In a little more than a fortnight, The Hocus Girl will be out in the UK (Amazon is already sending copies to customers). If you’re a blogger or review, the book is available on NetGalley.
Yes, I really do want you to buy it. I’ll try to persuade you and twist your arm.
But perhaps a few short extracts might convince you. You can order from your local bookshop. Give them the business, keep them going. And if you can’t afford it, then please ask your local library to stock it. Libraries are vital to us all. We need to use them, to fight to keep them open.
I hope you enjoy this – please let me know.
Near the top of Kirkgate, Simon pushed open the heavy door of the gaol. The place was old now, mortar crumbling between the stones, cold even in the spring sun. The clerk at the desk raised his head.
‘Mr Westow,’ he said in surprise. ‘Have you brought someone for us?’
‘Davey Ashton. Do you have him in the cells?’
‘No, sir.’ The man frowned and pushed the spectacles up his nose. He put down his pen and rubbed the fingers of his right hand. ‘There’s no one by that name. When was he arrested?’
The clerk’s expression cleared and his mouth turned down. ‘Is this the sedition case?’
‘They’re questioning him at the Moot Hall. I’ll warn you now, though, they won’t let you in. It’s supposed to be secret, but I’ve heard there have been arrests all over the West Riding. Breaking up a rebellion, that’s what they’re saying.’
Simon felt a chill rise through his body. Rebellion was a capital crime. The death penalty. Hanging. In God’s name, what was going on?
‘Who’s the magistrate?’
He knew all about Curzon. A mill owner, a rich man who paid his workers as little as he dared and worked them as hard as he could. A man who’d honed away his compassion and conscience and replaced them with gold.
He’d be putting his questions, damning Davey to hell and threatening him with transportation for life or the noose. Simon felt the desperation clawing in his belly. He had to do something. But he wouldn’t even be able to see Davey until Curzon was done. And he didn’t know how he could save his friend.
‘I see. Thank you.’ A nod and he left. At least he knew his enemy now.
‘The government’s spying on Englishmen?’ For a moment, Simon wasn’t sure he’d heard properly.
‘You make it sound as if that’s something shocking,’ Miller snorted. ‘They’ve been doing it for centuries. They’re petrified, Simon. Terrified. With the price of food so high and wages low, they’re afraid we’re going to rebel like the French did thirty years ago and send them all to the guillotine.’
No one would ever forget the day when a Manchester magistrate sent the cavalry to break up a political meeting. Fifteen had died, hundreds were wounded.
‘Or worse,’ Miller continued. ‘They’re taking no chances. So they’re sending agents to spy on people.’ He shrugged and drank again.
A spy. Simon considered the idea.
‘What else do you know?’
The man shook his head as an answer. ‘That’s it, Simon. Little things I’ve heard and put together. It might not be true. But I’ll wager good money it is.’
It was. He could feel it in his bones. He took out another coin and slid it across the table.
‘I’d like to know more about this spy. If you can find anything. Anything at all…’
Miller rubbed the thumb and the stubs of two fingers together. Money. ‘I’ll let you know.’
With great care, Jane emptied the sack. Five pieces made from silver. Barstow had stolen eight. Simon had recovered the watch; two still missing, exactly as the man had said. She stacked everything in the corner, tucked out of sight behind the chair, wadded her shawl and pushed it deep into the sack. A moment later she emerged into the daylight, the fingers of her right hand curled tight around the knife.
Someone was behind her. She could hear him, the way the rhythm of footsteps matched her own. It wouldn’t be Barstow; he didn’t have the skill or the courage. Not that it mattered. Jane was going to lead him through the courts and yards and finish up behind him. Then she’d make him regret this.
She didn’t even need to think where she was going. Leeds was imprinted in her mind, in her feet. She’d walked every inch of the town time and again, she’d lived on its streets when she was a child. Sometimes knowing where to turn and how to hide could be the difference between staying alive and dying.
It only took five minutes before she came out of a tiny ginnel to see the figure ahead of her, gazing around, unsure which way to turn. Jane stopped, staring in disbelief. Not a man at all. A woman. Taller and heavier than her, several years older, with a tumble of thick dark hair that hung like a rat’s nest over her shoulders. She wore an old, patched cotton dress too short to reach her clogs, a threadbare shawl gathered on her shoulders.
For a second, Jane was too stunned to move. Then she breathed slowly. Man or woman, it didn’t matter. This was a threat.
The woman tensed as Jane pricked her back with the tip of her knife and whispered, ‘Why are you looking for me?’
‘He paid me. Two pennies.’ She opened her fist to show a pair of coins.
‘Who?’ Jane wanted to hear the name.
‘Him.’ That was her only response.
‘Why? What does he want?’
‘He said I had to see where you went then go back and tell him.’ Her voice shook. ‘Please… don’t hurt me.’
Jane took two steps back. Something was wrong. As soon as he heard her voice, Barstow would have known exactly who she was. Every crook in Leeds knew she worked with Simon, and the thief-taker didn’t hide his address. This woman came from someone else. Who?
‘Then you’d better tell him I managed to lose you.’
Silently, Jane took another pace away from the woman, eyes fixed, knife ready for any movement.
The woman turned, lunging. Light glinted on the blade of a long dagger. But all she caught was air. Before she could recover, Jane was on her. A slash opened the girl’s arm and her knife clattered to the ground. Jane kicked it away.
‘Do you really want me to kill you?’
A shake of the head. The girl pressed the edge of her shawl down on the wound, trying to staunch the blood. Her face had turned pale.
‘Then don’t come after me again,’ Jane warned. ‘Ever.’
For a moment she stared, then turned and walked away. Even as she did it, Jane knew she was making a mistake. If this had been a man, she’d have killed him. She’d been too cautious. Too generous. Too stupid. Too weak. This wasn’t finished yet. As certain as morning, the woman would return.