So, here it is! The moment a handful of people have been waiting for. Here is the opening chapter of the second Salmonweird book: the Christmas Crime Comedy Caper A Salmonweird Sleighing.
Hello, my name is Karl, I’m a retired detective, the only living human in the village, and it’s a dark and stormy night.
Do you know what? I hate that line too, but being so close to Christmas, my guess is you’ll forgive the little transgression for the sake of the season. It’s better than Once up a time, there was a retired detective from Cambridgeshire living in a tiny Cornish village who had lots of ghostly friends, isn’t it?
It certainly was a dark night – this is early December after all, a time when it gets dark around 4:30pm in Cornwall.
Stormy? Not really. it was damp and drizzling but the temperature was above 10C, a fairly typical Cornish evening for the time of year, really. There was no storm in the air – not even pressure that hinted at the possible suggestion of a storm, just a bit of good old-fashioned Cornish rain. That didn’t matter though; it was a mild evening for early December and it’s this state of affairs that probably led to the damp and blowy conditions in the first place.
Now I’m going full Charles Dickens. Yes sir, they are all dead in this here village. Each’s death was recorded by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker. Of their death each resident could certainly be assured…
Now I have that out of my system, let me start again.
Hello, my name is Karl and all that stuff.
The church was packed for the first Sunday of Advent and we were coming to the end of my favourite carol: what else but Hark the Herald Angels Sing? This evening was always going to feel too short to this lapsed Catholic with a heart the size of the entire southwest peninsula where Christmas is concerned.
Even as a kid the only time I hated leaving church was at the end of a Carol Service although I knew I was going straight home to bed to wait for Father Christmas; the rest of the time I couldn’t wait to get out.
These were the thoughts going through my head as I enthusiastically sang the carol considerably louder than anyone else around me. The downside is I was likely the worst singer there.
I glanced at Eli a few seats along the pew. I was not surprised to see his sharp and angular features more screwed up than normal. His mouth moved but no words came out – he might have fooled everyone else, but he wasn’t fooling me.
As a Cromwellian-era Puritan, Eli lived in a time when Parliament banned Christmas. I appreciated that he was there at all let alone pretending to play along.
In contrast, his partner Jacob was more at ease with the occasion, singing along with confused amusement rather than enthusiasm.
Eli saw me and offered the tiniest of smiles. I gave him the thumbs up moments before the carol came to its dramatic and rousing conclusion.
As the organ stopped, our medieval monk and Catholic priest Brother Jowan moved back to the centre of the nave and pressed his hands together.
I give the man full credit for the ecumenical service he was about to wrap up. No doubt it was alien to him, a little weird, irreverent, and maybe even downright ghastly by 1340s standards. But he took advice from villagers from across the spectrum, including and especially the congregation who died in more recent times, and ran with it.
And run with it he did, a whole marathon’s worth of running with it.
‘I understand in this modern age that Christmas means something different to everybody,’ he began. ‘What I have tried to do here is appeal to you all – Christian and non-Christian, Catholic and Anglican alike, that you may all feel welcomed in this place, this centre of our village of Salmonweir.’
‘Christmastide is a time for birth of Christ and of the rebirth of ourselves. It is also the renewal of our Christian vows. Karl recently loaned me a rather fascinating book called “A Christmas Carol” by a man named Charles Dickens. You must forgive my unfamiliarity. My excuse is that I died some 500 years before this book was published.’
A small laugh passed over the crowd.
‘I finished reading it just this morning. There is a universal and timeless message within Mister Dickens work. Scrooge’s epiphany on Christmas morning is as much a celebration of Christmas as it is a warning of the consequences of our inaction towards our kin. Scrooge’s indifference to the plight of others caused just as much suffering as his overt cruelty. His redemption brought joy and happiness to all who knew him.’
‘With the exception of Karl, we are all dead. Some of us died long before others were even born. Yet here we all are, friends and acquaintances together at this remarkable time in this remarkable place. We may never discover why God chose to return our spirits to the physical world, but I believe that He granted this gift of a second chance that we not waste it or repeat our sins.’
