The Ten Year Project

 

It’s hard to believe, but next Spring it’ll be 10 years since my first book set in Leeds was published – The Broken Token, in case you’re curious. There will be a new Tom Harper novel appearing then, the eighth in the series, which will mean I’ve published a total of  22 novels and a collection of short stories set in Leeds in the last decade.

That’s not counting a couple of plays and involvement in the exhibition The Vote Before The Vote, where Annabelle Harper stepped into Leeds history.

annabellecard 200_2

Phew.

I’m going to celebrate it. 10 years is worth celebrating. It took a while to figure out how, though…

It has to be stories. After all, I’m a writer. So from November to next March I will have a short story with one of my Leeds characters each month. I’ll be starting with Dan Markham, taking him into the very beginning of the 1960s, then working my way back through time – Urban Raven, Lottie Armstrong, Tom Harper, Simon Westow, and finishing, quite rightly, with Richard Nottingham.

It’s going to be a challenge. I need to try and capture the essence of each of them, and in some cases it’s been a few years since we met. But I never like to make it easy for myself. I’ve even come up with a logo for everything 10th, just to warn you.

10 years

The Dan Markham story will appear in early November. I hope you’ll like in. In the meantime, you could read the new Simon Westow book, The Hocus Girl. It’s out in the UK in hardback now, and it’ll be available everywhere as an ebook from November 1.

Hocus Girl final

A Very Short Story

He could hear the tinny noise drifting down from upstairs. The theme music for that pop shown on the Light Programme. Easy Beat. Groups and noise. He’d told his son that was could listen to it, as long as he stayed in his bedroom and kept the sound low on the transistor radio.

It was a sunny morning, late spring. He’d been up since seven, his wife -always his wife, never the wife – cooking breakfast, then off to Roundhay Park to let the dog run off the lead. Up at the small lake, the model boat people were sailing their craft. All remote control and God only knew what, like a bunch of big, eager boys.

He’d read his way through the Sunday Express, not that was much in it these days. No news, just scandal and rubbish, anything to sell papers. The sun came through the window, falling over his shoulder as he read.

Twenty years since the war ended, long enough for a bald patch to appear on the top of his head. He could feel it now, warmed, making him feel old.

In the kitchen he filled the kettle, then poured the boiling water into the metal bucket, topping it with cold and a sachet of proper car shampoo. The other stuff ruined the paint, everyone knew that. Sponge, chamois leather.

The Wolseley was parked in the drive. Seven hundred pounds it had cost him, a year old, but worth every penny. Leather seats, walnut dashboard, it felt like driving a Jaguar and it purred along the Great North Road.

His wife had complained, of course, the same way she had when he came home with the Tudor watch. They couldn’t afford it, she insisted, never mind that he told he that business was good. He never stinted her on the housekeeping, she didn’t have to worry about a thing. Neither did their son, he’d taken him out and bought him a Scalextric set yesterday, for God’s sake. They had money.

He was a manufacturer’s rep. Knitwear from Hong Kong. Cheap but well-made. That was what it said on the business cards, and he was gone four days a week through the north east. Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Newcastle. Sometimes all the way over the other side to Carlisle. The Wolseley had a big boot for samples and made all the hours of driving a joy. It was an investment, like buying good tools. That was how he explained it.

On Sunday he washed the car. Presentation was part of selling. He always looked good, wearing a suit and tie, well turned-out. The army had drilled that into him. His kit laid out exactly, everything, perfect, clean, Blancoed to high heaven. He’d enjoyed soldiering, it made sense to him. But he’d learned so much during the war. In the Commandos he’d picked up the skill of killing quietly, moving stealthily, never letting death bother him.

He soaped up the coachwork and the windows, seeing them sparkle in the light, bubbles forming and popping. He paid attention to the arches and the wheels, sponge and brush. Then bucket after bucket of cold water before using the leather to dry it all off and leaving it clean and shiny.

Ready to head up north again tomorrow.

But first he’d be out this evening. A small job. He’d started doing them just after he was demobbed. It began as a favour for a friend who was pressed, then word spread discreetly. Now, two or three times a year the telephone would ring. He went all over the North and the Midlands. It kept him sharp, used the skills he’d been given. And it paid well. It bought the car, the watch, the transistor radio he could hear blaring upstairs.

After all, the money had to come from somewhere.

Waving Goodbye – A New Story

It’s been quite a while since I wrote a new short piece of fiction. Especially one set in the present day. And this one…well, the streets that are named are in Leeds, but it’s not exactly a Leeds story; it could be anywhere. There’s a crime, but it’s old, and…well, see for yourself…

 

 

He was always ahead of her. It didn’t matter what time she left in the morning to go to school, he’d be there. Sometimes it was just twenty yards, so she could make out the shape of the blazer tight against his shoulder blades and the hands jammed in the pocket of his blazer, the headphones of his Walkman clamped over his curly hair. Other times he’d already be a hundred yards away, moving at his steady pace, hardly more than an idea in the distance.

She knew his name – Charlie Pearce. He lived two streets away in a semi-detached house with brown paint and a neat garden; Kate passed it every time she went to the shops and always glanced in, hoping for a quick glimpse of him at home. But all she ever saw through the windows was a front room with floral wallpaper, a curio cabinet and a polished walnut sideboard.

He was fourteen, a year older than her, another planet. She was skinny, blonde, almost hidden inside her uniform. Unnoticed. Just a girl with her satchel and her dreams.

And every morning he was there, in front of her.

Until one day he wasn’t.

 

How often had she walked along here in the last ten years? Fifty times? It had started when she became a detective constable and even with greater promotion, the compulsion remained. Detective Inspector and she still drove over, parked the car, and followed the route, imagining him there, walking while she trailed behind.

