police work. Most of it was simple enough, not even any real detection. But the tougher cases were his meat and drink. He’d joined the force when he was twenty-three, then come up quickly through the ranks, a year on the beat, then a couple more as a detective constable before they’d made him a sergeant. He was in no rush to go higher; rank brought too much responsibility for his liking.

Randall gave him plenty of freedom. Johnny had his own way of working and it brought results. He was good at putting criminals behind bars.

 

Williams spent part of the morning wondering where the robbers would strike next. He stared at the big map of Leeds on the wall. There was no pattern in what they’d done. But they were becoming more ambitious. There’d be a next time, he was certain of that.

Finally, he gave up. He didn’t know enough to predict. Most likely there’d be a few days before anything else. Time to learn a little more.

In the Austin he started the engine and let it idle, smoking a cigarette and watching people pass on the street. Finally, he put the car into gear, heading out beyond Harehills.

The Gipton estate was brand new, not even half-built yet. Some roads seemed to lead nowhere, others had builders’ vans parked, the men busy laying bricks and putting the roofs on houses. In time it would be huge, but for now most of it was mud with tufts of grass. There were no signs on the streets and he had to ask workmen for directions, waiting as they examined a map.

The brick was rosy red, fresh sod covering the small front garden. Williams stood and gazed at the place. Much better than Gabriel Pitt’s old house, an old ruin by the city centre that was now a pile of rubble.

He knocked on the door and waited, hearing a woman waddle along the hall and then Millie Pitt was standing there, a scarf covering her hair and a pinafore around her short, dumpy body. She sighed.

‘You’ve not come to arrest him, have you, Mr. Williams? I’ve not even got him started on the decorating yet and I’d like the bedroom distempered first.’

‘Why? Has he been up to something?’

‘Oh,’ she said in surprise. ‘I thought he must have been for you to come calling.’

‘I just want a word with him, actually.’

‘Right.’ For a moment she seemed nonplussed, then smiled. ‘Come in. I’ll put the kettle on. He’s upstairs with the paintbrush. Just watch yourself in that good suit.’

No one could call Gabe Pitt handsome. His looks had been his downfall as a robber. With his bulbous nose and bulging eyes, witnesses had always been able to describe him. A day after any job and he’d be in jail.

Now, though, he was in the bedroom, standing on the stepladder, the bottom half of his face covered with a handkerchief as he worked, paint splattered in his thinning hair.

‘You look like one of those cowboys in the westerns,’ Williams told him. ‘All you need is a Stetson.’

‘Whatever it is, I didn’t do it,’ Pitt said. ‘Been too busy moving.’

He climbed down, setting the tools aside, and lowered the kerchief. Barely five and a half feet tall, and almost as round as his wife, he wasn’t quick on his feet. The only time Williams had been forced to chase him, the man had been panting hard after a hundred yards.

‘They’ve given you a nice place.’

‘Not bad,’ Pitt agreed with a nod. ‘I’ll tell you though, Mr. Williams, before they’d let us move in, we had to put all our stuff through the bug van. I said to the man, he’d have to be the one to tell my missus all our stuff had bugs. I’d pick him up off the floor afterwards.’ He looked around the room with satisfaction. One wall was painted, and part of the ceiling.

‘Have you heard about these bank robberies in town?’

‘From the newspapers. Why?’ He started to laugh. ‘You don’t think it was me, do you?’

‘We’d already have you in the cells if it was, Gabe. I just wondered if you’d any ideas who was behind it.’

Pitt shook his head. ‘I’m out of touch up here. There’s not even a decent boozer close by. Can you credit that? They’re building all these houses and not one good pub.’

‘It’s a crime,’ Johnny agreed. ‘So you don’t know who’s responsible?’

‘Amateurs, like as not. Sawn-off shotgun, is that right?’

‘Yes.’

‘Probably some lads with no jobs looking for easy money. They don’t see it as a craft.’

‘They’re taking honest crime away from the likes of you,’ Williams said.

‘They are,’ Pitt agreed seriously. He pulled the kerchief up over his face again. ‘What do you think? One of these and a hat next time?’

