Richard Nottingham: The Lost Girl

When the world fell apart I was working on the fourth Simon Westow book (the third is ready, out in six months). But those books run on anger, and it’s hard to feel that right now. Somehow, Richard Nottingham seems to make more sense in this world.

The Molten City is just out in the UK, and I’d love for you to buy it – Fox Lane Books (kirstie@foxlanebooks.co.uk) can obtain copies easily. But in the meantime, spend a little while with Richard.

10 years

 

Leeds, October, 1740

 

Today was a good day.

He’d woken and for once his knees didn’t hurt too sharply, he could walk comfortably without relying on a stick for his balance. It was a morning of spun softness; the sun was shining, he could feel the fleeting kiss of late autumn warmth on his face, and the falling leaves made lush patterns of reds and golds and greens on the ground.

Richard Nottingham stood by Timble Bridge, listening to the quiet music of Sheepscar Beck as it trickled over the rocks. For once he felt at peace with the world, at home in this bag of bones and flesh that was his body.

A deep breath and he marched on into Leeds. At the Parish Church made his way towards two graves. Places he visited almost every day, where his daughter and his wife lay. A chance to bow his head, to talk to them. A few words for Rosie, far more for Mary. Each morning when he woke, he still hoped to find her next to him, no matter that she was seven years gone.

Finally he turned away and found himself staring at a girl who had a round, frightened face and large eyes.

‘Well,’ he asked kindly, ‘who are you?’ He started to reach into the pocket of his breeches for a coin; these days more children were begging on the streets than ever before.

But he stopped; this one didn’t have that look. The clothes weren’t rags. Her face had smidges of dirt, but she was mostly clean. Her dress was made of good calico, with no rips or tears. Her stockings were coarse wool, yet they were whole and the shoes fitted her feet.

‘Someone said you were the constable, sir.’

He smiled. ‘I was, but that was a long time ago. Now, why would you need the constable?’

Nottingham could see where tears had made their tracks down the her cheeks. For a moment he felt the pain well up in the girl, then she forced it down again and made herself speak.

‘It’s my mother, sir. I can find her anywhere.’

‘What do you mean?’ He felt a stir, a sense of something awful.

‘I went to play yesterday and when I got home, nobody was there. I asked but no one knows where she is.’

A bonny girl. Seven, maybe eight years old. The look of someone who’d been cushioned from the very worst of life and never had the scramble of surviving on the streets. He straightened up and looked at her.

‘Why don’t we go and find out, eh?’

‘Can you help me find her?’

He held his tongue. Nottingham wanted to promise an answer, but he knew it was better to wait and discover the truth. Without thinking, the girl reached for his hand. He squeezed it lightly. Some assurance. The contact of another person. They were probably what she needed most just now.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

‘Sally,’ she told him. ‘Sally Virginia Arthur. What’s yours?’

‘Richard Nottingham,’ he replied. ‘Where did you spend last night?’

‘In my home. I kept thinking my mother would come back and everything would be all right’ Her voice faltered, fumbling and lost. ‘But she never did, so I came out to look again as soon as it was light.’

She was turning her head, peering at every face she saw, filled with the hope of spotting her mother.

The house was tucked at the very back of Turk’s Head Yard. The door opened under his touch. As soon as he entered he could feel the emptiness. The chill where no fire has been set that morning. A husk of silence covered the place.

The kitchen was clean. Nottingham ran his hand across the table; only a thin film of dust. The girl hadn’t lied. This time yesterday, people had lived here.

One room upstairs. A larger bed, and a small one for the girl. A woman’s dress hung from a nail, plain brown homespun. A clean apron. Stockings folded on a chair. She hadn’t run off.

‘Why don’t you tell me about your mother,’ Nottingham said. Anything to keep Sally’s mind busy. ‘And your pa.’

There was no father, none that the girl could remember. Only men who stayed a few nights then left again, but not many of those she could recall.

‘What’s your mother’s name?’

‘Hannah Elizabeth Arthur.’ She said it with pride, then looked around and the tears begin, as if the words had invoked a sense of finality. Nottingham put his arms around her and stroked her hair. He waited, letting it all flow out of her, until she was gulping for air and sniffling and rubbing at her eyes. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and put it in her tiny hands.

‘What does your mother do?’

She needed money to rent a house like this. It was a good court, artisans lived here, a large step up from the single room that was home to so many families. The clothes weren’t expensive or new, but they weren’t falling apart, either. There was food in the kitchen. Hannah Arthur was surviving well.

‘I don’t know.’ Her face was serious. ‘But she always spent a lot of time in the cellar. People would arrive and they’d go down there. She wouldn’t let me go down with them, and she kept the door locked.’

Curious. More than enough to leave him wondering.

‘Shall we go and take a look? You and me, together?’

Sally nodded and stayed close, as if she was terrified he might disappear in the same way as her mother. A simple lock in the cellar door, easy to pick with the tip of his knife. A candle and tinder at the top of the stairs. Nottingham waited until the flame took hold, bright and wide.

‘Be careful,’ he warned her. ‘Hold on to my coat as we go down.’

Nottingham kept one hand against the wall to steady himself and made sure of each step beneath his boots. This was no place to take a tumble. He held the candle high, letting the light pool, feeling the relief as his feet touched the hard earth of the cellar floor.

A bench with eight tall candles. A single chair. Strange enough. And tools of some kind. He moved closer, Sally’s hands keeping a firm grip on his coat. One short look was all he needed. Now he understood why the woman had money. And with the knowledge, his fear for her grew.

‘I think we should go and tell the constable about your mother, don’t you?’ He tried to keep his voice bright, not to scare her. ‘He might be able to find her.’ Hesitantly, she nodded her agreement, still staring at the table. However much she looked, Sally would know never know what her mother did.

‘He’s a good man,’ Nottingham continued. ‘I trust him. He’s married to my daughter.’