Some things she could never let go. Some strands of the past clung tight.

 

They found him within twelve hours, his body in the small tunnel that went under the road. Thirty years ago and they’d still never caught anyone for his murder. Never had a sniff of a suspect, by all accounts.

It had been all over the papers back then, on Look North, BBC News, everywhere, about the boy brutally killed in Gledhow Valley Woods. For the rest of the school year her father had driven her to school every morning. Teachers patrolled on the way home. And finally it had faded to nothing. People stopped caring. It became history and they forgot. Charlie Pearce was dead – who was he, anyway? His parents moved quietly away. Someone else bought the house and painted all the woodwork dark green.

Time passed.

Kate Thornton couldn’t forget. Every morning the boy walked ahead of her.

 

She’d warned her Chief Superintendent the operation didn’t have a chance of success. She had enough time in Major Crimes to have a feel for things. Longer than him. But time after time he refused to listen; all he saw was glory ahead, taking down a gang bringing in cheap cigs, booze, and sex workers from Eastern Europe.

‘Come on, guv. They’ve already changed their plan twice,’ she told him one morning. ‘They know something’s going on.’

‘Don’t worry. It’ll be fine,’ he said. That look of contempt. She was a woman, she couldn’t understand anything like this. ‘We’ll have them. Just you wait and see.’

Yeah, right.

She waited, forced to sit and watch as it all turn to shit. Exactly as she said. Once it was over the accusations and recriminations began. The Chief Super retired two days before the investigation began, pension intact, no charges, no questions to answer. She didn’t have that luxury. Only twenty-one years on the job. At least they didn’t bounce her off the force. Small mercies, Kaye thought angrily. Small bloody mercies. It might have been better if they had. Instead they sent her to the Grave.

The Cold Case Unit, the place where they’d bury her career.

Inspector Kate Thornton knew she’d arrived with an attitude, a chip the size of the world on her shoulder. But she’d still turned up in a smart business suit, hair and makeup just so and a smile on her lips, even if it couldn’t reach her eyes. The bastards wouldn’t grind her down.

After a day she was willing to concede she had a good crew. The DS, Tommy Hallam, was capable, happy working here, and pair of detective constables, Shaw and Wilcross, were more than time servers. Shaw was young, constantly trying to prove himself and be transferred to something with more action. Wilcross was a woman in her fifties, full of experience, although the fire had gone from her heart. But knowledge was sometimes better than passion.

‘Right,’ Kate said, after Hallam had shown her around the office. ‘Where do I begin? What are we working on?’

‘Couple of things on the go, guv,’ he told her. She could see the wariness in his eyes, not sure what to make of her yet. He’d have heard – God, everyone would have heard what happened – and he’d keep his distance for now, wondering just how toxic she might be. ‘I gave Shaw the one where there’s a good chance of a result.’ He gave a quick grin. ‘Give the lad some encouragement. Wilcross has the other, but it doesn’t look as if it’s panning out.’

‘Only two cases?’ she asked, hardly believing it. In Major Crimes they were always hard pressed to juggle everything.

‘The boss used to pick them and dole them out.’ Hallam shrugged. ‘But he’s been gone for a month now. That’s going to be your job.’

‘I see.’ DI Turnbull, the man who’d had this post before her, had suffered a stroke. Collapsed in the corridor on his way to a meeting. If he ever returned, it wouldn’t be for a long time. It looked as if it was all up to her. ‘What are the criteria?’

‘Sometimes other departments send us cases where new evidence has come up. Other than that, it’s pretty much your choice.’

‘Is that right?’ For the first time, the new post caught her interest.

 

‘Is that the complete file?’

Three arch folders, all of them full to overflowing with papers and reports.

‘Every scrap.’ Sheila Wilcross pushed the glasses back up her nose. ‘I remember when that happened.’

‘So do I,’ Kate said bleakly, staring at the pile in front on her. She put on her glasses. Right, Charlie Pearce, she thought, you and I are finally going to get acquainted.

It took three days to go through everything, reading at work, then taking more of it home to fill the evenings, sorting papers on the dining table while Martin complained about having to eat dinner on his lap.

‘Work,’ she said, standing in the doorway of the kitchen with her hands of her hips. Combative, defiant. ‘If bastards are going to shove me in Cold Cases, I’m going to make a bloody success of it.’ No mention of what made this case so special. He looked into her face for a moment, smiled and kissed her. Thank God for men like that. At least he was on her side.

Back when it all happened she’d tried to follow everything on television and in the papers. Quietly, secretly, so it wouldn’t disturb her parents. But the things that had been reported weren’t even been the tip of the iceberg. Now she understood. It had been a huge investigation, one that lasted the best part of a year before they admitted defeat. Hundreds of statements, most of them a waste of time and paper, not even a germ of relevance to the murder. Charlie’s teachers, his classmates, his friends. She read every single one of them.

By the time she finished he was less of a mystery. More than the figure always walking ahead of her. She knew he was good at geography and English, lazy at French and maths, hated PE and games. That he’d taken piano lessons for a couple of years when he was young, before the family had moved from Sheffield to Leeds, and he was saving up to buy a Casio synthesiser and start a band.

There were photos of him, dozens of them: alive, happy, relaxed, one blown up from the class picture, wearing his blazer and school tie, looking as if he’d vainly tried to tame the curly hair for the photographer. She took her time over each one, letting the knowledge and the images sink in. But she wasn’t thirteen any more. She looked at them with a copper’s eye.

There were even more photographs of the crime scene, the body in the tunnel under Gledhow Lane. Distance and close-ups, horrific and blinding. They needed to be stark. They had to show it all, the violence, the injuries. Then she looked at the pathologist’s report, all the details of the post-mortem. All the dreams and hopes Charlie had once cherished were stripped away by death, nothing left but facts. It had been brutal, far more than the press could ever report. She’d seen enough terrible deaths in her time on the force, from traffic accidents to murder, and this was up there with the worst. Jesus. If there’d been even a hint of all this when she was young, her nightmares would have never ended. She looked at the photographs again. Poor Charlie, poor sweet, silent Charlie.

