Now the end of the year is nigh, it is time to look back and be thankful – that is what Malcolm Hollingdrake does in this special Christmas story I am privileged to share with all of you who love and support the DCI Bennett Series
Malcolm Hollingdrake is the author of the DCI Bennett series, featuring DCI Cyril Bennett and his team, of whom I just have to mention DS David Owen, better known as Owen. I love the DCI Bennett series, the author’s erudite writing style combining police procedurals with insights into the personal lives of the police officers. The author’s love for Harrogate and the world of art, especially for Northern artists, shines through in all the five (soon to be six!) instalments of his detective thrillers. I highly recommend this detective series and have the absolute pleasure to share with you a special Christmas story, written by Malcolm Hollingdrake.
Within this story, you might notice something… I will not disclose this but true fans of the DCI Bennett series will know!
Bennett’s Christmas Gift
A 2017 Cyril Bennett Christmas Story
The footpaths across The Stray had been recently cleared. The resultant ridges formed a perfect barricade, helping to maintain the untouched, white mantel on either side that stretched away in sparkling, frost-caressed glory. Cyril Bennett turned up his collar with his gloved hands and adjusted his scarf in defiance of the cold.
Low, bulging clouds seemed to hang motionlessly, swollen and lethargic, slowly releasing the attacking snowflakes. He watched, trying to follow one flake’s journey all the way to the ground, but as more filled his field of vision it became impossible, each twisting and turning in the evening air like some ghost-like Danse Macabre. Not to be defeated, he held out his hand allowing one to settle, a white, winter feather that quickly disappeared as swiftly as it had touched down. The trees along the roadside, festooned with different hues, brought a rainbow of colour to the underlying snow and a smile of pleasure to Cyril’s lips. This perfect tonal palette, contrasted with the covering of white.
Many of Harrogate’s streets still boasted the orange sodium lights and the resulting warm glow illuminated the dark with ethereal warmth. Cyril stood purely to admire his surroundings whilst turning through three hundred and sixty degrees. His arms outstretched, for a brief moment he was a child again as he allowed the flakes to fall on his face. He opened his mouth to catch what he could. Would he ever tire of this place? He thought not. A dog barked somewhere in the dim distance and his eyes tracked towards the sound but he could see nothing. There’s Only the Dead out there, deep in The Strays, many shadows, he whispered. He pressed on. He had things to do.
Parliament Street was busy. The lights of Betty’s Tea Room washed onto the sloping pavement of Montpellier Hill, illuminating the darkened, soiled snow that had amassed along the roadside kerbs. Above the swish of wheels on wet roads, the sounds of Christmas could clearly be heard; each and every shop seemed to caress the town with songs, tunes and carols.
Cyril, to be honest, was not a fan of the commercial side to the festival but he could put up with it now Christmas Day was fast approaching. He stopped outside the jeweller’s on Parliament Street. Drawing back his overcoat sleeve, he immediately checked his watch. Shaking his wrist he looked again; the time seemed right. He entered. After thirty minutes he emerged, two small, elegant bags in his left hand. He turned right.
Throngs of shoppers appeared to move haphazardly in all directions but the traffic heading down the hill remained stationary, trapped. Curling wisps of warm exhaust slowly formed before dissipating into the cold evening air. Snowflakes, now larger than ever, continued to fall as Cyril approached the Westminster Arcade. Entering, he headed directly to The Harrogate Tea Rooms.
“Cyril how lovely to see you!” Tony came out proffering a hand, a huge smile lighting up his features.
Cyril removed a glove. “Snowing again but I have to say The Stray looks magnificent. Busy I see.”
Tony looked around at the number of full tables. “Mustn’t grumble. The usual?”
Cyril nodded. “I’m early. Expecting Owen and Shakti but … thank you, yes. The usual.”
Placing the two bags on the chair he removed his coat before settling. He looked across at a banner positioned by the far wall and admired the book cover images displayed on it. Tony slipped a tray containing a china cup and saucer, milk and sugar bowl followed by a teapot on the table.