 

The coloured cloth sales were done for the morning, men grumbling and complaining as they noisily dismantled the trestles. Farther up Briggate, the Tuesday market vendors shouted their wares: fruit, butter, a chicken for your dinner to please your man, missus. With Sally holding tight to his hand and still examining every face, he crossed to Kirkgate and passed the White Swan, loud and hearty with the smell of hot meat and beer as weavers spent some of the profits from their sales. Nottingham ducked inside and bought a small pie.

The jail stood next door. Everything about it was so familiar: the way the door stuck as he pushed it open.  Inside, it was comforting, musty, the warmth from the iron stove spreading around the room. The young man sitting on the other side of the desk raised his eyebrows as he saw the girl.

‘This is Mr Lister,’ Nottingham told her. ‘He’s the Constable of Leeds. And this is Sally Arthur.’ He handed her the pie. ‘You sit down and eat this; you must be hungry by now. I’ll tell him about your mother. We’ll be just down there.’ He pointed towards the cells. Hois voice softened. ‘Not far, I promise.’

‘Boss…’ Lister began once they were alone. Nottingham had been in charge once, Rob a constable’s man at first and then the deputy. The old habit wouldn’t die.

With a finger to his lips, Nottingham spoke in a rushed whisper, explaining what had happened.

‘The mother’s a coin clipper,’ he said. ‘She has small, sharp shears and metal files in the cellar, and there’s a pot and small brazier for melting the silver.’

It was a hanging offence, the same as counterfeiting. Yet it was so easy. The clipper removed small pieces of silver coins with the shears and filed the edge smooth; once there was enough, melt them down. Work with enough people and it was a business that could turn a handsome profit.

‘Maybe…’ Lister began, but Nottingham shook his head.

‘It’s definite. She was making enough to live reasonably, and the girl said she didn’t have any other job.’

‘I’ll go and take a proper look at the house.’

‘Somewhere, you’re going to find her dead.’ His voice was filled with the sorrow of inevitability. ‘I can feel it.’

2

Lucy raised her eyebrows when he walked into the house on Marsh Lane with the girl holding tight to his hand. On the walk out here she’d searched fiercely around, hoping to find her mother somewhere in the crowds. Her free hand clutched a shawl around her shoulders.

‘This is Sally,’ Nottingham said. ‘She’ll be staying here for a little while.’

‘Only until you find my mother.’

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘After that you’ll be going home again.’

‘Let’s have a look at you,’ Lucy said. ‘You could use a good wash, that’s a fact, and I daresay you’d like something sweet. I just baked a cake yesterday.’

She took charge, the way she’d done with everything in the house since she first arrived. Lucy was part of the fabric of the building now, a stout, warm presence who took care of the family. Through the window he could see his granddaughter Mary in the garden. She was four now, another stray who’d found a home here. She’d arrived when she was no more than a baby, left outside St. John’s Church; she’d never known anywhere besides here. Now she stood with the tiny spade he’d paid the blacksmith for forge for her, tongue poking from her lips in concentration as she tried to dig a big hole in the ground; God only knew the reason, but it was occupying her. There had been one more lass for a while, but Annie had gone to live with Mrs Williamson as her servant.

‘I don’t know what Emily will say when she comes back,’ Lucy told him.

He grinned. ‘She’ll probably take one look and wonder how much learning she can put into her.’ His daughter ran a dame school for poor children. Those families who could, paid a little. For the others, it was free. But the education never lasted long and it never could never go deep; too many needed to work as soon as they were old enough. He lowered his voice. ‘Be gentle with her. I think she’s going to need plenty of kindness.’

 

Rob Lister picked up the tools, the files and the shears. The pot was empty; maybe that meant something, maybe not. A small hand broom lay on the floor. He held it up and ran his finger along the bristles, watching one or two tiny particles of silver sparkle like dust motes as they fell. Everything was scrupulously clean, table and floor.

He’d found no sign of a struggle. He heard his deputy, Tommy Warner, clumping around as he searched the bedroom. The man was loud, with a face full of scars he’d never bothered to explain. But his mind was agile, he was loyal and honest, and his eyes picked up the smallest clue.

‘Anything?’ he called.

‘Not a damned thing. All her life is still here.’

Lister tensed and reach for his knife as the door opened. But it wasonly Richard Nottingham.

‘One of your men is looking for you. There’s a body.’ He stopped, took a slow breath and frowned. ‘A woman, he said. Over by the mill garth at Quarry Hill.’

‘Do you want to come with us?’ Rob asked.

‘Yes,’ he replied, not even thinking, then paused and added, ‘If you don’t mind.’ Four years had passed since he’d done any work like this. He’d felt no sadness when he finally left it behind. Instead, he relished a life that was his own, mingling solitude and family, a chance to walk and leave the world out of his thoughts. There, in his mind, he could travel the roads of the past, a green summer country where his wife and older daughter were still alive.

(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Nottingham stood and exhaled slowly as he looked down at the corpse. It was Hannah Arthur. Young Sally was the image of her, the same round cheeks and bushy fair hair. He turned away, not wanting to see the terror fixed on her face or the stab wound that had killed her.

‘I’m going to need to talk to the girl,’ Rob told him.

Of course. He needed all the information he could find. ‘She’s at the house.’

Lister issued his instructions, then the two of them set off together. No words, just uninterrupted sorrow and loss.

 

He sat by Sally, his arm around her shoulders for comfort, listening as Rob asked his questions. Was this how he’d been when he was constable? Relentless, burning with the need to know, to discover all the answers, whatever the coat?

‘Sir,’ she said when he’d finished, ‘What about my mother? Do you know when she’ll be back?’

The two men glanced at each other.

‘Sally…’ Nottingham began, and she turned her head to look up at him. Hopeful, wide brown eyes begged him for something good. But she deserved honesty, however much it hurt. ‘I’m sorry.’

Before he could say more, she broke away from him, wailing as she ran off into the kitchen.

‘Lucy will look after her.’

‘I had to do it, boss.’

He nodded. ‘I know. Maybe Warner and the others have come up with a name or two.’

‘She didn’t have any idea what her mother was doing,’ Lister said. ‘That was obvious.’