 

The next morning she parked the car on the street where she’d been raised. Thirty years on, the population must have changed completely. The houses all had new windows, a few had added loft extensions, peeking out over the roofs like large eyes. So familiar but oh so different. As she walked past the place she’d once lived, Kate couldn’t resist a glance. Vases in the front window, deep red curtains pulled back, the room in shadow. But after a moment she wasn’t looking the present any longer;. Instead, she saw the past. The frosted glass door between the lounge and dining room that always crept open no matter how often it was pulled closed. The little ridge of carpet up on the landing her father promised to fix but never did. The view from her bedroom down into the neighbour’s back garden.

A second and they’d all vanished again. She was marching along, looking around. Even though every paving stone felt familiar under her feet, this time she was thinking hard as she moved.

Charlie would have come along here, the way he always did. His parents said he’d gone early that morning, rushing through breakfast and out of the house. He hadn’t given a reason and they hadn’t pushed it; there hadn’t seemed to be any need.

Kate pictured him ambling along, the fists in his pockets, headphones filling his head with sound, oblivious to the world. With music playing he’d never have heard someone coming up behind him.

For about a hundred yards the pavement was out of sight of any buildings. Simply woods, trees, hedges, the stream just down a steep bank. It was exactly the same as it had been then. No new blocks of flats, no houses. Once he was down in the stream he’d have been hidden from sight.

And on that morning she hadn’t been there, behind him. If she had, he might have been safe. He might still have been alive today.

They’d never found the Walkman or the headphones. There’d been a plastic cassette case in the breast pocket of his blazer. Def Leppard, Pyromania. They police has put notices all along the road, asking drivers if they’d seen anything that morning. They’d never had a single response that proved helpful.

So far she had nothing to add to the initial investigation. That was fine; early days yet, she’d barely begun. Kate hasn’t expected a sudden breakthrough. Anyway, as Tommy Hallam told her on that first day in the office, with cold cases there was never a rush.

 

The detective who led the investigation was long since dead. So was his deputy. Glenn Harris had been a DS then, one of the team that found Charlie’s corpse, and he was still alive, living quietly in a small bungalow close to Moor Allerton golf course. A bag of clubs, woollen covers over the heads of the drivers, sat in the hall. But he didn’t look like a man who could play much these days. His body seemed withered, as if it was slowly withdrawing into itself; few traces of the vibrant man he’d been in 1985 remained. Thin hair was combed hopefully across a pink scalp. Liver spots were splayed like large dots across the back of his hands. Yet his eyes were had a light in them and his memory was lively, sharp and full of detail.

‘Can’t forget it,’ he told her. ‘God knows there were times I wanted to, back when every day was full of it.’ He exhaled slowly, letting it all go again. ‘So what made them pull it out again after all this time?’

‘I was the one who did it,’ Kate answered. ‘My choice.’

That seemed to pique his curiosity. He stared at her, squinting his eyes as if he was trying to see something that was no longer there.

‘Why? You must have been, what, about the same age as him?’

‘A year younger. I used to take the same way to school. I never spoke to him. He’d always be in front of me. He probably didn’t even know I was there.’

Harris tilted his head a little.

‘So what is it? There but for the grace..?’

‘No,’ she told him. ‘Nothing like that.’ Even immediately after it happened, Kate had never felt she could have been the victim, that she might have been in danger. It didn’t come into her head, as if she needed to believe that Charlie had been the target. She still felt that. The death had been too violent to be random. ‘What were your impressions? The ones that didn’t make your report.’

He sighed.

‘It’s a long time ago. But it was the sense of excess that I never understood. The way he was murdered, it was overkill. Sudden, it seemed crazy.’ He paused. ‘Did anyone talk to you at the time?’

‘No one. I was late that morning. I didn’t see him.’

‘I’m still surprised we never questioned you.’

‘Maybe my parents wanted to shield me.’ She’d wondered about that. But she’d never told anyone about walking behind Charlie every morning. Maybe the explanation was completely innocent.

‘Do you remember anyone hanging round or following on other mornings?’ Harris asked.

‘You don’t know how often I’ve thought about that’ Kate said. ‘But no, I really don’t think there was ever anyone, just some kids on their way to school. You never found the Walkman or the headphones.’

‘For a while someone had the idea he might have been killed him for them,’ Harris said slowly. ‘I always thought it was stupid. That was the problem; we didn’t have any motive at all. It didn’t even look as if he’d struggled much, from what I recall.’

‘You didn’t make any headway at all? No suspects off the record?’ It happened; Kate knew that, how galling every officer found it. Especially in a case like this, a teenager with all those years ahead. Still a kid, really.

‘No. God knows, we tried everything we knew. The guv was desperate to have it solved.’ He gave an old man’s shrug, neat inside his sports jacket. ‘We even brought in a DCI from Derbyshire to go over everything. He couldn’t see that we’d done anything wrong. These are the ones that rankle, aren’t they?’

‘Yes,’ Kate agreed. She’d had one like that herself, when she was a DC. An old woman murdered in her home. Not even a trace of a suspect. Still unsolved. ‘It’s not that they got away, it’s that you can’t even find anywhere to look.’

‘You know the parents killed themselves?’

‘What?’ That took her by surprise; it hadn’t been in the file.

‘Must have been ten years later. Around there. They moved away, somewhere in Wales, I think. I got a phone call from the force over there. Seems it had all become too much and they just turned on the gas one light. Lucky there wasn’t an explosion. Anyway, some bright soul over there did a little digging and let me know.’