“Malcolm Hollingdrake, he writes crime novels set here in Harrogate. They seem very popular. I’m reading the first one.”
Cyril looked at the banner and then at Tony before raising an eyebrow. “Really!”
“He heard that Harrogate was the happiest place in the UK to live so he thought he’d introduce a bit of crime!” Tony did not know whether to grimace or smile. He was pleased to see a grin cross Cyril’s face.
“Kind of him! If he only knew what I know… maybe he’d try writing in a different genre.”
Tony nodded and moved away as Cyril poured a cup of tea. He reflected on the year that was now nearly behind him. Immediately Liz came to mind. Sometimes he still felt her presence but now she seemed like a distant memory. His thoughts turned to Charles. Why he had not found and arrested him in Nice he would never know. Those nagging doubts had nearly cost him his career. For Charles to use Liz as bait … he would never forgive himself. Even though guilt did not fill his every waking moment, it certainly made him more cautious and, on reflection, probably a better copper for it.
The tea was perfect. How anyone could drink tea from a mug containing a floating tea bag was just impossible to contemplate and at that moment, as if by some kind of festive magic, Owen loomed into view.
Snow still lay across the shoulders of his dark coat as he lumbered up the stairs. A broad smile filled his face. He waved a hand; his other was holding a carrier bag. He put the bag on the table causing Cyril’s tea to slop into the saucer before removing his coat. He shook it briskly, showering two groups of people on adjacent tables with droplets of water. They looked and protested until they noticed the size of the man causing mayhem. Owen blushed moving quickly to the offended customers to apologise.
“Sorry, sorry. Wasn’t thinking.”
They smiled, more out of relief that the big man appeared friendly than anything else.
“Sit down, Owen, before you destroy the place and please take this bag out of my face.”
Owen tucked it under the table as he tried to squeeze in his legs along with it. More tea erupted over the lip of the cup and into the saucer.
“Sorry, sir. Let me get you a fresh cup and saucer.”
Cyril slapped a hand on his colleague’s arm. “Please stay seated. Tony will do that. I think you’ve … done enough damage since making an entry.”
Owen looked crestfallen.
“Owen you’re fine, sorry! For a big man, you can be so sensitive.”
Tony had seen the commotion and was already coming towards them with a new cup and saucer.
“Owen, lovely to see you!” He noticed that Owen was about to try and stand to shake his hand. Instantly alerted to the pending catastrophe, Tony swiftly put a hand on Owen’s shoulder. “Stay there, you’re fine. Now, what will it be?”
“I always get a bit maudlin at this time of year, even when I’ve not had a drink. It’s the lights and the carols and stuff. Makes me think of my Gran and Granddad. They always tried so hard to give me a wonderful Christmas.” He looked down at his hands. “I guess I was lucky, sir. Love everything about Christmas; I’m just like a big kid especially when we have days like this … the snow and all. You, you’re not too keen are you?”
“Not when I see Christmas cards for sale in September, no. Good will to all men. If that were the case, my friend, we’d be out of a job in December!”
“Good will? Remember the Brunswick Tunnel … bloody hell’s gate that was. Wasn’t much good will going on down there from what I recall. Still shiver when I think about it!”
They talked about the case and reflected on the outcome before Tony appeared carrying a latte in a large mug and two toasted teacakes.
“Today is on Carrie and me. She’s also made you all a little something for Christmas but we’ll wait for your other colleague to arrive.”
Owen picked up his teacake and buttered it before inspecting the miniature preserve jars on the plate. He chose a small jar of honey before holding it to the light. “Nothing floating inside, sir!” He smiled and dribbled out the contents.
“Never managed to get my appetite back for honey, Owen. The flesh evidence forensics discovered trapped within the jars, the tattoos … just can’t seem to remove the images from my mind.”
“I can eat anything.” He started to butter the other half.
Cyril had not even started on the first but watched as a golden teardrop of honey dripped from the teacake and landed perfectly on Owen’s sleeve.
