Welcome to the December edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
Since it’s December, it’s the perfect time to post a holiday story. I have quite a few holiday stories available, but this time around, I have chosen The Bakery on Gloomland Street, a holiday novelette in my Hallowind Cove series about a quirky seaside town where strange things keep happening.
So follow along as baker Rachel Hammersmith and and Paul MacQuarie, two newcomers to Hallowind Cove, prepare to save the town from a holiday menace via tasty holiday pastries and fall in love along the way in…
The Bakery on Gloomland Street
A Hallowind Cove Christmas Story
At Christmas time, Hallowind Cove, the little seaside town known as the harbour of the weird, was even weirder than usual.
For starters, the fog, which enveloped the town about three hundred and forty days per year, tended to blend with the Christmas lights that the residents were putting up all over. And as a result, the entire town was plunged into an unearthly neon Technicolor fairy tale glow.
What was more, winter was also the time of storms, when gale-force winds buffeted the coast and the harbour and caused the waves to crash against the cliffs. Most of the time, the storms only brought rain, torrents of it drenching the entire town. But sometimes, when the weather conditions were just right, the storms also brought snow, blizzards of it blanketing the entire town in a cloud of white.
And when snow, storm and fog met the magical glow cast by the Christmas lights that bedecked the entire town — well, that was the time when truly magical things could happen.
Rachel Hammersmith hadn’t been long in Hallowind Cove. She’d arrived at the height of summer, on one of those rare few days when the sun was shining and there was not a single wisp of fog. On days like these, Hallowind Cove looked just like any other charming seaside village with gingerbread houses, quaint little shops and a marina where people with more money than sense and the urgent desire to invest said money in luxury yachts could moor their boats.
Rachel had arrived on one of those yachts as a passenger, invited for a sailing trip by a client who’d hoped to get into her knickers. The client didn’t get what he wanted and threatened to fire her firm, but in the end that didn’t matter. For once Rachel had laid eyes on Hallowind Cove, she was lost, hopeless enchanted by the gingerbread houses and quaint little shops and the fairy tale atmosphere of the whole place.
Walking along Gloomland Street — and the name really should have tipped her off — Rachel had come upon the sweetest little bakery on the corner of Gloomland and Mistcove Street. The display windows were full of elegant gateaux, frothy cupcakes, delicious looking cookies and other pastry delights, so Rachel entered the shop and promptly felt as if she’d stepped through a timewarp back into the Victorian era.
“Good morning, my dear. What can I do for you on this lovely summer’s day?” a woman in a starched white apron greeted her from behind the mahogany bakery counter.
“I… I’m still deciding,” Rachel stammered, completely entranced by the marvellous pastries on offer.
“Of course, my dear. Just let me know when you’ve decided. Would you like a coffee, by any chance? Or maybe some tea?”
“Coffee would be nice, th… thank you,” Rachel had stammered.
“Of course, dear. My name’s Percht, by the way. Marie Percht. My family has been here in Hallowind Cove since my ancestors stepped off the boat back in 1848.”
Rachel looked up at Miss Percht and held out her hand. “I’m Rachel Hammersmith.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Miss Percht said and shook Rachel’s hand, before the telltale sting of a static electric shock caused Rachel to jerk her hand away.
That little incident should really have tipped her off that something was very wrong here. But then who would distrust someone like Marie Percht? Her cheeks were apple-red, her hair iron grey and pulled back into a knot underneath a frilly cap, making her look just like a kindly grandmother from a fairy tale. But like so many fairy tale grandmothers, this sweet elderly lady was in truth a big bad wolf in disguise underneath that frilly lace cap.
And so, while Rachel was still trying to decide between a slice of black forest gateau and a red velvet cupcake, she spotted the one thing in the bakery display that she really wanted.
It was a discrete sign that said, “Bakery for sale. Inquire for price.”
“Is… is this right?” Rachel asked, “You’re selling the bakery?”
“Yes, my dear,” Miss Percht said, “I inherited the bakery from my Pops and have been here all my life. But I want to spend the rest of my days in sunnier and warmer climes. Why? Are you perchance interested?”
In her most secret, most out there fantasies, Rachel sometimes dreamt of quitting her job, accepting a generous pay-out for the partnership and using the money to settle down in a quiet little town and open a cupcake shop. Then she’d spent the rest of her life doing what she really loved, baking cupcakes and cookies and other pastries. She promised herself she’d do this when she was older, forty, forty-five, maybe even fifty.
But here was her chance. The magical little town, the bakery, it was all here. Her dream come true. All she had to do was reach out and take it.
“Yes, actually I am interested,” she heard herself saying, though her mind hadn’t yet made itself up, “So how much is the bakery?”
The price Miss Percht named was ridiculously low, which should really have tipped Rachel off that something wasn’t quite right here. But she was too enchanted by the town and the bakery to notice or care. Besides, so Miss Percht assured her, the sales price even included her stash of secret family recipes, handed down from father to son to daughter all the way back to the old continent.
Really, how could Rachel resist?
And so, within the span of barely a week, she’d quit her job, received a most generous pay-out and bought the bakery, the secret recipes and the house that went with both from Miss Percht.
Overjoyed, Miss Percht took the money and promptly retired to Florida, where it was sunny and warm and where “fog” was just a word that described somebody else’s problem.
Meanwhile, Rachel was stuck in Hallowind Cove, where the fog reigned supreme for three hundred and forty days of year.
Though at first, she didn’t much mind or even notice the fog. For Rachel was busy, very busy indeed. She had a new home to furnish, after all, not to mention a bakery to run, cupcakes and pastries to bake, recipes to try out. And yes, Miss Percht’s collection of secret family recipes was every bit the treasure trove that she’d promised. So for the first two weeks or so, Rachel only saw the fog through the windows of the bakery. And though she wondered a bit about the thick, white mist outside, her little bakery was cozy and warm and everything she’d ever wanted in her life.
