For someone who doesn’t care about Christmas, I seem to end up writing a Christmas story every year. Most of them have been little present for the wonderful Leeds Book Club, and you can find them here if you scroll down the page. This time, though, I thought I’d simply put it up here. And, in an even more unusual twist, for once it’s very contemporary. I hope you like it, and happy holidays of whatever kind you celebrate (or none).
For a moment she didn’t even realise she was doing it. Then Kate caught herself, singing along with Joni Mitchell’s “River” as her car idled at the traffic lights. At least it was a depressing Christmas song. This was always the worst time of year. Both her parents had died in December, years apart, and it always brought back memories, some good, most of them bad.
Ahead of her, the decorations glowed along the Headrow. Four o’clock and it was already full dark. She felt as if she’d barely seen daylight today. In the Magistrates’ Court since nine, waiting, then just five minutes of evidence before she was off the stand. At least she could duck off home early for once.
She glanced out of the passenger window. The big tree in front of the Town Hall was lit up, trying to give some spirit to the city. Kate was about to turn away when something caught her eye. A man looking around cautiously before ducking close to the tree and putting down a pack.
A horn beeped and her eyes slid to the rearview mirror. The lights had changed and traffic was moving. Kate put on her indicator, crept round the corner to Calverley Street, then on to the cobbled forecourt. She could still see the man at the bottom of the steps, gazing up to the top of the tree. Kate turned off the engine and suddenly Joni was silent. She took the radio from her briefcase.
‘This is DI Thornton.’
‘Go ahead, ma’am.’
‘Got something at the Town Hall. A man’s just left something under the big tree outside.’
For a few seconds there was nothing from the other end. She could feel her heart beating fast.
‘Sent out the alert, ma’am.’ The voice was tense now. ‘The super wants to know if you’re you sure you saw it?’
Typical Silver Command question. Don’t believe the bloody officer on the scene.
‘I’m certain. I can make it out. I’m parked close. I can still see the man.’
‘White, maybe five feet nine. Wearing a parka. It might be green, hard to tell. Looks a little stocky. Dark bobble cap. Wait, he’s starting to walk away.’
‘We’re going to talk to the CCTV centre. Silver Command says they can track him. He wants you to move away from the area.’
Nobody was saying what could be in that package. These days it was safer to assume the worst.
‘There are people all around. What about them?’
‘Units are on the way. They should be there very soon.’
She could make out the distant wail of the sirens. Five or six of them, maybe more. Another thirty seconds and they’d probably be here; certainly no more than a minute.
‘I’m going to follow him,’ Kate said. She clicked off the radio, dropped it on the seat and locked the car behind her. Cameras were fine, but nothing beat someone on the ground. Someone there and ready to act. Her heels clicked briskly as she walked. In her pocket the phone was buzzing; she switched it to silent.
He was crossing the road and starting to disappear into the throng on East Parade. Kate hurried, ducking through the traffic and ignoring the blaring horns. Too many people around for him to spot her. He hadn’t even looked back, he wasn’t hurrying.
She kept ten yards away, close enough to keep him in easy sight and rush him if it was needed. A glance over her shoulder. Flashing lights all around the Town Hall, traffic stopped on the Headrow. Good, everything was in hand there.
He left the pavement, going over then along South Parade. For a moment she’d been able to see his face as he turned his head. About fifty, jowly, stubble on his cheeks. Along Park Row, past Becketts Bank, the smokers gathered outside the bar, then on to Bond Street.
Kate took out her phone. Five missed calls. She swiped the screen as she walked and pressed the number that had been trying to reach her.
‘What the hell-’
‘Another hundred yards and he’ll be on Commercial Street, sir. How many people do we have close?’
‘Two on Briggate heading your way and another coming up Albion Street. Why-’
Too far away, Kate decided. He needed to be stopped now.
‘I’m moving in on him, sir.’ She ended the call and put the phone back in her pocket.
Deep breath time. Kate could hear the busker on the corner ahead, the old man with the good voice doing his Johnny Cash songs. She walked faster, trying not to run; she didn’t want to panic him. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought it would break her ribs. Kate checked: the handcuffs were in her pocket. Five yards away now. Three. Two.
He went down easily. Before he could even react she had his wrists cuffed behind his back.
‘Police’ she shouted as people stopped to watch. ‘Move away.’
Then she heard the thud of feet as three uniforms came running.
No weapon. There was nothing at all, besides his wallet, a couple of pounds in change, and a bloody nose where his face had hit the pavement. He was sitting on the ground, dazed, wrists cuffed behind him.
Kate had laddered her tights, she saw as she squatted to talk to the man. Brand new pair that morning, too.
‘Right, Kenneth.’ She had his wallet open, looking at the driving licence. Kenneth Mitchell. Fifty one. A Belle Isle address. ‘What did you leave under the tree outside the Town Hall?’
‘Eh?’ He squinted at her.
‘You put a package there. I saw you. That’s why we stopped you.’
His face cleared and he smiled.
‘A present,’ he said. ‘For the kiddies.’
‘What?’ She stood again, hands on hips and looked down at him.
‘Me neighbour, like. We were talking and he said wouldn’t it be a good idea if people left presents for the kiddies under that tree? So I bought summat, wrapped it, and came into town. I didn’t mean any harm.’
Christ. She walked few yards away and took out her phone.
‘Detective Inspector…’ Silver Command was purring note, delicious triumph in his voice.
‘He claims he was leaving a present for children, sir.’ Maybe the ground would open up and swallow her so she wouldn’t have to continue this conversation. Kate tapped her foot. Typical luck. No bloody sinkhole.
‘He’s telling the truth. It’s a Fisher Price something or other. You can apologise and let him go. You might take the time to thank him, too, Detective Inspector.’
‘Yes sir.’ Kate swallowed. ‘He had a nosebleed. I’ll have one of the uniforms get a paramedic.’
‘Make sure you do.’ A pause. ‘But good work, eh? These days…’
He didn’t need to finish the sentence. You couldn’t afford to look for the good in people now, only the bad.
‘Thank you, sir.’ Kate ended the call. At least he’d let her off lightly. But it would be all over the station tomorrow.
She turned to look at Mitchell. The cuffs were off now and one of the uniforms was helping him to his feet.
‘I’m sorry, sir. I hope you understand, though, with the ways things are.’ She smiled at him. ‘It was a lovely thought.’
He nodded and she started to walk away.
‘Merry Christmas,’ Mitchell said.
Kate smiled again. ‘Merry Christmas, sir.’
I’ll finish with one of those seasonal reminders that books make wonderful gifts any time of the year, and both The Iron Water and Modern Crimes are still warm-ish off the presses. On Copper Street, the firth Tom Harper novel, comes out in February, and you can pre-order it here.