2017, And My Year Ahead

So here we are, tiptoeing into 2017, casting a cautious eye at its possibilities, a little hopeful, a little wary that it might be more brutal than 2016. But the only thing my prognostications and the tea leaves are telling me is about the books I have coming up this year. Sorry I can’t help on lottery numbers or Grand National winners. I’m just not that good.

I write every day. I do it because it’s what I love and I have things to say. I’ve been lucky, so far at least, that publishers have wanted to put them in print and some people enjoy them. You have no idea how grateful I am for that.

I still have things to say, tales to tell. But there’s a strange alchemy that turns life into fiction, an odd transmutation. Late in February the fifth of my Tom Harper novels, On Copper Street,  comes out in the UK. Except that underneath everything, it’s not a Tom Harper book at all; that’s just the cloak it wears. Early last year, in the space of two weeks, I received news that three different friends had all been diagnosed with cancer. By then, 2016 was already whittling away at some of the icons of my generation. My friends, I’m pleased to say, are still here and seem to be doing well. But this book became my way to cope with it all, my way of understanding. Maybe even of accepting, I don’t know. It’s a way to reach down to the truth of it as it hits me, of that balance between life and death.

That, I know, probably doesn’t explain much. But for now, it’ll have to do. Oh, and if you’re especially eager, the best price for it seems to be here.

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This summer there’s the third, and last, Chesterfield book with John the Carpenter, The Holywell Dead. For a man who came to me in an instant on the A61, driving through Chesterfield, he feels to have been around a while. We still had a little unfinished business, I was aware of that. Not just him, but Walter, Katherine, Martha, even Coroner de Harville. Their stories had further to run. Not that much…maybe just enough. The limits of a small town and a man who’d rather work with wood than find murderers were closing in. And it ends, I hope, in a fairly apocalyptic fashion, bowing out on a high note. I’ve enjoyed my time in the 14th century with him, but we’ve walked as far as the fork in the road and he’s taken one path and I’ve trodden along the other.

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Then there’s my second – and again, last – visit with Lottie Armstrong in The Year of the Gun. I didn’t have a choice about it. She insisted. Her presence haunted me after I’d completed Modern Crimes, so that she had to come back. But the woman I visited again was older, in her forties, and experiencing World War II in Leeds. There was a vibrancy about her, so extraordinary by being ordinary. She had this other adventure to tell me about; all I had to do was listen and note it all down. But she wasn’t going to let me be until she’d finished the tale. As I said, the choice was taken out of my hands.

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And finally, in late November there will be Free from All Danger, the seventh Richard Nottingham book. It’s still unfolding, not quite all written yet. But I’ve known for a long time that Richard had more to say, and I’m glad he has the chance. By the time it appears, it will be four years since the last volume in the series.

I’m not a fan of endless series with the same character. It’s rare to be able to pull that off, although one or two writers do manage it with some depth. But as characters age, some edges get rounded, while others splinter a little and grow jagged and sharp. Some surfaces harden and other become softer. Those are the hallmarks, far more than the lines on the face or the lack of hair.

Richard has been away, but as he comes back it’s a chance to see how Leeds and the world has changed, and what his place in this might be. The old rubbing up against the new and how they can work together.

In many ways, Richard struck me early on as being like the straight-arrow sheriff in a Western, with his strong sense of good and evil. That changed somewhat over the course of the books, and the grey areas lapped so strongly into the black and the white. But coming out of retirement, how will he find everything now? Is he still sharp enough? More than that, where does he fit? And part of that is me, and my own sense of mortality, heavily tempered by the last 12 months, and the knowledge that new generations are shaping the world, while those of us who are older become more and more like bystanders, slightly out of time.

If the series had continued without a break, this wouldn’t have been the book I’d have written. So I hope that gap, that distance, has served us well.

Tom (and Annabelle, naturally), John, Lottie, Richard – they’re all as alive to me as anyone I talk to in a shop or over coffee. They’re friends, confidantes. And sometimes their books refract bits of the present into the past. Sometimes reflections of history, sometimes my own present, my thoughts and emotions. That transmutation that fiction can give.

And that offers a little background to the work of mine that’s appearing in the next 12 months. Of course, I hope they entertain, which is what they should do, and if they don’t manage that, then I’ve failed as a fiction writer. But there’s a backstory to each one, too, and maybe knowing it will offer a little more richness to the books.

