Santa’s Visit by Bryan Lawson
(featuring a character from the Drake and Hepple Crime Mysteries)
First published by UK Crime Book Club Facebook Group
Detective Sergeant Grace Hepple was in a terrible flap. She searched through her diary for a way to fit in a drink she had promised to have with her pal, Julia. A meeting before Christmas looked impossible. She was working most evenings now on an urgent case. When she followed Detective Chief Inspector Drake from The Met to Chester, she hoped life would become a little less frantic. It had not turned out that way. She loved working with Drake and felt she was learning every day. But new cases just kept coming. It was non-stop.
It was then it hit her. It leapt up off the pages of her diary and slapped her in the face. It was nearly Christmas! She had not bought any presents, especially for her brother’s lovely kids. She loved them as if they were her own, but hardly ever saw them. Her life was so busy, and she and her sister-in-law could not get on. She wanted to buy the kids something special. So, she also urgently needed to fit in a shopping trip.
As she drove home, Grace felt overwhelmed by events. It had been a bad year. She had a critical health scare, and it left her feeling insecure and shattered that youthful assumption of immortality. Then, there was the awful business about her stalker. He had proved to be a cunning and relentless individual who knew exactly how to create anxiety. It had gone on for weeks just when DCI Drake was overseas. Her feelings of vulnerability had dented her usual self-confidence. Thankfully, that had all been resolved, but she had never fully recovered mentally. She needed a holiday, but at such a critical stage, she could not walk out on the current investigation.
Grace arrived home and parked right outside her house. She went inside, clutching her laptop. There was more work to do, but she needed coffee. Work would have to wait for a while. Her coffee machine burbled its assurance that comfort was on the way. For Grace, coffee was a tonic. The warmth and the promise of a caffeine-induced lift were soothing. However, she would have to ring Julia. She pressed the speed dial number on her phone. Julia took a long time to answer.
‘Is that Julia?’
‘Hi, Julia, it’s Grace.’
‘Oh, hello, Grace. How nice to hear from you. I was in another room.’
‘No problem. Look, Julia,’ said Grace. ‘I’m sorry, but it’s mad here at the moment, and I just don’t think I can find time to meet before Christmas.’
‘Oh, dear,’ said Julia. ‘Don’t worry. I quite understand. Strange that you should call now. I was just talking to my sister. Our Mum is rather poorly, and we don’t think we can both leave her, so I was going to call off myself.’
‘Oh, OK. Sorry about your Mum. I hope she gets better soon.’
‘Well, thanks for that, but the point is that she isn’t going to get better. She’s just gone into end-of-life care, and we both want to be with her as much as we can.’
‘Oh, Julia,’ said Grace. ‘I’m so sorry to hear that. I do hope you can find some comfort. It puts all my trivial problems into perspective.’
‘Oh dear, what’s gone wrong for you?’ asked Julia.
‘Oh, nothing serious. It’s just work piling up on me. I can’t see myself having much of a Christmas. I’m on my own anyway, so it doesn’t matter much.’
‘Oh, that’s awful,’ said Julia. ‘Can you hang on for a minute? I just need to speak to my sister.’
‘OK.’ Grace sat down. She sipped more calming coffee until Julia came back on the phone.
‘Are you still there, Grace?’
‘Yes, still here.’
‘Look, we had booked a lovely Airbnb cottage in Wales over Christmas. We have just decided we can’t go. It’s too late to get our money back. Would you like to use it? You could get away from everything for a few days.’
‘Oh, that’s so kind of you, Julia, but I don’t know. It means letting other people down at work.’
‘We’ve been there before,’ said Julia. ‘I can strongly recommend it. It’s a lovely little cottage set in the most beautiful countryside. There are lots of fabulous walks. They even leave you a little manual on the house, and it also describes all the things you can do. Nearby, there are a couple of lovely little towns. Well, large villages, really. You can drive to them in only ten minutes if you don’t fancy walking. It’s surprisingly close to Chester for such a remote landscape. There’s room in the cottage, so you could invite someone else to join you. We have it booked until mid-January.’
‘That all sounds just wonderful,’ said Grace. ‘I’m not sure. Can I think about it and call you back, or is that too rude?’
‘No problem. I’ll email you the postcode and a link to the website so you can have a look. We’ll probably offer it to someone else, but you’ve got the first shout on it.’
‘OK, I promise I’ll think about it and call you back either way.’
