Christmas with Crooked Cats began on 29 November and runs through into 5 January 2015. On their Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/
– you can access seasonal poetry, short stories and articles penned by a host of Crooked Cat authors.
So, to continue celebrating Christmas with Crooked Cats, here is a Christmas story.
“...about time you got a new belief system.”
Surveillance took longer than I’d hoped. By the time the criminals were arrested, I was two days late setting off for my cousin Ignacio’s home in Zaragoza. As I loaded my suitcase in the Seat’s boot, I rang him from my mobile phone to let him know I’d be there later. Just my luck, snow had started to fall in the north the day before I left and by the time I drove into the mountains it was lying quite thick, though at least the main road was clear, if treacherously wet and slippery. To make matters worse, fog descended, which further reduced my speed. Not the most auspicious start to the Christmas holidays, I thought, as the windscreen wipers beat a monotonous rhythm interspersed with squeaks of complaint at not being changed during the last service.
The road climbed and twisted and turned. Oncoming traffic headlights glared, shards of light reflecting from the wet windows, blinding. My heart lurched as I instinctively touched the brake, padded it gently, repeatedly slowing down. If I’d been driving a little faster or been inattentive, I’d have hit the rear end of the parked car, its blinking yellow hazard lights quite dim in the conditions.
I let the engine idle, the climate control wafting warm air over me. I was late and the weather was hell out there. Drive round and move on. Ignoring my better judgment, I fished in the glove compartment for a torch, turned off the engine, switched on the hazard lights, shoved the shift into gear and ratcheted the handbrake one notch more. As soon as I opened the door, I felt reluctant to brave the elements.
Still, I stepped out and, as if on cue, the snow stopped. Keen to take advantage of the respite, I hurried over to the car parked in front of my Seat. It was a Fiat Punto, and the interior light was on, the windows steamed up. I swore. Not the best place for courting couples, I thought, as I rapped my knuckles on the roof.
The driver’s electric window lowered, and a young man peered out. “Thank God, you stopped,” he said. “The car won’t go and my wife, she’s pregnant! I was taking her to the hospital!”
Leaning to my left, I shone the torch inside. Sure enough, she was half-lying, half-sitting on the rear seat. One hand rested on her bump, the other gripped the headrest post. She blinked and glanced away. “Sorry,” I said and lowered the torch.
“We need to push your car off the road or it’s going to cause an accident,” I told him. “Then we’ll see about getting your wife to the hospital.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said. “Thank you.”
“When I tell you, take off the handbrake, and I’ll push. Steer over to that piece of waste ground,” I indicated to the right about ten feet away. “Should be safe enough there until you can get the garage to send someone out.”
He nodded and I walked to the back of the car. I pocketed the torch and braced myself, ready to push. The road surface was firm enough, at least, to give me purchase. “Handbrake off!” I called.
Fortunately, this section of road was relatively level, not too steep. After a few seconds of intense effort and my shoulder muscles protesting, the car started to move forward, and gradually it turned off the road. The driver braked as the rear wheels ran onto the waste ground.
At that moment, a truck bore down on my Seat, its horn blaring, brakes squealing. It wasn’t going to stop in time. My heart pounded as I backed against the Fiat.
The massive crunch was deafening, my car jammed under its front bumper. Sparks flew as the heavy vehicle dragged mine with it and slewed across the road. It demolished the crash barrier. My car and the truck tumbled over the edge, leaving only a flurry of snow in their wake.
My mouth was dry, even though damp white fronds of my breath filled the air. My flesh ran cold, and I shuddered. I’d been close to death many times, but the body never gets used to it.
I glanced at the expectant father. He stared in shock at the gap in the road barrier.
I took out my mobile phone, but there was no signal, weather or the position affecting it, without doubt. I enquired but the husband’s phone was inoperative as well, so we couldn’t alert the emergency services.
There was no more traffic, it seemed. I ran across the empty road and peered down, but there were no headlight beams, just blackness. I pulled out my torch and directed its shaft of light down the snow-laden mountainside, but there was no sign of the unfortunate truck driver.
Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion and flames briefly spouted up from where the vehicles had fallen off the mountain. I jerked back, turned my head away and in the fleeting flash of light, I thought I saw something that gave me hope.
Now, the snow started up again, but this time it came at us horizontally, driven by the cierzo, the cold dry wind from the northwest.
I moved to the other side of the Fiat and opened the door, slumped into the passenger seat. Grateful for the relative warmth, I slammed the door shut. I explained that we could sit in there and slowly freeze to death, or try to get to some shelter. “Not the greatest options, I know,” I said, “especially in your condition, Señora.”
“Maria Delacruz,” she supplied. “My husband, he is Jacobo.”
I hunched round and nodded. “Leon Cazador.”
“But we don’t know of any shelter,” said Jacobo. “I don’t recall passing a building for many kilometres.”
“When the truck blew up, I think the flames highlighted a rooftop over there.” I pointed down a rough track on our right. Maybe somebody lives there.”
“They might have a phone!” Maria said.