‘You do that, Gabe. Then come back here and wait for me. I’ll be over in an hour.’

 

Driving back into the city centre, he was pleased. A few conversations and some wounded pride. Everyone seemed to agree the robbers weren’t professionals. That would make them harder to find. But the real artists wouldn’t be happy at anyone coming on their turf. A day or two and the leads would start.

The police station was bustling as he walked in, uniforms muttering and frowning, the CID room empty except for Superintendent Randall pacing between the desks.

‘You go wandering off without a word…’ he began.

‘Just putting fleas in a few ears. Why, what’s all the fuss?’

‘Broughton’s.’

The name was familiar, but Williams has to think for a moment before he could place it.

‘The gunsmith on Woodhouse Lane?’

Randall nodded. ‘They’ve been robbed. Get over there and find out what’s happening. The last thing we want is a bunch of weapons floating around.’

 

‘What did they take?’ Johnny asked the manager again. The man, still living in the fashion of the 19th century with a wing collar and a frock coat, had evaded the answer the first time, taking a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbing sweat from his forehead.

‘Four shotguns and ammunition,’ he admitted reluctantly.

‘Tell me what happened.’

‘They just burst in through the door.’

‘Don’t you keep it locked?’ Williams asked in surprise.

‘Of course,’ the man replied, affronted. ‘But a customer had just gone out, and they were inside before it closed.’

‘How many?’

‘Three of them.’

He could feel a sudden chill climbing up his spine.

‘Tell me,’ Johnny asked with interest, ‘how were they dressed?’

 

The Dead On Leave (Again)

Last month The Dead On Leave, my novel set in Leeds in 1936, was published. It’s out there, £7.99 in paperback, cheaper on ebook, and yes, I do think you should read it. It is – I hope – an honest picture of a city gripped by the Depression and trying to find its way in a country that’s changed and threatens to leave it behind.

It’s also about the rise of fascism, which didn’t make much headway in the country, thanks to the efforts of many good people, and a population that rejected it. Between those two things, it’s something of a mirror to the present – although the book doesn’t try to offer any lessons.

But it’s still a good read, if I say so myself. So tempt yourselves with a bit more of it…

1930s boar lane 2

‘You know people in the Communists, don’t you, Raven?’ Kennedy asked quietly as he put another match to his pipe.

‘Only one man, sir.’

‘Have a word with him, will you? See what he can tell you.’

‘Yes sir.’

*

He knew where he’d find Johnny Harris. Six o’clock on the dot and he’d walk under the Magnet Ales sign into the Pointer in Sheepscar. Harris worked at the boot factory near the bottom of Meanwood Road, operating the machine that attached the upper to the sole. He’d done it for so many years that his skin on his palms was as tough and callused as the boots he made and he’d never be able to scrub away the smell of leather.

Harris had fought in the war, Gallipoli first, then the trenches, from the Somme all the way to Armistice Day. He’d seen the very worst and come back to a promise of a home fit for heroes, words that were nothing more than lies. As soon as they evaporated into thin air he’d joined the Communists and stayed loyal all through the purges in Russia, never wavering in his belief, working his way up to local party secretary.

Raven had grown up with Harris’s younger brother, Paul, the pair of them at school together. The families lived a street apart; he’d known them all his life. But it was only in the last few years he’d had much to do with Johnny.

Harris was a tough man, loud, always ready to argue his point. He read a great deal, his back-to-back house on Manor Road crammed with books. All communist, all biased, but Harris believed with the true fervour and devotion of a convert.

He’d been one of the organisers of the demonstration against the Blackshirts on Holbeck Moor. Harris probably counted the violence as a victory. But Raven hadn’t come to argue the finer points of politics as he parked the Riley by the library at the bottom of Roundhay Road. He needed information.

Harris was leaning on the bar, his broad back to the room, savouring his first pint after work. Another half hour and he’d go home to his wife and two daughters and be a loving husband and father when he wasn’t doing party work. But this was his time.

‘Give him another,’ Raven told the barman. ‘I’ll have a lemonade.’

