Title: The Catalan Christmas Caper
Characters: James Hathaway, Robert Lewis
Genre: friendship, humour, fluff
Length: 2000 words
Rating: All ages
Summary: There's been a theft... inside the police station! Can the Dynamic Duo save Christmas?
A/N: Sorry for the delay! I was under the weather yesterday. To catch up, I'm posting two today. Beta by wendymr. For sasha1600, based on her prompt "unusual holiday tradition". Hope it fits the bill, and that you don't mind that it's a wee bit longer than a drabble.
Detective Sergeant James Hathaway looks up at the agitated form of his governor. “Sir?”
“Hide me. Or find us a case that needs immediate attention.”
James purses his lips. “Might I be correct in assuming that this has something to do with the recent memo about community outreach?” For some reason, Lewis is the Chief Super’s first choice when it comes to such things. James can’t imagine why. His governor is a brilliant detective, but he’s no orator, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all.
Lewis rolls his eyes. “There’s a civic association in Summertown who want a police speaker for their next meeting.”
“And Innocent has her eye on you for the job.”
Lewis shudders theatrically. “I’m doomed. I don’t mind outreach—the real sort—but this is just a lot of toffs who want to be entertained by stories of murder and violence, an’ then pat themselves on their backs for being socially aware.” His governor’s Geordie accent is thicker than usual, as sometimes happens when he’s annoyed, but the last two words are delivered in a plummy Oxbridge accent, pitch-perfect and laced with vitriol.
Someday, perhaps when he’s safely retired, James thinks he might write a how-to manual for sergeants. (Published anonymously, probably online.) He’s already composed bits of it in his head. Now he consults the chapter on When Your Governor is Angry. ‘If he’s angry at someone else, the first priority is to make sure that his displeasure doesn’t spread to other innocent people—such as yourself.’ “I’m afraid there aren’t any corpses on offer at the moment, sir,” he says with genuine sympathy. “What do you say we go down to the canteen and have coffee, and something on the side? I hear that the Black Forest torte isn’t half bad.”
“Trying to sweeten my temper, are you, Sergeant?”
“I can never pull anything over you, sir,” James says with exaggerated meekness. Lewis laughs and allows himself to be escorted to the canteen. The cake is indeed excellent, and they chat between bites. This late in the afternoon the canteen is mostly empty. The Christmas tree in the far corner sparkles with multi-coloured fairy lights, and clusters of plastic holly hang on the walls.
“Lladre!” a voice from behind the counter shouts. The torrent of words that follows is angry and definitely not in English. James can’t quite place it. Not Spanish or Portuguese or Italian, but somewhere in the vicinity.
“What’s going on?” Lewis demands of no one in particular. He strides over to the counter where three civilian employees are standing, and repeats his question.
Markus and Zofia are looking askance at the third person, whose nametag says ‘Matas, Andreu”. He’s a new bloke. James has glimpsed him in the kitchen. Dark-haired, stocky, somewhere in his forties. “It’s nothing, Inspector,” Markus says. “Andreu misplaced something of his, only he thinks someone took it.”
“I did not misplace it,” Andreu insists. “It was stolen from me. How can this happen, here in a police station? I want to speak to a detective!” His eyes skim over James and fix on Lewis. “Sir, you are a detective, yes?”
Rule #6: Don’t allow anyone near your governor who might make his mood worse. “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong detectives, mate. We’re not from Larceny. So unless your thief also murdered somebody—”
“What exactly was stolen?” Lewis asks.
“A caga tió for my children that my friend Xavi brought back from Sabadell.”
James catches Lewis’s sideways glance. “It’s a sort of Christmas decoration from Catalonia. A log.”
“What, like a Yule log?”
“Not, exactly, sir.” Don’t ask me what it is, he pleads silently.
Lewis’s attention has already turned back to Andreu. “Show me where this log of yours was,” he commands. As they step behind the counter, he introduces himself and his sergeant.
Andreu leads them into a small storage room off the kitchen. He points to a spot on the floor. “The caga tío was there, in a bag. I was on my break, sorting the caganers that Xavi also brought, to give to friends as Christmas gifts.”
“Sorting what?” Lewis asks. Andreu points at a shelf on the wall. Half of it is taken up by stacks of paper serviettes and boxes of coffee stirrers. The other half is crowded with dozens of small painted clay figurines. The costumes and the faces vary, but they are all squatting down, bare buttocks exposed. And beneath each one...
“Hathaway,” his governor says bemusedly, “are those...?”
“Yes, sir. Those are examples of the caganer. The name translates as... erm... ‘defecator’. Catalans have some rather earthy Christmas traditions. A caganer is a figure that appears in Catalan Nativity scenes. The symbology is disputed, but they go back at least to the 18th century and are beloved figures of fun.”
“Are you taking the piss out of me, Sergeant?”
“No, sir,” James says as fervently as a prayer. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“They put those in a Nativity scene? Next to the baby Jesus and all?”
“Not right up close to the Holy Family, no.” Though he doesn’t find the idea as shocking as Lewis seems to think he should. Childbirth isn’t a tidy event, and as for the manger—he wonders, sometimes, if his governor forgets that he grew up on a working farm, and knows all too well what a stable is really like. “In Spain and other countries, Nativity scenes include more than the shepherds and the Magi. There’s a whole village on display—ploughmen, washerwomen, bakers and blacksmiths. The caganer is usually hidden in the back, or under the Christmas tree. The old ones were always depicted as Catalonian peasants, but nowadays, anything goes. They make caganers that resemble popular athletes, international politicians and royalty, cartoon characters, and religious figures—” He points at some of the ones at the front of the shelf. “Bart Simpson, the King of Spain, a nun, a soldier, Santa Claus, some Spanish footballer I don’t know...”
