A Christmas Shadow


H L Marsay

Even the season of goodwill can’t stop a murder…

Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow is reluctantly attending York Minster’s Advent Ceremony when the new Dean is taken ill after drinking wine. Was her allergic reaction a simple case of human error or could she have been poisoned? Shadow becomes suspicious when he learns someone else has died under similar circumstances. He begins to quietly investigate, but when the body of a young woman is recovered from the river, he knows he must act quickly. And this time, Shadow requires the help of someone from his past.

John Shadow is a man of contradictions. A solitary figure who shuns company, but is a keen observer of all he meets. A lover of good food, but whose fridge is almost always empty. He prefers to work alone but is assisted by the eager Sergeant Jimmy Chang.

Together, the two men must work through a maze of cheating husbands, corrupt clergy and criminal gangs to solve the murders before the killer can strike again.

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Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow softly stamped his feet on the smooth stone floor, but it was no good. He could no longer feel his toes, and when he exhaled, his breath formed little clouds in front of his face. As he glanced over his shoulder, people dressed in coats, hats and scarves were still streaming in through the Minster’s huge west doors. He couldn’t recall ever seeing so many people crammed into the cavernous cathedral. The nave was full, and every chair was taken, so people spilled into the north and south transepts, perching on the stone benches carved into the alcoves. Yet, despite the crowds, it was still as cold inside the Minster as it was outside in the frosty, early December evening. Standing on his right-hand side was Maggie, his old schoolfriend. She was rubbing her hands together as the tip of her nose turned pink.

“I wish I’d worn some gloves,” she whispered. “I’d forgotten how cold this place can be.”

Shadow grunted in response. He had remembered very well that the huge and ancient cathedral was chilly even on the hottest summer’s day, but against his better judgement he had still let himself be talked into coming tonight. To his left were the couple responsible for his current frozen state. Jimmy and Sophie were wearing matching novelty jumpers featuring a pair of grinning reindeer and seemed oblivious to the Arctic-like temperature. They were due to be married in the Minster on Saturday and had asked Shadow and Maggie to join them at tonight’s Advent Procession. Angela, Jimmy’s sister, and Tom, one of the constables from the station, were present too, sitting on Maggie’s other side.

A new dean had recently arrived at the Minster. She would be conducting the wedding service and had personally invited Sophie and Jimmy to join her after the Minster’s famous procession for mince pies and mulled wine in the Chapter House. As neither Jimmy’s mother nor Sophie’s parents could attend, they had asked their friends to come along instead.

“Do you think they’ll sing ‘Away in a Manger’?” asked Jimmy as he studied the neatly printed order of service.

Shadow shook his head. As so often happened, his sergeant’s enthusiasm had led him down the wrong path. “No, it’s not a carol service.” He tutted. “Traditionally the church doesn’t sing carols until Christmas Eve.”

“That’s a shame,” replied Jimmy, but before he could say more, he suddenly sprang to his feet and began waving at two figures, one short and one tall, pushing their way through the crowded nave towards them.

“What are they doing here?” groaned Shadow. Despite being half hidden by their woolly hats and brightly coloured scarves wrapped around their faces, it was impossible not to recognise the two forensic scientists they worked with, Ben and Ollie, or as Shadow privately called them, Laurel and Hardy.

“We invited them too. They’re both going to be my best men, Chief, and James and Henry, Sophie’s brothers, are going to be my ushers, but they couldn’t make it. I said we’d save Ben and Ollie a seat,” explained Jimmy as he began shuffling along to make room for his friends. Shadow raised his eyes heavenward to the vaulted roof high above his head.

“Best men! Talk about a contradiction in terms. You would have been better enlisting two police dogs if you want your guests to get to the correct seats and don’t want the rings to go astray,” he muttered as the two accident-prone scientists joined them. The eight of them were now crammed together into a single pew.

“How long do you think this thing will go on for?” Shadow whispered to Maggie as he frowned at his own order of service.

“Stop being so grumpy. People have come from all over the country to be here. You never know, you might enjoy it,” she hissed back, “and remember we are here for moral support,” she added, nodding towards Jimmy and Sophie.

Shadow was about to query how much moral support a detective and a doctor really needed when suddenly the crowd fell silent as the new dean in her red and gold flowing robes appeared in the pulpit.

In a loud, clear voice she welcomed the congregation and made what she referred to as “housekeeping” announcements regarding the location of the fire exits and what to do at the end of the service. When she had finished, she stepped down and made her way to the vestry. As her footsteps echoed away, the lights inside the Minster were turned out one by one until the vast space was plunged into a hushed darkness.

