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On Copper Street
A Tom Harper Mystery
By Chris Nickson
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2017 Chris Nickson
All rights reserved.
Leeds, Friday March 8, 1895
The brittle iron smell of the foundry. The noise of the hammers ringing in the air and the dark grinding of machinery, the blacksmiths of the industrial age. Even with his bad right ear it was impossible for Detective Inspector Harper not to hear the metallic music as he walked out along Wheeler Street, Sergeant Ash beside him, glancing around, eyes always curious.
The sound of their boots caught the factory rhythm, hobnails sparking on the pavement. A cold March morning with a hard wind: the month had come in like a lion. A boy in a shirt and a ragged pair of trousers ran along the other side of the road, a piece of paper clutched tight in his hand. On the way to the corner shop for his mam. Friday: the woman would settle her account later, once her husband was paid.
This was the Bank. He could feel eyes watching them from inside the houses, behind grubby curtains of cheap net. Suspicious of strangers, hostile to the police. Beyond Lower Cross Street, Upper Cross Street, and the houses grew even poorer, the bricks on the buildings all black from years of soot.
On the far side of Richmond Road the sounds faded into mild thuds. At the corner they paused for a moment, not saying a word, then turned down Copper Street. Boards papered over with advertisements covered a gap where a house had once stood. They passed a privy, the stench so strong it made them gag.
'Number thirteen,' Harper said.
It stood at the end of the terrace, identical to every other house round here. A back-to-back, two up and two down. Windows covered in grime. A front step that hadn't seen a donkey stone in too long. But then the owner had been in jail for the last six months; sentenced for receiving stolen items, thirty pounds' worth of silver in the suitcase he'd been carrying when he was arrested. However much they questioned him, the man had refused to say who'd given it to him.
The inspector had been waiting outside Armley Jail when Henry White was released the morning before. Out, free, the man looked fretful and scared.
'I said I'd give him twenty-four hours of freedom before I came calling,' Harper explained to the sergeant. 'And this time he was going to tell me everything.'
He bunched his fist and brought it down on the front door. It opened under his hand.
'Henry,' he shouted. Cautiously, he entered. Nobody in the front room. Someone had lit a fire, but it had burned down to ashes in the hearth. The room was cold, heavy with the smell of neglect.
He heard the sigh of the old wood as Ash climbed the stairs.
No one in the kitchen. A mug on the table with half an inch of cold, milky tea at the bottom. Part of a loaf on a cutting board, a wedge of cheese next to it.
Something was wrong here.
'Sir,' Ash shouted. 'He's up here.' A heartbeat's pause. 'He's dead.'
Henry White lay in his bed, under a blanket that was dark and stiff with his own blood. At least he seemed peaceful, Harper thought, all yesterday's strain and terror vanished from his face.
'It must have been quick,' Ash said. 'Doesn't even look like he put up a fight.'
'From the look of it, he was asleep,' Harper said. 'Someone came in and killed him before he could wake up.' He tugged back the blanket. White was fully dressed, only the boots gone from his feet. Two patches bloomed on the dull white of his shirt. 'Stabbed him twice.'
White had never been a large man, but time inside had left him thinner. Bony wrists poked out of his frayed cuffs like sticks. The jail scent still clung to him, a fragrance of pain and hopelessness, and his skin had the pallor of the cell. He'd always been shabby, the type to fade into the shadows, to cower away from a look. Now he'd never be able to hide again.
All his life White had skirted the fringes of the law, jobs that nudged the edges of legality, mixed with housebreaking and theft. Then someone made him carry that case filled with silver from a robbery. Someone scared him into not saying a word and giving up six months of his life.
And someone had come and murdered him in the night.
'God damn it.' Harper slammed his hand down on the iron bed frame.
It was his fault. He should have pressed Henry yesterday, outside the jail. Pushed hard and seen what happened.
Instead he had to be cocky. Powerful. To give White that taste of freedom, then pounce. Too bloody arrogant by half. Now he was staring at a corpse.
Harper looked around the room. Bare boards on the floor, only a single faded rag rug providing any colour. A table with a jug and basin. A shirt hung from a nail pounded into the wall. Harper glanced back at the body; White hadn't even enjoyed his full day out of prison.
Poor bloody Henry, he thought. Life's given you short shrift.
He left Ash to search the house and start talking to the neighbours, and began the trek back to Millgarth. Maybe that would calm him a little. He needed to get the corpse over to the mortuary in Hunslet, not that a post-mortem would tell him much he didn't already know. Get some bobbies out in the neighbourhood, hoping people might have seen something. Even more, that they might be willing to tell the police. But this was the Bank; many round here would rather let a murderer walk free than give a name to the rozzers.
'How long had he been dead?' Superintendent Kendall asked.
'Hard to tell.' There'd been some stiffness in White's arm when he lifted it. Rigor mortis. 'At least four hours. But it could have been eight.'