At times, she felt like the heroine in one of those silly little mystery novels she liked to read, the ones with the cartoony covers, where the heroine was an accomplished cupcake baker who kept stumbling over dead bodies and uncovered the identity of the killer and stupidly walked into his or her lair, only to be saved at the last minute by the local sheriff who was inevitably male, hot, hunky and single.
Though there were no dead bodies to stumble upon in Hallowind Cove, though there was apparently a talking raven and a ghost down by the docks — or so the locals claimed. There was a sheriff as well, a gentleman who bore the picturesque name of Alastair Angus Aberdeen, but he was in his fifties with grey hair and a pot-belly and married besides. Though he did frequently drop by at the bakery to buy chocolate vanilla eclairs and lemon sprinkle doughnuts.
By now, summer had turned into autumn and the trees in Twilight Gardens, the little park down the street, were taking on gorgeous fall colours — or at least they would, if you could actually see anything in the mist. Because the fog played tricks on the eyes to the point that during her morning jogging round, Rachel sometimes thought she saw people standing around in Twilight Gardens, shadowy forms in the mist. But when she came closer, there was no one there, which was rather creepy. Still, it was autumn and fog was normal in autumn, wasn’t it?
Then came November and the days grew shorter, the wind grew stronger and the fog grew thicker. And Rachel finally realised that something was not at all right in Hallowind Cove. But by then, it was too late. She’d left her old life behind, quit her job, sold her flat, bought the bakery. And now she was stuck here with nothing to do but make the best of it.
Thank heavens, the holiday season was approaching, which meant new recipes to try out. So Rachel made gingerbread and cinnamon stars and vanilla crescents and other holiday cookies. She baked peppernuts and Spekulatius and Christstollen and even spit cake. Finally, she also decorated the bakery with holly branches and fairy lights. And in spite of the fog that blanketed the town and the winter storms that brought first rain and then snow, she was content.
One day, when Rachel was returning from her morning run in Twilight Gardens, the snow seeping through her sneakers, she spotted something big and dark fluttering through the fog. Startled, she came to a halt, turned around and found herself face to face with a raven who was sitting on the wrought iron fence that separated Twilight Gardens from Gloomland Street.
Rachel let out a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding.
“Oh, it’s you. You scared me half to death, you know?”
“Sor-ry,” the raven croaked.
“Oh my goodness, I’m cracking up,” Rachel said, “I’m not just talking to a bird, I’m also convinced he’s answering me.”
The raven’s name was Hugo and the locals seemed to believe that he could talk. But though the raven certainly had an impressive repertory of croaks and squeaks that could sound like speech at times, very little of what he said ever made any sense.
Case in point: “Kram-pus,” the raven croaked.
“That’s nice, Hugo,” Rachel said, “And I’m sure it’s very important, at least to you. But why don’t you bother someone else, cause I have to fire up the oven and open the bakery.”
“Kram-pus is co-ming,” Hugo croaked.
“See, Hugo. Now that was really good. That was not just an almost complete sentence, but a pop culture reference, too. Now if you’d only said, ‘Winter is coming’, you’d have been golden. Or maybe not, cause winter is already here.”
“Wa-arned you,” Hugo croaked and fluttered away.
Rachel looked after him and shook her head. Sometimes, it seemed to her as if he really could talk. Then she continued her jog, doing her best to ignore the cold.
Later that morning, Rachel put a tray of fragrant vanilla crescents, still hot from the oven, into the bakery display. She was about to return to the bakery proper behind the shop, when the doorbell chimed, its sound like the silver bell laughter of fairies and angels getting their wings.
Rachel looked up and saw Sheriff Alastair Angus Aberdeen entering her shop, hat in hand and tan uniform stretched tight across his pot-belly.
“Hello, Sheriff,” Rachel said, “The usual?”
She took a box and was about to fill it up with lemon sprinkle doughnuts and chocolate vanilla eclairs, when she noticed that the sheriff wasn’t alone. For filing into the bakery behind him were Wilbur W. Orville, the mayor of Hallowind Cove, Father Benedict MacGillicuddy, the local priest, Dr. Marvin Cuttlefish, curator of the town museum, Ian Rayburn, landlord of The Croaking Foghorn down by the docks and Paul MacQuarie, who’d moved to Hallowind Cove shortly before Rachel and now lived in a shambling old house a bit down the street.
With the six men, five of them important pillars of the community, lined up inside the shop, Rachel’s little bakery suddenly seemed very small indeed. What was more, Rachel had the sneaking suspicion that they didn’t all just happen to get a hankering for pastries at exactly the same time.
“So, gentlemen…” Rachel said, facing the delegation, “…what can I do for you?”
“Miss Hammersmith, we need your help,” Mayor Orville began.
“It is of utmost importance that you listen to us,” Sheriff Aberdeen added.
“Local lore and tradition require your assistance,” Dr. Cuttlefish declared.
“Only you can save Christmas for all the good people of Hallowind Cove,” Father MacGillicuddy implored.
“And besides, you really wouldn’t want to piss off Krampus,” Ian Rayburn added darkly, while Father MacGillicuddy looked scandalised at his choice of words.
Only you can save Christmas? Honestly? Who did they think she was, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?
“I’m sorry, but none of this makes any sense at all,” Rachel replied.
“Don’t look at me,” Paul MacQuarie said with a shrug, “I only came here for a blueberry muffin.”
“As I said, the town of Hallowind Cove needs your help, Miss Hammersmith,” Mayor Orville declared.
“Only you can save Christmas,” Father MacGillicuddy announced.
By now Rachel was getting a definite sense of déjà vu. “Excuse, but what exactly is the problem?”
“The problem…” Dr. Cuttlefish announced, “…is Krampus.”
He obviously thought that this explained everything. But instead it left Rachel even more confused than before.
“Excuse me, but what is a Krampus?”
“Not what, who,” Ian said darkly.
“According to legend, the Krampus is a companion of Saint Nicholas…” Dr. Cuttlefish began.
“The martyred bishop of Myra, not the Coca Cola-fied abomination known as Santa Claus,” Father MacGillicuddy added.