With a wary look at the policeman’s scarred face, the man nodded.

‘You must be on duty.’ Harris didn’t even raise his head. ‘You’d be on the pints otherwise.’

‘They’re slave-drivers.’ The drinks arrived. Raven raised his glass. ‘Good health.’

‘I’ll drink to that.’ Harris pushed himself upright. He had large hands and heavily muscled arms. At first glance he looked to be a big, dangerous man. But there was a twinkle at the back of his eye and usually a smile playing around his mouth. He sipped the head from the drink with a wink. ‘I’ll accept the beer because it’s depriving the capitalist state of money it might use to exploit the people.’

‘Yesterday…’ Raven began.

‘A success.’ Harris interrupted. ‘We sent them packing.’

‘I was there. I saw it.’

Harris grinned. ‘You didn’t go on your own time, I bet.’

‘Don’t be daft. I wouldn’t waste a Sunday. But someone else was there of his own volition.’

‘That body in the paper today?’ Harris asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Was he one of ours?’

‘Not at all. A fan of Mosley. He was a means test inspector.’

The man stayed quiet, tearing a soggy beermat into tiny pieces.

‘What are you suggesting, Urban?’ Harris asked quietly. ‘That we were responsible?’

‘No,’ Raven answered slowly. ‘I’m asking, that’s all. Have you heard anything?’

‘Not a dicky bird.’ He took a long sip, draining half the beer. ‘How was he killed?’

‘Strangled with an electrical cord.’ Raven saw the man flinch and his fingers tighten around the glass.

‘None of my lot would do that.’

‘You don’t know for sure, Johnny. We have to find the killer and we’re going to need help.’

Harris pursed his lips. It would be hard for him to help the authorities. It went against everything he believed. But if the killer turned out to be a party supporter and he did nothing to help…

‘I don’t see it,’ he said finally. ‘Not a communist.’

‘Someone murdered him. And it’s a cold-blooded way to die. Brutal.’ Raven finished the lemonade. ‘I’d appreciate the assistance, Johnny, but I’ll leave it to your conscience.’

‘You’re a bastard, Urban, putting me on the spot.’ He shrugged. ‘Let me ask a few questions, all right? But I’m certain it wasn’t any of my people.’

‘Thank you.’

1930s gipton estate

No car for the journey home today; the police would never be that generous. Probably for the best, anyway. He’d only end up with a curious crowd outside the house, staring at the only car on the estate. Jim Green, all the way down on Coldcotes Drive, had a motorbike, but he’d bought it as a wreck and rebuilt it himself.

Raven had to wait for one of the Lance-Corporal trams, half-dozing as it clanked along York Road.

No lights on at home, but there was the smell of cooking in the kitchen. A note on the living room table read: Gone to the pictures with Gladys. Your tea’s in the oven. At least there was food, he thought. And some peace and quiet.

He ate, then left the plate in the sink. Kettle on the hob to make a cup of tea, staring out over the garden as he drank. There was too much to think about on this case. All they had was a jumble of pieces. He couldn’t even see all of them yet.

Maybe Johnny would come up with something. If there was even anything to find. Perhaps a bobby going through the list of Benson’s claimants would find a man so torn by guilt that he confessed. Right, he thought as he looked into the growing darkness, and they’d see pigs flying over the Town Hall in the morning. This was going to be slow and difficult and it was going to be painful.

1930s albion street

The Dead on Leave (1)

Book Bargain

I don’t often put up on here that one of my books is on sale very cheaply (mostly because they aren’t, I suppose). But for once…The Dead On Leave, set in 1936 during the Depression in Leeds, when Oswald Mosley brought his Fascist Blackshirts to town and was forced to leave with his tail between his legs, with a body in his wake, is on sale as an ebook for next to nothing – 99p in the UK, $1.32 in the US.

I was surprised – the publisher hadn’t told me, and it’s evidently just for a limited time – because the paperback isn’t out until June 18.

Your regular outlets will have it, if you fancy a dip into historical crime, but the Amazon UK link is here. Make up your own mind about the cover, but don’t judge the book by it, please.

The Dead on Leave (1)