A Christmas Story (Part 2) by Alan Roderick

This year, Santa’s little helpers have been more than generous and we’ve got a bumper crop of wonderful Christmas short stories for you – from the dark to the whimsical and all stops in between. So put your favourite Christmas jumper on, pour yourself a mulled wine, grab a mince pie and sit down for another great criminally festive read.

Today sees Part 2 of Crime Cymru associate member Alan Roderick‘s tale of sinister gangs of Mari Lwyd revellers and Astrid Price, rugby star turned private eye. Read on to discover just what it is that Anwen Moriarty from Jones, Jones & Jones department store in the High Street was trying to keep safe from the masked Mari Lwyd marauders


Part 2

            The object of our surprise was a Calennig, but this Calennig was like no other I had ever seen. This Calennig was no ordinary apple or orange, decorated with hazelnuts and little sprigs of box, with three wooden sticks fixed into its base, so that children could carry it round from house to house as a New Year’s Gift. This Calennig seemed to be made of pure gold. This Calennig was exquisitely carved and encrusted with tiny jewels and precious stones. Anwen then pulled its three supporting sticks, made of high quality silver, from the box and screwed them into the base of the Calennig. The whole beautiful thing must have been some eight to ten inches high. Now I knew what I wanted for Christmas. I wanted this, or one just like it. In the fading December sunlight, it sparkled and shone like the Christmas wonder it was.   

            “If you think that’s something, wait until you see the surprise,” said Anwen Moriarty.

            “Surprise? Oh, I love surprises,” said Stakis. “don’t you love surprises, Astrid?”

            “Shut up and listen, Stakis,” I said. “let’s wait and see what the surprise is first.”

            Anwen Moriarty took the Calennig from its ornate box and held it in both her hands.

            “Isn’t it wonderful?” she said. “Now look at this.”

            She twisted a pearl knob on the side of the Calennig and opened it up.

            “This is the surprise,” she said and held up a perfect portrait scene in miniature. There it was, all in the minutest, exact detail: The Mari Lwyd, under its horse’s skull, and draped in a white sheet, was being led towards a house by the other members of the Mari Lwyd party, its companions, Punch, Judy, the Sergeant, the Corporal and Merryman. They were swinging a lantern, their fiddles at the ready, whilst, inside the house, eager faces looked out into the darkness in anticipation of what was to come. The whole thing was a small, but beautifully formed, masterpiece.

            “Wow,” I said, “that’s some Calennig you’ve got there, no wonder those guys wanted you so badly. Wherever did you get it?”

            “Yes, I was on my way to see you, Mrs Price,” she said, ignoring my question, (were you really, I thought) “when they suddenly came from nowhere. They must have been following me and I hadn’t noticed. All these Mari Lwyd parties look alike to me, you know.”

            I nodded, I knew the feeling. “Go on,” I said.            

            “Yes,” said Anwen Moriarty. “I‘ve got a lot on my mind, you see and I wasn’t really paying any attention. I didn’t see them until they were almost right on top of me. They chased me into the shop, Mrs Price, and if it hadn’t been for Mr Theodorakis…”

            Stakis beamed, Anwen Moriarty had just made his day.

            “Yes,” I said,  just a little irritated as to the way Stakis’s part in the whole affair was beginning to assume heroic proportions, “you can rely on Mr Theodorakis. Tell me, Miss Moriarty, no offence, but how did a poor student like you come across something as beautiful as this? It’s obviously the work of a master craftsman. Is it Welsh?”

            “No,” said Anwen, “in answer to your question I was just collecting it from the jewellers who had been valuing it for me. (This girl should have been a politician, I thought, she had the same way of deflecting awkward questions by answering other questions altogether.) As you can tell, the subject matter is indisputably Welsh, but no Welshman ever made this.”

            “Then, who?” said Stakis.

            “If you pushed me,” I said, “I’d say it was Russian, it reminds me a lot of those Fabergé eggs they used to make for the Tsars, the same sort of style.”

            “Spot on, Mrs Price,” said a voice I recognised, but had not thought to hear again for a little while at least, “you’re not just a pretty face then.”

             All three of us had been so busy with the Calennig, we had been unaware of Scrooge entering the room until it was too late. Unfortunately, he had not come alone. He had brought a gun with him and it was pointing straight at me. The news got worse. He had brought along four of his men (where had the Mari got to, I wondered) and their guns were pointing at Stakis and Anwen. I was beginning to think all five of them were really pathologically shy and retiring, as those scarves were covering their faces again.

