A short story for Christmas by DAVID ASHTON Illustrations by CLIVE O'NEILL
ENGLISH DICK CURSED RECKLESSLY as he staggered along the North Sands of Leith. He was an unbeliever and so, with great alacrity, could take the Lord's name in vain.
He reached the Rock, which towered above, pointing up into the dark night like an infidel finger. Those numbskulls in the tavern would learn that no fiends of hell could puff fear into damned good English blood.
The wind blew a salt, sleety blast into his face and, for a moment, sobriety peeped through, but then he hammered his foot hard down. Christmas Eve, be damned. He would show them all.
As he climbed the smooth treacherous surface, grunting with each foothold, hands clawing by the light of a pallid moon, he thought of Isabella. Heavy with child. In a bawdy house. The owner of said establishment, the Just Land, Jean Brash herself, had looked with contempt when he popped his sweetheart in through the door, but the dear girl had worked there for so long, surely she was entitled to some redress of fortune?
His boot slipped and he struggled to keep his balance. Rocks below and a distant sea. Come far. Twenty-odd feet. Halfway. Tally ho.
Shelly-coat, Shelly-coat! Gang awa' hame
I cry no' yer mercy, I fear no' yer name.
The face of the old crone, wrinkled and gnarled like a dried herring, plus her spittled words, pushed their way into his mind. His hand smashing on the table, a wager made to Prester Nesbitt, signed and sealed, Dick's white scarf flourished. It would be flying high in the morning for all to see.
Near the pinnacle now; he had stumbled upon a series of cracks gouged out of the rock, which afforded easier purchase.
Breath short, limbs aching, as with a final heave he levered himself to sprawl onto the flat plateau at the top. The moon hid as he groped around in the dark for a shard of rock that would serve in securing one end of the scarf to hang it over Shelly Rock.
On all fours he crawled, then dislodged a large flat stone, perfect for his purpose. Behind it, a cavity and his fingers closed round a metal surface then onto cold glass. He pulled it out; a lamp of sorts.
As he puzzled this, the wind dropped. In the silence, below, a rustling shivering noise came floating in the black night.
He hauled himself up, wedged one boot against the edge and seemed to discern a faint shimmering in the murk. The moon skipped free of the clouds and trailed some pale light onto the scene.
A monstrous shape below on the sands. Cowled and spectral, the covering coat writhing with silver seashells, which clattered together as it moved. The figure pointed one hand towards English Dick and drew back the other.
The watching man was struck in the middle of the forehead by a bolt of pain; the lamp fell from nerveless fingers as he uttered a cry of agony, and fell like a stone to lose all interest in what was to follow.
INSPECTOR JAMES McLEVY LOOK-ed down at the dead body, neck at such angle as only an Indian contortion-maker might achieve.
At distance an old fellow stood like a sentry, mashie niblick slung over his shoulder. The man's custom was to skelp a golf ball along the North Sands every Christmas morning in honour of his dead wife, but this day a fine curving shot had cut through cold air to discover, under the corpse, an unplayable lie.
Constable Mulholland clambered down Shelly Rock and leapt nimbly onto the sands, lanky frame unfolding like a child's toy. McLevy had sent him topwards to search out indications of criminality, accident or suicide.
"I found where he fell," said Mulholland. "A scrape at the rock's edge but little else, save this inside some kind of hidey-hole."
Out of his tunic pocket he produced a discoloured piece of stone, and offered it forth.
The inspector brought up the stone and sniffed cautiously.
"Oil," he pronounced.
They both stared at the corpse, handsome face contorted in the pain of impacted demise.
"Richard Sawyer," McLevy muttered.
"Otherwise known as English Dick."
" A great man for the ladies."
"Not any more," offered Mulholland, Irish blue eyes squinting in the wind.
"I'm sure they'll make do," said the inspector. "Women have a knack. Ye will have observed the deep indent upon his forehead?"
"When he hit the rocks surely?"
"Yet I can find no trace of blood or bone upon these boulders."
"A sharper scrutiny might suffice."
The constable knelt beside the body and keenly scanned the area while McLevy absorbed the implied insult. Grizzled experience must ever thole the thorn of youth.
A noise brought the inspector's head round to see a horse and cart lumbering across the sands.
"Here is the carry-wagon," he announced. "We'll get him back tae the cold slab and let the surgeon carve goose upon his carcass."