The poor child. Eight years old and her life had come unmoored. Suddenly alone, completely lost. She wasn’t the first, she wouldn’t be the last. He’d been that age when…no, no matter, that was in another time.

Rob could look after the crime; finding the killer was his job. Nottingham needed to discover if Sally had any relatives who could take her in. An aunt, perhaps, or an uncle.

The girl had thrown her arms around Lucy, as if she could stop her from being swept away. Sally’s head was buried in the woman’s apron as she cried. Lucy whispered and stroked the girl’s hair. She shook her head at Nottingham and waved him away, never pausing in her words.

There were a few useful things he could do. Go back to Turk’s Head Yard and talk to the neighbours, see if they knew of any relatives. And he could try to discover who else was clipping coins in Leeds.

Men came and went from the Arthur’s house. Some women, too. That was what the others in the yard told him. The death shocked them, scared them, too; it was always that way when murder arrived close to home for respectable folk. They’d heard no shouting or arguments. Yet while their mouths gave out condolences, their eyes said that it was no surprise. Any woman involved in crime had it coming.

None of them had really known Hannah Arthur well. She and the girl kept to themselves. No-one remembered a mention of family; it was always just two of them. An attentive mother, but, you know…

He left, discouraged. Later, when she was ready, he’d ask Sally. He’d offer her warmth and listen to her memories and grief.

By the time he walked back up Briggate, his knees were beginning to ache and he had to lean heavily on the stick. Too much walking and the day was far from over yet.

He found Tom Finer in Garroway’s coffee house. He spent most of his days here, breathing in the warm steam of the air; the dampness was kind to his lungs, he claimed. Finer was more than an old man now, his face as weathered and ancient as the grove of towering oaks that stood outside town. Each year he seemed to shrink inside the layer of heavy clothes he wore to keep himself warm.

But he knew more about crime in Leeds than anyone else. Finer listened, tilting his head to hear more clearly, asking Nottingham to repeat a word or two. Then he sat back, stroking his chin. On the table, a plate covered with breadcrumbs. Next to it, a saucer and a cup with the dark, thick remains of coffee.

‘I’ve never heard of the woman,’ Finer said eventually. Over the years his voice had developed into a deep rasp, that sounded curiously musical. ‘She can’t be anyone too important in the trade.’

‘She made a little money,’ Nottingham said.

All Finer did was shrug. ‘Hard not to do if you’re clipping coins. The big difference comes when you’re making a lot of money. You know what they say: the greater the risk, the larger the reward.’

And the risk was always there. He had no doubt that Hannah Arthur knew the penalty. But how else to support herself and her daughter?

‘Who’d murder a woman like that?’

Finer snorted, a wheezing noise more like a cough.

‘Don’t be an idiot, Richard. Plenty of people. Maybe she’d cheated someone. Perhaps one of the people bringing her coins to clip wanted more. It could be someone saw the chance of a quick profit. Or one of the people who bought the silver she melted down.’

‘It didn’t happen at home.’

Finer examined his fingernails. ‘Where was she?’

‘Quarry Hill, right on the mill garth.’

‘How?’

‘Stabbed in the back.’

‘Henry Wilson,’ Finer said. No hesitation. Then a faint smile. ‘Your son-in-law will have his name on a list.’

‘Who is he?’ Nottingham had never heard of him.

The man exhaled slowly. ‘He arrived, what, it must be three years ago now. After your last time as constable. Someone whose ambition exceeds his brain. That’s a dangerous combination. You know it as well as I do.’

Nottingham stared out of the window at the people passing on the Head Row. A cart trundled, pulled by a slow-moving, swayback old nag.

‘Is he violent?’

Finer nodded. ‘He can be, if it will get him what he wants.’

 

3

‘We’re already looking for him, boss.’

Nottingham recognized Rob’s smile. Indulgent. The man knew his job, he didn’t need help from someone whose days in the job were all behind him.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I should have guessed.’

‘Maybe you’d be better spending some time with Sally.’

A gentle nudge away from things. Let us get on with it. He understood, even if it made him feel old and irrelevant. But perhaps that was what he’d become. Keeping the law was a job for younger men.

‘You’re right,’ he agreed. Yet as he walked down Kirkgate, he could feel the tight knot of resentment in his belly. He was the one who’d taken a chance on hiring Lister in the first place. And now…

He stopped at the Parish Church, a chance to ease his legs. The day was turning brisk, the sun vanishing as deep autumn clouds rolled in and the wind tipped out of the north. By tonight the weather would turn cold, a reminder that winter was just around the corner. Time for a bigger fire in the evening and another blanket on the bed.

Nottingham paused at the graves. The carving remained still crisp on their stones, even as the years passed. He traced out the names. How long before his name appeared below his wife’s? Sometimes he wished life would rush by quickly so he could join her in the ground. Often, though, he felt peace enough simply coming to talk to her.

You’d like this girl, he said. She’s as lost as the rest of us, she seems so fragile and trusting. It might only be for a day or two; she may have relatives who’ll take her. He heard the faint echo of his wife’s response: what if there’s nobody? But they both knew the answer: Sally Arthur would become a part of the family. They were all waifs, orphans making their home together.

 

‘She’s sleeping,’ Lucy told him. ‘I gave her one of those old wives’ remedies that Hester Bailey up the road makes. Some rest is the best thing for her right now.’

The horror would still be there when she woke, but at least she’d have some time free of it.

‘Did she say much?’

‘No, poor little thing.’

Little Mary came over to him, looking up with wide, beseeching eyes. What choice did he have? Nottingham hoisted her on to his lap and listened carefully as she told him about her day. Then the front door opened and she was gone, siding down to the floor and scampering away as she called out, ‘Mama! Mama!’

‘I’ve already heard we have a guest,’ Emily said as she attended to her daughter. She shook her head as she hefted the basket of books on to the table.  ‘You know how they love their gossip. Three different people must have told me as I came home.’

They talked, picking over the supper Lucy served as darkness fell. Nottingham lit the candles and closed the shutters, piling more coal on the fire.

