The Anchoress Of Chesterfield – A Taste

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

Chesterfield, September 1370

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am.’ He felt his heart sink.

‘The coroner would like you to attend him.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is it a murder?’

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

‘Who is it?’

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

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The Molten City Is Free – For Now

I know it’s very difficult for people to get hold of The Molten City at the moment. The big online retailers show it as temporarily out of stock – they have no new books, because their distributors have closed for the moment. Many smaller book shops are closed, one still doing mail order are dependent upon their distributors remaining open. It’s difficult. I’d recomment Fox Lane Books (foxlanebooks), which has the book, or Big Green Books (@biggreenbooks) or West End Lane Books (@welbooks) in London.

However, you can read it as an book now, for free, no matter where in the world you live. It’s due to come out that way on May 1, but get a jump and pay nothing. All perfectly legal, too. Simply sign up for their newsletter and you’ll be able to download it. A great deal, because they publish plenty of excellent authors.

All you have to do is go here. It’s only for a limited time, so I hope you’ll take advantage.

The only favour I’d ask is that you please leave a review somewhere. They honestly do help.

Thank you, and please, I hope you all stay well.

Molten City

An Extract From The Leaden Heart

It’s three weeks  (and two days) until The Leaden Heart is published in the UK. A month after that and it’ll be available everywhere on ebook.

Not long at all.

Of course I want you to feel full of anticipation. So here’s a snippet to whet your appetite. And remember, the cheapest places to pre-order are Hive and Speedy Hen, and both offer free postage.

Thank you…enjoy.

And don’t forget the book trailer..

 

Leeds, 1899

‘The Smiths,’ Reed began.

‘I’ve never come across them before,’ Harper said. ‘But I want a long talk with them now.’

This was Tom’s patch, Billy thought. He was supposed to know what was going on. That was his job.

‘Let’s talk to Hester,’ he said. ‘She might be able to tell us something.’

But the blind was down on the shop door. No notice to announce a closing. Reed peered through the window and drew in his breath.

‘What is it?’

‘The shop’s a mess. Things strewn all over the floor. I’ll go in the back way,’ Reed said.

Through the ginnel and into the yard. He tapped on the door. No answer, but the knob turned in his hand.

‘Hester?’ he said quietly. She wasn’t in the office; he climbed the stairs. The door to the flat was open. No one in the living room or kitchen. He heard a quiet cry and stiffened, waiting until it came again. The bedroom.

The curtains were closed, the room stifling in the heat. He could make out her shape, lying on the bed.

‘Hester, it’s Billy. What’s happened?’

She turned her head. There was just enough light to make out the bruises on her face.

‘What’s been going on?’ he asked, but she looked at him with empty eyes.

Downstairs, he unlocked the front door.

‘You’d better come in, Tom. This has become real police business.’

 

It took two cups of tea to draw out the story. Harper listened, letting Billy ask the questions. He was the brother-in-law. Even if she barely knew him, they were related.

‘Two men came in,’ she said. Her voice was shaky and frightened. ‘It was just after half-past nine, I remember the church bell ringing. One of them pulled down the blind on the door and locked it.’

‘What did you do?’ Reed asked quietly. He sat on the other side of the table, holding her hands.

‘I asked what they thought they were doing. They said they owned the place and wanted me out by Saturday. One of them started kicking things over. When I told him to stop, the other one hit me.’ She lifted her fingers to her face.

‘What else did they say?’

‘If anything of mine was still here on Saturday night, they’d put it out on the pavement.’ She lifted her head, looking from one of them to the other. ‘And if I tried to stop them, it would be worse for me. Then he hit me again and again, and they left. I…’ The words faded and she sobbed again. ‘I came up here. I didn’t want anyone to see. Not like this, right after the funeral.’

‘I’ll make sure the beat constable keeps a close eye on the shop,’ Harper promised. ‘What did the men look like?’

‘Big, the pair of them. They could have been brothers. Both had dark hair, parted in the middle.’ She closed her eyes. ‘I won’t ever be able to forget them.’

Could have been brothers. Billy looked at Harper. A small nod.

‘How old do you think they were?’ Reed tried to coax out the information gently.

‘I don’t know. Not very.’ Her voice wavered as she pictured them. ‘Thirty? Somewhere round there. The one who hit me was smiling when he did it.’

She looked drained. Her husband’s death had left her with nothing inside. No reserves. Now this. The men had picked their time well. Threats and a beating when she was at her lowest.

‘Is your rent paid?  Harper asked.

‘Until the end of the month. Charlie took care of it before he….’ She couldn’t bring herself to say it. Everything was too raw, just waiting beneath the surface ‘It’s in the rent book.’

‘We’ll make sure they can’t do anything.’

Billy could see Tom had more questions, dozens of them. He made a small gesture with his fingers: let them wait.

‘I’ll stay here,’ Reed told him. ‘Clean everything up and make sure she’s fine.’

 

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Roaring Thirties, Part 1

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

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

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

CHAPTER ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’re safe then. I’m not strange.’

She tightened her mouth as she arched her brows.

‘Who told you that? Your wife?’

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

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

She was staring at him now, and smiling.

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

‘Violet?’

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

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

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

Her elbow dug sharply into his ribs.

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

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Head not turned by the glamour?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*******

‘Nasty,’ Williams said.

