I’m sure I put this up before. But just in case you missed it, here’s the trailer for Gods of Gold, now available everywhere in hardback and as an ebook. I’m proud of this video – it’s all my own work, although you could probably tell that…
I’d always said I’d never write a Victorian crime novel. I was certain of it. With so many already out there, what was left to add?
But somehow, I reckoned without Leeds tapping me on the shoulder.
Walk through the city and the Victorian era doesn’t just echo. It roars. It’s a time you can literally reach out and touch. The city’s architectural jewels are its grand Victorian buildings – the Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, and the solid, powerful edifices put up by the banks and insurance companies. They were the bricks and mortar promises of solidity, propriety and prosperity. A reminder of when this was one of the industrial powerhouses of the British Empire. And at the other end of the scale, the back-to-back houses in places like Harehills and Kirkstall stand as brusque accusations of the poverty so rife back then.
A world away, yet still close enough to be a very real part of today. But I wasn’t interested.
Then Leeds gave me the tale of its Gas Strike.
By 1890, the workers had begun to organise. The unions had were gaining strength. And that year, with the Leeds Gas Strike, they showed their power. Their terms of work changed by the council, wages cut, jobs slashed, the gas workers had no choice but to walk out. ‘Replacement workers’ were drafted in from Manchester and London to stoke the furnaces and keep the gas flowing. But they didn’t know they’d have to face a mob thousands strong. In fact, they’d been recruited under false pretences, believing they’d be employed at a new works. As soon as they discovered the truth, most abandoned their posts. The lights were flickering. Factories were closing. Within three days the strikers had their victory. For austere times it was an glorious story: the workers won.
I was intrigued. This might be a tale worth telling.
Reading more about the strike led to Tom Maguire. He was a young labour activist in Leeds, still in his middle twenties in 1890, a believer who helped build the labour movement, and became one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. More than that, he was a poet (it’s a line from one of his works that gives Gods of Gold its title) who died in poverty in 1895 – yet thousands reportedly lined the roads as his coffin was taken to the cemetery.
There was definitely something here. But it needed something more personal to tip the scales and make me renege on my no-Victorian promise.
A couple of years ago I wrote a short story that took its inspiration from Atkinson Grimshaw’s dark, evocative painting Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, Leeds 1879. It shows the river, almost empty of ships, and a woman standing alone on the bank, clutching a bundle. Annabelle Atkinson. That was what I called her. And even then I knew we had unfinished business. She was too powerful, too vibrant a character to ever be satisfied with a single, brief appearance.
But she bided her time. It was only when I was researching the Gas Strike that she came and sat beside me in a swish of velvet.
‘I know all about this, luv,’ she said with a smile. ‘I was there, remember? Do you want me to tell you about it?’
So Annabelle introduced me to her fiancé, Detective Inspector Tom Harper, and the other characters in her life. We strolled along the streets of Hunslet and the Leylands together, drank in the Victoria in Sheepscar, were jostled by the crowds on Briggate and window-shopped in the Grand Pygmalion on Boar Lane. We sang along with the music hall tunes they loved – “My Old Man,” “Sidney The One-Week Wonder,” “’Enerey The Eighth”.
After that, how could I walk away?
Especially when with them came the ghosts of my own family, of Isaac Nickson who brought his wife and children to Leeds from Malton in the 1820s, of his descendants – William, John William, Harold Ewart – and the stories they had to tell me.
I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t even have a choice any more.
‘Tom Harper pounded down Briggate, the hobnails from his boots scattering sparks behind him…’
Yesterday my agent heard back from the publisher which had been weighing whether to publish my new book. Needless to say, I’d been on tenterhooks (a good Leeds expression, by the way) since it had been sent off.
The result, as those who saw my Facebook and Twitter posts will know, is that Crème de la Crime will publish Gods of Gold in April next year – and four months later in the US, as usual.