“Isn’t it exciting?” whispered Jimmy and Maggie in unison on either side of him.

Shadow didn’t feel any excitement, only an uncomfortable sense of foreboding. Perhaps it was the dean’s reference to the fire exits combined with the fact that every one of the several thousand people present was holding an unlit candle. He could vividly remember being a teenager and watching from his bedroom in fascination and horror as fire ripped through the Minster following a lightning strike. He shuddered, but at that moment, the distant voices of the choir began to sing out and the first flickering flame could be seen. The flame was passed from person to person, following the choir’s journey from east to west through the Minster.

Shadow heard Maggie’s sharp intake of breath as the young choristers, with their long white robes and candlelit song sheets, came into view. They continued steadily on their way, followed by the dean and other members of the chapter. The golden glow from the lit candles began to slowly spread through the huge cathedral. Eventually, the flame reached their row. Now it was Shadow’s turn to hold his breath as Ben lit Ollie’s candle, who lit Sophie’s and so on until he used his own flame to light Maggie’s candle. She smiled up at him.

“Even you have to admit this is pretty special,” she whispered before turning to light Angela’s candle. Shadow, although not religious, had to agree that there was something spiritual about watching as the tiny flickering points of light broke through the darkness, and listening to the words and music of the service that had barely changed for hundreds of years. He leaned back, listening to the gospel readings and trying not to be concerned about the wax running down his candle at an alarming rate, then slowly spreading across the paper disc protecting his hand. Next to him Jimmy was having a similar problem, as he tried to keep his expensive trainers from being splattered by the hot, dripping wax.

Then just as the dean was solemnly completing her blessing of the congregation, there was a slight commotion as Ben managed to set fire to his order of service. Shadow shook his head in despair as his two colleagues tried to discreetly stamp on the burning piece of paper while Maggie stifled a giggle.

When the electric lights were finally switched back on, Shadow slowly rose to his feet. Thanks to the cold and the hard wooden seat, he felt like all of his joints needed oiling. He and the others waited until most of the congregation had left, then made their way through the nave towards the Chapter House, depositing their used candles in the waiting receptacles. Jimmy, Tom, Ben and Ollie paused under the huge advent wreath that was suspended in its traditional place below the Central Tower.

“Wow, how big do you think it is?” asked Jimmy. Ben squinted up and raised his hands as if trying to measure it.

“Three metres, maybe more,” he estimated.

“It’s four metres wide,” said Angela. “I brought my class over on Friday to see it being winched into position,” she explained. Angela taught the class of children that contained the probationer choristers at the Minster School on the other side of Deansgate, only a few steps from the Minster itself. “And before you ask, each of the four candles is a metre high.”

“Next year you should bring those four too,” Shadow whispered to her as the younger men continued staring as they now tried to guess the weight of the massive wreath. Shadow and Angela left them to it as they turned and followed Sophie and Maggie. On their way, Sophie pointed through the open doors into the Quire, the inner sanctum of the Minster and where the archbishop’s throne was located.

“That’s where we’ll be getting married,” she whispered. “Six days and counting.”

“Are you nervous?” asked Maggie.

Sophie shook her head and smiled. “No, just excited.” She tapped quickly on her mobile phone. “I’m making notes for the photographer so he knows where to get the best shots. We really wanted a photo on the city walls with the Minster in the background but he said it will be growing dark by the end of the ceremony and the walls close at dusk.” She glanced back indulgently at her prospective husband. “It looks like we’ll have to make do with a photo beneath the advent wreath instead.”

They entered the Chapter House along with those who had taken part in the procession and a few dozen other members of the congregation, who had been invited to stay behind afterwards. There was a large table laden with plates piled high with mince pies and steaming pots of mulled wine ready to be ladled into the waiting glasses. In front of the table, the dean was smiling patiently as she waited to greet her guests. Sophie took Maggie and Angela over to introduce them. Shadow hung back and took the opportunity to wander around the Chapter House. Despite living in York for most of his life, he rarely visited the city’s most famous building.

The Chapter House was a magnificent octagonal space with a high vaulted ceiling and some of the Minster’s finest carvings. From his position at the edge of the room, he also had a chance to observe the new dean. Clarissa Fortescue was a rising star in the Church of England and widely tipped to become a future bishop. He recalled reading the Yorkshire Post’s profile on her when her appointment had been announced. Ten years ago, she had given up a highly successful career in one of London’s top accountancy firms to join the church. She was married but had no children. She was a tall, imposing woman even without her ceremonial robes. Her steel-coloured hair was cropped short. She wore large tortoiseshell-framed glasses and as her smile widened, Shadow noticed her front teeth were slightly protruding.