Emily tucked Mary into her small bed, then he told her a story. It was a ritual he’d begun when she first arrived, back when she was a tiny baby and filled with wonder at the world. He’d continued as habit and pleasure. The joy of words and weaving a world. Old Jem, the travelling storyteller, had often stayed in the house when he was still alive, and Nottingham remembered many of his tales. Where he lost the track, he discovered his own.

Once Mary’s eyes closed, he crept out of the room, pulling the door closed, and glanced in on Sally. Her head moved; she was awake, her face was streaked with tears

‘I didn’t dream all those bad things, did I?’ Her voice was tentative, the words feeling their way. He knew that a part of her didn’t want to hear the answer.

He settled on the edge of the bed, feeling his knees ache as they bent. Reaching out, he pushed a stray lock of the fair hair behind her ear.

‘No, you didn’t. I’m afraid they’re all real.’ He waited, watching her eyes in the remains of twilight beyond the window. The loss, the loneliness. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘My mother’s really dead?’

‘Yes, she is.’

The girl pushed her face into the pillow. Nothing would make the truth vanish. No wishing, no praying. But let her do what she could.

‘Do you have any family?’ he asked. A small shake of her head. ‘No uncles or aunts?’

‘No.’ Her voice was muffled, beyond hope. ‘Mama never mentioned any.’

‘Don’t you worry, you can stay here,’ Nottingham said. ‘We’ll look after you. At least you don’t need to think about that.’

He left her. When she was ready, she’d come down. But he knew he was offering a small consolation. She’d be entering a different world, a place without her mother, where everything was familiar but strange, all the signposts of the past vanished.

 

The family had gone to bed. Lucy, Emily. He’d looked in Sally once more. She was turned away from him, impossible to tell if she was asleep or awake. Sleep, he hoped; some rest and escape.

Nottingham banked the fire. He had single candle on the table beside him, its flame flickering as he read the Leeds Mercury. Even with his spectacles, the print blurred a little after half an hour.

Rob returned just as he stirred himself. Lister shed the greatcoat, poured himself a mug of ale and downed it in a long, single swallow.

‘How’s the girl?’ he asked

‘The way you’d expect,’ Nottingham replied. ‘Did you find him?’

Rob nodded. His face was drawn and grim.

‘He killed her. Admitted it before he died.’ Nottingham said nothing, simply waited for the rest. ‘I didn’t have any choice, he refused to give up.’ A sad, eloquent shrug. ‘I didn’t have any choice. But he did give us something else.’

‘What?’ He had his murderer. How could there be more than that?

‘It turns out there’s another man running it all.’ A glint in his eyes, the anticipation of what lay ahead.

‘Who?’

‘Sir Walter Carew. We’re going for him at first light. And we’re going to take him alive.’ He placed the mug back on the table and sighed. ‘Sorry, boss. It’s been a long day and I need my rest.’

He heard the boots on the stair, a soft murmur of voices, then silence. Nottingham followed, washing in the ewer and settling between cold sheets, imagining his wife beside him, the warmth of her body for comfort through every night.

Carew tomorrow. But that wasn’t his battle; Rob was right. In any fight, he’d be too slow, too awkward. The men would have to look out for him. Besides, he had enough to do right here, to help Sally find her new life.

 

There are seven Richard Nottingham books – The Broken Token, Cold Cruel Winter, The Constant Lovers, Come The Fear, At The Dying Of The Year, Fair and Tender Ladies, and Free From All Danger, as well as a short story called Convalescence (which is only available for Kindle). The Broken Token has just been reissued in paperback to celebrate 10 years since its first publication. But all are very easily avaialbe as ebooks. He, his family, his friends and enemies, all keep a special place in my heart.

9781906790844

Elegy – A Richard Nottingham Story

Richard Nottingham rarely makes an appearance these days. Right now, at least, my focus of Tom Harper (and The Leaden Heart is just out – please buy a copy!) However, eighteen months ago Richard was in Free From All Danger, the first book in several years to feature him. Yet people still seem to love him. They ask if there will be more. A few weeks ago I had a spate of requests that me me back into things I’d written about him. I came across this, a story I’d started and never finished.

This time I completed it, looking back into the far past, to Cold Cruel Winter, a pivotal novel for me. The second with Richard, my first for Severn House, one that was named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by Library Journal in 2011. It established him and it helped establish me.

Hopefully, this story – and it’s small, it’s personal (although longer than I expected) – does Richard justice.

 

 

Leeds, August 1736

Two years. It always surprised him. It should be longer, he thought. It felt longer. Time past, time passing. But not so quickly now, as if someone had slowed the hands of the clock. A chance to keep memory close. To hold on to ghosts.

Richard Nottingham stirred. The dog days of summer, 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 solid tread of his boots across the boards. Lucy the servant moved around downstairs, opening the door to the garden and tossing the crumbs for the birds.

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 tight in his lungs. Sun flickering through the leaves onto the water of Sheepscar Beck. He crossed Timble Bridge and walked along Kirkgate to the Parish Church, then over the path he knew so well.

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

 

 

He went to visit his wife, to talk to her, the way he did every single day, thinking of nothing in particular. Just a few minutes of conversation, a chance to hear her voice in his head, to try and make amends once more, although he already knew she forgave him.

And then he saw it. The pieces smashed and scattered across the grass.

For a moment he couldn’t move. It had to be a dream. Then he was on his knees, scrabbling around all the pieces, the fragments, and piecing them together on her grave until her name was Mary Nottingham once more. Beloved. Died 1733. Beside it, the memorial to their daughter Rose was intact.

Why? Why would anyone do that? He looked around and saw that a few others had been damaged. But he didn’t care about them. Only this one.

the-history-of-kirkgate-leeds-minster-13-638

‘You must have heard them.’

Jeb looked after the ground, sleeping in a small shed at the back of the burying ground. He was tall, like a long streak of water, a man in his fifties, back bent, straggly hair grey and thin.

‘I din’t,’ the man insisted. ‘I told you.’

He stank of ale, eyes rheumy.

‘For God’s sake, Jeb, someone took a hammer to that stones,’ Nottingham said in disgust. ‘And you were so drunk you never stirred.’

