The Last Job

Damn the man.  If Amos Worthy hadn’t bought his debt, he wouldn’t be here now. But Josh had been so relieved when the man did it he was almost willing to give over his soul. Sometimes it felt as he’d done exactly that.

He’d gone up to the hanging on Chapeltown Moor, drunk more good ale than he should, and made a bet on the horse race afterwards with Moreland the Fence. In his stupor he’d wagered more than he had, certain the nag would win. It was the favourite, wearing a ribbon from Mrs. Farley, and Josh was sure he’d walk away with plenty of silver in his breeches. Then the animal galloped into a hole and broke its leg.

Josh didn’t have the money to cover what he owed, not even close, and soon Moreland became insistent. He took a beating one night from two men that left him in bed for two days before he could move properly. That was the threat. Next time would be worse. Broken bones, maybe a broken neck.

Then Worthy came to visit, solicitous as you like. Even brought one of his little whores to minister to Josh. He could buy the debt from Moreland, he suggested. Josh wouldn’t even need to give him the money. All he’d need to do was perform one or two services. He left the girl overnight. When he came back the next morning Josh was ready to agree to anything.

That was a year ago and still the ledger wasn’t clean. He knew what Worthy was like but he’d agreed anyway. What was the choice? At least he was still alive. Once, twice a month, he had to break into a house, under orders to steal this or that and take it to the man’s house on Swinegate. He tried to refuse once, to say he’d paid enough, and Worthy had slashed his face with that silver-topped cane he carried. It slashed his skin like a knife, enough to leave a pale scar. After that he’d agreed meekly and prayed he’d survive. Worthy was a big man, he was older. He was bound to keel over dead one of these days.

The months of 1731 had passed and he’d done as he was ordered. Now it was December, Christmas just three weeks away, and he was creeping round a merchant’s house in the middle of a frigid night.

Stealing was Josh’s trade. It had been since he was a boy, moving from picking pockets to snatching what he could through open windows, then learning the housebreaker’s art. He was good at it, never arrested. At twenty, though, he knew his luck couldn’t hold forever. He wanted away from the life. Something steady, where he could settle and dream there could be a future.

Back in October, still in his cups on a Sunday morning after a long night of drinking, he’d ended up in a Baptist service, not even sure how he’d stumbled in there. But he’d found something, some purity in its severity. He’d gone back every Sunday since then, wanting to repent but not certain he was able. He could almost smell the hope, but wasn’t sure he could reach it. He was ready to be immersed, to be baptised, to find that new life.

If Worthy would ever let him go.

 

Emil Frederiksson was one of a pair of Swedish merchants who’d arrived in Leeds two decades earlier and built a strong, profitable trade exporting cloth to the Baltic. He’d built his new house near to top of Kirkgate, no more than a stone’s throw from the jail. It was the type of place Josh always avoided. Too many rooms, too many servants. And if you stole from the very rich, the law came crashing down hard on your head; he’d seen that happen to men he’d known, transported to America or the Indies and lucky if they lasted long enough for passage back after seven years. But Worthy had ordered. He wanted the mirror that Fredriksson had bought from the silversmith who had his workshop behind the Shambles. And he didn’t accept failure.

Josh had tried to argue. He’d begged. He’d even cried. But Worthy didn’t give an inch. It was only at the end that the man made his promise: do this job and the debt would be forgotten.

Finally he had a ray of light in the distance, if he could reach it. He had to believe it was real.

It would be in the man’s bedroom, the worst place for stealing anything. On the ground floor, he had a chance. He knew how to move around an empty room without a sound. Up the stairs – that was a different matter. People stirred in their sleep. They woke. The servants were just up in the attic.

Josh had watched the house for a night, keeping out of sight in the shadows, standing until he felt frozen by the winter cold. He knew where Frederiksson slept, he spotted a window he could pry open in the larder.

Easily done. He felt the Turkey carpet under his feet in the hall, the slow, soft tick of the longclock. Warmth lingered in the house, enough to bring the feeling back to his fingers and legs after hours of standing and waiting for the town to quieten. Past midnight by the clock on the  Parish Church when he made his move.

He stayed close to the edge of the staircase, where the treads would be less likely to squeak. He held his breath with each step, one hand on the polished bannister to steady himself. It was slow, but he knew it would be.

Josh was alert for any sound, any sense of movement around him. He’d broken into hundreds of houses in his life and knew the rule: always make sure you have a clear way out. It wouldn’t be so easy this time.  But this time, more than ever, he need it. To put all this behind him and then wash away his sins in the freezing river.

Another Turkey carpet on the landing and Josh thank his luck; it would absorb the footfalls and let him move silently. Up here, though, he had his choice of doors. He had to imagine where he was in the house, which one led to Frederiksson’s chamber.