So what is Gods of Gold? It’s the first in a new series set in Leeds, this time in the 1890s. The small town on Richard Nottingham’s time has grown and grown, bringing in the suburbs. It’s an industrial place now, full of dark Satanic mills and factories. Street after street is filled with back-to-back housing, the homes of the poor. Most of the buildings are black with soot from all the chimneys.
It’s a place much closer to the Leeds of the present day. Not just in time, but in attitude; it’s very recognisable. The main character is Detective Inspector Tom Harper. He’s 31, from a working-class background. Left school at the age of nine and worked 12 hours a day in a brewery, but was determined to become a policeman. He’s worked his way up from walking a beat in the yards and courts off Briggate – still around 160 years after my earlier Leeds series – to plain clothes.
His partner is Detective Sergeant Billy Reed, a man who spent time in the West Yorkshire Regiment and was in Afghanistan during the Second Afghan War. The nightmares of those times still come to him, leaving him a troubled man who finds it safer not to grow attached to people.
As the book opens, Harper’s wedding to Annabelle Atkinson is just a few weeks away. She’s a new type of women, not so much ahead of her time, but in the vanguard. After growing up very poor in the Bank – the area of Leeds where most of the Irish settled – she became a servant at the Victoria pub in Sheepscar. The landlord, an older widower, fell for her and married her. When he died, she took over the business and made it more successful, then opened two bakeries to cater for the working men at the factories all around. She’s based, in part at least, on stories about a relative of mine who was the landlady at the Victoria (the pub is now gone, turned into an Indian community centre. I did have a drink there once, back in the ‘90s, and it seemed a wonderful place). So a fictionalised version of my own family’s tale is one thread in the tapestry.
The books are more political. The first one unfolds over the backdrop of the 1890 Leeds Gas Strike, one that the workers won (and it’s well worth reading about the strike).
I suppose that this series is part of my continuing love affair with Leeds. The place won’t let me go – possibly just as well as I’ll be moving back there within a month. It’s the start of something new, and it pulls at me just as hard as Richard Nottingham ever has.
The big test, of course, will to be see how all of you like it…
Last time I put up the beginning of a Victorian novel I’m working on. Here – hopefully for your pleasure – is a bit more. The last I’ll be putting online, because a) I’m still writing the book, and b) because I want some to publish it, which won’t happen if I give it all away here. So, please, let me know what you think:
In the end he was five minutes late, dashing along Boar Lane, past Holy Trinity Church to meet her in front of the Grand Pygmalion. Sergeant Tollman had wanted a quick word that stretched out to ten minutes, then a detective constable needed a piece of advice until he’d been forced to run the whole way.
“I’m sorry,” he said, gasping for breath. She stood with her back to one of the grand glass windows, the shade od a wide hat hiding her expression.
“I don’t know, it could mean the engagement’s off. I can’t have a man who’s never on time.” He looked up quickly. But Annabelle Atkinson was smiling, her eyes playful. “You’re going to have to do better than this, Tom Harper.”
“I…” he began, and she laughed.
“Oh give over, you daft ha’porth. It took me six months to get you to propose. I’m used to you being late, I’m not doing to drop you now.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “If you want to make yourself useful you can carry these.”
“Six packages?” Harper asked. “What have you been doing, buying half of Leeds?”
“Just things a girl needs when she’s going to be wed. I could have waited for you before I started shopping, if you’d rather.”
“No,” he replied hastily. “It’s fine.” He’d been in the Pygmalion when it opened. Four floors of draperies, parasols and sailor suits, and more assistants than he could shake a stick at. Nothing to interest him at all.
“Come on, then, we’d better get a move on. It’s Saturday and I said I’d help out tonight. We’ll be packed and I want a bite of something first.” She waited until he had all the packages and set off along the street, her arm through his.