Dr. Cuttlefish cleared his throat. “As I was saying, Krampus is a companion of Saint Nicholas, one of several such companions. Commonly depicted as a shaggy creature with horns and a cloven hoof, Krampus embodies dark, chaos and evil, while Saint Nicholas embodies light and good.”
“That’s… uhm… very interesting,” Rachel said, unsure what this had to do with anything.
Undaunted, Dr. Cuttlefish continued, “According to legend, Saint Nicholas and Krampus go around town on the night of December 5…”
“Which happens to be the night before December 6, that is Saint Nicholas day,” Father MacGillicuddy interrupted.
Dr. Cuttlefish shot him a dirty look. “As I was saying, Krampus and Saint Nicholas go around town on the night of December 5. They enter houses, where Saint Nicholas gives apples, nuts, candy and tangerines to the good children, while Krampus spanks the bad kids with a birch rod. Some also say he snatches bad children and takes them away to hell.”
“Though that has never happened here, at least not as far as anybody can recall,” Sheriff Aberdeen added hastily.
“That’s… uhm… a truly fascinating story,” Rachel said politely, “But what has all this got to do with me?”
“Well, today is December 1…” Mayor Orville threw a glance at the gingerbread advent calendar Rachel had put on the wall of the bakery, as if he needed to reassure himself of the date. “…which means that December 5 is in four days.”
“Mathematics would suggest that it is,” Rachel said.
“And this, Miss Hammersmith, is why we need your help,” Mayor Orville continued, “Because Krampus is coming in four days and he will raise hell, if he doesn’t get what he wants.”
Rachel was taken aback. “But… that’s just a legend, isn’t it?”
“This is Hallowind Cove, harbour of the weird,” Ian said darkly, “Nothing is ever just a legend here.”
“So let me get this straight…” Rachel said, very slowly, “…some kind of mythological monster is coming to Hallowind Cove in four days to spank and kidnap misbehaving children…”
“Not just children, misbehaving or otherwise,” Sheriff Aberdeen corrected, “By sundown on December 5, the Krampus runs riot in the streets. He rings his bell and chases random passers-by with his birch rod. If he catches them, they get a good thrashing.”
“Which, as you can imagine, is very painful, not to mention bad for tourism,” Mayor Orville added.
“And that is why we need your help,” Ian said.
“So you have a monster with a flagellation fetish running wild in the streets and you want my help?” Rachel asked, “Why? What can I possibly do?”
“You run the bakery,” Mayor Orville said, as if that explained everything.
“And what do you want me to do about Krampus? Whack him with a rolling pin?”
“Marie Percht was the only one who knew how to calm down the Krampus,” Ian explained, “Her ancestors were from Bavaria, where visitations by Krampuses — Krampi — are a common problem…”
“When Miss Percht’s ancestors first came to Hallowind Cove in the year of the Lord 1848, the Krampus must have hitched a ride, because he has been plaguing us ever since,” Father MacGillicuddy continued.
“The Perchts were the only ones who knew how to calm him down and make him leave,” Dr. Cuttlefish said, “They had some kind of secret family recipe.”
“Marie was the last of the Perchts. But she is gone now and that’s why we need you,” Sheriff Aberdeen implored.
Rachel took a step backwards. “But I don’t know anything about Krampuses — Krampi — oh, whatever. I didn’t even know that Kramp… more than one Krampus were a thing until today.”
“But you run the bakery,” Mayor Orville insisted, “And you inherited Marie’s secret stash of recipes.”
“And have put them to excellent use,” Sheriff Aberdeen added.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I have any idea how to deal with a mythological monster,” Rachel countered, “Miss Percht never even mentioned any of this.”
Just as she’d never mentioned the fog. Or any of the other things that were weird about Hallowind Cove.
Suddenly, Rachel had an idea. “What about Saint Nicholas? You said he and Krampus always travel together. So why don’t you ask him for help with his wayward companion?”
“Well…” The mayor and Father MacGillicuddy exchanged a glance. “We never got Saint Nicholas here. Not visibly walking the streets, at any rate. We only ever got the Krampus.”
Ian shrugged. “I guess Saint Nicholas just doesn’t like the fog.”
“And that makes two of us,” Rachel thought, though she didn’t say anything.
Sheriff Aberdeen, on the other hand, did say something, though he first cleared his throat, “Still, Miss Hammersmith, if you could just… I don’t know… check Marie’s recipes, if she left a note regarding how to pacify the Krampus…”
“I can certainly try,” Rachel said, for what else was she supposed to say? After all, these people were not just her neighbours, but also her customers. No matter how ridiculous their request was, blanket-refusing it would only alienate them.
“Though I can’t make any promises,” she added, “And anyway, why don’t you just arrest this Krampus for breach of the peace or assault and battery or whatever the moment he makes trouble?”
In response, the Sheriff leant forward, almost confidentially, “Because this is Hallowind Cove, Miss Hammersmith. And some of the creatures here you simply don’t arrest, no matter how much trouble they cause.”
“So in short, it all hinges on me?” Rachel wanted to know.
“As I said, only you can save Christmas,” Father MacGillicuddy declared.
“What is more, the town of Hallowind Cove would be eternally grateful to you,” Mayor Orville added.
Rachel briefly considered asking whether there was any compensation involved aside from eternal gratitude, but then she thought the better of it. After all, she was still new in town. And if this whole Krampus business, silly though it was, brought her new customers, then that should be compensation enough.
“I’ll do my very best,” she said, “So is there anything else I can do for you, gentlemen?”
“Actually, there is…” Sheriff Aberdeen began and ordered his customary supply of lemon sprinkle doughnuts and chocolate vanilla eclairs.
Father MacGillicuddy was next and bought a bag of spiced almond Spekulatius, which he proclaimed were better than Marie Percht’s. Mayor Orville purchased some lemon meringue tarts. Dr. Cuttlefish bought a bag of peppernuts and Ian Rayburn ordered some sourdough bread for The Croaking Foghorn and some cinnamon stars for himself.