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

‘What’s CID turned up?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randall raised an eyebrow.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

‘Good morning, sir.’

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

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

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

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

 

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

‘Will you?’ she asked.

‘Will I what?’

‘Catch them by dinnertime.’

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

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

‘Did you see the robbery, Miss…?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did one of them have a gun?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘How much did they take?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

He understood exactly. ‘How did they sound?’

‘Sound?’ she asked.

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

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

He thanked her and stood up to walk away.

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

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

‘But especially you?’ She was grinning now.

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

‘And are you?’

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

 

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

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

The copper pointed down the road.

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

‘Do we have a number plate?’

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

‘Good. Thank you.’

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It could be a social call.’

The boxer snorted.

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

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

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

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

‘Is that what you think?’

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

‘And you coppers will look like idiots.’

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

 

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

‘Detective Sergeant Williams.’

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

He smiled. ‘Who is this?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘What did you say to him?’

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

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

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

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

‘And it’s not?’

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

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

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

‘Are you paying?’

‘Unless you’re feeling generous.’

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

‘Your wish is my command.’

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

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

‘Were you out there?’

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

‘What time was it?’

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

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

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

‘They were dressed like working men?’

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

‘What about their accents?’ Johnny asked.

‘Accents?’

‘Did they sound local?

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

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

‘Yes, yes, that’s it.’

 

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

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

Mrs. Crane eyed him carefully.

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

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

She snorted. ‘Were you in the war?’

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

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

She stared at him again before nodding her approval.

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

‘They looked scared,’ she said.

‘Who was in charge?’

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

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

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

‘Too young to have fought, then?’

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

‘Is there anything else you remember about them?’

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

‘Very observant.’

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

He grinned at her. ‘Never.’

‘Are you going to catch them?’

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

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

 

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

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

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

‘Depends if you kill me first.’

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

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

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

‘Maybe.’

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

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

 

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

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

She made a face. ‘That sounds disgusting.’

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

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

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

 

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

Violet cocked her head. ‘Anywhere interesting?’

‘Just round and about. A pub or two.’

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

‘If you like.’

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

 

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

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

She took a cautious taste.

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

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

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

‘Good God, who is she?’ Violet asked.

‘Girlfriend, a tart. I don’t know.’

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

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

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

‘Detective Sergeant Williams.’

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

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

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

‘Any idea who they are?’ Williams asked.

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

‘No one noticed them.’

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

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

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

‘He was in hospital overnight.’

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

‘Did you learn anything?’

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

‘Not bad,’ she said thoughtfully.

‘Is she a tart?’

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

‘Really?’ He grinned. ‘Honour?’

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

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

‘She called herself his moll.’

He shook his head.

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

 

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

‘Home?’ he asked.

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

 

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

Superintendent Randall perched on the edge of his desk.

‘Well?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

‘They were trying to get themselves noticed yesterday.’

‘Seems like they succeeded.’

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

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

Johnny considered that for a few moments.

‘I think they’re probably petrified.’

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why? Has he been up to something?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘They’ve given you a nice place.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

‘Broughton’s.’

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

‘The gunsmith on Woodhouse Lane?’

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

 

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

‘Four shotguns and ammunition,’ he admitted reluctantly.

‘Tell me what happened.’

‘They just burst in through the door.’

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

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

‘How many?’

‘Three of them.’

He could feel a sudden chill climbing up his spine.

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

 

Book Bargain

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

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

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

The Dead on Leave (1)

The 1930s Return, Leeds Style – The Dead On Leave

I was shocked and very pleasantly surprised by how many of you read an extract from my upcoming book last week. Right, I thought, maybe they fancy a bit more…

It’s’ 1936, and the Depression has hit Leeds hard. Oswald Mosley has brought his Blackshirts to town, and they’ve been chased off from Holbeck Moor with their tails between their legs by 30,000 Lioners. But there’s a body left behind, and Detective Sergeant Urban Raven has to find his way through the fog of politics and sorrow to discover who the killer might be.

The Dead On Leave is out in paperback on June 18, £7.99

The first man stood on his step and listened as Raven told him about the murder. He was in his sixties, with a shock of pure white hair and a thick moustache the colour of nicotine stains, with deep lines etched into his face. He spat out onto the cobbles, said, ‘About bloody time,’ and closed the door.

The next name was three houses further along Kepler Grove. A young fellow this time, with bulging frog eyes and a bouncing Adam’s apple. He looked downcast at the news, but nothing more. The same at the next few addresses. No grief. No one here was going to miss Frank Benson.

Round the corner on Gledhow Place, a man named Galloway cradled his infant daughter, heard what the sergeant had to say, then snorted.

‘You know what he was like?’ the man asked and Raven shook his head. ‘A real sod, that’s what. He’d dock you for owt. Reckoned he was God an’ all.’

‘What do you mean?’

Galloway tucked the girl’s head against his shoulder, tenderly stroking her hair.

‘About a month back, I were expecting him round. He didn’t even knock, just opened the front door and barged right in like he owned the place, looking around, checking in the cupboards and asking if there was any change in my circumstances. No how do you do, no by your leave, no respect. I told him to get hisself right out again. “My wife could have been washing at the sink, you bugger,” I said. I picked up the poker and waved it at him. That got him back outside right quick and tapping politely. “Any change in things?” he asked when I let him in. “Aye,” I said. “For the worse.” He took a glance in the pantry, and when he was leaving, he told me, “I won’t forget this.” He didn’t, neither. Someone told him I’d been making a little repairing boots and they stopped my relief. Five weeks. Still got three to go. Benson relished telling me, too.’

