Thursday, 22 December 2016

A dark tale for a bright season

In the spirit of the season, I’m sharing a story that was included in the ‘Festive Frights’ anthology published by the CW Publishing House last Christmas. If it whets your appetite for more dark Christmas tales, you can order the book here

Seasons’ Greetings
by AJ Millen  

The harsh caw of a rook made Inspector Thomas Crumb look up at the row of beech trees on the horizon, their branches outlined stark against the early morning sky. He should have been home by now, sipping tea and nibbling on toast and marmalade after a quiet night shift at Burbon-on-Lee’s tiny police station.

It was cold outside, but colder yet inside Hathaway Cottage as he stepped across the threshold. The living room was crammed with overstuffed, once grand furniture and a collection of knick-knacks that only a lifetime in the same place could accumulate. A forlorn plastic Christmas tree sat in the corner, its lights blinking feebly. Three stockings hung from hooks on either side of the old cast iron fireplace. One hook lay empty, spoiling the careful symmetry.

A line of cards stood on the mantelpiece, pride of place given to the largest one, an ornate affair which looked like it had been made to order. It depicted a room like the one it sat in, but an picture book version without the dust and discarded crockery.

Crumb approached the armchair facing the now cold fireplace, and looked down. In it sat a man in his 80s, wearing a checked flannel shirt, knitted tie and thick jumper vest. His thinning hair was slicked back against his scalp, stray white hairs jutted out wildly from his eyebrows, his skin stretched across closed eyelids and gaunt cheekbones. His ankles were tied to the legs of the chair, wrists firmly bound in his lap, and something was stuffed tight into his mouth. He was dead. Very, very dead. And it didn’t look like he’d gone peacefully.

“Poor old bugger must have choked on whatever the evil bastards shoved down his throat to keep him quiet,” said Jo from Forensics, taking a large pair of tweezers and carefully pulling the make-shift gag out. “See those broken veins, and the bluish tinge to his skin? Tell-tale signs. Asphyxiation…  what the hell?”

Her eyebrows shot up as she tugged the gag out to reveal a length of colourful fabric with the name ‘Jake’ written in glitter above a cheery appliqued snowman. A Christmas stocking – probably intended for one of the grandchildren expecting for a festive visit.

“Funny thing is,” she continued “although obviously some sadistic git did this, there’s no sign of a break-in. All the doors and windows were locked from the inside. Nothing missing either – not even the box of fifties our boys found at the back of his kitchen cupboard. If it hadn’t been for Elsie Symms letting herself in with the spare key, it would have been days before anyone realised they hadn’t seen old George.”
Marjory Falstaff was hard at work, oblivious to the drama unfolding at the other end of the village. Humming along to the Christmas carols playing in the background, she smiled as she gave added the finishing touches. On the shelf behind her, an old grocer’s scales gave the slightest creak as one side clicked down a fraction, bringing it a degree closer to equilibrium with the weights neatly stacked in the opposite tray.

Admiring the finished greetings card, she added the final detail. Her trademark – the shadow gate seal, three truncated crescent moons intertwined to resemble a spiky flower. She’d been using it ever since that day a year ago when she’d made the deal that gave her one last Christmas with David.

Already well-known in the village for her crafting skills, she’d been unable to do anything but cry after that cold November day when the doctors delivered the news. David wouldn’t last a month, they’d said. The cancer was too far gone. He wouldn’t see Christmas, they’d said.

That’s when she swore she’d do anything for more time together. Promised the unthinkable to things she hardly knew (or dared consider) hiding in the shadows, for the chance to celebrate his favourite holiday one last time.

David confounded the doctors and rallied as the darkest day of the year approached. His bloodshot eyes regained something of their old spark as he watched Marjory place the angel atop the extravagant conifer she’d dragged in from the garden and decorated with the glee of a six-year-old. He’d enjoyed a mince pie washed down with mulled wine as they listened to the Midnight Mass on the radio late on Christmas Eve. He’d even opened his gifts with delight and managed to eat a full plate of turkey with all the trimmings on Christmas Day. He was happy. So was his wife.

