So this is Christmas. We hope you’ve had fun with our selection of seasonal tales of murder, mistletoe and mayhem. Before the last story on the night before Christmas, it just remains for all of us at Crime Cymru to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the 2022 that we all want!
In our final story, Thorne Moore revels in all that is romantic about Christmas… before bringing you back to earth with a bump in the night and tingling your spine with a chilling tale of a windswept cottage and murderous legend. We are Crime Cymru, after all.
A Christmas Roast by Thorne Moore
I love Christmas. In theory. I love the romance of it, which is understandable, as I’m a romantic novelist and romance is my business. My books have a tendency to end with a passionate kiss under the mistletoe, and to be honest, it’s usually an actual kiss under the mistletoe that inspires the next. But this Christmas, inspiration was going to be a problem. How do you dream up scenes of panting lips and stirring loins when you have spent an hour smashing crockery after coming home early to find you beloved in the marital bed stirring loins with your best friend.
I stormed out, despite Danny chasing after me in his underwear. I moved into a hotel, waiting for him to do the honourable thing and quit our joint home, forgetting that he wasn’t honourable. He stayed put. In fact, he had the cheek to tell me he’d be there, with roses and champagne, when I accepted his abject pleas for forgiveness and came home. Because I wouldn’t want to spend Christmas in a hotel, would I?
No, I wouldn’t. Especially not with Danny lurking outside every morning and evening, holding the car door open, entreating me to come home. It was embarrassing. So I saw this advert in one of the hotel magazines; quaint cottage for rent, rural seclusion and sea almost on the doorstep. Not one hundred per cent true as it turned out, unless the doorstep was two miles wide. The sea was down there at the mouth of the valley, but the rural isolation was true. The village on the coast had a few shops, half of them shut up until the summer tourists returned. It also had a pub, flogging tales of wrecking and smuggling along with the beer. The landlady was the owner of my cottage. She handed over the keys and two friendly locals, Greg and Marty, came out into the cold to point me the way to my destination, with instructions to call if I needed anything.
Defiance was mingling with trepidation as I found my way to Carbon Cottage, up a treacherously steep lane with hairpin bends, emerging onto a windswept hilltop. The sun was setting as I arrived, setting the gaunt cottage off against a flaming sky, barren moorland interrupted only by the silhouette of a single wind-sheered tree. Definitely shades of Wuthering Heights. The moment I thought that, I began to cheer up, romantic plots already beginning to call to me. I could picture my hero striding across those moors.
The interior of the cottage matched the image perfectly. Quaint but comfortable. Old features were preserved, including a cavernous stone-framed fireplace, but all mod cons were laid on, including a microwave and espresso machine.
Yes, I could be very comfortable here, working away in blissful solitude, inspired by everything I saw, heard or touched. Words would flow like water. A story was already forming. I could set it here. After all, research was at my fingertips. There was an old map, framed on the wall, marking the place not as Carbon Cottage, but as The Carbon Maid, a name that must relate to the weathered remains of a wooden carving by the gate – definitely the head and upper torso of a woman, although blackened by age. Carbon? Daughter of a charcoal maker perhaps. Beautiful, wild, spirited. Wooed by… local squire. Would he be hero or villain? I think she’s prefer the handsome gamekeeper. Okay, maybe not gamekeeper. That had been done.
I slept well. As well as unexpected creaks from old timbers and the occasional owl would allow. In the morning, I sat down to work and I wrote. It was all going swimmingly. No interruptions. On the journey I had had two unanswered calls from Danny and five texts, pleading to know where I’d got to, but nothing now, which was surprising until I realised there was no signal. That would teach him.
At six, I stopped work and poured myself a gin and tonic. Christmas Eve and I could do what I wanted. I’d make dinner. I’d stocked up the car on the journey and unloaded it all into a lean-to at the side of the house, where I’d found a chest freezer, so I would make one of the dishes that I liked and Danny hated. I laid out the ingredients on the scrubbed pine table, with bowls and pans and chopping boards and set to work cutting up vegetables.
That was when the electricity suddenly packed up.
Complete and utter darkness. If I’d been in my own home, I’d have been able to feel my way around by instinct. I’d have known where the emergency torches were. And I’d have been able to phone for assistance.
My mobile was in my bag. Where was my bag? Somewhere by the side table I’d been using as a desk. I groped my way blindly, cracking my shins on something, tripping on something else, finding it at last, rummaging. Got it. At last, a glimmer of light. Not much, but anything was better than nothing. Except that the phone was almost out of charge. Once I’d discovered there was no signal, I hadn’t bothered plugging it in. Why had I been so stupid?