‘You realise you’ve just made yourself a suspect,’ Raven said, and Galloway shrugged.

‘Arrest me, then. At least you’d have to feed me in jail.’

‘Where were you yesterday?’

‘Right here. Where the hell else would I be?’

‘You’re in the clear, then.’ Not that he suspected the man; Galloway was far too open, his heart showing loud and bright on his sleeve.

He heard similar tales at other houses. Family members who’d been forced to move into lodgings because they were working and their income would cut assistance to the others.

‘The truth is that half of them haven’t moved at all, of course.’ He sat in the scullery of a house on Anderson Mount, a wooden rack in front of the range with clothes drying slowly. Ernie Haynes was a member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Thoughtful, soft spoken, in his fifties, he seemed to have given up on the idea of ever having a job again. There were plenty more in the same boat. The unemployable. ‘They stay out all the hours they can then sneak home to eat and sleep. Benson liked to try and catch them. As if it was a game.’

‘No one seems to have a good word for him.’

‘How can you, for someone like that?’ Haynes wondered.

*

boar lane 30s

‘None of them even said “poor man”,’ Noble told him as they drove back into town, along Mabgate and past the mills and factories that stood empty and forlorn. Rubbish lined the roads; no one cared. ‘Not an ounce of sympathy.’

‘He didn’t seem to have much of that himself.’

‘He’s dead, though.’

‘We all will be some day,’ Raven said. ‘That doesn’t guarantee respect.’

‘It seems wrong, that’s all.’

It was the way of the world. Nothing more. People spoke ill of the living, the dead, of everyone. They enjoyed it. Some revelled in it.

In the office, he passed Mortimer the list, telling him what they’d learned and watching him grimace.

‘We’ll need to get the bobbies onto the rest,’ Raven said. ‘There are far too many for us.’

The inspector nodded and took a piece of paper from the top of a pile.

‘The post-mortem report. Benson was strangled. Whoever it was stood behind him to do it.’

Raven thought of the thin red line on the man’s throat.

‘What did they use?’ he asked. ‘Could the doctor tell?’

‘An electrical flex, he says. He found some of that fabric they put around the wire in the wound. There was some under Benson’s fingernails, too. He must have been trying to pull the cord away from his throat.’ He shuddered. ‘Bloody awful way to go.’

It was. Slow, knowing you were going to die. It didn’t matter how many shades of a bastard Benson had been in his job, that was a terrible death.

*

Leeds 30s_2

The inspector drove as if it made him uncomfortable. He was wary, slow, too cautious by half. Going through Sheepscar, they passed a group of men in old clothes standing around a fire in a metal barrel on a corner, nowhere better to go.

‘The dead on leave,’ Mortimer said, so softly he could have been talking to himself.

‘What, sir?’

‘Something my wife heard on the wireless.’ He gave a quick smile and a shake of his head. ‘Someone was talking about all the unemployed. Said they were like the dead on leave. It struck me, that’s all.’

It was good, Raven had to agree. But it wasn’t just those without jobs. What about the fools and the cuckolds? They lived in that same sad, shifting world, too.

He glanced up the hill to Little London. That was what they called the area, but none of the streets were paved with gold. Instead, plenty of the cobbles were missing and fully half the houses were slums. Dilapidated, in need of knocking down, like so much of Leeds. Happen somebody would drag the whole city into the twentieth century before it was halfway over.

Looking Ahead For Tom And Annabelle Harper?

It’s ironic, really. I always swore I’d never write a crime novel set in Victorian times. There era was overdone, with Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins – even Dickens – and all who’ve followed in their footsteps. And now I have six of them out there, plus a seventh just completed.

annabellefrom book_3

It still makes me shake my head. Especially the reviews that have come in so far for The Tin God. I’ve created something that people seem to love…

Actually, it all began with a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw, the Leeds artist. A woman standing by the canal, holding a bundle. The water is almost empty because of a strike, the smoky skyline of Leeds tries to peer through behind her. She’s alone, just staring.

Aire_1997579i

She was Annabelle. That’s how she came into my life. It simply grew from there. A short story at first. Then, after reading about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890, a novel. An event where the strikers won in three days, even as the Council Gas Committee imported strikebreakers? I had to commemorate that.

So Annabelle came back. She told me all about it and introduced me to her husband, Detective Inspector Tom Harper and his assistant, Sergeant Billy Reed. Out of that arrived Gods of Gold.

cc8bc6e68505bae687a048f7bd818a80

The books are unashamedly political. No apologies for that. But they’re also crime novels, the two intertwined in a heart around Leeds. The newest, The Tin God, is the most political of all, and one where Annabelle finally takes centre stage.

In fact, she doesn’t, although the plot revolves around her bid (along with six other women) to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897. Trying to stop the man who doesn’t want women in politics is the core. But the heart, the linchpin, is Annabelle trying to win in the Sheepscar Ward.

annabelle election poster texture

The Tin God was a book that seemed to write itself. I was simply the conduit. And over the last few years, Annabelle (in particular) and Tom have become every bit as real to me as friends I meet. I know them, and they know me. They’re family, in a way.