            “That was quick,” I said. “I didn’t expect you boys back so soon. Where have you been? We’ve missed you. How is the horse? Well, I hope, where have you parked him?”

            “Shut it, Price,” said Scrooge, “just give me the Calennig and I’ll be gone. No false moves now, or I’ll plug the fish fryer.”

            “What have you done to my assistant?” said Stakis, ever mindful of his staff.

            “Oh, him,” said Scrooge, “Let’s just say he’s taking a pre-Christmas nap, shall we?”

            “You bastard,” said an incensed Stakis, forgetting his normal fear of firearms, and taking a move towards the gunman.

            “Easy now, fish fryer,” said Scrooge, “or I really will plug you. I can try out that new silencer my girlfriend bought me for Christmas.”

            ”Leave it, Stakis,’ I said.

            “Don’t let them take me, Mrs Price,” said Anwen.

            “Don’t worry,” said Scrooge, “we don’t want you anymore, we just want the Calennig. Hand it over now. Well, do I get it?”

            “Give it to him,” I said. There came a point when you had to surrender gracefully and that point had been reached. Even I didn’t fancy my chances with a rounders bat against five guns. Better to give them what they wanted, hope they would be satisfied with that and live to fight another day. Besides, I didn’t fancy being shot at so near to Christmas.

            “Wise move,” Price, said Scrooge, “you’re learning. Cratchit, get the Calennig and don’t forget its box.”

            “Here it is, Scrooge,” said Cratchit, handing him the Russian-made masterpiece.

            “Right, we’ll be going then,” said Scrooge, “Fish fryer, I’ll trouble you for the key to this room.”

            “I haven’t got it,” said Stakis, defiantly.

            “Really?” said Scrooge, “We’ll soon find out. Search him, Tiny Tim. Move back, Price and don’t try anything.”

            With four guns pointing at me, I wasn’t about to. Tiny Tim searched Stakis a little too enthusiastically for my friend’s liking.

            “Go easy, there will you,” he said.

            “Shut up, if you know what’s good for you” said Tiny Tim and then, “found them”.

            “Good work,” said Scrooge, “We’ll be going now then. Nice knowing you, Price. Nadolig Llawen. Marley, Cratchit, get the girl.”

            “But you said…” said Anwen.

            “I lied,” said Scrooge, “never trust a man with a scarf over his face. You go quietly now or you’ll get the butt of this gun from me.”

            “Do as he says,” I said, “he means it.”

            “Keep your filthy hands off me,” said Anwen, struggling violently with Marley and Cratchit as they began dragging her towards the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something white, it looked like a small piece of card fall, from the sleeve of her coat. Taking advantage of the Mari party’s temporary distraction, I put my foot on it quickly.

            Stakis must have fancied Anwen or something, as he suddenly lunged at Cratchit. (Most out of character, I thought.) The lunge turned out to be not very successful, as Cratchit deftly side-stepped him (I knew a good side-step when I saw one) and Marley clubbed him to the floor with his pistol. Then they were gone, locking the door and taking Anwen and the Calennig with them.

            “Oh, Stakis, you great big fool,” I said. “You’re not the Spartans defending Thermopylae now, you know.”

            “Sorry, Astrid,“ he said, “I don’t know what came over me. Where have they taken her?”

            “God knows,” I said, “are you badly hurt?”

            “I’ll live,” he said.

            “Good,” I said, “then let’s get this door open.”

            When you think about it, it’s amazing what a hair pin will do. (It was our good fortune that Stakis just happened to have one on him. Always remember to carry one in your handbag too girls). Before you could say Ryan Giggs plays for Manchester United, we had got the door open (memo to Stakis: invest in better locks when this was all over) and were standing over the prone figure of Big Zorba, as we called him, Stakis’s assistant, who was just coming round.

            “Stay with him, Stakis” I said, “and get the doctor. I’ve got to go.”

            “Go, go where?” he said, “shall I come with you”

            “No,” I said, “you’ve done enough already, guard the fort here until I get back, I’ve got some last minute Christmas shopping to do.”

            Once outside The Lying Cod, I took a quick look at the white card Anwen Moriarty had dropped. On one side of it was a printed heading: Jones, Jones & Jones, the Welsh Republic’s Premier Department Store and, on the other, someone, presumably Anwen Moriarty herself, had written in a neat hand: Michael Arlen House, 38, Falcon Road.

