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.
In the final part of Crime Cymru associate member Alan Roderick‘s joyous story of stolen Fabergé Calennigs and sinewy bands of Mari Lwyd supporters, we discover whether Astrid Price will solve the case and if she really does want rock salmon with all the trimmings…
(HAVE YOURSELF) A VERY CYMRU CHRISTMAS by Alan Roderick
The door opened and the man I now knew to be Scrooge looked me up and down.
“What do you want?” he said.
“What does it sound like?” I said, in my best Belfast accent, “I’m just trying to spread a little Christmas cheer, that’s all, and earn myself a few Owain Glyndwrs into the bargain.”
“Well, then beat it,” said Scrooge, living up to his nom-de-plume, “if we want any Christmas cheer, we’ll reach for a bottle.”
“Have it your way,” I said, thinking I would have to find some other means of getting into the house, when another man suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Hey Scrooge,” he said.
“Don’t call me that now,” said Scrooge, “I told you, only when we’re working.”
“Sorry,” said the other guy who, judging by his height and build, seemed to be none other than my old friend Marley, “I keep forgetting. Anyway, Ventro says bring the singer in, says he fancies a few carols, reminds him of his old mam…”
“Right you, get inside,” said Scrooge with his usual gallantry. We entered into a small hall and Cratchit knocked on one of the doors leading off to the right. “Come in, Mrs Price,” said a suave sounding voice from behind the door. “And bring Scrooge and Cratchit with you.”
Scrooge stared in amazement, and then looked at me more closely, “it is her, I thought she was just some idiot carol singer,” he said, “but Ventro, how did you know?”
“Oh we knew,” said Ventro, “as soon as we heard Astrid Price had become involved in our little affair, we knew, sooner or later, she’d come calling. We’ve been expecting her, haven’t we, Ianto?”
“We certainly have,” said the, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, ginger tom cat sitting next to Suave Voice. “So this is the dame all the fuss is about. I’ll say this for you, sister, you’re no oil painting, but you’ve got something going for you, I’ll give you that much. I’ll take a roll in the hay with you anytime.”
“Thanks a bunch,” I thought, especially the bit about the oil painting, but I said, “what’s a talking cat like you doing in a place like this?”
“Ah, that would be telling, wouldn’t it, Ventro” said the cat. Except it wasn’t a real cat, of course, it was a ventriloquist’s dummy cat speaking with a strong City accent, and this cat was wearing one of those Fedora type hats Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart used to wear in those forties movies.
“Wouldn’t it just,” said Suave Voice/The Ventro. I’ll say this for him, his lips didn’t seem to move at all when the cat was speaking.
I looked around the room. It was big, big enough to hold all of us comfortably, well-furnished and had a very high ceiling. I could have felt at home there if it hadn’t been for the company. They were all there, Marley, Tiny Tim and Mrs Cratchit still wearing her white sheet, but without her horse’s head, except that Mrs Cratchit was a man, of course.
“Search her, will you, Scrooge, just to be on the safe side, you know what these private detectives are like,” said Ventro.
“Yeah,” said Ianto, “she may be packing a rod. Hey, let me frisk her, I’d enjoy that.”
“Quiet, Ianto,” said Ventro, “Down boy. Scrooge, search Mrs Price, would you please.”
Scrooge went through his routine a bit too enthusiastically for my liking. “Hey, watch where you’re putting those fingers, can’t a girl have some privacy round here?” I said.
“What, no rounders bat?” said Scrooge when he had finished, “you must be slipping.”
“Couldn’t fit it in the coat,” I said, “had to leave it behind. Besides, it would ruin my new Mother Christmas image, don’t you think?”
“She’s clean, Ventro,” said Scrooge, “apart from this mobile phone.”
“A mobile phone, eh,” said Ianto (damn that Ventro was good, his lips didn’t seem to move in the slightest.) “Check it to see if she’s left any messages for the police.”
“Yeah, check it,” said Ianto, “the dame looks tricky to me.”
“No, nothing,” said Scrooge, “there’s just an order for the fish fryer.”