His mind was raging and he strode away to the jail. The smells in the building were so familiar. But there was another man behind the desk where he once sat. Simon Kirkstall. The new constable.

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

Prissy. Exact. That was how Rob had described his boss. Fractious, a know-nothing who knew everything. Nottingham had listened and commiserated, glad to be gone from the job. He’d chosen to walk away from being Constable of Leeds and never regretted his decision. The corporation had given him the house and a small pension, enough for the little he desired.

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

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

‘What’s happened?’

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

Kirkstall put the pen down again.

‘I see.’

‘My wife’s was one of them.’

The man chewed his lip.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. But…’ He gave a helpless shrug. ‘You know how it is. Too few men and too much crime. A murder, robberies, a young man missing for a week. I’ll make sure they ask around and try to find something. But that’s all I can promise for now.’

Nottingham stood for a moment, staring at the man and seething.

‘I see. I’ll bid you good day, then.’

 

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

Sadness, anger, emptiness.

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?’

‘Not today.’

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

After almost twenty years away, older and claiming to have left his crooked past in the capital, Finer had returned to Leeds. Nottingham had still just been a constable’s man when he first knew him. Finer had a finger in everything, but nothing was ever proven against him before he vanished one night.

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.

‘Why? What do you know?’

‘Not much more than you. I heard talk first thing so I went down there. 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. Why? Who else?’

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

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

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

Finer stared at him.

‘You’ll see.’

 

He stood by Mary’s grave, resting his hand on the broken stone, and let his gaze move around. He understood what Finer had been trying to tell him. If he’d been thinking he’d have noticed straight away.

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. Someone 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. From the past.

He gathered the remains, puzzling them whole again on the grass.

Why? Why would someone come crawling out of history now? He was no one these days. No longer the constable, not a man of note. Nobody.

 

Nottingham walked the courts and yards, asking his questions. He had no position any more but folk remembered. But all his talking brought nothing. No one knew, no one had an answer. Not even a hint. The closest he came was at the White Swan, when the landlord said someone had been asking for him.

‘Who?’

‘He wasn’t much more than a lad.’ The man shrugged. ‘No one I knew. Looked like a Gypsy, if you ask me. Left his lass and bairns standing in the doorway.’

Strange, he thought. Were the two things connected?

Morning became dinnertime. He pestered men as they ate. Nothing. Over the bridge and south of the river, into the streets that led off the London Road. No Joe Buck to ask these days. He’d left Leeds, searching for something more, the black servant Henry gone with him.

The town he’d known for so long was changing.

 

The church bell rang four as he walked back up Marsh Lane. Head down, lost in his thoughts as the dust rose from his footsteps. He’d go out again later, round the inns and the beershops. Someone knew and he’d find out.

‘I heard about it.’ Lucy the servant eyed him. ‘Who did it, have you found out yet?’

He slumped into the chair and shook his head.

‘I will, though.’

‘There was someone here looking for you earlier. Came at dinnertime.’

Nottingham cocked his head.

‘Just a lad. Not much older than me. Had a lass and little ‘uns with him.’

‘What was his name?’

‘Didn’t tell me, just that he’d come back later.’

‘Did he look like a Gypsy?’

Lucy thought.

‘Aye, happen he did. Who is he?’

‘I don’t know.’ Very strange indeed. He gave the girl a strained smile. ‘We’ll find out if he comes back.’

 

Emily returned home in a fury. She’d been to the churchyard and seen it for herself. Nottingham listened to her, seeing so much of Mary in her face.

‘Why would they do that to mama?’ she asked.

‘To hurt me.’ It was the only answer. Some sweet destruction to shatter his past. Before she could say more, there was a knock on the door. Maybe one mystery would be solved, at least.

Yes, he was young, dark hair hanging straight to his shoulders. Ragged clothes, a bright hoop in his ear. But tall, bulky, already a man from the look on his face. Someone half-familiar, a face he believe he almost knew. A man with a smile on his lips.

‘Hello, boss. How are you?’

With those words, it flooded back. All Nottingham could do was stop and stare. Joshua Forester, the young cutpurse he’d taken on five years before. His girl had died, the lad had been beaten and he’d chosen to go off with a band of Gypsies. But he looked well from it.

‘Come in, lad, come in. Your family, too.’

Soon they were seated around the table. Lucy brought bread and cheese and small beer, standing by the door to catch this glimpse into Nottingham’s past.

‘I don’t remember your wife’s name,’ Josh said and reddened.

‘Mary. She’s dead.’

‘Boss, I’m sorry.’

‘I should tell you that John Sedgwick’s in the ground, too. Someone killed him.’ The boy always had high regard for Nottingham’s deputy constable. Old days, probably best forgotten. ‘And you, what have you been up to?’ He smiled at the children. ‘I can see some of the results.’

‘That’s Frances,’ he said, indicating the girl. The name of his girl who’d died. ‘And the boy’s called John. My wife, Nancy. She’s part of the Petulengro clan. I work with them. I’m a horse dealer now.’ He lifted his hands to show the thick calluses on his palms and fingers. ‘We’re camped on Woodhouse Moor for a few days, on our way down to Buckinghamshire. While we were here I wanted to see you.’

‘And you’re very welcome’

It did make his heart soar to see someone doing so well, the new life amongst all the death and the senseless destruction. They talked for almost an hour until Josh gathered together his wife and family. At the door he saw them off just as Rob Lister was returning. Emily’s man and the deputy constable of Leeds.

‘Company?’ he asked.

‘Someone who worked for me a while ago. Passing through Leeds.’

Lister glanced at the family walking towards Timble Bridge.

‘They look like Gypsies.’

‘They are. And you and I have something to discuss.’

‘Aye,’ Lister agreed. ‘We do.’

 

The night was balmy. It wasn’t hard to keep watch over the graveyard, and he wouldn’t trust Jeb to stay awake and sober. Nottingham never slept much any more. He sat in the church porch, letting the darkness wrap around him. He listened to the soft snuffling of animals in the dark, the last sounds of humans fading, then felt the embrace of the hours.