The man was a widower, he slept alone. That made things easier, only one person in the room who might wake. Gingerly, he felt his way along until he was at the right door. Josh stopped, held his breath, and listened. There right at the edge of his hearing, he caught the small snuffles and movements of someone asleep.

His palm was slick as he grasped the door knob. He drew it back and wiped it on his breeches, then gripped again and slowly turned it. Not a sound, no squeak or groan. His eyes were used to the gloom. Gently, inch by inch, he eased the door open, his feet not moving.

Then he was inside, easing across the floor. The shutters were closed, but a fire was banked in the hearth giving a faint glow. Josh remained still, letting his senses adjust. He could feel the man asleep, covers pulled up high. And there, on the table, the reflection of the silver mirror.

Easy, he told himself. Slow and careful. A few more minutes and he’d be gone, he’d be free. One pace and pause. Another. Then a third and fourth, each one seeming as if it might take forever, and he was close enough. Josh reached out, flexing his fingers, then taking hold of the mirror, lifting its weight and pulling it close to his body.

Josh retraced his steps, closing the door behind him without even a click. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, but he resisted the impulse to run. You made mistakes when you hurried, and this final time would be perfect.

The stairs took time. His throat felt dry, as if it would take an ocean of ale to quench his thirst. Then he felt the Turkey carpet of the hall under his shoes and he began to believe he would soon be free.

Into the kitchen, dark and shadowy, one hand reaching for the door of the larder with its open window, and someone opened a lantern.

‘There’s no point in trying to run. I have a man waiting outside.’

The speaker raised his arm and showed his face. Josh knew him. Every criminal in Leeds did. Richard Nottingham, the constable. The mirror slipped out of his hand and shattered on the flagstones.

‘Seven years of bad luck,’ Nottingham said. ‘That sounds right enough. Good job it wasn’t the silver mirror.’

Josh could feel himself starting to shake. Right at his core, then moving to his arms as if he was freezing.

‘How?’

‘You need to learn not to talk about your plans. Someone heard you and decided we ought to know. Maybe you’ll like the Indies. It’ll be warmer there.’

Amos Worthy. The bastard would never let him go. He’d been the one who peached. Josh would never be free now.

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In November 2017 there will be a new Richard Nottingham novel, Free From All Danger. But I’ll be talking much more about it as the time approaches. Meanwhile, I’d be glad if you’d take a glance at my most recent books, The Iron Water and Modern Crimes. Christmas is coming, after all, and books make excellent presents.

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Another Story

You’ve enjoyed the Richard Nottingham (and Amos Worthy) stories I’ve posted. Here’s another one, called Home. It’s appeared in a couple of anthologies, but many of you won’t have seen it. Richard’s mentioned, but he’s not part of the tale. Well, read it and see for yourselves…and if you spot one or two similarities with Cold Cruel Winter, perhaps it’s no surprise. This came first.

Revenge.

He savoured the word on his tongue, letting it run like an infection through his veins, thinking it remarkable what a fire burning in a man could do. It could keep him alive all these long years away and then bring him back home.

‘Nicholas Andrews, I sentence you to seven years’ transportation,’ the judge had intoned, allowing himself a merciful smile at keeping another felon from the gallows dance, and all for the crime of cutting a few purses. He could still hear the words with their smug inflection and feel his hands gripping the polished wood of the dock.

He’d expect things to be bad, but the truth proved far more cruel than anything he could have imagined. Puking his empty guts out in the hold of the ship, fettered hard and helpless as the guards and sailors taunted him. Then, in Jamaica, a heat so harsh and hellish he thought it might burn the skin from his back, so intense the thought the devil was pricking his lungs. They’d set him to work cutting the sugar cane, day after day out in the steaming, stinking fields, wounds from the machete festering on his hands and arms, healing slowly and painfully as he prayed with quiet fury for his preservation. For the chance of revenge.

He survived two bouts of fever, raving off his head and swearing murder, so they told him later as he lay in bed, thin as a pauper’s dog and so weak he couldn’t even raise his hand to take they drink they offered.

It was education that saved him, those brief years he’d hated of sums beaten into his skull and making his letters. After the clerk died, the plantation owner needed someone who could read and write and Nick had pushed himself forward, grovelling and despising himself for his arse-licking words, but knowing it was better – that anything was better – then serving the rest of his sentence in the cane.

The job became his life, and he was good at it, quickly trusted for his accurate accounting and good hand. The master never suspected the occasional coins he filched and buried in the dirt beneath a tree.