He saw men glancing at her. She had that kind of face. Not beautiful, no Jenny Lind or Lily Langtry, but she possessed a quality that drew the eyes. The first time he’d seen her he’d been like that himself, staring for a second before turning away, then looking again and again until she’d stopped in front of him and boldly asked if he liked what he saw.
She’d been collecting glasses in the Victoria down in Sheepscar, an old apron covering her dress and her sleeves rolled up. At first 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’d still been 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 no ring. “He’s dead, love,” she explained. “Three year back. Left me this place.”
She’d started as a servant when she was fifteen, 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’d been eighteen, he was fifty. After eight years together, he’d 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 policeman by now I might as well give up the keys. You’re not in uniform. Off duty, are you?”
“I’m a detective. Inspector.”
“That’s posh. Got a name?”
“Tom. Tom Harper.”
He’d come back the next night, then the next, and soon they’d started walking out together. Shows at Swan’s and the Grand, walks up to Roundhay Park on a Sunday for the band concerts. Slowly, as the romance began to bloom, he’d learned more about her. She didn’t just own the pub, she also had a pair of bakeries, one just up Meanwood Road near the chemical works and the foundry, the other on Skinner Lane for the trade from the building yards. Now she employed people to do all the baking but in the early days she’d been up at four every morning to take care of everything herself.
“You’re off with the fairies again,” she said, nudging against him.
“You’re always thinking.” She smiled and shook her head. “Be careful, you’ll wear out your brain.”
They were strolling out along North Street, through the Leylands, the sun pleasant. Omnibuses passed them with the click of hooves and the rhythmic turn of the wheels, a few empty carts heading back to the stables, but the area was quiet. There’d be little noise before sunset, he thought. All the Jews would be at home for the Sabbath. He’d grown up less than a stone’s throw away, over on Noble Street, all sharp cobbles and grimy brick back-to-backs, like every other road he’d known; nothing noble about it at all. Back then there’d been no more than a handful of Jewish families around, curiosities all of them with strange names like Cohen and Zermansky. The woman all had dark, fearful eyes and the men wore their full beards long, coming out with torrents of words in a language he didn’t understand. Twenty years on and the Leylands was full of them, working every hour God sent, sewing clothes in their sweatshops. He’d be willing to bet there was more Yiddish spoken round here these days than English.
“What do you want to do tomorrow, Tom?” Annabelle asked.
He shrugged; he hadn’t even given the next day a thought, although it was the only one they could spend together.
“The Park?” he suggested.
“Aye, if it stays like this.”
“I’m off Monday, too. Until the evening.” He hesitated. “After that I might not be around for a few days.”
“You just look after yourself. I’m not dragging a corpse to the register office come August.”
“I’ll be fine, don’t you worry.”
“Anyone hurts you they’ll have to deal with me,” she warned and he believed her. If that didn’t make him safe, nothing would.
He was back in his lodgings by ten and in bed by half past. In the morning he’d write to his sisters and tell them he was getting married. Then there’d be the visits as they swooped in from Bramley, Otley and Chapel Allerton to inspect the bride. But he’d worry about that when it happened.
The banging woke him from a dream that vanished like smoke as he opened his eyes. He struggled into his dressing gown and opened the door. Mrs. Gibson, his landlady, wide-eyed and shocked at the disturbance, stood here, a policeman with a long face behind her.
“I let him in, Mr. Harper. He says he’s a policeman.”
“He is, Mrs, Gibson. Don’t worry.” What else would he be, Harper thought irritably, wandering round in uniform in the middle of the night?
She scurried away. He waited until he heard her door close and said,
“What is it?”
“You wanted to know about Col Parkinson, sir.”
“Has he tried to flit?”
“No,” the constable answered slowly. “He’s dead.”