A few times he stood and walked around, as silent as possible.

But no one came. No more damage.

With first light, he ambled up Kirkgate, smelling the cooking fires the servants had lit in the grand houses. Briggate was beginning to come to life, the butchers in the Shambles under the Moot Hall opening their shutters for early customers. He passed without a word, fading into the background.

Tom Finer was up with the lark, already in Garraway’s, reading the London newspapers and enjoying his coffee.

‘You look like a man who’s spent a restless night,’ he said with a smile.

‘I have.’ He settled back on the bench. ‘How did you know?’

Finer raised a thick eyebrow. ‘Know what?’

‘About the gravestones.’

‘A little bird told me.’

Nottingham wrapped his fingers around the old man’s wrist. It was bony and brittle in his grip, as if it might snap all too easily. He stared into Finer’s eyes.

‘Which little bird?’ When the man didn’t answer, he squeezed. ‘That was my wife’s gravestone.’

‘A young man I pay to gather gossip.’ Finer tried to look unaffected, but his mouth as stretched and the skin was tight over the bones of his face.

‘A name?’

‘You wouldn’t know him.’

Probably not, now he was no longer constable. But Rob Lister might. ‘A name,’ Nottingham repeated.

 

‘I know the lad,’ Lister said as they ate dinner in the White Swan. Stew for him, bread and cheese for Nottingham and mugs of ale on the table in front of them both. ‘I’ll find him this afternoon.’

Rob had grown into a thoughtful young man. Hard when the job demanded, but compassionate, too, and utterly in love with Nottingham’s daughter, Emily. Seeing them together, the tenderness and humour between them, he was always reminded of the way Mary approved of the match: ‘They’re perfect for each other, Richard. Like two halves finding each other.’

Nottingham would go home this afternoon and rest, ready to be out again tonight. What kind of man harmed gravestones like that? And why those three? What grudge, what anger could move someone like that? All through the night, as the stars moved through the sky, he’d tried to come up with names and found nothing that fitted.

Who?

 

He’d been wearier than he imagined, sleeping into the evening to wake disoriented and with aching limbs.

Downstairs he sat with Rob as he ate. A young man’s hearty appetite after a long day of work.

‘He’ll meet you at eight on Timble Bridge.’

‘Does he know who did it?’ Nottingham asked.

‘He wouldn’t say.’

‘He’ll tell me.’ He’d make damned sure of it.

‘Watch out for him. He’s a little weasel. He’ll try to rob you if he can.’

‘But will he tell me the truth?’

Lister considered the question for a moment. ‘If you don’t leave him any other choice. Take your knife.’

 

First, the graveyard. Still full light, the evening warm enough to sweat as he worked, picking up all the fragments. He’d cleaned up Mary’s headstone yesterday. Now he tidied Amos’s and John’s. He’d almost finished when he felt someone kneel beside him and looked across.

Josh Forester, with a sad smile on his face and a colourful scarf knotted at his neck.

‘I went to your house, boss,’ he said. ‘Your lass’s man reckoned as you’d be here. Says you visit all the time.’

‘Every day. It’s all I have left of her.’

‘I understand.’ He ran hard fingertips over the carving in the stone. ‘I don’t know who’d do this, but I’ll tell you something I’ve learned. It’s probably not worth much, but a headstone doesn’t mean anything.’

‘I know.’ Nottingham’s voice was hushed.

‘Frances, she went in a pauper’s grave. No markings. You remember that, boss.’ He tapped the side of his head. ‘But she’s still here. They’re alive as long as someone remembers. This…it’s just trappings, isn’t it?’

‘Maybe it is.’ He pushed himself upright, feeling the creak in his knees. ‘But it means something to me. I have to meet someone. It won’t take long. If you wait, we can go for a drink.’

Josh smiled. Bright white teeth. Young teeth. ‘Aye, I’d like that. I’ll be right here, boss.’

 

He stood on Timble Bridge, hearing Sheepscar Beck burble and flow under his feet. It had been a dry summer and the water was low. The sound was pleasing, musical and rich. It filled his heart. But he was ready as he heard footsteps approaching.

A boy? He didn’t know why he was so surprised. The lad looked to be ten or eleven, with suspicious eyes that darted around, dark, matted hair, and dirt ingrained into his skin.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,’ Nottingham said.

It was like coaxing a feral animal. Like the wary boy he’d been himself at that age, living for three years on the streets, surviving by wit and cunning and ruthlessness.

He placed two pennies on the ground and moved away.

‘I only have one question – who’s been damaging the graves?’

‘I’d never seen her before.’

‘Her?’ The word shook him. He couldn’t believe it. It was impossible to imagine any woman doing that. He took a deep breath. ‘Tell me about her.’

‘I couldn’t see much. It were dark and she had a shawl over her hair. And a hammer in her hand. I wun’t going to get too close to that.’

‘Where were you?’

‘Sleeping. There’s a dip in the graveyard near High Court. I were in there and heard her.’

‘Is there anything you remember?’

‘She meant it,’ the boy said. ‘Not just for the sake of doing it. Like she hated those people. She knew which ones she wanted.’

‘I daresay she did.’

‘And she weren’t young. You could see that. She moved slow, like it hurt her.’

‘You’re an observant young man.’

The boy shrugged and scooped the money from the ground.

‘Wait,’ Nottingham told him and brought out his purse. The boy darted for it, knife out to cut the strings. But Nottingham turned away, grabbing him by the hair and pushing him down to his knees. ‘Don’t. You’re too slow. I was stopping this long before anyone even dreamed of you. I was going to give you tuppence more.’

‘I’m sorry, mister.’

‘Maybe you are.’ He pushed the boy away, took out the coins and threw them on the dirt before walking away towards Leeds.

 

‘A woman?’ Josh Forester frowned, cupped the mug of ale and drank. ‘That seems odd.’

They were sitting in the White Swan, a welter of conversation all around their heads. It felt strange to be here with Josh. His memories of the lad were of someone so young, so full of pain. And here he was, grown, filled-out. A man with a life that suited him.

