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.
Clan is a fast-paced and thrilling story by Sally Spedding following a young bar maid’s treacherous journey home after a long night shift.
Clan by Sally Spedding
Monday 15th December 2008.
The drizzle hadn’t let up all day. Sly and silent in the growing dusk, it now permeated Fiona Carter’s clothing, chilling her skin as she walked from Kilforgan’s only pub to her small red hatchback in the overflow car park across the road.
“See ye tomorrow, then.” Called a male voice from behind her. She spun round to see Donald McKenzie’s face filling the open attic window below ‘The Wild Thistle’s’ wet, dark roof. His smile like a black scar. Eyes too fixed on her for comfort. But what could she do? Her part-time barmaid’s job was all she’d been able to get to help fund her English degree course at Glasgow university. The sole offer after her two other A level subjects had let her down. ‘Options’ was a word for other, luckier people. Not her.
She didn’t answer him. It was enough that he chose those dire music tapes to fill her ears each afternoon and evening until 8 o’clock. That he often passed too close to her in the pub’s narrow passageways, stopping too long before moving on. If she complained to his dad who owned the place, she’d be given her cards. And then what?
Christmas was just around the corner, too, with cards and presents to buy.
Fiona heard the window slam shut as she unlocked her Citroën Saxo. A basic model with no alarm or immobiliser. But then wasn’t Argyll altogether safer than her home town Northampton where car theft was rife? She kept the pub in her sights through the wing mirror while waiting for a suitable gap between the string of caravans and camper vans trundling towards Oban. Although ‘The Wild Thistle’ might seem little more than a harmless sugar cube, green-stained by years of damp, she knew better. That it was just a matter of time before she must risk her meagre income by handing in her notice.
A single loch-side track road now, with rare passing places and high, mossy stone walls on either side, guarding the dense forests whose sawn firs heaped into house-sized stacks, bled sap from each cut.
Suddenly the lights of some huge oncoming lorry seared through the darkness ahead of her.
Her wipers were too slow in clearing the film of viscous, yellow insect innerds off her windscreen. Then came the wheeze of brakes, the rip of rubber on mud. She and the white-fronted Daf truck stayed face to face. Its grimacing radiator grille, the blinding headlights turned on full, all conspiring to rob her of a precious evening in her digs completing her English assignment on Thomas Mann for the start of the new term. Just then, her cosy room seemed to be on the other side of the world…
Whatever else Donald McKenzie had said about her, pushover she was not.
“I’m staying put,” she told herself, reaching for her mobile. “This bastard’s just ignored a passing place. I can see the sign.” Besides, reversing had cost her two previous driving tests. No way was she attempting that risky manoeuvre here.
“Move, will ye?” Came a female voice from the cab’s open window. “I’ve fresh trout to deliver.”
Fiona hesitated. Okay, so the driver wasn’t a man. But why couldn’t she place that familiar voice?
“I’m giving ye ten frigging seconds. One… two…”
That other engine revved, bringing the beast closer. The impact forced the Saxo back, inch by inch while panic made Fiona unclick her seat belt.
“Stop!” She yelled, but was anyone listening? And, just as she was about to bale out, her rear wheels slewed from right to left, taking her off the narrow tarmac on to shingle. “Jesus!”
Moments later, just as the loch’s black water seemed to rise up behind her, came the juddering clash of steel against rock. She located the door’s handle and her knee shoved it open, letting in the stench of dead fish. But she’d been lucky. A single boulder had stopped her slide into Loch Lomond where her Mum and Dad often brought her as a kid, until debt worries took him away forever.
Dad… Who’d chosen her name meaning ‘white and fair’ as a souvenir of happier times. But never since he’d locked himself in the bedroom of their Kingsthorpe home and turned on the gas fire, had she felt so powerless. Her mobile slipped from her lap on to shingle and vanished under the Saxo.
Fearing her car’s petrol tank might explode, she tried scrambling up the bank to the road and follow where that lorry had gone, but pain shooting down each leg from her hips meant she could only crawl. Next came the sound of feet running on stones which rattled like old teeth, and above the fish smell she detected something different. A woman’s perfume. Sweet and equally repellent.
But it was the laugh which drove her to take cover behind a fallen tree trunk. A laugh soon joined by a male voice she knew only too well.
“Ye there, Fiona? I’ve got yer phone. Ha.”
How the hell had he known she was there? What to do now? She wanted her phone but not him or his unborn baby. Eight weeks ago it happened, and the moment her home-test kit said positive, she’d sorted a termination for next Thursday at a Glasgow clinic. Four days away.
He’d caught her by surprise on her first busy evening at the pub. Pressed her against its damp, bumpy wall near the boiler room before lifting her skirt. Then the rest, with his hand clamped on her mouth. Threatening her job if she blabbed…
“Our Marie’s got a Rotty, remember?” McKenzie went on. “Not been fed for a while neither…”
Marie. Of course. His only sister. Five months gone, she’d boasted during their one recent conversation in the bar. Some fish farm worker it was, keen to marry her by Christmas. Fiona had seen the huge, smooth-coated dog too. But why were the McKenzies after her? Nothing was making sense, except that she must distract them.
Nearby lay a sizeable stone and, with the greatest effort, she hefted it in the opposite direction along the bank.