This reminded Mulholland that he had a bird of his own to attend.
"I can find neither blood nor bone," he said. "Nothing more to be done here."
McLevy's lips took a sardonic twist in the parchment face. His brooding, stocky figure in heavy coat and low brimmed bowler in contrast to the caped constable who stood to loom over him, helmet replaced like a pea on top of a mountain.
"Oh, there is a great deal to be done." The inspector fished inside his pocket. "Whilst you were gallivanting Shelly Rock, I searched the corpse and came upon this." He waved a crumpled piece of paper in the air. "It dictates our next port of call."
The old man suddenly found voice. "Can I continue the game?" he cried.
Both policemen turned.
"It's an awfy good lie now," he continued, gazing at his golf ball, which had rolled aside and come to perfect balance on a little mound of sand.
McLevy nodded and both went on their way towards the now halted carry-wagon.
The old man took a firm grip of the mashie niblick. His loving wife Jenny might well be birlin' in her grave; she had rationed his diversions like a miser.
So, be it. He cast a look to the horizon, fixed upon the ball and prepared to swing.
"I RICHARD SAWYER DECLARE that I will climb Shelly Rock in spite of lurking spectres and hang my white scarf to prove it so. I hereby wager five guineas with Prester Nesbit that the deed will be done and affix my signature."
McLevy looked up from the paper into the bland face of Nesbitt, who pouted lips to indicate sadness and shook his head. The Foul Anchor tavern was now empty but the sprawling remnants of last night's carouse were only too evident. Prester cut a contrast to the squalor, his large plump form encased in a black suit with a stiff white collar, giving an appearance of clergy. He was, however, landlord of this low dive and in the inspector's deep suspicion up to his ears in criminal activities. Proving it was another matter; the man was slippery as a nine-eyed-eel.
"Poor Richard," Nesbitt sighed. "He had drink taken and called my dear mother a superstitious old hag. When I interceded he wagered he would climb the Rock and laugh in the face of Shelly-Coat."
Every child in Leith knew the rhyme of that monster. A mysterious and gigantic fiend who stalked the sands, his garment composed of seashells the clattering of which struck terror. Legend affirmed that the creature had its abode inside Shelly Rock itself and emerged in the dark of night to wreak havoc.
Few walked the North Sands after dark and the hardy souls that did claimed sightings of the apparition before fleeing, pursued by missiles that rammed against their body with supernatural force.
Nesbitt's mother as if on cue, hag-like indeed, entered from a side door and began to clear the tables, mumbling fitfully to herself.
McLevy had a dead body on his hands.
"So English Dick scaled the Rock, did a wee jig tae celebrate then fell to his death in a drunken stupor, is that it?"
Prester Nesbitt sighed once more as if all was beyond understanding.
"He didn't leave his white scarf – that's for sure," said the hitherto silent Mulholland. "Not a trace of it."
"Perhaps Shelly-Coat threw him over and kept the scarf as trophy?"
The inspector grunted unhappily at Nesbitt's straight-faced suggestion.
"Is that the best ye have tae offer?"
"Only," replied Nesbitt smoothly, "one thing more. Poor Richard had a precious love, his darling Isabella, advanced in pregnancy. I assume you would wish to convey this sad event to her in person?"
"Uhuh," McLevy retorted. "Where does she bide?"
"At the moment. I believe. The Just Land."
"A bawdy hoose?"
"She once laboured there, I am told."
The inspector caught a glimpse of evil amusement in the man's eyes; was Nesbitt making a mockery of him? It was well known that McLevy and Jean Brash, owner of the Just Land, were companions in coffee.
He jerked his head at Mulholland and they made for the door.
"And should you see the bounteous Isabella," Nesbitt called after, "I wonder if you might enquire if she, by any chance, has five guineas about her person?"
He clasped his hands prayerfully together.
"After all. Her sweetheart lost the bet."
LAMENTATION RENT THE AIR from behind a closed door as McLevy and Jean Brash stood in the main salon of the Just Land. Christmas decorations festooned the mirrored room, even draped along a large painting of an octopus dragging some scantily clothed female to a watery grave.
Isabella let out another muffled howl and Jean narrowed her eyes at McLevy.
"No' my fault," he muttered.