‘It surprised me, too,’ Nottingham admitted. ‘But why not? Women can hurt, too.’

‘Do you think she’ll be back?’

‘I don’t know.’ He leaned back. The woman had done her damage. Why would she need to return?

‘And you’ve no idea who it is, boss?’

‘None at all.’ He gave a weary smile. ‘I’ll be out there again tonight. Maybe she’ll decide she hasn’t had enough yet. Who can tell?’

Josh smiled. ‘Do you fancy some company?’

He stared at the young man. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. We’re going south tomorrow, this will be the last chance.’ He took another drink. ‘You changed my life, boss. I’d like to spend more time with you.’

 

It was a companionable silence. A warm, dry night, with just enough moon to throw light across the graveyard. They settled in the church porch and waited. The last drunks rolled and sang their way home. The nightjars called and turned silent.

A snuffle of animals in the distance. A badger, a fox.

He found himself starting to doze, chin settling on his chest, then quickly sitting upright, stretching his neck and looking round sheepishly at Josh.

It must have happened again. He was aware of the touch on his shoulder, then warm breath and words whispered into his ear.

‘Footsteps, boss. In the churchyard.’

Silently, he stood, ready, feeling the other man stir behind him. But he waited. Impossible to tell yet who it might be. A couple seeking out a private place. Someone with no better place to sleep.

Time seemed to stretch. He breathed slowly, listening for the faintest sound. Then it came: the tapping on steel on stone.

Nottingham pressed himself against the church wall, turning his head, waiting to hear it again, to know where the woman was in the graveyard. Josh had already disappeared, moving like a ghost through the night.

It was unmistakeable. Mary’s headstone once again. Without thinking, he started to run, feeling every stride in his knees. He needed to get there before too much damage was done.

He knew every inch of this ground, moving sure-footed without even needing to look.

But he wasn’t fast enough.

Josh had beaten him to the spot, big hands clamped around a pair of thin arms, stopping her from struggling.

‘She’s not going to cause a problem, boss.’

‘Keep her still. I want to see her face.’

Nottingham pulled the shawl away. A small, faded woman with stringy grey hair. A thin mouth, most of the teeth missing. Eyes filled with hate. She drew back her lips and spat at him. But there was no power. It dribbled down her chin.

He didn’t recognise her. Nothing about her.

‘Who-’ he began, but her rusted voice cut through his question.

‘Abraham Wyatt.’

The years turned away and he groped for her name. Caroline. Something like that.

‘Charlotte.’ The word seemed to come of its own accord and he saw her cold grin.

‘Now you remember, don’t you? You killed him, you and Worthy and that other man.’

They had, and the man had needed to die for all he’d done. Back then he’d let her go, though, never expecting to see her again.

‘Why? Why try and demolish my wife’s headstone?’ He didn’t understand that. But the answer was simple.

‘Because you don’t have one, and I’ve watched you come here and spend time with her.’ Her eyes glistened. ‘I knew this would hurt you.’

She understood too much, he thought. Nottingham tried to picture her as she’d been when he last saw her, but the image refused to come into his mind. All he could see was the woman as she was now, living on the past and her anger. She’d loved Wyatt; that had never been in doubt. She’d remained devoted to him through all the years he’d been exiled, transported to the Indies.

‘What do you want to do with her, boss?’ Josh’s question interrupted his thoughts.

‘Take her to the jail.’

She fought, pulled against him and dragged her feet. But the young man was bigger, stronger, used to wild beasts. A few minutes and the night man had her in a cell.

‘What’s the charge?’ he asked.

Nottingham didn’t know.

‘Ask Mr. Lister in the morning.’ Rob could think of something.

 

Outside, the night was still, heavy with the scent of flowers.

‘Thank you,’ Nottingham said.

Josh smiled and shook his head.

‘The least I could do, boss. I told you, I owe you a lot.’

‘On your way tomorrow?’

‘We pack up first thing.’ He raised his head and studied the sky. ‘In an hour or two. Then south.’

‘When you come through here again…’

‘I’ll stop, boss. I promise. You look after yourself.’

‘You, too. And that family of yours.’

They shook hands. Nottingham stood and watched as Josh strode up Briggate, out towards the Gypsy camp on Woodhouse Moor. Finally he turned and began to walk back to Marsh Lane.

A headstone could be replaced. But the woman could never destroy his memories. Josh was right. Mary was remembered.

Want A Free Book?

Well, of course you do. Who wouldn’t? I mean…a free book. FREE. The downside…it’s one of mine. And you’d do well to pay attention. I’m from Yorkshire, I very rarely give anything away.

Free from All Danger, the seventh, and possibly final, Richard Nottingham book has just come out in paperback. I have a copy or two of it right here, and I’d like to give one away. Who knows, maybe it’ll be too you – although I’m afraid postage rates mean UK and NI only…sorry.

“If you have any appreciation of good storytelling, you will enjoy this book… Free From All Danger is historical crime fiction right out of the top drawer.”

I’ll get to the details in a minute. But first, a little about Richard Nottingham, the fictional character and the real person.

It’s certainly an interesting coincidence, as Richard has been on my mind lately. In my books he’s the Constable of Leeds in the 1730s, married to a woman named Mary, and at the beginning of the series he has two daughter, Rose and Emily. There was a real Richard Nottingham, and that’s exactly what he did, although it was probably an honorary role in reality, a sinecure.

A few years ago I tried hunting down records about him. I found a few, but on his birth and death what I discovered wasn’t too satisfactory.

More must be online now, because I’ve managed to dig up one or two items. And I’ll warn you now, one of them shook me.

According to the register for Leeds Parish Church, St. Peter’s, or Leeds Minster as it is these days, a Richard Nottingham was born on July 15, 1683, but died in 1685.

Another boy of that name was born July 13, 1691 and baptised seven days later. His father was also named Richard. The family lived on Kirkgate.

Richard Nottingham born 1691

He had a sister, Jean, born in 1696, an older sister, Mary, born 1687, and a brother named Samuell who was a year younger than Richard.

