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At the Dying of the Year
A Richard Nottingham Book
By Chris Nickson
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2013 Chris Nickson
All rights reserved.
Richard Nottingham exhaled slowly as his boot heels clattered over Timble Bridge, feeling the wool of his breeches rasp against his thighs as he moved. Partway across he stopped to rest for a moment, leaning heavily on the silver-topped stick and listening to the birds singing for the dawn. His breath bloomed in the November air and he pulled the greatcoat collar higher.
Five months had passed since he'd last walked this way to work. Five months since the knife sliced into his belly. For a week he'd drifted in and out of the world, living in a place made of furious heat and bitter chills, the pain always there, powerful enough to fill every thought, every moment. Few believed he'd survive.
Finally the fever burned out of his system and he woke, the daylight so bright it hurt his eyes, his wife Mary sitting by the bed, holding his hand. He'd live, the apothecary announced after examining him, although the healing would take a long time.
The summer of 1733 was warm, sticky, full of the drowsy scent of wildflowers in the fields as he began to walk again, shuffling like an old man. At first he could only manage a few yards before he was exhausted, forced to stop, frustrated by his body and its weakness. Strength returned gradually, at its own dismal pace. He went further, first to the bridge, then into the city, a little more distance each day.
And now he was back to work. Richard Nottingham was Constable of the City of Leeds once more.
He stood at the bottom of Kirkgate, relishing the sight of early smoke rising from chimneys. The thick smells of the place, the shit and piss, the smoke and the stink, rushed into him like perfume, hearing the sounds of voices and the rumble of early carts along the street. His gaze crossed to the Parish Church, eyes picking out the grave of his older daughter, Rose and resting there for a moment, thinking how close he'd come to joining her in the earth.
He pushed the door open and walked into the jail, feeling fear and relief in equal measures. Simply being here seemed like a victory over all the doubts and fears he'd had in the last months. He gazed around the room, as familiar to him as home, and smiled.
John Sedgwick sat at the desk, looking as if he belonged there. Then he glanced up and his face broke into a wide grin.
'Welcome back, boss,' he said, standing quickly and moving aside. For almost half a year he'd been the deputy who'd worked as Constable, with all the responsibility of the job and none of the pay. Now he'd be back where he'd been before. Nottingham tried to read the expression in his eyes.
'Hello, John,' he said, pleasure filling his voice. 'I see it hasn't changed at all.'
'We kept it just this way for you.'
He winced as he lowered himself on to the chair, feeling the sharp twinge of pain shooting from the scar right through his stomach. All because of a stupid, simple mistake; he'd known better for so many years. He'd let down his guard and for one second forgotten everything he'd been taught. That was all it had taken for the man to draw the knife from his boot and cut him open.
A noise came from the cells and he raised his eyebrows questioningly.
'Rob's sweeping them out,' the deputy explained. 'No one in there at the moment.'
Soon enough Rob Lister appeared with a broom, standing straight as he saw the Constable.
'Good to see you back, boss.' He was a young man, his red hair flying wild no matter what he tried to do with it, eyes bright, eager and ready to work. His was a familiar face; he seemed to spend all his free time at Nottingham's house courting the Constable's younger daughter, Emily.
'So what do we have, John?'
'Not too much at the moment. Two men died fighting each other a couple of nights back.'
'At the Talbot?' he asked, sure he knew the answer.
'Aye, where else?' Sedgwick answered with a dark grimace. 'Apart from that there's just a few small thefts, someone shot himself.' He poured a cup of ale from the mug on the desk and passed it over. 'You look like you need it.'
The Constable drank gratefully. He was thirsty, his body ached, and even the small effort of walking from home had drained him. He sat back and brushed the fringe off his forehead.
'You take the thefts,' he said. 'Rob, go and ask around about the fight, see what you can find out before you go home.'
'Yes, boss.' Lister leant the besom against the wall, stretched and yawned exaggeratedly.
'Get on with you,' the deputy laughed. 'Anyone would think you were shy to meet a little honest work.'
'He'd probably rather meet Emily,' Nottingham said with a sly smile. Rob shook his head at the two of them and left.
'He's turning out well,' Sedgwick said thoughtfully. 'Twice during the summer he solved things that I couldn't see.'
'He's bright,' the Constable agreed. 'Don't worry, though, he can't replace you. Have you finished the daily report?'
The deputy pulled it from the top of a pile of papers. The writing was childlike and uneven, but he'd laid everything out clearly enough and Nottingham nodded his approval. 'Good. Now you get busy on those thefts.'
'Yes, boss.' Sedgwick grinned again. He paused, then added, 'It feels right to have you back.'
'It feels right to be back,' Nottingham said with satisfaction. 'Where I should be.'
He belonged in this place; it was part of him. During the endless summer Mary had begged him to retire. She wanted him whole, and with her. After so long when work had come first she wanted her own good years with him; she'd never put it like that, but he knew. And the city had been fair. They'd offered him a small pension and the house on Marsh Lane that had come with the job. But he'd known he could never give her the thing she craved more than all else. He'd seen the fear fly across Mary's face as he'd left the house that morning, the worry he might never return.