Every single morning he formed his lips to spit the name of the man he hated – Richard Nottingham, Constable of Leeds, the man who’d caught him, put him in gaol and landed him here. Once he was home again he’d have Nottingham’s blood for that. Seven deep cuts from the knife, one for each year he’d been gone, the last gentle and loving across the throat so he could watch the man’s life bubble away in hopeless breaths. And tell him just why before he died.

When his freedom finally came, the days ticking slow like a clock running down, the ticket of leave in the pocket of his threadbare coat, the owner asked him to stay. Nick looked at him as if the words made no sense. All he knew now was home and the flame burning strong and hot in his heart.

 

The ship landed in Liverpool in January 1732. The money he’d stolen at the plantation had paid for his passage and his food, hard tack riddled with weevils and small beer turned sour before the gale-ridden crossing was halfway complete.

He arrived penniless to an England that seemed like a foreign land, in the grip of a bitter, bruising winter which had no mercy. But Nick didn’t worry about the weather. One thing drove him on, a coal in his gut to keep him warm. It was no work at all for him to cut the purses of a pair of drunken sailors, the skills of his old life still sharp. He ignored the port whores, all pox-ridden, rowdy and consumptive, and bought a hot meal and a bed for the night instead. In the mirror he caught a glimpse of himself, his shoulders stooped, face dark from the sun and lined, hair matted and hanging to his shoulders, thin and grey though he wasn’t yet thirty. He pulled the worn blanket over his body. There were fleas in the sheets, but at least the bed didn’t rock and shiver in the waves. The next morning, without a second thought, he turned his back on the coast and began walking east.

By the time he reached Winnat’s Pass the pain from the cold weather had seared to his bones and his old boots were ribbons of leather, feet flayed and bloody from the stones and ice on the roadway. But he was lucky, finding a stranger for company whose corpse at least provided new shoes, even if it added nothing to his small supply of coins; when the snow melted in the spring they’d find the body and never know what happened.

From Sheffield he made his way north, face set tight against the snow and the chill, the ragged coat held tight around his body as the gusts tore at his cheeks more brutally than any overseer’s whip.

He passed Wakefield in the early dusk. His money was running precious thin and he was looking at a hungry, freezing night burrowed in a copse when he saw the farmer, a florid man with ugly, fat thighs jiggling in his breeches as he walked briskly home through the fields.

It took little to slice him, pull the body into the trees and take the rich, warm coat. There were coins in the waistcoat, enough to see him to Leeds.

Back to his home.

Back to Richard Nottingham.

Back to kill.

 

He crossed Leeds Bridge in the late morning, blending with the market crowds, and heard the traders shilling their wares up on Briggate. The snow piled against the houses and walls, the slush icy and treacherous in the streets. He could smell the tannery on Swine Gate and the rich earthiness and piss of the dye works down by the river. For a small moment he stopped to stare up at the bulk of the new, graceful Holy Trinity Church. Soon he was at the top of Kirkgate, watching silently as people lurched and slid around him.

He’d been standing there for nigh on two hours, his feet feeling as though he was still shackled and his hands numb from the wind’s frigid tongue, when the Constable emerged. Slowly he followed, unnoticed and invisible in the throng, beyond the Moot Hall with its bloody, metallic tang of butchers on the ground floor, up to the Head Row. He watched through the window as Nottingham entered Garroway’s Coffee house, hailed some men and sat with them. Steam blurred his view through the glass and he walked on.

He’d seen what he needed, and closed his eyes as a smile creased his lips. The man was still alive, still here.

He could do it tonight, he could watch in the darkness as the blood stained the snow, then he could breathe out and live again.

His fingers twitched.

No, not tonight.

He wanted the act to last, for each moment to fill him so the memories could tumble over him in all the evenings to come.

Slowly, almost carelessly, he strolled back down Briggate. He passed the Rose and Crown, once his haunt, and walked on to the Talbot.

Inside the door the noise overwhelmed him like a wave and he stood still, eyes flickering with suspicion across a press of faces. Fire leapt in the large hearth, the heat inviting and irresistible. He pushed his way onto the corner of a bench near the blaze. As one of the serving girls swept by he ordered ale and stew, the cracked, awkward sound of his own voice surprising him.

Tomorrow he’d do it. The debt would be paid, he could leave Leeds and truly feel like a free man.

The warmth of the food and the sharp crackle of the logs left him weary. He needed a bed, he needed sleep; in this city that would pose no problem. First, though, he needed a woman.

The last time had been two years before. As a present to celebrate Christmas the master had presented him with a slave for one night. She lay, brown eyes wide and empty, silent as he forced himself on her. When he woke the next morning he was alone, and only the heady smell of her in the thick dawn air assured him that it hadn’t been a dream.

