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.
The Christmas Spirit is an exhilarating tale by Thorne Moore of an account and a tea pot at Christmas.
The Christmas Spirit by Thorne Moore
It was a porcelain teapot, with flowers and a couple of bucolic figures. Being practical, I look at a teapot and think, will it pour without dribbling? But such thoughts did not bother Mrs Barraclough. For her, the flowery teapot was pure perfection, dribbles or no.
‘That’s it!’ She clapped her ancient hands, peering over my shoulder at the computer screen. ‘That was my teapot. The one I didn’t want to go.’
‘A bit like yours, or definitely yours?’ I had to ask.
‘Oh, mine. That little man and the lady. Frederick and Alice, I called them. Lots of teapots my Jack gave me, over the years, daft ones most of them, but that was the first I ever had in my collection, from my aunty Nell. I never wanted that one to go.’
I glanced at the screen again. £12,000 auction estimate. ‘Yes, I can see why you’d want to hang onto it at that sort of price.’
‘Oh I never thought of that,’ she said innocently. ‘Aunty Nell always said it was worth a bob or two, but I just liked it. Never wanted to sell it, but it all got so confused. “Not that one,” I said, but it just got swept up with the rest.’
‘And now, there it is.’ I gazed at it thoughtfully. ‘Worth a bob or two.’
Mrs Barraclough smiled beatifically at me. ‘My teapot.’
‘Let me think about it,’ I said, and her smile deepened in the chasms of her wrinkled face as she left me. Trusting me.
I did like Mrs Barraclough, an eccentric old dear, left alone, widowed, sadly vulnerable. I wanted to help her if I could. How though? I was an accountant. That didn’t mean I had £12,000 to spare for a teapot but it did mean I had methods.
I sat at my high window, thinking about it. Old Mr Winterton, drifting around the grounds, looked up at me hopefully. I opened the window to call.
‘I’m just working on something for Mrs Barraclough,’ I explained. ‘I’ll speak to you soon, I promise.’
Satisfied, Mr Winterton disappeared among the thickets of holly and rhododendrons that enclosed Hapston House. He would have the grounds to himself. The house had been a retirement home, run by the local council, until they had realised its commercial value and unleashed developers to convert the former mansion into elegant, astronomically priced apartments for the professional classes. The old residents who had loved the grounds had been shuffled off, just in time for Christmas, to Parkhill, a local nursing home with an exceptionally dire reputation. Two or three, like Mrs Barraclough, clung on, refusing to budge until they were good and ready, but most of my neighbours, the new residents of Hapston House, were young affluent commuters, who vanished at the crack of dawn, returned late and cared nothing for the engulfing gardens.
I gazed over the winter greenery and the distant rooftops into the paling December sky. A wide sky for wide thoughts. That’s why I had selected what the developers called The Penthouse, though the original architect, in 1879, would have called it Servants’ Attics. Whatever it was, or had been, it was infinitely preferable to my last place, a demoralised conversion in a former workhouse. Clean, simple, free of the heavy Victoriana of the lower floors. Disgracefully pricey, but if I have to spend my time immersed in the sordid toil of balancing other people’s books, I think I deserve a little luxury as compensation.
A quiet space to think. Was £12,000 worth of teapot so very much to set an old woman’s mind at rest? Mrs Barraclough had been a collector all her life – teapots, postcards, spoons, – a simple jackdaw joy, but eventually she had been reduced to selling, to cover the cost of staying on in what she’d come to think of as her home. All her teapots had gone; the Edwardian silver, and the battered pewter, the striped and the spotted, the elegant and the absurd and the one shaped like Winnie the Pooh. All swept away as a job lot, even the heirloom from Aunty Nell that had finally, all these years later, reappeared on-line in an auction catalogue.
I just had to bid more than anyone else, and Mrs Barraclough’s teapot would be back where it belonged, a Christmas present for a very deserving old lady. I debated, considered, weighed up the options. Then I switched my PC on again.
There are laws, stringent penalties, there are firewalls and passwords, and all manner of threats and security precautions, but the truth is, infiltrating other people’s on-line business is not nearly as difficult as most of us would like to think. I have a gift for such… let’s not call it fraud. A talent for interfering in other people’s affairs. Perhaps I could make millions if I chose, but I’m not greedy. I am content with using my skills to get what is needed, when I need it. And what I needed now was that teapot.