Grace decided to open that nice bottle of red. It was sitting invitingly on the kitchen worktop. Her laptop pinged, and she opened it to find Julia’s email. Grace looked at the pretty cottage and the seductive website. It looked beautiful. She took another sip of red wine. The cottage website was winning her over. It was then that she noticed another email. She did a doubletake and checked the sender’s address. It was from Max Hunter, an old flame. Her heart skipped a beat. He had been a colleague during her years in The Met. They had a close relationship for some time. She wanted to continue it, but he felt less sure. It knocked her confidence a bit at the time. If she was honest with herself, she was more used to men chasing her than her chasing men. She put it down to one of those lessons that life tends to teach you. It was not acrimonious. They just drifted apart. She wondered what he was emailing her about now. She opened the mail.
Hello, Grace. It’s been a long time. Perhaps too long. I just wondered if I could try a crazy idea out on you. What are you doing for Christmas? I have to come north to join my family. I said I’d drive up on Boxing Day. But here’s my crazy idea. If you are free, I could drive up earlier, and we could spend Christmas together. Feel free to tell me to stop being silly.
Grace’s heart skipped another beat. She told herself it was a ridiculous idea but on the other hand…
She spun the wine glass, her fingers around the stem. The swaying, red liquid tempted her to take another sip. She replied before she could persuade herself not to. She decided on a simple and neutral answer.
Why not. I will be staying at a little cottage in Wales, quite close to Chester. Attached is the website. Let me know what you think.
She immediately called Julia.
‘Hi, Julia. I’m going to take you up on your kind offer. Thanks very much.’
‘Oh, I’m so glad, Grace. I’ll email the little sheet of instructions on where to find the key. Happy Christmas.’
The following day, Grace cheated. She had never done this before. She sent DCI Drake a text. She would be late as she had a migraine. She got a reply from Drake telling her to take the day off. She set off into town to go shopping. For her brother, she bought a luxurious sweater and a bottle of vintage port. She found a Lego kit to build a spaceship for her nephew. Her niece was getting more of her favourite Playmobile sets. Then she caught sight of a beautiful dress in the window of an up-market shop. It was in her favourite sapphire blue. There was a split up on the side of one leg and buttons down the front. She could adjust them to suit the situation and be in control. It was perfect, ridiculously expensive, but perfect.
Back home, the blank screen of her laptop on the table accused her of neglecting it. Was she doing the right thing? It was several years since Max Hunter split up with her. Could it be the same? She was going to be alone with him in a remote location. She called an old colleague. They were close friends during her time at The Met and still talked on the phone occasionally.
‘Sergeant Helen Waring here.’
‘Hi Helen, It’s Grace Hepple. How are you?’
‘Fine, and you?'
‘ I’d like your honest advice.’
‘OK, I’ll do my best.’
‘I’ve had an email from Max Hunter. He wants to come and spend Christmas with me. I’ve agreed, but now I’m slightly getting cold feet. What do you think?’
There was a long silence, and Grace thought perhaps the line had broken.
‘Are you still there, Helen?’
‘Yes, sorry. I was trying to think what to say. To be honest, Grace, I’m not sure it’s a brilliant idea.’
‘Oh, why not?’
‘Oh, this is difficult.’
‘You can be frank with me,’ said Grace.
‘Obviously, you haven’t heard. He’s been suspended for quite a while. Some woman has accused him of rape.’
‘What?’ screamed Grace. ‘I can’t believe that! He is a gentle sort of man.’
‘I know what you are saying. Opinion here is completely split over the matter. Some people are certain he is innocent. But there are quite a few who say they aren’t surprised.’
‘Oh, my goodness,’ said Grace. ‘I had better call it off. But that feels terrible. He has to be innocent until proven guilty.’
‘Quite right,’ said Helen, ‘but can you take the risk? Why has he contacted you now?’
‘Good question,’ replied Grace. ‘Perhaps I have been stupid. Oh, dear!’
‘Sorry, Grace. I’ve got a meeting. Call me back this evening if you like.’
‘Yes, of course. Many thanks.’
Grace sat in her kitchen and looked at the dress she had bought. It was on a coat hanger over the hall door. She was shaking. It had all turned out to be a dreadful mistake and an expensive one. She made up her mind. She emailed Max Hunter again.
On second thoughts, I’m not sure this is a good idea. Can we call it off? Perhaps we could meet again for a drink when I’m next in London.
She was relieved it was over, and the red wine had gone to her head. She was not going to wait for a reply. She went to bed early.
The following morning, Grace rose late. Now, she actually did have a headache. Perhaps it might not be one of her migraines, but there was a thumping pain in her head. She sent another text to Drake and apologised that she was still ill. She took her strong migraine tablet and went back to bed.
It was mid-afternoon before Grace came round, feeling a great deal better. She checked her email. There was no reply from Max Hunter. She felt guilty about it and thought she should at least do him the courtesy of a phone call. She dug his number out of her contacts list and rang.