“Well, that was weird,” Rachel exclaimed, after they had all filed out of the shop, causing the silver bells to tinkle like a guardian angel mass graduation ceremony.
“This is Hallowind Cove,” a voice said, “Weird is relative here.”
Rachel looked up and found herself face to face with Paul MacQuarie from down the street. Crap, she’d forgotten all about him.
Paul, meanwhile, smiled at her. “But in this case you’re right. That really was weird.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Rachel exclaimed, “With that minor invasion, I totally forgot about you. You wanted a blueberry muffin, right?”
Paul nodded. “And a café au lait, please.”
So Rachel picked up a blueberry muffin from the display and put it on a plate. Then she got to work on the coffeemaker, a steam-belching brass-plated monstrosity that wouldn’t look out of place at a Steampunk convention. As an afterthought, she added one of her vanilla crescents, still warm from the oven, to the saucer, because it was totally her fault that she’d forgotten all about poor Paul.
“Thank you,” Paul said with a smile and took a bite out of his blueberry muffin.
“You’re welcome,” Rachel replied with a smile of her own.
“Not that it’s any of my business…” Paul said in between two sips of café au lait, “…but no matter how strange some of the local legends may sound, in my experience there’s usually a kernel of truth to them.”
“So you think there’s something to this whole Krampus business?” Rachel asked. She suddenly realised that after this morning’s excitement, she really needed some caffeine and so she set about making herself a cappuccino. The coffeemaker came to life, belching out a cloud of steam in protest.
“I never heard about this particular bit of Hallowind Cove weirdness — I only arrived in January — but the other Hallowind Cove legends did turn out to be true or at least not completely false.”
Rachel nodded. “Like Hugo, the talking raven. Come to think of it, I saw him this morning and he said something about ‘Krampus is coming’ to me.”
The cappuccino was finished by now, so Rachel removed the cup from underneath the machine. After a second of hesitation, she added a vanilla crescent to her own saucer as well, because what was the use in owning a bakery, if you couldn’t indulge in your own cookies once in a while?
“Poor Hugo. I even made fun of him for mangling a pop culture quote.”
“Oh, I’m sure Hugo is used to that by now,” Paul said, brushing some blueberry muffin crumbs from the lapel of his winter coat, “Even the locals rarely take him seriously, though they should really know better.”
Rachel picked up a spoon and ladled some milk foam into her mouth. “And those human-shaped shadows that sometimes stand around in Twilight Gardens and stare at you… really creepy.”
Paul nodded. “Yes, the standarounds. Though they never do anything, just stand around and stare. Unlike some other local legends.”
Rachel took a sip of her cappuccino, savouring the warmth and the caffeine boost. “So what about that ghost down by the docks — sorry, I’ve forgotten the name? Is there some truth to that story as well.”
“Oh, the Revenant is definitely real,” Paul assured her, “Though apparently, only people whose ancestors have lived in Hallowind Cove since the 1870s can see him, so you should be quite safe.”
Rachel suppressed a shudder. “That’s a relief.” She took another sip of cappuccino. “So your family actually is from Hallowind Cove?”
Paul nodded. “A distant uncle of mine was. I’d never had any contact with him, but then out of a blue I got a letter from a lawyer informing me that he’d left me his house here on Gloomland Street.” He paused. “At the time I thought I’d won the jackpot.”
Rachel laughed. “And then you came here and found out about the fog and all the other… stuff.”
“Yeah, they never tell you about that.”
Rachel took a bite of her vanilla crescent, savouring the brittle airiness and the taste, sweet, nutty and ever so slightly spicy.
“So why don’t you sell the house?” she wanted to know.
Paul shifted from one foot to the other. “It’s not that I haven’t thought about it, but… who’d buy a house in Hallowind Cove where it’s foggy all the time?”
“You could just lie,” Rachel pointed out, “It’s what everybody else does, after all.”
Paul shook his head. “I guess I could, but that’s just not me. And besides, it’s not so bad here. I’ve got a big house, plenty of time to write and I’m friends, sort of, with Ian from the pub. And when the sun shines, the town really is lovely.”
He picked up the vanilla crescent between his thumb and forefinger and took a bite. “Wow, those are amazing!”
“Thank you,” Rachel said, “Whatever else you can say about Marie Percht, her cookie recipes are really fabulous. I just hope she also has one for Krampus wrangling.”
“I… I could help, if you like,” Paul offered, blushing ever so slightly, “Not with the bakery — I even manage to burn those microwaveable heat and eat cookies. But I could help you check Miss Percht’s notes…”
“That would be great, actually,” Rachel said, “Cause Marie’s secret recipe book is a mess of loose papers. Her handwriting is awful and that of her ancestors is even worse. I still haven’t managed to sort through it all. So if you have the time…”
“Sure, no problem.” Paul flashed her another smile. “And if all else fails, I can help to hold off this Krampus creature with a baseball bat. Provided he isn’t immune to those.”
“Well, apparently he hits people with a birch rod, so I guess not.” Rachel paused. “Why a birch rod? What does the type of wood matter?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea.” Paul winked at her. “Though if we meet this Krampus, we can ask him.” He checked his wristwatch. “Anyway, I have to run. Thanks for the coffee, the pastries and the conversation. I’ll see you later.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Rachel said and meant it.
As promised, Paul did turn up again at six, when Rachel closed the bakery, to help her look through the notes Marie Percht had left behind. But Paul had done more than that.
“I looked up Krampus,” he announced, “So yes, the Krampus really is a creature of German and Austrian folk legend. This is what he looks like.”
Paul held up his smartphone and showed her a picture of a monster that looked like the unholy love child of the devil and a shaggy brown cow.
“Brrr,” Rachel exclaimed, “Not something I’d like to meet. So what else do you have?”
“According to legend, the Krampus walks the Earth on the night of December 5. Though likely of pagan origin, he travels with Saint Nicholas and whacks the bad children with his birch rod and sometimes kidnaps the very bad ones.”