Access the auction house’s private files.
Find its lists of regular approved dealers and bidders from round the country, round the world.
Saatchi! He certainly wouldn’t miss the money. I was tempted, but no, I needed someone nearer to home.
Jeremy T. Crane, Crane Antiques. The very man. He hadn’t placed any bids for a while, but he still had an account, and his shop was only a bullet’s flight from Hapston House, on the other side of the park. All I had to do… But I shouldn’t explain precisely, should I? Pas devant les enfants. You wouldn’t want to be corrupted by my illicit knowledge.
Suffice it to say that when the auction was held, the successful bid for the flowery teapot was placed by Jeremy T.Crane, acting as agent for Libra Accounts, of Hapston House. £13,500; it could have been worse.
When the teapot arrived by special courier, on Christmas Eve, I unearthed it from its protective crate with Mrs Barraclough watching my every move, her rheumy eyes glinting with tears, greeting long lost friends. Pure joy. Then she looked up at me, waiting for advice.
‘I think we should get it properly valued, don’t you?’ I suggested.
She smiled, accepting my guidance with child-like faith.
So I phoned Crane Antiques. Considering his extremely generous, if unconscious, participation in our scheme, Jeremy Crane deserved the chance to behold the object of it all.
‘I am looking for a valuation,’ I said. ‘I understand you might be prepared to call round and take a look? I’d rather not cart valuable porcelain around the streets.’
‘Yes, Madam, I can certainly give you a valuation. For insurance, is it, or are you thinking of selling?’ A carefully honed, no-nonsense Honest Jack tone.
‘I was thinking of giving it as a present, but, on the other hand, if it’s really worth a fortune…’
‘Right, I see where you’re coming from. Let’s check the diary. January 3rd be okay?’
‘But I can’t wait that long. I really need it now, if it’s to be a Christmas present.’
‘Can’t you keep it for a birthday present. A bit late in the day for Christmas. I’ll be shutting up shop until after New Year in a couple of hours and I can’t really spare the time just now for house calls.’
‘I’m not very far away. It will be worth your while, I promise. You could just pop round after work. Bedford Road. I have the penthouse apartment in Hapston House. Do you know it?’
‘Hapston House.’ He paused. ‘Yes. Big old place. Yes. Look.’ I could hear papers shuffling. ‘How about I send a colleague?’
‘No, sorry. You were the person recommended to me by my china expert friend, and I am a bit cautious about letting strangers into my home. You’ll understand.’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’
‘I could try Philimore’s, if it’s too inconvenient for you,’ I suggested.
‘No, no, I’m sure I can manage it. Hapston House, yes. Right. Five-ish?’
‘Five o’clock. Perfect. I’ll have a mince pie ready for you.’
He was five minutes late. His own fault. From my high window, I saw his Jaguar hover near the gate, then rev noisily and speed off. Of course, thanks to the holly and rhododendrons, the house isn’t clearly visible from the road, but was it that difficult to find? He must have gone round the block, because a couple of minutes later his car was edging in hesitantly, as if he feared to scrape the gates, before rumbling slowly up the gravel drive.
In the broad parking area, he stopped, the engine still purring, his foot still hovering over the clutch as he leaned forward, hands gripping the wheel, and stared up at the house. Assessing the likely affluence of its inhabitants, maybe. With a shrug he engaged reverse gear, backing the Jaguar into a vacant parking space.
He got out, squared his shoulder and marched purposefully up to the porch. A second later my bell rang.
I could have used the intercom and let him in to find his own way up, but I didn’t want any of the other residents waylaying him so I went down to greet him personally.
‘Mr Crane, hello, thank you for coming.’ I shook his hand. ‘I’m just doing some last-minute spring-cleaning.’ I flourished my duster and ushered him in to the hallway. ‘Shall we go up?’ I shepherded him to the grand mock-Tudor stairs. We could have taken the lift, but I thought he would like the chance to see the house. And he was overweight. A climb up four flights would do him good. ‘I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding the place.’
