I am sitting in the shaded courtyard of the Café Mazoroco, in the old harbour town of Puerto de la Cruz in sun-drenched Tenerife; of where, it is said, ‘everyday dawns beautiful spring’.
It is a late December morning, the temperature is already pushing 22 degrees C, lemony sunshine generously sparkling and splashing playfully all about. I am content and comfortably seated in the shade enjoying a mid-morning ‘café con leche’ and a cigarette; a pleasure now denied inveterate smokers such as myself in cafes and bars at home in Ireland.
Across the table from me sits fellow countryman and scribe Jack McHugh, lured to the island – like so many others from the northern hemisphere – by the near-perfect climate and the laidback, ‘manana’ lifestyle to be enjoyed here.
Unlike Jack – resident for many years in this captivating town – I am here on a two-week Christmas holiday; my annual effort to side-step the pressures, stresses and the jarring ‘rattle and hum’ of the naked commercialism that now passes for the ‘season of joy and goodwill to all men’ at home.
I am also here to escape – even for a brief period – meeting the print deadlines imposed by ever more demanding newspaper Editors. (Did I mention? I am a working Journalist – a professional ‘hack’ working these forty years or more for a well-known newspaper in the west of Ireland).
I express my views to Jack.
“Well,” says Jack, “you know the solution, don’t you?”
“Which is?” I enquire.
“Move here!” He answers brightly. “You’re a writer. You write stories. There are stories here too, you know. And a page never refuses ink! Or can you not drag yourself away from sheer excitement of reporting on pot-holed roads, village-green dogfights, sheep-fairs and village fetes?”
Jack continues to try to press a few buttons, but I do not rise to take the bait. He well-knows that – for many years – my scribing history has leaned towards the human-interest story; the well-researched, carefully crafted ‘snapshot-in-words’, unravelling the fortunes, frailties and foibles, the heroics and excesses of the human – and sometimes the inhuman – condition.
In my time, through countless miles of newspaper column-inches, I’ve told a million stories and, if I may say so, carved somewhat of a reputation for myself for – as one Editor pithily put it – “sniffing a scented rose of a story from out of the putrid dustbin of humanity.”
A slim, olive-skinned man in his late thirties soon joins us at our table and whom Jack introduces as Carlos Martinez. ‘Detective’ Martinez in fact, of the local Puerto Police Department.
I greet him in faltering Spanish and Carlos inquires in accented English, “How you like my town, Senor?”
I gush with the usual compliments but confess to being a little confused with the profusion of Christmas decorations – the twinkling, multi-coloured fairy lights, the shooting stars and electric angels in full flight over every ‘casa’, ‘calle’ and ‘plaza’ – more associated with the snow and ice-prone winter northern climate.
I also comment on how charmed and amused I am at the sight of what I have dubbed, ‘The Clambering Santas’.
These ubiquitous little caped fellows – red-suited, elfin Santa figures (some life-sized) with sack on back – can be seen dangling on ropes and ladders from almost every window and balcony in town; thus giving the impression that Santa – in the course of his traditional duties – is determined to gain access to an apartment.
“A pleasant, humorous seasonal image,” I remark.
“I no longer think so, senor! You did not read of our infamous ‘Santa’ murder last year?” Det. Carlos eyes me coldly and puffs on his cigarillo.
“Your…Santa…murder?” The ever-vigilant newshound in me comes awake in an instant and I search the memory banks to recall the press coverage I had briefly scanned in some of the tabloids.
“Si, senor.” Carlos sips his Cafe Sombra. “The case of the ‘Santa Killer’…last Christmas Eve…it was in all the papers.” Carlos stresses the word ‘all’ and blows a perfect smoke ring.
“The case made the town famous…and a celebrity of Carlos!” Jack added gleefully. “This is as bizarre a Santa story as you will hear in many a day. Give him the gory details, Carlos!”
In the next hour, and in the telling of Carlos’ strange and gruesome story, (Agatha Christy, who concocted some of her Miss Marple plots whilst visiting the town 80 years ago, could hardly have invented such a story) a dark cloud – belying the birdsong, gaiety and colour of our tropical surroundings – spread as a pall of ominous shadow over this sunny street-side, courtyard café.
It is another sun-splashed warm morning in late January and Det. Martinez of the Puerto de la Cruz Comisaria de Policia is at his desk taking a mid-morning break and enjoying a coffee and cigarillo when his phone rings.
Though it seemed perfectly routine at the time, it is a call that will trigger Det. Carlos Martinez into a frenzy of activity in the days to weeks to come and ultimately catapult him to some degree of fame in both the local and international Press.
His initial instructions were to proceed to the Bueno Vista Hotel Apartment complex in the west end of the town to investigate the curious and – at that stage – unexplained discovery of what appeared to be a number of bones in the area. Bones that – so it was reported – had ‘mysteriously fallen from the sky’ and fallen as a shower on a young boy playing ball at the base of the high-rise hotel.