'Dr King should be able to tell us. I'll organize it.'
'I should have made him answer when I saw him outside the jail.' He needed to say it, like flaying himself.
'You couldn't know. You're not a fortune teller.'
'No buts,' Kendall ordered. 'Find out who did it and make them pay.' He stared out of the window for a moment, then back. 'I had word about something while you were gone.'
'What?' From his expression, it couldn't be anything good.
'Tom Maguire. They found him dead at home. You knew him quite well, didn't you?'
Knew him and liked him. Maguire had organized the unions. He'd helped them win their strikes, and he'd been there at the birth of the Independent Labour Party two years before. All that and not even thirty yet. But politics never paid the bills; he'd earned his money as the assistant to a photographer up on New Briggate.
'How?' The word came out as a hoarse croak. Surely no one would hurt him ...
'Natural causes,' the superintendent said. 'The doctor's there now. I said we'd send someone over.'
'I'll go,' Harper said.
'A couple of friends called to see him this morning. Nobody had heard from him in a few days. The door was unlocked. They walked in and he was there ...'
He knew Maguire had a room on Quarry Hill, no more than two minutes' walk away from Millgarth, but Harper had never been in the place before; they'd always met in cafés and pubs and union offices. It was up two flights of rickety, dangerous stairs in a house that reeked of overcooked cabbage, sweat, and the stink from the privy next door. How many others lived in the building, Harper wondered? How many were packed into the rooms? How many more had lost their hope and will in a place like this?
The door to the room was open wide. The table was piled with books and magazines and notebooks. Politics, poetry, all manner of things. A few had slid off, scattered across the bare wooden floor. No sink, just a cheap cracked pitcher with a blue band and a bowl. A razor and leather strop, shaving brush and soap. A good, dark wool suit hung on one nail, a clean shirt on another.
That was the sum total of the man's life.
The doctor was finishing his examination, wiping his hands on a grubby piece of linen. The inspector tried to recollect his name. Smith? That seemed right. An older man. Not uncaring, but hardened by the years. They'd met a few times before, always in situations like this.
'He's not one to trouble the police, Inspector.' Dr Smith closed his bag. 'Pneumonia. Sad at his age but nothing suspicious.' He said good day, and the sound of his footsteps on the stair slowly faded away.
Harper could feel the cold all the way to his bones, as if there'd been no heat in here for weeks. The hearth was empty, carefully cleaned, but not a speck of coal in the scuttle. He opened a cupboard. The only thing on the shelf was a twist of paper that held some tea. No food. Nothing at all to eat.
The bed was cheap, pushed into the corner. A thin, stained mattress. Maguire lay under a grubby sheet and a threadbare woollen blanket. On top of that lay a heavy overcoat to give more warmth.
Two bodies in their beds. So different, he thought with sorrow, but the ending was just the same. The doctor had covered the man's face, trying to offer a little decency against the brutality of death. Harper pulled it gently away. The policeman inside needed to see for himself. Maguire's skin was so pale it barely seemed to be there. His eyes were closed. No lustre in the ruddy hair.
A gust of wind rattled the window. Tom Maguire dead. No heat, no food. And no one to really care. Maguire had been ill; Harper had heard that. But this? How could he have died with nothing and no one around him?
Harper laid the sheet back in place. He'd liked the man. He was honest, he had principles and convictions that didn't bend with the wind or the chance to line his pockets. He'd believed in the working man. He'd believed in the power to change things.
Very quietly, as if a loud sound might cause the corpse to wake, Harper pulled the door to. He started the walk out to the Victoria public house in Sheepscar. He needed to tell Annabelle.
'Did you see him?' she asked. 'His body?' He nodded.
When he entered she'd been standing by the window in the rooms above the pub she owned, gazing down at Roundhay Road. At first she didn't even turn to face him and he knew. The word must have spread like ripples across Leeds: Tom Maguire was dead.
His eyes searched around for their daughter, Mary.
'I asked Ellen to take her out for a little while,' Annabelle said.
He put his hands on his wife's shoulders. 'I'm sorry,' he said. He tried to pull her close but she didn't stir.
'I knew he was poorly. I should have gone down to see what I could do.' Her voice was tight and hard. Blaming herself, as if she could have kept him alive. 'I could have done something.'
What could he tell her? She'd known Maguire all her life. They'd grown up a few streets apart on the Bank, Annabelle a few years older. Life had taken them in different directions, then politics had brought them together again after she began speaking for the Suffragist Society.
Annabelle began to move away, ready to gather up her hat and shawl. 'I can go over there now. I'll see what I can do.'
Harper shook his head. 'Don't. There's nothing. Honestly.' If she saw how Maguire had lived and the way he died, then she'd never forgive herself. He put his arms around her, trying to find some words. But they wouldn't come, just thoughts of a barren, bitter room.