Go on, have a listen

The best way to enjoy a book is to feel part of it, to be immersed in it. Well, that’s how it works for me.

With that in mind, here’s a teaser from Two Bronze Pennies, just enough to whet your appetites, I hope, and all read by my own fair larynx.

Go on, have a listen.

And after that you can buy it here – the best price I’ve seen – with free worldwide delivery.

And of course, don’t miss the online global launch, 6pm UK time, Sunday May 24. Click the link below and you’re in. No leaving home, no getting dressed up. Read all about it here.

https://www.concertwindow.com/89118-chris-nickson

Two Bronze Pennies – A Short Extract

You know – don’t you? – that my second Tom Harper novel, Two Bronze Pennies, comes out in the UK at the end of April (August/September elsewhere). Much of it is set in the Leylands, that area just north of the city centre where most of the Jewish immigrants settled when they came to Leeds.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s the opening few pages. Tom, Annabelle, Billy Reed, the Victoria – a dead body and men speaking in Yiddish. Go on, you know you want to….

One

‘Have you heard a word I said, Tom Harper?’

‘Of course I have.’ He stirred and stretched in the chair beside the fireplace. ‘You were talking about visiting your sister.’

Annabelle’s face softened. ‘It’ll only be for an hour. We can go in the afternoon, after we’ve eaten.’

‘Of course,’ he told her with a smile. He was happy, finally at home and warm for the first time since morning.

He’d spent the day chasing around Leeds on the trail of a burglar, no closer to catching him than he’d been a month before. He’d gone from Burley to Hunslet, and never a sniff of the man. But it was better than being in uniform; half the constables had been on patrol in the outdoor market, cut by the December wind as they tried to nab the pickpockets and sneak thieves. It was still blowing out there, howling and rattling the window frames. As a police inspector, at least he could take hackney cabs and omnibuses and dodge the weather for a while.

Tomorrow he was off duty. Christmas Day. For the last five years he’d worked it. Not this time, though. Christmas 1890, the first together with his wife. He turned his head to look at her and the wedding ring that glinted in the light. Five months married. Annabelle Harper. The words still made him smile.

‘What?’ she asked.

He shook his head. ‘Nothing.’

He often glanced at her when she was busy, working in the kitchen or at her desk, going through the figures for her businesses. Sometimes he could scarcely believe she’d married him. Annabelle had grown up in the slums of the Bank, another daughter in a poor Irish family. She’d started work here in the Victoria public house and eventually married the landlord. Six years later, after he died, everyone advised her to sell. But she’d held on and kept the place, trusting her instincts, and she’d built it into a healthy business. Then she’d seen an opportunity and opened bakeries in Sheepscar and Meanwood that were doing well. Annabelle Harper was a rich woman. Not that anyone round here called her Mrs Harper. To them she’d always be Mrs Atkinson, the name she’d carried for so long.

Whatever they called her, she was his.

‘You look all in,’ she told him.

Harper gave a contented sigh. Where they lived, in the rooms over the pub, felt perfectly comfortable, curtains drawn against the winter night, the fire in the hearth and the soft hiss of the gas lights. He didn’t want to move.

‘I’m cosy,’ he said. ‘Come and give me a cuddle.’

‘A cuddle? You’re lucky I put your supper on the table.’

She stuck out her tongue, her gown swishing as she came and settled in his arms. He could hear the voices in the bar downstairs. Laughter and a snatch of song from the music halls.

‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘I’ll send them on their way early tonight. They all have homes to go to. Then we can have some peace and quiet.’

But only for a few hours. Annabelle would be up before dawn, the way she always was, working next to the servants, stuffing the goose that was waiting in the kitchen, baking the bread and preparing the Christmas dinner. Dan the barman, the girls who worked for her, and God knew who else would join them at the table. They’d light candles on the tree, sing, laugh, exchange gifts and drink their way through the barrel of beer she’d set aside.

Then, after their bellies were full, the two of them would walk over to visit her sister, taking presents for Annabelle’s nieces and nephews. For one day, at least, he could forget all the crime in Leeds. Billy Reed, his sergeant, would cover the holiday. Then Harper would  return on Boxing Day, back to track down the damned burglar.

