During the run-up to Christmas, the authors of Crime Cymru have come together to post short Christmas stories throughout December to the Crime Cymru website and its social media platforms. There will be a story every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday until the 22nd of December. Each story will be by a different author to keep your thirst for crime fiction alive while the stress of Christmas takes over.
We hope you enjoy our festive tales and on behalf of all the authors, we wish you a Merry Christmas.
Matlock and the Night Before is an eerie tale by Eamonn Griffin of Dan Matlock’s walk through the snowy streets to conduct business on the night of Christmas eve.
Matlock and the Night Before by Eamonn Griffin
A partial thaw had refrozen. Dan Matlock walked on the road. Safer in the salted slush by the kerb than up on the pavement. That’s how you broke your hip, skidding where footfall had polished the snow to medieval glass.
Shouting in the dark somewhere. Drunks, laughing. Noise, then not. A pub letting out some of its last. Making the most of extended licencing rules for the holiday. Maybe a lock-in.
It was well after midnight when Matlock had left his place. The later the better for this kind of work. He’d watched a film on BBC2: The Innocents. A ghost story kind of thing. Then had turned over and had done the washing-up while a midnight mass played on BBC1. Then the national anthem, and that was telly done for the night.
Matlock gave it a while more, then headed out.
Now, it was closer to two. He’d judged the time about right. You couldn’t leave it too late. Some houses would be up early, after all.
Matlock had walked from the caravan park where he lived on the outskirts of town. He could have driven in, but the car was an encumbrance on a job like this. Something else to go wrong; something for cops trying to make their drink-drive quota pull over. Besides, the walk gave him time and space to think. And he’d have the same thinking time on the way back too.
Matlock’s path took him by the town centre. He avoided going past the places where there’d be more likelihood of stragglers. At least the snow was all but gone here. Patches where residual snowfall had been shovelled into mounds. Lines along walls where feet, the daytime sun, and the grit scattered by the council didn’t reach.
A lone taxi. Last job of the night perhaps. Matlock shivered. Could have done with another layer under his army surplus coat, but he couldn’t afford the bulk. Not tonight. Keep moving. That was the trick. Fast as you can.
No gloves, either. That was preference. He’d never liked them. Hands in pockets, that was the way. Matlock flexed his fingers, balled them back into fists. Got the blood shifting.
Back into residential streets now. Big houses. Three storeys above ground, and like as not one under too. Traffic light runs of doorbells showed that some had been converted into flats, but most were undivided. There were no lights on. Curtains were drawn. A couple of buildings had that dark window stare that spoke of no-one home.
Stillness. No breeze, no sound. No smoke from chimneys. Embers in fireplaces cooling to a brittle grey.
The houses were in short terraced runs. Six to a stretch, with wide paths at each end to get around the back. Long rear gardens. Garages, he supposed, converted from outbuildings. These homes dated from horse-drawn days. There’d have been stabling at one time for the better-off. Not bad if you could afford it, then or now.
Matlock’s target address was one in from the left. The front downstairs window curtains weren’t drawn. A decorated tree was on display for the street. Tinsel and baubles. Star, not angel. The windows above had their curtains drawn. The house was supposed to be empty. Gone away until New Year; that was part of what the money had been for, if you believed the story.
Believing the stories, though, wasn’t Matlock’s job. Collecting on unpaid repayments. That was where he came in.
The way Chris – who lent the money, and who Matlock worked for – had told it, she’d been lied to. The tale was something about a relative needing the cash, ready money and quick because of overseas medical expenses. The time of year only made it all the more urgent. It just wasn’t possible to arrange anything through the bank. They had to have the money so they could pay it in, have it wire-transferred to the States, and then there was something about flying out and bringing the relative home.
Chris’d seen photocopies of paperwork backing most of this up. She’d had them with her when talking this through with Matlock. They’d been annotated. A story falling apart under scrutiny. Chris’d told him of her concerns. About what she wanted done, and if he’d do it tonight.
Why not, Matlock had said. It wasn’t like he was going out.
The footpaths were snowier here. Some had cleared the steps to their doors and the pavements outside their houses. Others hadn’t. The target’s was one of the latter. Multiple sets of footprints up and down. Not enough to plough a furrow in the white.
You wouldn’t shovel the snow away if you weren’t going to be there.
No point taking any chances though. Matlock was careful where he trod, fitting his boots into existing impressions in the snow where he could.
He stood, now at the backs of the houses. He had a torch, a small one, but let his eyes adjust to the lack of light. You stand, you wait, and the world comes to you.
Further along, high walls with door-tall gates ran from the houses to the far end of the gardens, and whatever was down there. Here, though, there was hard standing by the back doors and steps with handrails down to basements. Scrappy fencing and untroubled snow off into the distance.
No lights. Not from the rears of these houses, and not from those that backed onto their property.
The house was the second one along.
A back door. Steps down to the cellar. Footprints back and forth. Matlock took a set that led underground.
The basement door. Wood up to the waist, then nine panes of glass, three by three. A Yale lock. Matlock took out his penknife. Maybe not original, but it wasn’t new.