I always said I’d never write anything set in Victorian times. More fool me; I should know better than to use the word never. But that was before I started reading more about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. It’s one of those rare occasions when the strikers prevailed and that alone is enough to make it inspirational. And then, long taken with a picture by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw, a story named Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw appeared from nowhere. I liked Annaballe; she installed herself in my head and wouldn’t go away. Then I began seeing a man running down Victorian Briggate, with its horse-drawn trams and Hansom cabs. And a new tale began nagging at me. This is the beginning of it – I’ve only completed 16,000 words so far, but all you’re getting is a snippet. What I’d like is your opinion, please…
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.
“Police!” he yelled. “Stop him!”
They didn’t, of course they didn’t, but at least they parted for him. At Duncan Street 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. Then the sole gripped again.
Harper ducked in front of a Hansom cab, steadying himself with a hand on the horse’s neck, feeling its breath hot against his ear 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 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 the 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 at him in astonishment. Then he was free again, rushing past the row of small shops and watching the man disappear round the corner onto Dock Street.
By the time he arrived the street was empty. He stood, panting heavily, unable to believe his eyes. The man had vanished. Nothing, not even the sound of footsteps. To his left, a cluster of warehouses ran down to the river. Across the road the chimneys of the paper mill belched its stink into the air. Where had the bugger gone?
He’d had been up at Hope Brothers, barely listening as the manager described a shoplifter, his mouth frowning prissily as he talked. Outside, the shop boy was lowering the awning against the May sun.
He scribbled a word or two in his notebook. It should be the beat copper doing this, he thought. He was a Detective Inspector; he should be doing something worthwhile. 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 and dashed out eagerly, the bell tinkling as he threw the door wide. Further up Briggate a man was gesturing 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. Where was the sod? He could be hiding just a few yards away or off beyond a wall and clear away in Hunslet by now. One thing was certain, he wasn’t going to find him. Harper straightened his jacket and turned around. What a bloody waste of a morning.
He paused on the bridge, lighting a Woodbine and looking down at the river. Barges stood three deep against the wharves, men moving quickly and surely along the gangplanks, their backs bent under heavy loads. It was a hard way to earn a day’s pay, but what wasn’t?
On either side of the Aire the factories were busy, smoke rising to cloud the sun. A trace of deep blue floated on the water from the indigo works upstream, bright against the dull grey. The bloated corpse of a dead dog sailed past it, carried by the current. He watched it until it passed from sight.
Briggate was busy with Saturday couples, in from the suburbs and parading in their best. The men were shaved so close their cheeks looked pink and prosperous, their wives showing off their bright summer dresses, freshly laundered by a servant at home in Headingley or Roundhay or wherever they lived.
He wasn’t in a mood to see any more smug faces. Instead he cut through Queen’s Court, where washing was strung out between the crumbling old houses to dry, hopeful of a glint of sunlight. A barefoot boy threw a ball against the wall, concentrating furiously on catching it. The ball slipped from his hand and rolled towards Harper. He picked it up and tossed it back, the boy grinning as he pulled it out of the air.
He cut through the ginnels, someone singing a song beyond a door, and came out by the Corn Exchange., strode quickly across the market with a wave and a wink to the girls working behind the stall at Mr. Marks’ Penny Bazaar and across to Millgarth police station.
“Had a productive morning, sir?” the desk sergeant smirked. For a moment he was tempted to reply, then shut his mouth. Whatever he said, George Tollman would have heard it scores of times before. The man had stood behind that counter since God was a lad. He’d been there twelve years earlier when Harper had nervously reported for his first day as a young constable and he’d likely remained until they carried him out in a coffin. Instead Harper just shook his head and pushed his way through to the office. He tossed his hat onto the desk and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes for a moment.
“One of those when you wonder why you even bother.”
He glanced up at the man leaning against the wall. Billy Reed had been promoted to Detective Sergeant six months before. In his early forties, he’d joined the force after ten years in the West Yorkshire Regiment. When he’d started out in plain clothes he still thought like a soldier, obeying every order without question or hesitation. Harper had pushed and prodded at him until he’d learnt to think for himself. The black dog still nudged the man at times, leaving him, his temper like quicksilver, but Reed seemed cheerier than he’d once been. He’d even gone out to Hepworth’s and bought a new suit to replace the old, fraying jacket and trousers he’d worn so often.