“Strange case that. You did well to fathom out all those cryptic clues. Had me well and truly beat,” Owen muttered, mouth full.
Cyril pointed to the rogue droplet. Owen simply lifted his sleeve to his lips and removed the offending item with his tongue.
“And that art case, bloody hell.”
Minute flecks of toasted crumbs erupted from excited lips. “We meet some weird folk in our line of work.”
Cyril pointed to the banner. “Author there creates even more.”
Owen turned to look in the direction in which Cyril was pointing.
“Hollingdrake … never heard of him.”
“That’s probably because he writes books, Owen. Books, the written word.”
Owen shrugged his shoulders before pointing to Cyril’s teacake and smiling. “Is that going begging, sir?”
As Cyril slipped it across the table, Shakti walked up the steps. Cyril stood and moved a chair. He put a hand on Owen’s shoulder ensuring that he remained in place. However, he was too busy with the butter to worry about standing.
“Thanks for coming. The last day before we break for Christmas and I just wanted a quiet few minutes with you two. I know we’re all meeting at The Coach and Horses, later but I wanted a private moment. What can I get you?”
Cyril moved away as Owen kicked the chair out for Shakti. “Hi, Shak. Still snowing?”
“Snowing like billy-o. Gritting wagons have just gone through again.”
Cyril returned bringing the hot chocolate that Shakti had requested. The marshmallow and froth made it look more like an ice cream. He sat before retrieving the two small carrier bags from the chair. He handed Shakti a gift and then one to Owen. Both officers stopped and peered at the bags before looking at Cyril.
“I’d like you to open them now, they’re a small token of thanks for helping me survive what’s been a very difficult but successful year. Without you two and a few others, I wouldn’t be here now. I just want to express my sincere gratitude. You’re both special coppers and colleagues, but more importantly, you’re both very valued friends.” He held out both hands. Shakti took one and Owen, quickly wiping his hands on his trousers, the other. “Thank you and Merry Christmas.”
Shakti removed her gift from the bag. The wrapping was perfect. She carefully untied the ribbon and folded it neatly before removing the gold paper to reveal a small red box. She lifted her eyes to Cyril and smiled.
“It’ll not bite you. Open it. I do hope you like it.”
Shakti flipped the top to expose the smallest pair of handcuffs she had ever seen.
“It’s a small brooch, I had it made. It’s white gold. Just thought that it would be something for you to treasure.”
Withdrawing it, she noticed the small pin on the back. She handed it to Cyril. “Sir, would you do me the honour?” She turned her jacket lapel towards him. Carefully, he attached the brooch. They both smiled.
“Do you like it?” Cyril asked already knowing the answer from her facial expression.
“If it were tennis, sir, it would be game point. I love it! Thank you so much.” Impulsively, she leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Merry Christmas, DCI Bennett, Merry Christmas.”
They both turned and looked at Owen who quickly withdrew his parcel. Lacking Shakti’s finesse he tore off the ribbon and then the wrapping to find a similar sized black box. There was no hesitation on his part as he flipped open the box lid to reveal a watch. Owen’s mouth gaped. He looked at Cyril who simply smiled.
“Every copper should have a good watch,” Cyril said.
Owen removed it. “That’s flash! It’s a chronograph and everything.” He turned it over and noticed that it had been engraved with the words, Keen as Mustard. He looked puzzled.
“Ever since you started with me, Owen, that saying has always come to mind; it’s what you are and I’m grateful for that. Try it.”
Owen slid on the watch and admired it. He cheekily shook his wrist and looked again before smiling at Cyril. “Thank you very much.” He reached across and shook Cyril’s hand. “Thanks and Merry Christmas.”
Owen lifted the bag he had brought with him. “We had a bit of a collection and we brought you this. We didn’t want to bring it to the pub tonight and thought it would be better if you took it home to open. Merry Christmas from all of the team.”
Cyril could feel his emotions begin to overpower his self-control, but fortunately Tony and Carrie came towards the table with three boxes, saving his embarrassment. “Merry Christmas to you. This is a thank you for your custom and support. Mince pies and Wensleydale cheese to accompany them for this festive season.”