I’d like to say that I have plans for them, but the truth is, they have plans for me. To tell their story to the end of the Great War. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. But I’d like to do it. Although the books themselves aren’t planned out, I know what happens in their lives, and in their daughter Mary’s, too.

The book I’ve just finished writing will actually be my last Victorian (assuming my publisher likes it, of course). No, I’m giving nothing away about it, except it’s set in 1899. If another follows, that will be after 1901, and we’ll be into the Edwardian and George V eras. There’s plenty of Leeds material – the 1908 Suffragette ‘riot,’ the start of the war, news from the Somme in 1916, the Leeds Convention of 1917, and finally, finally, the Armistice a year later.

That will prove interesting. I’d certainly never imagined writing an Edwardian crime novel. Or even given a second through to George V. But I have a strong impression that Annabelle and Tom will guide me through it all.

In the meantime, I’d be very grateful if you read The Tin God. And the other books in the series.

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Early Reviews…And Listen To Annabelle Speak

It’s’ just over a week until The Tin God is published. I’m hugely proud of this book, it feels as if it’s taken on greater resonance that the crime story I set out to tell – but readers will judge that more objectively than I ever can, of course.

I’m pushing this book hard. Among other things, there’s going to be a blog tour to coincide with publication, and that includes giving away a copy of the novel. So please, keep your eyes on the blogs listed below or follow on Twitter.

Meanwhile…here are a few reactions from early reviewers:

“Chris Nickson is an amazingly skilful author with a love of Leeds, its varied and deep history, and demonstrates it with each book he writes.”

“The whole story has such resonance with today’s current affairs that it makes you realise how much there is still to do regarding social attitudes, as well as how far we have come.”

“I like the strong sense of characterisation in the novels. Annabelle is a suffragette, looking to make things easier for her daughter, Mary, in her path through life. She is, however, no airy fairy dilettante being strong, capable and practical with her feet planted squarely on the ground. I cheer at her every move. She is supported in her efforts by her husband, Tom…He is another strong character. He’s not as enthusiastic about being Superintendent as he might be as the paperwork and meetings take him away from investigative work but this threat to his wife and family gives him the opportunity to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in.”

“There’s a particular talent here with this author’s fine-tuned ability to thread actual historical events into his fiction. This one is quite thought-provoking in reflecting upon those who initially paved the way for women’s rights and those, yet today, who stand tall in the face of current roadblocks. This still grows curiouser and curiouser…”

“The author Chris Nickson is Leeds born (as am I ) and it’s clear that he loves his home city and its place in history, as one of the leading lights of industry. He brings the Leeds of 1897 very much to life both in terms of actual historical events of the time and in the sights, sounds, and smells of this great city. I really enjoyed this particular storyline as it demonstrated the struggle that women had, ( and some would say, still have) to be recognised and valued as legitimate candidates for office, and to be considered equal to men.

I make no bones about it – I love Chris Nickson’s books – love Tom and Annabelle – love the sense of old Leeds with its cobbled streets, the houses huddled together against the chill whipping off the River Aire, the friendly community, and the good old fashioned policing.”

“I always enjoy the sense of period that Mr Nickson evokes and The Tin God is no different. Annabelle’s campaign speeches resound with the possibility of change but don’t ignore the terrible blight of poverty prevalent in the fictional Sheepscar ward.”

And with that mention of Annabelle’s campaign speeches, through the miracle of technology (and the superb voicing of Carolyn Eden), I’ve been able to find one. Take a listen and see if it convinces you….

After that, wouldn’t you vote for Mrs. Annabelle Harper?

annabelle election poster texture

Perhaps you need to discover The Tin God for yourself. I know an author who’d be very grateful…it’s out March 30 in the UK.

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Free Time Travel

Books are portals to other places, other times. They possess that fragment of magic to transport a reader, to wrap them in another world.

I hope that’s what I’ve managed with Free From All Danger. To take you to 1736, to walk through Leeds with Richard Nottingham, to see the place through his eyes as he returns as Constable. To hear the noise, smell it all, see the faces…

Some of might have have read the previous six books in the series. The last appeared in 2013, more than four years ago. At the end of the last book, Fair and Tender Ladies, Richard retired.

But things change, live never stands still, and circumstances bring him back. The big question for him is whether he can still do the job…

 

“Sometimes he felt like a ghost in his own life. The past had become his country, so familiar that its lanes and its byways were imprinted on his heart. He remembered a time when he’d been too busy to consider all the things that had gone before. But he was young then, eager and reckless and dashing headlong towards the future. Now the years had found him. His body ached in the mornings, he moved more slowly; he was scarred inside and out. His hair was wispy and grey and whenever he noticed his face in the glass it was full of creases and folds, like the lines on a map. Sometimes he woke, not quite sure who he was now, or why. There was comfort in the past. There was love.

Richard Nottingham crossed Timble Bridge and started up Kirkgate, the cobbles slippery under his shoes. At the Parish Church he turned, following the path through the yard to the graves. Rose Waters, his older daughter, married and dead of fever before she could give birth. And next to her, Mary Nottingham, his wife, murdered because of his own arrogance; every day he missed her; missed both of them. He stooped and picked a leaf from the grass by her headstone. October already. Soon there would be a flood of dead leaves as the year tumbled to a close.”