Maybe the power cut was just temporary. Engineers were probably on it and the lights would come on again in a minute. And the heating. I realised that already the cottage was growing chill. Oh hell. What if it wasn’t a general power cut. What if it was just my cottage? I had no idea where the fuse box was.
With the remaining light from my phone I found my way to the door and stepped out into the icy night. Clouded sky. No lurid sunset, no moon or stars. But there was a light. Hard to tell how far away, but it must have been across the valley. A warm yellow glow in a window. So it was just me. Hell.
I went back into the cottage. I shouldn’t have left the door open. It wasn’t just chilly now, it was freezing. Hell, hell, hell. I searched around in likely corners, under the stairs, for the fuse box, but no sign of it and my phone light wasn’t going to last much longer. What I did notice was the wood piled up in the massive fireplace. The iron grate was occupied by a brass vase of dried flowers and I had assumed the wood was there for decoration, but if the chimney was still open, I could at least light a fire. Boil some water, even. I shifted the flowers, and felt a draught of cold air from above. I’d risk it. Assuming I had the first idea how to light a fire. I wasn’t girl guide material, though I had a vague memory of my grandmother lighting one. It involved a lot of newspaper.
It also involved matches, which I did not have. But, unless I’d been stupid enough to throw it away, I did have a lighter. I’d finally given up smoking a couple of years back, but… yes, there it was, still, at the bottom of my bag, and on the third attempt, it worked.
Right. There had been a free newspaper on the dresser, advertising local businesses and events. If I could find it. Yes! I started crumpling paper, piling it on the grate, building up logs around it. The paper caught, singed, flared up. Brilliant. I would have light and very soon I would have warmth.
Instead, the flames gave way to a brief red glow and a lot of smoke. The paper had been consumed and the logs were not even blackened.
Try again. There were thin splinters of wood behind the logs. I crumpled more paper and topped it with the splinters. Please, just bloody light.
It did. At last I had a fire going. A miserable thing, with a few flickering flames but it looked as if one of the logs might catch before it all went out. I could warm my hands, just about, but it wasn’t doing anything to raise the temperature of the cottage, and there was no hope of boiling water. It cast a bit of light, which was just as well, as my phone finally failed, but the shifting light only seemed to intensify the shadows. I sat down on a stool, shivering, head in my hands, wondering what to do. Just go to bed hungry, try to warm up under the duvet and wait for daylight? Or maybe just pack up and drive away. At least the car had heating.
I was still debating when there was a rap on the door. Out of the silence and the dark, it had me leaping up with a pathetic scream, but the instinctive fear dissipated at the thought of someone coming to my rescue.
I opened the door with a sigh of relief on finding a man standing there.
‘Thought I caught a flash or two, from across the valley,’ he said. I couldn’t make out much of him in the dark, except that he was tall and wrapped up against the cold. ‘Hadn’t heard someone was renting the cottage. Thought you might need some help with the power down.’
‘It is a general power cut then?’ I asked, stepping back to let him in. It was sleeting outside now. ‘I saw a light over there and I thought—’
‘Oil lamp,’ he said. ‘Always prepared. Should have thought, I could have brought one for you. Still, you’ve got candles?’
‘If I have, I haven’t found them yet. All I’ve got is that.’ I pointed to my feeble attempts at fire making.
He smiled. I could just about make out his lips twitching in what there was of firelight. ‘We can do better than that,’ he said. ‘Getting it going properly. Build up a good blaze, soon have this place piping hot.’
‘Surely. I’ve done it before.’
I stood back to let him get to work. An expert, obviously. The wood was seriously catching now. More and more logs went on. A good blaze, he said. It was that, all right. I could feel warmth now, radiating out from the wide hearth, although, strangely, icy draughts seem to hold their own in the corners of the room. It wasn’t the same as central heating, which I would never take for granted again.
The fire was huge now. Really huge. He stepped back and I stepped closer, worried that sparks and cinders would fly out and catch on carpets or cushions. The roaring flames were mesmerising. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
And then I was aware that he was standing behind me. Close behind me. Very close. I swear I could feel his breath on my neck. My stomach turned over. I reached down to pick up a poker and turned, with a forced laugh, that nearly became a scream as I found his face, red and gleaming in firelight, inches from mine, his eyes gleaming, reflecting the dancing flames.
‘I don’t know much about fires, but I know what this is?’ I said, desperate for my voice to sound lightly amused, not quivering with terror. I raised the poker, forcing him to step back. One hand was behind his back. ‘It’s for stirring the fire, isn’t it? So I can keep it going?’
‘Keep it going,’ he said, his voice almost a whisper. ‘Burn it all. Every little bit.’ He stepped closer again. If I stepped back, I’d be in the fire. It was scorching the back of my legs.