‘I had no idea. It wasn’t in the file.’ God, that was so sad, carrying the pain for so long until you just couldn’t bear it anymore.

‘Still, you’ve got all this DNA now,’ Harris said. ‘You can test for everything under the sun.’

‘You’ve been watching too much television,’ she told him with a quiet snort. ‘We’re not CSI Leeds. You have to fight for any tests you want. And the results take forever.’ Charlie’s clothes, the parings from under his nails, they’d been bagged and tucked away all this time. She’d written up a request to have everything tested. DNA, the full spectrum. Yes, she told the Chief Super when he rang with his questions, she knew exactly how expensive it was. And yes, she knew how the bloody Home Office was cutting the budgets like a pirate on a drunken rampage. Kate listened as he ranted, imagining the red face and the veins bulging in his neck. She let him wind down, and once he was deflated, pointed out that nothing else had worked and they’d never tried this. Grudgingly, he’d agreed. It had better bring results, he warned her.

 

It was the lowest priority at the lab. Four weeks, and that depended on nothing urgent coming in. But there was no rush, except in her mind. She should have had it printed and put up on the office wall: Hurry up and wait.

 

She started a pair of other investigations, keeping Charlie Pearce simmering along. She did manage to track down one more man from the force who’d been involved with the case. Jack Davis had been a PC then, just two years on the job then. He’d been on the scene fifteen minutes after the body was discovered.

These days he was retired; he’d finished his thirty years as an inspector down in Somerset, and now he had a shiny new business as a security consultant.

Davis remembered it all so clearly that he might have been looking in his notebook. But he’d given a complete statement then, and again later. No one had touched the body before the evidence people and pathologist arrived. He’d still swear to it. He’d stood in the water, freezing in his wellies, until they arrived and began taking pictures.

The stream flowed through a tunnel almost large enough to stand erect. Rocks and debris had accumulated along the bottom. He could remember Durex wrappers and sodden cigarette packets. The body was mostly in the water. He imagined it had washed most of the blood away. But what was left…

‘Christ, it was a mess,’ he said, and she could hear him choking down the sorrow. ‘Never saw another as bad as that. Not even with the RTAs we had down on the M5. I hope you have better luck finding the killer than we did back then.’

 

Kate had never known about Tom Pearce when she was a teenager. She hadn’t even imagined him that he existed. He was six years older than Charlie, already an adult, beyond reach. When his younger brother was murdered, Tom was crewing a yacht between Freeport and Antigua in the Caribbean.

He was been interviewed when he returned for the funeral. No suspicion, a matter of course, nothing more, ticking a box.

He’d lived back in England for more than twenty years now. An estate agent with his own company in the Home Counties. He was the only link left to the family. As close as she’d ever come to Charlie himself.

On the phone, Tom Pearce had a hale and hearty voice that grated immediately. That much bonhomie couldn’t be real, Kate thought.

‘We’ve re-opened the case,’ she told him.

‘Why? Is there something new?’ He sounded suspicious. ‘No one’s mentioned anything to me.’

‘We’re simply taking a look at it. Maybe there was something we missed at the time. That’s why I’m ringing, actually.’

‘I wasn’t even here when it happened.’

‘I know, sir. But you were brothers. Brothers talk sometimes. And you must have spent time with your parents before they…’ She didn’t want to mention the suicide. ‘…died. Maybe there was something they’d never said.’

Pearce took his time answering, choosing his words very carefully.

‘You have to understand, Inspector, I was very much the black sheep of the family. I argued non-stop with my parents, left school at sixteen, and I was gone from home as soon as I could. I hadn’t been in touch with any of them for well over a year when Dad sent the telegram about Charlie. I hadn’t exchanged any letters with him. We were six years apart, we’d never really known each other.’

‘What about after you came back to live? Did you talk to your parents then?’ You must have, Kate thought. People mellowed as they aged; old arguments meant nothing, forgotten.

‘The only time I saw them was at their funeral.’ His voice was cold. ‘And if there’d been a way out of that I’d have taken it.’

There had to be some sort of dark story behind all that. But she wasn’t go to ask, it didn’t matter to her case.

‘I see.’

‘I’m sorry, Inspector, but I really can’t help you at all. Is there anything else?’

Of course there wasn’t, and he knew it. Just a way of ending the conversation. Nothing there. One more avenue closed.

 

‘We never crack them from old interviews, boss,’ Hallam told her. They were in the canteen at the new headquarters on Elland Road, a warm fug of steam filling the room and causing condensation on the windows. ‘The memories are too fixed.’

She’d come to appreciate the man. He was a good, solid DS, organised and bright. She might not want to be in Cold Cases but without him it would have been much worse.

‘What, then?’ Kate asked. She’d munched through a Kit Kat, the wrapped crumpled on the table. There were a couple of sips left in the coffee cup, then she’d go back to work.

‘New evidence, really.’ He rubbed his chin. ‘A witness comes forward who hadn’t said anything before. DNA, fibres on the clothes, although God knows how you persuaded them to spring for it, the way they’re cutting funding.’

‘I know where some of the bodies are buried,’ Kate told him with a grin. Just not enough of them, she thought, or ones that were important enough.

‘It might turn up something you can use. I’ve got to be honest, guv, thirty years is a real stretch, especially for a first case.’

‘I’m discovering that,’ she admitted. ‘How long have you been working these, anyway?’

‘Bit over five years now.’ He shook his head, a rueful expression on his lips. ‘I asked for it, believe it or not. All the stress in CID was killing me. Headaches, depression. I like being on the force, but I needed something different. It was my wife who suggested it. I had to get out of child crimes. I applied and they near enough bit my hand off to say yes. It suits me.’

‘Good success rate?’