 

Bringing Richard back was like spending time with an old, trusted friend and a long time away. I treasured it. I value Richard, his family, and I want to take you with me to spend time with them, to live their lives.

My copies of the book arrived on Monday, and it was a thrill hold hold one, to open it. By now, you’d think I’d be used to it. But this is…special. Some of you had emailed to ask when Richard would return. Here’s your answer.

The book is published in the UK on October 31 – four months later elsewhere. If you’re close to Leeds on Thursday, November 9, I hope you’ll come to the launch for it, at the Leeds Library on Commercial St (the oldest subscription library in England, in the same building since 1808. There will be a specially-composed soundtrack, and some live music. Starts at 7 pm, and I’d love to fill the place…

Obviously, I hope you’ll buy the book. I’d love that. But I know that many can’t afford it. Borrow it from your library – support libraries in every way you can. If they don’t have it on order, request it…

More than anything, I hope you enjoy it. And thank you, because without readers, writers are nothing.

Free From All Danger 1

New Tom Harper

It’s definitely spring out there. The kids are enjoying their holidays, the weather is growing balmier. I’ve been able to get things planted at my allotment, and it’s beginning to take shape for the season.

But life wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t writing, and I have my head deep into what I hope will become the sixth Tom Harper novel, although Annabelle proves to be a very big part of this one. Now I just have to hope that my publisher wants it.

This extract is fairly lengthy and is still in a fairly raw state, so I hope you’ll bear with me on that. More importantly, I hope you like it. Please, seriously, tell me what you think, okay?

 

Late September, 1897

 

Tom Harper stared in the mirror.

‘What do you think?’ he asked doubtfully.

He felt ridiculous in a swallowtail coat and stiff, starched shirt. But the invitation had made it clear: this was an official dinner, formal dress required. The fourth time this year and the suit wasn’t any more comfortable than the first time he’d worn it. He’d never expected that rank would include parading round like a butler.

‘Let’s have a gander at you.’ Annabelle said and he turned for inspection. ‘Like a real police superintendent,’ she told him with a nod. ‘Just one thing.’ A few deft movements and she adjusted the bow tie. ‘Never met a man who could do a dicky bow properly. Now you’re the real dog’s dinner.’

She brought her face close to his. For a moment he expected a kiss. But her eyes narrowed and she whispered, ‘I’ve had another letter. Came in the second post. May Bolland’s had one, too.’

His face hardened. He’d expected some outrage when Annabelle announced she was running to be elected to the Board of Poor Law Guardians. A few comments. Plenty of objections. He was even willing to dismiss one anonymous, rambling letter as the work of a crank. But two of them? He couldn’t ignore that.

‘What did it say?’

She turned her head away. ‘What you’d expect.’

‘The same person?’ he asked and she nodded. ‘What did you do with it?’

‘I burned it.’ Her voice was tight.

‘What?’ He pulled back in disbelief. ‘It’s evidence.’

‘Little eyes,’ she hissed. ‘You know Mary’s reading has come on leaps and bounds since she started school. Safer out of the way.’

He breathed slowly, pushing down his anger. For a long time he said nothing. What could he do? It was dust now. Maybe Mrs. Bolland had kept hers; he’d send Ash round to see her in the morning.

‘Button me up and we’d better get a move on.’ Deftly, she changed the subject. ‘That hackney’s already been waiting for five minutes.’

Annabelle was wearing a new gown, dark blue silk, no bustle, high at the neck with lace trim and full leg-of-mutton sleeves, the pale silk shawl he’d bought her over her shoulders. Her hair was elaborately swept up and pinned. She was every bit as lovely as the first day he’d seen her.

There were calls and whistles as they walked through the Victoria pub downstairs. Her pub. She laughed and twirled around the room. He was happy to keep in the background, to try and slink out without being noticed. People didn’t dress like this in Sheepscar. They owned work clothes and a good suit for funerals; that was it.

‘What is this do, anyway?’ she asked as the cab jounced along North Street.

‘The Lord Mayor’s Fund,’ he replied. ‘Charity.’

The Mayor’s office had finally become the Lord Mayor’s office that summer, Leeds honoured by Queen Victoria to mark her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty years on the throne, Harper thought, going back long before he was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, before his parents had even met. There had been parties and civic events around the city all summer, and hardly any problems, as if everyone just wanted to celebrate the occasion with plenty of joy.

The Chief Constable had been pleased, and even happier when the crime figures came out: down everywhere. The biggest drop was in Harper’s division. God only knew why; he didn’t have an explanation. He’d praised his men then held his tongue, not wanting to tempt fate.

Annabelle’s elbow poked him in the ribs.

‘You’re miles away.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Is it a sit-down affair tonight?

‘Three courses, then the speeches.’

She groaned and he turned to smile at her.

‘We’re in for plenty more of these once you’re elected.’

‘If I’m elected,’ she warned. ‘Don’t be cocky.’

Seven women were standing to become Poor Law Guardians, their election costs paid by the Suffrage Society and the Women’s Co-op Guild. The campaign was no more than three days old, but already the Tories and the Liberals were deriding the women for trying to rise above their natural station. The Independent Labour Party had its eye on the posts, too, as stepping stones for their ambitious young men. And the newspapers had their knives out, pointedly advising people to vote for the gentlemen. He’d arrived home two days to find her pacing furiously around the living room, ready to spit fire, with the editorial in her hand.