“Oh really,” said Ianto, “what did the dame want?”
“Rock salmon with chips and all the trimmings, but no Taramasalata,” said Scrooge.
“Hmm,” said Ventro, “scarcely the kind of delicacy I myself would enjoy, Mrs Price, although I dare say Ianto might be partial to it, the rock salmon at least, isn’t that so, Ianto?
“Yes, yes,” said the cat, “yum, yum, lead me to it, sister.”
“Such a pity you won’t live to eat it, Mrs Price,” said Ventro. “Bring the other girl in, Scrooge, we can eliminate the two of them together. You can use that new silencer your girlfriend bought you for Christmas.”
“Yes, Ventro,” said Scrooge, “I’ll look forward to it. Marley, Tiny Tim, fetch her in.”
The two dragged Anwen Moriarty into the room, still wearing her Mother Christmas costume. Her head was bowed. She didn’t look the happiest person in the world at that moment. Not that I was feeling too ecstatic myself, of course.
“Snap,” I said pointing to her costume, “We should form a double act – go on stage with Ianto and Ventro.”
“Oh, it’s you, Mrs Price,” said Anwen, “so they got you too.”
“Yeah,” said Scrooge, “the great detective wasn’t so great, after all.”
I looked more closely at Anwen, her left eye was puffing up badly and she was showing signs of strain. Her Mother Christmas costume was ripped and torn in places.
“What have they done to you?” I said, concerned in spite of myself.
“Oh, it’s nothing, Mrs Price,” said Anwen, “I just tripped and fell on the Christmas tree next door, the holly must have torn my costume.”
“Yeah,” said Ianto, “the Christmas tree and the holly are just like us, they don’t like double-crossers, do they, Anwen?”
“Shut up, you stupid cat,” said Anwen. Not the wisest of moves as, on a signal from the Ventro, Scrooge slapped her hard across the face.
“Anwen, my dear,” said the Ventro, “I think you owe Ianto an apology, don’t you? I’m sure you wouldn’t want to go into the next world, having antagonised my very best friend, would you.”
For a second Anwen looked as if she was going to defy them again, but then Scrooge raised his hand, and she crumbled like a newly cut wedge of over ripe Caerphilly cheese. “I… I’m sorry, Ianto,” she said, “it won’t happen again.”
“Apology accepted, sister,” said the cat, “a pity a good looking dame like you had to learn the hard way.”
“What have you done with the Calennig?” I said, to take their minds off Anwen.
“Oh, the Calennig,” said Ventro. “Such a pretty thing, don’t you think? I just had to have it. So I sent Anwen, Scrooge and his men to get it for me, didn’t I, Ianto?”
“Yeah,” said Ianto, “the Anwen dame made the switch, but then she got greedy.”
“It’s rightfully mine,” said Anwen, “my ancestor brought it back from Russia.”
“Stole it, more like,” said Scrooge, but Ventro raised a hand and he fell silent.
“So he did, my dear, so he did,” said Ventro “and very thoughtful of him it was too, wasn’t it Ianto? And now it’s mine, all mine. I’m going to enjoy taking it out of its box and looking at it.”
“Yeah, Ventro,” said Ianto, “like I said, the Anwen dame wanted to keep it all for herself. Luckily, Scrooge and the boys managed to trace her to your place, Mrs Astrid. You thought she was coming to see you, think again sister, she just happened to run down that way, didn’t you, Anwen?”
“Yes,” said Anwen, “it was just luck I happened to find myself in front of The Lying Cod. I looked up and saw your sign, Mrs Price, and I could hear Scrooge and his men close behind me, they were making the Dickens of a racket, I can tell you, but no one was taking any notice, what with it being Christmas, and so I thought what the hell. I thought I’d got away with it too, what with you being so brave and all, but I didn’t count on them coming back so soon and this time with guns.”
“Yes,” I said, “those damned guns, they will keep on spoiling things. You boys want to give me yours? I can take them down the local police station for you, save you a journey, I hear the Republicans have a gun amnesty going for Christmas. No, oh well. Hey, any chance of seeing the Calennig again before I go,” I said to the Ventro, “it really brightened up my day. Made me want one for my very own.”
