BLUE CHRISTMAS

AN EMILY SWANSON STORY

Copyright © 2018 Malcolm Richards
All Rights Reserved.

CHRISTMAS EVE

 Emily Swanson stood on the concourse of Paddington station amid a swell of bodies and noise, trying to forget that her last visit here had been in deadlier circumstances. Still, as she trained her attention on the orange digits of the arrivals board, she couldn’t stop her eyes wandering to the left, then to the right, searching out danger among the stony faces of her fellow Londoners as they dragged suitcases and bags of Christmas gifts towards platforms, or tugged at the collars of their stylish winter coats and groaned at the announcement of another delayed train.

In a few days, all the stresses and strains of the festive season would come to a standstill, and so would the city, with half of its population returning to their families. But that was London for you; transient and chaotic and extraordinary. And loud, Emily thought, as she shot a glance over her shoulder. Always so loud. She was looking forward to the coming quiet.

It was 2:48 p.m. The Ipswich train was due to arrive in five minutes, yet no platform number had been announced. Emily thought about what she was going to say. About if she should apologise again, even though she knew another apology would be met with frustration and a dramatic rolling of the eyes.

The trouble was that every apology she’d made so far had done nothing to alleviate the guilt weighing her down.

2:49 p.m. The next train to Penzance was announced on the departure board, triggering a mass exodus of bodies, all pushing and parrying their way to the platform, suitcases swinging, no prisoners taken. Emily tensed, trying to make herself still as the crowd surged around her, trying to ignore the mounting anxiety pressing down on her chest as she eyed the list of destinations the Penzance train would stop at. It had been a year since she’d last set foot in Cornwall; a year since she’d left her old life behind and started a new one in London.

What a year it had been.

2:50 p.m. The arrivals board announced that the Ipswich train would come in at platform eleven. Above the din of the concourse, Emily heard her heart thud in her chest. Breathe, she told herself, then began weaving her way through the hordes, past couples and families and lone travellers, past a stall selling cinnamon cookies shaped like Christmas trees, past a group of charity collectors who shook buckets of change and were dressed in ill-fitting red and green elf costumes, past fast food stations, where the smell of burgers and mustard made her stomach churn, until she arrived at the foot of platform eleven.

Free from the crowds, Emily sucked in a deep breath, held it, then let it out. Above her head, swathes of pigeons sat in the rafters, ruffling their feathers in the cold. At the far end of the platform, a rectangle of daylight offered a view of the tracks and gravel, of nearby industrial buildings, and a snatch of grey sky that in an hour, maybe two, would grow dark.

Emily watched the tracks with mounting anxiety as unwanted recent memories taunted her mind. Blood. Running through suburban streets. Hospital wards. An abandoned warehouse, where she’d been forced to leave a little boy in the hands of a sociopath. The child was safe now, but there had been a price. And it wasn’t Emily who’d paid it.

Movement pulled her back to reality. The Ipswich train was pulling in, brakes screeching as it slowed to a halt.

Emily watched as the carriage doors opened and people spilled out, all rushing towards her like a tidal wave. Blood rushing in her ears, her gaze flicked from one face to the next, searching him out.

Dozens of bodies passed by. The crowd of alighted passengers thinned out. Maybe he was waiting to get off last, to reduce the risk of injuring his already ravaged hands. Emily waited and watched as the platform emptied and the last of the travellers went on their way. She stared at the open carriage doors, confusion and worry making her skin prickle.

This was the right train. She’d double-, no, triple-checked the text message before making the journey to Paddington station. Even so, she pulled her phone from her jeans pocket and checked again.

There it was: The Ipswich train, arriving 2:53 p.m.

So why wasn’t Jerome on it?

A man in overalls pushing a trolley of cleaning products strode past Emily and headed towards the Ipswich train. Uniformed staff emerged from one of the carriages and stopped to talk to one of the platform guards.

Emily dialled Jerome’s number. The line connected and began to ring. By the time the automated voicemail kicked in, Emily’s breathing had grown erratic.

Something had happened to him. Something bad. And it was her fault.

Just a few short months ago, Emily had become embroiled with a powerful chemicals company called Valence Industries by unwittingly uncovering its nefarious illegal activities. Somehow, Jerome had become mixed up in it all and had suffered life-altering injuries as a result—injuries he never would have sustained if Emily had prevented him from getting involved.