‘Listen to this,’ Annabelle told him. ‘Apparently they think men “don’t possess the domestic embarrassments of women.” What does that mean? I could swing for the lot of them.’

She threw the paper on to a chair. But he could hear the hurt behind her words. It wasn’t going to be a fair fight.

The first letter arrived the same day. Second post, franked at the main post office in town, no signature or return address. It was a screed about how women should be guided by their husbands, live modestly and look to the welfare of their own families. Religious and condescending, everything written in a neat, practised hand. Senseless, Harper judged when he read it, but no real threat. All the women running for the Board had received one. He’d placed it in his desk drawer at Millgarth and forgotten about it. But another…that demanded attention.

 

‘Take a look at that,’ Harper said and tossed the letter across the desk. Inspector Ash raised an eyebrow as he read, then passed it on to Detective Sergeant Fowler.

‘Looks like he’s halfway round the bend, if you ask me, sir,’ Ash said. ‘I see he didn’t bother to sign it. Anything on the envelope?’

‘Nothing helpful.’ He sat back in the chair. For more than two years this had been his office, but Kendall’s ghost still seemed to linger; sometimes he even believed he could smell the shag tobacco the man used to stuff in his pipe. ‘All the women candidates running to be on the Board of Guardians received one.’

‘I see. That was Mrs. Harper’s, I take it?’

‘There was another yesterday. She burned it.’

‘Whoever wrote this was educated,’ Fowler said. ‘All the lines are even, everything spelled properly.’ He grinned. ‘Of course, that’s doesn’t mean he’s not barmy.’

He pushed the spectacles back up his nose. The sergeant had been recommended by a copper from Wakefield. He was moving back to Leeds to be closer to his ill mother. Harper had taken a chance on the man. Over the last twelve months it had paid off handsomely.

Fowler didn’t look like a policeman, more like a distracted clerk or a young professor. Twenty-five, hair already receding, he barely made the height requirement and couldn’t have weighed more than eleven stone. But he had one of the quickest minds Harper had ever met. He and Ash had clicked immediately, turning into a very fruitful partnership. One big, one smaller, they seemed to work intuitively together, knowing what each one would do without needing to speak.

‘This woman’s had another letter, too.’ He gave them the address. ‘Go and see her. I doubt we’ll track down the sender, but at least we can put out the word that we’re looking into it. That might scare him off.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Ash stood. ‘How’s Mrs. Harper’s campaign going?’

‘Early days yet.’

She’d only held small one meeting so far, in a church hall just up Roundhay Road from the Victoria. Their bedroom was filled with piles of leaflets read to be delivered and posters to plastered on the walls all over Sheepscar Ward.

‘I’m sure she’ll win, sir.’

He smiled. ‘From your lips to God’s ears.’

Once they’d gone he turned back to the rota for October, trying to recall when he’d once believed that coppering meant solving crimes.

 

Billy Reed drew back the curtains, pushed up the window sash, and breathed in the sharp salt air. After so many years of soot and dirt in Leeds, every day of this seemed like a tonic. He heard Elizabeth moving around downstairs, cooking his breakfast.

They’d been in Whitby since July, all settled now into the terraced house on Silver Street. The pair of them, and her two youngest children, Edward and Victoria. The older ones had stayed in Leeds, both in lodgings, with work, friends, and lives of their own.

Moving had been a big decision, an upheaval. He’d come to love Whitby on his first visit. He’d left the army, just home from the wars in Afghanistan and troubled in his mind. The water, the beach, the quiet of the place had brought him some peace, and he’d always wanted to live there. But when he’d seen the job for inspector of police and fire in the town, he’d hesitated.

‘Why not write?’ Elizabeth urged him. ‘The worst they can say is no.’

‘We’re settled. I’m doing well the with fire brigade. And you have the bakeries.’

She stared at him. ‘Do you think we’d be happy there?’

‘Yes,’ Reed answered after a moment. ‘I do.’

‘Then sit down and write to them.’

It had taken time. First the application, then an interview, Elizabeth travelling with him on the train and inspecting the town while he was questioned by the watch committee. Another wait until the answer arrived, offering him the position. After that, it was a scramble of arrangements. In the end he’d gone on ahead while she finished up the up sale of the bakeries, packed the rest of their possessions, and said goodbye to all the friends they’d made.

He had no regrets. He liked his job, but it was time for a move, for something new. And this was certainly different. He could make out the shouts of the fishermen at mooring points as they unloaded their boats, and hear the gulls calling.

‘You’d better come and get it while it’s hot,’ Elizabeth shouted up the stairs.

The children were already eating, ready to scramble off to their jobs. Soon enough, Elizabeth would march down Flowergate, across the bridge, and along Church Street to the shop she’d leased, ready to open her tea room and confectioner’s in the spring. She’d made the bakeries in Leeds turn a fair profit, and she wasn’t one to be content as a lady of leisure. She relished work.

‘It’s right by the market,’ she pointed out to him. ‘And all those folk going to the abbey in holiday season will pass by the door.’

She’d developed a good eye, he knew that, and she’d already managed to cultivate a few friends in town, like Mrs. Botham, who ran her bakery and the Inglenook Tea Room on Skinner Street. A formidable woman, Reed thought, but she and Elizabeth could natter on for hours.