“Very well, we’ll risk it,” Jacobo said. “But we must be careful, Maria.”
“I’m not an invalid,” she replied and opened the door.
***The track sloped downwards. It led to a double gate with a chain and padlock, which opened to useful skills I’d learned some years ago.
Jacobo whispered, “How’d you—?”
“Don’t ask,” I said.
The slope continued for a further ten metres or so and curved towards a large two-storey building, its roof covered in snow. So, either they had good insulation or it was empty. The sign by the door read: Posado del Belén. Inviting enough, I reckoned and rang the doorbell.
While I waited for any response, I glanced around. The trees were already snow-laden, and the gardens were virgin white. I hoped there wasn’t a frustrated writer acting as a caretaker with a penchant for axing doors. In a way, I was relieved there was no answer. I paced to the left. A bay window revealed a large lounge, an empty hearth and a wall mounted full bookcase. On the right, another window showed a bar area, a small dance floor and tables with chairs stacked on them. “Closed for the season,” I said.
“What do we do now?” Jacobo wailed, one arm round Maria, shifting from foot to foot as if that would warm them.
In response, I picked the lock. Easy enough, in my business. “This way,” I said. I shut the door behind us and was immediately grateful for the relative warmth of the place. The lobby echoed to our footsteps as we stamped to be rid of the clinging snow. Then I shepherded them into the lounge on the left. There were plenty of logs stacked to one side. “Let’s get a fire going.”
It didn’t take long to warm the place. Maria removed her coat and lay on the leather sofa in front of the roaring log fire. Jacobo and I raided the kitchens and found in-date lamb in the fridge and made sandwiches. While Jacobo heated some vegetable soup, I checked out the rest of the building, in search of a couple of blankets for Maria.
The reception desk phone didn’t work, which was frustrating. I pored over the guest book. The last visitors departed two months ago. I wondered how long the place had been left empty. It didn’t have a musty or damp smell about it.
The inn seemed to serve as a hotel, too. It had eight double rooms, and the furniture in all of them was draped in dustsheets. In one wardrobe, I found a cache of weapons and explosives, but I decided to keep the discovery to myself for the time being.
“The baby, it’s coming!” shouted Jacobo.
I raced downstairs and asked Maria about her contractions. She nodded and wheezed, taking great breaths, doubtless to fight the pain.
“There’s still time to eat something,” I told Jacobo. “But, sorry, Maria, you must abstain from any food.” She didn’t look particularly hungry, anyway. Her whole concentration seemed to be on the intermittent and quite crippling pain.
A couple of hours later, the signs were there. I told Jacobo, “Now it’s time. Hot water, towels.” He got up and obediently hurried towards the kitchens. I moved over to the drinks cabinet. Its lock was flimsy and I encouraged it to open. A small brandy seemed necessary. It was a few years since I’d delivered a baby, but I told myself it was like riding a bike. As long as no wheels came off, I thought.
***In the event, some six hours later, Maria gave birth to a lovely boy, and the procedure was without any complications.
I left Jacobo with his wife and newborn while I cleaned up and took the washbasin, towels and cloths to the kitchen.
I was on my way back to the lounge when the front door was opened with a key. Most civilised, I thought. Two men and a woman stood in the doorway, all dressed in snow-covered leather jackets with fur collars and hoods, and jeans and boots with fur edges. I was surprised to see anybody. Their expressions reflected more shock than surprise. If they were the owners, I could understand that.
My sixth sense kicked in, though, and the hairs on the nape of my neck stood on end.
They exchanged glances with each other. The woman lowered her hood and demanded, “What the hell are you doing here?” Her voice echoed in the lobby. “Who are you?”
“Hola,” I said, offering a smile. “We took shelter from the storm.” I gestured at the half-open lounge door that emitted a warm glow. “It was an emergency. I hope you don’t mind?” That last was probably from my English side, even if delivered in Spanish.
“Emergency?” she said.
“We’ve just delivered a baby. Come and see.”
With some reluctance, the three of them followed me inside.
“Hey, Maria, Jacobo, we’ve got visitors,” I said.
Jacobo stood up and Maria hugged her son to her.
I eyed the woman. “Are you the owners, then?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m Melita Reyes and this is my husband, Beltran, and my brother-in-law, Casimiro.” She looked at the empty plates and glasses.
“We’ll clear up and pay for what we’ve used, of course,” said Jacobo.
Melita removed her gloves, pocketed them and moved over to the fire. “No need. It can be our gift.” She warmed her hands with the flames.
“Thank you,” whispered Maria.
Melita’s husband strode over to her and tugged at her sleeve. He gruffly whispered something in her ear. She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “You go with Casi,” she said, dismissing him.
He nodded, turned on his heel, and the two Reyes brothers turned and left the lounge.
“I’m just going to the kitchen,” I told Melita. “Do you want a drink?”
She unzipped her jacket and sat on the edge of a seat by the hearth. She seemed intent on the mother and child. “No, thank you,” she said, without looking up.