Outside the inn, the sky had stilled with early darkness. His breath clouded the air and his soles crunched over ice as a few flakes of snow fluttered half-heartedly.

She stood half on Briggate, at the corner of a yard whose name he didn’t recall. Her face was in shadow, a pathetic, patched shawl drawn across her shoulders, moonlight picking out the pale skin of her bony arms. He moved closer, astonished to find his heart pumping fast.

‘Looking to warm yoursen up a bit, are you?’ She tried to sound cheery but her voice quavered with the chill.

He nodded.

‘Down here then love.’

He followed her into the tight entrance to the yard, still in sight of the street. As she turned towards him, a sense of relief in her smile, her hands already hoisting her skirts, he rested his blade lightly against her throat so that a paint line of red drops bloomed on her skin.

He didn’t need words; she understood. He pushed her back against the wall, tore at her clothes and entered her. Her eyes opened wider, the blank, hopeless stare an echo of the girl in Jamaica. It was only seconds later that his backhanded blow sent her to the floor, still mute, and he dashed back into Briggate, tying his breeches.

 

It was God’s joke, he decided, that he’d end up in a rooming house in the same yard where he’d been a boy, before his parents had died of the vomiting sickness and he’d made his way on the streets. He glanced at the old door as he passed, but any memories were held like secrets behind the wood. It was just for one night then he’d be finished here, on his way to York or London, to anywhere a man could disappear and start life anew. There was only one tie here and he’d loosen it soon enough.

The dank room already held two men with ale heavy on their breath, their sleeping farts sweetening the air. He lay on the straw pallet fully clothed, the wretched rag of a blanket over him, and drifted away.

 

Something cold and metallic was pushing against his mouth. Confused, still sleep-drunk, he struggled to open his eyes, pawing at his face with one hand.

‘Sit up.’

The words came as a command, colder than the bitter air in the room. Without even thinking, he obeyed. Thin, early light came through a window covered by years of grime.

The man towered over him, seeming to fill the space, his presence full of menace. He was tall, with unkempt grey hair, his face lined, but his back was straight and his chest wide under dirty clothes. One large fist held a silver-topped walking stick lightly.

He knew who this was; it was impossible to have ever lived on the edge of the law in Leeds and not know. Amos Worthy.

‘I hear you were with one of my girls last night.’ The man’s eyes were dark, his voice slow, as deep and resonant as any preacher. ‘You didn’t pay her. I can’t allow that.’ He paused, letting the words hang ominously in the air. ‘But then you had to cut her as well, didn’t you? So now I have to make an example of you.’

Nick started to reach for the knife in his pocket. The man simply shook his head once and gestured over his shoulder. A pair of thickset youths, their faces hard and scarred, arms folded, stood inside the door. The two other beds were empty.

‘I know who you are,’ the man said, speaking softly and conversationally. ‘Oh aye, you’ve got the Indies burned on your face, Nick Andrews. Seven years is a long time away from home. But happen it’s not long enough.’

All he could do was nod. Whatever words he’d once possessed had deserted him. Worthy was offhand, easy in his certainty and Nick felt the piss burn hot down his leg as his bladder emptied. He was going to die here, in this room, in this bed, before he could finish his work. And all for a few short seconds with a whore.

‘All that time doesn’t seem to have made you any wiser, laddie. Just back, are you?’

Nick nodded again.

‘It’ll be a short homecoming, then.’ He raised his thick eyebrows. ‘You crossed me. You can’t do that here.’

He brought his stick down hard. Nick saw it fall, quick, effortless, but it burst his nose, the shock of pain hard and sudden, blood gushing chokingly into his mouth.

‘You can kill him now, boys. You know what to do with the body.’

 

 

Alderman Harkness

I’ve posted a couple of Richard Nottingham stories on here over the last couple of weeks and I’m grateful for how well they’ve been received. This isn’t a third, but it’s related – a tale involving his great nemesis, Amos Worthy (if you don’t know him, read the first three Richard Nottingham books). This goes back to a period before Richard is Constable of Leeds; he’s not even mentioned. But I hope you’ll like it anyway.

The young traveller closed the book of maps, stood up and began to look around.

“If you want the jakes it’s out in the yard,” said the man sitting across the table from him. “But I’d not leave that there, it’ll be gone by the time you get back. Den of bloody thieves, this is.”

“Thank you.” He picked up the book and took it with him.

The man shook his head. Some folk had no more brains than chickens, he thought. He pushed his plate away, downed the last of his ale and left the Talbot Inn, pausing only to loosen his breeches a little; the beef had been filling. One of his men lounged outside the door, watching the street with careful eyes, then quickly falling in step behind his employer.