That happiness was short-lived. Marjory and David did have their one last Christmas together, but that was all. Boxing Day dawned on his cold corpse lying next to her in the bed they’d shared for more than forty years.

Since then, she’d been adding her mark to every card she sold at the village fete, church bazaars and, in the past two months, online.

And now the time had come for her debt to be paid. 
By ten in the morning, Jo had finished her examination and was watching carefully as George Jenkins’ body was loaded into the ambulance for its trip to the mortuary. It wouldn’t take long to formally determine the cause of his death. It was the why and the how that was a mystery.

Crumb sighed as he thought of the paperwork waiting for him back at the station. But first, he called by Bellamy & Sons – Funeral Directors, to let them know they could expect a new customer once the coroner released the body.

A hush washed over him as he opened the door to undertaker’s parlour. A kind-eyed woman rose at the sound of a visitor entering, carefully arranging her features into an expression of solemn compassion. It was replaced with a tired smile when she recognised the local CID man.

“Morning, Doreen,” said Crumb. “Another chilly one, eh?”

Settling into the chair opposite Doreen Bellamy, he continued: “I’ve just come from George Jenkins’ place. Another customer for you, but I’m afraid he didn’t go naturally so you’ll have to contact the coroner’s office to find out when you can get his body and make the arrangements.”

“Seems it’s high season in our business,” Doreen sighed, pushing a desk calendar showing the next two weeks across the page. Every weekday was marked with names for cremation or burial. “The graveyard at St Swithun’s will be more brown than green by New Year.”

Winter was always a busy time, but this year had brought a bumper crop of freak accidents in addition to the usual cases of pneumonia or dodgy tickers that carried off the old and infirm. A single mother, determined to give her kids a jolly holiday despite her limited budget, electrocuted when trying to fix the ancient wiring on fairy lights found in the attic. A reckless teenage boy, his neck snapped like a twig when he slipped trying to fix a large illuminated Santa to the roof of his family’s home. The aging spinster found frozen solid on the park bench, the remains of seed she used to feed the birds still clinging to the fibres of her woolen glove.  
Time for a break, Marjory told herself. She stood up from her work table, stretched and hobbled painfully to the kitchen. Filling the kettle, she gazed out of the window. Weak winter sun was struggling to break through the clouds, casting patches of warmth and light on her lawn to melt the frost on the grass.

A robin landed on the handle of a spade leaning against the shed. It turned in Marjory’s direction and seemed to look directly at her with its bright eye.

“Hello, sweetheart,” said murmured. The robin redbreast always put her in mind of David, making her feel that he was still keeping an eye on her from… well, beyond whatever it was that separated the living from the dead.

She turned on the radio to listen to the midday news, more out of habit than interest. Terror, conflict and death washed over her like a breeze moving a net curtain, Her ears pricked up at the news of a woman in Vermont trampled by a herd of wild reindeer – an animal never before known in the state. And in Australia, a brand of gourmet Christmas pudding had been withdrawn after a child died of internal bleeding after eating a bowlful laced with broken glass.

The scales on the windowsill moved another inch closer to balancing the books.
Temperatures plummeted in Burbon-on-Lee the night before the winter solstice. An icy wind cut through the streets without bringing a single flake of the snow the children hoped for.

“Too cold for snow” opined Harry, resident amateur meteorologist and barman at the ‘Old Bell’ pub as regulars piled in for something to chase away the chill. The fire in the 16th century inglenook and the crush of pre-Christmas drinkers offered a warm refuge. Outside, long icicles formed on the eaves overhanging the footpath to the car park, trembling slightly with every gust of wind.

The cowbell above the door jangled as Inspector Crumb walked in, seeking a warm meal and company after a long day.