He stayed as long as he could. But Henry White's murder meant he had too much to do. And he knew her way by now; Annabelle's grief would be a private thing. She'd speak when she was ready, and she'd cry when the tears needed to come. At the moment she was blaming herself for not visiting Maguire. For not keeping him alive. Taking the weight of the world on her shoulders.
He thought back over things he'd heard in the last few months. Word was that the new Labour Party was pushing Maguire away, that he was the past, not the future. He'd been seen out drinking a fair few times, so far gone that people had to help him home. That wasn't the man he'd known, not the one he'd want to remember. It certainly wasn't the one he'd watched who inspired hundreds of labourers with a speech on Vicar's Croft and helped win them a cut in working hours. Not the man who led the gas strike like a general and beat the council. And definitely not the shyly humorous man he talked to in the café by the market. That was the Maguire who'd remain in his memory.
There was no need to return to the station. He cut through the back streets, across St Peter's graveyard, along the road with the ripe, wet smell of the paper mill in his nostrils. By the Malthouse, then beyond the factory at Bank Top until he was on Copper Street again.
A pair of uniforms were knocking on the doors and finding nothing from their frustrated expressions. Harper walked straight into White's house. He could just make out a murmur of voices from the scullery and followed the sound.
Ash must have found some coal. The range was pumping out heat, a kettle steaming on the hob. The sergeant sat at the table, and across from him was a woman. She had a pinched face, hair put up in a twist to show a creased, wattled neck, a heavy paisley shawl drawn around her shoulders. Forty, Harper judged, but it was impossible to be certain. The dress that covered her from throat to ankle was wool, good quality once but with its best days in the past. Scuffed button boots.
Not Henry's wife, he knew that; the man had never married.
'This is Rose Thorp, sir,' Ash said. 'Mrs Thorp. She's Mr White's sister. Lives just round the corner on Brass Street.'
He looked at her again, trying to pick out the resemblance but seeing nothing. Not even much sign of grief. Just a thin, pale mouth and sad brown eyes.
'I'm sorry about your brother.' It was all he could think to say.
She dipped her head slightly.
'Mrs Thorp said that Henry was at her house for his tea last night,' Ash continued.
'He needed something hot in him,' she explained. 'He were skin and bone.' There was a crow's rasp to her voice.
'How did he seem? Scared? Worried?'
'Did you know him?' she asked and he nodded. 'Then you ought to know what our Henry were like. Always scared. Jump at his shadow, he would.'
'And how was he last night?'
She shrugged. 'He didn't have much to say for himself. I'd popped in to look after this place while he was inside. Said he could come over for his meals with me and my Peter while he got back on his feet. Once he'd eaten, he left. Said he was coming back here and going to sleep.'
'Anything else?' the inspector asked.
Mrs Thorp pursed her lips. 'He did say one thing that struck me. When I told him he'd need some brass he said, "It'll be all right now, pet." That was it.' She turned to stare at Harper. 'What does that mean? Who did it? Who killed him?'
'The same people who made him carry that stolen silver,' he replied, and he didn't doubt it for a second. 'He never told us their names.' He returned her gaze. 'Do you know who they are?'
She shook her head. 'He never said. I knew better than to ask.'
No doubt she did. Her father had spent his life as a bookie's runner, always dodging the police. The only good thing he'd done for his family was a win on the horses that let him buy the two houses he'd left to his children. But it was the only piece of luck old man White ever enjoyed. Henry hadn't even had that much.
'He didn't give any indication?'
'No.' She was a hard woman, Harper thought. No softness in her heart. God help any children she'd birthed. She'd said her fill; they'd get nothing more.
'Thank you for your time, Mrs Thorp. We'll let you know when you can bury your brother.'
She stood. The woman was taller than he'd expected, her shoulders straight and proud. She pulled the shawl tighter.
'What about the house? It's mine, by rights.'
'I'll see if Henry left a will.'
He doubted that White would have thought of such a thing. But the idea would leave her hanging for a little while.
The front door closed behind her. Harper heard it clearly; this was one of the better days for his hearing.
'Did you find much?'
'Not really had a chance, sir,' Ash said. 'I'd barely finished going through the bedrooms when she came knocking.'
'Did she see him?'
'They'd taken the body by then. If you want my opinion, sir, this place isn't going to tell us a blind thing.'
He agreed. White might not be too clever, but he wouldn't leave anything incriminating.
'I know,' he said with a sigh. 'It still has to be done. What about the uniforms?'
'Not heard a squeak from them.'
'Carry on, see what you can find. I'm going back to Millgarth to take a look at the notes I made when we arrested Henry. Maybe I missed something.'
He was clutching at straws and he knew it. If there'd been so much as a hint of a name he'd have pounced on it at the time. But for now it was all he had.
Excerpted from On Copper Street by Chris Nickson. Copyright © 2017 Chris Nickson. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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