A Little Of The Blood Covenant

Hard to believe that time barrels along so fast, and that The Blood Covenant will be out in just a few weeks, on the 30th of December. If you order it for Christmas, though, there’s a very fair chance it will arrive in time (just a hint and a nudge).

It’s a very angry book, about finding justice for those who’ve been abused. Those who don’t have the power to fright for themselves. For Simon Westow, it’s more than it job, it becomes something very person, and very, very dark. But not only him. Jane, too, is going to have to face demons she thought long since vanished.

Here’s an abridged extract from near the opening. A way to whet your appetite and have you clicking online to order, I hope. Remember, please, every time you buy from an independent bookshop, all the angels cheer. The cheapest price, with free postage, is here.

‘You testified to the commission that was in town three years ago, didn’t you?’ Dr Hey asked

            ‘Yes,’ Simon answered.

Oh, he’d talked to them. Men sent from London, part of an investigation around the country into child labour and abuse. Simon knew all about that; he still carried the scars on his body. As he spoke, seeing them sitting safe behind their polished table, he relived all the punishments and torture he received as a boy, at the mill, as an inmate of the workhouse. Year after year of it, from the time he was four until he turned thirteen, when he could take no more and walked away, knowing that even death would be better. Just the memory made the skin of his hands turn clammy and his heart beat faster. He’d talked. But he didn’t believe they’d ever really listened.

‘What made you think about that?’ Simon asked

            ‘A pair of deaths I had to examine recently.’ Hey pulled some papers from the inside pocket of his coat. ‘I made a few notes I wanted you to see. Read them and come to see me when you have chance.’

            Back in the old stone house on Swinegate, Simon read as he ate supper, then spent the evening quietly brooding. For once he scarcely paid attention to Richard and Amos, the twins. Little else existed beyond the thoughts in his head.

            ‘What is it?’ Rosie asked after she’d put the boys to bed.

            ‘No need to worry. It’s nothing like that.’ Simon took a deep breath and told her. ‘He made a copy of what he’d written when he saw the children’s bodies. The older boy was ten. He’d lost two fingers on his left hand when he was younger. His body was covered in bruises, it looked like he’d been beaten with a stick or a strap. It was much the same with the younger one. He was just eight.’

            ‘Who did it?’ Rosie asked. Her fists were bunched, fingernails digging into her palms.

            ‘A mill overseer,’ he replied.

            ‘Which mill?’

            Simon shook his head. ‘He didn’t put that in there.’

Now he was out here, walking as he tried to stay ahead of his memories and pain.

The sky had cleared. It was colder now; his breath bloomed in front of his face. The remnants of rain dripped slowly from gutters. The stink of the manufactories had returned to fill the air.

Simon walked.

Damn Hey. He’d released the past from its cage. Now it was out here, hounding him, snapping and snarling at his heels. All these years and still it wouldn’t leave him. But better for Simon to be doing something than be restless and wakeful at home.

            He’d gone from Sheepscar across to Holbeck, along the river all the way to the ferry landing as he tried to exhaust his mind. He’d sensed Leeds grow silent around him as people gave up on the last dregs of night. He was tired, his legs ached and his feet were sore. But he knew he’d be out here for a long time yet. Bloody Hey.

Simon made his way past the warehouses on the Calls. Bone-weary, needing to sleep. But the images, the history, the pain kept raging through his head. He was just a few yards from the river, able to hear the water lapping and smell the low, thin perfume of decay.

A sound cut through, the creak of oars in their rowlocks. Late to be out, he thought. Maybe someone was stealing from the barges moored at the wharves. Never mind, he decided; it wasn’t his business. Not until someone paid him to retrieve what might be taken.

            ‘Grab him under the arms. Get him out of there.’

            The night watch, taking care of some drunk who’d fallen in the river. It happened at least once a month. A man would grow fuddled, lose his way and walk into the water. Some jumped, dragged down by despair. A very few were lucky; they were pulled out and survived. Most drowned, found bobbing downstream when morning came.

            ‘He weighs a bloody ton.’