He had options. Take out a pane, reach in. Or force the door. Matlock made his choice; was inside in seconds. Shut the door behind him. Breathed in.
Now, you hold. Houses have heartbeats, and you have to adjust. So you know the resting home, and so you can sense the change in the building when matters are elevated.
Matlock gave it thirty seconds to be sure.
All was quiet.
Nevertheless, you learn not to assume.
He hadn’t had to climb in a window. Which meant he could have afforded that extra layer. No matter. The job was half done. He’d be on his way home soon enough.
Time to get on with it.
Matlock had a torch. A small thing. Black with yellow details. Shaped like a lighter; the American kind you filled with petrol from a nozzled can. The top flipped up and the beam came on. There was some kind of visual pun going on there. Some design genius in London had come up with that all by himself. Red specs and braces. Had taken the rest of the day off; treated the team to the pub on expenses. Matlock had bought the torch in Woolworths. Liked the look of it. The way it wasn’t a torch to the touch. Not the kind of thing you could be accused of going equipped with.
The cellars were for storage. Bikes, boxes. A run of racking for wine, but not many bottles on display. Dry, though. No smell of mustiness. There was a set of stairs up.
The door at the top of the stairs was held shut by a latch. A token gesture. Matlock flipped it up with the knife-blade. Opened the door in the same moment, and caught the mechanism from clattering back onto itself.
Stealth. That was the key.
Chris had reckoned that Matey hadn’t gone anywhere. Had played with a photocopier and had conjured the snide paperwork to cover for whatever he really wanted the cash for. Shouldn’t have done that.
So, have a look. If he was there, have a word. Just that.
There were words, and there were serious words in this business. A word was simply that. Make the point. Leave no room for ambiguity.
Having a serious word, though. That could really ruin your Christmas.
Just a word; that was the instruction.
If he wasn’t there, have a look. See if there was evidence one way or another. A passport, for example.
Matlock was in the kitchen. Spacious. Branded appliances. Big table. With a glass and a plate at one end. Doors outward: one into the hall, one to a dining room, Matlock guessed.
He knew what it was, but had a look anyway. There was a piece of paper being held down by the plate. The paper had a cartoony ragdoll character on it. An idealised Great Depression-era waif. Matlock had seen birthday cards with a similar design. Holly something.
“Dear Santa,” the note read. “Here is some sherry and a mince pie. Please have another if you like. They are in the tin next to the bread bin. Love from Sally (aged 7)”. There were two kisses. One was arrowed, indicating that it was for Rudolph.
The tin was next to the bread bin, like the note said. A repurposed thing that had once held a biscuit assortment. Matlock knew the kind. Two layers deep; a Christmas staple of his dead father.
The mince pie was home-made. A little uneven, filling having bubbled up between the pastry base and lid. It had been dusted with icing sugar. Small fingerprints indicated this had been done before being plated up.
A creak. Matlock turned. Closed the torch in on itself.
Then a second.
Someone was coming down the stairs.
Matlock moved to the door through to the hall. Listened.
Small movements. Bare feet on polished wood.
Matlock replaced the torch in his pocket. Didn’t bother with the blade. Just put a booted foot up against the door so it couldn’t be opened from the far side.
The footsteps came closer. Paused. Then the handle shivered.
Matlock dropped his voice. ‘You can’t come in, Sally.’
‘Now. That would be telling. I might just be an ordinary grown-up.’
‘You don’t sound like one. Where’s your reindeer? The sleigh?’
‘Ah, they’re up on the roof. I’m just doing my checks. Making sure there aren’t any little boys or girls awake along the street. If there are, then I can’t deliver any presents.’
‘Magic. The rules don’t allow it. So, I’ve got to wait. Maybe I’ll do another street and try here later.’
‘You can have a mince pie while you’re waiting. And there’s a drink there too.’
‘I saw. That’s very kind of you, Sally.’
‘We made them today. The mince pies. Me and Dad did.’
‘Did you? I bet he’s asleep upstairs, like a good boy.’
‘I think so, yes.’
‘Well, in the morning, you tell him that Father Christmas has been, and that he knows exactly who’s been naughty, and who’s been nice.’
‘Not Santa, that’s a nickname. Father Christmas. Naughty and nice. Can you remember that, Sally?’
‘Good. Well, it’s been lovely talking, but I really have to get on. So if you go straight up to bed and straight to sleep, then you can see what the morning brings. Oh, and one last thing, Sally.’
‘What is it?’
‘Sometimes when grown-ups talk to children, they don’t always believe what the little boy or girl says, do they?’
‘Well, if Mum or Dad don’t believe you, especially Dad, you tell them to look at the mince pie.’
‘I will. Goodnight, Santa.’
The handle shifted; the girl must have been holding it throughout. Footsteps away, and then up. The padding of footprints upstairs. The distant sound of a bed settling.
Matlock picked up the mince pie with care. Took a big bite. Big enough for it not to be mistaken for that of a child. Then he placed what was left back on the plate. He wiped a cuff over anything he might have touched.
On the way out through the cellar he took a bottle of wine. Red, French, not too dusty.
He didn’t have a bottle opener, but he had his penknife. Levering the cork would help keep the cold out on the walk home, Matlock reckoned.