“Mulled wine, Chief?” asked Jimmy, who had appeared next to him and was carefully balancing four glasses in his hands. Shadow wrinkled his nose and shook his head.

“No thank you. Why anyone thought it was a good idea to ruin perfectly good red wine by warming it up and sticking spices and bits of orange in it, I will never know.”

“I quite agree with you, Chief Inspector,” said a deep, smooth voice behind them. The two detectives turned around to find a man with chiselled features and slicked-back dark hair standing there. He was wearing a polo-neck jumper under a corduroy jacket. Shadow guessed he was in his mid-fifties.

“Hello, Mr Fortescue,” said Jimmy.

“Good to see you again, Jimmy,” said the man, patting Jimmy on the back while extending his other hand to Shadow. “I’m Simon Fortescue. It’s good to meet you, Chief Inspector. Jimmy said he’d be bringing you along tonight. Now why don’t I rustle up a decent glass of red for us both.” He leant forward and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Truth be told, Clarissa isn’t a fan of the glühwein either.”

“Thank you, Mr Fortescue. That’s very kind of you,” replied Shadow.

“Excellent! I’ll be back in a jiffy!” declared Fortescue before disappearing into the crowd.

“That’s the dean’s husband,” whispered Jimmy as they watched Simon Fortescue make his way out of the Chapter House, shaking hands and smiling at people as he went.

“So I gathered,” replied Shadow, frowning slightly. “I think I’ve seen him somewhere before though. He isn’t from round here, is he?”

“No, I don’t think so. He used to teach drama down in London, but Sophie said he was an actor when he was younger. Maybe you saw him in something. Will you excuse me a second, Chief? I want to take these drinks over to Sophie and Maggie before I drop them.”

Jimmy hurried away. To avoid the possibility of anyone trying to start a conversation with him, Shadow turned and began studying the stone carvings of mythical beasts and medieval heads above the stalls that lined the walls. A few moments later, he glanced over his shoulder and noticed Simon Fortescue handing a glass of wine to his wife. Shadow sighed. It looked like he’d been forgotten. Just then he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and was surprised to see a familiar figure holding a glass of red wine.

“George! What are you doing here? And why are you in uniform?”

Sergeant George Hedley had been the longest serving officer at York police station until a car accident he was involved in during the summer had led to his retirement. He had worked in the station’s records office for years and was one of the few people Shadow considered a friend.

“I joined the Minster Police about a month ago,” George explained as he handed over a glass of red wine. “Here, Fortescue asked me to give you this.”

“Thanks. What happened to taking it easy?” asked Shadow, accepting the glass gratefully.

“I was bored within a week,” admitted George with a smile. “I did a bit of gardening, we went on a couple of holidays, but then Carol said I was starting to get under her feet, being at home all day, so I signed up here. I only do three days a week and cover for special events, but it’s good to feel useful again.”

Shadow nodded. The Minster was one of the few cathedrals in the world to have its own police force. Most of its members were retired former officers. He took a sip of his wine and managed to stop himself grimacing. He could almost feel it dissolving the enamel on his teeth. Not wanting to appear ungracious, he glanced around to see if there was somewhere to discreetly deposit his glass when suddenly there was a commotion on the other side of the room. There was a gasp and the sound of smashing glass, and Shadow turned in time to see the dean collapse to the floor clutching her throat. He and George rushed over, but Sophie was already kneeling by her side and Jimmy was calling an ambulance.

“What’s wrong with her?” asked Shadow.

“We were just talking to her, she took a sip of wine, and a second later, she didn’t seem able to breathe,” explained Maggie.

“She’s had some sort of reaction,” said Sophie. At that moment, Simon Fortescue – carrying a bottle of wine – hurriedly pushed his way through the group of people surrounding his wife. He dropped to his knees, put down the bottle and began rummaging through his wife’s handbag that she had dropped as she fell. He pulled out an EpiPen, then he swiftly and firmly jabbed it into his wife’s thigh.

“She suffers from allergies,” he explained, slightly breathless. “Clarissa! Clarissa! Open your eyes, darling,” he said as he cradled the dean’s head.

“What is she allergic to?” asked Sophie.

“Nuts mainly, peanuts,” said Simon as he continued to stroke his wife’s hair. They all waited and watched anxiously for a few seconds as Clarissa’s breathing began to return to normal and her eyes flickered open. In the distance, the wail of an ambulance siren was getting closer.