            ‘You don’t need to be gentle, he’s already dead. Just grab him. Oh Christ, his throat’s been cut. The constable’s going to want to see this one.’

            Simon felt a chill rise through his body, colder than the night. The men were on Pitfall, only a few yards downriver from Leeds Bridge. Two of them, standing and stretching their backs. Between them, lying on the stones, a shape that had once been a man. Simon could make out the jacket and the trousers, soaked and stained by the water. The men from the watch turned at his footsteps, surprised to see another living soul out at this hour.

            ‘Can I see him?’

            One of the men shook his head. ‘You don’t want to do that,’ he said. ‘The dead are never pretty, mister.’

            ‘I know,’ Simon told him. ‘I’ve seen my share.’

            A short silence. In the glow from a pair of lanterns, he caught the two men glancing at each other. A penny for each of them helped make up their minds.

            The light caught the corpse’s face. Simon knelt, brushing away some dirt and a piece of cloth that was caught in man’s hair. He lifted the chin. A straight, deep gash across the neck. Clean and quick. But definitely no accident. Murdered and tossed into the river. He hadn’t been dead long, either; it couldn’t be more than an hour or two. Nothing had nibbled at his eyes yet, the flesh still intact and fresh.

            He didn’t recognize the face.

            One of the men coughed.

            ‘There’s something else, sir.’ He raised the lantern. ‘You see? Down there.’

            The right hand was missing. Severed at the wrist. It looked like a single, swift blow had gone through the bone. For the love of God. Before or after he was dead?

            ‘The constable will be wondering who you are, sir. He’s going to want to know about someone asking to see the body.’

            ‘Tell him it’s Simon Westow. The thief-taker. He knows me.’

One I Made Earlier, But You Haven’t Seen Yet

Time seems to be zipping by. I suppose it always does, but the second half of 2021 seems to be flying by. Brass Lives came out in June, and it’s already time to look ahead. It’s actually not that long since I write this – well, not to me, at least. The fourth Simon Westow novel, The Blood Covenant.

This is the book I started to write before the first lockdown knocked the world off-kilter, and there was no place for anger for a while; only sorrow and compassion, with a very large dose of fear. That resulted in me writing a very different books, which will appear next year.

Then the details about the mismanagement of Covid started to appear, the number of lives that might have been saved, the friends who benefited from a lack of oversight of all manner of things. The anger roared back. I picked up this book again. It’s not the same piece I started. The fury is stronger. It’s a very personal book, for Simon (it takes him back to the abuse he faced in his young days), for Jane, and for me. No regrets about that.

The Blood Covenant is published in hardback in the UK just after Christmas and you can pre-order it now. The ebook will appear worldwide on Febraury 1, 2022, abnd the hardback in other parts of the world in March. The best price I’ve seen is here.

Yes, it’s filled with anger – reading it again, it burns off the page. But there is still some tenderness in there, and some justice. It’s brutal at times, but no apology for that. Here’s what it’s about:

Leeds. November, 1823. When a doctor from the infirmary tells thief-taker Simon Westow about the brutal deaths of two young boys at the hands of a mill overseer, Simon’s painful memories of his childhood reawaken. Unable to sleep, he goes for a walk – and stumbles upon the body of a young man being pulled from the river.

Simon and his assistant, Jane, are drawn into investigating the deaths, seeking a measure of justice for the powerless dead. But the pursuit of the truth takes them on a dangerous and deadly path. Can they overcome a powerful enemy who knows he stands above the law in Leeds – and the shadowy figure that stands behind him?

I think this is one of the very best things I’ve written. The heat is there in every word. It’s not genteel. It’s hardcore. It’s Leeds. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe I am. I hope you’ll give it a read and find out.

A Leeds Storytime

It’s been a long time since I wrote a #leedsstorytime on Twitter. Taking a folk tale and re-telling it, maybe embellishing it a little. Because if the stories from the tradition aren’t told, they wither.

There was a place called Jenny White’s Hole in Leeds. It was a set of stairs between two houses on the Calls, leading directly down into the River Aire. No one seems to know about Jenny herself. This is my take on how it got its name.