Jean caught sight of herself in one of the mirrors. Slim where it counted, red hair, pale skin, green eyes, fashionably attired in peacock blue; she kept the best bawdy hoose in Edinburgh and it showed.
"Richard Sawyer was a rakehell and libertine," said she crisply. "He had three others on the go besides Isabella, and dumped her on our doorstep like a sack o' neeps."
"Yet she still cares for him?"
"It is ever woman's fate to care for inappropriate men."
McLevy felt curiously isolated having allowed Mulholland time off to sample his landlady's Yuletide fare, the inspector hoping he might scrounge a cup of coffee here, but Jean seemed disinclined.
"Well, appropriate or not, I got nothing out of yon lassie that would assist the case."
"Is it not merely an intemperate mishap?"
"Perhaps so," he replied slowly. "But Prester Nesbitt has found great relish in this event as if something up the sleeve. And that irks me."
Jean shot a glance. He looked like a little boy, disappointed by his Christmas presents.
"Nesbitt is a nasty piece of work," she pronounced. "It is said that his cellars are full of ill-gotten gains. The finest French wines. Contraband. "
But like yerself," said McLevy. "Never caught in the act."
Amongst the unexpressed thoughts as their eyes locked, were the dark and varied facets of Jean Brash's felonious history but now the inspector was left with a dearth of coffee and the feeling she was trying to convey something. What though? The Sphinx had nothing on our Jeannie.
A bedroom door shut softly and Hannah Semple, squat, pugnacious, snub-nosed, keeper of the keys of the Just Land, emerged to scowl at the inspector.
"Whit a bird of ill omen you are, McLevy. A menace tae God's creation."
The old woman turned away from this dolorous harbinger to address Jean Brash.
"I've left two of the girls with her, Mistress, I hope tae God she quietens but these Italians are gey operatic." Hannah shook her head gloomily. "I trust she will not cry herself into term. The goose is quite sufficient, we don't need a wean this day."
"It was good enough for Jesus," said McLevy at the door.
One more glance between himself and Jean, then he was gone.
THE PERIOD BETWEEN CHRISTMAS and New Year is often fraught with unfinished consequence and purgatorial darkness had descended upon the North Sands.
In the still night, a muffled rustle became trembling clatter as a baleful cowled apparition made its appearance; the coat of seashells shivering ominously, strange ethereal light below as it glided towards Shelly Rock.
As it laid one propriatorial hand upon the smooth surface and prepared to scale the edifice, a voice called softly from the pitch-black.
Shelly-coat, Shelly-coat! Gang awa' hame
I cry no' yer mercy, I fear no' yer name.
The monster whipped round to confront the bulky form of James McLevy, hands deep in pocket, white face shining in the dark.
The figure extended one spectral hand enclosing a glint of metal and drew back the other. But before injurious release, an aggrieved Constable Mulholland stepped out from behind the Rock and smashed down his hornbeam stick with the pent-up force of a man who had been crouched out of sight for a second long night in succession.
It crashed onto the neckbone of the wraith, who collapsed to the ground with an all too human howl of pain. McLevy sauntered forward, prising back the cowl with his boot to reveal the twisted fleshy face of Prester Nesbitt while Mulholland clamped on the restrainers, and took possession of the metal implement fallen from the man's fingers.
"Aye, Prester," said McLevy with a wicked smile. " A grand night for the smuggling, eh?"
He bent to pull the pinioned man's coat aside and revealed a small lamp attached to Nesbitt's belt.
"Hence the ghostly light," he murmured. "Now," McLevy perched on a rock like an ancient storyteller. "Let me tell you how I see it. That Christmas Eve, it was great sport to lay the wager with Sawyer because you considered him too bedrucken to walk a straight line never mind climb Shelly Rock.
But – jist tae mak siccar, you followed when he left the tavern and took with you this coat, the unlawful use of which I have puzzled out by means of intense cogitation."
Mulholland, meanwhile, had identified the implement.
"A hefty catapult," he announced. "Bring down a deer with such."
McLevy nodded, and carried on.
"However, Sawyer not only climbed the rock, he unearthed the lamp you had hidden there at the top to signal your French accomplices. You'd lost the bet, the smuggling operation would be uncovered and your mother insulted into the bargain!"
The inspector squinted upwards.
"Not an easy shot. You must be a dead-eye."
"If I only had you in my sights," grunted Nesbitt.