Annabelle stirred.

‘Did you hear that?’ she asked.

‘What?’

He gazed at her. He hadn’t heard a thing. Six years before, while he was still a constable, he’d taken a blow on the ear that left him partially deaf. The best the doctor could offer was that his hearing might return in time. But in the last few months, since autumn began, it had grown a little worse. Sometimes he missed entire sentences, not just words. His ear simply shut off for a few seconds. He’d never told anyone about the problem, scared that it would go on his record.

‘On the stairs.’

He listened. Still nothing. Then someone was knocking on the door. Before he could move, she rose swiftly to answer it.

‘It’s for you.’ Her voice was dark.

He recognized the young constable from Millgarth station. One of the new intake, his uniform carefully pressed, cap pulled down smartly on his head and face eager with excitement. Had he ever looked as green as that?

‘I’m off duty—’ he began.

‘I know, sir.’ The man blushed. ‘But Superintendent Kendall told me to come and fetch you. There’s been a murder.’

Harper turned helplessly to Annabelle. There’d be no visit to her sister for him tomorrow.

‘You go, Tom.’ She kissed him on the cheek. ‘Just come home as soon as you can.’

Two

The cold clawed his breath away. Stars shone brilliantly in a clear sky. He huddled deeper into his overcoat and pulled the muffler tight around his neck.

‘What’s your name?’ Harper asked as they started down the road.

‘Stone, sir. Constable Stone. Started three month back.’

‘And where are we going, Mr Stone?’

‘The Leylands, sir.’

Harper frowned. ‘Whereabouts?’

‘Trafalgar Street.’

He knew the area very well. He’d grown up no more than a stone’s throw from there, up on Noble Street. All of it poverty-scented by the stink of malt and hops from the Brunswick Brewery up the road. Back-to-back houses as far as the eye could see. A place where the pawnbrokers did roaring business each Monday as housewives took anything valuable to exchange for the cash to last until Friday payday.

In the last few years the area had changed. It had filled with Jewish immigrants; almost every house was packed with them, from Russia and Poland and countries whose names he didn’t know, while the English moved out and scattered across the city. Yiddish had become the language of the Leylands. Only the smell of the brewery and the lack of money remained the same.

‘Step out,’ he told the constable. ‘We’ll freeze to the bloody spot if we stand still.’

Harper led the way, through the memory of the streets where he used to run as a boy. The gas lamps threw little circles of light but he hardly needed them; he could have found his way in pitch blackness. The streets were empty, curtains closed tight. People would be huddled together in their beds, trying to keep warm.

As they turned the corner into Trafalgar Street he caught the murmur of voices. Suddenly lights burned in the houses and figures gathered on their doorsteps. Harper raised his eyes questioningly at Stone.

‘The outhouses, sir. About halfway down.’

The cobbles were icy; Harper’s boots slipped as he walked. Conversation ended as they passed, men and women looking at them with fearful, suspicious eyes. They were goys. Worse, they were authority.

They passed two blocks of four houses before Stone turned and moved between a pair of coppers, their faces ruddy and chilled, keeping back a small press of people. Someone had placed a sheet over the body. Harper knelt and pulled it back for a moment. A young man, strangely serene in death. Straggly dark hair, white shirt without a collar, dark suit and overcoat. The inspector ran his hands over the clothes, feeling the blood crusted where the man had been stabbed. Slowly, he counted the wounds. Four of them. All on the chest. The corpse had been carefully arranged, he noticed. The body was straight, the arms out to the sides, making the shape of a cross. Two bronze pennies covered the dead man’s eyes, the face of Queen Victoria looking out.

Harper stood again and noticed Billy Reed talking to one of the uniforms and scribbling in his notebook. The sergeant nodded as he saw him.

‘Do we know who he was?’

‘Not yet.’ Reed rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth. ‘Best as I can make out, that one found him an hour ago. But I don’t speak the lingo.’ He nodded towards a middle-aged man in a dark coat, a black hat that was too large almost covering his eyes. ‘He started shouting and the beat bobby came along. They called me out.’ He shrugged. ‘I told the super I could take care of it but he wanted you.’ His voice was a mixture of apology and resentment.

‘It doesn’t matter.’