“Evening, Tom,” said Harry, wiping spilled beer from the bar. “What can I get for you?”

“I was thinking of one of Sal’s piping hot meat pies,” said the policeman, settling into the high stool.

“Coming right up,” said the barman, making a note of the order. “And what about a pint while you wait? Or are you still on duty?”

Finished for the day, Crumb decided on something from the pub’s selection of traditional real ales. Home was less than a quarter of a mile away, he could always walk.

“I’m done for the day. Give me a pint of Green Man.”

Taking a sip from the nutty brew, Crumb looked around the bar. Regulars sat around their usual tables, sharing the gossip – no doubt including the demise of old George. A pair of old codgers supped hot toddies over a game of chess. At the far end of the bar, a gaggle of suited twenty-somethings hooted in a fit of pre-Christmas boisterousness.

One pint led to another, as Crumb settled into a comfortable stupour after his hot meal. He didn’t want to go home to the empty house that had felt as personal as an airport hotel room since the day Jane left three years ago. He settled back in his seat, contentedly working on The Times crossword and looking up every now and then to greet familiar faces as they came and went.

The gang of drunks at the far end of the bar were getting louder and more obnoxious. If they carried on, he might need to get official and order them to pipe down.

But no, they’d had enough of the charms of the country pub and were now on their way out. No doubt to some city bar serving champagne cocktails with cranberry spiked swizzle sticks.

None were in a fit state to get behind the wheel - but that wasn’t Crumb’s problem. Just days before Christmas, there would be plenty of officers on the look-out for drunks stupid enough to attempt to drive.

Crumb raised a hand to signal to Harry for a hot toddy before calling it a night. But before the barman could respond, a monstrous gust of wind shook the pub, howling like a wild animal trapped beneath its eaves. A rumble, a crash and a scream smashed through the cacophony outside. Harry looked up, threw the bar door open and dashed out to see what had happened. Driven by his unshakable sense of duty, Crumb followed.

Through the dark peppered with the first wild swirls of snow loomed an unexpected sight. Not a toppled chimney stack, as he had expected, but the largest icicle that had dangled from the eaves had plummeted to the ground. Unfortunately, the head of one of the departing Yuppies had got in the way.

Spread-eagled in a growing pool of blood mingling with smashed ice splinters, the be-suited young man was clearly not breathing. The left side of his face was obliterated and his expensively cut hair matted with gore and bits of brain. A blonde knelt next to him, hysterical, heaving and screeching.  

Crumb watched, paralysed by shock and fatigue. Around him, people were running, screaming, shouting. Harry was yelling into his mobile phone.

Something made Crumb look up and started at a gargoyle-like face grinning down at him from the rooftop. He blinked and looked again. This time, he saw only darkness broken by the approaching flashing blue of the ambulance lights bouncing off the red brick pub wall. Must be seeing things, he thought. Shock, fatigue and too many pints of Green Man could have that effect.
Marjory was desperate. Time was running out, and the scales had still not balanced. Payment was due and if it wasn’t made… well, who knew?

One more, just one more to appease the powers that had granted her those last few days with David, and the promise that they would – one day – be reunited.

She grabbed a card from the pile she had finished that afternoon, and hastily scribbled a greeting inside. She sealed the envelope and wrote “Inspector Thomas Crumb” on the outside, and prepared to leave the house to deliver it to the police station.

She let out a strangled scream as she opened the front door to a man dressed in red. He lowered his fur-trimmed hood to reveal the ruddy, familiar face of David. Her David, healthy and happy, before the cancer.

But her blood turned to ice as his smile twisted into a snaggle-toothed snarl and he raised a filthy-clawed hand holding a white envelope bearing HER name. In the bottom right hand corner, she spied the shadow gate seal, calling to her like a homing signal.

“I’ve brought your card, Marjory,” rasped the figure before her, no longer wearing the face she loved. “It’s your turn now. The balance is paid. Time to go.”

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