“Playing for time, Mrs Price?” said Ventro. “Well, why not? It is the season of good will, or so everyone tells me, and no one’s coming to rescue you this time, least of all your fish fryer friend. Show her the Calennig, Ianto.”
“Sure,” said the cat, “you’re beginning to grow on me, Lady. Maybe I was wrong about you, maybe you’re not such a bad looking dame when I come to think about it. Maybe if things had been different, we could have had a night out on the tiles together. Here catch, you’re a rugby player.”
“Ianto, don’t,” said the Ventro, but it was too late. The Calennig in its box was flying towards me. Ianto had thrown it. Luckily, I didn’t knock it on, but caught it, as I had caught a rugby ball so many times before in my sport-filled past. That was the easy part. The hard part was just about to begin. Just like the Bee Gees, I was now concerned about ‘Staying Alive’. And I didn’t just have myself to think about anymore. There was Anwen to consider. Although, she had gotten me into this fine mess in the first place.
“You fool, Ianto,” said Ventro, “I told you to show it, not throw it.”
“I just like to test these dames, Ventro,” said Ianto, “I knew she’d catch it, didn’t she play outside half for Wales?”
“Yeah,” said Scrooge, “but how long ago was that?”
I ignored him and held the Calennig in both my hands, gazing at it lovingly, fingering its gems and jewels tenderly. It was a thing of joy and beauty all right, worth stealing, I might even have been tempted to steal it myself, under the right circumstances, but was it worth dying for? That was the 64,000 Owain Glyndwr question and it didn’t take me long to answer it, to my own satisfaction at least. I could feel a diversionary tactic coming on.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” I said. “What about my fee? Not to mention my expenses?”
“Let me punch her, Ventro,” said Scrooge, “just once, before I shoot her,” but Ventro raised his hand to silence him once more.
“Really, Mrs Price,” said Ventro, “I hardly think you’re in any position to make any demands do you? Take it up with Anwen when you reach the other side. Scrooge, you have my permission to shoot her.”
“With pleasure, Ventro,” said Scrooge and drew his gun. Then the balloon went up, or rather the Calennig did, as I hoisted it high towards the ceiling, putting just enough weight on the throw so that it wouldn’t smash into it.
“Catch it, catch it,” said a horrified Ventro, “Catch it, you fools, don’t let it smash on the floor. I don’t want it damaged”
Confused, Scrooge, took his eyes off me and looked at the Calennig which was now beginning to drop, very slowly, it seemed to me, but what do I know, I’m no Galileo. Besides, I was too busy jabbing a Tai Chi fist into Cratchit’s face and, simultaneously, swinging a Tai Chi hook into Marley’s neck. Two down, a couple more to go, hang on in there, Astrid,
“Catch it, catch it,” screamed Ventro, “don’t let it touch the floor.”
“Get stuck in, Anwen,” I said, “kick some arse, for God’s sake, it’s payback time,” but Anwen was up and away, pulling on the door and legging it out of there. No help from that quarter then, still no time to worry about absent friends, I had Tiny Tim and Scrooge to deal with, not to mention Ventro and Ianto and Mrs Cratchit herself. Get one of the guns, I thought, get one of the guns. I bent swiftly to relieve a dazed Marley of his gun, giving him a quick club on the side of his head to even up the odds a little, when The Mari, alias Mrs Cratchit, alias whoever he really was, gave a roar (yes, I know a neigh would have been more appropriate, but there you are) and came at me like a stag in the rutting season.
Only I didn’t feel like playing the part of a female hind on heat, waiting to be served. Besides, he didn’t look half as formidable without his horse’s head. “What’s the matter, don’t they trust you with a gun?” I said, side-stepping neatly at the last moment and letting him crash into the wall. By now, between them, Tiny Tim and Scrooge had managed, after a few initial fumbles, to catch the Calennig. Somehow, I didn’t think either would make the Welsh rugby team as second rows. “Drop the guns,” I said and give me the Calennig.”