On arrival at the site, Det. Martinez found a motorcycle policeman already on the scene, keeping a gathering crowd at bay and helping to calm a clearly excited boy and his equally excited and somewhat distraught mother.
The boy – a lad of ten or so – had been playing ball at the grassy base of the apartment block when suddenly – and without warning – he was showered from above by a fall of objects.
On taking some of these ‘objects’ inside and presenting them to his mother, she recognised them as being bones; though unsure if they were animal or human. Rushing outside to view the rest of the fallen cache scattered all about, she decided to ring the police.
Det. Martinez, the duty officer, was first on the scene and his official report – filed later – detailed his finding ‘a number of bones strewn about on the grass’. He also reported that, even as he carefully examined the scene, more bones – this time including a skull – fell from the sky in a grotesque shower all about him.
He further observed that the bones were, in fact, showering from a faded, torn, and tattered Santa Claus figure hanging from a rope ladder attached to a 4th storey apartment balcony.
He also reported observing an unusually large flock of sea birds – including two West African buzzards – aggressively flapping about and dive-bombing this beak-tattered Santa figure now swaying to and fro while still clinging to a rope secured to the balcony above.
In other statements, neighbours stated they are witnessing the unusual sight of great flocks of these birds permanently perched on that 4th floor balcony while launching vicious attacks on the hanging Santa for ‘at least a week’ before this recent bone-shower from the sky.
The neighbours also noted they considered it “very odd indeed” that this was the only hanging Santa to remain dangling from his ladder – all the others having been removed or hauled indoors on Jan 6th, the official day of present-giving on the island.
By the time the Pathology Department reports came back – confirming the bones to be that of an adult male, time of death not more than three or four weeks prior to discovery – Det Martinez had re-visited a recent and still unsolved case file on his desk.
He had cause, some weeks earlier, to visit the Bueno Vista complex to investigate a ‘missing person’ report, lodged on the 27th Dec by an English lady, one Señora Agnes Grimshaw of 419 Bueno Vista Apartments; the very same apartment from which the clawed and bird-pecked Santa even now still hung.
“Well, well!!” mused the Detective, an alarm bell ringing in his deep mind. “Isn’t that a co-incidence!!”
Less than an hour later, Det Martinez was once again on his way to the Bueno Vista apartments – this time with a search warrant in his pocket – to re-visit Apt. 419, and more especially to once again interview Senora Grimshaw on the matter of her still-missing husband.
To their friends in the town and their neighbours in the apartment complex, Reggie and Agnes Grimshaw were typical ex-pats; both in their late fifties, retired, friendly though reserved, seemingly content and settling into their new easy-going lifestyle on the island.
Two years earlier, they had both quit their jobs in Manchester (he as a Senior University lecturer, she as a Science Lab Researcher) to opt for a life of stress-free retirement in Tenerife, in an environment that offered all they could dream of and one in which they might live out their ‘golden years’ together.
Agnes Grimshaw – slight, white-haired, bespectacled – answered the door of Apt 419 to Det. Martinez’ knock.
“Ah! Detective! Please…come in. I’ve been expecting you.” Agnes Grimshaw’s voice was calm and assured; yet she wore a look that registered both relief and resignation.
“I’m ready to accompany you to the police station. I’m ready to make a full confession.” She stated simply, extending her hands to the more-than-surprised Det. Martinez to be handcuffed – which he declined so to do on this occasion.
He may well have regretted that nicety when later, back at the Comisaría de Policía, Señora Grimshaw made her full, frank, no-details-spared statement; a statement that left the experienced detective slack-jawed and speechless with shock.
Since their arrival on the island, Reggie and Agnes Grimshaw had busied themselves in settling into their new home and establishing their new lives in the pleasant and picturesque town of Puerto de la Cruz.
Agnes took to decorating their new 4th floor apartment home while Reggie indulged his great passion – fishing. It was on the rugged coastline to the west of the town – following the ‘missing person’ report filed by Agnes a few days after Christmas Day – that Reggie’s clothing, along with his fishing tackle, was found strewn on the rocks by a local fisherman.
With no physical body yet in evidence, it was officially assumed that Reggie Grimshaw was ‘missing, presumed drowned’.
The local fishermen confirmed unusually strong undercurrents in that sea area, so it was a probability a drowned person could be washed out to sea, to be lost forever in a restless Atlantic Ocean,
The case file was to remain on Det. Martinez’ desk, awaiting the discovery of a body, awaiting closure.
Agnes Grimshaw’s current statement was to close that ‘missing person’ file, open a murder file and trigger the local and international TV and newspapers into a full-scale media feeding frenzy; the like of which had not been witnessed before on the island.
(You may well recall reading the details – over-reported and sensationalised by the sleaze tabloids – at the time?)