“Never mind,” Reed told him, “it’ll be busy soon enough now the gas workers are on strike.”
“They didn’t have much choice, did they?” Harper observed angrily. “The council sacked half the stokers at the gasworks and said they were going to pay the rest less and take one of their holidays. For God’s sake, Bill, how would you like that?”
“You’d better not say that when the chief’s; you’ll give him an apoplexy. By the way, one of the constables was in here earlier asking for you.”
That was interesting. Ash covered the beat that had once been his, the area between the Head Row and Boar Lane, west from Briggate over to Lands Lane. It was the old, poor yards and courts, the part of Leeds that had barely changed in a century or more, where folk counted themselves rich if they had threepence left come payday. It had been his for six years, until he’d become a detective. He’d known the faces there, the people, all the crime and the promises that end up as nothing. He’d carried men home to their wives on a Saturday night after they’d drunk away their money, tended wounds, and laid a sheet over the old who’d died of hunger.
Ash was still new, just a year as an officer, but he seemed conscientious enough. If he had something it might be worth hearing. He stood and picked up his hat.
“I’ll go and find him.”
Reed leaned close, his eyes twinkling. “I hear congratulations are in order, too.”
Harper laughed. There was never much chance of it remaining a secret for long.
He found Ash outside the Theatre Royal, gently moving on a match girl. Once he’d watched her go reluctantly down the street, the constable turned to him. He was tall, a good hand’s breath over six feet, the cap making him taller still. His uniform was crisp and pressed, buttons shining and pressed, just as the regulations ordered, hair gleaming with pomade, the moustache neatly clipped.
“You were looking for me?” Harper said.
“Yes, sir.” He glanced around. “Maybe we’d better walk a while. Just in case the sergeant comes around.” He led the way up the street before ducking into a court, his wide shoulders brushing against the sides of the opening. The few people outside their doors melted away at the sight of the police.
“What is it?” He was curious now, wondering why Ash needed to talk out of sight of prying eyes.
The man chewed his lip for a moment before answering, his face dark and serious in the shadow.
“It might be summat or nowt, really, but I thought I’d better pass it on. Do you remember Col Parkinson?”
Harper nodded. Parkinson had never done a day’s work more than he was forced to do, always some little scheme going on that usually paid out to nothing. A thin, ferrety face, most of his teeth gone, those left in shades of black and brown. His wife was almost as bad as him; the only good thing he could say about Betty Parkinson was that she doted on their daughter. Martha must be about eight now, he guessed. Soon enough she’d be done with school and out working if Col had anything to say about it.
“What’s he done now? It shouldn’t be anything you need me for.”
“It’s not him, sir.” Ash hesitated. “Well, not quite. It’s that little lass of his. She’s not been around for a week. He says she’s gone to stay with his sister in Halifax.”
“Does he have a sister there?” He couldn’t recall.
“The neighbours say that the first time he mentioned her is after the girl was gone.”
“What about Betty? What did she tell you?”
“She’s in Armley jail, sir. Three months for receiving. Not out until the end of July.”
Harper snorted. It was hardly a surprise. If one of them wasn’t in jail usually the other was. “You want me to talk to him?”
Ash nodded. “He’s sticking to his tale but there’s summat in there I just don’t believe. And I don’t want anything happening to Martha. She’s a grand little girl, always happy. You wouldn’t credit it with parents like hers. I just didn’t want everyone knowing.”
“I’ll go and have a word. Where does he drink these days?”
“At home with a jug unless he has a bob or two. That’s the other thing, sir. He seems to have a little money.”
Harper jerked his head up.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“I don’t know, sir.” Ash frowned. “I honestly don’t know.”