“Rowlocks, Price,” said Scrooge, “there are still two of us to one of you.”
“Do as I say,” I said, “or Ianto’s one dead cat. Don’t think I won’t shoot, I mean it. I’m way behind with my target practice, as it is.”
“No, no,” said Ventro, “give it to her, don’t shoot, Mrs Price, don’t shoot my Ianto.”
Grudgingly, Scrooge handed me the Russian work of art the St. Petersburg craftsmen had taken so long to make. I put it inside my Mother Christmas costume. “Now drop your guns,” I said, “Do it!” Scrooge and Tiny Tim threw their weapons to the floor. “Over there,” I said “with Cratchit and Marley,” (Luckily, those two were still out cold.)
Then the balloon went up again, there was a sound of banging from downstairs and voices shouting “Open up, this is the Welsh Republican Police.” I fired two shots next to the legs of Scrooge and Tiny Tim. (No particular reason, but it was either that or the ceiling and the ceiling hadn’t done anything to me. I like to keep my villains on the hop.) Besides, it would alert the Republicans down below. It did. I heard an authoritative voice shouting “Break it down. Someone’s shooting.”
“Get her,” said Scrooge and launched himself at me, taking advantage of my temporary distraction. At the same time, Tiny Tim threw himself at my legs. Now it was my turn to go down, the two of them piling in on top of me, preventing me from getting off a shot. It was like old times, being at the bottom of a scrum again, only their fists were pounding into me with more venom than I had ever encountered on the rugby field.
Dimly, I heard Ventro’s voice saying, “Come on Ianto, we’re out of here.” A door in the room slammed as the three of us continued to struggle. I was going under, I could feel my strength ebbing, Tiny Tim had pinned my arms back and Scrooge was about to put his hands around my throat… when the door burst open and a posse of red uniformed Republicans surged in. Stakis had come up trumps. Our long standing ‘Rock Salmon’ code had worked. He had alerted the Republicans that I might be in potential danger, and they had traced the call and done the rest.
“Hello, hello, hello,” said one of the Republicans, thoughtfully fingering his truncheon. “Oh, it’s you, Mrs Price. What’s going on here then? A bit of rolling and tumbling for three, is it? Can anyone join in?”
“No, we’re exploring the philosophical nuances behind the French concept of Ménage à trois as expounded by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. What d’you think’s going on. Get them off me,” I said. “the two main villains are getting away.” The police handcuffed Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the rest of the gang and led them out of the room. “Quick,” I said, “the two leaders (what was I saying, I was starting to believe in the talking cat myself now) have got away, you might just be in time to stop them… Or maybe not,” I said as the sound of a helicopter taking off, filled the room.
Well, to cut the proverbial long story short, Scrooge (not his real name, by the way, in case you were wondering) and the rest of his men were apprehended, cursing and swearing and vowing everlasting revenge. The Republicans immediately launched a massive search for Ventro and Ianto, but, for the first few hours at least, they seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Later, we heard there had been a helicopter landing in Brittany, but then the trail went cold
It was a similar story with Anwen Moriarty. An intensive woman hunt was organised to bring her to justice, but she, too, appeared to have slipped the net. The Republicans rounded up all the Mother Christmases they could find but to no avail. There was no sign of the girl who had switched the Russian Calennig and then double-crossed her fellow conspirators. Wild rumours circulated that she was making her way to St. Petersburg or was it St. Donat’s? Who knew? Certainly not me and I wasn’t about to try to find out, I left all that sort of thing to the Republicans, it gave them something to do on those long winter nights. Anyway, at least, we still had the Fabergé Calennig despite Scrooge and Tiny Tim’s best efforts to wrest it from me. Jones, Jones & Jones were delighted with my efforts and came up trumps in the money department, even letting me keep my Mother Christmas costume. They even gave me the fake Calennig which, while nothing like the original, could still deceive Blind Pew at six paces. The Welsh Republican Government was pretty pleased too, although no one was available for comment on their behalf, or so they said, although everyone knew their Christmas party went on for far too long.