It was Agnes who had long pressed for the taking of early retirement for Reggie and herself and the move away from England. They were, she had argued, reasonably well off and still in the prime of their life. They were also childless, with few family ties to stop them realising her ‘dream’, a retirement home in the sun, far away from the cold, grey skies of England.
She was delighted when her husband finally went along with her suggestions and soon, they found themselves happily making a fresh start on their ‘Paradise Island’.
For several months, all seemed perfect, until Reggie breezily informed Agnes – sipping her morning cup of Earl Gray tea – of the news that Penny Longley, an ex-colleague from his old University, was planning to move to Tenerife and purchase an apartment not a mile from where they now resided.
In that moment, Agnes’s world collapsed, her dreams and plans shattered like the broken china cup now scattered about her feet. One of the driving forces for wanting both of them to make the move away from England was she had long suspected (indeed had positive proof) that her husband and Penny Langley had been conducting a furtive affair for several years.
Moving and living at some distance, she had reasoned, would surely put an end to her husband’s adulterous relationship with the husband-poaching Penny.
Now, to her horror, here was Reggie brazenly and calmly informing her that his old lover was about to join them on their paradise idyll.
“It will be nice, dear,” he glibly added. “To have somebody we know from home living close by as a neighbour.”
Agnes could hardly contain her fury. For too long she had nursed the searing heartache of the knowledge of Reggie and Penny’s liaison in pained silence, but this, she raged inside, was a bridge too far.
It was, she coldly decided a bridge she would not allow to be crossed.
An icy claw closed around her heart as she considered her next move.
The first aid kit she had brought with her from England contained a solution which she knew would solve her dilemma – a quantity of cyanide; a drop of which was capable of killing an adult human in the blink of an eye.
This bitter solution she served as dessert to her unsuspecting husband at lunch on Christmas Eve. The effect was as swift as it was deadly. By midnight, Agnes had completed her grisly task. Reggie’s slight body had been sliced, diced and quartered, (I refrain here from relating the gory details to spare readers of a delicate disposition), and dispatched to the one hiding place she figured nobody would suspect – inside the red suit of the almost life-size ‘clambering Santa’ hanging from the balcony window.
Her gruesome work completed, she was pleased to see that – though the now-bulky Santa’s suit had turned a darker shade of red and now hung heavy on his rope – it looked no different than did the many jolly old Santas, all dangling from ropes and ladders on her apartment block that Christmas Eve.
Agnes’ next move was to create a diversional tactic in the placing of Reggie’s clothes and fishing tackle on the shoreline (this she did as dawn broke that Christmas morning) before later filing a ‘missing person’ story with the local police department.
In the quiet days that followed, Agnes began to feel more secure. All seemed to be going according to plan. Until, that is, this unplanned and unfortunate incident of Reggie’s remains tumbling from the bird-tattered hanging Santa to shower on the head of the hapless lad below and ultimately leading to her current situation.
“I do hope the boy doesn’t suffer trauma in years to come.” Agnes seemed genuinely upset at the poor lad’s shocking experience. There was, however, she added – almost as an afterthought on completing her sworn statement – one body-part she did not stuff into the Santa suit.
“That part of him,” her eyes narrowed as she announced icily, “I was determined to be mine…and mine alone.”
When Det. Martinez and his team duly revisited apartment 419, they found in the deep freeze compartment of the kitchen fridge – in a sealed jiffy bag – an ice-covered, frozen human heart.
The rest, as they say, is history and on record.
Agnes Grimsby – pleading guilty as charged – stood trial for the pre-meditated, brutal and cold-blooded murder of her husband Reginald, and was duly sentenced to life imprisonment; while Det. Carlos Martinez (soon to be Det. Inspector Martinez) became somewhat of a local hero-celebrity and is now engaged – so he proudly informed Jack and me – in writing his memoirs.
“It’s sure to be a bestseller! And there is,” Carlos beamed broadly while dreamily blowing an especially contented series of smoke rings, “already talks of film-script rights!”
One of the smoke rings settled for a moment and shimmered as a halo about his head.
This being Christmas Eve and the first anniversary of that gruesome event, I decide to take a stroll to view the Bueno Vista Apartment block and the scene of this grisly, murder-most-foul.
As the setting sun drowns in a blaze of colour in the Atlantic Ocean, I stand in the balmy glooming to gaze at the balcony of a fourth-floor apartment.
All, I note, looks perfectly normal and at perfect peace in this bird-loud Tenerife twilight.
I also note, there is not a single window, or balcony on this apartment block from which hangs the usual, seasonal decorations.
Except, that is, from the balcony of a 4th floor apartment, there dangles a single, forlorn-looking Santa; his tattered suit remnants are faded, forlorn and flapping ominously in this Christmas Eve twilight.
(c) Pj Curtis
Author of the Lightening Tree
You can find a link to his Amazon Page below:
The Lightning Tree – Kindle edition by Curtis, P.J.. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.