Around here he didn’t even need to think of the way. He’d walked it every day for so long that he knew every twist and turn, each ginnel and gap. At one time he’d could have said how many lived behind each door, what they did and whether he needed to watch them. Many would be strangers now but there would still be plenty of faces he’d recognise.
He slipped through to Fidelity Yard. The place was even worse than he remembered it, cobbles broken, half the flagstones pulled up, the windows of the cottages so grimy they could barely let through any light. A dog barked as he passed one of the houses. A sign in a window advertised Smiley’s Barber Shop, a dirty red and white pole hanging at an angle. But the chair inside was empty and the barber gone. He smiled. Johnny Smiley would be out at the Rose and Crown, supping what money he’d earned during the morning.
Harper stopped outside the black door, paint peeling away from the wood in long strips. This wasn’t a place where the houses needed numbers; no one back here received letters. He brought his fist down hard, knocking long and loud then rattling the door handle.
“You can stop now. He’s not there.”
The woman’s voice made him turn.
“You know where he is, Mrs.Dempsey?”
She blinked twice until she placed him, arms folded across her broad chest. Virginia Dempsey was sixteen stone if she weighed an ounce and not much more than five feet tall. If anything, she was bigger than ever.
“Well, if it in’t Mr. Harper. Looking reet flash these days, you are, Constable.”
“You’d better get it right, Ginny. It’s Inspector Harper now. And the suit’s one of Mr. Barran’s specials, five bob discount to a bobby. Nowt flash about it, love. Do you know where I can find Col?”
“Got business with him do you?” she asked suspiciously.
“What do you think? He’s not on my social list.”
“Happen you’ll find him at the Leopard Hotel. Spends a lot of time there these last few days, what with his missus in Armley and Martha up in Halifax.”
“Halifax?” he asked as if he’d heard nothing about it. “What’s she doing up there?”
“Gone to stay with his sister.”
“I didn’t even know Col had a sister.”
“Oh aye.” She lowered her voice. “That’s what he says, leastways. I’ve never seen her meself.”
“Martha was just a nipper when I saw her last.”
“I bet she’d still know you, Mr. Harper. Dun’t forget anything, that lass. Sharp as owt and twice as bright. Betty even had a picture took of her when they were flush. Up on their wall, it is.”
He nodded slowly.
“Up at the Leopard, you said?”
“Reet enough.” Her laugh came out like a cackle. “Don’t know who he’s been robbing but he’s not been short lately. But mebbe you’d know more about that.”
“Aye, maybe I would, Ginny.” Let her think that for now. If he needed more he could always come back.
Hotel was a grand word for it. He wouldn’t have stayed there for love nor money. He passed by the archway leading through to the cobbled yard and pushed open the door to the saloon bar. The wood was ancient and dark, the white ceiling long stained shades of brown and yellow by smoke.
A few men were drinking, sitting at tables in the cramped room, some glancing up as he entered. They all had beaten-down faces, the tired look of the weary and the worn. Harper spotted Parkinson in the corner, his head drooping, an empty glass of gin in front of him.
He sat down noisily, dragging the chair over the flagstone floor. Parkinson raised his eyes, squinting at him questioningly.
“I know you, don’t I?” His gaze was blurry, the words faintly slurred. Not drunk yet, Harper decided, but he’d taken the first few steps on the road. The man would still be able to think. And lie.
“Aye, you do, Col.” He knew the man was barely older than him but he already looked old and faded, cheeks sunk where so many teeth had been pulled, the hair thinned away to nothing on his scalp. “It’s Inspector Harper. Constable Harper as was.”
Parkinson nodded his slow understanding as Harper stared around the bar, not surprised to see it had quietly emptied. It always happened. Some of those would have known him, the rest would have smelled him for a rozzer.
“You been staying out of trouble?” he asked.
“Course I have,” the man answered.
“I hear your Betty’s in Armley again. What do they do, keep a cell for her up there?”