There, that brief glance towards Eli. I huffed long and deep inside. Was it too much to ask that he could not have a dig at his clerical rival?
Despite that their relationship was closer to cordial than outright warfare at the moment, the one place Jowan would not meet Eli was over the latter’s sexuality. I glanced quickly at Eli but he either didn’t notice or chose to pay it no attention.
‘Now, you are all invited to make your way outside to the sheltered area where you will be served mulled wine and mince pies. Let’s get the first ever Salmonweir Christmas party underway.’
The murmuring began immediately; by the time we’d all stood and lined up neatly to exit the church, that murmur became chatter. Stepping outside, I let out a sigh of relief to see it had stopped raining. As the only person there who could get wet, this pleased me greatly.
The first thing I noticed was the pleasing scent of mulled wine. It tickled my nose; I sneezed, and when I opened my eyes found a cup of the warm red stuff shoved in one hand and a generously sized mince pie in the other.
I didn’t see who it was – they’d already moved on to the next person so my muttered thank you was to nobody in particular. Following the crowd, I hurried towards the village hall across the church green.
A choirboy pointed to a table full of finger food and, scoffing the mince pie, I made a beeline for the cinnamon spiced nuts. I grabbed a handful, leaned against the table, and watched the crowd. People were already breaking off into their social groups; I spotted Eli and Jacob standing to one side and decided to go over.
‘Isn’t Hark the Herald Angels Sing wonderful! Oh, good evening Karl!’
‘It is. Can’t say the same about Coventry Carol. If I never hear that again – hello Karl!’
‘What is this “mulled wine”? Hey Karl!’
‘It’s wine with spices. Cloves, cinnamon and ginger.’
‘Does this mince pie have real mince in it? Merry Christmas, Karl.’
‘No, they did when I was alive but it’s just fruit and spices now.’
It took some time to push through the crowd to reach the marquee under which Eli and Jacob stood due all the “good evening” greetings.
‘Eli, Jacob! I am pleased you are both here!’ I said, finally reaching their side. ‘What did you think, honestly?’
Eli screwed his nose up. ‘To sum it up in one word – uncomfortable. The idea of such celebration and wastage,’ he shook his head. ‘Brother Jowan’s papist sentiments aside, I found it pagan.’
Jacob nudged him. ‘Liar,’ he whispered.
‘As I was going to say before my beloved prompted me,’ he took a deep breath, ‘and still keeping that in mind, I understand the need for merriment in the coldest, darkest, and in England’s case – wettest time of the year. Christmas brings community. These people are happy. It is not my place to take away something that brings so much pleasure.’
‘Can I use your phone please, Karl?’ Jacob asked.
‘Because I want Eli to repeat what he just said so I can record him, and next time he’s grumpy about people enjoying themselves, I can play it back to him.’
‘Hey!’ said Eli. ‘I am a Christmas convert. And God himself knows that we need it with what our village has just been through.’ He tapped his cup against mine.
Jacob and I nodded glumly. Though it seemed a lifetime ago now, my first case in Salmonweir came to a shocking conclusion in the pub just three weeks ago – three weeks of pain and not much time for healing. By now, most resident will have known that our former pub landlord Morwenna had killed Harry’s son Eddie and Afterlife PLC salesman Tobin; had it not been for Harry rallying myself and Kensa, she might have killed Eli too after abducting him and keeping him trapped in an old subterranean icehouse.
Yes, we needed something to warm the cockles of our collective hearts and tonight certainly helped.
‘What did you think, Jacob?’ It was in the wake of his abduction and concern for his safety that Eli came out to me in private, and then to the village about a week later. it wasn’t entirely his decision; what also tipped the scales was Jacob insisting that he no longer be kept in the house out of fear of what others might think. Jacob also pointed out that they are protected by the village’s “Sheriff Men” (me, and my Roman Naval Officer sidekick Attilus Justus Cato).