Richard Nottingham senior was Constable of Leeds, and we know his son succeeded him in 1717. That’s the same year he married, on the 4 April. It took place in Middleton, and his wife was named Mary Tenant.

Richard and Mary Nottingham. Exactly the same as in the books. I didn’t know that when I started to write those books. I had no idea at all. To discover just how right I’d been, well, yeah, it shook me….

Richard had his run-ins with the Quarter Sessions, as these two records show.

There’s also a record of him paying one shilling and threepence in rates for ‘some land,’ although maddeningly, it doesn’t say where in Leeds that was.

RN rate book 1726

Did he and Mary have children? I haven’t uncovered any yet, but if any turn up and they’re daughters named Rose and Emily, I’m going to be seriously worried.

Richard died at the age of 49, quite reasonable for the times. May 16, 1740. So far, I haven’t managed to trace a will.

Richard Nottingham burial

Right, how can you win a copy of Free From All Danger?

“Nickson is at the top of his game in this fairly clued whodunit.”

It couldn’t be simpler. All you need to do is send an email to chrisnickson2@gmail.com. That’s it. No reason for wanting the book, nothing at all.

On April 10, I’ll select a winner and notify them.

Good luck!

“…outstanding characterization—Nottingham is a very human and endearing character—and an intricate and satisfying plot, as well as excellent depiction of the setting.”

Free From All Danger 1

The Real Richard Nottingham

I’ve been writing about Richard Nottingham for quite a few years now – he first appeared as a secondary character in an unpublished novel on mine written started in 2004 (the central character, as a curiosity, was a Leeds wool merchant named Tom Williamson).

In that time, I’ve been caught up in Richard Nottingham, the character. But he was a real person, the Constable of Leeds from 1717-1737. Now, with the seventh book about him due out later this year, I thought I was well past time I tried to find out a little about the man himself.

Sadly, there’s very little information. He became Constable and Gaoler of Leeds on May 18, 1717, and left that post on October 11, 1737. Richard took over the position from William Nottingham, who would seem to have been the first Constable to Leeds.

But the Nottingham family isn’t especially notable in the parish of Leeds. The Parish Register contains no mention of William, and Richard doesn’t come up until his marriage to Jane Wood on January 4, 1676, at Leeds Parish Church. At the point she was 21.

marriage

How old was he then? At the very least he’d be 16, which means that the latest he could have been born was 1660, the year of the Restoration of the Monarchy; very likely he was older than that, and older than his bride.

The couple, shown as living on Kirkgate, began having children the following year. Elizabeth first, born August 8, 1677, Hannah in July 1679, Richard in 1683, John in 1685, Mary in 1687, Jane in 1689 (died 1694), another Richard in 1691 (died 1694), Samuel in 1692, and finally another Jane, who apparently was born and died in a matter of days in 1694 – and that was an awful year for the family, losing several children in just a few months (a couple of decades later, two of Samuel’s children would die while still infants, something sadly common at the time). Was there an illness? Two more children seem to have followed, Jean in 1696, and Frances in 1697.

Although the family initially lived on Kirkgate, by 1692, with Samuel’s birth, they’d moved to Briggate (or Bridgegate, as it was written in the register), and they’re not listed in the assessment of July 1692 on Kirkgate to help pay for the war (records for Briggate need to be checked). Briggate would seem to be where they stayed for the rest of their lives, and he appears in the rates for 1726 on Briggate.

rates

It’s impossible to be certain  – this is in the days before real birth, marriage, and death certificates – but it appears that Jane Nottingham died in 1715, and was buried on March 28. Richard Nottingham himself died in 1740, buried at Leeds Parish Church on May 18. No cause of death listed; the only information is that he still lived on Briggate.

burial

Given that he only left his position as Constable three years before, he must have stayed in post until he was well into his seventies. Perhaps it’s just as well that the role was ceremonial, rather than being a working man. I’ve searched the churchyard, but no gravestone remains, which is no real surprise, given the upheavals there during the 19th century.

Yet Richard is a very elusive man. It’s impossible to gain any sense of how he might have been as a person, in spite of his very public role for two decades. And William only gains one mention in the records, in 1713, when he took part in a procession to celebrate the peace signed with France in Utrecht. There’s more to dig into, of course – wills, rates, and so on. But so far it seems to be a life that left few traces.

Richard, though, appears a number of times in the Quarter Sessions records. First in 1695, when he awarded money for pointing out men who are highway robbers. The amount was £20  – in today’s terms close to £2800.

1695

Three years later he’s there again. Interesting, this time he’s given the title of Deputy Constable, some nine years before appointed to position of Constable.

1698

When in office, it seems that things didn’t always run smoothly. In 1723 a warrant for his arrest by the bailiffs was issued, and he’d failed to execute an arrest warrant on someone. Sir William Lowther, the first Baronet of Swillington, was the member of Parliament for Pontefract and a former High Sheriff for Yorkshire.

1723

A year later he’s obviously back in good graces.

1724

 

1728

These are wonderful snippets. Did that first reward urge him towards becoming Deputy Constable? What was the reason he never made that arrest? We’ll never know, and an some ways, though, perhaps it good that the real Richard Nottingham remains so nebulous. It would seem that he had money: his oldest child, Elizabeth, married John Wombwell, the second son of Baron Wombwell, and one of their children became a consul. She died in 1745, at the age of 63. But the money might have drained away. In the 1760s Richard’s son Samuel lived in one of the backside houses off Briggate, in a property with low rateable value; just 20 years earlier, Samuel had occupied a house fronting on Briggate with a much higher value.

So far I haven’t managed to find a copy of the Leeds Mercury from May 1740 that might carry an obituary with more details. However, Leeds Libraries do have it on microfilm, so hopefully more details will be forthcoming next week!

Even if Richard never married a Mary or had Rose and Emily as daughters, he’s very much alive to me, at least the version who exists in my head. And as no portraits exist, he can only look the way we imagine him.

Richard Nottingham – the fictional one – will return in Free From All Danger, to be published in the UK on October 28, 2017.