“Not her fault,” Parkinson told him. The Inspector almost chuckled. If he had a penny for everyone time someone had said that, he’d be a rich man. It was never their fault.
“And how’s Martha? She was no more than a bairn when I saw her last.”
“A good lass,” Col said, nodding his head for emphasis. “A very good lass.” He patted the pockets of his tattered old jacket. “Do you have a cigarette?”
Harper pulled out the packet of Woodbines. Parkinson’s gaze slowly followed his movements. He handed one to the man and lit it.
“Martha,” he prompted.
“She’s with me sister.”
“I didn’t know you had one, Col. I never heard you talk about her.”
“Oh aye? How long’s Martha up there for?”
“Till…” He hesitated. “Till my Betty’s out. Better that way.”
She should have been at school but he doubted Parkinson would worry about something like that.
“Better for you, you mean. If she’s not here you don’t have to look after her. So what’s your sister’s name, Col?” Harper asked idly.
For a few seconds Harper didn’t answer.
“Sarah,” he said finally. “She’s married, got little ‘uns of her own, too.” He took a deep draw on the cigarette.
“Where does she live in Halifax, then?”
“I don’t remember”
“You don’t, Col? Your own kin? You sent Martha up there and don’t even know where she’s going?”
“I put her on the train. Sarah was meeting her at the station.”
“How would she know what train? Good at guessing is she, this sister of yours?”
“I sent her a letter.”
“Come on, Col. You can’t write and you don’t know where she lives. How are you going to send her a letter?”
“I had her address at home, on a piece of paper up on the mantel. And my Martha writes a reet good hand. I had her do it.”
“How long’s she been gone?”
“A week.” Parkinson shrugged. “Day or two longe, mebbe. I don’t know.” He started to rise. “I need to be going.”
Harper clamped his had tight around the man’s wrist.
“Not yet, Col,” he said quietly. “Not when we’re having a good little natter.”
Parkinson sat down again, shoulders slumping.
“What Betty think about all this?”
“I’ve not told her yet. I will.”
Ash had been right, Harper thought. There was something going on here.
“I think you’d best give me your sister’s address. Just so I can get in touch and make sure everything’s all right.”
Parkinson shook his head. “In’t got it, do I? I threw it out after we’d sent the letter. Don’t need bits of paper cluttering up the place.” Harper kept hold of the man’s arm, fingers digging hard into the flesh. Parkinson’s eyes were starting to water, his look almost pleading.
“I’m off to Armley on Monday to see Betty, so you’d better be telling me the truth.” He squeezed a little harder, feeling the man flinch. “You understand?”
“Yes.” He let go. Parkinson cradled his wrist, rubbing it lightly, his look a mix of wounded pride and anger.
“You’ve got money for a drink, too,” Harper noted. “That’s not like you.”
“I won it. A bet on the rugby.”
“Frist time for everything, eh, Col?” He waited a heartbeat. “If you have something to tell me, find me at the station.” Harper stood slowly then bent down, his mouth close to the man’s ear. “I hope you haven’t been lying to me, Col. If anything’s happened to Martha I’ll make you wish you were dead.”
Parkinson was hiding something, that was obvious. But as he strolled back to Millgarth in the sunshine he couldn’t imagine what. He could see Col sending the girl somewhere so he didn’t have to look after her, but the tale of a sister was all lies. The big question was why; what was he hiding?
As soon as he entered the station he could hear the buzz of talk all around and the dark undercurrent of complaints. Something had happened. In the office he looked at Reed.
“The Superintendent wants you,” he said, glancing up from a report.
“What is it?”
“All leave cancelled from Monday.”
“What else would it be?”
He knocked on the door and Superintendent Kendall waved him in.
“Sit down, Tom,” he said. Kendall was in his fifties, grey hair cut short. When Harper became a detective Kendall was already an inspector; he’d the young man in hand and passed on what he’d learnt. Now he was in charge of A Division, a solid policeman, utterly honest and loyal to the force. The only thing he lacked was imagination. “When did you get back?”
