Today's Reading

A dreary day for walking through Leeds. Misting drizzle mixed with sharp squalls of rain. But it was late September, what could anyone expect? Harper shook out his mackintosh and hung it on the peg in his office at Millgarth police station, waiting as his squad filed in for their morning meeting.

'How was the funeral, sir?' Detective Inspector Ash asked. Sergeants Walsh and Sissons took the chairs, Detective Constable Galt stood with his back against the wall and Ash filled the doorway, leaning against the jamb.

Billy's funeral. It felt like ancient history now.

'How are any of them?' he answered. There didn't seem to be more to say. Every last farewell was bleak. 'I have some good news for you. We're not going to be bored for the next few weeks.' Flashes of interest, until he told them they would be policing Asquith's visit.

'I'll be in charge, moving around where I'm needed, and I'll handle things when the prime minister arrives at Central Station. Ash, you're in control outside the Coliseum. Walsh, you'll have the easy duty inside the building. Sissons, I want you keeping a very close eye on this demonstration in Victoria Square.'

'What about me, sir?' Galt asked. He was still young, just twenty-four, promoted to plain clothes two years before. Eager, sharp, maybe a little too cynical about the job. But he always did his duty and much more besides. He was learning, coming along.

'You'll be my runner, delivering messages to the others and bringing reports.' He saw the man's face fall; he'd hoped for something more substantial. That couldn't be helped. 'We'll have plenty of uniforms, and you'll all need to work with them. Go out and take a look at everything. I'd like rough plans and ideas on my desk in the morning.'

He put on his spectacles and picked up the pile of letters waiting on his desk. There'd been jokes when he started to wear them, but they helped. Each year the pile of paperwork seemed to grow; most of the time he felt chained to this desk.

A postcard lay on top, a hand-coloured view of Table Mountain in South Africa. From Fowler. He'd been the detective sergeant in Harper's squad until he volunteered as an intelligence officer at the start of the Boer War. Now he was settled as an inspector with Cape Town police, married with a child and another on the way. One happy ending, at least. He set it aside and went through the rest. The usual complaints and accusations. He dropped most of them in the bin by his feet.

The last, though, stayed in his hands. He read it through twice, then steepled his fingers under his chin. Finally he marched out to the front desk.

No more Sergeant Tollman out there. The old order had changed with the century. For the last eight years it had been Sergeant Mason, an affable, sharp man in his fifties, with three decades of solid police service behind him. But he'd never possess Tollman's long connection to Millgarth. All that memory had gone, the encyclopaedia of knowledge about faces and names, who'd been arrested when and for what.

'Fourteen years ago a child was reported missing,' Harper said. 'A boy named Andrew Sharp. He was two and a half years old.'

'All right, sir,' Mason answered warily.

'His family lived in one of the courts where County Arcade stands now.'

'If you say so, sir.' He could see the doubt on the man's face, wondering where this was leading.

'I'd like the report on his disappearance and the action taken.'

'I'll hunt it down for you.'

Harper smiled. 'Thank you.'

As he passed through the detectives' room, Ash was cramming his old bowler hat on to his head.

'You'd better stay a while. I'm going to need you.'

Back in his office, he read the letter once more. Franked at the Central Post Office, no signature. With its wide curls and loops it was a woman's writing, no doubt of that. But a shaky hand, unsteady and awkward, with some of the words misspelled.

I am dieing now. Before I meet my maker I need to get something off my chest. Fourteen years ago a man was paid to steal a child. His name was Andrew. He lived in Harmony Yard and he was two and one half years of age. The one who was paid the money is also dead now. But I know that he received money to do it from a family named Cranbrook who are rich. He told me that unce. It has prayed on me that it was wrong to take the little boy from his family. I hope you can do something about it.

A missing child. It would have been important news, something to stir the whole city, to start them searching. It would have been all over the papers, and then the shock if the boy had never been found. But he had no memory of it. Nothing at all. As if it had never happened.

Fourteen years ago he'd been a detective inspector. Harmony Yard was on his patch, he'd have been assigned the case. Yet he'd never heard of this before. No matter how deep he delved in his mind, he couldn't recollect any mention of the disappearance.

Half an hour later Mason knocked on the door and placed a grubby folder on his desk. Tiny fragments of cobweb from the record room clung to his uniform.

'Sorry it took me a while, sir. Turns out it was fifteen years ago, not fourteen. I had to do some digging.'

'Good work, Sergeant.'

'I don't suppose you fancy a cuppa, sir? I'm just going to make one, wash out all that dust in my throat.'

'You don't need to ask, do you?' Harper grinned. 'When have I ever said no?'

Just two sheets of paper in the file. A prickle of worry rose up his spine. It should have been inches thick, bulging with reports and newspaper clippings. The results of dozens of interviews, all the sightings and their follow-ups. Something was very wrong.

He took out the first page. Handwritten, the blue ink rusted brown with age. From the man on the beat, PC Taylor. Harper took a breath. That was a name he didn't want to see. He'd finally sacked him back in '98. No choice, after repeated offences and fines for drinking on the job and consorting with prostitutes. The final straw had been taking a small bribe. Never a good man, never thorough. A stain on the force.

This excerpt ends on page 12 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book The Shooting at Chateau Rock by Martin Walker.

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