‘That’s the knack.’ He winked. ‘You go through and pick the ones that seems like good possibilities. You get a nose for it after a while.’

‘I daresay I’ll have the time to learn.’

Hallam gave a small cough.

‘I heard about that.’

‘You and all of West Yorkshire Police.’

‘It was bad luck,’ he said. ‘I’m sure they know that. You were the scapegoat.’

‘Thanks,’ Kate told him. ‘I appreciate that.’ She looked at her watch. ‘Come on. The others will think we’ve eloped.’

 

It left her hopeful. She could crack this. But another three hours of trying to track down old witnesses and finding nothing but blank responses or death notices left a sour, sad taste in her mouth. Dead end. Dead end. Dead end. By the time she arrived home she felt bleak. The hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Martin spotted the mood as soon as she walked into the house. She tossed her keys on to the table. They skittered across and fell the floor. He looked up, pen poised above the essay he was marking..

‘I’ve seen people look happier at funerals.’

‘Don’t.’ Kate glared. ‘Just don’t.’

‘OK.’ He gave her another glance then his eyes moved back to the printout.

‘This case,’ she said, ‘it’s fucked.’

He sat back, folding his arms, mouth pursed. He was lean, hair just starting to recede, with a kind face, laughter lines radiating from his eyes. Those were what had attracted her in the first place and made her believe that he was someone who could make her happy. Ten years together and she hadn’t been wrong.

She watched Martin walk to the sideboard and poured a shot of Jack Daniels into a glass. Into the kitchen for a healthy dash of coke to go with it. Her drink. It made her feel cool, like a rock chick, as if she could reach out and clutch the last shreds of her twenties, even if that ship had sailed a long, long time ago. Nowadays if she three of them, she spent the next two days paying the price. The forties were a bastard. God knew what her fifties would be like.

‘Right,’ he said as he handed it to her. ‘Tell me about it. You know you want to. You’re pissed off.’

She took a swig, swallowed, and exhaled slowly. It glowed in her throat and warmed her stomach.

‘So what is it about this case in particular?’ Martin asked.

‘It’s the first one I picked in charge of the unit. I want to solve it.’

He stared at her.

‘I get that, but why did you pick it? What is there about this one?’

Perhaps it was time to tell him. He’d always been open with her, more than she could ever manage. He must have known she still kept little pockets of her past hidden away. But he never pushed or probed, willing to let them come when she was ready. Over the years she’d revealed a few – the abortion at uni, the year she shoplifted just to see what it was like, never caught, never even suspected. All before she joined the force, of course.

She’d always kept Charlie Pearce to herself, though. Maybe now she needed to give him up, to bring her out of her memory.

But not here; not at home. Somewhere less personal, where she could try to leave the words behind when she’d finished.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Let’s go for a pizza and I’ll tell you all about it.’

 

‘So that’s it?’ he asked when she finished. He’d been toying with the wine glass, the plate pushed to one side. They finished eating before she told her story. Halting at first, then a flow as he listened intently, his eyes on her face.

‘I know. Stupid, isn’t it?’

‘No,’ Martin said. ‘It’s natural. It was a mystery back then and you want to explain it. That’s a basic human instinct. We don’t like mysteries, the unexplained, especially in our own lives. We need to know.’

Kate took a sip of red, running it round her mouth.

‘The problem is that I’m not getting anywhere.’

‘So you feel like a failure.’

She nodded sadly.

‘Yeah. That’s pretty much it.’

Martin pinched his lips together, concentrating.

‘Do you think you can find out who did it?’ he asked after a moment. ‘Really?’

‘Honestly?’ She weighed it up. ‘I don’t know. I want to…’

‘This new job, everything that happened in the last case. You want to show everyone how well you can handle things.’

True, Kate thought. She was aching to impress, to remind everyone just how good she was at her work. Something to prove. Something big.

‘I suppose.’ That was as much as she’d say, even to him. Suddenly she’d had enough. She didn’t want to discuss it any more. Martin knew; that was enough for now.

 

Every morning she checked the post, hoping the results would arrive. Every morning she was disappointed. Four weeks dragged out to five, then six.

Kate had her first cold case success. It was pure luck, but just as sweet for that. An anonymous letter grassing up a man who’d killed another in a brawl in a city centre bar eight years before. Caught him with a broken glass, opening the carotid artery; he’d bled to death before the ambulance arrived.

It only took five minutes of questioning before the man admitted everything. Didn’t even want a brief. It all tumbled out, words upon words, as if she’d cracked the dam and now the flow wouldn’t stop. He looked a hard case, with his shaved head, a web tattooed on his neck and gym biceps bulging under a knock-off Manchester United top. Crack the shell and he was soft inside. The guilt must have been crushing him all this time, Kate decided as he was led away to be charged.

She didn’t feel any pity, though. He killed and tried to hide it. He had it coming.

 

Until she ripped open the envelope she didn’t realise how much she’d been hoping these results would bring her the answers. With no luck anywhere else, she was depending on them. Kate held her breath as she pulled out the sheaf of papers and placed them on her desk.

The summary first, then the details. Her mouth was dry and she tried to swallow.

Good news: they’d been able to extract some DNA from Charlie’s blazer. It matched a sliver of skin under his fingernails. So he’d managed to fight a little, Kate thought. He’d tried, at least.

But what they had didn’t match anything in the national database.

She read through sheet after sheet, hoping something else in there might give her the smallest glimmer of hope. There was evidence. Minute traces of fabric that probably came from a jumper. They hadn’t possessed the technology to discover all this at the time. Yet without a match it was as useless as no result at all.

Kate sat back in her chair, eyeing it all. Trying to think. She knew right down to the penny how much this had all cost; the Chief Superintendent made quite certain of that. When he rang and asked for progress she was going to have to tell him something. Put a spin on it and make it seem they’d got their money’s worth.

