Authors: Chris Nickson
Tags: #General Fiction
He'd never had to do so much riding when looking into a crime before. It wasn't something he relished. Still, it could have been worse. The weather was set fair, the sun pleasant and not too hot, a faint breeze like whispers beyond hearing. If he really had to ride to out Godlove's estate, this was a day for doing it.
The horse took the hill at a slow, easy pace that suited the Constable. He didn't know what he could ask Godlove that he hadn't already asked, or if there was anything that might trip him up. But at least by talking to the man he was doing something, trying to press matters forward.
As he rode along the long drive he could see workers out in the field, but no activity in the yard. At the stable a boy took his mount but told him that the master had left early for an appointment in Bradford.
So much for this journey, Nottingham thought wryly, and went to the kitchen in search of something to drink while the horse was watered and brushed. With the oven going the room was sweltering, the door wide open to try and release some of the heat, the cook red-faced and sweaty.
âMr Godlove's gone, they said.'
âAye, away at the crack of dawn to Bradford. Didn't even take time to eat owt first.' She wiped her brow with a forearm and eyed him carefully. âI've seen you here before. Summat to do with the mistress,' she said suspiciously.
âI'm the Constable of Leeds,' he told her, keeping close to the fresh air by the door.
âWasted your time coming out here today, then. I suppose you want some ale.'
âI'd love some,' he said with a grateful smile.
She gestured at the table. âIt's on there, help yourself. Have you found out who killed her, then?'
âNo,' he admitted, pouring a tall mug and taking a long, welcome drink. âNot yet.'
âThe master's been all inside himself and upside down since it happened. He doted on that lass, you know.'
âWhat was she like?'
The cook crossed her arms, the pink flesh on her upper arms jiggling.
âNot going to say ill of the dead,' was all she offered.
âDo you remember the day she left?'
âEasier to remember the times she was here,' the woman snorted. âOff out every week, then to see those parents of hers, sometimes out with the master. Couldn't keep track of her. Didn't think much of it when she left. Until she didn't come back, of course,' she added hastily.
He took another sip. They brewed well here, with a rich, deep taste. Better than he'd had in many inns.
âWas Mr Godlove here that day?'
She shook her head. âAfter the mistress left he decided to go off to Bradford. Don't blame him, really. Saddled up his horse about an hour after she went, saw him through the window there. Stayed away overnight, and all. Dinner I made would have gone to nought if I hadn't ended up giving it to the men. Not that they minded, of course.'
âWhen did he come back on Friday?' Nottingham tried to make the question one of friendly interest, a simple way of making conversation. She stopped for a moment, casting her mind back.
âLate,' she answered finally. âGone dark, I remember that, because the stable lad had to get up to look after his horse.'
He drained the mug and decided not to press the cook further. She'd probably been here for years, with a strong sense of loyalty to Godlove. Better to let it rest. But it was interesting news and worth storing for later.
âDo you know when he'll be back today?'
She laughed. âHe doesn't tell me, love. He'll be here when he's here. But he didn't say not to cook, so he'll probably come back this afternoon.'
âCould you tell him I was here looking for him and I'll come back tomorrow?'
âAye, I'll do that. You're the Constable, you said?'
She nodded sagely. âImportant job, is it?' she asked.
âI suppose so. The title's worth more than the pay.'
She looked him up and down. âAye, love, I can tell.'
He was still smiling as he rode back down the hill. She'd put him in his place right enough. He glanced at his old coat, shiny at the elbows and collar, his white stock discoloured to ivory, the brilliant yellow of his long waistcoat faded with age. It was a tatterdemalion appearance, he understood that. It might be all well and good in the city, where people recognized his face and knew his position, but out here it just marked him as a poor man.
Still, the things she'd told him had been revealing. Sarah Godlove hadn't managed to win the affection of the servants, it seemed, and she apparently hadn't cared too much for being stuck on Godlove's estate.
But it was the man's absence when his wife vanished that was the most disturbing point. It meant that he could have killed her; he had the time and the chance. And if he knew about Jackson, he had a reason. Things seemed to be starting to point to Godlove and that worried him. He'd been so convinced of the man's innocence, that he was a sincere, grieving widower. Was he losing his instinct? Or was the man really that good an actor? If so, he was even fooling his servants. Whichever it was, it gave the Constable pause. He prided himself on being able to pick out a falsehood quite easily. If he couldn't he was worthless at his job.
He'd be back out to talk to Mr Godlove, and this time he'd be very much on his guard. He'd bring John along, too, and see what he thought. The problem was that they couldn't arrest someone of that rank without very good cause, and finding evidence to convict might be nigh on impossible.
As he made his way slowly along the road back into Leeds, turning by Kirkstall Forge, the ruined tower of the abbey looming out to the west, Nottingham was forced to admit that it was quite possible he'd never know for certain who'd killed Sarah Godlove, or even the real reason why.
He hated failure. He hated to see a life taken and not being able to find the person responsible. It didn't happen often. As he'd told Rob, most murders were simple to solve. But a few had eluded him and he remembered every single one of them, the faces, the dates, the way he'd been unable to bring them justice. He didn't want to add this one to the list.
At the ostler's he dismounted, thighs aching, knowing he'd have to do it again the next day. Still, at least he now had real questions to ask Godlove, and he'd need solid, believable answers.
The others were at the jail, the deputy wearing his frustration on his face and Lister sitting back thoughtfully, cradling a mug of ale in his hands, breadcrumbs scattered loosely across his waistcoat.
âDoesn't look like either of you has had a good morning,' Nottingham said, perching on the corner of the desk. âJohn, I want you to come out to Horsforth with me tomorrow.'
âBest way, unless you really prefer Shanks's mare. Godlove wasn't home. But the cook said he left the same day as Sarah. Went to Bradford and didn't come back until late the following day.'