            Talking of roads, they all seemed to be gridlocked. No use taking my car then, or even calling a taxi. I set off at a fast jog, or as fast as I could go, considering the pavements were packed solid with Christmas shoppers and revellers. I passed a number of Mari Lwyd parties, but none with scarves covering the lower part of their faces. The chances of finding Scrooge and his men in this City with only one thought in mind:  celebrating the annual Christmas jamboree, grew remoter by the minute. Luckily, I was already in training for the city’s New Year’s Day Marathon so I made fairly good time past Richard Burton Avenue, down Catherine Zeta Jones Street, and up along the Boulevard Ray Milland.

            The City’s biggest Department Store, Jones, Jones & Jones had pulled out all the stops for Christmas. The window displays were works of art, the toys, presents and Christmas goodies on offer were sublime, there was no other word for them. Every employee from the manager down to the humblest cleaner was dressed in a resplendent, red Father Christmas outfit, the Christmas tree had been flown in especially from Norway and was decorated to within an inch of its life and the whole place lived and breathed the Christmas fantasy. The Christmas grotto was a minor masterpiece and seemed to have been designed by a combination of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, it was that surreal.

            “So what can I do for you, Mrs Price? And may I say what a pleasure it is to meet someone as famous as yourself,” said the manager of Jones, Jones & Jones, a Mr Thomas Griffiths. Flatterer, I thought, but keep it coming, take all the praise you can get, I always say. I took a closer look at the manager, somehow I had the feeling he was going to be in for a bit of a shock. Griffiths looked a bit incongruous with his smart suit and tie and horn-rimmed spectacles clashing gloriously with his Santa Claus outfit, but what the hell, it was Christmas, after all.

            “I’m enquiring about an employee of yours, a Miss Anwen Moriarty?”

            “Moriarty? Anwen? No, I’m sure I can’t recall that name although I am aware of the existence of another Moriarty.”

            “She’s only temporary,” I said, “she’s a student working here as Mother Christmas.”

            “Mother Christmas, Mrs Price? We have no Mother Christmases. Jones, Jones & Jones is a very conservative store, in the best sense of the word. Oh, no, there are no Mother Christmases here, Mrs Price.”

            “But,” I said, “she told us she was working here over the holidays. She showed us her Calennig…”

            “Calennig?” said Thomas Griffiths, suddenly becoming very animated. “What do you know about the Calennig? What sort of a Calennig? The ordinary, run-of-the-mill, everyday, home-made variety?”

            “Oh, no,” I said, “this was like no other Calennig I’d ever seen before. This was a Calennig fit for a king or queen.”

            On hearing those words, Thomas Griffiths turned a whiter shade of pale, as Procul Harum might have said. He really did look terrible. He picked up the telephone on his desk and dialled. “Yes, right away,” he said, “I want it brought to my office right away.”

            “While we’re waiting,” I said, “perhaps you could tell me something about the background of the Calennig, its history and so on?”

            “Yes,” said Mr Thomas, “what is generally well known is that, in June, 1916, Lord Kitchener was on his way to Arkhangelsk as part of a diplomatic mission to Russia. David Lloyd George, the then Minister of Munitions, was supposed to accompany him, but did not do so, as he was busy with his new ministry. Kitchener therefore went alone, but the cruiser HMS Hampshire, in which he was travelling, hit a German mine on June 5th, 1916. It sank west of the Orkney Islands in a force nine gale and 643 of the crew of 655 either drowned, or perished from exposure. Kitchener’s body was never found. 

            “What is generally less well known is that, several months later, the British government launched a similar mission to Russia and this time the ship carrying Lloyd George’s emissary, Christian Dexter Moriarty, whom he trusted implicitly, arrived safely. During his time there, Moriarty held talks with the Russian Government and also with the Fabergé people, for them to make a very special Calennig, as Lloyd George was anxious to present a national symbol to the people of Wales, to reward them for the part they had played in the war effort. That was the official line anyway, some unkind souls have claimed that Lloyd George only wanted to give his mistress an extra special Christmas present. However that may be, only one was ever made, the Fabergé people were kept fully busy as it was, making eggs for the Tsar of Russia.                

            “The mission went without a hitch and the ship got safely back to England but, unfortunately, Moriarty turned out to be a rogue of the first order, as instead of delivering his precious consignment to Lloyd George, he absconded as soon as his ship docked in England, and was never seen or heard from again. There was talk at the time that he was in league with the Irish revolutionaries but that was never proved.”