Amos Worthy walked down Briggate, looking straight ahead, the tip of his silver-headed stick tapping on the street. Although he was dressed in shabby clothes, his coat and waistcoat old and stained, his hose dirty, the wig ancient, he knew he was one of the powers in Leeds. Aldermen came to court him, eager to borrow his money for their businesses or make use of his whores. Merchants deferred to him. None would have him at their table, of course. At one time they’d shunned him, back when he was an honest man. Now, at fifty, he was a pimp and procurer, with deep wealth in his coffers.

He turned on to Swinegate, striding easily through the clamour of people at work or making their purchases and went through the plain door to the house, going along to the kitchen, where the fire was lit. The man was already waiting there for him.

“Alderman Harkness,” he said as he settled onto his chair. “What can I do for you?”

Harkness was close to fifty, about the same age as Worthy, a close pink shave on his heavy jowls. In the last decade he’d ballooned into fatness, much larger than Worthy himself. But he strove to hide it in suits of the best cut, intended to flatter, and expensive, colourful silk waistcoats. He’d made his money from selling cloth and consolidated his power as a member of the city’s corporation.

“I need the loan of some money, Mr. Worthy.” At least the man had the decency to look embarrassed at his request, Worthy thought.

“And how much this time, Alderman?” He let his voice hang on the last word to remind Harkness of his position.

“Two hundred and fifty.”

“Two hundred and fifty pounds?” He was astounded by the figure. It was enough to pay for an apprenticeship with a merchant. Even those who did well in the wool trade that was the backbone of Leeds only cleared twice that in a year. “And what do you need that for?”

“It’s a personal matter.” Harkness tried to sound dignified, but Worthy knew the reason. The alderman’s son, George, loved to gamble. He spent his nights at the tables, in York or London, playing cards or hazard. By April each year he’d already lost his annual allowance and came crawling to his father for more. The man needed the money to honour his son’s debts.

“You’re a man of strong appetites, Mr. Harkness.” Worthy leaned back and studied the alderman in his finery. He glanced over at the guard by the back door. “How many times has he had Sophie in the last two months, Tom?”

“Twenty, sir.”

Worthy raised his thick eyebrows.

“Twenty times with one of my whores in two months? You’ve a bull in your breeches, Mr. Harkness. And how much have we charged him, Tom?”

“Nothing,” came the reply.

Worthy sat back and sighed.

“You use my girls for nowt, you already owe me a hundred from last year, and now you’re back at the trough for more. What do you say to that, Alderman Harkness?”

“I’ll pay you back,” he answered brusquely. “I always have before.”

“Aye,” Worthy agreed slowly. He poured himself a mug of ale, pointedly offering none to the other man, and drank it all down in one long gulp. “That was then, though. Times have changed, haven’t they?”

Just a year earlier, in 1714, the merchants and aldermen of Leeds had sworn their allegiance to the new king, George. Less than twelve months later, in June, some folk in the city had celebrated the birthday of the Old Pretender, James Stuart. The church bells had rung for hours and bonfires had burned in joy around the town. The dragoons had come out of their barracks to stop the Jacobite sympathy. In the weeks after, Mayor Pollard and two others had been summoned to London and Alderman Cookson had been briefly arrested. After that Leeds had trodden tenderly and cautiously. Trade was down, no one wanted to be seen to do business with traitors. The merchants were making no money, he knew that for a fact; they’d all come grovelling to him for favours and loans. If it lasted much longer, Leeds would be full of paupers, Harkness included.

“They’ll get better,” the alderman promised. “This’ll blow over soon enough, you wait and see.”

“Oh aye?” Worthy asked. His voice was lightly mocking but his eyes were hard. “And how long do I have to wait?”

“A month…maybe three.”

He could see the main was sweating, the drops standing out on his forehead under the carefully powdered wig. Worthy poured more of the ale and sipped at it, tasting the bitterness in his mouth and relishing it in his throat.

“And if I lend you the money, what’s my guarantee?”

Harkness stood straighter.

“My honour. It’s been good enough for you before,” he said, affronted.

“I already said, times have changed.” He knew that the man would get his money and be deep in his debt in many ways. But let him wait a little for it, he thought. Harkness had been one of those who’d hounded him all those years before. He’d had a shop then, a draper’s, doing fair business and gaining a reputation. Then there’d been the news of his affair with a merchant’s wife – nothing as simple or straightforward as an affair, really; it had been love – and the customers he’d relied upon had abandoned him, until he’d had to start over, running whores and finding a life beyond the law. Did the man in front of him think he’d forgotten all that, written it off to history? “So which will you wager on?” he asked. “One month or three?” He could see relief flood into the man’s expression.

“Three months,” he answered quickly, as Worthy knew he would.

“Same interest as before.”

Harkness nodded.