âStill think he's not guilty, boss?'
The Constable shrugged. âThat's why I want you there when I talk to him. You can tell me what you think.'
âWhat about you, Rob? You're lost in thought.'
âI've been going over Will's papers again, boss. I can't find anything else in his rooms.'
âNothing,' he said with a long sigh. âThere's just nothing there that can help.'
âSo we're stuck,' Nottingham said. âStill, it was worth a try.' He was about to say more when the door was pushed open hard. A young boy, maybe eight years old, wearing just a shirt and torn breeches, his feet bare, looked up at them with wide, terrified eyes.
âPlease sir, you've got to come now,' he said breathlessly. âSome men are attacking a lady.'
Nottingham looked at the other two and reached into a desk drawer, taking out three heavy cudgels.
âEver used one?' he asked Lister.
âSounds like you'll get some practice,' the deputy told him.
Moving at a run past the surprised people on the street, they followed the boy into the thicket of courts that ran off Lands Lane. The lad disappeared into the entrance of one, a space hardly wide enough to pass through in single file, to a yard where the broken-down houses stood around a small, bare patch of ground that hardly ever saw the sun.
âIn there. I heard them.' The lad pointed at a building with its front door missing. Nottingham could hear grunts and shouts coming from inside. He turned and gestured at the others, took a deep breath and charged through the door with a shout, the other two close behind.
The two men trying to kick down the door turned together. They were both large, with battered, worn faces and thick hands, but they were unarmed, knowing their size and power could intimidate most people.
The Constable didn't even need to think. He brought the cudgel down on one man's forearm, hearing the hard wood break bone and the loud, agonized cry that followed. Sedgwick was already attacking the other man, then Lister started, flailing at the skull of the first. Nottingham moved aside to give them room.
It had only been the work of seconds, barely a skirmish, but he still found himself panting hard from it, energy and excitement jangling through his body. Sedgwick's man was laid out on the dirty floorboards, while the other held his arm carefully, blood flowing freely from the wounds on his head.
âWake that one up,' the Constable ordered, âand take them to the jail. See what you can get out of them.'
The deputy used his boot to rouse the unconscious man. He stirred slowly, moving gradually to his knees then vomiting loudly.
âGet him out of here before he does that again,' the Constable ordered. âThe smell here's bad enough as it is.'
There was no resistance in them. As hard men they had nothing to offer beyond their size. They were brutal enough against someone weak, but crumpled if anyone showed them some fight.
Once they'd gone and silence had returned to the stairwell, he knocked on the door. Two of the panels had been smashed, but the lock had held. Another good push or two and it would have given, though.
âI'm the Constable of Leeds,' he said, loud enough for whoever was inside to hear. âYou're safe now.'
There was no response. He tried the handle but it wouldn't give.
âCan you let me in? There's no one here to hurt you.'
Again there was nothing and he waited. He needed to know who was beyond that door.
âPlease, let me in.'
When no one answered he knew he had no choice. Standing back he raised a leg and brought the sole of his boot down hard just below the lock. The door shuddered but held until he did it again and finally everything gave.
Gently, holding the cudgel loosely, he pushed the door open and walked in. A girl was crouched in the far corner, shivering uncontrollably and trying to make herself small, tears coursing down her face, small fingers attempting to hold the torn bodice of her dress together.
âDon't worry,' he told her softly, âI won't hurt you. Those men have gone.'
She looked up at him. He squatted, looking into her eyes and giving an encouraging smile.
âYou're Nan, aren't you?' he said.
âA lot of people have been looking for you, love.'
He reached out to take her hand and she pulled fearfully away. Instead of grabbing her, he left his hand there, as he might with a beaten dog, patiently waiting for her to decide.
âYou've been hiding a few days, haven't you?'
She nodded, eyes wide, as if she didn't trust herself to open her mouth and speak. He had a chance to look at her properly, and saw dark unkempt hair hanging in loose rat tails, grimy skin, fingernails bitten all the way down.
âDon't worry,' he told her kindly, âAmos Worthy can't get you now. You didn't know about him when you took the job in his house, did you?'
âNo.' Her voice was a bare croak, quavering even over one word.
Nottingham took off his coat and passed it to her. âButton that up and you'll be decent. There are some clothes at the jail you can wear.'
She placed her small fingers in his and he pulled her upright. The skin on her palm was callused, and she wiped the tears from her eyes. He helped her up and she put on the coat, far too large on her tiny body; she looked like an absurd doll. The Constable smiled at her.
âThat's better,' he said encouragingly. He kept one hand lightly on the small of her back as they left the house. It helped steady her, although the shaking was growing less, but also ready to hold her in case she tried to run. After the darkness inside the daylight seemed unnaturally bright as they emerged back on to Lands Lane.
âTom was your brother?'
âYes.' She looked at him curiously. âHow did you know that?'
âIt's my job,' he told her.
âHe's dead, isn't he?' she asked flatly, already knowing the answer.
âYes,' he answered. âI'm sorry. But you would have been, too, if we hadn't come. You'll be safe at the jail.'
She looked at him and shook her head, her eyes warier now. âUntil they hang me, you mean?'
âThat depends on the judge.'
On Briggate he stayed close to her, ready for her to try to vanish into the throng of people in the street. But she stayed placid, letting herself be guided, glancing round fearfully, her arm linked through his as they walked. Yes, he thought, she'd be convicted by a jury and they'd hang her up on the Moor for her thefts. She knew that as well as he did, but it wouldn't happen for a while yet. He could give her a little more life.
At the jail he put her in a cell, and brought her a mildewed dress from the chest of old clothes they kept, along with a mug of ale. When he returned, she'd changed her clothes and sat on the pallet, drinking.
âAre they here, too?'