            “So the Russian Calennig disappeared from sight?” I said.

            “Yes,” said Thomas Griffiths, “It resurfaced some years ago, no one quite knows how or why. Legend has it, it was found in a much begrimed state in a charity shop, and picked up for next to nothing, but that’s just one of the many rumours surrounding its reappearance. In fact the Calennig has been shrouded in mystery from its earliest beginnings.

            “What is true, beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, is that Jones, Jones & Jones, in partnership with the Welsh Republican Government, successfully bid for it at a public auction. In partnership with the government, we aimed to put it on display in the store every Christmas time. For the rest of the year it would be housed in the Welsh Museum as a national icon. Ah, thank God, here it is now.”

            A shop assistant, accompanied by two burly security men, all sporting their regulation Father Christmas outfits, had just entered the room. Thomas Griffiths took the box and held the Calennig up to the light. I thought he was going to faint, he looked so white, as white as the fullest of full moons over Llandegfedd Reservoir. “But, but,” he said, “this is not the Russian Calennig, this is a cheap fake and a nasty one at that.”

            To the untrained eye, to my untrained eye at least, it looked all right, but when I examined it more closely I could see what he meant, it would pass muster for a brief glance, but there were significant differences to the one Anwen Moriarty had shown me in The Lying Cod.

            “So the Russian Calennig has gone,” I said.

            “It’s gone,” he said. “I must phone the Republicans at once.”

            “Do that,” I said. And then I had an idea. Wait a minute, Mr Griffiths,” I said, “perhaps, I may be of help in recovering the Calennig. I know you disapprove of Mother Christmas, but…”

            Griffiths listened to my plan with interest. “Yes,” he said, “Do what you can, Mrs Price. By the authority invested in me as manager of Jones, Jones & Jones, Cymru Incorporated’s Premier Department Store, I authorise you to find the Russian Calennig, if the Republicans don’t find it first, of course. You will be handsomely reimbursed, I assure you.”

            Such words were like an Alun Hodinott symphony: music to my ears. Ten minutes later, I was mingling with the crowds on Anthony Hopkins Avenue, feeling like a new person.

            “Taxi,” I shouted to a red cab  coming towards me.

            “Whereto, Mother Christmas?” said the cab driver. “Like your outfit, maybe we can get together sometime?”

            What is it with these Father Christmas freaks – show ‘em a red suit and they go crazy, I thought, but I said, “This address,” showing him the card Anwen had dropped. “Get a move on, will you,” I said, “I’m in a hurry.” And I was. For all I knew, the Russian Calennig might be out of the country by now and I only had the slenderest of leads to go on. On the way the thought struck me: Were Anwen and Christian Dexter Moriarty by any chance related? Very probably, I thought, it wasn’t that common a name and the connection would go some way towards explaining her interest in the Calennig

            Michael Arlen House, 38 Falcon Road stood in its own grounds, out in the eastern suburbs of the city. From the outside it looked as if it had seen better days, but who hadn’t? I paid the cab driver and walked towards it. Outside the rickety gates, two men were standing, smoking. (One of the first acts of the newly fledged Welsh Republican Government had been to ban smoking in all public places.) As I walked slowly past them, I distinctly heard one say ‘Rowlocks’ in what sounded to me very much like a North Cardigan accent.

            “What?” said the other man.

            “Rowlocks, complete and utter rowlocks,” said the man with the Cardigan accent, “you know, those things they put the oars in. We’d better be getting back inside, Ventro will be waiting,” and he stubbed his cigarette out on the ground.

            “I’m with you,” said the other man and they opened the gates and walked up the gravel drive towards the house.

            I waited five minutes and texted a number on my mobile phone, “Hey Stakis,” I wrote, “make mine a rock salmon with chips and all the trimmings, but no Taramasalata this time. See you later.” I then walked towards the house, trying not to crunch the gravel too noisily. When I got to the door, I put on my best singing voice and launched into three verses of When Jesus Came to Bethlehem in Wales. Then I rang the bell three times and stood back to wait.

To be continued…

Stay tuned for the final part of (Have Yourself) A Very Cymru Christmas on Sunday 19th

If you’d like to read more about Astrid Price by Alan Roderick, you can order ASTRID INVESTIGATES: The Complete Astrid Price Short Stories here.

Find out more about Alan on his Amazon page.

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