It did, of course. He didn’t want to be out here with a corpse in the bitter night. He’d rather be at home with his wife, in bed and feeling the warmth of her skin. But Kendall had given his orders.

The man who’d found the body stood apart from the others, head bowed, muttering to himself. He scarcely glanced up as Harper approached, lips moving in undertone of words.

‘Do you know who the dead man is?’ he asked.

Er iz toyt.’ He’s dead.

‘English?’ the inspector asked hopefully, but the man just shook his head. He kept his gaze on the ground, too fearful to look directly at a policeman.

Velz is dayn nomen?’ The Yiddish made the man’s head jerk up. What’s your name?

‘Israel Liebermann, mayn ir,’ the man replied nervously. Sir. Growing up here it had been impossible not to absorb a little of the language. It floated in the shops and all around the boys that played in the road.

Ikh bin Inspector Harper.’

A hand tapped him on the shoulder and he turned quickly to see a pair of dark eyes staring at him.

‘What?’ He had the sense that the man had spoken; for that moment he hadn’t heard a word. He swallowed and the world came back into both ears.

‘I said it was a good try, Inspector Harper. But your accent needs work.’ The voice was warm, filled with kindness. He extended his hand and Harper took it.

‘I’m Rabbi Feldman.’

The man was dressed for the weather in a heavy overcoat that extended almost to his feet, thick boots, leather gloves and a hat pulled down to his ears. A wiry grey beard flowed down to his chest.

A gust of wind blew hard. Harper shivered, feeling the chill deep in his marrow.

‘If you think this is cold, you never had a winter in Odessa.’ The rabbi grinned, then his face grew serious. ‘Can I help at all?’

‘Someone’s been murdered. This gentleman found him.’

Feldman nodded then began a conversation in Yiddish with Liebermann. A pause, another question and a long answer.

He’d heard of the rabbi. Everyone had. Around the Leylands he was almost a hero. He was one of them; his family had taken the long march west, all the way to England, when the pogroms began. He understood their sorrows and their dreams. In his sixties now, walking with the help of a silver-topped stick, he’d been head of the Belgrave Street Synagogue for over ten years. He taught in the Hebrew school on Gower Street and met with councillors from the Town Hall. He was man of mitzvahs, good deeds. Portly and gentle, with quiet dignity, he was someone in the community, a man everybody respected.

‘He says he needed the outhouse just before ten – he’d looked at his watch in the house so he knew what time it was. He put on his coat and came down.’ Feldman smiled. ‘You understand, it’s cold in these places. You try to finish as soon as possible. When he was done he noticed the shape and went to look. That’s when he began to yell.’

‘Thank you,’ Harper said, although it was no more than they already knew.

‘Murder is a terrible business, Inspector.’ The man hesitated. ‘Is there anything else I can do?’

‘We still don’t know the name of the dead man.’

‘May I?’ Feldman gestured at the corpse. Harper nodded and one of the constables drew back the sheet again.

Mine Got.’ He drew in his breath sharply.

‘Do you know him?’

It was a few seconds before the rabbi answered, staring intently at the face on the ground. Slowly he took off the hat and tugged a hand through his ragged white hair.

‘Yes, Inspector,’ he said, and there was the sadness of lost years in his voice. ‘I know him. I know him very well. I gave him his bris and his bar mitzvah. He’s my sister’s son.’

His nephew. God, Harper thought, what a way to find out.

‘I’m sorry, sir. Truly.’

The man’s shoulders slumped.

‘He was seventeen.’ The rabbi shook his head in disbelief. ‘Just a boychik. He was going to be the one.’ Feldman tapped a finger against the side of his head. ‘He had the smarts, Inspector. His father, he was already training him to run the business.’

‘What was his name, sir? I need to know.’

‘Abraham. Abraham Levy.’ The rabbi rummaged in a trouser pocket, brought out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. ‘Why?’ he asked quietly. ‘Why would someone kill anyone who was so young?’

And Two Bronze Pennies is now available to order ahead of its publication on April 30. Follow this link.