He wasn't ready yet to do nothing, though, to watch the days blur endlessly one into the other, to sit and see the seasons change until he died. He needed this. John had come often enough to ask for his opinion and advice on things, and Rob had told him everything that was happening. But it wasn't the same as being involved himself. He'd chafed for the spark of the hunt.
He pushed himself up from the desk, feeling every single one of his years and folded the report into the pocket of his coat. Leaning on the stick he walked up Briggate, exchanging greetings with people, stopping to talk, to smile at the well-wishers and welcome the opportunity to rest.
The Moot Hall stood firm and tall in the middle of the street, a carefully impressive symbol of power, an island that forced people and carts to either side of the road. The Constable took the stairs slowly, then felt his old boots sink deep into the thick Turkey carpet of the polished wood corridor. The smell was different, cleaner and sharper, the warm, protective scent of money.
It would be the first time he'd met William Fenton since the man had become mayor in September. He'd sent a note out to the house a few weeks before with wishes for a speedy recovery, but hadn't visited himself.
A desk sat outside the office, blocking the way like a guard; a clerk glanced up as he approached. He was a young man, neatly groomed in a dark coat and brilliant white stock, with an inquiring smile that showed clean, even teeth.
'Yes, sir?' he asked.
'I have the daily report from the jail for the mayor.'
'If you leave it with me I'll pass it to him.'
Nottingham looked down at him, smiled and said mildly, 'You don't know who I am, do you, lad?'
The clerk shook his head.
'I'm the Constable here. I'm just back to work. I've always met with the mayors every morning.'
The man shifted on his seat and looked embarrassed. 'I'm sorry, sir, I didn't know. Mr Fenton's changed things. He only sees people by appointment.'
'I see,' Nottingham said slowly.
'Mr Sedgwick just gave me the report every day.'
'What's your name?'
'Martin Cobb, sir.'
He took the paper from his pocket and unfolded it. 'Well, Martin, if you'd see this reaches the mayor, with my compliments.'
'I will. And I'm sorry for not knowing who you were, sir.'
He left, feeling the long sting of humiliation. In all his years as Constable, none of the mayors had refused to see him. It didn't bode for a good return. He set his mouth and walked out on to Briggate.
The street was busy, people squeezing and pushing their way past each other with the dark scent of unwashed bodies, carters urging their horses on, wagon wheels creaking under the heavy loads, the fierce smell of horse sweat, then the hard blood tang from the meat hanging in the butchers' shops on the Shambles. He stood, taking it all in. This was the Leeds he loved.
Rob knew the Talbot well. He'd been here too many times in the last year, breaking up fights or pursuing felons. He pushed open the door of the inn and entered, the scent of stale beer and tobacco on the air. The conversation of the few morning drinkers halted as they saw him.
The door leading to the whores' rooms upstairs was closed, the other door to the cockfighting pit bolted and barred. Bell the landlord was kneeling to tap a new barrel of ale; he glanced up, spat on to the stone floor and looked away again.
'The two men who died the other night,' Rob began.
'It were outside.' The man didn't even bother to turn his head, keeping his back to Lister. 'Nowt to do wi' me.'
'Had they been drinking in here?'
"Appen,' he answered. 'We were busy.'
'They'd been seen in here,' Rob told him.
'If you know, why's tha' asking me?' Bell stood up slowly, broader and taller than the Constable's man, his arms thick with muscle, a worn leather apron tight over the hard bulge of his belly. Several days' growth of stubble covered his cheeks. He rested large, scarred hands on the trestle and stared. 'I've said all I'm going to say to you. So you can piss off now, and next time your master can come himself and not send his lapdog.'
Rob eyed him, showing nothing, then slowly turned on his heel and left. Bell had meant to humiliate him; he wasn't the first and he wouldn't be the last. But the words wounded a little less each time. He knew he was young, that they saw him as easy prey, untested and with no power. That was changing. He loved this work and he knew he had a talent for it. He'd learned from Sedgwick and from the boss, and the lessons would continue for a long time yet. He sighed slowly and tried not to yawn.
His job was looking after the nights, supervising the men who kept Leeds safe during the darkness. For all the months the Constable had been gone, he and the deputy had been stretched tight, working long hours, every day of God's week, always exhausted.
He'd ask a few more questions then he'd go to his room and sleep. Later, before work, he'd meet Emily and walk out to the house on Marsh Lane to eat his supper. It was more than a free meal, it was chance to spend time with her. For too long it had felt as if they'd been snatching at moments and minutes together.
Along the Calls he searched for the right house. One of the dead men had lived here, leaving a widow and three children behind him; with luck, the woman would be able to tell him something. He was still looking for the place when he heard a shout and turned. A man was running quickly towards him, stripped to shirt and breeches, his face and hands covered in dirt, the bright light of fear in his eyes.