When she’d first asked for Charlie Pearce’s file, she’d envisioned herself as his avenger, someone who could bring him some justice after all this time. A woman with the ability solve a 30-year-old crime.

Now that all looked like dust.

She knew that somewhere in that morass there was young Kate, too, thirteen and wanting answers to questions she didn’t even understand yet. She couldn’t even offer any comfort to that girl from the past.

 

Kate had been lucky. When she started in plain clothes, Carol Walton had decided to take her under her wing. Taught her, rubbed off some of the green. She’d done a good job, too. Toughened her up, made her harder, but without losing any of the compassion that kept you human in the job. She’d taken time to show her the way things really happened on the force, not what they taught on the courses.

What would Carol do now?

It was easy enough to find open. She swiped the mobile screen, found the name and pressed the button. Thirty seconds later the familiar voice was on the other end of the line, sounding as if she was standing in the middle of a gale.

‘Took you long enough to ring.’ There was a mix of resentment and good humour in the voice. ‘I heard what they did. Hung you out to dry by all accounts.’

‘I’m sorry. I should have called.’ After the investigation, its findings and the new assignment, she hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone. ‘Where the hell are you?’

‘Near the cob at Lyme Regis. We’ve had an incident, you might say.’ She was a DCI in Dorset now, just handling important crimes herself and leaving the day-to-day to those under her. ‘I’m sorry, kiddo. You know that.’

‘Thanks.’ It was done. No going back and no point in talking about it. Even so, the words made her feel good. ‘Listen, I’ve got a bit of a problem.’

‘Wouldn’t be coppering if you didn’t. Come on, tell Aunt Carol all about it.’

 

Sound advice. But that was the way Carol’s mind worked. Practical but always sizing up the angles. It was why she was so good at her job. She’d never have let her boss proceed with a dodgy case. And if she couldn’t stop him, she’d have been talking to people, making allies for when the inevitable collapse happened. Covering her arse. Kate had never been that…political, she supposed it was. She was a police officer; she solved crimes, she didn’t play headquarters games.

‘So the results don’t do a damn thing to help you,’ Carol said.

‘The whole thing’s right back where it was thirty years ago.’

‘Then you’re no worse off than when you began, are you? Come on, Kate, you know how it goes. Sometimes you try everything and get nowhere. Can you imagine what our resolution rate would be like if criminals weren’t stupid and we didn’t have luck?’

She smiled. It was true. There were pieces of good detective work, but fewer than they ever let on.

‘You went through channels for the tests?’ Carol asked.

‘The Chief Super signed off for them. Gave me the usual “Don’t go asking for more.” I was just packing up this afternoon when he rang to give me a rocket over how many I’d ordered.’

‘But he approved them in writing?’

‘Uh-huh,’ she said. ‘Every single one. I emailed him the authorisation so he could see for himself. Then he had the nerve to ask what I was going to want next.’

‘That something. At least you didn’t lose.’

‘Maybe not. I don’t feel like I won, though.’

‘You can’t, it’s impossible,’ Carol told her briskly. ‘No such thing as a win against the brass. Lose or draw, those are the options. You came away a score draw. Take that and be happy with it. You didn’t tell him the results were useless, did you?’

‘Of course not. I’m not an idiot. I glided around it.’

‘That’s better. For a minute there I thought you’d forgotten everything I taught you.’

‘What about the case, though?’ Kate asked. She could hear a gust of wind and the crash of waves.

‘How much do you have invested in it?’

‘Manpower, you mean? Or time.’

‘That. And emotion.’ She was shrewd. Always cut through to the bone.

‘Quite a bit of that.’

‘The longer you stick with it, the harder it will be to walk away. You have to know when to cut your losses.’

A little dose of Carol Walton was always good for the soul. Even if there was nothing good in the words, Kate was still smiling when she slipped the phone back into her jacket.

 

 

A week. Two. Three and more. The days seemed to tick by, to bleed into one another, only the Saturdays and Sundays to distinguish them. Kate had other cases, requests from departments around West Yorkshire. Demands on her time. Charlie Pearce stayed on the back burner, given a stir and a shake when she had a minute. But as the unit became busier again, time grew precious.

He never left her mind, though.

She felt like she knew him now. The boy who’d been such a mystery back then, always walking away from her thirty years before, had become a person. She could almost hear his voice as she looked at the photographs of him alive. And when she saw the pictures of the crime scene she could imagine the silence broken only by the trickle of water along the tunnel.

Finally, one Friday afternoon, Kate left the office early and parked once more by the house where she’d grown up. It was warm enough to leave her coat on the back seat, the air gentle and mild. She began to walk to the corner where the roads all met, then down the hill towards the woods.

She could keep the file open, hold the case as active. That was easily enough done. A poke around every now and again to look at the DNA database. After all, it was growing every single day.

Yes, she could do that. But the chances of every finding the murderer were slim and growing weaker with every year that passed. He might be as dead as Charlie Pearce by now, a skeleton in a grave or ashes tossed into the wind, the secret vanished.

Who was she doing it for, anyway? She thought she’d had an answer to that when she began. Now, though…

The soles of her shoes slapped down on the paving stones, a slow, restful rhythm. She crossed Gledhow Valley Road, the woods and the stream off to the side. It was still too early for the schoolchildren to be out, but a hundred yards or so in front she saw one.

A boy. Curly, untidy hair, hands jammed into his blazer pockets. Kate speeded up. Longer strides, moving faster. The young man was in no hurry, ambling along, but he seemed to be farther ahead now.

She almost called out a name. Almost. Then she stopped, looked away and back again. He’d become just a speck in the distance.