But she hadn’t. Yes, she’d protested, but she’d also welcomed the help, even though she knew he’d been struggling ever since their near-fatal visit to Meadow Pines. And now Jerome’s hands were a mess of ugly scars and nerve damage. His acting career was probably over. And it was all because she’d been so preoccupied with exposing Valence Industries that she hadn’t stopped to think about the safety of her friends.

And now Jerome was missing.

The voicemail message came to an end and the recording beep sounded. Emily sucked in a painful breath.

“Jerome, it’s me. I’m at Paddington station. You weren’t on the train. I’m worried. Call me as soon as you get this.”

She hung up, dialled another number. A few seconds later, a woman with a soft Jamaican lilt answered.

“Mrs Miller? This is Jerome’s friend, Emily. Emily Swanson?”

“Hello, dear. And how are you? Is that son of mine okay?”

Shit. “I’m just. . .I’m at the station. He wasn’t on the train.”

When Mrs Miller spoke again, there was a smile in her voice. “Are you sure you have the right train, dear? We drove him to the station, me and his father, with plenty time to spare.”

“The 12:59 to Paddington?”

“That’s right. He has to be on it. It’s a direct route. No changes.”

“And you saw him get on the train?”

“He’s a grown man, old enough to get on a train by himself without his parents holding his . . . hands.” Mrs Miller paused, the silence filled with pain. “You must be at the wrong platform, dear.”

Emily walked back a few paces to check the arrival screen at the foot of the platform.

“You’re right,” she said. “I must have made a mistake. Sorry to have worried you.”

“Well. . .get that son of mine to text me when you find him,” Mrs Miller said, the concern in her voice all too apparent. “And Emily?”

“Yes?”

“My son is an adult and can choose where he wants to spend Christmas, but you send him back in one piece, okay? He’s had enough damage done to him already.”

Mrs Miller hung up. Emily stared at the arrivals board, which still displayed the 12:59 from Ipswich. She felt sick.

Where was Jerome?

Her fight against Valence Industries had been left unresolved. The evidence of its criminal activities was back in the company’s hands. Emily had been threatened: stay away or bad things would happen to the people she cared about. She’d kept her end of the bargain. But had the people of Valence Industries kept theirs?

Ignoring the dark thoughts encroaching on her mind, Emily spied the train staff talking on the platform. She moved towards them at a hurried pace.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for a friend? He should have been on this train?”

The staff, all male, eyed each other. One of them, a middle-aged man with a greying beard and a paunch, said, “Are you sure she got on it?”

“I’m sure he did.”

“Maybe you missed him in the crowd,” said another.

“I don’t think so,” Emily said, glancing at the train. She could see the cleaner moving slowly through the first carriage, picking up litter and tossing it into a black bag. “Are you sure everyone got off?”

“As sure as I believe in Santa Claus,” the man with the beard replied. The others smiled. Emily didn’t.

She shot them a glare then walked away, coming to a stop next to the train. Why would Valence Industries target Jerome now? It didn’t make sense.

Unless…

No. She wouldn’t.

Pulling out her phone, Emily dialled another number; one she’d hoped she’d never have to dial again. With each ring, the anger in her veins grew hotter, until the cold of the day melted away.

“Emily Swanson. Well, well, well! I thought you’d crawled under a rock and died somewhere.”

Emily sucked in a calming breath, counted to seven, then let it out.

“Helen Carlson,” she said through clenched teeth. “How’s the world of tabloid sleaze treating you?”

“Better than the world of unemployment, I imagine. Besides, the London Truth is an esteemed investigative magazine, as you well know.”

Emily bit down on her lip. “I’ll keep this short, but I need you to be honest with me. Have you been looking into Valence Industries again? Because if you have you need to st—”

“Why ever would you think that?” Helen interrupted, laughter punctuating her words. “Honestly, Emily, I’m far too busy to be digging up your past failures. Besides, here at London Truth, we put the ‘current’ into current affairs, and I’m afraid Valence Industries is old news. In fact, you’ll be interested to know I’m working on a rather exciting exposé right now. Of course, it’s way out of your league of amateur investigation, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t share the details with you. Anyway, why are you calling me about Valence Industries? Has there been some sort of development? What do you know?”

Emily opened her mouth, then clamped it shut again. “Forget it. I’m probably wrong.”

“Not for the first time,” Helen said, her voice thick with satisfaction. “By the way, how’s Jerome? You must tell him to call me sometime. We were becoming such good friends. . .”