“Tom will bring you the money,” he said and took another drink. The merchant moved towards the door. “And Mr. Harkness,” Worthy said to his back, “there’ll be no more Sophie until you’ve paid.”

 

The summer passed, a hot and humid August slowly giving way to the first signs of autumn, fruit dropping from horse chestnut trees to be eagerly gathered by boys, the leaves turning to their bright, dying colours.

As the weather turned, clouds and showers replacing sun and heat, another pimp thought to challenge Worthy’s supremacy. Others had tried and failed, and this one was no different. Worthy led his men in the fight, using his fists and boots, enjoying the red rage that overcame him before taking his knife to the upstart as a lesson. Mercy was softness in his business; men had to know that failure brought only one thing. If he didn’t do that, none would respect or fear him.

When it was over he found out who’d betrayed him to his competitor. It was one of his girls, one who’d tried to cheat him before and paid the price for that transgression with a long scar on her cheek. This time, when he questioned her, she’d stood defiant, saying nothing but spitting in his eye. He’d taken care of her himself, making sure none would ever see her alive again, and that no one would find the body. He knew the rumours would spread and his reputation would grow. It would keep the whores in line and the debtors agreeable.

By the end of October he’d received no word from Harkness about repaying the loan. Worthy had kept his ears open. He knew trade was still painfully slow, the merchants and the city still hurting, purses so tight that they squeaked. Three days remained until the loan was due. The second of November, payable in full with interest. There was time, he told himself. The man might arrive on the day itself. One thing Harkness wouldn’t dare do was play him for a fool; that was a devil’s game.

He kept his own counsel on the matter, the way he did with everything else. Never let any man know your mind, he’d learned, and it had served it well. It kept them guessing and kept them wary.

On the day the money was due he stepped into the parlour of the house on Swinegate before going to dinner. There were cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling and dust on the small table. One of the servants had lit a fire, but no one was allowed to clean in here.

“Hello, mam,” he said to the old woman in the chair. She was hunched over, a small glass clenched in her finger. Her stroked her hair tenderly but she took no notice. She’d had him at fifteen and raised him as well as she could, somehow finding the money for his apprenticeship to a draper. When the respectable folk of the city turned their backs to him, she’d found her sweet oblivion in gin. He’d taken her in, made sure there was always enough of the spirit for her.

She didn’t move, didn’t answer, and soon he left her to her dreams, wherever they might take her. He ate at the White Swan, conducted his business and returned, sitting late in the kitchen and brooding while a blaze roared in the hearth. He finished a jug of ale and refilled it from the barrel, paying no attention to the guard who waited patiently by the back door.

The next morning he sent word to Adam the forger, a note telling him what he needed. He knew the man would do it without question.

Adam brought the documents before evening and Worthy inspected them closely before handing over a gold coin, payment for the work and the silence that would follow it. Nights were coming earlier, he thought as he looked out of the window. All too soon it would be winter once more and he’d feel its bitterness in his bones. Each year seemed colder than the last.

He’d give Harkness until morning to appear.

 

Worthy rose early, dressing in the clothes he always wore, careless of the stains and smell. Bread, cheese and sliced meat were waiting on the kitchen table, the room already warm from the fire, the way he enjoyed it. Finally he pushed the plate away and motioned to Tom.

No Harkness. No word.

“Go up to the barracks and fetch Lieutenant Marsh,” he ordered. He knew the man would come; Worthy had been generous with his whores and gifts of wine to the man. Marsh had been the officer to quell the celebrations and arrest the men he believed disloyal to the King. He was an ambitious fool, someone who believed fervently in crown and country as he paraded around Leeds in his best uniform and paid court to the young ladies of Leeds before tupping the prostitutes in the back rooms of inns.

It took two hours for the soldier to arrive, the heels of his polished boots clacking on the flagstones of the hallways. He stood on the other side of the table, back straight, his hat clutched under one arm, a quizzical expression in his eyes.

“I believe all the men you arrested over the birthday celebration for the Pretender are free,” Worthy began. He was seated on the stool. He’d put more coal on the fire, making sure that the man would sweat in his fine plumage.

“They are, sir.” Marsh’s voice was loud and abrasive, with the drawl of generations of money.

“You must be disappointed, laddie.”

“Sir?” He looked confused.

“All that work and they’re let go in the end. They’ll not have thanked you in London. Making all that work for them and it comes to nought.”

Marsh was silent. Aye, Worthy thought, he’d have earned himself a black mark or two with that. He smiled.

“Would you like to redeem yourself, Lieutenant?”

“Sir?”

He drew the papers from the deep pocket of his waistcoat. They’d been folded and refolded, the handwriting carefully imitated.