Paul had found some images of that, too, Victorian holiday cards featuring Saint Nicholas — clad in a long red coat and a bishop’s mitre and not in the red pyjama of the American Santa — chumming it up with Krampus, the devilish monster, while terrifying children.
“Traitor,” Rachel thought, though she’d stopped believing in Santa more than twenty years ago.
Out loud she said, “So it’s more or less as Dr. Cuttlefish said?”
“There’s a bit more,” Paul said, “Turns out there are actual Krampuses — Krampi? — walking the streets of some towns in Germany and Austria, but they’re guys in costume, not actual… you know… monsters.”
He showed her some photos of people in Halloween costumes wandering around snowy alpine towns.
“Apparently, there’s a horror film, too,” Paul said, “But supposedly it’s not very accurate.”
“Well, of course not,” Rachel said, “Horror movies are not supposed to be documentaries.”
“Normally not,” Paul agreed, “But then, this is Hallowind Cove.”
“Was there anything about any pastries or other food connected to Krampus?” Rachel wanted to know.
Paul shook his head. “Nothing beyond the fact that some people think the Krampus eats the bad children he kidnaps.”
“Well, we’re not going to feed him babies,” Rachel said, “Which means that we’ll have to dive into Marie’s notes.” She looked at Paul. “Ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
So Rachel put on a big pot of tea — no coffee; she was jittery enough as it was — and then she and Paul got to work.
Marie’s notes were even more of a mess than Rachel remembered. Her recipe book was a vintage blank notebook that some long gone Percht had bound in cotton fabric with a pattern of cheery red-cheeked apples. That in itself wouldn’t be too bad. However, the categorisation imposed by Marie and her ancestors was strange, to say the least. Pumpkin cake was listed under “Bread”. Waffles were listed under “Desserts”, while pies and gateaux were classified as “Cakes”. Not all recipes were bakery related either and so herring salad was classified as a “Salad” rather than as “Seafood”. And for reasons best known to Marie Percht herself, marinara sauce was classified as “Asian food”.
But the worst thing were the scraps of paper — recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines, torn from the back of food containers and jotted down on random scraps of paper in a barely legible handwriting — that were stuffed into the notebook without rhyme or reason, at least none that was easily discernible.
“All right, so this is a mess,” Paul announced after briefly flipping through Marie’s secret recipe collection, “How did she ever find anything in here?”
Rachel shrugged. “I guess she had a system. Too bad she didn’t tell me what it is.”
Paul settled down cross-legged on the floor. “So how do we narrow it down?” he wanted to know.
Rachel settled down beside him. “Marie and her family were bakers…” she said, “…so it stands to reason that whatever she did to pacify this Krampus was bakery related. So first we discard anything that has nothing to do with baking.”
“And then?” Paul asked.
“Then we look for holiday related recipes, particularly Christmas recipes. After all, this Krampus only shows up in December, so that’s where any Krampus-pacifying miracle recipes should logically be located.”
Of course, logic was relative here. After all, Marie did consider pumpkin cake to be bread and thought marinara sauce was Asian food for some reason.
“Are there even any holiday recipes that are not Christmas related?” Paul wanted to know, “After all, ‘holiday’ is usually just a politically correct way of saying Christmas or Chanukah without offending anybody.”
“Oh, there definitely are non-Christmas related holiday recipes in there,” Rachel replied, “I found a great recipe for Easter bread I’m dying to try out as well as some pumpkin bread and spooky cupcakes for Halloween, Guinness bread for Saint Patrick’s Day…”
“Now that sounds delicious.”
“…Berliners and something called Victoria — some kind of doughnut apparently — for Mardi Gras as well as some sweet love cupcakes for Valentine’s Day. Plus, a recipe for Martinsmas goose with dumplings, whatever Martinsmas might be.”
“Wow, Miss Percht really did have a recipe for every occasion,” Paul marvelled, “Let’s hope she had one for pacifying the Krampus as well.”
“And let’s hope we’ll find it,” Rachel added darkly and turned back to sifting through the mess that was Marie Percht’s recipe collection.
In the end — several hours later, when the teapot had long gone empty and the clock of the church of Our Lady of the Mist had already struck midnight — Paul was the one who found something.
“Hey, Rachel — ahem, Miss Hammersmith — I think I’ve got something.”
“Rachel is fine,” she said, suppressing a yawn, “Miss Hammersmith always makes me sound like someone’s maiden aunt.”
Without getting up from the floor, she crawled over to where Paul was sitting cross-legged on the ground to peer over his shoulder.
“So what have you got?” she wanted to know.
In response, Paul pointed at a page in Marie Percht’s recipe book. The page was clearly old and stained with heavens knew what. There were drawings, too, of men with pipes and devils bearing bundles of twigs. The handwriting wasn’t Marie’s and the ink was partly faded. Worse, none of the words made any sense.
“That’s not even in English,” Rachel exclaimed.
“Probably German…” Paul said, “…considering that’s where the Perchts were apparently from originally. But the drawings looks a bit like Krampus is commonly depicted, though I have no idea what the men with pipes are for. Finally, look here.” He pointed at a spot on the page.
Rachel squinted and indeed there, written in the same cramped, unfamiliar handwriting, was the word “Krampus”.
“This is it. You found it! You really found it!”
Rachel spontaneously flung her arms around Paul before she realised what she was doing and stopped.
She felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I…”
“No, it… it’s fine,” Paul replied, blushing as well.
Once the uncomfortable moment had passed, Rachel wanted to know, “So what do we do with this now? We have a recipe, if that’s what it is, but we can’t read it.”
At this moment, she spotted something on the page and squinted at it.
“That’s Marie’s handwriting,” she said and pointed at a few scrawled lines on the page, “She made notes to the recipe.”
“Can you tell what they say?” Paul wanted to know.
Rachel squinted some more at the page. “She seems to have converted the measurements. So we now know how much we need to use, we just don’t know of what.”
“Maybe I can help,” Paul suggested, “I could take a photo of the page and send it to a friend who translates German. Novels usually, but I’m pretty sure she could translate a vintage recipe, too.”
Rachel perked up. “And you think your friend will do this?”