Emily hung up and shook her head. She stared at the train, then at its staff, who had returned to their conversation. The cleaner was moving onto the next carriage.

Emily tried calling Jerome again. “Come on, pick up.”

She frowned. Inside the train, the cleaner had stopped working and was now stood with a frown on his face and his head cocked to the left. Emily watched as he turned one way, then the other, then began moving forward, checking the rows of seats.

The phone line connected to Jerome’s voicemail. At the same time, the cleaner stopped moving. Emily watched his head swivel from side to side. Quickly, she dialled Jerome’s number again. The cleaner sprang to life once more, pacing forward, checking each aisle.

Emily hurried forward, phone pressed to her ear, and stepped through the open carriage doors and onto the train. She hurried along the aisle, coming up behind the cleaner.

As she approached, the man spun on his heels and stared at her in surprise.

“The train’s not ready for boarding,” he said.

“Good,” Emily replied, reaching him. Together, they stared down the aisle, in the direction of the loud buzzing noise filling the air.

Brushing past him, Emily moved forward, until she reached the last row of seats. She slid to a halt, lowered her phone and hung up, then bent her knees until she was hovering over the figure in the chair.

“I’m going to murder you,” she said quietly.

Jerome Miller slowly opened one eye, then the other. He blinked twice and squinted. Turning his head, he spied Emily’s angry face inches from his.

“Oh,” he said, breaking into a yawn. “We’re here already? I  must have fallen asleep.”

Emily glared at him, relief flooding through her muscles. “I guess you must have. Seeing as how everyone else left the train five minutes ago and I’ve been waiting on the platform, convinced something terrible happened to you. I even called your mother.”

Jerome sat up, wide awake now. “You did what?”

Behind them, the cleaner cleared his throat.

“Come on,” Emily said, holding out a hand. “Before we’re on a train to deepest, darkest Scotland.”

Jerome stared at her hand for a second, then down at his own, the mass of healing scars concealed by surgical compression gloves.

“Anything to avoid singing Auld Lang Syne,” he said.


CHRISTMAS DAY

 “Well, look at this! Very fancy indeed!” Harriet Golding stood in the centre of Emily’s living room, her tiny frame hunched over a walking stick, her eyebrows arched and her lips pursed, multiplying the myriad lines and wrinkles of her face. Colourful decorations hung from the ceiling and in the corner, a large Christmas tree sat in a bucket, white lights twinkling among the branches. “It’s a wonder she can afford a real tree without a proper job.”

Jerome stood at the large centre window, a cup of mulled wine warming his hands as he stared down at the city street four floors below. Hordes of commuters filled the pavements, making their way home from work or rushing to do last-minute gift shopping.

“You know our Emily,” he said. “Where there’s a will, she’ll find a way.”

“Pity she don’t apply that to finding herself a nice man,” Harriet replied. She hobbled over to an armchair and slowly eased into it. “And what about yourself? Is this just a flying visit, or are you back to sleep on Emily’s sofa again? Because if you are coming back you ought to get yourself a job and a place of your own. Can’t be relying on the kindness of others forever, you know.”

Jerome turned. Now it was his turn to arch an eyebrow. “I had a job. And I was about to move into a new place. Then this happened.” He raised his hands, almost spilling the cup of wine. “A hundred stitches kind of put a dampener on things.”

Muttering under her breath, Harriet turned her attention to the saloon doors that connected the living room to the kitchen.

“Going to be long, is it?” she called out. “Only, I got pills to take and I would have had my dinner by now.”

Emily appeared behind the doors, hair pulled back, brow beaded with perspiration. “What was that?”

“Scrooge over there wants feeding,” Jerome said. “She’s already eaten the joy from the room, so you better hurry before she starts on the decorations.”

“What a bloomin’ cheek!” Harriet cried.

Emily stared from one guest to the other. “It’s almost ready. In fact, you can sit yourselves at the table. Harriet, if that son of yours is coming, he better get here soon.”

“He’s in his room, head in a book as usual. Jerome, be a love and fetch him. My old legs can’t take the walk.”

“You mean the twenty second walk to your flat across the hall?”

“Jerome. . .” Emily warned, her tone summoning the ghost of teacher past.

Rolling his eyes, Jerome drained his cup of wine, set it down on the coffee table, and headed out of the room.

Harriet struggled to her feet and hobbled over to the table. “Where’s that ‘friend’ of his, anyway? The foreign fella.”