He’d quickly settled into the rhythm of his job. During the summer it was mostly dealing with complaints from holidaymakers and breaking up fights once the pub closed. There had only been one fire, and that was easily doused.

He strolled over to the police station on Spring Hill and went through the log with the uniformed sergeant before setting off in the pony and trap. Sandsend and Staithes today. Both of them poor fishing villages, and little trouble to the law, but he still needed to put in a monthly appearance. Show the flag. He covered a large area, going all the way down to Robin Hood’s Bay, but on a day like this, with the sun shining and a gentle breeze blowing off the water, nothing could be a better job.

No, Reed thought with a smile as the horse clopped along the road, no regrets at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Two

 

‘I saw Mrs. Bolland, sir.’ Ash settled on to the chair in the superintendent’s office. ‘She’d kept the letter.’ He ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth. ‘It left her scared.’

‘What does it say?’ Harper put down the pen and sat back.

‘Read it for yourself, sir.’ The inspector pulled a folded sheet of notepaper from his inside pocket.

A woman’s place is in the home, tending to her family and being a graceful loving presence. It’s not to shriek in the hustings like a harridan or to display herself in front of the public like a painted whore.

The Good Lord created His order for a purpose. Man has the reason, the wisdom, and the judgement. He’s intended to use it, to exercise his will over women, not to be challenged by them, the weaker element. Eve was persuaded to eat the apple and tempted Adam, and since that time it has been her duty to pay for the sin.

It is time for you to withdraw your candidacy. Should you fail to do so, if you continue to talk and challenge men for what rightly belongs to them, we shall feel justified in taking whatever means necessary to silence you for breaking God’s profound will.

‘A death threat. No wonder it frightened her.’

‘Yes, sir. Funny what these types come up with in the name of religion, isn’t it? It was all love thy neighbour when I was at Sunday school.’ Ash gave a wry smile.

Harper took out the first letter from his drawer and compared them.

‘The same handwriting. Twice means he’s more than a crank. We’re going to follow up on this and make sure nothing happens to her.’ He thought about Annabelle. ‘To any of the women. Where’s Fowler?’

‘I sent him off to talk to the others, to see if they’d had anything like this.’

‘Odds are that they have. That “we” in there makes me wonder, too.’

‘I noticed that, sir.’ Ash pursed his lips. ‘If I had to guess, thought, I’d say it’s a man on his own.’

‘I agree. Still…’

‘Better safe than sorry, sir.’

‘Exactly.’ He wondered why his wife had destroyed the letter. Not to keep it away from Mary; she could manage that by hiding it in a drawer or on the mantelpiece. Had it terrified her? She was so strong that it seemed hard to believe. But this election campaign was already putting a strain on her and it had hardly begun. ‘No signature again. Handy, isn’t it? He can just pop it in the post, then sit back and stay anonymous behind the paper.’

‘Any ideas for catching him, sir?’

‘No,’ Harper said with a sigh. ‘We’ll just stay on our guard.’

‘How was your dinner last night, by the way, sir?’ The inspector smiled slyly. ‘Big do, from all I hear.’

‘Big?’ Harper asked. ‘Pointless, more like. Tasteless food that was barely warm by the time it reached the table, followed by an hour of mumbled speeches.’

‘The perks of rank, eh, sir?’ Ash’s eyes twinkled with amusement.

‘You’d better be careful, or I’ll start sending you in my place.’

‘My Nancy would probably enjoy that.’ He grinned, slapped his hands down on his knees and stood. ‘I’ll go out and ask a few questions. Who knows, maybe we’ll be lucky and our gentleman writer isn’t as discreet as he should be.’

‘If you really believe that, I’ll look out of the window for a herd of pigs flying over the market,’ Harper told him.

‘Stranger things have probably happened, sir.’

‘Not in Leeds, they haven’t.’

 

‘Was your letter like this?’ he asked. Mary was tucked up in bed, exhausted by a day of school and an evening of telling them every scrap of learning that had gone into her head since morning. Harper was weary from concentrating, trying to make out all the words with his poor hearing.

Annabelle read it. ‘Word for word,’ she said, quickly folded it and handed it back to him.

‘Ash and Fowler are after him.’

‘Doesn’t help if you don’t know who you’re chasing,’ she said. They were in the bedroom. He sat by the dressing table while she counted election leaflets into rough bundles, ready to be delivered tomorrow. She raised her head. ‘I’m not a fool, Tom. There’s not enough in that for you to find him.’

‘We can ask around. And I’ll make sure there’s a copper at the meetings.’

Annabelle stopped her work and stared at him. ‘Would you do that for the men?’

‘Yes,’ he told her. ‘If I believed things could get rowdy,’

‘Don’t you think it’s wrong that women should need special protection? We’re in England, for God’s sake.’

‘Of course it’s wrong. But when there are men like this poison pen writer, it’s better than something bad happening.’ He let the idea hang in the air. ‘To any of you.’

Her stare gradually softened to a curling, twinkling smile.

‘Well, if you really want to look after me, Superintendent, perhaps you could offer me some very close guarding of my body.’

He grinned and bowed. ‘My pleasure, madam.’

 

‘They all received identical letters,’ Fowler said. He pushed the glasses back up his nose and produced the papers from his pocket. ‘Three had burned them. But it’s the same wording and the same handwriting as Mrs. Bolland’s.’