‘Like Eli, I was confused and uncomfortable at first. But in the end, it were all a bit beautiful, Mister Blackman sir. Life is good!’
Eli and I chuckled.
It was then I spotted Cato and proverbially grabbed him by his non-corporeal lorica segmentata. ‘Cato, please join us!’
‘Good evening, gents,’ he nodded to each of us.
‘Where is Kensa?’ I enquired, surprised not to see the other partner in the Romeo & Juliet relationship – the village’s resident Iron Age warrior queen.
His face darkened. ‘Oh, she decided not to come.’
‘That surprises me,’ I pressed, ‘Only last week she told me she couldn’t wait.’
‘Not feeling up to it,’ he snapped and looked down at the ground. ‘I think she had some designs to finish off – or something.’ Kensa had been working on replica armour, or something better than what she’d so far found on the internet, describing it as “rubbish, not even fit for Roman children” – ouch!
‘What did you think of the service?’ I asked Cato.
Cato’s face went from disappointment to delight. ‘Wonderful! Surprisingly familiar too; I see the old Roman influences in some of its modern rituals.’
‘I rest my case about the pagan stuff,’ Eli chuckled. He raised his cup of mulled wine to toast Cato.
‘At Saturnalia we would gorge ourselves on food and drink,’ Cato went on, ‘and then purge what we’d eaten so we could eat more of it.’
‘Sounds repugnant,’ Eli offered,’ such waste!’
Cato blinked at him, confused. ‘How else were we, on a full stomach, supposed to taste all of the delights of the Saturnalia season?’ He turned back to me. ‘It was a great leveller of people, much like the service we just saw.’
‘Oh? Please tell me more, Cato!’
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘I remember this particular Saturnalia before our ships departed for Britannia. We were in Palmyra for the feast days and stayed in the barracks with a land legion.’
‘Lots of drinking and debauchery?’
‘You can only imagine,’ Cato said. ‘Saturnalia threw all Roman conventions out the window. Anything went at a feast. There was this one slave girl, a feisty Egyptian. Half my size and most of the lads were terrified of her. Yet she all bold-like marched up to the Prefect and tapped him on the shoulder. She asked if he wanted to play Ludus latrunculorum because nobody else there knew how to play.’
‘Wow, that is bold.’
‘Wouldn’t have been allowed any other time of the year, but I think she’d have done it in any case – Saturnalia or not Saturnalia.’ He took a sip of wine. ‘As officer types were, he was over-confident thinking he would pick it up easily and beat her. After all, she was only a slave! Yet she won enough money to buy her freedom.’
I laughed. ‘She took all his money?’
‘Yep. And she said if he was hungry, he should re-eat all his vomit because he wouldn’t afford another meal for weeks.’
My face dropped. ‘Did he have her beaten and killed her for that?’
‘Oh no, the saying of such things by slaves to their superiors were permitted at Saturnalia. No Karl, he married her.’
‘Are you serious?’
Cato did not laugh. ‘Yes, I am. He asked her that moment and she said “yes.” She went home with him that night and within a week she was a free woman. They married a few months later.’
‘Did it last?’
‘I don’t know, we left after that. But he was genuinely smitten with her. My guess is they lasted, unlike m-’ Cato cut himself off with a shake of the head.
‘What a wonderful story,’ I said, finally breaking the awkward silence.
‘Indeed,’ Cato’s face sank again. ‘I just recounted it to Miss Yorke, a decision I bitterly regret as I fear she may now write one of her awful poems about them.’
Somewhere behind us, a sound system roared into life and started to play Mike Oldfield’s In Dulce Jubilo. From the traditional to the modern, there was so much Christmas in the air I was worried I might overdose and want to shut myself away until Easter at least – maybe even the summer.
‘I used to enjoy Christmastide before it got banned,’ said Jacob. ‘Mind you, the fact that it was banned by thems lot in London don’t mean we didn’t do nothing for it. The Parliament couldn’t do nothing to stop us having a good time. I remember the first Christmas we got the ban notice. That was before Eli come down here, though. It’s like people went to a lot more effort just because the government told them they couldn’t do it. What was they going to do, send the sheriff to arrest the whole village? They tried that, mind, and we sent them all packing.’