The Tea Merchant’s Daughter

I don’t write ghost stories. Never have, never intended to. Then this one came to me, quite a while ago now. It floated down out of the blue, as tales do, and said ‘Write me.’ Well, it’s impossible to say no that. As we’re almost a Halloween, it seems like a good time to blow the dust off it…

She was the daughter of a tea merchant, a man whose soul totted up life into columns of pounds and pennies. He lived in a world made from profit and loss, where China clippers slipped through the seas to arrive and clerks brought him figures and fortunes and messages from captains.
All her life she’d known the smell of that world – the polished wood, cigars and old leather of the offices, the faint tang of salt water and, above all, the scent of the dried tea leaves that hung on his clothes, buried deep in the wool, when he came home in the evenings.
She’d hold her breath as she kissed his cheek, then move quickly away, still feeling the bristles of his beard on her lips.
“Kitty,” he’d call softly, and a few feet from him she’d exhale silently, turn with a smile and say,
“Yes, Papa?”
He was a good man and she loved him deeply. He treated his family with kindness. But the smell of the tea that shrouded him, the smell that was his wealth, was slowly killing her.
He refused to believe it. To him it was nothing more than hysterical nonsense, and impossibility.
“No one ever died from the smell of tea, Kitty,” he tried telling her gently. When she kept her slow insistence he left the room rather than argue with her then made her an appointment with a physician who tried to tell her the same. Her mother shook her head at the girl’s fancy and her younger sisters giggled at anything so unlikely.
But she knew. She knew.
It had begun when she was eleven and the governess has taken the girls to the warehouse.
“It’s only right that you see what your father does,” she told them in the cold voice that Kitty knew was no more than resentment and envy. “It pays for your dresses and the dolls you play with.”
“It pays your wages, too,” Kitty said. She’d hoped the remark would cut the woman but she’d merely nodded and replied,
“It does.”
The carriage had taken them down to the vast brick sprawl of the docks, building upon building pushed and cramped against the river, fighting each other for space. And around them, all the houses, street up street of them, looking like the ruins of a civilisation that had once been great and glorious and now left to rot.
At the warehouse the factor greeted them, escorting them first through the warren of offices where clerks bowed their heads over desks and ledgers and worked ink-stained fingers. Without any reason, Kitty could feel the sense of unease growing, her chest tightening with each breath in the rooms. It was something beyond her understanding, the way her heart fluttered and shook and her skin flushed hot in the place.
Then, finally, they were led through the door into the warehouse itself, a majestic room as big and tall as any cathedral, the light coming through high windows. Tea dust floated in the air, collecting on her face and hands as she entered and the smell overwhelmed her senses. After just three paces she knew she couldn’t move any further. It left her drunk and spinning, unable to think.
She came to outside, sitting in the carriage, the faces pressed around her – the governess hovering too close, her sisters, the factor standing back a few paces and wringing his hands with worry.
Kitty looked at them, blinking three times to bring them into focus.
“You’re all right!” the governess said triumphantly. “We were all so worried about you, my dear. You fainted in the warehouse.”
She remembered then: the way it all seemed to choke her, how she’d believed her throat would close, the fear and panic that filled her body and her mind until everything went dark.
They left then, her sisters a welter of chatter, the governess asking every five minutes how she felt. But how did she feel? As if there was less of her, as if she’d lost something in there. What it was, she didn’t know, no more than a feeling.
At home she studied herself in the mirror. Her cheeks seemed a little more pale, the blue of her eyes a little less bright. Running her hands down her arms her flesh seemed somehow thinner, as if a layer had vanished, as if she could poke through to the muscle and bone that lay underneath.
Her sisters returned to the warehouse every year, a treat for them, but Kitty would stay at home. At first her father tried to insist, then to cajole her into joining them, but once her saw the terror in her eyes he stopped his insistence.
She stopped drinking tea. She began to shrink away from her father when he returned in his work suits, suddenly sensitive to the smell of him after a day in his office. But it was impossible to escape completely, and after each hug, each bearded kiss on her cheek or forehead, she felt one more small part of her vanish from the world.
As she grew a little older she began to consider why this was happening. She read about illnesses and found nothing that resembled hers until she began to wonder if everyone was right and it was all in her head and she really was an hysterical girl. Then, one day with nothing to fill the hours, she glanced at the table in the hall. Her father had thrown a few of his business letters there when he’d returned the night before and forgotten to take them that morning. Her eyes strayed across the writing and she saw the demands he placed on the tea planters in those countries so far away. He reminded them of the contracts they’d signed, of the risks he took in transportation, and if their costs had risen so much, then perhaps they should pay the labourers less.
From there, over the days and weeks and months, when the house was quiet she’d carefully put on the leathers gloves that fitted so smooth and snug over her hands, tie and kerchief around her nose and mouth until she looked like a common bandit, and sneak into her father’s study. It was dangerous – the place smelt of him, the scent of tea a note that hung high in the air over everything – but she’d spend as long as she dare reading his correspondence. Her ears stayed alert from the smallest sound and she was all too aware of what this was doing to her. She could feel the way her heart pounded dully under her ribs, the energy it all took, but she had to know more.
She read it all, every last word and reply. She knew how he’d dealt with the attempt to form a union among the men at the warehouse, how he’d crushed it with dismissals and threats. She knew the money he’d spent in bribes of officials overseas for preferential treatment, the way he’d ridden roughshod over everything to find greater profits.
By the time she was done, she understood. But after that her gowns hung more loosely on her body than they had before, although she was still growing and ate as heartily as she ever had. Her spirit had sunk deeper. She understood.
Kitty knew that her mother and father worried about her. She sometimes heard them talking in hushed, serious tones behind carefully closed doors, and noticed the looks they gave her. But even if she’d tried, even if she’d had the words to make it all clear to them, they’d never have accepted it.
Tea was a plant. It was a commodity, a means to the money that built and furnished this house, that paid for the dressmaker, the tailor and the grocer. It could never be more than that.
But she knew.
They took her from doctor to doctor, tried this remedy and that, some pleasant, some less so. None of them worked. If they’d ever been willing to listen, she could have told them.