Suddenly, bright light swept across the room, swept back, glared in through the window, and I heard car doors slam. I hadn’t heard engines over the roar of the fire.
‘More visitors,’ I squeaked. ‘I’d better see who it is.’ I wriggled past him and ran for the door, throwing it open with relief, to find Greg and Marty from the pub, just about to knock.
‘Thought we’d better check up on you,’ said Greg. ‘Can’t be much fun up here without power. Found the candles? Rosemary usually leaves a bundle of them in the dresser, just in case, and… ah.’
‘You’ve got a fire going, then,’ said Marty, as they preceded me into the living room.
‘My neighbour very kindly got it going for me,’ I said looking round for my earlier visitor. He was gone. Where? Into the kitchen. I peered in. Nothing. Upstairs. To my bedroom? That was a very unnerving thought.
‘I’d think twice about that fire,’ said Marty. ‘I don’t suppose that chimney’s been swept for years. Never used. Not since Rosemary had the central heating put in. She keeps a gas stove for emergencies. We brought you a cylinder, thought you might need it.’
I wasn’t listening. ‘He’s gone,’ I said, staring up at the ceiling as Greg set a couple of candles in sticks and lit them. ‘Where’s he gone?’
‘The man. From over the valley. That house over there.’
‘Over there?’ They exchanged frowns. ‘Which house?’
‘There!’ I returned to the front door and stared out into the night. There was no light glowing in the dark now. ‘Over there. He had an oil lamp.’
Marty had followed me to the door. He stared to where I was pointing. ‘No houses over there. Just the ruin. Nothing more than a pile of stones and ivy now. Isn’t that right, Greg?’ He called back into the cottage and Greg peered out. ‘Over there. Just that ruin.’
‘Hangman’s Corner? Yes, nothing else.’
‘But he said he lived there,’ I said. ‘He was here. He built up the fire. I think he must be upstairs.’
They were exchanging looks again. ‘Shall I go up and look?’ asked Greg.
It took him barely a minute to run up the stairs, check the bathroom, check the bedroom, come back down shaking his head. ‘No one there, love. Don’t worry. I looked in the wardrobe, under the bed. Nobody hiding anywhere. You are quite sure…?’
‘I wasn’t imagining it!’ I said indignantly. Of course I wasn’t. At least, I was fairly sure…
Marty chuckled as he manoeuvred a gas heater out from under the stairs. ‘Harry’s ghost, maybe.’
‘Shut up, you idiot,’ said Greg, slapping him on the back with a laugh. ‘Don’t go giving her nightmares.’
‘Well, you know, Hangman’s Corner and all that.’
‘What do you mean?’ I demanded.
‘Just old tales,’ said Greg, as Marty went out to fetch the gas. ‘They call it Hangman’s Corner, but it should really be Hanged Man. Guy called Harry… Harry something, lived there, way back, like 1820 or something, and he was hanged for…’ He stopped, his eyes moving quickly round the room and settling on the fireplace, where the fire still roared. ‘Just old history. Forget it. Makes a good tale on a winter’s night in the pub, that’s all.’
‘What’s that? The murder of Eliza Jane?’ asked Marty, cheerfully, returning with a hefty cylinder. ‘Wouldn’t worry about it, love. It was two hundred years ago.’
‘What was? Please tell me.’
‘Eliza Jane?’ Marty ignored Greg’s shaking head. ‘Beautiful girl, lived here. In this very cottage.’ He was obviously relishing the role of story-teller. ‘Harry Matthews, across the valley, he fell for her, obsessed with her, pestering her to marry him, but she was going to marry her Jamie, a fisherman in the village. Going to marry him on Christmas Day. And on Christmas Day, there was Jamie at the church, waiting, and no Eliza Jane. They waited and they waited, and in the end he and his brothers came up here looking for her, and that when they found them. Well, they found him and what was left of her. Harry had murdered her, see, because if she wouldn’t have him, no one else would have her. He’d done her in and then he’d cut her up and he’d built up the fire and he was burning her, bit by bit, to ashes. All they found of her, apart from her head, was burned bones. That’s what this cottage got called then. Char-bone cottage. Finished up as Carbon Cottage. They’d have strung up Harry then and there, but the parson turned up with half the village, and insisted on him being dragged off to the constable. He was hanged for it, of course, but they say he comes back every Christmas, hoping to finish the job. As for Eliza Jane, they buried what was left of her in the garden and her Jamie carved a statue of her as a grave marker. You can see it out there still, if you take a look.’ Marty grinned, satisfied with his gothic story-telling skills.