I eased the door back and was in time to observe the brothers climb the topmost stairs, two steps at a time. I sighed, because I knew where they were headed.
There was an alcove under the staircase. Here, I pulled out from my ankle holster the lightweight Colt Officer’s ACP LW automatic. The Astra A-100 automatic was still in its shoulder holster, packed away in my suitcase, amidst the burnt-out wreckage of my Seat. I had an uninterrupted view of the door to the lounge and the foot of the staircase. I waited.
After about ten minutes, Casi and Beltran descended the stairs. Their hands were full with canvas bags and machine-guns. When their feet landed on the bottom tread, I stepped out, my gun leveled on their chests. “Is this the new version, eh? Instead of frankincense, myrrh and gold, you bring the babe explosives, detonators and bullets.”
“What are you talking about?” Beltran snapped.
Melita emerged through the doorway. As she noticed my weapon, she reached inside her jacket.
“Don’t,” I warned. “I’m a good shot.”
“You cannot shoot all three of us.”
“I don’t want to shoot any of you, but I can’t let you leave here, either.”
“This is our property, Señor. You have no right to—”
“You’ve no right to blow up people, either.”
“It is what we believe in,” said Beltran gruffly.
“Then it’s about time you got a new belief system.”
“We want self-determination and territoriality,” said Casi, shaking the weapons he cradled. “This is how we will get it.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said, anger rising. I had to control it, otherwise, I was liable to make a fatal error.
“We fight injustice and tyranny,” said Beltran.
I swore. “Franco’s been dead over thirty years, and our country’s now a democracy. Open your eyes, and look around the world. If you and Melita ever decided to have children, no dictator is telling you to restrict yourselves to one child. You’re free to follow any religion or none, without persecution. If you’re law-abiding, you need not fear the knock on the door at three in the morning. You have drinking water on tap and shops filled with food. Cheap clothing is available for all. You can read any material you wish without censorship. Need I go on?”
“The government tramples on our aspirations!” snapped Casi.
“Your bombs kill innocent people,” I said.
“They’re not innocent,” said Casi. “They work for the government. They’re fair game!”
“Those murdered Guardia Civil men and women were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They were not government tyrants.” I gestured at the lounge doorway. “Inside there, is a mother and baby. Innocents.”
“What would you have us do?” Melita said, her tone quite sombre.
“Give yourselves up. Renounce violence. If your aims are just and legitimate, fight for them by peaceful means. Don’t create orphans and widows.”
Beltran laughed. “You’d have us surrender, for the sake of that one baby in there?”
“Yes,” I said, “and why not?”
“It’s absurd!” said Casi.
“Is it? Just over two thousand years ago, another baby boy came into the world to spread the word. Peace to mankind. His Word’s been diluted over the centuries, maybe, but it still holds true tonight, today. This is Christmas Day, after all.”
“It’s just a baby,” said Casi.
Beltran pursed his lips and looked at his wife. Her eyes were moist, and she nodded briefly. Then he lowered the weapons and bags to the floor.
“Your weapon, please.” I held out my hand to Melita.
Carefully, she pulled the revolver free and I took it from her, shoved it in my pocket.
Casi swore. “This is stupid! We’ve sworn to fight together until—”
“Until one or more of you are dead?” I said and shook my head. “Your so-called cause has killed over eight hundred people, including women and children and maimed hundreds more, ruining so many lives. Lives that are for living.” I could easily have been talking to godless killers, but I’d seen the look in Melita’s eyes when she sat with the mother and child, and I believed her maternal instinct had been deeply stirred. And, strangely, these two men looked to her for leadership.
Melita glanced at the lounge doorway again then moved over to her brother-in-law. “Bury the hate and love life,” she whispered. “It’s a good belief system, I think.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Please, Casi, let’s try it.”
Casi glared at me then flung his bundle to the floor. I flinched as the bag’s contents made a noise but they didn’t explode. Melita hugged him, her lips pecked his cheek, and then she went back to her husband’s side.
“What will you do with us now?” she asked.
“Leave your munitions here. And when the snow stops, go and send an ambulance.”
“Then we’re free to go?” Casi asked.
“Go, yes,” I said. “But on the way, bury the hate.”
Melita nodded and held Beltran’s hand. “Very well.”
At that moment, Jacobo stepped out of the lounge. He trembled as he stared at the discarded weapons and explosives. “Madre de Dios!”
I nodded. It seemed an appropriate exclamation. “Maybe this time there won’t be any death of the innocents. Let’s go in and look at the Christmas child.”
Notes:This is one of 22 short stories, all previously published, that can be read in the collection Spanish Eye published by Crooked Cat Publishing.
e-book from Amazon UK here
e-book from Amazon COM here
Also available as a paperback from these sites and post-free worldwide the book depository
‘Inn Time’ was originally commissioned by Costa TV Times for their Christmas 2009 edition, and was published as a double-page spread.
Leon Cazador has a guest appearance in Catalyst, which is released tomorrow:
e-book from Amazon UK here
e-book from Amazon COM here