“We need to make some space for the paramedics,” said Sophie as she took the dean’s pulse. George nodded and with the help of Jimmy and Tom began clearing the Chapter House of the curious onlookers. Maggie and Angela carefully started collecting the smashed pieces of the wine glass scattered across the floor while Simon and Sophie continued to attend to the dean. However, Shadow’s attention was focused on the bottle of wine by Fortescue’s feet.

“Is that the wine she was drinking?” he asked.

Simon Fortescue looked up. “Yes, I was on my way over to top up her glass,” he said, sounding slightly distracted.

“And she wasn’t eating anything?” Shadow asked as he bent down, pulled the sleeve of his coat down to cover his fingers and carefully picked up the bottle and studied the label.

“No, not a thing,” replied Sophie.

At that moment, the paramedics arrived in the Chapter House. Shadow and the others stepped to one side to let them treat the dean. George returned accompanied by a tall, balding man wearing a cassock and a concerned expression.

“Oh, good heavens!” he exclaimed several times, wringing his hands before hurrying over to the now fully conscious dean and her husband.

“Who’s that?” Shadow asked George quietly.

“Canon Hugh Marchman. He’s been here for years. He’s the canon treasurer,” explained George. Shadow watched as the clergyman fussed over Clarissa and Simon Fortescue, and generally seemed to be getting in the way of the medics. Jimmy, Tom and Angela came over and joined him.

“Where are Ben and Ollie?” he asked. “I wanted to give them this bottle of wine so they can run some tests on it.”

“They’ve left already, Chief. They’re in the finals of a pub quiz tonight,” explained Jimmy.

Shadow tutted and shook his head. “Typical! Just when I needed them for once.”

“I can put it in the office for safekeeping if you think it’s worth them looking at it,” offered George. Shadow handed the bottle over.

“Please, George, if you don’t mind,” he said.

“Do you think there’s something dodgy about the wine, Chief?” asked Jimmy.

Shadow shrugged. “Well, something caused the dean to have an allergic reaction. Sophie said she wasn’t eating anything, and I didn’t think it tasted quite right when I took a sip.”

“I’ll let Ben and Ollie know what happened to the dean,” offered Angela. “Tom and I are going to cheer them on.”

“Thank you,” said Shadow as she and Tom turned to leave.

“Wish them luck from us,” Jimmy called after her.

“We may as well make a move too,” said Shadow as Maggie and Sophie, who had been talking to the paramedics, joined them.

George took the fragments of broken glass from Maggie and led the four of them through a corridor. They passed an office where one of George’s colleagues was monitoring the security cameras located around the Minster. Then he opened a door that led into the staff car park, behind the Chapter House, and wished them a good night. The four of them stepped out into the chilly night air as the full moon shone down from the inky black sky.

“Well, that wasn’t quite how I expected the Advent Procession to end,” Sophie said, taking Jimmy’s arm as they crossed over on to College Street.

“It was certainly memorable,” replied Shadow as they all watched the ambulance drive away down Goodramgate, this time without the flashing lights and sirens.

“Do you think she’ll be all right?” asked Maggie.

Sophie nodded. “Yes, her pulse was fine. I spoke to the paramedics. They are taking her in for some tests and to keep her under observation for a few hours.”

“Good,” replied Maggie. “I thought she seemed very nice. Thank goodness her husband was there. He was quite the hero, acting so quickly.”

“Speaking of acting,” said Shadow, “didn’t that used to be his job? I thought I recognised him. Was he in something famous?”

“Yes, he was in those commercials for that brand of Italian coffee about thirty years ago. They were really popular, like a mini soap opera. He played the charming English neighbour to the feisty Italian girl who had moved to London,” explained Maggie.

Shadow nodded as he began to recall the adverts. He’d never been a big fan of television, but he remembered Luisa, his late girlfriend, had loved watching them.

Look, John, she’d tease, it’s like you and me.

“I thought it was really impressive that Mr Fortescue knew exactly what to do too,” said Jimmy, interrupting Shadow’s thoughts, “but what would have happened if he’d got it wrong? Could he have killed her?”

Sophie shook her head. “I don’t think so. An accidental injection could impair blood flow and potentially cause tissue death, but it would likely only cause some numbness and tingling,” explained Sophie.

Jimmy looked worried. “Maybe I should take an advanced first aid course or something. You know in case I ever need to inject you.”

Shadow, who was notoriously squeamish, held up his hand. “Please, no more talk of injections or blood flowing. We’re about to eat,” he pleaded.

End of Excerpt

A Christmas Shadow is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-957748-54-2

October 11, 2022

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