Paul grinned. “I’ll tell her it has to do with an old German folk legend imported by immigrants and manifesting itself in the form of food. I’m sure she’ll be all over it.”
He pulled out his smartphone. “So if I may…?”
Rachel nodded distractedly and moved out of the way, while Paul snapped a photo of the page. After three tries, he was finally satisfied.
“All right, I’ll send it to my friend. She’s probably already asleep, so we’ll have to wait until tomorrow before we can expect an answer.”
“That’s okay,” Rachel said, “After all, according to the delegation this morning, we have until the evening of December 5, so that should be plenty of time.”
Paul typed something into his smartphone and pressed “Send”.
“Here, that’s it.” He paused. “It’s already late, so I guess we should call it a night.”
He got to his feet and Rachel did likewise.
“Thanks for all your help,” she said, “I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”
“You’re welcome.” Paul winked at her. “I figure us newcomers have to stick together. Especially in a place like Hallowind Cove where weird monsters and other creatures tend to pop up out of the blue and no one ever tells you anything until it’s almost too late.”
Briefly, Rachel wondered whether he was speaking from experience and if so, what monster was haunting Paul.
“Anyway, thanks a lot. I… I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Paul smiled at her. “Sure. After all, I’m not fully awake until I’ve had my morning muffin. And of course, I’ll let you know as soon as my friend replies.”
“That would be great, thanks.”
And it was only after Paul had left that Rachel realised that maybe she should have asked him to stay. Or at least used the mistletoe that was dangling from the ceiling of the shop as an excuse to steal a kiss.
The next morning, shortly after Rachel opened the bakery, Paul showed up again for his customary morning muffin and coffee. Today, he opted for a carrot oatmeal muffin.
“Anything from your friend?” Rachel asked him, as she handed the muffin over the counter.
Paul shook his head. “Not yet. But you’ll be the first to know once there is.”
Worse, all through the day, members of the delegation that had come to see her the day before kept dropping by.
Sheriff Alastair Angus Aberdeen was the first. He appeared shortly after Paul had left, supposedly to buy his daily allotment of lemon sprinkle doughnuts and chocolate vanilla eclairs.
But then, when Rachel handed him the pink and green striped box with the doughnuts and the eclairs, Sheriff Aberdeen managed to ask the one question that was really on his mind, “Ahem, have you thought about the Krampus problem yet?”
“We’re working on it,” Rachel replied with her sweetest smile.
Mayor Orville was the next to appear, supposedly to order a black forest gateau for a reception way off in February.
“Oh and before I forget, Miss Hammersmith, are their any developments regarding the Krampus situation?”
“We’re working on it,” Rachel replied with a slightly less sweet smile.
Father MacGillicuddy showed up next, to buy more almond Spekulatius and peppernuts, too, for good measure.
“Oh yes, and have you already devoted yourself to resolving our unfortunate Krampus problem?” he finally asked.
“We’re working on it,” Rachel replied and this time, she did not smile at all.
Shortly before noon, Dr. Cuttlefish shuffled in. Apparently, he had developed a burning craving to have a salmon and cream cheese bagel for lunch.
And then, when Rachel handed him the bagel, he finally asked the question, “Ahem, about the Krampus…?”
Rachel cut him off. “We’re working on it.”
Finally, around four in the afternoon, Ian Rayburn walked into the bakery. He barely had time to open mouth, before Rachel snapped, “We’re working on it, okay. What else do you want? It’s not my bloody fault that Marie decided to piss off to Florida and leave us all alone with this mess, so stop blaming me.”
Ian blinked, clearly taken aback by her outburst.
“Uhm, actually I just wanted to buy some sourdough baguette for The Croaking Foghorn,” he said.
“So you weren’t going to ask about the Krampus and how thing’s are going?” Rachel wanted to know, “Cause in that case, you’re the first and only one today.”
“Well… maybe I would have asked, but not first thing. Also, you have to understand that the good folks of Hallowind Cove are worried about the Krampus. Cause when he hits you with his birch rod… well, it really hurts. I had red welts for three days the last time he got me.”
Of course, he had to tell her about that. Because Rachel obviously wasn’t scared enough already, so now she was bloody terrified.
She gritted her teeth. “Like I said, we’re working on it.”
“That’s good to hear,” Ian replied, “Who’s ‘we’, by the way?”
“Me and Paul — Paul MacQuarie. He’s helping me with the research.”
In response, Ian shot her a strange look. “Is he now?”
Shortly before closing time, the silver bell door chime jingled once more. Rachel, who’d been inside the bakery proper, cleaning the oven, promptly dashed into the shop and braced herself for yet another round of questions and non-answers. But then she spotted Paul and relaxed.
“Please, tell me you’ve got something for me. Cause it feels as if the whole town has already dropped by today to ask me how things are going.”
“I just heard back from my friend and…” Paul’s features erupted into a broad grin. “…yes, she had something for me. She was able to translate the recipe. Oh yes, and those weird illustrations of men with pipes and devils with twigs actually are the shapes in which the bread, cookies… — I’m not sure what it actually is — are supposed to be baked.”
Rachel had to muster all her restraint to keep herself from hugging Paul, and also to ignore the fact that he was standing directly underneath the mistletoe.
“Can I see?” she asked instead.
In response, Paul handed her his smartphone. “Of course.”
Rachel studied the translated recipe and scanned the ingredient list. She smiled.
“Now this I can work with.”
She paused, as her eyes reached the final ingredient.
“But what do ‘some miniature clay or meerschaum pipes’ have to do with anything?”
Paul shrugged. “I’m not sure. Though the cookie, bread, whatever is supposed to look like a man with a pipe, so maybe that’s it.”
Rachel’s face and mood fell. “And how am I supposed to come by miniature clay or meerschaum pipes? And for the record, what is meerschaum anyway?”
“Some kind of mineral, as far as I know,” Paul replied, “Used to make pipes. As for how to come by it, I guess we’ll have to improvise.”