“This way!” Donald McKenzie yelled to his sister. “Fuckin’ move.”
Fiona’s tights were shredded at the knees. Her elbows’ skin too, and by the time she’d scrambled up to the road, screened by the thickest trees ever, she could scarcely breathe. And then, through the dark drizzle, a spectral whiteness showed above the roadside wall. That same lorry tucked into a passing bay.
No time to wonder how she’d reach the driver’s door handle let alone the cab, but she did. Or rather, it was her dead Dad taking her pain, making everything possible. She dared not slam the door but held it close as she started the engine and drove off single-handed, praying the road ahead would stay clear.
She couldn’t see any other parked vehicle, so presumably Donald had been with his sister in the cab all along and they’d driven the long way round to meet her… That thought made her quicken along the twisting road, gritting her teeth to keep the stabbing pelvic pains at bay. Wherever those two were, they could soon be on her trail again, and being so conspicuous was a risk with the cops too. Not that she’d seen many, but from what she’d overheard in the bar, the McKenzie clan seemed to dominate this small corner of Argyll. Above suspicion. Above the law, too. And another one growing inside her…
She had to lose that lorry fast and, as if her dad was helping again, a convenient forestry track led off on the left. Here she parked and struggled to the ground to get her bearings. More drizzle, stronger now and rustling sounds coming from the invisible plantation beyond that same track. She hobbled towards the road, keeping as close to the stone wall as possible. Her ruined shoes sliding in the muddied ruts made by previously speeding vehicles. This way led back to Kilforgan and its pub, but at least she had coins for the call box there to phone home. Like her digs, Spinney Hill seemed a world away. Her Mum already a stranger…
“Hello there, young lassie. Can I help ye at all?”
Fiona stopped, and in the darkness spotted an aged woman wearing a shawl over her head standing in the doorway of a tiny bothy shielded by a mass of trees. Not the first time had her powers of observation slipped. She, once the sparkiest girl in her school’s mixed sixth form, was losing it.
“Would ye be liking a nice cup of tea?” the old creature persevered. “I can see yer having trouble walking…” Fiona wondered why those colourless eyes were fixed on her stomach, and instinctively pulled her shoulder bag round to conceal it.
Never mind tea. Vodka and Coke more like, she thought, unsettled by this strange woman’s focus, aware of her own dry mouth. Her utter exhaustion. The offer of a drink very tempting indeed.
“Thanks. And do you happen to have a phone I could use?”
The woman nodded and, although no telegraph wires were visible, Fiona found herself drawn towards the dwelling. Her pain seemed to dissolve as the damp silence enveloped the past, the present unravelling in this realm of ash trees, tall as cathedrals where a deep eerie stillness she’d not experienced before, held her like a fly in amber.
She soon reached a tight gap in the wall and groped her way down the sloping overgrown path to an open front door. Here she stalled for a moment before stepping inside, only to find the old woman had gone. In her place, the sound of bubbling water; that same nauseous smell of dead fish, and sure enough in the gloomy kitchen on a table covered by a worn oilskin cloth lay three plump trout; blood lining their open mouths while six lifeless eyes stared up at the flies circling above their speckled flesh.
Where could that crone possibly be? Had she been hallucinating?
“Now, me wee lassie,” that same voice broke the silence. “Take a seat while I pour the tea…”
Fiona spun round, relieved to see her new acquaintance move towards the stove, her black skirt whispering against the uneven stone flags with every step. Her face in close-up resembled an ancient rock hollowed by the tide. Fiona duly chose the nearest chair whose sagging weave cradled her sore hips while her hostess poured water from a buckled pan into a chipped brown teapot. She noticed spent candles in iron sconces ranged along the walls; the stone sink with no taps and, like ‘The Wild Thistle’ no sign of Christmas.
“You said you had a phone,” she reminded her, watching the flies multiply.
“Did I indeed?”
“Just now. When I first met you.”
The old woman filling two tin mugs with tea, was no longer an attraction. Escape was priority.
Then a shiver because the front door was now firmly shut with two black bolts drawn across. But why the sudden security? She’d not heard anything or anyone outside. Within two silent steps, the topmost bolt lay in her hand.
“No ye don’t.” That same body with its sour breath suddenly stood in the way, but when Fiona tried to push it aside, her fists met icy swirling air. Then a knife gripped by yellowed, skeletal fingers, was pointing at her stomach.
“Us McKenzies won’t have nae foreign blood taking their name. We fought long and hard here to keep ye Sassenachs out…”
“What do you mean?” But in her deepest, trembling heart, Fiona knew.
“Marie, me great grand-daughter told me. She can see things. She’s got the gift…Their bairn’s due near Easter. Hers and Donald’s. They don’t want yours. None of us does.”
Hers and Donald’s?
“Let me go!”
Only the knife was real, solid, still pointing at her. Fiona backed away.
“I wasn’t going to keep it anyway. I was raped. Ask Donald.”
All at once, those two bolts began to slide aside of their own accord and the opened door revealed two figures framed by a mass of darkly swaying firs. The man with the black smile let the huge, smooth-coated dog enter first, his jaws edged with spittle, clamped around a black roll of Kilforgan Council bin liners.