Tomorrow: Gods of Gold

It’s been a long time coming, but tomorrow is the publication day for Gods of Gold (buy it, please!). Today, as the final teaser, how Tom Harper met Annabelle Atkinson:

She’d been collecting glasses in the Victoria down in Sheepscar, an old apron covering her dress and her sleeves rolled up, talking and laughing with the customers. He thought she must be a serving girl with a brass mouth. Then, as he sat and watched her over another pint, he noticed the rest of the staff defer to the woman. He was still there when she poured herself a glass of gin and sat down next to him.
‘I’m surprised those eyes of yours haven’t popped out on stalks yet,’ she told him. ‘You’ve been looking that hard you must have seen through to me garters.’ She leaned close enough for him to smell her perfume and whispered, ‘They’re blue, by the way.’
For the first time in years, Tom Harper blushed. She laughed.
‘Aye, I thought that’d shut you up. I’m Annabelle. Mrs Atkinson.’ She extended a hand and he shook it, feeling the calluses of hard work on her palms. But there was no ring on her finger. ‘He’s dead, love,’ she explained as she caught his glance. ‘Three year back. Left me this place.’
She’d started as a servant in the pub when she was fifteen, she said, after a spell in the mills. The landlord had taken a shine to her, and she’d liked him. One thing had led to another and they’d married. She was eighteen, he was fifty, already a widower once. After eight years together, he died.
‘Woke up and he were cold,’ she said, toying with the empty glass. ‘Heart gave out in the night, they said. And before you ask, I were happy with him. Everyone thought I’d sell up once he was gone but I couldn’t see the sense. We were making money. So I took it over. Not bad for a lass who grew up on the Bank, is it?’ She gave him a quick smile.
‘I’m impressed,’ he said.
‘So what brings a bobby in here?’ Annabelle asked bluntly. ‘Something I should worry about?’
‘How did you know?’
She gave him a withering look. ‘If I can’t spot a copper by now I might as well give up the keys to this place. You’re not in uniform. Off duty, are you?’
‘I’m a detective. Inspector.’
She pushed her lips together. ‘Right posh, eh? Got a name, Inspector?’
‘Tom. Tom Harper.’
He’d returned the next night, and the next, and soon they started walking out together. Shows at Thornton’s Music Hall and the Grand, walks up to Roundhay Park on a Sunday for the band concerts. Slowly, as the romance began to bloom, he learned more about her. She didn’t just own the pub, she also had a pair of bakeries, one just up Meanwood Road close to the chemical works and the foundry, the other on Skinner Lane for the trade from the building yards. She employed people to do the baking but in the early days she’d been up at four each morning to take care of everything herself.
Annabelle constantly surprised him. She loved an evening out at the halls, laughing at the comedians and singing along with the popular songs. But just a month before she’d dragged him out to the annual exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery.
By the time they’d arrived, catching the omnibus and walking along the Headrow, it was almost dusk.
‘Are you sure they’ll still be open?’ he asked.
‘Positive,’ she said and squeezed his hand. ‘Come on.’
It seemed a strange thing to him. How would they light the pictures? Candles? Lanterns? At the entrance she turned to him.
‘Just close your eyes,’ she said, a smile flickering across her lips. ‘That’s better.’ She guided him into the room at the top of the building. ‘You can open them again now.’
It was bright as day inside, although deep evening showed through the skylights.
‘What?’ he asked, startled and unsure what he was seeing.
‘Electric light,’ she explained. She gazed around, eyes wide. ‘Wonderful, eh?’ She’d taken her time, examining every painting, every piece of sculpture, stopping to glance up at the glowing bulbs. Like everything else there, she was transfixed by the light as much as the art. To him it seemed to beggar belief that anyone can do this. When they finally came out it was full night, the gas lamps soft along the street. ‘You see that, Tom? That’s the future, that is.’

To Whet Your Appetite

My new book, Gods of Gold, is published in the UK on August 28th. Yes, I’d like you to buy it, of course I would, don’t silly. To give you a little inducement, here’s a taster, a teaser, the opening. It’s set in 1890, against the backdrop of the Leeds Gas Strike, and features Detective Inspector Tom Harper of Leeds Police.

Tom Harper pounded down Briggate, the hobnails from his boots scattering sparks behind him. He pushed between people, not even hearing their complaints as he ran on, eyes fixed on the man he was pursuing, leaping over a small dog that tried to snap at his ankles.

‘Police!’ he yelled. ‘Stop him!’