'You the lad who works with the Constable?' he asked. Rob nodded. 'You'd better come, then. It's the bell pits.' The man jerked his thumb vaguely in the direction of the White Cloth Hall then moved away, his stride fast and jerky.
Lister was pushed to keep pace with the man as they headed along Low Back Passage. 'What is it?' he asked. 'What's in the pit?'
But the man just shook his head. 'Tha'll see soon enough.'
Rob knew about the bell pits; everyone in Leeds did. They were holes that extended just a few feet into the ground, opening into chambers ten or twelve feet across and shaped liked the bells that gave them their names; places where folk gathered scraps of coal for their fires. They'd existed for generations, all over the city, for so long that no one really knew who'd first dug them. He'd never been in one, although the schoolboys often dared each other to go down into the dry warmth. Three of them lay close together, no more than twenty feet apart, each separate from the other, along the path that led from Kirkgate to the White Cloth Hall, mounds of dark earth next to each one. A group of workmen were passing a flagon of ale around, all of them silent, their faces serious.
'Down there.' The man pointed at one of the pits, where a ladder protruded above the lip. Rob glanced at him questioningly, but the man looked away, unwilling to meet his eyes. He gazed at the other men, but none of them would offer him more than a sad stare.
Curious, he placed his boots on the wooden rungs, testing the weight, and began to climb down. He'd barely descended a yard before he stopped, swallowing hard as he smelled it. Something was dead down here, the thick, cloying smell of decay heavy in the heat all around him. He drew a breath through his mouth and went deeper into the pit.
At the bottom, no more than ten feet below the surface, he felt the rough, dry earth under his soles. He was already sweating from the still heat. A thin tunnel of light came down the hole, spilling into a small circle on the ground, deep shadows and pitch darkness reaching beyond. He retched hard, unable to keep the bile down, pulled a handkerchief from his breeches and clamped it over his face and mouth.
It didn't help. He bent over, vomiting again and coughing until there was only a thin trickle of spittle trailing from his lips. The stench of death was so strong he felt he could touch it.
Just at the edge of the gloom he could make out the shape of feet. Six of them, bare, dirty soles showing, three different sizes. He moved two paces closer, his eyes watering. The legs were small, thin. They were children.CHAPTER 2
He hurried back up the ladder, falling on his knees at the top and gulping down the fresh air. His legs buckled at he tried to stand, and for a moment he was forced to hold on to someone's arm. The man handed him the jug and he drank deep, swilling the ale around his mouth before spitting out the taste of the pit.
'Bad,' was the only thing the man said.
Rob didn't reply. He didn't own the words for what he'd seen. 'Send someone for Mr Brogden, the coroner,' he said, his voice little more than a hoarse croak. 'I'll bring some men to take the bodies out.'
He marched purposefully up Kirkgate, trying to clear the thoughts and images from his head. For all he knew there were more children down there, hidden by the darkness. He ran a hand through his hair, the stink of the dead clinging fast to his clothes.
The Constable looked up from the desk when the door opened, suddenly alert as he saw Lister's expression.
'Christ, lad, what is it? I thought you'd gone home.' He poured a cup of ale and passed it over. 'Drink that.'
Rob sat, trying to steady the mug in his hand, framing how to tell what he'd witnessed.
'The bell pits by the Cloth Hall,' he began slowly, watching Nottingham's eyes intent on his face. 'There are bodies in one of them.'
'Bodies?' he asked sharply. 'More than one?'
Lister nodded. 'Three that I saw.' He paused. 'They were just children, boss,' he said hopelessly. 'One of the men who died at the Talbot had three children.'
The Constable sat up straight. 'You think it's them?'
'I don't know, boss.' Rob swilled a little more ale around his mouth then swallowed, trying to wash the dank taste away.
'Who found them?' Nottingham asked urgently.
'One of the workmen.'
'You've sent for the coroner?'
'I'll come straight down. Go and find some of the men to help you get the corpses out.'
'Yes, boss.' He stood, ready to leave.
'Rob?' The lad turned. 'If it helps, this is probably as bad as the job will ever be.'
Lister tried to smile, but it was weak and empty.
The Constable remembered the face of every dead child he'd seen since he'd begun the job. They were impossible to forget, each one clear and sharp in his head. Many had gone from hunger, little more than ghosts even before their hearts gave up the battle to keep beating, some from accidents, crushed by carts or lost to the river. Precious few had been murdered, and he thanked God for that, at least.
Some of the workmen were sitting on the grass when he arrived, others stood in a small group. He nodded and asked, 'Has the coroner arrived yet?'
'Gone down there with a candle,' one of the men answered.
When Brogden climbed back out there was dirt on his immaculate coat and he'd vomited on his shoes with their expensive silver buckles. He brought a flask from his waistcoat, fingers shaking so hard he could barely unscrew the top. He took a long drink and saw the Constable.
'What's down there?' Nottingham asked.
Excerpted from At the Dying of the Year by Chris Nickson. Copyright © 2013 Chris Nickson. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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