Jenny White was a pretty Leeds lass, courted by all the lads. She worked as a mill hand and took her fun in the evenings. It was a time of factories and smoke, the bitter taste of soot in the air. But Jenny was young, she loved life. People danced to fiddlers and sang the songs they’d known all their lives. It was a hard life, but there was sun in it, too.
The lads threw their caps at Jenny. They all wanted her. But she only had eyes for Joshua, a handsome lad with cruel eyes. He paid her no mind, though. He could have any girl he desired, and his father was a mill foreman, with power and prestige. But his friends told him to court her. She was a right bobby dazzler, she’d make a good wife. So he looked. She was pretty.
More than that, she was willing. Where lads usually did her bidding, she was willing to make all the time she had for him. Joshua, though, saw her weakness. She loved him with all her heart, but he treated her cruelly. He wouldn’t turn up when he promised, just leave her standing for hours, lonely and heartbroken. Even when they were together, he’d hardly give her attention. Unless they were alone. In those moments she felt happy.
So she was overjoyed when Joshua suggested they wed. He might not be perfect, but he’d be hers forever. Yet she quickly learned that married life with Joshua was worse than courting him. Much worse.
He’d stay out in the beershops until all hours, coming home drunk and taking out his anger on her. After a year of this, Jenny White understood the gap between the hope of her heart and her life. He wasn’t going to change, for her or for anyone. She had nothing and no one; her parents had died.
With each day the feelings grew worse. And there was no way out, no escape. To a friend she bemoaned “the marriage vows as false as dicer’s oaths.” One night Joshua didn’t come home at all. Part of her hoped he might have died, to free her. But someone told her he’d left the inn with a young, pretty girl.
Despondent, Jenny began to walk. Her route took her along the Calls, a street of low, dark houses, poor and dismal. Between two houses stood a set of steps, leading down into the chilly, damp blackness. Jenny followed them. And as she placed one foot in front of another, her spirit began to lighten, as if she might fly away. Down she went, as the water of the river lapped around her feet. Down until it reached her knees.
Someone saw her disappear down the stairs and ran, looking to stop her. But when he looked, there was no Jenny in the water. She’d moved out of sight and out of this world. No body was ever found, although people searched.
Some said she’d drowned. Others believed she’d drifted until she found a place where lovers spoke truly. Where hearts were safe and words were bonds. Perhaps she’d slipped through to somewhere she could smile and laugh again. But it seemed as if she gone through a hole in the world. Which is why that spot became known as Jenny White’s Hole.

Leeds History – The Ice Fair

After Beyond Guardian Leeds shut up shop last month, I promised I’d keep going with a little Leeds history. Being a man of my word, here’s January’s edition.

We’ve been lucky in our winters lately. Some snow and cold last winter, but nothing like those during history. And if your parents or grandparents have ever said how bad 1963 or 1947 was, even they don’t know how bad winter can be.

The tail end of the 17th century was a little ice age in Britain. The winters were truly brutal and cold. In Leeds, the winter of 1683/84 was the real one for the record books. It was the year the River Aire froze.

It didn’t simply freeze, the ice was thick enough and lasted long enough to hold an ice fair on it. Stalls, markets, hot foods – and probably hot mulled wine – were erected on the ice, and most of the population, which would have been around 3,000, came to enjoy themselves. In all likelihood the Town Waits or musicians would have played at times and dignitaries been on show.

There was no river trade at this time. It was truly impassable, so the vessels that would have moved goods all the wall to Hull couldn’t penetrate. It’s almost certain that the cloth market would have been suspended, as the weavers would have found the roads impassable from their outlying villages. Grand and interesting it might have been, but it also meant that Leeds ground to a halt.

How far did the ice extend? We’ll never know for sure, but Leeds historian Ralph Thoresby recounted that he and a friend strode on to the ice at the mills below the Parish Church at the bottom of Kirkgate, then walked along the ice under Leeds Bridge and all the way to the Upper Dam, which is more or less where the railway station is today.

While ice fairs became almost annual events for a few years down in London as the Thames froze in this period, this is the only year Leeds was ever hit so hard. So, no matter what January or February do, just remember that it could be a great deal worse.