‘And the one my wife received,’ Harper confirmed. ‘What do you two have on your plates are the moment?’ he asked Ash.

‘Next to nothing, sir. We’ve been too successful, that’s the problem.’ He smiled. ‘They’re all too scared to commit crimes these days.’

‘Better not get over-confident,’ the superintendent warned. ‘We might be up to our ears tomorrow. While you have the chance, spend some time with this. Do you have a list of where and when these women are holding meetings?’

‘I do,’ Fowler said. ‘There are four tonight.’

‘Make sure there’s a uniform at every one of them. And I want him very visible.’

That should deter any trouble, he thought. If it didn’t, the weeks until the election were going to be difficult.

‘Mr. Ash and I have been talking, sir,’ the sergeant began. ‘We thought perhaps we could each go to a meeting. You know, stay quiet and keep an eye out for anything suspicious.’

‘A very good idea. Not my wife’s, though,’ he added. ‘I’ll take care of that.’

 

He’d grown used to the routine of running a division, of being responsible for everything from men on the beat to the number of pencils in the store cupboard. But it still chafed. So much of the work was empty details and routine; a competent clerk could have managed it in a couple of hours.

Meetings were the worst times; every month, all the division heads with the chief constable. So far they’d never managed to resolve a single thing. Then there was the annual questioning by the Watch Committee, the council members who oversaw the force. Several of them had no love for him, but he’d managed to fox them. The crime figures kept falling, and he stayed well within his budget. He hadn’t walked away with their praise, but he’d been pleased to see that his success galled them.

Small, worthless victories. Had he really been reduced to that? Sometimes two or three days passed with him barely leaving Millgarth. It felt as if an age had gone by since he’d been a real detective. It was one reason he was looking forward to tonight. Standing at the back of the hall, watching the faces and the bodies, thinking, alert for any danger. At least he could feel like he was doing some real work. That made him smile.

 

One the stroke of five, Harper pulled on his mackintosh and hat and glanced out of the window. Blue skies, a few high clouds, and a lemon sun; a perfect autumn afternoon. Saturday, and a little time away from this place. Not free, though: he’d spend it walking round Sheepscar, delivering leaflets for Annabelle’s campaign.

Ash was at his desk in the detectives’ office, writing up a report.

‘Did you find anything?’

‘Not a dicky bird, sir.’ He sighed and scratched his chin. ‘You weren’t banking on it, were you?’

‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘If there’s anything tonight, make sure you let me know.’

‘I will, sir. Let’s hope it’s peaceful, eh?’

It was warm enough to walk back out to the Victoria. Even if the air was filled with all the soot and smoke of industry, so strong he could taste it on his tongue, it still felt good to breathe deep after a day in a stuffy office.

 

‘Do you think I look all right, Tom?’ Annabelle stood in front of the mirror. She was wearing a plain dress of dark blue wool. It was cut high, at the base of her throat, modest and serious. Her hair was up in some style he couldn’t name but had probably taken an hour to engineer so it looked nonchalant.

‘I think you look grand,’ he told her. ‘Like a member of the Poor Law Board.’ He nudged Mary, who was sitting on his lap, staring in awe at her mother.

‘Da’s right. You’re a bobby dazzler, mam,’ she said. ‘I’d vote for you if I could vote.’

‘That’ll do for me.’ Annabelle picked up her daughter and twirled in the air. ‘You’re absolutely sure?’

‘Positive,’ Harper replied. He pulled the watch from his waistcoat. ‘We’d better get going. That meeting starts in three-quarters of an hour.’ It wasn’t that far – the hall at the St. Clement’s just up Chapeltown Road– but he knew she’d want to arrive early, prepare herself, and put leaflets on all the chairs. Ellen would bring Mary shortly before the meeting started.

It was a fine evening for a stroll, still some sun and a note of warmth in the air. The factories had shut down until Monday morning, the constant hums and drones and bangs of the machinery all silenced. The chimneystacks stood like a forest, stretching off to the horizon, their dirt making its mark on every surface around Leeds.

Annabelle took his arm as they walked. He’d put on his best suit, the dove-grey one she’d had Moses Cohen tailor for him seven years before. It was still smart, but growing uncomfortably tight around the waist.

‘It’s going to be fine, isn’t it?’ she asked.

‘Of course it is.’ He glanced over at her. ‘It’s not like you to be so nervous. You usually dive right in.’

‘This is something new, that’s all. And if I fail, well, it’ll be obvious, won’t it? I’d be letting everyone down who’s helping.’ She nodded at the hall, just visible beyond the church, its low outline stark against the gasometers. ‘All of them who turn up tonight. If anyone does.’

‘You’ll be fine.’ He kissed her cheek. ‘That meeting two nights ago was packed.’ He grinned. ‘Trust me, I’m a policeman.’

‘I thought you lot were only good for telling the time.’

The words had hardly left her mouth when he heard the low roar. It grew louder, then a deep violent explosion ripped out of the ground. A column of smoke plumed up from the hall, throwing wood and roof and bricks high into the air.

‘Christ.’ They stared for a second, not knowing what to say. It was beyond words. ‘Stay here,’ he told her, then changed his mind. ‘No. Go home.’

Tom Harper was running towards the blast.