“The Queen? Yes, sir. Right next to Spiderman and the Pope.”
“But it was my caga tió that was stolen,” Andreu protests. “The caganers, they are all here. Markus called me to make more sandwiches, and when I returned the bag was gone.”
James doesn’t wait to be asked. “A caga tió is a log painted with a face at the front end. It means ‘the crapping log’. The children of the family pretend to feed it every day, and cover it with a warm blanket at night. On Christmas Day, they beat it with sticks and sing a song. The parents reach under the blanket, and discover that the caga tió has ‘crapped’ sweets and dried fruits.”
“That’s... different,” Lewis says finally. “Andreu, did you have the sweets in the carrier bag? Maybe that’s what the thief was after.”
“The turrones? No, Inspector, sir. Those I have already at home. In the bag was only the caga tió. And the herring,” he adds. “The last thing the caga tió craps is a head of garlic or an egg or a dried herring. To show that the treats are finished, yes? In my family it is a dried salt herring.”
Lewis frowns. James knows that frown. It’s one of intense concentration, and it usually means that a case is about to be cracked. “I wonder,” he murmurs. He pulls his phone from his pocket and dials a number. “Mike? Robbie Lewis here. You doing anything right now? I wonder if your lass Sophie would like some practice. She would? Great. Come down to the canteen, would you? Ta, mate.”
Two minutes later, DS Michael Ballard walks into the canteen, accompanied by a black and tan German Shepherd. “Hullo Inspector. Hathaway. What’s the scenario?”
“Thanks for coming down, Mike,” Lewis says. He leads the canine officer back to the storage area. “In that spot there was a carrier bag with a... piece of wood and a dried herring. The bag should still be in the building. I think.”
“Herring? Shouldn’t be much of a challenge. Sophie once found a single toke of pot in a lorry full of onions.” He takes the dog to the indicated place. “Sophie! Track!” Immediately, Sophie goes to a locked door at the far end of the kitchen. She whines, straining at her lead.
Five minutes later, the three coppers and Andreu are standing in the male staff locker room. Sophie positions herself in front of locker #23, barks once, and sits down. “Good girl,” Ballard croons, rubbing Sophie’s ears. “Who’s a clever girl, eh?”
It takes a few minutes more to find the assigned user of that particular locker. It turns out to be a member of the cleaning staff, another Spaniard, and a fan of a football team that are rivals to Andreu’s beloved Barcelona. “It was only a joke,” the guilty party protests. Lewis leaves the matter in the hands of the man’s supervisor. DS Ballard accepts thanks all around, then disappears to take Sophie for a run.
James follows his governor and Andreu back to the canteen. The cook is beaming with delight. “How can I thank you? You have saved Christmas for my family. If I had the sweets here... but, no. Better still...” He darts back into the storage room and returns with two of the squatting figurines. “ For you and your sergeant, because you are English.” Despite their protests, he shoves a caganer at each of them, then hurries back out of sight.
James looks down at the item in his hand. “I seem to have Prince Philip, sir. Does that mean that you...?”
Lewis groans. “That I do, lad.”
“I suppose it’s very thoughtful of him,” James offers.
“Yeah, but what am I going to do with the sodding thing?”
James freezes, and tries to become invisible—a daunting task for a man of his height in a mostly empty room.
Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent strides across the room. “Lewis, I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” She indicates the elegantly-dressed woman beside her. “This is Dr Alice Chelbrough. She’s Vice-President of the Summertown Civic Association. You’re going to be their guest speaker next week. Dr Chelbrough, this is Detective Inspector Robert Lewis.”
Dr Chelbrough is surprisingly silent. James risks a glance in her direction. She’s staring at Lewis’s right hand, which is still holding a squatting clay figurine of Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen. Lewis clears his throat, but doesn’t speak. Wise move, James thinks.
“Dr Chelbrough,” Innocent begins.
“I think, Jean dear, that we might want to consider another, more suitable speaker. Someone more in touch with contemporary issues. Perhaps someone younger.” She glances at James. Almost reflexively he opens the hand clasping the caganer of Prince Philip. Dr Chelbrough reacts like a vampire spotting a head of garlic, and takes a step back.
“I can think of several officers who would suit,” Innocent replies. “Let’s go back to my office, shall we?” As she escorts her guest out of the canteen she turns her head and gives the two detectives a look that promises retribution.
Lewis glances ostentatiously at his watch. “James me lad, I do believe our day is done.”
“Join me for a pint?”
“With pleasure, sir.”
Half an hour later, they’re seated in a bustling pub, just near enough to the gas fire to be pleasant. It’s not one of their usual drinking places, but it’s comfortable, and the beer is good. Lewis picks up his glass, and the movement (or the expression on his face) is enough to claim James’s immediate attention. “I’m not much for toasts, and this isn’t one I’ve ever made before, but I think it’s appropriate.” He raises his glass, gesturing at the Coronation photo hanging over the bar of the Crown and Lion. “God save the Queen—cos God knows she saved me!”
--- THE END ---
Note: The caga tio and the caganer are real Christmas traditions in Catalonia (northeast Spain). You can see examples of modern caganers here.