The next two days, Rachel did a lot of experimentation with Marie Percht’s secret Krampus pacifying recipe — if that’s indeed what it was — in addition to her regular baking.
There was nothing overly mysterious about the recipe itself. It resulted in a sweet, yeast-leavened dough of the sort used for breakfast buns and certain types of bread. In fact, there was an almost identical recipe for raisin bread among Marie’s notes, except that the Krampus recipe contained a few extra spices. Still, it was nothing that Rachel couldn’t handle and indeed, both the dough itself and buns made from the dough tasted wonderful, once Rachel tried them.
But Rachel suspected there was more to the Krampus pacifying pastries than just the basic dough. After all, the translated recipe insisted that the pastries had to be shaped either like men with pipes or devils.
Alas, Rachel was a baker, not a sculptor, and so her first attempt came out as misshapen lumps of dough that looked vaguely human, if you squinted very hard. The second batch managed to be a reasonable approximation of the hunchback of Notre Dame, which was not at all what Rachel had intended. It took two more tries until Rachel finally got something that looked like the illustration in Marie Percht’s recipe book.
She decorated the dough men and dough devils with raisins for eyes and mouth, blanched almonds for buttons and sprinkled some granulated sugar on top for good measure. The bundles of twigs and pipes were still a problem, since twigs were inedible and Rachel had absolutely no idea where to find miniature pipes. In the end, she took a pastry bag and some icing and sprayed a pipe of white icing onto the pastry men and a bundle of chocolate twigs onto the devils.
“And… what do you think?” she asked Paul MacQuarie who’d dropped by to lend some moral as well as physical support, courtesy of his trusty baseball bat.
“They certainly look tasty,” Paul replied, “Which reminds me that I’m hungry.”
“Pick whatever you like,” Rachel said, “My treat. Though you can’t have the Krampus pastries. I can’t afford to run out and I have no idea how hungry this creature is or if he even likes them at all.”
“The Krampus is an idiot, if he doesn’t like them,” Paul declared and pointed at a cinnamon roll.
“Unfortunately, he’s a very violent idiot by all accounts,” Rachel said and handed him the roll.
It was December 5 by now, late afternoon. Not long now and the sun, hidden behind a veil of fog as always, would set, plunging Hallowind Cove into darkness.
Normally at this time of the day, the streets would be full of people heading home from work and the bakery would be full of customers. But today was different.
For tonight was the night of the Krampus and so the good people of Hallowind Cove stayed at home lest the Krampus catch them while out and about and whack them with his birch rod. Some overly cautious souls had even barricaded themselves in their homes and boarded up the doors and windows, which struck Rachel as a massive overreaction. Though truth to be told, she’d like nothing more than to grab a hammer and some nails herself and board up the shop.
But she couldn’t. After all, the fate of the town and of Christmas itself depended on her.
And so Paul and Rachel waited, drinking green tea — because anything with more caffeine would only make them even more jittery — and nibbling on vanilla crescents and the spicy, syrupy cookies known only as brown biscuits. Outside, the sun went down, which in Hallowind Cove manifested as the fog getting even thicker and gloomier than normal. Another half hour and it would be completely dark.
And then they heard it. The distant ring of bells. Not the gentle tinkling of silver bells like those Rachel used as a door chime — no, this was the full-bodied ring of cowbells. The laughter came next, a horrid sound that seemed to echo up straight from the depths of hell itself. And finally there was the cracking of a whip and the distinctive sound of a piece of wood meeting human flesh.
Krampus had arrived.
Rachel exchanged a glance with Paul. “Looks like this is it,” she whispered.
In response, Paul reached for his baseball bat. “Let him come then. I’m pretty sure that ashwood still beats birch rod.”
“Let’s hope we won’t have to put that theory to the test,” Rachel said.
For several minutes, they stood in the bakery and waited. The sounds — the cowbell, the hellish laughter, the slap of wood on flesh — grew ever louder and nearer, as the clock on the wall ticked the minutes away.
Once, they even heard a police siren. Probably Sheriff Aberdeen or one of his deputies, come to make sure that the Krampus didn’t run too wild in the streets.
“He’s certainly taking his time,” Paul whispered, his hand still on the baseball bat.
“I wish he’d come already,” Rachel whispered back, “I just want this whole thing to be over.”
Outside, the bells, the laughter and the slapping sounds were echoing down Gloomland Street, bouncing from house to house. Though Paul and Rachel still couldn’t see anything beyond the shop windows except for fog dense as pea soup wafting past the cheerily decorated windows.
But then, Rachel saw something or rather someone moving through the fog. At first, she thought at was just an optical illusion like the shadows standing around in Twilight Gardens that vanished as soon as you got too close. But this particular shadow didn’t vanish. Instead, it seemed to grow darker, larger and more solid, while the racket it made gradually rose to deafening levels.
Rachel still couldn’t make out any details, but one thing she knew for sure. Whatever this shadow was, it sure as hell wasn’t human. It was bigger and broader, its frame hunched and stooped, as if it always had to bend over. And where its head should be — crap, were those horns?
Involuntarily, Rachel took a step backwards, until she bumped into the bread racks behind the counter. Beside her, Paul gripped his baseball bat so hard that his knuckles turned white.
And then the creature pressed its face against the window, like a schoolchild with no lunch money longingly checking out the treats for sale inside the bakery. But oh, what a face it was. It was dark and furred, like a black billy goat. It had pointed ears and long curling horns and when it opened its mouth, its teeth were razor-sharp and its long lolling tongue slobbered against the bakery window.
“Wow, what an ugly bugger,” Paul exclaimed, while Rachel wondered how on Earth to wipe Krampus saliva from her window.
The eyes of the Krampus — red and glowing like twin embers from hell itself — lit up as he scanned the range of pastries on offer. The creature grinned — a wide, terrifying grin — clumped right up to the entrance and pushed open the door, setting the silver bell chimes ajingle.