‘You are a blithering idiot, Marty,’ snapped Greg, scowling at him, and patting my shoulder reassuringly. I had collapsed onto the sofa, fighting down horror and panic. ‘Don’t listen to him. It’s all nonsense. Probably hardly any truth in it anyway. Look, I’ll see if I can find the primus stove and get the kettle on for a nice cup of tea. You get on with your cooking. You’ll be able to make a soup at least.’ He indicated the table where my ingredients were spread. ‘Serious stuff.’ He picked up a knife. ‘You could carve a pig up with that.’
‘That’s not…’ I stared at it. He was right, it was a huge knife, capable of hacking up a corpse. Nothing stainless about the steel of its blade, blackened pitted metal, but its edge was honed to razor-sharpness, glinting in the candle light. ‘That is not the knife I was using. This one is.’ I lunged for the table, staring down at the little stainless steel knife I’d been chopping with. ‘That one wasn’t there. I don’t know where it came from.’
‘I’ll put it back in the kitchen then, shall I?’ said Greg.
‘Yes. No! No, take it away. I don’t know where it came from.’ I stared at the hearth, where flames were still leaping, ready to consume Eliza Jane… or me.
‘Not to worry,’ said Greg, placing the knife back on the table.
‘Now, I’ll just get this heater going for you,’ said Marty. ‘Then we’ll leave you in peace.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, weakly. ‘Actually, no. Please don’t bother. I don’t think I’ll be staying. I’m expected home for Christmas. I think, what with the power being out, I might as well go now.’
I raced upstairs to grab my things, shoving them willy-nilly into my case… and I saw him, Harry. Distinctly, for a moment, in the gloom, I saw his reflection in the mirror. I screamed and I almost fell in my haste to charge back down the stairs.
Greg and Marty were standing there, having words. Marty looked shame-faced. ‘Look, sorry I told you about Eliza Jane.’
‘He should have had more sense,’ said Greg. ‘Made it up, most of it, I’m sure. You’ll be fine here.’
‘No, I’m going,’ I insisted, gathering up my handbag and laptop. ‘Can you… would you mind putting the fire out and returning the key to Mrs James?’
‘Don’t you worry,’ said Greg. ‘We’ll sort everything out and lock up, if you’re really sure.’
‘I’m really sure,’ I said, running for my car. My hand was shaking as I put the key in the ignition. Stay calm, stay calm. In my mirror, I saw Greg and Marty watching, shaking their heads as I drove out through the gate, past the blackened figure, the eyeless head of a burned woman, mouth open, staring at me. I pressed on the accelerator. I was going home. Who cared what Danny had got up to? It wasn’t as if a bit infidelity was a novelty for either of us. Forget it. I was going home.
‘Well, that worked,’ said Greg, leading the way back into the cottage. ‘But in future, tell Rosie not to take any last-minute bookings without giving us time to clear the stash out.’
‘Yeah, yeah, all right.’ Marty raised his voice. ‘Harry! Good job, mate. Now flip the trip switch, get the power back on, will you?’ He was already rolling back the carpet. ‘Come on, Greg. Help me get this slab up.’
The lights came on and Harry strolled in, just as the heavy floor slab flipped over. ‘Easy does it.’ He jumped down into the concealed pit. ‘Time to claim our Christmas bonuses, boys.’ He handed up the first crate. ‘Where did you come up with all that guff about char bone cottage?’
Marty laughed. ‘It fitted the story of Lizzie Jane, didn’t it?’ He reached down to take another case.
‘Total bullshit. Caribbean Maid, wasn’t it?’ Greg was already checking the contents of the first. ‘Because the smugglers used the timbers from the wreck when they built this place.’
‘Still got what’s left of the figurehead in the garden.’
‘Is that what it is? Well…’
‘Hey!’ Harry hoisted himself out of the pit. ‘Watch what you’re doing with that Columbian finest, Marty. It’s not just coffee in those packets. Let’s get this stuff into the van and away from here, before the woman has a chance to start jabbering at the pub.’
They carried seven crates out into the dark. ‘Don’t forget your knife.’
‘Nah. Leave it.’
Marty came back to lock the door. ‘You certainly got one hell of a blaze going, Harry.’
‘Me?’ Harry was climbing into the driver’s seat. ‘Not me. I never went in. All I did was trip the switch and wait for you to turn up. Come on! Get in. Let’s go.’
The pyre was still burning in the grate. As the door shut and the key turned, the fire flared up again. You could almost swear there was a woman’s face in the flames. A log split and screamed. The ancient blackened knife turned silently on the table and tipped over the edge into the shadows.
So that’s another year over. We hope you’ve enjoyed our festive tales and that you have a wondrous Christmas. We look forward to seeing you all again in the New Year!