“What would you say if I told you I had proof that someone here had been writing to the Pretender? To James Stuart himself, pledging his loyalty. Of his own desire,” he added carefully, “nowt to do with the city.” Marsh stepped forward eagerly. “What do you think would happen to a man like that?”

He could see the soldier thinking quickly of his own glory.

“He’d be taken to London and tried. If he was guilty, he’d be executed.”

Worthy nodded sagely.

“And as a good subject of his Majesty, it would be my duty to pass on this information, of course.”

“It would.” Marsh held out his hand and Worthy passed over the documents. “What’s the man’s name?”

“Alderman Harkness.”

Richard Nottingham is Back

Well, sort of…this is the beginning of something, at least. What it will become remains to be seen. Maybe a book, maybe a story, maybe nothing. Still, it’s been a while since Richard had anything at all to say to me.

Perhaps you’ll like it, perhaps you’ll still care about him. Let me know, please.

Leeds, August 1736

Just two years. It always surprised him. It felt as if it should be longer, like a path that stretched out across the moor. Two years, eight months, and thirteen days. Time past, time passing. But not so quickly now, as if someone had slowed the hands of the clock.

And that suited him. More of a chance to keep memory close. To hold on to ghosts.

Richard Nottingham stirred. The dog days of summer, with brilliant light through the cracks in the shutters. He’d woken before first light, just lying in bed and letting his thoughts wander. He heard his daughter Emily leave to go and teach at her school. Then Rob Lister, her man, now the deputy constable in Leeds, had gone with his clank of keys and the firm tread of his boots across the boards. He could hear Lucy the servant moving around downstairs, opening the door to the garden and tossing the crumbs for the birds.

All around him life went on.

He poured water in the ewer and washed, then dressed in old breeches and thin woollen stockings.

The road was dusty and rutted, the hot air of the day tight in his lungs. The trees over Sheepscar Beck gave shade, the sun flickering through the leaves onto the water. He crossed Timble Bridge and walked to the Parish Church and along the path he knew so well.

Two years, eight months, and thirteen days since she’d been murdered.

Three days since someone had shattered the headstone on her grave.

He’d gone to visit his wife, to talk to her, the way he did every single day, thinking of nothing as he walked along the path he knew by heart. Just time for a few minutes of conversation, a chance to hear her voice in his head, to try and make amends again, although he knew she forgave him.

And then he saw it. The pieces smashes and scattered across the grass. For a moment he believed he was imagining it.

Why would anyone do that?

He looked around. It wasn’t only her stone. A few others, almost at random,in other parts of the churchyard. But he didn’t care about them. He knelt and gathered the fragments, piecing them together on the grave until she had her name once more Mary Nottingham. Beloved. Died 1733. Beside it, the memorial to their daughter Rose stood intact.

He’d risen and gone straight to the jail on Kirkgate, all the smells so familiar as he entered the building. But there was another man behind the desk where he once sat.

Someone prissy and exact. That was how Rob had described him. Fractious, a know-nothing who knew everything. Nottingham had listened and commiserated. But Nottingham retired. It wasn’t his problem. After so many years he’d chosen to walk away from the job and never regretted his decision. The corporation had given him the house and a small pension, enough for the little he desired.

‘Visiting old glories?’ The man had a politician’s face, smooth and shiny, the periwig clean and powdered, his long waistcoat colourful in reds and yellows.

‘I’m here to report a crime, Mr. Peters.’

The constable picked up a quill, dipped it in the ink and waited.

‘What’s happened?’

‘Someone’s been destroying gravestones at the church.’

Peters put the quill down again.

‘You’re the third one in here today to tell me. It happened last night.’

He knew that. He visited the place every morning.

‘My wife’s was one of them.’

The man chewed his lip.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. But…’ He gave a helpless shrug. ‘I have too few men and too much crime. A murder, robberies, a young man missing for a week. I’ll see they ask around and try to find something. For now I can’t promise more than that.’

Nottingham stood for a moment, staring at the man.

‘I see. I’ll bid you good day, then.’

He wandered. Down to the bridge, watching carts and carriages lumber along in the heat. He passed the tenting fields with all the cloth hung to dry and shrink, through the rubble of the old manor house and back to Lands Lane.

Sadness, anger, emptiness. Just the pointlessness of it all, the sense of loss falling on him once again.

Why? Just the question, why?

Up on the Headrow, as he walked by Garraway’s Coffee House, a sharp tap on the glass made him turn.

Tom Finer sat at the table, his hand resting against the window.

‘You look like a man with the world on his shoulders,’ he said as Nottingham settled on the bench across from him. ‘Would a dish of tea help? Coffee?’

‘No. Not today.’

Nor any other day; he’d never developed the taste for them. Ale was enough for him.