“Kitty,” he mother said, “we’re going out for the morning tomorrow.”
“Where, Mama?” she asked. “All of us?”
“Into town,” her mother answered. “I’ve ordered the coach for nine, so you’ll need to be ready. And yes, all of us. Except your father, of course. He’ll be at work.”
Excited, she was waiting by the door as the coachman brought the carriage round the next morning. It was a week before Christmas, a bare coating of snow and frost on the ground, the three standing tall in the hallways, decorated with baubles and candles.
Kitty sat between her sisters, listening contentedly to the quick babble of their gossip, the frivolities comforting somehow, like a bolster to hug in a cold bed. The horses clopped along merrily, the countryside changing to suburban terraces then the shops and arcades that bloomed with shoppers glancing into windows and businessmen who strode purposefully as if they were following a higher calling.
Any moment she expected the coach to stop but it didn’t. Her sisters prattled on, not even seeming to notice, but Kitty looked at her mother, the older woman giving a calm, superior smile.
“Where are we going, Mama?”
“To visit your father, dear.”
“What? At the warehouse?” she could feel the panic rising, her throat starting to tighten around her words.
“Where else would he be at this time, Kitty? It’s time you overcame these silly feeling of yours, you know. You’re almost a grown woman now. It’s not seemly.”
“But…” she began but could go no further. Nothing she could do now would make any difference. Weary, heartsick, she saw the landscape change, sliding from money to the poverty of the small back-to-backs where even the sky looked tired. Finally they pulled up at the warehouse.
I could just sit here, she thought. I could refuse to move. But then her mother was tugging at her wrist, saying,
“Get down now, Kitty. I’m not going to take no for an answer any more. Whatever these ridiculous ideas are that you have in your head, you need to get over them.”
But they’re not in my head, Mama, she thought. They’re real.
Then she was standing on the gravel, being ushered along with her mother’s hand at her elbow, half-pushing, half-dragging, the woman’s face set and stern as her sisters trailed behind.
The factor met them at the door of the building, a harried man of middle age with wisps of hair at the sides of his head, sad, bulldog eyes, bowing to the ladies as he led them towards the warehouse door.
It looked so innocuous, Kitty thought. Nothing more than bricks, mortar and wood. But already she felt as if hands were tightening around her throat, the tongue swelling in her mouth, her palms clammy inside the gloves and her skin itching.
First they passed through the offices, the way they had when she’d come here as a girl. Even the smells were exactly as she remembered them, just as if they’d waited for her return. And then they came to the door into the warehouse.
The women stood back as the factor turned the handle and opened it. Kitty could see her father there, off in the distance, talking to a workman in his buff coat, the sacks of tea leaves everywhere piled high.
“Well,” her mother said, “go on, girl.” Four words that brooked no objection.
She breathed in, her chest so tight it hurt and began to walk towards the door, glancing once over her shoulder at her mother and her sisters. They looked so earnest, so hopeful, so alive. Kitty walked through the entrance, her head held high, and gently closed the door behind her.

Two minutes later her father came out, glancing around in confusion.
“Where’s Kitty?” he asked his wife. “I thought you were going to send her in.”
“I did,” his wife objected, looking at him in disbelief. She turned to her daughters. “We watched her go through the door, didn’t we, girls?”
He pointed at the warehouse behind them and shook his head.
“That door?”
The woman nodded firmly
“But she can’t have,” her told her, exasperation edging into voice. “I was standing right there. I was watching the whole time. The only person who came in there was the factor. Then there was a draught and the door closed behind him.” He sighed and took off his glasses. “Where is she? What’s happened to her? You can’t tell me she simply vanished into thin air.”

A New Richard Nottingham Short Story

 

I like working with publishers. The knowledge that someone else, someone in the industry, thinks enough of my work to put their reputation on the line and put it out under their imprint is what every writer desires.

 

I’m proud of all the fiction I’ve put out (hey, I’m even proud of some of the non-fiction and all the music journalism). I want my name on it. But some things don’t fit into any publisher’s niche. A few weeks ago I wrote a short story featuring Richard Nottingham, Constable of Leeds. Those of you who know my work will know him.

 

What to do with it? In the past I’ve made stories available for free. This time, with a longer story, I wanted something a little more. So I decided to publish it for Kindle. Via Twitter and Facebook I know several writers who self-publish. Some of them are excellent writers, the equal of anyone traditionally published; others, less so. But with the rise of the ereader it’s become a very successful medium.

 

For me it’s an experiment. The story keeps the name of Richard Nottingham out there. I hope it’ll please those who like the books and that they’ll buy it and enjoy it. I also hope that some people who’ve never read the novels will take a look, think, hey, that’s pretty good, and want to discover more. Finally, it keeps everything simmering until the UK hardback publication of Fair and Tender Ladies at the end of September (January 2014 for the US and ebook). It may pique a little interest and raise the sales. We do what we can.

 

I priced the story as cheaply as Amazon would seem to allow. But it’s a story, 5,000 words, not a novel. It’s something to pass a few idle minutes, not to take over your life.

 

Have I raised your curiosity? I hope so – that’s the aim of this, after all. It’s 77p (or $1.16 – I asked for 99 cents but it seems to have gone out of my control in the US). You’d spend that much of a bar of chocolate. Much more on a coffee or a cup of tea.

 

Oh, and you can buy it here in the UK.

 

Or here in America.

Thank you for your indulgence. I hope you like it if you buy it.

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