“Gone back to Italy for a few days. Now sit down and stay out of trouble. I’ll be two minutes.”

Harriet reached the table and gripped the back of one of the chairs to steady herself. When she looked to the swing doors, Emily had already returned to the kitchen.

“Youth of today. . .” she grumbled.

 

******

Soon the table was filled with a sumptuous feast of turkey, roast potatoes, and steamed vegetables. Harriet picked at her food while dominating the conversation with her strong and often offensive opinions. Her son, Andrew, a middle-aged man who had never left home and who tended to prefer books to people, sat opposite, shovelling food into his mouth while turning the pages of his latest literary tome. So far, he’d barely uttered a word to anyone.

Jerome sat at the far end of the table, his usual healthy appetite supplanted by drinking copious amounts of wine. When he did eat, it was with his eyes down and his face pulled into a frown of grim concentration, his hands working clumsily to cut through the meat.

Emily watched him, wanting to help but knowing she’d be rewarded by a refusal and an angry glare. Instead, she ate her food and sipped her orange juice, and thought about how nice it was to have company at Christmas.

And then she had another thought: This was her first proper Christmas celebration since moving to London thirteen months ago. Last year, she’d been petrified about spending the festive season alone. Then she’d been abducted and forced into an induced coma, which had meant skipping Christmas altogether.

Funny how life responded sometimes.

“Well, that wasn’t bad grub at all,” Harriet said, pulling Emily back to the room. “Pity there ain’t a man in your life to appreciate your culinary skills.”

“If there was a man in my life, I can assure you he’d be doing half of the cooking,” Emily said.

“I suppose you’re one of those feminists now,” the elderly woman scoffed. “Next you’ll be forcing me to burn my bra and grow a moustache.”

“That’s not how it works, Harriet, and you know it.”

“If you say so, dear.”

Emily stared at the motley crew of guests sitting around the table. What a disparate bunch we are, she thought. Alone but together.

“Thank you for being here,” she said. “I know you didn’t have to be, that you could have been somewhere else. But I’m glad I get to spend Christmas with you.”

Jerome raised his wine glass. “It’s been a year, hasn’t it?”

Emily thought about it. In the past year, she’d been kidnapped, drugged, experimented upon, tied up, beaten, knocked unconscious, had her home broken into and destroyed, and for a few minutes, she’d even died at the bottom of a lake. But amid the chaos, she’d also played a part in apprehending a criminal or two.

Not bad for an unemployed ex-teacher approaching her thirties, she thought, then hoped the coming year would be a little more peaceful.

Except now she was training for her private investigator license. Which sounded insane when she thought about it.

Even more unbelievable was that her trainer, Erica Braithwaite, had been impressed enough by Emily’s skills to offer her an internship at Braithwaite Investigations while she gained her license.

To think her life had once been small-town, insular and quiet.

Smiling, she raised her glass of juice.

“It’s been a year,” she agreed. “Now, who wants pudding?”

“Is the pope Catholic?” Harriet said, her laughter cracked and rasping.

Across the table, Andrew glanced up from his book and grunted in the affirmative.

 “I’ll give you a hand,” Jerome said, getting to his feet.

Emily shook her head. “It’s okay, I can manage. I don’t want you to—”

“I’m fine.”

“But your—”

“Don’t be disablist.”

“But you’re not disabled.”

“Well then, stop treating me like I am!”

Exasperated, Emily stared at him. Then she took a breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry. But you’re not carrying these plates—they’re the only ones I have since Valence Industries smashed up the place. Besides, despite your pride you’re still healing, and it’s okay to let people help you. It’s okay to let people in.”

Jerome stared at her, smiling.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just that I remember saying something similar to you not so long ago.”

Shooting him a sideways glance, Emily began gathering up the plates. “Yes, well, perhaps you’re not as stupid as you look.”

“Honestly, are we getting pudding or am I going to die of old age first?” Harriet grumbled.

Grinning at each other, Emily and Jerome walked into the kitchen, Emily carrying the dirty dishes, Jerome holding a freshly poured glass of wine. And as Emily set about preparing the dessert, she couldn’t stop thinking about the coming year. Whatever dangers lay in wait, she would be ready for them, and this time, she knew she’d wouldn’t have to deal with them alone. 

EMILY SWANSON WILL RETURN IN ‘FATAL LIES’ - COMING 2019