They didn’t, of course they didn’t, but at least they parted to let him through. At Duncan Street, under the Yorkshire Relish sign, he slid between a cart and a tram that was turning the corner. His foot slipped on a pile of horse dung and he drew in his breath sharply, the moment hanging. Then the sole gripped and he was running again.

Harper ducked in front of a hackney carriage, steadying himself with a hand on the horse’s neck. He felt its breath hot against his cheek for a second, then plunged on. He was fast but the man in front was even faster, stretching the distance between them.

His lungs were burning. Without even thinking, he glanced across at the clock on the Ball-Dyson building. Half past eleven. He forced his feet down harder, arms pumping like a harrier.

As they reached Leeds Bridge the man leapt into the road, weaving between the traffic. Harper followed him, squeezing sideways between a pair of omnibuses, seeing the passengers stare down at him in astonishment through the window. Then he was free again, rushing past the row of small shops and watching the man disappear round the corner on to Dock Street.

By the time he arrived the street was empty. He stood, panting heavily, holding on to the gas lamp on the corner, unable to believe his eyes. The man had simply vanished. There was nothing, not even the sound of footsteps. Off to his left, a cluster of warehouses ran down to the river. Across the road the chimneys of the paper mill belched their stink into the air. Where had the bugger gone?

 

Harper had been up at Hope Brothers on Briggate, barely listening as the manager described a shoplifter. The man’s mouth frowned prissily as he talked and rearranged a display of bonnets on a table. Outside, the shop boy was lowering the canvas awning against the June sun.

Harper scribbled a word or two in his notebook. It should be the beat bobby doing this, he thought. He was a detective inspector; his time was more valuable than this. But one of the Hopes lived next door to the new chief constable. A word or two and the superintendent had sent him down here with an apologetic shrug of his shoulders.

Then Harper heard the shout. He dashed out eagerly, the bell tinkling gently as he threw the door wide. Further up the street a man gestured and yelled, ‘He stole my wallet!’

That was all he needed. Inspector Harper began to run.

 

He tipped the hat back and wiped the sweat off his forehead. The air was sultry, hot with the start of summer. Where was the sod? He could be hiding just a few yards away or already off beyond a wall and clear away in Hunslet. One thing was certain: Harper wasn’t going to find him. He straightened his jacket and turned around. What a bloody waste of a morning.

He’d wanted to be a policeman as long as he could remember. When he was a nipper, no more than a toddler, he’d often follow Constable Hardwick, the beat bobby, down their street in the Leylands, just north of the city centre, imitating the man’s waddling walk and nods at the women gathered on their doorsteps. To him, the decision to join the force was made there and then. He didn’t need to think about it again. But that certainty shattered when he was nine. Suddenly his schooldays had ended, like every other boy and girl he knew. His father found him work at Brunswick’s brewery, rolling barrels, full and empty, twelve hours a day and Saturday mornings, his pay going straight to his mam. Each evening he’d trudge home, so tired he could barely stay awake for supper. It took two years for his ambition to rekindle. He’d been sent on an errand that took him past Millgarth police station, and saw two bobbies escorting a prisoner in handcuffs. The desire all came back then, stronger than ever, the thought that he could do something more than use his muscles for the rest of his life. He joined the public library, wary at first in case they wouldn’t let someone like him borrow books. From there he spent his free hours reading; novels, politics, history, he’d roared through them all. Books took him away and showed him the world beyond the end of the road. The only pity was that he didn’t have time for books any longer. He’d laboured at his penmanship, practising over and over until he could manage a fair, legible hand. Then, the day he turned nineteen, he’d applied to join the force, certain they wouldn’t turn him down.

They’d accepted him. The proudest day of his life had been putting on the blue uniform and adjusting the cap. His mother had lived to see it, surprised and happy that he’d managed it. His father had taken him to the public house, put a drink in his hand and shouted a toast – ‘My son, the rozzer.’

He’d been proud then; he’d loved walking the beat, each part of the job. He learned every day. But he was happier still when he was finally able to move into plain clothes. That was real policing, he’d concluded. He’d done well, too, climbing from detective constable to sergeant and then to inspector before he was thirty.

And now he was chasing bloody pickpockets down Briggate. He might as well be back in uniform.

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