‘That sounds awful, Jacob.’
He nodded glumly. ‘But if it hadn’t happened, I might never have met Eli now then, would I?’
‘I’ve never really understood what it was that brought you to Cornwall, Eli? Was it really just a ministerial posting after the Civil War?’
‘That was my main reason for being here,’ Eli said, ‘but it wasn’t the only one.’
‘Oh? Care to explain?’ I asked.
‘Another time, I think you might be quite surprised at what my day-to-day work involved,’ he winked, ‘very surprised.’
A shriek filled the air.
‘The foxes are loud tonight, Karl,’ Eli said. ‘I wonder what’s flustered them?’
‘Miss Yorke torturing them with her love sonnets,’ said Cato.
‘That’s not a fox,’ I said, ‘that’s a woman screaming.’ I pushed through to the desk and switched off the music. All eyes turned towards me and a collective sigh rose and quickly died. Only the sound of wind and rain greeted my ears. ‘Sorry everyone, I thought I heard something. As you were.’
My finger barely touched the on switch before I heard another scream. This time I could tell it was close, likely near the church or its grounds. I placed my mulled wine on the table. ‘Stay here please, everybody. I’m just going to investigate.’
‘Want me to come, Karl?’ asked Cato.
‘No, it’s fine, it might only be a fox.’
I hastened back to the quiet and deserted church and slipped around the side of the building. Darkness enveloped me quickly and soon, so did a chill wind. The light from the green and the marquee now too dim to light my way, I carefully shuffled along a slippery path. Tarmac soon gave way to soggy soft ground.
Dim starlight illuminated the rear of the churchyard. I could see nothing – yet – among the gnarly teeth of ancient headstones.
A flutter of wings above me – a bat, I hear them all the time and they long since stopped scaring me. I instinctively looked up and caught movement, something black, like a disembodied shadow.
My eyes struggled to focus. There was a flash of black and red and the – it, whatever it was, still presuming a bat right now – disappeared over the lip of the church roof.
I took a step back; my calf struck something hard, and I realised I’d stepped off the path and into a small gravestone. I muttered a quick apology to The Spirits of the Departed (something I’d learnt from Cato) and backed around it.
Lit by bright shimmering stars of a clear December night, the church roof was completely open to me. The bat, or whatever it was, had long since gone, probably startled by my clumsy human feet lumping around all over the place.
I stepped back onto the path and saw something move, just the barest of flickers of movement of something black in a gap between two small headstones.
‘Are you playing with me, mister or miss bat?’ I asked.
In response, the black thing flipped again, but now I could just about make out a human shape.
Or – amid everything else – a privatised afterlife, ghosts from 2000 years of village history, a ghost ship, and ghost swords do we now finally have a vampire?
The ground squelched beneath my feet as I made my way to the front of the church. There was definitely something moving in among the ancient gravestones.
‘Karl is that you?’ came an unmistakeable voice.
‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘I’m just coming.’
‘Mind how you go, Karl. We can’t have you slipping and killing yourself and becoming like the rest of us!’ The voice laughed gently.
I moved carefully on the slippery ground; it became less slippery as I got closer to the prone figure. I knelt next to Dora Wilson who lie so calmly on the ground as though she had just woken from a much-needed nap.
‘What are you doing down here?’ I chuckled.
But the look on her face was not the happiness of a good rest. I had seen that look before – it was of a person facing imminent demise.
‘I’m dying,’ she said, pausing. ‘I suspect it’s for good this time.’ She began to cry. I reached out to touch her hand in comfort, briefly forgetting I could not touch her. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘my dear friend Karl. Don’t be sad for me. Something wonderful has happened. Something absolutely wonderful indeed and I best tell you everything before I’m gone.’
Release date 4th June 2021. You can pre-order the ebook now by clicking this image. Paperbacks will be available from release date.