Later that night, bruised and battered, but nevertheless exhilarated, and feeling quite pleased with myself, (careful, Astrid, you know what comes before a fall…) I stood inside The Lying Cod with Stakis Theodorakis, mulling over the day’s events. Suddenly, outside the window, we heard a sound like the clicking of horses’ hooves.
“What’s that?” said Stakis.
I drew back the curtains and gazed out into the darkness. What I saw made me tremble, if only for a moment. Five men were standing outside the house and, in their midst, I could see a horse’s head and, underneath the head, a long white sheet. I reached for my rounders bat. Somehow, Scrooge and his men had escaped police custody and returned to wreak their vengeance on us. Or perhaps Ventro and Ianto had got a new gang together. “Phone the Republicans, Stakis,” I said, “I think they’re back,” but before he could do so, the sound of a fiddle rent the air and four voices began singing in Welsh:
“Well, here we are saying,
Can we have permission to sing?”
The men were singing the opening lines to the Song of the Mari Lwyd and I remembered Scrooge, in what now seemed like days ago, but was really only a matter of hours, I remembered him saying in The Lying Cod “We don’t do verses – in Welsh or English.” I looked at the men, and the Mari, more closely – no scarves round their faces, no cudgels in their hands and I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. This was unmistakably the genuine article. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I wasn’t up for the fight, but it was Christmas after all, and even private detectives must rest some time.
“Forget about the Republicans, Stakis,” I said. “We’ve got a different type of battle on our hands this time – a verbal one. How’s your Welsh versifying, Stakis?”
“Not good,” he said, “not good.”
And it wasn’t. Between the two of us, we managed to keep the Mari at bay for a few minutes, but our poetic deficiencies were soon exposed, and, with a neigh of triumph, the horse pranced through into the house and gambolled and cavorted around me in what became a dance of joy for both of us. Its companions Punch, Judy and Merryman, the Corporal and the Sergeant soon discovered the meagre hoard of food and drink Stakis laid on for occasions such as this and devoured it. When they had eaten and drunk their fill, they moved onto the next house. That was the way of The Mari. I hoped the next house they came to would be better able to defend itself than we had been.
“Look, Astrid,” said Stakis, “Look.”
I looked. All around me, white flakes were starting to fall, just a few at first, but then swelling in number until the ground began to be covered with a sheet whiter even than that worn by the Mari Lwyd. Gently, they brushed my hands, my face, my whole body. It was true – the Welsh Republic was turning into a dazzling, blinding, picture postcard world of white, turning Wales into one vast, gigantic Brueghel painting.
As I brushed the snow from my coat, and thought about going indoors, I had time to take stock of the situation: Christmas Day would see snowballs, snowmen (and snow women too, I hoped) and snow ploughs. Against all expectations and for the first time in many years, there would be a white Wales at Christmas. Suddenly, that bet I had placed with Evans the Bookmaker, way back in August, when the sun was beating down on a wilting population, didn’t seem quite so stupid, after all.
Soon, snow would be falling on the rivers and canals, covering the bridges and bus stations, turning the trees and fields a ghostly white, from the hills of the North to the valleys of the South, and from the far West to the English border. Everywhere all colour was being drained away to be replaced by a brilliant white, the white of snow drifts, snow falls and snow showers.
Snow was falling all over the Republic, falling on me and on Stakis, on the dead, in their cemeteries, and on the living, on shops and houses, turning even the black sheep white, whiter than my old mam’s tablecloths, whiter even than the touchlines in thousands of rugby grounds, all over Cymru Incorporated, as the politicians, with their mania for rebranding, insisted on calling it. Already the City was beginning to look very, very different. Oh well, it wouldn’t be long before it was time to get the shovel out, I supposed.
“Nadolig Llawen, Astrid,” said Stakis.
“And to you too, Stakis,” I said “and many more of them.”
We hope you enjoy our festive tales. On behalf of all our authors, we’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Stay tuned for another Christmas story on Wednesday 22nd.
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.