“About two minutes ago.”
“Long enough to have heard, I suppose.” He picked his pipe out of the ashtray, tamped down the tobacco with a nicotine-stained fingertip and struck a match. “There was trouble at the Wortley works last night.”
“Nothing bad. Not yet, anyway. That’s going to start on Monday. They’re bringing in the replacement workers then.”
“The blacklegs, you mean, sir,” Harper said coldly.
Kendall ignored the words. “It’s our job to keep everyone safe. We’re not playing at politics with this, Tom. All we’re going to make sure no one breaks the law.”
“And if they do?”
“We arrest them. Whoever they are.”
“The train with the replacements is coming on Monday night. And I expect you to keep that quiet,” Kendall said pointedly. “They’re bringing them into the Midland goods station so they can just march the men over to the Meadow Lane works.”
It made sense, he thought. The gasworks was just across the road, no more than a hundred yards away.
“What do you want me to do, sir?”
“I want you down there when they arrive.”
“In uniform?” He hoped not; he’d been grateful to leave the blue suit behind. He had no wish to wear it again.
Kendall shook his head.
“You and Reed will stay in plain clothes. There’ll be a crowd wait. Bound to be. Mingle with them. You know what to do if there’s a problem.”
The Superintendent sighed.
“It’s going to be an ugly business, Tom. Probably violent.”
“Probably?” He could feel himself start to bristle.“It’s certain to be. The gas committee’s getting rid of men just to save a few pennies. Of course they’re angry.”
“I know where your sympathies lie,” Kendall said. “You’ve never made a secret of them. But I’m relying on you to do your job properly.”
“I will, sir.”
“After Monday night you’ll be on duty until all this is over. I’ll have some camp beds set up.” He hesitated. “You’ve been a bit of a dark horse.”
“A little bid tells me you’re engaged.”
Harper smiled. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about Annabelle during the day; he’d wanted to concentrate on the job.
“I proposed last night.”
“Well, you’d best tell her she won’t be seeing you for a few days.” Kendall’s face relaxed into a smile. “Getting married might be the best thing to happen to you, Tom. It steadies a man. I’ve been married almost thirty years now and I’ve never regretted a day.” He grinned. “Well, not many of them, anyway.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Are you working on anything special at the moment?”
Harper thought about Martha Parkinson.
“Something odd. I’m not sure what it is yet.”
“You’ll need to put it aside until all this is over.”
“No need to report before Monday evening. I won’t need you before then.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Back in the office he pulled the watch from his waistcoat pocket. Half past four. Plenty of time yet. Reed had gone, his desk neat, the small piles of paper carefully squared off, the pens lined up. That’s what happens when you hire a military man, he thought. Everything in order.
He looked over at his own desk. Documents everywhere, scrawled notes, a nib that had dripped ink on some paper. But then he’d never had army discipline. He’d left school at nine to work at Brunswick’s brewery. Twelve hours a day of rolling barrels around had given him muscle, and he’d spent his free hours reading, borrowing everything he could from the library. Novels, politics, history, he’d roared through them all. He’d laboured at his writing until he had a fair, legible hand. Then, the day he turned nineteen, he’d applied to join the force, certain they wouldn’t turn him down.
He found Ash in the changing room, sitting on a bench, painstakingly updating his notebook.
“You were right about Col. Something’s going on there.”
“Any idea what it is, sir?”
“Not yet,” Harper said with a quick shake of his head. “But I want people keeping an eye on him in case he tries to do a flit.”
“And if he does?”
“Bring him in.”
The constable nodded, then said,
“Sounds like this strike’s going to keep us busy for a few days.”
“Aye. Just make sure you don’t end up with your head broken.”
Ash laughed. “Cast iron skull, that’s what me ma always says. More likely they’ll be the ones who are hurting.”