Clearly, the sound pleased the Krampus, for he immediately responded by ringing his cowbell. He had cloven hooves and carried a wicker basket on his back. In his left hand, he held a cowbell and in his right, he carried a bundle of twigs — birch by the look of them — which he raised menacingly. And yes, the masculine pronoun was entirely correct in this case, for the proof was dangling prominently between his legs.
“Hell… Hello,” Rachel stammered, “I know you’re probably looking for Marie, but she’s gone away to Florida. I’m Rachel and this is my bakery now. And this here is my friend Paul.”
Rachel jabbed him in the side and Paul said, “Hi.”
In response, the Krampus shot them both a curious look. Then he focussed on the counter display and that long slobbering tongue came out again.
“I… I guess you want pastries,” Rachel said, “I was told you like these…”
She picked up the tray with the dough men and the dough devils and held it out towards the Krampus.
“But if you’d rather have something else, that’s fine, too. Just let me know what you’d like.”
The Krampus reached out with huge furry paws and grabbed one of the dough devils. Within seconds, he had demolished the pastry, sprinkling crumbs all over his shaggy dark fur and the bakery floor.
“More,” the Krampus roared or at least that’s what Rachel thought he meant, because he wasn’t exactly articulate.
“Sure, eat as many as you like,” she said with her sweetest smile.
The Krampus barely waited for the invitation, but gobbled up dough devil after dough devil, though oddly enough he left the dough men with their icing pipes alone.
Then, finally, the last dough devil was gone. And still Rachel stood there petrified, scared that the Krampus would attack her now she’d run out of dough devils. Behind the counter, Paul reached for his baseball bat.
But the Krampus didn’t attack. Instead, he wiped his mouth and shook off the crumbs from his shaggy black fur. Then he smiled at Rachel — a toothy, terrifying smile — and lowered his birch bundle. He grunted something that might have meant “Thank you” and reached into the wicker basket on his back to produce a tangerine, which he held out for Rachel.
Cautiously, Rachel took the tangerine. “Th…thank you,” she stammered.
But the Krampus wasn’t done yet. He picked up one of the dough men, very carefully, and put it into his basket. Then he turned around and clumped towards the door, setting the chimes ajingle once again. The Krampus grinned and rang his own cowbell. Then he slammed the door shut behind him with excessive enthusiasm.
“Okay, now that was weird,” Paul said.
“You can say that,” Rachel whispered, for the Krampus was still outside the bakery, ringing his cowbell like mad.
“What is he waiting for?” Paul wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” Rachel replied, “I just hope he doesn’t decide he wants more dough devils, because he just ate them all.”
“Look,” Paul exclaimed and pointed at the window and rather the world beyond.
Outside, the fog was thick as ever. But a red light had appeared in the sky, cutting through the gloom. It traced a curve over Twilight Gardens and then launched into an approach path onto Gloomland Street.
Inside the bakery, Paul and Rachel watched, unaware that they had reached for each other’s hands.
By now they could see that the red light was at the tip of some kind of flying object. Not an airplane — too small — and not a helicopter either and certainly no flying saucer. Instead, it almost looked like a horse-drawn cart or rather a sleigh. Though it wasn’t drawn by horses, but by reindeer, nine of them. And the red light wasn’t a light at all, but the nose of the lead reindeer, which glowed in the fog like a big fat lightbulb.
The sleigh came to a halt directly in front of the bakery. And there, sitting on the box, the reins in his hand, was Saint Nicholas himself. He had ruddy cheeks and a bushy white beard, just like in a billion greeting cards and Coca Cola ads. Though he wasn’t wearing the long red coat and the bishop’s mitre of the Victorian Christmas cards, but the red pyjama edged in white fur of the modern American Santa. Mostly likely, because that outfit was simply warmer and more practical.
The Krampus had been jumping up and down, ringing his cowbell, all through the sleigh’s approach. When it finally landed, he galumphed towards the sleigh and climbed up onto the box next to Santa. Once he was seated, the Krampus reached into his wicker basket, pulled out the dough man with the icing pipe and handed it to Santa.
Santa smiled and patted the Krampus on the shaggy shoulder. Then he heartily bit into the dough man. “Yee-Ho”, Santa called and the sleigh took off again. Santa and the Krampus waved once more at the bakery, then they were gone.
Inside the bakery, Rachel and Paul exchanged a look.
“No one is ever going to believe this,” Rachel finally said.
“Probably not,” Paul agreed, “But on the other hand, this is Hallowind Cove, where strange things happen all the time.”
“Yeah, but ‘Santa keeps a monster locked up in his attic and he lets him run wild once a year in Hallowind Cove of all places’ is certainly bizarre even by the standards of this town,” Rachel remarked.
“Well, if you put it like that.” Paul glanced at the tray. “Looks like you still have a bunch of pipe men left, even if the devils are all gone.”
Rachel nodded and returned the tray half empty to the display counter. “I’ll probably sell them as ‘Santa’s favourite pastries’. After all, we both saw him eat one.”
“I’m sure they’ll be bestsellers,” Paul said, “Not that I’ve ever actually had one.”
Rachel picked up a dough man from the display and handed it to Paul. “You can have one now, on the house. After all, the danger has passed and Krampus has left with Santa for the North Pole or wherever.”
Paul accepted the dough man, holding it as carefully as the Krampus had. “Uhm, thanks,” he said and blushed.
Rachel felt her heart hammer like wild in her chest and its wasn’t only because they’d both just survived an encounter with a bona fide monster, albeit one with a sweet tooth.
“And, Paul, thanks… for everything.”
And then, because she realised that they both just happened to stand under the mistletoe that dangled from the ceiling of the shop, Rachel flung her arms around Paul and kissed him.
After a second of hesitation, he kissed her back.
Outside on Gloomland Street, perched on the wrought iron fence that surrounded Twilight Gardens, sat Hugo the raven, his black feathers dotted with snowflakes. From this vantage point, he had an excellent view of the street and the bakery and couple kissing inside the shop for what had to be an inordinately long time.
If birds could smile, Hugo probably would have.
“Mer-ry Christ-mas,” he croaked to no one in particular.
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.
Check back next month, when there will be a new story available.