‘What? Oh no. Knew where it was.’ He was using the banister to haul himself up, but his eyes flitted from side to side, taking in the smooth sleek veneer of recent renovations and the underlying quality of the original work; the ornate turning and heavy carving, and a coat of arms in coloured glass in the tall stair window. ‘A recent conversion, isn’t it?’ he huffed.
‘Fairly recent. And ridiculously expensive.’ I laughed. ‘But I’m an accountant. Never any need to do myself or my clients short.’
He managed a grin. ‘Nothing wrong with that.’
‘But, of course, you must know the way Hapston House used to look,’ I commented, as we neared the top of the third flight, the last of the grand stairs.
Red faced, he stopped, breathing heavily.
‘The photographs in the museum?’ I suggested. ‘Hapston House in its Victorian heyday. Fascinating, don’t you think?’
He teetered over a deep breath but managed another grin, dangerously close to a grimace. ‘I must take a look at them.’ He was panting.
‘Nearly there,’ I assured him, as we left the main stairwell and headed for the last servant’s flight up to my Penthouse apartment. ‘You’ll probably remember the place as a retirement home. A bevy of old dears nursing their little antiques. They must have called you in, once in a while.’
He did not appear to be listening to me. Instead he was staring up the last stairs with extreme reluctance. The flight was no longer the steep narrow peril that it had been, thanks to the developer’s remodelling, but it was still an unforgiving final haul.
‘Come on,’ I urged him. ‘Just up here.’ I flicked the light on because the stair had no natural light. ‘It will be worth your while.’
‘Yes. Of course.’ A reminder of potential profit overcame his reluctance, even put a hint of a spring back in his step.
‘Here we are.’ I threw open the door to my apartment and the sound of Carols from Kings and stood back to let him through. ‘There it is. My teapot.’
I had placed it, in isolated splendour, on a small table in the middle of the living room, where he could examine it at his leisure, with a good bright light to supplement my Christmas candles, so that he could carry out a microscopic study.
But at his first sight of the pot, Jeremy Crane stopped, so suddenly that he rocked back on his heels.
‘What’s this,’ he asked thickly.
‘My teapot,’ I repeated. ‘A bequest from an old aunt, but I want to pass it on to someone else. Please, give me your frank opinion. I’m guessing it must be reasonably valuable.’
His eyes were fixed on the teapot, the red blood draining from his face.
‘Oh no,’ I groaned. ‘Don’t tell me you think it’s worthless, after all. That would be terrible.’
‘Worthless?’ He repeated the word as if he had no idea what he was saying, his mind busily functioning on another plane altogether.
‘Have a mince pie and take a closer look,’ I suggested, offering him a plate.
For a moment he didn’t move, then he took a step closer. Then another. He leaned down to examine the pot, blinking once, twice, to convince himself he wasn’t seeing things. He raised a hand to touch it, then changed his mind.
Then he straightened. I could see sweat forming on his upper lip, as he tried to resume a professional posture. ‘It was left to you, you say.’
‘Yes, and no.’ I handed him my card. Libra Accounts; the scales motif. He stared at it blankly. ‘Sorry.’ I laughed. ‘I should have explained. I bought it, at auction yesterday. Well, to be more precise, you bought it, on my behalf; the paperwork you’ll receive will show Libra Accounts to be the legal owner.’ He was staring at me, slack jawed, uncomprehending, which was not surprising.
‘But it was a bequest originally,’ I went on. ‘Left by an aunt to Mrs Barraclough. You remember, surely. Mrs Barraclough? She called you in to value her collection of teapots? She needed the money or she’d have to be out of here and spending her last Christmas in some miserable old-people’s home. You played the game very neatly, I thought. Offered her a more than generous deal on a couple of them. Even pointed out that one was hall-marked silver. Got quite excited about it. And then told her that this one was a worthless piece of junk but you’d take it off her hands for a fiver. It was a fiver, wasn’t it?’
He was still staring, but his jaw was tightening now, his brain trying to engage, the gears slipping.