‘Hello, Max Hunter.’
‘Hello, it’s Grace Hepple.’
‘Grace, good gracious, what have I done to deserve this call?’
‘I called to say that I was sorry about my abrupt email. I should have called you.’
‘My reply to your emails about coming to see me at Christmas.’
‘What? I haven’t sent you any emails. Which email address have you been using?’
‘Your usual work one.’
‘I haven’t used that for months. I’ll dig your emails out. To tell you the truth, I’m currently suspended. A malicious accusation of rape. It’s false, of course, but I’m having a terrible time. It would be lovely to see you.’
‘I’m dreadfully sorry about this,’ said Grace. ‘Please forget all about it. I need to try and find out what’s happened. Someone else must be using your email.’
‘OK, then,’ said Max Hunter. ‘Take care.’
Grace got herself together and went into formal police mode. Somebody was using Max’s email with malicious intent. She came up with two names. The first was her stalker. He had evil intent and could do clever things with computers. But he had been apprehended and arrested in London. She sent a text to Helen explaining the situation and asking her if they knew where he was.
The second possibility was Jason Mercer, a violent fraudster. She was responsible for his case during her time at The Met many years ago. He had tried to bribe her. When that did not work, he threatened her. He would do terrible things to her when he came out of prison. She emailed a contact in Manchester, where he had been in jail. She thought he might have just been let out. With his record of violence and conning vulnerable people, the police there were tracking him on his release. She had suspected him during the dreadful episode of stalking she had suffered recently. Both her suspects were devious and clever with computers.
Both her enquiries came back by the end of the afternoon. Her stalker was on bail and wearing a tag. Her friend, Helen, assured her that he was being monitored. The conditions of his bail required him to stay at home.
Manchester confirmed that the fraudster, Jason Mercer, had been released, and they were still tracking him closely. As far as they could see, he posed no threat. They were monitoring him and would let her know if the situation changed.
Grace was perked up by all this news and started packing her things for the trip to Wales. She would have some time away from it all. She might even take the dress and wear it for her own benefit on Christmas Day.
Driving to her hideaway cottage in Wales, Grace was in better spirits. She got there before dark and was blown away by the place. She went inside, unpacked, and set off for a short walk, following the map left by the cottage owners. She nearly lost her way once and decided to turn back. It had begun to snow gently, and the landscape was even more beautiful. She had done the right thing to come. Then a text arrived from Max Hunter to say his email definitely had been hacked and to take care. He would see her sometime. She would have an early night. She was tired from all the tension surrounding her.
By the time she woke, it was an old-fashioned white Christmas. She opened the front door and was met by a wall of snow. Her car was half buried. There was no travelling today. She was relieved. No one was coming through this. She put on her new dress and settled down to her breakfast with a Bucks Fizz. She looked at her phone and found a text from Helen at The Met. It was headed URGENT. Apparently, her stalker had broken his bail and cut off his tag. Surely, he couldn’t get here in this snow. She told herself to stop being silly.
She had a restful morning reading and listening to music. She looked at her watch. It had news for her. It was lunchtime already. That was when it happened. The doorbell rang. Grace froze. Who could it be? Should she open the door? Perhaps it was a helpful neighbour. She cautiously opened the door on the security chain. It was Father Christmas! She had read something in the cottage manual about a local tradition involving Santa. She opened the door more fully to let him in. Then he laughed and pulled down the white beard and moustache. It was him!
Grace awoke slowly. Everywhere was white, and there was a light in her eyes. Her vision was fuzzy. She was lying down. A figure appeared towering above her.
‘Hello, Grace,’ said her consultant. ‘You’re in The Countess of Chester Hospital and you are completely safe.’
‘What happened?’ asked a bemused Grace, as she began to come round.
‘You were brought in by your friend, Max Hunter. He came up in his Land Rover to look after you but is worried he frightened you. You fell and banged your head. You have been in a coma for several days. Your friend sat by your side night and day, trying to help us to wake you. He asked me to tell you the police had proved he was innocent, and he had to return to London.’
Two days later, a nurse living in the nearby village drove Grace back to the cottage. The snow was mostly gone. Her phone had a text from Helen saying her stalker had been found and was now in custody. Grace gratefully slumped back into the large armchair by a fire she had just lit. Thank goodness Santa Claus came! She poured a glass of port and was about to take the first sip when her phone pinged again. It was a text from her contact in Manchester to say that they had lost track of the fraudster, Jason Mercer, while trying to follow him down country lanes in Wales, and she might want to take care. In a panic, Grace threw everything into her car and set off for Chester as fast as the narrow and twisty country lanes would allow. She checked her rear-view mirror. There was a car following her. What if he was already here?