Cyril, Owen and Shakti stood, taking their gifts with them.
“Should have bought you one of Hollingdrake’s books to keep you amused until we’re back in work,” Owen said mischievously as he accidently knocked the banner as he passed. “See you tonight at eight. Don’t forget to bring your wallet, sir.”
They laughed and left the arcade.
Within ten minutes, Cyril had turned down the passageway leading to Robert Street. He had been tempted to pop into The Coach and Horses but knew that if he did so he would not make it home.
A light in the lounge had come on with a timer and the glow was welcoming. He took a bottle of Black Sheep from the cupboard and a glass, popped on a George Michael CD before settling. The gift from the team was to the right of his chair. He smiled as he listened to A Different Corner and reflected on how poignant were the lyrics. He sipped the beer; in a way, he had a lot to be thankful for. He had turned many corners and most of his decisions had proved to be the right choices.
Illuminated on the wall was a small Adolphe Valette oil painting. He had succumbed to the temptation to purchase it from Darwin Green after he had solved the last major case. He had always longed for one of the artist’s Manchester scenes. Staring at it he held up his glass. “May these be the worst of my days!” He sipped again before picking up the parcel Owen had given to him. He carefully removed the wrapping to reveal a small oil painting. He held it away at arm’s length before slipping on his glasses. The artist’s name, written in red paint, was clearly visible in the top right-hand corner, Whone. ’60. Cyril had always admired the work of Herbert Whone. There was a painting in the Harrogate Mercer Gallery and his interest had not slipped Owen’s attention during one investigation. There was a card with the painting.
To DCI Cyril Bennett,
It’s a dying art finding presents for your boss but we hope you like this painting by Wone Whone.
From the team.
Cyril smiled as he noticed the word Whone had been misspelt, crossed out and rewritten. It was Owen’s handwriting.
This was the perfect present; he was moved by the thought that had gone into the gift. He sipped his beer and wondered what 2018 would bring and his thoughts turned to Julie. He smiled, grateful at least that they had turned the same corner.
A note from author Malcolm Hollingdrake:
I hope you enjoyed Cyril Bennett’s Christmas. I would just like to thank everyone who has helped make DCI Cyril Bennett such a popular series. It is hard to believe that I have only been a published author for just over twelve months. Five books published and the next one Crossed Out is waiting in the wings.
And finally, I would like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks to all the Bennett fans out there. I wish you all a safe and happy Christmas.
About Malcolm Hollingdrake
You could say that the writing was clearly written on the wall for anyone born in a library that they might aspire to be an author but to get to that point, Malcolm Hollingdrake has travelled a circuitous route. The author worked in education for many years, even teaching for a period in Cairo before he started writing, a challenge he had longed to tackle for more years than he cares to remember. Malcolm Hollingdrake has written a number of successful short stories and has six books now available, as well as Only the Dead and Hell’s Gate in Audiobook format. Presently, he is concentrating on a series of crime novels set in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
Born in Bradford and spending three years in Ripon, Malcolm Hollingdrake has never lost his love for his home county, a passion reflected in the settings for all his novels. Malcolm has enjoyed many hobbies including collecting works by Northern artists; the art auctions offer a degree of excitement when both buying and certainly when selling. It is a hobby he has bestowed on DCI Cyril Bennett, the protagonist of the DCI Bennett series, set in and around Harrogate.
The DCI Bennett series:
#1 Only the Dead – Getbook.at/OnlytheDead –my review
#2 Hell’s Gate – Getbook.at/HellsGate – my review
#3 Flesh Evidence – Getbook.at/FleshEvidence – my review
#4 Game Point – Getbook.at/GamePoint – my review)
#5 Dying Art – Getbook.at/DyingArt –my review
#6 Crossed Out – Getbook.at/CrossedOut – my review
#7 The Third Breath – Getbook.at/TheThirdBreath – my review