‘Only Mrs Barraclough didn’t want this one to go. She liked it. Liked the figures on it. You see them? Frederick and Alice she used to call them. She was determined to keep this one. So you had to leave it, except that you couldn’t. You carried the others down, three boxes of them, wasn’t it? Then you came back to settle and you took this one too. Remember, Jerry? You tried your bullying act. A deal was a deal. You’d made your pitch, she’d accepted your offer and this was part of it, no going back. You’re a good bully, aren’t you, very effective especially with desperate old dears like Mrs Barraclough. But still she wouldn’t give in. Got in your way. Wouldn’t let you pass with it. So you pushed her. One good push and she was head over heels down those steep stairs. Maybe you didn’t mean it. Did you mean it?’
Jeremy Crane was staring at the teapot as if his eyes were super-glued to it. He had to tear them free, so forcefully it made me wince. Then his eyes met mine, dilated to reveal all the conflict playing out within.
‘Did you really mean to do it?’ I prompted.
His chest rose and sank, rose again. Tip which way, Jerry? ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he managed, with a strangled voice. He’d had his chance but calculation set in, a lifetime’s mastery of bluff. ‘I don’t know where you got this mad idea. Who’s been feeding you such rubbish? Push? Who pushed? You’re fantasising.’
‘No, I am merely reminding you. Surely you haven’t forgotten that day. Christmas just round the corner, icy cold, all the staff busy packing up, ready to vacate the place, all the residents in their rooms, miserable because they were having to leave. No one to see you hurry away when you realised she was dead. A nice touch, I thought, leaving the £483 and the signed agreement on her table. How much did you make from the teapot’s sale? It cost you over £13,000 yesterday. I hope you didn’t make too much less than that when you sold it first time round.’
The stranding fish act. I am used to it. Mouth opening and shutting wordlessly, desperately searching for the oxygen of reason.
‘Who the hell are you?’ he managed at last.
‘The hell? Where’s your Christmas spirit, Jerry? I told you, I’m an accountant. I balance the books.’
His face was working as if half a dozen unsuspected muscles had just sprung into life for the first time. A dozen screaming emotions tearing his sanity to shreds. He stared, boggle eyed, from me to the teapot, to me, to the teapot. ‘No proof,’ came out as a squeal, like air from a punctured balloon.
‘Proof of defrauding an old woman, you mean? Stealing from her? All your normal dealing that you don’t even think of as crime? Or do you mean proof of Mrs Barraclough’s murder?’
‘It was an accident, that’s all! She tripped and fell. You’ve got no proof of anything. You weren’t there. You can’t have been there. No one else was there!’
‘Oh, I’m always somewhere around, Jerry,’ I said, trying one of the mince pies, since he didn’t seem keen. ‘You were wearing a check jacket and a bow tie.’
He turned and bolted, out of my apartment, onto the long dark stairs. I heard him, the heavy steps, the slip, the lurch, the bumping and thumping and thrashing as he fell, the final crash as he hit the door at the bottom.
I followed, switching the stair light on again, and hurried down to him. He was still twitching, just. I knelt down beside him, mobile in my hand. ‘Mr Crane? You really shouldn’t have run. All you had to do was admit it. An apology is such a small thing. If you’d only said sorry, I’d have had time to warn you about that hoover flex across the stairs. I did tell you I was in the middle of housework. A dangerous thing, that flex, especially with Mrs Barraclough twitching it at just the wrong moment. Still, it’s done now. Books balanced. Account closed.’ I phoned for an ambulance. Too late.
‘He’s gone,’ said Mrs Barraclough.
‘And I expect you’re going too,’ I smiled.
‘It will be nice to spend Christmas with Jack again,’ she agreed. ‘No point in hanging round here forever.’
‘What would you like me to do with the teapot?’
‘Oh, sell it, my dear. Use the money for something good. Something nice for Christmas for those poor old souls at Parkhill Nursing Home and places like that. Spare a bit for a gravestone for me and Jack if you like. A proper nice one. I would have liked something special.’
‘I’ll do that,’ I promised. ‘Merry Christmas, Mrs Barraclough.’
I watched her fade away down the corridor. Then I looked up at Mr Winterton, hovering at my door. They do hover. ‘Come on in,’ I said. ‘You want to talk to me about your niece, is that right? The one who slipped you that double dose just after you made your will? Let’s see if we can balance the account.’
To read some more of Thorne Moore’s work, visit her Amazon page
20th December 2019