Something in the Cellar – A Christmas Tale by J L Harland

This week we have a Christmas-themed story from Crime Cymru’s J L Harland, the writing partnership of Jacqueline Harrett and Janet Laugharne

Something in the Cellar

Ed pushed the window up and climbed in, landing with a thump on the wooden floor. Mr North was a grumpy so-and-so, but no one deserved to have their place burgled over Christmas. They’d stretchered the old guy off earlier, after he’d fallen down the front steps, and it would be easy pickings for a burglar to enter through that unlocked window. So, it was a neighbourly deed for Ed just to pop in and lock up. Ed waved to Mrs Alvares across the road as he perched on the window ledge of Mr North’s house, but she was unloading a ton of Christmas shopping from her four by four and just gave him a death stare. So much for festive cheer.

            Ed waited while his eyes adjusted, helped by the flashing of the Christmas lights from Number 24 opposite. It was the mirror image of his home, but this place hadn’t seen a lick of paint for years. Hadn’t been cleaned either. As he stood up the smell caught at his throat and nose. What was that? In the half-light he could see a pedal bin by the sink overflowing with garbage. Fish, stale beer and something else, rotting. He gagged and ran back to the open window to take in a lungful of icy winter air.

Putting a hand over his mouth, he felt around for the light switch. The room didn’t look any better, with one bare bulb casting a faint yellow glow. How could someone own a place like this in central London and let it go to rack and ruin? No sign of it being nearly Christmas Eve, but no surprise there. Mr North wasn’t a fan of the festive season by all accounts. Ed loved Christmas and tomorrow his sister would be over with her boys. He had all the presents wrapped and under the tree and couldn’t wait to see their faces.

As Ed scanned the room, he spotted a door secured with two bolts. From his own ground floor flat he knew this led down to the cellar. The guy must be hellish security conscious. He’d have locked the window for sure if he hadn’t fallen. Then, Ed heard a faint noise from coming from behind the door, like whining. Tense, on alert, he held his breath and waited. He rattled the bolt and the sound stopped, then started again, lower in tone.

A dog? He hadn’t seen Mr North walking an animal. Keys. There had to be keys to those locks somewhere. Stifling his nausea, he opened a few drawers – the usual cutlery, a bottle opener with a Spanish dancer, chop sticks. Another low whine. It was cruel to keep a dog locked up like that. Did Mr North have family? Ed glanced around. Empty glasses and bottles; discarded tissues; a pile of magazines; tins with half eaten contents. Nothing on the walls, not even a poster. A box in the corner was full of battered old shoes and trainers. Where would the old boy keep his spare keys? Bedroom perhaps? Ed’s heart raced. If this was the state of the main room, what horrors would that reveal?

It was just as dirty, but orderly, containing a single bed, made with precision, hospital corners, and covered with a plain grey blanket. Ed recognised military. There was a white table lamp on the bedside cabinet and in the top drawer he found a wooden cigar box. That contained few coins, a medal and – bingo – a bunch of keys.

It took a few moments fumbling with them to unbolt the cellar door, which was well-oiled and opened smoothly. Silence greeted him from the darkness. Ed hoped the dog, if that’s what was down there, wasn’t about to attack. The steep staircase was darker than a river and he could sense something watching, waiting. He held his breath, and it was as if the house did the same. An expectant hush. When he flicked the switch, another weak bulb lit up the top of the stairs, leaving the cellar deep in shadow.

Ed tripped on the last rickety wooden step, just stopping himself from falling by grabbing onto the rough, stone wall. A long time ago someone had whitewashed the place. Now, like the rooms upstairs, it was decaying. He caught the unmistakable musty whiff of damp and mildew.

 Taking all this in, trained as he was to assess situations in seconds, his focus was on the shape he could just sense out of sight in the shadows. What was it? He felt along the wall for the main switch, and as artificial light flooded the room, he saw to his horror the shape was human, a young girl. She was shackled to the wall by a leg iron, like some mediaeval prisoner. She blinked, dazed, her eyes fixed on him, dark with fear.

Short and thin with mousy blonde hair, straggly as though it had never been combed or cut, she was wearing worn and dirty tracksuit trousers, ragged at the bottom, and what had once been a blue and white striped sweatshirt with a tear at the elbow. Who was she? How had she got here? And what the hell was Mr North up to?

‘Hello.’ His voice sounded strange, echoing in the bare cellar. ‘I live next door. My name’s Ed.’

She continued to watch him and made a whimpering sound as he approached. Her face was ghostly, like a barn owl emerging out of the darkness. She raised an arm to shield her eyes and, where her sleeve fell back, he could see her skin. Dirty, with bruises of various hues. She wasn’t gagged, but she didn’t speak.

Yet there was something familiar about her. Ed puzzled, trying to think why she seemed familiar. And then – of course. Her photo was all over, on posters, on the Underground, in shops. ‘Have you seen this girl? Lena Hunt, 14 years old, 5’3”, petite build, light brown hair and blue eyes. Last sighting, 8 pm May 5th at a bus stop near Clapham Common.’ Seven months ago. Had she been here all this time?

‘Lena,’ he said, stretching his hand towards her.

She shrank back, rolled herself into a ball, silent, her huge grey blue eyes fixed on him.

‘It’s all right,’ he said, speaking in the sort of soothing tone he used to the strays in the animal shelter. ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’

The girl whimpered again. A pathetic sound, filled with dread. The chain rattled as she shrank back. He saw the angry red weal on her ankle where the shackle had rubbed against the dirty skin. She had the sallow look of someone deprived of sunlight and there were sores around her mouth.

‘I’ll get you out of here. Look,’ Ed held up the bunch of keys so she could understand.

The girl stretched out the leg with the fetter but kept her arms wrapped around her body. She took a breath and then spoke in a whisper, so he had to strain to hear. ‘You’re not going to touch me or…or…?’

Ed felt a rush of nauseous anger. At that moment he could happily have beaten Mr North to a pulp. What had this child been subjected to since she’d gone missing? Half-starved, kept chained up and … it didn’t bear thinking about.

‘No, no, it’s all right.’ He approached her step by step, trying to reassure her, and she let him try different keys on the lock.

When, at last, he’d unlocked it, Lena rubbed her ankle and glanced towards the stairs. With painful slowness she stood, wobbled, and put a hand to the wall to steady herself. She grimaced as she moved, more like a geriatric than a teenager. As she stood up, stretching, Ed gasped. The evidence of what had happened to her since she had been abducted was plain to see.

His hands shook, making the bunch of keys clank, a harsh metallic noise in the miserable space. She swayed, weak as well as dazed.

Ed considered her. What was the best way to get her out?

Then, the thud of heavy boots on the floorboards above their heads made him jump and stare upwards.

‘Is it…?’ Ed whispered, standing ready to fight.

Lena didn’t seem able to reply.

Seconds later he was dazzled by the beam of a torch directed down the cellar steps towards them. With relief he heard a loud voice shout,

            ‘Police.’

            ‘Thank God. Down here. Help!’

            There would be justice and a homecoming for Lena Hunt that Christmas.


The partnership’s novel What Lies Between Them was published by Dixi in February 2022

Visit J R Harland’s Website. to discover more

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