Finer was a criminal who’d vanished to London, back when Nottingham was still young, no more than a constable’s man. He’d returned eighteen months earlier, after almost twenty years away. Older and claiming to have left his past in the capital.

He seemed smaller than the last time they’d met, as if he was slowly withering away with age. In spite of the warmth Finer was well wrapped-up in a heavy coat, with thick breeches and socks.

‘You must have been to the churchyard.’

Nottingham looked up sharply.

‘What do you know about it?’

‘Nothing more than I’ve heard or seen with my own eyes. I was down there first thing. I’m sorry.’

‘Do you have any idea who…?

Finer shook his head.

‘If I did, I’d tell you.’ He paused. ‘But did you notice which ones they were?’

‘My wife’s.’

Finer was silent a few moments, chewing on his lower lip.

‘Go back there and look again,’ he suggested. ‘Look outside your own pain.’

‘Why?’ Nottingham asked urgently. ‘What is it?’

Finer stared at him.

‘You’ll see.’

He stood by Mary’s grave, his hand resting on the broken stone, and let his gaze move around. Another headstone demolished in the corner, a third by the wall. And he understood what Finer had been trying to tell him.

One was the memorial to Amos Worthy, the man who’d kept Leeds crime in his fist until the cancer rotted him and pulled him into the ground. A man he’d hated and liked in equal measure.

The other was the stone for John Sedgwick, Nottingham’s deputy, beaten and killed in his duties.

Messages for him. The past.

A 1733 Interview with Richard Nottingham, Part One

From the Leeds Mercury, 1733:

As the citizens of our good town will know, among the public offices in Leeds is one of Constable. Whilst many of those who abide within the letter of the law may be unaware that the role is anything more than ceremonial, those of a nefarious and dubious character know all too well that our Constable is someone to be feared, a man who uses his rank wisely to see that they’re punished for their misdeeds.

Earlier this year our present Constable, Mr. Richard Nottingham, was incapacitated by a grievous knife wound in the act of apprehending some dangerous criminals. For some time the outcome of his life lay in the balance. Praise be to God, however, that he returned from such a brink and currently finds himself recuperating at home.

Constable Nottingham was gracious enough to accede to request from your humble correspondent and answer questions for the Mercury. We deem this interview to be of great account to those in Leeds, that they may acquaint themselves with a man who’s proved himself to be such a valued servant to the city.

We wish you well of the day, sir, and hope your condition’s improving.

Slowly. Another month and I should be back to my work. To tell you the truth, I’ll be glad of it; I wasn’t made to be idle.

You have no thoughts of retirement?

Perhaps my wife would like that but she knows me too well to insist. I love my job. I’ve been doing it sixteen years now (Editor’s note: Mr. Nottingham was named as Constable in 1717) and I can’t imagine anything else. Certainly not doing nothing.

Who has been your greatest foe?

Greatest? I’m not sure that’s the word I’d use for him, but probably the most dangerous was Amos Worthy. He died a year ago, taken by cancer. He was a pimp, a money lender, he had a hand in much of the crime we had here.

And yet he was never in court? Never sentenced to hang or transported?

He was a wealthy man. Money can buy power and protection. Perhaps it’s best just to say that Mr. Worthy used his riches wisely. Those who might testify against him or threaten him would change their minds or decide to leave Leeds. A number of years ago, back before I became Constable, there was a man named Tom Finer. He vanished overnight. We’ve never discovered what happened to him.

Leeds is a place that is changing in every way. It’s growing bigger and richer each year. Has the nature of the crimes from which you defend us altered?

People drink, they argue and fight. Nothing’s changed there and it probably never will. Men grow weary of life and kill themselves. I’ve seen men and woman kill for passion. I’ve seen them steal and even murder to be able to feed their families. I’ve seen things most people could never believe. We have more people in Leeds than ever before. The rich are richer and the poor grow poorer and more desperate. There are plenty hereabouts with next to nothing. When folk are like that they end up feeling they have nothing to lose, and they’re right. Even the danger of having their necks stretched up on Chapeltown Moor doesn’t seem like much. Imagine having empty pockets and an empty belly then seeing a man wearing a coat and breeches that cost more than you’d be able to scrape together in three months. How would you feel?

Those are very radical opinions, sir. You make Leeds sound like a dangerous place.

It can be. It’s my job – and those who work with me – to keep people safe. All the people of Leeds, not only those who live in the grand houses.

The second part of our conversation with Mr. Nottingham will be published in our next edition, which will appear seven days from now. We trust you will find it as edifying as the first.

ImageAnd a reminder that the next novel featuring Richard Nottingham, At the Dying of the Year, is published in hardback in the UK on February 28th.