"Well ye don't," was the sharp response, accompanied by a poke of the boot. "So – ye brought him to certain death, climbed the Rock to clear the lamp and sharp stone you'd previously fired into his skull, but what you hadnae noticed is that the lamp had spilled some oil."
"I found that," interjected Mulholland.
"Where would I be without you, constable?" said McLevy. "Now away ye climb up, make signal wi' the light tae the boat offshore that no doubt waits for this and we'll gather all fish in the one trawl."
As Mulholland scrambled out of sight, the inspector stuffed a none-too-clean rag into Nesbitt's mouth.
"A precaution," he said softly. " I wish to surprise your contraband camarades. They may outnumber us but Mulholland is worth a dozen wi' that stick, and I..?"
He pulled out an ancient but lethal looking revolver.
"…I have an equaliser."
The cold slate grey eyes were without pity as he sighted down the barrel at Nesbitt, whose countenance was turning a sickly shade of yellow.
"It is aye amazing how gumption dribbles out of a man when he stares the Grim Reaper in the face. Death is a great leveller."
MCLEVY TOOK A MORNING SIP OF high-class coffee, the dainty china cup held precariously in stubby fingers.
"Prester Nesbitt will dance the air at Perth Penitentiary," he announced after the manner of a hanging judge.
"Have you proof sufficient?" asked Jean.
"We searched his cellar and found Sawyer's white scarf wrapped around a bloodstained stone. But best of all, when we informed his dear old mother she would be charged accomplice to smuggling, she confessed that Nesbitt had returned the murder night and told her that English Dick would never insult her again."
"Will she testify?"
"To save her own skin? Most certainly."
He glanced meaningfully at the now empty cup and she leant forward to fill it once more. Her personal salon was at the top of the Just Land and snowflakes drifted up against the windows on this New Year's Eve.
"And," said McLevy, "as you hinted, his cellars were full of contraband wine and tobacco."
If it was possible for a bawdy-hoose keeper to look innocent, Jean Brash was that picture. McLevy pursed his lips importantly.
"Contraband, indeed. Your remark set me to thought. The liquid upon the stone Mulholland found smelled like lamp oil. Whit would a lamp be doing up there except to signal? Shelly Rock is a high point and the signal easily seen from off-shore."
As the inspector took another complacent sip, Jean had a secret smile on her lips that should have warned him but he was too busy, cogitating aloud.
"French contraband, ye let that slip. I checked the shipping register and noted a ship from Calais, a regular visitor to Leith harbour that was due back shortly. I surmised Nesbitt would be looking to augment his supplies and got lucky on the second night's surveillance. "A big rowing boat full to the brim, the ship's captain at the helm. Bagged the lot!"
"Who made the coat of shells?"
"Nesbitt himself, the mother told us. A dab hand wi' a needle and of course, he used the legend of the monster to keep the Rock clear of unwanted visitors."
"But not clever enough!" came the proud response.
Jean judged it time to break her news.
"I told Isabella as soon as I heard your exploit and she was overcome with gratitude."
"Jist doing my job."
"Nevertheless a death has been avenged and her joy was palpable, plus it also solved a problem.
"How is that?"
"She had her baby boy the day after Christmas."
"Very considerate as regards Hannah's goose."
Jean ignored the sardonic edge to this remark.
"English Dick never married Isabella so she must have her maiden name but hesitated to use the father's Christian equivalent, Ricardo, lest -"
"The boy inherit the man's profligate ways?"
"Exactly. She has now decided to call the wee laddie – James McLevy Rebecci."
The man himself nearly spat out his coffee
"Whit? I will not allow it!"
"I don't think you've much choice."
"My appellation attached tae the offshoot of a ne'er-do-well and a wayward hizzie?"
"I always look after my girls," replied Jean calmly. "I shall assist Isabella back to her native land and she will raise the boy in Italy. Who knows but he might grow up to be a policeman?"
The notion of a Thieftaker abroad bearing the stamp of original genius mitigated the inspector's wrath somewhat.
"And at the very worst," said Jean, "your name will live on."
A glint of deep feeling in the eyes. McLevy fell silent. This was an area he had no wish to investigate.
They sat together yet apart as the snow covered Edinburgh with deceptive white innocence, and the city waited with bated breath for a New Year to dawn.
David Ashton, 2008.